Saturday, 28 November 2009

Hot potato buried in a paper mountain

AMONG the fine print buried in the paper mountain behind last week’s Queen’s Speech were some startling proposals.
Highly undemocratic proposals that could radically increase Peter Mandelson’s executive power. Or, of course, that of his (probably Tory) successor as business secretary.
Not surprising, perhaps, from the most Big Brother government we’ve had since Cromwell. But worth bringing into the light anyway.
The government’s official headline on its Digital Economy Bill is: “Investing for the future: building tomorrow’s economy today”.
From there it goes straight into talking about “ensuring a world-class digital future” and “maximising the benefits from the digital revolution”.
Nice touchy-feely sentiments suited to the soundbite age. Advertising-speak which may mean something but probably doesn’t.
The Bill goes on to tick various boxes that are linked, if at all, pretty tenuously.
This is a trick typical of all governments, to sneak their bad medicine through in a batch of stuff no one could object to.
So we get:
• A new duty for Ofcom to “promote investment” in public service media.
• The “enabling of investment” (whatever that might mean in practice) to update mobile and wireless broadband.
• Updated regulations to enable digital switchover for radio by 2015.
• Public service updates to Channel 4.
• Compulsory age ratings for all boxed video games designed for those aged 12 and above.
Well, OK, some people might object to some of that. But the real hot potato lies under the heading: “Tackling widespread copyright infringement”.
Now this is an important issue – and the rights and wrongs of it are not as clear-cut as either the government or many of its detractors seem to think.
The Canadian blogger Cory Doctorow ( is in no doubt about the Bill.
He declares: “This is as bad as I’ve ever seen, folks. It’s a declaration of war by the entertainment industry and their captured regulators against the principles of free speech, privacy, freedom of assembly, the presumption of innocence, and competition.”
Even The Guardian, which might be thought to have a stake in preserving its copyright, says the Bill “is less about creating the digital businesses of the 21st century than protecting the particular 20th century business models used in music and film”.
Doctorow heads his scare piece with a picture of 17th-century witch-burning and says Labour plans to create a “Pirate-Finder General”.
It’s pretty clear which side he’s on in the battle between media moguls and the private file-sharers who fill YouTube and the like with “stolen” music and film.
But this isn’t really a Robin Hood situation.
The people who make music or films, research newspaper articles, write books or take photos have a right to earn something from their efforts.
And while I’m generally in favour of the information-sharing that the internet has opened up, it has also seriously compromised that right.
It is now easy and commonplace to pass on – in other words, pirate – works created by other people.
On the flip side of the coin, the net has also opened up new opportunities for individuals to sell what they create.
Which, of course, is no consolation to the 20th-century media businesses which can no longer control artists’ distribution.
Whether this is better or worse for the artists themselves is a patchy area containing every shade of grey. Black-and-white government attempts at regulation cannot hope to cope with it.
Neither Mandelson nor anyone else has the power to put the genie back in the bottle. But that’s not going to stop him trying.
He intends to force internet service providers to spy on their customers and turn in or cut off any they suspect of piracy.
For himself he wants “secondary” powers to create new offences, new punishments, new “duties, powers or functions” without having to draft new laws or get them passed.
He wants a free hand to make up the law as he goes along. Without parliamentary debate.
See what I mean about undemocratic?
Doctorow underlines that point by describing Mandelson as “unelected”. Which isn’t quite right.
He was elected in 1992 as MP for Hartlepool, re-elected in 1997 and 2001 and remained in the Commons until 2004.
It’s only since Gordon Brown brought him back into the government in October 2008 by handing him a seat in the Lords that he’s wielded power by appointment only.
Doctorow, who takes an international interest in such things, describes Mandelson’s plan as “the most radical copyright proposal I’ve ever seen”.
But then Doctorow’s own proposals aren’t exactly conservative.
He believes copyright laws should be “liberalized” to allow for free sharing of all digital media. And that copyright holders should only have a monopoly on selling their own work.
Which sounds neat in theory. And as impossible to enforce as the Mandelson plan.


GALILEO is indisputably one of the heroes of scientific inquiry in the long battle against enforced religious ignorance.
The fact that he was forced by the Catholic Church under torture to deny his own astronomical discoveries underscores that fact.
Which makes it delightfully ironic that two of his fingers have just turned up at auction and are to be displayed at the science museum in Florence. Just as if they were the bodily relics of a Catholic saint.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Signals lost in all the noise

SHERLOCK HOLMES once told Watson he didn’t know, or care, whether the earth went round the sun or vice-versa.
His argument was, essentially, that on a need-to-know basis, he didn’t. And he didn’t want the finite capacity of his memory taken up with things that could never be of any use to him as a detective.
There a few things to be said about this.
One is that I am quite sure Conan Doyle, the creator of Holmes, was perfectly well aware of the nature of earth’s orbit. And, no doubt, happy to know it.
More importantly, the capacity of our brains is greater than almost anyone makes use of. The more you use it, the more space is there.
Presumably there is eventually a limit to this, but I doubt if many – or any – people have reached the limit. Most of us operate at only a tiny fraction of our potential.
Sadly, most of us also clog up the little we use with information far less useful – or interesting – than the motions of the solar system.
What good does it do me, or anyone, to know of the existence of Simon Cowell? Of Jordan (the silicon-packed and unpacked "celebrity", not the country or the river)? Of Jedward (whoever he, they or it may be)?
We live in the supposed Age of Information. But how well informed are we?
We have more telly than ever. And nothing demonstrates so well that "more" doesn’t equal "better".
Then there is the internet. The greatest and most accessible source of information there has ever been (within history as we know it). Cluttered up with more trivia, more ephemera, more toenail-clippings of juvenile minds than anyone in the pre-Facebook world could have imagined.
More photographs have been taken in the digital age than ever before. There have probably been more photos taken this week than in the whole 20th century. And probably more taken by phones than have ever been committed to film.
It’s hard to believe that not many generations ago the only images our ancestors would have seen were in the windows and on the walls of their local church.
There are more mobile phones in Britain than there are people. I tremble to imagine how many calls are made and texts sent each day. Most of them pointless.
As a columnist and blogger myself, I’m about to tread on what I know is shaky ground. But how many columns or blogs do you read that are actually worth reading?
I do try at least to discuss matters more vital than the trivial details of my own mundane daily life. I hope I’m not just adding to the noise.
And there, finally, I’ve got to the point.
There’s certainly more communication going on now than ever before. Far, far more.
But how much actual information – useful, interesting, life-enhancing information – gets through?
I fear that the signal-to-noise ratio is desperately low.
And that the things that matter – of which there are plenty – just get buried in the endless gush of mindless "entertainment".


THE pictures from China were certainly eye-catching. The Great Wall and the gates of the Forbidden City are photogenic enough even when not covered in snow.
But were the snowstorms that have disrupted transport and agriculture all across northern China man-made? Was China’s heaviest snowfall for nearly 50 years the result of a massive experiment to alleviate the country’s recent drought?
Having first said yes, the Chinese authorities now say no.
I’m inclined to believe the denial. That the heavy weather was simply more than the experimenters could have created.
But I can’t be certain and I think we should be told.
As if we could expect the Chinese authorities to tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Or, indeed, any authorities.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Power corrupts ...

I’D just put the bread in the oven, the laundry in the washing-machine and was applying the vacuum-cleaner to the stairs when it struck me.
In the century or so since an electricity supply was connected to most of our homes we have become power junkies. If it were taken away we would face withdrawal symptoms so severe they might in many cases quite quickly become fatal.
It is, I suppose, for this reason that the government this week committed to a new generation of nuclear power stations.
A decision that could in the long term be the worst among all the bad decisions taken by this government. Or any British government.
And not just for those of us who live in the wind shadow of Sizewell.
Nuclear power may seem like a quick fix. It’s not. It’s a catastrophe waiting to happen.
By claiming that it’s "clean" and "relatively safe", energy secretary Ed Miliband begs more questions than he can ever answer.
Safe? For now, perhaps. The terrorist attack scenario is a giant red herring. The reactors at Sizewell, Bradwell and elsewhere should be safe enough against that prospect.
But what of a few decades down the line? A century or two? A millennium or two?
Can we build anything that will reliably keep lethal waste safe for that long - even without rising seas?
How safe will Sizewell be when the sea erodes away the cliff it’s built on – as it surely will?
How safe is "relatively safe"? Relative to what? Global warming? All-out nuclear war?
Miliband also said the government would support new coal-fired power stations, as long as they are fitted with a new "green" technology.
Sounds good. Trouble is, the technology for carbon capture and storage is unproven and prohibitively expensive. And there are serious doubts anyway about how "green" it really is.
So is it time to panic? To start preparing for a life of power cuts without end in a post-oil world?
Not necessarily.
There is a growing scientific consensus that suggests we could have all the power we could possibly want without burning anything – coal, gas, corn-oil or rainforest.
And it doesn’t even rely on developing technologies to harness the power of waves or the heat of the earth’s core.
Certainly not on the scientifically sexy but probably dead-end idea of nuclear fusion.
Both solar and wind power have the potential to deliver more power than even gas-guzzling America would know what to do with. And we already have the safe, clean, green technology to exploit them.
All we have to do to make it happen is tweak the world’s economy to reflect what is really worth doing and what isn’t. Rather than the advertising industry’s idea of what will make some rich people richer.
That, admittedly, is some tweak.

Friday, 6 November 2009

On his high horse over ecstasy

IS horse-riding really more dangerous than ecstasy?
Let's ask Lucy Higginson, editor of Horse and Hound magazine.
"It is one of the more dangerous sports," she says. "There have been quite a few fatalities in Britain over the years.
"Most people accept riding is a risk sport. The reward and the thrills more than make up for it."
I imagine that if you were to ask an ecstasy-user a similar question, they might give you a very similar answer.
Horses for courses; thrills for pills.
Both riding horses and popping ecstasy are, in fact, rather more risky than taking part in a Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme.
Perhaps, if we are to take Prince Edward seriously, the excitement is therefore greater too.
I don't really think, though, that the death-risk is a major incentive in either case. In fact, I don't suppose it's something either riders or pill-poppers often consider.
So let's consider it for them.
According to David Nutt, until very recently the government's chief adviser on drugs, riding accounts for about 100 traffic accidents and ten deaths a year.
Putting it another way, one study suggests that on average riders suffer a serious accident once in every 350 hours in the saddle.
Which apparently – and almost incredibly – suggests riding horses is 20 times riskier than riding motorbikes. But it still doesn't tell us how it compares with taking ecstasy, or any other drug.
Those risks are much harder to assess. Simply because it's illegal, it's very hard to tell how many people take ecstasy and how often.
Estimates are likely to be bent to suit whatever argument someone is trying to convince you of.
There's also a great blurring of lines where drug-related deaths are concerned.
Just how "related" does an incident have to be in order to be classified that way?
The most famous "ecstasy victim", Leah Betts, actually died of drinking too much water. It is at least arguable that had the drug been legal, better advice would have kept her alive.
Her tragedy is just one example of statistics telling rather less than the whole story.
But the bleakest figures for ecstasy suggest there could be 40 deaths a year in the UK.
So are there four times as many ecstasy users as horse-riders?
I don't know – and I have a sneaking suspicion Professor Nutt doesn't know very precisely either.
In fact, headline-grabbing though it obviously was, I fear his comparison between the two activities is a giant red herring.
I haven't yet heard anyone recommend ecstasy – as they do riding – as part of a healthy lifestyle.
A more relevant comparison might be between ecstasy and another drug – a legal one.
The best-accepted UK figures suggest seven ecstasy-related deaths a year per million users.
Even allowing a decent margin for error, that's still a long, long way short of the figure for alcohol. The NHS puts that at 625 deaths per million drinkers.


GORDON BROWN may claim that he wants government based on sound advice from independent scientific advisers. The sacking of David Nutt suggests otherwise.
His horse-riding analogy was perhaps unfortunate. Perhaps even, as home secretary Alan Johnson said, "political".
But it is clear overall that Professor Nutt was dismissed as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for telling the truth.
Drug policy in this country, as in most others, is determined by sensationalism and hysteria, not calm wisdom.
The facts – for example, that use of cannabis actually declined after its legal classification was lowered – seldom fit the screaming headlines. But as we know, it is headlines that determine New Labour policy.
Particularly, for some reason, headlines in traditionally Tory-supporting papers.
Nutt's fundamental error wasn't just telling ministers what they didn't want to hear. It was making headlines by doing it.
At least he has opened up the debate.
Not just on drugs policy. But on the even more important question of how the government balances informed advice against the howls of an uninformed public.