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The Lunatic is running the asylum

In yet another example of joined-up government, Tony Blair is pushing a scheme to create a grand unified government database merging everything different departments know about you into a single amorphous glob of database goodness. Or so he sees it.

From previous diatribes, you can probably guess what I think of this. Blair's faith in the infalability of the almighty computer is just as quaint as a vision of nuclear power producing "electricity too cheap to meter" ... and makes just about as much sense as that belief does in the post-Chernobyl world.

In point of fact, any large database is full of garbage — incorrect updates (like my address details with Scottish Power, who have helpfully decided that while I've sold apartment A to buy apartment B, my mailing address is house C — which happens to be the abode of the person who bought apartment A — and boy, am I having fun sorting this out!), stale data (like the other institution that still has me living at apartment A), false positives (like the catalogue shop mailing list that has Person X still living at apartment B) and false negatives (like, oh, I guess some database that doesn't know I exist and ought to; say, the Scottish Arts Council Directory).

By some estimates, up to a third of all records in large databases (such as credit reference agencies') contain errors. And when you merge databases, the probability of any key (that's a person, you or me) referencing records that contain errors is multiplied.

A corollary of the plan to merge different government databases is that this scheme makes no sense unless the goal is to enable different government agencies to coordinate their contacts with the subject. The Social Security folks can refer odd behaviour to the Revenue, Social workers can look at criminal records, and so on. It's the unblinking red-rimmed gaze, guys, and it's going to make mistakes because in a third — or more — of cases there will be gibberish and lies in the database. For the past few years ever-vaguer suspicion laws have been added to the Police repertoire; now they're to be given a license to trawl for suggestive patterns.

Blair, of course, is panglossian: "The purpose of this is not to create a new piece of technology at all or a new database. This is about sharing data in a sensible way so that the customer gets a better public service." R-i-i-g-h-t. So when the police arrest you because DVLA have notified them that the address on your driving license is inconsistent with the address on your car ownership documents (because you moved house and one of the forms got lost in the post), they're treating you as a "customer" and providing you with a "public service" when they go on a fishing trip through your tax records to see if you actually earned enough money to pay for that Porsche.

Blair's lost it. He's confusing citizens with customers. I can't construe this as anything other than the delusional product of a mind that has ceased to see the public as human beings to whom the government owes a duty of service, and instead has come to the curious conclusion that we're an ever-gaping maw, a screaming hungry infantilized blob of desire that needs to sit still and be targeted by the fire-hose of public services. It's the ultimate packaged product of the capitalist ideology: citizens are replaced by customers and business knows what's best.

And of course, when the product you're buying is government, there's only one store you're allowed to shop at.

Want to know where Blair's database is going? Have a read of this, if you've the stomach for it. (But remember: it could always be worse! We could have a BNP government instead of caring, sharing, New Labour. But of course, if you're innocent you've got nothing to fear, as John Reid never tires of telling us. Sleep tight ...)

107 Comments

1:

I was thinking this morning about the actual implementation of this: the working groups on field names, the complexities of how this database is interfaces to the endless applications. As an example of this - I do a lot of work with Government websites. Every single one is implemented on a different CMS - even though there is an official government CMS, developed at great cost, that has to be evaluated (again at great cost) every time someone in government wants to make a website (and is almost always discarded because it is really basic and not very good). Can you imagine how much worse legacy applications inside government are that have been used for years?

This is perhaps the only thing that will save us from Blairs visions - the fact that the work needed to do this would be a substantial undertaking even in the private sector let alone magnified by the bureaucracy of whitehall.

2:

The good news is that it's unlikely a government system this big will ever be functional. Look at the FBI database fiasco: $6E8 and nothing whatever to show for it. They couldn't even build it, let alone run it. And that may be the silver lining of projects like this: they spend vast amounts of money and effort that might otherwise be used for evil schemes that would actually work.

3:

By some estimates, up to a third of all records in large databases ... contain errors.

According to a 2003 National Audit Office report, the figure for the DVLA is 32%. Now some (probably most) of these will be minor typos - stuff that's not likely to cause anyone any major problems.

But some of these errors will be like the one that happened to a cousin of mine several years ago - sometime during the 15 years since he passed his test at the age of 17, he vanished off the DVLA computers. He lost his driving license at some point along the way, then rang up Swansea for a replacement when he discovered it'd gone missing.

They had no record of him ever being licensed to drive, and simply would not accept or admit that they'd screwed up. So he had to take his driving test again. Fortunately, he's a very competent and responsible driver, and (re)passed his test with no difficulty.

What I found particularly telling was the conversation he and the examiner had afterwards. The examiner said "Right, now that's finished with - what the hell's going on? You're a better driver than I am." My cousin told him all the details, and the examiner replied "Interesting. You're the ninth person to tell me pretty much that exact story this year."

4:

And I thought the country was going to the dogs when I left in 1992... Not that I don't think most every year about going home but at this rate there soon won't be a home that I could recognise to go back to. There used to be grafitti on the bridge near where I worked in London that said "If voting changed anything it would be illegal by now" - time to prove that wrong I think.

Mind you the other side of the bridge said "it doesn't matter who you vote for, you still end up with a government"

5:

This `customers' thing is not new. Last year, Bedfordshire Police paid for some expensive flashy advertising saying that they were `committed to providing a customer-focused service'. The Mayor of Bedford echoed everyone else's question by wondering aloud what on earth that could possibly mean.

I think I know. A customer is someone who pays money for services rendered, right? Well, the government employs the police, but doesn't pay them as such (it funds them, but that's not *pay*). The public doesn't pay the police: it pays taxes instead. So who does pay the police, directly, for services rendered?

Easy. Criminals. Beds Police may not have meant it that way, but what they *said* was `we accept bribes and are focused on getting them'.


(But perhaps I am being excessively pedantic. Still, pedantry rescues me from the horrifying insanity of this vision of Blair's, an insanity that will thankfully never be realised --- they only just decided, after 60 million quid down the drain, that one big ID card database wouldn't work, and oh let's use our three existing ones. Following that up with a grand plan to integrate *every* database into a single grand lump, when integration of only three databases into one has just failed expensively, and when even the Inland Revenue can't integrate their internal databases into the systems used to file online tax returns, so they all have to be retyped... well, words fail me.)

6:
"And when you merge databases, the probability of any key [...] referencing records that contain errors is multiplied."

That's backwards, I think: the probability of records not having errors is multiplied.

7:

. . .we're an ever-gaping maw, a screaming hungry infantilized blob of desire that needs to sit still and be targeted by the fire-hose of public services.

That is the best phrase I've read all week.

8:

I'm not exactly sure how things work in the UK, but I imagine data errors will be used to give the police a pretext for arresting, questioning, or searching people.

What will be interesting is entirely new entries going forward once the system is set up. Children's data should be relatively problem-free, for instance. Though I wouldn't be surprised if there were some "problems" where a child's birth record was incorrectly entered and the parents are questioned for being part of a child-smuggling ring. :)

9:

When I was in university in the Netherlands, my professor had done a scan of a city's database for obvious errors: people older than their parents, people married to more than one person at the same time, people going to school before they were born, etc - all the things that should normally be prevented at the data modeling level. The error rate was 5 to 10%.

I can totally believe the rate of one third of the records containing errors once you start looking for all the minor errors. Mind you, those errors only start to matter once you take a human out of the loop - not just when you cross-match database, but when you start to take automated actions based on the results.

The best scenario is that the system starts out making highly visible and embarassing mistakes involving well-known people (easy if you really do take humans out of the loop) - that will lead to the system being scrapped early. The worst scenario is when the system works well enough most of the time, i.e. if the visible error rate is less than a percent. That's when the real "Brazil" scenarios come in.

10:

According to one credit report of myself I read, I'm married to my dad. :)

No mention of my real wife, either...

11:

As SpeakerToManagers points out, the likelihood of the government ever being able to make this work are fairly small. Not, I suspect, because it's an impossible project, but because they're hopeless at it. If I recall correctly, pretty much every high-profile foray New Labour has made into the computer world has been an expensive fiasco.
Still, that's beside the point. The point is that Blair thinks it should be done, and that's the scary thing. He's been saying a lot of scary things lately.

12:

Andrew G, that's nothing: according to a credit report I got last year, my mother is my daughter. (Her credit report is correct in this area, I'm down as her son: shades of _All You Zombies..._)

13:

Dave: The point is that Blair thinks it should be done, and that's the scary thing.

Actually, I think the scary thing is what it suggests he thinks we are:

Little people who need to be taken in hand and controlled, fairly but firmly.

It also shows that the rhetoric of markets and choice has gone so far and become so divorced from reality that it's being applied indiscriminately and destructively to relationships that fundamentally underpin the market, not vice versa. Since when has "choice" been a euphemism for centralized state control?

14:

Well the merging itself will of course be painful. The migration of several diverse systems into a whole new database spells trouble. Preserving their value as records will be impossible if they screw up the metadata as is certainly possible,probable even. So I wouldn't worry, they're more likely to fuck this up instead of achieving an usable database. ;) More seriously, the previous government here in Norway was speculating in doing the same, but we at least has a agency with power that usually prohibits such things.

15:

Charlie - Actually, I think the scary thing is what it suggests he thinks we are: Little people who need to be taken in hand and controlled, fairly but firmly.

True, but I always get the feeling most governments wind up thinking that, sooner or later. Certainly Thatcher did, although I always got the impression that was out of contempt for the `little people' rather than Blair's self-delusional belief that stuff like this is for our own good.
And of course `choice' in the context that it's used by the government is an illusion, just a bit of spin to make us feel warm and looked-after.


16:

Wim wrote: "That's backwards, I think: the probability of records not having errors is multiplied."

Not so. Consider two records that are actually for the same person, in different databases. Firstly, the software has to match them up. If one is for "John G Dallman, 18 Kimberley Road, Cambridge", and one is for "John Dallman, 92 Lichfield Road, Cambridge", are they the same person? If it correctly decides they are - me, at my old and new addresses - which address does it use? How about someone else who's "J Dallman" in the same city"? Remember that these decisions are being made by software, not humans. Software has no "common sense", and probably won't get much chance to ask a human for help with these database merges. They may have some clever heuristics for sorting out some cases, with a better-than-even chance of being right. But that still leaves a lot of errors being created.

Why don't politicians realise this? Firstly, database people want their tools to work right, so they tend to exaggerate the effectiveness of their systems. Then the companies that bid for government contracts overplay their hands as much as any salesmen. Thirdly, politicians exist in a universe of belief. They work on the basis that if they can convince people, that defines reality.

Garbage in, garbage out.

17:

If all those databases get merged successfully (that is, they're all stuffed into one big database) they'll still have to sort out which record belongs to which person. I predict database gridlock for a couple of years after, as they try (unsuccessfully, I would think) to fix all the problems, following which they deactivate it and stash the backup files somewhere in the back of a cupboard.

I say this as someone who's merged genealogy databases of various sizes: there's enough garbage in the average file to slow or stop any mass-merge. Keeping a database clean is a full-time job even if you're the only one accessing it.

18:

I got this posted in the "Daily Torygraph's" web-comment:
"The Home office will be "in charge" of the ID cards project, won't it?
And the innocent will have absolutely nothing to fear ........"

My driving license, and DVLA form V5 for my car STILL say slightly different things, and this is AFTER 2 correction attempts .......

AAAARRRGGGH !!

19:

"By some estimates, up to a third of all records in large databases (such as credit reference agencies') contain errors. And when you merge databases, the probability of any key (that's a person, you or me) referencing records that contain errors is multiplied."

I can understand what you're trying to say, but I think it would be more accurate to say that probability of records containing errors will be increased.

Otherwise, full agreement. Terrible terrible idea. Thankfully Blair won't be in power to see this through.

20:

Blair may not be around to see it through, but what incoming Gvt will be able to resist the idea of a national database they can play with to their hearts content?
None that I can think of.
Time for a revolution.

21:

Of course, you really pessimistic folks are missing the other side of the coin:

Every time you increase the size of a government programs (especially computer-oriented ones), you increase the chance of the whole thing coming apart at the seams. You may have a Government Omniversal Database, but after it hits a certain size, nobody will be able to use it for anything.

"Well, we'd look up your driver's license number, but the database keeps ordering pizza from a place in Lancastershire every time we try to access it. Do you like anchovies?"

22:

"Time for a revolution."

Or time to club together, buy a couple of oil rigs and start some kind of commune out in international waters...

23:

Sealand burtn down last year I think.

I'd prefer an island. Scotland has a lot of them.

But you know the really good thing about the database as suggested by Cirby is that it would guarantee full employment! The ultimate services society, where most people are employed checking each other and the database. Maybe thats what Blair is all about.

24:

Don't need an island; just need to vote SNP at the next Scottish election.

(And you wouldn't believe what it's taken to make me hold my nose and seriously propose that as a solution.)

25:

Blair's lost it. He's confusing citizens with customers. I can't construe this as anything other than the delusional product of a mind that has ceased to see the public as human beings to whom the government owes a duty of service, and instead has come to the curious conclusion that we're an ever-gaping maw, a screaming hungry infantilized blob of desire that needs to sit still and be targeted by the fire-hose of public services. It's the ultimate packaged product of the capitalist ideology: citizens are replaced by customers and business knows what's best.

He may be borrowing from overseas. In New Zealand's multi-party MMP system, the far right stance is represented in parliament by The Association of Consumers and Taxpayers. Consider carefully the mindset represented by such a title.

26:
Certainly Thatcher did, although I always got the impression that was out of contempt for the `little people' rather than Blair's self-delusional belief that stuff like this is for our own good.
I'm not sure there's much difference between them. I would be very surprised if Blair wasn't as contemptuous as Thatcher, just not as vocal about it.
27:

The Police may come across as a bunch of control freaks, at least at ACPO level, but they know not to trust the DVLA records.

Trouble is, speed cameras and stuff are handled almost automatically. I already had a private parking company chasing me over leaving a combine harvester in a car park in London. How long before I get the speeding ticket?

28:

SNP as a protest vote? Interesting, and rather fun.
As far as I am aware though, the SNP is getting a fair number of votes due to it being one of the few parties with a more "leftish" program.
Certainly, it would be fun to shake up the current politics.

Amongst other things, I complained to my MP about the sheer unfairness of Scottish MP's getting to vote on English matters. I got the brush off, of course.

29:

Guthrie: I normally vote straight Liberal Democrat. The SNP are a bit leftish for my taste. But the way things are going I'd be willing to vote for them once, just to get them that referendum on independence they're promising.

30:

I too have voted only lib dem or green as far as I can remember.
However I am a little puzzled- do you mean you think an independent Scotland might be interesting, and a way out of Blairs autocracy?

As for whether Blair is genuinely "lefty" but just cant understand why we little people wont shut up and let them get on with it, or is a raging monomaniac with a lust for power that would put Saddam to shame, I dont quite know. I just need a wee while in a room with him, then I could find out.

31:

One of my beefs with Scottish independence is that I don't remember voting to live in a state with a structural Tory majority.

The good news, though, is that John Reid is incredibly unpopular. Wellsy reports a Populus poll putting the share of the vote if Begbie were Labour Party leader as LAB 29%, CON 44%, LDEM 20%.

32:

Alex, consider the Scottish issue today to be the end product of dodging the West Lothian Question for thirty years, and weep.

(The real solution would be English devolution, but the idiots in Westminster won't contemplate it until their noses are rubbed in the mess they've made. With any luck a vote for Scottish independence with a couple of years left for the Parliamentary Labour Party before the axe swings down will panic them into seeing sense and make a mad dash for some form of STV or PR system, or fixing the House of Lords properly, or devolving England. Whichever, it can't be any worse than the current mess that sees an elective dictatorship installed by about 20% of the actual electorate every time.)

33:

Yes. It's not a 'customer model', its that the people seem to have lost even partial control over the government. From an American point of view, what freaks me the most is that a parliamentary system should be more responsive, and more able to sack the executive. You're going down the USA track, it seems.

34:

I remember e-mailing Osama Saeed (head of MAB in Scotland, blog here on the subject of Scottish independence (he's a supporter) expressing concern that breaking the multinational UK state into its constituent nations may make racist nationalism more plausible. He didn't seem particularly worried about this, perhaps because it would mainly be a problem for England.

Would you agree that the fact that "Britain" is not a nation may be one of the reasons why the "British National Party" is currently a joke?

35:

Charlie, the Chernobyl comment? Including Chernobyl, nuclear power is still safer than coal. Which is more to do with peoples misperceptions of coal-burning (it's dirty, nasty and creates some VERY toxic products), but still.

And no, George Cartly, the Neo-Nazis of the BNP are a "joke" - a dangerous one, at that - because they are largely incompetant. That dosn't make them less dangerous to their victims when they do occasionally get it right, though.

Serraphin? Won't work. "Temporary structures" like than can't establish soverienty (since the late 70's). Loophole which was closed thanks to Sealand.

And Charlie? I find your faith that ANY form of democratic system will be better amusing. I'm not really very hot on it, myself.

36:

Cue that quote from Churchill.
Which I broadly agree with.

37:

From todays guardian:

When the LSE claimed the new ID card scheme would cost �18bn, the government claimed this would only apply if a super-database was introduced, and that since they had no plans to do this, the cost would only be �5bn (Blair launches new drive to let officials share data on citizens, January 15). This was the claim when the ID-card legislation was passed. Critics repeatedly claimed the scheme would not make sense without the super-database, but the government denied this. Now the government reveals it does plan a super-database.

When it was challenged that the ID database represented a huge intrusion of privacy, the government replied that we were protected by stringent privacy legislation. Now the government reveals it plans to repeal this. When challenged that the proposals dismantle checks and balances and would create a powerful tool for potential tyrants, the government says "trust us ... "
Nathan Allonby
North Shields, Tyne and Wear

38:

Andrew: nuclear power is indeed safer than coal ... as long as we spend money on making it safe. Taken in context, that's what makes the "electricity too cheap to meter" comment look hopelessly naive; you can have cheap nuclear power or safe nuclear power, but it's hard to see how we can have both.

To drag the metaphor back to politics: take privacy, or governmental omniscience, and decide which one you want. Because it's hard to see how we can have both. (Especially when the politicians in charge can't distinguish between their desires and their duties any more.)

39:

The notion of government services as vendors to "customers" is quite common in Amurrika. I remember being taken aback some time ago by seeing "Customer service is our highest priority", or some such slogan, on vehicles in the livery of the Boston water department. I remember blogging at the time that as one of their "customers" myself, I would much rather their highest priority be safe, clean drinking water.

40:

It's the hierarchy, stupid. It's all gotta go. Down with managerial oligarchy! (dragged away from keyboard)

41:

Charlie, my point is that including the disaster caused by a plant which was hopelessly out of date at the time, nuclear power is STILL safer. I never mentioned cheap.

And I agree with Brin, on the third option you've missed... give everyone the technology, rather than trying to keep the genie in the bottle. Sure, it does nasty things to privacy, but neither can the government hide...

42:

Andrew, I find Brin's ideas on transparency very attractive; I'd like things to work that way. But then I remember that new technology is always expensive, and so the guys with the money get it first, and keep that lead for awhile. And who are the ones with the money?

For instance: say quantum computers become practical in about five years, at an average cost of $100K each. Quantum communication channels which can't be eavesdropped on or decoded are becoming available now. So there's a period of at least 10-15 years (assuming costs follow Moore's law), before the computers become available at under $100 and can be used as components in systems affordable by the average person, when the rich and powerful can communicate securely and decode anyone else's communications. You can build up an awful lot of power and privilege in that time.

43:

Andrew: Bruce's point is precisely right.

Giving everyone a level playing field in effect means handing the playing field to the rich and powerful. If you can guarantee equal access to the technology then okay, it's a good idea -- but a level playing field that favours the folks who already have an advantage offends my sense of fairness (and that's just for starters).

44:

Regardless of private or public sector, it's the same dynamic at work -- bureaucratic turf-building that as an accidental side-effect involves a great deal of misery inflicted upon individuals. Concretely, suppose you have two departments that have traditionally been at odds, and which have their own computer systems. You are an ambitious up-and-comer, and you want to build your own fiefdom within the organization.

One really effective way of doing that is consolidating the two departments' computer systems, because someone will have to run it -- and whoever runs the computer system has veto power over the bureaucratic actions of the department. If that's you, then you have built your own little empire, regardless of what the existing managers think. And you can justify that empire building action to your higher-ups in terms of reduced costs and higher efficiency and new capabilities from sharing information.

To a certain extent, this is even true -- a bigger database does let you do more cheaply. And as a result, the cost of mischief goes down. This means of course that the amount of mischief done goes up (both at management direction or just casual abuse by staff), and this exposes managmement to the risk of being disciplined. The easiest way to handle this is to turn the abuse into official policy, and so your middle-management staff will actively agitate for rules protecting them from being brought to heel for abuse.

This will happen every single time that you have staff who are insulated from the people their organization theoretically exists to serve, regardless of whether it's in the private or public sector. That's why BOFHs and PHBs exist.

45:

BOFH's?
PHB's?

THe only PHB's I can think of are unpleasant chemicals.

46:

Guthrie: you need to google on "Bastard Operator From Hell". And also read more Dilbert ...

47:
Regardless of private or public sector, it's the same dynamic at work
Oh, Great Ghu, yes. I've worked in both public and private sectors, and there are PHBs . The only difference between them is the ones in the private sector wear more expensive clothes. Empires are empires, where ever ye may roam, and tinpot Napoleans we have with us always.

But this is a good thing, because mostly these guys are unwilling if not incapable of actually getting anything constructive done, so the evil conspiracies of their bosses come to naught (I use "constructive" here in it's broadest possible sense).

The danger is when the evil boss' purpose is not the stated goal of the organization, but a meta-goal that takes PHB propensities into account. The current US Administration is such a case. Luckily, these cases are as rare as real evil geniuses. I wouldn't count Blair in this group; I think he's merely imitating what he sees Bush and Cheney doing.

48:

I had to actually look PHB up - I couldn't get "players handbook" outta my head.

49:

Oh, those BOHS's
I have this horrible feeling I asked that question last year, but I have completely forgotten.
If I read any more Dilbert I shall start buying into Adams apparently nihilistic world view. (Did you see how he got shredded when he started spouting off about evolution?)

50:

Bruce Cohen, costs DON'T follow Moore's law.

And there are equalisers out there. Take the non-band lable in the UK who's #7 rated (last week?) in one of the charts, because of downloads.

Technology and communication don't necessarily favour established fortunes and companies, they can change the market in ways which are unpredictable.

And Charlie, the point is well taken - but the truly rich don't tend to let little things like anti-surveylance laws stop them anyway...and as for the Government? Er, right, SURE they'll stick to the rules.

It's not good, but I feel it's the best option.

Also, for reference, don't forget that the "established interests" don't precisely allways get their way. Consider this thing called "open source", and packages like Apache and Open Office. (I don't personally consider Linux the best banner-holder...)

51:

There is NO political party I can now vote for (in England).

Labour and the tories have, between them have royally screwed education. transport and defence.
Now the NewLab peole are set to repeat Thatcher's mistake over defence cuts. That got us the Falklands' war - what this cut will get us, I shudder to think.
LibDems (also called Lemmocrats)?
No, they pick far too many pig-buggerers as candidates for my liking, and are far too crawling to all the other religions as well - almost like creepy little Tony B. Liar, now I think of it.

UKIP? - right-wing fruitcakes.
Green? crypto blut-und-Boden semi-fascists.

Bring back screaming Lord Sutch?

52:
costs DON'T follow Moore's law.
Andrew, please explain and/or justify that statement. All the literature on the subject says otherwise. My own informal tracking of trends in the computer industry over the last 30 years also says otherwise. I will grant the exponent to use in the equation is not exactly what Moore extrapolated from the trends of the 60's and early 70's, and is in fact different for different technologies (cost per bit for main memory, i.e. RAM, has halved about every 18 months where the literal statement of Moore's law predicts 24 months, and secondary storage, hard drives, etc. have been halving every 12-14 months for the last 10 years or so), but that the curve is exponential is not in dispute.
53:

Interesting news about British Government cockups.

The mess about the reworking of the EU's agricultural subsidy system, which was a disaster in England, but worked find in the rest of Europe, including Scotland and Wales, was blamed on the quasi-non-government Rural Payments Agency, and it's head was picked as the scapegoat.

When he was, eventually, interviewed by the Commons Select Committee investigating the mess, instead of taking the fall, he named names. The government ministers who had claimed to have been misled by the RPA, were in it up to their necks, not just informed of the problems but having a direct hand in the plans the RPA was making.

I have over the years heard other stories, such as the document that took a year to get from the Minister's fax machine to his desk. Well, when the shit hit the fan, he said the information had only just reached his desk, but I know the guy who compiled the report and sent the fax.

And Margaret Beckett, who lied about the payments to farmers, is now Foreign Secretary. We have more to worry about than defence cuts.

54:

Bruce Cohen, x68 might follow it (at least...it was. I don't believe Core2Duo has). XScale and other processor architectures don't.

55:

Andrew,
I'd still like to know why you make that statement. Moore's Law is an average trend over time; there may be (in fact, there have been) short-term changes in the slope or discontinuities in the curve, but the real data over 4 decades fits the exponential quite well.

The end of Moore's law has been heralded several times in the past. In 1982, when RAM was the standard-bearer, problems with radiation corrupting data caused development to slow down, adding about 6 months to that generation, but that turned out to be just a blip; the curve returned to normal soon after. Similarly just in the last two years there was fear that excessive leakage currents at high clock rates at 90 nanometer design scales would prevent further progress. That hasn't been the case; 45 nanometer parts are in pilot production now.

Now, if you're basing the statement on the notion that Symmetrical Multi-processing using multiple cores won't scale well, I actually agree. Intel doesn't; they say they've built an 80-core chip in the lab, and they're very excited. Of course, they've been badly wrong before (buy me a beer and ask me about deep-pipelining; you'll get an evening worth of rant). But there are other approaches to multi-core than SMP. I'm really interested to see how IBM fares with the Cell architecture, which is highly assymetrical.

56:

In 1997 when I was in my anti-Microsoft phase, one Mac user told me "Don't worry, the PC platform is nearing the end of the line. With the Pentium Pro, CISC technology has reached its limit." Turned out to be a false prediction...

57:
With the Pentium Pro, CISC technology has reached its limit.
It's Intel's dirty little secret that the Pentium and later x86 chips are actually RISC processors with CISC instruction sets bolted onto them, and additional vector arithmetic execution units added. You can write a compiler to use the CISC instructions, but I don't know that compiler writers actually take advantage of that. And the vector functions are there for video and graphics; they don't get used much in compiling a word processor, for instance.

Most of the argument about chip architecture in the last ten years has been about pipeline depth, number of execution engines, how useful speculative execution actually is, and is VLIW the way to go, not about RISC vs CISC.

58:

The British parliament is the result of the original legislature (Parliament) totally defeating the original executive (the Crown) and gobbling it up in the course of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

That makes the Crown-in-Parliament a total conflation of the executive and legislative powers.

Combine this with a modern strong-party system and you get an elective dictatorship which can do absolutely anything it pleases, subject only to a referendum every so often. Between times it has powers no American administration can dream about; and that's leaving aside the authority of the States.

This has been obvious for generations.

The parliamentary alternative is something like Italy or Israel, with that ghastly and stupid PR system producing continually shifting coalitions, which is if anything worse -- at least with a Brit-style parliament you have _some_ idea of what your vote will produce and parties have to try to be national coalitions.

The US has a weaker executive than Britain precisely because it has formal separation of powers.

The US Presidency was modeled on the 18th-century British monarchy, somewhat cleaned up.

Our executive is _supposed_ to spend a lot of time fighting with Congress... and Congress is supposed to spend a lot of time squabbling between its two branches, the Commons (House of Representatives) and Lords (Senate). And the judiciary is intended to be a frustrating impediment to both.

The Founding Fathers were deeply conservative men who'd been forced to lead a revolutionary war much against their will.

They did not trust government or want it to do much beyond national defense, they did not trust the people, they did not trust politicians, and they deliberately set up a system that made it difficult to get anything done unless there was an overwhelming and lasting national consensus on it. It's intended to give 'blockers' an advantage. So is the federal system.

If you Brits want less of an elective dictatorship, you should undo most of the last 80 years of political "reform", franchise reform excepted.

Bring back a real House of Lords with authority to stop legislation that isn't directly financial. That provided a real check on the authority of the party with a Parliamentary majority... or it did until the disaster known as the Last Liberal Government, back before 1914.

And note that every "reform" of the Lords has turned it more and more into a source of boodle and a lapdog of whoever happens to control the governing party.

59:

One of the problems with information technology is that it protects people from the consequences of their actions, thus removing the fear of retaliation that helps make society function. It liberates the Id and this is _not_ a good thing.

It's notorious that many, many people are far more rude, abrasive, unfair, rhetorically mendacious and unscrupulous online than they are in person (the example of my angelic self to the contrary).

The reason for this is simple: you can cut off the nonverbal feedback, which face to face you can't. It's the same reason the less pleasant type of aristo used to be systematically rude and arrogant; they could get away with it and nobody dared call them to account. It's also the reason why an overcontrolled or undercontrolled school becomes a tyranny of the nastiest; there's no sanction.

But it's not just a matter of online manners. The same phenomenon spreads to other types of behavior and for the same reason.

Human beings are programmed for a face-to-face society; to be reasonably nice to those they have to deal with every day, and potentially nasty to strangers whose long-term reactions don't have to be considered.

The virtual world is turning more and more people into that type of stranger to each other and bringing more and more of them into daily contact.

This increases the overall friction and stress level, to put it mildly.

60:

Bring back a real House of Lords with authority to stop legislation that isn't directly financial. That provided a real check on the authority of the party with a Parliamentary majority... or it did until the disaster known as the Last Liberal Government, back before 1914.

Alternatively, something like the Australian Sentate might work. Give England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland 20 senators each, and maybe a few extra for the City of London and the combined overseas territories.

61:

Sorry, SpeakerToManagers - tough week at work.
I'm not sure there's much difference between them. I would be very surprised if Blair wasn't as contemptuous as Thatcher, just not as vocal about it.
But we expected him to be better than that, which is one of the reasons we voted for him. In unguarded moments, no matter how many wanky things his government has done, I still find myself giving him the benefit of the doubt, until common sense kicks in.

62:

The virtual world is turning more and more people into that type of stranger to each other and bringing more and more of them into daily contact.

This increases the overall friction and stress level, to put it mildly.

While that may be true for the first generations to have access to the internet, I think it's different for those who have grown up with it.

I find that people feel more free online, and willing to experiment with social conventions and roles due to the relatively risk free environment.

I find myself much more confortable around people online, and more willing to be friendly and get to know people.

Children now are even more comfortable and acculturated to an online world that I was, since now everyone is online compared to myself and a handful of people in my school in 1992 when I first went on.

63:

Andrew G: I find that people feel more free online, and willing to experiment with social conventions and roles due to the relatively risk free environment.

-- yes, it does, and that's precisely the problem, unless one shares the berserk and ungrounded Enlightenment over-optimism about human nature.

Give people a risk-free social environment and a substantial proportion of them turn into unbearable yahoos wallowing in and throwing feces -- yahoos in Swift's sense of the term. This is the nature of the human animal and can't be changed absent genetic engineering. Or as Hamilton put it: "Your People, sir, is a great beast."

That's true for society in general -- hooliganism and so forth are the result of the breakdown of _constraint_ mechanisms, things like social deference and other checks formal and even more importantly informal, which used to operate to provide quick undodgeable sanctions for disapproved behavior. It's even more true for the virtual environment.

Everyone has antisocial impulses, and has them all the time. Conditioning (morals) can hold them in check for the nonsociopathic majority, and even intelligent sociopaths can learn to respect the rules, but only if there are efficient backup mechanisms to prevent things from being eroded in from the edges. If people see others getting away with things, they quickly become disinhibited themselves and everything falls into the crapper.

It's one thing to change the list of disapproved behaviors; that can be good, though risky. It's another (and entirely negative) thing to lose the capacity to control behavior at all.

This is, incidentally, why one should never junk a taboo unless absolutely necesary and generally agreed, even if it's a stupid or irritating taboo taken by itself. Doing so weakens the structure of taboos-in-general... which is all that stands between us and the pit. Besides which, as the saying goes a tradition is a solution to a forgotten problem; but the fact that the problem has been forgotten doesn't mean it has gone away.

Society, even in big cities, used to consist mainly of a series of village-scale sub-societies, with strong rules and strong means of enforcing them, with the eyes of Argus always watching. Anonymity brings out the inner beast.

This is the reason for the sort of clumsy makeshifts (surveillance cameras and such) which Charlie rightly finds offensive.

They're attempted technological-bureaucratic substitutes for the neighbors watching you and establishing limits through a vigorous community public opinion, working from the "little platoons" of household and village on up.

This is the social framework which permits us to do without "Big Brother" on the formal-governmental level.

64:

yes, it does, and that's precisely the problem, unless one shares the berserk and ungrounded Enlightenment over-optimism about human nature.

I am rather optimistic about human nature, but I'll leave that aside. :)

I know what you mean, I've experienced that sort of thing online myself. But in such an environment, how much harm can actually be done beyond petty annoyance? Most places do have some sort of moderation capacity, far greater than those in the real world. You can't ban an asshole in real life, but you do so easily online. Even places like Second Life which are very poor at preventing griefing, the worst that can happen is some vandalism, or having flying penises push you around. The rules written into the environment itself restrict the harm that can be done.

If anything it shows the futility of being anti-social, since in a virtual environment you can be ignored or shunned much easier than in the physical one.

A big part of what you're seeing I think is a generation gap. I work with a broad range of people, from students who are 18 to people in their 70s who have done the same job for 50 years, and I can see how technology as drastically altered the way the generations interact.

Each generation is very well socialized -- within their own generation. Older generations complain about the lack of social skills of younger workers and students, while the students often belittle older people for their technophobia and the difficulty in communicating in them.

For instance, I have a coworker in her 60s who calls everyone and speaks to them personally. She thinks it's a nice personal touch. I find it extremely annoying. I typically don't answer my phone, and will reply to messages with emails. I like having a record of my communications, and the time to formulate my thoughts, double check what I'm saying, as well as the ability to include links and attachments. Most people under 30 I work with are like that as well.

Other examples are that older people will often call our office to ask questions, and get annoyed if they hit an automated phone system, while younger people prefer the automated systems. If they call at all - most prefer to do everything online.

You may see this as the breakdown of social mechanisms, but I prefer to see it as an evolution of them.

65:

"You can't ban an asshole in real life, but you do so easily online."

-- then why is it that nobody in 30 years has been a tithe so intolerably rude to my face as many people have been online? And the last time someone -was- that rude to me in person (when I was about 23, IIRC), I punched them out, and still feel entirely justified in having done so.

And more generally, I'm not talking simply about online behavior, but about behavior in general.

Read Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London" sometime -- he went 'underground' as a penniless vagrant odd-jobber in the 30's to do some first-person journalism -- and compare it to the same cities today.

There's been a catastrophic decline in many respects. His tale has plenty of squalor and misery, and it was in the middle of the worst economic depression in history, but the really odd thing about it from a 21st century perspective is the relative absence of violence and menace despite being among the very dregs of society.

Granted he'd have found a bit more of it in, say, the slums of Glasgow, the thing you really bring away is how much stronger the social mechanism and the overall sense of social solidarity was then. And how fragile and vulnerable these things are in the longer term.

This is not a positive development. It's a partial reversion to the "state of nature". And forensic anthropology has shown that in the state of nature -- in hunter-gatherer societies and among pre-state neolithic villagers -- typically about 30% or a bit more of males die by violence before reaching a "natural" end, and 5-10% of females.

By way of comparison, that'd be about double the chance a Russian male born in 1900 had of being kiled between then and 1960, through two world wars, a revolution, a civil war, several famines, and the Great Terror.

They don't have big wars but they do have a continual, drip-drip-drip level of killing we'd find bizzarely intolerable. Or at least so far.

66:

Steve: The parliamentary alternative is something like Italy or Israel, with that ghastly and stupid PR system producing continually shifting coalitions, which is if anything worse -- at least with a Brit-style parliament you have _some_ idea of what your vote will produce and parties have to try to be national coalitions.

Unfortunately, that just ain't true. It might look true from the outside, but there are a whole lot of traditional Labour voters out there who are still reeling from what they voted for in 1997 -- and a lot of traditional One Nation Tories who had very little idea of just what Thatcher was going to do when she got into Number 10. Moreover, you obviously haven't been following the Blair/Brown succession kremlinology of late; trying to figure out what the British government is going to be doing in just four damn months' time is next to impossible because those national parties have succumbed to a more presidential, spin-doctored style of leadership over the past three decades, and a change of PM can change everything. (Remember, the PM can hire or fire other Cabinet ministers -- and since Thatcher they've used that power ruthlessly to trim the cloth of their party platforms.)

In contrast, those inchoate proportional representation derived coalitions at least give single issue concerns a pressure valve: there's an MP somewhere who represents a small minority, and their concerns have to get taken into account somewhere down the line. Whereas the FPP system and an elected dictatorship frees the government to do anything they damn well please -- for example, to vote to withdraw the franchise from left-handed redheads -- without accountability until they next decide to hold an election.

I like my central governments weak, thank you very much. Which is why, for the first time ever (and hopefully the last), I'll vote Scottish Nationalist in May's elections. If nothing else, a good SNP turn-out should focus Gordon Brown's mind wonderfully on the West Lothian Question ...

67:

Charlie - about voting SNP. Before the last General Election, Daniel Davies (D-squared) wrote about voting in terms of costly signalling, and concluded that (for the likes of him) the way to show a commitment to punishing New Labour was to vote Tory (because that was really painful for the likes of him to do). In Scotland I think an SNP vote has a similar costly signalling function.

68:

Steve,

I think the fabric of society is tougher than it seems. This sort of period of failure of civility has happened before, and often is only temporary. Temporary as in a generation or two, unfortunately, since the repair mechanism involves changes in the customs and patterns in which people relate to each other, and those take time.

For example, London in the early 19th Century was a very dangerous place, in part because the class structure had partially broken down with the flood of farm workers into the cities to find work in the factories. A generation later, as the economy sorted itself out, and the empire pushed the low-paying jobs either to immigrants or out to the colonies, social relations, especially within and between the lower and middle classes regained their institutional status and friction between individuals was again marginalized (and also institutionalized in the middle class, with the increase in use of the civil suit as social recourse).

Incivility on the Net is common because there isn't much in the way of recourse; you can put someone who insults you in your kill file, and never have to deal with them again, but that doesn't cause consequences to them that would prevent them from insulting someone else. The lack of recourse exists largely bacause of the balkanization of the Net; within Net communities, especially the social communities that have mechanisms for recording some measure of reputation, recourse is possible, between communites it is difficult if not impossible.

But that's not inherent in the medium. I've seen spontaneous community action against the sort of insult you're talking about; usually after such an event the community starts experimenting with more formal ways of dealing with such problems. So the social structure is growing, but it's going to take awhile before it's really working.

In this respect, at least, the Net really is like the American wild west of the 1870's: it was a somewhat anarchic time, prone to violence between gangs and interest groups. In the west that period lasted less than 20 years, as the population grew and transportation and communication improved. I expect the same thing to happen as people put more of their social lives and time on the Net, and social communities like MySpace and agoras like EBay (and combinations like Yahoo) find it useful and practical to create intercommunity social structures.

69:
I like my central governments weak, thank you very much.
Charlie, I agree with this sentiment. As with most statements about politics, though, I would add some qualifications. The power the central government does not have should not devolve to other governments, such as state or provincial or county or municipal. And I don't know of any way to make anarcho-libertarianism, where all that power devolves to the individual, work any better that the Net does today. That is, so you can prevent the sort of incivility that Steve was talking about, which as he points out, is a primary indicator of social structures that don't work in other ways.

I think A.E. van Vogt had at least one good idea: there should always be a Loyal Opposition (in his books, the "Weapon Shops") which is not a political party or any other formal part of the governmental structure. In the US and (I think) in the UK we seem to be moving towards a number of such organizations, many of them hosted in the Net. Of course, they don't all agree about ends or means, and some of them are more interested in gaining more power so as to supplant the government rather than merely keep it in check, but that's not new. That's exactly the way check and balance systems are supposed to work: the balance swings back and forth as first one side and then another try to grab the gold ring.

Incidentally, if I had a choice, I'd set up "Book Shops" rather than "Weapon Shops". Books may not protect you against a man with a knife (jokes about silver Bibles protecting you from bullets aside), but information may be the single best defense for the polity as a whole against an aggressive government, long-term.

70:

Bruce: ah, no, you misread me: I like strong local government -- at least in the sense of good provision of infrastructure services (including items such as healthcare, schools, water, energy, and other stuff that current fashion seems to think belongs in the private sector). The job of central government should be to ride herd on the local administrations, auditing and preventing abuses of power, while handling only those tasks that are universally required and can't be handled by subdivisions (such as defense).

Thatcher made a real mess of the central/regional balance of power in the UK and I still don't believe we've fully recovered from the centralizing regime she imposed.

Ken: I tend to agree about the expensive signalling thing. Except that I live in a Labour constituency that's a Lib-Dem marginal. Must consider further how best to vote tactically.

What I'm hoping is that an SNP-led Scottish administration, even if it didn't generate a referendum with a plurality for outright independence, would focus Gordon Brown's mind wonderfully on the problems New Labour initially tried to deal with then cooled off on as they became entrenched in office -- electoral reform, devolution, and reform of the Lords.

71:

Steve, I think that not having to punch people in the face to get them to shut up is a postive step. Sure, they might not learn their lesson as fast, but you don't have to resort to violence either. Being able to effectively ignore people without violent confrontation seems like good thing to me.

I'm not sure I see a carry over from uncivility on the net to uncivility and a breakdown of society off the net either. Perhaps that's because I have a shorted perspective than you, having been born in 1978. Apart from an odd overprotectiveness of parents, I think things have improved since the 1980s, for instance. People may be less connected to their neighbors, but they're more connected to people all over the world, so it balances out.

72:

SpeakerToManagers - We do have a kind of Loyal Opposition, although its motives are of course uniformly evil and self-serving: the Press.

73:

Charlie: "but there are a whole lot of traditional Labour voters out there who are still reeling from what they voted for in 1997"

-- I can't see why. Didn't they think that Blair & Brown meant what they said? The "New Labor" types had spent well over a decade purging the lefties and "Old Labor" ones and making their intentions fairly clear -- crystal clear, for politicians (aka "professional liars").

I think the ones who were surprised were the victims of wishful thinking; they couldn't bear the thought that Thatcher had, essentially, converted the whole political mainstream to many of her policies, if not her style.

"and a lot of traditional One Nation Tories who had very little idea of just what Thatcher was going to do when she got into Number 10."

-- well, likewise, she wasn't exactly promoting traditional paternalism before she became PM. She was already well-known as a monetarist and a hater of the post-war Butskellite consensus (remember "milk-snatcher Thatcher"?) and as being ferociously combatative and confrontational by inclination, having clawed, kicked, stabbed and bludgeoned her way up the greasy pole. Subsequently they had a number of opportunties to chuck her out if they wanted to.

The demoralized dead end the "One Nation" Tories had run into was the main reason she was able to take control of the party.

"Moreover, you obviously haven't been following the Blair/Brown succession kremlinology of late"

-- I have been following it; my conclusion, based on Brown's own statements (as opposed to obvious wishful thinking by some anti-Blair types) is that it's fairly obvious there _aren't_ any substantial policy differences between Brown and Blair, just minor differences of emphasis. After all, Brown has been handling the money since the beginning, hasn't he?

Brown is dour and po-faced as opposed to Blair's greasy great grin, and he may be a little less of a Gladstonian neo-Imperialist and that's about it.

74:

Britain (and England before it) emerged from the Middle Ages as a precociously centralized country, at least in the practical sense. There was only one source of political power, the Crown-in-Parliament, which after the Civil Wars and 1688 was absolute in a sense that the Bourbon Kings or the poor benighted Stuarts could only wet-dream about.

Even after the drastic push for bureaucratic centralism after the French Revolution, in most real as opposed to theoretical senses of the term Britain was far more centralized than France. That's how she could repeatedly defeat a country so much more populous so much richer -- British governments could mobilize and tap a far higher proportion of their country's resources than France could, even France under Napoleon.

What this meant in practice was that Britain was in the iron grip of a highly coherent, ruthless, intelligent and self-conscious oligarchy, originally of landowners and then gradually of wealthy men in general. They were able to rip society up by its roots for their own benefit in ways which their continental counterparts never dared. Luckily this turned out to be a good thing in the long run, but that wasn't the intention or perception at the time.

Eg., take the Enclosures. Britain (apart from Ireland) emerged in the 18th century as a country where about 250 families owned a third of the land, where 4000 families owned about 90% of it, and where the peasantry had been virtually destroyed and replaced by big capitalist tenant farmers (with farms about 6x-10x the size of their French counterparts) and a mass of mobile landless laborers who had to work on their terms or starve.

No European aristocracy was able to concentrate ownership or eliminate traditional long-term and communal tenures like that -- not even the serf-owners of Hungary or Mecklenberg.

Likewise, in Britain it was possible to smash the (very strong) popular opposition to technological innovation in a way European governments just didn't dare to try. This wasn't because they thought such things were in the long-term interests of the people; they just knew that it increased their rents and perks right now.

"Everyone knew" that things like the flying-shuttle loom and Arkwright's mule and the threshing machine injured the poor; the difference was that the English oligarchs just didn't give a damn, and could impose their views by hanging, starving and transporting to Australia those Luddites and others who dared protest.

Britain was, until well into the 20th century, _administratively_ decentralized, but that was because the same tight-knit social class that dominated the central Parliament ran the localities, just as the parsons were the Squirearchy at prayer. The MP and the JP were the same man, or cousins and friends; wearing one hat they made the laws, and wearing the other they administered and enforced them, and in a dog-collar they told everybody God wanted it that way.

75:

"For example, London in the early 19th Century was a very dangerous place, in part because the class structure had partially broken down with the flood of farm workers into the cities to find work in the factories."

-- yeah, it was dangerous, but that was nothing new; it always had been.

English society as a whole had traditionally been violent, though much more structured and less chaotic than it looked at first glance.

76:

Interesting story in the Scotsman about the latest turn in what would seem to be Blair's worst nightmare (he sure didn't worry this much over fake intelligence reports about smuggled fissionables). Those of you who live in Scotland might want to vote SNP just as a thankyou for putting this particular stick in the anthill.

Dave, evil and self-serving works for me as long as they're actually trying to dig something up; the last few years political reporters here in the US seem to have been quite satisfied with getting their facts from politicians' press releases and public communiques. Didn't these people learn in journalism school that people don't necessarily mean what they say in public?

77:

Bring back a real House of Lords with authority to stop legislation that isn't directly financial. That provided a real check on the authority of the party with a Parliamentary majority... or it did until the disaster known as the Last Liberal Government, back before 1914.

Not really. The House of Lords knew fine if it tried anything, it was gone. (This is essentially true from the first Reform Act; if the Commons wanted something badly enough, the Lords couldn't do anything about it.)

As for Old Labourites: they knew they weren't getting Bevan, or even Bevin. They just didn't quite realise they were getting Blair...

78:

Steve: not only did Blair far outstrip most Labour voters' understanding and expectation of what he was going to do, but I think you misread things if you think Brown is going to be more of the same. I read Brown as being much more of a control freak than Blair, and one of the prime movers behind the pursuit of the panopticon police state. (He is, it appears, deeply enthusiastic about the idea of a universal state database, biometric ID cards for all, and a police camera in every cereal packet.)

This has to some extent been hidden by his current position as chancellor -- with control of the budget, he's had to work hard to establish a reputation for fiscal prudence that earlier Labour governments didn't lay any groundwork for -- but once he's no longer directly in charge of the purse, we should see his true colours emerge. And I very much doubt that he's going to be content to be the John Major to Blair's Thatcher.

79:

SM - I think it's hard for an outsider to understand just how much of a disappointment New Labour have been. For a lot of people they were a shining hope after the Thatcherite Terror and the grey Major Years. They were young and they were energetic and they were going to get things doneand their purging of the Old Guard just signalled their intention that they weren't going to be an old-style Labour administration shackled to the unions. They were going to be modern and they were going to hit the ground running and we (well, I, anyway) believed them.
We really wanted rid of the Tories, but for years and years Labour didn't look like a credible alternative. And then here came this gang of superheroes who, in their student years and in opposition, had campaigned against nuclear weapons and human rights abuses and all kinds of bad stuff. They were smart and good-looking and showbiz. The picture on the packet looked wonderful and we fell for it. We thought they would be a Labour government for the new millennium, and all along they were just a bunch of Tories in fancy clothes, with a few Old Labour types thrown into the mix for colour. More fool us.
And before you make the very good point of asking why we haven't voted them out yet, the answer would have to be: and replace them with what? The Tories are only now just starting to get back up off their knees, and the Lib Dems still have a very long way to go before they look as if they can run the country.

SpeakerToManagers - you're right about press release journalism - I've had cause to do it myself from time to time, and it does me no credit - and for quite a while I think that's how the Press over here reacted to New Labour. The Number 10 spin operation really was a beautiful thing and it picked and chose its press favourites and gave them little exclusives and leaks, and everybody else - with a few noble exceptions - had to scramble around among the releases and be good little journalists, hoping to attract Number 10's attention so that they too would be admitted.
That changed, though, and for quite a while, in the absence of any real Parliamentary opposition, the Press was a kind of ad hoc opposition.

Charlie - you're right, after waiting so long to get into power, Brown is going to have a lot to prove and he's going to want to get a lot of things done - no pussying about inviting actors and rock stars to Number 10 or going on holiday with Silvio Berlusconi. This is going to be serious government and it's going to do serious things to us. There may come a time when we look back on the Blair Years with nostalgic fondness.

80:
-- yeah, it was dangerous, but that was nothing new; it always had been.
Not that I'm disagreeing with you, but I'm curious if you know of any published statistics on violent crime in London as a percentage of population over time. The reason I ask is that I've recently been browsing the FBI crime statistics webpages. Turns out that the figures don't bear out any of the statements about crime made in the press in the last couple of decades (surprise!). And my knowledge of history specific to London is from popular media, not from real historical sources, so I'm curious how far off I am in what I "know".
81:

"Not really. The House of Lords knew fine if it tried anything, it was gone. (This is essentially true from the first Reform Act; if the Commons wanted something badly enough, the Lords couldn't do anything about it.)"

-- they killed several Home Rule Acts from the 1880's on and the Liberals weren't able to do anything about it; plus a lot of other Liberal legislation, either by simple rejection or by ammending it out of recognition. The Rosebery's government was one instance of that after another.

Nor did Gladstone ever try running a "Peers vs. the People" election, though he threatened to when they stonkered his favorite bits, nor did he lean on the Queen to appoint enough Liberal peers to get things through the Lords (probably because he knew Vicki hated him and would have refused point-blank).

That didn't happen until after 1906.

82:

"For a lot of people they were a shining hope after the Thatcherite Terror and the grey Major Years... We really wanted rid of the Tories, but for years and years Labour didn't look like a credible alternative... and all along they were just a bunch of Tories in fancy clothes"

-- if they hadn't been, they wouldn't have been elected. They made Labor electable by promising to leave the middle classes' money alone, essentially, with an addendum that they weren't going to go off on a CND bender on foreign policy, either. Thatcher without the handbag and the snarl.


83:

Steve: I read Brown as being much more of a control freak than Blair, and one of the prime movers behind the pursuit of the panopticon police state. (He is, it appears, deeply enthusiastic about the idea of a universal state database, biometric ID cards for all, and a police camera in every cereal packet.)

-- well, yeah, that's what I meant. He's Blair redone as the Dour Scot, and more serious all 'round. But his basic economic policies won't be much different, except that he won't be able to spend nearly as much money, having blown it all like a drunken sailor in a whorehouse already. I hadn't noticed Blair being much of an enthusiast for civil liberties, to put it mildly.

84:

"Not that I'm disagreeing with you, but I'm curious if you know of any published statistics on violent crime in London as a percentage of population over time."

-- Try Gatrell's "The Decline of Theft and Violence in Victorian and Edwardian England", in his "Crime and Law".

Serious offenses against the person and property in England had already declined from their historic levels by the beginning of the 19th century. They dropped by about half between 1800 and the 1840's (when modern police forces were introduced) and then again between the 1840's and 1900, and then substantially again between 1900 and the 1930's-40's, when they hit the lowest point in recorded history.

Most middle-class English householders kept a pistol in the Regency period; the law then was more or less like American law now -- you could shoot housebreakers with impunity.

And the gentry had armed retainers about a lot of the time -- known formally as "gamekeepers" and "footmen", but ready to act as a Brute Squad. Those stories in early-18th-century novels about dissolute noblemen kidnapping virtuous lower-class girls or setting 'pugs' (retired prizefighters) on people who'd offended them weren't that far off. There were no police.

As late as the time Doyle was writing the Sherlock Holmes stories, it was quite authentic that Holmes could lay hands on a "persuader" or "life-preserver" (revolver) anytime he wanted to and tuck it into a pocket or traveling-bag, even if there weren't really dwarves from Borneo with poisoned blowgun darts running about.

IIRC, serious crime stats are still way, _way_ lower now than they were in the 18th century and previously. Murder, assault and armed robbery in particular were many times more common in the premodern and Early Modern eras, as were "affrays", ranging from punch-ups to riots and mobbings with intent to kill.

An early-Victorian legal type, when asked what the "typical English crime" was, replied after some thought "kicking your wife to death".

85:

What's more, if you think the English are bad about binge drinking now... well, they're paragons of restraint compared to their ancestors, who drank like fish, or Russians.

Up until the 1870's, the annual consumption of beer in England and Wales was _thirty-two gallons per capita_. Leave out the children and teetotallers and you get some idea of how much most people drank... and that's not counting gin, whiskey, or other potables.

86:

SMS: I hadn't noticed Blair being much of an enthusiast for civil liberties, to put it mildly.

There were very mixed signals both prior to the 1997 election and for a couple of years thereafter. In their first three years, Labour abolished the death penalty (which had lingered on the books, even if no longer available for murder), passed a freedom of information act, held referenda on regional devolution for Scotland and Wales, beefed up anti-racism laws, passed a human rights act that attempted to splice the European Declaration of Human Rights into the British constitutional system as a bill of rights overriding other laws, attempted to reform the House of Lords (but stopped part-way in a spectacular parliamentary train-wreck), ditched Clause 28 of the Local Government Act (which had institutionalized discrimination against homosexuals in education), fixed the discriminatory age of consent laws (previously: homosexual age of consent: 21, heterosexual age: 16), and a whole lot more.

If that's not actually a progressive agenda, it's good enough to impersonate one on a dark night. But it all went out of the window post-9/11 and there's been an increasingly panicky retreat towards draconian law'n'order policies ever since, led by such remarkable attacks on the human rights act that you could be forgiven for thinking it was some kind of cynically contrived act of dastardly authoritarian Thatcherism.

As it is, from the point of view of starry-eyed optimists like myself, the last five years of the Blair government have seen them attempt to undo the good work they did in the first five. It's not so much a matter of ideology as of the basic idea that the rule of law comes first -- they've acquired a worrying sense that they know what's best for us, and they can ignore laws that get in their way when they try to make us behave.

Happily, it seems to be biting them on the ass right now.

Up until the 1870's, the annual consumption of beer in England and Wales was _thirty-two gallons per capita_.

Ahem: that's only 256 pints per year. Or 5 pints per week. I typically go to a pub twice a week, and drink 3 pints (sometimes 2, sometimes 4). That puts me bang-on, maybe a bit over that level. Current government health guidelines expressed in units of alcohol of about half a pint suggest no more than 27 units (13.5 pints) per week for a man -- if you go over that regularly, you need to think about cutting back. That's 88 gallons a year. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if current annual beer consumption in England and Wales is close to 32 gallons per capita -- leaving out children and teetotallers (about 20% of the population) it would still leave us well within the government health guidelines.

(Americans really don't understand beer :)

87:

Thanks for the citation, Steve. I've read anecdotes about the violence of Regency London; I was curious if that was backed up by any statistics. I"ve grown very untrusting of statements made about the large-scale state or trends of society; there are so many, many reasons to lie about it, or at least fudge the facts. In general, the generalizations I've seen made about situations I have personal knowledge of have been at best exaggerated, at worst outright fantasy.

(Americans really don't understand beer :)
Charlie: come on out to the Pacific Northwest and say that! I'll stand you to as many pints as you want at a local pub in Portland, and we'll see if we know anything about beer.
88:

Oh, my, Blair is about to discover that the panopticon can watch him as well. Basic rule of working within organizations: always make friends with the person who actually pushes the levers, as opposed to orders them pushed. In the army that's the company clerk, in the university it's the department administrative aide, and in totalitarian regimes, it's the head of the secret police. Second lesson: if you are trying to create a totalitarian regime, make sure the police are on your side before giving them extra-legal power they can use to arrest you.

89:

Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if current annual beer consumption in England and Wales is close to 32 gallons per capita...

According to the British Beer & Pub Association, the British consumed 177 imperial pints per capita in 2002.
http://www.beerandpub.com/content.asp?id_Content=248

That makes the UK #5 in the world, behind the Czechs, Irish, Germans, and Austrians. http://www.beerandpub.com/content.asp?id_Content=414

The US by contrast drinks ~143 imperial pints per capita, and like 80% of that is Miller, Coors, or Busch so probably doesn't really count. :)

90:

Ah, come on, Steve, nobody drinks like Russians except Finns and Icelanders.

Na Zdravye!

92:

Charlie: Blair --

"beefed up anti-racism laws"

-- that has turned out mostly to mean "punishment for thoughtcrime", not a devotion to full freedom of speech, which is the foundation of all civil liberties.

Whenever a government attempts to punish people for holding or expressing an ideology, alarm bells should ring.

No matter how unpopular, evil or hurtful the ideology is, save and except for _direct_ incitement to violence. David Irving, for example, should not be in jail for what he says. He has a perfect right to be a lying Nazi creep, and to espouse and spread creepy lying Nazi ideas.

Nobody has a right to set limits to permissible thought, governments least of all.

"attempted to reform the House of Lords"

-- which means "attempted to turn it even more into a House of Poodles and Source of Boodle". The old unreformed House of Lords was superio,r in every way.

Given the opportunity for "reform", politicians will always change institutions in ways which consolidate their own power.

Always.

This is a big part of why "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" and "the Best is the enemy of Good Enough" are so profoundly wise and true.

"they've acquired a worrying sense that they know what's best for us, and they can ignore laws that get in their way when they try to make us behave."

-- well, no offense, but this has always been a strong strain in Brit Leftism, right back to those authoritarian bureaucrat-loving pieces of ***t, Beatrice and Sydney Webb, who ended a long and destructive career by joining the line to lick Stalin's arse. Shaw was another of that kidney, and if she'd been around at the time Polly Toynbee would have been osculating with the best of them. Well have the Fabians been described as "stealth Totalitarians".


93:

>Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if current annual beer consumption in England and Wales is close to 32 gallons
per capita -- leaving out children and teetotallers (about 20% of the population) it would still leave us well within the government health guidelines.

-- no, no, the 1870's figure was _per capita_, including women, children, teetotallers, Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all.

The figure for adult males was about _200 gallons_ per year, together with a hefty consumption of hard liquor. Half the population were children then and a majority of women drank little or no alcohol.

As the saying went, "gin is the quickest way out of Manchester".

94:

Or to give another figure, in the 1870's something like _15%_ of the _total income_ of British working-class families, on average, was spent on alcohol. This in a class the majority of which never really got enough to eat, which is why they were 3 or 4 inches shorter than their great-grandchildren.

The gentry drank like fish (or Russians) too. The amount knocked back in a typical officer's mess or London club in the 1830's or 40's would boggle the mind -- three or four bottles of wine per man per dinner wasn't at all uncommon, along with other potations.

The only groups with substantially lower consumption were among the middle and lower-middle classes and among people who were religiously-oriented teetotallers.

It wasn't just wowserism and god-bothering. Flat-out alcoholism and families starving because the breadwinner blued it all at the pub were common as dirt then. Not to mention the violence when already low levels of impulse control were reduced further.

95:

As far as the political disappointment some here have expressed with Blair goes, this is endemic under all circumstances to two groups, of whom New Labor's supporters in the 1990's were a fairly typical case:

a) those who don't carefully and critically study and parse what politicians say, and even more importantly what they do, and;

b) those who expect a lot from politicians of any stripe, or have any but the most modest hopes from the political process itself.

Doing either of these things is like pasting a KICK ME! sign to your arse. You'll keep getting the boot put in when you least expect it, and really, you've got nobody but yourself to blame.

There are some exceptions, but generally speaking those who achieve leadership positions in any large organization are those who want those positions very badly: which is to say they're egotistical, ruthless and/or pathologically greedy bastards and often at least mildly sociopathic and narcissistic.

Eg., Blair. And Cameron, and Brown, and... you get the picture. Note that it's utterly independent of expressed ideology or ostensible goals.

This goes double for those who achieve success in government and politics; those in business may simply be very, very greedy, which is a mere pecadillo next to lust for power.

Those who don't start out bad in politics will, by a species of 'professional deformation', almost always end being that type of person -- the way policemen almost always end up as raving cynics.

This selection for the wicked, megalomanical and just plain bad in politics is inherent and cannot be removed.

Because those are the people willing to expend the effort and jump through the hoops and lie and backstab and manipulate and spin and so forth all their years starting in their teens to get these lousy jobs, instead of living real lives.

The good people drop out sooner or later because they are, rightly, disgusted with the whole thing and how corrosive it is to the soul; or they turn bad.

(The one big advantage of hereditary systems is that they don't _always_ select for the power-obsessed. Virtually any system based on competition does and by its nature must do so. This is a reason many public offices in ancient Athens were chosen by random drawing of lots rather than election.)

So keep firmly in mind: if they're in high office, they're rotten swine.

If they've been elected to high office, they're _lying_ rotten swine.

The cure is to listen and watch carefully, and to diminish your expectations and make them modest and realistic.

Don't expect the government or any form of political action to _do_ anything positive to "make the world new", eliminate much in the way of injustice (without substituting worse ones), 'bring peace' or any of that nonsense.

If you _reduce_ what the government does, you more often than not will get an improvement even if you pick the reduction at random, just because denying bad people the exercise of power is usually positive... and they're all bad to a greater or lesser degree.

Increasing what rotten lying swine have the ability to do just gives the bastards more opportunity to boss, rob and oppress.

Expect government to exercise the coercive power at home and abroad (which is basically what the State is for, at seventh and last) and perhaps, if you're very lucky, run a few basic public services like the posts.

Trying to get anything else out of it is like trying to make a fish into a bicyclist or grate cheese with a ripe avocado.

It will produce endless frustration and waste, and never accomplish anything but unintentional comedy at best and disaster at worst.

The only thing goverments are better at than individuals or private associations of various types(*) is, when you come right down to it, killing people, robbing people, spying on people, beating people up, putting people in prison, and blowing things to smithereens.

Equally, the higher the level of government that does something, the more certain it is to be something bad, because the people in charge have had more opportunity to be pickled in evil.

(*) this doesn't mean that individuals or private associations are _good_ at doing anything worthwhile, necessarily; just that they'll be, usually, better than the State.

Many things which would be nice if possible are just not possible at all -- and trying to accomplish the impossible usually leaves you worse off than if you'd never tried in the first place.

Beware the Law of Unintended Consequences and maintain a wholesome dread of it.

The world is not knowable or controllable to any great extent; and remember that while you may have more information than your ancestors, you are not one iota wiser or better. Your prejudices and faults and stupidities are just as rank as theirs; the only difference is that you can see theirs, while your own are like water to a fish.

Keep the above in mind and you won't often be disappointed in politics, or feel let down. Other things -- usually a disgusted sense of "there the fool's bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the fire AGAIN" but not those.

96:

Oh, and re the above: I'm not a libertarian of any stripe. Libertarians believe that government is wicked and bad but people are good and we can get rid of (or very severely limit) government. This is utopianism, as dumb as Marxism, and only less destructive because it's less likely to end up in charge.

I believe that government is wicked and bad and we're stuck with quite a bit of it, because human beings are that way. "From the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight can be made."

I don't believe in God... but original sin? Oh, yeah, definitely. As Chesterton said, it's the only religious dogma for which there's substantial objective proof.

97:

Ah, Steve, you're an optimist ;-)

Actually, the majority of the time, the vast majority of people will do the right thing. We're social animals, after all. (It's not just us -- other primates do it too: you're familiar with the psychology experiments on altruism and fair-play in Macacques?) If the fair play instinct wasn't so deeply ingrained, probably we wouldn't be able to build anything worth talking about.

I'll grant you that all it takes is a couple of percent of individuals who willfully defect to cause problems, and we do seem -- over the past century -- to have replaced a system of rule by hereditary asshole with a system of rule by ambitious greasy-pole-climbing asshole, but some progress has been made. It's now been more than sixty years since an invading army crossed the Rhine in one direction or another -- that's the longest period of peace over here since the Roman empire, and I'm inclined to think that we're actually a bit more civilized than they were.

I agree that utopianism is wrong-headed and dumb in general, But I don't think the timber of humanity is quite as crooked as you think.

98:

SM - As far as the political disappointment some here have expressed with Blair goes, this is endemic under all circumstances to two groups, of whom New Labor's supporters in the 1990's were a fairly typical case:
a) those who don't carefully and critically study and parse what politicians say, and even more importantly what they do, and;
b) those who expect a lot from politicians of any stripe, or have any but the most modest hopes from the political process itself

You might usefully add c) - the majority of people, who have neither the time, expertise or inclination to carefully and critically study and parse what politicians say and who, not unreasonably I think, expect their leaders to demonstrate a certain amount of probity and humanity.
I know, I know, caveat emptor, all our own fault, should have known better, bunch of wide-eyed idealistic fools that we were...

99:
There are some exceptions, but generally speaking those who achieve leadership positions in any large organization are those who want those positions very badly: which is to say they're egotistical, ruthless and/or pathologically greedy bastards and often at least mildly sociopathic and narcissistic.
This prediliction is not restricted to large organizations; most anyone who's been involved in community politics or the Parent/Teachers Asssociation in their kids' school has stories about pocket autocrats that can curl your hair. People generally make bad leaders at all levels of organization.
100:

Steve,

There is one reason to prefer democracy over most other systems that have been tried over time, no matter how crooked the politicians may be. There is a built-in, and usually effective, mechanism for succession of power that doesn't involve massive violence and civil unrest. The pols may be lying swine, but they rarely have the stomach for assassination or civil war.

101:

SM - I don't agree that good people drop out sooner or later. I think there are a lot of good, well-meaning people in politics who stay the course despite everything. Of course, finding their way into positions of power is another thing...
On the other hand, I agree about the House Of Lords. I thought it was fine - and important - the way it was.

102:

Charlie: "Actually, the majority of the time, the vast majority of people will do the right thing. We're social animals, after all."

-- that depends entirely on the circumstances. Humans are social animals... programmed to act nicely to their immediate in-group much of the time, except when competing for sex.

If you study tribal peoples, they almost invariably call themselves by terms which translate as "the People" or "the Real Human Beings" or "The People Who Speak a Real Language". As opposed to the tribe across the river or over the hill -- you know, the Slaves, the Flatheads, the Dog People, the Enemy(**)

But it is inherently difficult to make the in-group larger than a small circle of friends and relatives.

Larger ones (nations, for example) are projections -- the family and neighborhood writ large and the Id fooled into transfering the relevant emotions.

This is why small tight-knit groups (the citizens of a classical city-state on the upper, or an infantry platoon on the lower end) have intense group bonding and the more abstract and general and less like a kin-group the 'group' gets, the less people are willing to do for it and the more likely they are to "defect" under stress.

(Or to be less abstract myself, compare the degree of group solidarity in England in 1940 and 2006.)

But it's always fragile, prone to revert to all-against-all small-group gang tribalism, and it's not always a positive thing even when it works. Consider how altruism is the mechanism which makes large-scale conflict possible.

If human beings were as selfish as solitary felines, we might have a lot of backstabbing and murder, but we wouldn't have wars(*). Try getting a bunch of cats to die for other cats. Cries of: "No. _Hell_ no. Bugger off. Gived me some food."

(*) which both chimps and wolves do, by the way.

(**) which is what all their neighbors called the Apache. The Sioux, on the other hand, were generally known to the other groups in the area as "the torturers".

103:

Charlie: "that's the longest period of peace over here since the Roman empire, and I'm inclined to think that we're actually a bit more civilized than they were."

-- or just more tired and individualistic and selfish.

Wars run on altruism and self-sacrifice; those are the emotional mechanisms which make them possible. 'tis part of our social nature.

When the Roman Empire fell, it was to little tiny barbarian armies that the Republic would have eaten before breakfast.

After the Battle of Cannae, when 50,000 of Rome's best troops lay dead on the field and Hannibal was moving towards the gates of Rome, new armies sprang up out of the ground as if it had been sown with dragon's teeth. They never even considered giving up.

In 406, the vastly larger West Roman state couldn't scrape together replacements to keep the Vandals and Alans and the others from crossing the frozen Rhine.

Why couldn't it fight back? Because the majority no longer fiercely identified with the collective identity of the State -- it was all someone else's problem to deal with.

They'd become peaceful and "civilized", all right.

This is fine as long as everyone else around you is too. If they aren't, you're so much meat on the butcher's block.

104:

(**) which is what all their neighbors called the Apache. The Sioux, on the other hand, were generally known to the other groups in the area as "the torturers".

Most of the tribal names in the US aren't what the tribes called themselves. Explorers would ask the local tribe they knew what the other tribes were, then promptly write it down without knowing (or caring) what the name really meant. That's why a state where I used to live had tribes called "enemies of the cultivated fields", "water people", "desert people", "bean-eaters", "No/I don't know", "moccasins", and "crooked-mouth people".

105:

Because the majority no longer fiercely identified with the collective identity of the State -- it was all someone else's problem to deal with.

Well, two or three centuries of civil wars and a collapsing economy in the West might have had something to do with that. You either looked after your own, or you lost it.

106:

When the Roman Empire fell, it was to little tiny barbarian armies that the Republic would have eaten before breakfast.

After the Battle of Cannae, when 50,000 of Rome's best troops lay dead on the field and Hannibal was moving towards the gates of Rome, new armies sprang up out of the ground as if it had been sown with dragon's teeth. They never even considered giving up.

This shows how important it is for a state to be legitimate in the eyes of its citizens.

The Roman Empire had rule based on naked force, not the consent of the governed, which meant there was no fundamental distinction between "legitimate ruler" and "usurper". It destroyed the Republican tradition of civic militarism (because Emperors couldn't trust their own commanders) thus allowing tiny barbarian forces to rampage at will if the Imperial Army was defeated even once.

For a modern counterpart, see "Saddam's Iraq". Saddam Hussein shot his way into power, and was so paranoid that he murdered all his best generals during the war with Iran. Fortunately for him, the Iranian army was just as inept (because the new Islamist government had purged the officer corps).

107:

George, I'm not sure the Iranian Army was inept. The People's Revolutionary Guard, yeah, a bunch of human-wave bozos. But the Army? When you consider the firepower mismatch between the two forces, the fact that the casualty ratio between the the Iraqi and Iranian armies was "only" one-for-two is actually quite impressive on the part of the Iranians.

Steve

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