Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

The British TV licence – possibly the dumbest thing on earth

November 22nd, 2010 1 comment

Don’t get me wrong, I love the charming conservatism of the British nation. I like how milk is sold in 1.136L cartons because you can decimalise the pint but you can’t kill it. I like quaint holdovers like the House of Lords and the Royal Family. I love the way central London is peppered with garden squares instead of Westfields. I enjoy traditional pomp like the Lord Mayor’s Show or Trooping the Colours. It makes me smile when I hear peculiar pronunciations unpolluted by American verbal hegemony, like “Pantene” pronounced as “Pan-ten”, “Dae-woo” pronounced as “Day-oo”, or “vit-amins” instead of “vite-amins”.

The TV licence system, however, is retarded. It is not unique to Britain – some other European countries have also retained it. The British, however, have managed to run the system in such a way as to make it, frankly, ridiculous.

First, a brief explanation of the TV licence itself for those of us unfamiliar with such a backward system. Every year, each household which uses a television to receive TV broadcasts (whether directly or recorded) is required to pay a licence fee, currently £145.50 per year for a colour TV. The fee makes up the majority of the BBC’s funding, with the rest coming from commercial arrangements and topped up by government.

The licence fee system is fundamentally unfair. It falls disproportionately on the young, because it is imposed by household, meaning that a single person household is taxed (it is legally a tax) at the same amount as a large family. It falls disproportionately on working people, because it is a set fee, not “pay per view”. This means that a household is required to pay the same fee if they watch even 5 minutes of television when they get home from work, as someone who has the television available to them at all times. It falls disproportionately on the poor, because it discounts the number of television sets in a household. Someone with just one TV between a family of six pays the same licence fee as a household with a TV in every room. Finally, of course, the tax is a set amount, not means tested and not income-progressive, and so it falls disproportionately on those with a lower income. £145.50 is not a small sum – it’s about $250-300 (depending on exchange rates), quite a bit to save up in austerity Britain.

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Lost in translation, all 8,000 characters of it

April 28th, 2009 6 comments

The New York Times getting it wrong? Preposterous notion, right? And so I thought also – until reading this story recently.

The story is by now so well known that it’s featured on Wikipedia. A Chinese woman called Ma Cheng has a given name which uses an unusual character, which is visually composed of three repetitions of the character for “horse”. This character was recorded in a 1710 AD character dictionary as a variant form of a character meaning “gallop”. This variant form has fallen out of use over the last 300 years, and today is only found in comprehensive character dictionaries, with the 1710 publication being the most recent source. For a rough analogy, imagine having a þ in your name.

As might be expected, having an obsolete character in her name has caused Ms Ma some difficulty over the years. For one thing, modern type sets and computer character sets rarely feature the character. In earlier years, authorities would write-in the character “”cheng”” by hand on documents such as ID cards. However, with the conversion towards full digitisation, it is becoming more and more difficult to solve the problem.

A quirky story so far, but not too far out of the ordinary. The NY Times report takes a turn torwards the dark alley of dystopia, however, when it turns towards what it claimed was an 8,000 list of permissible characters. The Chinese government, it said, citing a Chinese newspaper report, had been developing this list in recent years, not just for standardising naming use, but for ordinary usage as well.  A Chinese linguistics official was quoted, via the state mouthpiece Xinhua, as saying that 8,000 characters (compared to the 85,000 in existence, and the roughly 30,000 in ordinary or literary usage) was ‘enough to convey most concepts’. Disturbing whiffs of doublespeak, newspeak, and the Thought Police?

I certainly thought it sounded just a little too shockingly Orwellian. So I went digging a little. The NY Times referenced two other sources for the statements about the 8,000-character “permissible word list”: a Xinhua news piece which it linked to, and a report from “another Chinese newspaper”.

First up, the Xinhua report. Headline? “Official refutes report that China will limit number of characters for new names“. Quite the opposite to the “limiting language to 8,000 characters” claim, it seems.

So how did this all come about? The Xinhua article cites – and refutes – a report by the Guangzhou-based Yangcheng Evening News that claimed that baby names would be limited to an 8,000 character list. It also offers another clue: an 8,000-character list of simplified characters, which a government official says “in combination, could convey almost any concept in any field”. So is it true? Is the Communist government embarking on a campaign to control thought by limiting the tools of thought?

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New internationalism

November 20th, 2008 No comments

Yesterday, London’s Telegraph carried a piece about how iPhone’s new voice-recognising Googling tool fails to recognise British accents. Then today, its antipodean and tabloidal namesake tells us that the iPhone gets confused by Australian accents.

I bet the same thing is happening across the world: every paper puts a local spin on what is really the same story (“iPhone’s new voice-recognising Googling tool is crap”). Just imagine it:

“US English accent confuses iPhone” — the Seattle Bugle.

“Vaticano Latin too much for iPhone – Cardinal warns against playing God” — the Vatican City Bull.

“iPhone refuses to understand Korean – Comrade Kim Jung-il denounces evil imperialist plot.” — the Pyongyang Times.

Before the Chinese courts: the story of a man and his ATM

March 1st, 2008 3 comments

The next time you get frustrated by the queues at your bank, or the high fees and charges on your account, spare a thought for Xu Ting (许霆), the Chinese man sentenced to life imprisonment because he used a malfunctioning ATM.

The story began in April 2006, when Xu Ting went to his bank’s ATM to withdraw 1000 yuan. Curiously, the balance docket showed that only 1 yuan had been deducted. Xu repeated the step and withdrew some 54,000 yuan. That night, he told his friend Guo Anshan, and the two of them went back and did it again. Xu withdrew a total of 175,000, while Guo took 18,000. Both then skipped town. However, a year later, Guo reported himself to the police and returned the money. The police caught Xu soon after, though his 175,000 yuan had been lost on bad investments.

Pausing the story for a moment, I should note that, initially, I had thought that this would not be a crime under Australian law, since this was not “taking and carrying away fraudulently”, as required by the crime of larceny. Upon further investigation, however, I discovered that (in NSW at least) the Crimes (Computer and Forgery) Amendment Act 1989 (NSW) amended the offence of “obtaining by deception” (see provision here) so that “deception” includes:

(b) an act or thing done or omitted to be done with the intention of causing:
(i) a computer system; or
(ii) a machine that is designed to operate by means of payment or identification,
to make a response that the person doing or omtiting to do the act or thing is not authorised to cause the computer system or machine to make

This appears to cover Xu’s case, and carries a maximum sentence of 5 years. Of course, the question of whether the criminal law should protect banks in such a case is controversial: see Davies JA in dissent in Mujunen (1993) 67 A crim R 350; King CJ in Kennison v Daire (1985) 38 SASR 404, and Smith, Criminal Exploitation of New Technologies AIC Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice No 93 (July 1998).

Let’s turn back to what happened in China. When Gao “gave himself up”, he was sentenced to one year in prison and a 1000 yuan fine for larceny. Xu was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment by the Intermediate People’s Court of Guangzhou City for the crime of “larceny from financial institution – involving an extraordinarily large sum”, permanent loss of political rights, confiscation of all personal property, and repayment of all 175,000 to the bank.

That’s right, life imprisonment. News of the sentence was met with incredulity in China from legal experts and the online community. “A mistake by an ATM puts the customer in jail for life?” was a typical headline.

There were three lines of criticism. The first questioned whether the elements of the offence had been made out. It was questionable whether an ATM constituted a “financial institution”, and whether Xu’s actions constituted larceny, or illegally and secretly obtaining possession. Despite his apparent intention to obtain wrongful possession of the money, Xu simply walked into a bank branch as he was entitled to do, and using his real identity, withdrew money from an ATM, as he was entitled to do. Such a “larceny”, said Peking University professor of law He Weifang, would be an “incredible larceny”.

Secondly, many commentators pointed towards the actions of the bank. The bank did not realise anything had gone wrong for almost a day after the incident. Furthermore, the entire episode was due to the malfunctioning of the ATM. Tsinghua professor Xu Zhangrun commented that the bank should apologise to Xu, whatever happens. The bank failed to provide an adequate level of service. The primary relationship between the bank and Xu was a contractual one, and as creditor to a debtor, the bank should have sought civil remedies before involving instruments of state.

The third line, and the question no doubt in your mind right now, is how, as a matter of law, can a person who is given money by a bank – even if he had malicious intentions – possibly be sentenced to life imprisonment? The truth is, this was not entirely the result of a callous judge or an abusive court. The court’s hands, to an extent, were tied by the law and legal system. This analysis (in Chinese) from the People’s Court newspaper in 2003  sheds some light on the law behind the seemingly incredible result. The offence “larceny from financial institution”, under Art 264 of the Criminal Code (see an English translation of the provision here), has three levels:

  1. where the amount is “relatively large”: three years’ imprisonment, hard labour, or control surveillance
  2. where the amount is “very large”: three to ten years’ imprisonment
  3. where the amount is “extraordinarily large”: life imprisonment or death

While the provisions are fairly flexible, what sealed Xu’s fate – once the court accepted that he had committed larceny against a financial institution – was that the Supreme People’s Court had defined what each of these terms meant. According to its advisory opinion, more than “30,000 to 100,000” yuan [around A$4,500 to 16,000] was “extraordinarily large”. Once it had accepted that an ATM was a financial institution, and Xu’s “malicious withdrawal” constituted larceny, the Intermediate People’s Court was bound to find that the sum involved was “extraordinarily large”. Given the choice between life imprisonment or a death sentence, it chose the more lenient option.

This result illustrates three weaknesses in the Chinese legal system. One, the confusion between public morality and criminal justice. Fundamentally, the relationship was a contractual one. It is questioned whether this was a situation where the criminal court should have been involved. The reservations expressed about the current treatment in Australian criminal law of the same situation apply equally to the Chinese law.

Two, the protection of special interests. The provision relied upon here imposes especially harsh penalties for taking from a financial institution. In the days when the bank was an arm of the Chinese government, it would have been reasonable for the law to especially protect it from attack. Today, however, most if not all Chinese banks are commercial operations with little or no public policy role. The effect of the law – if it was correctly interpreted by the Intermediate Court – is to give special protection to the stronger party in an essentially commercial, contractual relationship by force of the criminal law.

Thirdly, what I see as the fundamental problem that caused this result is the fact that the intermediate court was bound in its sentencing by the Supreme People’s Court’s directive – a directive that was, in fact, 10 years old in 2007. During those ten years, China’s economy had grown at around 10% every year. While 100,000 may have been an “extraordinarily large” sum in 1997, it was not so to the same extent by 2007. The Supreme Court’s binding directive was effective legislation by stealth. While the legislature intended to leave flexibility in the law’s operations, the Supreme Court destroyed that flexibility. Whereas a superior court’s precedent in a common law system interprets the law and applies it to particular facts, the Supreme Court’s arbitrary figure setting has the effect of writing in statutory words where none existed before. Just like the National People’s Congress’s “explanation” of the Basic Law of Hong Kong, which sparked protests, this incident serves to highlight the continued struggle of China’s legal and political system as it grapples with the rule of law and a system of checks and balances.

Returning to Mr Xu – the news was not all bad. Upon appeal, the Superior Court of Guangdong handed the case back for retrial, on the grounds of “unclear facts, insufficient evidence”. Xu’s lawyer is currently arguing that the bank’s record keeping system was flawed, and thus there was insufficient evidence of the theft. One obstacle facing Xu, though, is that public opinion is now turning against him, after he gave evidence in court that his intention was to take the money “for safekeeping” on the bank’s behalf, words that his father denounced as “lies” on national television. The saga continues.

 Update: On March 31, 2008, the intermediate people’s court on retrial convicted Xu Ting as charged, and sentenced him to five years imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 yuan (about $1,500 Australian).  In court, when asked by the judge, Xu said he will not appeal. The court avoided the mandatory sentencing provisions of the Criminal Code using Art 63(2) of the Code, which gave courts a discretion to impose a sentence lower than the minimum, where approved by the Supreme People’s Court.

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Third world trains?

August 30th, 2007 2 comments

There has been a series of indignant articles (couldn’t find the most indignant ones, but here’s one of them) in the SMH over the decision of the NSW government to award the contract for the next generation of CityRail trains to a consortium that will outsource the construction to Changchun Railway Vehicle Company in China. Every time the company is mentioned in the SMH, it is followed by the tagline “a company with little experience of supplying rolling stock to developed countries” (or words to the effect).

So yesterday, riding home on a rickety 1970s CityRail train with dirty seats, dirty floors, mismatched window panes and the suspension of a blender, I realised just how misguided the Herald’s “consternation” is. If you want third world trains, then CityRail has got to be the perfect specimen.

Badly maintained? check. Unreliable timetable? check. Crappy ticketing system? check. Hired goons who terrorise passengers? check. Lack of basic station infrastructure (rubbish bins)? check. Breaks down every two hours? check.

By contrast, rail systems in China are by and large reliable, on time, clean (if crowded), and well maintained. Rides are more comfortable because they’ve bothered to build suspension into the trains and properly maintain the tracks. The newer double decker trains have all the comforts and conveniences of the Millenium trains, but with smoother rides and without the regular breakdowns. (I couldn’t find any photos of Chinese trains – but here are some of the new Shanghai South station.)

What’s more, Changchun Car Company is in fact a joint venture with Bombadier of Germany, which builds carriages for Paris, New York, Hong Kong, Toronto, and Chicago, among others.

So instead of the xenophobic drivel from the SMH, it is more likely that we will finally get some trains that meet first world standards! Then if only CityRail would improve its running to 1930s standards, we’ll be about as well off as Mussolini’s Italy.

* * * * *

Speaking of xenophobic drivel from the SMH, this article is so ridiculously biased and misinformed it is not funny. Writing about Taiwan, and the 2008 Olympic torch relay controversy, reporter Mary-Anne Toy regurgitates undigested Chen Shui-bien’s propaganda by the chunk. She assumes that Taiwan is an independent country, which has nothing to do with China, and that Taiwan by rights should be in the UN and should be treated as an independent country by China and the rest of the world. For example, she talks about “24 countries that recognise Taiwan…” Anyone with any semblance of knowledge of modern Chinese history will know that those 24 countries recognise the Republic of China government (or Taiwanese government) as the government of China. No country recognises “Taiwan”, per se – but President Chen Shui-bien would clearly like you to think otherwise, and Mary-Anne Toy duely regurgitated his version.

I don’t know if she is seriously out of touch with reality, or whether she was just bought by the Taiwanese government’s hospitality (the telling line, in bold in the online version: “Mary-Anne Toy visited Taiwan this month as a guest of its government.”) The truth is, polling consistently show that the vast majority of Taiwanese want to preserve the ambiguous status quo, and only a small minority want to push for independence, or believe that Taiwan is a country independent from China. And, of course, Mary-Anne Toy cares nothing about what the rest of China thinks. They’re all commie-nazis anyway, so who would care what they think?

I think I will stick with Fin Rev. They might care only about money, but at least they don’t pretend bias is neutrality.

Categories: Events, Random facts, Technology, Travels Tags:

RIP laptop

August 20th, 2007 1 comment

My ASUS laptop screen has died, after months of death throes. Well, the screen itself isn’t dead – it still lights up when I start it up. but no signal is getting through, so it just goes from blank to a slightly more grey blank.

Not being very diligent when it comes to backing things up, I spent 3 hours getting my law notes off the laptop and onto the PC. At first, I thought it would be easy – just plug in another monitor and copy it to disc. However, Windows XP, being so smart, blocks off the output once you get to the login screen.

I tried to get around that by going into DOS, but then realised that DOS (or maybe just my circa 1993 command of it) can’t burn to CD or copy to USB. In the end, I went back to the (invisible) login screen, and operated blindly to log in.

So no more laptop… back to the stone age with pen and paper. *sigh*. If you have a spare $2000 lying around, please send it to Tommy’s Laptop Fund – email for details.

Categories: Events, Technology Tags: