28 February 2006

On new DVD formats

The tech media has long been awash with who will win the HD-DVD / Blu-ray battle, and that horse race has now reached the mainstream

Yawn. My money is on old-style DVD. I really can't imagine myself buying players for either of the new formats.

The new media formats that have caught on in the last 30 years, CD and DVD, have both offered enormous improvements on what came before, both in reproduction quality and convenience. In both cases, I think the convenience improvements were more important than the quality improvement in attracting customers. HD video recording offers much less noticeable quality improvements, and (due to DRM) a step backwards in convenience. I see no reason why they should not go the same way as LaserDisc and SA-CD.

(You could count audio cassette as a new format too, I suppose. That makes the case stronger - Cassette was a step backward in quality, but forward in convenience).

24 February 2006

Incompetence and Privacy

I don't generally get too worked up about privacy -- if I were I probably wouldn't be shooting my mouth off on the internet.

Where I draw the line is at the government insisting I hand over private information under threat of criminal sanction, and then giving it to anyone who pays for it.

As Neil Herron has discovered is the case with DVLA data.

Sainsbury's might be as careless with their data, but I don't have to give them any more than I want to.

HSBC I might have to hand over data to (because of the outrageous government regulation that insists they collect all sorts of data they don't care about themselves), but they could never get away with what the government does routinely.

IP and Public Consciousness

At one level, this is pretty funny (via BoingBoing) - The Mozilla Foundation has problems explaining to Trading Standards that they can't prosecute someone for selling Firefox on CD. Trading Standards are flabberghasted. The trading standards officer has the job of telling people that software can't exist without protection from copying, so the fact that a well-known widely-used piece of software has no such protection produces cognitive dissonance.

There's a serious point though. Our views about what is right and wrong are not logically derived from self-evident first principles (well, except in my case, obviously). Neither, these days, are they unquestioningly accepted from Authority. Instead they are absorbed from the surrounding culture.

That is the problem. The copyright industry have won widespread background acceptance, not only of their legal privileges, but of a view of intellectual property that is actually far more extensive than has ever existed in law - the view implied by misleading metaphors like "piracy" and "copyright theft". In this cultural environment, even the existence of Free Software looks like something a little dodgy, and extending the scope of IP law looks like "plugging loopholes".

They have done this with a deliberate campaign of propoganda, aimed not least at children and schools.


This urgently needs to be combated. Not head on; we cannot go into schools to tell children it's OK to infringe copyright, and I don't wish to. But the other side of the story has to be put forward as well - the benefits of fair use, the importance of the public domain, and the idea that it is a good and generous thing to write software (or music, or literature) and allow others to use and copy it freely. In a world where young children come home from school spouting the most naive ideas about environmentalism, and wearing wristbands advocating funding foreign despots, surely that's not too much to ask.

We need an "information pack" for 8-16 year-olds, to give to schools, explaining what Free Software is, how it is produced, how widely it is used, and how it benefits everybody. We need to actually get it into schools, and include it in Linux distributions. If anyone has heard of such a thing, please let me know, otherwise it's time to start the ball rolling.

Regulatory Reform

Around a year ago, I said on the subject of legislative productivity -

Now, how many laws should be passed? Given that we get as many laws as possible, to the very limit of the time available, there is no reason to believe that the level of legislative production is exactly the ideal level. The behaviour of Parliament suggests that they think we need many, many more laws, but there just isn't time.

If this is what they think, and they are right, we should surely be looking at some constitutional reform to allow more laws to be passed than is possible currently. To some extent, the addition of extra layers of government -- regional and European -- provides this opportunity, but I've never heard them advocated in these terms.

I suspect this is because no-one really believes that what this country needs is higher legislative production. But that leads to the question: if we don't need more laws than Parliament has time for, why does Parliament pack as many as possible into the time it has?

I believe that it does so because it is in the interest of politicians and bureaucrats to personally pass as much legislation as they can, independent of the interests of the public.

Now we get the Regulatory Reform bill - precisely "some constitutional reform to allow more laws to be passed than is possible currently."

This has been compared by some to Hitler's Enabling Act - and the connection is obvious enough. Strictly speaking, however, and assuming I haven't misunderstood (I have no legal training or background), the orders made under this bill have to be laid before the House like other statutory orders, and can be rejected by Parliament.

Interestingly, in my piece referred to above, I then went on to look at the European Parliament:

...this effect reaches a whole new level in the European Parliament, because of the rules governing it. Where, as in this case [Software Patents], the Council adopts a proposal different from that adopted by the Parliament on first reading, Parliament is assumed to approve the changes, unless it finds time within a three-month period to disagree! This truly is a revolution in legislative productivity. Imagine if, say, the US Senate worked under this rule. Rather than have to find time to pass the laws you want to pass, all laws will automatically pass except the ones you find time to oppose.

This obviously gives even more power to whoever arranges the Parliament's business.

I had no idea how prescient I was being! This is exactly the reform we are now talking about.

Therefore, the effect of this bill is not absolutely to hand over legislative power to the executive; instead it is to give Parliament the same role as the European Parliament has in the EU - the role of an observer whose aquiescence, rather than approval, is needed for laws to be passed.

Indeed, the bill seems to model the government of Britain very closely on EU structures. The Law Commission takes on the law-drafting role of the European Commission, putting forward rules - through the Cabinet (like the European Council) - that automatically come into force unless prevented by Parliament. Anyone who thinks that Brussels is the ideal role model for structuring a democratic government should support this bill.

In the long run, the distinction between this bill and the Enabling Act is not likely to be very significant - a Parliament whose own law-making powers are stripped or made irrelevant is only likely to decline in authority, until occasional nuisance-value opposition to the government of the day is seen as a curious anachronism, and the last safeguards are removed.

23 February 2006

ASI Highlights

The Adam Smith Institute has quite a busy blog, here's some highlights from the last couple of weeks.

George Osborne, shadow chancellor, comes out in favour of relaxing planning restriction on new housebuilding. I'm sure whatever he has in mind is fiddling at the edges of a very deep sickness that afflicts Britain - resistance to building, but it's a U-turn of sorts and to be welcomed.

Taxes in Britain have a cost of more than 50% of the economy, when deadweight losses are taken into account.

Hospital Building - a suggestion that there has been too much emphasis in the NHS on PFI-funded building projects, at the expense of service delivery. A call for paying private providers for end-products, not buildings.

Crime: surveys of crime indicate that Britain has 60% more violent crime than the USA or Canada. Most of this is unreported - due to perceived ineffectiveness of police?

European women make substantially less progress to high business positions than Americans, despite - or because of - measures intended to benefit them.

07 February 2006

Hamza Guilty


6 charges of soliciting murder - this law is probably OK. It's an abridgement of free speech, but a long-standing and fairly reasonable one.

Also 4 charges of "stirring up racial hatred". This is an unacceptable abridgement of free speech. In practice it's much easier to stir up hatred against yourself than against others, and Hamza is responsible for more hatred of Arabs than of Jews. Of course, since he wants war, that's all OK from his point of view, but it's pointless to ban it.

Finally 1 charge of possessing information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing terrorism - you always feel that law has to be a joke, but it isn't. Terrifying.

The Americans want him on a whole bunch of actual terrorism charges. I'd much rather see him done for that.

From Another Angle

A timely account from Christie Davies of the conservative Social Affairs Unit of another free speech / blasphemy flap: the 2004 play Behzti which offended a lot of Sikhs when it was performed in Birmingham, and was abandoned amid violent protest.

Davies hardly has a good word for anyone involved - least of all the playwright - which is probably fair enough. I don't have any particular conclusions to draw myself, but I think this supplies a bit of context, at the cost of muddying the waters.

Note that, unlike the current choppy teacup, that episode did involve actual violence in Britain, not just childish posturing.

I'm not saying it was completely ignored by those making such a fuss now - it wasn't, but I don't recall being told that complacency was not an option, or that this was the final conflict..

05 February 2006

Outrage and Censorship

Is there some contradiction between my view of the Government's version of the Religious Hatred bill ("As clear a breach of the human right of self-expression as one could ask for", as I put it just before it was voted down), and my more relaxed attitude to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons?

I don't think so. I am as much convinced as all the ranters and ravers on Samizdata, as Scott and all the others, that the UK papers have an absolute right to pubish those cartoons if they want to. If they were banned from doing so, I would be ranting and raving with the best of them.

But as the papers have not been banned from printing the cartoons, I don't see why they would want to. The broadsheets, at least, are not in the business of offending a lot of potential readers for the sake of a cheap laugh.

I've we're going to pick a fight with radical Muslims over free speech, I'd rather do it over something that has some purpose or merit other than offending them. And that's what this is about - it's about picking a fight. Yes, techincally Jyllands-Postan are in the right, but if you walk up to someone in the street, insult them, and then get all shocked and upset when they turn violent, it doesn't look all that impressive. And if free speech is under threat, it's under threat from scumbags like Blair and Clarke. Will turning this into a big fight in Britain improve the position or not?

As far as this country is concerned, it is a non-story. A Danish newspaper printed some cartoons, people in Palestine and Beirut are acting like savages. As far as the man in the street is concerned, it's about as relevant as an episode of Jerry Springer. If "we" publish the cartoons in a mainstream newspaper here, we are launching an unprovoked insult at a lot of people here, just for the sake of watching them react. That's rude.

As for "supporting Denmark" - the Danish government has said, entirely correctly, that it's none of their business and they can't do anything about it. That's absolutely right. How do we "support" them in their no-position position?

Well, if they are attacked, we can defend them. We should do that, but there's not really much we can do against the Beirut mob. But reprinting the cartoons isn't really support for "none of our business". It's confusing irrelevance with approval.

04 February 2006

03 February 2006

Offensive Images

A bit more context on the whole Danish Cartoon kerfuffle. 1 2

About a year ago, the local fuss in Luton was over various advertising posters that showed women in a state of partial undress (Some reporting here).

It was alleged that the display of these images was offensive to Muslims.

My opinion then was, and still is, that they can damn well get over it. If they get caught vandalising the posters, they should be prosecuted for their (minor) crimes.

What's the difference with the recent cartoons?

  1. With the posters in question (which were advertising for clothes and cosmetics, in the main), there was clearly no intention to be offensive.

  2. Public display of images of unclothed women is a deeply-ingrained and respected aspect of our culture, and has been for hundreds of years.

Also, note the general restraint of the opposition. As far as protest goes, defacing posters, while criminal, and not something I approve of, is well within the scope of minor civil disobedience. Numerous other groups - leftits, fascists, animal-rights nutters, etc. - do at least as much. I'm not defending it, just pointing out that it's neither unprecedented nor dangerous.

There was no violence, and the Muslim Council of Britain, after whining a bit, said "We don’t condone posters being defaced".

I'd forgotten the whole thing until just now - the fuss died down long ago.

This might be the explanation for the difference between my view and that of many of those I normally agree with, who are spitting fire and lettuce over the failure of the British press to reprint the Danish cartoons. They read "Muslims are offended", think of maniacs waving guns in the middle east, and go "sod the bastards"; I think of Pakistanis in Bury Park writing angry letters to the Herald and Post. They were silly to be offended last time, but they're entitled to be offended now, and there's no particular merit in offending them for no good reason.

Jack Straw

Just seen Jack Straw's comments, which are very close to my own. I would quibble with one word - he is quoted as saying:

"We have to be very careful about showing the proper respect in this situation."

Strictly speaking, we don't have to. I would say we ought to, unless we have some sufficient reason not to (such as, for instance, the literary purpose of The Satanic Verses).

The difficult question is whether the danger of "causing trouble" should be taken into account, as Straw seems to suggest. It's a question of whether to be polite, or whether to demonstrate that we are not intimidated. To the extent that fear of causing trouble is caused by threats, those threats are wrongful and should be defied. On the other hand, it is generally true that being rude or offensive can cause trouble, and that's certainly not generally a reason in favour of being rude or offensive.

I suppose I care more about my neighbours in Luton than a bunch of thugs in Gaza. I believe my neighbours would prefer not to have the cartoons all over the papers, but they haven't (to my knowledge) been violent or threatening. I don't want to insult them in order to defy the thugs.

There was a drunk tramp on the Northern Line train from London Bridge to St Pancras last night, and he mumbled obscenities at various of his fellow passengers. It would have given me great satisfaction to have thrown him off the train. But it would have been a bit of a stretch to say he was causing "harrassment, alarm or distress" - in fact he was causing annoyance.

As I said, if there is some point to the cartoons beyond being offensive, I don't know what it is. I suppose they're funny - that might have been enough reason to publish them once, but not to make a big thing of it. You could say that it is necessary for people to see them in order to understand what a small thing all this fuss has grown out of, but I haven't heard anyone explicitly claim that, and I'm not convinced.

On Being Offensive

Being offensive is an absolute right. No legal action and no violence should be brought against anyone, anywhere, for being offensive.

But let's not get carried away. Being offensive, is not, in itself, a good thing. Other things being equal, it is better not to be offensive than to be offensive. There are, however, many things more important than not being offensive, and so it is sometimes necessary or desirable to be offensive.

If we take The Satanic Verses, or Jerry Springer, the Opera, they both offended a lot of people. They are both, in their different ways, artworks and pieces of entertainment, and their producers felt that their value outweighed any offense they gave. Right or wrong, that was their decision to make.

In the case of the Danish cartoons, I get the impression that the whole point was to be offensive. If so, I'm not able to say it was a good thing to do. What is praiseworthy about insulting people for no reason? Offensiveness is a right, but it's not a duty. People must put up with being offended, but they are not required to like it.

So now we have the fallout. Many people were offended, and responded, some in legitimate ways, some in illegitimate ways. Violence is unjustified. Complaints are justified. Threats of violence are unjustified. Boycotts are justified. Demands for changes to the law are allowable, but should be refused. Demands backed by threats of violence are wrong.

In the face of this reaction - some of it illegitimate - it has been suggested that it is good to reproduce the cartoons, either to punish those who overreacted, or to "draw fire" from the original publisher. But this also adds to the original offensiveness, and dilutes the effect of legitimate criticism as well as illegitimate threats.

In reality, one side is trying to radicalise their section of society by exaggerating the original offense, and using it as a provocation. This was even more blatant over the Satanic Verses affair, where almost nobody who would be offended would ever have even heard about the offense without strenuous efforts by their "leaders" to bring it to their attention.

Against that, the other side is trying to demonstrate its attachment to, and unwillingness to compromise, its freedom of expression, and, less admirably, to demonstrate its power to be as offenive as possible.

I think it would be better to stand firm, but not to antagonise. Remember that there are many people who are offended, and who are entitled to be offended, and who have not threatened violence or otherwise stepped beyond the bounds of civilised behaviour. In dealing with retaliation, concentrate on the retaliation itself, and do not dwell on the insufficient reason for it. Basically, pretend that the reaction that occurs - withdrawl of ambassadors, or whatever - is completely unprovoked and act accordingly. That is better than the "escalating" response of repeating and amplifying the original, insignificant, offense.

As I discussed last year, I think we can best deal with the intolerant by calmly insisting that the right to free expression is inviolable, while at the same time discussing the content in question rationally, and treating any calls for acutal censorship as "ceremonial" - part of the normal process of objecting to something one doesn't like, but not serious proposals. Unfortunately, this approach is undermined by any censorship we do have, such as the "inciting hatred" laws which weere used unsuccessfully against the BNP, and which are currently being expanded (fortunately less than the government wished).

Of course, if the point of the cartoons really was solely to be offensive, then there is not really anything of substance to argue, which is a shame.

02 February 2006

Technical Integration

Cory Doctorow asks:

I've often wondered why the camera in my pocket -- which has a fast processor, a big beautiful screen, and a four-way rocker-switch -- doesn't come with a couple thousand video-games, given its capacious memory.

I can think of several reasons:

The camera state-of-the-art is fast-moving. The extra time it takes to design in the game features for a given model will delay it - putting it up in the market against newer designs.

Software reliablility. Cameras don't crash. Games do. I slight tendency to crash would be a huge problem for a camera.

Phones. If you want a single do-anything gadget, it's more likely to be a phone with a camera in it than a camera with extra features. Buyers of specialist cameras - which aren't phones or pdas - are likely to concentrate solely on phone features.

General "integrated device problems" - if one feature goes obsolete, the other is left with an obsolete device hanging off it. If one feature breaks, the other is left with a broken device hanging off it.

These things take time. I remember a long period during which laser printers, photocopiers, faxes and scanners were all made of different combinations of the same functional elements, but multi-functional devices that could fulfil the different roles were not available. They became available once the features of each device reached a plateau - where integrating different functions became a more useful innovation than improving any one function.

There is a pernicious belief that what matters in innovation is ideas. The idea of integrating a dvd-player into a television, the idea of a compressed-air powered toy aeroplane, the idea of selling petfood on the internet. What matters isn't having the idea, it's making it work.

All these things will happen when someone invests in making them work. I'm planning to hang on to my antediluvian Nokia 3310 until I can replace it with a model integrating an MP3 player with >20Gb of storage. I estimate 2009, including a year for the early-adopter tax to go away.

01 February 2006

Quote of the Day

"It is obvious to everyone that political beliefs — other people's political beliefs — are not altogether rational."

Michael Acree, Liberty vol 19 no 5

See also: Language for Deception

Three cheers for democracy

Yesterday the House of Commons unexpectedly upheld freedom of speech by voting to accept the amendments made by the House of Lords to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. Very good news. We will continue to be able legally to be rude about religions, as long as we are not threatening (in which case there is plenty existing law, anyway). And three boos for my MP Margaret Moron, who has a 100% record of voting for oppression.

Of course, while it is good to see our elected representatives voting for freedom, it must be remembered that the Commons previously approved the bill in all its horrible glory, and only after the rejection by the unelected house of Lords did it agree to gut it. What conclusions can we draw from that?

Well, one is that the Commons' view when there is time for both a public and an internal debate is not the same as its view in normal circumstances. This is because legislative productivity is too high: laws are being passed without getting adequate consideration.

Why did the Lords get it right when the Commons initially got it wrong? Possibly, the Lords, while unrepresentative of the population just happens to be more representative of me. That doesn't lead anywhere useful. Alternatively, I have often thought that the Lords show a greater sense of responsibility, brought on by the knowledge that their powers are illegitimate. An MP says to himself "I have gone through a long struggle of politicking and elections to obtain the power to vote on these matters - I shall now vote according to whatever suits my purpose at this moment". A Lord says "I have undeservedly been given power to change the law of my country - I must take care not to use that power in a harmful way". This explanation seems weaker now that most voting Lords are appointed ex-MPs - it seems unlikely that they would suddenly aquire an unfamiliar humility along with their silly robes.

I cannot justify the existence of the House of Lords, and I have in the past argued for unicameralism, but there is a pressing need to reduce legislative productivity, and the brake that is the Lords, eccentric as it is, cannot be discarded at this stage.

A claim by Charles Clarke was that the defeat was "a purely political act". A bizarre statement for a politician to make, but I suppose he meant that those opposing the bill were not really opposed to it, they just wanted to see the government defeated on something. (Of course it is unheard of for a Labour MP to vote for a bill he does not really support, just because he wants the government to win a vote). That may be true of some Tories, but I am sure that those who voted against their own party were sincere in their opposition.

A prominent feature of the debate was its dishonesty. The original text of the bill said things like "an offense is committed if someone says things that stir up racial or religious hatred". In response to criticism, the government proposed amendments along the lines: "you may express criticism of religion (provided you don't stir up hatred)". Such amendments obviously have no effect whatever on the meaning of the bill: see here

I am impressed by the Hansard web site. Full text of yesterday's debate and votes is available this morning for examination. Obviously, this is how it should be, but it is slightly surprising nonetheless.