Monday, 5 June 2017

Politicians Jumping On-Line to Surf the Information Super Highway

Insert naff cyber stock image here

The above UK Labour MP’s Tweet is a great example of everything wrong with most of our elected officials’ understanding of the internet. As remarkable as the internet is on a technical level, it is no longer remarkable in daily use, yet for many of our politicians, it remains a novelty worthy of its own romantic comedy (Now Showing: You’ve Got Hate Mail).

“The Internet” needs capitalisation because, to these taxpayer-funded dullards, it is a new frontier where criminals, paedophiles, and — terror of terrors — Muslim extremists wait in prey for their next victims. It isn’t just another piece of critical infrastructure in need of investment and protection, like highways or the power grid, it is a niche curiosity. It is the Information Superhighway. It is Cyberspace. It is the animated shooting stars of Netscape 3.0. It is best viewed at 640x480.

This is what makes the current push by some politicians to allow the state access to encrypted services, at best, silly and at worst, incredibly dangerous.

Encryption is vital to the functioning of our information-based society. Without it — and I’m not exaggerating here — society falls apart. It isn’t some optional extra beloved of terrorists to plan their nefarious deeds in the dark, it is what keeps our online banking safe, our personal data secure, our private conversations private. It’s what gives business the confidence to do business without the worry of proprietary data ending up in the hands of competitors. Of course, no system is completely secure, but without encryption, you’d may as well tattoo your bank PIN on your forehead for all to see.

Without trust that the everyday transactions we make (financial or otherwise) are free from illegitimate interference or interception, the very systems which underpin modern society collapse.

Ultimately, attempts to make systems less secure for the evil few ultimately make systems less secure for all. The tools used by the "good" guys to access the "bad" guys ultimately end up being used by the "bad" guys against everyone. This is not a theory, it was recently borne out by the WannaCry ransomware attack which was based on Windows vulnerabilities hoarded by the NSA, but reportedly not shared with Microsoft until they were leaked to the public.

Our pluralistic societies are regressing. The United States is joining Syria and Nicaragua on axis of inaction on climate change; the United Kingdom seeks to join China, Iran and North Korea and other autocratic states in controlling the internet. The worst part is of all this is that there's no evidence such controls will make ordinary people safer, in fact only the opposite.

Worst of all, no evidence has been presented that encrypted message services played a role in the latest atrocity in London, but even if these services did, they bear no more culpability than the manufacturers of the knives they carried, or the maker of the van they drove, or the operator of the roads on which they travelled.

In the vast majority of terrorist incidents in the West, the perpetrators have been known to the authorities. How will access to WhatsApp or iMessage or Signal help agencies when they fail to act on the information they already have?

Alas, even those politicians who should know better are pushing to undermine the foundations of our information society. The man who "practically invented the internet in Australia", Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has declared war on encryption — and the apps he himself has admitted using instead of secured government comms — saying of encrypted messaging apps, "security services need to get access to them".

It's sad that the tech literacy of our parliamentarians hasn't progressed much since the Commonwealth Minister for Communications —ya know, the guy in charge of teh Interwebs — stated that broadband was primarily for consuming porn and gambling, and that Mr and Mrs Average would never want such a service (and that the state had little role in ensuring reasonable access to decent internet). Or who can forget the Attorney-General's misadventures in the land of metadata ("well...well...well...the web address")? It would not be an issue if these dunces had responsibility for, I don't know, tiny lapel pin flags, or garbage collection, but they claim to make laws that affect millions of people and billions of dollars without the slightest hint of curiosity.

With democratic leaders sounding every bit the autocrat these days, there has never been a more exciting time to be innovative, agile...and encrypted.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

The last refuge(e) of the scoundrel and the bigot

Changes to immigration and refugee policy always have been the last refuge of the scoundrel or the bigot. Rarely are such changes anything but reactionary, designed to engineer a bump in the polls and "send a signal" (i.e dog whistle) to a specific portion of the electorate.
And so it is the case with Malcolm Turnbull's latest policy "leak" announcing a tightening of Australia's citizenship process.

It's been observed before, but this arguably marks the complete disappearance of the leather-jacketed Turnbull beloved by most Australians of the centre...and many Labor supporters. The erudite classical liberal Turnbull has been subsumed by an ugly combination of John Howard and Tony Abbott in a better suit. Like Darth Vader, "he's more [Liberal Party] machine now than man. Twisted and evil."

But he has a problem. The people he is trying to appeal to, the folks who think that hearing a foreign language on the street is tantamount to an "invasion", simply don't trust him. Even with all of his lurches to the right, they still ultimately view Turnbull as a latte-swilling inner-city leftie. Besides, these people get their jollies from people like Hanson, and even if he wore a tiny moustache, red and black armband and brown tunic, Turnbull could never satisfy their needs.

Turnbull's greatest weapon could have been his wide appeal — that frightened Labor silly when he won the leadership — but this has now been all but scuppered, and is entirely of his own making.

Rudd found himself in a similar position before the 2013 election. Seeking to close down refugee policy as an election issue, he tried to outflank the right by announcing no refugees who arrived by boat would be resettled in Australia. It's doubtful he gained even a single vote by being a part of the "lurch to the right" on immigration policy he had previously argued strongly against. He sold out his principles and, perhaps unsurprisingly, voters didn't think more of him. All it allowed was the then-opposition and next government to wave inhumane policy through without debate and without an effective opposition. And didn't it just work out so well for Rudd and Labor in 2013...

Is there anyone who seriously thinks gaining Australian citizenship is easy? Well, yes, otherwise Turnbull wouldn't be embarking on this course. But like those who think citizenship comes in a cereal box are informed by A Current Affair. They're told how dem imgrints get more than poor old granny from Centrelink, with none of their beliefs actually supported by evidence. So basically we have policy, in conjunction with the 457 visa announcement, that exists not to address serious issues, but designed solely to manage the incorrect and often xenophobic beliefs of a few. So much for leadership.

Changes to immigration and refugee policy always have been the last refuge of the scoundrel or the bigot. Voters now have to decide which one Turnbull is.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

With Friends Like These...

The business lobby's tone deaf response to Mark Kenny's entirely story about the groups' offices being shut on a Sunday demonstrates why they're going to lose — if they haven’t already lost — the battle over penalty rates.

The lobby groups and their acolytes got their knickers in a knot over the story, saying that as a professional group and not a service provider, there was no demand for them on a weekend and were thus shut. This is true, but it completely misses the point of the story.

Their response misses the optics — as PR flacks are fond of saying — of the situation, which is that those who are so very eager to cut weekend penalty rates value their own Saturday–Sunday weekends. This was the point that Kenny admitted he was trying to make. He succeeded, even if his targets didn't get the hint.  Some labelled Kenny's story a "stunt", while others continued the habit of scoring own goals,  criticising the story by saying "it's called a normal working week, duh“, to which Kenny replied "exactly".

The blindness to these optics means business groups have lost this battle before it has begun, even if they had "masses" of evidence to support their dubious claims (they don’t). They try to blame the SDA — whose agreements have often reduced penalty rates in exchange for higher base rates of pay — not realising the old adage that two wrongs don’t make a right. Some have tried to insult workers by saying they’re “lucky” to have a job and should go without penalties entirely. Basically every negative sentiment workers feels about employers is being confirmed.

It’s very difficult for captains of industry large and small to claim victimhood at any time, let alone when profits in some sectors are at record highs, trust in business is low and they’re campaigning for even more funds from the public purse by way of company tax cuts. Trying victimhood on for size while advocating slashing the take home pay of their lowest remunerated workers is not a good look. Combine this with an almost sociopathic disregard for the effect of pay cuts on workers, and you've got a battle that's already lost for employers.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Closed Sundays

closed sign
Shameless cliche of a stock photo from Wikipedia Commons —

You really have to question the PR and business acumen of Australia's most egregious rentseekers. Completely predictably, Fairfax's Mark Kenny spent a few minutes on Sunday afternoon calling some of Australia's peak business lobby groups.

Surprise, surprise, no one picked up. These offices were closed on Sunday. I guess the 24/7 economy is a case of "do what I say, not what I do".

This Sunday silence goes to the heart of the hypocrisy of those loudest voices in favour of cutting the take home pay of our poorest remunerated workers. The weekend is still special to them.

Perhaps just to get a taste of weekend work, the lobby groups' phones can redirect to the mobiles of their respective CEOs. It might interrupt their day in the MCG corporate box hobnobbing with all the other knobs, but it might help them understand why Sunday isn't just another day.

If nobody in their offices has the skills to redirect their phones, then I'd be happy to teach them for a fee on Sundays.

Monday, 6 March 2017

President Trumble cites #fakestats. Sad!

President Trumble has gone on the attack, claiming there are "masses of evidence" to support claims that penalty rate cuts will lead to more jobs.
Sadly, this mass of evidence was not presented at the Fair Work Commission hearings into penalty rates. Nor were the Treasury Secretary or the Treasurer, it would seem, appraised of this evidence. Instead, on penalty rates, the Coalition Opposition-in-Exile has been mumbling about "independent umpires" and blaming Bill Shorten for everything.
The Opposition-in-Exile is like the dog who has caught its own tail and has absolutely no idea what to do with it. For years, some in the Liberal Party have been complaining about penalty rates as a handbrake on employment without providing any evidence (aside from spectacular own-goal anecdotes about business owners who want to put more workers on Sunday because the owners want to spend time at home with the family).
Now they've got their desired cut and they are disowning it as quickly as possible. The government expecting the egregious rentseekers of the business lobby group world to do the heavy lifting selling the case for a penalty rate cut. Sadly they are about the Coalition's least reliable suppprts, condemning the government on inaction, then staying silent when action takes place.

Could it be there simply is no evidence to suggest "more jobs" will be the ultimate outcome of "less pay"? Hands up if you've worked in a business where a colleague has left and not been replaced? [my hand is up].
Years of deregulation and wholehearted embrace by all of the good and bad of economic liberalism has brought first hand experience to employees that employers aren't really interested in creating jobs, they're interested in creating profit. Not a criticism, just a fact. If more profit can be created through more jobs, then great, more jobs come. But nine times out of ten, existing workers are saddled with a higher workload while employers pocket the difference.

So what about those "masses of evidence"? Simply put, they don't exist. No evidence of the sort — certainly not "masses" — was put before the Fair Work Commission and no labour market expert takes such claims seriously. All cuts to penalty rates will do will make the lowest paid tighten their belts even further — a latte at the cafe in the morning before work replaced by a Blend 43 in the tea room; a lunch break focaccia in the food court replaced by a Vegemite sandwich brought from home. These are the likely outcomes. In an age when the twin pains of youth unemployment and underemployment are on the increase, it'd be nice to see the government help those under 30 for once, instead of actively harming them.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

T minus 4 Years

Donald Trump was sworn in as President overnight in an inauguration that was bleak and miserable as the weather in Washington D.C.

Despite the inevitable forthcoming Twitter protestations to the contrary, crowd numbers were down substantially on the past two inaugurations. Anti-Trump protests abounded in the city, with reports of some damage to shops and property.

Those expecting the new President to strike a conciliatory tone in line with the loftiness of the event were sorely disappointed. Trump basically reaffirmed the worst of his campaign sloganeering, telling the world he's going to govern for the anxieties and worst excesses of White America.

Mine — and most of the world's — only hope is that if this is to mark the end of Pax Americana, they do so with a whimper rather than a bang.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Score

Cover of the Soundtrack to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Music by Michael Giacchino

When Alexandre Desplat was originally announced as musical score composer for Rogue One, I was intrigued. Here was a very accomplished, Academy Award-winning composer — whose work to date could has been powerfully rhythmic, but pretty low-key — being asked to write in the tradition of one of the most iconic film scores of all time. Not an easy task. To me, hiring Desplat was a very positive sign that the filmmakers wanted to take these Star Wars anthology films in a very different direction from the saga. Alas, Desplat's place in the Star Wars canon was not be be. In September, it was announced at the last minute that Star Trek composer and J.J. Abrams favourite Michael Giacchino had replaced Desplat.

I felt bad for Desplat, but knew Giacchino is a safer choice for this type of film. Rogue One was touted as a war film, and Giacchino has spent more time writing for World War II-themed properties than almost any other living composer on the planet. Desplat ostensibly departed the project due to 'scheduling' conflicts, but given the talk of reshoots (and the evidence of many scenes in trailers not present in the final film) it wouldn't be surprising if the departure was also due to changes in the film's tone.

Michael Giacchino is a pioneer in multimedia music scoring. The first gig that brought him to wider attention was as composer to the score of the maligned Lost World Playstation game. The game sucked, but the music was great and was indeed the first video game to feature a recorded symphonic score. Giacchino's work on this game led to him scoring the first Medal of Honor game, a game produced by Steven Speilberg and his studio Dreamworks Interactive. Giacchino went on to score the game's sequels, MoH: Underground, Frontline (my personal favourite), Allied Assault (using the pre-existing scores from the other games) and — after a hiatus from the series — Airborne. He also scored the first Call of Duty game, bringing the composer back to World War II yet again. These scores are truly great works in any medium. Giacchino's scored a heap of films and television series since his Medal of Honor days, but it is these early scores Rogue One most closely resembles. The games' heroic themes for the Allies and bombastic goose-stepping marches for the Axis are transplanted into a galaxy far, far away, with a great effect.

The Star Wars series is a natural fit for Giacchino. In fact, he's seemed destined for this role for a long time, with his work on films such as Abrams' Star Trek franchise, Jurassic World and others positioning himself as a natural successor to Williams as the composer who can meld bombast with nuance. Abrams, naturally, opted for John Williams to score The Force Awakens so Giacchino — a long-time Abrams collaborator — was cast as a stormtrooper in the opening on Jakku instead.

Which brings us to Rogue One. Fans looking for a rehash of themes from the original trilogy will be disappointed. This score is almost wholly originally. The cover of the album may credit John Williams as the "Original Star Wars music" composer, but this is mainly a marketing exercise. Just as the film uses iconic characters sparingly, so too does Giacchino quote Williams' themes infrequently, but judiciously. Instead of dumping in the Imperial March every time a Star Destroyer appears on screen, Giacchino very smartly develops his own Imperial themes, derived from those of A New Hope, rather than the Imperial March of the Empire Strikes Back.

There was disquiet about Williams' use of the Imperial March in the prequels, owing to the fact that in the timeline of the films, neither the Empire or its theme had been established. Giacchino wisely quotes from it sparingly and instead chooses to develop the Death Star's four note motif (duuh duh-duh DUUUUUUH) and even employs Darth Vader's original motif (sometimes called the 'Imperial motif', but referred to a pre-ESB Williams as 'Darth Vader's Theme') of bassoons and muted trumpets which has not been heard since the original 1977 film.

Imperial Motif or Darth Vader's Original Theme from the 1977 film Star Wars. Music by John Williams

All in all, this is a very good score that serves the film exceptionally well. The same people who threw the banal critique at The Force Awakens soundtrack as not having a 'hummable' tune will probably dislike this score. There probably isn't enough Williams for the casual viewer's liking, and interweb-based film score forums (yep, such things exist) will issue keyboard criticism after keyboard criticism, but this is a very good score. As Gordy Haab (Battlefront), Mark Griskey (The Force Unleashed), Joel McNeely (Shadows of the Empire) and other composers have shown, there can be exceptional Star Wars scores without the original maestro at the helm. Sooner or later John Williams won't be around to compose a Star Wars score; we were very lucky to get a seventh saga score from him. I can't think of anyone better than Michael Giacchino to inherit the Star Wars musical mantle.

Krennic's Aspirations — The re-emergence of a very familiar character and some very familiar themes.
Hope — Once you've seen the film, the opening of this track will probably give you nighmares. It's instantly iconic and will be a track long remembered, to paraphrase a certain memorable villain.
The Imperial Suite — a concert version of Giacchino's new themes for the Empire, like an ur-Imperial March. A lot of similarities to some tracks from MoH: Airborne.

Other Albums You Should Listen to:
Medal of Honor: Frontline (Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)
Medal of Honor: Airborne (Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)
Battlefront OST, Gordy Haab (YouTube)
The Force Unleashed OST, Mark Griskey (YouTube)
Shadows of the Empire, Joel McNeely (Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)