ISDS is coming this way and it is disastrous

A disease going by the name of ISDS is threatening the citizens of Europe.

Its symptoms are a very strong pain in the wallet, a pain of the sort you’ve probably never felt before.

ISDS is a court of law in which companies (and only companies) can sue countries for large sums of money, even though the countries broke no law. We are talking billions here. Small countries can easily be bankrupted by ISDS. All that is required for a country to be found guilty is that some measure taken by the country is affecting the company’s bottom line.

The abbreviation ISDS stands for Investor-State Dispute Settlement. Feudal courts for robber barons, that is what ISDS really means. Courts that are an instrument for companies rather than an arbiter between two parties.

Imagine that you go to school and every day a much older bully beats you up and takes your lunch money. Sometimes you get lucky and the head master catches the bully. In this analogy, ISDS is when the head master hates you and the head master is actually the parent of the bully and only believes their story.

Here is a real life example. The sovereign and presumably democratic country of Australia recently committed to ISDS. In 2011 Australia proposed to implement its Tobacco Plain Packaging bill. This bill makes it obligatory to sell cigarettes in packages from which almost all brand information has been stripped. This is I guess because tobacco kills people and Australia wants to make smoking seem less attractive.

In April 2011 tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris started an ISDS procedure against Australia. The company argued that since it no longer could brand its cigarette packages clearly, the law would cost them money. They told the Australian government to kill or amend its law. Their extortion letter (if anyone has a better word, please let me know) claimed that they would lose billions of dollars if the law were to pass. (At the time of writing one Australian dollar is worth slightly less than an American one.)

That year Australia passed its Tobacco Plain Packaging law which went into effect on January 2012. In November 2011 Philip Morris started the second phase of its procedure, telling Australia one last time to revoke its law or suffer the consequences. Again the ‘damage’ to Philip Morris was claimed to be ‘an amount to be qualified but of the order of billions of Australian dollars’.

In 2012, 2013 and 2014 the ISDS court has been setting up and outlining the way the proceedings would go. As is the case when you let multi-nationals write your laws for you, vast parts of the proceedings are off limits to the public. The document for instance in which Philip Morris tells the court how much money it wants (the so-called Statement of Claim) is a secret.

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that Australia now wants to get rid of its ISDS agreements.

It’s clear why multi-nationals want ISDS. It’s not at all clear why politicians want ISDS, but they do ever so much. When politicians aren’t wringing their hands while whining about how little voters understand them, they’re walking around with rock hard erections (men and women alike) while thinking of ISDS.

ISDS is a fairly new phenomenon. In a 2013 overview published by UNCTAD (PDF) you can see how the world has gone from 0 cases in 1992 to dozens per year now. In 2012 alone there were nine wins for the multi-nationals who managed to steal over 2 billion dollars from the public. These are the damages awarded, the number excludes compound interest and I cannot be bothered to figure out who payed for the proceedings, although that doesn’t seem hard to guess.

Is there anything we can do about ISDS? It seems very unlikely. If the state wants complete sovereignty except where multi-nationals are concerned, something is very rotten with the way the state works. Puttering around the edges isn’t going to help much.

Meanwhile I’m not too bad. It is the people that always say politics don’t interest them that will get hit the worst. Cynical this may be, but I will allow myself a little wry smile when ISDS comes to these shores wrapped in secret trade agreements such as TTIP, CETA or TiSA.

Ello doesn’t need to sell ads and here’s why

The latest Facebook-killer in a long line of Facebook-killers has arrived and its name is Ello.

Ello is—like Facebook—a social network, and the reason why it probably won’t kill Facebook is that it’s got pretty much the same value proposition. If it poses a threat, all Facebook has to do is become a little more Ello-like.

Facebook will die in the end but only because that is how these things go. The current threat to Facebook, as people tell me, is Twitter. Unlike Facebook’s users, Twitter users don’t share a space with their parents. That’s a feature Facebook may be able to tweak on a technological level, but perhaps not on an emotional one.

Ello’s main attraction is that it allows users (for now) to use pseudonyms, allowing people with multiple personae to use the one that fits their role in society best. Facebook on the other hand forces you to use the name on your passport.

Ello is also ad free.

The site claims that it ‘will always remain an “ad-free network.”‘ (Business Insider)

And: “We set out to prove that a social network will survive and thrive that doesn’t have a business model of selling ads to its users,” says CEO and co-founder Paul Budnitz. (IPR)

I want to talk about the no-advertising model for a bit. The articles I’ve read so far seem to suggest that people are tired of being treated like a product and they understand that ads play some sort of key role in this process. The process is understood to work as follows. Facebook sells or gives user data to advertisers who customize their ads to fit Facebook users. The advertisers then sell those advertisements to Facebook to place on the users’ pages.

Since Ello doesn’t do ads, it is assumed that the users are spared from these practices and that users’ privacy is kept intact.

I don’t see how that follows.

In the model above Facebook is both the provider of user data and the manager of the ad network. That is to say, they both own the user data and the advertising space.

There is no reason however why these two should be connected. Ello could easily set itself up as a provider of user data.

How that works is how privacy-busting online advertising has always worked. The owner of the user space places user tracking technology (also called: a cookie) on the computer of the user. It then tells the owner of the advertising space (this could be any website) everything about the user and its cookie. The advertiser reads the cookie and asks Ello or Facebook: “what can you tell me about the person that has this cookie” and adapts its advertisement to the answer.

Whether that is going to happen with Ello remains to be seen. At the moment ello.co places four tracking cookies in my browser even though I am not logged in. That’s three more than say a fresh WordPress install. (WordPress places a cookie called wordpress_test_cookie on login screens in order to check whether it needs to work with Javascript or needs to fall back to another tracking technology. This in turn is so that when you log in, it doesn’t need to keep asking you for your password every time you go to another page. The European anti-cookie directive defines this as a permissible cookie necessary for the proper functioning of the website.)

Food for thought: Ello is currently not making money, that is I doubt it is. The site is probably haemorrhaging money and its backers will soon want to see something more than just losses.

Meet the new look, same as the old look

I’ve changed the look of this blog, but don’t be surprised if you don’t see any difference.

Most of the changes are ‘under the hood’ so to speak and only produce a different visual in certain browsing environments.

In the old theme (the part of the blog that determines the look) all dimensions were fixed. The new theme uses a so-called responsive design where the look of the site is determined by the width of the device you’re using to browse.

You will notice the changes the most on phones and in certain ancient web browsers, where the site will display as a single column. This has the advantage that on thin screens (phones) the browser won’t try to cram everything in, but will instead stack everything vertically.

Two other responsive features that you will see on mobile devices:

  1. Images will now take up the width of the screen regardless of the size in which I’ve uploaded them. (This only goes for recent images.)
  2. Some of the menus are rendered as big buttons so that you can tap them more easily with your finger.

Other changes:

  • The blog now uses HTML5 and CSS3.
  • The new theme is made from the ground up and no longer based on WordPress’ former default theme Kubrick.
  • Some of the background colours are gone.
  • I am using a new font for the headings, namely Permian by Ilya Ruderman (I used to use MS Trebuchet for headings).
  • Kubrick used quote marks as bullets for list items, I’ve returned to a more classic disc.
  • I have cut a lot of code.

The latter combined with the fact that I’ve released this redesign before it was ready means you’re probably going to bump into things that aren’t quite right. Please let me know when that happens.

Read the rest of this entry »

What the top 3 content management systems call themselves

In 2004 I predicted that the free content-management systems of the day would be supplanted by the blogging systems and ‘nukes’ that were emerging back then.

In 2010 my prediction had come true. Part of the supplantation process, as I noted back then, was that these systems would rebrand themselves as CMSes. Branding is a process that is never finished. Let’s take a look at what the three most popular free and open source (FOSS) CMSes of 2010 called themselves back then and now in 2014:

Name Started as a 2010 2014
WordPress Blog Semantic personal publishing platform Web software you can use to create a beautiful website or blog
Drupal Blog Open source content management system Open source content management platform
Joomla Nuke Dynamic portal engine and content management system Content management system

Note that to this day, the three systems shown here are still the most popular FOSS CMSes. According to W3Techs today, WordPress has a market share of 60%, Drupal 8%, Joomla 5% and the market share of the most popular commercial off-the-shelf CMS, Bitrix, is so small it might as well be a statistical error.

See also:

When Windows refuses to let you rename folders

The past few months I’ve had it happen more and more that Microsoft Windows refused to eject a thumb drive or refused to let me rename folders.

Windows will helpfully tell you that this is likely because another program is still working with the file/folder/drive, but doesn’t tell you the name of the offending program.

Since this sort of thing generally happens two minutes before I pack up and leave for home, I’ve thus far simply ignored the problem. Today, however, Windows once again refused to let me rename a folder and I had the time to play the detective.

Today I found out that the program that has been hijacking my OS was a program called TGitCache.exe, which is a helper tool for Tortoise Git, which in turn is a version control package. A lot of my customers have started using version control recently and it makes sense therefore that I’ve only started to experience this in the last six months or so.

The Tortoise folks have said in response to a bug report about this issue that they’ve released a new version of the program in which they changed so much, they’re now closing the bug report.

Note that in your case it’s probably a different program. It’s probably a program you can see in your task bar. I singled out TGitCache.exe in this post because it runs in the background. This post is mostly useful for people who have noticed similar behaviour since they started working with Tortoise Git.

Update 8 October 2016: a simpler way than trawling Google for answers is to use Windows’ Resource Monitor which has a tab called Associated Handles (Broncontrole respectively Gekoppelde Ingangen in Dutch) which you can search for the name of your file. It will list all processes that currently have a lock on your file or folder. See here for further explanations.

Luis Suarez and the right to work

Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez was punished by FIFA for biting Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini at the 2014 World Cup. FIFA has banned the player from participating in any football related activities for four months, including going to practice and watching games at the stadium.

Team mate Diego Lugano called the ban barbaric and a violation of Suarez’ human rights.

Now there’s something to consider. The right to work as enshrined in the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights reads as follows: “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”

Surely this was written with people in mind who would otherwise be condemned to poverty, starvation and a life of no hope? With an estimated nett worth of 34 million USD, only two things have been taken away from Suarez, namely the possibility to indulge in his life’s passion for a while and the possibility to get even richer—the Uruguayan striker was hoping for a transfer from his current employer Liverpool FC to FC Barcelona.

We need to make sure we safe guard the human rights of the people whose clinging to these right is tenuous, but that hardly stops the privileged from having human rights at all. It is not FIFA’s task to tell Suarez what jobs he must and must not take—especially considering the association’s human rights record regarding the under-privileged, which is dismal.

FIFA are in a tough spot, though. Giorgio Chiellini also has the right to “just and favourable conditions of work” and surely that includes the right not to be bitten by his opponents. Chiellini has the rightful expectation of some protection against such practices.

How much protection? That’s hard to say. FIFA will give a player a four month ban for causing a small bite mark on a shoulder, but closes its eyes to career ending tackles. In fact they have a history of handing out bans for offenses that them makes them look bad. In 2006 Zinadine Zidane was banned three matches for a light headbutt in the shoulder of Italian defender Marco Materazzi that did not influence play and that did not injure Materazzi (although you get to see some lovely acting from the Italian player if you look up the incident on YouTube).

Here’s my conclusion. I think FIFA should be able to show some respect for the human rights of Chiellini and his colleagues by offering him a reasonably safe working environment. Using a ban as a negative stimulus would be a reasonable choice to help ensure this right even if it directly infringes upon the same human right of the player that causes the workplace to be unsafe. The association should weigh both rights fairly though and come up with a punishment that does not infringe upon both rights more than it has to.

In that respect I think a four month ban is way over the top, especially considering that FIFA had other options. My choice would have been to ask Suarez to come with a comprehensive plan to stop his undeniable passion and drive from spilling over into uncontrolled aggression. He should then defend this plan in person.

Patents held back the Wright brothers

A while back the threat of software patents hovered over Europe.

Patents are a legal instrument tied to inventions that let others stop you from using those inventions. Software patents let you do the same with bits of computer programs, which a lot of people disagreed with, since there are often just a few very obvious ways to solve programming problems and every computer program consists of thousands of such inventions, so every programmer would have been stopped dead in their tracks if software became patentable.

I was tangentially involved in the successful fight against software patents and one of the things that struck me then, and that strikes me even more now, was the argument that software patents were somehow special because they aren’t designed to protect the lone inventor. What’s remarkable about that argument is not so much the argument itself, but the suggestion that ‘regular’ patents do protect the lone inventor. All evidence suggests they don’t.

A couple of years back Maciej Ceglowsky explored how patents worked out for one of the major inventions of the twentieth century, the aeroplane. The American brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright were two bicycle makers who took a scientific approach to inventing an airplane (an idea who’s time had certainly come). They performed “wind-tunnel tests, [corrected] longstanding errors in aeronautical theory, and they systematically applied their experimental results in designing each subsequent version of their gliders and aircraft”. On 17 December 1903 they made the “first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight” (Wikipedia dixit).

Once they did that, Ceglowksi said, they closed up shop, headed for the patent office, and “stopped flying for two and a half years”. But rather than licensing their patents to airplane manufacturers the Wright brothers started to sue others they suspected had implemented their inventions. “[The] Wrights became so consumed with their lawsuits that they had no time or energy left for further work, essentially becoming the SCO of the early aviation age.”

For the Wright brothers, the patent struggle was a series of Pyrrhic victories. They wanted justice and credit, and ideally the freedom to pursue their research further. Instead they found themselves consumed by litigation, and forced to watch others catch up with and overtake their technical lead, particularly in Europe, where aeronautical research had strong state support. The endless legal battle over the airplane patent may even have contributed to Wilbur Wright’s early death – he came down with typhoid at an especially rough patch in the legal proceedings, and died at age 45. His brother Orville lived long enough to see the Wright company taken over by Curtiss in 1929, in the most bitter of ironies. Neither brother made any substantive contribution to aviation after 1908.

Of course, if anti-software patent-campaigners had gone into battle with the correct argument that patents in general are useless to anybody but judges, politicians, patent lawyers and the patent office, they would have lost. Special pleading ironically made sense in their case. By just targeting a new part of patent law that nobody was yet making any money off, they made sure their opposition had less to attack them with.

It makes me wonder though, if important innovation is truly stymied at all times by the patent system, wouldn’t it be time to kill off the patent system?

How the iPod disrupted the way we enjoy music

A couple of weeks ago Roger Cicala of the Lens Rentals photo gear blog talked about technological disruption and how the mobile phone was an example of such disruptive technology in the world of photography. I posted a comment discussing other ways mobile phones are disruptive technology and thought it would perhaps be good to share that comment on my blog also. Here goes.

In the late 1990s I was an editor for a monthly computer magazine. One day a press release landed on my desk describing how IBM had invented the 1-inch hard drive. I remember thinking what a remarkable feat of engineering that was, but also wondering what somebody would use such a small hard drive for. At the time I assumed IBM had some sort of industrial use in mind. A couple of years passed and lo and behold, suddenly everybody in the world was walking around with iPods (using a slightly larger hard drive).

The story of personal audio started with another disruptive innovation about 100 years earlier. The invention of the record player was of a similar magnitude because it separated space and time. Before the invention of the gramophone you had to go to a specific place at a specific time to hear one of your favourite artists perform. With gramophones you could stay in and listen to the artist whenever you wanted.

The personal audio player (of which the iPod was one of the earliest) took this a step further and liberated you from your own house. All of a sudden you could carry almost your entire music collection with you wherever you wanted.

Ironically the personal audio player (PAP) and the miniature hard drive would soon part ways. Having helped take the personal audio revolution to the next level, the miniature hard drive was soon replaced by flash memory. The very first digital PAP, the Diamond Rio, already used flash but at the time you couldn’t store an entire record collection on the device. At some point people also started using their phones to take photos with, making an entire category of cameras obsolete.

Can you hire intelligent people from among the religious?

A Facebook friend regularly points out the evils of religion, although strangely enough only brown religions seem to deserve her scorn. (She vehemently denies that there are any racist motives behind her selection.)

Islam-baiting is of course a fireproof way of working the more enlightened members of your scene into a rage, so when she recently announced that she would never hire a religious person for her company because she only wants smart employees (a type of discrimination that leads to prison sentences in the Netherlands, or would if the Justice Department weren’t such a hive of bigotry itself) the expected debate ensued.

One person flippantly noted that the OP was right to use her syllogism because ‘the religious are rarely intelligent‘. I figured he was bluffing and did some research myself.

Is intelligence rare among the religious?

A lot of recent articles on the internet point to a paper called “Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations” by Richard Lynn et al. It is a bit of dubious paper because it lives behind an Elsevier pay-wall, meaning it gets less public scrutiny than an accessible paper would. Many people appear to have looked at it though, so I decided to take the risk (motivated especially by a free copy floating around on the web).

First we must determine what is meant by religion and intelligence. The study above looks at a great number of other studies into the subject, and many of those determine religiosity by asking people how religious they consider themselves to be.

In the same studies intelligence is often defined by looking at the IQ of subjects. I take it that you are aware of the downsides of using IQ to measure intelligence (if not, look at the wiki). The thing is of course that you need to have some sort of unit of measurement and in many cases IQ will just have to do. The racist bias of IQ was acknowledged in a sideways fashion in the study when it pointed out that religious identification is going to be stronger in countries where the church plays a large social and cultural role. In other words, your numbers are going to be skewed no matter what and ‘needs further study’.

The commenter on Facebook used the word intelligence as a binary word; one is either intelligent or not. I had to guess what he meant, and I went with Lynn et al’s definition of ‘intelligence elites’, which they defined as ‘scientists’. In other words, an intelligent person is somebody above a certain level of intelligence.

So here is what I replied on Facebook:

A negative correlation exists between religiosity and intelligence. […] Lynn et al […] quote a number of US studies from which it appears that almost 40% of all American scientists believe in Jehova. Is that rare?

The negative correlation between religiosity and intelligence is on average 6 IQ points. There are also strong differences between the intelligences of peoples. The Dutch have an average IQ of 100 and 40% of the population is not religious. In Singapore the average IQ is 106 and 13% of the population is not religious. Next time the OP has to hire someone, I suggest—assuming she cares about her company—she hire from among the religious people of Singapore.

As I was writing this blog entry, I had to go back and forth between my translation and the article I’ve been referencing and noticed that the 40% number was from a study from 1921. Later studies had much lower rates of religiosity among scientists, although you could still argue that these didn’t make a religious scientist a rare creature. Also, those studies looked at “eminent scientists” which, assuming there is some objective manner to determine eminence, is yet a higher bar to cross. Even then in 2006 31% of the Fellows of the Royal Society identified themselves as either religious or uncertain.

On the liberation of the postal market

Until 2009 a single company (formerly state owned) had a monopoly on the Dutch snail mail market, to be precise on the delivery of letters and packages lighter than 50 grams. This was widely considered a bad idea and in that year the liberal party managed to get a new postal law passed that made it possible for other companies to deliver mail.

I was one of the fans of the law for all the obvious reasons. Monopolies are a bad thing that damage markets. As it turns out I should have paid more attention to my own blog; when I wrote in 2006 about “the most costly factor: personnel”. Liberating the postal market has led to price competition, which is good, but it has also led to many more companies trying to get a piece of the ever shrinking pie of snail mail. Where there used to be one postman per neighbourhood (usually somebody who had walked that beat for years and was both trustworthy and knowledgeable), now there are many more (often part-timers plucked from a pool where the most important skill is being cheap).

The decreased turnover as a result of a lower mail volume combined and of the higher cost of delivering that same volume had to be compensated somehow, and it would seem that the mail companies simply slashed the salaries of the delivery personnel. Since then the press is rife with stories about postage workers dumping mail in canals, stealing packages, going on strikes and so on.

My suggestion to remedy this situation would be one of two. Either nationalize the expensive part, the delivery (and let the companies buy delivery at a fixed price), or grant the mail companies unique access to neighbourhoods (say: at most three companies operating a neighbourhood). The latter would be not dissimilar to what the government of Iceland did to prevent overfishing. Iceland introduced quotas, making it so that fishing boats would no longer all compete for the same fish.