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The Law’s a Joke

May 12, 2017 Leave a comment

They say that any news is good news, so New Zealanders should be pretty happy with all the exposure this country is getting in the US at the moment, mainly thanks to it being the subject of ridicule by comedian, John Oliver.

I’m not complaining here because I don’t think the material is nasty and it is presented with good humour. In many ways it makes New Zealand look a bit wacky and maybe just a bit less boring than it might be otherwise. Also, after looking at the news today, I can see Oliver’s point – there really is some pretty silly stuff going on here.

So here’s a list of some of the better stories coming out of New Zealand in recent times: our prime minister’s (at the time) weird and creepy obsession with pony tails; the famous “dildo-gate” event where politician Steve Joyce was hit in the face by a sex toy; a really embarrassing court case involving the illicit sexual fantasies of conservative party leader, Colin Craig; and the National Party’s use of an alleged rip-off of Eminem’s song, Lose Yourself, in its election campaigning.

Maybe the only country that should be even more embarrassed about the frivolous use of its legal system is Ireland, where Stephen Fry’s alleged blasphemy is being investigated by police (to be fair, I should say that the investigation was terminated shortly after I wrote this because of “an insufficient number of outraged people”).

As I said above, I do think a lot of this stuff is just amusing and I don’t take it too seriously. I was really impressed at the good natured way Joyce accepted the indignity of the “attack” on him, for example.

But it is pretty ridiculous how much effort is going into some of these court cases (especially the campaign song copyright case, and the Colin Craig defamation case against right-wing blogger Cameron Slater). Considering how much money is being spent on these and how many more important cases are currently waiting to proceed, it is again rather embarrassing how our legal system is being made to look like a bit of a joke.

But I have always considered our so-called “justice system” a joke, or to use the more common phrase: the law is an ass. By the way, that phrase goes back to 1653 where it was used in a publication in England. The word “ass” was used to indicate that the law is obstinate and inflexible like an ass (or donkey) has the reputation of being.

We are all expected to follow the law, and ignorance is no excuse. But even the prime minister admitted that he was unaware of our blasphemy laws, when the subject arose after the situation in Ireland was discussed. Also, our attorney-general admitted to enjoying a good bit of blasphemy on occasion. So the country’s chief legal officer enjoys breaking the law, apparently. I guess this is is another aspect of its asinine nature.

In this post I have concentrated only on how stupid the law is, but if that was it’s only fault I would be quite happy. The real problem is a much darker one. That is how unfair, inconsistent, incomprehensible, and inflexible the law is. We really have got ourselves stuck in a corner where everyone is more worried about what is legal rather than what is right.

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No Justice in NZ

September 27, 2016 Leave a comment

A rich kid beats up a local (female) cop and is only punished with community work. A young rugby player assaults several people and is discharged without conviction. These are two recent cases of violence in New Zealand where a violent offender has basically got away with little or no punishment.

In the first case the cop was punched several times while unconscious and in the second the victim’s head was stomped on after he was punched and fell to the ground. These sound like pretty serious assaults yet no significant punishment was judged necessary. And for other, far more minor, crimes people are locked up for significant amounts of time. What’s going on here? Is this really the way our “justice” system should work?

Well judging from most of the comments on these two incidents – many of which thought the law is a joke – the legal system (I will call it that because it has little to do with justice) has failed miserably. But should both of the people above have been sentenced to prison instead as many people think?

Well maybe not, but I don’t think prison is an appropriate response for the vast majority of crimes, so in my opinion almost no one should go there.

If you think about it the whole thing is absurd…

First, someone does something which is against a set of arbitrary rules which everyone is expected to know (yet no one does). These rules might or might not follow what the majority would regard as natural justice.

Then, the offender might or might not be caught depending on priorities such as the amount of resource the police are using against that particular transgression at the time (something which is generally politically motivated).

If the offender is caught he will receive some judgement based on the opinion of a judge who is probably more out of touch with everyday life than any other person in society. Additionally, if the accused has lots of money he can get a better lawyer and is far more likely to be found innocent.

If found guilty the offender is sentenced based on vague and arcane rules which essentially come back to the opinion of the (out of touch) judge. It will also depend on the time of day, how long it is since the judge had a coffee, the offender’s appearance, race, and gender, and many other factors. In some cases the person might avoid any punishment at all depending on the judge’s particular interpretation of the rules at the time.

Then, the criminal (because that is now what they are) is most likely sent to a prison where he will stay, at huge cost to the taxpayer, in an environment where he is exposed to some of the worst people in society and will most likely learn attitudes and skills making future crimes more likely.

Finally, the person is released from prison and expected to re-integrate into society, even though having a criminal record makes that almost impossible.

Where did we ever get the idea that this could ever be a good system?

Maybe it is like most of the other systems our society has where they are clearly inadequate but since we have evolved with them over hundreds of years we have just got used to them and are too timid to try anything which might be better. These systems might include: parliament, courts, local government, banks, financial institutions, etc. Well OK, let’s be honest here – it includes everything!

So, unlike most people, I am not saying these two thugs should have been locked up in prison like others who have done far lesser crimes. I am saying that they shouldn’t have been locked up, but neither should the people who did the lesser crimes, and neither should many who did worse crimes too.

Real crimes (and by that I mean stuff like theft from individuals or violence, which all reasonable people agree is bad) are committed by people with anti-social tendencies. They might be so poor they need to steal to survive, they might have psychological issues as a result of being from a violent family, they might have drug dependencies, or they might have attitude issues because they belong to some sort of elite group (like the ultra-rich or elite sports-people).

In every case part of the blame belongs with the individual and part with the person’s circumstances, many of which are beyond their control. So having a “lock them up” attitude is neither fair nor effective. Why not get psychological appraisals of all offenders and base a program of rehabilitation on that? If the person is beyond redemption then prison might be appropriate, but I suspect in most cases it wouldn’t be.

This is beginning to sound like another part of my program to revolutionise society with rational decision making: get rid of the judges and bring in the trained psychologists. But it’s not really the judges who are the problem, or the law makers, or even the law breakers. It’s the system.

They’re Taking Over!

August 31, 2016 Leave a comment

As an IT professional and technology enthusiast I generally feel quite positive about advances where computers become better than humans at yet another thing. Many people thought that a computer would never beat a human at chess, but now it is accepted that computers will always be better. When our silicon creations beat us at chess we moved on to another, more complex, game, Go. But now computers have beaten the world champion at that too. And in the process made a move that an expert described as “beautiful and mysterious”.

So what’s next? Well how about one of the most esteemed jobs in our society and one which most people, who don’t really understand what is going on, might say would be the last that a mere machine could tackle. I’m talking about law, and even the top tier of the legal profession: being a judge.

Before I start on that I would like to make an important distinction between the approach to the two games above: Chess and Go. Most computers solve Chess problems by using brute force, that is considering millions of possible moves and counter-moves and taking the move that leads to the best outcome. But that wasn’t practical for Go so the program instead learns how to play by playing against other players and against itself. It really could be said to be learning like a human would and that is the approach future AI will probably use.

An experiment was done in the UK which replicated court cases and compared the AI’s decision with a judge’s. The computer agreed with the judge in 31 out of the 32 cases – maybe the judge got the last case wrong!

Computers do well evaluating complex and technical areas such as international trade dispute law, but are also useful for more common laws, such as divorce and child custody. Plus computers are much better and faster at doing the research tasks that law firms currently use legal professionals for. Another highly rated job that won’t exist much longer maybe?

An expert has stated that creating a computer system that can answer all legal questions is easy, but getting that system used in most societies (which might be quite resistant to change) is the difficult part!

I find the idea of replacing lawyers and judges with computers quite appealing for a few reasons. First, traditionally it has been poorly paid manual workers who have been at threat of being replaced so it is nice to see society’s elite aren’t immune. Second, there are so many cases of terrible decisions being made by judges that having an unbiased computer do the work instead seems like a potentially good idea. And third, if highly rate jobs like these can be replaced then the idea of replacing other jobs becomes easier (the medical profession will be next).

It all sounds quite exciting, as long as you can get over the rather obsolete idea that all humans should exist just to work. But there are a few more unsettling possibilities which are also being tested now. One is to predict whether people convicted of crimes are likely to re-offend in future. There are already claims that this system is biased against blacks. Unfortunately the algorithm in use is secret so no one can ever know.

And that brings me to what is maybe the key point I want to make in how I think this technology should be implemented. Allowing computers to control important aspects of our society, like law, needs to be transparent and accountable. We cannot trust corporations who will inevitably hide the details of what their programs do through copyright and patents. So all the code needs to be open source so that we all know exactly what we are getting.

Many people will just deny that the computer takeover I am describing can happen, and many will say that even if it can happen we shouldn’t let it. I say it can happen and it should happen, but only if it is done properly. Private business has no place in something so critical. We need a properly resourced and open public organisation to do this work. And everything they do should be completely open to view by anyone.

If we do this properly the computer takeover can be a good thing. And yes, I know this is a cliche, but I will say it: I, for one, welcome our silicon overlords!

Apple vs the FBI

February 18, 2016 Leave a comment

All reasonably modern Apple devices have very good built-in security. If you were worried that your iPhone, or iPad, or Mac (if it is set up correctly) can be “cracked” and all the information on it be made readable then fear no more. Obviously even the FBI can’t crack an iPhone and neither can Apple.

We know this because the FBI have an iPhone 5c which belonged to one of the perpetrators of the recent terrorist attack in San Bernardino. But they can’t get into it and neither can Apple even when the FBI asks them to.

So now the feds want Apple to create a new version of the operating system which disables the automatic deletion feature when the PIN code is incorrect after 10 tries. In fact they have a court order which forces Apple to do this. But Apple has so far refused and will appeal the decision.

But why? Why would Apple want to protect a terrorist’s information when they could instead help with the investigation? Is it because they don’t want to waste the time and money on a project which has no benefit to them? Do they want to protect any guilty parties or hinder the investigation in some way? Or do they want to protect their customers and maintain the security of the platform?

I think it’s obvious that the first two options really don’t make sense so it seems that Apple really do want to make a stand here on behalf of the users and not compromise the security and privacy they currently have.

It’s actually quite a courageous position because I am fairly sure that almost any other company would have simply complied with the legal requirement of cooperation and helped break the security.

So it might be courageous but is it wise? Shouldn’t Apple be prepared to sacrifice privacy in this one case to help with the investigation of a serious criminal event? Probably not, because whatever the feds say, this will not be the only time they use an ability like this and it’s unlikely to remain with an organisation which ostensibly represents the “good guys”.

There are two clear problems if a way is created to bypass security: first, the official law organisations will almost surely use it for illicit purposes such as stealing private data belonging to political opponents of the government; and second, the technique will equally surely find its way into the hands of the real bad guys (that is the bad guys who are even worse than the good guys, who are often quite bad themselves).

This is a rare case where someone is actually doing what I have suggested is everybody’s obligation: do do what is right rather than what is legal. And, although there are many things I criticise Apple for, I think this is an example of where they do have standards far above most other corporations. For doing what’s right I give them full credit.

Most Hated Man

September 26, 2015 Leave a comment

Turing Pharmaceuticals founder Martin Shkreli has recently been named the most hated man on the internet. That is quite an “honour” because there is a lot of very worthy competition. The previous holder of the title was generally thought to be Walter Palmer, the American dentist who killed Cecil the lion. It certainly seems that anyone bad enough to take the title from him must be a real bastard! And yes, this guy clearly is.

Note that in both of these cases nothing illegal was involved, so it seems that doing something immoral is actually worse than doing something illegal, at least according to the extremely thoughtful commentators on ethics from internet forums (extreme sarcasm there, but a certain amount of truth as well according to wisdom of crowds and that sort of thing).

This fits with my own thoughts. While most laws are based on reasonable and fair ideas (don’t kill other people, don’t steal from them, etc) in the details they are essentially arbitrary. In fact they are worse than that because there is a clear bias in many laws favouring the rich and powerful even though in many cases they have the lowest moral standards and need the least legal protection.

So yes, doing something wrong should always be seen as worse than doing something merely illegal. But getting back to this particular example of immorality. What did this scumbag actually do?

Well, Martin Shkreli is described as “an American hedge fund manager and entrepreneur”. The word “entrepreneur” can mean anything, from someone who genuinely creates new products or services which benefit society to someone who has just through native cunning found a way to manipulate the system for his own benefit. Guess which this guy is! As far as “hedge fund manager” is concerned, well I don’t think any comment is necessary, except these people represent pretty much the worst part of modern capitalism (and yes, I realise hedge funds can be put to good uses, but are generally not).

Shkreli bought the rights for a drug called “Daraprim” and increased the price by over 50 times, from $13.50 to $750 per tablet. He might have seen it as just a business deal but the reality is this drug is relied on by people with a rather nasty disease called toxoplasmosis (try a Google image search on this one) caused by a parasite and can severely affect those with compromised immune systems.

The increased price (which he has been forced to decrease) would have surely lead to a lot of suffering amongst people with the disease. But did he care? I very much doubt it.

But this is capitalism working the way it is supposed to. Many people would pay the new price just because they have to. So you could say the market would support almost any price the seller wanted to impose. The drug is out of patent but (as far as I am aware) no other company makes it so there is not even the rather doubtful protection of normal competitive forces working here. Other companies might start making it for less but their setup costs would be high and Shkreli’s company could then drop their price and quite likely destroy the new competitor.

But it’s not really Shkreli’s fault, so what is the problem here? Simply that capitalism doesn’t work. It never has and never will. I mean it’s OK for things that don’t matter like selling Coke, but it can’t be trusted for healthcare and other stuff which is actually important.

The problem is not that he broke the law or didn’t follow the rules, it is that he followed the rules too well. What he did is exactly what pure capitalism demands: to see an opportunity and use your entrepreneurial skills to use that opportunity to maximise your profit. He might be hated, but over-achievers often are. The problem is that he is an over-achiever in a corrupt system.

There is one final point I should make. This is the sort of phenomenon we are allowing to take control if we sign up for the TPP. Corporations will be able to use the rules of commerce to make more money while inflicting massive suffering on the population as a whole. They probably won’t do anything as obvious and crass as what Shkreli did, but the underlying motives will be exactly the same.

What Kind of Country?

October 7, 2014 Leave a comment

What kind of country do we want to live in? This is a question some people are asking after the latest, apparently politically motivated, police raid on an innocent person, in this case journalist Nicky Hager. As I have said in the past I think most New Zealand police are basically good people but do I trust them? Hell, no!

I don’t trust them for two reasons. First, there are clearly certain police who are not good people. There are some who are bullies, violent, self-serving, and corrupt. And the others have little choice but to do what their “superiors” tell them. And those superiors may not be getting direct instructions from their political masters (although if they were it wouldn’t surprise me) but they know what they want anyway.

Every week there seems to be another story of police corruption, stupid errors, apologies, and situations where they should apologise but refuse to. And yes, you can ask what would I do if I was a crime victim and I would answer by saying that I would call the police. Why? Well first, I have no choice, but more significantly I think that most of the time the good cops get on with their job and do the right thing. But I am still suspicious of everything they do.

So getting back to the original question: what kind of country do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a country where the police are used as a weapon against enemies of big American corporate interests? Where they spend huge amounts of money launching violent and totally disproportionate raids against people who have committed minor crimes at worst? Do we want to live in a country where armed police menace innocent women and children? Do we want a situation where journalists (or their even more innocent family) who expose the dirty tricks our leaders are involved with are menaced by police searches and who have their possessions stolen by police?

I hope no one would want this, but that’s what we’ve now got. And to make matters worse we now have a police force who only comment when they want to and have a propaganda section who feed the media false information to try to justify their actions.

The police leadership are unlikely to get much better. They are like senior management in almost every large organisation: lacking in basic decent morals. So what should a normal cop do? Obviously it is his duty to sabotage the efforts of his own organisation, just like that is like everyone’s duty when the management of their workplace become arrogant or corrupt.

He can’t realistically refuse to participate in these immoral and cowardly attacks but he could leak information about his superior’s actions to the press through people like Hager. Obviously this would be a rather dangerous action but we’re talking about our country’s freedom and fairness here so what alternative is there?

Finally, I would like to list just a few of the headlines describing the New Zealand police’s immoral or incompetent actions I have noticed over the last few years…

Dirty Politics: Police raid Nicky Hager’s home
Police illegally shut down parties
Crewe murders: Frustrated Thomases ‘feel cheated’ and bereft of answers
Apology over Urewera raids
Police apologise for delay in catching rapist
Communication failures blamed for Roast Busters errors
Police too ‘busy’ to attend 111 call about gunshots
Roast Busters: Victim made complaint to police two years ago
Dunedin police lose tear-gas canister
Police apologise for revealing secret deal over death
Police refuse to apologise for roughly treating pensioner
Police officer’s actions contributed to man’s paralysing injuries
Police killing: ‘It’s just wrong’ says grieving grandma
Fresh charges laid against accused cop
Bain evidence: Police respond
IPCA to investigate police actions in rape case
Police officer fails to stop following crash
Eulogy scripted to praise cop who planted Crewe evidence
Officers joked about framing Thomas recalls bar worker
Hidden speed cameras ‘a nice little earner’
Cops on the wrong side of the law
Lawyer rubbishes police claims over autistic ‘looter’
Police in abuse of power row
Police anti-terror squad spies on protest groups
Officer’s email suggests ticket quota blitz
Police rewards offered: $800,000 Amount paid out: $0
Police shoot and miss dog 12 times during domestic
Peaceful protests and violent police

Sure, it’s easy to concentrate on the bad and ignore all the good work they do, but I’m sorry but I expect better… a lot better than this!

No Justice

August 15, 2014 1 comment

We often call our system of law the “justice system” but I specifically avoid using that description because justice often seems to have very little to do with the actual practice of law.

I know that the word “justice” can mean a system used to administer the law but the more common meaning, and the one most people first think of, involves words like these synonyms: fairness, justness, fair play, fair-mindedness, equity, evenhandedness, impartiality, objectivity, neutrality, disinterestedness, honesty, righteousness, morals, and morality.

So what is all of this leading to? Well obviously I have discovered another situation where our system of laws isn’t fair, and the reason it isn’t fair seems to relate mainly to politics.

I recently heard an interview with an associate professor of law who compared the exercise of the law in relation to tax evasion and welfare fraud. Both of these transgressions (or crimes, or misdeeds, or whatever else you want to call them) are purely financial in nature, there are no direct victims (although the government or taxpayer could be seen as a victim), and they produce the same outcome: less money available for government spending.

Before I go any further I should say that tax evasion is the illegal failure to pay taxes and this should not be confused with tax avoidance which is avoiding paying tax through legal means. But I think in many cases avoidance, even though it is legal, is worse than evasion. Huge corporations paying almost no tax is pretty morally reprehensible in my opinion, even if it isn’t technically illegal.

But to continue with the main point, let’s look at the size of the problem. In New Zealand the government loses about a billion dollars from tax evasion every year, and the estimate of hidden activities is over 5 billion. So how much is lost to benefit fraud? That would be 20 to 30 million. That seems fairly trivial in comparison.

The tax problem is over a hundred times worse than the benefit one so you would expect efforts at control, prosecutions, and penalties to be correspondingly high. But no, 700 welfare benefit cheats are prosecuted each year, compared with 50 tax evaders. And even though the average value of a tax fraud case is $287,000 only 20% go to prison compared with welfare fraud, where the most serious case involved $67,000 but where there was a 60% chance of prison as a penalty.

To make matters worse restitution for tax fraud in 176 cases showed just 18 repaid in full and 13 partly paid, but in the case of welfare fraud, practically every case was fully pursued.

Remember that most people are on welfare just to survive and many might be forced into bending the rules just to try to give their family a slightly better life, but in the case of most tax fraud just plain greed is the motivating factor.

It seems like a simple case of one law for the rich and another for the poor but there are some extenuating circumstances. The government has put a bit more effort into stopping tax evasion, but even then it is not as much extra effort as they have put into stopping benefit fraud. I think it is fair that Inland Revenue should try to help possible offenders to correct and repay their debts but why not offer the same flexibility to those guilty of benefit fraud?

There is a simple explanation here. Our right-wing governments and their supporters like to be seen as being tough on benefit fraud even though it hardly even matters in the big picture. And those same people are often sympathetic to those who avoid paying tax even when their actions are illegal. And yes, these are the same people who want to get “tough on crime”. Right-wing nutters aren’t exactly known for their tolerance or their consistency I guess!

But whatever the motivations for this inconsistency I think one conclusion is obvious: we really don’t have a justice system, just a legal system designed to be anything but fair. There really is no justice.