28 September 2006

Michael Wolff

Astonishingly ignorant column in Vanity Fair by Michael Wolff.

"Brand America, which ruled the global marketplace with its vision of cool capitalism, has been discontinued. This is Bush Country now, and the world is recoiling from a new image that makes the U.S. as much a danger to its friends—including chief enabler Tony Blair—as it is to its enemies"

You WHAT?? "cool capitalism"? Capitalism may be tolerated in Britain, more than in mainland Europe, as a necessary evil, but only a handful of lunatic-fringies like me would ever have called it "cool".

Similarly with the YouGov poll Wolff quotes - I'm sure the results would not have been greatly different in August 2001 or in 1998. Clinton was talked about in very much the same terms as Bush is now. The first reaction in Britain to September 2001 was largely a sniggering "Now they see what it's like".

As the infinitely better-informed Robert Kagan wrote in the lecture I mentioned here, 'Samuel Huntington warned about the "arrogance" and "unilateralism" of U.S. policies when Bush was still governor of Texas.'

If American commentators like Wolff can be so unaware of what is really going on in Britain, of all places, what are the chances of there being any insight into what's going on in Iraq or Pakistan?

At the risk of repeating myself ad nauseam: The major global conflict today is between the EU core and the USA; Britain is very divided regarding the conflict; the antics of primitivist Islam and the war on terror are a sideshow, but may in the long run develop into a proxy war, if the EU position goes from hoping the Islamists can damage the USA to supporting them outright. Blair is as enthusiastic about invading Iraq as he was about invading Yugoslavia, and would have been pushing Bush to invade Iraq had any pushing been necessary.

24 September 2006

Ubuntu Dapper on IBM 300PL

(This probably belongs on some Ubuntu wiki page rather than here on my blog - if you're not currently trying to get Ubuntu to install, this will probably not be of much interest to you).

I picked up a 500Mz P3 box on eBay yesterday, and had a bit of trouble installing Ubuntu on it. I solved the problem in the end, so here's the solution for those with similar troubles.

The machine is an IBM 300PL model 6862-U60

It would boot off the Ubuntu "Dapper Drake" 6.06-1 disk, but would hang at various points through the boot process.

Pressing F6 at the first ubuntu boot screen lets you see and edit the kernel boot line. I deleted "splash" and "quiet" from the boot line to see more output. That showed that the problem was I/O errors on the CD-ROM drive (hdc).
hdc: media error (bad sector) status=0x51 { DriveReady SeekComplete Error }
hdc: media error (bad sector) error=0x34 { AbortedCommand LastFailSense=0x03 }
ide: failed opcode was: unknown
end_request: I/O error, dev hdc, sector 0
Buffer I/O error on device hdc, logical block 1

I tried different discs, a different CD-ROM drive, and connecting the CD-ROM as slave on the primary controller instead of master on the secondary. No change (except for it being "hdb" instead of hdc in the last case, as expected.)

I tried an old Ubuntu disc (Breezy Badger, in fact). It ran perfectly. I noted that doing "hdparm /dev/hdc" from a shell under the Breezy CD showed that dma was not enabled. It looked like dma wasn't working properly on the CD-ROM. (the chipset is an Intel PIIX4)

I added the kernel option "ide=nodma" before the " -- " on the boot line to see if the Dapper CD would work. It got further, but still failed once it came to trying to unpack the package files.

The problem is that while the kernel wasn't automatically enabling dma on the CD-ROM, the Ubuntu system was enabling it itself in the installer.

There is a separate option "nohdparm" which prevents that. Because it's a Ubuntu option not a kernel option, it goes after the " -- " on the boot line.

My full boot line was therefore:

boot=casper initrd=/casper/initrd.gz ramdisk_size=1048576 root=/dev/ram rw ide=nodma -- nohdparm

(I hadn't touched anything before "rw")

And with that, the installer worked perfectly.

Quick summary: Press "F6" when the Ubuntu screen comes up, remove "quiet" and "splash", add "ide=nodma" before the " -- " and "nohdparm" after.

Once the system is installed onto the hard disk, edit /etc/hdparm.conf, and add the following
/dev/hdc {
dma = off
so that the CD-ROM drive will work correctly in the installed system.
The onboard sound isn't automatically detected; it's a Crystal 4236B; I added the following line to /etc/modules:


(There might be a neater way of doing that, I don't know).

22 September 2006

Owning Stuff

Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing picks up the story about the 82-year-old woman who paid $2000 in rental for a telephone, but he manages to draw a useful conclusion from it beyond "Aren't old people daft".

"Even if you know you'll never miss a payment, we all know that owning enriches you, renting enriches someone else."

I think this is fundamentally true. In the long run, the way to benefit from capitalism is to accumulate capital.

His point is directed at the entertainment industry, who are attempting to convert their market from consumers buying and owning recordings, towards consumers renting the right to access recordings. This approach may make sense in the context of the costs of enforcing copyright, but it suffers from the fact Doctorow recognises, that if the industry is not selling ownership of recordings, it is not selling so much value to consumers, and therefore should not expect to take as much money.

An unrelated obstacle to owning stuff, and thereby gaining the full benefits of capitalism, is the general shortage of storage space. That is yet another reason why the War on Housing is the biggest problem facing Britain today.

20 September 2006

Meeting with the Representatives of Science

I've made two comments about Pope Benedict's lecture last week - one complaining about the bad internationalization of the website, the second dealing with the spurious outrage from Islamic rentamobs.

Given that, I will complete the "trinity", so to speak, by addressing the actual content of the speech.

Benny is cool with science. "The scientific ethos, moreover, is - as you yourself mentioned, Magnificent Rector - the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which belongs to the essential decisions of the Christian spirit."

But he claims that science depends on assumptions about the nature of reality which are not themselves scientific:

"This modern concept of reason is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology. On the one hand it presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is, so to speak, the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature. On the other hand, there is nature's capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield ultimate certainty."

The conclusion is that to justify the presupposition of "the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality", one must resort to the twaddle of the philosophers from Plato to Descartes to Kant, thereby importing Christian theology into the scientific worldview.

Of course, there is no necessity to do any such thing. The only necessary presumption to start doing science is that there is an external reality which exhibits some regularities. One can then start to probe what those regularities might be.

That necessary presumption is unprovable, but it is necessary not only for science but for any kind of social activity. The only alternative to it is solipsism, for if one denies that an external reality exists, or if one claims that it could vary entirely unpredictably, there is no mechanism by which one could become aware, even in principle, of the existence of another mind. It would then follow that anyone other than me that I am aware of is merely a figment of my imagination, and there is no point in attempting to to convince them of anything.

19 September 2006

A sad story

An 18-year-old woman was convicted yesterday in Cardiff Crown Court of making false rape allegations. (Attempting to pervert justice).

She was dancing at the house of a stranger she met in a bar, and claimed she had been drugged and raped.

In the normal way of things this case would just have dropped into the 94% of reported rapes that do not lead to a conviction - the figure that Carol is so upset about.

What made it different is that one of the four defendants had phone-video-camera footage that proved the allegations were false.

Even without it, the case would quite likely not have made it to trial. If it did, her personal website on which she described herself as a "wild girl" whose hobbies were "sex and pole-dancing" would have been used by the defence. It would perhaps have been suggested that if that evidence had been disallowed, a conviction might have been more likely, and that such a change would improve the 6% conviction rate.

I do not mean to suggest that all or most of the 94% are false allegations of this kind. But I am sure some of them are. Lack of evidence is not a "technicality": If the only evidence that a crime took place is the word of the alleged victim, and the accused says it didn't happen, no reasonable justice system will be able to provide a conviction.

Imagine that she was really telling the truth. In that case, she would be equally unlikely to see the men convicted. There's simply no way she could prove what really happened.

Andrew Hall of the Criminal Bar Association was quoted in the Times story Carol linked to saying "In my view the system generally works, in that guilty people are generally convicted and innocent people are acquitted." I don't think I would go that far. I suspect a lot of rapists are acquitted for lack of evidence, but I don't think the criminal justice system can do anything about it.

That's not the same as saying nothing can be done about it. I addressed this issue before at great length a year ago, here and here. We have thrown off the restrictions or repressions of sexual behaviour that were previously the norm, and while they were to some extent the product of superstition, bossiness or patriarchy, they were also protections from real danger. The existence of law and morality do not remove the neccessity of protecting ourselves - that is why we lock our doors. Women who behave like C.S. did are running the risk of being raped (not that that reduces responsibility of rapists), and men who behave like these four men are running the risk of being falsely accused (not that that reduces the responsibility of the false accuser). Casual sex with strangers is dangerous in more ways than one. While people behave the way these five people behaved, the 94% is here to stay.

I will repeat the position I took a year ago:

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

(footnote: I have not named the girl here - in the perhaps arrogant hope that this blog will still be around and searchable in years to come, I do not want to be providing information about her to search engines. She's been idiotic and done herself a lot of damage, but she's 18 and still has a life ahead of her. For the same reason, I deplore the newspapers' decision to publish photographs of her in her underwear to illustrate the story).

18 September 2006

The Church again.

There has been an important development in the story about the Pope's lecture at the University of Regensburg.

They've fixed the HTML. If you follow the same link that I gave in my previous entry on the subject, the rubbish characters have been replaced by html entities for the correct greek letters. It now renders correctly, at least in IE on my desk.

I didn't think the other controversy arising from the lecture was worthy of comment, but now that people are being killed over it, I feel compelled to state the obvious.

Benny was talking about the relationship between religion and reason, and the different attitudes to that relationship that have shaped Christianity through history. His conclusion in a sentence is: "The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur - this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time."

Along the way, he affirms that the "synthesis with Hellenism" (i.e. Greek philosophy) is not an incidental "preliminary inculturation" of Christianity, but is a necessary part of it: "the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself."

It was in the context of this "synthesis" that he opened with the "startling brusqueness" of Manuel II Paleologus.

"The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident."

Benny then moves on through history: "in the late Middle Ages we find ... in contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God's voluntas ordinata.

"The thesis that the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith has been countered by the call for a dehellenization of Christianity - a call which has more and more dominated theological discussions since the beginning of the modern age."

... "Fundamentally, Harnack's goal was to bring Christianity back into harmony with modern reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ's divinity and the triune God."

So there is the reason for citing a 14th century emperor — to show the views that were current before the first "dehellenization" in the middle ages.

There are two questions that have been raised regarding this lecture. One is whether Benny anticipated the global reaction to the "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman" snippit of the quotation, but had some nefarious reason for wanting to stir things up.

Maybe I'm being overgenerous, but the Church seems to me to have a track record of saying exactly what it means, right or wrong. If Benny had wanted to take a more aggressive stance towards Islam, he could have done so in his own words.

The second question is whether he should have anticipated the result. Again, the church is not a modern political party. It does not employ focus groups, and if it has spin doctors, they are not primarily concerned with "popular opinion". The Pope may be regretting having used the words he did (though interestingly, his so-called apology does not actually say so), but I do not think it occured to him or anyone else to scan what he was preparing to say for things that could be taken out of context by the ignorant and the stupid.

16 September 2006

Thin Models

Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell has called for 'stick-thin' models to be banned from the catwalks during London Fashion Week.
There are three problems with underweight fashion models:
  1. They don't look very good.
  2. They will suffer ill health through being underweight, and encourage others to do so.
  3. They make people unhappy by presenting an unattainable ideal.

The first problem is really a minor one. If you want to look at attractive women, there are many useful resources available. Just remember to avoid fashion shows and fashion magazines.

The second is the main problem, but since the medical industry is still recommending that people adopt a body weight that is more unhealthy than that which they consider "overweight", it's a bit rich to be blaming the dressmakers.

The third is seen as a problem, but in fact it's the whole point. Fashion is all about exclusivity and status. It's about in-groups and out-groups, and the most prestigious in-group is the one that people want to join but can't.

Beauty doesn't cut it as a marker for fashion. There are just too many beautiful women. Take any beautiful woman, say from the best 5% of the 18-25 age group, and it's impossible to find another woman that would overwhelmingly be recognised as definitely more beautiful.

Thinness (and tallness) is another matter. You can find a model who's tall and thin, but if your competitor gets one taller and thinner, everyone will agree that yes, that model is taller and thinner than yours. You want your fashion to be associated in people's minds with the most exclusive of in-groups, and that means the very tallest and thinnest of models. You want a model who's one in a thousand, not one in twenty.

It doesn't make sense to complain about thinness of the model because it presents an unobtainable dream, when the job of the model is to sell a $5000 dress.

Scientific Basis

I recently read Michael Crichton's "State of Fear". As a thriller, it's good but not exceptional. As a contribution to climate debate, I'm not sure it's helpful - there's an obvious problem with claiming the media is drowning out the real science in a novel. I assume (and hope) that the claim in the author's postscript, "Everybody has an agenda. Except me." is not meant to be taken seriously.

What is a useful contribution is the Appendix in which Crichton draws an analogy between the global warming movement and the eugenics movement of the early 20th century. You can read it on his website.

There's one point in his argument which I think is interestingly wrong. He says, "there was no scientific basis for eugenics." Perhaps I'm quibbling over words, but if we're talking about the fundamentals, there was a very solid basis for eugenics. Evolution is real. Genetics is real. It is true that if a person who, for reasons stemming from their genes, would be unable to live and reproduce in a primitive society, is, in our advanced society enabled to live and reproduce, then the gene causing their inability will as a result become more common than would otherwise be the case. That's basis.

The problem, of course, is in the details, and in what is built on the basis. To what extent is failure in society due to genetic reasons? To what extent is failure of a society or a race as a whole due to genetic reasons? To what extent is the spread of genetic problems restrained by ordinary individual behaviour in the absence of a concerted policy? How long would it take for a change in selection pressures to have a noticeable effect on the human gene pool - decades or millenia? What can we do about changes that occur? Who is to decide which genes are superior? What are we giving up in exchange for genetic improvement?

Global warming has a very solid scientific basis, as I understand the word "basis". The greenhouse effect is real. Carbon Dioxide concentrations are increasing. The increase is almost certainly anthropogenic. The basis of the theory of global warming is completely sound.

And the details are less clear. What is the magnitude and speed of the change? How much climate variation is due to atmospheric constitution, how much to land use, how much to solar variation, how much to natural oscillation, how much is random, how much is due to causes we haven't even thought of? What will be the effects, how can we deal with the effects? Who is to regulate atmospheric emissions? What are we giving up in exchange for a cooler climate?

Where Crichton really hits the nail on the head is in his title. This is all about fear. I have worried in the past about the suspicious way in which my assessment of factual issues such as global warming always seems to support my political views. But the issues I have addressed are not purely factual. Fear is always part of the question. The question I have been dealing with is not "what is the matrix of costs and probabilities associated with climate change?", it is "how much fear should we have of climate change". And fears are (or should be) relative to other fears.

I have an agenda. My agenda is freedom. To me, the ideas that 10% of our land area might fall below sea level, and that we won't be able to grow the crops we currently grow, are worrying. The idea that governments could have the power to regulate CO2 is terrifying. When I disagree with the climate science mainstream, I'm not so much disagreeing with the science, I'm disagreeing with the fear. I have different fear.

And fear leaks into the factual assesments also. If science were done perfectly, it wouldn't, but it does. I think actually the factual disagreements, though they do exist as a result of the leakage, are less significant than they seem, because when they are converted into something meaningful to people, the fear has to play a part in the conversion.

If my terror seems a bit extreme, let me explain. After all, pollution regulations have been around a long time, and have resulted in huge environmental benefits. The difference is locality. The Clean Air Act was a response to local problems. The people who benefited from the act were either the same people as suffered its restrictions, or else lived among them - and we always have to compromise our interests with those we live among.

But the core assertion of the CO2 issue is that my emissions have effect on others independent of their distance from me. It is not enough, therefore, for me to compromise my interests with those of my neighbours, I must compromise with the whole population of planet Earth. That is a qualitative change from any kind of politics that has ever existed. The Kyoto Treaty, by seeking to restrict the essential private activity of burning fuel, is the establishment of a world government in a way that the creation of the UN, which sought to regulate only relations between states, originally was not.

Humankind has always faced environmental threats and problems, and has a good and improving record of coping with them. We have no such comforting record in dealing with overreaching government and tyranny - as Milton Friedman said in the old TV interview that has been going around recently, tyranny and serfdom are the normal state of mankind, and freedom is the rare and precious exception.

The eugenicists sold their participation in a common humanity for a lower incidence of genetic illness. My fear is of selling the existence of a private sphere within which the individual or group can be free for better weather.

The best source for mainstream climate science is realclimate.org. Their criticism of State of Fear is here.
A good source of purely scientific challenge to the mainstream is Roger Pielke Sr
A more obviously political critic of mainstream climate science is Patrick Michaels, who writes at TCS
Michael Crichton's main attack on global warming is Environmentalism as Religion

15 September 2006

In the beginning was the 8`(@H

According to Pope Benedict XVI in his lecture on Tuesday (the one the Muslims are upset about).

The quote is on the Vatican website.

The HTML is rubbish. The line in question contains the text "8`(@H", wrapped in an HTML font element with a face attribute of "WP Greek Century".

The document is not xhtml - indeed there is no html version declaration of any kind. There is an http-equiv="Content-Type" meta element specifying "charset=iso-8859-1"

In other words, the content is published as 8`(@H, in an 8-bit latin character set, with a font requested that would display those characters as greek letters. Since I do not have that font, I get the latin characters.

The file should have had a charset specified that included the proper Greek characters. I might still not have seen them, if I have no suitable font, but I would have been in with more of a chance. Also, the pdf file on the BBC website would probably not have perpetuated the error, since it can include fonts and handle more than latin characters. Since it was presumably produced from the bad HTML, it dutifully reproduces the 8`(@H.

If I were in charge of the Inquisition, the penalty for causing the Vicar of Christ to misquote the first verse of the New Testament would be pretty damn severe, I can tell you.

Update: They've fixed it.

[Insert "Short" pun here]

Daniel Finkelstein writes:

[Claire Short] assumes that a hung parliament will lead to proportional representation. This would only happen if a majority of MPs are willing to vote for it (or vote for a referendum on it). Yet many MPs are absolutely opposed to PR and would not support it in any circumstances.

A hung parliament means that a majority government would need support of the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems would (if remotely sane) give support to either party in exchange for PR. MPs "absolutely opposed" to PR might vote for it if it were a condition of being government rather than opposition.

It's not a certainty, but a hung parliament would have a decent chance of producing PR, and the opinions of individual MPs towards PR is almost beside the point.

In a simplified model, it looks like a hung parliament would not produce PR:

Two main parties are P1 and P2. Balance of power held by D (Lib Dems).

If neither P1 or P2 offer D PR, then D will make a choice P1

If P2 offers PR, P1 can choose either

Offer PR : outcome is P1 in government, with PR.
Don't offer PR : outcome is P2 in government, with PR.

P1 should therefore offer PR (since it will happen anyway) in order to get in government.

Therefore, for P2, their choice is:

Offer PR : outcome is P1 in government, with PR
Don't offer PR : outcome is P1 in government, without PR.

So effectively, P2 (whichever party is not preferred by the LDs) has no chance of getting into government, but does have the choice of whether PR will be introduced.

I would guess that the LDs would be more inclined to go into government with Labour than with the Tories. If so, it is the Tories (P2) who would have the choice over whether to force Labour into offering PR or not. Possibly they would. If they can't get a majority now, it is reasonable to ask whether they ever will. If not, then PR becomes less of a sacrifice.

Of course, my simplified model can be attacked. It makes the following questionable assumptions:

Perfect information
Major parties can commit to introducing PR with perfect credibility.
PR is a yes-or-no issue
LDs care more about PR than about whether Lab or Con get the government (that's the "if remotely sane") bit.

I have a non-rigorous feeling that in the real world the doubts and grey areas could drag both P1 and P2 towards offering PR to improve their chances.

That might be wishful thinking though. I am strongly in favour of PR, as it would split the main parties and allow voters the choice of a party that more closely represented their views.

Actually, there's another move in the game. I was assuming the LD strategy was "Support the P1, unless P2 offers PR and P1 doesn't, in which case support P2". If the LD strategy is "Support P1 if P1 offers PR, otherwise support P2", then, provided P1 would prefer to be in government than to keep out PR, P1's best strategy would be "offer PR", and that would be the outcome.

That's really counter-intuitive. It's saying that the LDs should say "We prefer Labour to Conservative, but we will only support them if they give us PR. Otherwise we will punish them by support the Tories, whether the Tories give us PR or not."

I thought this game was solveable, but my limited grasp of game theory might not be up to the task. I'll have to go away and think about it (and look up the proper notation).


14 September 2006

Sweeping up the fairy dust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human rights

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

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

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

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

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

Online Gambling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 September 2006

How good is Wikipedia?

This has rumbled on for a long time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

(H/T Climate Science Weblog)

The Long War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 September 2006

A brief history of Nuclear War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's very difficult to say.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Thomas on Broken Window Fallacy

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

11 September 2006

War on Terror - long and short term goals

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

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

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

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

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

08 September 2006

Blair and Me

What do I think of the current Blair feeding-frenzy? I admit to being a bit conflicted.

First, chris dillow is right as usual that compared to real questions about policy, all this is relatively insignificant.

Related to that, I think the press just wants him out, because they're bored and would like to see something happen. I can understand that feeling, indeed I share it, but it can't be a good reason to change the Prime Minister.

I don't think we'd get better policies either from Brown or from whoever emerges as anyone-but-Brown.

What is distinctive about Blair is his idealism. This leads him to overambitious social and economic engineering projects, which is bad, but it also causes him to resist (to an extent) the Labour Party's "core values", meaning the prioritisation of the interests of public sector workers above everybody else. That is good. Will his successor's corruption be worse than Blair's idealism? Hard to say.

Then there is the next election. Will an early change be better or worse for Labour? Will the Tories be any better? Is Cameron lying when he says he is really just like Labour? What pressures will be on Cameron from the rest of his party? What would happen to the Tories if they lost the next election? Would they become better or worse, and in each case would that make them more or less likely to win the election after next, and what effect would that have on a Labour government in the meantime?

When it comes the the question of how to influence such an enormously complex and unpredictable system for the better by throwing a single vote at it, the only possible rational response is to give up and do something useful instead.

Current levels of voter turnout and engagement with politics are inexplicably and frighteningly high.

Fairy Dust

From my comment on Tim Lee's question about Blair:

Blair's "third way" is the traditional socialist belief that the economy, the country and the world can be managed and moulded to greater effectiveness, but with the old socialist economics modified by a magic sprinkling of private-sector fairy dust that would prevent repetition of the failures of the old state-run industries.

There is a perfect consistency between the belief that every public service and every industry can be improved by expert target-setting and regulation, and the belief that the Middle East can be made better by expert regime change.

The fairy dust is worth elaborating on. What I am talking about, of course, is PFI - the Private Finance Initiative, the idea that private-sector efficiency can be achieved in public functions by means of contracting with private suppliers to fulfil the functions.

The idea is not totally false. If there genuinely is an already-existing market for a particular service - say rubbish collection - then there is a good chance that the government can do better by entering that market than by organising and employing its own collectors. But it is usually the case that if there is a working market for something, the government should not be doing it at all in the first place, either directly or indirectly. PFI has most often been employed in areas which are in practice pretty much government monopolies. There is no competitive market in running prisons, and not much of one in building hospitals.

The reason I refer to PFI as "fairy dust" is because it is employed without any understanding of what makes the private sector different. The point is not the manner of organisation, but the pattern of incentives. The sales manager of a business unit which sells services to the government under PFI is as much a part of the public sector as any civil servant. His personal success depends on satisfying his government superiors/clients, accounting to them for the services he delivers and the resources he expends. If he satisfies them, he will win more contracts. He is in competition only with his peers - those who are selling the same class of services to government.

Von Mises produced an incredibly precise critique of PFI decades before its introduction to the UK, in his 1944 book Bureaucracy

It is a widespread illusion that the efficiency of government bureaus could be improved by management engineers and their methods of scientific management. However, such plans stem from a radical misconstruction of the objectives of civil government.

Like any kind of engineering, management engineering too is conditioned by the availability of a method of calculation. Such a method exists in profit-seeking business. Here the profit-and-loss statement is supreme. The problem of bureaucratic management is precisely the absence of such a method of calculation.


It is a frustration of mine that whenever I start to talk to anyone about education, the conversation always seems to turn to schools. Schools are pretty much irrelevant to education. Schools are for babysitting, social conditioning and political indoctrination - valuable functions in many cases, of course, but not much to do with education.

Recognition of this fact seems to be beginning to build. See this piece in the Washington Post arguing that Americans, who learn exceptionally little at school, learn well after school. See also The Overselling of Higher Education

I happened to read a novel the other day set in 190x Spain. I didn't know anything about the period - Spain was a complete blank to me from Napoleon to the Civil War. I happened to spend an hour or two poking about on Wikipedia, and I chatted about it with my wife in the evening. I now know as much about the period as if I had spent half a term on it at age 14. (True, what I "know" is not 100% reliable - but in my experience that is as much the case for secondary school lessons as it is for Wikipedia).

06 September 2006

Those immigration estimates

John Kay looks at the spectacular underestimates of immigration from Poland and the other new EU members. The basis of the estimates was research commissioned by the European Commission.

My view is that, while planning and estimating things like this is important for the government to be able to manage the country, they don't matter because the government shouldn't be managing the country in the first place. If 15,000 East European immigrants are OK for Britain, why aren't 600,000? The question isn't how many we're going to get, it's how many we want. The idea that we know just what is going to happen as a result of any policy is a dangerous illusion, and leads to overconfident intervention in things that are not government competencies.

And I really don't see the problem. There are three reasons for opposing immigration:

1) It's bad for the economy
2) There isn't room
3) Our culture will be swamped by foreigners

1) is tosh. The only possible harm would be if they all came and started claiming benefit. This is unlikely - Britain isn't an attractive place to come because of its benefits, it is attractive because of its jobs. And if it happens it is only necessary to restrict benefits.

2) is also tosh. Our population isn't growing organically, there's easily room for twice the current population, and a lot more young working people is just what we need.

3) is not a respectable argument, but I find it hard to honestly assert that it couldn't conceivably happen. The danger tends to be exaggerated, but it's not impossible that life in this country could be made much more unpleasant by the presence of a large immigrant community with an incompatible culture. But Poles? If there's a clash of cultures going on in Britain today or tomorrow (which I don't think is the case to any serious extent, but am prepared to consider for the sake of argument), then, to put it bluntly, the Poles are on our side.