Archive for October, 2009

fake sheikhs

Boris Johnson is opposed to more congestion charging, but not quite yet; however, he is also keen on “road pricing”. I can see a couple of explanations for this.

One is that there’s no “there” there – he’s an unstable personality without intellectual substance and with a practised TV clown act, like George W. Bush, and therefore the various interest blocks around him push him this way and that according to the tides of City Hall internal politics. Standard cognitive biases lead him to believe that whatever policy is imposed on him, it’s right and he believes in it. The petrol head faction demand their freedom to drive, or rather, sit in traffic jams, and they get it; the TfL civil servants and the Tory wets push back, and he gives into them as well. The Dunning-Kruger effect allows him to imagine that only he can integrate the two.

The other is that there is some kind of aesthetic/emotional/ideological distinction between the congestion charge – invented by Red Ken to harass free-born Englishmen with camera and database – and road pricing, which would make people pay what the service is worth, etc, etc. Road pricing suggests that roads might be a premium product; paying the price might attract status. Congestion charging is evidently something like a tax, and one that is levied on congestion; it’s one of the great conservative rhetorical achievements that people in cars complain about the presence of other people in cars, aka congestion.

It’s also true that London Tories and their surrounding infrastructure staked a lot of credibility on the inevitable failure of the congestion charge; the Evening Standard spent months in the run-up to its launch threatening and promising chaos, the Tory group in the London Assembly developed a heavily promoted charging spokesperson, and then…where is the earth-shattering kaboom? And, of course, a sizeable chunk of the budget is dependent on it. So it could just be rhetorical pretzel twisting to justify the policy to themselves.

Either way, this is all fairly typical of the irrational politics of the modern thinkers. Political unreason is how prejudices get expressed; so who gets the bill?

Bus passengers, that’s who; not only are they disproportionately poor, eastern, central, and Labour (or rather, Ken Livingstone)-voting, but it’s got to have some influence that they travel in rolling manifestations of “the group rights agenda”. On the other hand, drivers are still being threatened with road pricing – is that, I wonder, code for bringing back the idea of GPS-tracking cars rather than just gating central London? Clearly, this isn’t so much a strategy, as an uncontrolled drift that nevertheless shows a certain trend, demonstrating the underlying prejudices.

Unsurprisingly, we get quite a few “whoops, airport” moments: here’s one. I have to say, appealing to “sheikhs” as the answer to financing anything deserves to be the standard marker of amateur hour. Knowing this lot, they’d manage to land Suleiman al-Fahim bidding without telling his dad.

Relatedly, compare this basically sensible post, quoting Mark Kleiman’s suggestion that the bulk of the great reduction in crime from the early 90s might be explained by the elimination of lead in petrol, and Chris Dillow’s post arguing that Boris Johnson ought to be held responsible for the same biological effects if he stops the expansion of the London low emissions zone. While it’s abstract and generally Drum/Kleiman-esque, everyone nods and smiles; once Dillow spits in his eye, just watch the troll QRF come charging out, moaning and whining.

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Libertarianism, by which I mean yer bog standard comments thread North American subtype, is irrational. This struck me in the context of this post of Charlie Whitaker’s, which was of course criticised by the local libertarian in the usual terms. First of all, let’s define terms; the standard set-up of modern right-libertarian arguments is based on two layered arguments. The first is a weak-form argument, which derives from the Austrian tradition in economics and, therefore, eventually from classical liberalism. It goes a little something like this: As Hayek and von Mises pointed out, we can’t possibly know enough to manage the whole economy, and therefore, we should rely on market mechanisms as far as possible.

The notion that GOSPLAN wasn’t a triumph is hardly controversial, and for most of the political spectrum, the debate is really about how far we can rely on market mechanisms and what the alternatives to them should be. But the libertarian argument does a hop, a skip, and a little leap of faith here; it extends this argument to claim that any nonmarket organisation will inevitably be less efficient than any market alternative, and that it will be so much less efficient that the costs, whatever they are, will always be worthwhile. We can characterise this as the argument from efficiency.

What’s worth pointing out here is the degree to which the volume has been turned up. All the points of doubt in the economic argument have been replaced by conviction. The argument against central planning is built on scepticism, drawing its strength from flexibility like a great bridge or the backbone of a ship; but suddenly, there’s a lot of massive but brittle certainty about. What may very well be very small efficiency gains, which may well come at great cost, are being used to legitimate a very strong normative claim indeed.

This is something libertarianism shares with conservatism; the belief that 1) the government will always be incompetent at allocating investment, but 2) it is perfectly competent to de-allocate it. Ministers and their officials cannot under any circumstances be trusted to choose projects to fund, but they have perfect knowledge of what to cut. Now, this isn’t actually as stupid as it may sound – as Daniel Davies says, it’s much easier to identify stupid proposals than it is to come up with intelligent ones. But economic decisions have a fundamental duality – the decision to buy X involves not buying Y, the decision not to buy Y involves going without Y. Cutting, privatising, deregulating – these are the same activities as spending, nationalising, or legislating.

Clearly, there is a need for a stronger philosophical foundation.

This we find in the doctrine of the illegitimacy of taxation. The ability of the state to collect tax depends on its monopoly of force, and therefore taxation is actually a form of theft. Again, a hop, a skip, and a little leap of faith, and we arrive at the position that as all the activities of the state depend eventually on tax, therefore an NHS blood transfusion is as illegitimate as, say, being shot seven times in the head by a policeman. The immediate counter-argument is to knock the ball forward from Hobbes up to Locke, and to appeal to the social contract. It’s entirely possible to enter into a voluntary association to which you pay dues and in which you agree to accept its internal discipline; and here we come up against the rock. You didn’t choose to be born into a democratic society – and therefore the contract is invalid.

Of course, at this point most people will lose their temper with the obvious stupidity on display. The horrors – to be born into a democratic society rather than, say, Somalia or the eastern Congo! What an appalling imposition! But then, we parted company with empiricism way back when we decided that Railtrack was necessarily a better idea than any other way of organising the railways.

But there’s another, more fundamental point here. The doctrine of the total illegitimacy of the state is a huge, extraordinary claim. It is at least as extraordinary as the claim that a central planning commission with 1920s information technology could manage an advanced economy with better results, both in terms of equality and in terms of economic growth, than any alternative. (And, going back to the DRC for a brief holiday, it has arguably amassed a comparable pile of corpses.) Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, but then, we’re dealing with libertarianism here.

Here is the point; if we’re being rational about this – and we better be, as it’s absolutely indispensable for any libertarian argument to work whatsoever – things should change as soon as we accept this claim. In fact, even deciding that such an extraordinary statement is worth considering, rather than noting that it is at least as crazy as Stalinism and passing it straight to /dev/null, should lead us to change our minds about other extraordinary statements. If we decide it’s worth bothering with, we must have changed the criteria we use to assess these things. We need to update our Bayesian priors.

If minarchy makes the cut, why doesn’t anarchy, an Islamic caliphate, libertarian Marxism, deep ecology, or the joke from The Onion about the political scientists who discover a new form of government which has features of both anarchy and fascism? Further, libertarianism is very excluding – it denounces everything, all the way across the centre ground and well over into conservatism. If you can find a place for it in your worldview, your priors have to be very odd indeed to exclude social democracy.

And therefore, it is, indeed, irrational; all the strength in it comes from the prior assumptions, and these assumptions have to take a very strange form indeed. Further, accepting a zone of political possibility large enough to hold libertarianism forces a rational person to accept a wide range of views as possible that libertarianism demands that you denounce and attack at every opportunity.

“Prior assumptions”, after all, is a polite way of saying “prejudices”, and irrational forms of politics inevitably become ways of expressing prejudice.

As a reward for putting up with this drivel:

No blogging this weekend, due to engineering work. Specifically, it’s quite incredible the difference between the amount of blog I can produce in an afternoon and the amount of code, which sort of bears out all the misgivings you might have about the whole blogging project. (Not that those wouldn’t have been better raised in 2002, but there you go.)

It was WhoseKidAreYou taking up the time; I’m learning steadily about SPARQL and various Javascript things, notably XPath, which I have to agree is a pretty cool way of dismantling, remantling, and generally fiddling with HTML/XML documents, even compared to BeautifulSoup. (You can search for a pattern – for example, anything with the class attribute “byline” – and then index into the results by a filesystem-like / notation, which is handy when the material you need is inside a sensibly named entity but wrapped in random tags, a surprisingly common antipattern.) I’ve also identified 11 newspapers’ patterns for bylines, and in the cases where the metadata is in the meta tags, like it should be, I’ve also identified where the byline block appears in the text.

For example – the Torygraph puts the name of the author in a meta name="author" content="A. N. Other", and they then have a div class="byline", but the byline div also includes the timestamp, so we’re getting the byline from the meta tags to save post-processing it and then identifying the div for later.

Fair enough; the next problem is the SPARQL query, which seems to be remarkably tickly and easy to break. The problem with this semantic web stuff is that it’s so damn semantic; everything wants very closely specifying. In theory, it should be possible to grab a whole variety of data on the overentitled brat in question – employment, publications, criminal record, however. Which is nice.

The downside is, though, that DBpedia is dependent on decent infoboxes in Wikipedia articles to work. So if you want to help with WKAY (I like the acronym – sounds like a Mexican radio station in a Jack Kerouac novel) and you aren’t coding, why not go and contribute relatives to Wikipedia?

Actually, I don’t think the Wikimedia Foundation will let you do that, even if The Register likes to call them a cult. I mean, contribute other people’s relatives. No. No. No slavery or grave-robbing, please. I mean, go and edit prominent idiots’ Wikipedia entries and record whose kids they are, and pretty up the info boxes.

Speaking of info boxes, at the moment they are the best paradigm I can think of for displaying the data when we get it. It’s pretty trivial to template HTML in Greasemonkey and to replace elements on the page with it, but I want it to look good. If Dan Lockton wants to join the Ggroup, that would be very helpful.

nobeltrollet

I think we’ve just seen the Sistine Chapel of trolling built.

Wish us luck at 3.05 this afternoon. Keighley are in their first final since 1996, against Oldham, for the right to be refused promotion out of the second division (sorry, Co-Op Championship One – we’ve got title inflation, too).

Update: Ladies and gentlemen, we got him. 28-26, after 4-6 at half time Now watch us fuck it up! Best comment ever, here:

The RFL are looking at whether they can promote London Skolars instead of Keighley just to avoid the possibility of Cougars fans ever forgiving them

Other detail – supposedly, Alistair Campbell (born in Keighley, 1957) went to the match. I don’t recall him showing up either when we were good in the late 90s – he was busy, and he mostly talked up being a Burnley FC fan – or in the 10 years between going bust in 2001 and winning the division this year, but perhaps he’s been sneaking north now and then, and I’ve been to so few matches since then that I wouldn’t have noticed.

a curious case

Donal Blaney has apparently taken legal action by posting this link to Twitter in reply to a second, allegedly fake “Donal Blaney” Twitter account. As you will see if you click it, however, the link actually goes to this entry on his blog. So does a further bit.ly link he posted. The post does not contain either the court order, neither does it link to it – one link goes to his law firm’s homepage, and a press release patting themselves on the back, and another goes to his brief’s homepage, which makes no mention of the case entirely.

I am not a lawyer – but I’m struggling to see how this constitutes service of anything. And if I was Donal Blaney, I’d try to make sure I got these things entirely right. I know at least one barrister reads this; can you comment?

Also, I was keen to read the order. The HM Courts Service Web site referred me to the British and Irish Legal Information Institute, but somehow, this historic case is not in their database. Not here either. The privatised holders of the registry of judgments couldn’t find Blaney vs Persons Unknown either. And I can’t find it on the cause list either, but then, the HMCS Web site doesn’t archive cause lists and it could have been on an earlier one.

So I rang up the Royal Courts of Justice, and strangely enough, they were unable to find such an application either. Our law reporting system clearly needs the MySociety touch.

Update: Having taken expert advice, I called the Royal Courts of Justice this morning and asked when the return hearing associated with his ex parte application was. This appears to be a useful tip in navigating judicial information.

The facts are as follows: Blaney’s application was heard on the 1st October before Mr. Justice Lewison and was granted, with a return date set for the 8th October. However, the order itself, though granted, was yet to be issued as at 1000 today.

How it can have been served on Thursday if it had not been issued by the following Monday is beyond me, but then I’m not a lawyer. One explanation might be that a close reading of Blaney’s posts suggests that he may not be claiming to have served at all, but only that the order could be served by Twitter. Meanwhile, he’s declaring victory, although the offending Twitter feed still exists and the order is neither issued nor served.