Tiger Beatdown vs Australia

Tiger Beatdown is perhaps not enormously well known among the Australian poliblogs, mostly because it isn’t one, although one Australian writes for it.

But they’ve had a couple of pieces of local interest lately.

First in early October Flavia Dzodan looked into the multinational security firms that are behind a lot of immigration detention facilities and other jails:

Evidently, G4S track record of detainee safety in Australia was so poor that the government was forced to cancel the contracts. Instead, new ones were awarded to Serco, whose care of immigrants seems to follow the same sickening pattern:

At the detention center Serco runs in Villawood, immigrants spoke of long, open-ended detentions making them crazy. Alwy Fadhel, 33, an Indonesian Christian who said he needed asylum from Islamic persecution, had long black hair coming out in clumps after being held for more than three years, in and out of solitary confinement.

“We talk to ourselves,” Mr. Fadhel said. “We talk to the mirror; we talk to the wall.”

Naomi Leong, a shy 9-year-old, was born in the detention camp. For more than three years, at a cost of about $380,000, she and her mother were held behind its barbed wire. Psychiatrists said Naomi was growing up mute, banging her head against the walls while her mother, Virginia Leong, a Malaysian citizen accused of trying to use a false passport, sank into depression.

The key point for me is the question about to what extent these firms are lobbying, and successfully influencing, refugee policy. To what extent is it market maintainence?

Why ostensibly disparate nations like the US, The Netherlands, France or Australia (just to name a few), all seemed to have gotten on board with the anti immigrant sentiment at once. Why, within a short period of time, media seemed inundated with these stories of threats, fear and unrestrained menace. However, the same media that quickly exposes the threats of lawless, uncontrolled immigration rarely addresses the profiteers behind these trends. Every detainee is a point in the profit margins of these corporations. Every battered immigrant body forced to live in these conditions represents an extra income for these multi-national businesses. Nothing is gratuitous, as Mr. Buckles so poignantly said, There’s nothing like a political crisis to stimulate a bit of change. Especially if said crisis can create monstrous profits off the backs of undocumented migrants who sometimes lose their lives under the care of these corporations.

And now Emily Manuel is making the case for Occupy Australia:

I’ve lived in Australia and the U.S and I know from personal experience that the substantially lower standard of living in the U.S is something few Australians can truly understand. Things are not perfect in Australia economically – not with the astronomical housing prices – but we can’t say that the middle class has collapsed in the same way as in the U.S.

We do ourselves no favours when we uncritically mimic American models without changing them to suit local conditions. The cultural cringe is no more useful in activism than it is in other areas. The 99/1% slogan is powerful stuff indeed but doesn’t adequately address the income distribution of Australia as accurately in the United States. Activism must respond to local needs to be successful…

While we don’t have lobbyists in the same way, this is still a problem in Australia. If things have been getting so much better over the last decade, why have student fees been ballooning while full-time lecturers are replaced by casual tutors? Why is there no Medicare bulk billing? Why is the Medicare gap ever-increasing? How can the poor and working classes afford housing, in some of the most expensive markets in the world? For that matter, why do we pay student fees at all? If things have been so good, why do we deserve less as citizens than we did in the 70s and 80s? Why do we accept less?

We are blowing up the very same bubbles that have burst so dramatically in the U.S, and it is the same process of destroying the social fabric that the welfare state held together – it’s just we started off from a much better place, from a more cohesive social whole (G_d bless you, Gough Whitlam). With privatisation and economic rationalism, we have treated Australians with the same cannibalistic attitude that created the US 99%. Not citizens with rights and responsibilities any longer but consumers, markets to be exploited…

That is how well our democracy is functioning – when the top 0.02% of businesses and 10% of households won’t pay a tax for the benefit of the rest of us…

So yes: Australian apathy and irony have frequently served to protect us from U.S-style extremism, but what happens when enough people step forward to say something our political classes and media classes don’t want to hear? And what happens when we need serious changes to survive as a country and our politicians are unwilling to do anything about it? This is a problem that concerns all of us, in Australia and indeed worldwide, as we face climate change.

It is for this reason that we must have an Occupy movement in Australia that addresses the dictatorship of capital in our lives, that produces a democracy that truly centres the needs of the people. We need to protest. We need the right to protest. We need to be out in the streets to put the lie to the false consensus of the neoliberal press that there is no alternative to the status quo. And yes, we need to make sure that our needs are taken care of by our political system, even – especially – when they conflict with the needs of business. It is time that we made clear that running a “democracy” primarily for the rich is no longer a possibility in Australia.

Tiger Beatdown tends to long-form posts, so I suggest reading the originals. (And I suggest commenting there if you want to substantively engage with the arguments.)

GNOME Shell versus Unity

I upgraded my laptop to Ubuntu 11.10 today. I used Metacity+GNOME Panel through the previous version of Ubuntu as Unity crashed annoyingly on my laptop (tending to leave me looking at my background image, which is a cute picture of my son but even so) so this is my first Ubuntu version with the new shiny.

What’s annoying me right now is that they both have features I really like. I’ve only played around for a few hours so possibly one can be configured to have the good features of the other; these are from the default functionality on 11.10.

Unity: my laptop doesn’t have a lot of screen real estate, so I love the integration of the menu bar of windows into the top panel (called global menu). I like having those 20 pixels or so back!

GNOME Shell: I love the Activities mode in general! The presence of workspace previews that don’t require me to keep holding down the Alt part of the Alt-Tab combo is lovely, and the favourites menu on the left seems easier to edit than Unity’s. On the balance, I’d say I prefer GNOME Shell, but damn, global menu is a killer feature on my smaller screen. I’ll watch the global menu patch closely.

(Meanwhile, while writing this entry I discovered that Firefox’s right-click menu is broken in Unity—it disappears as soon as I move my mouse—which is a rather compelling reason to use GNOME Shell.)

Online harassment as a daily hazard: when trolls feed themselves

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Trigger warning for discussion of and graphic examples of threatening online harassment.

Seen s.e. smith’s post on blogging and harassment yet? You’re about to see it everywhere (on the social justice blogs) because it’s very powerful and true:

by the time I’d clocked around 20 threats, and was up to around 30 readers, I’d learned the art of triage. The quick skim to find out if there was any actually personal threatening information, like identifying details, or if it was just your garden variety threat with no teeth behind it. I kept them all in a little file in case I needed them later, and forwarded the worst to the police department, not in the belief they would actually do anything, but in the hopes that information would be there, somewhere, in case it was needed someday.

“I hope you get raped to death with a gorsebush,” one email memorably began. I gave the letter writer some style points for creativity, but quickly deducted them when I noted he’d sent it from his work email, at a progressive organisation. I helpfully forwarded it to his supervisor, since I thought she might be interested to know what he was doing on company time. “Thanks,” she wrote back, and I didn’t hear anything more about it. Several months later I attended a gala event the organisation was participating in and watched him sitting there on stage, confident and smug”¦

I was careful in all the ways they tell you to be, to make it difficult to find my house, for example, and most of the rape threats, and the death threats, the casual verbal abuse from people who disagreed with my stances on subjects like rape being bad and abortion being a personal matter, weren’t really that threatening in that they didn’t pose a personal danger to me, and I was rarely concerned for my safety. That wasn’t the point, though, which is what I told a friend when she got her first rape threat and called me, sobbing. I wished she’d been spared that particular blogging rite of passage, but unfortunately she hadn’t been.

“They want you to shut up,” I explained. “That’s the point of a rape threat. They want to silence you. They want you to shrink down very small inside a box where you think they can’t find you.”

And it works. I see it happening all the time; blogs go dark, or disappear entirely, or stop covering certain subjects. People hop pseudonyms and addresses, trusting that regular readers can find and follow them, trying to stay one step ahead. Very few people openly discuss it because they feel like it’s feeding the trolls, giving them the attention they want. Some prominent bloggers and members of the tech community have been bold enough; Kathy Sierra, for example, spoke out about the threats that made her afraid to leave her own home. She’s not the only blogger who’s been presented not just with vicious, hateful verbal abuse, but very real evidence that people want to physically hurt her, a double-edged silencing tactic, a sustained campaign of terrorism that is, often, highly effective.

[That is a relatively short excerpt, read the whole thing.]

I think it’s time to take a look at the reflexive “don’t feed the trolls” advice, frankly.

It was developed, I think, for Usenet (at least, the earliest known usage of the term ‘troll’ in this sense is from alt.folklore.urban in 1992, which suggests that that formulation probably originates similarly), and was adopted by email lists and blogs in due course. I’ve always been suspicious of it in the case of forums like email lists where messages can’t be recalled: some people implement it as just leaving the troll to continue sending messages into the void – except that it’s not a void. Experienced people may have blocked the troll, inexperienced people are there to be frightened either specifically by the troll or by the apparent unremarkableness of the troll’s behaviour. (This is one of the reasons I am less and less on-board with the free software community’s continued preference for public mailing lists. I like my email client a lot too, but I like spaces where harassment can be removed quickly from all reader’s view more.)

There’s certainly some wisdom in “don’t feed the trolls”. Consider for example Gavin de Becker’s advice in The Gift of Fear: if you, say, return harassing phone calls on the 50th time, you’ve only taught your harasser that they need to call 50 times to get a response. They need to learn that they cannot reach you, that there is nothing they can do to make you reply to them.

So far it seems sensible, but what it doesn’t account for is having multiple harassers, who either may not be aware of each other or who may be actively encouraging each other and coordinating attacks (via hate blogs or forums or the more wildcard ‘lulz’ variants thereof). It’s not so clear there that en masse silence is a useful strategy, it varies by case, and the off-hand use of the “everyone knows that you don’t feed the trolls!” wisdom that was (arguably) effective in the case of lone trolls is in effect a message to people being targeted for harassment by a coordinated group, or who have a number of individual harassers, that no one gives a shit. Don’t talk about it, we don’t care about your problems.

It also means that we are continually surprised by the size and scope of the problem. Death threats? With your address attached? Weekly? This is a problem not only because of the continuing coziness of the “yeah right, never happens to me” crowd, but because we often aren’t sharing information among targets.

It’s not just you.

It’s not just you.

Every single time, there is someone who has been hurt by thinking it’s just them.

I by no means advocate compulsory reporting of harassment, in fact I am very strongly committed to empowering survivors by allowing them a coercion-free space to do whatever the hell they please in terms of reporting or not. But “don’t feed the trolls” isn’t any more coercion-free than “stop hir hurting someone else! report now!” The coercion is this: thirty years of Internet are saying keep this to yourself, damn you (stop hir hurting someone else)!

Thirty years of Internet, per above, don’t have the whole story.

This scale of harassment of bloggers also brings us into a realm where people without the financial resources of celebrities to, eg, pay Gavin de Becker’s people to read their mail for them and alert them only to genuine immediate threats, have to deal with the same scale of harassment. This isn’t totally new to the Internet (being, eg, the family member of someone who has either committed or been the victim of a well-publicised unusual crime, has long attracted the same kind of attacks) but it is hard enough for rich powerful people to protect themselves mentally and physically from this level of hostile attention, let alone people with the typical resources of a social justice blogger (generally relatively privileged yes, able to afford state-of-the-art personal security, no).

On that, I’m honestly not sure what to do except that it scares me. There appears to be no known effective defence against sufficiently many motivated harassers. There doesn’t even appear to be a lot of giving a toss about it.

Update: Hey folks, on reflection I realise that my last paragraph kind of invites advice, but it’s probably safe to assume that if you’ve thought of doing X in response to trolls that so have people like s.e. smith, and either X is in their arsenal, it doesn’t work, or it isn’t reasonably possible for them (that is the cost-benefit trade-offs don’t favour it).

Responses from people with unusual expertise on personal security or on community management and similar areas giving facts advice or facts might be useful, but if your expertise is “average experienced netizen” please step back and give people affected a chance to talk.

Childcare

I just got a call from a childcare centre who has had my son’s name down for nineteen months. I’m not even sure if they were offering him a place, most likely they are just culling their waiting list in preparation for the 2012 enrolment season. Nineteen months long waiting lists, on the very edge of the metropolis.

I’m sure there’s plenty of info out there already about the economic inefficiencies generated by private childcare in countries like Australia and the US where supply doesn’t meet demand and there’s little government intervention in the market. One of the most noticeable for us is geographic lock-in. If it takes a year or more to get our son care at a new location, we can’t move, until, oddly enough, all of our children are school age and thus likely to be badly disrupted academically and socially by a move. The next most obvious is all the mother-work in this. Applying to 20 centres (… many of which ask for a $20 waiting list fee). Ringing them all once a month or more just to keep a tick next to our name as “really wants a place”. (It likely doesn’t advance you up the list, what with all the other mothers ringing monthly too, and they certainly don’t give us any actual news until a place actually appears.)

I should put in a little bit of background for people from countries with at least some government provided childcare. Childcare in Australia for children 8 weeks to 5 years is provided by for-profit and non-profit suppliers in a private market. Waiting lists for first born children in Sydney (younger siblings of an enrolled child often receive some preferential treatment) who aren’t in certain disadvantaged and at-risk groups are somewhere in the realm of nine to twenty four months. (Employers are supposed to keep permanent jobs open to a returning mother for a year.) Costs are in the realm of $70 to $110 dollars per day for infants (median maybe $90?) and $60 to $100 per day for children over age two. There are government subsidies on a sliding scale that for some families might halve this cost.

The alternatives are local government certified “family carers” caring in their own homes, who have similar waiting lists, nannies at around $200 per day, or family. I don’t see a lot of solutions aside from nationalisation: the private market obviously sees no need even for centralised waiting lists and for whatever reason it certainly doesn’t see the need to create enough places to meet demand. All I have is a couple of lessons:

#1 you do not put your child’s name down at birth you put it down when you are pregnant, if they let you, and if they don’t, take the forms to the hospital with you and post them from there within hours of your child’s birth. (Sydney hasn’t quite reached the stage that I am told New York City is at, of ringing them all to give them notice that you have stopped using contraception, and might therefore require their services at some point in the next two years.)

#2 most childcare places open up in January and February, with enrolments in October. It’s obvious why when you think about it: (southern) January is when the five year olds leave to start kindergarten, so it’s the time when by far the most vacancies are created. That doesn’t mean put the kid’s name down in October for a place the following January, it means putting them down as early as possible and then concentrating your phone calls in October.

This can be frustrating depending on your child’s month of birth. Born January or February? You may well have to keep them out for a full year. Born November or December? You may have to enrol them much younger than you would have been comfortable with if you are lucky enough to be offered a place (although only for a day a week, already enrolled children almost always get the pick of newly opened spots on other days).

For the record, my January-born first son got a place that July, in a centre that had recently re-opened after bankruptcy and was taking immediate enrolments. That same centre, whose youngest enrolment at the time was a child 9 weeks old, is a year later asking us to re-confirm 2012 enrolments four months ahead because of their enormous waiting list. They currently have no children born in 2011 enrolled, implying a waiting list of 9 months at the very least We’re ourselves presently awaiting results of the 2012 enrolments closer to the city, to see if we get to move closer to my husband’s work in the next 12 months, or if we’re staying out here for the foreseeable future.

Copyright hell: larrakins and astrologers

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

People who support a reasonable balance between encouraging creation of artistic works by allowing creators to profit from them, and the interests of wider society in benefiting from the free availability of creative works (or even of facts) aren’t having a good day.

Larrikin vs Australian Music

Skud has covered this over at Save Aussie Music:

Today EMI Australia lost their High Court appeal against Larrikin Music in the Kookaburra/Land Down Under case…

Leaving aside the problems with the copyright system, let’s just take a moment to look at Larrikin, the folk music label that holds the rights to “Kookaburra”. Larrikin was founded in 1974 by Warren Fahey, and sold to Festival Records in 1995. Festival, owned by Murdoch, was shut down and its assets sold to Warner Music Australia in 2005, for a mere $12 million.

Larrikin was home to a number of Australian artists, among them Kev Carmody, Eric Bogle, and Redgum

Kev Carmody, one of Australia’s foremost indigenous musicians, released four albums on Larrikin and Festival between 1988 and 1995, none of which are available on iTunes nor readily available as CDs (based on a search of online retailers). …

Warner bought Larrikin Records’ assets — two decades of Australian music — not because they want to share the music with the public, but to bolster their intellectual property portfolio, in the hope that one day they’ll be able to sue someone for using a riff or a line of lyrics that sounds somewhat like something Redgum or Kev Carmody once wrote. They do this at the expense of Australian music, history, and culture.

Lauredhel covered the case earlier at Hoyden too, focussing on whether the claim of infringement stands up to a legal layperson’s listen test and musical analysis: You better run, you better take cover.

Astrologers versus software creators and users

Have you ever selected your timezone from a list which lists them like this: “Australia/Sydney”, “Europe/London”? Then you’ve used the zoneinfo database.

Timezones are complicated. You can’t work out what timezone someone is in based purely on their longitude, have a look at this map to see why. Timezones are highly dependent on political boundaries. On top of that, daylight savings transitions are all over the map (as it were). Some countries transition in an unpredictable fashion set by their legislature each year. Sometimes a sufficiently large event (such as the Sydney Olympics in 2000) causes a local daylight savings transition to happen earlier or later than that government’s usually predictable algorithm.

Therefore computer programs rely heavily on having a giant lookup table of timezones and daylight saving transitions. Data is needed both for the present, so that your clock can be updated, and for the past, so that the time of events ranging from blog entries to bank transactions can be correctly reported.

A great deal of software, including almost all open source software, relies on the freely available database variously called the tz database, the zoneinfo database or the Olson database.

Arthur David Olson (the “Olson” in “Olson database”) announced yesterday:

A civil suit was filed on September 30 in federal court in Boston; I’m a defendant; the case involves the time zone database.

The ftp server at elsie.nci.nih.gov has been shut down.

The mailing list will be shut down after this message.

The basis of the suit is that the zoneinfo database credits The American Atlas as a source of data, and The American Atlas has been purchased by astrology company Astrolabe Inc, who assert that the use of the data is an infringement of their copyright. Whether this is true is apparently highly arguable (in the US it seems to hinge on whether it’s a list of facts, which aren’t copyrightable) but in the meantime the central distribution point of the data is gone. And it could be a long meantime.

Now, people still have copies of the database (if you run Linux you probably do yourself). However, the source of updates has been removed, which means it will be out of date within a few weeks, and the community that created the updates has been fractured. Various people are doing various things, including a defence fund, a fork of the mailing list, and discussions about re-creating or resurrecting the data in other places. All a great waste of many creative people’s time and money, gain to society from Astrolabe’s action yet to be shown.

More information:

Update (Oct 17): ICANN takes over zoneinfo database

On 14th October the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which manages key Internet resources (notably, the global pool of IPv4 and IPv6 addresses) on behalf of the US government, put out a press release (PDF) announcing that they were taking over the zoneinfo database:

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) today took over operation of an Internet Time Zone Database that is used by a number of major computer systems.

ICANN agreed to manage the database after receiving a request from the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

The database contains time zone code and data that computer programs and operating systems such as Unix, Linux, Java, and Oracle rely on to determine the correct time for a given location. Modifications to the database occur frequently throughout the year…

“The Time Zone Database provides an essential service on the Internet and keeping it operational falls within ICANN’s mission of maintaining a stable and dependable Internet,” said Akram Atallah, ICANN’s Chief Operating Officer.

I wonder if ICANN’s not-for-profit status is useful here. Just as Project Gutenberg can make United States public domain texts available globally, even though texts published prior to 1923 are not public domain world-wide, ICANN may present a less tempting target for lawsuits than other possible homes for the zoneinfo database.

Ada Lovelace Day: Mahananda Dasgupta, nuclear fusion researcher

7th October is Ada Lovelace Day, a day to blog about your heroines in science, technology, engineering and math.

Mahananda Dasgupta is a professor in the Department of Nuclear Physics at the Australian National University. Dasgupta’s research takes place at the heavy-ion accelerator facility and investigates quantum tunnelling when heavy nuclei collide. Her Pawsey Medal award in 2006 cites cutting-edge contributions includ[ing] precision measurements of unprecedented accuracy.

Dasgupta moved to Australia from India for a postdoctoral position in the 1990s, and eventually was appointed to a tenured position in 2003. She became the first woman to hold a tenured position in the Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering at the ANU in its entire 50+ years of existence! (I was very surprised to find this, the School must be enormous in terms of academic staff, it comprises nine research departments.)

How do we retain that female workforce [in science]?

By strong and meaningful mentoring, which doesn’t just mean a quick meeting once a month or web-based mentoring, but real mentors who encourage women or younger people to devise strategies about how best to use their time, and what roles to apply for to advance their career.

Every person at that early stage needs support. We need to champion women scientifically – not “she’s a good person”, but “she’s an excellent physicist who’s done this great work”… Equally, the employers’ responsibility to provide childcare is very important… If we are expanding and building infrastructure – why are we not building childcare facilities?

I was educated in India where, if a student is sharp, they’re encouraged to show it through participating in discussions or taking on extra-educational activities… It does strike me that in Australia we give a lot of kudos to those who excel in sports, but if you excel in studies you are a dork, particularly among other students… Sometimes, following talks I give in schools, students come to the carpark to ask me science questions, rather than asking them in front of the class… How do we get away from that? I believe that to make real long-term progress we must respect and encourage intellectual achievements.

Mahananda Dasgupta, The Conversation: So seriously, why aren’t there more women in science?

Dasgupta is active both in advocating careers in science in general, volunteering herself as a science careers lecturer at schools, and in speaking on behalf of women in science. In 2004 she was the Woman in Physics Lecturer for the year, and in 2011 she represented the Group of Eight universities (the eight universities that consider themselves Australia’s best research universities) at a Women in Science and Engineering summit at Parliament House. Her 2011 Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellowship from the Australian Research Council calls upon her to increase the profile of Women in Science through outreach activities, and work towards advancing early career researchers as well as facilitate leadership pathways for senior women researchers.

Recognition Dasgupta has received for her work includes:

  • the Australian Academy of Sciences’ Pawsey Medal in 2006, for outstanding work in physics by a scientist under 40
  • her election as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 2011
  • an Australian Laureate Fellowship in 2011

I can’t embed them in the post for licencing reasons, but David Hine has a couple of photos of Dasgupta with her experimental equipment: Dr Mahananda Dasgupta and Dr Mahananda Dasgupta and Dr David Hinde.

References

Ada Lovelace Day: Fan Chung, leading mathematician

7th October is Ada Lovelace Day, a day to blog about your heroines in science, technology, engineering and math.
This is an expanded version of a post at Geek Feminism last year.

“Don’t be intimidated!… I have seen many people get discouraged because they see mathematics as full of deep incomprehensible theories. There is no reason to feel that way. In mathematics whatever you learn is yours and you build it up—one step at a time. It’s not like a real time game of winning and losing. You win if you are benefited from the power, rigor and beauty of mathematics. It is a big win if you discover a new principle or solve a tough problem.

Fan Chung

Fan Chung is a leading mathematician, specialising in combinatorics and later graph theory. She is Distinguished Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at UC San Diego.

I first heard of Chung in Paul Hoffman’s The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdős and the Search for Mathematical Truth; Chung and her husband Ron Graham were two of Erdős’s closest collaborators. Hoffman tells a great story about how when Chung had finished, and come first in, her PhD qualifying exams at the University of Pennsylvania, her eventual PhD advisor Herbert Wilf gave her a textbook on Ramsey theory to browse and she came back and explained that she’d improved one of the proofs. That was a core part of her PhD dissertation, completed in a week. Those kinds of stories are told about the best mathematicians.

Chung has worked both in academia and in industry, having spent twenty years at Bell Labs and Bellcore in both information technology and mathematics before returning to the University of Pennsylvania, where she did her doctorate. After her time in industry she is deeply concerned with mathematical breadth, and is known for her “nose” for problems that cross several subfields.

Many mathematicians would hate to marry someone in the profession. They fear their relationship would be too competitive. In our case, not only are we both mathematicians, we both do work in the same areas. So we can understand and appreciate what the other is working on, and we can work on things together-and sometimes make good progress.

Fan Chung, describing her relationship with husband Ron Graham

If my count is right, Chung’s publication list shows 79 papers co-authored with Ron Graham. I’ve always admired stories of professionally companionate marrages: even Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne can’t compete on those numbers.

Chung’s website has a copy of a chapter about her in Claudia Henrion’s Women in mathematics: the addition of difference. Among other things it talks about her move to the United States from Taiwan for her graduate work, and her thoughts on having a child while at graduate school.

[Graduate school] is a wonderful time to have a child. You don’t have to attend classes; you only have to write your thesis.

Fan Chung

Hrm, yes, well. Perhaps I will give that advice in 20 years time. Perhaps not…

References

Not the Front Page News: Qantas and Fijian union laws; ACTA to be signed this weekend

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

Every so often I want to share some things I picked up in the news that I find more interesting than the level of coverage would suggest. Hence “Not the Front Page News”.

What’s currently buried in the news stories at the moment that stands out for you?

Qantas and Fijian Union Laws

Qantas has a 46 percent stake in Air Pacific, whose majority stakeholder at 51 percent is the Fijian government. Air Pacific appears have have commissioned a United States law firm to draft the Fijian Essential National Industries (Employment) Decree, which strictly limits union membership and industrial action in the airline industry among others, and which has been denounced by human rights groups. It appears Qantas is yet to comment on whether it knew of or was involved in Air Pacific’s lobbying for and funding the drafting of this decree.

The original source of the allegation is these leaked documents at Coup Four and a Half. Current press coverage includes news.com.au, Qantas called on to explain Fiji decree from Air Pacific supporting military regime, which also appears at Coup Four and a Half. I listened to the Radio Australia report (no known transcript) this evening; they were completely unable to obtain comment from either Air Pacific or Qantas.

ACTA to be signed this weekend

The Anti-Counterfeit Trade Agreement (ACTA) is reportedly to be signed on Saturday by countries including Australia. ACTA is considered quite harsh, and probably paving the way fo0r governments to implement “three strikes” copyright infringement penalites (as in, if an Internet connection has been discovered to be downloading or sharing infringing material three times, it gets cut off, probably including shared connections such as those of families and employers). Negotiations have been criticised for taking place in a great deal of secrecy.

Near-final text is now public. Coverage includes ITNews, Australia to sign copyright treaty this Saturday and Computerworld, ACTA will be signed Saturday, US and Japan say. It’s reported elsewhere that the EU does not intend to sign. Kim Weatherall did some analysis on the negotiations and the state of play as of 2008 at The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement: What’s It All About?.

Book review: The Commission

Philip Shenon, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation

This is a major contrast to Steven Levy’s In the Plex. Yes, obviously the subject matter is pretty far removed, but aside from that Shenon is all critical sources and critical distance here. If someone was involved in the 9/11 Commission, Shenon and his sources have some criticism of that person. Well, at least if someone was either a commissioner or a senior staffer, that is: it seems that a lot of his sources were more junior staffers, and so there is a touch of reverence in the treatment of them. (On the other hand, what other sources are there going to be?)

Impressively, Shenon seems to have managed this while continuing to get comment from Philip Zelikow, the Commission’s executive director and the person who is by far the most consistently criticised. (Well, possibly excepting Condoleezza Rice, but the Clinton and Bush White Houses, the FBI, the CIA and so on are all more in a cameo role here.) Shenon has gone on to publish all the correspondence he had with Zelikow, but I haven’t read it.

The result is, frankly, a rollicking good read. The major difficulty I have with the book is the difficult I had, while reading it, of remembering the truth of the story: the actual dead people in the towers, the planes, and the wars. It’s all shocking and fascinating: both the failures that led to the dead people (the FBI’s contempt for counter-terrorism, the Bush White House’s diminished focus on terrorist threats prior to September 2001 and subsequent laser focus on Iraq and so on) and the politicking, silliness and compromises that the Commission made both by necessity and by choice.

Some of it is forehead-slapping: the NSA was apparently keen to cooperate with the Commission and set up a special secure reading room within walking distances of their office, which the Commission then proceeded to almost totally and inexplicably ignore, with the result that probably no one other than the NSA has gone through their material in any detail to this day. Some of it is more necessary compromises: US politics made it pretty unlikely that Bush and Cheney were going to be ripped to shreds.

Read it if: you are interested in US politics, you are interested in interpersonal politics in formal situations, you are interested in how the victors write history.

Note: the Commission’s own report is both sold by various bookstores and available for free. There’s a seemingly good e-book conversion by a third party.

Book review: In the Plex

Steven Levy, In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

This book started off annoying me by being a little too worshipful of Larry Page and Sergey Brin, in my opinion. So clever! So Montessori! These cheeky little geniuses will rock your world! They’re going to take over your brain and you’re going to like it! But it improved early on other histories I’ve read of Google (lest this sound like an unfortunately dull hobby of mine, I mean shorter essays over a period of ten years or so). which tend to focus on a couple of things heavily: the Google Doodles and their approach to raising venture capital. I’ve heard about all I ever want to hear about doodles and Google’s fundraising. Levy doesn’t quite stay away from the latter but it’s mercifully short at least. Instead he gets into things that are more interesting to me, namely the engineering.

He spends a fair portion of the book getting to grips with the basic design of and use-cases of the two key Google products, search and ads, in a way that’s useful to me as someone with a software engineering background, so that was a win. I’m not sure how that would read to people without said background although it didn’t strike me as very technical. Later it deals with some of Google’s key expansions: the creation of its massive set of data centres, the Youtube acquisition, the attempt to become a major search player in China, book scanning and search, and finally, social.

I’ll certainly give Levy credit for finally explaining to me the wisdom that Google “doesn’t get social”, which I hear everywhere and which no one has ever given me a bite-sized cogent explanation for. (This is a terrible admission from someone who is meant to have some idea about the tech industry, yes? But I’m not really your go to person for social either. I use it, but I don’t make sweeping claims about it.) Levy’s bite-sized explanation: Google is philosophically committed to the best answers arising from processing huge amounts of data, and is resistant to cases where the best answers arise from polling one’s friends. Whether it’s true I have no idea but at least it’s truthy.

Levy has created a good history of Google for people especially interested in Google I think, but he largely hasn’t jumped over the bar of making Google into an interesting story for people who don’t have an existing interest in it, in the way that people have done with Enron, for example. There are parts of it that start to get close, particularly the treatment of Google’s expansion into China and its sometime Beijing office. But it’s not quite there. Possibly Levy didn’t have access to enough critical sources, or, if he did, he didn’t use them to their full extent for fear of jeopardising his access to Page, Brin and Eric Schmidt and to the Google campus. (Also, it sounds like Google makes it very hard for any current employee to be an anonymous source.)

Read it if: you are interested in the history of Google, and find them impressive. You don’t need to be a complete fanboy.

Caution for: as noted, not really a book for people seeking a rollicking good story of corporate ups and downs in general; and not really for people looking for really sharp criticism of Google either, although his critical distance certainly increases as the book goes on.