Friday, September 14, 2012

Punish those evil greenies using solar power!

Here’s an interesting statistic which might inform what follows: Queensland has 200,000 solar PV installs in a state with 1.5 million homes – about 13%. In the 2010 federal election, the Greens received 12.7% of Queensland’s Senate vote…

The Queensland Government is quickly going from gimlet-eyed to wild-eyed, an imitation of cartoon villains lurking in dark basements and giving the kind of laughs you used to have to hire Vincent Price to get.

In fact, Jafar, or even Zigzag (Aladdin and The Princess and the Cobbler, respectively, both voiced by the late Vincent) seem to offer up models of the kind of plotting and scheming, the “drop a surprise on them”, that Cambell Newman is indulging in.

The latest relates to solar power, which I discovered at Climate Spectator and wrote up for The Register here.

The short version: there’s a proposal for the government to change the way the energy market operates. Queensland home-owners who have installed solar power would, under the proposal, be required to sell their power to the government at a regulated low rate, and be required to buy from the government at a regulated higher rate.

What they would not be allowed to do is treat the output of the panels on their roof as their own.

It’s unbelievably coercive. If I were a Queenslander (which I’m not), a solar power user (which I am), and connected to the grid (not) … well, I’d be considering unplugging from the grid entirely, buying a bunch of batteries, and seeing if I could get through the nights without an interface to such a kooky government.

The discussion document is here, but it’s pretty much too late for any submissions, since comments close Monday (it was in a locked cupboard in a basement, sign saying “beware of the leopard”, you know the drill).

You know: turning off lights if you’re not in the room. Getting energy-efficient products. Sleeping on a mattress instead of an electrically-heated water-bed. Stuff like that.

And why does this arise?

Remember that this isn’t just any conservative government: it’s setting a standard for foam-flecked rabid-mouthed ranting that Rush Limbaugh would have to admire.

Yet there is a genuine, rational economics alternative to coercion: structure tariffs so that they accurately reflect costs. Make the price of access to the network accurately reflect the cost, instead of cross-subsidising network access out of the usage fees.

That, however, would mean abandoning the ideological crusade: solar equals greenies and greenies are godless and evil.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Anonymity’s legitimacy under threat from cowards

The “Twitter trolling” debate in Australia is becoming a tragedy of the micro-commons.

If you find Dick Smith and Joe Hockey in foreplay-like agreement, you know you’re in trouble – but that’s what happened on ABC 702 Sydney’s Drive program Monday afternoon when the subject of “trolling” came up.

Both of them are against anonymity, and that’s a worry, because you’ve got a very broad spectrum of political thinking following the “no anonymity” idea.

I’m possibly in a minority, but I like mad old Dick the ratbag. He’s one of the few genuine high-profile ratbags Australia has left (Clive Palmer is starting to show promise). I don’t agree with his politics, I buy his peanut butter because my sons like it, and I love his possum-stirring, even when I think he’s wrong.

Hockey? If I was drawing lots on a desert island to see who went in the pot, I wouldn’t vote for him.

And they’re in agreement on anonymity?

We’re in trouble.

See, I don’t post anonymously, and I hate the “Anonymous Coward” (TM to Slashdot) that abuses anonymously, but anonymity matters – sometimes for good reasons.

Good Reason 1: Political oppression

It comes in many flavours. It may be because you live in Egypt, but it might also be that in America, your workplace sees fit to demand a particular vote. In Australia, you might just want to express a right/left view when you know you’re subject to a left/right supervisor/boss/arsehole/bitch who can’t sack you, but can make you miserable.

Good Reason 2: Whistleblowing

There’s absolutely no challenge here. A whistleblower – someone exposing real political or business corruption – deserves anonymity. A good journalist suffers gaol rather than reveal a source; that, for me, suffices as a benchmark.

Good Reason 3: Your employer

Since Senator Conroy, Joe Hockey, and for good measure, Barry O’Farrell, haven’t cottoned on: some employers take extreme exception to things their employees or potential employees might have said online.

Hell, employers do Facebook searches – which probably explains why my sporadic attempts to become a staffer fail (I don’t have a Facebook page, immediately suspicious). So I can perfectly understand that anyone might think there’s things they don’t want the boss to know – not just political (Good Reason 1), but social, religious, marital, sexual – anything, really.

Bad Reason: You’re a sockpuppet

I include this category in the next one.

Bad Reason: You’re a dickhead

The problem is this: the dickheads are commanding the public debate. All the good reasons for anonymity are being dragged down by dickheads hiding behind fake IDs either because they’re desperately insecure hyper-sensitive hate-mongers – in short, losers – who want to spray at Aborigines, Jews, celebrities, anyone that offers an easy target and a big audience. If you slag off Charlotte Dawson, Robbie Farah – or, better, Stephen Fry – your Tweet lands in front of a great many eyes.

Or you’re hiding your identity so you can slag off people or causes in the pay of someone else – climate sceptics, “big oil”, a political party, whatever – and you’re just another dickhead.

The problem is, one bad reason has suddenly become the Trojan that undermines all the good reasons – partly because some of the sponsors of bad reasons resent the good ones. Employers want absolute control over all aspects of their employees’ lives – all of those “benefits” Google provides equate to keeping the sheep penned. Everybody hates whistleblowers, even after they’re proved right. Political parties detest their opponents so desperately they seek to deny the legitimacy not just of ideas, but of debate over ideas.

And in all of this, the smallest minds, the narrowest viewpoints, the littlest vocabularies – these have taken command of the public debate.

Twitter’s “tragedy of the commons” is that its commons is polluted by people who defecate without fertilizing: they only pollute. They give aid and comfort to the worst impulses of control – as I’ve said elsewhere, either paraphrasing or quoting mad Nietzsche, “For your own good” expresses the will to power – without saying anything worth saying or defending.

Detesting the citadels of the powerful, the trolls, bullies and abuses burn the houses of the weak. How depressing is that?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cut the RFS? Newman is barking mad

...Or so appallingly, bloodlessly, gimlet-eyed cynical that in service of the chimera of ideology, Newman is willing to kill real, living humans.

I don’t know that Campbell Newman, Queensland’s Bastard Premier from Hell*, has ever stood in front of a bushfire up close. I suspect not: because if he had, he wouldn’t hack the head off the Queensland RFS.

Let’s go back a bit. There was a time when the volunteer bushfire brigades only received the barest of bare-bones formal, organized, full-time staff support from governments. Those were the days when crews would argue for the fun of riding on the running-boards next to the water-tanks, holding onto a handrail – on the Great Western Highway, if we pleased.

What ended that era? Burned, dead bodies. The most famous event I can recall was 1980, when the Waterfall brigade lost five members. There were others.

Over time, it became clear to governments around the country that the volunteers needed professionals at the top, most of all to try and stop volunteers dying in fires. At the time, volunteers were offended: but the death-rate did fall – and fire-fighting got better along the way.

Newman needs to understand, but never will, that standing even close to a wall of fire is as close to warfare-terror – and as outright dangerous – as will ever befall most civilians (especially in large numbers).

It certainly was so when I left a haircut in – 1978? 1979? – because the radio carried a general call: all available volunteers were wanted on Tableland Road, Wentworth Falls, with a fire approaching from the west. There were two aged care facilities there at the time – Mount Bodington and Queen Victoria Hospital – and not enough ambulances to evacuate them before the fire was expected to arrive.

So. Arriving volunteers were being farmed out to brigades as they turned up – instead of being with our normal crews. Had there been staff professionals in charge of everything, that might have been a better idea; as it was, it was damn lucky that nobody died on the ground.

I think – but really couldn’t guarantee my memory – that I ended up with a crew from Blaxland. And we, like every other crew, were in a thin yellow line facing westwards at the edge of Mount Bodington Hospital.

I’ve just had to consult a map to try and guess where the fire was when we assembled: we saw it cross Narrowneck into the Jamison Valley; I suppose Mount Solitary was scorched along the way.

Maybe ten minutes later, we went from standing in front of a distant fire to standing in front of one that was right fucking here! If I give it an advance speed of 60 clicks, ten minutes seems reasonable.

And I can’t tell how long we worked how hard to stop the fire getting at the buildings – which we nearly won. One structure burned: the wooden mini-towers holding up large corrugated-iron water tanks. When they collapsed, they fortuitously dumped a Jesus-load of water down the hill at my – and the others from Blaxland – feet. It took care of the ground-level burns on a ten-meter-wide space, at least. The crowns still burned.

When we finally turned around, away from the burning trees that had eased back to mere fire, rather than the unbelievable roar of the fire-front, that we realized there were vehicles on fire. Some damn fool, I pray it wasn’t me, had left the window open on the tanker (an ancient thing from Bedford) and cinders blew in. That was extinguished, and the guys in the cabin got a wet bum for the drive home.

And yes, the old-folk’s home was okay. The fire-front passed; crews were reduced to free people up for the next destination of the fire, Lawson. I was told to go in search of the Wentworth Falls brigade, which I didn’t find. After all: once the crisis was over I – and a couple of hundred others – had to hike back to our cars, parked perforce out near the Great Western Highway, a goodly distance by foot from where we’d been working.

Within the hour, a girl from Katoomba High School was dead. She was caught by the same fire, trying to rescue her horses. It was only the greatest of good fortune that nobody died at Bodington defending the hospital.

Bushfire experiences leave things burned into the memory: from another fire, I can still tell you that the radio operator that saved three crews with an early “get out” warning was on the callsign VL2KL.

But what really gets me about Newman’s “cut off the head” approach to the RFS is this:

Professional coordination would have better managed the resources deployed to that fire. It probably didn’t need “every available” volunteer to get concentrated in one place, without transport back out to speed our availability at the next spot.

Professional coordination would have anticipated the next need – down at Honour Avenue, Lawson, where someone died.

And shortly later, professional coordination might have made a difference when the Waterfall crew died.

You see: the Wentworth Falls Brigade, the Blaxland Brigade, the Waterfall Brigade – and many others – were all very good, but coordination over the top of a huge operation was lacking. That was the whole point of expanding the “bureaucracy”, the professional staff, in charge at the top of the volunteer system.

Someone needs to run an incident centre – somewhere that the entire incoming information can be concentrated. The incoming mapping information, the analysis of the fire, has to come from somewhere. VL2KL saved my life, once, based on experience and a hunch – and while I don’t decry these as good things, if there are hundreds of fire-fighters from dozens of crews deployed around a fire that outstrips experience and hunches, you need to deal with data.

And dealing with bushfire data isn’t trivial: there will be, as we know from the analysis of various disasters over the years, hundreds of reports arriving of various quality, along with predictions and models and so on.

At the very top, that needs resources: and down where the brigades are, it needs to be conveyed by someone with both the trust of the brigades, and the authority to issue orders.

Campbell Newman is completely insane if he thinks that his “reforms” of the RFS won’t result in deaths.

*I am, for those “in the know” recalling the venerable and epic satirical series, the Bastard Operator From Hell (plug: available at The Register, one of my employers). Newman has all of the malice and none of the humour.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

It's not just the victims: Twitter's "trolls" need to harden up

There’s an interesting psychological PhD to be had, and I’m not a psych student, so I’ll offer it for free to anyone who cares:

Why do so many people believe Twitter’s “block” function raises questions of free speech?

If someone subject to an attack hits the "block" button, the "troll" (hate that usage) often rises up in fake outrage. They blocked me? How DARE they?

HTFU, dude: blocking, like posting, is as close as you'll get to a "right" on Twitter. FFS: the function is built into the service. What gives you the right to dictate its use? 

(To be even harsher: I don't have to pander to someone's whining, desperate, nasty insecurities by actually listening to them. Share your inadequacies in the mutual materbatorium, I won't stop you. I just won't watch the circle-jerk.)

So: you take aim at a target, and the target doesn't idly stand by for the bullet, and now you're upset? 

HTFU: harden the fuck up. If you can't stand the push-back, you're a lame excuse for troll, bully, or abuser. You're just a wet slap with an anonymous profile, location "Web". An archetypal self-abuser, face it, dickhead, you're a loser.

If someone’s attitude offends me, I can unfollow them.

I can filter someone if they’re bugging me, or I can block them. I hit the “block” choice at least once a day, nearly always for spammers.

I apply filters routinely, sometimes because someone I follow has become obsessively noisy about something I don’t care about (a temporary sanction); sometimes to avoid someone I don’t follow from being re-Tweeted into my timeline (for example, I long ago found Annabelle Crab to be as predictable as a song from The Church, as repetitive as a catechism, and as interesting as a hammer, so even if someone wants to tell me how funny she is today, I don’t need to hear it).

But the block button is a hot button. When people suggest to someone like Robbie Farah that he should block people sending abuse at him, there’s counter-voice yelling “freedom of speech”.

There is no “freedom of speech” issue in blocking someone. They’re not being stopped from posting their Tweets: they’re just not allowed to force me to see them.

Over time, people have come to believe that “right to free speech” carries an implied “right to be heard”.

With the exception of speaking to particular institutions (such as a court or a government), nobody has a “right to be heard”. What’s happened is that an active right belonging to the individual – “I have the right to say this” – has been re-interpreted as an obligation imposed on others.

Kooks love the "right to be heard". They regularly demand of me that I hear and publish all sorts of conspiracy theories merely because once they've told me, I need to give up my judgment and tell the world about Area 51, the Illuminati, and whatever else the diseased imagination can contrive.

Once you accept the proposition that I have the “right to be heard”, you have imposed an obligation on an audience not to ignore – which is absurd. Of all the billions of people in the world, a mere handful will read this blog post. By what “right” can I demand the rest of the billions hear me?

I have no right to demand that anybody hear me. I can pretty much make myself heard in my own home, but even that’s subject to permission: my wife might tell me to “shut up”, my sons might retreat behind headphones … the rest of the world? Yeah, right.

Even in my professional capacity as a freelancer for The Register, I cannot demand, only seduce: people will read me because (by now) they know me and seek me out (always a delicious honour for any journalist), or because I drag them in with a clickbait headline, or because I chose the right story at the right moment.

I have the right to speak: you are not obliged to listen, here, on Twitter, or anywhere else.

As I discussed yesterday, Twitter doesn’t even exemplify a right to free speech: you’re on Twitter’s patch, captive to its terms of service, and if it dislikes what you do, it can kick you off.

And as for the “block” button: a “right to be heard” doesn’t exist outside of Twitter. Someone blocking you – or me – isn’t inhibiting our right to speaking, merely exercising their right to ignore us.

People following the “bully’s charter” tell “troll victims” to “harden the fuck up”, but rise up in confectionary fury when someone blocks them.

Been blocked? HTFU. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Some words about “trolling” for the adults

First, there is a difference between a troll and a dead shit who slings abuse from behind what Slashot always called “Anonymous Coward” and who, in my personal opinion, would receive a compliment if they were drowned in damp turd.

I’ve been trolled by professionals, and abused by amateurs, and it isn’t that hard to tell the difference. However, the pop press has decided to apply “troll” to people who I more readily consider dead shits, and as a bit of a language geek, I am hip to the way that usage changes meaning…

Second. About freedom of speech.

Sorry, people, but Twitter is not the same as standing up in the Domain (or Speakers’ Corner or whatever may be substituted in your locale).

Twitter looks like a public space, but it’s not: it’s a commercial service, and when you sign on, you agree to a set of terms and conditions – in other words a contract. Not only that, but – to indulge my occasional taste for pettifogging legalism – the contract is defined by American law. If you’re outside of America, tough: you clicked “I Agree”, you’re governed by whichever state Twitter’s agreement references (and no, I just can’t be bothered to check which state).

The point is this: Twitter is a private space. It’s owned. Your free speech rights – your right to say whatever you please, so long as you willingly assume the risks (such as libel) – don’t apply on Twitter, and I am perfectly happy to call you a 90-proof moron if you think otherwise.

Third: “If you don’t like it, go away”

My short response to this is “fuck off”. But I probably have to shoulder the responsibility of justifying this position.

“Get out of here” is a bully’s charter: “I/We own this patch. If you don’t like what we do, don’t come here”.

It’s like a bunch of high school dead shits saying “if you don’t want us to beat you up, don’t come to the west side of the oval”.

I don’t accept it. I don’t accept anyone’s right to bluff or shout me out of somewhere I want to be. I don’t accept that someone should have to “go somewhere else” to avoid abuse.

For example: should a woman be told to stay away from the 20-20 cricket because some drunk idiots want to grope them in the stands?

For example: should gays accept the idea that it’s their responsibility to stay away from Hay, Hell or Booligal because “this town doesn’t like pooftas”?

Even if you accept the frankly limpwit notion that some kind of absolute freedom of speech exists on a contract-controlled service called Twitter – why should the “fuck off” charter apply? Why should I curtail communicating with my friends, just because someone with neither balls nor brains – or some raisin-nutted celebrity with lots of followers and an inferiority complex – decides to nuke my account with abuse?


I’ll even go so far as this: my Twitter name is @R_Chirgwin, because if I write it, I sign it. Go ahead, anonymous cowards and dead shits all the world over: try and take me off Twitter.

You won’t. 

By the way: in response to a cogent remark on Twitter: I agree. Politicians do not and should not claim the right to regulate what people say on Internet forums. But that is probably a discussion for another post! ... 

JoNova goes nova about a judgment she hasn't read

First, the decision itself. The NZ High Court decided, last week, that it wasn’t going to intervene in science by ordering a review of NIWA’s release of climate data. The whole kit-and-caboodle can be found here.

The case was brought by the “New Zealand Climate Science Education Trust”, with its witnesses to be Dr Bob Carter, Bob Dederkind and Terry Dunleavy. They wanted to convince the court that NIWA should not have released the data because it contained errors. (During proceedings, Dr Carter agreed that the way to deal with scientific error was to publish a counter-paper, so there seems to be at least a small contradiction in his involvement in the case).

Essentially, the court decided not to intervene – that is, not to order a judicial review into NIWA’s publication of the data – because two of the expert witnesses didn’t qualify as experts, and that even with Dr Carter’s evidence, it couldn’t find any reason to suppose that NIWA had done anything wrong.

However, the decision to exclude Dederkind and Dunleavy’s evidence has outraged JoNova:

“Why did the skeptics lose? According to the news report, it was not because NIWA provided good answers, or found the missing data, but because the skeptics didn’t have “authority” to question it.”


“if “authority” is determined not by behavior, logic or quality of reasoning, but simply by government decree, then the court becomes a de facto arm of the government — because only people who are funded by the government (all “climate scientists” are funded by government) can give evidence that the court recognizes.”

Wrong on both counts.

The question wasn’t a lack of “authority”: the High Court found that Dunleavy and Dederkind didn’t meet the definition of “expert” that’s required – not be some “government decree”, but by the NZ High Court’s rules of evidence as they relate to expert witnesses.

The key rule is that any expert witness must “state the issues the evidence of the expert witness addresses and that the evidence is within the expert’s area of expertise” (my emphasis).

Dunleavy is clearly out of his depth as an expert witness: he’s a former journalist with no claim to have climate science expertise.

The refusal to admit Dedekind as an expert witness is arguably a different question: he claimed expertise as a computer modeler with some statistical ability; the court’s decision was that his “general” knowledge of statistics was insufficient for him to offer evidence in this particular case.

Note that the Court still addresses Mr Dedekind’s complaints – there are repeated references to him throughout the judgment – however, it declined to hear him as an expert witness.

Dr Carter, on the other hand, was admitted as an expert. There are several delicious discussions in the judgment that are worth digging out.

But here’s the kicker: JoNova’s complaint that there’s some government fiat – essentially a brand-new conspiracy to shut out one set of voices and listen only to “government funded” witnesses - is made without her bothering to read the judgment.

As she says: “Perhaps the judgement is quite different from what the NZ Business Review reported, but unless it is, the outcome had nothing to do with science”.

Had she read the judgment, she would have found an extensive discussion of the two non-experts’ complaints about NIWA data, and why the court decided how it did. But reading the judgment would upset the conspiracist apple-cart.