Politics

Why Plain Packaging Legislation is Bad Policy.

I’ve never been a smoker but I did live with one for the better part of 20 years. My father smoked for about 30 years up until he had a heart attack over a decade ago and that’s a pretty good thing to set everyone straight on the risks of smoking. However I don’t believe it’s my, or anyone else’s business, if people who are fully aware of the risks involved choose to engage that behaviour anyway so long as they’re not harming anyone else in the process. This is why I supported legislation that banned smoking in clubs and in outdoor areas of restaurants as the risk was real and provable then. What I don’t support however is the idea that plain packaging, I.E. olive green packages with bigger warning labels on them, will do anything to lower smoking rates in Australia.

Now I’m fully aware that some people may write me off as a corporate apologist in this regard, I do have a rather lengthy track record of defending certain company’s actions from time to time, but my concerns aren’t the ones that the tobacco companies have brought forward. Whilst I do believe there needed to be some more discussion surrounding the loss of branding potential and the real risk of product counterfeiting my concerns come from the research backing the legislation which, as far as I can tell, don’t really match up with the line that’s being marketed to Australia.

For reference the research I’m referring to are the Cancer Council’s Position Statement and the University of Sterling’s systemic review of plain packaging research.

The research from both articles is quite similar so I’ll focus on the systemic review since that’s a much more sound piece of scientific literature. Below is an excerpt showing the review’s aims:

The primary aim of this review is to assess the impact of plain tobacco packaging on the:
1. appeal of the packaging or product;
2. salience and effectiveness of health warnings; and
3. perceptions of product strength and harm.

I’m not going to judge the validity of these research goals, indeed they are interesting points to note, however I feel it’s something of a leap to translate those particular goals into a reduction in of the current rate of smoking. Indeed the main point that the Australian government hammered home with the plain packaging idea was that it would help stop our younger generation from taking up the habit. Looking deeper into the research there’s really nothing in it to support that idea as there was no investigation into the vectors by which youths (and adults) are introduced to tobacco.

The research is also heavily qualitative in nature, which isn’t technically a bad thing, but for the most part it’s also quite comparative. Take for instance the following paragraph relating to product strength and harm:

Perceptions of harmfulness and strength  were assessed in several ways, by asking respondents which packs: would deliver the most tar and/or nicotine or would be ‘lighter’ in tar; were a greater risk to health compared to other brands;  would be associated with greater or lesser harm; would trigger discussions on harmfulness; inform the smoker about the health effects; and would be more likely to make you think that the cigarettes inside were dangerous.

Whilst this might have shown that people would believe that plain packaged cigarettes were more dangerous to their health than branded ones the research doesn’t show how this would translate into lower smoker incident rates. Indeed much of the research is done in the same manner, with the results being that people found the branded packages more appealing (is that really a surprise?) and that people were more likely to remember the health warnings if they were displayed on a plain package. I’m not disputing these findings, indeed I’m inclined to agree with them, what I’m not getting is how they make the leap to reducing our smoker population.

The argument can be made that if the packaging is less appealing, the health warnings more remembered and the product is thought to be more damaging to their health that these pressures will lead to smokers dropping the habit. You could also argue that it may have some impact on uptake rates as well however the small amount of research into that very idea doesn’t support it. From the systemic analysis again:

Four studies examined the potential impact of plain packs on participants’ own smoking behaviour.
Again the overall pattern is mixed but tends to be supportive of plain packaging having a deterrent
effect on smoking.

It’s statements like the above that really get to me as you can not conclude from mixed results that something is in support of your hypothesis. The only thing you can draw from that is that more research is required to make a proper conclusion, not that it supports your idea. If the conclusion of the study was in fact “we need more research done into this” I’d be much more supportive but instead we’ve got legislation, which is the real issue here.

We’ve had a lot of successful schemes that have helped reduce the number of new and old smokers. Both the health warnings and the ad campaigns on free to air television have a long history of being effective and had good supporting research behind them. Plain packaging on the other hand doesn’t have the same level of evidence to support the conclusion that’s currently being made and fails to investigate critical things like the origins of people’s habits. I would have fully supported a year long trial in order to judge the effectiveness of it and then should the evidence support our hypothesis then we could legislate. However the current approach of taking tangentially related research and then creating policy around that isn’t something I can support and neither should you.

Conscientious Objection to Vaccinations? What The Fuck Australia.

For a while I was lulled into thinking that Australia was becoming some kind of rational place thanks to all the progress we had been making. After years of campaigning, blogging and whining about it to friends we’re less than 6 months away from having a R18+ rating for games in Australia. The government also seemed to become more aware of people acting irrationally and decided to do something about it, removing the family tax benefit for parents who refused to vaccinate their kids. Sure we still had a long way to go but the beginnings of a rational, logical government seemed to be sprouting up everywhere and for a time I was happy.

All it took was one news article to bring that all down in one sweeping blow. I’ll let the exerpt speak for itself:

While parents have been warned they will lose their payment and the childcare benefit if they do not fully immunise their children, they are also being told exemptions will be given to objectors.

All they have to do to still receive the money is fill out a form supplied by the Federal Government.

The Federal Government’s Department of Human Services website outlines the immunisation requirements.

It reads: “To meet the immunisation requirements, children will need to be fully immunised, be on a recognised immunisation catch-up schedule, or have an approved exemption.”

You can imagine how furious this made me.

So last November when I blogged about the Australian government taking away tax benefits for people who refused to vaccinate their children I thought it was a no holds barred approach: if you refuse to vaccinate you lose the money, simple. Turns out that’s not entirely the case as whilst if you do refuse to vaccinate you will lose the benefit that will only happen should you fail to fill out he conscientious objection form available from DHS. If you fill out that form then you’re right as rain and you’ll get the full tax benefits as if you had fully immunized your child even though you haven’t.

To me that seems more like a punishment for the ignorant and unaware, not people who don’t want to vaccinate their children.

Indeed it makes the whole policy null and void as the anti-vaxers are a vocal movement, with posts like these reaching a wide audience. Realistically if the government was serious about this legislation there wouldn’t be any exemptions at all and the anti-vaxers would have to endure both the physical and fiscal consequences of their actions. Instead now all we have is anti-vaxers wasting the time of doctors in order to get them to sign a form so they can then reclaim the money that they shouldn’t be entitled to and that makes me incredibly furious.

You see whilst the Australian Vaccination Network might like to think that there’s two sides to the vaccination debate they are in fact clearly wrong. The old pretence of vaccinations causing autism is patently false and anyone pointing to data saying that there have been more cases of autism since their introduction forgets the fact that diagnosing austim spectrum disorders has been an area of scientific investigation ever since it was introduced. Any increase in the condition’s prevalence is far more likely due to the umbrella of ASDs spreading than vaccinations or some other mysterious environmental factor.

Worse still are the proponents who think vaccinations aren’t the best way to develop a healthy immune system and that it can be had through a healthy diet or some other rubbish. Vaccines work because they give your immune system the tools with which to destroy the disease before it can take hold and the only other way to get a similar level of immunity is to catch the disease. For some vaccinated diseases this might not be too bad (chicken pox has only recently had a vaccine developed as the symptoms are very mild for children, however they can be deadly for adults) but for things like small pox, polio and other nasty diseases vaccination is the only safe way to get immunity. There are other diseases for which no immunity develops after you’ve caught it (pertussis or whooping cough) which means you could very well catch the same disease repeated times without strengthening the immune system at all.

I will wholeheartedly defend the parent’s rights to do as they will with their own bodies but the second they start to make decisions about their child’s (and indirectly all other children that interact with them) health then I believe the government has every right to step in and intervene. The fact of the matter is that refusal to vaccinate your child isn’t a decision that affects your child it puts every other child near them at risk. Herd immunity only goes so far and we’ve seen far too many tragic incidents where parents of children who can’t be vaccinated yet (because they’re too young) die because another child would could have been vaccinated wasn’t and then transmitted a fatal infection to them. Not vaccinating your children is a completely selfish decision and I believe the government has every right to punish you for it.

How you can claim to have a concious and object to protecting your child with scientifically proven and tested methods is beyond my comprehension. There is no scientific argument that the anti-vaxer movement can bring forward that supports their view, it’s all based on the emotion of those who believe vaccines are responsible for something that they’re not. I can understand their frustration, I used to work with special needs children and it can be truly heart wrenching at times, and the need to look for a source of blame is incredibly strong. However I can’t condone them blaming vaccines for anything but making their child cry when they get the injection as there’s no evidence to support it and abstaining from them puts their child and all other children around them in serious danger.

Seriously Australia, don’t support this kind of bullshit. It’s our kids who will pay the price.

Australia is Too Focused on The Boats.

You know why I typically avoid posting about the political issue du jour? Mostly because it angries up my blood but also because it seems that the Australian public’s opinion on most matters is so woefully uninformed that I feel like an angry rant about it on my blog really won’t do anything to help the cause. Of course some issues get enough attention that I feel warranted in straying from my usual cool educative demeanor and instead zip up my flame suit and get ready to unload some napalm on my unsuspecting readers. I know that I’m preaching to the choir for the most part but there are some things that I feel just need to be said.

So as any Australian can tell you the hot button issue right now is the current debate raging over asylum seeker reform triggered by the deaths of 100 people aboard a boat off the coast of Christmas Island. “The Boats”, as the Australian media loves to refer them as, are always something of a topic of contention in Australia with one side furious about the way these people are arriving and the other side equally as angry about the way we treat said arrivals. Whilst I hesitate from making general accusations about how Australians tend to be xenophobic (I certainly have tons of anecdotal evidence to support that, but I digress) it does seem the idea of people coming to Australia via boat is found offensive by no small part of the Australian public and therein is where all the drama originates.

Now before I get into the slightly less ranty section of this post let me give you my opinion as it stood prior to me doing the research for this. I personally don’t have any good answers for what a perfect solution would be as an open door policy isn’t a great idea but neither is the strict mandatory detention and offshore processing arrangement we have right now. I feel that this should be a minor issue, something that’s completely under the purview of the government and should not be receiving so much attention. Whilst I don’t know the exact percentage of refugees and migrants coming to Australia via boats I know it vastly dwarfs that of other migrants who come here on real visas and that’s the reason why I can never understand why people go so ballistic when we find another boat coming to Australia.

I think people would do well to read the Lowy Institute’s report on Responding to Boat Arrivals as there’s a lot of information in there that will make people think twice about their stance on the boats. It’s quite lengthy though so I’ll summarize the more important points.

Firstly the acceptance rate for people arriving by boats when compared to that arriving through official channels is much,  much higher. What this means is that the vast majority of people arriving by boat are in fact refugees seeking asylum and the others, the ones who most Australian’s coming in “legitimately”, are more than likely not refugees. This supports my view that we’re far too focused on the wrong kind of immigration, if we should be focused on it at all (hint: we shouldn’t be, at least not in a negative sense).

Probably the major point though is that of the two types of factors that see asylum seekers come to our shores, pull (ones that draw them here) and push (ones that force them out of their country of residence), the push factors are far more influential in someone making the decision to come here. This also explains why Australia saw an increase in refugees when the rest of the world didn’t as the vast majority of our refugees come from 2 countries and the push factors in those areas escalated substantially at the same time (the ongoing war and dire human rights situation in Afghanistan are primarily responsible for this.).

In fact the most profound part of the Lowy Institute’s report are the reasons why Australia is attractive to asylum seekers. It’s not because of our “soft” asylum policies or anything like that, no it’s more to do with the fact that we’re a prosperous, democratic and fair place to live. Indeed should we want to make Australia unattractive to refugees the real way of doing it would be to abandon those qualities rather than “getting tougher on boat people”. Of course no one in Australia would support that idea which demonstrates why there really doesn’t need to be this much hype about asylum seekers in the first place.

I know that this isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind nor make the impact I would hope it to but I really couldn’t let my views go without a voice any longer. If you’ve been reading this and nodding along I’d urge you to educate people on the realities of the situation so that hopefully they won’t react in an irrational way because they don’t know the full story on asylum seekers arriving by boats. I don’t pretend to have an ultimate solution for all this but I’ll be damned if a better one couldn’t be found if this issue wasn’t used as a political punching bag for both sides to score points for the up coming election.

Convergence Review: A Unification of Australia’s Content Regulations.

There’s little doubt that the past decade has brought upon us rapid change that our current legislature is only just beginning to deal with. One of my long time bugbears, the R18+ rating for games, is a great example of this showing how outdated some of our policies are when it comes to the modern world. Unfortunately such political antiquity isn’t just isolated to the video games industry it extends to all areas that have been heavily affected by the changes the Internet has brought, not least of which is the delivery of content such as TV programs, newspapers and radio. This rift has not gone unnoticed and it seems the government is finally looking to take action on it.

Enter the Convergence Review a report that’s was commissioned in 2011 to review the policy framework surrounding Australia’s media and communications. It’s a hefty tome, weighing in at some 176 pages, detailing nearly every aspect of Australia’s current regulatory framework for delivering content to us Australians. I haven’t managed to get through the whole thing but you don’t need to read far into it to understand that it’s a well researched and carefully thought out document, one that should definitely be taken into consideration in reforming Australia’s regulatory framework for media. There are a couple points that really blew me away in there and I’d like to highlight them here.

For starters the review recommends that the licensing of broadcasting services be abolished in its entirety. In essence this puts traditional broadcasters on a level playing ground with digital natives who don’t have the same requirements placed upon them and their content. Not too long ago such an idea would seem to be a foolish notion as no licensing means that anyone could just start broadcasting whatever they wanted with no control on how it was presented. However with the advent of sites like YouTube such license free broadcasting is already a reality and attempting regulate it in the same fashion as traditional methods would be troublesome and most likely ineffective. Abolishing licensing removes restrictions that don’t make sense anymore given that the same content can be delivered without it.

Such a maneuver like that brings into question what kind of mechanisms you would have to govern the kind of content that gets broadcasted. The review takes this into consideration and recognizes that there needs to be some regulation in order to keep in line with Australian standards (like protecting children from inappropriate content). However the regulations it would apply are not to every content organisation. Instead the regulations will target content organisations based on the size of the organisation and the scope of their audience. This allows content organisations a lot of flexibility with how they deliver content and will encourage quite a bit of innovation in this area.

The review also recommends that media standards apply to all platforms, making the regulations technology agnostic. Doing this would ensure that we don’t end up in this same situation again when another technological breakthrough forces a rethink of our policy platform which as you can tell from the review is going to be a rather arduous process. Keeping the standards consistent across mediums also means that we won’t end up with another R18+ situation where we have half-baked legislation for one medium and mature frameworks in another.

The whole review feels like a unification that’s been long coming as the media landscape becomes increasingly varied to the point where treating them individually is complicated and inefficient. These points I’ve touched on are also just the most striking of the review’s recommendations with many more solid ideas for reforming Australia’s communications and media policies for a future that’s increasingly technologically driven. Seeing reports like this gives me a lot of hope for Australia’s future and I urge the government to take the review to heart and use it to drive Australia forward.

I Guess It Was Inevitable: R18+ Referred For Parliamentary Inquiry.

Why things like this still surprise me is beyond my comprehension:

We’ve just heard word from Ed Husic, MP for Chifley, who has tweeted that the Coalition has asked that the R18+ bill be sent for an inquiry.

As part of the legislation process, if one MP calls for an inquiry on a proposed bill, that bill must undergo extra scrutiny and further examination by a Standing Committee. This inquiry process is usually utilised for bills that are deemed complex or controversial.

The frustration with this is that, as far as anyone can tell, this really isn’t a controversial topic for anyone but a few vocal minorities. All public consultation on the matter has been overwhelmingly in the postive so referring it to an inquiry seems like the work of someone just looking to delay this as long as possible. The timing is rather curious as well as if the bill doesn’t come back before parliament sits again in March then it won’t be looked at again until May, since they don’t sit in April.

There’s a slim bit of hope that this will be handled by those knowledgeable on the matter and that the turn around time for it could just be a single day. Well this particular news story broke 2 days ago now and I haven’t heard anything so my guess is that it’s not being fast tracked as everyone was hoping it would be. Is that a surprise? Not really as any government process usually takes at least 20 times as long as anyone expects it to but it does show how desperate the gaming community is to see this through if we’re willing to hope for something like that to happen.

And who can blame them really. By the time this legislation gets into gear it will be well over a decade since it was first talked about and 3 years since people started forming grass roots initiatives to make it happen. It took one Attorney-General retiring, another capitulating and a Minister on a war path just to get to this point and that’s with overwhelming public support. Why something as simple as this has been so difficult for the Australian political system to handle is really beyond me and calls into question just who these people in parliament are representing.

Yes I’m pissed off about this as the only reason this is happening is because we have certain MPs who pay far too much attention to certain lobby groups. Whilst I’m glad it’s not as bad as it is in America it still seems like we, the gaming community, are the butt of some long play legislative trolling as I’ve never seen something with such great support endure such torture on its way to realisation. The worst part about it is that, for now at least, there’s not a whole lot we can do. If it gets referred for a full inquiry then we’ll be able to have our voice heard (again) but I’d much rather just see it go through the houses without this kind of time-wasting tactics employed.

But who am I kidding, I’ve been blogging about this for 3 years and I really should know better.

Building Australia’s Silicon Valley (or The NBN Gambit).

It may come as a surprise to you to find out that Australia is a predominately service base industry. Whilst it’s hard to argue that we’ve enjoyed the benefits of the current mining boom Australia’s GDP is still predominately derived from our service industry, to the tune of 69% (pg. 134). Still the current prosperity and insulation from global economic crises that Australia has received from the growing mining sector won’t last forever and now is the time for us to start looking towards the future so we can ensure future economic prosperity. I strongly believe that we’ve already undertaken the first steps towards achieving this with the implementation of the National Broadband Network.

Australia as it stands today suffers from an incredible amount of skill drain to other countries. Well over half of the Australian residents who leave Australia for over a year or permanently were skilled workers and whilst the trend has gone down in recent times (thanks wholly to Australia’s isolation from the global economic turmoil) that hasn’t stemmed the flow of talent leaving our shores. For the high technology sectors at least there is the potential to recreate the hot bed of innovation that led to the creation of Silicon Valley on the back of the NBN. This would not only stem the brain drain overseas but would produce large and sustainable gains to the Australian economy.

Right now the public view of the NBN varies wildly. Businesses by and large have no idea what benefits it can bring them, public opinion is mixed (although Senator Conroy says differently) and even the federal government seems at a loss to what it could mean for Australia’s future, doling out cash to local governments in the hope they’ll be able to sell it for them. To combat this the government should instead provide incentives and seed capital to high-tech start ups who are looking to leverage Australia’s upcoming ubiquitous high speed Internet infrastructure, in essence building an Australian Silicon Valley.

Doing this requires co-ordination with entrepreneurial communities, venture capitalists and the willing hand of the government. They could easily make investment in these kinds of companies more desirable by extending tax breaks that are currently enjoyed by other asset classes to investment in NBN based high-tech start ups. This would also make Australian based startups incredibly attractive for overseas investors, pumping even more money into the Australian economy. As the sector grows there would also be an increasing amount of ancillary jobs available, ones that accompany any form of corporation.

Australia would then become a very desirable location for both established and aspiring businesses looking to expand into the Asia-Pacific region. It also works in the reverse, giving Asia-Pacific businesses (and nations) a more local launch pad into the western business world. Establishing Australia as a high tech hub between our strong local ties and western allies abroad would provide a massive economic boost to Australia, one to rival that of the current mining boom.

Of course it’s not like this hasn’t been tried before in Australia, indeed many have tried to recreate the success of the valley with little results. Indeed I believe this is due to a lack of co-operation between the key players, namely the government, entrepreneurs and investors. The NBN represents a great opportunity for the government to leverage the industry not only to ensure Australia’s future economic prosperity but also to establish Australia as a leader in technology. I believe that the government should be the ones to take the first steps towards fostering such an environment in Australia as once the industry knows they have the support they’ll be far more willing to invest their time in creating it.

Not leveraging the NBN in such a way would leave the NBN as a simple infrastructure service, woefully underutilised given the capabilities that it could unlock. Make no mistake the NBN puts Australia almost at the top in terms of ubiquitous, high speed Internet access and that makes a lot of services that are currently infeasible to develop attractive targets for investigation. Indeed since the same level of broadband access is almost guaranteed throughout the country it is highly likely that benefits will stretch far past the borders of the CBD, even as far as regional centres.

As someone who’s group up on and made his career in technology it’s my fervent hope that the Australian government recognizes the potential the NBN has and uses that for the betterment of Australia. As a nation we’re well positioned to leverage our investment in infrastructure to provide economic benefits that will far exceed its initial cost. Creating a Silicon Valley of the Asia-Pacific region would elevate Australia’s tech industry to rival those throughout the rest of the world and would have massive benefits far beyond Australia’s borders.

Full Body Scanners: Security Theatre at its Finest.

In my travels through the USA I became intimately acquainted with their high level of airport security. Upon entering the country we were finger printed, photographed and grilled about what our trip was about. There was also the long lines for getting through the metal detectors and full body scanners, usually taking up a good 45 minutes of my time to get through. I was never chosen to go through the backscatter x-ray machines (nor did I see any of the newer millimetre wave ones) but I did see many people go through it. Most of them weren’t exactly what you’d call a security risk (mostly people in wheelchairs) but I knew exactly why those machines were there: to make everyone feel safer without actually being so.

This is what is referred to as security theatre. These scanners are supposedly better at detecting things that slip by metal detectors which they accomplish by using low-energy x-rays that penetrate through clothing. Solid objects then should become obvious and should something suspicious be identified the passenger can be taken aside for further searching. Trouble is the machines aren’t terribly effective at what they’re designed to do and the back-scatter x-ray type machines emit ionizing radiation (not a lot mind you, but there’s been minimal research done into them). Using them then seems like a pointless exercise and indeed even though they’ve been in operation in the USA for quite some time the jury is still out on whether they’re actually being effective or not.

So you can then imagine my surprise when I find out that we’ll be getting these scanners at all international airports in Australia:

PASSENGERS at airports across Australia will be forced to undergo full-body scans or be banned from flying under new laws to be introduced into Federal Parliament this week.

In a radical $28 million security overhaul, the scanners will be installed at all international airports from July and follows trials at Sydney and Melbourne in August and September last year.

The Government is touting the technology as the most advanced available, with the equipment able to detect metallic and non-metallic items beneath clothing.

Now we won’t be getting the dubious back-scatter style ones here instead we’ll have the newer millimetre wave ones that don’t emit ionizing radiation. That’s the only good news though as they’ve also amended the legislation that allows you to turn down things like this in favour of a pat down, with the penalty for refusing to go through one being that you’ll be barred from your flight. To top it all off the transport minister Anthony Albanese sealed it with this choice quote “I think the public understands that we live in a world where there are threats to our security and experience shows they want the peace of mind that comes with knowing government is doing all it can”.

It’s almost like he knows these things are a useless piece of security theatre, but is going ahead with them anyway.

More than a decade has past since the events of 11/9/2001 and we’ve yet to see a repeat, or an attempted repeat, of the events that led up to that tragedy here or overseas. The health and privacy concerns aside the reality is that these scanners don’t really accomplish what they’re designed to do and are thus just another inconvenience and waste of tax payer dollars. I can understand that there are some who will feel safer by seeing them there but that doesn’t change the facts that they’re just another piece of security theatre, and a costly one at that.

 

Gingrich, Moon Colonies and the Limitations of the Private Sector.

I don’t pretend to be all up on American politics, I look to much more intelligent people than I for understanding of those matters, but if there’s one thing that I know inside and out its space and the industry that surrounds it in the USA. As it’s campaign time now in the USA presidential hopefuls turn to high rhetoric and sweeping promises in order to win votes for their elections and the space program is not immune to this. Indeed it seems that NASA is most often used as a rhetorical tool that ends up under-delivering on its promises, mostly because those promises aren’t backed up with the appropriate funding.

Jumping back a presidency you can see why this was so, with George Bush’s vision for space exploration that had us returning to the moon by 2020. Instead of adding additional funding to complete those goals and all of those already set out for NASA much of the vision was funded out of cancelling other projects, like the Shuttle and their involvement with the International Space Station. What this resulted in was a program that was under-funded and ultimately impinged heavily on NASA’s ability to conduct many of their other core directives. The VSE was then replaced by the Obama administration which had a larger focus on building core space exploration infrastructure whilst out-sourcing rudimentary activities to the private sector, a much better direction for NASA to head in.

Newt Gingrich, current candidate for the Republican nomination, made some sweeping statements about how he’d reform NASA and see Bush’s original vision achieved. He would see a permanent moon base by 2020, a good chunk of NASA’s budget allocated for private incentives and a culling of some of the bureaucracy. They’re ambitious goals, especially considering that Bush made similar ones almost a decade prior that are no where close to being achieved. Still there are some good ideas contained within his vision, but a whole lot more that just show a total lack of understanding.

As always Neil deGrasse Tyson does a much better job of tearing it down than I ever could:

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Neil hits on a point that I’ve long held true: NASA should be charged with advancing space frontiers and the private sector should be tasked with the things that are now routine. We’re already seeing that kind of industry develop what with companies like SpaceX gearing up to resupply the ISS with several others developing along the same lines. This is where the private industry does well but it does not do well in pushing the frontier forward. That’s an inherently risky venture, one that’s very unlikely to be undertaken by any private agency. Advancing the frontier is the realm of the government and NASA is the agency to do it.

Where I do agree with Newt though is the slimming down of the NASA bureaucracy. Much of the costs incurred by the Shuttle program was the standing army of people it had, not the actual launches themselves. The original plan of launching often, up to 50 missions per year, would have drastically reduced the impact this standing army had on the cost per launch of the Shuttle. With the cancellation of the shuttle program much of that will have already been cut but NASA is still quite a large agency. How that would be achieved  is left as an exercise to the reader.

Extraordinary ideas require extraordinary amounts of support and whilst I’d love to believe that Gingrich would follow through with this idea I’ve seen how ideas like this have panned out in the past. Thankfully, with or without Gingrich’s interference, the private space industry is setting itself up as being a viable replacement for the rudimentary activities that NASA needs not bother themselves with any more. What I’d like to see now is Obama’s vision for NASA has changed since he cancelled constellation and whether or not he falls victim to the same high rhetoric trap of over-promising and then not support the vision.

SOPA, PIPA and the Insanity of the US Copyright System.

For over 100 years rights holders have resisted any changes to their business models brought about by changes in technology. From a business perspective its hard to blame them, I mean who wouldn’t do everything in their power to ensure you could keep making money, but history has shown that no matter how hard they fight it they will eventually lose out. Realistically the world has moved on and instead of attempting to keep the status quo rights holders should be looking for ways to exploit these new technologies to their advantage, not ignore them or try to legislate them away. Indeed if other industries followed suit you’d have laws preventing you from developing automated transport to save the buggy whip industry.

The copyright system that the USA employs is a great example of where legislation can go too far at the request of an industry failing to embrace change. At its inception the copyrights were much like patents: time limited exclusivity deals that enabled a creator to profit from their endeavours for a set period of time after which they would enter the public domain. This meant that as time went on there would be an ever growing collection of public knowledge that would benefit everyone and not just those who held the patent. However unlike the patent system copyrights in the USA have seen massive reform in the past, enough so that works that would have come into the public domain will probably never do so.

Thankfully, whilst the copyright system might be the product of an arms race between innovators and rights holders, that hasn’t stop innovation in the areas where the two meet. Most of this can be traced back to provisions made in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that granted safe harbour to any site that relied on user generated content. In essence it put the burden of work on the rights holders themselves, requiring them to notify a site about infringing works. The site was then fully protected from legal action should they comply with the request, even if they restore the offending material after receiving a counter claim from the alleged offender. Many sites rely on this safe harbour in order to continue running on the web because the reverse, them policing copyright themselves, is both technically challenging and resource intensive.

However just like all the technologies and provisions that have been made for the rights holder industry previously those safe harbour provisions, which enabled many of the world’s top websites to flourish, are seen as a threat to their business models. Rights holders associations have said that the DMCA as it stands right now is too lenient and have lobbied for changes that would better support their business. This has come in the form of 2 recent bills that have dropped in both houses: the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the house of reps. Both of these bills have attracted heavy criticism from the technology and investment sectors and it’s easy to see why.

At their core the bills are essentially the same. Both of them look to strengthen the powers that rights holders have in pursuing copyright infringers whilst at the same time weakening the safe harbour provisions that were created under the DMCA. Additionally many of the mechanisms described in the bill are at odds with the way that the Internet is designed to work, breaking many of the ideals that were set out in order to ensure ubiquitous access. There’s also many civil liberty issues at stake here and whilst bill supporters have assured everyone that they don’t impact on them in any way the wording of the bill is vague enough to support both interpretations.

The main issue I and many others take with these bills is the shifting of the burden of proof (and thus responsibility) away from the rights holders and onto the web site owners. The changes SOPA advocates mean that web site administrators will be responsible for identifying copyrighted material and then removing it from their website, lest they fall prey to having their domain seized. Whilst this more than likely won’t be the downfall of the sites that made their fame inside the safe harbours of the DMCA it would have a chilling effect on start-ups looking to innovate in an area that would have anything to do with a rights holder group. Indeed it would be the sites that have limited resources that would be hit the hardest as patrolling for copyright infringement isn’t a fully automated process yet and the burden could be enough to drive them under.

It’s also evident that SOPA was put together rather haphazardly when some of the most known copyrights infringement sites, like The Pirate Bay, are actually immune to it. Indeed many sites that rights holders complain about aren’t covered by SOPA (just by the current laws which, from what I can tell, means they’re not going anywhere) and thus the bill will have little impact on their activities.

You might be wondering why I, an Australian who’s only ever been to the USA once, would care about something like SOPA. Disregarding for the moment the principle argument and the fact that I don’t want to see the USA technology sector die (I could justify my point easily with either) the unfortunate reality is that Australia has a rather liberal free trade agreement with the USA. What this means is that not only do we trade with them free of tariffs and duties but we’re also obliged to comply with their laws which affect trade. SOPA is one such bill and should it pass it’s highly likely that we’d be compelled to either implement a similar law ourselves or simply enforce theirs. Don’t think that would happen? A leaked letter from the American ambassador to Spain warned them that not passing a SOPA like bill would see them put on a trade blacklist effectively ending trade between the two countries.  This is just another reason as to why everyone, not just Americans, should oppose SOPA in its current form.

The worst part of all of this is the potential for my site, the one I’ve been blogging on for over 3 years, to come under fire. I link to a whole bunch of different places and simply doing so could open me up to domain seizure, even if it wasn’t me putting the link there. I already have limited time to spend on here and the additional task of playing copyright police would surely have an impact on how often I could post and comment. I don’t want to stop writing and I don’t want people to stop commenting but SOPA has the very real potential to make both those activities untenable.

So what can be done about SOPA and its potential chilling effects on our Internet ecosystem? For starters if you’re an American citizen write your representative and tell them to oppose SOPA. If you’re not then the best you can do is help to raise awareness of this issue, as whilst it’s a big issue in the tech circles, even some of the most versed political pundits were unaware of SOPA’s existence until recently. Past that we just have to hope we’ve made enough of an impression on the USA congress critters so that the bill doesn’t pass, at least in its current form. The hard work of many people has made this a very public issue, but only continued pressure will make it so it won’t damage the Internet and the industries it now supports.

EDIT: It appears that the strong opposition has caused the American congress to shelve SOPA indefinitely. Count that as a win for sanity.

Rationality Wins: Australia not Entertaining the Anti-Vaccine Movement.

I don’t have kids and probably won’t for another few years but that doesn’t mean I can’t understand some of the things that parents go through. I used to work in child care back in the day and by far the biggest concern any of the parents had was their child’s health. As a care giver every child’s health was my concern as disease has a tendency to spread rapidly in those situations and one sick kid can mean dozens if not taken care of correctly. This, amongst numerous other reasons, is why I fail to understand why some parents refuse to vaccinate their children as otherwise you’re putting them (and other children) at a great risk.

Now I know the reasons why most parents don’t vaccinate their children. Mostly it has to do with their concern that vaccines, in particular the triple shot MMR, will cause their child to develop an Autism Spectrum Disorder. The controversy surrounding this is well known but it is suffice to say that all the evidence and scientific research shows that vaccines can not and do not lead to ASDs. Any correlation that can be drawn between the two is simply that and can not be used as a basis for causation. The fact of the matter is that so far the only proven cause for autism is genetics and any environmental factors are either still under investigation or have been thoroughly disproved. To say otherwise at this point is unscientific conjecture and it would be reckless to base your child’s health decisions on such things.

The usual retort people have for the decision not to vaccinate is that it’s their decision and they should have the choice to make it. At this point the crazed libertarian in me starts shrieking out in support of them and I’d agree with him, right up until I get to the point of where their decisions start to impact others. Whilst the decision not to vaccinate your child is not only a bad decision for them it’s also a bad thing for society at large. Herd immunity requires a certain number of people to be immune to a disease before the non-immune can benefit from their protection. The anti-vaccination movement has had a big enough impact that for certain diseases we’re actually below that critical threshold and those who can’t be made immune, like those who are too young, end up paying the price.

Thankfully I live in Australia a place where the government has finally decided to hit people who refuse to vaccinate their children where it hurts, in their wallet:

Parents who do not have their children fully immunised will be stripped of family tax benefits under a scheme announced by the Federal Government.

The Government says 11 per cent of five-year-olds are not immunised and has announced a shake-up of the system which will take effect from July 1 next year.

Under the changes, families who refuse vaccinations face losing up to $2,100 per child in benefits.

That number of unvaccinated children is rather scary as the herd immunity level for pertussis (whooping cough) and measles is above that vaccination rate. Now this change won’t convince everyone, there are some that to refuse to vaccinate on principle, but hopefully it will drive the numbers up high enough that it won’t matter any more. As it stands now we’re in danger of seeing a resurgence of these diseases that, to put it simply, we shouldn’t have to.

This isn’t one of those ethical grey areas where you can justify your decision based on whatever you believe in, the fact is that if you’re child isn’t vaccinated they are not only at risk themselves but they also put others at risk. The only time I’d support someone not vaccinating their children is if they kept them away from all other children which I think everyone will agree would be far more damaging to them than a shot in the arm. So if the Australian government isn’t going to entertain the anti-vaccination movement neither should you and if you still feel the need to go against the grain because of some whacky view you saw on the Internet then I’m glad you’re getting slugged for it. Maybe then you’ll think twice about the callous decision you’re making.