Monday, May 30, 2011

Pirates: More establishment than they think they are...

It's funny how so many of those who challenge piracy legislation see themselves as the enemies of The Man and not as his vanguard. Further to my last post about Copyright, here's Cory Doctorow on how each wave of innovation = piracy - and that it's benign.

It's a reasonable point, but the examples he gave need a bit more qualification. When radio stations started playing records, they reached a deal whereby the record labels got a performance fee - sourced from the ad revenue that the radio stations gathered. That the record companies started seeing radio as a means of selling the records only sharpened the negotiation around that final fee.

Doctorow is focusing on one side of the argument at the expense of the other one here: Yes - the new technologies that make it easier to create, distribute and share content are adding value to humanity. I totally understand his argument about the absurdity of the Hollywood major studios vetoing the development of YouTube.

But there are winners from all of this. Twenty years ago, we bought one TV set a decade on average and maybe a VCR every five years (OK - there's no research behind that, but you know what I mean....).

Today, a huge amount of hardware sales are driven by the fact that it's possible to freely or cheaply appropriate content in ways that weren't foreseen when the original licence was drafted. My Humax PVR allows me to record a whole series, in HD and fast-forward though the adverts. I'm getting a great deal more utility out of TV programmes now - and avoiding some of the payment mechanisms (ad-dodging) because someone has marketed a new box. New formats allow us to watch old content in better ways and as a result, more TVs, PVRs, DVD, BlueRay, iPad, PCs and games consoles are bought.

Hardware manufacturers are making hundreds of $billions out of our ability to 'pirate' existing content.

Many consumers are also paying Virgin or BSkyB to deliver that content to them as well using their proprietary hardware. iPods and iPhones are sold with three-figure price-tags because we can use them to watch content - on terms not foreseen by the original licences.

And the response of cyber-evangelists? Renegotiate those contracts perhaps? No. Just break them unilaterally.

And here's where the last post here - about 'incumbents' comes in. The Hargreaves Report on copyright has made lots of the kind of points that regulars here will be familiar with - the distortion of public policy by powerful pressure groups. But the real incumbents in public policy around copyright aren't the rightsholders. It's the rightsholders who also have a large stake in the hardware markets.

Hardware levies are not discussable in the UK because BSkyB have a veto over what is discussed. There is no clearer illustration of Hargreaves' point about the way this issue is discussed, though you wouldn't believe it from the way that this point has been widely interpreted.

I've never been given the first inkling as to why people moaning about the rigidity of piracy legislation aren't jumping up and down about the need for a small hardware levy. It would set everything right between themselves and existing rightsholders - and it could easily be paid for in full from a fraction of the hardware profits that are being made at the moment.

What if the 'incumbents' buy the outsiders?

Keynote - e-G8 from lessig on Vimeo.

Thanks to Paul Johnson for bringing this to my attention (via Facebook).

It's a demand for minimal government as a response to the huge opportunities offered by the information revolution.

For me, it's a bit simplistic. It assumes that outsiders don't get captured by incumbents. Or, more specifically, bought by them.

Why should government just get out of the way while these outsiders build brands at the expense of the producers of content (see YouTube, Google, the iPod etc) that are either developed or can be bought by monopolies for $billions?

What if the copyright of producers can be secured by the imposition of levies? Seeing as Apple have made $billions selling hardware that bases it's value on its ability to breach the existing copyright terms that have been applied to content that it uses, a small levy applied to the purchase of the hardware would create a win-win situation.

If I go into a pub and hear music, I pay for it via a the PRS payment that the pub pays (and adds on to the price of my beer).

How will minimal governments overcome the objections of monopolies to this otherwise perfectly reasonable demand?

Surely the answer is less this opportunistic call for minimalism (amazing how often the richest 0.1% of the world population get to make this demand) and more for the use of this hive mind to fix the quality of representative democracy to ensure that these 'incumbents' can't unduly distort public policy?

(Oh, btw, these 'incumbents' are just what political scientists have always referred to as 'pressure groups' or 'interest groups'. If you want a quick outline of how to deal with those, there's a very widely respected textbook that's dealt with it fairly comprehensively. You can read it without paying much to the author here).

Monday, May 23, 2011

What we know about the way 'EU influence on UK law' stats are used

I've only just listened to this, in which Tim Harford tackles the assertion that "75% of UK law comes from Brussels".

As a summary, his conclusions are....
  1. That the people making that claim are dishonestly taking bits of information out of context to mislead
  2. That the figure is nonsense
  3. That it's largely impossible to arrive at an accurate figure in the first place, but if you did, it would almost certainly be a great deal lower
  4. That it's a stupid question anyway. Paraphrasing, he says "If the UK imposes nine bits of legislation on chewing gum manufacturers concerning packaging and other trivialities, and the EU were to abolish trial-by-jury, would it be of any interest that only 10% of UK legislation originated in Brussels?
One statistical correllation that I'd investigate if I had the time to do it: The likelihood of an organisation that expends a good deal of energy in continually producing misleading and eye-catching statistics that get reported in mid-market tabloids being very keen on referendums.

I reckon that one would be quite high.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A confession: I quite enjoyed watching the royal wedding

I'm probably one of the few Republicans who watched the Royal Wedding with much pleasure, but I think I've got a respectable reason for doing so; firstly, the music was quite fantastic, and secondly, the BBC's production values within the Abbey itself were quite stunning - adding to the spectacle that was driven by the music.

This is becoming something of an odd departure for me, on a personal level. It must be a sign of getting older, but I'm nurturing a bit of an obsession with religious music - particularly William Byrd and almost anything recorded, for example, by Oxford Camerata.

I only got to the BBC4 Sacred Music series featuring Simon Russell Beale late and managed to record two of the four episodes. Hopefully I'll able to grab a repeat - they all really require repeat viewing.

This doesn't herald any religious epiphany (at least I don't think it will), but the appeal remains similar to the one I noted here when I first started taking an interest a few years ago.

In that old posting, I noted that....
"...religious choral music is almost unique in that it is a concerted attempt to make noise that can be unequivocally described as beautiful. This is because the intended audience is not interested in getting laid, having a dance, or being provoked to think in any way.

When people compose music, they do it for all sorts of reasons, but very rarely simply to create something that is purely, subjectively beautiful, and this is why sacred music is so singularly fascinating."

Since I posted it (when I was beginning to take an interest) I've learned a lot from an old In Our Time podcast that I stumbled upon devoted to 'The Music of the Spheres' and an annoyingly-written but very informative book I've just read (or, more accurately, dipped into) called 'How Music Works'.

It's fascinating looking at the way economic and ideological constraints that have been applied to the production of music have reflected different conceptions of what is beautiful. From the lavish pre-reformation investments to the beautiful simplicity of some Lutheran and post-Lutheran music (the constraints being less patronage and fewer monasteries, among other things).

It's oddly similar to the departure from the big Jazz bands marked by Be-Bop - partly a product of smaller groups with the option to make longer saleable recordings.

Throw this into the mix with a combination of technological advances in the production (and recently, the recording and transmission) of music (a positive advance, surely) and the awful impact of inclusivity in which, I suppose, was the logical response to the religious subjectivity of Protestantism (beautiful = what lots of people sing in church) and you've got a strand of music that will forever give.

A school friend of mine - who went on to be fairly traditionally-minded Catholic priest - used to get very annoyed by what he called banjo masses - a horrible thing that went hand-in-hand with charismatic Christianity.

I'm beginning to understand more why I agreed with him on so many particulars - particularly on how protestantism was almost an unnatural perversion of what religion should be. This is all made odder by the fact that I never could muster up much interest in the big generalities of religion (I was in my early 20s before I fully decided I wasn't religious).

Listening to the symmetries and patterns in some of Bach's works (for example), having understood a bit about the mathematics of harmonics, it also helps to reflect upon why people start to see great Intelligent Designs in nature. It allows even agnostic / atheistic philistines like me to have a glimpse of what that over-used word 'awesome' can mean.

Update: Googling to write this, I've found this (yay!) and this - I hope they put it on again?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Personal and political

I was just looking through some postings on this blog from a few months ago, and in this post, re-read this in a longer post on politicos who have given up blogging:
"Tom [Harris], Nadine [Dorries] and Iain [Dale] have distinguished themselves by being more-active-than-average online. None of them have been able to do the useful things that social media allows them to do - at least in part -because the personal engagement crowds out the political / policy conversation..."
I thought that it needed an add-on observation now. For anyone interested in designing processes, tools and platforms designed to promote useful engagement this is a salutary lesson: Avoid big personal brands.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Whither Labour? Keep it simple, stupid...

"...the canvas on which Labour is currently painting by numbers is wearing rather thin. A bit of blue, a bit of purple, some red, something of a strange colour called ‘new’, finish it off with a bit of a flourish. Stand back and marvel at the complete, er, mess.
In the meantime, the Conservatives emerge largely unscathed from their first electoral test since the general election. OK, they emerged completely unscathed. And Labour has spent the year talking to itself and in the seminar room (in fact, the last four years). Now the results of the experiment are about to be unleashed. There will be a deafening silence across the land."
... and, he concludes...
If Labour understands what people actually need, what they actually value, rather than what it thinks they do, then it may get more of an audience. Liam Byrne’sspeech about the “responsibility society” yesterday feels in tune with mood of the moment in this regard. Politics is a contact sport.
I think it's a bit simpler than he suggests here: We're totally obsessed with tactical gambits. and - as far as I can see - we have little interest in strategy.

The Tories did a great job uniting a core of people in what they hated. They came up with a self-serving picture of ZaNuLieBore aimed purely at their deep core of supporters - we were a statist / managerialist / authoritarian / EUNazi bunch of over-educated venal theives and liars from the non-productive classes. At the same time, they had a very simple prescription (that they didn't need to justify because it went over the popular head) based around reduction of the state. This is where their use of social media communications tools really helped them.

Once they had that, the question of principle was removed from the tactical questions and their core support was prepared to give the party carte blanche to get on with doing whatever it pleased to capture the public's attention.

The public respond well to moral coherence - and we ain't got any because we don't know what our simple prescription is.

Personally, I reckon it's really simple - and it doesn't involve any visions from leadership figures or any clever bits of rebranding or focus-grouping or handwringing.

It should be a position that is fairly close to the old Labour Representation Committee one upon which the party was founded: To ensure that decisions aren't made for people by corporations, employers, landlords and interest groups.

Put that in a modern setting and it means campaigning against consumerist abuses, the way that businesses are financing themselves on corporate welfare, the way that people don't feel that they have any impact upon the big issues that effect their lives - be it an immigration policy that puts corporate needs first without addressing the consequences for most voters - or the way that process-driven businesses and public sector organisations don't provide a meaningful way to involve everyone who faces the consequences of their actions in making their decisions.

Unite Labour around that and the tactical direction will follow...

Friday, May 06, 2011

Kautskyite social democracy and the Lib Dems: A convoluted argument that I'm going to make here anyway.

I bored you yesterday with yet another version of my 'referendums are the root of all evil' thesis along with a bit of a pop at the Lib Dems for not internalising this argument a long time ago.

I know Lib-Dems have had their fill of ‘disappointment’ coming from lefties over the last year, but I was very surprised that they didn’t foresee this inevitable outcome and didn’t have a strong enough grasp of what democratic renewal meant in their back pockets.

I don’t believe it’s possible to have – within the same brain - a developed view of good democratic practice AND a view that voting reform in the UK can or should be delivered by a referendum.

I’ve outlined (elsewhere) what I believe to be the cornerstones of a ‘good democracy’ in this post, and I must admit I used to be more inclined to believe that Lib-Dems would recognise and agree with a lot of this than I am now.

I thought Lib-Dems cared about democratic renewal – evidenced by the long-term focus on electoral reform. The evidence of the last year has awakened a suspicion that their view on this (like the worst of the Tory and Labour arguments) has nothing to do with principle and everything to do with instrumental politics.

Firstly, if the LibDems do take this disaster as a catalyst to review their principled position on democratic reform, it would give them the tools to reject some Coalition policies that are – to my mind (more on that mind below) – the most regressive and nasty things in the pipeline: Local referendums and elected police chiefs.

Secondly, it could clear up a lot of misunderstandings on the left and put pressure on Labour to be a better party while appealing to sectons of the activist left who wouldn’t be averse to switching over (strengthening the Lib-Dem party).

Let me explain what I mean here: If pushed, I’d describe myself as a ‘Kautskyite’ social democrat. A socialist who believes that economic justice (however you define that – we KSDs don’t need to be too precise because democrats let others settle the details) is better delivered by aspirational democratic renewal than it is by other forms of class struggle.

I’d take a long-term move towards a better democracy over a short term redistributive measure every time. This (along with other idiosyncrasies) explains why I’ll never succeed in a political career.

So we would say: “Keep chipping away at bad democratic practices -the power of interest groups & the media, the shortcomings of deliberative models, the failure to offer better forms of participation etc, and other injustices and social failures would be overcome as part of this process."

This, by the way, is part of the dialogue of the deaf that goes on between socialists and liberals. We say “we should decide collectively what’s fair and all live by what we’ve decided on a wider range of things.” They say “No – keep it to the minimum. We don’t trust the state – it will make bad decisions and impose them on us”

Democratic renewal can bring the two sides together. If the decisions are better and more inclusive, liberal suspicion of those decisions could be lower. And because many of the Lib-Dems that I know don’t have too many arguments with our notion of what economic justice is (something we both wildly disagree with the Tories on), a shared notion of what democratic renewal is could build all sorts of bridges.

Footnote: I posted a lot of this in Mark Reckons' comments but wanted to expand on it so I've reposted it here with extra bits and a few edits.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

What are the Lib-Dems playing at?

There are a number of Lib-Dems that I know, like and respect. I've been trying to think of a nice way to say what I'm going to here, but I can't. So here goes.

I've posted something today on Slugger urging people not to vote in the AV Referendum - it's a squalid way to answer a stupid question, and that's all there is to it.

But I have to ask, what on earth have Lib-Dems been trying to do here?

Assuming this vote goes the way we're expecting (Victor Chandler are offering 1-100 on a No vote), we’ve seen how deep their understanding and concern for democratic reform is from three factors around this campaign.

Firstly, they were prepared to allow this question to be decided in a very anti-democratic manner. A referendum on voting reform? How about a trial-by-combat to decide who wins a peace prize?

Secondly, they were prepared to go along with a rigged question that didn’t include the options that even they wanted on the ballot. In yesterday's Times (no link - paywall), Lord Adonis claimed that they were offered the deal that they wanted on PR by Brown as part of the negotiations - and that Clegg misled his colleagues on this offer.

Thirdly, they went into a campaign that they were certain to lose (if they’d ever thought about referendums, they’d know that this one was hopeless) in a way that will be allowed to rule out their central political demand for a generation.

I'm not saying that Labour have an understanding of what democratic reform should be that is any better than the Lib-Dems. But for me, it was always their USP. They did care about the quality of liberal democracy - or so I thought.

Now they're backing the Tories in legislating for local referendums and elected police chiefs. Bizarre.