Thursday 27 February 2014

I Can Print You the World

Another article released today about the Customs Service and Customs Minister Maurice Williamson's concerns over 3D-printing has hit Twitter and attracted the same ridicule and criticisms as when Williamson discussed the issue on Radio New Zealand back in April 2013. In particular, this quote has made its way around the internet and has been used in many overseas publications as well:

"If people could print off ... sheets of Ecstasy tablets at the party they're at at that time, that just completely takes away our border protection role in its known sense."

The government does have a responsibility to at least try to be ahead of the curve and proactively identifying and dealing with these sorts of issues well before they occur. It's good that the Customs Service is thinking about it. The current suggested solution from the Customs Service is to restrict or ban the spread of digital designs/blueprints/schematics/recipes for 3D-printers, in a similar fashion to legislation on "objectionable material" such as child pornography. 

However, I think it is probably accurate to say that governments around the world are fighting a losing battle against digital information sharing. The Customs Service is probably not the best placed group of people to be blocking individual files from making their way into the country. It is just impossible for the government to constantly monitor every part of the internet in NZ (just ask China - they're certainly trying, and citizens still use workarounds every day to access "blocked" websites and avoid monitoring). It's even harder in a country that prides itself upon free speech and freedom to information. These design files would likely be classified as software with a similar level of intellectual property protections, and probably would be "licensed" to individuals and companies much like font files or Microsoft Office, but that doesn't stop rampant piracy. Design files for illicit goods like drugs probably won't have particularly enforceable licensing anyway.

Williamson and the Customs Service are not entirely wrong though, and much of the criticism is probably undeserved. It's not inconceivable that one day you might be able to buy a device that takes a set of chemical "inks" and use the correct set of chemical reactions to molecule-by-molecule create... anything, whether that's a gun, drugs, or a flying carpet car. It's been discussed in TED Talks and covered in numerous articles, and we have all the necessary technology already even if it is a little unwieldy and expensive - but then again, so were computers back in the day. If someone were to pour a decent amount of funding into the idea then it could be commercially available within a few years.

Looking at the problem from a different angle could present a better solution though. Rather than focusing on the digital "techy" side of it, look at the overall input problem. After all, the Customs Service is reasonably good at stopping bad physical things we don't want from getting into the country (certainly a lot better than they are at stopping digital things). So rather than trying to ban certain digital files, why not regulate the chemical inks? We regulate guns reasonably well in New Zealand, and if we think that the chemical inks can be just as dangerous then why not use a similar system? The options available to regulatory agencies still remain to be seen, as it depends on what the base chemicals are, but in physics and chemistry, you cannot create something out of nothing. If you want to print a gold bracelet, you've gotta get the gold from somewhere. If you want to print a computer processor, you've gotta get the silicon somewhere.

So if you want to print Ecstasy, you've still gotta get the base ingredients from somewhere, and I doubt we are anywhere near the stage where we can combine individual Carbon/Hydrogen/Nitrogen/Oxygen atoms together in meaningful financially viable quantities (those power bills would be eye-watering). More likely is that you will need chemicals like Formaldehyde, Safrole, etc., and chemists know what those ingredient combinations are. 

Regulate the market so that only those who are licensed to sell inks can do so. Require people to apply for licenses to buy the inks. Use a central computer system to keep track of purchases made by individuals between different stores. In the same way that asking for 200 packs of psuedoephedrine-based cold medication at a pharmacy is likely to raise eyebrows, buying the set of inks that will make Ecstasy would trigger some alarms. People could be buying that set of inks for a completely legitimate purpose - but they won't mind an officer popping by and just double checking what they intend to print. It won't completely stop people from printing drugs but it'll make it a lot harder. And ultimately the criminal penalties for being in possession of or selling Class A/B drugs are still deterrents.

Of course this only works to restrict things that require a set of chemical inks that can't be used to make other legitimate things. It would be difficult to restrict the creation of plastic guns through this mechanism when the same plastic "ink" can be used for any mind-boggling array of good things. With any new technology someone is going to come up with a creative way to use it for nefarious and evil purposes. But restricting the digital design files doesn't feel like the right way to stop or reduce that.

Friday 14 February 2014

(D)ejected MPs, when the Speaker stamps down on playground behaviour

This week, Speaker David Carter ejected Winston Peters from Parliament after talking back to the Speaker disrespectfully. This sparked a 3am ponder about how many times MPs had been ejected from Parliament, who had been ejected the most times, and which party behaved the worst. Generally ejections most commonly happen when MPs argue back with the Speaker, or heckle/interject when another MP or the Speaker is to be heard in silence (as is the custom for Points of Order for example). Surprisingly, this record does not already exist. I only had (digital) access to the Hansard from 2002-2013, and had to go through it to find when MPs were ejected and identify the dates, parties, and speakers at the time. Quite a bit of reading had to be done to identify why MPs were ejected as well, which is harder to determine programmatically.

First of all, a disclaimer - be careful when drawing conclusions from the data. There are a couple of influences that can make the data seem skewed. Opposition MPs are by far and away more commonly ejected than those in Government, and this changes depending on who happens to be in charge at the time. Between 2002 and 2013, the first six years were Labour-led and the last five years were National-led. MPs are also in Parliament for different amounts of time, as are Speakers. MPs aren't always ejected for bad behaviour, and they get away with it more often than not. The amount that MPs are able to get away with is a topic of contention in the House of Representatives and comes up pretty much every other day during Question Time.  This data also includes MPs ejected by Deputy and Assistant Speakers. I've also dropped the titles (Hon, Rt Hon, etc.) for simplicity, and mean no disrespect. Lastly, no guarantees on the accuracy of the data.

In this time period, a total of 234 ejections were recorded in Hansard. Assuming 90 sitting days a year, that's one ejection every 4 or so sitting days. This is shared between 65 individual MPs. Which (political) parties are the rowdiest?

Here is the same data, split into 2002-2008 (Labour-led Govt) and 2009-2013 (National-led Govt):

Given that Winston Peters seems to get in trouble with the speaker a lot, you might expect him to be the most ejected MP. In fact, he only comes in at 3rd equal (although if we add on the one from 11/02/14 he would be 3rd outright). Another common culprit is Trevor Mallard (which was somewhat controversial when he was the Labour nominee to succeed Lockwood Smith). It turns out that the "naughtiest" MP is National's Nick Smith, who has been ejected 21 times in eleven years. Here's the top ten:

Nick Smith (NAT) 21
Rodney Hide (ACT) 18
Trevor Mallard (LAB) 15
Winston Peters (NZF) 15
Tau Henare (NAT) 13
Gerry Brownlee (NAT) 11
Chris Carter (LAB) 10
Phil Heatley (NAT) 9
Bill English (NAT) 7
Ron Mark (NZF) 7

Which Speakers either attracted the most ire from MPs or were the most trigger-happy?

The graph probably shouldn't be colour coded by party, since Speakers are meant to be impartial. It's also important to note that some National/Labour MPs serve as Assistant Speakers even when the other party is in power, such as HV Ross Robertson of the Labour Party who is currently an Assistant Speaker and often chairs bill readings. It's better not to think of Speakers being partisan, because for the most part they aren't.

However, it's interesting to see the current set of Speakers (and candidates) and how they behaved while they were sitting in the benches. David Carter had 4, Lockwood Smith had 3, and Eric Roy had 1. If Trevor Mallard one day becomes the Speaker... well he's been ejected 15 times so far.

Notable ejections:
Tau Henare on 26/06/2013 (David Carter, Ross Robertson) for being ejected twice in the same day for holding up a sign with the number 30 on it, making fun of Labour's poll numbers
Hone Harawira on 14/07/2011 (Lockwood Smith) for refusing to repeat the formal affirmation at his swearing in.
Clare Curran on 07/06/2011 (Lockwood Smith) for wearing a rugby jersey (below acceptable business attire standards)
Helen Clark on 21/06/2005 (Margaret Wilson) after she interjected while the Speaker was on her feet. Unfortunately, in the words of the Speaker, "the rules apply to everyone".
Chris Carter on 02/03/2005 (Jonathan Hunt) was ejected on the Speaker's last day before retirement.
Winston Peters on 24/06/2003 (Jonathan Hunt) after accusing the Speaker of running a "protection racket" and then refusing to leave the house, and was also named.

There have also been a couple of multi-ejections, with multiple people ejected at once (or very quickly one after another) - here's a list of when four MPs were ejected on the same day (by the same Speaker):
Ron Mark, Allan Peachey, Wayne Mapp, Bob Clarkson on 17/07/2007 (Margaret Wilson)
Bill English, Lockwood Smith, Simon Power, John Key on 27/03/2007 (Margaret Wilson)
Richard Worth, Eric Roy, John Key, David Cunliffe on 25/10/2006 (Margaret Wilson)
Bill English, Annette King, Rodney Hide, Heather Roy on 22/06/2005 (Margaret Wilson)
Steve Maharey, Lianne Dalziel, Chris Carter, David Cunliffe on 07/04/2005 (Margaret Wilson)
Winston Peters, David Cunliffe, Mark Peck, Phil Heatley on 17/09/2003 (Jonathan Hunt)

Also, a bumper day when Ann Hartley ejected five MPs (along with one by Margaret Wilson) during the debate on the Appropriation (Parliamentary Expenditure Validation Bill) on 17/10/2006, which included National's Paula Bennett, Phil Heatley, and Nick Smith (also named), and Labour's Harry Duynhoven, Damien O'Connor, and Dover Samuels. I always liked Dover Samuels' hat.

If you want my source data, just let me know via Twitter and I can send you the spreadsheet. Attribution is appreciated. If someone wants to, I'd be interested in seeing the number of ejections each party has per MP they actually have in the House at the time. This would be a little tricky because the number changes between terms, but we could at least get the order of the parties. I'd also like to see the number of ejections by a Speaker corrected for the number of minutes they presided for and the number of MPs in the room at the time. Again, very difficult to figure out and probably definitely not worth it.

In other news, it's Valentine's Day, also cynically known as Singles Awareness Day. Neither were "invented" by Hallmark to sell more cards between Christmas and Easter, because it's supposedly been around since the 1400s, but it is termed a "Hallmark Holiday" because it "primarily exists for commercial reasons, rather than to commemorate a traditional or historical event." The more you know!

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Extradition and the Internet Party

A 3 News-Reid Research poll showed that while one in five New Zealanders (in a sample of 1000) would consider voting for the Internet Party, zero said that they would actually vote for them. A blow to any party (not that it's stopped ACT), it is especially bad for this party because they need to quickly build relevance to be taken seriously. They need to find a niche, rather than competing over the same issues and policies as bigger parties that already exist. Part of this is down to the fact that barely any policy has been announced, and for the most part the party has been relying on the "celebrity" status of Dotcom. They also need to quickly shake off the ghosts of Martyn Bradbury and Alastair Thompson, and get on with the job. If the Internet Party wants to do well, they need to find the individuals whose needs are not met by existing parties, and target policies towards them - only then can they start to poll above 0%.

3 News' Patrick Gower has this fascination with the Internet Party and Kim Dotcom, and continues to cynically insist that the party predominantly exists to somehow advantage Dotcom in any extradition case. To be fair, John Key has said the same thing. Yes, under the Extradition Act 1999, the Minister of Justice can override the courts and block an extradition for any reason. However, believing that the Labour (and Green to a lesser extent) parties will somehow be resistant to the pressures exerted by the US government is nothing short of naive. Gower claims that Dotcom wants the opposition in government to increase his chances of staying in New Zealand.

Pity for him that Kim Dotcom responded with:
Dotcom hates John Key - that much is clear from his statements and tweets over the last year. The aforementioned poll also showed that the Internet Party had the lowest level of support amongst existing National supporters in comparison to other parties. But just because John Key is not the Prime Minister is no guarantee that Dotcom is safe from the long arm of the United States. My opinion is that realistically which party is in charge is unlikely to change whether Dotcom gets extradited or not. It is far more likely that his case will shrivel up in court (either here or in the US) and Dotcom gets to spend the rest of his days freely in New Zealand. The Minister of Justice won't get to play any role in that decision.

The relationship between Kim Dotcom's extradition and his political party is interesting - it sells news because it nudges at our deep suspicion of all politicians that they always have some ulterior motive and are just in it for themselves. However, I feel that the reason that the party exists has more to do with dethroning John Key than saving Kim Dotcom. He'd certainly be able to build more support that way, pulling away voters from NZ First, Labour, and the Greens who feel that their parties aren't doing enough to stop National. A major unknown is still who will be standing for the Internet Party - if they can pull some ace out of the deck it could drastically improve their chances.

At the end of the day, the Internet Party is not going to win any seats on the issue of blocking Kim Dotcom's extradition. He has his supporters, and lots of New Zealanders would say that he should be allowed to stay here, but they're not going to give up their one vote to save him. It's not selfish, it's just a bad choice to throw away your opportunity to help decide which party makes important decisions on the economy, education, social welfare, health, and other critical issues just to save one guy (well, actually four guys, let's not forget the other defendants). The Internet Party has started on the right track by talking about broadband and opposition to mass surveillance, but for most New Zealanders these issues wouldn't crack the top five of the most important issues facing them today.

In other news, Reid Research still tracks Preferred Prime Minister stats for Don Brash, Helen Clark, and Jim Anderton. Looks like Auntie Helen still manages to pull in around 2-3% as on July 2013, four years after she left Parliament. Given some of the atrocious graphs on this page, the lack of updates, and no public explanation of methodology, I'm suspicious as to whether this really is the "number one news poll". Then again, I'm not paying them to do any research for me, so they don't really have an obligation to keep me (and the rest of the public) informed about how their stats work.

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Why I'm not celebrating Waitangi Day

A friend of mine is doing research at the Psychology Department at the University of Auckland about 1.5 and 2nd generation Asian New Zealanders and how they perceive themselves and their culture. As part of that, she's going to follow some of them on Waitangi day, and find out how we celebrate that day. When she asked me, I replied the only way I could:

"I'll just be at home. What do you mean by celebrate Waitangi Day?"

I was lucky enough to be born in wonderful NZ, and have grown up with the education and culture. I know the history and the importance of the day, and yet at the same time, it doesn't mean much to me. My general feelings towards it are the same as probably hundreds of thousands of other Kiwis - yay public holiday! Lots of people will go to the beach, or catch up as a family (and I'll just be at home, playing Sid Meier's Railroads!). But I don't get the sense of patriotism that comes with ANZAC Day or the sense of community that comes with Christmas or the sense of celebration that comes with New Years. To me, Waitangi Day feels very distant.

I asked my parents, who have been here for 24 years now, about how they perceived Waitangi Day when they first arrived in New Zealand and how they feel about it now. The change was interesting - when they were first told about it, they understood it as a day of commemorating the partnership between the Maori and European people. As migrants, they thought it was pretty good - there aren't many other countries that have that sort of relationship with their indigenous people. However, over the years they feel that the day has lost much of that significance, and that it's very much a political show now. Every group has certain interests that they want to push forward, and it's all wrapped in the sensitive cloud of race and indigenous rights. I think in reality there's only a small portion of people in the entire country doing that, but you only have to look at the media to see how that perception might be created. Which makes me think...

Where's the celebration? I know it's supposed to happen somewhere, and the advertisements seem to show lots of people attending, but that's not what I remember about Waitangi in all the years that I've grown up here. It's a "national day of celebration" but it doesn't feel like that. Part of it is the visibility of the celebration - people aren't out in the streets outside my house having a parade, and the news coverage is mostly saturated by politics. But the more important part of that is the racial distance - Waitangi Day is very much about Maori and Pakeha, but I'm not either. I get collateral "white guilt" from feeling that I'm somewhat responsible for what happened in New Zealand 170 or so years ago and the impacts that's had on people even today, but that doesn't make feel like Waitangi Day is something that I can take part in. People tell me it's "New Zealand Day" but it's not. It just isn't.

There are lots of New Zealand things that I consider to be part of my culture as a young Asian New Zealander. I learnt to do the school haka. I watch rugby when I have to. I enjoy a refreshing glass (can) of L&P. But Waitangi Day just isn't part of my culture.

Sunday 2 February 2014

What does "155 human rights recommendations" mean?

While watching (well, listening) to the three and a half hour session where New Zealand's human rights performance was examined, it occurred to me that the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a very strange mechanism. The human rights record of every country certainly is something that needs to be scrutinised internationally on a regular basis, but one minute thirty-five second bullet speed speeches from a relatively small selection of countries doesn't seem like the best way to do it. Regardless, over the course of the session 76 countries participated and gave recommendations. The media has recently made some noise about the "155 recommendations" that were presented, without really explaining what the process is or where the recommendations came from. In particular, the Green Party has criticised the National government for what must be an appalling human rights record since there were such a large number of recommendations made. Green MP Jan Logie said "What this report tells us is that we're slipping backwards and the Government has actually been undermining those rights through legislation and policy."

Well the draft report of the UPR working group is available publicly, so why not have a look at what some of the recommendations were?
- 26 recommendations about signing and ratifying a number of international human rights agreements
- 7 recommendations about implementing a written Constitution and improving our Bill of Rights
- 3 recommendations to increase foreign aid (official development aid) to 0.7%
- 15 recommendations about improving Maori rights and treaty settlements
- 3 recommendations on the Canterbury earthquakes (including "speed up the rebuilding and compensation process" from Germany, because it's just that easy...)
- 17 recommendations on poverty and inequality
- 12 recommendations on combating discrimination, particularly against Maori and Pasifika
- 9 recommendations on gender equality
- 28 recommendations on domestic violence, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking
- 1 recommendation to relinquish the use of tasers (Namibia)
- 10 recommendations on equitable access to health and education
- 5 recommendations on cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity
- 2 recommendations on counter-terrorism and surveillance

The above numbers don't add up to 155, but it shows the sorts of topics that were raised in the recommendations - this is still a simplistic summary of the recommendations themselves. Some of the recommendations overlapped on multiple topics so don't take those numbers as gospel. There were a lot of duplicates, with multiple states essentially recommending the same thing, whether it be to sign and ratify a particular treaty or to "continue its efforts" in protecting children's rights. Many recommendations were suggesting that New Zealand continue doing the work that it's already doing - in fact, 31 recommendations literally began with the word 'continue'. Some were congratulating New Zealand and encouraging that we "exchange with other States" our information and experiences. There were also some parts of the review that just don't make sense in the NZ context:

"29. Iran (Islamic Republic of) expressed concern over insufficient safeguards to protect the rights of minorities from discrimination and marginalization, putting them at a higher risk of torture ...
69. In response to a comment from Iran, New Zealand reaffirmed that torture did not occur in New Zealand."

Some of the review unfortunately showed a lack of understanding of the actual situation in New Zealand, and that's not surprising given the low level of resourcing and information that these recommendations are actually based on. The country reviews are based upon a 20 page report submitted by the state under review, a 10 page compilation of UN information from various reports, and a 10 page summary of information from other stakeholders such as NGOs. While I appreciate that resources and time are limited, this doesn't seem like the best way to find out information about the current state of our human rights. Such reviews need to be based on independent information that isn't influenced by the state itself. The people making the recommendations need time and resourcing to fully familiarise themselves with the country, make further enquiries, and verify their recommendations before they are released.

While 155 recommendations seems like a lot, the media hasn't mentioned whether this is a low, medium, or high number in comparison to the other 192 countries that undergo periodic reviews. Here's a few countries from recent reviews and the number of recommendations they got:
Congo, Democratic Republic of171
United States of America228
Russian Federation231

So the number of recommendations given to New Zealand wasn't particularly high. And of course, the number of recommendations doesn't actually mean anything - some recommendations are short and simple, others are very long and have multiple parts. Rather it's the substance of those recommendations that should be the focus (but the media doesn't seem to care). Interestingly, New Zealand agreed to examine all of the recommendations given - it is relatively common for states to reject recommendations given to them. For example, Israel rejected all recommendations that referred to Palestine, the DR of Congo rejected all recommendations related to female participation in politics, and Colombia rejected recommendations around "military criminal justice" and the use of torture.

Ultimately it doesn't really make sense to wave the number "155" around as if New Zealand has a terrible human rights record. We all know that there are some human rights aspects that are downright shocking, and we all know that there are things we need to do as a country. This review should not be ignored. But waving the Universal Periodic Review around as the Green Party and the media have done recently shows a "wilful ignorance" of what the document actually says and what it actually means.