Misplaced Obsession

Alan Kohler:

…in Australia, the budget is in a wonderful position – heading back into surplus in a couple of years despite one of the world’s biggest and most successful stimulus programmes during the global recession.

But you wouldn’t know it. Five billion dollars needed in flood recovery spending and … oh dear, we need a levy. Can’t possibly wait a year or two to go back into surplus. What would Tony Abbott say?

Completely straightforward in my mind: the idea of a “flood levy” when Australia has such low levels of government debt is ludicrous and pure politicking about a number that is being held at an artificially precise amount ($3.1bn “predicted” surplus in FY2012-2013).

FTFF

If you know the FTFF acronym, you’ll know exactly why I’m posting this today.

If you don’t, I suspect this post will be largely irrelevant. Feel free to wander over to somewhere you get some damn posts, like Kottke or Dooce or something.

Anyway.

Apple, please, Fix The Fucking Finder for 10.7. And fixing the Finder doesn’t mean getting rid of it or obfuscating it or rendering it pointless by making everything in OSX work just like iOS.

I’m not saying that as a purist or a ranter. I love my iPad, despite my earlier reservations to the contrary. It’s perfect for those little things – you’ve just thought of a random website you want to check out, so you pick up your iPad, flick the slide-to-unlock, jump online, do your thing, put it down, you’re done. It’s light enough that you don’t even think about it as a fantastic computer as powerful as your desktop was just 10 years ago.

The problem occurs when I want to get anything… serious done. Well, not even serious, just something requiring more than one program to interact with a unit of data that goes beyond a couple of lines of text on the clipboard.  For that, I need to deal with files. Not just files on an arbitrary and abstracted system that may as well be a data-store for specific binary blobs actionable by a particular application, I need honest-to-goodness files I can throw around. Move, copy, rename, edit, export, upload, email, back up. I want to be able to do that without relying on APIs and frameworks and implementations of these to work coherently together.

These two models of interaction can coexist peacefully, even with overlap. But take away the higher-functioning mode, and you’re asking for trouble, or at least people to migrate away from your service.

So when I see things like the Mac OSX App Store and Launchpad, I get worried. One way to look at these things is that it’s just an evolution of things that have gone before, and not just in Apple’s world. The App Store is a package management system with a nice interface and a payment mechanism built in. Launchpad is really just an app launcher, recreating a now-familiar paradigm on the more powerful computers; or it’s just an extension of the stacks/folder pop-overs for the Applications folder (or it’s a graphical update to the App menu from the classic Mac OS days).

What I don’t like is where this might be going. I don’t want to fix the finder by replacing it with a simpler paradigm, or removing the “need” for it. I just want to be able to do things I can take for granted in other OSes, and have it done consistently. I don’t want to get Mac OSX 10.8 Mountain Lion and find that the majority of the interaction is through an abstract system where everything is “managed for you”.

I’m not stupid, and I’m not so distracted that every task must be performed one-app-at-a-time. I want to be editing a photo while music plays and a torrent downloads and a movie converts and a chat is open with my friends while my mail comes in and I see any twitter updates slide into view through Growl. Multi-tasking, it’s why you have OSX in the first place.

The reason we complain and yet still prefer you, Apple, is that you’re still the one for moving this industry. A plethora of MP3 players have died at the iPod scythe, where once Creative led; smartphones now inexorably follow the Apple lead of the iPhone, where once Palm blazed the trail. No-one has come close to matching the slickness of the MacBooks or iMacs.

Mac OSX showed you can have Unix with a usable graphical interface not beaten with the ugly stick. So we need a leader who is able to keep options open, operate with diversity, not just a single focus that a belies a company with a $50 billion balance sheet.

So, Apple: in the next 6 – 9 months leading up to the launch, don’t shy away from new features, like you did with Snow Leopard. This is the king of the savannah we’re talking about here: there better be some features worthy of the label “Lion”. And Fix the Goddammed Finder!

Getting What They Deserved

I’d say I’m not surprised that we ended up with a hung parliament given the disgraceful campaign we just had, but I’d be lying; the truth was I was expecting more would be swayed by Abbott’s message and we would end up with a coalition of dithering in power, but instead we’ve been given a result that could be the start of a shift in Australian politics.

That of course is the emergence of the Greens as a solid force. With 11% of the primary vote, most of it stolen from Labor no doubt, the Greens have shown themselves to be adept at getting a clear message out: this is our policy, and this is why you should vote for us. Sticking to principles is something that the electorate has clearly endorsed here.

Third parties in the Senate have come and gone before – the Democrats after all had 9 senators just a decade ago, and three elections later disappeared off the map. What gives some hope here however is that the Greens have managed to take a seat in the House of Reps, something the Dems never managed to do.

You could argue that the Greens are but a fifth column for Labor, but clearly what happened in this election was that Labor thought they could get away with shifting rightwards to the centre and could rely on Greens preferences from the left they’ve abandoned to get them over the line. In a few key electorates, this hasn’t happened.

Melbourne, obviously, was the big one, and without a conclusive primary vote Labor was screwed. Two of the seats still potentially up in the air, Denison in Tasmania and Lindsay in Western Sydney, don’t have Greens preferences flowing to Labor and the net result may be a loss of these seats, or a severe cutback of the margin. Labor have been dumped by part of their ideological core because of their lack of principles in attempting to retain power.

The point to be made here is that the previous status quo in Australian politics was unusual by global standards – two major parties (never mind the Nats, who haven’t had an independent voice in years) alone dominating the executive branch of government is rare, with fluid coalitions far more the order of the day and perhaps even could be considered more democratic.

However, that is not to say government determined by a small number of independents is automatically a good thing. The temptation for pork barrelling is great, both for the parties to buy them off and for the independents to demonstrate a return for the electorate, but I think in this case we’re lucky in that the key people are men of principle and intelligence.

Windsor, Katter and Oakeshott appeared simultaneously on the 7.30 Report last night, and performed admirably. Windsor showed gravitas and experience, Katter passion for the people he represents and an independent mind, and Oakeshott an idealism for improved parliamentary process combined with a pragmatism for getting the job done. All three emphasised stable government and the need to avoid a quick re-run of the election (some suggest because there’s only so much campaign funds available to these independents).

Labor’s situation is such that it can afford to breathe a little easier in all this. The Greens MP has indicated that he would prefer to work with them, which gives them one more seat by proxy. If the result in Hasluck falls Labour’s way, that leaves Labor as the only credible side able to form government. Denison may yet fall to Wilkie, and his politics are unknowable – a former Liberal party member, a whistleblower on the Iraq war against Howard, a former Greens member and now standing as an independent. You’d suggest he’s shifted left-wards, but it’s by no means guaranteed.

The independents in the country have made a point about the NBN being favoured, which has me hopeful, as much of Abbott’s economic case is dependent on dropping that to pay for other policies. I personally hope Labor gets over the line on the back of this alone, but the compromises that occur on the way will be fascinating to watch for.

Back to the Future

We’ve been here before. I wonder if anyone else recognises it?

(Well, I haven’t, though I’ve read about it. Let me explain…)

There’s an eerie sense of deja vu about the computer industry right now, if you look at it the right way.  The PC wars were pretty much over by the time I was born, definitely so by the time I was old enough to be conscious of a computer, but from what I’ve gleaned from my history books and a little recent reading, things weren’t always so straightforward in the computer industry as they’ve been over the last few years.

Once upon a time thirty years ago, there were many computer manufacturers, almost all with significant differences in key technology components of their machines. The chips inside were different, the operating systems weren’t compatible, and if you made a bet on technology occasionally it didn’t pay out – the computer you bought today might be gone tomorrow.

Apple was there, as was Microsoft. That was the genesis of these two giants of the industry, and their approach to the computing world at the time led to their wildly differing fortunes in the 90s. Apple worked as it does now – to control the whole process end-to-end, with the hardware and the software all under the Apple umbrella.

Microsoft on the other hand tied up with a key partner in IBM and picked just the software side of the equation. Someone else would build the hardware, but anywhere Microsoft’s operating system ran its programs could run, too.

Hardware manufacturers were quickly sidelined as Microsoft defined their interaction with the machine. In the end, even IBM was sidelined as “IBM PC-compatible” quickly became the “Wintel” world.

It all looked like a war that was over until the smartphone redefined what a personal computer was.

Today, we’ve got something very much like the 80s playing out again in the tablet and smartphone market – competing, incompatible OSes, different hardware architectures, and a market that is quickly proliferating with options.

Apple’s got a head start like they did last time, and are controlling the end-to-end chain even more strongly than before. They’ve got a major competitor that is selling only the software, not the hardware. Only this time, Google is Microsoft, with Android the biggest challenger amongst the pack.

There are differences, of course. IBM is no longer in the consumer hardware business, and there’s no Big Blue equivalent for either the consumers to go with or Google to work with as a premier hardware partner. Microsoft is still around of course, though not competitive in the segment where the battle is being fought.

And it almost goes without saying, the Internet has changed everything – no longer does your computing platform determine what applications you can use, as increasingly the complex logic is available in a device-agnostic form. No longer is it necessary to be tied to a single platform if what you do is simply accessed through a browser, more than ever a proxy OS environment for the web.

All this is also within the lifespan of the people involved the first time around, and they’re not likely to make the same mistakes twice, especially not Steve Jobs.

The Decoupling of Reality on the Right

Between the birthers, deathers and the general right-wing lunacy on show in the US, I think David M. Green picks up a few important threads that we’ve seen:

Can we really live in a country populated by so many fools, people who can so readily, proudly and belligerently be made into tools of their own destruction? Can the greatest political, economic, cultural and military power on the world’s stage possibly be so incredibly backward at its core?

This is what I don’t get: where have all these … nutjobs come from? What makes these people, who ostensibly have some education, behave in such an irrational manner, especially over a topic as apparently uncontroversial as health care?

[W]hat seems to me new about this moment is the political road rage, the thuggishness of masses of Americans who not only are venting about insane nonsense, not only are undermining their own interests acting as marionettes of laughing corporate predators, and not only are taking down democracy around themselves in order to do so, but are in fact also destroying the entire Enlightenment project of rationality-based management of public affairs as well. The single most frightening characteristic of this movement, to my mind, is that fact that no amount of evidence or logic could persuade these folks to abandon the lies they’ve attached themselves to[.]

It’s certainly astonishing to me that these people are arguing against a government service. Virtually everywhere else in the world, government services are considered good, exemplary even. You pay taxes, and in return the government provides services. Sure, commercial entities might be able to do the same deal, but at least you know with the government they’re not looking to make a buck out of it.

But I think the point being made above is that some time in the last 40 years, logic disappeared from the public sphere. It’s as though the last generation to witness truly involved war refused to educate their children about some basic things about respect for others and their views; that or some were taught too well and ended up on the left side of the nominal fence, while those who didn’t pay attention to lessons about humility and the importance of reason ended up on the right side. That or these people truly are pawns of a vaster conspiracy.

Anywho, go read the whole article before I repeat it word for word.

Caveat Lector

A response to this rather infuriating article:

Paul Sheehan has a rather glaring contradiction in his article on Monday, accusing “Comrade Rudd” of being a great illusionist. To claim on the one hand that the Prime Minister falsely represented himself as an economic conservative, but argue on the other hand that following Keynes’ General Theory is not economic conservatism appears somewhat contradictory.

Keynes’ ideas of macroeconomics had been largely displaced by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Business’ laissez-faire monetary approach since the 70s, so it seems that a return to older ideas would indeed conform to the ideas of conservatism in the field of economics. Applying the approach used to solve the Great Depression of the 1930s seems like the very model of conservatism.

It is also telling to read the full text of Niall Ferguson’s quasi-blog-post. Sheehan very selectively quotes from the source, which is primarily focused on proposing a solution for America and its banks.

Niall Ferguson’s article focuses on the fact that the US and UK governments are deeply indebted, along with their banks. He proposes that the US Government effectively seize American banks known to be holding large volumes of potentially bad debt, rewriting mortgages in more favourable terms for borrowers, and reprivatizing seized banks in 10 years. It’s an idea that is widely circulated, and has the backing of Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize for Economics winner for 2008.

Does Sheehan expect that Kevin Rudd follow this example for the Australian banks? The solutions Sheehan hints at in Ferguson’s “solution” have nothing to do with Australia and the Government’s attempts to stimulate local demand, and would have Sheehan screaming about socialism by any other name. To imagine that these solutions could be brought about without increased government spending and debt is also fatuous.

Australian banks not affected to the extent of their international peers, for which regulation is but one factor, so Ferguson’s proposed solution is largely irrelevant to Australia, despite the allusions Mr Sheehan draws to solutions which “space precludes listing.” Ferguson’s contention that more debt is a problem, which Sheehan has latched onto, is only to set up the argument that the further debt should be targeted more directly at fixing bad loans in America. Paul Sheehan seems to have missed that part.

Caveat lector – let the reader beware – ought to proceed Sheehan’s article.

Freedom is not Free

I’m sure you’ve heard by now of the Mumbai terror blasts and shootings yesterday – the situation still continues today, with a seige at the two hotels targeted still underway. Over 100 are dead, scores injured and the damage both physical and psychological as yet uncounted.

I’m usually one to argue in favour of civil liberties and ensuring fairness, but right now, the only feeling I’ve got is that these scum deserve to die.

The crime is simple: indescriminate murder of innocent civilians in their ordinary places of work and play. There is no defence for this crime, and the callous nature indicates that the perpetrators are dangerous to society and clearly mad – without any respect for human life.

Their shallow claim to a justification is that the anti-terror task force in India is unduly targeting Muslims – apparently oblivious to the irony of their very actions.

The freedom that these people have been allowed in India’s tolerant society and democracy has been abused and exploited. These people, their associates and all who sympathise with their actions deserve whatever they will get in vengence for their contempt for human life. Bastards.

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.

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.

Palin, Hypocrite Walking

If there’s one thing I think you’ll appreciate, it’s the following from The Daily Show:

The Daily Show isn’t exactly a bastion of independence, so let the AP sort out a little fact check on various things said over the last couple of days (via Dooce). Here’s another fact-check from AP on Palin’s claim that she “opposed the bridge to nowhere”, when she did no such thing.

I thought it was an interesting nomination, but it’s proving itself to be quite a bit of a farce.