Thursday, 28 June 2012

Pay to claim your innocence

While I understand the need to give misbehaving people a slap on the wrist for antisocial behaviour (i.e. behaviour that inconveniences the majority, whether blocking the road by thoughtless parking or dropping litter), and I understand the cost argument of traditional justice. I have nevertheless always objected strongly to fixed penalties. I feel that the moment we accepted a system that punished without a proper legal redress through the courts we broke the most fundamental traditional protections and assumptions of the legal system of the country. Such charges should be recognised as (and I believe they are) illegal.

But the authorities are now talking about the next step, and that is many times worse. Under the discussion draft of the provisions of the pro-copyright/anti online piracy legislation Ofcom want to establish a ‘3 strikes’ warning principle. Copyright owners will complain to the ISP when they suspect user piracy, ISPs then after 3 strikes ISPs will pass details of the user back to the copyright holders. 

But then the sting! Anyone accused of piracy who feels they have been wrongly accused, and that of course includes everyone who is innocent, will have to pay a fee inorder to appeal. 

Irrespective of what I think about the myriad abuses of copyright laws by the media companies and the malevolent behaviour of the copyright industry in general this completely destroys any concept of justice. That someone can be accused, considered guilty, and have to pay a fee to appeal the accusation is absolutely intolerable. As always I believe the offender should pay. If guilty the offender pays a penalty, if innocent the accuser pays the appeal – that’s their penalty for making a false accusation. 

Given the bullying tactics of the copyright industry it’s even worse in this issue than it might otherwise have been. We know exactly what else would then happen, lots of fat cat salaries paid to appeal panellists paid for from the appeals fees of the innocent. It’s a recipe for authoritarian control in addition to a breach of the fundamental principle of justice.

I suspect this is ‘kite flying’, the government are trying out the idea and that if accepted the fee principle can later be applied to other fixed penalty notices, like traffic and parking fixed penalties. But whatever the motive this has to be fought.

(edited to correct my missing n in the title)

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Comparing macro and micro economics

Dickens famously wrote:
"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen, nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."

He was talking about personal or household income of course, but the same rules apply to every entity, from an individual to a country. Economists seem to have forgotten such basics.

When the household can’t get by on nineteen pounds and sixpence there are only two options, earn more or spend less. Some short term re-organization may be possible, HP may spread the cost of an essential purchase, a loan may help to survive the bumps, but in the longer run we all know you can’t borrow out of debt or borrow to spend more than your income in the long term can support. The same applies to countries.

If the household has a couple of unemployed teenagers then one solution would be for them to get jobs and increase household income, problem sorted. However making home based work for the teenagers is not a solution because to be effective the work has to generate income from outside the home. It’s no use paying them to clean their rooms and do the garden then charging them rent. That just circulates more cash while doing nothing to increase household income. Indeed just the opposite, it ties up the ‘teen labour resource’ internally so they don’t have time to bring in external income.

Scaling the principle up to country proportions the fallacy of ‘green jobs’ to ‘stimulate the economy’ is revealed as nonsense.  Power costs a certain amount. Making its creation less efficient and employing armies of people to maintain that less efficient power system does nothing to increase national income. Just like pocket money for the kids it simply passes money around locally. Also, just like the domestic micro-economic case, it ties up the labour resource. We now have thousands of people doing what is essentially domestic housekeeping to keep a basic power supply service running. Loads more lined up to install smart meters so we can use less of that energy.  The ‘green job’ can only be economically effective if it reduces the amount of money leaving the country by reducing imports, or creates external income by exporting the skills or energy.  It doesn’t, and the entire notion should have been forgotten about at that point, with any subsidies directed towards helping exporters and people bringing in foreign wealth.

Recently we are hearing more about the nonsense of PFI schemes. Again a well educated schoolchild could understand the built in fallacy of these. The building should cost the same whoever builds it, maintenance is the same whoever owns it. So adding a layer of bankers, high profit PFI firms and shareholders must cost more. It’s like our 20quid income family needing a TV set. Years ago they might have gone to Radio Rentals and rented one, that was OK until everyone realised it cost less to buy the TV, pay the HP, and after a couple of years they would own it. And being fair to Radio Rentals they were not creaming off anything like the profit levels of the PFI industry, but even then it didn’t add up. Yet our mad government have gone exactly down the high cost rental route for major infrastructure projects. 

They will no doubt try and do the same for HS2, while desperately trying to prove that saving a few hours a day (on a journey that can be done anyhow) is worth the vast bill. Ignoring that they could save many more man hours by (say) removing the hours of queuing at the Dartford M25 crossing by abolishing the tolls. To return to the domestic analogy it’s like our family deciding they want to buy a new BMW to park next to their perfect serviceable Ford Mondeo because it’s faster, instead of mending the garage door to make it quicker to open.

Governments display a pathetic and childish lack of sense over spending, applying complex economic and financial tools and theories to arrive at a conclusion that defies and ignores ordinary common sense and experience.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Positive news on ACTA

It seems that another EU committee has voted against adopting ACTA, the so-called Anti counterfeiting trade agreement that would effectively grant control of large swathes of the internet to the whims of large corporates and the copyright industry. Except of course that ACTA went much further than Internet censorship, and covered all counterfeiting, allowing customs to adopt powers to check your bags for pirated content or manufactured items. 

ACTA still has to go for a final vote but it looks hopeful that the EU parliament will vote it out, at least this time around.

The interesting thing is that all EU committees that have discussed this dreadful treaty have voted and advised against its adoption, which suggests that somewhere in the bowels of the EU there remain some people who have not yet been bought out and are prepared to defy the EU commission.

The most worrying thing is that the UK signed up to this treaty way back at the start, before it had been discussed outside the secret sessions or even had its provisions made public. That amply demonstrates the colours of our government and what they think of our freedom. 

Sunday, 17 June 2012

How to wreck progress

Over the past 400 (ish) years one of the biggest drivers of prosperity and social well being has been the ability to communicate freely. Starting with the letter post and more recently moving through the telephone era, then via fax into the internet, SMS and email age.  It has allowed economic growth by encouraging people to move to jobs and keep in touch with their families and has built our modern flexible society. The Internet has allowed trade, social innovation and ideas to travel the world with an unprecedented  pace.

It’s useful to remember that the postal system originated because Charles 1st wanted his enemies and conspirators to send letters, he encouraged them to do so but made his royal post a monopoly in 1635 so that all letters went via his offices where his officers could (and they did) open any interesting letters to ascertain the contents and keep the king informed of any plots and foreign activity in the country. Everything changes and also stays the same.

The government’s latest scheme, to make Internet network companies keep all Internet and phone message information, an announcement that was carefully slid out quietly behind a news screen of Greece, Levenson and Euro 2012 to appease forthcoming EU regulations, is intensely dangerous. You notice all the ‘reassurances’ that nothing to hide means nothing to fear. Notice also all the assurances that the authorities will only have access to the when and where of communications not to the content, but then in the small print the ‘only by court order’, so the intent is obviously to record and store all content as well. How long one wonders before they move to prohibit encryption and VPNs which would negate their system.

The danger to civil liberties and freedoms is quite obvious and is becoming discussed, but what about the danger to innovation and business? Most companies have private computer systems but what happens when an employee goes out the door? Anyone travelling to do business abroad nowadays relies on email and mobile phone. Anyone homeworking uses email and public Internet systems. Outsourcing relies on public email systems for communications between partners. How will any company or business ensure company privacy and confidentiality?

If all their communication is being recorded on a database that database will become a magnet, not just for authoritarian trolling by security services, tax collectors, police, customs and all forms of authority but it will become a magnet too for industrial espionage and for commercial dirty tricks. No remote communications will have any assurance of privacy. All this stuff about modernising health records, communicating with your doctor by email, is it legitimate to have that in a database? What about future developments? Nothing electronic will ever be secure again. How will that impact future uses and probable benefits of the Internet?

Just for comparison purposes I quote this from a BBC news item .

Reporters Without Borders said it was worried the latest effort to block access to Tor might be the first step towards creating a system that would allow the authorities to intercept any email, social network post or VoIP call made in the country.”

Which authorities you may wonder are they reporting on who want to intercept everything? They are talking about Ethiopia – that’s how far our government has sunk.

It may be that in the trivial personal sense people with nothing to hide have nothing to fear, but that does not mean that keeping something hidden cannot sometimes be a good, even an essential, requirement. Hidden does not always equate to bad.

Just in case you wondered about going back to snail mail, which has been mostly private since Charles’ time you can forget that too, the new bill includes the right to record paper mail sent and received and open it.

Friday, 15 June 2012

More government dodgy thinking

The Mail has an article outlining the new penalties for careless driving, and examples of what driving behaviour is to be considered ‘careless’.

Personally as a road user who is often appalled at the idiocy of some road users I am all in favour of making people behave safely on the road but there are a few items about the contents and vagueness of the list that give pause for thought.

Firstly they are quietly sliding new crimes into the rulebook, for example the introduction of a penalty for lighting a cigarette, reading a map or eating a sandwich.

 Lighting up is something any smoker can do automatically, and many do, especially if trapped in a traffic queue, so we can probably regard this as another, and very sneaky, move in the war against smokers. But hang on a moment! My car has a cigarette lighter. It’s on the driver’s side of the console and it only works when the ignition is on, so essentially it is a part of the vehicle and specifically designed to be used when the car is in use. Does that mean that the car manufacturer becomes an accomplice to the crime if the driver uses the supplied accessory?

And this reading a map thing. I have a sat-nav. It displays a map, because that’s what they are designed to do, but now it’s an offence if I attempt to read it while driving? Should I cover the screen? Or is a map not a map if it’s on a screen? Or maybe it’s OK if I look at it but don’t attempt to make out any letters. Such ridiculous inexactness in a statute is just asking for trouble.

As for sandwiches, what have they got against sandwiches? Presumably we are allowed to fight our way into a pack of kit-kat or a bar of chocolate but not a sandwich. Maybe currant buns are allowed? What about a pasty, maybe there is difference depending whether they are hot or cold?

And last but not least, being in the wrong lane at a roundabout. Near here they recently improved a local cross city route, linking a recently constructed road with two new by-pass sections and upgrading the bits in between. Actually it’s a great improvement except for one feature. It has roundabouts at every junction and every one has two lanes into it. Unfortunately there is no consistency about the approach lanes and some use the outer lane as a right turn lane while others use the right lane as ahead and have a left turn lane. No doubt the planners calculated the traffic levels and intent to decide which design to use at each junction, but sadly they don’t tell the drivers! It’s written on the road at the last minute but in traffic you can’t see it until you are already queuing for the roundabout. As a result every non-local driver finds themselves in the wrong lane a number of times. So if people are penalised can they name the local authority as accessories? It will be fun at the appeals tribunals.

Monday, 11 June 2012

The A9


Last week the Mrs and I drove up to the north of Scotland to visit friends. Fortunately we had decided to split the journey over 2 days, so after a pleasant evening at a border pub and overnight camp we set off for the second part of the drive with, we thought, only about 250 miles to go.

Having taken the west coast route on other recent trips we decided to use the A9, and all went well until we were approaching the Forth road bridge above Edinburgh when the signs lit up to say that the A9 was blocked and suggesting the A82, all the way back to the west. So we decided to go the other way and leaving Perth we turned east, intending to drive up through the Cairngorms, an area we hadn’t previously visited.

It took all day to get to our destination, travelling to what seemed like almost spitting distance of Aberdeen due to another road being closed for road works before we could join the Aberdeen to Inverness road and get back to the A9 for the journey further north. It turns out the A9 was closed because of a fatal accident, desperately sad for those involved and which puts our minor inconvenience of a 2 hour diversion into perspective.

Travelling home a couple of days ago we did take the A9 south from Inverness, and it made me realise what an awful and unsuitable route this is. Google suggests it’s 112 miles by road from Inverness to Perth and offer a driving time of almost 2 ½ hours, which seems about right unless, as is more usually the case, that everyone is stuck in a long slow tailback behind the slowest vehicle of the day. Almost the entire length of the road is single carriageway, and most appears to be almost entirely unimproved for decades. For most of its length there are no crawler lanes, overtaking lanes or even safe overtaking opportunities. There are a few short three lane overtaking sections towards the southern end but inexplicably most of these are in favour of traffic travelling north, even when the southbound traffic is queued uphill behind a labouring lorry or caravan. The entire journey is an exercise in frustration that positively invites the less patient and inexperienced to take risks. It’s made worse by the nature of the road. It bends and undulates causing difficult sightlines while the scale of the mountains somehow disorientates one’s sense of scale and distance, inviting miscalculation and misjudgement of speeds and safety margins.

Somewhere towards the southern end of the journey there was a 40 minute tailback because some complete pillock had decided that the day after a long holiday weekend was a good time to resurface a short length of road, the one remaining lane was left with unattended traffic lights. Needless to say when we finally passed the obstruction there was nobody working, just a missing length of top surface, temporary traffic lights and a 40 minute tailback, nothing better for getting drivers really annoyed.. 

It’s fashionable, and often justified, to complain at English roads, they are hideously congested and inadequate in places, but even they look good by comparison with the A9. When did any of us last spend 100 miles in a long nose to tail slow moving queue behind one slow lorry all the way between two major towns?

I admire Scotland, it really is a great place and I love visiting, but honestly if the authorities can’t organise a decent safe road on the main route to half the country, and employ officials who close that down to one lane on a public holiday week, their chances of making it after independence look pretty dismal. Just the addition of a few well placed crawler lanes would work wonders to relieve the frustration and risk taking.

The day we got home there was sadly another news report, yet another fatal accident involving a coach. More death and injury and more chaos for anyone needing to travel. Four people killed in a week. It’s a serious indictment of the planners that they are only now planning improvements that will take 20 years.

Photo from the Courier newspaper