Thursday, 22 August 2013

Chelsea Manning: on pressing the button

Private Manning's announcement today that she is a trans woman came as no surprise to those of us who'd read the chat logs.  Admittedly, the name she's picked: Chelsea, was a bit of a turn-up: in the logs she'd previously identified as Breanna.  Anyhow, on seeing this news I did what any self-respecting Wikipedian would do, and had a look to see if anyone had updated the Wikipedia article yet.

This had come up before, but it was thought that the transcripts and a few sources reporting on the implications of them were not enough.  Some trans activists had been championing visibility on this issue, but I had felt uncomfortable with both sides.  Sure, Manning, by her own words, which I had no reason to doubt, was probably trans.  But those chat logs had hardly been released with her full agreement and she hadn't socially transitioned (that is, actually asked people to start calling her a different name, or use female pronouns).  But, also, it was not clear that'd she'd be able to ask that, as her contact with the outside world was very limited.  Wikipedia took the side of caution and didn't mention it except peripherally, and it certainly didn't move any articles.  Meanwhile, I, in conversations, carefully avoided referring to Manning by anything other than surname.

We'd had a similar issue with the article on the Wachowkis - where there had been rumours floating around about Lana for years, but they all traced back to a single, rather salacious, source (we try to be careful about that, in Wikipedia, believe it or not - although what's worse is when some article is using us as a source without citing us and we get into a horrible citation loop).  Eventually Lana did let it be known - the Wachowskis are quite private so what really clenched it was her official listings on a union site and IMDB.  Laura Jane Grace, the lead singer of Against Me, was another interesting case because she initially announced that she was going to transition, so we kept referring to her with her old name and gender for a bit.

What do I mean by "transition", anyway?  Well, as I use it here, that's the process of actually changing your name and asking people to start calling you by it; and also to use new pronouns.  People who aren't trans ("cis people", if you follow the Latin pun) often seem to obsess about genital surgery, and claim that "she" is really "he" until that happens, but, disregarding the unhealthy fixation on other people's genitals, this ignores the legal and practical reality of the situation: being socially transitioned for a good length of time is generally a requirement for surgery.  You might as well claim that having passed a driving test is a prerequisite for learning to drive.

Manning's statement was pretty clear that she was transitioning immediately, such as it was possible (and I don't even really want to think about doing that inside the US military justice system, but that's another issue).  I got agreement from a few other interested parties on the talk page, and moved the page, and started copyediting it.  But to what exactly?  There are two schools of thought here (well, there are three schools of thought: the third is that transition is sick and wrong and against nature and biologically impossible and so on, and therefore the prose shouldn't acknowledge it at all other than as a delusion; but I'll discount that one).

The first is that you should use "old" pronouns and names for pre-transition events, back when Manning was living as male; and the new ones for ongoing statements of fact and events afterwards.  The second is that the new pronouns and names be applied for the entire biography.  The first is often justified based on an appeal to the unalterability of the past, and the avoidance of awkward wording, but it can lead to plenty of difficulties in phrasing in its own right.  How would we phrase "[X] is imprisoned at Quantico, after [X] was convicted for multiple charges of espionage"?  One of these things is in the present; the other in the past.  We can't be switching pronouns within a sentence, that's what I call real nonsense.

Fortunately, the Wikipedia Manual of Style is completely clear on this point, favouring the second:

"Any person whose gender might be questioned should be referred to by the gendered nouns (for example "man/woman", "waiter/waitress", "chairman/chairwoman"), pronouns, and possessive adjectives that reflect that person's latest expressed gender self-identification. This applies in references to any phase of that person's life. Direct quotations may need to be handled as exceptions. Nevertheless, avoid confusing or seemingly logically impossible text that could result from pronoun usage (for example: instead of He gave birth to his first child, write He became a parent for the first time)." (my emphasis)

It has been like this for a long time, and reflected long-established usage well before that.  So, our manual of style backs me, I've got the citation I needed, I got consensus on the talk page.  I pressed the button and watched.

It was not as uncontroversial as it should have been.  There is currently a raging argument on the talk page, in which all sorts of mud has been flung (I've been accused of misusing my admin rights, even though any user could do what I did!)  A lot of this has been supportive of my decision.  But a depressing amount of it full of people repeating the same canards as if they are being original, and I'm not even allowed to block them because technically they haven't done anything wrong (well, apart from the ones who have tried to move it back in a technically incompetent way.)  Instead, we're supposed to argue individually with each tendentious passer-by, each of them saying things like "ooh, but it's just a matter of the facts" like we hadn't considered facts before or something.  I kept it up for a while, but it's draining.  Instead, I'll address them en masse here:

Other sites have in fact changing things throughout the day.  It's not like we were breaking news or anything at any point.

Chelsea Manning's genitals are none of your business.  Or mine.

No, we are not a laughing stock of the world.  I have been watching twitter.  Twitter thinks what we did was awesome.  I've been watching "Manning" and "Wikipedia" all afternoon and it's been well 95% positive.

How is it you are so sure of Chelsea's chromosomes?  Did you have her karyotype done?

Can you not read or something?  The Manual of Style clearly is meant for cases like this.  No, you can't point out that it only applies in cases where there is a "question" and then claim there is no question.

Look, you seem to be denying the the validity of transsexuality in general and then using that as a basis for keeping the article at "Bradley" and the pronouns as "he".  I don't expect to persuade you that you're wrong, not on a Wikipedia talk page, but can you see that failure to even pay lip service to the idea that the entire medical-scientific-social consensus in the West might be right about trans people is not be an entirely sensible basis for a discussion of policy?  What are you going to do next, edit Oscar Wilde so it calls him a sodomite?

Maybe putting these answers here will work. Because nobody seems to be listening on the talk page.
It's easy to forget, dealing with these sort of nonsense, that Wikipedia's openness has advantages as well.  It's precisely because anyone can edit that I'm able to do so, and that the article was moved at all.  Right now, people are voting about whether it should be moved back.  Or rather, they are participating in this bizarre consensus-reaching procedure which is way more than a simple headcount.   And ultimately, I probably don't need to be countering every spurious invocation of the same nonsense on the talk page, because the closing admin (the person who takes it upon themselves to be responsible for looking at what we've thrown at the wall and somehow discerning the consensus of the discussion) will look at the facts and the policy and the arguments, weigh them up carefully, and decide that it's not going anywhere.

Abigail Brady is a software engineer and writer, and has been a Wikipedian since 2003.   This piece is under CC-BY-ND.  If you want to run it in an edited form, please drop me a line.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Not Magic Boxes

Clarke's Third Law, it's called.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It would be far from the most original idea to submit that technology is pretty advanced these days. I have here in my pocket a smartphone (three years old - practically ancient) with a touchscreen of the sort that would have astonished 1993 me. It looks like it came out of Star Trek, for Christ's sake. You can even talk to it and it answers back!

But on Star Trek the ship computer can answer complex questions that require all sorts of interpretation, guesswork and knowledge. It displays a true intelligence. All Siri can do is the same old fuzzy database matching that wouldn't have impressed 1993 me a bit. It's quite cleverly done, but it's a trick. Same as everything else. Our entire IT infrastructure has has been painstakingly constructed, piece by piece, in expensive research efforts. Not useless, by any means, but certainly not magic.

But to politicians it's all the same. They really do see a magic box which does stuff, and us - programmers and IT professionals and other such people - as wizards. They're especially concerned that we seem to be indoctrinating their children into our world without them really understanding it. All they've done is make perfectly reasonable requests like for the magic boxes for displaying information from anywhere in the world be restricted to certain types of information. If we were in a fantasy world that might sense. The magicians have cast their spells to enchant the boxes! Surely they can tweak the spells a bit, so the magic boxes have parental consent controls.

But it's hard. Filters can work two ways. Automatically, or a blacklist. Automatically is rubbish. To get them working properly you need full AI, which ranks alongside nuclear fusion in technologies that we shouldn't rely on ever existing. Blacklists are also rubbish. And, anyway, neither work for an Internet where you can encrypt information just as trivially as registering a new website.

To Cameron we're a bunch of stubborn people who could perfectly well do what he wanted. He thinks the "no", or the "we're doing the best we can" from Google and the ISPs is a negotiating position, rather than a technical reality. He has, after all, never had a job where's he's had to deal with physics and resource constraints rather than just manipulating people. He initially tried sweet-talking the internet industry, but they've not changed their line. So he's resorting to the threat of the law, because that's the next step if you're trying to get your way and you're the government.

Except, he's not alone. The Internet porn nonsense has triggered this particular rant, but we've seen more or less the same problem with copyright (they've blocked Pirate Pay how many times now?), and more recently with libel (hello Lord MacAlpine) and breach of various court orders (Trafigura, Baby P, Jon Venables). And it's not the first time a government has misunderstood the Internet but felt it ought to write a law altering the way it worked (cookies, anyone? oh, and the snooper's charter.) And this is only going to get worse. We saw a few months ago the shocked reaction to a 3D printed gun. Yes, it's not exactly viable as a murder weapon today. But ten, twenty years down the line, what then? It will be as impossible to make a 3D printer suitable for general use yet incapable of making a lethal weapon, as it is to make a phone cable unable to transmit pornography. New Scientist ran a piece about using 3D printers to synthesize drugs, where the research team naïvely thought they could make sure nobody could hack the machines to print bad drugs.

All our laws around publishing and information are stuck in a pre-Internet age, and are fundamentally incompatible with a world where you can't stop the signal. In some areas - because of their manifest absurdity - they have lost popular consent and are effectively unenforceable. Where they have been altered they have had to resort to increasingly draconian measures in the hope of having any sort of effect. An entire sector of law has become obsolete in a generation, due to massive technology shifts. We need to have a serious discussion about what to do about that. And, if kiddies really were being scarred for life by porn (hah), we'd need to come up with an appropriate reaction to that: a mass public information campaign to parents about the services and software and hardware that is already available to restrict their children's use of the Internet might be a good place to start.

David Cameron is not capable of participating in that discussion. Very few politicians are. It's not just that he's not an expert in the subject matter, but that he lacks the humility to take advice from experts (see: Khat). Only a handful of what Charles Stross calls the "ruling party" have ever lived in the real world, where you can't stop a tide by parking your throne on the beach. Computers are not magic boxes, and we can't be heading further into the 21st century with our policymakers acting like they are.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

NHS, the internal market and dirty tricks

There was an article yesterday about NHS procurement. Purchasing is not exciting, which is a shame, because getting it right is massively important. When we do hear about it in the news it's often tabloid-manufactured outrage that some kind of custom object needed for some reason is more expensive than a mass-market one.

But this case, this is genuinely shocking. Not simply because of the numbers (although half a billion a year is nothing to be sniffed at), but because of this quote:

Joe Stringer, from Ernst & Young, said the discrepancies were "staggering", and he warned that the problem was getting worse. Trusts, he said, were reluctant to share information for fear of helping their competitors.

I posted a brief note on twitter about this yesterday, and it got retweeted a lot. Some people replied, blaming the Tories. They've missed the point. The internal market in the NHS was already there. There are hundreds of little NHS purchasing departments making small orders and unable to use mass buying power to get good rates, even if they had been sharing information.

And they have a disincentive to share best practice, because of the NHS internal market. Trusts aren't being compared to some platonic ideal of efficient, they're simply trying to be as efficient as they can be compared to their rivals. That means not giving away their lead, if they've got one, say by having the best purchasing people. This is fine when you are selling potatoes or shirts, but when we're talking about providing medical care from state funds, it's another matter entirely.

If trusts already are reluctant to share information, to the general detriment to the health service as a whole (and it's not me or some leftist bloggers that's saying that, it's Ernst and Young), why should it stop there? This is already an ethical violation, but since it has taken the form of lack of action rather than action, it gets a bit of a pass. But the lines between not acting when you should and acting when you shouldn't can be rather blurred. Inaction is not neutrality. The internal market creates perverse and direct financial incentives for unethical actions. I fear it is only a matter of time before we see the first NHS dirty tricks scandal.

Monday, 13 August 2012

You may have been watching the Olympic closing ceremony last night, or not. I gave up halfway through and went to look at meteors. Something caught my eye during it - the medals awarded to the Men's Marathon.

Turns out it's tradition to award a set of medals during the Olympic closing ceremony. The IOC say:

After the athletes' parade, a medals ceremony is held. The IOC, with the help of the OCOG, decides which event will have its medals ceremony during the Closing Ceremony (it is generally the marathon for the Summer Games).

In London in 2012 it was the Men's Marathon. In Beijing in 2008 it was the Men's Marathon. In Athens in 2004 it was the Men's Marathon. In Sydney in 2000 it was the Men's Marathon. In Atlanta in 1996 it was the Men's Marathon. I could continue.

Friday, 6 July 2012

let's sell honours

There are an increasingly large number of people with huge piles of money. In trickle-down land, this is supposed to result in them spending this money and distributing it to everyone. In fact they appear to be hoarding the money, and making only safe investments (look at bond yields!). We are told that placing arbitrary taxes on them will discourage them from having made that much money in the first place. Well, whatever, let's go with that.

There's a practical limit on how much they can spend on their lifestyle, so there's a great demand for status symbols. We can see this in the art market.

The people benefiting from this art bubble are mostly the slightly-less-rich who bought stuff when it was cheaper. How can we get in on this action? Well, taxing it is difficult when the art market is global. Selling off the contents of the National Gallery is probably a non-starter, and in any case we can only do it once - it won't provide an ongoing source of income.

Anyhow, art isn't the thing, it's just a good demonstration of the willingness of high net-worth individuals to pay silly amounts of money for status symbols. See also: football clubs and newspapers. Perhaps we should create a status symbol of our own to sell to them. Something that can be made by the state for zero cost, and can't be replicated by any other actor. And something that doesn't represent an actual difference in material conditions.

I have just the idea - peerages! Once the House of Lords reform goes through, the peerage will be disconnected from the legislature entirely. What better way to get the nouveau riche to voluntarily pony up some money for society than to sell them prestigious titles? We already know people are willing to pay for honours - there might even be more people interested if it weren't so shady.

The system I propose is quite simple. Every year, set a blind auction, with a number of life baronies available for sale, along with one viscountcy. We'll see how much money we can raise. We run the risk of peerage inflation, so we'll keep earldoms, marquessates and dukedoms in reserve. I have absolutely no idea how much money we'll raise - the market will decide that, but in the worst case where it doesn't cover its administrative costs, we can just discontinue it after a couple of years.

Why not? I mean, what's in danger - the dignity of the honours system?

Thursday, 5 July 2012

housing benefit and the argument for social housing

You may have heard, there's a recession on. They're expensive things. Tax receipts drop and people start claiming benefits. The number of households claiming housing benefit in Great Britain increased from 4.2 million in November 2008 to 5.0 million in March 2012. The total housing benefit bill has increased from £16 billion/year to £27 billion/year. I can't find a figure for exactly how many people that represents, but it's certainly at least 7 million.

How has this happened? The statistics show that 98% of the rise has been from under-65s. The rise was split about equally between the employed and the unemployed, although the employed and pensioners still make up a majority of clients.

There has been a modest increase of claimants in social housing, but the number in private accommodation increased by 60%, from 1 million to 1.6 million. During this period the average award in the private rented sector went from £100.35 a week to a peak of £111.76 and then declined to £107.24. The total amount being spent in this sector went from £495 million per month to an all-time high of £762 million.

In other words: since November 2008, because of the recession an additional £7,000 million has been given to private sector landlords by the government.

Who are these private sector landlords? Well, we know that the amount of private rented accommodation went up in England from 2.1 million in 1997 to 4 million in 2010. There are 1.4 million outstanding buy-to-let mortgages in the UK, which accounts for most of that.

So, it looks like a large number of people are living in buy-to-let properties, and paying enough to cover their landlord's mortgage payments (unless the landlord is unwisely depending upon capital appreciation to make up the difference). In the olden days, Housing Benefit could make mortgage payments, but only on interest - this has appears to have been replaced with a Support for Mortgage Interest payment. Neither of these things would repay the capital for a very good reason - it wouldn't be a very good use of taxpayer's money to pay off someone's mortgage.

I am not entirely clear on why it is a good use of taxpayer's money to pay off someone's mortgage if they are a buy-to-let investor. Furthermore, it appears that lots of buy-to-let investors dodge tax, possibly because they were unaware that only the interest part of their repayments can be set against the rental income. Regardless of whether or not this was intentional, some buy-to-let investors would only have done so because their sums were wrong, and they could not actually legally run at a profit (I've asked HMRC for their estimate of tax evasion from this, it'll be interesting to find out). Tax evasion-led buy-to-let investment probably inflated the housing bubble somewhat, even!

So, there is a problem. Housing benefit is going directly into the pockets of people who were already rich enough to have invested in extra housing during the housing bubble (and also, let's not forget, people who won the right-to-buy lottery), who are possibly also tax scammers. Housing benefit claimants are, let's admit, not going to be massively price sensitive as long as they are within the allowed limit (I mean, why should they be?), so what incentive is there for private landlords to reduce the amount they are charging?

To their credit, the Tories have diagnosed some of this problem, but they then attack it from the wrong end. The state is paying for approximately 1/3 of private rented accommodation. It should have immense negotiating power in the housing market, but it cannot exercise this because this is split between millions of negotiating agents acting independently, and who are being played off against each other by those landlords willing to accept DSS tenants... So, we have their solution to this which is: caps on what people can claim. Which will fairly inhumanely move people out of a few hotspots, perhaps saving the odd million or ten, but it will do nothing to address the underlying problem.

So, how can the state actually properly exercise its massive buying power? One way might be to impose rent caps from the other side. I somehow don't see a Conservative government doing that. Funny thing is though, it used to be part of the political discourse (along with price controls and a 95% marginal rate of income tax!), having only really been abolished by Thatcher. So, are there any approaches that simply involve the government as an actor rather than using its legislative power to bypass the free market? Well, it could block-rent an awful lot of private property, getting a better deal on rent than the individuals could manage on their own, and then sub-let to people eligible to claim housing benefit.

Hang on, this is getting awfully reminiscent of something, isn't it? So: it could get in the game itself. This is why social housing was such a good idea in the first place. The rent covers its operating costs, but the the average social housing award is £30/week less than a private one. That saving over fifty years will easily cover building costs, and then the state will have the asset, not the random third party.

But perhaps we don't need to do a massive building programme just yet. Another factor is that there are over a half a million empty houses in England alone, although it's not entirely clear whether they are in the right places or of the right sort - certainly many of them will be part of the flat glut. If these were all forced onto the private rented market somehow, then that would result in a 20% increase in the availability of homes, which would have to reduce market rates a lot. Bringing them back doesn't need to involve expensive administrative effort from councils, but could be done through the taxation system. Just keep raising the council tax on vacant properties until the total number decreases to an acceptable level. Simples. Or this could be addressed through the planning system. I mean, they have planning permission as dwellings, after all, not as home-shaped art installations. Surely leaving something empty for a long time is a change of use?

tl;dr Housing benefit increases are the result of the inequitable distribution of capital.