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Observations on Everything

Enough with the Omnibus Petitions

I’m getting really tired of online petitions that act like omnibus bills. The title says “Stop X” and I happen to think “Stop X” is a darn fine idea, but then you get to the actual text and it’s “Stop X, Build more Y, Change Z, and unionize everyone”.

That’s one less signature for “Stop X”, right there. We hate it when legislators pull this crap, maybe you should consider not doing the same thing in your petitions. Stick to a single issue.

Dear Rob and Doug: Get the Hell Out

On Thursday, Doug Ford said this to the Toronto Sun: “This is not normal in democracy… It is a full out jihad against us right now.”

Yes Doug, you have that partly right, because what’s “normal” in democracy is that when you get caught engaging in criminal behaviour, you resign. Because what’s “normal” is to be accountable to your taxpayers by communicating to them through the media. All media. Because what’s “normal” is to represent all the people, not just the ones who voted for you. Because what’s “normal” is to have some integrity and not do backroom deals to help your buddies.

So you ignore all that and what you get is angry voters. Sooner or later you get enough voters sufficiently angry that they’re not going to take it anymore and you get a battle, mislabel it “full out jihad” if you want, but you brought it upon yourselves and it is NOT going away with a wave of your usual bully tactics, so get used to it or do the right thing and get the hell out.

On Government Communications Surveillance

There’s no lack of evidence to show that there are people in the world who think that an appropriate response to the misdeeds of the West is to bring the death and destruction back and throw it in our faces. I fail to understand this logic of revenge, but unfortunately there are many who embrace it. Humanity has a long history on the failure of using evil to counter evil, but we never seem to convert this knowledge into wisdom.

This might be surprising, but because of this I’m not entirely opposed to governments communications surveillance for security reasons, even the communications of their own citizens – after all most acts of terror come from hateful people within our culture, not from the stereotypes the media is so enamoured with. Read more

So NOW is Climate Change a Clear and Present Danger?

For years – for decades – climate scientists have been telling us that global warming was going to have some seriously bad, seriously expensive effects on the environment. Slowly, the population at large has gone from considering this a “unproved theory” to a “concern”, but it’s never been a real “problem”, at least not in the sense that a ten cent increase in the cost of gas is a problem bordering on a crisis. Read more

The Environment, the Economics of Raw Materials, and the Collapse of Civilization

The theft of perfectly functional manufactured goods for scrap value has become a serious issue over the past decade. The number of stories of small to medium scale theft, primarily of copper, has gone from rarity to ubiquitous. The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation has declared copper theft a critical threat to infrastructure. The size of the problem has grown because the recovered value of many easily recycled raw materials is exceeds the risk of getting caught.

This can be generalized. If raw materials aren’t cheap relative to wages, civilization collapses by dismantling itself. This is a grave matter, and I find the implications profound. Read more

Paris Hilton Gives Republicans a Lesson in Internet 101

I kind of like republican Presidential candidate John McCain — as a person. He seemed to have great personal integrity until last week, when his campaign started running attack ads against his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama.

Unfortunately for him, this ill-advised manoeuvre seems to have been engineered by a bunch of old dinosaurs who are completely out of touch with the reality of the Internet. I guess nobody told them that big television advertising dollars no longer get you exclusive access to the attention of the populace. Oops.

The McCain ads sandwiched Obama’s image with those of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, deriding him as a mere celebrity, not ready to lead. I’ve always maintained that Ms. Hilton plays her public image as a lot dumber than she really is (don’t get me wrong, I’m not giving her Rhodes Scholar either), and this week Paris Hilton shot back at the use of her image in that ad.

Analysts have said that the main advantage of the McCain ads were that they got widespread news coverage, and that having segments of them lead the news gave them huge extra exposure at no cost. Unfortunately for them, it looks like Hilton’s spoof, likely shot for a few tens of thousands of dollars and featuring McCain being referred to as “wrinkly white-haired guy”, is going to get almost as much exposure.

In general, I think attack ads are crass and desperate (particularly when run by a party that is in power outside an election, but that’s another post entirely), and it’s good to see them backfire. The only real downside of this parody is that there will probably be an embarrassingly large number of ballots filed in November with Paris Hilton as a write-in candidate.

To conclude, here’s the Internet 101 summary for anyone contemplating an attack ad:

In a wired world, be careful about where you lob the muck. It’s a lot easier to fight back than you think.

I’m Boycotting the Olympics

There was a time when the events unfolding in Tibet would have caused rapid worldwide outrage, followed shortly by a flood of withdrawals from the Olympics.

But that was when China was of little economic importance.

I am dismayed at how flexible our collective principles are when it comes to the economy. It seems that the only time when a political leader has to be concerned about minor trifles — say for example, killing off a few tens of thousands of people from that pesky tribe next door — is when they’re not either producing oil or keeping those same tribe members working 16 hour days to make cheap clothing.

So it is with China. Most of the West is enjoying a great standard of living(*) thanks to China. Their leaders know this well. They may even be rubbing it in our faces. Or maybe they’re just rubbing the 1938 games in our faces and laughing.

Are we going to actually support the principles of Human Rights and take a stand? What, and pay more for consumer goods as a result? In the pocketbook versus principles battle, it looks like pocketbook wins, no contest.

If politicians are unwilling or unable to act, it’s up to the people. A small step though it may be, I’m opting out of the Olympics this year. This summer I’ll be watching something else.

There’s also a few companies who have lost my business: Coca-Cola, GE, Johnson&Johnson, Lenovo Group, McDonalds, UPS, Panasonic, Swatch, Samsung… at this point, the Olympic logo on any product is an icon for “don’t buy me”.

Last but not least, there’s a Facebook group that expresses similar sentiments. I don’t agree with everything they say, but they’re close enough and are the largest of a handful of similar groups. Join them and be counted.

* I mean this in the “wow, this is inexpensive” sense, not in the formal economic sense.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a Waste of Time

I read a blog post today by Simon Phipps (DRM and the Death of a Culture) which was a well reasoned complaint about the constraints that DRM can place on use of content. Yet no matter how well reasoned, nor argued from which position, these arguments on DRM don’t matter. They don’t matter because DRM will never work on static content. This is so basic, so obvious that I’m not sure why anyone ever thought it would. In fact, let’s make it more general: all copy protection technologies, past, present, and future do not and will not prevent copying of non-interactive media. In fact they’re a colossal waste of time, effort, and money that only serve to inconvenience legitimate users (and as Phipps points out, kill culture).
Read more

Terrorism as Economic Warfare

I did a quick search for the title of this post and mostly found references to "asymmetric warfare", meaning warfare where there’s a large difference between each side’s military capability or methods of engagement. It’s a term frequently used to refer to terrorism. Then there’s economic warfare, which can be part of a military effort or completely non-military in nature.

It’s interesting to note that Osama Bin Laden’s version of terrorism makes for some pretty fine economic warfare in and of itself. One wonders what Bin Laden’s total investment has been in his adventures to date. Probably nothing over a few hundred million dollars or so, including labour, materials, equipment, etc.

But what has the rest of the world invested in fighting him? The U.S. tab is probably well over a hundred billion dollars. Add the efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus in investments by other "coalition partners" like the U.K. and it’s not unreasonable to double that.

So that’s a thousand to one return on investment, conservatively. Worse yet, given a reasonably well established and autonomous organization, Bin Laden’s cost of ongoing operations is a fraction of his investment to date. Yet the cost of overthrowing governments, replacing infrastructure, improving economic opportunities and installing a resilient democracy remain astronomical. Moreover one can be cerain that the U.S. has invested a mere fraction of its final cost in Iraq so far. What’s that take the terrorist return on investment to? One to 100,000?

As far as I’m concerned the USSR collapsed under the economic weight of the cold war. With a far less efficient economy, it was only a matter of time before the West won. Now we find ourselves in a similar situation. All terrorists have to do is motivate the world’s larger military powers to mobilize their resources a few times and then wait. We’ll fall under the weight of being dramatically less economically efficient at the game. Asymmetrical economic warfare indeed.