20 June, 2010

Dear Canberra Press Gallery,

Look, I know you’re bored.  I know Kevin Rudd isn’t the kind of prime minister who whacks himself in the eye with a cricket ball, or confesses infidelity, or tells the opposition leader “I’m going to do you slowly,” or makes a fawning goose of himself in front of royalty, or goes out of his way to be seen cheering any kind of sporting event.  He is, as you rather dismissively put it when he became opposition leader, a policy wonk.  And what a drag it is to have a prime minister who is interested in policy! 

So I know that’s rather boring for you, but this is the beat you chose, so could you try reporting about things that are actually happening, rather than the things you wish were happening?

I know you don’t know what to make of the Resources Super Profits Tax.  Nobody likes taxes, but they don’t like big business much either.  It’s hard for you to figure out an angle when you’re not sure which side Mr and Mrs Suburban would take.  They’re not sure themselves since it’s so hard to get good information from a media that would rather report gossip about leadership challenges.  See how the cycle feeds itself?

Greg Rudd, Kevin’s brother, wrote an article in The Australian last week that wasn’t all that flattering of his brother, but also let us in on how you work:
During the bitter Hawke-Keating leadership contest I was pulled aside by one of the senior members of the Canberra press gallery, who said: "Mate, save your energy. We've decided we want a regime change. With Hawke we have to chase stories. With Keating the stories will come to us."
In blood sport, honesty is bad policy

And when the stories don’t come to you, you just create them.  It’s so much easier to write about personality clashes and the soap opera of leadership than it is about policy, and you’ve had quite a few this term.  Turnbull was out to roll Nelson from the start, and Turnbull himself floated the idea of challenging his own leadership when the party wouldn’t back his policy.  You tried for years to get Peter Costello to roll John Howard, even though Costello had made it clear he didn’t have the bottle for it.  You’ve actually been pretty spoiled for personality stories of late but once in a while, you will have to fall back on writing about things that the government is doing, instead of asking backbenchers if they would support a hypothetical leadership challenge from someone who has shown no interest in launching such a challenge.  I know it’s hard to make that interesting in the age of Australian Idol, Dancing with the Stars and Masterchef, where the story is the personal sniping and not the substance of what’s being done, but once again, this is the beat you chose.  If you don’t like writing about policy, then you can always put in for a transfer to the entertainment section and see if you can give Richard Wilkins and Angela Bishop a run for their money. 

Let me help you out:
The proposed super profits tax is basically a HECS for industry.  The Higher Education Contributions Scheme accepts that a university education is unaffordable for most people up front.  So instead, students pay much lower fees, but once their post-study income hits a certain level – a level which they probably couldn’t have achieved without their degree – they then pay more tax to pay off the benefit they received earlier.  Aside from the hypocrisy that HECS was designed and maintained by people who got their degrees for free through the 70s and 80s, no-one can really argue against it because it’s a pretty fair system.  Similarly, the mining industry receives all kinds of subsidies, tax credits and the like, in order to set up their businesses, and to carry them through hard times.  So when times are good, and only after their profits hit an extraordinary level, the RSPT would see them pay a higher proportion back to the country that has given them such opportunity. 

See?  Wasn’t so hard, was it?  So there’s your angle for this week and now you can go back to asking who’s going to eat who on Masterchef and wondering if Jessica Watson has a boyfriend. 

PS:  If a hypothetical challenger decided you weren’t performing well, what would be your response?

18 June, 2010

If You’ve Done Nothing Wrong, There’s Plenty to Worry About

The latest idea from the Federal Department of Stuffing Up the Internet is even more counter-productive than the last one.  I haven’t written about the proposed (and now delayed) ISP level filtering – the so-called ‘clean feed’ – simply because others have already done so far better and at more length than I could have.  But the new plan to require that ISPs log and retain data about all their customers’ web-browsing is even worse.  It would be electoral suicide if enough people understood what it would mean. 

Again, others have written about the gross invasion of privacy.  I want to explore a different angle, that of data versus intelligence.  Defenders of any form of surveillance often come out with the line that if you’re doing nothing wrong, then you’ve got nothing to worry about.  That holds true when it comes to security cameras at stations (I’m all for them) but on the internet, there are plenty of ways to look like you might be doing something wrong when you’re not.  Here are some examples from personal experience:

As mentioned in the fragment of bio to the right of your window, I teach computers – mostly to novices.  The week before our first session on the internet, I always ask students to bring in an internet address they’d like to look up, and a topic they would like to search the internet for.  One nice older gentleman, who was attending with his wife, wanted to look up information about the gold rush.  Specifically, he wanted to get some information about the guards who protected the prospectors who had come over from South Australia as they brought their take home.  These guards were called the Gold Escorts, so my student wanted to search for gold escorts south australia.  It was a perfectly legitimate search for a perfectly innocent reason, so you can imagine my discomfort at having to warn him, while his wife was sitting beside him, that such a search query could also reveal more than he ever wanted to know about Adelaide nightlife.  We did the search anyway, with the warning of what it might deliver, and the results were about 50/50 historical articles and (ahem) adult services.  The ads, however, were 100% the latter. 

Then there was the time I was showing a group how to set up a web-mail address.  One of the students was a Filipino lady with not much English.  For reasons that I couldn’t really glean at the time, she had chosen ‘porn’ as her login name.  To save us both the embarrassment of having to explain the word, I just told her that it was such a common word on the internet that it had probably been taken and she’d best choose something else.

Earlier this year, I had a student who wanted to look up the Anarchist Cookbook.  I told him that was fine but, with the clean feed proposal, to just be mindful of how it might look if his search history were revealed.  There are numerous legitimate and innocent reasons why someone might want to look up the Anarchist Cookbook, or Mein Kampf, or Das Kapital, but it’s just as easy for someone on a fishing trip to look at those searches, put 2 and 2 together, and get 97.

This is all assuming that people are aware of what they are doing.  As we all know, a lot of people who use the internet have no idea of what they are doing.  The more experienced ’net users know that you can point to THIS LINK and see the true address displayed in the bottom left corner of the browser window.  But with URL shorteners and aggregators, there’s no way of knowing where http://bit.ly/b7ly6X will take you until you click it.  No form of data collection can take that into account.  How would anyone like to take responsibility for every link they’ve innocently clicked and then regretted it?  How would anyone like a misunderstood search query going on their permanent record?

Of course, in the examples I gave above, the history would not reflect on them because they were not at home, they were at my workplace.  Those examples could easily be looked at out of context and someone could say, “Escorts? Porn? Anarchists? Just what is he teaching those people?”  Well, I’m teaching them about the internet, and these things happen on the internet.

And this leads to the other reason that retaining everyone’s browsing history will not work.  Anyone who really is a threat to public safety on any level, is not going to be using a visible internet account.  They will either be using public internet access or a series of proxies.  They’re not stupid.  They’ve seen Spooks too.  So unless the government intends to force every café, every hotel, every library, every McDonald’s to put its customers through the same kind of application process that it usually takes to get a mobile phone, then this latest scheme is not going to make anyone any safer.  It simply gives the illusion of doing something useful while making us all a bit more paranoid.

A bit of self promotion

I don't want to use this 'blog for "hey, look what I did" posts, but I'd like to share a re-post with my regular readers. (Yes, both of you!)

I've been casually following the start-up news and opinion site The Daily Bludge for a couple of weeks now.  Yesterday, I saw they'd started a new feature where any registered user can post a 'blog on the site.  For the chance at a wider audience, and because it's still current, I posted my Well, do you drive a car? post there.

When I checked the site in the morning, I saw that they had put it on the front page.  (The graphic was added by the editor)

And they posted a very nice link on their Facebook site.

Update:  It's interesting where things pop up,

13 June, 2010

1000 YEARS OF POPULAR MUSIC – Richard Thompson (2006)

In late 1999 Playboy magazine asked a whole bunch of people to list their ten greatest songs of the millennium.  Such lists were ten a penny at the turn of the century and just about all of them defined the “millennium” as the period since 1950.  Richard Thompson, bless his cotton socks, chose to take them literally and came up with a list that began with Summer Is Icumen In and finished with Oops!... I Did It Again.  This show expands on that list.

Accompanied by Judith Owen and Debra Dobkin, Richard takes us on a tour through ballads, madrigals, folk songs, gospel, music hall, comic opera, country, jazz and rock & roll, all of which was the pop music of the day.  In between, he explains some of the history behind each song.  The set-list wisely stays away from standards, for the most part choosing lesser know examples of each style.

Such an inspired premise wouldn’t go far without a performance to match but Thompson and his cohorts are more than up to the task.  It cannot be said often enough that Richard Thompson is one of the finest guitarists of this, or any other age.  This is proven again by the way he presents so many different kinds of songs on acoustic guitar without any of them sounding like anything is missing.  In the self-deprecating liner notes, he writes,
Trying to render an Arthur Sullivan orchestration with acoustic guitar and snare drum is pretty desperate stuff, but may, at a stretch, be thought “charming.”
“Charming,” is a barely adequate description, sir!  And Judith Owen’s reading of Night and Day is sublime.  However much you may know about music, you’ll come away from this concert knowing a bit more.

There are no DVD extras, but it comes with two CDs of the concert, minus the between-song banter.
Oh, and the magazine never published his list.

Highlight: There Is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast
Feature:  * * * * *
Extras: None
Audio:  Dolby Stereo, Dolby 5.1

12 June, 2010

Compassion is for the Birds

We have a cockatoo in our family.  His cage is out the back, and it’s a magnet for sparrows and other birds, hoping to get some dropped seeds from under the cage.  Harry, the cocky, doesn’t mind this at all.  He enjoys the company and will even call us when there are magpies outside who need feeding.

There are a few holes in the cage big enough for a sparrow to get in through.  Depending on the season, sometimes the whole group figures out how to get in, some manage to get in and forget how to get out, and sometimes only a select few manage to get in and help themselves to the seed tin.

One of the most touching things I ever saw was on one occasion when only one of the flock had managed to find his way into the cage, and all the others were hanging off the wire on the outside.  The sparrow on the inside took a seed for himself, then delivered one seed each to all the others on the outside before starting again.

It strikes me that this is one difference between sparrows and people.

06 June, 2010

The Rules: Communication

Only one indeterminate item per sentence!

I can’t overemphasise how important this is. 
Last year, a very kind reviewer once described me as a pedant.  I plead guilty.  And like most other pedants, I tell myself it’s because I care about accuracy when deep down, half the time I’m just being a smartarse.
But please understand that if I ask you for more information when you say, “I click on the thing but it doesn’t do it,” it’s not because I’m being a smartarse, or a nitpicker, or even a pedant, it’s just that I have no idea what you’re talking about.

I’m not suggesting that people should never use indeterminate words.  We do it all the time.  The English language is full of people talking about ‘it,’ about ‘things,’ about ‘her,’ about ‘him,’ about ‘stuff,’ about ‘whatsits,’ ‘doovers,’ and ‘thingummies,’ about ‘the guy who sings that song,’ and about ‘that chick with the hair.’  That’s fine, but we need at least enough information to figure out the bits that haven’t been defined.

In this way, the English language is very much like algebra.  No, really – it is.  Consider a very basic algebra problem like this:

a + 7 = 10

By following a simple logical process, we can work out that a must equal 3.  If the problem looked more like this:

2 + b = 10

then again, we can easily see that b must equal 8.  We use what we know to figure out what we don't know.  However, if the problem is this:

a + b = 10

then we don’t have enough information to work out what a and b are.  a could be 4 and b could be 6.  a could be 7.75 and b could be 2.25.  They could both be 5, which seems unlikely when the problem could then have said a + a = 10, but it’s no less possible.  And when the problem becomes a + b = ? then we have no hope.

Let’s relate that back to language with a sentence along the lines of

Did that guy bring the stuff?

If I knew who that guy was, I might know what the stuff is.  If I knew what the stuff was, then I might be able to figure out who the guy is, and I might be able to offer a useful answer.  As for questions like, “Why won’t it do it?” I’ve got nothing.  So be considerate when asking questions and always give the other person enough information to understand what it is you’re asking.