Archive for October, 2008

Obama vs McCain Dance-off

October 24, 2008
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Photo of the week

October 17, 2008

What on earth is going on here?

Courtesy of Huffington Post.

The Shackles of Civility

October 16, 2008

I’m in a bind.

I joined a book club, mostly out of boredom – there’s nothing else to do here.  At first, I didn’t think I was going to enjoy talking about books, but I do!  The other book club members throw words like “deracinated” into casual conversation!  I felt like a swan indoctrinated in duckness discovering my lost tribe for the fist time.  I love words.  Big words, small words, foreign words, swear words – practically any assortment of words strung together fills me with an intoxicating joie de vivre.  Other people who read know a lot of words, and they know how to string them together.

It’s a sizable group, and the club is brilliantly organised.  So well, in fact, that we have a dyed-in-the-wool bestselling author coming to our next meeting to talk about her book, which I finished on the weekend.

Here’s the problem:  the book was rubbish. However, since I’m going to meet the author, I can’t bear to say anything bad about it.   What if word gets back to the writer that I didn’t like her book and it makes her feel sad?  What if she catches my eye at the book club meeting and deduces from my swiftly averted glance that I have been spreading toxic reviews of her work all over town?  I am weighed down by my heavy secret and my guilty conscience. 

I know from experience it is very difficult to write an entire book.  You think you’re doing fine, sticking with the plot you laid out on the index cards, then suddenly the shit hits the fan.  Characters start dying off unexpectedly.  Before you know what hit you, your heroine is huddled in a catatonic trance while a torch-bearing mob attempts to kick in the door to her haunted flat.  Her baby is playing with something disturbing and unidentifiable he found up the chimney and you, the writer, don’t even know what it is.  And you’re only forty pages in!  So you just leave it and start another book.

In appreciation of the difficulty involved in stringing that many words together and coming up with something coherent, I don’t want to hurt the writer’s feelings by not liking her book, even here, anonymously, without even naming it.  How can I conceal my disdain at the next book club meeting?  Should I just stay home and read Haruki Murakami?  Or should I go and ask loads of questions about book-finishing strategies for writers instead of talking about the book itself?

From the department of facile metaphors

October 6, 2008

On a discussion forum I participate in, the question arose, “if the media blamed the bailout not being passed for the stock plummet that followed, why did it plummet again after the bill was passed?”

The wealth the markets are losing never existed to begin with: All the wildly swinging ups and downs in the stock market are evidence that investment bankers are playing hot potato.  They are looking for a New Bubble that can replace the housing bubble, just as hyperinflated house prices took over from the IT crash, but there is no new bubble anywhere in sight – although there might have been if we had committed to green energy a decade ago.

When house prices return to their real value, projected to bottom out around 2010, all that fictitious wealth – the difference between the real value of housing and the hyperinflated value that resulted from deregulation and bad lending – will just be gone. Until then, investors are madly and pointlessly shifting capital around the world, looking for somewhere it will at least be safe, if not grow – but no such place exists.

What we are seeing is a high stakes game of musical chairs. We all have to to keep running in circles until the music stops and another bank or industry goes down, then the world’s governments borrow a few more trillions from future generations to get the music started and the whole thing starts all over again with one less chair.

A lot of the the economic theory behind my perspective comes from this article by Eric Janszen.  The article contains an anonymous quote from an early 18th century South Sea Bubble pamphleteer that stuck in my head:

One added to one, by any rules of vulgar arithmetic, will never make three and a half; consequently, all the fictitious value must be a loss to some persons or other, first or last. The only way to prevent it to oneself must be to sell out betimes, and so let the Devil take the hindmost.

I googled the quote and came up with a book: The Far East and the English Imagination By Robert Markley.  The quote appears on page 222, along with a few other insights into the whimsical origin of growth based economics, most of which I am too lazy to retype.  Here’s a small morsel:

As early as the 16th century, “stock” became not merely an inventory of existing commodities but a representation of potential wealth, of returns yet to be realized.  What becomes “infinite”… is not the daily or annual production of specific estates or shipyards but the potential for that production to continue indefinitely if it is imaginatively freed from ecological, social and political constraints.

I understand why this model of economics would seem reasonable in the 17th century, when resource-rich virgin territories were being rapidly colonized, but now we must have a reality-based economic paradigm.  It’s time we relegate this fanciful nonsense to the annals of history, where it can live on as a quaint relic of the past – rather than the rope with which we hang ourselves, our planet and our descendants.

The Suppression of Reasonable Voices

October 5, 2008

There’s no doubt the global economy is undergoing significant changes with far-reaching, unknown consequences.  Tens of trillions of dollars of fictitious wealth will need to vanish from the books of financial institutions around the world before stability can return to banking and international trade.

The panic, hysteria and hyperbole in the media are reducing the likelihood of a smooth and relatively painless transition.  Drastic, ill-conceived measures like the 700 billion bail-out are not based on research or reason, but on fear.  As a society, we make fear-based decisions at our peril, and the outcome is never attractive.

It’s essential that we seek out reasonable voices to explain the roots of our economic troubles and lay out research-based strategies for mitigating the impact of these vanishing trillions from world markets on our daily lives.  The mainstream media is not going to help us in this respect; it is an echo chamber of “conventional wisdom” that still ascribes to the religions of free market capitalism, growth-based economics and the globalisation of trade and regards any effort at debate as a dangerous display of ignorance.

Reasonable and informed commentators do exist.  Glenn Greenwald at Salon.com puts out a veritable feast of them in his effort to to address the accusation that we are ignorant or incompetent if we can’t see the necessity of socialising economic risks while leaving gains in the bumbling hands of the private sector.

Gordon Bigelow addresses the evangelical religious roots of our economic model in an article at Harpers.org.

Dr. Albert Bartlett puts the built-in self destruction of growth-based economics in a mathematical context in a lecture available on YouTube.

The IMF has released a research paper that directly contradicts the doctrine that tax-funded bailouts are beneficial to long-term economic recovery and considers the historical outcome a number of alternative measures.

Existing empirical research has shown that providing assistance to banks and their borrowers can be counterproductive, resulting in increased losses to banks, which often abuse forbearance to take unproductive risks at government expense. The typical result of forbearance is a deeper hole in the net worth of banks, crippling tax burdens to finance bank bailouts, and even more severe credit supply contraction and economic decline than would have occurred in the absence of forbearance.

We who will be stuck with the bill for any measures our governments take to stabilise capital markets should not tolerate the absence of debate or the suppression of dissenting voices.  We must not allow our legislators to rush through unsound policies in reaction to the panic of business columnists and investment bankers.  We must not accept without critical examination that a lack of swift, thoughtless and costly measures to rescue our crumbling banking institutions will result in catastrophic losses for us all.

There is never a better time for reason, research, caution and critical thinking than in the midst of a crisis of this magnitude and complexity.  The US has passed their thoughtless bailout package, and if the IMF is correct in their analysis, the impact will only make things worse.  For the rest of us, we should encourage our governments to be more cautious.

How does the UK National ID Card violate the Data Protection Act?

October 2, 2008

Let me count the ways…

The Data Protection Act of 1998 prescribes eight principles of Data Protection all organisations that collect and process personal data must apply.  It also requires these organisations to take adequate measures to ensure all staff are trained in and understand the application of these principles.

It seems the Labour government has been negligent in their Data Protection training, since as far as I can see, the National ID card scheme being rolled out in the UK violates all eight of them.  Let’s consider these principles one at a time.

1 Personal data shall be processed fairly and lawfully and, in particular, shall not be processed unless-

(a) at least one of the conditions in Schedule 2 is met, and

(b) in the case of sensitive personal data, at least one of the conditions in Schedule 3 is also met.

In brief, the Schedules referred to above require that the “data subject” (that’s you or me) gives consent, or that the processing is necessary for the performance of a specific legal or contractual obligation.

In the case of the National ID card, which will initially record the fingerprints of all UK residents (with the possible future addition of retinal scans and who knows what else), the ID Cards Act contains no specific legislative or contractual justification for its existence.  On top of that, the card is intended to be a compulsory piece of identification, which handily trashes the requirement of obtaining our consent.

2 Personal data shall be obtained only for one or more specified and lawful purposes, and shall not be further processed in any manner incompatible with that purpose or those purposes.

Here, the Labour government has argued that a National ID card will help combat identity theft.  I mean terrorism.  I mean illegal immigration.  In other words, the government’s reasoning for collecting your biometric data is little more than a random list of issues plucked from fear-inducing tabloid headlines.

Well, which purpose is it?  In order to comply with the Data Protection Act, the government not only has to choose, but also demonstrate that collecting the fingerprints of Cockney pensioners reduces the risk of foreigners trying to sneak into England in the back of a yoghurt lorry. Or it must demonstrate that maintaining a database of British fingerprints can combat identity theft – most of which is only possible because of the careless handling of personal data by the organisations that collect it.  Like, for example, the government. Or they will have to present some evidence that “the terrorists” are using phony ID, and can be stopped by having to give fingerprints in order to get it.

3 Personal data shall be adequate, relevant and not excessive in relation to the purpose or purposes for which they are processed.

The Identity Cards Act (2006) has tried to get around this obvious violation by making the “purposes” preposterously vague and far-reaching.  Surely no reasonable person can argue that building a national database of the biometric data of tens of millions of law-abiding UK residents is “relevant” to the job of ferreting out lawbreakers: all the criminals need to do is wear gloves and they can carry on with their lawbreaking, secure in the knowledge that police will be suspicious of everyone but them.

This principle is also blatantly violated by the government’s vision that the card can and should be required for access to a potentially infinite range public or private services from opening a bank account to visiting your GP.  Presumably any information regarding your use of these services will be stored in the chip along with your personal details, potentially accessible to anyone with a card reader and a taste for mischief.

4 Personal data shall be accurate and, where necessary, kept up to date.

Well, at least they have one principle wrapped up.  I suppose they can’t get much more “accurate” than all ten fingerprints.  Or can they?

5 Personal data processed for any purpose or purposes shall not be kept for longer than is necessary for that purpose or those purposes.

It’s impossible to meet this obligation when there is no specific purpose for the data collection and no fixed parameters for who can require this information from you and why.

6 Personal data shall be processed in accordance with the rights of data subjects under this Act.

Epic Fail of a magnitude best illustrated by a metaphorical video interlude.

(courtesy of failblog.)

Moving right along…

7 Appropriate technical and organisational measures shall be taken against unauthorised or unlawful processing of personal data and against accidental loss or destruction of, or damage to, personal data.

Considering this government’s track record over the past year alone, it’s more than fair to point out that entrusting them with your sensitive personal data is quite a gamble.  To recap, here are a few highlights of the UK government’s spectacular incompetence when it comes to protecting sensitive information:

Secret terror files feft on train

MoD laptop stolen from McDonald’s

More MoD laptops thefts revealed

Personal data found on roundabout

Lost medical data is kept secret

Millions of L-driver details lost

Lost in the Post – 25 million at risk after data disks go missing

UK military says 3 disks of soldiers’ data lost

The list is nowhere near comprehensive, but it does illustrate the most important point to consider about effective data security:  the government can’t lose what the government doesn’t have.

Despite all the scrambling apologies, self-flagellations, punishments and policy reviews, the fact remains that collected data poses a security risk primarily due to the fact that it was collected and stored in the first place.

No matter how rigorous we public servants attempt to be in our adherence to security policy, and no matter how punitive the measures for reparation, accidents happen. The volume of information we juggle in our paper files, laptops, memory sticks, hard disks and unsecured databases; the extent to which we are required to pass it around between internal departments, contractors and public-private partnerships; the endless implementation of new software and technology that in most cases outpaces our ability to adapt our security procedures guarantees that accidents will happen.  They are unavoidable.  People make mistakes.

The government might also wish to consider the fact that at present, the ID card database can be accessed with a user name and password.  Just like Sarah Palin’s personal email.

8 Personal data shall not be transferred to a country or territory outside the European Economic Area unless that country or territory ensures an adequate level of protection for the rights and freedoms of data subjects in relation to the processing of personal data.

According to the ID Cards Act, “The Secretary of State may, without the individual’s consent” provide your ID card information to the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service.

It’s anybody’s guess who they’ll be sharing it with, but I assume the United States isn’t likely to be ruled out.  Bush’s wiretapping program, widely acknowledged to be a violation of the country’s own privacy laws, clearly demonstrates the US does not “ensure an adequate level of protection for the rights and freedoms of data subjects”.

If the blatant illegality of the National ID Card scheme is not enough to convince the UK abandon it, we can also consider the fact that they don’t work.

The Biometric Assurance Group (BAG) says officials may struggle to cope with the number of false matches, which could run into tens of thousands.

Everyone applying for a passport from 2010/11 will have to submit to a digital fingerprint scan, with the prints to be stored on a database.

They will then have a choice of a passport or ID card which the government says will help them to prove their identity when challenged by the police, border officials or in some commercial transactions such as with banks.

Any false matches – which could result in the wrong person being arrested or prevented from entering the country – will be dealt with manually.

(emphasis added).

What a relief!  While the collection of your fingerprints will be automated and involuntary, if you have the misfortune to be erroneously nabbed at some godforsaken border crossing and shipped off to Guantanemo Bay on the basis of this information, your case will be dealt with “manually.”  Just think how comforting it must have been for Maher Arar to know his case of mistaken identity was being dealt with “manually” when the US nabbed him on the way home to Canada and shipped him off to Syria to be tortured for a year.

As a foreigner living (legally) in the UK, I wonder how long it will be before I have to call in for my mandatory fingerprinting, and whether there will still be any airlines at that time so that I and my future earnings can fly back home.

UPDATE:  As it turns out, I am not alone in my assessment.  The Information Commissioner seems to agree.  So I might not have to move home after all; I can potentially fight for my right to privacy in court, and quite possibly win.  How embarrassing that would be for a government that has already committed billions of pounds to the ID card act and spent tens of millions of pounds implementing the conflicting DP act.  Which will they choose?

Neo-Con Bootlicker Borg Mind Exposed

October 1, 2008

I’m too giddy with vindication of my doubts about Harper’s character, (not to mention wisdom, loyalty, ideology and integrity) to comment, so I will let him speak for himself.  (Well, sort of.)

Update:  I can’t help noticing that all the news regarding Lippert’s resignation retroactively demotes him to “aide“, “staffer“, “campaign worker“, “former speech writer” and such like.

In fact, Owen Lippert is (was?) a Senior Policy Advisor to Conservative MP Bev Oda, Harper’s hand-picked Cabinet Minister for International Co-operation (how ironic.)

As well as having a Senior Policy Advisor with a penchant for copyright violation, Bev also has an embarrassing habit of billing the taxpayer for limo rides to those hoity-toity arts galas that don’t resonate with ordinary folk like you and me.

While he appears to have resigned in disgrace from his post as “campaign worker” for the Conservatives, there is no word yet whether he has also resigned from his much more significant post as a top-rung, influential contributor to the Harper government’s policy development.