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Style or substance?

There’s a kind of balance in the fact that, having been criticised widely criticised for only talking a good game before his election as President, Barack Obama finds himself being criticised whenever he only plays a good game. Despite the relief of Bush being gone, some people seem to have an almost desperate need for American Presidents to be in clear view, striding across the globe and telling us all what’s what. For instance, Clive Crook, FT’s man in Washington comes to this conclusion about Obama’s Libya speech:

Presumably he delayed making the address to underscore the limited nature of the engagement and its goals–and maybe chose not to speak from the Oval Office for the same reason. One way or another, this intervention is a big deal. The timing and venue of the address were mistakes.

While I agree Obama should speak earlier and clearer about many things, mostly that is in regard to domestic issues such as finance and health. Regarding military action, I don’t see the argument that it is wrong to leave the more “local” nations to drive the issue. In which spirit, I left the following comment for Mr Crook:

I feel your consistent theme of, “the substance is correct, the outcome so far is the best we could have hoped for, and in conclusion I really don’t like his style,” does not suit the severity of military action.

It reminds me of those who consistently underestimated China because they tend not to announce they are going to do something even after they know what it is, let alone before. It is easy to forget just how little difference bluster and braggadocio makes in international affairs. Obama’s preference not to indulge the temptation may prove a good thing.

I would agree his communicating could have been better. To focus so heavily on it however seems unwise. It has been the case for some decades that European nations would step up only after American endorsement; we should consider that leaving them to fill a vacuum might indeed have been the best approach. Will America ever be capable of nuanced judgement regarding international military actions, if we insist they blaze a trail, lead from the front, provide the moral leadership, and all the other self-indulgent tropes of the armchair warrior?

I appreciate this is neither what you are doing, nor what you are looking for. Nonetheless, I suspect there would be an important difference in emphasis taking a theme of, “his leadership style leaves something to be desired – but more importantly the substance and the outcomes are so far proving themselves good decisions.”

The Kill Team

How U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan murdered innocent civilians and mutilated their corpses – and how their officers failed to stop them.

Anyone seeking to understand why the world’s trouble spots don’t fall over themselves in admiration for the West should find plenty of reasons in this distressing article in Rolling Stone magazine.

Truly sickening stuff. In defence of honourable soldiers – this will be partly due to what happens when the warhawks overstretch their forces and end up recruiting people incapable of fighting for hearts and minds as well as kills. Since the Iraq war, the US has significantly lowered its standards to keep troop numbers up. In the article, you see this in the background of Morlock, one of the serial psychos in uniform.

“The UN Shifts Priority from Peace to People”

There’s an excellent opinion piece by Thomas Darnstädt in De Spiegel which neatly summarises both the importance and the danger of intervening in Libya:

The intervention of some European countries and the United States in Libya’s conflict marks a turning point in international relations: The world community has shown that it values human rights over peace and that the era of the unaccountable sovereign state is over. Still, the UN’s move could have unpredictable consequences.

That is a useful description of the problem: human rights and peace are unfortunately in conflict, and sometimes a choice has to be made. This is perhaps the most difficult choice of all for a liberal society.

A refusal to engage with the issue leaves you as a moralising enabler of death and torture; eagerness leads to being a warmongering cause of death and torture.

For me, the moral question is straightforward – liberal nations should intervene to prevent large scale massacres. Peace simply does not exist in much of the world; it is unwise to make a fetish of it. “Should we?” is not the same as “can we?”, however, which is where all the problems come in.

The biggest problem here may be the Iraq war. Bush and Blair conspired to almost completely ignore the “can we?” question, outright mislead the public on the “should we?” one, and so provide any number of arguments to people who would prefer to just sit back and hope it all turns out nice.

A secondary problem for liberals is getting confused between looking to the future and dwelling on our imperialist past. It’s been sad to see, when the question of “Should we let Qaddafi slaughter the rebels?” has arisen, so many who insist on answering it in the context of Britain’s past rather than Libya’s future.

Another problem is at an individual level. I have not joined the army or otherwise put my life at risk; what right have I to ask it of anybody else?

For my part, I believe that the potential for civil war is no worse than continuing violent suppression. If Libya goes down the route of civil war or fragmentation, let it be their choice rather than an imposed one. Therefore the “can we?” question is not the utopian one of “can we prevent a messy outcome?” but of “can we prevent a dictator slaughtering his people?”, and the answer is Yes.

Libya’s future was and is uncertain no matter which decision we made, and Britain’s past actions don’t change that fact. Given the opportunity to prevent large scale killings, the Iraq war must be seen in terms of practical lessons learnt, galling as that may be for people trying to catch Blair. UN approval, international cooperation, Arab support – we are applying the lessons of the past as best we can.

Finally, on an individual level, I suspect this comes down to your approach to nationalism. The solider who has volunteered to fight – does s/he does so purely to defend the nation’s borders, or also our ideals? Does defence extend into our role on the world stage? Does what we fight for now impact our long term prosperity as a nation?

I tend to the more expansive notions. My admiration for the military stems largely from their willingness to put duty before themselves. Humanity is only slowly moving away from our track record of tribal warfare. It is a remarkable thing that our forces are willing to do so, right now, and for a foreign people they might never actually meet.

It could go either way, says Mr. Darnstädt. Let’s hope that seeking to do the right thing in the right manner delivers the better outcome.

I don’t know who you are. Just where you live.

If you’re somewhere between 8 pm and 5 am or 7am, it’s probably where you reside .. What’s cool about this is we collect no personally identifiable information.

The technology community, otherwise quite fond of the whole logic thing, manages some impressive intellectual acrobatics when arguing in favour of their self-interest. The above example is from Bill Nguyen, founder of the recently launched Color social app. It’s remarkable how one second he is hinting that his application can figure out where you live by tracking the location of the cell phone in your pocket .. but the next he’s saying he doesn’t collect any personally identifiable information.

Mobile phone IDs and home addresses are of course extremely personally identifiable. Their entire purpose is to find you and you specifically. A home address might find other people too, but certainly your mobile phone (the tag that Bill wants to use) is unique to you. It is also something you carry around with you, and that tracks your movements.

It may be the case they don’t gather your home address as such – just its latitude and longitude!

(For an example of how you can be tracked, read the story of German Green Party politician Malte Spitz, who via the court system got 35,000 records detailing his movements over 6 months from Deutsche Telekom.)

It’s this kind of complete and utter disconnection from reality that makes me wary around much of the received wisdom in the technology sector. Here’s another interesting quote from that article:

Photo sharing is not our mission. We think it’s cool and we think it’s fun, but we’re a data mining company.

If you use this app, then you are using it for photo sharing. But that’s just the hook; the purpose of the company is to gather information about you, where you go, what you find interesting, maybe even who you take photos of. At the risk of being a paranoid Luddite, I’m not entirely sure where this goes.

My personal preference is increasingly for paid services rather than advertising supported ones. For instance, I’d happily subscribe to Google in exchange for them not collecting information from me, and simply providing their search capability. It’s incredibly useful, after all. To the limited extent I use FaceBook, an annual fee and a box that says, “collect absolutely no information about me whatsover except what you need for people to send me messages, and share that with absolutely no-one,” would seem to me a fair exchange.

Instead we have a rising wave of businesses that essentially argue, “my profit relies on your lack of privacy and therefore you shouldn’t expect any.” I find myself tending to think that if privacy and profits are incompatible for these companies, then they are the ones that should give up rather than the rest of us. There’s a good chance they’d find a way to make advertising profitable without the invasive level of data gathering seen today.

Most tech advocacy groups, however, seem to think that closed services (which view you as the customer) are bad, while open services (which view you as the raw material) are good. I wonder if technophile ideologies will prove themselves a powerful force against individuality. Their ongoing explorations of doublethink are not reassuring.

Re-defining who is a friend

This is a time of real uncertainty and threat in Israel, and what we saw at the hearing is part of a larger trend of Israel turning in on itself. It is redefining who is a Jew, redefining who is a citizen and now redefining who is a friend.

The quote above comes from Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder of J-Street, the newish and moderate (read: left wing in the US) Jewish American advocacy group. Ben-Ami has basically set up in opposition to the rather more hawkish and powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) group.

For my part, I find it reassuring there is a growing belief in the American-Jewish community  that supporting Israel does not mean blindly supporting everything it does. By all accounts, however, there is a strong sentiment there that anyone who doesn’t submit to extreme right-wing views is unpatriotic.

Apparently Israel have just passed laws against saying that Israel isn’t a democracy, and allowing communities to reject potential residents. Two more steps down the road to becoming a pariah state.

I was in Hersiliia in Israel for a couple of weeks at the start of 2010, receiving training at a young technology startup I’d joined. Everyone was in their twenties, and the vibe of the young hopeful Jew was utterly different to older generations. It is easy to believe that the future holds not just the ongoing cycle of death between Israel and Palestine, but an ever widening gap between young and old Jew.

I’m a student of neither history nor Israel, but I suspect that old men of power refusing to listen to a growing chorus of dissenting youth is never a wise move. My visit was with young people excited about building a new company, about doing business in London and New York. Such people often drive the future of an economy. If you don’t have them on your side, you risk causing severe harm to the viability of your nation.

Fairer Fridays: Playing the long game

(One of a series of regular posts on the run up to the AV referendum on May 5th. As the post makes clear, I’m in favour of voting Yes. For those whom it concerns, I believe the question is either a choice between FPTP and AV –  or between standing still and electoral reform – and not what I think is the best voting system.)

Generally speaking, you can get to the same outcome by holding out for twenty or forty years to get something you believe in, or by making slow progress over twenty years or forty years. If you believe in electoral reform but not AV, you could say that the judgement call for the referendum is: is each route equally likely to deliver?

The risk for reform advocates is that the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ options could be respectively interpreted as “AV is good enough” and “I don’t want reform at all”, neither of which reflects their views. I’m not aware of any way to calculate probabilities of how each option would play out over time, either.

For what it’s worth, here’s my way of thinking about it. I suspect the general strategy of holding out works best in situations where everybody can recognise your restraint or self-sacrifice, or believes in the righteousness of your cause. For example, hunger strikes. Resisting the Romans in the siege of Masada. Brinksmanship in a tough negotiation.

Voting systems simply aren’t likely to generate much in the way of  sympathy or respect. That leaves you mostly dealing with the negativity that is always associated with holdouts. If the public decides that FPTP is good enough, it would be a decision that could easily remain in place for a generation or two. Therefore, slow progress via AV seems to me the better bet.

Women shouldn’t need to hide behind a screen

Gina Trapani (founding editor of the wonderful LifeHacker blog) has written an excellent article on women in technology. There is much excellent advice regarding inclusivity, and some great links. My headline about hiding behind a screen is a bit of hyperbole, but it makes sense in the context of some of the comments on the article. First, my favourite quote that Gina has peppered her article with:

There’s no perceived value in open source for mentoring, facilitation, disciplining of unruly users, training of newcomers or non-technical users, etc., which are needed to support both designers of any gender and women in any role.

That stands as a useful example of how diversity isn’t really about any particular subject, role or gender. It’s a message that can’t be emphasised enough, because people get hung up and defensive on issues of prejudice.

It was notable to me, for instance, that in the comments on the article (Gina links to them on HackerNews) several people rush to defend themselves or attack Gina from a general, “how dare you accuse me of sexism?” perspective, with the occasional, “I’m a woman and I don’t need to be patronised, thanks,” thrown in for good measure. In short, the standard clichés.

Having worked many years in the technology sector, I find it hilarious that some people don’t think there’s any sexism. Any field lacking some aspect of diversity will develop a commensurate prejudice in that area. Tech is male dominated; you do the math.

It’s not difficult to find in general technologist chit chat. For instance, only rarely will you see an example of Grandpa being used as an example of a tech-phobic user, as compared to Grandma or Mum. Products praised for simplicity or design – anything from Apple, for instance – will often have their popularity ascribed rather dismissively to fashion-driven, technology-limited females.

The most wonderful comments are from the people posting that the open source world isn’t sexist, because as long as you’re hidden behind an internet connection, then we can’t possibly be prejudiced by your gender. In other words, as long as you’re behind a screen, I’ll judge you on merit not gender. Hardly a reassuring point to make! The best argument against this, using race as an example rather than gender, is the black girl who decides not to use IRC (a form of online chat) because of heavy use of the n word the first time she logs in.

They didn’t know she was black. Then again, she didn’t have to feel the comments were directly aimed at her to have a problem with them. Sometimes therefore, even anonymous online cultures can prevent you from even getting a chance to judge someone on their merits in the first place.

Another would be the classic experiment in detecting prejudice in filtering job applicants for interview: it’s been shown several times that changing the name at the top of the CV (to a more “appealing” name that just might make you think white male) improves your chances of getting selected for interview. The issue is often one of unconscious bias as compared to outright prejudice, a point the defensive commenters may not appreciate.

Here’s another great example of the way many technologists (and men) think: “Honestly I couldn’t care less if people put off by blunt commentary on their contributions don’t want to participate. They aren’t cut out for it.”

I often think that the notion of intelligent, independent people generally having better things to do in their life than work with arseholes, simply never occurs to people who think like that. The fundamental issue of diversity is that it’s not really about prejudice, or even individual merit. It’s about, as Gina puts it, the fact that “homogenous teams turn out one-dimensional products. Diverse teams are better-equipped to make things that shine because they serve a wide range of people.

Having had to sweep up many a mess caused (in part) by product teams that failed to consider the variety of scenarios their software might find itself in, I heartily agree.

Diversity is inherently valuable; it requires a sense of inclusivity; almost all arguments against actively developing a culture of inclusivity are destructive rather than constructive.

On the dangers of implying women are incapable

I really don’t know how to take opinion pieces on the impact of government cuts on women, such as Zoe Williams‘ in the Guardian. In defending women, they accidentally (I hope) imply that women were hired by Labour not because they might be good at the job, but because of a top-down mandate to improve the equality statistics.

We live in a world where women get the short end of the stick. There’s a similar problem with the north / south divide she later mentions. As long as that is the case, they will benefit disproportionately from increases in government spending, and suffer disproportionately when there are cuts.

Complaining about the cuts in this manner is a sure fire way to give the right wing ammunition about the inability of idealists to understand numbers. If you think inequality exists, then you must also admit the inevitability of national changes having unequal impact. Unless you believe nothing should ever change, someone is going to be more impacted than someone else in every single budget.

No doubt Williams is enjoying that little moral thrill we all get from preaching to the converted. But reinforcing the notion of the left wing as being financially incontinent isn’t really a good idea. As is often the case with these kinds of opinion pieces, she presents complaints but no alternatives.

For winning over the swing voter, this is exactly the kind of article someone like George Osborne would want the left wing media to publish. Most women don’t like the hysterical stereotype they tend to get stuck with in my experience.

Why Women Rule The Internet

Women are the routers and amplifiers of the social web.  And they are the rocket fuel of ecommerce.  The ongoing debate about women in tech has been missing a key insight. If you figure out how to harness the power of female customers, you can rock the world.

Excellent article on TechCrunch on how patterns of conversation and commerce are being driven by the good womenfolk of our little blue-green marble in space. Yes, my fellow men, we have invented the technology to let them take over. Oh dear.

Looking on the bright side, this might mean eating out more: apparently they make the overwhelming majority of online restaurant bookings.

Looking on the serious side, perhaps one impact of this trend will be to assist women in politics. Assuming people (male and female) are getting increasing amounts of information via the web and social media, then this will suit candidates dealing with the Fawcett Society’s Four C’s: confidence, culture, cash and child care.

For all the sleaze and rage on the internet, it is one step removed from the physical yah-boo confrontation of the House. It’s low cost. It can be done from anywhere, including wherever your child needs you to be at the time. And funnily enough, all of that should also appeal to men, too. I’ve no desire to be a politician, but I am getting comfortable with this whole “sharing on the internet” thing, despite being a privacy-loving person by nature. Once my friends get used to me shifting from decades of cynicism to actually joining a political party the odd political status update might be acceptable.

None of this is new, of course, and much has been made of “internet elections” following Obama’s 2008 campaign. It hasn’t really had much of an impact. Yet. Election campaigns are different in the UK: generally fairly short, and nowhere near long enough to change the way people exchange ideas. Perhaps 2015 and fixed terms, however, will provide that opportunity for change.

In any case, I for one welcome our new female internet overlords.

Software patents: apparently the internet changes everything

The patent world isn’t really something navigable by common sense alone. Like copyright, privacy, and every other area being reinvented by the internet, it has long become a playground for lawyers, who build strange labyrinths for themselves, as oblivious to users as users are to them.

From CrunchGear, a great example of how software patents are a very unhealthy thing. It’s a bit ridiculous when a software company is suing a book store. Software patents are an obscure field of law, as the quote above describes nicely, so here’s a simple scenario to explain what exactly is going on here:

Imagine you were part of a team of bright young things – for instance, a couple of students who had just racked up tens of thousands of pounds of debt studying one of those STEM subjects you heard about at school. You have an idea for a new product, and one of the things it does is display information from the internet on a computer screen. You can even click on links to see new information. Let’s say it relates to cancer treatment, and could prove beneficial to the human race and popular to boot.

Well, Microsoft might claim a chunk of any money you make – or even put you out of business altogether – using US Patent No. 5,778,372: Remote retrieval and display management of electronic document with incorporated images. You might look at said patent – filed in 1996, several years after I started using the internet – and say, “Isn’t it a bit of an obvious idea to download documents from the internet? Isn’t it bad to interfere with people wanting to do simple, obvious things?”

And the software patent lobby would say, “No. Very innovative, really. Forget the Ancient Library of Alexandria, the idea that people want to read other people’s documents is revolutionary. And using a telecommunications network invented in the 60s to telecommunicate? Pure genius. Now pay up for trying to steal the corporation’s inventive fruit.”

I confess I’ve lost track of the status of software patents in the UK. We have traditionally not recognised them, and Europe similarly so. But despite being an impediment to innovation and disliked by many established software houses, there’s a powerful lobby that wants them put into law here as well. Why try to grow an economy when you can sue it for a percentage instead?

Although to be fair to the patent lobby, the idea of using the internet for communications purposes is still a bit radical to some people. The Lib Dems, for instance, have a working group on IT and Intellectual Property (which should include software patents) but seem to prefer physical meetings with a few people at conference to virtual ones for everyone with an interest.

That’s irony, I suppose, Alanis Morrisette style.