Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Spoiler Alert

The Wire: a show in which slick politicians use urban crime as a platform to get elected, thus ensuring that nothing ever gets done about it.

So Chris Grayling's sort of right when he says that parts of Britain are becoming like the Wire. It's just that when Tommy Carcetti does it, he sounds kind of believable:

When Chris does it, he just looks like your embarrassingly racist old uncle:

Sunday, August 23, 2009

"It's like a curse. I know what he's going to do next..."

FBI director Robert Mueller is a by-the-book kind of guy, who likes to keep things professional. But after the Megrahi case, he feels compelled to offer Kenny MacAskill this pearl of wisdom:

Your action gives comfort to terrorists around the world who now believe that regardless of the quality of the investigation, the conviction by jury after the defendant is given all due process, and sentence appropriate to the crime, the terrorist will be freed by one man's exercise of "compassion."

See. Potential bombers can now sleep soundly in their beds, safe in the knowledge that if they do launch an attack, survive it, get incarcerated and then get cancer, there's a chance they might get to see their families while they die a slow painful death. I wouldn't have made that conection myself, but I guess that's why I'm not one of America's top crime-fighters. It must be a troubling gift, this uncanny insight into the minds of madmen.

For a more sensible perspective...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

More IP stupidity

The BBC provides another textbook case of bad IP journalism as thinly-veiled advocacy for bad IP policy. France and Italy have decided to start fining or locking people up when they buy counterfeit goods. The article starts strong with a good misuse of the term "copyright" in the context of brands:

Holidaymakers could be fined thousands of pounds - or even jailed - for buying fake designer goods when abroad, copyright lawyers are warning.

It's pretty clear that they're talking about trademarks here. Which makes the whole business of fining consumers seem completely ridiculous, as the industry spokes-tard inadvertently illustrates:

Intellectual property lawyer Simon Tracey said anyone tempted to bring back items such as fake designer sunglasses, a football top or handbag from their holidays should beware.

He said lots of people have already been fined thousands of euros for owning a fake, and France seemed "a little bit harsher" than Italy.

But he said it was hard to persuade people that owning a fake was "a bad thing".

"The problem is, it is an intellectual theft, so therefore it's much harder to explain to people that it is wrong, but in reality - as a matter of social responsibility - it is just as bad as stealing.

"We all tend to debate the fake bag, we tend not to think about the products that can cause serious harm or kill like fake pharmaceuticals," he added.

Simon's too stupid know it, but he's actually on to something. Let's think about the fake pharmaceuticals because, as he rightly points out, that is the most worrying case. Some guy buys a fake drug that damn near kills him, and Simon wants to lock him up for a bit? We're clearly dealing with a razor-sharp legal mind.

There's a more general point here: the ostensible justification for trademarks is that they give you some indication of where the product came from, so that people can form a reliable opinion about the quality of what they're buying. As with our fake pharmaceuticals, the harm from counterfeiting comes when counterfeiters make consumers think they're buying something they're not.

If you think you're buying the genuine thing, then you're as much a victim as the brand owner. If you know you're buying a fake, then there's no deception and thus no harm done. There's no convincing justification for ever prosecuting the buyer, unless they're planning to sell the stuff on, in which case they should be targeted for the sale, rather than the purchase.

Of course, that's not necessarily what EU trademark law and customs law says. My point is that the law has strayed far beyond its original premises. The patter that you'll here whenever someone tries to explain why we have trademarks in the first place is that they function as a way of keeping consumers informed, allowing them to be more certain about their choices. By ensuring that certain marks get associated with certain products, you know when you buy something marked "Coke" that it comes from a particular big American conglomerate, rather than Fizzy Pop Poisoner's Co, in the same way that if you buy something marked "Fair Trade", you know that certain standards have been kept to.

Trademarks, at least, in the fairy-tale that brand-owners like to tell when they're asking for more restrictive laws, are a form of consumer protection. When you've got to the stage where you're using those laws to prosecute consumers, you're in a very strange place indeed.

Finally, bonus points for the inclusion of the expected "we should fight organised crime by making more stuff illegal" line:

These are not cheeky chappies making an honest living on a Sunday morning, these are hardened criminals.
You'd really think a lobbying campaign that's meant to be all about inventiveness and originality would have come up with some new standard lines by now, wouldn't you?

Sunday, August 16, 2009


For this US ex-pat, who feels more alienated from his former country with each news report from what is becoming literally the front lines of the healthcare "debate", this just absolutely nails it.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"What's wrong with profit?"

The "What's wrong with profit?" placard has been a favourite of the trolls at the US healthcare forums. This has always struck me as far too general a question for anyone except a committed Marxist to give an answer to. I mean, unless those protesters would feel perfectly happy waving their banners at the next rally to legalise prostitution, I think they'd have to concede that it all depends on the context.

Anyway, I realise they're not really in it for the debate, so mostly this is just an excuse to point to Mike Konczal's rather excellent piece on health insurance at Atlantic Business. If you're not reading Mike's stuff, do.

The assumption behind Mike's piece is that there's nothing wrong with profit so long as it's the result of a mutually beneficial transaction. His point is that health-insurance doesn't look a lot like this, because of rescission: the word Health Insurers use for not paying out insurance claims when customers look like they'll be claiming more than they'll ever pay in. As he points out, this doesn't need to happen a lot to be a problem, because not many people get seriously ill in the first place:

So any random individual will not lose his health insurance through a rescission claim. But if you are of the group that actually needs to file a claim it could be anywhere from 5% to 50% likely.

Notice this makes the whole idea of health insurance pretty pointless. If you could be sure that you'd never run up serious health-care expenses in your life, you wouldn't bother with insurance, because it'd be cheaper to just pay as you go. And it gets worse:

So if I was a shareholder or executive of an insurance company, and saw that we had very few sick people on our insurance, I'd be very mad. Why? Because one great way to make money is to keep them on the roster, collect their large premiums, and then deny them the care they need when the time comes. Very sick people are probably the easiest to kick off; letting them go before collecting their insurance is leaving money on the table.

And that, in a nut-shell, is what's wrong with profit in this context. The way to get the really big profits in health-insurance is to sucker in sick people, and then not pay them, and that's a point that applies to the folks holding placards at town-hall meetings as much as it does to anyone else.

Update: More of Mike's stuff can be found at the ever excellent Rortybomb.

Also, Wikipedia informs me that medical expenses are the chief cause of bankruptcy in the United States. The CBS article tells us that this is "crushing families and businesses", so maybe the Democrats could send their own folks out waving "What's wrong with profit?" placards. Just a thought.

Chilling, But Unsurprising

Maria Allwine writes a first-hand account for Buzzflash on the surge of hatred on the streets that signals a rising tide of fascism amongst right-wing anti-healthcare protesters in the US.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Health of Our Media = The Health of Our Democracy

Ex-CBS News anchor Dan Rather clearly gets it.

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Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Fix Is Indeed In

Frank Rich of the New York Times gets what this author has been saying since before the election. A change of style has, undoubtedly, taken place with the new administration but there's been very little change in substance that this blogger can see or believe in so far.

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Saturday, August 08, 2009

More on the Wingnuts/Teabaggers Healthcare Reform Circus

Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post hits the nail squarely on the head. Bravo!

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Friday, August 07, 2009

Sitting Here in My Safe European Home...

Just when your correspondent was beginning to think that, well, maybe going back to live in the US wouldn't be such an unattractive proposition after all, and that the power and influence of the God, guns and guts crew who wrecked the place were finally on the wane, along comes a timely reminder of the sort of reason he decided to leave to begin with.

The values of a country where a significant percentage of the population is happy to profess the idea that maintaining and, indeed, increasing corporate profit is a more legitimate and noble undertaking than providing even the most basic standards of human decency and compassion are not values that this author will ever share or understand. Shame about the right-wing fundies because there's so much that is good about the US and some of its other professed values like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

In the matter of Alan Johnson v Sense and Decency

In what has been called a “smear campaign against a guy with Asperger’s” by Gary McKinnon’s impressively resolute mother, Alan Johnson wrote an article for the Times a couple of days ago about how impotent he was concerning his ability to intervene in the case of Gary McKinnon.

I have only just climbed down from the walls after getting myself worked up into something of a fury over Johnson’s “firm, but unfair” approach to the matter.

Johnson begins his article by talking about how the Judgment of the Court of Appeal “emphasises the fact that it would be unlawful for the home secretary to intervene to prevent his extradition”. That is misleading in the extreme. What the Court of Appeal actually said was that they found no fault with the decision to extradite. During the course of the proceedings, the Secretary of State clearly accepted that he had the power, indeed the obligation, to decline to extradite McKinnon (if Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights would be infringed). It is not, as Alan Johnson erroneously suggests in his article, unlawful for him to intervene. He in fact has a duty to do so, if he considers that Article 3 would be infringed.

Here is the Court of Appeal on the likely effect of extradition on McKinnon (at para 89 of the Judgment):

“89. Ultimately, I have to weigh the impressive medical evidence adduced by the Claimant against the severity involved in Article 3. I have no doubt that he will find extradition to, and trial and sentence and detention in the USA, very difficult indeed. His mental health will suffer. There are risks of worse, including suicide.” [1]

What Johnson clearly wishes to avoid facing is the fact that his decision – and the Judgment of the Court of Appeal – basically amount to an assumption as follows: “Well, I know the expert evidence suggests that extradition might lead to Gary’s mental health suffering and might cause him to commit suicide, but despite what those experts say, I think he’ll probably be alright”.

Additionally, nowhere does Johnson mention the fact that he has declined thus far to seek any undertakings from the US that McKinnon be granted bail until sentenced and that he would be repatriated to serve his sentence in the UK. He has the power to do this. Why is he not exercising it?

Aside from getting the Law wrong (and neatly side-stepping the possibility that the Law is itself wrong), the remainder of Johnson’s article seems largely dedicated to a series of wretched attempts at assuaging his conscience. Johnson states toward the beginning of his article: “I can make no pronouncement of McKinnon’s guilt or innocence” and then proceeds to expound a shoddily put-together argument aimed at proving McKinnon’s guilt. He goes on and on about how terrible a crime he thinks it is, and points out that McKinnon’s actions “affected critical government security systems in America.” Well, if those systems were so critical, maybe the IT geniuses at Nasa should have changed the password from “password” to something a bit harder to crack.

Johnson tries his best to justify McKinnon’s extradition to the US. However, he has one moment of clarity, when he seems to suggest that he actually thinks trial in the UK would be better, to quote Johnson: “he should be tried fairly … in a court of law” (my emphasis). Probably best he stays here then.

There are questions over whether the extradition laws should have been employed in the way they were and questions over the validity of those laws. However, perhaps more important than the question of where McKinnon should be tried is whether he should be tried at all? We are, after all, talking about a lone autistic man, who was looking for aliens. He is not part of some highly organised criminal faction intent on bringing down America’s intelligence systems. There has been absolutely no sense of proportionality in any of the decision-making concerning this case.

Praise must be expressed for Peter Hain taking a stand for McKinnon and of course, the voice of sense and reason in British politics, Chris Huhne, who rightly said that “Ministers should hang their heads in shame over the Gary McKinnon case”. Even the Daily Mail understands this one.

[1] The quoted passages of medical evidence contained in the Judgment make for sombre reading and go into a lot more detail as to McKinnon’s condition and how the whole extradition process would cause him to suffer, would cause his mental health to deteriorate and possibly result in suicide. Worth having a look at if you feel able to cope with the subsequent hours of banging your head against a wall, trying to understand how the Secretary of State and then the Court of Appeal came to the decisions they did.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

One World Conservatism

Around the same period as DFID publishing its new white paper on development, the Conservative Party launched its international development Policy Green Paper “One World Conservatism A Conservative Agenda for International Development outlining the Tory vision for international development. Its main focus is to fight against poverty by increasing aid effectiveness and promoting wealth creation through the development of the private sector.

The Conservatives plan to increase aid effectiveness by directly linking aid to results (independently audited by an aid watchdog) on the ground. Central to this strategy is the ‘Cash On Delivery’ policy that will give more aid to countries considered to have met specific measures of progress and less to those where the progress is slow. The same approach will be extended to aid channelled through multilateral organisations with DFID expected “to cut funding to multilateral organisations that fail to demonstrate real results on the ground”.

Corruption as discussed in the BBC news report in Jayne’s earlier post, will be tackled by designating an ‘anti-fraud officer’ on all DFID country programmes. Although in the BBC report this is not the issue, as Dominic O’Neil, the DFID country representative, and Ernest Bai Koroma, the Sierra Leone President are aware of corruption implying the policy focus should be on ways to stop graft rather than gimmick hotlines.

Other conservative policies to increase aid effectiveness include, making three-year rolling aid commitments and giving indicative ten-year projections for aid, carrying out a root and branch review of the 108 countries that receive aid from DFID (more aid will be targeted toward Commonwealth countries), and increasing aid transparency and taxpayer involvement in how and where aid is spent.

Overall many of the policies outlined in the document are light and suffer from some deficiencies. For example, while much is made about linking aid to results on the ground, not much of a policy is forwarded for achieving development that is non-measurable in scientific terms.

With the ‘Cash On Delivery’ policy, countries that most need aid (i.e. those countries that are unable to achieve the set measures of progress) will get less aid, while those that demonstrate signs of being able to support their own development will be given more aid.

The emphasis on quantity (which in development may only be an indicator of short-term success or failure) rather than quality (which if achieved has more long-term development effects) is myopic.    

The ‘My Aid Fund(£40 million in its first year) that gives taxpayers a chance to vote on where and how aid is spent is a gimmick and trivialises development.

On more long- term sustainable development, the green paper advocates wealth creation through the private sector, but is sketchy on how the private sector can be developed in recipient countries and its limits as an instrument of national development.


Becoming a five star citizen

I was going to try and write something about my mate Phil Woolas' [1] latest nonsense but then I read Shazia Mirza's comment here and decided she says it beautifully.

Of course even if you don't really care about how new British Citizens get passports, it's worth thinking about what it might mean for anyone who is British born. If the kind of behaviour that is expected of someone undergoing naturalisation is going to be assessed, then how long before we all get assessed about how good we are as citizens. Maybe, in 10 years time, we'll have our identity cards with star ratings, a bit like McDonalds used to do for their staff. Citizen of the month?

Hmmm. How many stars do you think I'd lose for writing this?

[1] If I bothered to use tags on my posts it would be easy for you to chart the course of the friendship. Seeing as I don't, have a look here and here.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

UKaid: building more empty classrooms...

DFID recently published it's new white paper on development "Building a Common Future". Apparently development helps us all. Especially if we can put a UK label on the bits that we do. I wonder how much money was spent on making the nice new "UKaid" logo and for that matter on sending little leaflets out to DFID stakeholders? Anyway...

The plan is, amongst other things, to get millions more kids into school and millions more bed nets. What it's kind of light on is quite how it's going to do that.
I don't doubt DFIDs ability to create school places and ship bed nets to foreign lands. What I doubt is its ability to keep those kids in school for more than 5 minutes and to ensure that those bed nets get, free of charge, into the homes that need them.

The same week that the strategy was published, this was put out by the BBC: seems they may be questioning the same thing.
Pa Koroma makes a poor case for himself by appearing to say that yes, funds do go astray, but perhaps if you gave us more, then a few might get to the right place.
And the DFID representative suggests that there is a point in time where the young people of Salone will reach crisis point, but when pressed, he doesn't really know how long and then suggests 5-10 years. I'd be inclined to suggest this might have happened 19 years ago and they're not out of it yet.

The sad problem is, that DFID don't really know enough about the countries that they work in to be able to deliver money effectively. Receiving governments can't confidently take money from them because they know that it isn't going to go where they say it will. And BBC journalists make reports about places and can't even pronounce the name of the place correctly, or in fact give the president his proper name - just how much do they really learn about the place when they can't get this right!

We need some new solutions. Because DFID may well be funding thousands of new classrooms and new teachers but it clearly has no idea how that is impacting on how many children end up in long term schooling. Which surely is the point?

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