22 January 2009


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

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

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

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

Private Fostering

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

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

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

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

Too Much Bling

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

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

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

21 January 2009

Cross-border Crimes

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

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

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

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

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

20 January 2009

Eric Raymond on Net Neutrality

Eric Raymond does the latest EconTalk

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

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

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

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

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

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

18 January 2009

Sainsbury's Pricing

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

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


17 January 2009

Open Systems

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

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

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

16 January 2009

Defence Information Infrastructure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 January 2009

Sovereign Debt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statutory Instruments

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

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

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

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

See also

Legislative Productivity

12 January 2009


I prefer reading to listening, but the latest EconTalk is really good.  Russ Roberts and Steve Fazzari, with their very different views on macroeconomics, get right to the nub of the difficult questions about recessions and stimulus.

AGW and Libertarians

Via DK, a good post at safeism.com :
It's a source of considerable frustration to me that so many otherwise clear thinking, charming and eriduite chaps, like DK, seem to have it as an article of faith that climate change is all a big con.
I too tend to cringe when I'm with a group of libertarians and anthropogenic global warming is dismissed by the group with a sneer or a chuckle.  Don't they realize how that makes us look?  Getting over our ideas on economics is difficult enough, particularly in the current environment, without making ourselves look like freaks by standing against such a widely-accepted fact as Global Warming.

As La Bete says, libertarianism doesn't need to rely on Global Warming being false.  It is perfectly possible to argue in the normal way that state intervention will be ineffective or counterproductive, to argue for mitigation rather than prevention, even.

So in strategic terms - and as Giles Bowkett said, strategy matters - leaving AGW theory alone would be the best bet.  Concentrate our fire elsewhere: on the economy, on civil liberties.

The problem with that is that, even if I want to believe in Global Warming, I still can't.  The temperature records are made up, the computer models are a joke, the political motivation behind it all is blatant.   I could pretend to go along with it if there was a real chance of advancing the wider movement, but I'd still have my fingers crossed behind my back.

And of course there isn't a real chance of advancing the wider movement.  We're fringe and getting more so by the year.  Libertarian activism to me is about keeping the ideas and the lines of communication alive, so if opportunities arise in the unpredictable future, there will at least be something to build on.  Whether it's a bunch of us reading each others blogs, or LPUK putting up a few candidates, or the ASI proposing limited and arguably counterproductive policies to the mainstream, at least it's the skeleton of a movement.

Putting it that way sheds a different light on the Global Warming issue.  There's at least a decent chance that in two or three decades, the warmists will be discredited, and people will be asking "how did we ever get fooled by that stuff?".   And old man Amcguinn will push himeself up on his walking stick and say "here's how, and I knew it all along, and I tried to tell you.  Incidentally, here are quite a few other things that everybody knows which aren't true."

Maybe it's a long shot, but compared to what?  Compared to the LPUK forming a government?  Compared to growing an economically viable society with a high standard of living on offshore platforms?  Compared to an organisation that controls a third of the population deciding by itself that it's too big and powerful?  Long shots are all we've got.

11 January 2009

State Education

Having unleashed some nasty bouncers on the libertarian movement, Giles Bowkett follows up with a gentle long hop.
Libertarianism assumes the presence of many cultural conditions that cannot exist without pervasive free education. A Libertarian society would therefore lack the necessary pre-conditions of a Libertarian society.

Let's accept for the sake of argument that we need people to be educated. That no more requires "pervasive free education" provided by the state, than we need "pervasive free food" to prevent us starving, or "pervasive free petrol" to move around. If something is that important, people will pay for it.

Ah, but private education is expensive - thousands of pounds a year. Yes and no. Because state education is free, private education is mostly aimed at those who aren't too worried about price. But there are a lot of exceptions. Tens of thousands of children in the UK get private tutoring in addition to their schooling, and I'm aware of a number of cases where one hour a week of tutoring (at a cost of £25 or so) is enough to move a pupil from bottom of class to top of class in one or two subjects.

James Bartholemew claims that in the mid 19th century, before state education was introduced in Britain, "over 95%" of children got 5-7 years of education, mostly at charitable free or low-cost schools. I'd like to see his source for that, but I'll probably have to buy his book, which I've never got round to doing.

(5-7 years isn't a lot by modern standards, but it's as much as was needed at that time. We're a lot richer now, and could pay for more education if it were efficient and beneficial).

Modern education, as I've mentioned before, is expensive because it's based around the idea of looking after the children, all day, every day. That's for good reason, but not any reason to do with education. If you were trying to make most efficient use of teaching resources, rather than just allowing parents to go to work, six or seven hours a week would be sufficient for children to keep up the same standard as they currently do at school.

Of course, if we were to move to a cheap, efficient market-based education system, we would be left with the problem of what our children were to do all day. I would favour them working, at least from the age of 12 or so, but there are in fact many possibilities. We have a nasty coordination problem at the moment. Because everyone who cares about their children's safety sends them to school, if they are not there, they are on their own, and at some risk. As long as children are together, doing something with some kind of adults involved, they are at least as safe as they are at today's state schools.

Quick thought experiment

Imagine the US government had repealed Sarbanes-Oxley in 2005 or so.

Is it conceivable that that action would not, now, be universally recognised in public debate as the cause of the financial crisis?

10 January 2009

Parliament Bound by Contract?

If I really cared about whether our democratic government was truly representative, I think I would be outraged by this story about the government locking in payments to suppliers for ID card contracts against a possible cancellation by the next government.

Ultimately, the next government could, I presume, pass a law saying that payments promised for ID card work were cancelled, and even that payments previously made could be reclaimed. Traditionally, parliamentary sovereignty meant that was possible.

Would that be a good thing? While I suspect that the contracts in question are being written as a kind of "poison pill" to sabotage Tory policy, it is legitimate that a business could seek up-front payments or guarantees to cover the setup costs of the work they are undertaking to do. A company that was faced with the loss of payment for work it had already done because an election had changed the government's policy would have a very legitimate cause of complaint.

The opposition could mitigate the injustice by giving good notice - now - of what they intended. That is made more difficult by the claim of "commercial confidentiality" made regarding the terms of the contract.

My line on this is that when a government signs a significant contract with a business, then it is not a matter of commerce, it is a matter of politics. It is, if not nationalisation, then at least something which is of the same kind as a nationalisation, but of different degree.

Therefore the ongoing dealings between the government and the supplier are a matter of politics not of commerce. If nullifying the contract is good politics but bad commerce, then it is what should happen. If the supplier doesn't like it, they shouldn't have got involved in politics. Furthermore, hiding the details of the contract on grounds of "commercial confidentiality" makes a mockery of democracy even by my loose standards.

I would also add that this sort of thing: Public Private Partnership and use of contractors in general, is a prime example, probably the best example on this side of the pond, of what Giles Bowkett was talking about. It's the kind of policy which looks, if not exactly libertarian, at least sort of halfway libertarian. It was supported, at least at the beginning, by the likes of the ASI and the IEA. And because it's a compromise, and because the nature of the political landscape means inevitably that what it was a compromise with was corporate interests - in this case the corporate interests of the consultancies that get paid for work like the ID card project - then as a result it's the sort of policy where half-way is much worse than nowhere.

If we were back in the 1970s when the only way to do this sort of system was to hire thousands of civil servants to develop it, we would be better off. Outsourcing gives us none of the benefits of the private sector, but a whole lot of extra cost in corruption and obscuring of the truth.

Finally, I suspect that the Tories, even if they had the balls, could not void the contracts as I have described. The suppliers would be straight off to the EU to cry foul. The brief alliance of Thatcherites and Eurocrats in the 1980s that gave us the single market have stripped the voters and their representatives in parliament of the power to do that.

Obama's Honeymoon

When I started here, my first point was that the tension between the US and Europe was not about Islam, and not about George W Bush, but was a deeper conflict of vision that was surfacing after being hidden by the cold war.

As Bush Derangement Syndrome took hold, it became even easier to misunderestimate the nature of the disagreement.  The new president has a style very much more to the taste of European elites, and so the concrete basis of the divergence in outlook is going to become more obvious.

I think Barack Obama's honeymoon in the European media is going to last for weeks, not months.  What I didn't expect, however, is that Bush would be rehabilitated.  But see this piece in the BBC, explaining (quite reasonably) that the financial crisis cannot be blamed on Bush.

The falling-out with Obama will be quite different from any disillusionment that Obama's supporters in the US may suffer as expectation meets reality.  The European media are enamoured by Obama's personality, and had a particular antipathy to Bush, but they have no concrete policy expectations for the new administration to be disappointed by.  The material disagreement between the US and Europe will carry on exactly unchanged.

09 January 2009

Email Security

Apparently as of March the government will be requiring ISP's  to keep email traffic for a year for use by police and security services.

Yes, it's another of those cases where we have to work out whether we're more appalled by the government's viciousness or by its stupidity.

Here's a little primer in email for novices and government ministers:

The Internet, the Web, and email are three different things.  The internet is a network that can carry data.  The Web is a lot of servers which provide hypertext and media over the internet in response to requests.  Email is an addressing system and message format by which messages can be sent between users over the internet.

ISPs provide internet service.  Sometimes they also provide web or email services over the internet as an add-on, and sometimes they don't.

It is quite possible to send and receive email messages without one's ISP even being aware of the fact.  Indeed, most people do.  If you have a large site, you probably run your own email servers.  You emails go over your ISP's internet service, but do not use your ISP's email service, even if it has one.

Conversely, if you use webmail, your email does not reach your network in the form of messages - only web pages.  Your messages originate or terminate with your webmail provider, who may well not even be in this country.

Only if you use the old-fashioned POP3+SMTP setup, or  your ISP's  webmail service, will your ISP see your email as email.  In some cases it might be possible for them, by searching your entire network traffic, to identify and extract  email from your network flow.  That involves a whole lot of processing that they would otherwise not need to do.

If you use an offshore webmail provider, they can't even do that, because the traffic between you and the webmail provider is encrypted.

I don't actually know whether Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, the biggest webmail providers, have mail servers in this country.  I suspect not.

Note that if you use email encryption, as I recently recommended, you are still leaving a trail of who you sent mail to and when.

Attempts to get email out around inspection (without using webmail) are handicapped by measures taken to prevent spam.  It is quite possible to send mail in the same way a large site does - your mail software uses DNS to locate the recipients' mail servers, and then sends them the mail directly.  However, many ISPs for residential users filter out direct email of this sort, and many recipients spam filters refuse it if it has come from a residential ISP network.  This compromise of the end-to-end principle came in some years ago, and did little harm at the time, but as governments become more nosy, the requirement to pass all emails to your ISP's SMTP server is more of a problem.  It just goes to show how compromising important principles usually has a cost in the long run.

I don't know how well-provided the world is these days with anonymous remailers - they were all the rage fifteen years ago.  It might be possible to use TOR to get email out of the local ISP network securely - I will be investigating both these avenues over the next few days.

None of this is because I have anything to hide in my email traffic.  As I explained previously, the problem is that if in a year or ten years I do, it will be too late.  These channels are awkward to set up, and they have to be done ahead of time.

GPG key is linked to from the sidebar.  Ideally you should get me to confirm the fingerprint in person.  I carry it around with me, so if you meet me it's easy to do.

Giles Bowkett

I've been reading Giles Bowkett's blog a long time because he's doing some interesting things programming in ruby, which is a language I like but haven't done anything serious in.

He throws in some other good stuff - this piece on the potential demise of record labels echoed almost exactly what I thought when I read the same NYT article.

But then he started producing what seemed like random insults aimed at libertarianism. And I got rather pissed off with that. I mean, I'm all in favour of hearing diverse opinions and all that (in theory, of course, not in practice), but there wasn't even any content.

On Wednesday, he got around to actually explaining his position. And, in keeping with his normal output, he made some very good points.

Things he says which are true:

  • US libertarian think-tanks end up advocating policies which advance corporate interests at the expense of the general interest.
  • The libertarian movement has been royally screwed by the Republican party
  • This was in principle predictable
  • If you intervene in politics, good intentions are trumped by bad strategy
  • 'If politics were chess, Libertarians would be trying to win by holding up the pawn, saying "my pawn has a machine gun!", and making little pew-pew noises. It just doesn't work that way.'
I couldn't have put that last one better myself. I know that because I've tried.

What I gather from all that is that Bowkett is in fact a libertarian. He's just one of the substantial number who are hostile to the "think tanks all over Washington". In fact, despite his generally outspoken tone, he's a lot gentler on them than many of his fellow libertarians are. The phrase "Orange Line Mafia" does not appear in his posts.

The other quibble I have with him (and my real point here is that I mostly agree with him about concrete issues, as opposed to what labels to use for things), is that even the Washington Libertarian establishment has its good points. Look at what Radley Balko has achieved, and may yet achieve, in the sphere of police and judicial abuses. Look at the fact that the op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today says things like "The more incompetent you are in business, the more handouts the politicians will bestow on you". That in a piece that opens with the writer's account of his days at Cato. Would we be better off if the WSJ wasn't saying that? In November Bowkett admiringly quoted Roderick Long's article about the pro-corporate bias in much libertarian activism. But, you know, Roderick Long is certainly included in what I think of as "libertarianism", and that article was published by Cato.

The issues Bowkett raises aren't immediately relevant to me, because I'm British and the libertarian movement in the UK isn't even powerful enough to do any damage, let alone to do any good. But, taking a longer view, they're the exact same issues I've been writing about in connection with the recent pieces by Jacob Lyles on Distributed Republic, they're the same issues I was talking about in the pub last night with the LPUK. And I'm going to be writing a lot more about them.

But even if it's true that Libertarian activism is counterproductive, doesn't it matter whether libertarian theory - that government would be better if it did very much less - is actually true or not? If it's true, it's worth spreading, even if there's currently nothing useful we can do about it.

07 January 2009

Apple Sells Unencrypted Music

It's a good thing, certainly.   To my mind, the bigger change is that downloads are starting to appear at substantial discounts to CDs - I bought a new-release big-name album as an MP3 download from Amazon last month for only three pounds - the first time it's been cheaper for me to download than to buy the disc.  Of course, competition from Amazon is one of the main reasons for this new development from Apple.

So ends the music shop.  I suspect that retailing will never recover from the current downturn.  The proportion of economic activity devoted to retailing seems vastly excessive.

Remote Searching

There's been fuss the last couple of days about police powers to hack into suspects' computers.  Apparently under RIPA they do not need any kind of warrant, just approval from a chief constable.

As some bloggers have pointed out, the power doesn't imply the ability.  If your system is secure against hackers, it's secure against the police.  Provided you don't do anything reckless, like run an open wireless network, or run Windows, you should be safe.

Having said that, it is worth noting that the police have resources that private hackers do not.  In particular, they may get cooperation from ISP staff, or other service providers.  Even if that theoretically requires further authorization, if they are given, for example, a password, informally and without authorization, they would then be legally allowed to use that password to access your system.  In practice, they are unlikely to have to account for how they managed to get the password.  When I worked in telecoms, the authorities were given traffic data (billing itemizations) on informal request on a regular basis.

I'm not actually sure what the law is.  I've been looking at the text of the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, but it's hard to puzzle out.  So I'm relying on press reports.

If you want to keep the police out of your PC, follow normal IT security (use WPA2 or IPsec on wireless, don't use Windows, don't run code of unknown origin), and also assume that any passwords you use on external systems are known to attackers, so use different passwords for logging into your box, for remote access, and for wireless.  Don't expose these passwords over unencrypted email.  Set good passwords on routers.

There's another reason for making a fuss about this.  Even if your system is safe, most people's won't be.  That means that over time, it will become accepted that police have access to everyone's computers.  Eventually, the "loophole" that some people actually have secure systems will be "exposed" as compromising the ability of the police to protect us (or to protect THE CHILDREN), and secure systems will be simply banned.  This is despite the fact that there is already law allowing the police to demand encryption keys etc. with a warrant.

That sounds far-fetched, but is there any reason why one would assume that a mobile phone was something too dangerous to allow an anonymous person to own?  No -  only that, for business reasons, it happened to be impossible to anonymously own one until the technology for pay-as-you-go was released, and everyone got used to the idea that phones could be traced.   When people are used to the idea that computers can be searched by the police on a whim, they will not mind making it illegal to prevent it.

And just because you have nothing illegal, doesn't mean it doesn't matter.  Once someone hacks into your computer, they are likely to damage things by accident.  That's always been recognised by the law, which (rightly) considers it a crime even if no damage is done, because of the cost of going over the system and making sure everything is OK.  If police plant a backdoor on your system for their own use, it may be found and exploited by criminals. (This was one of the major issues with the Sony CD rootkits a year or two back.)  Civil damages are also assessed on the same basis.  As well as that, information which is gathered may be misused.   A police officer was convicted of using private information for blackmail purposes just recently.

I may come back to this issue tomorrow if I can figure out what RIPA actually says.

06 January 2009

Bob Quick

Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick ordered the arrest of Damian Green in November.

After that, it emerged that his wife was running a luxury car firm from their home, which may have been offering services it wasn't licensed for.

I'm not directly concerned with the car business, and the Damian Green case has been well covered already. What is interesting here is the pattern: Person makes enemies, enemies dig up dirt. How many people have some irregularity in their personal or business life that they will certainly get away with for ever, provided they don't attract the attention of someone powerful and hostile?

The product of this situation is that those with power to dig into everyday irregularities end up with arbitrary power. You keep them sweet if you know what's good for you. You don't criticize them publicly, you don't cross them in their personal capacity. The only people who can stand up to them are those that are prepared to "clear the decks" of their private lives for the sake of activism. Admirable as such people are, their very determination makes them seem extreme, weird, or unreliable.

This situation is very unhealthy for public life, as I've said here before. The solution is to look around for rules which people routinely break, generally get away with, and don't do much harm. And get rid of them. Keeping a low profile should not give someone a large advantage in everyday life.

Fernández-Armesto on farming, or, Neolithic Public-Choice theory

My lunchtime reading is currently "Civilizations" by Filipe Fernández-Armesto.

He makes an interesting point, which I'd seen before, which is that hunter-gatherers appear to have better lives than arable farmers. What is significant historically, he argues, is not at what point farming is "discovered", but at what point, and for what reasons, a society chooses to give up its easy gathering lifestyle in exchange for hard work in the fields.

My assumption was always that farming is inevitable because a farming society, with its high population density, will defeat any low-density gatherer society it comes into conflict with. But this can be seen as analogous to the erroneous group-selection arguments in evolutionary biology; a particular behaviour may be beneficial to a group, but if is detrimental to the individual, individuals without it will take over groups faster than groups with it will out-compete groups without. It is not enough for a farming society to defeat a non-farming one, if farmers can have a better lifestyle by abandoning their fields. My explanation needs a few gaps filled in.

What Fernández-Armesto doesn't quite say, but suggests strongly, is that the change from gathering to farming particularly benefits leaders. By making underlings absolutely dependent on central infrastructure (cleared land, irrigation), the leader increases his control over them. Public choice theory, neolithic edition. (That sounds so good I'm putting it in the title).

Fernández-Armesto makes an analogy with 19th-century industrialisation. Landowners benefited, but workers didn't. (Of course, in the long run we all benefited from both farming and industrialisation, but as Fernández-Armesto correctly points out, that could hardly justify them at the time if they made most peoples' lives worse).

The point here is that central control is the mechanism for preventing "defection" back to more pleasant lifestyles.

(Someone may point out if Marx said something similar - I don't know whether he did, but his lot were generally quite good on this kind of historical speculation, for what it's worth. Quite a lot of the history of hitherto existing societies is, to a significant degree, the history of class struggle).

There is a second explanation, which is randomness plus a ratchet - even if going from gathering to farming is unpleasant, going back, once population has increased, is likely to be much worse. So for whatever freakish reason agriculture starts, it's likely to stay, and spread.

There's no immediate practical point to all this, but if we're looking at changing the structure of society, as I have been of late, anything to do with the mechanisms and reasons for major change is a good thing to have rattling around our toolbox.

05 January 2009

Using the Aspire One

The last post, on political structures, was the first one which wouldn't have been written without my new netbook to write it on.

In fact my train home was more crowded than usual, so I was short of elbow room and had to type most of it one-handed. Nonetheless I was able to get my ideas down, and when I got home I looked up the links I needed and posted it.

I'm using scribefire to blog offline; I'm having one or two problems with it but it's too early to make any judgment.

Politics and Metapolitics

Jacob Lyles at Distributed Republic is concerned about the contradiction between advocating policies of individual freedom, at the same time as political structures such as federalism which are likely, in some instances, to produce outcomes which are extremely hostile to freedom.

The problem is not new - since Lenin arrived at the Finland Station, politicians have announced simultaneously policies that should be followed, and structures by which other people should determine what policies are to be adopted.

If I was absolute ruler of the world, all I would have to decide would be policies. As it stands, any practical proposals any of us make are conditional on getting sufficient agreement to practically implement them. That is true whether we acquiesce in the current political structure, or whether we seek to change it.

When we evaluate a proposed political structure, we have three things to consider:

Is it achievable?

Is it stable?

Is it good?

A total autocracy ruled by me has a lot to recommend it, policy-wise, but fails on achievability. We might be aiming at the long term, but there has to be some possibility of bringing our structure about for it to be worth discussing.

Stability is the other side of that. Even if we have established our new order, others will seek to change it. If it was worth creating, it is worth protecting, but protecting the political structure without doing severe damage to freedom is always very difficult. This is where I think our current, deeply unsatisfactory, political systems score. Bad as their policies are, they are cheaper to protect than most alternatives - cheaper both in material and in human freedom. I think that is true even when you count most of the bad policies as part of the cost, in that they consist of building up blocs of society who are tied to maintaining the system. I am hoping to be convinced otherwise on this point, however.

The third question is whether the structure tends to produce good policies. Some would want other things from the political structure, such as fair or just allocation of power, but I am indifferent to that provided the structure can stably produce good policies. That is not to deny that there are arguments that a "just" political order is quite likely to be more achievable and stable than an "unjust" one.

As to what constitutes good policies, that is the other half of the question - politics as opposed to metapolitics. They may be separate domains, but as Lyles' previous article demonstrated, it is hard to talk about radical political ideas without straying into the issue of what structures might be more likely to allow them than the status quo. Policies also must meet an achievablility criterion, and they may be more achievable within an alternative political structure than in the currently dominant one.

Addressing the original post in this context, what federalism has going for it, arguably, is that (a) while allowing bad policies in some localities, it will allow good ones in others, possibly better overall, and (b) it may be more stable, in terms of not evolving into an overlarge megastate, than a central political authority. The point that oppressive government is harder to prevent where everyone actually wants it is not a justification of the oppression, but a recognition of the achievability and stability constraints on any political structure.

In fact, both federalism and Patri Friedman's seasteading are in a sense meta-meta-political ideas, since they have the advantage that by exposing multiple different political structures, they may cause better political structures to come about.

04 January 2009

The real stupidity of Andy Burnham

Andy Burnham has been given such a bashing over his idiotic comments a week ago about how the internet should be censored that I felt no need to chime in with a "me too".   Particular derision greeted his claim that he was not against free speech. But the misunderstanding about what the internet is worth elaborating.

He said he wants internet-service providers (ISPs) to offer parents “child-safe” web services.   The only feasible way to do that is to have a whitelist-based filter that allows "safe" sites to be viewed.  That's quite doable - I do it myself for my children, using squidGuard.  It's very much better done at the home end than the ISP, because that way my 9-year-old can ask for a site that he's heard about, and I can add it to the whitelist, but the filtering can be done "in the cloud" if you can't be bothered to learn how to use a computer.  Nonetheless, the filter means that essentially, the boys do not have internet access - only this ersatz "pages from ceefax" version, and with the 9-year-old now 10, the time is approaching that it will have to be turned off for him. 

The internet is dynamic.  It changes year by year, very significantly.  That is what has made it what it is.  It is able to do this only because of the fact that, on the internet, anything goes.  That's not an incidental feature of the network, it's what made it what it is.  Anything goes in terms of technology (the end-to-end principle), and in terms of content (creating a web page without getting it approved beforehand by the BBFC).

You can make a copy of many of the most useful features of the internet at a given point in time, without that freedom.  But what you have is frozen, dead.  As the internet moves on, it can't keep up.  It's like creating a command economy: when you start you have prices, traces of the market that used to exist.  You can plan your economy based on those prices (with whatever adjustments you think will improve things).   But where the market would have changed, you can't see those changes.  Over time, your dead market prices will become less and less appropriate to reality.

If anything-goes makes the internet unsuitable for children (and a reasonable person might well consider that it does), the only possible course of action is to stop children from using the internet.  Let them revive Prestel or Compuserve for them - that would be more useful than the "child-safe" internet Burnham somehow envisages.

Violence and Class

I'm returning once again to the difficult question of whether Britain is more violent, more unpleasant than it used to be.

In the yes corner is Theodore Dalrymple, writing about public drunkenness.

On the no side, older acquaintances who talk of much more casual violence in the past than there is now, and just as much drunkenness.

I think the key to understanding what has changed is the change in class structure. Taking the 50s or 60s as a comparison, there was still a clear distinction between the professional class ("middle class" we would say, but that seems to mean something completely different in America, so I'll avoid the term), and the larger working class. Over the last half century, the two have merged into one (with arguably a non-working underclass forming or growing underneath, but that's another question altogether. Also the upper class has always been a law unto itself). That is not to say that professionals have ceased to be wealthier than manual workers, but they no longer have separate cultures.

That would explain the discrepancy - the previously staid professional class has lost its inhibitions, while the working class has the habits of the old working class but the aspirations of the professional class. They all mix without distinction, but those that remember the old middle class are now exposed, by the new mixing, to the activities of the working class that decades ago they would have never heard about, or at least ignored. Add to that the increased purchasing power of today's revellers, and there's no need to posit any fundamental change in attitudes.

I'm not sure I've got the right explanation (I wasn't there), but it is important. A lot is riding, policy-wise, on whether we are facing a major increase in violence and drunkenness, or whether it is all just business as usual, blown out of proportion by the press and the nanny state.

Even if I'm right, it doesn't mean there's nothing to worry about. It means there used to be a powerful section of the population which believed it was above punch-ups in clubs and drinking to unconsciousness on the street, and now there isn't. If something useful could be done, then something ought to be done. I have no useful suggestions, however - the bansturbation approach towards special offers in supermarkets, opening hours, drinks on trains etc. is as useless as it is offensive to liberty, and it's not possible for a democratic state to clamp down on behaviour most people think of as normal.

There's no route back to the past, of course. Dividing people back into professional and non-professional classes with different mores would cut off the economy from too many potential skilled resources, quite apart from the question of justice and equality of opportunity.

If there's any dynamic that could drive up standards, it's age. People do tend to grow out of destructive behaviour. If the authority of older people could somehow be increased, that might create some restraint on the young.

It will be interesting over the next few years to see how things change in a recession. The long boom may be partly to blame for irrational exuberance in the streets.

See also this earlier post where I suggested a less developed version of this idea

02 January 2009

Science and Politics

This is a classic.

For what Mencius identifies as the religious progressive tradition, nothing can just happen to be true. Discovering something new about the world would not have been sufficient reason for Darwin to have formed the theory of evolution by Natural Selection. For it to have been worthwhile there must have been some ulterior political motive.

It's always a bit of a shock to find that one's allies are right only for bad reasons. One of the most startling books I've read is Correlli Barnett's The Lost Victory, in which he showed quite convincingly that the Western leaders who argued against Soviet communism on the basis of the efficiency of the market system did not in fact believe their own (correct) arguments.

In the same way, it seems the ruling class of the 20th century accepted and promoted scientific knowledge not because it was true, but because it was politically convenient. We were just lucky it happened to be true too.

Darwin, whatever Desmond and Moore said, had no such attitude. It is very telling that the modern centre-left projects its priorities onto him.

More blogging in future?

I just got a new PC - an Acer Aspire One. My hope is that I will be able to write blog posts on the train, so there will be a lot more posts on this site in future.

Very early first impressions of the machine: the keyboard (as I type this) is causing me a few problems - I believe it is 85% of normal size. I can touch-type, but I am making about double my normal number of errors as I type. I really don't like the touchpad, but I don't like any touchpads. I think I will be learning a lot of keyboard shortcuts over the next few days.

The thing runs Linpus Lite. I'm expecting to use it solely for reading, listening to music, watching video, and web browsing/blogging, and it may well be adequate for that, depending on what the media software is like. If not, I will probably install Debian on it. There's a fairly detailed wiki page on the debian site about using this machine. Many users run Ubuntu on it, which would be another good option; the problems I had with Ubuntu were to do with running non-standard things on it, which would not be likely to be a problem with the range of activities I expect to use this for.

Arnold Kling's Sheriff

I've been thinking about Arnold Kling's "Stern Sheriff" idea for regulatory management of financial crisis. In brief, he suggests that when there's a rush for collateral from an endangered institution, regulators should immediately step in and "penalize liquidity preference" - i.e. tell everyone to wait.

What that really amounts to is declaring bankruptcy earlier. After all, if you are demanding payment which you are due, and someone is telling you you can't have it, the debtor is officially not creditworthy.

Put that way, it seems a very good idea. After all, my layman's understanding of insolvency is that a party is insolvent not when it fails to make a payment, but when it knows that it is not going to be able to make a payment, and that to take on new obligations while insolvent is not allowed. Of course, in real life, that is presumably wrapped up in a whole lot of very necessary, very complicated accountancy. But the principle is that bankruptcy happens not when the money runs out, but before the money runs out, so it can be shared out fairly without chaos and panic. And that's all that Professor Kling is asking for.

It seems a good idea, but of course the next problem is that no real financial institution can pay all its debts on time without access to more borrowing. If I accept the stern sheriff, I'm likely to end up at the Moldbug position, that all maturity transformation is wrong, that a borrower that will not have cash on hand to pay every debt as it comes due is insolvent. I've argued against that view, largely on the basis that it's too easy, and too profitable, to do secretly. If you stop financial institutions from doing it, the result will be that everybody else does it.

There is, to be fair, some room for action between a run on a borrower's credit being possible and it actually happening. But it's very small. And the earlier you are expected to step in and prevent withdrawals, the more incentive you create to withdraw (or call collateral, or whatever) even sooner, before the sheriff arrives, so that window gets even smaller.

The more of a "hair trigger" you put on bankruptcy, the easier it is for the creditors to expropriate the equity-holders at any time. That conflict of interest becomes much sharper and more problematic for maturity-transforming financial institutions than for other enterprises - perhaps those institutions should avoid having two tiers of financing in that way.

Hey! I just invented the investment-banking partnership and the mutual building society! Maybe I'm onto something...