The Samovar

November 30, 2006, 3:38 pm
Filed under: Business, Economics, Food, Free Speech, Media, Politics

Just waiting for some calculations to finish running on my computer, so I thought I’d spend the time taking the piss out of a rubbish article on CiF by Brendan O’Neill called Abolish Ofcom. He argues against the recent decision to ban the advertising of junk food during children’s TV.

First a bit of background on Brendan O’Neill. He used to be a communist of sorts, he wrote for the infamous Living Marxism magazine. He now writes right-wing libertarian guff like this. Most of his articles are a joke – including this one.

Right from the beginning, he gets things so wrong:

I’m still in a state of shock that Ofcom’s announcement last week of a total ban on junk food advertising during kids’ TV programmes did not elicit more outrage. You, like me, might not lose any sleep over the fact that McDonald’s, Coca Cola and others have been royally screwed over.

Actually, as the Telegraph mentioned in their article on this, some time ago now, McDonald’s, Coke, etc. can still advertise as brands, but not individual fatty products.

Ofcom’s ban on junk food ads is based entirely on subjective criteria. Its starting point is a subjective view of certain foods as “junk”.

Er, no. As the BBC notes, it’s based on sugar, salt and fat content of the food, and Ofcom doesn’t even decide what does or doesn’t count as junk food themselves:

A Food Standards Agency ratings system will be used to assess which foods are too high in fat, sugar and salt to be advertised to children.

Back to Brendan:

And let’s not beat around the bush: they mean fries served by McDonald’s, which are less fatty than the duck a la orange dishes served in the best restaurants in the land.

If he were less generally ignorant about everything, I’d suspect that this line was included deliberately to provoke snobs like me to make comments like this. Firstly, duck a la orange? How many ways is that wrong? He’s mixing French and English and he’s got the French bit wrong. Secondly, served in the best restaurants in the land? No clue. Finally, he completely misses the major points that people don’t eat rich, fatty restaurant food like foie gras – to use an example that makes his point slightly better than he does – regularly, unlike McDonalds and Coke, and that these restaurants are not advertising on TV.

He then goes on to say that advertising doesn’t have any effect on children’s eating habits anyway:

Indeed, one academic study found that “just two per cent of all children’s food choices were influenced by TV advertising”.

Oh yeah? Then why do they spend all that money on it? 😉

Anyway, my program has finished running now so I won’t continue this tirade. I’ll just finish by pointing out that he doesn’t make the distinction between children and adults. Adults, we would presume, can make their own minds up when they see an advert. Children on the other hand are much more impressionable and even more subject to peer pressure. Despite ignoring it earlier in his article, he can’t help but recognise this distinction when he says right at the end:

… but Ofcom treats us as children who must be protected and mollycoddled by the powers-that-be…

No! Ofcom is treating children as children! Sheesh. Why do the Guardian keep publishing articles by this guy? I suppose they’re quite funny, maybe that’s it.

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Social sorting: a futurological indulgence; or paranoid delusions if you prefer
November 28, 2006, 7:53 pm
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Politics

I read an article today from the New Standard about – amongst other things – how marketing companies are using sites like MySpace to build profiles of users. Since I wrote about ‘social sorting’ in an earlier entry on the surveillance society, I’ve been wondering what the future will hold when this sort of thing becomes more widespread.

Consider a future where you can potentially be watched and tracked automatically when outside your house; when your purchases, the things you watch on tv, the internet sites you visit are logged and contribute to a profile of you; etc. At the moment, the technology is pretty crap. Facial recognition software only works 70% of the time I seem to recall. The statistical models which companies use to profile customers are still relatively simplistic. Despite this, some of them have surprising predictive power. Think about how Amazon will suggest books to you that are exactly the sort of thing you’d like to read. The technology will only get better. Facial recognition will get better, and will be coupled with other technologies, like those that recognise people by the way they walk, those that recognise their voice patterns which will be picked up by systems of microphones if the police get their way. At some point, artificial intelligence will get to the point when it can actually do something, and the possibility of every one of us having an individual AI policeman watching our every move becomes a possibility.

Combine this with research by government, police and businesses about how to manage and control individuals and groups. Suppose that the police could predict exactly who would go to a certain political protest based on what they’ve been to before (or even what products they buy for that matter), and could pre-emptively arrest them.

My question is – what does the future hold in this respect? The surveillance society report makes a sort of prediction, but it’s quite short term and based on already existing technology. Even that is scary enough, but what happens when they actually get it working well?

Has sci-fi or anything else for that matter addressed this question? Not much comes to mind. There’s 1984 of course, and occasional films like The Minority Report. Often these are based on technological premises only though, and require romantic and implausible means for people to defeat them – V for Vendetta comes to mind. I’m maybe even more interested in what happens when research into how we behave allows even greater control of us. Is it possible we could find ourselves in an authoritarian society that it is not possible to escape from, like 1984? In the past I’ve thought not, but I have been reconsidering recently.

Slave trade
November 27, 2006, 11:00 pm
Filed under: Politics

I wrote an article back in September 2001 (just a week or so before the WTC attacks) about the idea of reparations for the slave trade. In the light of Blair’s pseudo-apology I thought it might be worth posting it here.


The issue of reparations for slavery and colonialism received some media attention around the 31st August during the World Conference Against Racism, although little was achieved at the conference itself.

Why would anyone advocate that we, the mostly Western countries involved in the slave trade and reparations, should pay reparations to countries that suffered from these events or to the descendants of slaves? To understand this, it is important to understand first what most of the advocates of reparations do not think.

Firstly, the idea of reparations is not punitive. Nobody alive today was involved in the slave trade or colonialism so punishment would not be fair. (Although slavery still exists today, which is an important but separate issue.) The idea of reparations is to provide a remedy for a contemporary ill with a historical cause, not to attempt to remedy a historical ill. The contemporary ill is the underdevelopment and poverty, the after effects of the slave trade and colonialism, of the people and nations that suffered them.

slave-note.jpgHowever, we shouldn’t get the idea that reparations is just aid under another name. Providing aid is a voluntary act of goodwill, paying reparations is a duty imposed on us by our own moral beliefs. It is a duty because we are still benefiting today, through our relative prosperity, from the enormous amount of wealth generated originally by the slave trade and colonialism.

The aim of reparations should be to use that amount of wealth we have thanks to our participation in the slave trade and colonialism to help restore the affected countries to the levels of prosperity they would have enjoyed had it never happened.

With this aim in mind we can begin to think about how best to go about achieving it. The most immediately obvious suggestion, a one-off cash payment, which many (e.g. Will Hutton in the Observer) assume is what the reparations advocates are suggesting, turns out to be one of the worst. The effects of a one-off cash payment, however large, would only have a temporary effect, whilst the offending countries would be legally and morally absolved. Indeed, this has been used by conservative commentators as an argument for the one-off payment form of reparations.

Many of the champions of reparations advocate a very different strategy to simple cash payment. For example, the Human Rights Watch report on reparations suggests setting up “… national and international panels to examine racist practices.” As well as determining the cost of reparations, “They should aim to reveal the extent to which a government’s past racist practices contribute to contemporary economic and social deprivation, educate the public about this continuing effect, acknowledge responsibility for it, and propose methods for rectifying these effects and making amends.” Payments would still be made, but they “… would presumably be used for investment in education, housing, health care, or job training, rather than consumer goods or other ephemeral benefits.”

A consequence of pursuing this aim for reparations is that black people descended from slaves, living in and personally benefiting from living in countries that gained from slavery, would be considered no differently than white people, in otherwise similar circumstances, descended from slave traders. In principle the issue is not race but illegitimate advantage. An interesting extension of this principle underlying reparations, that suggests itself when the issue is divorced from race, would be for women as a group to demand reparations from men as a group for centuries of repression.

There is even some hope of a legal case for reparations too. It is put forward by Lord Anthony Gifford QC on behalf of the Africa Reparations Movement (ARM) on their webpage.

His case starts by demonstrating that slavery and colonialism constitute a crime against humanity. He then demonstrates that those who have committed crimes against humanity have to pay reparations and gives some precedents, for example in 1952 Germany paid Israel $222m, in 1990 Austria paid $25m to Jewish people and, perhaps even more significantly, in 1988 the US government paid $1.2bn to Japanese Americans as restitution for discriminatory behaviour towards them during wartime. The last part of his legal case is to demonstrate that descendants of victims of a crime against humanity have a right to claim reparations. Some precedents are given here, too, for example: “More recently, since the unification of Germany, claims have been pressed successfully by the sons and daughters of property owners whose lands were seized after the German Democratic Republic was set up.”

Although they are the best hope for actually achieving reparations, we shouldn’t get carried away with the legal arguments, they are not really the point. What should motivate us is a consideration of the moral principles involved. Do we feel happy with ourselves knowing that a considerable amount of our wealth is due to our country’s participation in such horrendous acts?

Blair’s social contract
November 24, 2006, 6:11 pm
Filed under: Politics

The Guardian reports that Blair plans a new social contract.

A new contract between the state and the citizen setting out what individuals must do in return for quality services from hospitals, schools and the police is one of the key proposals emerging from a Downing Street initiated policy review.

Examples include an expectation that a local health authority will only offer a hip replacement if the patient undertakes to keep their weight down. Parents might also be asked to sign individually tailored contracts with a school setting out what the parents must do at home to advance their child’s publicly-funded education.

My first thought on reading this was that this was Blair’s way of responding to criticisms about how his government is changing the nature of the relationship between the individual and the state. His response being – bloody good idea, I wish I’d thought of that.

Less flippantly, what exactly does this proposal amount to? In principle, it doesn’t seem to amount to anything. The government already creates laws which bind its citizens, and is in turn bound to work for its citizens. In practice however, it looks like a way of creating new impositions on the citizen whilst not imposing any new duty on the state at all (see also here for a philosophical view).

But could something good come of this after all? On the face of it, it seems unlikely. I certainly wouldn’t trust any of our political parties to change the nature of the state for the better. Blair has already shown his authoritarian side, and Cameron…? Not a good idea.

November 22, 2006, 5:00 pm
Filed under: Business, Free Speech

The last week or so I’ve installed and played around with Ubuntu Linux. I’ve been sort of getting more and more pissed off with Microsoft and the other software giants: the endless restrictions on what you can do with your software, the digital rights management, the heavy legal tactics against the little guy, etc.

My experience so far is that although Linux has got a hell of a lot better since last time I used it, it’s still a long way from being something your average user would be able to deal with. To start with, the built in disk partitioning tool didn’t work for me and I ended up having to use command line tools to manually resize my WinXP NTFS partition and create a Linux one, which included counting the number of cylinders (whatever they are) in my hard disk, etc. Then I had problems with the wireless internet – the standard Ubuntu installation doesn’t have a wireless network manager which is just unforgiveable. That was a relatively easy installation if you had some idea of what you were looking for. I had to change the video drivers because the built-in ones don’t use 3D acceleration,  the sound driver because it sounded tinny. Fortunately, a bit of googling quickly finds you whatever information you need if you’re reasonably confident about tinkering about and typing things like “sudo gedit /etc/X11/xorg.conf” etc.

Now that I’ve mostly got it working, it’s pretty good but to be honest it’s a step down from WinXP. I think I shall mostly stick to using Windows but I want to be ready when MS and co. do something so annoying that I decide I can’t stand to use their software any more.

One thing that really stands out though is Xgl and Beryl – who would have thought it, wobbly semi-transparent windows and four desktops on a cube. Ingenius!

Goldsmith speaks
November 20, 2006, 2:45 am
Filed under: Activism, Civil Liberties, Politics, Terrorism

Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general, has said that he thinks there is no evidence in favour of changing the law to allow terrorist suspects to be detained for 90 days without trial rather than the current 28 days. Well great, after all that’s what the government’s own Home Affairs Select Committee report said, although bizarrely it was widely misreported as saying the exact opposite. This is good news because it makes it slightly more likely that when the government tries to introduce 90 day detentions again, it will fail again.


We shouldn’t get too excited about this. He accepts that the extension to 28 days from 14 days was necessary (recent investigations used 27 days of the 28 days, which isn’t something we should accept uncritically as the police had an awfully big incentive for keeping them that long that has nothing to do with their investigation). He also accepts the principle behind the 28 day extension.

In opposing this measure when it comes up again, we should reject the idea that 90 days is necessary because the police claim they need it. We should reject also the idea that 28 days is acceptable because the police have used 28 days. We should reject the idea that it is acceptable to detain people without charge for any longer than a minimal few days based on the exaggerated threat of terrorism. In fact we should reject this idea of detention without trial outright. The state does not and should not manage or control us, it acts on our sufferance.

Alliance of Civilisations
November 19, 2006, 5:11 am
Filed under: Activism, Politics, Religion

The UN recently created a new initiative, the Alliance of Civilisations. This initiative rejects the idea that there is a “clash of civilisations”, that the West is fundamentally incapable of peacefully co-existing with Muslim nations, etc. I was really looking forward to reading their report, but it was slightly disappointing. Unsurprisingly, it said lots of things that I agree with and would like to believe are true, but it didn’t argue its case coherently or persuasively. For example,

4.14 In some cases, self-proclaimed religious figures have capitalized on a popular desire for religious guidance to advocate narrow, distorted interpretations of Islamic teachings. Such figures mis-portray certain practices, such as honor killings, corporal punishment, and oppression of women as religious requirements. These practices are not only in contravention of internationally-agreed human rights standards, but, in the eyes of respected Muslim scholars, have no religious foundation. Such scholars have demonstrated that a sound reading of Islamic scriptures and history would lead to the eradication and not the perpetuation of these practices.

4.15 Many of these practices relate directly to the status of women. In some Muslim societies, ill-informed religious figures, in some cases allied with unenlightened conservative political regimes, have succeeded in greatly restricting women’s access to public and professional life, thereby hampering their prospects and potential for self-fulfillment. The effect on those women, on society at large, and on future generations, has been to inhibit economic and social development as well as democratic pluralism. This problem can only be overcome through laws that ensure full gender equality in accordance with internationally-agreed human rights standards. Such measures are most likely to succeed if supported by religious education that is based upon a sound interpretation of religious teachings. It must be noted, however, that in many parts of the world, including Western countries, much progress is still needed with regard to the status of women.

4.17 Among the intra-Muslim debates that most directly affect relations with Western societies is that over the concept of “jihad”. The notion of jihad is a rich one with many shades of meaning, ranging from the struggle between good and evil that is internal to every individual (often referred to as the “greater” jihad in Islam) to the taking up of arms in defense of one’s community (the “lesser” jihad). Increasingly, this term is used by extremists to justify violence with little consideration for the historical context and the related religious exigencies that most Muslim scholars agree should inform its application. When such exhortations to violence by radical factions are picked up and amplified by media and Western political leaders, the notion of “jihad” loses the multiple meanings and positive connotations it has for Muslims and becomes associated with only violent and negative meanings which have been wrongly attributed to the term.

Yep, I reckon that’s probably all true, but why?

This sort of thing comes in the first third of the report, the rest is practical suggestions for how to bring about an alliance of civilisations. For some reason, they fail to excite me. This is probably my fault. I feel like, if we need to find an idea to rally around in bringing about an alliance of civilisations, then this isn’t it. I’m sure the ideas are good ones, but are they enough and are they convincing? Personally, I’m not sure.

Perhaps if someone else has read this report you could explain to me that I’m missing something?