Friday, February 28, 2003

More on data retention

Quick update; a piece in today's Irish Times business section (front page) on traffic data retention and business opposition (including a quote from yours truly in her professional capacity) by Karlin Lillington.

Also, there are some reasonably sane countries in the world who are seriously considering data preservation - Canada for one.

I'm heading back to Ireland for the weekend and hoping to use the travelling time to write down a precis of the talk I gave last Sunday. It was at a conference organised by the 21st Century Trust on European responses to the war on terror, and my contribution was on data retention and other forms of data sharing (via EUROPOL and also the airline passenger data sharing agreement). Basically, my spiel was that:
1) these policies harm privacy and don't seem to be in accordance with European data protection legislation and the European Convention on Human Rights,
2) several EU countries, but particularly the UK, have legislated to fight terrorism post 9/11 but rather opportunistically passed measures far broader than required, and
2) many of these policies are going through the untransparent and unaccountable Third Pillar. Some countries are bringing policies to the European JHA Council, laundering them, and bringing them home again with only a veneer of parliamentary scrutiny.

Like all 21st Century Trust events, the conference was a stimulating and intimate mix of people and ideas, and with Chris Patten presiding and giving his take on current events, there was plenty to talk about. Unfortunately for this blog, it's Chatham House Rule so I can only relate my own contribution. But, more of that in a couple of days when I get it writ down proper fashion.

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Another plug

Just finished final changes on my piece with Jack Knight on institutional change and trust; it's available here. The article is forthcoming in Politics and Society which is one of my favorite journals - it's a nice mix of lefty theorizing and empirical rigor. The piece is a criticism of Robert Putnam and others who talk about social capital and trust in functionalist terms (i.e. they believe that trust's overall benefits for society explain its origins). We disagree - and apply our arguments to one of Putnam's key test cases in Northern Italy. The article has had a long gestation, as articles often do; it's nice to get it out of our collective hair, so that we can start on new stuff (a broader theory of the relationship between institution-induced expectations and trust).
Data retention in Ireland

The Irish Dept. of Justice held a consultation meeting last Monday ahead of producing draft proposals on traffic data retention. Here is an account of the meeting by the representative of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, and here is that of Karlin Lillington, an Irish Times journalist who has also taken a serious interest in this issue. The speech by the Irish Data Protection Commissioner is also worth reading.

Good news

The UK Home Office has finally shown a little common sense and basic regard for individuals' privacy in its draconian and unjustified traffic data retention policy. The Guardian reports today on a consultation document due out in 2 weeks' time. The document finally climbs down from David Blunkett's plans to make individuals' traffic data available to parish and community councils, social welfare offices, and practically every man and dog in the UK. It also proposes to create a criminal offence of unlawfully accessing traffic data.

Retention of and access to traffic data in the UK falls under two main acts (though about half a dozen more have some bearing); the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000 and the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (ATCSA) 2001. RIPA governs access to traffic data, and draft secondary legislation was introduced under RIPA last summer that would have allowed anyone remotely connected with the government, to access data e.g. the Postal Commission. That draft legislation led to a bizarre but telling moment in which the Guardian and the Telegraph, newspapers which couldn't agree on politics to save their lives, ran editorials condemning the government proposals on the very same day. Word has it that Home Secretary David Blunkett was also influenced by the views of his son who works in the IT industry and probably reads Computer Weekly, a trade weekly which has done a lot to keep the pressure up.

RIPA, however, is silent about precisely what data is to be retained. Those powers were rushed through in the ATCSA after 9/11 when the original bill said that traffic data would be retained for any number of purposes. I and others at the time lobbied hard that data be retained only when necessary to fight terrorism and serious crime. Pretty naive in retrospect. We got that concession, thanks to an independent minded House of Lords. But when the dust settled, it became obvious that it didn't matter what the reasons were for compelling communications service providers to retain everyone's data all the time. Reducing the number of reasons it could be retained had no impact on how much data was retained - data retention is an all or nothing endeavour. So, at the end of the day, we had the ATCSA saying 'retain the data' and the RIPA saying 'and anyone can have access to it'.

This latest development is welcome because it at least puts limits on who gets the data - for the most part, it's now restricted to law enforcement agencies - but it doesn't do anything to improve the fact that in the UK, everyone's data is retained all the time, just in case...

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

SF, Fantasy and escapism

D-Squared is perhaps my single favorite blog - I stand in awe of Davies' lugubrious wit and common-sense. But (and there's always a but when you begin a post with a glowing encomium) his recent aside on science fiction made me a little grumpy. Davies claims in a recent SSdB post that

"the defining characteristic of science fiction is that it's escapist; it invites the reader to imagine himself in the place of the characters in the novel. Compare that to, for example, Jane Austen, where the invitation is to empathise with the reactions and feelings of one of the characters as themselves, rather than imaging how you might react if you were Elizabeth Darcy. This is at the root of my dissatisfaction with even left wing techno-types; they don't seem to have developed the capacity to imagine a scene or way of life without putting themselves in it; to consider what it would be like to see the world through someone else's eyes, rather than being in someone else's situation with their own set of values and judgements."

Fair enough, perhaps, as a comment on the kind of sf that SdB reads. But sweeping and wrong as a general judgement. The best sf and fantasy struggles, more or less explicitly, against escapism, or more precisely tries to understand it, and fold it against itself. Read Mike Harrison, for example, author of the exuberant space opera Light, which is precisely about desire, our attempts to escape our lives, and how we fall back into them. Harrison's take on this

"We can never escape the world. We cannot stop trying to escape the world. We begin by trying out illusions. Once we accept that illusions "blind but do not hold", that we have at our disposal finally only the worldness of the world, then we find some way of "escaping" into that. We learn to love what we longed to run from. We learn to run away from fantasy and into the world, write fantasies at the heart of which by some twist lies the very thing we fantasise-against."

Harrison's work is just as attentive to how people are as Austen is; indeed, he delves deeper than Austen (who is in the end, a social novelist) into individuals' desires, frustrations and incoherencies. He's also an extraordinary prose stylist. Or look at China Mieville, writer of the incredibly influential (and incredibly good) Marxist steampunk extravaganza, Perdido Street Station, who sez

"Basically, I don't think there's anything inherently escapist about fantasy. The reason people think there is because so much has been derived from Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons and has degenerated into something of the continual repetition of its own cliché - a kind of comfort food - but that's not intrinsic to the form. Gormenghast is a fantasy, Max Ernst, but these are not escapist. The corollary of this idea is that realism narrowly conceived in unescapism. That's bullshit! You read someone like Anita Brookner or what Banks calls Hampstead novels. This is a novel about a middle class world where the people are hermetically sealed from the rest of the world. That's escapism. You compare that with Mary Gentle's Rats and Gargoyles or Mike Moorcock or M John Harrison or whatever, where you have the fantastic completely penetrated with real material concerns, men and women, gender, economics… there's nothing intrinsically escapist about this literature at all."

Commercial sf and fantasy is mostly, as Mieville says, a literature of comfort. It uses familiar tropes to reassure, to allow escapism without escape. But the best in the genre - like all good literature - grates against reality rather than running away from it. It isn't comfortable at all.

Pot Kettle Black

Many (though not all) libertarians claim that anti-gun people first ignored the Bellesiles controversy, and then used the John Lott affair as payback for it - one good expose deserves another. I don't know enough about the specifics to judge the merits of Lott's claims, although his subsequent behavior seems decidedly fishy. But on the more general issue of reporting two sides to an argument, it's interesting to note that a recent article in Reason, by Joyce Lee Malcolm
(1) talks at length about Bellesiles' dodgy academic standards and unconvincing excuses
(2) states that the liberal media has ignored the controversy because of its anti-gun bias
(3) gives detailed accounts of several recent cases of stinky academic behavior
(4) but not of course, the John Lott controversy.

In Wilco's words: Pot Kettle Black?

Update/grovelling retraction. Julian Sanchez tells me that the Malcolm article was written before the Lott controversy broke; thus, of course she's not being hypocritical in not reporting it. Apologies. Julian is writing his own account of the Lott affair for Reason - as one of the people who did the spadework on the controversy, he should have an interesting take.

Monday, February 24, 2003

Mathematical illustrations

Brad de Long sometimes does little pieces on mathematics and their application in his blog; most recently, he has a post on the falling body problem. This reminded me of Alfred Jarry, the notorious late 19th century provocateur, piss-artist and precursor of the Surrealists, who used the falling body problem to illustrate his proposed "pataphysics," the "science of imaginary solutions," which examines "the laws governing exceptions," and seeks to "explain the universe supplementary to this one; or less ambitiously ... a universe which can be - and perhaps should be - envisaged in the place of the traditional one."

Jarry proposes that the falling body problem should be rethought radically - rather than thinking about the law governing a body falling to a center (which rests on arbitrary assumptions about density, solidity and the like), we should consider "the law of the ascension of a vacuum toward a periphery." He then goes on to use a set of nonsensical (but superficially convincing) equations to derive a definition of God as the shortest distance between zero and infinity. Jarry's work was the main inspiration for the Oulipo movement, which tried to generate literature through quasi-mechanical means. Oulipeans included Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau; Italo Calvino was a fellow traveller. These people made mathematics and language fun, through taking very, very silly ideas to their logical conclusion - there's a playfulness there that's missing for the most part in their English speaking contemporaries. Lewis Carroll is perhaps the nearest equivalent.
Chirac - always entertaining

It wasn't at all safe to cross or even venture close to the road between my office and the local metro station last week. We had great black limousines and siren escorts on natty motorbikes having a splendid time zooming along the Seine, crashing through red lights and pedestrian crossings, giving the finger to irate motorists and, oh, yes, ferrying the 50 or so African leaders to Chirac's Franco / African summit.

The most infamous guest was Robert Mugabe, a truly nasty piece of work. Presumably, Chirac's largesse in inviting the man to wine and dine in Paris was intended to show even-handedness and gently ease this murderous nutcase into the civilised company of a statesmens' ball. (or maybe just to give the two fingers to the UK) Possibly even to impress on him the importance of distinguishing one's dessert fork from the other, and how to avoid touchy subjects like, for example, homophobia, racism, and torture, at the dinner table. Well, at least the riff raff were kept out.

Driving the man around in a flashy car and stuffing him with nice dinners isn't going to succeed any better in reforming his behaviour than the spineless efforts of his African peers to date. It's not every day I find myself agreeing with tabloid newspaper The Sun.