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The Great Firewall of Australia?

Under the guise of won’t-somebody-think-of-the-kids, the Australian Government is pushing ahead with plans to put in ISP-level filters that block “illegal content” which you can’t opt out of.

In the grand scheme of not living in a marginal electorate, my vote counts for diddly-squat, but this is not something I would’ve voted for. It would appear the transition of Australian Labour from progressive to conservative is complete, along with fully emboldened ministers’ departments seeking to silence dissent. It would appear Chinese is not all that Rudd learnt from his 10 years in China.

From a purely legal stand-point, the valid question to me at this point would be “why is this a bad thing? isn’t stopping illegal activity a bad thing?” A valid question, quite apart from the fact that this is a slippery slope of censorship. I hesistate to think what “illegal content” means – the current definition appears to be:

Australian Communications and Media Authority’s official blacklist, which is in turn based on the country’s National Classification Scheme.

Given that our classification scheme bans games which show a level of violence considered acceptable on movie screens, this absurdity promises to play out across the internet, too.

Given also the behaviour of the communications minister’s department at attempting to silence a dissenting voice, you’ve got to wonder how much this is capable of becoming something in line with The Great Firewall of China, used to silence dissenting political voices.

[Communications Minister] Senator Conroy has himself accused critics of his filtering policy of supporting child pornography – including Greens Senator Scott Ludlam in Senate Estimates this week.

That is a line used to cover anything – you can almost here the cry of “paedophile!”

Political parties nominally left of centre (“liberal” with a small l) that start to try to impose restrictions on dissent put themselves squarely in the spotlight of hypocrisy, and feed the notion of a police state. How far around the corner is Minitrue, Thoughtcrime and pre-crime?

The other fear I have is that this will be used to pander to MPAA and RIAA, and all the other industry groups collectively either as MAFIAA or Big Content. Their tactics in hunting down and imposing $200,000 lawsuits against individuals who’ve downloaded maybe 10 songs in their lifetime are an abuse of the legal system, and more often than not they’ve been denied repeatedly in the courts. This seems to be an open path for their lobbying to try to stop all “illegal content” coming through in the hopes of exploiting consumers for every dollar they’ve got and foisting needless DRM.

The question again arises: “it’s illegal – what’s wrong?” What is wrong is an open secret: it doesn’t work. One:

But neither filter tier will be capable of censoring content obtained over peer-to-peer file sharing networks, which account for an estimated 60 per cent of internet traffic.

Two:

[N]one of the filters [tested] were completely accurate. They allowed access to between 2 per cent and 13 per cent of material that should have been blocked, and wrongly blocked between 1.3 per cent and 7.8 per cent of websites that should have been allowed.

and Three:

Only one of the filters tested resulted in an acceptable speed reduction of 2 per cent or less. The others caused drops in speed between 21 per cent and 86 per cent.

The tests showed the more accurate the filtering, the bigger the impact on network performance.

2 percent is acceptable? 86% is possible? Australia’s broadband is slow enough as is, without this unnecessarily hinderence slowing it down all the more.

In Senate Estimates, Senator Ludlam expressed concern that all sorts of politically-sensitive material could be added to the block list and otherwise legitimate sites – for example, YouTube – could be rendered inaccessible based on content published by users.

“The black list … can become very grey depending on how expansive the list becomes – euthanasia material, politically related material, material about anorexia. There is a lot of distasteful stuff on the internet,” he said.

Senator Ludlam, you’ve got my vote.

PSP Game Reviews – Patapon, Loco Roco & Lumines II

Patapon – it’s a reasonably simple idea executed brilliantly: your button keys correspond to different drums, and combos timed to 4-beats-to-the-bar is like issuing a command. Mashing a “rythmn” game with a platformer that has some of the quirkiest characters and storyline you can think of.

Unfortunately, it is actually really really hard.

It’s deceptively simple – keeping a beat going isn’t too hard if you’re musical enough, but the more advanced commands that come into play later on requires precision timing, and the game is rather unforgiving. It’s also very much you’re-on-your-own in many parts, requiring you to pick up on clues that are far from obvious in order to progress, or resort to looking up a guide. Hand-holding is bad, but progression in a platformer should be fairly obvious, one would assume.

As a result, it is extremely frustrating to be stuck, knowing that you’re close, but perhaps a half-beat away from the prize. And as such, I am stuck on Level 8. If anyone can tell me how to get the rain miracle consistently, your help would be much appreciated.

(Also, from all reports, Patapon 2 is far more forgiving about the beats. Yay!)

Loco Roco – Another platformer, but not as we know it, Jim. You control an amorphous yellow blob that grows when eating flowers, is fond of flying fruit and appears to be out to rescue strange, almost smurf like creatures, all the while dodging alien beings that can only be described as flying dreadlocks. You control your blob’s movement by “tilting the world”, and “flicking it” to jump. Oh, and the soundtrack is packed with insanely infectious, almost kiddie, tunes. (You could compare it to Katamari Damacy, except the comparison is totally off.)

Much like the music, this game is unique and addictive. The simple controls are exploited extremely well, and you’ll find yourself tilting your PSP to try to get that extra bit of speed or bounce. There are very few elements in the level design that are superfluous, and it’s these little cues that you’ve got to look for to get to the secret areas that are vital to getting a high score or even perfection in this game. There’s also a bunch of unlockable mini games to provide amusement on the side.

Best platformer ever? Just maybe!

(Loco Roco 2 is scheduled for release soon, too).

Lumines II – Lumines was excellent, a reinvention of tetris and a combination with rythmn/music games that ensured both catchy tunes and gameplay that could last for hours – as long as your hands could avoid cramping! So much like tetris, it’s hard to find a way to reinvent the wheel for a sequel without losing all those who loved the first.

Lumines II unfortunately fails to do enough. It’s changed the music for the worse – there’s now clearly a tie-in with the music industry to try to push commercial tunes, and the gameplay-to-music matchup of the first is lost, the music now relegated to a soundtrack. It was the ability to build the music and hear it react to your successes that was half the charm of the previous version, and this is severely diminished here.

There are new skins and a more accessible set of play modes catering for beginners as well as offering more for advanced players, but without the flow of the original’s primary challenge mode, it just doesn’t feel up to scratch. I’d still suggest going out and buying the original!

Movie Review: Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading: Black-as-pitch comedy spoof of the spy thriller genre from the Coen brothers, starring Pitt, Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and J. K. Simmons – if that’s not a by-line for a winning movie, then I know not what will convince you. I love movies where seemingly simple storylines weave into an intricate plot, and this is probably one of the best that I’ve seen of the type. Definitely not one for the kids though, particularly with Malkovich in fine form as a swearing alcoholic ex-C.I.A. analyst at the core of the hijinks. ★★★★

Crisis! The Mega Musical

You almost want to set a musical to images like those found at this brand-spanking-new tumbl-log.

I’ve largely tried to stay out of saying anything on this “credit crisis” because there are far more credible experts out there, such as Nobel Laureates who blog (a first?). However, it’s getting to the point where I just have to ask one thing – why is everyone in a position of authority seemingly caught unawares?

The Background – or why this matters

The “credit crunch” is taking place behind the scenes far more than it is on measures visible to the public – the equity markets are a mirror to the murky world of money markets, where once billions of dollars flew around the world daily. When I joined DB, I was told almost point blank – the stock market measures you see is a vanishingly small component of what the business of a bank is all about. Brokerage and trading earns tidy sums, but the main reason banks exist is (was?) to handle the flow of money from those who have it to those who need it – creditors to debtors, the flow of capital.

It’s almost the idea that capitalism is built on – someone has extra money than they need, someone else has an idea for which they have insufficient money. The money is lent on the presumption of repayment in future, along with an interest charge to account for the time value and the utility that the money has provided. The borrower will borrow on the expectation that by using it – to buy tools, raw material, whatever – they will earn money from customers, use that to repay debt, and thus complete the cycle.

So: debt is fundamental. But what about shares?

Shares are a way to raise capital without the cost of interest, but in return you give up ownership, and often is limited by the properties of shares. Shares have the advantage to the investor that there’s unlimited upside – when profits are high, it’s returned to the share holders to the maximum value. On the flipside, shares also have unlimited liability – when things go bad, it’s possible to wipe out all your value. Debt is easier: it’s got limited upside – you only get paid back what you lent – and it’s got limited downside – you only lose as much as you lent, and in the capitalist system, you’re also first in line when things go belly-up.

The Crunch

Banks lent. Then they lent some more. Then they thought: I can sell this off and then lend some more again! And lent some more. Eventually, they got so addicted to the profits that they lent to people who really couldn’t pay it off if things turned out less than optimistic.

Which they did, inevitably – and then the crunch began. As default rates climbed, banks started to lose money, writing off values. The loans which had been sold on caused those who bought them to lose money. The haphazardly built house of cards came crashing down, and gradually, over the course of a year from last August, lending – credit – tightened.

Creditors feared that borrowers wouldn’t be able to pay back, so they hung on to their money rather than lending out again, or worse, called in loans. As borrowers sold, the glut forced prices down, and the feedback loop began in earnest. Asset prices falling meant the security against which the debt has been lent was less likely to recoup the cost of the loan, so creditors panicked some more.

As crashes go, the death of the credit market is proportional to the stock market bottoming out at about 1% of the highs.

So now we’re stuck at the point where no-one wants to lend to each other for fear of not getting paid back. Profit margins that were at 0.09% are over 2% for anyone that does lend, but still no-one is lending, and that’s what has everyone spooked – the grease on the gears of capitalism has dried up.

Why didn’t anyone see it coming?

Japan is ahead of the game: they did all this at the start of the 90s.

The Japanese banks lent money with reckless abandon in the 80s, and when the bubble was pricked, it all came to a crashing halt. It led to 10 years of neglegible growth of 1% or less, and petrified Japanese banks with billions of yen of bad debts that they couldn’t write off. The Japanese government attempted make-work programs to kick-start the economy, but failed to do anything other than run up 195% of their GDP as public sector debt. That is to say, it’d take two years of the dollar value of everything Japan made or did to pay off public debt – to contrast, Australia’s at about 14%.

The Japanese bubble was backed on exactly the same thing that the American bubble was – overvalued houses. While we’re skipping ahead to the Japanese solution implemented after nearly a decade – buying into the banks – why didn’t anyone spot the pattern in the first place?

Debt works, but only for so long. As money chased investment opportunities, debt was racked up on the assumption that it would always be as cheap as it was in the early years of the Double-Os, and that payback was a simple matter of selling it to the next sucker. The whole boom was fuelled by debt, not savings, and one day that debt would come due. What’s more, with leverage, the debt was quickly detached from any parity with earnings growth.

The problem seems to be that whenever these things happen, a collective someone thinks, it’ll be different this time.

Alright, but what do we do?

There’s no way to force people to lend money, short of the government taking it off them through taxes and budgets and lending themselves.

Oh wait.

In any case, it seems to me that when something is critical to the infrastructure of a system – like banks to capitalism – you would hope that there’s some level of control and constancy exerted on them. It’s pretty clear free-marketism only works if you’re willing to accept the downsides and the cycles. For a more stable system, you have to smooth the top of the cycle in order to ensure the bottom is smoother too – but that doesn’t sit well with those who cheer free markets (as long as it’s going up) and boo intervenion (unless it’s when their asses are on the line).

I’m an advocate of government involvement and infrastructure investment – critical pieces to the wellbeing of nations should not end up in private hands. To borrow a slogan, you’ve got to keep the bastards honest.

Disclaimers:

  • I work for a bank directly affected by this, and my job may be (is?) linked to recovery.
  • I’m not a US tax payer, and no longer a UK or EU tax payer.
  • I’m no finance or economics expert, so take the above as a crude explanation at best.

Movie Review: The Mummy 3

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor – There’s only so many times you can kill the same bad guy, right? Which is why Rick and Evie are now All Grown Up and settled in Oxfordshire, England, following World War II (where their exploits for the British Government have set them up for the life of landed gentry). They’re thrown back into things when their son Alex (now very much grown up from his showing in The Mummy 2) uncovers the terracotta warriors… only now, they’re mummies from an ancient curse, and the Emperor isn’t happy with his millenia-long sleep.

It’s disappointing that Rachel Weisz didn’t choose to return, though one can see why – this ain’t gonna win no Oscars. Maria Bello overdoes the English accent, while Australian Luke Ford, as the son Alex, speaks inexplicably enough in an American accent. The family is probably the most awkward and least likely I’ve seen on screen in a long time. Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh get neglected as the producers attempt to spin this as a quasi-family film, and their skills entirely obfuscated by CGI. Which is not to say this isn’t a fun enough movie when you’ve got your brain switched off – doesn’t live up to the previous Mummy movies, but is a good cheesy romp no less.

★★★

(p.s. there’s a 4th – or more – in the works; the end of the movie suggests something in South America… *cringe*)