The Edge

There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over

One foot behind the other.

Originally composed Sep 23 2012

Today I saw one of those perfect moments. You know the kind; that make the hairs of your arm snap upright and pull your very awareness – of yourself and the world – out of you and up, in an elevating spiral centered above the little space it is typically confined to – your head. But expanding, spreading its newly-found limbs until you feel as though you can almost see the tops of buildings and you’re aware of every little movement and sound and feature of every person and creature in sight.

It came in a place I hardly expected – my own street, Rua Augusta, in a part I hadn’t seen before. Away from the endless botecos and sprawling chairs and tables and beer and humanity. Further north, past even the seedy red-neon buildings and bustling brothels – still there despite Augusta’s supposed “image cleanup” – probably too busy to have ever noticed it.

I’d given up on finding the place I was meant to leave the car. I knew I was close, very close. But I also knew I was close to home, and I didn’t have to take it back until tomorrow anyway. I left it with the nice fellow at the parking lot, and started to make my way towards home on foot.

2 blocks later, something odd in my peripheral vision caused me to stop. I turned, and there across the street were 3 people. One, a Brazilian man in a motorcycle jacket, boots, and jeans, standing at a little door in a bigger roller-door, looking down the street, to two others about 5 and 10 meters away. Two others, girls, dressed in flowing whites, seemingly looking at him also, and backing away. Backing away ever so slowly, as though this man tied to them with the invisible cords of their gaze were defusing a bomb, and whilst they didn’t want to offend him by fleeing, near to him wasn’t exactly where they wanted to be.

The slow graceful movement continued. One bare foot meticulously placed behind the other, gaze steady ahead. And after only a few steps more, the invisible cords snapped, and I saw that it was just the two of them, our Brazilian bomb-disposal expert suddenly relegated to the sidelines. And there was no bomb to back away from – they were walking a slow, beautiful, barefooted, deliberate, backward walk down the filthy, dangerous streets of São Paulo for no reason other than to walk such a walk.

It was then that my heart spiraled out of my chest and I stood captivated, watching, as they slowly made their progress, not looking behind; always at the mercy of careless strangers and uneven pavement. It was beautiful, and captivating. Just as I was wondering what they would do if they hit such a pitfall, one’s foot came suddenly up against the corner of a carelessly placed steel maintenance cover, jarring it.

She curled up like an anemone, into herself and down to the ground in the same instant, and lay there motionless. The other, further along, didn’t pause but kept on, one foot behind the other, until she finally reached the corner, where she paused. As she spun slowly clockwise, carving a 450° arc with her gaze, the other slowly stood and resumed her halting progress.

From her corner, the first resumed that delicate deliberate step, receding one footfall after the other, disappearing at last around the corner, as her wraith-like companion flowed towards the corner herself. Reaching it, she too spun a slow arc and then, step by step, finally withdrew from sight.


Unneccesary & disproportionate: An open letter regarding Mandatory Data Retention

I want to talk a bit about the mandatory data retention bill likely to be introduced in parliament this week. Unfortunately we are scant on specifics because the bill is not yet in parliament, and the documents and consultations (with industry only, not the public!) so far carried out have been kept behind closed doors, responses to FOI requests delayed past extended deadlines, and documents released with large redactions, or not at all. As such I’ll limit my comments to the general outline of the plan as communicated by Liberal AG Senator Brandis.

The appeal, for the government, of a law requiring ISPs to retain data on subscribers is immediately obvious – it ostensibly provides the ability for government to attain intelligence information at a later date, whilst “outsourcing” not just the operational aspect of data collection, but the moral “baggage” – a government storing swathes of data on us is typically perceived as Orwellian, but a company retaining it may just slip below the public’s notice.

But in mandating the compulsory collection of such data, we are threatening the privacy, speech and even the very way of life Australians have a right to enjoy. And even if we set aside these noble ideals, and consider data retention purely from an amoral cost-benefit point of view, it doesn’t pass muster. I will divide the problems with Mandatory Data Retention into two camps – ideological, and pragmatic.

Ideological Objections Pragmatic Objections
It violates our right to privacy No clear need for it
It impedes freedom of speech and association It is unlikely to be effective
It reverses the presumption of innocence It will be exploited by bad actors
It imposes an unfair & onerous burden on business
It will be exceedingly costly

Ideological objections

Mandatory data retention violates our right to privacy

Privacy is a fundamental human right, and is central to the maintenance of democratic societies. It is essential to human dignity and it reinforces other rights, such as freedom of expression and information, and freedom of association, and is recognised under international human rights law[1]. Privacy is recognized as an important right in Australian law[2] .

Australians every day browse the web with the expectation not just that their government isn’t snooping on the sites they are visiting, but that their ISPs are not doing so either. Mandatory data retention (à la Brandis/Abbott) explodes that possibility, by making it compulsory that ISPs retain the means to violate their customers privacy, and examine potentially the most intimate details of their lives. I should point out that something that I and all other Australians are aware of: privacy is not about having anything to hide, but rather is an inherent requirement for the dignified enjoyment of one’ s life. To say that privacy is only for the guilty means that we should all be happy to reveal our bank balance, sexual activities, naked photos, private correspondence, health conditions, political leanings, the list goes on – a ridiculous assertion, of course.

Attempts to play down retention by characterizing it as the collection of only “metadata” are misleading. In fact, there is no clear distinction between metadata and data: in truth, metadata IS data. This could be no more apparent than when illustrated by the bumbling Brandis himself, who in interview could not even get the concepts straight in his own head! Add to this a recent inter-american court decision that both content and metadata are equally protected[3], and former NSA & CIA director General Michael Hayden’s assertion that “We kill people based on metadata”[4] and it could not be clearer that the distinction between data and metadata is meaningless.

[1][See eg. Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 12, United Nations Convention on Migrant Workers Article 14, UN Convention of the Protection of the Child Article 16, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 17]
[2][Office of the Australian Information Commisioner – Australian Privacy Principles]

Mandatory retention chills free expression, and impedes freedom of association

When people know that they are being observed, they moderate their expression. Were it not so, we wouldn’t have the phrase “dance like nobody’s watching”. Surveillance leads to a culture of self-censorship and chilled speech. In extreme examples this is motivated by the the fear of extreme retribution for certain speech. And for reasons like this, anonymous speech is also very important and worthy of protection – anonymity protects dissent by eliminating fear of reprisals and breaking the silence of self-censorship. In fact anonymity is already considered a right under the Privacy Act[5], but this right is yet another that would be eroded by even the most modest of retention schemes.

But fear of violent retribution is also not required to diminish our expression when we know we are being watched. The mere fear of observation will often be enough to chill speech, be it sharing political views on  forums or sharing an intimate chat session with a loved one.

And even in a democratic country like Australia, where we tend to discount the likelihood of violent suppression of dissent, it is perfectly rational to worry about government-imposed consequences for innocent speech and actions. Already common are nervous jokes about ending up on an ASIO watch list or no-fly list for visiting the “wrong sites”, and with the many examples of blunders, false positives and overreactions from state intelligence and law enforcement around the world, Aussies are likely to end up speaking and browsing with an abundance of caution. And with experiences like that of Michele CatalanoMr ‘Mohammed’ or Bilal Daye in mind, who can blame them?

To make matters worse, with the amount of information available and evolving surveillance technologies, law enforcement agencies now can directly observe people’s relationships and interactions and make inferences about their intimate and protected relationships. Inferring political affiliation, union membership, club membership, associates, interests, even likely voting choices, all would be possible from the type of data that could be collected under the scheme. This of course chills our capacity to freely associate ourselves  – we will always be looking over our shoulder, wondering whether ours will be the group to come under scrutiny. There is a long history of politically-motivated abuse of intelligence powers, from the FBI’s monitoring of Martin Luther King to ASIO’s more recent spying on anti-fracking activists.

As the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion points out in a recent report on state surveillance and freedom of expression: “Communications surveillance should be regarded as a highly intrusive act that potentially interferes with the rights to freedom of expression and privacy and threatens the foundations of a democratic society.”[6]

Mandating government ability to surveil all of its populace reverses the presumption of innocence

The model of law which operates in Australia includes a presumption that someone is innocent until proven guilty, and requires reasonable grounds before a search may be conducted. The government may argue that collection of data (by easily co-opted third parties) does not constitute a search, but that is exactly the intent behind retention. Wholesale collection of data (such as the one-warrant-for-whole-world surveillance allowed by the language of the recent draconian national security amendments) of everyday Australians is akin to treating every Australian like a suspected criminal, reversing the burden of proof and perverting the presumption of innocence.

Mandatory data retention imposes an unfair & onerous burden on business

Retention turns telcos and ISPs into the little brother, the co-opted private intelligence lackeys of the government, forcing them to act as a convenient repositories of private information. This injunction on the free and fair operation of these businesses is unfair and immoral. Many of the  operators of ISPs may have strong feelings about being complicit in the invasion of Australian’s privacy, and the Australian government should not force them into this position.

Pragmatic Objections

There is no clear need for wholesale data retention

Maximal data retention, as posited by Brandis et al, is a solution looking for a problem.

The Australian Federal Police’s requested retention model is modest, particularly when compared with the Brave New World most favoured by the Liberal administration. And even then, “law enforcement has been unable to mount a convincing case, relying instead on anecdotal evidence, and “highlighting individual crimes without any detail about the significance of the role played by metadata”[7].

Furthermore, the Telecommunications (Interception & Access) Act already provides tools for interception, under lawful warrants. The police have the right and ability to intercept the data they need as part of an ongoing investigation. With mandatory retention, police are asking for the ability to retroactively start an “ongoing investigation” up two years in the past, without any reasonable grounds at the time, and without having mounted a convincing case for why this would be of great use. Which leads me to my next point: that mandatory detention is not even likely to be effective towards its supposed goal.

When it comes to achieving its purported goals, mandatory retention doesn’t even work!

There is no  evidence that this type of data is crucial or even always useful to police investigations – police have been solving cases for a lot longer than the internet has been around, and have a well-developed toolkit of methods that do not involve such a sacrifice of privacy and liberty. Furthermore, the introduction of a mandatory data retention scheme, or other mass surveillance schemes, would simply lead to those having a real need to conceal their activities to implement means to avoid detection, such as VPNs and encryption. If the average savvy Australian consumer can figure out how to watch US TV, a motivated bad actor can certainly hide their activity from this costly scheme.

The abysmal effectiveness of the use of retained data is demonstrated best in a German study, where requests for metadata were successful in 96% of all cases, but it was found that the data retention program was able to raise the crime clearance rate by 0.002% at best.[8]

What is more, even the purported goals of retention are nebulous. These (as well as intelligence powers amendment) laws are being touted as essential in combating terrorism, but as we have seen in many jurisdictions, this is a false flag used to obtain these powers, which are in fact not particularly effective for counter-terrorism purposes[9]. The scope is then allowed to creep so that surveillence powers are being exploited for run-of-the-mill criminal or even civil investigation, and not national security or intelligence at all. For example, an Austrian review found that the most common law enforcement use of retained data was for cases of theft, followed by drugs, followed by stalking[10]. And in Poland data retained under the mandatory detention law has become common fodder for subpoenas in civil suits, including divorce cases![11]

Once we have mandatory data retention, how long before the average Australian starts getting nasty-grams from HBO for downloading Game of Thrones, or court orders from their ex wanting a data fishing expedition to find fault in a divorce?

Large swathes of accumulated data aren’t just appealing targets for government – bad guys will want them too!

As is now clear to anyone that has ever registered and account or paid for anything on the internet, we are *bad* at security. It’s not so much a matter of whether you’ve been a part of some mass leak of data, but when[12]. And now we want to mandate the collection and storage of a whole bunch more data? ISPs’ store of mandatory retention data will be an incredibly appealing target for hackers, and with the heterogeneous nature of the ISP market, do you really think that every provider will be immune to compromise? Of course not. There will be breaches.

It’s worth pointing out that this is merely a smaller instance of a much larger phenomenon – that of governments’ surveillance systems and back doors being re-purposed by the ‘bad guys’. You see, because in order to acheive their objectives in intelligence, governments often mandate the introduction of less secure architectures, or ‘backdoors’ – but there is no way to make a system insecure to one and not to all. This was dramatically demonstrated in 2005 in Greece, when someone exploited backdoors in a Greek phone company’s systems and recorded sensitive conversations involving the Prime Minister[13]. And more recently the Washington Post reported that intruders, allegedly working on behalf of the Chinese government, broke into Google’s existing surveillance systems[14].

The point being that any back door or retention scheme opens up the possibility that it will be exploited by bad guys, and not just the good guy government which always has our best interests at heart.

The economic costs are astronomical

Finally, any mandatory data retention scheme is likely to come with a massive price tag. Metadata storage for a single large ISP could be as much as 1 petabyte a day, and the cost per subscriber as much as $130 a year[15]. Since the government is not lining up to eat that cost it would have to be passed on to the consumer. And to put that 1 petabyte in perspective, that is 1000 new high-density hard-drives being filled, Every. Single. Day.

Given all the other disadvantages of such a plan, does it really make sense to spend this kind of money on it? And doesn’t making us, the ones being spied on, pay for it, rather add insult to injury?


Brandis has tried very hard to give this dog of an idea legs, but the fact of the matter is it warrants no legs. Coming from someone supposed to espouse “liberal” values and be for reducing government interference, this recent push for draconian surveillance and expanded government is a staggering hypocrisy.

Mandatory data retention is an idea whose time has gone. It would be better to say that its time to die has come. Contrary to Brandis’ claim earlier this year that data retention was “the way Western nations are going”, the very opposite is true. In Europe, where it had its genesis, it has recently been ruled unconstitutional; similar measures in the USA were canned after strong popular backlash; the world over it is being wound back, repealed, and abandoned.

Do we really want an out-of-favour policy that is incredibly costly, demonstrably ineffective, risks exposing our private information to hackers, and which violates our basic rights to privacy, freedom of speech, freedom of association, the presumption of innocence, and the ability to live a life free from invasion?

When you put it like that, it doesn’t really sound like a hard question to answer.

To defeat these unnecessary and disproportionate measures, we need to make our local MPs understand this issue, and understand that we will not forgive them for supporting them. To do so, head to Stop the Spies which will connect you with your local member! Emails, letters, calls, tweets – help me get this message out there!

Stop the spies

Stop the Spies!

Wolf in White Van – A hard, sharp thing

Wolf in White Van Cover

Knowing what I now know of Wolf in White Van, I can say that this is not the kind of book I would normally choose to read.

It shares that property with another book I found brilliant, but struggled with: DFW’s Infinite Jest. To me they are alike not so much in terms of themes or style (though one could easily find similarities, they somehow don’t feel important to me), but in the discomfort they instil whilst still managing to charm the reader, to provoke a deep response. The writing is very good. The process is often unpleasant, but worthwhile. The result, or conclusion, is unsatisfying, or missing altogether.

Wolf in White Van is a hard, sharp thing. It is sad. But beyond all that, in the hardness of its stories, it did not allow me to learn any lessons, draw any conclusions, find any answers. Perhaps this is the point – perhaps there is a lesson – that suicide is an intractable thing; trying to find sense or reason, some shape or intent behind it, some dark plan or motive, is simply to give shape to shadows, to ascribe reason where none can be found.

I lost a friend earlier this year, one of those people that figure as the brightest of stars in the loose constellation we keep around ourselves, but who, like a star, was usually experienced only from afar (at least by me), and oft idealized into a simple, beautiful thing instead of the ball of fiery chaos a star truly is. Perhaps because of this distance, when he took his own life in January, none of us had had any inkling that anything was amiss, and it came as an incredible shock to our community. It may have been this, or some other sadness in my life, or only of the book itself, and what it said, that led me to break down into sobbing, body-wracking fits of tears minutes after finishing this book, as I wrote these first few sentences. I don’t know which it was, but it is true that it drove home the fact that I will never understand that death, that choice, and that probably all such deaths are senseless, a puzzle none of us can ever solve and can only become lost ourselves trying.

But despite my painful reaction to it, there is a lot of beauty in this book. Anyone that has listened to the Mountain Goats knows that John has a knack for combining words to create images that can be jarring in their beauty. Or ugliness. Or harshness, as the case may be. His words invoke a visceral response, with much variation in its nature – it can be like a punch in the guts, or a freezing cold touch, or a dying embrace. Many times I found myself with goosebumps climbing up my arms simply at the use of imagery, and despite my mind’s revolting at the overall narrative. But ultimately I prefer this talent applied to his songs, where the doses are smaller and more manageable, and where there is more room for me to fill in the gaps myself, as I please.

This story is filled out by its author from either side, moving inwards, focus gradually narrowing in time until we arrive at the moment that comes to define its central character, Sean. Details are added, as we move forward and backwards in time like two trucks on a highway playing a long game of chicken, inexorably heading for collision: what will be both the original and terminal event. Yet for all we learn along the journey, we cannot piece together anything from the wreckage, or make sense of the casualties collected along the way.

The world that Sean creates for himself, and ultimately shares with others – the Trace Italian, provides as much of our window into his story, and the players wrapped up in it, as does his recollections of the two tragic events that will forever alter his life and his work. In the Trace Italian Sean finds refuge, and solace, from the harder things of existence, and his players seem to find the same escape and freedom in his game that he found creating it. Until, through choice or mishap, they don’t.

I don’t now whether I would recommend Wolf in White Van. I love John Darnielle’s music, and I now respect his writing, but I typically read fiction for escapism, or to experience something singular that can’t exist outside the pages of a novel. What you will find in Wolf in White Van is a sad story that could be taken from a fairly average, if marred by all-too-common tragedy, US middle-class life. But it is a sad story with moments of hope, and of enchanting simplicity, and of incredible beauty, and finally, of contemplation of something else, something deeper, that we don’t have a name for but which leads us down the unseen path linking anguish and contentment.