Monday, 19 November 2018

The inflections in the path

Zoe, aged one, with her mother
I was Zoe’s wicked uncle; and I want to frame the arc of Zoe's life that lead us here, to this place; to try to share with you my understanding of it, to explain to you why I cannot mourn this death, but only the life that lead up to it.

It was a life marked by four deaths: four inflections in the path.

Zoe was a child of Auchencairn, the field of stones, between the blue line of the granite and the grey line of the sea. The primary school she went to had thirty pupils. Even in that small place, Zoe was a solitary child, often solemn, with few close friends.

She was brought up by her mother, my sister, who was bright and sociable and full of changing enthusiasms, but also ill; and by her grandmother, my mother, who was academic and intellectual and who mostly sat in her chair and read books, or wrote; and to a much lesser extent by me, with whom she had adventures and all too often ended up in deep water.

Her mother was ill, and in pain, and that was just how it was. She was brave, and rarely complained, and so when she had a persistent cough, she still didn't complain. After a year she went to hospital for it to be checked out. Thirteen days later she was dead, of cancer. Zoe was sixteen.

My mother; Zoe's grandmother
A year later, her grandmother died; and with that death, all the things which had carried Zoe through her childhood - her childhood home and the women who had raised her - were gone.

Two deaths. She was eighteen. But she did well enough in her course in her theatre course in Edinburgh to earn a place at Dartington.

At Dartington she met Rachael, who was the love of her life. But they met because Rachael, learning that she had terminal cancer, went to the other person on her course whose life, she knew, had been touched by cancer: to Zoe. In that meeting, in that falling in love, in that romance and relationship and marriage, the ending was known from the first day.

The knowledge of that ending cost Zoe. At times she denied it, but it always hung over them. They went and had adventures together - and got into deep water together - and lived life as fully as they could, knowing that their time was limited. It was not as limited, in fact, as they expected: the doctors had told Rachael she might live four years; she lived twelve.

But death came, and that death was brutal.
Rachael (centre) and Zoe (right)

Again, Zoe lost the most important person in her life, and with her, her home. Her family was reduced to two dogs, Winston, Zoe's own dog, and Lola, who had been Rachael's.

Three deaths. She was thirty four.

Zoe moved with the dogs to a new flat; not a bad flat, in itself. I came down to help her move, and to help her decorate it. She was in grief, as anyone would expect her to be; but it seemed at least she had a safe base.

Winston was a very big, powerful dog. He was not, in my opinion, a vicious or aggressive dog. But he and Zoe were close, and when Zoe was upset, he wanted to protect her; and she was upset. And so there were a series of incidents in which Winston displayed aggression towards people who, he may have thought, threatened Zoe. She became very afraid he would attack someone, and that she would not be able to control him.

Zoe with Winston
Consequently, earlier this year, she made the decision that he should be put down.

Four deaths. She was thirty five.

And yes, of course he was 'only a dog'. But he was her dog, and pretty much the only committed relationship she had left. She had let him down; she had, in a sense, betrayed him to his death. He was only a dog, but that understates the freight of guilt and grief that death carried.

Zoe died of grief. She had cause to die of grief. Most of all for Rachael, her wife; but also for those other three deaths: her grandmother, her mother, her dog.

And I cannot grieve her death. Her suffering is over. My grief is that, if her mother Jenny had not died, if her dog Winston had not died, most of all if her wife Rachael had not died, Zoe would not now be dead. Zoe would not now be struggling with mental illness. Zoe would be well, creative, inspiring, quirky, eccentric, exasperating, happy.

Do not grieve this death, for in this death there is grace. Grieve, if you must, with me, the inflections in the path.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

The Standingstone Model

The old feed store, with Alice's parrots.
All photographs in this post are from
It's no secret that I live at Standingstone. In fact, if you check at Companies House, you'll see that I am the chair of Standingstone Farm Limited. So what is Standingstone?

Standingstone is a conspiracy.

It wasn't set set up to be a model of how you solve the problem of rural depopulation, and, indeed, it doesn't, in itself, serve as a model to solve the problem of rural depopulation. But it serves as a seed from which the shape of a model can be discerned.

Standingstone is a conspiracy of homeless people to house themselves; to house themselves by buying a farm. It isn't - it couldn't be - a conspiracy of just any homeless people. To join the conspiracy, you had to be
  • Local to Auchencairn village;
  • Unable to afford to buy a house locally;
  • Unable to access social housing locally;
  • Able to afford the minimum buy-in to the project, which was £30,000, so not trivial;
  • Willing to agree the principles of sharing with the rest of the group;
  • Unconcerned by the fact that we would not have and were unlikely to get planning permission for the homes we needed.
In other words, you needed to be to some degree a scofflaw, and to have access to at least some capital.

There were some people who were otherwise qualified to join the conspiracy who couldn't reach agreement with the rest of us over sharing; there were some people who we'd really have liked to have here who couldn't raise the buy in price. Those people are not here. That may sound ruthless, but it is what we could pragmatically achieve.

It's consequently a very select group. We were also lucky that left-wing local farmers were prepared not only to offer us the farm, but to wait almost a year while we built and negotiated a group that was able to raise the price (in the end we bought only eighty-eight acres of the one hundred and twenty we were originally offered, because that's all we could afford).

But the number of people normally resident on the farm is about twenty-five, in eight households; and there's a much larger penumbra of people who are associated with the farm, who are often in practice resident. That's an increase of more than 1000% on the two people who lived here before we bought it. It wasn't set up to reverse rural depopulation, but it has the effect of holding people in the area who would otherwise have been forced to leave. And, the farm is home to more than 10% of the children in the local school. In that sense, we're actively reversing depopulation.

We operate as a sort of hybrid between a co-op and a conventional company. Each household that bought in bought a croft (originally eight crofts, now seven). The crofts vary in size between five and twelve acres, depending on how much money was put in. But each croft, regardless of size, regadless of money invested and regardless of how many people live on it, has two votes.

We own most of the woodlands, some of the pasture, and all of the agricultural buildings which were on site at the time we bought the farm, in common.

None of these crofts provides a full household income, although two provide substantially all of the household's food with a surplus to sell. But we none of use depend on our crofts for the whole of our income; we are variously software engineers, artists, musicians, tree surgeons, joiners, nurses, blacksmiths, electricians.

One household occupy the farmhouse; they had enough income to be able to raise a mortgage. The rest of us occupy old caravans, old horseboxes, a yurt and a hut. That's changing. One household has built a magnificent barn, while another household is currently building a real house with real planning permission. Both of these buildings have been built largely with sweat rather than money - the timber for both arrived on site as logs and has been sawn here. But they're both valuable.

This represents something that needs to be learned; a weakness in our model which should not be reproduced. When we negotiated the original settlement, the deal was that the company (that's all of us) had first option to buy any croft that was sold, at a price which more or less represented the purchase price of the croft. If either of these crofts were to be sold, it would be unjust for the company to say 'we can buy this croft for the original purchase price'; but it would be simply impossible for the company to buy the croft at a price which recognised the value of the buildings. If the crofts with these buildings are sold on the open market, it will be impossible for households in housing stress to buy them - they'll be by far too valuable, and consequently they'll sell to people from outside the local economy who have wealth unavailable to people in the local economy. So while we've largely solved the problem of housing stress for us in our generation, ultimately we may just be creating buildings which will become part of the problem.


The problem

View over the commons
Many remote rural areas of Scotland, especially in areas of good scenery, are now characterised by house prices which are significantly higher than the local economy will support. This means that people who have jobs in the local economy can't afford housing, and that the housing that is available sucks in people whose wealth and/or income derives from outside the local economy.

While there was at one stage a lot of optimistic prediction that the internet would bring high value work to rural areas, this hasn't really materialised. There are a number of reasons for this; one is that it is and will for the foreseeable future be cheaper to deliver high bandwidth connections in urban areas; and another is that knowledge work generally is teamwork, and teamwork does not really work as well without the constant informal interactions of proximity. This isn't to say that improved digital communications can never bring higher value jobs to rural areas, but they haven't yet.

At the same time the population of rural areas has declined steeply over the past century to the point where population densities are in many places too low to support local services. In my lifetime, Auchencairn had a soutar (cobbler), a bakery, a post office, a pub, three shops, a garage, a school, a church, a police station. Even that was a sharp decline from fifty years previously. Now, one shop, incorporating the post office, remains but its future is uncertain; the garage remains, but its future is also uncertain; the school and church remain. The rest are gone. Part of the problem is the steady increase in holding size and the steady decrease in the number of people actually engaged with the land.

There are also strong factors militating against adding value to produce in the rural economy. The creamery at Kirkcudbright has gone; milk from the Stewartry is now trucked either to Lockerbie or to creameries in the central belt. A few small producers are successfully maintaining local production: Loch Arthur's cheese production, and Cream of Galloway's ice-cream and now cheese, are leveraging good produce to provide additional jobs on the farm.

Other businesses in small towns such as Castle MacLellan Foods and West Coast Sea Products add value to produce locally and retain jobs in the local economy, but these are neither strictly rural jobs nor are they high value.

Furthermore, a bureaucratic food standards regime makes life extremely hard for small food processing businesses, as the current problems at Errington's Cheese illustrate. It seems both that Food Standards Scotland are prejudiced against unpasteurised products, and that they greatly prefer large industrial production units which are easier for them to inspect. Following the Errington's debacle, it's going to be extremely hard to raise capital for new small rural food businesses.

Agriculture does generate some high value work, of course. Agriculture uses increasing amounts of capital equipment, which must be developed, designed and manufactured somewhere. In Castle Douglas, Auchencairn's local market town, the milking machine was invented; the first milking machines in the world were designed and developed here. The company which made those first milking machines still exists; I buy plumbing parts, baler twine and tractor accessories there. But it no longer makes anything. The design and manufacture has long since gone to distant factories in distant cities, and none of the wealth generated comes back.

With the lack of high value employment locally, it's inevitable that many of the people buying the housing are past employment age: people retiring from much higher paying urban economies, selling a perhaps modest house or flat in the city to buy a retirement home in a pretty village; or perhaps people in their middle years, using wealth inherited from their parents to buy a good, solid house which will stand empty for ten months of the year.

The holiday home owners are utterly parasitic on the rural economy. Typically they buy their groceries in urban supermarkets; they have their vehicles maintained in urban garages. The only local services they buy are building and garden maintenance, and those sporadically. They contribute nothing to local civic society.

Retired folk are somewhat better. They arrive at about sixty-five; for ten years they energetically involve themselves in local activities, and during that period learn something about the locality. They buy their groceries locally, service their car locally, get their hair cut locally, use health-care services locally. For ten years, they contribute. Then, at around seventy-five they become infirm. Even then they're not entirely parasitic: they're increasingly providing employment for health and care workers - but their care is being paid for out of a local budget to which they did not contribute during their earning years. At around eighty-five they die, and are replaced by a fresh wave of energetic sixty-five year olds arriving from the cities.

But there is one significant problem with retired folk. They want the landscape of their idyll unchanged the way it's always been - by which they mean how it was ten years ago when they first saw it. They're extremely resistant to changes that could bring jobs and wealth into the community, and they're completely unaware of what the local landscape looked like just twenty years before.

You cannot build or maintain a community on the basis of a rolling population of elderly strangers, no matter how talented, well meaning and energetic. Furthermore, a population of elderly incomers provides no children to keep local schools open. Finally, of course, in a community where all the decent housing has been bought up at high prices, there is nowhere locally for the care and health workers needed to service this elderly population to live.


The shape of the solution

A family with four children under twelve live here
To achieve a population density to maintain local services, we need to be able to provide desirable homes for people of working age, with children, at a price that work available in the local economy can fund.

Why can't we?

In a capitalist market, the price of a good (in this case shelter) is the price which some person is prepared to pay for it. It doesn't have to be the person who needs the good; thus throughout the Irish potato famine, when a million people in Ireland starved to death, Ireland was exporting record amounts of food. Similarly in the Ethiopian famine of 1984, Ethiopia was generating foreign exchange by exporting water melons to Europe. It wasn't that food wasn't available; it was that the food which was available wasn't affordable to local people, because wages in the local economy didn't generate enough money. So it is with housing in rural Scotland.

The factors which drive prices up are high demand, limited supply. Supply of rural housing in Scotland is largely limited by planning restrictions, imposed by relatively distant bureaucracies. In some places it's also limited by monopolist landowners, who refuse to release land for housing. High demand is generated by the steady supply of pensioners retiring from successful careers in the cities.

We need to produce housing - good housing, housing which people will aspire to - which is protected from the capitalist market, and reserved for people who work and raise children in the local economy. At the same time it is essential to ensure those people can have a good life. To lead a good life on the restricted income which is available in a remote rural economy, you have to be able to get the best out of living in a rural place. You need to have access to your own ground, where you can grow food to supplement your diet and even your income; you need access to your own woodlot, from which you can extract carbon-neutral fuel from domestic heating.

And you need access to neighbours - to community. To people with whom your can share your joys and celebrations, but also your major work projects; so that raising a house, or gathering in a harvest, can become a communal event, a shared event, a celebration in itself.


Adapting the model

As I've implied above, there are mistakes that I believe we've made in setting up Standingstone, mistakes which will militate against it being a sustainable place for people who earn their incomes in the local economy to live beyond our own generation. Our members will, gradually over time, build legal houses with planning permission, and those houses will represent sufficient wealth that, should they or their heirs choose to sell, the rest of us will be unable to afford to buy the croft in, and anyone buying on the open market will not be the sort of people we wanted this place to be.

So to take us uncritically as a model of how to build new rural communities does not work. But relatively little change would be needed to make the model sustainable.

Rural Housing Burden

I see two ways forward. The first would be to make all houses we build subject to the Rural Housing Burden. The Rural Housing Burden is a truly estimable scheme introduced by the Scottish Government, the terms of which are as follows
"The purpose of the Rural Housing Burden title is to maintain affordability on a property in the event of future sales. The plot the title is placed on has usually been acquired at well below the market value and the title ensures that the discount is included in the future sale price. The community have 42 days in which to accept the offer. 
"If the burden is not exercised, it will lie dormant until the next sale, so it remains in the title in perpetuity."
We could have made all houses we built subject to the Rural Housing Burden. We discussed it, but we didn't agree to it. I think this was a mistake. However, a future community could make this part of their ground rules.


The alternative is that instead of selling crofts to its members, a future community would let liferents on crofts. A liferent is a traditional Scottish form of land tenure in which someone is given the usufruct of a piece of land for their lifetime. When the tenant died, the land would return to the landowner, which in this case would be the community. To adapt the liferent model to our needs now, the liferent would probably need to be given to a cohabiting household on an 'either or survivor' basis, so that if a member died, their surviving partner would still have security of tenure to the end of their life.

Of course, in modern conditions, cohabiting households do not necessarily cohabit for life. When cohabiting relationships break down, there would need to be some form of negotiation over who would continue the tenancy, but that is outside the scope of this essay.

The liferent model means, of course, that households can't build homes on their land as heritable property, and consequently probably can't get a mortgage to build a home. But the community, to which the land will return at the end of the liferent, could borrow long term against the security of the property, to finance building.

I'm promoting the liferent model rather than an ownership model because inheritance is the primary engine which drives social inequity. If we create heritable crofts, they too will ultimately become valuable and will confer unearned privilege on the children of crofters.

The liferent model doesn't, of course, mean that the former tenants children can't take over the tenancy after the death of their parents; it only means that the community as a whole gets to choose who the next tenant will be. Of course the children of the previous tenants could, if they wanted, be candidates. It's probable that many communities might have a presumption that children would take over their parents' croft. The only principle I'm trying to defend here is that it should not be automatic, should not be a right. I'd emphasise the liferent model especially if any degree of public money has gone into the intitial acquisition of land; crofters really shouldn't be able to profiteer on the back of public subsidy.

A liferent might entail a one off payment to the community at the start of the tenancy, or might entail an annual payment; that is I think a matter for the individual community.

Residency condition

Living in a rural economy is precarious. A croft does not, and will not, in itself provide a family income. Crofters and small farmers from across Scotland have had to work away from their land throughout history, to earn cash income; as mercenaries, as herring fishers, as whalers, as oil workers. I often have to work away as a software engineer. It isn't reasonable to place a condition on a crofting tenancy that the tenant must be permanently resident. At the same time it's clearly an abuse if you hold a tenancy but in practice use the croft as a holiday home, sublet it to someone else, or leave it vacant.

I think that after some period of non-residency - I would suggest five years - the community should be able to terminate the tenancy. That doesn't mean that the tenancy would automatically terminate, just that there would be a right for the community to terminate it, which would be a means of forcing the tenant to start a dialogue with the rest of the community about what they intended.

Obviously, it should also be possible for a tenant to voluntarily give up a tenancy.

The importance of commons

My cattle in Commons Meadow
When we set up Standingstone, our original view was that all the existing agricultural buildings, all the woods and part of the pasture should be common. It didn't work out like that; two crofts (including mine) ended up with small parcels of woodland. But the buildings, the largest wood, the access roads and one field have ended up as common and I think that has positive value. Common assets and common responsibilities provide something concrete to bind the community together; having common pasture means that there is a buffer of reserve grazing for when individual crofters have more beasts than their own grazing can carry, without dedicating that grazing to a particular croft permanently. We also, of course, have to discuss who will have use of it when.

One thing we don't currently have, and would undoubtedly benefit from, is the equivalent of a village hall - a communal meeting and events space, although to some extent The Void, our former high-slat cattle shed which we use as communal industrial space and store, could fulfill this function. The Void is a very significant communal asset; all the buildings we've built so far have been partially prefabricated in it, our tractors and vans are maintained in it, and each croft has a substantial area of storage in it.

Roughly 25% of all our land is common; I think that's a minimum. Three of our crofts are five acre, one (the most productive) seven acre, two ten acre and one twelve acre. I think that a five acre croft is pretty much a minimum; it will with work largely feed a family but it won't create a great deal of surplus.


Financing this

Land is cheaper when bought in larger parcels. A five hundred acre farm of good grazing/reasonable arable land is currently for sale locally for offers over a million pounds, which is to say about £2000 per acre. Such a farm would support about fifty households on five acre crofts with two hundred and fifty acres of common (or rather larger crofts with rather less common, for example seven and a half acre crofts with one hundred and twenty five acres of common). A single community of fifty households may be too big to work smoothly and it might be better to split a five hundred acre block into two communities each of twenty five households, but that's a detail.

The point is, the buy in price of a community on land at this price is twenty thousand pounds per croft. Twenty thousand pounds is less than the average annual wage in Galloway, and is thus not an impossible amount for many households to raise. So it's possible - with appropriate changes to planning law - to set up communities without public money.

However, that would buy just the land. At Standingstone, the planning authorities have in effect turned a blind eye to the fact that at present almost all of us are living ilegally, in structures which do not have and would not get planning permission. Most of us aspire to build legal housing, but speaking for myself it's unlikely that I will be able to afford to do so in my lifetime.

It's reasonable that the planning authorities should turn a blind eye, since they know that more than 5% of the adults normally resident in this parish live in illegal structures anyway, and we represent an attempt in the to long term address that problem. We also provide 10% of the children in the school. There's also a probable benefit to the authorities in that Standingstone concentrates most of the hippies and scofflaws of the parish into one place. But the most important factor in our favour is that, as long term local people, we have the support of the village and of our community council.

For privately financed communities to work, there needs to be some derrogation from planning law, either by formalising the 'blind eye' or by allowing a time window for legal structures to be built; there also, obviously, needs to be a presumption that planning consent will be given for a dwelling on a croft. However I think that such planning permission should be conditional on the Rural Housing Burden applying to any dwelling constructed.

The public interest in repopulating remote rural areas

We live in an economy which is governed primarily by and for urban areas. In this economy, remote rural areas are increasingly stressed. It actually does not serve the urban economy if remote rural areas become extensive ranches producing low-value commodity foods, interspersed by picturesque villages inhabited entirely by geriatrics. The rural areas then become a complex cost for the urban economy to bear. It's to the public good to have a self-sustaining population in remote rural areas.

What changes to public policy would be needed to support the creation of 'Standingstone model' crofting communities?

Changes to planning law

Two key changes are needed to planning law. The first is needed anyway, the second is desirable anyway but needed if no public money is to be made available to support the model.

Presumed consent to construct dwellings

Interior of one of the buildings we've built
The first change is that there should be a presumption that consent will be given for a dwelling adequate to house a family to be constructed on each croft, and that that dwelling should be subject to the Rural Housing Burden. That's vital. If people can't legally construct dwellings in which they can then legally live, then the scheme is one which only scofflaws like ourselves will be able to take up.

Planning departments must also not put too onerous conditions on houses to be built. My neighbours James and Vicky, the first of us to get planning permission to construct a legal dwelling, had to spend ten thousand pounds on architects and engineers fees to satisfy the planning and building control authorities. That's more than a third of the total I estimate I could raise to build myself a more permanent dwelling, and is the primary reason I'm deterred from even attempting it.

Partially this problem could be addressed with an 'open source' library of pre-approved house plans, which I'll discuss in more detail later.

Derrogation for temporary dwellings

My (entirely illegal) house.
If poor people spend all the money they can raise to buy land, they are unlikely to have money available to build dwellings immediately afterwards. If they were to be able to raise money to build in the mainstream mortgage market, then neither liferent nor Rural Housing Burden would be viable. Therefore, unless there is public money available, legal dwellings cannot be built quickly. Even with access to public money available, it's going to take some time for legal dwellings to be built. And in the meantime, the crofters need somewhere to live while they develop their crofts and build their legal dwellings.

In brief, the law of the land is that you can't live in temporary structures except temporarily, but you can live in a temporary structure while you're building yourself a dwelling for which you already have planning permission. Given that there must be a presumed consent to construct one dwelling on each croft, it doesn't seem unreasonable that there should be toleration for one household to live in temporary structures on each croft until that dwelling is built. There might be a time limit on this - perhaps ten years - but there needs to be some flexibility.

Changes to community right to buy

The community right to buy is a scheme which provides some public money for communities to buy land or fixed assets subject to some conditions. One of the conditions is that the 'community' is a pre-existing community of place: the people who already live in an existing settlement. This is more or less meaningless when the 'communities' are composed primarily of the non-native elderly. The non-native elderly don't have a long-term investment in an area, and won't be around to see longer term schemes coming to fruition. And, of course, in the most devastated areas of remote rural Scotland, there are no existing communities of place; the landscape is largely or wholly unpeopled.

Also, for new communities to work, they need to be communities of people who can agree ground rules by which they will live and work together. Such people will not necessarily all come from the same settlement or even from the same area. They will be new, intentional communities. New intentional communities do not currently qualify to access public money under the community right to buy.

I'm not suggesting that new intentional communities should be able to exercise the pre-emptive parts of current or future community right to buy legislation; they should be able to apply for public money only to buy land which is already on the market. The public money would not necessarily have to be a grant; it could be in whole or in part a long term low interest loan, because it is not unreasonable to require some financial contribution from crofters proportional to their earning power in the remote rural economy.

Such public money would have to be on the condition that all houses built on the land acquired should be subject to the Rural Housing Burden - otherwise this just becomes a new way for people to profiteer from speculative building.

I'd also like to see a scheme under which 'Standingstone model' communities, once they'd acquired their land, could borrow for finance to construct dwellings, and could do so on the basis that the labour would be provided by the community itself. This would not need to be public money, it's entirely possible that the financial services industry could lend given appropriate guarantees; but there would have to be some degree of legislative support for such a scheme, and some degree of public guarantee would also be welcome, since if private lenders could repossess crofts and sell them on the open market we'd be back to having a backdoor mechanism for building speculative retirement homes.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Sex, the Iron Maiden, and NPC repertoire

Jutta and Geralt
I've written before, several times in fact, about the immersion-breaking poverty of repertoire of non-player characters (NPCs) in role playing games; but I've just tripped over a particularly egregious example in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which I think of as the best software role playing game yet written.

On the Skellige Islands - on the Island of Faroe - just east of the village of Harviken, there's a hilltop fencing arena, and in it you'll find Jutta an Dimun, a sword-mistress who has vowed to her goddess, Freya, to lie with only a man who can beat her in single combat. Thus far, no man has. She won't fight you unless you've proved to her that you're a worthy opponent, and there are a number of ways you can do this; once you have, you can fight her. If you get to her early in your path through the game she's a very tough opponent, but her level does not scale adaptively to the player's, so if you encounter her late in your game you're likely to find her rather easy.

If you do beat her, she'll invite you to her home in the evening; if you go, it's not so much a matter of her being easy to seduce as her actively anticipating sex. She's rueful that she's been beaten by a (sterile) witcher, but she's most certainly willing.

You can choose not to have sex with her; you can advise her to go to the other islands where she may find non-sterile opponents who might beat her. But realistically, I think, few players are going to choose that option.

The alternative is to allow the evening to take its course, and if you do this there is a very sensuous and erotic sex cut-scene; the most sensuous, I think, with any NPC who is not a major character. It looks like stonking good sex (although weirdly, unlike in sex scenes with Triss, both parties keep their underwear on, which you'd think would be a trifle awkward - but that's nitpicking). After the sex scene, you wake up, still in your underwear, beside Jutta.

And if you try to talk to her, she has literally nothing to say. Not a single word.

In my experience, good sex isn't like that. In my experience, good sex results in some degree of warmth, of affection, of companionship between the participants. You'd expect at least an offer of breakfast, a warm farewell, perhaps a discussion of future plans, almost certainly a hint as to whether another encounter would be welcomed.

Even very bad sex is rarely like that. After bad sex, you may have strained politeness, you may have anger and bitterness. But nothing? Just nothing?

You can go away, do other things, and come back; and still she has nothing to say. Nothing at all. If it's a sulk, it's an extremely persistent sulk.

CD Projekt Red were rightly (in my opinion) criticised for making seduction effectively a mini-game within the original Witcher game; many female NPCs were seducible, and you were rewarded with a little card for each one you 'scored', leading to a degree of motivation to seduce them all. But only two such encounters led to any meaningful engagement with the character; the rest were 'one night stands' in the strictest possible sense, making your interaction with these characters in effect pretty exploitative. In subsequent games this aspect has been dialled back sharply; opportunities for seduction are much less common, and are mostly with women with whom Geralt has established relationships, or who are significant in the plot.

I don't think it's OK that sex is just an opportunity to 'score' with no consequences. There should be some plot consequence to whether or not you choose to have sex with Jutta; and whether you do or not - but especially if you do - there really should be some repertoire that expresses her attitude to you after this encounter.

It just is horribly wrenching - utterly immersion-breaking - that there is just nothing.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

The minimum viable village

Hay Harvest
This blog post is occasioned by the National Council of Rural Advisers' consultation on Rural Economic Strategy. It isn't directly a response to that consultation, but I'm writing it to help formulate my thoughts in order to respond. A lot of the figures in this piece come out of my Minimum Viable Village Model.

In this essay as in other essays I treat it as axiomatic that the economy should serve the people, not the people the economy. I also treat it as axiomatic that a settled landscape is a good thing in itself. I'm not going to argue those propositions; if you disagree with either of them, then you will disagree with my argument and my conclusions, and that's just how it is.

There are a number of key problems with Scotland's rural economy. The first is population density. It takes about 270 adults of working age to produce enough children to maintain a viable primary school. Currently, average agricultural holding size in Scotland is 101 Ha and rising; increasingly, those holdings are each providing only one income. That means, given coast, forestry, and unfarmable land, there are about 40 holdings and consequently about 40 farm incomes in a 5Km travel-to-school radius.

Consequently, to sustain a viable village school you need about 200 non-agricultural incomes per village, and those incomes must be within a viable travel to work radius.

You also need affordable housing for 270 adults per village. Typically, in rural Scotland, wage rates are depressed, while housing costs are inflated by people from outwith the rural economy buying retirement and holiday homes.

This is just another example of the fact that capitalism simply doesn't work for people, and that we spend an awful lot of time and effort working around the manifest failings of capitalism to produce an economy which supports the many. What the Scottish rural economy needs is full communism now, but we aren't going to get that, so we need to keep on tinkering with the margins of a broken economy.

But one thing we can tinker with is planning law. If people are going to live in the landscape, on the depressed wages which are probably inevitable in rural areas, then they need to leverage the advantages of rurality to make their lives viable and fulfilling, and that means they need land - to grow food for themselves, reducing their costs, and to increase their amenity.

They also need housing that they can afford, and which is not subject to 'market forces'. Which means, essentially, they need housing which cannot be traded on the open market. And they need non-farm economic opportunities, which means we need more rural workplaces.

Planning policy over my lifetime has been hostile to 'sporadic development', and very hostile to village industry. Houses have been huddled together in ever expending villages of urban density, while industry has been pushed to the outskirts of far-away towns. That won't do. The Internet does allow far more folk to work from home, but rural areas typically have the worst Internet connections.

In any case, people go to work (among other things) for social contact; and Scotland needs engineering production at least as much as it needs jobs that can be done in front of a screen. But for both these things - if we are to support a peopled landscape - we need the work where the people are, and if we want the people distributed across the landscape, then so must the work be.

So: we need smaller holding sizes, not larger ones, to put more folk on the land. We need sporadic development in the countryside, because people need to live on the land they manage We need more workplaces, because smaller holdings won't necessarily provide full incomes, and in any case agriculture will only employ 20% of the population we need to sustain. And we need the workplaces where we want the people to be, which means sporadically, in the landscape.

But we don't need those sporadic homes bought up by the rich retired, or the even richer second home buyer. We need them lived in by the people of the place; people who will at some stage in their lives, have children for the school. People embedded in the landscape, who are intimate with it, who know it and care for it, and are committed to it in the long term.

For all those reasons I think these houses we need should not be privately owned. They should be community owned, and let to members of the community on a life rental - a tenancy which is secure for the whole of the tenants' lifetime, but which is not transferrable or heritable. People need security; but inherited wealth is the key driver of social inequality, and, in any case, that which can be inherited can very often also be sold.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, what the Scottish rural economy needs is full communism now.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Response to the consultation on the Register of Persons Holding a Controlled Interest in Land

My croft
Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee

Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 (Register of Persons Holding a Controlled Interest in Land) (Scotland) Regulations 2021 - Call for Views



Much land in Scotland is held by extremely wealthy individuals who chose to use opaque ownership structures to avoid taxes or other civil duties. There is no reasonable justification for an honest person to use opaque ownership structures or secrecy jurisdictions. Such people have the ability to hire extremely ingeniuous lawyers to work around the intention of legislation, as we saw with Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 2003.

Consequently, legislation aimed at cutting through this veil of secrecy must be simple, clear, and free of weasel-words like ‘reasonably’. Further, because of the degree of wealth (and the penchant for secrecy) of some of these individuals, fines are unlikely to be effective deterrents.

Failure of undisclosed controllers of land to register

Consequently, there’s not a lot of purpose in being able to fine persons with a controlling interest in land where the ownership structure is opaque and held offshore in a jurisdiction in which the writ of the Scottish Government does not run, and the persons choose not to disclose their interest.

Instead, the Government should establish a Public Factor, who should take over the management of lands where the the controlling interest cannot satisfactorily be established, and manage that land in the public interest, retaining any and all profits, until the natural persons with a controlling interest choose to identify themselves and register their interest to the satisfaction of the registrar.

Non-natural persons

Non-natural persons should not be deemed ‘controlling interests’ for the purpose of this legislation. Behind every non-natural person are natural persons who control them. We need to disintermediate this, radically. Non-natural persons, having a controlling interest in land, should be required to register those natural persons which ultimately have controlling interests in themselves; otherwise, the value of the register is negligible.

Redactions and elisions

While I understand the force of the points made in para 71 of the Draft Explanatory Document, the power of the registrar to make redactions or elisions from the public register should be sharply circumscribed, and should in my view be limited to those cases where the personal safety of natural persons can be shown to be at risk.

Monday, 9 July 2018

The Growth Corruption

Andrew Wilson with Nicola Sturgeon, 

Andrew Wilson is managing partner of a lobbying firm, Charlotte Street Partners. There's no secret about that. The business of Charlotte Street Partners is to lobby the Scottish government in the interests of commercial companies. There's no secret about that. When Nicola Sturgeon appointed Andrew Wilson as chair of the growth commission, she knew this; there's no question about that.

What is secret is who the clients of Charlotte Street Partners are: who actually pays this piper. We don't know. We don't know whether Nicola Sturgeon knows.

Among the members of the Growth Commission were a number of business people; there's no secret about that. Nor is there anything inherently corrupt about that - any commission looking into the economy needs to take cognisance of the interests of business. For the record, they were:
  1. Dan McDonald, businessman and founder of N56 group
  2. Marie Macklin CBE, Founder and Chief Executive of the Klin Group and Macklin Enterprise Partnership
  3. Mark Shaw, Chief Executive, Hazeldene Group
  4. Petra Wetzel, founder and Managing Director WEST Brewery
Again: there is nothing inherently wrong with businesspeople taking part in this commission, and their taking part does not say anything against them. But we don't know whether any of these people is a client of Charlotte Street Partners.

The commission met with 22 trade bodies, and, again, there's nothing wrong with that; you'd expect them to. Full disclosure, the Chief Executive of ScotlandIS, one of those 22 trade bodies, is my sister.

At each meeting with a trade body, some members of that trade body participated; the minimum number was three, the maximum was twenty. It's entirely proper that when the commission met with a trade body, some members of that body should be present, and should put their views.

The commission report notes in section 1.15 that these meetings were held 'under Chatham House Rules'. What does this mean? It means this:
"When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed."
Again, there's nothing inherently wrong about this. Chatham House rules are used to allow people to speak frankly, and frank speaking is what a commission such as this needs.

But something stinks, and it is this: we don't know which companies spoke with the commission at these twenty-two meetings, we don't know what was said, and we don't know which of them were clients of Andrew Wilson's firm. What we do know is that the growth commission came up with a set of recommendations which were extraordinarily favourable to the interests of the rich.

I think there are questions for two people to answer here. One is Nicola Sturgeon. She needs to explain why she chose a corporate lobbyist to lead this very important commission. Yes, I acknowledge that Andrew Wilson is a member of the SNP, I acknowledge he is a member of the Scottish Great and Good, and I acknowledge he is an economist. But, actually, the SNP is not short of members who are well regarded, economists, and not corporate shills. So why Andrew Wilson?

For Andrew Wilson there are more questions. Has any member of the commission ever been a client of Charlotte Street Partners, and if so, whom? Has anyone the commission had meetings with been a client of Charlotte Street Partners, and if so, whom? Did any client of Charlotte Street Partners have early sight of the Growth Commission report, and if so, whom? Did any comment on it, and if so did any such comment result in changes to the text? If so, whom, and what changes?

In a small nation there is a short step from cronyism to outright corruption. Andrew Wilson's business - the representation, for money, of undisclosed interests in undisclosed meetings with undisclosed senior members of government - is also a very short step away from from outright corruption. So, I say again: we need, very clearly, to know which of Andrew Wilson's clients were given the opportunity to influence the growth commission report.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Another letter on the Copyright Directive

The European Parliament
Dear Nosheena Mobarik, Alyn Smith, David Martin, David Coburn, Catherine Stihler and Ian Hudghton,

I wrote to you all in early April regarding the proposed Copyright Directive. Unfortunately, I had constructive engagement only from David Martin. The matter is now urgent, since you will be voting next week; so I shall try again to state my case.

The proposed copyright directive:

1. Undermines the modern economy
2. Undermines internet security
3. Reduces the rights of citizens
4. Undermines civil society

I'll expand briefly on each of those points in turn.

The modern economy is built largely on the Internet, which in turn is built largely on open source software. Without open source, none of email, the World Wide Web, Facebook, Twitter, or thousands of other services the modern economy depends on would not be possible at all. Open source is software created and given away at no cost: a gift to the public commons. It is created by academics and corporations, but primarily by individuals. There's no profit made from this; consequently, it is extremely vulnerable to costs. Open source software is shared on sites like Github and Sourceforge, which in turn make little profit. Content upload filters will literally kill the golden goose.

Internet security is both based largely on open source software and requires the sharing of highly techincal information about software vulnerabilities. Many people - both individuals and in academia and businesses, across many countries, co-operate to identify and find fixes for vulnerabilities. Consequently, the information shared almost inevitably includes exerpts of proprietary material. Again, content upload filters would stop this activity stone dead.

Citizens have a right to freedom of expression and freedom of creativity. Art has always involved building on other art. No tune, no picture, no movie is completely unlike any other, and knowing reference to other creative productions, either as homage or as satire, is a trope in every sphere of human expression. Snow White, Cinderella and Pinochio were folk tales in the information commons of Europe long before the Victorians gathered them into books and Walt Disney monetised them into movies. The whole principle of long term copyright is an abuse against freedom of expression.

Civil society involves debate, much of which, today, happens online. To comment on and either expand or rebut the arguments of other voices in the debate requires both quoting and referencing, both of which fall foul of the proposed directive. The citizens right of civic engagement will be gravely damaged.

You'll note that in the above argument I've made no comment on the feasibility of building foolproof content filters as envisaged in article 13. As a software engineer, I know that filters of the quality and subtlety required cannot be built, but that is beside the point. Even it they could be built, the social and economic costs of deploying them would be vastly damaging, not simply to Europe but to the world.

I urge you in the strongest possible terms to reject the proposed Copyright Directive in its entirety.

Yours sincerely,

Simon Brooke

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Limits to Growth


A lot of folk have commented excellently on the Scottish Growth Commission report. A lot of folk on the left have been critical. George Kerevan, in particular, has lambasted the SNP for promoting a regressive, over-cautious, Morningside-friendly version of Independence Lite, writing:
"Working-class folk, especially those who are unemployed, unskilled and dependent on benefits, are the most likely to vote SNP. They provided the bedrock of support in 2014 that nearly won us independence. The Rowntree report argues forcibly that unless the SNP directly address the needs and aspirations of this core demographic, they will lose support to Labour and the Tories."
George is right, of course. I agree with him, of course. But actually, although I have many criticisms myself, I'm not too worried by this. From the point of view of an independence referendum, it doesn't matter. The SNP can wave their Growth Commission report in the faces of the 'soft no' voters in Morningside and Bearsden, Cramond and Newton Mearns. They may swing a few voters, and if they do, that's excellent.

But in the meantime, the left - Radical Independence, the SSP, RISE, even the Greens - can be presenting a far more radical, adventurous, egalitarian, internationalist vision of independence to working (and not-working) Scotland, and that's where the referendum will be won.

But that's also where the Growth Commission threatens to lose it for us. A report written to tempt the comfortable middle class does not go down well everywhere. Darren "Loki" McGarvie writes:
"the party I once voted into power, believing they could deliver an imaginative, “trouble-making” form of independence, have produced an economic prospectus so demoralisingly timid... if the big idea is simply to rebrand the fundamentals of the UK economy, so that independence becomes more attractive to those whose entrenched advantages are threatened by a radical alternative, well, that’s a very different proposition, isn’t it?"
Loki usually irritates me, but he represents a large section of 'soft yes' opinion; and in this piece he's only saying what I have said myself many times: independence which changes nothing is worth nothing. The very document which may win us a few 'soft no' voters threatens to lose us a lot more 'soft yes'.

My analysis of the Labour party has been for years that while its core vote was working class, its parliamentarians - and particularly its front bench - are drawn largely from an Oxbridge-educated elite. Their parliamentarians don't socialise with their electorate; they don't understand them. Consequently they have to send out ethnographers to do focus groups to discover (often imperfectly) what their electorate thinks.

The Growth Commission report emphasises that the SNP have fallen into the same trap. Their electors, too, are largely working class - and largely urban working class. Yet their parliamentarians are bankers, lawyers, journalists; suit-wearers. The Growth Commission report speaks to Morningsiders because SNP politicians are themselves Morningsiders. It doesn't speak to Easterhouse or Castlemilk because SNP politicians don't socialise with Easterhouse or Castlemilk.

This is the root of SNP timidity. They think the time is not right for a referendum because, in the circles in which they move, the time is not right for a referendum. They think caution, fiscal prudence, independence-lite will swing the vote because for the people with whom they socialise that is what would swing the vote.

Of course, if the SNP do dawdle, dally, and delay the referendum until after the next Holyrood election, George is right and I am wrong. The SNP have over the past decade run Scotland considerably better than any of their predecessors, but they have also made mistakes, and there are several policy areas on which they are now looking a little tired.

If they delay until 2021, if they don't radically change direction to appeal to working Scotland, then there really will be no independence referendum for a generation, because there aren't enough 'soft no' voters in Morningside to balance a 'soft yes' that sees no benefit in an independence which changes nothing.

But to get down to detail of Growth Commission report, and to my own criticisms.

The report says:
"3.88 Maximising frictionless trade and market access with the rest of the UK and with Europe is of critical importance to the performance of the Scottish economy in the short and long term."
This is almost certainly not possible, and absolutely certainly not in our gift. England and Wales (hereinafter EW - and note that I'm rather assuming we'll see a united Ireland before an independent Scotland) seem destined for a very hard crash out of the EU. Given that that is so, there will be a hard border between EW and any country which is in either the EU or EFTA. Scotland will have to choose which side of that border to be on. Do we choose the UK side, which makes independence virtually meaningless, or the EU side, which puts us into a community of 27 other nations many of a similar size to our own?

This decision is made harder by the fact that England sits squarely across our main trade route. Trade war with EW is precisely what undermined the Scottish economy before the 1706 union; it is a major risk. Scotland urgently needs its own Brexit Buster, like Ireland's. That means not just ships, but new port infrastructure (and transport links to it) at Grangemouth, Rosyth, possibly Aberdeen.

The Growth Commission report covers port facilities only in paragraphs A183 and A190; it doesn't mention the risk of trade friction in using EW as our main trade conduit - friction which could arise out of hostility but is equally likely to be simply a consequence of incompetence and dislocation of an economy collapsing under the weight of Brexit. For the commission not to have acknowledged this and allowed for it seems to me pretty remiss.

Related is the matter of currency. The report urges the idea of continuing to use Sterling for what seems to me a remarkably long period (10 years).

As Kirsty Hughes persuasively argues, using Sterling prevents us rejoining the EU during that period. If she's right (and I believe she is), shouldn't the Growth Commission have considered this? But even if she were wrong about EU membership, for a country which wishes to remain part of the European family to hitch itself to a currency set to diverge rapidly from it doesn't seem like a good plan.

I'm also bothered by the 'Annual Solidarity Payment'. It looks a lot like tribute; or like paying off a blackmailer. We shouldn't do this.

Article 38 of the Vienna Convention on Succession of States in respect of
State Property, Archives and Debts reads:
"1.When the successor State is a newly independent State, no State debt of the predecessor State shall pass to the newly independent State, unless an agreement between them provides otherwise..." 
So Scotland is not obliged to, and cannot be obliged to, pay a share of the UK debt. This doesn't mean we should not, but it does mean we cannot be forced to. The risk that concerns me is that EW will assume it is entitled to payments from Scotland, and will behave badly - for example, by holding up Scottish exports - in order to try to screw more money out of us.

The Growth Commission report compounds this problem by suggesting that we should continue to 'buy services' from EW as part of the 'Solidarity Payment', specifically including military services. For me, making a break from the UK's military traditions of bombast, adventurism, gunboat diplomacy is one of the most important reasons for independence. I don't think I'm alone. Again, UK foreign aid is increasingly being used to pursue the UK's geopolitical and commercial ambitions. Scotland should not be supporting UK foreign aid programmes (para B2.3).

But there's a more fundamental issue about the Growth Commission report: growth. Sustainable growth is physically possible only if you assign artificial financial values to intangible things. We currently do do this, but we shouldn't assume it's beneficial.

Does the Scottish economy need to grow at all? I'd argue it doesn't. According to 'Wealth and Assets in Scotland, 2006-2014', the total household wealth of Scotland is £865.6 BILLION - almost a trillion pounds.

I own ten acres of land, a car with 130k miles on it, a 55 year old tractor, five cattle, a little sailing boat, several computers, a lot of books, several bicycles, a home-built house you would call a hut, and some tools; total value £70,000 if I'm lucky. Yet, apart from mental health, I have an extraordinarily good life. I work about ten days a month. I eat well. I'm secure. There's nothing I need I don't have. Of course, I don't have a partner or children, but if I did have, it would not take three times my current wealth to provide all of us with a very comfortable life.

The average household wealth in Scotland - the arithmetic mean - is £360,666.67. You don't have that much? I'm not surprised. The problem isn't that Scotland is poor, the problem is that Scotland is unequal. Worse, Scotland is still steadily getting more unequal.
Chart of household wealth per decile over time, showing increasing inequality.
Yet more than half of all households have no or negligible net financial wealth.


40% of all households have no or negligible property wealth (and you can bet those are mostly the same folk as have no net financial wealth).

In fact, overall, this is how badly wealth in Scotland is distributed. Iif we shared Scotland's household wealth equally, 88% of households would benefit. Only 12% of households would lose. And that is before you count wealth held in tax havens and secrecy regimes.

So, going back to that average figure, £360,666.67. Suppose your household had that much wealth. Would you be able to live an extremely comfortable life?

I would think so.

If you couldn't, what is wrong with you?

Inequality is the elephant in the room of independence. A plan for independence which does not radically address inequality will not attract a majority of Scotland's voters. Any major constitutional change is a risk - as we are seeing with Brexit. People - perhaps Scots especially - are wary of risk. People take risks only when the potential benefit is considerable, and independence which changes nothing offers no benefits. We have to have an independence plan which offers the prospect of a radically fairer Scotland.

We can do that. It really isn't hard.

And if the overwhelming majority of us could live very comfortably indeed on a fair share of Scotland's wealth, why does Scotland's economy need to grow? Why is it seen as a political desideratum?

We cannot grow by resource consumption without destroying the future of the planet for our children. We cannot extract all the oil from under the North Sea without far exceeding the planet's ability to cope. We need to use the resources we do extract more thoughtfully. We need to waste less. We need use less. All this can be done without hurting anyone's standard of living.

In summary, if we made our political objective to make people's quality of life better, rather than to grow the economy, we have adequate wealth and would have, with independence, adequate tools to do that.

The question is, have we the will?

Friday, 27 April 2018

Of foxes, and kings.

Red fox. Photograph: Jonn Leffmann, CC BY 3.0, Link
Does a social system with entrenched privilege systematically breed progressively nastier people? I suspect it does, and I shall argue it.

I used to believe that the reason the British elite are in general such noxious people was because our system of elite education is so bad; but I've begun to doubt that that's the whole story.

Elites tend to breed with elites, in quite narrow parameters: people tend to choose mates from socially similar backgrounds. Historically at least, elites have tended to have greater breeding success; they've had more children who have survived long enough to breed themselves. This is illustrated by programmes like "Who do you think you are": if you examine random people's family trees, royalty crops up surprisingly often.

The social systems we've had in Western Europe since the bronze age - warrior cultures, the feudal system, capitalism - have all tended to entrench privilege. Wealth and, to a degree, social status have been heritable.

And the characteristics required to ascend the ladder in all those systems has included the preparedness to be more ruthless, more ambitious, more bellicose, more vicious. (Obviously other characteristics have also been selected for: intelligence, charisma, physical attractiveness, and, at least until the end of the feudal period, strength).

Are characteristics like ruthlessness and bellicosity genetically heritable? I used to believe not; I used to believe that they were software, engendered by nurture, not hardware, engendered by genetics. The Russian fox domestication experiment persuades me I was wrong. By selectively breeding the tamest individuals, the experiment produced systematically different behaviour in foxes over remarkably few generations.

If characteristics like tameness are heritable, so, too, surely, are characteristics like ruthlessness.

If so, our social systems have since the bronze age systematically bred an elite which is progressively more ruthless over many generations. And worse, because elites have, historically at least, tended to have greater breeding success, we have progressively bred a general population which is more ruthless. (Of course, yes, other more desirable characteristics are also selected for).

If you look at the current Tory front bench, or the upper reaches of the aristocracy, or, indeed, those areas of law, finance and journalism where entry is selected on the basis of elite education, this thesis accounts for what you observe remarkably well.

So, if we have selectively bred a more ruthless, more vicious population than our "savage" ancestors, can we reverse the trend?

Heritable privilege seems to me to be key here. If you break the chains of inherited wealth and privilege, you'll get a sort of reverse eugenics - greater genetic mixing. That doesn't necessarily select for nicer, more cooperative, more sociable people, but at least it would stop us preferentially breeding worse ones.

As Comrade Lucy Broon put it,  'Just scrawl "full communism now" on rahbackuvvah silver rizla'

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Mastering Revision Control

This morning, browsing Twitter as one does, I came across this tweet:
I initially assumed that the tweet was meant satirically, but it seems it was not so. After a wee bit of discussion, someone asked me to explain why this is a really bad idea:
So I shall.

Alice and Bob are working together on the same software project. Each makes a copy of the files of the project in their local filestore, which these days tends to be on their own machine. These days, indeed, they tend to make a clone of the repository on their local system, and this is a good thing - but for the present argument it's a detail.

Alice makes changes in two files, foo.src and bar.src; she saves these locally, runs tests locally, checks they pass, and commits her changes to revision control. The continuous integration system pulls the commit, builds it, runs the tests, verifies they pass, and all's good.

Bob makes changes to two files, bar.src and ban.src; he saves locally, runs tests locally, checks they pass, and tries to commit to revision control. And of course he can't immediately because Alice has already changed bar.src, so he has to pull Alice's changes, do a merge, fix the resulting issues and rerun the tests.

Now, that's the game. That's what we all do when working on collaborative teams. We try not to work simultaneously on the same bit of the system; we try not to trample on other people's work; but it happens. So Bob only grumbles a bit.

But it's late in the evening, Bob's tired. It's time to knock off. What to do? Well, in any sane shop, he's working in a feature branch so he pushes his feature branch up to the server, and goes home. But in this shop, management has dictated that they will ignore the last thirty years of software practice and experience and do everything in master. So Bob commits his work in progress to his local clone of the repository, and goes home.

Morning dawns bright and early, and Bob's in work raring to go. He powers up his machine, and... nothing. His local hard disk has died. Doesn't matter, all his work's in... oh.

That's a day's work lost.

Meantime, Clarice is working in another part of the codebase, on a problem where the most efficient implementation isn't obvious. She builds an implementation, and it passes the tests, but she's not convinced it's optimal. So she commits her implementation to revision control. She then starts working on an alternative solution, completes it, and it passes all the tests, too. She wants to commit this to revision control, too, but management have dictated that everything shall be done in master, so she can't. One version or the other can be current.

So what does she do? Overwrite her first solution? Abandon her second solution?

Yes, of course she can commit her second over her first - the point of revision control is that you don't lose stuff - but in practice that means a decision is taken to prefer the second solution, because the nature of the growing edge of a software project is that a commit from several commits back on a branch is not going to be promoted to the head of the branch unless you have very serious breakage.

Any software development which cannot be wholly automated involves design decisions and uncertainty. The cost to the developer of being experimental - of trying one idea, seeing under what circumstances it works well, seeing under what it works poorly, and trying another - needs to be as low as possible. If management puts needless difficulty in the way, that's bad management.

Software development time is expensive. Practices which cause work to be lost are highly undesirable. It needs to be as easy as possible to make sure work is not lost.

Git - and other modern revision control systems - are the product of decades of hard won experience. What we've learned over those decade is that branching is good. Feature branches are especially good. They prevent trampling over other people's changes, and reduce stress and conflict in the team. They make it very easy to track which features are in the build. They make committing and pushing low-stress, low cost activities.

Of course it should be the responsibility of every developer to ensure all tests pass before merging a feature into develop, developers are human and sometimes things go wrong. We always need a branch which we know is production ready code, from which the production system can be rebuilt in case of failure. That's what, conventionally, the master branch is; and the whole point of having a develop branch is to have a branch into which all changes are merged, which can then be tested to demonstrate that it is production ready before merging into master.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Mourning goose

The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs,
illustrated by 
Milo Winter
The last thirty years have seen an extraordinary change in the technical substrate on which our culture is built. The World Wide Web, created in Europe in in 1989, made the Internet usable for non-technical people. Across the Web, the vast majority of servers run on Linux, an operating system written in Europe between 1991 and 1993, as do the vast majority of mobile phones, and many of the Internet's routers. Meantime, most Apple products - computers, phones and tablets - are built on the BSD operating system, as are many other Internet routers.

Facebook, the towering proprietary monolith of social media, was built on PHP, a web scripting language written in Canada by a European (strictly, a Greenlander), as are all Yahoo's and Wikipedia's web services. Twitter was built on Rails, a web framework written by a European working in the US.

What's key about all these critical products is that they are all open source: given away by their authors for free as a public good, a newly created common wealth for the whole human race. These gifts - because they are gifts, and critically valuable ones - have sometimes been made by corporations, and often by universities.

But nevertheless, the most important gifts have been made by individuals: people who have chosen, rather than get personally rich on the basis of their creative work, to make a gift to all of us. And as these gifts have been maintained, developed, improved and repaired over the years, a great deal of that work has itself been done by individual volunteers, seeking no reward but their reputation among their peers.

It is on these acts of unselfish generosity, these gifts, that the whole of the the modern economy is built; and that isn't accidental.

The World Wide Web was by no means the first distributed hypermedia system; it was the first to be widely adopted, precisely because it was the first that individuals and organisations could adopt without onerous costs and licence terms. Linux is now the dominant operating system on the planet not only because it's free, but mainly because the ease with which people can contribute fixes and new functionality allows it to develop, and fix vulnerabilities, faster than commercial alternatives.

Open source not only reduces the cost of business innovation, it also drives up quality and enables business to share the costs of maintaining key software assets. It is the goose that lays the golden eggs on which the modern economy is built.

And the European Commission is proposing to shoot it.

The proposed Copyright Directive - and in particular Article 13 - totally undermines the gift economy; it poses unaffordable costs and liabilities on code sharing repositories like SourceForge, GitHub, GitLab and others. These organisations will be forced to either withdraw or charge for their services. making it impossible for volunteers to freely share - to gift - their own work.

Meantime, Article 11 seeks to undermine another critical substrate of a free society, the free and voluntary sharing of ideas. The civil society discourse on public policy requires citizens to be able to freely access and reference the ideas of others in their own works, and to make their own works freely available to others to reference, comment upon and critique.

Of course, the European Commission isn't setting out to shoot the golden goose. It's setting out to protect the interests of the film, television, and fiction publishing industries. But seriously, is it better in the modern age to have films and no internet, or internet and no films? If our present copyright provisions meant the total elimination of Europe's cinema and television production sectors, would the total destruction of the infrastructure of the Internet be a price worth paying to save them? If our present copyright protections meant the elimination of journalism, would the destruction of civil society be a price worth paying to save it?

No, obviously not.

And cinema and television production are not greatly challenged; they're thriving and immensely profitable. Journalism is challenged, and is still adjusting to the Internet. But nevertheless, the solution to that is not - cannot be - to destroy either the Internet or civil society.

This is a directive that should not merely be reconsidered; it should be abandoned entirely.

The discussion we should be having, in an age in which the cost of reproduction of digital goods is essentially nil, is whether the copyright model which served reasonably well through the era of print serves any sort of public interest in the digital age.

Of course the creators of cultural artefacts deserve to be rewarded; of course journalism is necessary to a free society and must be supported. But copyright does not serve either purpose well. For every J K Rowling, there are a thousand authors of fiction who make at most a pittance; for every Paul McCartney, a thousand songwriters struggling to put petrol into the car to go to their next gig.

In journalism, the Daily Mail, a purveyor of gossip, malice and deceit, profits more from copyright than the Guardian, which supports serious political discussion and commentary, and funds critical investigative journalism such as the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal.

In the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams wrote a little parable for our times. The first settlers of Earth, he wrote, adopted the leaf as currency. But leaves were too plentiful; so in order to prop up the value of the leaf, they decided to burn down all the forests.

What the European Commission is proposing is to burn down the forest: to save the profits of the media industry by destroying the infrastructure of the Internet and of civil society. They must not be allowed to do this. Copyright is a tool of society, not its master; and if the tool has been made obsolete by more modern technology, it is time to discard it.

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The fool on the hill by Simon Brooke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License