Crime Deterrence

July 2008: sports broadcaster resigns after it emerges he violently and viciously assaulted his then-partner.
April 2009: sports broadcaster pleads guilty to the charge
Jan 2010: sports broadcaster back on the air!
Jan 2011: sports broadcaster begins weekly on-air chats with the Prime Minister.

So there’s the lesson, people. If you are guilty of brutally assaulting a woman, it could be as long as TWENTY MONTHS before the Prime Minister jokingly tells you which celebrities he’d most like to have sex with. CRIME DOESN’T PAY.

The Examiner

W-town’s got some new independent media: The Examiner launched yesterday. The mission is to “look deeper and think harder” which, in an era of frankly embarrassing daily newspapers, sounds worthwhile to me. It’s “peer-edited” and they’re encouraging participation from anyone nearby.

Sounds like a great Wgtn-focused companion to Scoop’s lively Werewolf monthly. Also, another good example of traditional media channels being challenged from the grassroots. Help it find its audience and take a look!

(Of course, this being W-town, two of the three launch articles interview friends of mine, and I know half of the listed contributors as well. Wellington isn’t small exactly, but it sure is densely interconnected.)

Bar graph fail

On Twitter, Jack said this:

Good summary of o’seas film production funding. We aren’t giving them money, we’re giving some of their money back. http://bit.ly/hRPBVf

The link goes to an article by Chaz Harris called Taxpayers don’t pay for movie grants!

This piece insults the “journalism” behind articles like this one from the Sunday Star Times:
Taxpayers fork out big bucks to movie studios

I read that SST article while in holidayland, and while it was rubbish in all the ways Chaz mentions, it was accompanied by a big infographic that amazed me so much I carried it home with me to blog. (Yes, I have a problem. Shush.)

This is the infographic (click to enlargenise):

Have a close look at those horizontal bars. You’ll note that the orange bar denotes “estimated NZ production expenditure” and the red bar “estimated grant”, both in millions of dollars.

Look closer at those numbers, and how they relate to the lengths of the bars. Pick an obvious one, at the top of the second column: Avatar. See how the red bar is half as long as the orange bar? See how the numbers for each are ~72 and ~11?

The proportions are out of whack throughout – the red bars are all about three times as large as they should be. The reds and the oranges are all in scale to other bars of the same colour, but the reds and oranges don’t scale to each other, even though weighting the red against the orange is the whole purpose of the graphic.

This image is credited to this guy, but I am loath to land him with all responsibility. This is an editing fuxxup. Very annoying, particularly because there’s already a lot of nonsense being bandied about on the topic. At the very least get your bloody bar graphs right. They’re not that complicated, really.

Just back from the beach. Maybe someone already wrote about this. If they did I missed it because I was at the beach. It was good. This post excepted, I’m still on holiday from blogging this week. I haven’t even finished going through Jenni’s guest Friday Linky from two weeks ago or re-read the mall ninja stuff from Pearce’s guest the week before. I recommend both sets of linky to those who missed them due to holiday action.

(If anyone wants to volunteer to pull together a last-minute linky for Friday, give me a shout…)

Letters to the Irresponsible

I know reading letters to the editor is not good for my health. I know that letter-writers are not representative of the population at large. I know that letters are included because they are likely to be controversial and dramatic. But still, I can’t stop.

It’s because I think letters to the editor are *important*. They matter for the simple reason that they’re right there on the editorial page of the newspaper, and they’re presented in small bite-sized digestible chunks, and they’re delivered in a tone that speaks of personal character rather than impersonal journalistic machine. They are the easiest reading in the newspaper.

And so it bugs me when the same negative things turn up over and over again. Particularly, speaking of the DomPost, there’s racism against Maori. Hardly a week goes by without Maori described as selfish, devious, dishonest, stupid, or worse. (And, almost without exception, these charges are levelled at “Maori”, as if to describe the fundamental nature of everyone with Maori identity.) Sometimes this is delivered hand-in-hand with a claim that there are no true Maori left anyhow. It’s ugly, and it’s been prevalent as long as I can remember. Would it be a surprise to find that Maori feel they are misrepresented and unwelcome in mainstream media?

Almost as frequent these days is the culture war against Islam. You know the ins and outs of this one, it appears all over the world, and the NYC mosque controversy has stirred it right up. The claim that got me agitated this week was the old claim that “if Islam isn’t a religion of violence, then why haven’t Muslims denounced terrorism?” Of course, they have, Islamic voices have been plentiful in condemnation of terror attacks. Here’s one big list countering this myth; there are many others.

The reason this last one gets to me is that this wrong-headed belief exists in the first place because of the failings of our newspapers and other media outlets. The denunciation of violence has never drawn much presence in our news narrative, and so many people think it never happened. And now those same people use newspapers (and talk radio etc) to pronounce their misconception, to damaging effect.

Look at that again. The number of times newspapers, within their pages, print “why do Muslims not denounce violence?” must massively exceed the number of times newspapers have ever reported on Muslim denunciations of violence.

The media is responsible for the misconception. By then publishing these letters without answer, I think it is also responsible for its propagation.

What are the editorial responsibilities of newspapers? I know the DomPost editor takes the reader letters very seriously and personally checks each day’s selection. It seems to me this is a massive failure on her part. The responsibility to fairly present reader’s views does not remove the responsibility to correct an obvious factual misconception. “But our readers really think this” is an inadequate defence against the charge of spreading a damaging prejudiced myth, especially when the reason they really think this is your own failure to adequately describe the world.

Transmissions from a broken system

The DomPost yesterday:

Front page, the entirety of the above-the-fold:

Serepisos sells spare Ferrari. Guy owes the council money while on telly as the Donald on The Apprentice NZ. Is he selling the Ferrari for money to pay the council? TUNE IN NEXT WEEK!

Bottom of page 2, entire story smaller than the photo of Terry’s spare Ferrari: Thousands march against mining about “one of the biggest protests in Auckland for decades”. A genuine grass-roots popular protest that appears to cross party lines and is the first sign of unrest at a decision by the current government.

It is to weep.

Wikileaks: Something is up

Sounds like the people behind Wikileaks are under some pressure. Since this is unlikely to turn up in your newspapers, I post it here to spread awareness.

Wikileaks has a mission of bringing hidden information to light, when it’s in the public interest. Wikipedia outlines their greatest hits, including Gauntanamo Bay procedure documents, scientology secrets, and net censorship lists. They come under fire sometimes for hosting material that probably isn’t much in the public interest, but overall they have contributed some compelling information to some fractious global arguments.

In the last 24 hours, their Twitter feed has contained some worrying content.

  • WikiLeaks to reveal Pentagon murder-coverup at US National Press Club, Apr 5, 9am; contact press-club@sunshinepress.org
  • WikiLeaks is currently under an aggressive US and Icelandic surveillance operation. Following/photographing/filming/detaining
  • If anything happens to us, you know why: it is our Apr 5 film. And you know who is responsible.
  • Two under State Dep diplomatic cover followed our editor from Iceland to http://skup.no on Thursday.
  • One related person was detained for 22 hours. Computer’s seized.That’s http://www.skup.no
  • We know our possession of the decrypted airstrike video is now being discussed at the highest levels of US command.
  • We have been shown secret photos of our production meetings and been asked specific questions during detention related to the airstrike.
  • We have airline records of the State Dep/CIA tails. Don’t think you can get away with it. You cannot. This is WikiLeaks.

All those came out in a rush, then silence for hours. Might just be a timezone thing, with people sleeping, or maybe there’s been no news, or maybe everyone with access to the Twitter feed has been detained. I await more information.

UPDATE: “To those worrying about us–we’re fine, and will issue a suitable riposte shortly.” 8.22am NZ time.

UPDATE: Just noticed that the first tweet quoted, “WikiLeaks to reveal Pentagon murder-coverup” is gone from the feed. Now I wish I’d linked to all of them individually. Anyway, it was definitely there, and I think Linda is right that it is this previously-referred-to video

UPDATE: commenter eru found the missing tweet. It isn’t visible in the ordinary feed for some reason.

Nicky Hager and the Emails of Doom

Speaking of the political rhetoric and its disconnect from understanding…

Author Nicky Hager accuses the prime minister of being “cranky” and of coming up with “wacky” conspiracy theories. Hmm. – Liam Hehir, Palmerston North

Backstory: investigating journo Nicky Hager came into possession of a lot of internal emails from the National Party, and used them as the basis of a book called The Hollow Men that essentially rolled Nats leader Don Brash out of politics.

Nats attack dog Matthew Hooton went ferociously after control of the story with the lede-friendly counterattack line that those emails were stolen not leaked, probably by high-tech computer hackers, and that made Hager a criminal, and never mind the substance of the book because he’s a criminal and they were hacked! HACKED I SAY!

Cue endless discussion over whether or not the emails were hacked (the media reports all use this frame even though none of them really seem to know what “hacked” means). Meanwhile, things that came up in those emails remain ignored by every media commentator and most politicos. John Key, current Prime Minister, was an important liaison between the Exclusive Brethren and the Nats machine; he denies this vehemently even though the Hollow Men movie has a clip showing him entering a meeting with the EBs. Does anyone challenge him on this? Apparently not. The only story is whether or not the emails were HACKED, i.e. whether Hager is an outright criminal or just a very naughty man.

So, there are two police investigations into the allegations of hacking. Hager maintains “no, they were leaked to me”. Police say, twice: no evidence at all of anything like hacking, whatever that means.

John Key’s response: “Bollocks.” Nice one, P.M., stay on message there. So in the face of two police investigations you’re just going to stick to your story? Of course you are, because your story is a strategic position adopted upon advice from media advisors, and is not in any way connected to anything real. Nats insider/advisor Richard Long, who might be the very one who helped John Key come up with the response line to this story, enthusiastically supports the bollocks line in his completely independent political commentary column in the DomPost.

And so we get the letter to the editor by Liam Hehir, who helpfully demonstrates how effective this media management has been. In Hehir’s world, it’s Hager who’s the wacky conspiracy theorist and John Key who’s the reasonable and sensible one. Sorry Liam Hehir, but you’ve been sold.

I can only point at the media on this. John Key has basically said the police investigations were flawed, and discounted their conclusions. On the basis of nothing much at all he’s pushing a line that says Hager’s entirely reasonable claim of “leakers at work” is a lie, and Hager is a thief. No-one pushes back on this. And certainly no-one pays much attention to the dirt that the emails in question throw in Key’s direction. Media as stenographers to the powerful, as Glenn Greenwald likes to put it. The result is Liam Hehir’s letter. Come on, DomPost and others, do your jobs will you?

Hands off our dial!


Just back from a protest outside Parliament to protect Radio NZ, our public broadcaster. I figure about 150-200 people there, which isn’t bad for a protest pulled out of nothing on Facebook by a guy in Hamilton.
Here’s the Facebook group, with nearly 15K members as I type.
Here’s the campaign page, Hands off our dial, just launched this morning with snazzy petition to sign.
If you’re a Kiwi I reckon you should give this some support. Russel Norman said it best at the protest today – what we’re really trying to protect is our democracy, because a functional and fair democracy is only possible with a strong public-owned media.
Get involved.

Helping Haiti For Nothing


Here’s something that amazed me recently. Customers at OneBookShelf donated over $175,000 (U.S.) to Doctors Without Borders for Haiti.
Who are these customers? People who enjoy role-playing games, not the biggest demographic. In fact, it’s a smaller slice than that – these are the people so enthusiastic they actually spend money on RPGs. And a smaller slice than that again – they are the people who keep up with online activity in the RPG industry. This is, by all rights, a tiny set of people.
That tiny set raised a pretty hefty donation sum. This happened through a fascinating initiative by the OneBookShelf people.
OneBookShelf run DriveThruRPG, an online store that sells electronic books for the RPG market. When you make a purchase, you get a download link and receive a PDF copy of the document you ordered. It sits on your computer. You can print it out if you want, but most people never do.
(The rise of the PDF market in the RPG hobby is a story in itself. It reflects the unique character of the role-playing game, and so doesn’t generalize easily to other niche industries, but there are lessons here anyway. Short version: the PDF suited the RPG hobby for two reasons:
(1) because RPGs rely on taking ideas and systems and enacting them in a dialogue-based form of play, and an electronic text supports this just as well as a physical text;
(2) because those ideas and systems are endlessly open to expansion and addition; there is always room for more chunks of content.)
Building a marketplace out of electronic products presented some challenges. In the early days of DriveThruRPG, the site indulged heavily in what is called “DRM” – digital rights management. This was an elaborate set of technical restrictions that limited your ability to copy the file. The fear was that without DRM, customers would simple email the file they purchased to all their friends, or put it up somewhere on the internet where anyone could download it without paying a cent. DriveThru’s DRM was a disaster. There was a huge outcry when users found their purchases didn’t function smoothly; the technical challenges of DRM had been met with a very clumsy solution, and DriveThru almost died before it got going. After some thought, they came up with an extremely elegant solution than has been in place for years since: when you purchase a file, it is “watermarked” with your name. Your identity is tied to the product, so if the publisher one day finds it on the internet for free download, they know exactly who is responsible. Everyone was very happy with this solution.
Electronic products also offer significant advantages that physical products can’t match. The Haiti donation total came about when OneBookShelf leveraged one of these advantages. In fact, they leveraged exactly the same feature that led to the whole DRM debacle, namely that electronic copies are in themselves valueless. An electronic file is not a “thing” that holds value in the same way a physical object does. With the click of a mouse I can have make two copies, or two-hundred.
So OneBookShelf went to its publishers and said something like “we’re going to sell a bundle of products, all revenue goes to Haiti. Can we include one of your products in the bundle?” A lot of publishers said yes. It was easy to do so – what are they actually giving away, here? Sure, you’re putting a product in someone’s hands that they might one day have paid you for – but that’s a relatively small cost. Heck, it’s even marketing – if they like product X that is in the bundle, maybe they’ll get interested and go on to purchase products Y and Z?
The bundle went on sale at $20. It included over a hundred files from over a hundred companies. Purchased separately, the bundle value would be in the region of $1300.
Response was enormous, and deservedly so. Gamers loved getting their hands on all these files for such a low price – and that, to a good cause. Publishers loved being part of such a successful and worthwhile promotion. OneBookShelf loved being at the centre of a huge charitable effort. And I’m sure DWB didn’t sneeze at $175,000 of donation money. Everyone came out happy. This was possible because the products in question were electronic files with no inherent value.
This is a fascinating sign of how the rules are changing as the world moves towards digital presentation of content over physical. Paperbacks and newspapers and vinyl won’t ever go away, but they are on their way to being secondary channels. Digital books and online news and mp3s are on the way up. The steady rise of the pocket computer will not slow down any time soon, and as this technology shift continues, the whole groundwork of content production will continue to face overhaul after overhaul. It’s exciting (and sometimes scary) times.
The music industry has for a long time been at the front end of this challenge. Music has gone digital in a big way. Most music is now downloaded, not purchased from the High Street CD store. The record companies have fought hard against this (just like they fought against cassette tapes, remember that Home Taping Is Killing Music) but it can’t be stopped. While some artists have made themselves comfortable in this new environment, the general way forward is far from clear, and the big companies are still flailing as they try to impose revenue models from retailing units that have no inherent value. There’s a lot more flailing to come.
OneBookShelf’s success with this is a straight-up challenge to the music industry, and other industries where electronic products are the norm. Imagine if, the next time there’s a crisis like Haiti, the Universal Music Group (for example) release a bundle of music for $25 – one mp3 from every artist in their enormous catalogue. They would raise millions. And everyone would walk away happy, wouldn’t they? After all, what would UMG really be sacrificing?
More than this – it’s a challenge to everyone. We need to think differently about objects, about information, about value. Time was, words only existed if they were carved in a stone or printed on paper. Words aren’t tied to a page any more. That changes everything.

Changing systems

Those systems that don’t produce the outcomes we desire? We can change them, right?
The theory is easy. There’re inputs and outputs. We say we want more of this than that, and we set it to accept certain types of inputs, and tweak the desired output level, and voila.
The reality is complicated. Systems are not simple black-box processes we can toy with in isolation. They exist in relationship with other systems. Sometimes they’re part of massively nested sets of such complexity that it’s really hard to figure out what’s going on, let alone understand what changes will have what effects (see: the global economy).
Economists are a perfect case, actually. Lots of extremely smart people invest a lot of time into developing comprehensive models of the economic system, what goes in and what comes out and how changing x will affect y. Everything’s riding on these models – everyone wants them to be accurate as they can be. But, as those who heard This American Life last week know, even the most highly paid analysts don’t really know what the heck is going on.
For any system complex enough to survive in the real world, it’s tough to make adjustments that give the desired results, and even tougher to make adjustments that only give the desired results.
This doesn’t make us helpless, though, because every system is ultimately responsive to our human characteristics. This fact might give us some clues about where might find points of intervention.
(to be continued, but in a few days, because I need to think this next step through some more. and some examples might be nice too, instead of just talking in generalities all the time)
(I had planned to blog about something completely different all this week, but this is what’s come out. huh.)