Sunday 30 June 2013

The China Syndrome

The China Syndrome is a fiction. The idea is that if a nuclear reactor runs short of coolant the core will burn through its container and burrow all the way through the earth, coming out the other side, in China.

Don't try this at home.

Not least because you'll be disappointed – as Wikipedia tell us, "the Three Mile Island accident's molten core got exactly 15 millimeters on its way to 'China' before [it] froze at the bottom of the reactor pressure vessel".

The film The China Syndrome was released 12 days before the Three Mile Island incident. It's extraordinary what some studios will do for a bit of publicity.

In the film, Jack Lemmon has proof of a conspiracy to cover up known safety problems with a nuclear reactor. By the time he's ready to go public with it, he's so tired and nervous that he comes across as a gibbering wreck with no credibility.

The physics may be all wrong but the film is a warning to whistleblowers against suffering their own China Syndrome credibility meltdown. If you want to have an effect, you need to be taken seriously – try not to look like a gibbering wreck.

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Before 6 June 2013, anyone suggesting that a huge number of telecommunications in the US and the UK are intercepted by the security services would have been regarded as a gibbering wreck, a paranoid and ridiculous conspiracy theorist.

Now, anyone who expresses the mildest surprise at the allegation of widespread surveillance is accused of naïvety, they are credulous, delightfully innocent simpletons, unaware of how the world works – and has to work – for their own good.

That's quite a change.

It releases the brakes on the imagination.

Perhaps it's not just the US and the UK?

That is the contention of an article the Guardian published last night:
At least six European Union countries in addition to Britain have been colluding with the US over the mass harvesting of personal communications data, according to a former contractor to America's National Security Agency, who said the public should not be "kept in the dark".
The article has now been unpublished and if you search for it and click on the link that Google returns, you get a Guardian page headed "Taken down: deals to hand over private data to America", saying "This article has been taken down pending an investigation".

Probably best, in the circumstances, to keep the brakes on and await developments.

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After all, you don't want to look naïve do you?

That promises to be the fashion crime of 2013.


And, wreck that you are, just look where your gibbering leads –

Don't Worry – a China Syndrome play for tomorrow

For years, the Commissioner for the Inland Revenue has been pursuing Google, a company whose income from activities in Ruritania is equivalent to 2% of GDP, a company whose associated costs are negligible and yet whose profits – judging by its corporate income tax payments – are somehow also negligible.

The Commissioner's case is strong and the legal team is particularly optimistic since the CEO of Google Ruritania rang, asking for a meeting at which the tax situation would, the CEO believed, be settled fully and finally, to the satisfaction of all parties.

Today's the day. The Commissioner is in the office, there's a knock at the door and the Second Secretary ushers in the CEO and, to the consternation of the Commissioner, two other people. One is the Permanent Secretary at the Ruritanian Board of Trade and the other is the Ruritanian National Security Advisor.

CEO: Commissioner, I must thank you for seeing me at such short notice. You do me a great honour. Relations between Google and Ruritania are nothing but cordial.

Comm: I wish that were the case, CEO. Perhaps today's meeting will bring about a rapprochement but, as things stand, Google's reluctance to pay the corporation tax due is an obstacle to unfettered cordiality between us.

CEO: Precisely why I am here, Commissioner, and once again I must thank you for coming so quickly to the point. Just to be sure that all of us in the room are clear, could I prey upon you to state the Revenue's argument in summary?

Comm: We have a large number of cases decided at the Upper Tribunal confirming that the Revenue must ignore the intermediate stages of a transaction if the sole purpose of those stages is to avoid tax. You know, CEO, as well as I do that those cases are remarkably similar to the way Google organises its affairs. If our unfortunate and unnecessary dispute were taken to the Tribunal, their decision would be in favour of the Revenue, Google would have to pay the tax due, with interest and with penalties on top. That's the law. Your pretence that business obviously transacted in Ruritania is actually transacted in Carpathia is laughable. You can give in now. Or you can give in later, when the interest bill will be even higher, as will the reputational damage done to Google by all the media coverage.

CEO: Thank you, Commissioner, for your pre-Leveson warning and for that succinct statement. And I must say that if we keep our eyes fixed exclusively on Google's accounts, we can hardly fault the Revenue's case. But there is a bigger picture. There are other costs to consider and I wonder if perhaps at this juncture the Ruritanian National Security Advisor who has so graciously agreed to accompany me today might say a few words.

Security: Commissioner, you read the newspapers. You know of PRISM and Boundless Informant and Tempora and Echelon. These security initiatives need data. That is the arrangement we have with our cousins across the sea. We provide data. As much data as possible. We receive much consideration in return. Consideration which mitigates Google's low tax bills. A large proportion of our data comes from Google. Anything which threatens Google's access to data is a threat to Ruritania and I must ask you to take this into account in framing your case. Please don't worry about Google, Commissioner.

Comm: I do indeed read the newspapers, esteemed Security Advisor. I am not immune to your argument and I am not entirely naïve. But you too, if I may say so, must look at the bigger picture. It is my department's job to collect taxes. There are limits. Limits which it is inadvisable to breach. Our parishioners grow reluctant to make their contributions when they see wastage by the public administration. And when they see poor quality public services. Not to mention slush funds of hush money and golden goodbyes. A delicate balance needs to be struck to preserve the orderly operation of the political settlement. That becomes harder still to achieve when foreign companies are seen to trade here without the impediments suffered by Ruritanian businesses.

CEO: And that, Commissioner, is why the Permanent Secretary is here with us today.

Trade: Your department, Commissioner, has its job, and so does mine – to expand the economy. How do you do that? You sell more. How do you do that? You advertise more. You need to create demand. You need to discover people's wants, needs and interests, their preferences and their aspirations. You need to help people to discover the truth about themselves. That way you know what to supply to whom. In all of these matters, there's Facebook of course, but Google is at the heart of our strategy for growth. Don't worry, Commissioner, about collecting taxes. Once we have got the economy growing again, the taxes will follow. But for that, we need Google. Do not stand in the way of Google, Commissioner. If you do, you stand in the way of not only national security but also the health of the Ruritanian economy. And that is not the Revenue's job.

Comm: My dear colleague, you and I have worked together for years, the collaboration between Trade and the Revenue has been a fruitful one, we speak our minds and we get results. Your prescriptions for the economy, as we have told you on many occasions, would fail at GCSE. Further, why should Google avoid tax while other businesses can't? Excusing Google would look to the public like patronage, a special favour and random whereas the law is meant to be impartial. If implemented, your prescriptions would make my job impossible.

CEO: Not so much impossible, Commissioner, as unnecessary. Don't you worry about the public. And don't worry about the law – much of it is mere mythology. Quaint. You see Trade's plan is for every person in Ruritania to maintain a personal data store, managed by state-appointed trusted identity providers. That includes both types of person, natural persons and legal persons, i.e. corporations, trusts, and so on. Once these personal data stores are populated, where is the need for the Revenue? A tax farmer app can simply calculate the amount of tax due and make life more convenient for everyone by filing their tax returns for them and direct debiting the money from their bank accounts. It would be naïve of anyone not to see that that is the purpose of a personal data store and that that is also why the Revenue as currently constituted serves no purpose in the digital-by-default new world.

Comm: Oddly enough, CEO, this may surprise you, but no, I don't worry. You rely on a semantic web which doesn't exist, you have no philosophy of language, no theory of meaning. And you rely on the study of artificial intelligence, which is certainly artificial but not intelligent – your minions talk trivially of the "quantified self" but you have no philosophy of mind and your grasp of psychology is as tenuous as your economics. Your failure is guaranteed. No worries there.

CEO: We'll see. But you won't. I have an inkling that Ruritania will soon relieve you of your commission.

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