Friday, August 31, 2012

Gina: I win

I finished school in 1978, and since then, I have been unemployed for six weeks (not counting one blessed between-jobs interregnum when I actually treated myself to a two-week holiday with my wife).

I have worked at anything that came to hand, because it offends me not to be able to eat from my own income (or at least what credit I can raise by convincing a bank that there will be income!). I carry no grudge against the unemployed: it’s just that I so vastly prefer idleness to activity that I need a spur to my flank.

At the moment, by any normal definition, I have three jobs: I am a journalist; I am a data analyst specializing in telecommunications (tariffs and prices) and geo-analysis (which should be more valuable than it turns out to be). And I own and (with my wife) operate a small tourism business.

In the off-hours, I also care for my wife, who is seriously ill and currently living on a precarious balance between a life without treatment (which would be short) and a life with treatment (the side-effects of which, both theoretical and real, include cancers). We do what we can.

Gina: you wouldn’t know shit from sugar if you think “get out of the pub and work harder” is all you need to do to be more rich.

I can’t exactly recall my last visit to a pub: it was sometime in the 1990s. It’s not that I don’t drink: just that I never really enjoyed pubs (I don't include the family's enjoyable dinners at the Hotel Grand View at Wentworth Falls - friends all, but not the same as "some guy boozing in the pub").

Give up socializing of all kinds? Truly, I’d rather die.

Work harder? Actually, I’d lay a bet that it’s a lot harder to put in the hours for two jobs to subsidize a sometimes-marginal third business; plus raise two sane and capable sons without the help of trust funds, private schools and home help; plus cast around for extra work; plus make the tours of six – count them, six – medical specialists … than to give orders to minions.

There are treasures.

I have a blessing in my marriage. The heat of imminent death has welded my wife and I together; instead of fracturing, we cleaved. It would have been easier to separate us when life was easy: today, only unarguable necessity (say, a spell in hospital, or something with money in it) will draw us apart for even a few hours.

I have two blessings in my sons. When they were very young, the kinds of people you’d probably approve of promised us miserable criminals; instead, the elder is a stellar university student, the younger is finding his interests in late high school – and both can be relied on to work hard in the family business.

I have, as long as the bank’s forbearance and my ability to pay the mortgage both hold, the privilege to have a small slice of Australia that is as beautiful as my heart can contain, my brain comprehend or my words describe.

And I have as much work as anyone could accomplish, with or without the occasional trip to the pub.

What have I learned out of all of this?

The business of getting rich is not, and never was, about how much you’re willing to work: it was always whether you could earn more for your hour than it can possibly be worth.

I could sell myself and my corner of Australia to people like you, Gina, with only a little investment. I don’t wish to: because I can bet on a Ford Falcon carrying people who want to enjoy themselves, while a Mercedes-Benz will mostly contain whining princelings and princesses that cost more to satisfy than they’re ever willing to pay.

As I write this, people whose contracts would buy my business for cash are struggling over possession of a ball on TV. They train harder than I do, but do they work harder? Are they more abstinent (like hell)? Smarter? Or, differently to you but still comparable, were they merely favoured by genes and circumstances?

That’s just how life is. It’s not that I particularly resent your wealth: it’s merely the way of the world.

But I do resent you slinging out insults from your gilded cloister, as if you possess some understanding about life among the ordinaries – the workers, the white-collar strugglers, the blue-collars, the teachers, nurses, truckies and brickies – that is unique to you alone.

Partly through some examples that I had the fortune to study up close, I learned and rejected the secret of great wealth.

You only need one characteristic (apart from luck): the capacity to devote every brain cell, every waking moment, every thought and energy to one objective: the accumulation of money.

I have few close friends, but I would not sell any of them for one mining lease.

I have one wife, and for the time we have left together, I intend to treasure it.

My sons amaze me, and I would rather eat soap than alienate them over cash.

And even if I lose my corners of Australia, I will still know where they are and why they matter.

Gina: I have little to give up.

But what I have, you cannot possibly buy.

I win.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Anonymity and abuse: together forever

Trolls and flamers have been with us as long as Internet anonymity. At every step, they’ve provided aid and comfort to those who try to block anonymous communications.

The Internet didn’t always offer anonymity. The demarcation between user and host was deliberate, but not for any lofty “First Amendment” reason. The early Internet was built around computers that supported many users; it was a pragmatic piece of engineering.

Anonymity was something that emerged, grew, was debated – and has always been in danger by the malicious, the evil, the stupid.

Courtesy of Google, I find that the venerable Link e-mail list over at ANU doesn’t record any strong debate about a right to Internet anonymity until 1996.

Let’s grab some rough time periods:

The 1980s: You (mostly) weren’t anonymous

The Internet was mostly academic; you connected as a user at a university. Even in America, the first ISPs emerged late in this decade. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) emerged in 1988. What anonymity existed was confined to the relatively small Internet community.

The 1990s: Emergent anonymity

Most people were “kind of” anonymous as the Internet grew: they were lost in the crowd, and their Internet identities (like their e-mail addresses) didn’t necessarily reflect their “real names”.

IRC became the focus of early anonymity debates. Here’s a paper ( from 1991 which notes that:

“The lack of self-regulation amongst users of IRC can be both positive and negative, as far as interaction is concerned. The safety of anonymity can "reduce self-consciousness and promote intimacy" between people who might not otherwise have had the chance to become close. It can also encourage "flaming" … the gratuitous and uninhibited making of "remarks containing swearing, insults, name calling, and hostile comments."”

Bruce Sterling, in 1992, quoted 1990 newspaper reports about hackers using the “relative anonymity” (my emphasis) of their computers (not, however, absolute anonymity) in his book The Hacker Crackdown.

An early and popular anonymous message relay server was set up in Finland in 1992, for example, as is discussed here.

According to Wikipedia, the cartoon that probably epitomizes anonymity was published – “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog” – came from 1993.

I’ve picked out these highlights to illustrate the emergence of the debate about anonymity. Most people understood that computers were relatively anonymous. What emerged by the second half of the 1990s was a debate pro-versus-anti: “is anonymity a right?”

If anonymity is a right, it only has that status because people worked to make it so – and it’s a right that can be withdrawn or limited by governments, if they’re given a reason.

If you view anonymity as a right, it’s one that took some time to become truly accessible to the ordinary Internet user – and it’s all too easily denied by authorities.

Which is why I regard the kind of people who use anonymous Twitter accounts (registered in seconds, location “The Web”) to abuse and victimize others to be fools.

What’s happened to Charlotte Dawson is the kind of behavior most likely to erode what anonymity that exists.

Few things inspire legislators better than a cause celebre.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Defending what’s true against what’s fair

The problem with regulating journalism is that it will mostly protect the wrong people – because the biggest failings with journalism happen when it decides to be too “fair” to people, and unfair to the truth, or to the reader.

Neither today’s Press Council system, nor what is proposed by the government, will do a damn thing to – as Twetter and blogger Mr Denmore puts it – protect the public.

To quote him fairly: “Just as the bill for banks' risk-taking is left with taxpayers, damage from lousy media standards is felt by the public they claim to defend”

This is perfectly true. Unfortunately, the main ways in which the public can be protected aren’t touched by media regulation.

I give you two examples, one hypothetical, the other real.

The Hypothetical

Imagine that a new “faith healer” arises somewhere near, say, Byron Bay. Possible media responses include ignoring him; denouncing him; hailing him; or “playing it straight” – giving the faith healer a platform with a handful of experts to offer “balance”.

The only sane options – the ones that don’t put your readers at risk of dying of cancer, for example – are to ignore the quack, or denounce him. Denunciation will almost certainly bring down the wrath of a regulator charged with upholding the nebulous values of “fairness” and “balance” rather than truth.

Meanwhile, a journalist who hails the quack as a savior will never suffer the wrath of a regulator; nor will a “balanced” journalist – but both of these will write the kinds of stories that will one day kill people.

The Real 

When Tim Johnstone of FirePower fame first claimed to have a pill that would give you 100 miles-per-gallon performance (just add it to your petrol tank!), there was only one simple piece of research that any journalist needed: find a university chemist and ask him.

Nobody did. Until the whole thing came crashing down, there was no interest in debunking – or, equally effective in the presence of a quack, ignoring – the story. Instead, a host of “business” journalists (which all too often means “stenographer to CEOs”) wrote about Johnstone’s deals, and sports journalists (which nearly always means “off in the dumb kids’ ghetto”) documented his sports sponsorships.

The deals and sponsorships were build on shit: there was no technology, merely a lame attempt to build a Ponzi scheme on the back of brain-donor investors and AusTrade money.

As with quack medicine: journalist could have refused to publicize the scam; they could have (and did) hailed it; they could have denounced it; they could have (and did) try to “play it straight”.

Nobody ignored the story – once there’s “a story”, it doesn’t get ignored, because the editors (all of whom need to be emasculated for their willingness to publicize FirePower before the fall) can just assign the story to some other sucker*.

(*When the story comes with champagne, air travel, celebrity brush-with-fame and glad-handing, few journalists let it be assigned to someone else.)

Some hailed it; some “played it fair”; both varieties were responsible for helping suck investor dollars into a lie.

Until Gerard Ryle, nobody went for the jugular. Nobody denounced Johnstone outright. Nobody denounced the non-science behind his claims.

Until FirePower’s collapse, as far as I can tell, neither the existing nor the proposed media “regulation” regimes would have defended the public. Johnstone would have had a better chance at arguing he’d been treated “unfairly” than a journalist at defending “truth”.

And: neither the existing nor the proposed media regulation environments give a member of the public a comeback against damage caused by a publisher peddling utter shit in the pursuit of clicks.

Any close reading of the Press Council’s decisions will hint that the Tim Johntones of the world can play “fair” as a trump card over “true”. Politicians can bluff the council four hands out of five. Neither is a good argument for any kind of media regulation beyond the laws of defamation.

Anybody can get an outright lie up in the mainstream press, and get it a good hearing, and wrap the Emporer’s cloak of “fairness” as an unvulnerable defense. Who defends the truth?

The dark side of import price rorts

Oh good: now price discrimination is getting drafted into the politics of how to squeeze low-paid workers.

It’s unfair to single out Lenovo simply for following the rest of the industry in gouging Australian customers. If its products are priced 60% higher here than in America, that’s simply normal vendor practice.

The usual reasons are trotted out in,lenovo-defends-60-percent-aussie-tax.aspx this CRN piece – “warranty, margins, channel and support”.

Since the Productivity Commission isn't convinced by these arguments, I don't see any reason to be. Worse: those with a drive-down-wages agenda want to draft retail prices into their political agenda.
Peter Reith – former Howard government minister, defender of Work Choices, and uncured sufferer of Relevance Deprivation Syndrome – told the ABC this morning that it was necessary to cut retail wages so as to help local companies compete with international purchases over the Internet.

For some reason, he didn’t think that price discrimination – the simple “whatever a market will bear” approach to geographical price-setting – is significant, even though it’s been identified by the Productivity Commission as the most convincing reason for the way the Australian market is slugged.

Then there's the question of price discrimination for products that exist only in the digital world. If a product leaves a California data centre for an Australian customer, you can’t blame retail staff prices for markups that might land it here at ten times the US street price.

The IT industry isn’t the whole story – practically any industry plays the same game. But I wonder if, as the industry currently in the spotlight, the IT sector wants to find itself drawn into the “Reith strategy”?