Bugger The Banks, We’re Going to Mars

With the successful landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars, the inevitable comparison with what has been poured into the banking system was made in the letters page of the Irish Times (and more amazingly without painful puns):

As a final aside, we could have had an Irish space programme and a viable base on the moon with all the associated financial, technological and investment spin-offs for the money that, with a stroke of a minister’s pen, we “invested” in bailing out our failed banks. – Yours, etc,

For a change though, someone has crunched the numbers. WorldbyStorm from The Cedar Lounge Revolution did some quick calculations on what’s been wasted on propping up failed banks (of course you could also add the money that’s flowing into Quinn Insurance because of the black hole there but that only covers 2/3rds of a Curiosity):

The EU bailout saw €17.5 bn from the NPRF. Then there’s the ‘loans’ from the EU, IMF and UK/Denmark and Sweden which would account for €67.5 bn. Sundry other costs can be thrown in. So let’s say we had €100bn.

That’s a lot of cash, but Apple currently has approximately that in cash reserves right now so it’s not an impossible number to reach especially over a number of years. So what would that get you?

There’s a web page here which suggests that it cost $100bn at 1994 rates to land on the Moon. But even accounting for inflation we wouldn’t necessarily have to follow all the steps. For a start we could double up some of the missions and vehicles, perhaps by moving straight to a three or more person capsule and eschewing either the Mercury or Gemini elements of the program.

Now here’s the thing – Space X has developed, built and launched a reusable spacecraft that docked with the ISS for the paltry sum of $800 million. There’s already plans to build a version that could make it Mars. So a chunk of the R&D has already been done. Their model of providing resupply services to the ISS would also be a source of income to plough back into the program.

That’s all well and good but what about some of the other practicalities of skilled people to actually run such a program or even build anything. As it happens, Ireland is already involved with the ESA since 1975 and has an active (if small) space industry. It’d need to scale up, but that would provide jobs and direct investment that paying off bondholders doesn’t.

Just think. For less than the bailout, we could gather up all the architects of our current situation and bundle them into a capsule bound for Mars and still come out ahead. We could even televise their one way trip for even more money.  All in the name of science.

An Irish Space Programme and an Irish Base on the Moon! What do you mean we spent the money already?

A version of this post also appeared on Broadsheet.ie.

Not quite the Wild West

For the last week or so, the rather tiresome old versus new media has resurfaced.  It all kicked off with the proposed public broadcast charge and the with Alan Crosbie’s speech which devolved into luddite complaining about new media destroying civil society.  It continued with on-message articles in two of the Sundays.

First off, we have a column in today’s Irish Mail on Sunday where John Waters rants and raves about the lack of accountability on the internet.

Waters seems to be under a misapprehension that the internet is not covered by the current Defamation Act. Both he and the Independent seem to think that Minister Pat Rabitte’s recent speech on media diversity is looking to change the law to do this. What he actually is proposing is to bring parts of the Irish online media under the Press Council of Ireland which could actually afford a small amount of protection against vexatious litigation.

His annoyance with the internet seems to be around his Wikipedia page and a charge of hypocrisy (it also could be over a joke about his losing Eurovision entry).  He doesn’t go into detail what advice he exactly got but I’ll let David Cochrane of Politics.ie address his conclusion about dealing with being libeled on the internet:

What’s more likely is that he was told he’d have to sue Wikipedia in the U.S. and he’d just be wasting his money.  If the existing law didn’t cover the internet, then Broadsheet.ie wouldn’t have gotten double digit worth of legal threats in the last 18 months, MCD wouldn’t have tried to sue Boards.ie, and a €100K judgement wouldn’t have been made against a blogger.

He then goes on to talk about the shutdown of www.rate-your-solicitor.com. Fergal Crehan sums it up beautifully:

It is possibly the fact that it was an Irish owned site than meant the site owners could be brought before an Irish court but that’s far too obvious for Waters to see.

Then there is an opinion piece in the Sunday Independent by Eamon Delaney.  He covers much of the same ground as Water’s column – both mention Alan Crosbie and his speech, Pat Rabitte’s speech, Ruairi Quinn calling the internet “a playground for anonymous backstabbers” and those on Politics.ie as typical examples of internet commentators.

It concludes with the same assertion that the internet is not covered by the current laws governing libel.  Where this misapprehension stems from is not clear – either a lack of understanding of the law or a willful misinterpretation would be my guesses.

It’s all very tiresome to see the same ill-informed calls for regulation by people who obviously have little understanding of the internet, its mechanics and how it is currently regulated.

Where the law does need to be changed is to differentiate between content a site might create and that generated by users.  At the moment, a site is responsible for any comments left by a user rather than the user themselves.  While a site should respond to legitimate complaints about this user content, it should not be ultimately held responsible.

Still John Waters has to be given credit for the phrase ‘underpants commentariat’.


Oh god my eyes:

Anything the Americans can do, we can do better – the Irish SOPA

Last week there was an online protest over a piece of American legislation called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).  It’s a particularly draconian piece of legislation and it’s been thankfully shelved.  Broadsheet.ie also took part in the blackout.  A lot of people thought this was just bandwagoning, but there was actually an Irish slant.

Due to pressure from the music industry, Sean Sherlock, Minister of State for Research and Innovation, will be signing a statutory instrument which will bring in an Irish equivalent of SOPA.  TJ McIntyre has an excellent FAQ on why this is really bad and isn’t just something that a few internet nerds are getting riled up about.

I’m not hugely politically, but this is something that won’t just disappear of its own accord.  I encourage anyone who has an interest in not being put under the kosh by vindictive music corporations contact Sean Sherlock (via his website or at sean.sherlock@oireachtas.ie) as I have and register you displeasure.  You could also email your local TD.  there is a full list of email address available on www.oireachtas.ie.

If you do contact any TDs about this, please be polite and not a rabid internet monkey.  That never does anyone any good.  I’ve included what I sent as an example.

Dear Mr. Sherlock,

I wish to register my disappointment as a life long labour voter at
the implementation of a biased, poorly thought out and harmful piece
of legislation via a statutory instrument which would allow Irish
courts to block access to websites accused of infringing copyright.

This will do nothing to prevent piracy and everything to stifle the
internet and all the business that go along with it – especially ones
the music industry finds particularly disruptive.

Have you consulted anyone at all from the Irish (or international)
technology industry about this? Has it been explained to you how easy
this sort of thing is to circumvent? How the media industry has used
similar laws in the US as blunt instruments to silence critics?

What protections will be put in place to stop vexatious takedown
attempts? What compensation will unjustly accused and shut down sites
receive? What is the level of proof that will be required?

It’s an utter disgrace that a Minister of State for Research and
Innovation will be ruining the best chance this country has for
building its economy back up again. The government talks enough about
the knowledge economy – maybe it should take heed from those who
actually understand the internet and its working than protectionist,
luddite, control freak corporations.

Mr McIntyre lays out exactly what is wrong with the law as proposed in
a recent blog post:

Yours sincerely,

Update 12/3/2012:
A canned response from Seán Sherlock hit my inbox a few minutes ago:

A Chara,

I would like to update you regarding the enactment of the European Union (Copyright and Related Rights) Regulations 2012.

I fully acknowledge the concerns that have been expressed by you regarding the introduction of the European Union (Copyright and Related Rights) Regulations 2012 which were signed into law on 29th February, 2012. I wish to re-emphasise that it has been necessary to introduce this legislative measure to restate the position that was thought to exist in the Copyright and Related Rights Act, 2000 regarding injunctions against intermediaries prior to the High Court Judgement of Justice Charleton in the case of EMI & others –v- UPC and to ensure that Ireland is compliant with our obligations under EU law.

I am satisfied that the High Court now has significant guidance in the implementation of this legislative measure arising from the underpinning EU Directives, as interpreted by the recent Court of Justice of the European Union case law, to ensure that any remedy provided will uphold the following principles:

• Freedom to conduct a business enjoyed by operators such as ISPs;
• The absolute requirement that an ISP cannot be required to carry out general monitoring on the information it carries on its network;
• Any measures must be fair and proportionate and not be unnecessarily complicated or costly;
• The fundamental rights of an ISPs’ customers must be respected, namely their right to protection of their personal data and their freedom to receive or impart information.

I am determined to ensure that Ireland will be a premier location where innovation can flourish and where innovation is facilitated by our copyright laws and data protection regime. In this regard, I am committed to reviewing and updating the Copyright legislation currently in place in order to strike the right balance between encouraging innovation and protecting creativity.

In this context, I am particularly anxious that the Consultation Paper of the Copyright Review Committee, which was launched on 29th February, 2012, is carefully studied by all interested parties to stimulate a constructive and well informed debate on these issues. This is a wide-ranging Consultation Paper which examines the current copyright legislative framework to identify any areas of the legislation that might be deemed to create barriers to innovation. The Consultation Paper is available to download at the following link: http://www.djei.ie/science/ipr/crc_statement.htm.

I would like to encourage the deepest engagement by all interested parties in the consultation process which has been launched in order to stimulate a constructive and well informed debate on all of the issues raised in this rapidly evolving area.

I am confident that the work being carried out by the Copyright Review Committee together with the interaction and input of all of the interested parties will result in establishing Irish copyright law on a firm footing to encourage innovation, foster creativity and meet the challenges of the future with confidence.

Yours sincerely,

Seán Sherlock TD
Minister for Research and Innovation

Jobordole.com: a rebuttal

On Sunday night, I launched jobordole.com, a simple calculator that tries to work out if you’d be better off working or on the dole.  This was all inspired by an article about two people being offered a job at €28K and refusing it because they were better off on the dole.  I don’t know much about the ins and outs of claiming anything from welfare, so I decided to educate myself and see if this was true (as I suspected it wasn’t).

I’ve been getting traffic today from a blog called ‘Progressive-Econonomy@TASC‘ where there was a post by Michael Taft called ‘A life of luxury on the dole‘.  The post takes issue with how I’ve made my calculations and the language I use.  Since I’ve been responding to people on forum threads, I’m going to do the (unusual for me) step of responding here to his criticisms.

First off, he’s reading far, far too much into how I phrased things.  I used ‘you could get‘ for the dole part as your means tested and the value displayed only the possible maximum amount.  To make this clearer, I’ve changed it to ‘The maximum you could be entitled to‘.

I used ‘ You get’ for a person’s pay as if you are paid, the figure is far firmer.  I can determine’s a persons take home pay with far greater accuracy as a large chunk of the variables are already known.  It also could be because I work so automatically think of myself in these situations.  But that would be reading far, far too far into a throw away sentence written around a far more important value.

On to his first proper complaint – Family Income Support.  This is a fair complaint and I’ve included it in the calculation.  However, for the example at hand, the mythical job refuser would still get more on the dole (€15.81) so my calculations are still valid.  I’ve added a few links to the FIS information on welfare and fingers crossed, one of the many people who don’t claim it will see it and start benefiting.

The second part of the argument if about the rent supplement.  I found the numbers on how many people are actually receiving the supplement to be extremely interesting (and far lower than I would have guessed).  However, just because only 13.5% of those on Jobseekers Allowance get it doesn’t invalidate my calculator.  As he points out, one of my assumptions is that you do get it.  If you know you don’t or wouldn’t get the rent supplement you can easily see from my breakdown that it’s not worth refusing a job.  It is a key factor and I make no apologies for using it in the calculator.  I have added the stat to my assumptions so people are clear that there’s only a slim chance of receiving it.

On to the number I picked for the rent.  It is the maximum and it was picked so the example would get the maximum possible rent supplement.  On the contention that the Daft report says the average rent in Dublin is €993, I can’t see that figure directly (and I’m too lazy to add the number for the various Dublin areas myself).  What I do see is that the rents in the Dublin area can range from €850 to €1,284 so while €930 is at the bottom end of the range, it is still within the average rent.  Also, the prices used in the Daft report are the displayed price and not the price a property was rented at.  My own (and many friends and acquaintances) experience is that at the moment the asking price is only a start and places are rented for much lower.  However, anecdotes are not evidence so we’ll go with the Daft figures. 10 of the 24 areas have average rents under €930 so I don’t think it unreasonable that a family could get a two bed at that price.  A quick search on Daft for 2 beds under €1000 (since you can’t pick €930 exactly) throws up a number of properties for or under our magic €930 (which will accept the all important rent allowance).

The next part of the complaint is that €930 is higher than you’re allowed elsewhere.  This is true, and I don’t hide that fact.  The table listing all the maximum rents allowed in each area is made available via the link entitled ‘Show/hide a list of the limits.’.  Our example family though lived in Dublin so it’s not going outside of the parameters.  Going on then about the different limits without changing the example is moving the goalposts somewhat.  I’m making a claim about a very particular set of circumstances.  It’s easy to plug in numbers for the other areas and see if the same results come out in favour of taking the dole (not at all).

I’m not claiming that everyone gets €191 a week in rent allowance.  It is worked out individually for each set of numbers put in.  The figure of €191 only applies if you are paying exactly €930 a month in rent.  It’s disingenuous to imply (as is done in the paragraph about the average received) that the calculator always assigns this amount.  If you do take the average of €106 for rent allowance, then you’d need to earn over €20K before a job become more financially rewarding.

So at the end of this, my contention and calculation still stands – if you live in Dublin, have a spouse and dependant child and if you are entitled to rent allowance (and get the maximum allowed of €930), you are better off on the dole.  All that Michael Taft’s post has done is put meat on the bones and tell you how likely it is for the conditions to be right (which, in fairness, is very much worth doing).

What bugs me a bit is that Mr. Taft didn’t bother to scroll a little further beyond the assumptions and click on the contact me link and get in touch.  I’m always open to suggestions on improvements and I’ve been keeping an eye on a couple of threads where the site has been mentioned to see if there’s anything I can easily add.  I found out about the post from my access logs, a mention in a thread and an e-mail from a randomer who likes the idea but thinks I should improve it.

As a final parting shot, I take issue with the post title.  I’m not saying a person should go on the dole because it’s all sweetness and light and fun for all the family.  I am merely pointing out in some very specific situations a person couldn’t be blamed for turning down a job as they would end up financially worse off.  In fact, most of the time the calculator shows that people should get (or stay in) a job.  There’s plenty of other reasons to take a job but if a family is struggling in the current harsh climate, can we really blame them for picking the financially sounder option?

I will certainly not be taking down the site but I am open to comments on how to improve it. Thanks for the traffic, in this economy every little helps.