21 December 2005

Two kinds of rules

I'm trying to make sense of this piece by Ed Felten, on what he calls a "weapon of mass virtual destruction" in an online game. (You will probably have to read it first to understand the rest of this.)
The problem isn't that I think he's wrong - I'm pretty sure he's right. The problem is I'm not sure why he's right.
He says:
Should the FBI get involved in this mess?
It seems to me that they should. A WMVD of this sort is just a fancy denial of service attack, and a deliberate denial of service attack against a large network service looks to me like a crime. It’s possible that the first attack wasn’t meant to crash Second Life — though even if not deliberate it was certainly reckless — but subsequent attacks could only have been intended to cause a crash.

That sounds very promising to start with. A crashing server is a "real world" event, not a "virtual world" event, and since a real human has deliberately caused a real-world harm, we are in the domain of real-world law enforcement.

On reflection, though, the issues start to blur. The jargon term "crash" can be used to describe a large range of computer behaviours. The assumption in this case is that the game server software stopped working, and either terminated itself or had to be terminated by an operator. There are other possibilities, though. For instance, it might have continued to function "correctly", but, since the majority of the "virtual objects" being maintained were by now copies of the "gray goo", the actual progress of everything else might have been slowed down, possibly by 1000 or 10000 times. It's not actually particularly likely, but it's quite plausible, and it would actually be difficult to tell whether this was the case or not. Even the most casual computer user has been faced with the question "is it working, is it going slow, or is it dead?"

So what? If it doesn't make any difference to any actual user, then it's no different, right? But it's less clear in this case that we're talking about a "real world" event. A server rebooting is a real world event, but a program processing objects of type A not objects of type B? Not really.

And that, I think, negates Felten's argument. He calls it a "denial of service" but it is more of a matter of opinion - if the server is servicing the allegedly malicious user rather than other users, that could be seen as a legitimate "aim" of the game. After all, if you kill the character of another player in a game (which in many games is more or less the main point), you are "denying service" to that player, but you are no more guilty of "denial of service" than you are of murder So the fact that you're deliberately impairing the experience of other players does not make you actions illegal, any more than if you killed them with a sword in one of the more combat-oriented games.

The obvious difference is in the intention of the game, or its organisers. You're supposed to decapitate people in Everquest, you're not supposed to destroy the world in Second Life. But that's weak too - the attraction of Second Life, from what I can see, is it's open-endedness, the fact that you can do things in it that nobody else thought of doing.

In conclusion, I think that it is reasonable that this "WMVD" could be considered to be against real-world law, but it's a matter of judgement, and of degree. Effectively, an arbitrary line would have to be drawn - how much are you imparing the service of other users, how far from the intention of the owner of the service are your actions. Many other things are like that, of course.

Two related issues, for comparison:

In sport, there are rules that you can break with purely in-game consequences, and rules that you can't. For instance in soccer, if you are behind the last defender when the ball is played to you, you are offside, and if the match officials judge it correctly, the other side gets the ball. There is nothing immoral in being offside, even deliberately (in the hope of getting away with it). On the other hand, if you deliberately trip up another player, that also results in the ball being given to the other side, but in addition it is considered to be misbehaviour. If the foul is considered to be deliberate or reckless, you can receive extra in-game penalties, and also penalties that are within the game-system but external to the actual game being played - for example, being disqualified for another game, or being fined by the game's governing body or your club. In extreme cases, you can be subject to out-of-game penalties, such as being charged with assault or sued. This has happened a few times. The same three levels can apply in online computer games. You can be pursued by some kind of in-game policeman - this is part of the game, like a free kick for offside. You can be excluded or restricted by the game's organisers - this is like being suspended. Or you can be pursued through the law. The distinctions aren't always clear. (Was a criminal fraud committed on 22 June 1986?)

Second, similar questions of proper and improper uses exist with other network services. An SMTP server can receive email messages. Some servers are configured to receive only from certain users, but to forward mail to anywhere. Some servers are configured to receive from anywhere, but deliver only to certain addresses. Servers can be, but rarely are, configured to accept mail from anyone and forward it to anywhere. Some servers are not correctly configured to enforce the restrictions intended by their owners. What uses of these servers are proper? Is it a crime to take advantage of a misconfiguration? of a software bug? Over the past 5 years or so, some arbitrary lines have been drawn.

11 December 2005

Referrer logs

It's funny when you get your news from your blog's referrer logs. I saw a cluster of hits from search engine results for "explosion in Luton". Looks like there's something I need to know about...
It seems that a fuel depot in Hemel has blown up - apparently by accident. (Power surge, perhaps?) The BBC have quotes from people here who were woken by the blast, but I slept through it.
Interestingly, the first hit I got from a search engine link was at 0611. The first explosion was at 0603. Someone must have heard the blast and immediately started web searches to find out about it - that shows a distinct lack of understanding of how search engines work.
Update: As you might gather, I have no information on this other than what's been on television. The depot is 10 miles due south from here, but the smoke is not blowing this way. I was not woken, but many of my neighbours were (and possibly my 3-year-old, but he knows better than to disturb us on Sunday morning). The main effects look like beihttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifng a big insurance claim (100-200 million, I would guess), and disrupted travel for a day or two.

10 December 2005

Crime: Why rape is different

In the previous post on rape, I reasoned on a basis that rape is like other crimes. "in general, the biggest cost of crime is the cost of avoiding it." There are reasons, however, why rape is often different from other crimes, even other very serious crimes.
First, many cases of rape are actually very difficult to prove. Other types of serious crime against the person are much easier to prove - at least much easier to prove that a crime has taken place. If one person kicks another's teeth in, there is a very strong presumption that a crime of assault has taken place. If one person has another's wallet, again, it is not very likely that it was given voluntarily. If two people have sex, however, there is no automatic assumption that rape has occurred. One can - at the cost of considerable further indignity to the victim - prove that sex occurred, but not that it was non-consensual.
This is reflected in the part of the Amnesty survey that I didn't previously discuss - the perceived incidence of rape. Many victims do not report the crime to the police because they know it cannot be proved, or do not want to go through what would be necessary to prove it. Among those that do report the crime, only a few percent actually result in convictions. Again, many victims choose not to endure the trial process.
The second distinctive feature of the common sort of rape (which is what I am discussing) is that it is invariably a crime committed by men against women, so its treatement is affected by - and affects - the status of men and women in society.
Quick aside: The Disillusioned Kid in a comment below draws distinction between "stranger rape" and "aquaintance rape". I would deal with three categories: Abusive domestic situations, aquaintance rape, and stranger rape. The stranger kind, which as the Kid points out is relatively rare, is more like other crimes of violence - consent is less likely to be an issue, and detection is mainly a matter of identifying the perpetrator. The Amnesty survey, seems to me mainly to apply to aquaintance rape - the friend or acquaintance who "goes too far" with a woman who has been "asking for it" by comporting herself provocatively.
This is where the two features come together. When women had distinctly inferior status in society, the kinds of behaviour discussed in the survey - essentially those of a woman enjoying her freedom and expressing her sexuality while not under the direct "protection" of a man - were considered inappropriate and reprehensible in their own right. This was a piece of the general subjection of women, but had the side effect of protecting them from that kind of rape. (Before getting nostalgic, it is worth reflecting that it gave no protection against domestic abuse, which was perhaps even more prevalent than it is now).
This is what makes the issue politically sensitive: advice about avoiding dangerous "aquaintance rape" situations sounds exactly like asking women to resume their traditional, socially inferior, position. The motives of the "advisor" can be ambiguous. An understandable response to such advice is that the "solution" to violence against women ought not to be one that itself represses women - if anyone's behaviour is to be restricted, it should be men's.
Not that the present situation is all good for men, either. In the traditional, patriarchal social order, while "respectable" women had no sexual freedom, respectable men (meaning those with a reputation to protect) did not associate freely with women either. This protected men from false accusations of rape. Because just as rape is difficult to prove, it is also difficult to disprove. A man who meets a woman in private is risking his reputation - he can be accused of rape for reasons of spite or blackmail. Quoting this home office paper:
"Nine percent of cases [of reported rape] were designated false, with a high proportion of those involving 16 to 25 year olds. However, closer analysis of this category applying Home Office counting rules reduces this to three percent. Even the higher figure is considerably lower than the extent of false reporting estimated by police officers interviewed in this study".
The whole old-fashioned customs of slow courtship can be seen as a mechanism from protecting women from unprovable rapes, and men from un-disprovable false accusations. It can also, of course, be seen as the rituals of a society not at ease with sex, and again as the result of seeing women at least in part as being the property of men. Return to the past is not an option. But wishing away problems that are eternal does not help either. The idea that we should only have intimate contact with a person if we have already publicly demonstrated a close association with them seems to me neither repressed nor sexist - it is a costly restriction on our freedom that protects us from some dangers, in the same way as not leaving the house unlocked for the electrician is.

09 December 2005

The DRM problem again:

Just a break from my current theme, to point to this piece "DRM, Incompatibility and Market Power: A Visit to the Sausage Factory" by Ed Felten. It is a superb account of the motives and incentives that produce the DRM that we are seeing today. It needs to be listed along with Cory Doctorow's 1994 talk at Microsoft as the essential reading to understand the subject. This is why I insist that the mechanisms (technical and legal) of enforcement of copyright are more significant than the questions of what is copyrightable and what isn't

"Running through this whole convoluted tale are two consistent threads. DRM is used as a weapon not against infringers but against market rivals. And when companies use DRM to undermine compatibility, law-abiding customers lose."

Crime: Rape

The recent controversy relating to rape was triggered by the Amnesty International poll, which found that 34% of respondents in the UK said that "a woman is partially or totally responsible for being raped if she has behaved in a flirtatious manner."

The obvious problem with the poll is that we don't, as a society, have a widely-shared coherent view of what "responsibility" in this sense actually means. The question could be interpreted in very different ways, just on that one point.

I suspect what many of the 34% meant is "behaving in a flirtatious manner increased her risk of being raped", which is probably true, but is not very interesting or important.

Alternatively, some may have meant "behaving in a flirtatious manner is something which should be generally discouraged, because of the increased risk of rape". That is a more significant claim, and a more controversial one. It still doesn't lead very far in terms of policy, however.

Slightly stronger would be to mean "behaving in a flirtatious manner is something women should be punished for, because of the increased risk of rape". (Someone believing that may or may not feel that actually being raped is sufficient punishment.) That is quite an extreme claim, very much at odds with the publicly acknowledged values of our society. I would be very surprised if many people in this country, outside of some third-world immigrant communities, believed that.

A more interesting interpretation would be, "A rapist should be punished less severely if his victim was behaving in a flirtatious manner, because she shares some of the responsibility". I could believe that there is a genuine, substantial difference of opinion in the country over this question.

Indeed, there are two reasons why a man might be considered less responsible for rape as a result of the woman's behaviour. The first is provocation: effectively that in certain circumstances a "reasonable man" might be expected to commit the offence and therefore should not be held responsible. The second is consent: might certain behaviour of the woman be reasonably interpreted as consent, even if not intended that way.

On the question of provocation, as I said, I belive a substantial minority might feel that "behaving in a firtatious manner" or "wearing sexy or revealing clothing" might at least partly reduce the responsibility of the rapist. I would have to disagree with them myself, however. I think that a "reasonable man", as the legal formulation has it, is quite able to restrain himself from raping even flirtatious or attractively-dressed women. (This is a question of fact, and open to dispute with evidence, but my conclusion is based on the behaviour of reasonable men as I have observed it). On that basis, I feel that a man who chooses not to restrain himself should be held entirely responsible. (That is a question of morality). If an unreasonable man is genuninely unable to restrain himself from raping flirtatious women, then he is dangerously insane and needs to be treated as such. (establishing such inability is a difficult technical question which I will not deal with).

On the separate question of consent, I think it can be generally agreed that none of the behaviours asked about in the survey (including "having many sexual partners" or "being drunk") actually constitute consent to sex. The question as to whether the man could reasonably believe a woman consented, when in fact she didn't, gets murky, however.

I think I can see a way through it, however. From the point of view of a potential trial, there are two unknown facts. One is whether the alleged victim actually consented to sex. The other is whether the alleged rapist believed she consented to sex.

The first is quite difficult to establish, but it is essential to do so to get a conviction (and rightly so - if she consented, she wasn't raped. If you can't prove she didn't consent, you can't prove she was raped. If you can't prove the crime, the accused cannot be convicted).

Assume the court has established that the victim did not consent. If the court, sitting presumably weeks or months later, can establish beyond reasonable doubt that there was no consent, it seems to me entirely reasonable to assume that the accused, actually present and participating, must have been at least equally able to do so. Bear in mind that "reasonable doubt" is not sufficient reason for him to get on with it - if unsure or indifferent to consent, it is still rape. One could imagine some fairly far-fetched situations where a man might be genuinely mistaken, but as a general rule, if the evidence in front of him does not indicate lack of consent, it's hard to see how a court could be convinced otherwise.

In summary, I don't draw any conclusions from the survey results, because the questions were too vague for the answers to be useful. There is possibly a serious disagreement on some substantive points, between a section of the population and Amnesty International, and if so I am in agreement with Amnesty.

The survey produced a lot of fuss, but one of the more interesting responses I saw was a circular that has gone round several blogs, including the disillusioned kid. It first makes the point, correct if a little obvious, that there wouldn't be any rape, however women behaved, if men didn't commit rape. It then goes on to say: "Don't tell your women friends how to be safe and avoid rape." That's a remarkable statement. Recall my post before last: in general, the biggest cost of crime is the cost of avoiding it. "Our whole way of life is conditioned by the need to make crime difficult, in ways that are so ingrained that they're difficult to notice."

There are a few reasons the original author of the circular might have made that request. One is if he or she doesn't believe that a woman's behaviour has any effect on the risk of her becoming a victim of rape. While it's true that no behaviour is completely safe, I think that's a severely inaccurate view. Possibly, the author considers it a question of priority: that effort spent encouraging women "to be safe" would be more effectively employed encouraging men not to commit rape. That's a coherent argument, but as I said, we take considerable precautions to protect ourselves from all crimes, because we generally believe that it is effective. No-one has said that we shouldn't audit companies' books, because the effort would be better spent encouraging people not to commit fraud.

Priorities aside, it might be that effects to encourage women "to be safe" have an adverse effect on the behaviour of men. I think this is probably what the author meant. It might be that a mass of voices saying (correctly) that women are more at risk of rape if they behave in certain ways might be interpreted by some men as meaning they are not doing something so bad if they rape a woman who is "defying" this advice. If so, then it may well be a bad thing that this advice is so prevalent.

This is rooted in the very first thing I talked about, the confusion over the meaning of responsibility. There is a notion that responsibility can be "shared", which I think is fundamentally misleading. We each make our decisions in an environment that has been made mainly by other people, but to judge any decision, legally or morally, we have to take that environment as given. Many people might have responsibility for any bad outcome, but they have it separately, they do not share it. We might put ourselves at risk of all sorts of dangers, from other people or from other elements of our environment, and if we are wise we will consider our own responsibility as we do so, but if we are the victim of a criminal, his responsibility is not lessened by our risky behaviour. If people are unclear on this point, then that is where we need the "education" that Amnesty and others call for, not telling potential victims untruths about what their risks are.

In this cause, the Amnesty survey itself is "part of the problem" - by talking casually about "responsibility" without discussing what it means, it is actually encouraging the sloppy way of thinking "flirting is dangerous, so it means it's not so bad if I rape her" that it aims to put a stop to.

Crime: self-defence

Earlier this week the subject of self-defence came up, triggered by Anne McIntosh MP's private member's bill intended to give more rights to householders confronted by burglars.
There was some discussion on Samizdata, which was frankly not of very high quality, unless you compare it with that to be found, for example, here.
Pulling together the points made opposing the bill, we find:
  • The law already allows citizens to take very strong measures in self-defence, without fear of prosecution.
  • Allowing citizens to take very strong measures in self-defence would be a disaster, and the end of civilisation as we know it.
They can't both be right.
In fact, I believe that the first objection, made by Martin Keegan on Samizdata and Janet Anderson in the other debate I referred to - that the law already allows sufficiently for self-defence - is correct as far as it goes. The Crown Prosecution Service explained their position back in January:
Indeed we routinely refuse to prosecute those reacting in the heat of the moment to finding intruders within their homes. So householders who have killed burglars in this situation have not been prosecuted. Householders who have shot burglars have not been prosecuted. Householders who have stabbed burglars have not been prosecuted. Householders who have struck burglars on the head, fracturing their skulls, have not been not prosecuted.
The cases where people are prosecuted for "unreasonable" violence in self-defence are very rare, and exceptional either in the events themselves (the CPS press release refers to a case where the householder "lay in wait for a burglar on commercial premises, caught him, tied him up, beat him, threw him into a pit and set fire to him"), or in the stupidity of the officials involved. There are limits to how well the law can protect us from official stupidity.
While defending the current law as it pertains to self-defence, I do feel that the wider situation is nevertheless highly unsatisfactory. The problems are as follows.

Weapons. We aren't allowed any. In a crisis, we are allowed to use whatever weapons we can lay hands on, but we aren't allowed to prepare to defend ourselves by carrying weapons or making the available. You cannot carry even a makeshift such as a small pot of chilli powder without committing a criminal offence, if you intend it as a weapon.
The problems caused by the offensive weapons law are quite subtle. The case I remember was unfortunately just a few years too early to be in any linkable news source - around 1992, I think. But from memory, this is what happened.
A local troblemaker, whose name was Elliot, was walking down the street, apparently under the influence of some drug, scratching cars with a Swiss army knife. A householder, whose name I can't remember but who was a music teacher with hair like Brian May, walked out to remonstrate with him, picking up a hammer on the way out. They argued, and Elliot killed the householder with the Swiss army knife. Elliot was aquitted of murder on the grounds of self-defence.
Note the strength of the law of self-defence. However, this was not altogether a satifactory resolution. The problem was that, while realistically Elliot was the aggressor, and Brian-May-hair was, in the view of many, properly defending property, by illegally arming himself he had given up the position of being law-abiding. The law effectively saw two criminals fighting. The law of offensive weapons gives us the choice of being effective or being law-abiding.

The second problem is attitude - the attitude of the other set of opponents of the McIntosh bill. 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. This has originated, I believe, with the police themselves, who like any professional group don't like competition, and with the kind of state-worshipper who believes that anything that can be done by the state must be done only by the state. It is this attitude that has led to accusations of vigilantism against anyone who is in favour of resisting crime.
I believe that in a free society the police should have no special powers. The role of the police is to supplement the citizens' actions against crime with a trained, full-time force. The police power of arrest should be identical to the citizen's power of arrest. The citizens should be allowed to carry the same weapons as the police routinely carry. If weapons such as firearms are to be restricted, and carried only in certain circumstances, citizens should be entitled to apply for permission in the same way as police.
The point at which the state's monopoly comes in is in the courts - to any but an anarchist it is the state's sole duty to convict and punish offenders. It is significant though that even with Britain's feeble separation of powers, the courts have not been under strong control of the government, and have direct citizen involvement which tends to keep their actions distinct from government policy.

The third problem is that in some areas of this country, crime is apparently out of control. It may be that it is in fact less bad than at any other period - I don't really know - but a feature of modern life is that the whole population now expects the things that used to be the privilege of the old middle class, including the right to be relatively secure from casual violence. We don't expect the working man to live in a pre-war slum any more, and we don't expect him to have to endure endemic violent crime, either. And it is right that we should not.
I cannot say of my own (sheltered) experience whether it is the norm or the exception, but there are places where the law-abiding citizen is permanently threatened with crime. It is in such conditions that there is a temptation to go beyond self-defence and prevention of crime as it happens, and to attempt to drive out or deter suspected criminals pre-emptively. This is not a desirable state of affairs, and as I believe it is the right of the state to have a monopoly of punishment, it is its duty to use it to control such areas. I don't want to go further than that, as I really am outside my area of familiarity.

Any discussion of such matters inevitably gets bogged down in the details of the Tony Martin case. The case is a poor advertisement for self-defence - there is no self-defence in shooting a fleeing burglar. The sympathy that exists for Martin is due to the third problem above: the justification he claimed was that the state was chronically failing to protect him, and the burglar that he chased off on one occasion would be back on another. I can believe that is a real problem, but if the only way to protect people like Martin is for burglars to be shot (which, as a general proposition, I doubt), then they should be shot by the state on proper conviction, not by nutters in farmhouses on dark nights.

05 December 2005

Crime Week

I've got a few ideas to post on the general subject of crime. Rather than collecting them into a big rambling essay on Anomaly UK - The Director's Cut, I'm going to try chucking them out here one at a time as the week goes by.

The first point is that crime which is actually committed is just the tip of the iceberg as far as impact on society is concerned. You can count it up, put a value on it, and say that is the cost of crime. But it doesn't include everything we spend on successfully preventing crime. Pretty much everything we spend on fences, locks, guards, audits, stocktaking, and, for that matter, police and prisons, is a cost not of the crime that happens but of the crime that doesn't happen. I would hazard that that cost adds up to the same kind of amount as the cost of the crime that does happen.

But even that isn't the full story. The biggest cost of crime is the forgone opportunity - all the things we could do, but don't because we would run too much risk of crime. If you have to take a day off work to let the gas man in, that's a cost of crime, because without crime you could say "walk in and fix it - call me if there's a problem". One of the biggest costs of small business (and some large business) is establishing a reputation for trustworthiness. Our whole way of life is conditioned by the need to make crime difficult, in ways that are so ingrained that they're difficult to notice.

03 December 2005

ippr Paper on Intellectual Property

The ippr think-tank has published a paper "Markets in the online public sphere" on Intellectual Property issues. (Author William Davies).

The paper is an attempt to identify the questions involved, rather than answer them, and as such is worthwhile but not particularly exciting. The main new idea is to classify information transfers in the digital realm according to temporality, classifying information as:
Deliberation (synchronous, interactive transfers) Service (synchronous, passive) Content (asynchronous, temporal) Heritage (asynchronous, timeless) These categories leak into each other, but are probably a useful tool in thinking about the issues.

The leakiness is what the author appears to see as the root of the problems - how one can protect commerce in Content without unacceptable impact on Deliberation or Heritage, or conversely how can one protect the freedom to Deliberate without destroying the business of Content.

While those questions are real, to me they are not the sticking point. I believe that compromise can be reached on what forms of information transfer should be restricted and what shouldn't. Not a perfect compromise, to be sure, but some kind of widely acceptable outcome.

What I see as the most vital issue is not what should be subject to restriction by law, but who should bear the cost of enforcement. That might sound like a minor detail, but it is in fact the fundamental problem, with far-reaching consequences.

(The rest of this piece is on Anomaly UK - The Director's Cut)

01 December 2005

Useless Terrorists

It's really hard to be scared of an enemy that is this stupid.


Mireille was a 38-year old woman born into a white, Christian family in the
Southern Belgian town of Charleroi; she married to a Moroccan, converted to a
radical form of Islam, and went to Iraq where she blew herself up in a suicide
attack targeted against a US military convoy; she killed only herself. Her
passport was in her remains, and its finding prompted yesterday the arrest by
Belgium and France security forces of 15 suspected Islamic militants believed to
be linked to her. Mireille has the more than dubious honor of being the first
white Western woman to carry out a suicide bombing, according to London's The

(via instapundit)

A white, female suicide bomber in Western Europe - a uniquely valuable weapon - and she goes to Iraq, where her uniqueness is not merely no longer an advantage, but is now a disadvantage.

This lends considerable strength to the idea, expressed before, that suicide bombing is often more a personal statement than a serious attempt to cause any kind of political change:


Why suicide bombing? ... Maybe they feel that, other things being equal, it is better to die in the attack than survive it. I don't 100% believe the "Blood Feud" theory of Islamist terrorism -- I do think there is some strategy to it -- but it is valid to say that the bombers are very much concerned with themselves and their supporters, not just with their effects on us.

29 November 2005

Is the Internet a Place?

've been struck by this question a few times, lately.

First there was this article, which I already praised, insisting that the internet is not a separate place, and that activities carried on using the internet are still subject to (in this instance) the tax laws of an actual geographical place.

Then there was this piece from Eric Raymond, insisting that the internet is a place.

Now there is this article by Doc Searls, "How to Keep the Carriers from Flushing the Net down the Tubes". He points out:

To the carriers and their regulators, the Net isn't a world, a frontier, a marketplace or a commons. To them, the Net is a collection of pipes.

(in fact, these two are backwards: The esr piece is a reply to the Searls piece. I read them in reverse order).

In the background, there is Lawrence Lessig's deep and subtle reasoning about the relationships between "cyberspace" and the real world, which I have referred to before.

Read the rest of this article...

27 November 2005

Elements and Attributes and CSS

VoIP technically sucks: trying to fake a switched circuit connection with packet switching is inherently inefficient.

However, if 99% of the data on the network is well suited to packet switching, putting the rest of the data on the same platform is much more sensible than having a whole separate network just for 1%. I don't know if voice traffic is as low as 1% of total traffic over the world's data network, but if it isn't yet it soon will be. VoIP is therefore the only sensible way to carry voice traffic.

That was just a demonstration.

99% of the web page data you are reading is marked-up text: words you want to read, along with markup describing how different bits of the text should be presented. HTML is a decent format for that, and XHTML is much better - more logical, easier to parse, more extensible.

The other 1% (the element) is document-level metadata - not stuff you're meant to read. XHTML is a poor format for that, but it's only 1%, and it's better to use an inappropriate format than add a separate format into the same document for 1% of the content. So we put up with <meta name="generator" content="blogger"/> despite it's clunkiness.

XML is designed for marked-up-text formats like XHTML. At a pinch, it can be used for other things (like document-level metadata), but it's fairly crap. So when Tim Bray says:

Today I observe empirically that people who write markup languages like having elements and attributes, and I feel nervous about telling people what they should and shouldn't like. Also, I have one argument by example that I think is incredibly powerful, a show-stopper:

<a href="http://www.w3.org/">the W3C</a>

This just seems like an elegantly simple and expressive way to encode an anchored one-way hyperlink, and I would resent any syntax that forced me to write it differently.

He's arguing against "use the best general-purpose format for everything", and in favour of "use a suitable special-purpose format for the job at hand, like XML for marked-up text".

A special prize to those who noticed that my XHTML <head> example was just plain wrong. 90% of the head of this document is not XML at all - a document with a completely different syntax is embedded in the XML. Blogger and the W3C have decided that XML is so inappropriate that it shouldn't be used for this data, even at the cost of needing two parsers to parse one document.

To paraphrase Tim Bray,
writing body{margin:0px;
padding:0px;background:#f6f6f6;color:#000000;font-family:"Trebuchet MS",Trebuchet,Verdana,Sans-Serif;} just seems like an elegantly simple and expressive way to encode complex structured information, and I would resent any syntax that forced me to write about 1K of XML to do the same thing.

26 November 2005

Deborah Davis

Saw this on boingboing:

Deborah Davis in Denver, Colorado is being prosecuted for refusing to show ID on a bus.

The case is complicated by the status of the bus, which while available to the public is run by a Federal government office complex, and runs through that complex.

But leaving that aside, what is interesting is that she was always OK when she said she didn't have ID, she was arrested (on a later occasion) when she said she had some but wasn't going to show it.

The US, like the UK, doesn't have a compulsory ID card. That means she was practically OK claiming not to be carrying ID - the problem came when she (bravely, and admirably) made an issue of it by admitting she happened to be carrying ID, but refusing to produce it.

This story is the perfect answer to the "we already have so many IDs, what difference does one more make" argument. It is the difference between "I am not carrying ID" and "I won't show you my ID", which the police in this case, typically, considered so important.

(Of course, technically the government claim that the ID cards they are introducing will not be made compulsory. If you believe that...)

Support No2ID.

16 November 2005

Copyright trespass suits

The BPI has brought more civil actions against uploaders of music to peer-to-peer networks in Britain.

Once again, this is a plea not to complain. As I said last time, the practical intellectual property debate is over whether the scope of copyright and patent law should be increased in the light of new technologies. The Right Answer is that it should not. It might be that without such expansion of copyright, certain business models will cease to be sustainable on a large scale. Whether that is the case, and whether different business models can flourish, remain to be seen.

As these matters unfold, copyright owners will attempt to apply existing laws in defense of existing business models. To the extent that this attempt succeeds, there will be less reason to extend those laws, and, most importantly, less justification for restricting the manufacture, sale and use of ordinary general-purpose tools that can be used for copying, modifying and distributing digital information. If widespread unauthorised distribution of copyrighted material can be substantially prevented by bringing civil suits against the people who do it, then the copyright owners' problems are solved with the least impact on everyone else.

If these legal actions are not effective in protecting the copyright owners' business models, then the real battle will follow. Showing respect for the law as it stands, and for the copyright owners' attempts to employ it, is a solid foundation from which one can make principled objections to copyright expansion. "I want free stuff" is not.

Does information want to be free? If I say so, I mean that restricting copying and distribution of digital data is likely to be very difficult. It means that copying is likely to continue despite these suits. It does not, by itself, make a moral argument. You could say, in the same way, that petrol wants to be on fire, but it's not an excuse to get the matches out.

Beyond what I called the "practical intellectual property debate", there is questioning over whether copyrights and patents are a good thing at all, and whether their scope should be reduced. Some good arguments have been made, but they don't really amount to a criticism of the BPI for seeking to protect the legal rights they hold, and have traditionally held. If their program of protecting their business model is entirely unsuccessful, that might strengthen the argument for changing the legal status of information entirely, at the same time as it strengthens the arguments for creating new IP law powers. I think it's an entirely separate argument.

Vanishing Countryside

I still haven't, as I promised, addressed in detail the CPRE's latest "overcrowded Britain" nonsense, but here's a very very simple refutation:

Google Local

The tiny dark blob dead centre of the map is Birmingham.

Remember, by 2035, "The countryside is all but over". Except for nearly all of it, which you can only see from the air, because, er, no-one lives there.

See also this economics piece, by Robin Hanson at Marginal Revolution, on the positive externalities of urban expansion.
We also neglect the benefits we provide others when choosing to live at the edge of the populated area, versus living in an unpopulated area... Local governments are in a position to reduce this externality, but they seem to mostly make matters worse. Minimum lot sizes, maximum building heights, maximum densities, and barriers to development at the populated edge are far more common than their opposites.

10 November 2005

Bill Thompson

In looking at news coverage of the Sony story, I saw a piece by Bill Thompson, a technology analyst for BBC. His insight into issues seems to be consistently good. I was particularly impressed by this piece on eBay and tax, where he makes the seemingly obvious but often ignored point:
The internet is not a separate space, but part of the real world.
Politicians have to get to grips with this

He has a blog, but the good stuff seems to be copies of his BBC articles.

Warning about dodgy sources of music

I am aware that some people download music files from the internet. I don't do this myself, because of the time and hassle, and the risk of getting something other than what I wanted.

I may have to rethink this attitude, however. It is now official - buying music legitimately from the copyright owners can install trojan horses and spyware on your computer, potentially resulting in crashes and other malfunctioning. Much safer to get an MP3.

I already have a CD that I can play at work only because I made a copy of it at home - the original will not play on my work PC because of its copy protection. It's now getting worse.

A few jobs back we bought a copy of Rational Rose - we never used it because we couldn't get past the copy protection. It sat on a shelf for years. No repeat business there.

Illegal rip-off software, music and DVD is generally of higher quality than the legal stuff. A free MP3 is worth more than an iTunes download or an original CD, because it's compatible with more hardware. A hacked game is worth more than the legal copy, because you don't have to fuss with the license key.

They never learn.

20 October 2005

Linus Torvalds

Linus Torvalds wrote the kernel of the Linux operating system, which has been enhanced, expanded, ported by thousands of individuals and companies working over the internet. See everywhere.

Nowadays, he still controls kernel development, but his role for several years has been pretty much entirely one of co-ordination. He is an IT manager. Just as Free Software is software that we can look at the source code of, Linus' management is done in public for us all to watch and learn from.

I just hope someday he writes a management textbook. It will be full of stuff like this:

Guys, stop being stupid about things. I already sent rmk an email in private.
And Alan, there's absolutely no point in making things even worse.
Mistakes happen, and the way you fix them is not to pull a tantrum, but tell people that they are idiots and they broke something, and get them to fix it instead.
You don't have to be polite about it, and swearing is fine. So instead of saying "I don't want to play any more because Davem made a mistake", say something like "Davem is a f*cking clueless moron, here's what he did and here's why it's wrong".
Notice? In both cases you get to vent your unhappiness. In the second case, you make the person who made a mistake look bad. But in the first case, it's just yourself that looks bad.

More XML

(Apologies to those of my readers that aren't interested in this stuff. I've been giving more time & attention to my work of late, and the results are less blogging, and technical stuff being on the top of my mind more than current affairs)

Very good piece by Jim Waldo of Sun that chimes (in my mind at least) with my piece below. He emphasises the limited scope of what XML is. He doesn't echo my discussion of whether XML is good, rather he shoves that aside as irrelevant - the comparison is with ASCII. We don't spend much time arguing over whether ASCII is a good character set - is 32 really the best place to put a space? Do we really need the "at" sign more than the line-and-two-dots "divide-by" sign? Who cares? The goodness or badness of ASCII isn't the point, and the badness of XML isn't really the point either.

The comparison with ASCII is very interesting - Waldo talks about using the classic Unix command-line tools like tr, sort, cut, head and so on that can be combined to all sorts of powerful thing with data in ascii line-oriented data files. XML, apparently, is like that.

Well, yes, I agree with all that. But, just a sec, where are those tools? Where are the tools that will do transforms on arbitrary XML data, and that can be combined to do powerful things? It all seems perfectly logical that they should exist and would be useful, but I've never seen any! If I want to perform exactly Waldo's example: producing a unique list of words from an English document, on a file in XML (say OOWriter's output), how do I do it? If I want to list all the font sizes used, how do I do that? I can write a 20-30 line program in XSLT or perl to do what I want, just as Waldo could have written a 20-30 line program in Awk or C to do his job, but I can't just plug together pre-existing tools as Waldo did on his ascii file.

There are tools like IE or XMLSpy that can interactively view, navigate, or edit XML data, and there is XSLT in which you can write programs to do specific transformations for specific XML dialects, but that's like saying, with Unix ascii data, you've got Emacs and Perl - get on with it! The equivalents of sort, join, head and so on, either as commandline tools for scripting or a standard library for compiling against, are conspicuous by their absence.

The nearest thing I can think of is something called XMLStarlet, but even that looks more like awk than like a collection of simple tools, and in any case it is not widely used. Significantly, one of its more useful features is the ability to convert between XML and the PYX format, a data format that is equivalent to XML but easier to read, edit, and process with software (in other words - superior in every way).

As a complete aside - note that pyx would be slightly horrible for marked-up text: it would look a bit like nroff or something. XML is optimised for web pages at the expense of every other function. That is why it is so bad.

Maybe I'm impatient. XML 1.0 has been around since 1998, and while that seems like a long time, it may not be long enough. Any process that involves forming new ways for people to do things actually takes a period of time that is independent of Moore's law, or "internet time", or whatever. The general-purpose tools for manipulating arbitrary XML data in useful ways may yet arrive.

But I think the tools have been prevented, or at least held up, by the problems of the XML syntax itself. You could write rough-and-ready implementations of most of the Unix text utilities in a few lines of C, and program size and speed is excellent. To write any kind of tool for processing XML, you've got to link in a parser. Until recently, that itself would make your program large and slow. The complete source for the GNU textutils is a 2.7M tgz file, while the source for xerces-c alone is 7.4M. The libc library containing C's basic string-handling functions (and much more) is a 1.3Mb library, xerces-c is 4.5Mb.

If you have to perform several operations on the data, it is much more efficent to parse the file into a data structure, apply all transformations on the data, and then stream it back to the file. That efficiency probably doesn't matter, but efficiency matters to many programmers much more than it should. It takes a serious effort of will to build something that uses such an inefficient method. Most programmers will have been drawn irresistibly to bundling a series of transformations into a single process, using XSLT or a conventional language, rather than making them independent subprocesses. The thought that 99% of their program's activity is going to be building a data structure from the XML, then throwing it away so it has to be built up again by the next tool, just "feels" wrong, even if you don't actually know or care whether the whole run will take 5ms or 500.

In case I haven't been clear - I think the "xmlutils" tools are needed, I don't think the efficiency considerations above are good reasons not to make or use them, but I think they might be the cause of the tools' unfortunate non-existence.

I also don't see how they can be used as an argument in favour of XML when they don't exist.

See also: Terence Parr - when not to use XML

16 October 2005

XML Sucks

Pain. Once again, I have had to put structured data in a text file. Once again, I have had to decide whether to use a sane, simple format for the data, knocking up a parser for it in half an hour, or whether to use XML, sacrificing simplicity of code and easy editability of data on the altar of standardisation. Once again, I've had to accept that sanity is out and XML is in.

The objections to XML seem trivial. It's verbose - big deal. It has a pointless distinction between "element content" and "attributes" which makes unneccessary complexity, but not that much unnecessary complexity. It is hideously hard to write a parser for, but who cares? the parsers are written, you just link to one.

The triviality of the objections are put in better context alongside the triviality of the problem which XML solves. XML is a text format for arbitrary heirarchically-structured data. That's not a difficult problem. I firmly believe that I could invent one in 15 minutes, and implement a parser for it in 30, and that it would be superior in every way to XML. If a solution to a difficult problem has trivial flaws, that's acceptable. If a solution to a trivial problem has trivial flaws, that's unjustifiable.

And yet XML proliferates. Why?

Since the only distinctive thing about it is its sheer badness, that is probably the reason. Here's the mechanism: There was a clear need for a widely-adopted standard format for arbitrary heirarchically-structured data in text files, and yet, prior to XML none existed. Plenty of formats did exist, most of them clearly superior to XML, but none had the status of a standard.

Why not? Well, because the problem is so easy. It's easier to design and implement a suitable format than to find, download and learn the interface to someone else's. Why use someone else's library for working with, say, Lisp S-expressions when you could write your own just as easily, and have it customised precisely to your immediate needs? So no widely-used standard emerged.

On the other hand, if you want something like XML, but with a slight variation, you'd have to spend weeks implementing its insanities. It's not worth it - you're be better of using xerces and living with it. Therefore XML is a standard, when nothing else has been.

This is not the "Worse is Better" argument - it's almost the opposite. The original Richard Gabriel argument is that a simple, half-solution will spread widely because of its simplicity, while a full solution will be held back by its complexity. But that only applies to complex problems. In heirarchical data formats, there is no complex "full solution" - the simple solutions are also full. That is why we went so long without one standard. "Worse is Better" is driven by practical functionality over correctness. "Insane is Better" is driven by the (real) need for standardisation over practical functionality, and therefore the baroque drives out the straightforward. Poor design is XML's unique selling point.

20 September 2005

Large and Small Organisations

Very good piece by Arnold Kling on the differences between large and small organisations.

If large organizations are dehumanizing, then why do they exist? Brad DeLong says that my assessment of large organizations must be incorrect, or else we would not have Wal-Mart.

A point Kling doesn't make about Wal-Mart is that it is a fairly young organisation. It was in the 1970s that it became a really large organisation, and in the 1980s that it became spectacularly huge. As I have pointed out previously, it is over time that the bad effects of states and other large organisations accumulate. After thirty years, Wal-Mart is a very effective organisation, but one would expect the problems to start soon. The massive state-managed economy Britain instituted in the 1940s started falling apart in the 1970s, and the Soviet organisation set up through the 1920s and 30s probably peaked in effectiveness in the early 60s. Small organisations can stay effective indefinitely.

This piece by Paul Graham is also relevant - describing the Venture Capital / takeover cycle as a way of getting more of the best of both worlds.

Death toll

OK, so the death toll from the Great North Run matched that of the Hatfield rail crash.

I wonder how long the court case will last?

Dr Andrew Vallance-Owen of BUPA said, "At BUPA we encourage everyone to take an active interest in their health and running is a great way to keep fit. This year BUPA is sponsoring six runs including the BUPA Great North and BUPA Great South Runs."

Oops, wrong page. That was last year. Actually, he said that fun-runners who failed to prepare properly for such gruelling events could suffer heart attacks. (Metro, Monday 19 Sep).

Not that there is any evidence that the victims did fail to prepare properly. The brother of 28-year-old Reuben Wilson said that Wilson had trained for the race. The immediate assertion that "if it didn't work, you weren't doing it properly" is one of those things that I generally find very annoying. Facts first, please, then conclusions.

Seriously, I don't think that the organisers of the race should be considered liable for the deaths that occurred. But there is at least is much justification as in many other cases of accidental death, including Hatfield.

09 September 2005


There are two views of politeness. One is that it's a kind of magical fairy-dust that you can add to whatever you do by using meaningless words like "please".

That might be OK for teaching toddlers, but it's rubbish.

Real politeness is caring about other people. "please" isn't meaningless, it's a contraction of "if you please", and it means that you're recognising that the person you're talking to might not want to do what you're asking, and that you're accepting that they might choose not do it.

Giving an order including the word "please" isn't polite, it's gibberish. Saying "please" isn't polite, unless you mean it.

Now the message you get if you go to http://www.legos.com/

"... We would sincerely like your help ... Please always refer to our products as LEGO bricks ..."

Is, as far as I can see, genuinely polite. They're not giving orders or making threats. They're pointing out what they call the stuff they make, and saying that they'd prefer it if their customers called it the same. There's nothing to suggest that they are unaware that Cory Doctorow or anybody else can call it whatever they like, but like other global companies these days, they prefer to call their product by the same name everywhere (Snickers, anyone?). Unlike Mars, they can't rename their product from "Legos" to "LEGO", because it was never Legos in the first place, it's just that Americans seem to be a bit confused. So they've made this polite request. Complaining about seems ridiculously touchy.

The problem here is not BoingBoing, it is the people who never got beyond toddler level, who don't know the difference between speaking politely and being polite, who say "please do not smoke here" when they mean "if you smoke here we'll send security guards to throw you out", who say "please do not copy this CD" when they mean "if you copy this CD we'll sue you for $100,000". They leave us in the position where we're not quite sure whether the Lego message is insufferable bossiness or a mild request.

On reflection, the motive might not even be marketing. It might just make their skin crawl to hear the word "legos". Mine does, a little, and I'm nothing to do with the company at all.

Quote of the day

"Hard as it is to believe, it would appear that promoting marijuana as a medicine for cancer and AIDS patients did not make it seem cooler to teenagers."

Jacob Sullum

For my to-do list

I don't like hardback books.

They're too bulky, too heavy, and the dustjackets rip easily. I want a book I can shove in the already-crammed pocket of my laptop bag and read on the train. Paperbacks meet the need, and they're cheaper too!

The only thing the hardbacks have going for them is that they're available first, when the publicity hits. So what I want is some kind of application that I can notify when I hear about an interesting book, and which will let me know when the paperback comes out.

This one that Tim Worstall has picked up a review of would be a first choice: "Why Most Things Fail" by Paul Ormerod.

On a related note, "Freakonomics" is just out in paperback.

CPRE propaganda

In the news today: some utter, utter drivel from the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

If it had happened all at once, there would have been a huge outcry; determined, concerted action. But it didn't; it happened over several decades - gradually, incrementally, without anyone really knowing who was responsible, or whether it was anything to do with them. And so those who can remember how things used to be look back uneasily. They find it hard to believe that it happened. But it did. It's 2035, and the countryside is all but over.
The report itself is 48 pages. It will take me a while to give it the fisking it deserves, though I hope to get round to it. My first pass was to look through it for any evidence at all that would seem to contradict the key relevant fact, that Britain is mostly empty.

The report does state that the developed area of Britain is increasing (by 21 square miles per year, apparently), but nowhere does it put this in context of the area which is undeveloped. The nearest it gets to such a claim is the last bullet point on page 15:

"the total area of 'tranquil countryside' declined by 20% between 1960s and 1994, and continues to do so".

The source for this claim is a 10-year-old publication by the same organisation.

They do make some accurate points: Farming is declining (good!). Light pollution is an aesthetic problem (can be fixed, by, er, pointing the lights downwards, and should be.) Some bird species are in dangerous decline (but how much of that is caused by changing farming methods rather than encroaching development?). But the central claim is that we are running out of countryside, and that claim is utterly false, and indeed is made dishonestly, since they surely must have noticed that there was no evidence to support it, when they looked for some to put in their report and couldn't find any.

Related posts:
Crowded Island
The War on Housing

Why Clarke must lose

I don't much like this government. I don't like Blair, and I don't like Brown. Their centralising, high-spending, high-taxing, interventionist policies are damaging the economy and the nation.

But set against the whole context of nasty statist politicians, they're not exceptionally bad. They get some stuff right - like this from Gordon Brown.

Somehow I can't see Ken Clarke making that speech. And that's his problem. For all his cuddly image and centrist appeal, if it comes down to an election between Gordon Brown and Ken Clarke, I think I'd prefer Brown. It's kind of a "hanging or electrocution" type question, but there it is.

The trouble with ambiguity is that people suspect the worst. If the Tory party campaigns on a platform of "we want to cut spending but we're not going to", voters who don't want cuts will expect to get them, and voters who do, won't. Everybody will be put off.

Trade and Peace

Various observers have picked up on the new report from The Fraser Institute:

Economic freedom is almost 50 times more effective than democracy in diminishing violent conflict between nations, according to the Economic Freedom of the World: 2005 Annual Report.

Well, if trade is such an effective way of preventing wars, how did we get to be in this one?

Perhaps it's something to do with the fact we refused to trade with Iraq for 12 years? As I argued previously, deliberately antagonising the government of a foreign country, without taking any effective steps to remove it, is a very bad policy. Is there any example in history of sanctions achieving any political goal, other than the goal of provoking a war? (and other interesting by-products)

I think it should be a rule of thumb: don't introduce sanctions against a country unless you're willing to fight it.

08 September 2005

Tree-stump shaped demand

Some points from the argument between Tim Worstall and Jesse Taylor over "price-gouging".
To recap: John Stossel made an argument, with a hypothetical example, to the effect that if you pay a high price for some essential, you should be glad that the price was set high, because had it been set low the vendor would have already sold out and you wouldn't have it at all.

Jesse Taylor attacked this argument as "odious".

Tim Worstall then nominated Jesse Taylor as an "Economic Idiot"

After that, things started to get unfriendly.

The sides are so far apart in their unstated assumptions that they appear quite unable to comprehend each other. After much pondering, however, I think I understand Taylor's claim that the seller is "artificially encouraging scarcity".

Read on...

No Electronic Voting

Proposed trials of voting via internet or text message in next year's local council elections have been scrapped by the government. (Via Risks Digest)

Just occasionally the government trips over reality and notices. It's also encouraging that Opposition spokesman Oliver Heald was, firstly, able to dig this out, and secondly, correctly said that "Remote electronic voting is even more vulnerable than all-postal voting." The reference to the vulnerability of large-scale postal voting strongly suggests that he understands the issues.

We're not completely out of the woods - a Department of Constitional Affairs spokesman has said "We are not ruling out piloting e-voting in the future and any future plans will be taken forward at the appropriate time." I hope that's "at the appropriate time" in the Humphrey Appleby sense.

Previous: Voting fraud

07 September 2005

Emergency Preparedness

Just as it's too early to say with confidence what caused the death of de Menezes - though I sure as hell want to know - it's too early to say what, if anything, really went wrong in New Orleans.

I don't think it's too soon to draw some general lessons, however.

This article in the NRO alleges the following (my emphasis):

... a working group decided that the workable solution to the problem of thousands of stranded citizens was to ask churches to set up a giant car-pool system. The plan further called for a DVD to get the word out, which was still in production when Katrina struck. A cynic might say that such a plan was drafted so city officials could say they had a real evacuation plan, written down on official letterhead and signed and announced and all of the other things that make bureaucrats swoon, but was in point of fact yet another exercise in passing the buck to the next schmuck to occupy the conference-table chair.
Again, at this point I would treat this as an unconfirmed allegation, but anyone who has had the "disaster recovery" duty dumped on them in a business is likely to see it as at least plausible. The general lesson is that, if you might someday be dependent on an organisation's disaster plan, it would be a good idea to find out in advance what it is, and whether it makes any sense. That's the only way to be sure it isn't an exercise in pointless box-ticking.

Everyone should do this, everywhere. Make a list of, say, the three most likely disasters to hit your area. Find out what the contingency plans are. If they're stupid, make a fuss. In any case, make your own plans.

And, of course, get risks in perspective. It's silly to be planning for the likes of a nuclear strike, if you haven't planned for a house fire. House fires kill 700 people a year in the UK. That's a 7th of July death-toll every month.

06 September 2005

Why QMV?

Anyone reading the previous piece on the EU textile quotas might by surprised by the bizarreness of the U's "Qualified Majority Voting" rules.
To recap:

Under QMV, a decision needs 232 out of 321 votes, AND a majority of countries, AND countries constituting 62% of EU population.

Where did those numbers come from?

The problem of the EU is that it is not a country, and no-one needs it.

If, say, a bunch of the biggest and richest US states felt like they were being outvoted in the federal government by people who were practically foreigners, it would be enormously difficult for them to just leave - they have 200+ years of history, essential government functions, and the precedent of a failed war of seccession to hold them in.

In the EU, any country could just decide to leave, much more easily. The institutional arrangements have to guarantee the most important members a reasonable say, because the EU can't afford to lose them. At the same time, the EU has to pretend that it is really one country, and that a Slovakian or a Lithuanian is equal in status to a Frenchman or a Dutchman. The method of squaring this circle has been the weighting rules that ensure, on matters of significance, that the important countries can't be overruled by unimportant countries. That was just about possible with 15 members, but now with 25, including the large population of Poland, it's proving near impossible.

Some earlier arguments on the issue here


An interesting point in The Telegraph (a week or so old, but I just came across it at EU Referendum.)

The EU textile quotas that are causing all this trouble lately were introduced in haste back in June. Viewed in the cold light of day, they were particularly badly implemented (leaving aside the fact that they were a stupid idea in the first place), and it might seem reasonable to try to reverse them.

The interesting issue, however, is Qualified Majority Voting. The regulation was passed under QMV, which requires 232 out of 321 votes, AND a majority of countries, AND countries constituting 62% of EU population. link

To have prevented the measure would, therefore, have required 89 out of 321 votes, or countries constituting 39% of EU population. To reverse the measure now, however needs 232 votes and 62% of population - vastly more than would have served to block it in the first place. The unwise decision, therefore, is practically set in stone.

While I've looked at organisational features before, this implication of "supermajority" type voting hadn't occured to me. In general, since I see legislative productivity as a bad thing, making it more difficult to pass legislation (via things like QMV) would strike me as beneficial. But this "trap" effect of supermajority votes could have nasty side-effects. If it is very much harder to reverse a measure than prevent it, there is greater incentive to use deceit or panic to achieve political aims. In an ordinary-majority system, it is still easier to prevent measures than reverse them, but a body "insulted" by being bamboozled by a minority into passing what it later regards as a bad law is likely to take revenge by reversing it.

But with supermajority voting, even a majority will be unable to do so. When combined with the lack of popular oversight and accountability of the EU institutions, that produces a huge incentive for dishonesty, artificial hysteria and generally bad politics.

05 September 2005

Questioning Copyright

Good piece at the Social Affairs Unit questioning the value and validity of intellectual property. It is very good to see that, as the reclassification of copyright infringement from something like trespass to something like theft goes on, the Right is taking the lead in dealing with the issue intellectually.

The author (Austrailan economist William Coleman) lists four justifications for property, and shows that one of them (allocational efficiency) applies to IP er, see below, and two others (justice and incentives) partly. Unfortunately, he does not examine the extent to which his other justification, far from applying to IP, actually tells strongly against it:

3. The economisation of violence: In the absence of a code of property, resources are wasted in force and violence to take possession, and defend possession.

In the modern world, enormously more force, violence and wasted resources (in the form of the policing powers under such legal frameworks as the US DMCA) are needed to maintain copyright than would be used if there were no copyright. This is what has made IP the hot issue that it now is.

To clarify: with physical property, if there is no clear legal ownership, rivals are very likely to fight over it. With legal property ownership, the violence and waste(in the form of crime and policing) is much reduced. With, say, recorded music or computer software, in the absence of legal protection, they will be freely copied; but the attempt to provide legal protection produces a huge wasteful activity of hidden, criminal copying and intrusive, destructive policing in an attempt to prevent it. Thus the "economisation of violence" argument is not merely nullified but entirely reversed.

Correction: in fact, Coleman doesn't say that the allocational efficiency argument supports IP - he starts talking about it and wanders off the point. In fact, like the economisation of violence argument, allocational efficiency tells strongly against intellectual property: the most efficient allocation is for anyone who wants a copy of something to be allowed to make one. Only the justice and (most significantly) incentive arguments have any force in favour of IP.

04 September 2005


The media here in Britain seem to be a bit geographically challenged when it comes to assessing the relief efforts on the Gulf of Mexico. They seem to have, consciously or not, transposed the damage from a map of the USA to a map of Britain without taking note of those funny "scale" markings in the corner, and they imagine that what has happened is something like Bristol being destroyed by bad weather, and Britain having to respond, when the actual destruction is more like Scotland or Denmark being taken out by bad weather, in terms of area and population. The nearest big cities to New Orleans are Dallas and Atlanta, each about 500 miles away - that's further than London to Glasgow. How would you go about evacuating Scotland with 12 or 24 hours notice? How whould you supply it, with sea and air links taken out first of all, and roads impaired for the last hundred miles or so?

And the second implication of this scale, of course, is the perspective on the terrorism issue...

Read the rest of this piece

22 August 2005

Government Criminality

I haven't commented at all on the de Menezes affair. From the very beginning, I felt it wasn't worth discussing it, because 50% of what we read about it would turn out not to be true. It now looks as if that was a massive underestimate, but that just makes it all the more sensible to wait until the whole thing hits the courts and we can start to separate the facts from rumour and misinformation.

I am raising it now, because of the philosophical link with my earlier post on the activities of Neil Herron. What is at issue in Sunderland is the attitude of government to the law. When I read on Neil's blog today:

Sunderland Council had had a meeting with NCP regarding the fact that there were no traffic orders in place for the city's taxi ranks. This meant that issued tickets were unlawful, but rather than admitting this, they covered it up. They knew in October 2003.

It just sounded so much like the Evening Standard's account of the cover-up of the CCTV footage from Stockwell station:

The row over the death of Jean Charles de Menezes took a dramatic turn today.

Senior tube sources have challenged police claims that there was no video footage of his final moments on the platform at Stockwell station.

They told the Evening Standard that three CCTV cameras trained on the platform were in full working order. ...

The Tube sources spoke out after it emerged that police had returned tapes taken from the cameras saying: "These are no good to us. They are blank."

The attitude that tries to cover up illegal issuing of parking tickets is the same attitude that tries to cover up murder. That's why the parking tickets matter.

18 August 2005

Copyright, Property and Theft

"Property Rights - Property Rights - Property Rights!", reads a slide in a presentation by the CEO of the RIAA to the National Association of Recording Merchandisers (via BoingBoing)

Intellectual Property is not actual property — legally there are differences, and practically there are huge differences. If someone uses my intellectual property, they do not interfere with my use of it.

But there is a closer analogy to IP in the realm of property law than the one the RIAA (and other copyright radicals*) use.

If I own the land, I have the right to exclude trespassers.

Trespass, like copyright infringement, is not (usually) a crime. It is a tort - I can proceed against trespassers in civil court.

The right to exclude trespassers is limited. Public rights of way can exist, or can come into being, across my land, and the public hs a right to make use of them. If I sell or rent part of my land, the necessary rights of access might be implied. (this can get legally very complex).

There is an obvious, though inexact, analogy between public rights of way across private land and "fair use" of copyrighted material.

So, the next time someone talks about "copyright theft", interrupt them and say "I think you mean 'copyright trespass'".

* The actual practical political debate over IP is over whether copyright law should be extended in scope. In this debate, I am a conservative — indeed a reactionary, since I want recent extensions to be reversed — and the RIAA etc. are the radicals with a new vision of copyright.

17 August 2005

Neil Herron

Neil Herron describes himself as "a new-born political anorak". The issues he has involved himself with seem, at first glance, unbelievably petty: defending use of non-metric measures, and questioning the legality of parking fines in Sunderland.

There is more than meets the eye however. A feature of the "new politics" is the brushing aside of annoying legal details. The EU is the worst offender in this regard, with New Labour sprinting in its shadow. Mr Herron is saying "Wait a minute, do you actually have the legal authority to do what you are doing?" In a number of cases, they don't.

Upholding the ban on non-metric measurements required the Law Lords to announce a startling new constitutional doctrine. A partial success has already been achieved in the parking dispute. And Herron's third hobby horse, more obviously significant than the others, is the quiet setting up of unelected "regional assemblies" without any statutory basis.

I think the common attitude, that government has a totally free hand in the mechanisms it uses to govern, and that getting laws through parliament is a piddling technicality except in cases of great controversy, is hugely dangerous, in that it reduces the influence of voters, and increases the power of "undamped" variables such as activists and the media, which can produce huge overreactions to events. I think that however large or small the issues, in insisting on legal justification for government activity, Mr Herron is performing a valuable service. I don't know if he's right or wrong in any particular case, but the question has to be asked, and he's asking it. I would say, conservatively, we need about twenty more people like him.


This kind of thing is what really drives me nuts.

"Mobiles are believed to have been used by the 7/7 bombers as timers in their rucksack bombs" - well, if you want to use them as timers you can buy them second hand from a car boot sale, you don't need a network.

I would like to know what is being done about shoes. All the London terrorists wore shoes, and without shoes they would probably not have been anything like as effective. Yet one can walk into a shop in any town in Britain, and buy a pair of shoes, cash down; no ID, no questions. Don't these people realise we're AT WAR???

In the same way that stuff which appears in the newspapers a lot is stuff which is newsworthy, and therefore rare, human rights which get a lot of publicity are those which are argued about, and therefore marginal. The really really basic human rights, like the right to buy a pair of shoes or a telephone without being required by the government to register yourself as the owner, are so obvious that we don't even think about them as human rights, which is a shame, because we let government get away with taking them away far more readily than we do the marginal cases.

The other element here is a kind of "aquis communitaire" of police powers. As an implementation detail of the telecoms industry, there used to be a practical necessity to provide a name and address to get use of a telephone. With the technological innovation of call rating on the switch, pay as you go became possible and therefore anonymous access to telephones. (I recall with embarrassment that when I went to a meeting with Ericsson sales-people pushing this new technology, I didn't see what the big deal was). The police, having got used to the convenience of access to telephone records, feel that some obvious, essential police tool (which in fact would never have been given to them in the first place except by accident) has been taken away from them, and that the law must be changed to give it back. Again, because people are used to the idea that police can find out who made a phone call, they are more sympathetic to it than they would be out of the blue.

There is an obvious parallel to the attitude of copyright owners.

16 August 2005


I don't have much patience with those who spend a lot of time whining about the trains. I don't see obvious signs of gross stupidity or incompetence, and the regular problems - delays due to mechanical failures, weather, staff shortages, whatever, can only obviously be fixed by spending more money, which would have to come from me or from taxpayers.

So in the normal way of things, the fact that I was delayed by 40 minutes coming home on Friday would not be anything to make a fuss of.

On this occasion, the train reached Luton in good time. However, the door didn't open. Pointing this out to a nearby member of the catering staff, we were told there was a problem with the door but it would open in a minute. After a couple of minutes, an announcement came that passengers in the rear four coaches should move up to the first class area to exit the train. Five or six of us did so, but on reaching the first class area we were informed that we were too late, that the doors were closed and could not be re-opened.

The train at this point was still stationary at the platform.

Again, if it were true that it was impossible (or unsafe) to open the doors at that point, then the whole thing would have been a badly handled technical problem - basically business as usual. But I seriously doubt that. I suspect that, at the cost of some delay and inconvenience, the train could have been held and we could have been allowed to leave the train. The staff involved chose to avoid that inconvenience by taking several passengers ten miles out of their way.

I don't like whining - what am I going to do about this that is productive? First, advice. If you are on a Midland Mainline train and the doors don't open, immediately raise hell. Ignore what you are told, charge up and down the train looking for a working door, and make a lot of noise. If there is any suggestion that you will not be allowed to leave, pull the emergency alarm without hesitation.

This is the opposite of what I would previously have advised. For the sake of safety and smooth running, one should stay calm, follow instructions, and trust that you will be treated reasonably. My bitterness is due to that trust to have been proved to be misplaced.

The second step I am considering is going to the police. If a taxi driver, say, refused to let a passenger out at the destination, and abandoned them ten miles away, I'm sure criminal charges could be brought. Since, in this case, I believe that a deliberate decision was made not to let us off where they had agreed to do, the situation appears to be equivalent. I can't be bothered asking for compensation for what is, in effect, a fairly ordinary delay, but the member of the train staff that decided to keep us on a train against our will and against the prior agreement ought to be fined or imprisoned.

10 August 2005

Microsoft Bugs

A question at the end of an article on how the Microsoft X-Box security (designed to prevent unauthorised code being run) was broken:

512 bytes is a very small amount of code (it fits on a single sheet of paper!), compared to the megabytes of code contained in software like Windows, Internet Explorer or Internet Information Server. Three bugs within these 512 bytes compromised the security completely - a bunch of hackers found them within days after first looking at the code. Why hasn't Microsoft Corp. been able to do the same? Why?

It's a good question. There are a few plausible explanations:

  1. The design team were aware that the task of making it secure was an impossible one, and put just enough effort in to show willing, or to qualify as an "access control system" for legal purposes.
  2. The design was done in an insane rush, due to last-minute architectural compromises or general managerial incompetence.
  3. One or more of the designers secretly felt that the more the customer could do with the device, the better it would be, and in effect sabotaged a feature which had the purpose of limiting what the customer could do with it.
But my favourite theory is quality control. The biggest obstacle I face as a programmer to producing high quality software is the system of controls intended to make sure the software I produce is of high quality.

The major mechanism is obtaining approvals from people who have a vague idea of what the software is supposed to do, no idea at all of how it is supposed to do it, and little interest in the whole process. Other mechanisms involve using, or avoiding, particular tools or techniques.

What they all have in common is that they require me to subordinate my own engineering choice for some one else's, quite likely someone who not only has less knowledge of the specific question, but of the relevant general principles. This extends even to questions of who else to involve: if the bureaucracy says I have to get sign-off from person A, then person A gets to check the product ahead of person B, even if, left to myself, I would choose to ask person B to check it in preference, due to person B's greater expertise or interest.

The bureaucrats would say it is a question of trust - the checks are in place so that management can take direct responsibility for the quality of the product, rather than just taking my word for it. I do not find this at all offensive; it is a perfectly reasonable thing for them to want. The problem is that it doesn't work. It is always possible to "go through the motions" of doing the procedures, but there is almost no value in it. Getting it right always takes a mental effort, a positive commitment. I don't blame them for not trusting me to do it, but they don't have any choice.

The general ineffectiveness of quality control policy is masked by the usefulness of systematic testing. It is possible for a less-involved person to ask for, and check, tests - particularly regression tests on a new version of a product - and achieve significant quality benefits from doing so. As testing of this kind is generally part of the general battery of ceremonial procedures, the uselessness of all the others is less obvious than it would otherwise be. But there are many failures that this kind of testing doesn't catch (and, therefore, which over-emphasis on this kind of testing will increase the occurence of), and practically all security issues are in this category.

I have no knowledge of the quality-control regime at Microsoft: I'm just speculating based on my observation that a ceremony-heavy process can produce bad code of a kind that would be almost inexplicable otherwise. In this case, there are other reasonably plausible explanations, which I already listed.

(via Bruce Schneier)

(See also LowCeremonyMethods)

07 August 2005


Yasin Omar will be forgotten. Al-Zawahiri will be a footnote. The July bombings will be a detail of history, but people will still talk about the 2005 Edgbaston Ashes Test.

When my children are grown up, the names of Flintoff and Warne will trip off the tongues of commentators like those of Laker or Sobers. The last-wicket heroics of Simon Jones, Lee and Kasprowicz will be flashed up as benchmarks when unlikely batsmen struggle on. Warne's unbelievable leg-break to Strauss, Flintoff's first-ball perfect yorker to Kasprovicz, and Harmison's ingenious disposal of Clarke deserve to be held up as exemplars of bowling's arts, while Flintoff's nine sixes will inspire a generation. And the two-run margin of victory, after twenty hours of unique cricket, will be remembered by all of us that sat through those nail-biting final minutes (I actually threw up) for the rest of our lives.

All that, and there are still three matches to go in the series.

04 August 2005

The War on Housing

Today sees the 50th anniversary of Britain's biggest problem - the Green Belt.

Almost everything that is deeply wrong with Britain - the low birth rate, transport, even the poor Test performance - can be traced at least in part back to this piece of authoritarian stupidity. Whereas for centuries the bulk of the population suffered in inadequate housing because of the cost of building, now technology has made building cheaper than ever, and the cost of housing is higher than ever because an alliance of the powerful and the environmental primitivists cannot tolerate the thought of the plebs having comfortable and spacious accomodation. Remember
the report that showed that more than two-thirds of those Americans officialy in poverty had more than two rooms per person?

To rehash an earlier posting, the great illusion that the Green Belt policy was based on is that a large proportion of Britain is already built up. If you examine the land use statistics, something like 90-95% of the land area is undeveloped. While countries like the USA or Australia have, on paper, much lower average population density, that in practice includes vast useless deserts or grazing land - the presence or absence of such are not really relevant to the urban or suburban masses.

There are obvious reasons why the War on Housing has been so much more successful than, say, the War on Some Drugs, but the contrast is striking. Articles about record low street prices for recreational drugs are almost as common as articles about record high prices for houses. Meanwhile, Prescott struts around, appointing one spot or another as the site for a few new houses - mostly, the vast tracts of land being industrially and unprofitably farmed to produce unwanted food being too valuable, unvalued sites such as school playing fields or inner-city "brownfield" meadows which are the only bits of greenery some inner-city children ever see.

03 August 2005

War on Squirrels

Two views from my blogroll: Eric Raymond says
The choice between "support the war" and "allow the pressure off of enemies who want to kill us all" is not a difficult one. As a libertarian, I’m deeply sorry we live in a world where governments are doing the fighting for us, and I fear the consequences of the power they will amass while doing so. But I don’t see an alternative.

While Nick Seddon says
... it is wrong to treat this as a war. Or rather, it is possible to prevent this becoming a war. Much as evangelicals (the kind who read the metaphor of the armour of God at the end of Ephesians in literal terms) and neocons (Mark Steyn’s article in The Spectator this week concludes, "If it’s a war, you can win it. Anything less is unlikely to end in victory.") are keen on their gung-ho adrenaline, it will only make things worse to react as if this is a war of simple opposites, a clash of civilisations ...

I set out to agree with Nick Seddon. But whenever I tried to form an argument of the form, "it's wrong to say this is a war, because if it was a war then ...." I had nothing to complete the sentence with. Not "nothing that supported my argument", nothing at all. To me, deciding whether the situation is or is not a war leads to no policy conclusions at all. No measure I can think of would automatically be appropriate "because we are in a war". Wars come in all shapes and sizes, even leaving aside questionable entrants like the "War on Drugs" or the "Cold War".

It's like the the old story of the squirrel, the hunter and the tree.

Now here's an odd thing. Having written the above, I thought I'd show off my erudition, or "ability to use google", by giving a better reference to the squirrel. In fact it's from William James. But check out the page that came up when I looked it up. Maybe one day I'll come up with something original.