27 November 2010

quackery and the necromantic cat

From the ODNB entry on Gustavus Katterfelto (d. 1799)
Most often styling himself Doctor Katterfelto, he initially leapt to fame by treating patients during the influenza epidemic of 1782. For the next couple of years he gave numerous didactic performances to metropolitan audiences, and became a household name. Charging from 1s. to 3s. a seat, he gave different three-hour shows each night of the week.
The biography notes that although Katterfelto allegedly delighted George III and other royals in 1784, life was hard. A caricature shows him clutching bags of gold but
he spent most of the rest of his life striving to support his wife and children as an itinerant provincial entertainer". ... Announcing his arrival with long series of advertisements in local papers, Katterfelto travelled all over England. He lectured successfully at Birmingham in 1792, but was gaoled in at least two other towns as a vagrant and an impostor.
compiled a great variety of flamboyant newspaper advertisements and wall posters, many of them incorporating long poems. Their two major themes were his fame as an international freemason with secret knowledge of occult mysteries and his expertise as a natural philosopher. Correspondingly, his two renowned props were his necromantic black cat and his solar microscope, a device which projected magnified displays onto a white surface for public viewing. By revealing thousands of 'insects' writhing in a drop of water, he persuaded Londoners terrified of catching influenza to purchase his patent medicine at 5s. a bottle. In addition, his diverse equipment included a lecturer's standard natural philosophical apparatus-some of it quite expensive-such as compasses and globes, an orrery, a telescope, an air pump, and an electrical machine. To attract his declining audiences he proclaimed ever more exotic devices, including a perpetual-motion machine, a magnetic copying apparatus, and sympathetical clocks. One celebrated trick entailed lifting his daughter to the ceiling by using a large magnet for attracting a steel helmet on her head.

24 November 2010

Data loss

The UK Information Commissioner has announced [PDF] that it has imposed fines on two organisations over breaches of the Data Protection Act. Those penalties are the first to be imposed and have been described by the Commissioner as sending "a strong message" to those handling data.

Hertfordshire County Council was fined £100,000 for twice faxing highly sensitive personal information regarding a child sex abuse case to the wrong recipients, members of the public. A4e, a business, was fined £60,000 for losing an unencrypted laptop that featured information about thousands of people.

The initial Hertfordshire County Council incident involved staff in the Council's childcare litigation unit misdirecting a fax meant for a barristers' chambers. The council subsequently obtained a court injunction prohibiting disclosure of the facts of the court case or circumstances of the data breach. 13 days later another member of the same unit sent a fax with information relating to the care proceedings of three children, the previous convictions of two individuals, domestic violence records and care professionals' opinions on the cases. That fax was intended for Watford County Court but was misdirected to a barristers' chambers that had no connection with the case.

Unsurprisingly the Commissioner commented that "I am concerned at this breach - not least because the local authority allowed it to happen twice within two weeks".

The A4e data breach - just one of a drum roll of lost laptops, lost USB drives, lost tapes and disks - involved the company providing an unencrypted laptop to an employee for work at home. The device contained personal information (including full names, dates of birth, postcodes, employment status, income level, information about alleged criminal activity and whether an individual had been a victim of violence) relating to 24,000 people who had used community legal advice centres. The laptop was subsequently stolen from the employee's house and an unsuccessful attempt to access the data was made shortly afterwards.

The Commissioner ruled that A4e did not take reasonable steps to avoid the loss of the data when it issued the employee with an unencrypted laptop, despite knowing the amount and type of data that would be on it. "Thousands of people's privacy was potentially compromised by the company's failure to take the simple step of encrypting the data".

The two organisatiopns may have suffered reputational loss but let's crunch some numbers before cheering the penalty. Perhaps we need a new metric for punishing negligence in relation to data losses. At £60,000 the penalty amounts to a bit over £2 per person, hardly a swingeing fine. It is reminiscent of the £980,000 penalty imposed by the Financial Services Authority on the Nationwide building society in 2007 after exposure of some 11 million customer records ... equivalent to less than the business spent on grooming potplants each year.

nauseating tosh

I recently noted hyperbole about the impending marriage of William Windsor and Kate Middleton, questioning statements by the Australian Governor-General and Prime Minister regarding the nation's joy on hearing the news about the "remarkable" Prince William.

In the UK the Guardian reports that the bishop of London, the Right Rev Richard Chartres, is "appalled" by Facebook posts by suffragan bishop Pete Broadbent, guilty of "disparaging remarks about the royal wedding". Bishop Broadbent "has been suspended indefinitely".

Although the Church of England - still established - aspires to be a 'broad church' it is of course still headed by William's grandmother, a person who inherited the position from her father. Broadbent's comment that he was planning to avoid the hoopla on the joyous day through a day trip to France thus put the official noses out of joint.

He has been criticised for suggesting that the marriage would last seven years (somewhat longer than many non-royal marriages), describing the wedding day as being surrounded by "nauseating tosh", likened the Prince and his fiancée to “shallow celebrities”, claiming that the Royal Family was full of "broken marriages and philanderers", expressing disappointment that the wedding would cost the public "an arm and a leg" and criticising the media for descending into "fawning deferential nonsense". On Facebook and a tweet he indicated "Need to work out what date in the spring or ­summer I should be booking my republican day trip to France".

Acutely, he commented that
I wish them well, but their nuptials are nothing to do with me. Leave them to get married somewhere out of the limelight and leave them alone.
His subsequent apology failed to appease his superior, who stated that
In common with most of the country I share the joy which the news of the engagement has brought.

I have now had an opportunity to discuss with Bishop Peter how his comments came to be made and I have noted his unreserved apology. Nevertheless, I have asked him to withdraw from public ministry until further notice.

I have been in touch with St James' Palace to express my own dismay on behalf of the church.
Placing Broadbent in the sin bin is an argument for disestablishment.

the internet shrank my brain

Reading 'New Media, Young Audiences, and Discourses of Attention: From Sesame Street to 'Snack Culture' by Michael Newman in 32(4) Media Culture & Society (2010) 582-596.

In a subsequent post Newman explains -
If you have an interest in cultural media history, if you like Sesame Street and music videos, or if you have found the recent discussions about whether the internet makes you stupid or smart to be worth your scarce attention, you might be interested in my newly published work ... In this essay I trace the history of the "attention span" as it pertains to media from the early days of Sesame Street to the present, charting the process whereby media crafted to suit short attention spans of the young came to be blamed for shrinking the collective attention span of whole generations and societies. The main materials I studied are popular press discourses, like discussions in the New York Times and Time magazine. I'm generally critical/skeptical of claims that media are a danger to the young and that movies, TV, and the internet do us cognitive harm, though my main concern is to analyze discourses rather than pass judgement. Ultimately I argue that concerns over media's harmful effects reveal widely shared anxieties over new media’s social implications.
Virginia Heffernan in the NY Times comments that -
We seem to know a great deal about attention spans, those constituents of character that have become the digital-age equivalent of souls.

Everyone has an attention span. It can be short or long. Long is good. Good scholars, good citizens and good children have long attention spans. Attention spans used to be robust; now they are stunted. Technology — MTV, the Internet, the iPhone — shriveled them. Nicholas Carr, who argued in The Shallows that Web use practically causes brain damage, told PBS that technology is "pushing even more distractions and interruptions on us" and thus will never "return to us our attention span".

At the same time, there is a pro-technology view of attention spans — rarer, but no less confident. Science writers like Jonah Lehrer have pointed to studies that seem to demonstrate perfectly respectable attention spans in gamers and Web users.

And so polemicists of various stripes continue to calibrate the effect of technology on attention spans. But I’m surprised that anyone ventures so far into this thicket of sophistry. I get stuck much earlier in the equation. Everyone has an attention span: really? And really again: an attention span is a freestanding entity like a boxer's reach, existing independently of any newspaper or chess game that might engage or repel it, and which might be measured by the psychologist's equivalent of a tailor's tape?
She goes on, persuasively, to suggest that -
Maybe my own brain is faltering in a Web wasteland, but I don't get it. Whether the Web is making us smarter or dumber, isn't there something just unconvincing about the idea that an occult "span" in the brain makes certain cultural objects more compelling than others? So a kid loves the drums but can hardly get through a chapter of The Sun Also Rises; and another aces algebra tests but can’t even understand how Call of Duty is played. The actions of these children may dismay or please adults, but anyone who has ever been bored by one practice and absorbed by another can explain the kids' choices more persuasively than does the dominant model, which ignores the content of activities in favor of a wonky span thought vaguely to be in the brain.

So how did we find ourselves with this unhappy attention-span conceit, and with the companion idea that a big attention span is humankind's best moral and aesthetic asset? In other eras, distractibility wasn’t considered shameful. It was regularly praised, in fact — as autonomy, exuberance and versatility. To be brooding, morbid, obsessive or easily mesmerized was thought much worse than being distractible. In Moby-Dick, Starbuck tries to distract Ahab from his monomania with evocations of family life in Nantucket. Under the spell of "a cruel, remorseless emperor" — his own single-mindedness — Ahab stays his fatal course. Ahab’s doom comes from his undistractibility.

21 November 2010

Buckwheat escapism

It's nearly Christmas Time ... the domain of faux bonhomie, Muzak carols (or Bing Crosby 'singing padre' reruns) and syrupy comments about good will, generosity and other ideological bling that's forgotten once we clear away the wrapping paper and deal with the unsightly demonstration of why you shouldn't feed Christmas pudding to your cat.

The Financial Times is getting into the mood, announcing that
A hundred years after his death in a small railway station, Leo Tolstoy’s eloquent responses to life’s big questions, as one of history’s great truth-tellers and as the first of his country’s dissidents, are more relevant than ever.
Let's be brave and demur, just a little.

In an indulgent review of new works and reprints A N Wilson, once known for his satirical bite, lauds the heroically self-involved and often extremely silly Sage of Yasnaya Polyana
To such deceptively simple questions as how should we live, the answers he gave caused tsars, armies, secret police and church inquisitors to shake in their souls. By the end, millions of people worldwide were hanging on his words. A week after he died, a woman in a Moscow railway cafeteria made a slighting remark about Tolstoy. The café workers rounded on her and the waiter refused to give her tea.
I'm with that woman, and with sceptics who ask whether the "tsars, armies, secret police" etc shook in their souls. Some, presumably shook with laughter at simplistic solutions or unintelligible questions. Some people saw the Sage as an unfortunate expression of escapism that inhibited small-scale, achievable and meaningful action to alleviate injustices and build a better society. Better a change to the Trade Practices Act 1974 (Cth) than a day of national repentence, self-flagellation and investment in coloured wristbands.
The anniversary of a writer's death is usually a chance to reassess and re-read their work but it is rarely a provocation to ask the most searching questions about the world as it is now, and about ourselves. Yet Tolstoy's death still challenges us to ask the deepest political and personal questions. It is hard to think of any of the great public questions facing the world today that Tolstoy did not anticipate and address in some way, whether we speak of the environmental crisis, religious debate (creationist versus atheist) or the anti-war movement.
Apart from questioning puffery about Tolstoy's omniscience, we might disagree with both his answers - often incoherent, absurd or inhumane - and ask whether the guru is a better model than more modest and moderate contemporaries such as Chekhov or Turgenev.

Wilson notes that after Anna Karenina -
Tolstoy had a mid-life crisis and became a fervent Orthodox Christian. Changing again, he decided that the Church was teaching mumbo-jumbo. What mattered was what Jesus himself had taught. And what Jesus taught, in Tolstoy's version – he actually rewrote the gospels – was pacifism, anarchism, no government, no army, no upper classes, no quest for wealth. To this was added Tolstoy's own increasingly obsessive vegetarianism.
A Russian Jihadi with all the answers and an indifference to those around him (inevitable among those who confuse the person of Jesus with that of themselves) is not exactly my idea of a positive role model.

Wilson acknowledges criticisms by Tolstoy's biographers that the "gigantic presence" was "an impossible husband and ... unattractively humourless". Never fear, it seems, for he was "godlike". Alas, like Mao, Stalin and other godlike monsters he wan't kind to small children or dogs. Don't be deterred by my cavill about the godlike, for Wilson indicates that -
From the first reading of War and Peace, it becomes clear that Tolstoy writes with the breadth and scope of Homer. Nowhere outside the Iliad do we find such a prodigious combination of artistic detachment from joy and suffering and yet at the same time such passionate engagement and sympathy. It is a paradoxical truth in these two European masterpieces, and Bartlett's book gives us the sense of how both these godlike qualities, of indifference and empathy, were constantly present in Tolstoy’s soul.
He goes on to comment that -
Briggs quotes something I wrote at the end of my own biography of the great man: that "the more evidence we possess about Tolstoy, the less he makes sense". I wrote those words more than 20 years ago, and the intervening years have changed my view. Tolstoy does now make very clear sense to me. The anniversary gives us the opportunity to realise that there are not two Tolstoys, the novelist and the sectarian anarchist. There was one. War and Peace is not just a great national and family saga, it is a novel about personal and national regeneration. He was one of history’s great truth-tellers, the first of the great dissidents, and their patron saint. In a world dominated by crooked rulers, unjust wars, malice and corruption, and, above all, lies, Tolstoy became what Dante called a “one-man party” and struck out to right and left.
Perhaps, to adopt the characterisation in The Life of Brian, he was instead "just a naughty boy".

Wilson admits that -
True, Tolstoy’s embrace of Christian anarchism was inconsistent on many levels but when the enemies in his sights included the grossly selfish Russian royal family, and an Orthodox Church that supported one of the most unjust political regimes in European history (and blessed field guns in the name of Christ), it is hard not to cheer the old bearded prophet and overlook any unkindness he might have displayed towards his wife.
That's that for Sofya Tolstoy. Let's not, it seems, acknowledge the unkindness and gross inconvenience inflicted by the guru on other people or quibble about the shallowness of the historical judgment (several regimes featured blessing of battle kit and most featured self-indulgent elites, dynastic, academic or ecclesiastical).

Cue the sound of Christmas cheer, with Wilson concluding that -
The recent conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan do not suggest that war has ever been a solution to human problems. Tolstoy’s rejection not merely of war and violence, but of the very concept of government, still has a great deal of potential to change our world. At least, I have come to hope so. ... I have also, like the crowds in 1910, been overwhelmed with a sense that, if we could only live as he urged us to live in his later prophetic writings, we would find sanity in the midst of chaos.
Become a vegetarian, wear hand-spun clothing, spout incoherent prescriptions for groupies, mutter about a profound desire for a private life while basking in front of the camera? The self-involvement, lack of modesty and nuance, and escapism is not a recipe for sanity in the midst of chaos ... it is instead something fitted for the world of Perez Hilton, Gawker.com and Who Weekly.

Bail and ACTHRA

ACT Supreme Court Justice Hilary Penfold's judgement In The Matter of An Application For Bail by Isa Islam [2010] ACTSC 147 raises issues about operation of the Human Rights Act 2004 (ACT).

37 year old Isa Islam has been in custody since mid 2009 after an incident that resulted in charges that include attempted murder, intentionally inflicting grievous bodily harm and assault occasioning actual bodily harm. In applying for bail his representative highlighted delays in commencement of the trial and argued special circumstances. Justice Penfold was unimpressed, refusing bail. She indicated that -
On 13 August 2010 I refused his application on the ground that no special or exceptional circumstance favouring the granting of bail had been identified and that s 9C of the Bail Act accordingly precluded me from considering whether bail could properly be granted in accordance with s 22 of that Act. In dealing with Mr Islam's application I indicated that, because of the nature and significance of some of the issues that had been raised in the application, I would provide written reasons for my decision
In unpacking the case Penfold J indicated that -
Two fundamental issues concerning the operation of the Human Rights Act arose in this application, as follows:
a) What is the process by which a court should consider a claim that a provision of a Territory law is inconsistent with human rights (the process question)?
b) In considering a human rights-based challenge to a provision of a Territory law, what approach should the court take to interpreting the provision (the interpretation question)?
She notes that s 28(1) of the ACTHRA "importantly, permits human rights to be limited by Territory laws, but only to the extent of 'reasonable limits ... that can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society'".

Her judgement goes on to declare that section 9C of the ACT Bail Act 1992 (ACT) that applies to accused people facing potential life sentences is inconsistent with section 18(5) of the Human Rights Act 2004 (ACTHRA), which indicates that anyone awaiting trial must not be detained in custody as a general rule. The Human Rights statute does not override other ACT legislation. Section 32 provides that if the Supreme Court finds that a Territory law is not consistent with a human right, the Court may make a declaration of incompatibility. Section 32(3) provides that such a declaration does not affect the operation of the Territory law, or anyone’s rights or obligations. Section 33 requires a declaration of incompatibility, and a response from the Attorney-General, to be presented to the Legislative Assembly

Justice Penfold's declaration will be brought to the Attorney-General's attention, with the A-G being obliged, under the the ACTHRA, to present it to the Legislative Assembly for a response. Any change to the Bail Act will be a matter for the Legislative Assembly.

Penfold J comments that -
I can think of no reason, having made a finding of inconsistency, for not making a declaration of incompatibility. The declaration has no legal significance for the application or operation of the relevant provision but its significance as a step in the “dialogue” involving the courts, the executive and the legislature (if three parties can have a dialogue), should not be overlooked. The "dialogue" model was proposed in the Report of the ACT Bill of Rights Consultative Committee, ACT Parliament, Towards an ACT Human Rights Act (2003) and referred to by the Attorney-General in his speech on the introduction of the Human Rights Amendment Bill 2007 (Australian Capital Territory, Hansard, Legislative Assembly, 6 December 2007, 4028 (Simon Corbell, Attorney-General)). Relevantly, the approach is that "the judiciary should not be able to invalidate legislation but rather be able to give its opinion that a law is incompatible with the Human Rights Act".

There may be an argument that the making of the formal declaration is not a judicial function. Without addressing that possibility, I note that the declaration, while expressed in a form reflecting the relevant provision of the Human Rights Act, is in content no more than a re-statement of a conclusion of incompatibility reached at the end of one of the steps in the process of interpreting s 9C in order to determine Mr Islam’s bail application


The Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, Chris Craigie, has announced that Godwin Grech will not be prosecuted.

Mr Grech - inevitably dubbed Goblin by the mass media and cruel legal academics - was the Commonwealth Treasury official in charge of the taxpayer-funded OzCar scheme involving assistance for cash-strapped car dealers as part of the GFC.

Last year, as part of the 'Utegate' controversy, he admitted to forging an email that allegedly substantiated Opposition claims that Kevin Rudd (the then Prime Minister) had lobbied for assistance to a private sector associate. We might raise our eyebrows at senior officials concocting emails. Grech's apparent willingness to recurrently brief Opposition personnel on an unofficial basis while employed by Treasury might also disquiet some observers.

Grech gave false evidence at a Senate Committee hearing in June last year. He later admitted that he faked the document. It is unclear whether the angst suffered by his colleagues has been acknowledged.

Craigie indicates that -
This matter has involved complex factual, technical and legal issues. These have included issues relating to the rights and privileges of Parliament and matters personal to Mr Grech, including his state of health. For a prosecution to succeed all elements of any offence or offences under consideration must be capable of proof beyond reasonable doubt by admissible evidence. The Prosecution Policy of the Commonwealth requires that the evidence establish a prima facie case with reasonable prospects of conviction for a prosecution to be commenced. Where there are reasonable prospects of conviction, the Policy then requires consideration of public interest factors to determine whether the public interest requires a prosecution.
He goes on to state that -
In coming to my own conclusions in this matter I have also had the benefit of advice from senior counsel from the private bar and from lawyers within my Office. This advice has addressed legal issues relating to criminal law, law relating to the Parliament and complex evidentiary issues.

I am satisfied that there are some alleged disclosures which meet the evidentiary requirements of the Prosecution Policy of the Commonwealth. These have been considered along with public interest factors including significant medical material relating to Mr Grech’s physical and mental health, both at the time of the alleged conduct and subsequently. The impact that this matter has already had on Mr Grech in terms of his health, employment and prospects has also been taken into account. I am not satisfied that there are reasonable prospects of proving criminality in relation to the other alleged conduct to the standard required by the criminal law.

In all the circumstances I have decided that the prosecution of Mr Grech is not warranted under the Prosecution Policy of the Commonwealth. I have advised the Australian Federal Police accordingly.