Hard News by Russell Brown

Ban torture (except for spammers)

My fury at Ihug - which has dropped the ball on email in a week when I really needed timely email - is somewhat tempered by Techsploder's story about the root of the problem: an unprecedented wave of image-based spam.

What I'm seeing slip through the filters is a lot of image-based phishing spam, with subject lines like "ANZ Internet Banking - Security Update, PIease Read." ANZ features heavily, along with National Australia Bank. The phishing pitch is delivered in the form of 14kb image files, while dummy literary text included in the source to fool spam filters is not visible when the email is opened. God knows how much of this is hitting the front end of the filters.

One company is estimating that spam increased sharply in October to account for 89.07% of all email traffic. Early in the month, the proportion was 96%. This chart provides a graphic depiction of the problem. Where's it coming from? Networks of compromised PCs seems to be the consensus.

I am sure I am not alone in feeling disgust and anger towards people who inflict this sort of shit on the rest of wired humanity. It's such a grotesque waste of resources - and I am quite sure that businesses have been sunk and, who knows, even lives lost when the junk email load has broken networks. It's not hard to envisage a situation where important medical communications have been denied service by these bastards.

The Australians have just fined a spammer $5.5 million, and are claiming anti-spam laws have started to curb the problem there. But it's a losing battle. Ideally, you'd replace the email protocols - devised in far fonder times - and replace them with something more robust. In the meantime I'm tempted to endorse very nasty punishments. In this case, as Mr Slack suggests, perhaps I am the liberal who's been mugged.

Nonetheless, other ISPs are coping (even Xtra, which could hardly have fared worse in the new Consumer survey of ISP performance) and I get annoyed every time I read the same, semi-literate service message on the Ihug site

Technical summary:

High mail queues have been identified on our mail filtering servers. This will cause delays for email being processed by these devices.


Engineers are investigating ways to reduce the queue sized on our mail filtering servers.

Just work it out. Please. In the meantime, if you're waiting on a reply to an email you've sent, please bear in mind that I might not actually have received it yet.

Yesterday's Herald story attributing claims about kiwifruit to the Stern report was wrong, although no one seems to have bothered correcting it. The kiwifruit factoid actually appeared in an Observer story about the report. Dc_red at Blogging it Real has all the gen.

Meanwhile, I send the Guardian an indignant email about this sloppy story claiming that the "air fares" on olive oil from New Zealand company The Village Press make it a "small crime against the planet". Reality: the olive oil is not air freighted at all.

And British-based PA reader Peter Rees reports on more of the same:

Yesterday morning on BBC Radio 4 it was NZ strawberries in the gun. We were told that each punnet sold in the UK has produced the equivalent of eleven school runs in emissions getting over here. They interviewed a UK supermarket exec who defended the strawberries, claiming that they only fly them over in passenger planes. I don't know whether or not that's a spurious argument. He also went on to point out that most imported food is shipped here, not flown.

There's a growing alarm over here about food miles. I've tried to explain to my wife that countries like NZ can't help being at the arse end of the world and will simply expire without export income. Perhaps Kiwi farmers could help their cause by adopting greener horticultural practices, although our animal husbandry seems comparatively sound by international standards.

I am happy to boycott imported foods, but prefer a targeted approach - we never buy Israeli oranges or Kenyan flowers, for example.

Kumanan Rasanathan says:

Climate change is a particular interest of mine because the public health impacts are potentially horrendous … while the transport costs obviously aren’t the whole story on the carbon impact of producing food, there are significant issues that we face as New Zealanders with respect to climate change due to our isolation and reliance on trade. Whether it’s by ship or plane, there is a problem with the carbon burned by goods travelling vast distances. The fact that we essentially have to fly to get to any another country doesn’t help either. Bring on the teleporters.

And Fiona Smith-Cutting notes an issue I recall from my time in London years ago - the ridiculous over-packaging of supermarket produce:

NZ apples are another example that is constantly used in here in the UK. One thing that I can't understand though about the environmental debate that they are having in the UK is that they wont focus on packaging of food. For example, good quality pears come in packs of 4, sitting in an plastic egg cup type container, which then has a lid and then is wrapped again in plastic. Sometimes it seems that it is easier for the UK to target NZ, since it is far away than to look in their own backyard.

Meanwhile, I keep reading that British apples are flown to South Africa to be waxed and then flown back for sale.

And finally, the promised responses to the arguments of Jim Evans and Rex on the election spend issue.

Kyle Matthews responds to Rex:

I wanted to point out three things which I think weaken this interesting essay you wrote on publicaddress.net.

1.: "Evans and the Auditor-General ask: 'Would a reasonable member of the public think this is electioneering?' In general terms, I regard looking at the intent and understanding of those that wrote, followed and administered a rule a more robust legal approach than asking what 'a reasonable member of the public' might think. When interpreting what a particular law means, exploring Parliamentary intent is a valid method; I'm not sure that asking what the man on the street thinks is quite so valid."

I think there are lots of laws and rules in our society which are applied by the 'man on the street'. Obscenity, disorderly behaviour, indecent exposure etc, I think that question is often asked. While asking the people who wrote the rules is indeed valid, there's a large conflict of interest when they're also the people supposedly in breach of those rules.

2.: "Second, I argued that the Auditor-General's approach to 'electioneering' (and, by implication, 'parliamentary purposes'), if applied consistently across all areas of parliamentary party spending, would call into question hundreds of millions of dollars of spending over many election cycles."

While that's true, pointing the finger over there and saying 'look that could be wrong, so you're not allowed to look at this' doesn't seem very valid to me. This is the 'everyone is doing it' argument, which again doesn't hold up in a court of law, even if you were the only one to get caught doing it.

3.: " arrive at these figures by dividing the total 2004/5 and 2005/6 appropriation by eight - as two years divided by eight equals three months. While parties probably spend more of their appropriation just before an election than just after it, this holds for all parties, so isn't material."

I have to say that this is a shocking use of statistics. If, as seems fairly logical, parties spend more of their appropriation just before an election, then your percentages come much closer together, and it's percentages that you used for your argument when you said 'o, the vast majority of Labour and Act's spending went under the stern gaze of the Auditor-General; only a small minority of National's did.'

If the total amounts of money were say, twice what the average figure is that you have here, then Labour comes down to 43.5%, and National 7.5%. Still a long way apart, but your figure of 87% is about as plucked out of the air as you can get.

And John Pagani responds to Jim Evans:

For a lecturer in statutory interpretation, Jim Evans' piece is a remarkable for quickly dropping any pretence at statutory interpretation. He does so because the statutes do not support him.

The most glaring example is the way he casually claims the auditor-general " sought legal advice from the Solicitor-General and then proceeded to a careful review of the expenditure on advertising in the three months before the general election, being scrupulously careful to be impartial."

So what was the statutory basis for choosing a three month period? It doesn't exist anywhere in the statutes Jim Evans relies on. It was IMPORTED by the auditor-general from the Electoral Act. The Electoral Act does not in any way come into the picture other than that the Auditor-General felt it would be a good one to use. Dr Evans prefers not to analyse the soundness of that approach.

He disparages the Chapman Tripp opinion on the grounds it would not be a 'better test' of electioneering material if the test was only 'does it ask for a vote?' But Dr Evans provides no basis on which a pledge card is 'electioneering' while a newsletter that merely 'keeps the public informed of public issues' is not. This is a completely empty definition. What is a 'public issue'? What does keeping the public 'informed' comprise? Proposing a better or alternative policy is surely part of public information. Or do we live in North Korea, where only the policy of the government can be mouthed by an MP - and not commented upon.

Where does an alternative policy idea end, and a pledge card promise to adopt a policy begin? Policy communication does not only come in leather bound manifestos. When policies sometimes consist in their entirety of slogans, a sloganised pledge card might be pure summary of them.

Dr Evans sees a bright line where none exists. What about public meetings? What about television debates titled 'Election '05', where MPs travel on parliamentary funds to explicitly ask the public for a vote? MPs are only there because they hold parliamentary positions. It is parliamentary business. Dr Evans' definition is useless in defining the difference between the example of a politician standing on television reading the pledge card - at cost to the taxpayer - and posting the card to taxpayers or handing it out at a public meeting.

His alternative definition is vagueness built on shadow and bundled in thin air.

Jim Evan's fundamental point is that parliamentarians go about their business like vestal virgins, faithfully performing public duties, and then become venal and vote-grasping as candidates. This 'dual personality' idea is at the heart of the auditor-general's report and at the heart of this dispute. And it is a completely wrong idea. Advocacy of alternative policy and government are at the heart of our constitutional and parliamentary system. Therefore advocacy of policy is parliamentary. As Chapman Tripp recorded, some means is necessary to discern parliamentary purpose from electioneering. A bright line test is the only safe solution; the only decent place to draw the line should be at the point where material explicitly asks for a vote. (In my view, the rule against electioneering is altogether unworkable and should be scrapped; that is not what the rule is currently though, but it is a matter of taste.) Dr Evans is merely expressing taste - though not admitting he is doing so - when he explains why the rule proposed by Chapman Tripp is undesirable.

But his taste his highly undesirable. It is absurd that the Greens' newsletter - or nay MP's newsletter to constitutuents, should be seen as electioneering. In a better world, it would be compulsory for MPs to communicate - frequently - with their electorates. The more we know what they think and what they are doing, the more we can hold MPs and governments to account and the better we can be represented.

It is part of parliamentary duty to communicate with the public, explain policies to us, advocate for us, tell us why some things are not being done and to try to build national understanding and support for competing ideas. That is the whole idea of parliament. Laws are not scrutinised only in select committees, governments are not held to account only in the debating chamber. Laws and political process are the property of the entire population, and not only only of lawyers, academics and senior public servants. The wider population participates through broader channels than those selected by Dr Evans; parliamentarians recognise the role of wider public audiences and they engage with those public audiences as part of their parliamentary duties. Evans, and the Auditor-general want to limit the style of debate to a means they regard as seemly, but they refuse to be explicit about the public audiences who will be cut off from access to the political process on their interpretation of 'parliamentary process.'

And finally, does anyone else think that John Kerry's crack that students would be well advised to tend to their books or risk ending up "stuck in Iraq" (cue a tide of faux outrage) was ill-advised but basically … true?