Archive for January, 2012

Queen of Thorns smacks around Auckland Councillor Cameron Brewer on her blog, excoriating (in her appropriately confrontational style) him for trying to edge out small brothels. This is part of a larger trend in councils around New Zealand.

While I am okay with regulation on brothels that essentially encourages them to be good neighbours, (I’d support that sort of regulation on anyone- noise control, height limits, avoidance of public nudity, etc…) “regulation” here is usually a code word for trying to keep sex work out of sight and out of mind, so that hypocrites who get off on the idea of buying women (and you can usually assume anyone trying to disappear sex workers is doing so because they use a “higher class” of sex worker that’s more discrete) can safely ignore sex work when they’re not paying for it. Brothels run into legal opposition from councils wherever they operate- if they’re in the city, they’re hit by zoning laws. If they’re in residential areas, we’re hit with moral panic about whether they’re close to schools, (who cares? They’re not going to be propositioning children, and it’s not going to attract pedophiles to the school, because pedophiles aren’t attracted to adults) and Councillors try to shut them down with operating hour restrictions that cut their business to shreds, and other onerous regulation.

And the really stupid part? Right from the scoop story:

A past High Court case with the former Auckland City Council ruled that SOOBs are legally permitted to operate in residential areas and that council’s bylaws cannot be overly restrictive.

Auckland’s councils can’t restrict these small brothels to mixed-zoning areas like they want to, because there’s already judicial precedent, and you’d just be wasting your council’s money defending a provision that has already been struck down previously. The courts will ultimately shoot down these attempts to open up a legal loophole, because it’s been clearly established that prostitution is legal.

I’m going to propose a few radical ideas, instead: It’s okay for people (all people) to have sex, and we shouldn’t try to turn sex workers (who are overwhelmingly women) into villains because their clients (who are overwhelmingly men) either can’t get enough sex elsewhere, or they get off on buying sex. We should get out of their way and let these people do their work, which unlike being a politician, is actually honest in the vast majority of cases. That even if we don’t like people being in this industry and want to support them out of it if they want out, perhaps we should also support their right to work, to work when they can find work, to operate in areas that allow their clients to be discrete if they so wish.

That “upstanding community men” not only buy the services of sex workers, they are in fact the people the most likely to do so, because they are in positions of power. (And the people most likely to engage in rape or sexual abuse, whether of adults or minors)  That people will cheat if they’re unhappy in their relationships. That people will buy sex (or at least pornography) if they’re addicted to it and can’t manage to pick up partners in normal social situations.

And perhaps, just perhaps, that if we had a more positive attitude to sex, especially to women having sex, if we were better at diagnosing unhealthy relationships, if we talked more, and if we taught more people to function in relationships more effectively, and if women had equal employment opportunities, sex work would become less necessary, and actually be restricted to people who want to be career sex workers.

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Firstly, good news: Huge congratulations to the tens of millions of netizens who participated all around the world in the blackout to inform people about SOPA and PIPA. Everyone who cares about technology even slightly now knows about those outrageous bills and the guilt-by-accusation approach to piracy they espouse, and as this tactic is still relatively new, it had an amazing effect on both houses of the US congress, flipping many sponsors of both SOPA and PIPA firmly into the “opposition” category of the bill, with the usual gormless comments about needing to “read it more carefully” or “more thorougly research the implications”- which means they thought they could coast through and not bother to actually analyse the bill because it had so much support from rights-holders.

This is a victory, but it’s also just a reprieve- SOPA and PIPA were just new versions of COICA, which was similarly disgusting, and New Zealand has had its own brush with guilt-by-association copyright laws before, too, which it also took local blackouts to defeat.

Finally, there’s been excellent stories about SOPA and PIPA all over the mainstream journalist sources recently, to highlight only a couple, there is a great piece written by Dan Gillmor up at The Guardian, a great summary of SOPA and PIPA by Rachel Maddow, and Chris Hayes’ Up With Chris has a video panel discussing SOPA, and a blog that rebuts the fact-light defense of SOPA on the video panel courtesy of Joe Sestak.

 

Now, onto the mixed news: Megaupload is down, in a joint operation between New Zealand police and the FBI that saw four arrests and a $10 million asset seizure, and the seizure of Megaupload’s domain name. The accusations against Megaupload and its sister company are very unclear, and it’s murky precisely what actions are being claimed to have broken the law on the charges being laid- including conspiracies to commit racketeering, money laundering, and copyright infringement, and some of it seems to centre on what I like to call the “blind eye” fallacy, which is that because individuals in the company may have been able to cite examples of infringing content that were not taken down, the people running the company were responsible. I hope that the police plan to actually show that at the least, the people they arrested were criminally liable or criminally negligent in their actions. It’s very disturbing to me that middlemen are being held liable for enforcing copyright- I’m not sure the onus should be on megaupload to prevent infringement when they aren’t actively notified by rights-holders, as the precedent of intellectual property rights cases has been that rights-holders are responsible for objecting to misuse of their ideas in order to maintain their rights. Time (eww, I know, but they’re doing good journalism this time) has more on the “Mega Conspiracy”, as authorities are calling it.

If having to establish evidence that copyright infringement is happening is too hard for the incredibly wealthy rights-holders in Hollywood that are largely responsible for DMCA notices, then I don’t think they ought to be allowed to ask for arrests, or for content to be taken down. The presumption should be that content is licenced until someone complains, and even then, legally, the assumption should be that content doesn’t infringe copyright until it is proven to be (a) work that has been copyrighted by someone else, (b) no valid licence is produced, and (c) proven that the use did not fall within fair usage provisions of legal copying, derivative work, or sharing. That’s a high standard, but legal action should have to meet a high standard. More on other options rights-holders have in a subsequent post, because this one is huge already.

 

Anonymous, a activist/hacking (or “hacktivist”) collective that operates entirely under pseudonyms, (there’s also more to say about Anonymous, which I will get to, I promise, but I’d sum them up provisionally as “very zealous ‘good guys’ on issues of freedom of speech, who break the law in order to defend its principles”) has launched counterattacks on several rights-holders’ sites, and also on the department of justice, taking down those sites. While I absolutely oppose holding service providers responsible for piracy they aren’t notified of, these counterattacks may be premature, and may generate some degree of sympathy for rights-holders among more conservative citizens. Assuming the trial of those arrested is timely, we should wait to see what kind of evidence is presented before condemning authorities- but of course, that’s not Anonymous’ style.

You’ll also be amused to know that currently The Pirate Bay has rebranded itself as “The Promo Bay”, a function which to some degree it no doubt serves, and has lambasted Hollywood rights-holders with a press release on SOPA, making very good points about how Hollywood was built on (legal) copyright violation. I’ll have some opinion posts on the details of piracy soon, seeing that’s the big issue at the moment.

If you had expected US President Barack Obama to have a consistent set of principles and stick to it, you would have been shocked today to hear that he turned down the proposal to build a pipeline for incredibly dirty Canadian tar sands oil. President Obama has been a lukewarm environmentalist at best while in the White House, but a number of factors converged to hopefully slow down the extraction of tar sands oil in a move that could avoid catastrophic climate destabilization. Here they are in order of narrative importance:

  • Popular opposition forced President Obama to delay his decision on approving the pipeline until after the election. If you had believed TransCanada, the company wanting to build the pipeline, this delay would have forced them to give up on the project. They didn’t give up, and republicans assumed this meant that Obama wanted to save face by approving the oil pipeline after his re-election.
  • There’s an election coming up, which is the one time Democrats in the USA tend to act as if they give two hoots about the left wing of their party.
  • As a result, Obama has fired his former chief of staff and installed someone less horrendous than the banks’ guy on the inside of the White House. Previous chiefs of staff have had such moronic opinions on political matters as “you won’t pass healthcare reform, you should back off it”.
  • The republicans in the Senate decided that they would support extending unemployment benefits and payroll tax cuts, but in return, they would require the President to make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline now, to try and sabotage him with his base before the election.
  • In a classic serendipitous backfire move, Obama was correctly advised that it was both bad policy and bad politics to approve the pipeline before the election, and so he actually ignored the cloud of lobbyists surrounding him and did something almost brave.

The question is whether this will be too little too late to start winning back Obama’s support after his unconditional bailout for big banks, his failure to reform campaign finance, his compromises on his healthcare bill, and his ridiculous extension of Bush Tax Cuts that rob normal Americans to pay the rich. Obama has a lot of work to do if he wants to get re-elected on anything like the historical expansion of the vote he had last time.

There has been some discussion recently about the drivers of poverty, and I thought it would be useful to reproduce some important things I’ve said in comments on this blog.

mickysavage said this over at The Standard:

I use the phrase [equity of outcome] as a counter to the Nats’ “equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome” line.  That is a phrase that Nikki Kaye for instance uses all the time.

Their line essentially says that there can be winners and losers.  The concept of “equity of outcome” suggests to me there should be some minimum standards required so everyone has enough.  It does not require complete equality but a reasonable distribution of income and resources.

And he’s right, it’s really not permissible to just leave our economy at the harsh and intolerable level of “well, some people are winners, and others are losers,” because often, “winners” didn’t do anything to merit winning, and “losers” didn’t make the decisions responsible for their poverty. Here’s my reply:

Besides, to some degree inequality of outcome is an indicator of inequality of opportunity- for instance, if people of different demographics really do have functionally equal opportunity, you’d expect the differences in poverty rates between those demographics to be statistically negligible. As that’s not the case, we have a very strong indicator that people who fall into privileged groups in our society really do have more and better opportunities, which isn’t very democratic.

Now, if said inequality actually made everyone better off, I don’t think we’d have a problem with it. But it doesn’t- it just seems to enrich the already wealthy, as seen by our ballooning wealth disparities all around the world.

There is a systemic problem here, and it’s happening in all capitalist economies. Likely it’s our attempts to mix familial policies with capitalist ones (inheritance, treating kids as individual charges not community ones, etc…) that are driving a lot of this problem- that doesn’t mean these are bad things to do, just that they do not mix well with capitalism if you want everyone to get a fair go.

The other post, which was also guest-posted in a shorter form at The Standard, claims that because negative indicators track with poverty, this is a problem of poverty, not of race. That misses the point that poverty is an intersectional issue- that is, it tangles itself up in other social problems, and is better seen not as a cause or symptom but as part of a reinforcing cycle- way back in the day, colonial New Zealanders did some racist things, that set off a self-reinforcing cycle of racism and disproportionate poverty. Even for Maori people who climb out of poverty, there’s the perception that they are exceptional, rather than just very skilled and fortunate, and likely to have been in a much better situation had they been born into a family that suffered less from discrimination. Breaking out of poverty while so many still remain in it only suppresses the poverty part of the cycle, which is still reinforced for other Maori, and still associated mentally with all Maori in so many people’s heads.

Even if we eliminate poverty altogether, there will still be racial discrimination, and it will still carry some of the same symptoms. Just like when we largely ended open discrimination, however, the discrimination would still exist, underground, in our subconscious decisions- both of the victims of discrimination to sometimes see themselves as less than, and in the actions of people who want to reinforce that idea. Here’s the comment I made in reply to this point:

Poverty is a huge part of the problem- racism, sexism, and other types of discrimination are much easier to deal with when they don’t intersect with poverty.

But it’s actually scientifically confirmed (using tests that measure stress) that lifting people out of poverty doesn’t always relieve the stress they feel from discrimination. For example, if you take a white woman and a black woman in the USA, and they both climb out of poverty, the white woman will feel a relief of the stress that she felt from being poor, but the black woman won’t- which is likely to be due to people engaging in what’s called “high-stakes coping”, where they try and power through the problem by just being that much better than everyone else.

I’m not very elegant at explaining why poverty doesn’t explain away racism yet, but you can hear excellent talks on that subject at http://www.timwise.org/ – he’s a great anti-racism advocate.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely support fighting poverty, (and prioritising that fight) but what we’re likely to find even if we largely eliminate poverty is that discrimination still happens, but it might be a bit easier to deal with, and many of the related statistical problems will likely shrink significantly.

Finally, there’s also some discussion as to the drivers of poverty and whether it’s relatively simple or difficult to eliminate. I come down on the difficult side, as evidenced by this comment:

Well if we’re going to reduce things to absurd simplicity, throwing money at poor people solves poverty if you throw enough of it. By definition it cures their poverty (or if you throw too many sacks of coins it kills them – but they won’t die poor).

But then if you don’t want to be simplistic, it still needs money – social workers, benefits, law enforcement, education, infrastructure, civic development, business development units, investors. It all needs money.

and my reply elaborating on that point:

Well, perhaps it cures their poverty. This is going to sound similar to some beneficiary-bashing stuff, but I don’t mean it to demonise the poor, I mean it to say that the problem isn’t quite that simple to solve. In some ways poverty is actually quite similar to coping with mental illness.

You have to remember that part of what causes poverty is that it creates perverse incentives that perpetuate it. (hence the comparison) For instance you can’t afford healthy food, so you buy whatever’s cheapest, which is often junk food from large corporations that leaves you not much better off than before you ate or drank it, which can make it hard to concentrate because your body isn’t getting what it needs, which makes it hard to stay calm or make good decisions, which might mean you miss opportunities to improve your life in all sorts of subtle ways.

Even if we directly redistribute wealth with an aim to reduce poverty, these reinforcing behaviors don’t instantly go away- much like when someone wins the lotto, it depends on their outlook whether they’ll blow the money in a couple of years, or use it carefully and wisely. We’d certainly bump a lot of people directly out of poverty, but some would need a different kind of help, because, to use my earlier example, they’d still think that Coke is what you drink, and junk food is what you eat.

Many of the things you listed couch that investment in a secondary force that helps break poverty-reinforcing behavior- education and infrastructure being the key examples, but sometimes social workers, benefits, and law enforcement can be very helpful, too. I don’t really have much faith in business or investors to do anything about poverty unless they’re getting tax incentives to do it, and even then they’ll try to cut corners.

Fighting poverty is such a crucial piece of improving our society, that it’s a shame that people have so much difficulty understanding the nature of the problem. Having suffered from a different, but nonetheless equally self-reinforcing problem, I very much understand that it’s an incredibly difficult thing to defeat, it requires a lot of support, and even afterwards, these types of problems never fully leave you, you just shrink them to the point that they’re easy enough to cope with.

On strike

Posted: January 18, 2012 in freedom of speech, technology
Tags: ,

While SOPA has been stalled by popular opposition, PIPA is still going ahead, so due to the inability to shut the blog down for the day, I’m simply going silent and linking you to the SOPA Strike redirect, which is actually really good.

For those of you that don’t follow tech news or American Politics, let alone the intersection of them, we’ve had some great news recently: the President of the USA, who has been barely sufficient on so many issues, has finally come out swinging on the side of free speech and innovation against the two twins of censorship, the Protect IP Act of the US Senate, and the House of Representatives’ “Stop Online Piracy Act.” He hasn’t outright threatened that the laws will get vetoed no matter what, but he’s implied that they’re heavily flawed and he can’t support them as-is. Hopefully he will expand on that and avoid the devils on his shoulder that so often prompt President Obama to compromise for the detriment of his country and the world.

While I oppose piracy in general, (as an amateur programmer I have a cat in this YouTube video, to switch up a popular metaphor) I think that to some degree it’s a necessary evil to allow us to have national sovereignty, freedom of speech, and innovation on the internet, and laws like SOPA and PIPA reinforce that impression. I also like to combat it or support people who fight it by investing their customers in the continued development and success of a product in the case of software. I can understand the film industry at least is unable to take a more creative approach here, simply due to the nature of their product. And so of course both of these bills have massive support from entertainment industries, with most of the push coming from large film makers, but there are also some technology traitors, including the ESA and several domain registry companies. (I recall GoDaddy was on this list for a while, who you should already be switching away from if you use, because they are a terrible company for other reasons)

What SOPA and PIPA propose, essentially, is that the government be allowed to censor any site containing pirated material with extreme prejudice, stripping away their DNS, (the ability of you to reach their site with a .com address the way everyone normally uses the internet, as opposed to entering an IP number you had bookmarked) and then heaping on an extra helping of economic sanctions, barring advertisers in the USA from using those sites, and cutting off payments through online services like Paypal, much like was done to Wikileaks through right-wing pressure. It gets worse from here, but I’ve already told you enough that you should see the core of the problem.

The US government having an infrastructure to censor the internet is an incredibly scary proposition. It’s this whole notion of building walls and fences again, but in the name of profits for movie tycoons, the USA would be doing it with information, effectively putting them in a position where they could become the thought police, or at least shut down independent media, after it only just started up again with podcasts, YouTube videos, and blogs.

Let’s get into the truly Orwellian stuff: To be considered a pirate under these laws, you don’t have to host a significant amount of pirated material. (There’s an amendment to PIPA that redefines the law down to that, which would make it merely objectionable as opposed to horrendous) You don’t even need to have someone uploading pirated data to a video or file sharing site that you’ve missed. You don’t even need to, personally, write a link to a site with pirated material. No, it’s much easier than that. You can simply fail to take down a link in a comment to a site that may contain a single, obscure pirated file somewhere.

SOPA and PIPA consider site owners responsible for what their users post. All a big business needs to do is continuously post links to pirated content until they flood the ability of the site to moderate their comments, and tip off the rights holders to get their competitors embargoed and censored. This is taking that childhood game of “stop punching yourself!” to a whole new level. It is not exaggerating to say that this could kill the internet as we know it- under these laws, tech giants like Facebook and Google wouldn’t be able to get started.

Some major sites are still planning on going dark this Wednesday (US time, naturally) to raise awareness that these bills are still under consideration by the US congress. (congress temporarily backed off both of them previously due to public opposition) I thought it might make more sense to just talk about it in advance, as I’m running a blog and all. 🙂

edit: Wikipedia, one of the most searched sites on the internet, has agreed to join the blackout tommorow.

When the fact that I don’t eat meat comes up, practically the first question I always get asked is “Why did you become vegetarian?” I’ve always respected people who were vegetarian, at least after I understood the reasons to go vegetarian, but for the longest time I never thought that could be me. I used to be the king of bacon and sausages.

I’m always careful to say that my decision to change my diet was based on a lot of things, but there were two things that convinced me:

  1. Hearing how easy it was to be vegetarian, not just from other vegetarians, but from vegans, who would often sum up vegetarianism as “the least you could do.” I had already started sporadically cooking without meat, so I thought to myself, why not just step it up until I eliminate meat altogether?
  2. I firmly believe that we need to do more to improve the environment we live in, and mitigate the damage that global climate destabilization will cause, and I was challenged in a rather friendly way.

Those challenges were really rather simple- the first was that one person stopping eating meat does more for the environment than taking a car off the road. Then I heard someone ask why everyone who supported environmentalism wasn’t vegetarian, and I knew I had to do this. (I’m continuously amazed that the mainstream environmental movement does not ask people to become vegetarian if they care about the planet) If agricultural emissions are such a huge problem, everyone eating less meat seems like a really simple answer. And from there the reasons started multiplying- eating less meat isn’t only good for the environment, it’s cheaper! It’s not only cheaper, it’s healthier! Not only do you feel better, you start to feel more connected to animals and other people, knowing that you don’t have to cause anything pain just to eat. (incidentally, this is why I don’t try to convince people to eat less meat for the animals, I think animal rights is a thing most people understand after they stop eating meat)

The change in attitude that comes from not eating meat is impossible to adequately describe, it’s something that has to be experienced. I’ve not been seriously tempted to eat meat since I stopped in December 2010. In fact, I don’t really like the smell of meat any more, and I’m actively teasing my friends and two thirds of my flatmates about eating corpses.

Now, this doesn’t happen overnight. When I first started being vegetarian, I ate a really unhealthy diet, heavy in falafel, chips, cheese, processed soy food, mayonnaise, chocolate, nuts, and pretty much everything high in fat a vegetarian can eat other than avocadoes. I hardly saved any money from quitting meat at that stage, and as you’ll see if you think about it, it’s incredibly possible to be an unhealthy vegetarian with all the processed vegetarian foods available now. More than a year in, and I had my first soy meat in months last week. I still eat too much cheese, but now my fat comes largely from avocado, peanuts, and nuts. I get plenty of beans, I eat mushrooms every week, giant eggplants cut into cubes fill out my pasta dishes, and I heap tomatoes into everything. I very seldom eat milk or eggs, and I feel better than I ever have before, and I can function on low sleep for the first time in my life. My love of chocolate hasn’t gone away, but now I don’t eat meat, I notice how bad I feel after eating any significant quantity of it. I toy with thoughts of going vegan once I get a day job. (Working nights interferes with your ability to shop if you don’t have a car.)

If you care about the environment, your health, or even your wallet, being vegetarian is the least you can do. It’s easier than living without a car, and I do both. It took me a month to get it figured out, and I didn’t research it nearly as much as I should have. You can still have “hearty” food, warm things, substantial things. You’ll just start thinking about food more- you’ll rediscover vegetables and fruits.

And the best part?

In over a year of being vegetarian, I haven’t prepared a single damn salad, and I never run out of ideas to cook. Salads are something I only end up eating when I go around for dinner with the omnivores. 😉