Friday, June 16, 2006

ID cards good for tracking immigrants, says Blunkett

John Lettice in full swing on ID cards again. Excellent.

Broken Windows Vista Theory

A Microsoft insider has posted a fascinating piece on his blog about the development of Vista and the problems caused by multiple layers of micromanagement on a complex project.

"Ask any developer in Windows why Vista is plagued by delays, and they’ll say that the code is way too complicated, and that the pace of coding has been tremendously slowed down by overbearing process...

Windows process has gone thermonuclear. Imagine each little email you send asking someone else to fill out a spreadsheet, comment on a report, sign off on a decision — is a little neutron shooting about in space. Your innocent-seeming little neutron now causes your heretofore mostly-harmless neighbors to release neutrons of their own. Now imagine there are 9000 of you, all jammed into a tight little space called Redmond. It’s Windows Gone Thermonuclear, a phenomenon by which process engenders further process, eventually becoming a self-sustaining buzz of fervent destructive activity...

Deep in the bowels of Windows, there remains the whiff of a bygone culture of belittlement and aggression. Windows can be a scary place to tell the truth.

When a vice president in Windows asks you whether your team will ship on time, they might well have asked you whether they look fat in their new Armani suit. The answer to the question is deeply meaningful to them. It’s certainly true in some sense that they genuinely want to know. But in a very important other sense, in a sense that you’ll come to regret night after night if you get it wrong, there’s really only one answer you can give...

Bundled with a tendency towards truth-intolerance, Windows also sometimes struggles with poor organizational decision-making. Good news is that the senior leaders already know this and have been taking active steps to change the situation...

I once sat in a schedule review meeting with at least six VPs and ten general managers. When that many people have a say, things get confusing...

Micromanagement, though not pervasive, is nevertheless evident...

In general, Windows suffers from a proclivity for action control, not results control. Instead of clearly stating desired outcomes, there’s a penchant for telling people exactly what steps they must take...

We shouldn’t forget despite all this that Windows Vista remains the largest concerted software project in human history. The types of software management issues being dealt with by Windows leaders are hard problems, problems that no other company has solved successfully. The solutions to these challenges are certainly not trivial.

An interesting question, however, is whether or not Windows Vista ever had a chance to ship on time to begin with. Is Vista merely uncontrolled? Or is it fundamentally uncontrollable? There is a critical difference."

Warner on health records: spin first, and have a token consultation too

William Heath is annoyed at Lord Warner's spin on the NHS IT system.

"I see the government is to press ahead faster with electronic patient records. But some people have severe reservations about how this is being done and the likely unintended side-effects. I think their views should not lightly be dismissed. So how can the government ensure NHS IT is built on a Foundation of Trust? The right answer is good consultation. They choose the wrong answer which is spin...

He's dimly aware some people think there's a problem, and understands that consultation is a good word to use in that situation. But he proposes the sort of consultation that gets stuck in a press release somwhere below the public information campaign to explain the benefits, not the sort that helps you work out how to deliver the benefits and avoid the unintended consequences.

My impression of Lord Warner was formed during 1998 when we doing groundbreaking research into the information systems government would use to measure the five pledges on which it had come to power. Norman W (then policy adviser at the Home Office under Jack Straw) sent us a curt and dismissive reply, and after a PQ on the same lines it was clear to us there was no decent system in place to measure these pledges and - with the Hon. exception of Cabinet Office minister David Clarke - no particular interest in talking to people who were good at this sort of thing and trying to open a conversation.

This was part of the horrible dawning realisation that these people aren't very good at doing the job we need from them, and the danger - which has reared its head again and again in thelast decade - that those making the decisions about e-enabled government dont understand technology and don't care about building it on a foundation of trust. Warner is located in my black book as an exemplar of this problem, since ennobled and promoted but no better as far as I can see. One good conversation, one enlightened engagement with him would change my mood. Maybe just expressing my opinion that in my direct experience he's rude and not good enough at his job will make me feel better about it; after all I've been cross about it for eight years now."

Research councils ignoring needs of industry, MPs say

From the Guardian: "MPs have issued a damning verdict on the "uncoordinated" efforts by the UK's eight research councils to transfer knowledge from university labs to business and industry.

The councils are too focused on the academic "push" to explore new ideas and do not pay enough attention to the "pull" of the market and what industry actually wants, argues the report from the Commons science and technology committee."

Sigh. This doesn't surprise me in the slightest given the current Westminster psyche of the professional politician brigade that education is limited to creating fodder for industry and commerce i.e. training people for jobs. So it is no surpise at all that they assume research should be limited to producing things that sell.

Ok then. What jobs are most modern politicians trained to do and what do they produce that sells? Ok they're not worth hanging onto then. Targets, you know. They're no good for work, so we better send them for re-training; and they don't sell anything so we can shut down parliament and save vast amounts of public funds. Hey maybe we could invest the money in research that can be transferred to industry.

Maybe they could help to clean up (though maybe not given the exceedingly high bullshit to body mass ratio) in the labs doing publicly funded research - which when it is ready we can hand over to the pharmaceutical industry - on producing drugs for neglected diseases. Ah that's no good - the drug companies won't want those kinds of drugs because the people that need them can't afford to pay for them.

And God forbid that we sure explore new ideas. What a dangerous notion. Can't have the masses thinking for themselves, especially the smart ones (yup that encompasses most people). You never know where it might lead to.

Education is about facilitating the all round development of the individual, not about job training, though the latter can be a convenient, though minor, emergent property of the process. A much more important emergent property should be an enlightened society. Our responsibility is to learn what we can and do what we can to improve our world and pass it on to future generations. Education is at the heart of that process.

Update: Jonathan Rowe is disgusted for different but parallel reasons at the bastardisation of education into an opportunity to sell.

"BusRadio, a company in Massachusetts that is going to install special radio receivers in school buses, so it can fill the airspace in them with ads aimed at kids. School districts starved for funds will get a cut of the ad revenues. BusRadio will get a captive audience of impressionable kids that it can sell to corporate advertisers eager to get inside their minds. The compulsory school laws will become the means to corral these captive kids and deliver them to the sponsors."

He's written to the Governor of Massachusetts:

"usRadio, a company in Massachusetts that is going to install special radio receivers in school buses, so it can fill the airspace in them with ads aimed at kids. School districts starved for funds will get a cut of the ad revenues. BusRadio will get a captive audience of impressionable kids that it can sell to corporate advertisers eager to get inside their minds. The compulsory school laws will become the means to corral these captive kids and deliver them to the sponsors."

And here's Michael Bérubé on academic freedom:

"THE PRINCIPLE OF ACADEMIC FREEDOM stipulates that “teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties”; it insists that professors should have intellectual autonomy from legislatures, trustees, alumni, parents, and ecclesiastical authorities with regard to their teaching and research. In this respect it is one of the legacies of the Enlightenment, which sought—successfully, in those nations most influenced by the Enlightenment—to free scientists and humanists from the dictates of church and state. And it is precisely that autonomy from legislative and religious oversight that helped to fuel the extraordinary scientific and intellectual efflorescence in the West over the past two centuries; it has also served as one of the cornerstones of the free and open society"

Teamgeist: x-factor or a load of balls?

Harry Pearson has been worrying about all the different factors affecting the football in Germany, most importantly "the exciting new marketing opportunity - sorry, World Cup match ball".

"Strangely, though, once Stevie "G-Force" Gerrard, gob freshly wetted, did get his chance to pummel the ball goalwards in Frankfurt it was suddenly not quite so smart any more. Now, in fact, it was if anything a dumb ball, banana-ing off the midfielder's boot and into the crowd as if caught in the vortex of a black hole located somewhere at the back of the stand."

[I expect he penned that before Gerrard found one of the smart versions of the ball against Trinidad & Tobago yesterday]

"At this point some of us found ourselves suddenly confronted by a factor we had never factored for before, and we asked: could the ability of the players be a factor? It is a worrying thought."

Funny. Actually England have a collection of individuals in Terry, Lampard, Gerrard, Beckham, Rooney, Cole and Owen with bags of ability. Sven hasn't quite worked out yet out to get them to work together as a team, though. (I think he should build the team around Gerrard). Poor performances in the group stages don't matter as long as the team gets through to the knock-out phase. Italy scraped through their first group with three draws in 1982, if I remember correctly, but they still went on to win the tournament, including a terrifically entertaining defeat of Brazil along the way. England might still wake up but on current form there are at least six other sides in the tournament looking in significantly better shape.

Death by DMCA

Fred Von Lohmann and Wendy Seltzer have a great article in the June 2006 edition of the IEEE's Spectrum magazine.

"In 1998, U.S. entertainment companies persuaded Congress to make dramatic changes in its copyright code by passing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The DMCA gave copyright holders new rights to control the way people use copyrighted material and new protection for technologies designed to restrict access or copying. The movie and record companies argued they needed these new restrictions to fight increased piracy threats in the digital era...

Meanwhile, entire consumer electronics categories have been wiped from retail shelves. If three or four years ago you didn't buy a digital video recorder that automatically skips commercials, you're out of luck; that feature is not in such products today. Television executives brought litigation that bankrupted the company offering DVRs with these user-friendly features, because skipping commercials potentially undermines their ability to sell commercial time.

You're likewise out of luck if you're looking to buy software that lets you copy a DVD onto your laptop's hard drive; it's no longer for sale, at least not in the United States. Even if you want to put the movie you bought onto a pocket-size video and game console, such as Sony's PlayStation Portable, which allows users to watch video stored on flash memory or a miniature hard drive, you can't legally do so, because you'd have to “rip,” or decode, it to make the transfer—and the studios claim that this action violates the DMCA. When you rip a CD, be it to an audiotape or an MP3 file, you're not breaking any laws. But to rip a DVD you need to somehow get around the encryption technology built into a standard disc, and since such circumvention is forbidden by the DMCA, if you rip a DVD, you are breaking a law. Under the DMCA, legality doesn't depend on how the copy will be used but rather on the means by which the digital content is copied...

Hollywood is good at telling stories. The one it has been screening in Washington—that music and movies will perish if the regulators don't kill the dangerous gizmos first—is powerful drama but has about as much basis in reality as Lord of the Rings. Killing off gizmos and subjecting technological development to the whims of federal regulators will ultimately hurt not just consumers but also tomorrow's creative industries—both technology and entertainment."

Fritz Attaway of the MPAA, however, in the same edition of the magazine claims "Few single pieces of legislation have done more to spur technological innovation and expand the supply of movies and other entertainment than the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)." It's the usual rhetoric calling for the broadcast flag and the 'Analog Hole' legislation, saying they will greatly expand consumers' viewing choices allowing Hollywood to "out simple rules of the road for programming and equipment."

Thanks to Frank Field for the link.

Syndromic Surveillance: 21st Century Data Harvesting

Ed Felten has posted an article by one of his readers, 'Enigma Foundry', entitled Syndromic Surveillance: 21st Century Data Harvesting on data mining to detect disease outbreaks. Interesting.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Ireland threaten to search rendition planes

According to the Guardian, the Irish government has announced that random inspections may be carried out on US aircraft. It stung the national sensibilities of my nominally neutral homeland to be accused of colluding with the US in the recent Council of Europe Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights draft report on its investigations of US extraordinary rendition (transport of suspects to torture centres) flights in Europe. After cleaners found a US marine in manacles on a US military charter flight at Shannon airport, a prisoner the government hadn't been notified of, the government will no doubt have felt they had no option but to make some kind of tough announcement about what they were going to do about it.

"Random inspections may be carried out on US aircraft, the Irish government has warned, after a handcuffed and manacled marine was discovered by cleaners on board a military charter flight at Shannon airport.

The transfer of the prisoner - deemed illegal because permission had not been sought in advance from Ireland's justice department - has aggravated the political row over CIA renditions of terrorist suspects through European airspace.

The US ambassador, James Kenny, was summoned to the Irish foreign affairs department to explain the failure to comply with regulations required under international law. He has been asked to produce a report on the incident...

The US ambassador insisted that there had been no intention to break the law. "Unfortunately permission from the Irish government was not sought for the transit of this person," he told Irish papers. "We regret this incident and are reviewing procedures to ensure that this does not happen again."

DVLA nets £6m from sale of motorist details

From DVLA nets £6m from sale of motorist details: Vehicle ownership data sold to private sector at £2.50 a pop

The government thinks the EU needs an image makeover

It seems the UK government are looking to do something about the EU's "image problem."

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Martin Luther King's papers up for auction

From David Bollier: "The announced auction of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s personal papers promises to be a test of the content of our character as a nation. Will the collection of 10,000 papers be sold to the highest bidder and then re-sold piecemeal to collectors who regard the documents as trophies or investments? Or will this priceless cache of documents be acquired by a public institution that will preserve them intact and make them available to future generations of Americans?"

The Politics of Paranoia and Intimidation

Floyd Rudmin, Professor of Social & Community Psychology at the University of Tromsø in Norway, has done a slightly more detailed version of Bruce Schneier's sample statistical calculation proving mass surveillance is useless for catching terrorists.

" mass surveillance of an entire population cannot find terrorists. It is a probabilistic impossibility. It cannot work.

What is the probability that people are terrorists given that NSA's mass surveillance identifies them as terrorists? If the probability is zero (p=0.00), then they certainly are not terrorists, and NSA was wasting resources and damaging the lives of innocent citizens. If the probability is one (p=1.00), then they definitely are terrorists, and NSA has saved the day. If the probability is fifty-fifty (p=0.50), that is the same as guessing the flip of a coin. The conditional probability that people are terrorists given that the NSA surveillance system says they are, that had better be very near to one (p=1.00) and very far from zero (p=0.00).

The mathematics of conditional probability were figured out by the Scottish logician Thomas Bayes. If you Google "Bayes' Theorem", you will get more than a million hits. Bayes' Theorem is taught in all elementary statistics classes. Everyone at NSA certainly knows Bayes' Theorem.

To know if mass surveillance will work, Bayes' theorem requires three estimations:
The base-rate for terrorists, i.e. what proportion of the population are terrorists;
The accuracy rate, i.e., the probability that real terrorists will be identified by NSA;
The misidentification rate, i.e., the probability that innocent citizens will be misidentified by NSA as terrorists.

No matter how sophisticated and super-duper are NSA's methods for identifying terrorists, no matter how big and fast are NSA's computers, NSA's accuracy rate will never be 100% and their misidentification rate will never be 0%. That fact, plus the extremely low base-rate for terrorists, means it is logically impossible for mass surveillance to be an effective way to find terrorists."

The ethics of belief

I came across William Kingdon Clifford's essay, 'The Ethics of Belief' this morning which, though written in 1877, says quite a bit about the current UK government's attitude to critical analysis of their big information systems projects, from ID cards to the NHS.

"A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and and refitted, even though this should put him at great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence... He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy;"

The ship then gets lost at sea. Is the owner responsible for those deaths? Clifford says yes.

"What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him."

Now suppose the ship made the journey safely. Is the owner then less guilty? Clifford:

"Not one jot. When an action is once done, it is right or wrong for ever; no accidental failure of its good or evil fruits can possibly alter that. (Note 3) The man would not have been innocent, he would only have been not found out. The question of right or wrong has to do with the origin of his belief, not the matter of it; not what it was, but how he got it; not whether it turned out to be true or false, but whether he had a right to believe on such evidence as was before him."

Tony Blair in particular places a lot of emphasis on telling us that we should accept that he's a good guy who always does what he sincerely believes to be the right thing. On ID cards, NHS IT systems, the children's index database, education, rendition flights, anti-terrorism legislation, the Iraq war it is reasonable to ask whether he has a right to hold the beliefs that led him down these paths, given the evidence that was before him. Given that the general response of the government to questioning of its actions, such as the introduction of ID cards, is to dismiss such questions out of hand or generally yell, toddler fashion, "not listening, not listening", the evidence that they are meeting Clifford's basic test is not encouraging.

Stanford sue Joyce

Stanford Center for Internet and Society’s Fair Use Project has filed a law suit against Stephen Joyce, James Joyce's grandson.

"Stephen is Joyce’s only living descendant, and since the mid-nineteen-eighties he has effectively controlled the Joyce estate. Scholars must ask his permission to quote sizable passages or to reproduce manuscript pages from those works of Joyce’s that remain under copyright—including “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake”—as well as from more than three thousand letters and several dozen unpublished manuscript fragments...

Over the years, the relationship between Stephen Joyce and the Joyceans has gone from awkwardly symbiotic to plainly dysfunctional. In 1988, he took offense at the epilogue to Brenda Maddox’s “Nora,” a biography of Joyce’s wife, which described the decades that Joyce’s schizophrenic daughter, Lucia, spent in a mental asylum. Although the book had already been printed in galleys, Maddox, fearing a legal battle, offered to delete the section; the agreement she signed with Stephen also enjoined her descendants from publishing the material. Shortly afterward, at a Bloomsday symposium in Venice, Stephen announced that he had destroyed all the letters that his aunt Lucia had written to him and his wife. He added that he had done the same with postcards and a telegram sent to Lucia by Samuel Beckett, with whom she had pursued a relationship in the late nineteen-twenties...

Stephen has also attempted to impede the publication of dozens of scholarly works on James Joyce. He rejects nearly every request to quote from unpublished letters. Last year, he told a prominent Joyce scholar that he was no longer granting permissions to quote from any of Joyce’s writings. (The scholar, fearing retribution, declined to be named in this article.) Stephen’s primary motive has been to put a halt to work that, in his view, either violates his family’s privacy or exceeds the bounds of reputable scholarship...

More than a dozen Joyce scholars told me that what was once an area of exploration and discovery now resembles an embattled outpost of copyright law...

Yet, for the first time, a Joycean is fighting to free herself from Stephen’s control. In 2002, Stephen learned that Carol Loeb Shloss, an English professor at Stanford, was about to publish “Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake,” a life of his mentally ill aunt. Stephen wrote to Shloss, implying that he might sue if she quoted from copyrighted material. He pressured her publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which asked Shloss to cut many quotations. An expurgated version of the book was published in December, 2003.

In the midst of her fight with Stephen, Shloss met Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Stanford, who was willing to take on her case pro bono. Lessig had just argued before the Supreme Court against Congress’s 1998 extension of copyright. He had lost the case, but he was eager to find another way to show that distended copyright laws were not in the public interest. Shloss gave him the correspondence that Stephen had sent her over the years, and he was excited by what he read. “The letters were extreme,” he recalled.

This week, to coincide with Bloomsday celebrations, Lessig plans to file a suit against Stephen Joyce in United States District Court. He believes that it is the first to accuse a literary estate of “copyright misuse”; the charge is usually levelled against corporations in patent disputes. "

Interesting article. Well worth reading in full, especially if you're an IP geek.

The Corruptibles

The EFF's latest animation is The Corruptibles. Amusing.

The People versus academies

The Guardian reports on the legal challenges being brought by some parents against the government's flagship city academies, claiming that the academies rules and regulations undermine parents'and children's human rights.

"The challenges are based on claims that some of the schools are running roughshod over parents' rights and, crucially, those of their children as prospective students at the new schools. Across all key issues - from admissions to discipline and appeals - the legal papers say the academies and the contracts they are based on are riddled with legal loopholes. The central charge is that parents and children will have fewer rights at the new, semi-independent academies than they do in mainstream, maintained schools...

The fact that the challenges are being brought by parents is in itself a blow for the Department for Education and Skills, because one of its staunchest defences of the controversial scheme has been that parents are clamouring for the new schools...

Some laws that maintained schools are compelled to abide by do not apply to academies. They do not, for example, always have to take a child with special educational needs (SEN) who has a statement naming the academy as the parents' preferred school. On exclusions, while pupils in maintained schools can appeal to a fully independent panel against a decision to exclude them from school, a student at an academy must appeal to a panel that is usually appointed by the school itself. In some cases, this panel is the academy's governing body.

Some of the more controversial detail of academies' policies is contained in annexes to the main funding agreement; these can, in some cases, be changed unilaterally by the academy trust, without the say-so of the education secretary. Provisions for religious education, and the right of parents to withdraw their children from RE, are often contained in these annexes.

Parents' rights could be further constrained, claim lawyers, because academy sponsors are entitled to appoint the majority of the governing body. Typically, academies are only required by their funding agreement to have one parent governor.

MPs on the influential parliamentary joint committee on human rights have also been questioning the impact of academies' "independent" status. In its recent report on education, it asked why the government did not use the education bill to make academies "maintained schools" for the purposes of SEN provision, exclusions and so on...

A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills says: "We totally reject the claim that parents or pupils in academies have fewer rights than those in any other school. The biggest denial of human rights is a bad education. Academies promote the rights of children to a good state education where it has not been available in the past."

I'm not sufficiently familiar with the details to make any reasonable judgement call on this though it seems fairly clear that if the rules and regulations for running the academies are different to those for maintained schools then the rights of parents and pupils are different.

Constitutional Circumvention

In the FT, James Boyle castigates the "representatives of the United States, who have played an ignominious role as cheerleaders for" the WIPO broadcasting treaty.

" This proposal was so bad, so empirically threadbare, so unbalanced, that I had cherished a faint hope that the members of WIPO would abandon it. At least, I hoped there might be a comparative study of the nations that had previously adopted the protection and those that had not, to see if there was any need for such a change? What was I thinking!!? Why do we need evidence? With remarkably little public attention, the Broadcasting Treaty train is chugging ahead strongly, with states providing new draft proposals over the next two months for a possible decision in September. The status of the webcasting provision is still unclear. But the webcasters are pressing hard. Expect another poorly reasoned proposal to rise from the ashes, with the US playing a key role. The press seems to have missed the story. Bizarrely, the proposal is getting more robust criticism from industry sources, who can see how it will affect competitiveness on the web, than from librarians and civil libertarians who ought to appreciate better than anyone its effect on speech and cultural heritage.

Of course, the casting treaty is a paradigmatic example of the dysfunctions in our international deliberations on these issues; we have the absence of evidence, the mandatory rights and optional exceptions, the industry-capture, the indifference to harm caused by rights-thickets. But the representatives of the United States, who have played an ignominious role as cheerleaders for this silly treaty, have a particular, indeed a constitutional, reason to be ashamed...

In my view, the current drafts of the Broadcast Treaty would be unconstitutional if implemented in American law. They create new copyright-like rights over unoriginal material, indeed material that is frequently copyrighted by someone else. That violates a core restriction of the copyright clause of the constitution. They also ignore the fixation requirement.

But forget the attempt to predict what the Supreme Court would do if it heard the case. Are the US’s negotiators ignoring their constitutional responsibilities, and seeking to get a bad treaty passed with inadequate public debate of its desirability, constitutionality or consequences? About that there is no doubt at all. Shame on them. Jefferson and Madison would not approve. Should we? "

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

ICO Order to DWP to disclose ID report

Thanks to Jacky Smith via FIPR alerts for providing a link to the Information Commissioner's Decision Notice ordering the Department for Work and Pensions to hand over information about the likely effect of the introduction of identity cards on the department's operations.

"DWP refused the request on the grounds that the information relates to the formulation or development of government policy, and because releasing the information would prejudice commercial interests. The Commissioner's decision is that the public interest lies in the release of the information and that release will not prejudice commercial interests."

Richard Thomas has been consistently concerned about the government's planned ID card scheme and here has taken the opportunity afforded by the complaint of encouraging the government to be more open about it.

Charlie Haughey dies

Former Taoseach, Charlie Haughey, has died. This won't be a big deal to most people outside Ireland but Haughey was one of the most controversial political leaders in the short history of the Irish Republic and was both loved and reviled in equal measure. Vast acreages of Irish news space will be devoted to recounting his life and no doubt his many biographers will be looking to get some free publicity for their books, though I don't expect his death will raise more than a small blip in the UK media.

My father likes to tell the story of when he used to work with Haughey on the building sites and how he showed early signs of an ability to acquire things for his own benefit, like the other lads' sandwiches. Now you don't get away with that for too long on a building site, so one day a couple of his victims put some sand and other tasty morsels between two slices of bread and left this treat out for their friendly neighborhood lunch thief. Sure enough Haughey bit into the trap and got a mouthful of sand but he learned a lesson and in his public life had a teflon like ability for slipping away from responsibility for alleged major transgressions, ranging the full gamut from the personal to the financial, political and criminal.

It took Machiavellian skill of the highest order to outflank Haughey in any situation, which is why the current Taoseach, Bertie Ahern, who eventually succeeded Haughey as leader of the Fianna Fail party, should not lightly be underestimated. (Ahern ousted Albert Reynolds who was Haughey's immediate successor). Ahern has paid his own tribute to the man who, amongst other things, became known as The Boss.

Update: John has a wonderful piece on Haughey at his blog. I hadn't spotted that the former Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach, Garrett Fitzgerald said that Haughey was: "a man of formidable political skills. Despite their public political differences, their relationship was always marked by courtesy and absence of personal antagonism." Fitzgerald was widely thought of as a bumbling but honest intellectual in his time in public life. A long time political foe of Haughey, he absolutely despised 'The Boss'. Fitzgerald basically held Haughey responsible for putting the 'banana' in 'Irish Republic.'

Yahoo!'s continuing deliberate blindness

Dan Gilmor is not impressed at the Yahoo! folks continuing excuses for their actions in China.

Bushian philosophy

David Luban has outlined his perception of Bushian philosophy in mathematical terms. Very clever.

"Axiom 1: We are good people.

Axiom 2: Our enemies are bad people.
Axiom 3:
Anything that helps good people beat bad people is good.

Corollary 1: Whatever we do to beat our enemies is good.
Corollary 2: Whatever hinders us from doing what we do to beat our enemies is bad. Theorem 1: Anything that makes us look bad is false. (Proof: If it makes us look bad, it must be false, because, according to Corollary 1, what we do to beat our enemies is good, not
Corollary 3: It can’t be true that the Guantanamo prisoners killed themselves because of how we treated them. (Proof: That would make us look bad. Whatever makes us look bad is false.)
Surprising Corollary 4: Facts that make us look bad are false.
(Proof: Follows directly from Theorem 1.) (Comment: If you thought that facts can’t be false, you haven’t understood that truth and falsity are moral terms: truth is what good people say, falsity is what bad people say. If bad people state facts, those facts are false.)
Theorem 2: Laws that constrain us are bad. (Proof: Follows directly from Corollary 2.) But –
Axiom 4: Good people support the rule of law, and that makes the rule of law good.
Corollary 4: We support the rule of law. (Proof: By Axiom 1, we’re good people; and by Axiom 4, good people support the rule of law.)
Surprising Theorem 3: Laws that constrain us don’t exist. (Proof: By Theorem 2, a law that constrains us would be bad. But by Axiom 4, the rule of law is good. Therefore there cannot be such a thing as a law that constrains us.)
Axiom 5: Anything that anyone uses against us is a weapon of our enemies.
Decisive Theorem: Any international forum or legal argument that might constrain us, or anything that might make us look bad, is a weapon of our enemies.
Axiom 6: We’re strong and our enemies are weak.
Corollary 5: Any international forum or legal argument that might constrain us, or anything that might make us look bad, is a weapon of the weak. To put it in other words, it is an act of asymmetric war against us.


A tragedy for Mr Blair

I wonder if this would raise a smile from Tony Blair:

Tony Blair was visiting a British School, the teacher asked the Prime Minister, Mr Blair, if he would like to lead the discussion on the word "tragedy." So the illustrious leader asked the class for an example of a "tragedy." One little boy stood up and offered,

"If my best friend, who lives on a farm, is playing in the field and a tractor runs him over and kills him, that would be a tragedy."
"No," said Blair "that would be an accident."

A little girl raised her hand: "If a school bus carrying 50 children drove over a cliff, killing everyone inside, that would be a tragedy."
"I'm afraid not." explained the PM. "That's what we would call a great loss."

The room went silent. No other children volunteered. Blair searched the room. "Isn't there someone here who can give me an example of tragedy?"

Finally at the back of the room a small boy raised his hand. In a quiet voice he said: "If an aircraft carrying you, Mr. Blair, was struck by a "friendly fire" missile and blown to smithereens, that would be a tragedy."

"Fantastic!" exclaimed Blair. "That's right. And can you tell me why that would be a tragedy?"

"Well," says the boy, "it has to be a tragedy, because it certainly wouldn't be a great loss and it probably wouldn't be an accident either."

The Missionary Position

There's a fascinating article by Laila Lalami at The Nation on the simplistic bipolar perspective of the status of Muslim women promoted by religious extremists on the one hand and secular supporters of empire in the West on the other.

"These days, being a Muslim woman means being saddled with what can only be referred to as the "burden of pity." The feelings of compassion that we Muslim women seem to inspire emanate from very distinct and radically opposed currents: religious extremists of our own faith, and evangelical and secular supporters of empire in the West.

Radical Islamist parties claim that the family is the cornerstone of society and that women, by virtue of their reproductive powers, are its builders... If we protect women's rights in Islam, they assure us, the umma, the community of believers, will be lifted from its general state of poverty and backwardness.

Meanwhile, the abundant pity that Muslim women inspire in the West largely takes the form of impassioned declarations about "our plight"--reserved, it would seem, for us, as Christian and Jewish women living in similarly constricting fundamentalist settings never seem to attract the same concern. The veil, illiteracy, domestic violence, gender apartheid and genital mutilation have become so many hot-button issues that symbolize our status as second-class citizens in our societies. These expressions of compassion are often met with cynical responses in the Muslim world, which further enrages the missionaries of women's liberation. Why, they wonder, do Muslim women not seek out the West's help in freeing themselves from their societies' retrograde thinking? The poor things, they are so oppressed they do not even know they are oppressed.

The sympathy extended to us by Western supporters of empire is nothing new. In 1908 Lord Cromer, the British consul general in Egypt, declared that "the fatal obstacle" to the country's "attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilization" was Islam's degradation of women. The fact that Cromer raised school fees and discouraged the training of women doctors in Egypt, and in England founded an organization that opposed the right of British women to suffrage, should give us a hint of what his views on gender roles were really like. Little seems to have changed in the past century...

The overarching argument ... is that there is insufficient freedom for the individual in Islam. This, Hirsi Ali argues, is because one of the fundamental tenets of the religion is the submission of the individual to God, which creates a strict hierarchy of allegiances. At the top of this hierarchy is God, then His Prophet, then the umma, then the clan or tribe and finally the family. The individual, she insists, is simply not valued. Whatever one thinks of this hierarchy, however, it is hardly unique to Islam; one can make the same argument about other monotheistic religions. Furthermore, many Muslim countries are in fact secular or military dictatorships (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Egypt), while others are to one extent or another theocracies (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan). Religious hierarchy does not play the same societal role in Turkmenistan as in Saudi Arabia. On top of this, there are political, national and linguistic considerations to take into account, particularly when one is making claims about fifty-seven nations spread out across Asia and Africa. But Hirsi Ali addresses none of these. In her view, they simply do not matter. Rather, she sees Islam itself as the problem and its fundamental tenet of obstructing individual freedom as the very reason the Muslim world is "falling behind" the West...

The question that must be posed, then, is whether the cause of women's emancipation can be advanced when it is argued in such a sloppy and factually inaccurate manner...

None of this is to suggest that there are not serious issues facing Muslim women today. Still less does it mean that we should excuse violence and oppression, in some relativist fashion, because they happen to take place in the region broadly defined as "Islam." Those who believe in gender equality have every reason to be concerned about radical Islamist parties that view women as mere vessels, defined by their reproductive powers. These right-wing Islamist parties resist changes in civil codes that grant women more rights or, worse, want to impose antiquated and dangerous forms of Sharia. It is therefore particularly troubling that they have made electoral gains in Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco and elsewhere.

So now what? Where does this leave feminists of all stripes who genuinely care about the civil rights of their Muslim sisters? A good first step would be to stop treating Muslim women as a silent, helpless mass of undifferentiated beings who think alike and face identical problems, and instead to recognize that each country and each society has its own unique issues. A second would be to question and critically assess the well-intentioned but factually inaccurate books that often serve as the very basis for discussion. We need more dialogue and less polemic. A third would be to acknowledge that women--and men--in Muslim societies face problems of underdevelopment (chief among them illiteracy and poverty) and that tackling them would go a long way toward reducing inequities. As the colonial experience of the past century has proved, aligning with an agenda of war and domination will not result in the advancement of women's rights. On the contrary, such a top-down approach is bound to create a nationalist counterreaction that, as we have witnessed with Islamist parties, can be downright catastrophic. Rather, a bottom-up approach, where the many local, homegrown women's organizations are fully empowered stands a better chance in the long run. After all, isn't this how Western feminists made their own gains toward equality?

Muslim women are used as pawns by Islamist movements that make the control of women's lives a foundation of their retrograde agenda, and by Western governments that use them as an excuse for building empire. These women have become a politicized class, prevented by edicts and bombs from taking charge of their own destinies. The time has come for the pawns to be queened."

Monday, June 12, 2006

Court hearing on legality of NSA wiretapping

Judge Anna Diggs Taylor is hearing arguments from the ACLU and the government today in the U.S. District Court in Detroit about the legality of the NSA's wiretapping program auhorised by President Bush. The ACLU want the judge to declare the prgram unconstitutional and order it to be shut down.

Update: Jack Balkan examined the arguments and thinks the government's position is farcical

"If the issue were not so grave, the government's arguments would simply be farcical. If the federal judiciary accepts the government's argument to dismiss the case without requiring the government to make somewhat finer grained distinctions about what it can and cannot disclose, it might as well close up shop. The state secrets privilege normally allows the government to refuse to disclose certain information within an ongoing litigation in the interests of national security. Now the Administration is trying to use the privilege to prevent litigation entirely, and, in particular, litigation that accuses the Executive of illegal and unconstitutional activity. Letting the government march into court and shut down inquiries into its possibly illegal actions on its mere say-so creates the worst of bad incentives. If the government can do so in this case, it can and will do the same thing whenever the legality of its actions is challenged in the future, and then we will be well down the road to the destruction of our constitutional system of checks and balances. What is at stake in this case is the principle that the Executive, like all other government servants, is subject to the rule of law.

I do not mean to suggest that the state secrets privilege should not exist or that it does not have considerable value. Rather, the claim is that the government must do more than simply assert the privilege...

At some point in the process, the court may decide that certain details of the government's program may not be disclosed and it may uphold the state secrets privilege with respect to some elements of the government's program. But that is a far cry from what the government is asking now. The state secrets privilege does not mean and was never intended to mean that the government need do nothing to defend itself other than tell the court that it is the government and therefore it cannot be questioned about its actions."

Monsanto lose in Indian Supreme Court

Johanna Gibson reports that Monsanto have lost their battle in the Supreme Court of India against an order by the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission (MRTPC) to reduce the price of their GM cotton seeds.

DRM defective by design

The Defective By Design folks have been campaigning against Apple's drm.