Thursday, 27 August 2009

Climate change Thursday #5

High Impact, Low Impact

Let's start off with the high impact this week. The UK's Department of Energy and Climate Change has launched a 'Road to Copenhagen' document which details its aims, analysis, arguments, proposals, and action. It is worth a read- you can download the document here.

There is now a Copenhagen portal website also where they are seeking your support for a deal at Copenhagen. Go on, sign.

The UK government is seeking a deal where:

- Developed countries commit to cutting their emissions by 25%-40% by 2020 on 1990 levels and by 80% by 2050;
- Ensure developing countries- with the support of the developed world- cut their levels by between 15%-30% compared with the 'business as usual scenario' by 2020;
- Encourage developing countries to complete low carbon development strategies so a sound assessment of how much support they will need can be undertaken;
- Ensure emissions from international aviation and shipping are included;
- Establish robust reporting, monitoring and verification systems to ensure that committed emission reductions are achieved.

It is a very positive approach from the UK Government. Some of the analysis in the document shows how far there is to go:

As can be seen, Japan, the USA, and Russia are considerable laggards when it comes to climate change with the EU and Canada- those socialist idylls with their healthcare and their equality and their public investment- way out in front. When you bear in mind the extent of EU expansion eastwards, this is a considerable target.

And just in case there was any doubt about the strong link between carbon emissions and growth. Here is a table that maps carbon emissions per capita with GDP per capita:

And finally, for a low impact approach to carbon emissions, see the story of Colin Beavon in this week's New Yorker. He tried to make his life as close to zero environmental impact as he could- he became "No Impact Man" with supposedly hilarious results. Only they are not really, they are predictable. And his family are miserable. He writes a book, blog, and gets the film deal. The book is No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process. Narcissus is alive and well.

As Elizabeth Kolbert's review concludes:
What’s required is perhaps a sequel. In one chapter, Beavan could take the elevator to visit other families in his apartment building. He could talk to them about how they all need to work together to install a more efficient heating system. In another, he could ride the subway to Penn Station and then get on a train to Albany. Once there, he could lobby state lawmakers for better mass transit. In a third chapter, Beavan could devote his blog to pushing for a carbon tax. Here’s a possible title for the book: “Impact Man."
Give me the high potential impact of Copenhagen any day over metropolitan guilt and obsession. And self promotion.

Science and religion- never the twain?

GUEST POST from Professor Adam Foster

Young scientists are often criticised by superiors for doubting their work and presenting it too pessimistically, and are encouraged to “have a little faith” and “believe in your results”. Taken literally, these kinds of comments are completely inappropriate to a profession based on quantifying the accuracy of data and providing detailed lists of possible sources of error and underlying assumptions.

You do not need to believe in the quality of your results, you know their quality - whether you choose to tell your audience exactly their quality is a question of ethics and whether you have tenure yet.

The ability to “not believe” and to avoid the seduction of faith is a critical component of good scientific practice. In light of this, studies of faith among scientists makes interesting reading. Overall, about a third of scientists in the US (certainly the global centre of scientific productivity) state that they believe in God, a significant drop from the nationwide average of 83%. However, some studies also defined a subset called “Good scientists” based on membership of the US National Academy of Sciences - in this set, only 7% believed in God. These statistics seem fairly damning - maintaining a strong faith in God appears to corrupt the objectiveness necessary for good scientific decisions.

Scientists full of faith are often highly vocal in praising the importance that spiritual balance brings to their work, or at least they are confident that the two spheres have no negative overlap. They seem to be wrong.

As such, it is difficult to understand the recent appointment of Francis Collins as director of National Institutes of Health (NIH) by President Obama. The $30 billion NIH is a massive responsibility, and few would argue with Collins' track record in administration and genetics research. However, he has made his Faith a very public part of his portfolio, including a book in 2006, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

He also co-started the BioLogos Foundation, which aims to emphasize the compatibility of Christian faith with scientific discoveries about the origins of the universe and life. The approach espoused, shared by many creationists and Jehovah's witnesses, is to start from a faith fact and then find scientific facts and theories that fit, disregarding any that don't. This is anti-science, and he has been widely criticized for his views, particularly by the watchdog of religious corruption in science, Richard Dawkins, and in the anti-creationist blog Pharyngula.

As head of the NIH he will have a very strong influence on Health policy in the USA. How many innovative directions and breakthrough treatments will be hindered because they clash with his religious views? Which lobby groups will get preferential treatment? How can we have faith in him?

Adam Foster is Professor of Theoretical Physics at the edge of the world (Tampere University of Technology, Finland.) Trying desperately to engage with reality when sober. He started blogging before it existed and then stopped when it did. And now?

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Crass Chris Grayling and The Wire's reality

I was perplexed and appalled to hear Chris Grayling Shadow Home Secretary compare modern Britain to The Wire this morning. So I devoted my labour movement column to his crass comments putting to one side what I had planned to write. While researching Barack Obama: the movement for change, I spent some time in an urban community where he had worked as a community organiser. The article looks at the reality of a The Wire style community and comes to the conclusion:
Nobody is claiming that Britain doesn’t face major social issues - few nations do not. To pretend they are new is dishonest. To compare Britain to the communities we see both in The Wire and across America is disingenuous. The only conclusion has to be that while it is clear that the Conservatives are desperate to get into government, they are not serious as a party of government. If they were, they would not fantasise about a Britain derived from a TV drama in this way.

Doing the right thing on torture

A few weeks ago I argued in a piece for Guardian America that Eric Holder, the US Attorney General, should both publish the CIA report into torture abuses and appoint a special prosecutor to investigate illegal activity by CIA agents. The piece concluded:
As a young community organiser in Chicago, he would say: "Stick to the high road." His attorney general is doing just that, it would seem. But the special prosecutor road is not the right one. It may end up grubbing around in the under-growth rather than chopping the tops off the trees. What is needed instead is a public and high-powered open investigation with full legal, moral and political force behind it. Holder's route, should he pursue it, is a weaker option.

Holder's fear is that, if he does go ahead, he will be jeopardising the president's domestic programme. But Americans have the right to know what was done in their name. They have the right to a public debate about why it was wrong and why it has jeopardised national security. They have a right to see those responsible for authorising torture prosecuted.

This is not about revenge. It is about doing the right thing. It is about preventing the United States, in the face of future unknown security threats, from undermining its basic values of decency and respect for human life again. It is about pulling the rug from under those who seek to muddy these waters. In so doing, it may be a case of ultimately protecting the president's domestic agenda. Stick to the high road.
Well, Eric Holder, you did the right thing and well done to you. Courageous, necessary, strong, Holder, an unsung hero of this administration, is demonstrating the independence of thought and determination that, politically awkward as it may be, benefits any strong leader.

The rule of law is back in vogue and long may that remain the case. The Attorney General's statement yesterday was clear:
“As attorney general, my duty is to examine the facts and to follow the law. Given all of the information currently available, it is clear to me that this review is the only responsible course of action for me to take.”
The appointment of a special prosecutor is politically awkward but legally right. Moreover, this will be the beginning of the road that will lead to full investigation and potential prosecution of those who sanctioned torture in the Bush administration under the auspices of 'enhanced interrogation techniques.' John Durham has been appointed to determine whether a full investigation of any agency employees and contractors is warranted. Should he come to the conclusion there is justification then the immediate question must be, why did they feel empowered to act in the way that the did? That question leads right to the Department of Justice, the Pentagon, and, ultimately, the White House.

Finally, we may be on the path to not simply moving on and letting bygones be bygones but also holding those who made decisions that were against human rights, justice, and US national security to account.

Eric Holder, we salute you.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Tax the wealthy, tackle youth unemployment?

I am pleased to see Polly Toynbee take on the argument I made in City excess and youth unemployment - the twin results of free global capitalism on speed, i.e. that we should consider taxing the better off in order to finance employment and skills investment for the least well off and, especially, the young unemployed. My proposal was:
In addition to clamping down on tax avoidance and evasion, the idea of some sort of wealth tax needs to be considered seriously. The easiest and most obvious way is to start to tax higher value houses more. Capital gains could be applied to the top bracket of first residence housing - in excess of £750,000 say and local taxes on the same properties could also be increased. There are other assets that could be targeted. Politically, there would be difficulty so the purposes would need to be explained very clearly.

Perhaps fighting unemployment could become the justification for wealth taxation? Proceeds could be invested in building up the asset base of the least well off - housing, education, savings, pensions and so on. In these tough economic times, we could use the revenues to create employment. Why not create jobs and skills refitting public buildings so that they are more environmentally efficient? The arguments will have to be clear and open.
The only difference between us seems to be that Polly argues for a tax on earnings. I argue for a tax on wealth (it will raise more and is less avoidable.) Here is her conclusion:
An emergency youth opportunity tithe on high earners for the duration of the recession would be political capital well spent. Reprise the spirit of Labour's 1997 £5bn windfall on utilities that paid for the New Deal for the young: it was popular and it made sense. It would be tempting to swoop down on bank bonuses, making an explicit link between those who helped cause the crisis and those who suffer its consequences. When even George Osborne spots the anger in the air at outrageous pay in an unrepentant City, a windfall is politically possible. There is now new political scope for an appeal for fairer sharing between old and young, between lucky and unlucky generations.
I think we have a discussion.

Friday, 21 August 2009

How did I get an 'A' grade in maths?

Something has been bothering me ever since my A Level results day. Every year when A Level results come out the niggle gets to me again and these last few days have been no different. I knew what I would get in my Politics and Economics A Levels but the one that everything else was riding on was the Mathematics. Somehow, God only knows how, I got an 'A' grade.

Believe me, I am not boasting about this. I am genuinely confused. Just a few months before I had got an 'E' in my mock exam. A Level mathematics was split into two parts- everyone did 'pure' mathematics and then you had an option of mechanics (for the scientists) or statistics (for those who couldn't really do proper maths, i.e. me.) Even by doing the easier statistics paper I was struggling.

I knew that to get to the university I wanted to I would need a 'B.' So from the mock I learnt how to answer the questions. Statistics was fine, I had an excellent teacher, Mr Ralph, who gave us model answers. Just learn them.

The other paper- calculus, induction, quadratic equations and all sorts of other nasties- was an absolute blur. I had no idea what was going on but I got an 'A.' How? I learnt how to answer the questions going back over all the past papers. Without any understanding of what I was doing or what it was for, I still managed to hoodwink the examiner that I did. It's a trick I've deployed a few times since.

So, how did I do it? It's simple actually. Without knowing it, I had actually learnt how to do exams. I had not understood that mathematics is pure logic, a language to convey irrefutable and falsifiable meaning; a means of understanding our world across its dimensions, to analyse its patterns and communicate its form and logic. But I did know how to make the examiner think I understood what it's about.

Which brings me nicely onto the exceptionally tedious debate about whether A Levels are getting easier or not. Awake? This the time of the year when the media celebrates in success with footage of elated students waving their results in the air as if they were flags at the Last Night of the Proms. They then cut back to some grumpy curmudgeon or other who bemoans how easy they are like a father who says, "Son, what a marvelous achievement in learning to play the piano to such a standard. Now let me go and get my sledgehammer and smash it up."

'A' Levels have not got easier. But what has happened is that since league tables, Ofsted and the like, we are now far more likely to teach to the test- much as Mr Ralph did with my class (and I'm very glad he did.) Moreover, there are far more consequential results with so many more university places available. The reason I found a way around the system? I needed a 'B' grade minimum. There are so many more pupils chasing grades to secure a university place so they learn how to do well at exams (either by understanding the subject- the better route- or by, like me, learning what the examiner is looking for.)

So the incentive to improve is strong for schools/ teachers and pupils alike. It's no mystery and anyone who thinks it is because 'A' Levels are getting easier is just plain wrong. Of course, next year we'll have the same debate again. Yawn.

But there is a bigger issue here. As I have said, I did not understand mathematics but could do it. I'm sure there are a great many students who were in the same position yesterday if they are being honest. In this economy- a predominantly knowledge economy- being able to do an exam is a fine skill. But the greater skill set is the ability acquire deep understanding, look at things from new perspectives, deploy knowledge and analytical capability in creative ways, and find new ways of doing things that aren't just about meeting someone else's standard (i.e. an exam.)

The excellent A Level results do create a problem of differentiation for universities which I fully appreciate. Both myself and Professor Adam Foster whose guest post yesterday I would strongly recommend reading got the same grade at 'A' Level mathematics. I can promise you- and there is no humility here whatsoever, just the truth- our mathematical capability was not is the same league. On paper, we appeared to be the same.

(Incidentally, he got a 'C' grade in Politics but he did argue- in a one sentence essay- that the reason that Republicans win US presidential elections was because they are in tune with the values of the American people: they eat big steaks and wear baseball caps. Actually, foreshadowing Drew Westen's The Political Brain, that answer should have got the highest grade.)

However, the main issue is our whole approach to education. This differentiation issue is just part of it. In this society, this economy, are exams the valid measure of capability? Peter Hyman, in an excellent piece for The Observer last weekend, argued that we should concentrate on the skills we need to give students to succeed in life rather than exams etc. I'm inclined to agree. So next year, let's say congratulations to those who succeed and then shift the debate in another direction. Let's ask what do we expect from our education system? What will benefit the students most in life? What constitutes excellence in education in the modern day? Then we can extricate ourselves from this torpid 'are 'A' Levels getting easier?' debate.

Post script: Adam (@suurimonster) informs me that he actually got a 'D' in politics. More grade inflation......

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Climate change Thursday #4

Apocalypse Now?

So we are facing an apocalypse. That sounds like bad news. Paul Kingsnorth is adamant and counsels absolute despair in this exchange with the sunny panglossian George Monbiot.

Here is a taster from Kingsnorth:

The writing is on the wall for industrial society, and no amount of ethical shopping or determined protesting is going to change that now. Take a civilisation built on the myth of human exceptionalism and a deeply embedded cultural attitude to "nature"; add a blind belief in technological and material progress; then fuel the whole thing with a power source that is discovered to be disastrously destructive only after we have used it to inflate our numbers and appetites beyond the point of no return. What do you get? We are starting to find out.

And this:

The challenge is not how to shore up a crumbling empire with wave machines and global summits, but to start thinking about how we are going to live through its fall, and what we can learn from its collapse.

Monbiot concludes:

You appear to believe that though it is impossible to tame the global economy, it is possible to change our founding myths, some of which predate industrial civilisation by several thousand years. You also believe that good can come of a collapse that deprives most of the population of its means of survival. This strikes me as something more than optimism: a millenarian fantasy, perhaps, of Redemption after the Fall. Perhaps it is the perfect foil to my apocalyptic vision.

I find myself in the Monbiot camp on this one. There is a climate crisis absolutely. The consequences of it will be terrifyingly severe and unpredictable. But let's not write ourselves off just yet. We've met great challenges in the past but this is perhaps the greatest. A century or so ago European powers often found themselves in catastrophic wars against themselves where millions of lives were lost as the competition for resources, nationalism, and technology combined to brutal effect. That doesn't happen any more- we found other ways of doing things.

We've managed successful international environmental treaties before such as the Montreal Protocol. Let's give it a meaningful go before we write off the species.

One thing I will say for Kingsnorth is that he mentions The Road by Cormac McCarthy which is excellent. Buy it.

On the more pessimistic note, the anti-environmental lobby in the US is gearing up in a major fashion. reports a major national effort that will culminate in rallies and will be backed by millions of TV adverts. The Waxman-Markey bill which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago could face the same ferocious assault in Autumn as Obamacare is facing currently.

I particularly like the sound of Energy Citizens which is an alliance of the American Petroleum Institute, National Association of Manufacturers, and the American Farm Bureau Federation. Those are the sort of citizens that would make Thomas Paine proud. They will spew the usual mis-information but hey-ho.

The link to the article came courtesy of @algore. Follow him (in a Twitter sense....)

Scientists need to get real

GUEST POST from Professor Adam Foster

Many battles are fought in an effort to get the public (notice already the implicit segregation) interested in science, and it is a conflict that certainly calls me to the frontlines. However, there is much less effort expended to get scientists interested in the public, with many leading researchers proud of their disengagement from “common man”.

To some extent, particularly for the harder fields of science such as physics and mathematics, a scientific career is a rejection of the world as we currently perceive it and an attempt to find the underlying truth. This often attracts people who feel the world has rejected them, and elitism and cultism are readily embraced. The consequences of this range from the minor inconvenience of social dysfunction in the real world to an incapacity, or unwillingness, to understand the long-term implications of research.

In the last decade, the increasing awareness that many of the technologies and industries at the heart of global economic output are direct results of basic research, along with the powerful impact of biological studies on medicine, has led to pressure from governments to reduce the time between ideas and implementations. Generally, research proposals must now have real applications embedded within them, and, ideally, direct involvement from relevant companies.

This encourages engagement beyond the academic world, but, on average, scientists are not stupid, and they can spin a proposal to read as a beautiful hybrid of research, technology and industry, while planning to avoid reality corruption at all costs. The companies selected are often spin-offs from scientitic departments, led by ex-academics, keeping everything on the inside. The creation of this separate, scientific world, as in many other fantasies, leads its occupants to believe that the normal rules do not apply to them.

An example is the recent outcry from the scientific community when politicians interfered with funding decisions. Republicans in the US House of Representatives killed three grants from the $31 billion National Institute of Health bill. These grants focused on studies of prostitutes in Thailand and China, and alcoholics in Russia in order to better understand the spread of HIV/AIDS. The projects were approved in peer-review and would cost only $5 million over five years, and likely greatly aid in stopping this global threat.

Killing them was short-sighted, ill-informed and panders to the worst aspects of US nationalism (not all US nationalism is bad). It is also the fifth time since 2003 that conservative Republicans have tried to kill peer-reviewed projects.

So what? The loud complaints from researchers seem a particularly tired rallying call. Since 2003 hundreds of well-prepared and organized proposals from all spheres of life have been killed for political reasons, without any real consideration of their value. Why should scientific proposals get such special treatment? Considering how few are actually affected, perhaps they already do. If scientists want to get more money from the public, then they need to engage with their world, and play by its rules.

Adam Foster is Professor of Theoretical Physics at the edge of the world (Tampere University of Technology, Finland.) Trying desperately to engage with reality when sober. He started blogging before it existed and then stopped when it did. And now?

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

City excesses and youth unemployment

Two sides of the same coin? City excess and youth unemployment. This week's LabourList column is now up. I argue that we need to redistribute assets in order to develop the capabilities of each individual:

City excess and youth unemployment - the twin results of free global capitalism on speed

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Osborne- reformist not progressive

My weekly column has been posted over at LabourList. It discusses not just George Osborne's progressive conservatism speech- which actually was about reform rather than progress- but also some old fallacies of the left that are starting to creep back in like an ideological opposition to markets that could end up hindering rather than advancing social justice.

Progress is not just about reform- it's about social justice.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Primary motive- political change

Progress has launched a campaign to introduce primaries into Labour party selections- Prime Time. I have been arguing the case for 18 months now, both here and elsewhere so I gave a quote of support to the campaign:
'The demand for political change is irresistible and it’s right across the political spectrum. Labour has a simple choice. It can instigate change or be swallowed by it. Every single selection from tomorrow could be decided by those who have expressed support for Labour. A spending cap could easily be set just as it is in every single election in the UK. It would bring people to Labour rather than repel them as some have erroneously claimed; it could become the start of a real movement for change. It would be a disaster if this just becomes some sort of intra-party factional battle. Someone will get this right. Why don’t we make it Labour?'
Parties are suffocating, local selections are decided by ever smaller and self-selecting cabals, there has never been a greater distance between political parties and the communities they serve (with notable exceptions), politics is in its worse state in living memory, the status quo is just not acceptable anymore.

The process put forward by Will Straw- a short-list decided by members, the final vote by those who declare themselves to be Labour supporters- is a closed primary and is the right solution. It's difficult to estimate but I would imagine that would mean the participation of two or three thousand typically rather than 100 as is currently the case. Straight away you bring a whole new class of people into party politics and the party would change unrecognisably. I can only think that defenders of the status quo think the party is fine as it is. It is not- in terms of engagement, policy discussion, responding to local communities, participation, representation, it is underperforming. Things must change.

The money argument is spurious. A cap could be put on expenditure once the selection was announced. If primaries became a permanent feature of our electoral landscape you could require candidates to set up a campaign committee or some such and limit all expenditire to that committee and impose a cap of say £5,000 or £10,000. That is the sort of level of expenditure that serious selection campaigns currently spend so there is not great difference- other than that there is no cap currently. Finance could be found from trade unions and elsewhere for candidates.

That leaves the 'I don't hear people on the doorstep wanting constitutional change' canard. I promise you anyone who has spent time on the doorstep over the last few months has heard about very little but the demand for change. People don't say 'I want PR' but they do say 'you guys don't listen', 'expenses show how out of touch politicians are', 'a plague on all your houses', 'I only see you guys when you want my vote.' There are a myriad of other expressions that are basically demands for political change. Sometimes you have to reach behind what people are saying.

It was disappointing to see this debate turned into a factional dispute by- the usually interesting- Neal Lawson last week. It is a false choice between proportional representation and primaries. In fact, if you have PR, possibily with a greater number of safe seats as a consequence (depending on the system but let's not over-complicate), then primaries become even more important. I just hope that the next phase of Labour politics is not characterised by every single thing- political change, social policy, how many sugars we have in our tea- rammed into this false real v new Labour torpid debate. This approach was evident in John Harris' piece in The Guardian this morning. Those he agrees with are pure of motive while those he doesn't are wolves in sheep's clothing. Surely we can do better than that?

I have been privileged over the last few months to be in a position to give something in the region of thirty talks on Barack Obama. I always relate it to political change in the UK. There is always an enthusiastic response: in Nottinghamshire (see my account of the Lowdham book festival here), Walsall, Liverpool, Essex, Surrey, Acton, Birmingham, or wherever it's always the same.

People are demanding change. Why else did 16,000+ people vote in Totnes? Now the way the Tories did it is not right for Labour. But that's not the point. The point is the motivation for people to get involved. So what on earth are we waiting for?

Malcolm Gladwell gets it so, so wrong

Malcolm Gladwell sits in the Maycomb courthouse where the local lawyer, the dashing and ruminating Atticus Finch, is defending a local black man against the charge of rape. To Malcolm's left sit Scout and Jem, who from their chatter it is clear that they are the son and daughter of Finch. Tom Robinson, the man charged with a heinous and violent crime against Mayella Ewell, is forlorn and confused; he is clearly numb with fear.

Amazingly, despite overwhelming evidence that Robinson could not have been responsible for the beating that Ewell suffered, he is found guilty. This staggering outcome is greeted with equanimity by Malcom Gladwell. He dismisses Finch's defence:
The putative rape victim, Mayella Ewell, has bruises on her face, and the supporting testimony of her father, Robert E. Lee Ewell. Robinson concedes that he was inside the Ewell house, and that some kind of sexual activity took place. The only potentially exculpatory evidence Finch can come up with is that Mayella’s bruises are on the right side of her face while Robinson’s left arm, owing to a childhood injury, is useless.
He doesn't stop there. He has Finch himself in his sights who he dismisses as a well-meaning but ultimately reactionary southern liberal. While he may have human compassion that is greater than others of his southern brethren, he is reconciled to status quo- Jim Crow segregation. What's worse is that Finch invites us to replace one set of prejudices with another. In tearing apart the testimonies of Bob and Mayella Ewell, he preys upon their ill-educated, poor working-class nature: a crime to these christian, liberal southerners that is unforgivable. Racial prejudice should be wrenched from our hearts- though not necessarily from our society- but class disdain is acceptable in this paternalistic and parochial world view. Such is Gladwell's charge.

But how can Malcolm Gladwell question Finch's case and in so doing impugn the integrity and motivation of Atticus Finch on the basis of the evidence that is presented to us in To Kill a Mocking Bird? He may have be sat up in the public- colored- gallery next to Scout and Jem but he missed something. lf he were applying the analysis of his book Blink he might question why his sub-conscious and conscious interacted in such a way as to miss out a key piece of exculpatory evidence. What was it?

Well, Malcolm Gladwell mentions the bruising the right side of her face and says that was the only exculpatory evidence presented. Admittedly, as Gladwell points out, a man with only a strong right arm could have beaten Mayella Ewell in this way. What he fails to mention- and this is where his article's argument collapses with a flourish- is the bruising all around her neck. Now, even though the Sheriff Heck Tate asserts the slimness of Mayella Ewell's neck, are we really meant to believe that a one-handed man could inflict these injuries? One hand around a neck? Try it. Around a cat's neck maybe but a human neck? Of course not.

Any right thinking juror would not have convicted Tom Robinson. But he was convicted.

Where Gladwell does have an argument is the use of Atticus Finch of a set of prejudices against the Ewell's- i.e. that they were the 1930s equivalent of trailer park trash. However, there is more than a little evidence of the violent and hate-filled nature of Bob Ewell- he goes on to attack Scout and Jem and others. Whereas the evidence against Tom Robinson is flimsy to say the very least. So ultimately, Gladwell attempts to twang our guilt but is not justified in doing so- not on the basis of this trial anyhow.

Yes, Atticus Finch was presenting the best case he possibly could. That's his job. He's a lawyer. He doesn't 'grapple with the structural dimension' of racism. Too right. His job was to represent his client. What does Malcolm Gladwell expect Atticus Finch to do? Give an 'I have a dream' speech on the Maycomb courthouse floor? How would that have helped Tom Robinson?

No, what Atticus Finch does is something far more subtle and more important than that. He attempts to humanise his client. The strongest challenge to injustice is empathy. If you give the outsider a story, a personality, a life, we can't help but empathise. Once you have empathy, you are moving rapidly along the road to equality. On what basis do you discriminate against people you feel to be like you, your equals?

More broadly, that is what Harper Lee does in the wonderful tale. She dignifies the outsider. Tom Robinson and Boo Radley are the obvious cases: the black man and the recluse with possible mental illness. That is is the powerful force for change.

What changed America? What moved it from racial segregation to legal equality? The obvious answer is civil and voting rights. However, it was empathy and the moral force that comes from that that led to the legislation that was passed in 1963 and 1965. It is easy to point to Brown v Board of Education, Topeka which reversed the previous legal sanctioning of separate but equal under the 1896 Plessy v Ferguson case, as the starting gun for the civil rights movement. But the legal route is a long one.

Personally, I see events in the following year, 1955, as the moment when Jim Crow finally got his comeuppance. The brutal murder of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi brought the violence and injustice of southern racism into full national view. There are obvious parallels between the fate of Till and Robinson; both their ordeals came about through liaisons with white women and the reaction of their men. Later that year came Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycotts. This brought to national prominence one Reverend Martin Luther King.

His Southern Christian Leadership Conference used protest and moral persuasion in a jujutsu on the violence perpetrated by the likes of Governor Wallace of Alabama and Bull Connor. The non-violence of the movement- at Birmingham, Alabama, Selma and elsewhere- was its power. Its message was moral. Legislative changes were the objective. Empathy, mass mobilisation and morality were the means. All this was lifted to the heavens by the majestic oratory of King himself. Are we to believe that the Congressmen and women who voted to change civil and voting rights in 1963 and 1965 having failed to do so for generations were suddenly swayed by abstract legalism? No, it was the unanswerable moral case for equality and justice built upon the sturdy foundations of empathy.

And in that courtroom in Maycomb, Malcolm Gladwell while not concentrating quite as closely as he might also missed another performance of stunning oratory, a moral and Christian insistence that Tom Robinson be granted the dignity that goes with being a man. He doesn't throw Mayella Ewell overboard as Gladwell suggests. He sympathises with her. But that sympathy can only go so far when a man's life is at stake.

So Atticus Finch is- in a small town Alabama way- a monumental and heroic figure. Do not underestimate the power of To Kill a Mocking Bird- published in 1960 with the film starring Gregory Peck following close on its tail in 1962. The timing couldn't have been better. In itself, it became part of the moral persuasion for change. The Atticus Finchs of the world, far from contributing to perpetuation of Jim Crow segregation, challenged it in their little but powerful ways. What was the world view of Jem and Scout after seeing their father in action? It could be nothing more than understanding the injustice around them. Would they despair? Perhaps. Would they recognise change and possibility of change if they saw it? Perhaps. But those kids growing in the 1930s deep South could not fail to understand the moral force of their father.

As it happens, Atticus Finch is a fictional character. But millions of us have become Jems and Scouts under his tutelage and influence. Malcolm Gladwell is an iconoclast and never fails to intrigue, inspire, and challenge. But on Atticus Finch Malcolm, you've just got it so, so wrong.

And as a treat, here is the closing statement of Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 version of To kill a Mocking Bird.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Are bloggers parasites?

A couple of months ago, David Simon- creator of the The Wire (the best show, ever, in case you didn't know) and former Baltimore Sun journalist- described bloggers as parasitical. The internet:
"leeches...reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from the aggregators and abandon its point of origin—namely the newspapers themselves. In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host."
Now this view created a storm. The above quote, I have lifted from a New York Review of Books piece. I wasn't at the event. I didn't hear David Simon say it. I have just piggy-backed on another writer- namely Michael Massing. It is not clear that he was at the event. He may have lifted it from somewhere else. He may not have done. But the quote spreads virus like.

The thing is- and this will disappoint many bloggers- I have a great deal of sympathy with David Simon's perspective. Blogging does rely on the mainstream media. I haven't counted how many TV clips and articles I've linked to or embedded in 18 months of this blog but a lot. Does this blog add value? Well, it's my voice and my take; that's all I'll say. I'll leave the qualitative judgements to others. But a lot of blogs do add real value. Massing quotes a whole array of them.

Nonetheless, when you see the amount of newspapers in financial jeopardy which includes the very precious Observer, it does make you stop and think. Is there another way of capturing the chaotic, free-wheeling, but excitingly democratic spirit of the blogosphere but finding a way of that co-existing with a viable, diverse and high quality professional media environment (though some bloggers now are professionals....important qualification)?

In other words, can an antagonistic relationship become a symbiotic one?

This is rather down to the owners of newspapers. They are in the position that the music industry was in a few years ago. Aggregation sites and Google alerts/ news searches as well as blogs are taking the control of content away from the outlets themselves. Rupert Murdoch is responding by threatening to charge for web content. That basically reverses time to pre-internet days. I used to be an avid reader of the FT online until they started charging for content.

But hear me out. It's not that I object to paying for content- either as a blogger or as a reader. Far from it. I object to having to pay in dozens of different ways and then not having the freedom to share the content with others.

What is required is that newspaper proprietors get together and create a platform- like a news version of iTunes or Spotify- that can consolidate distribution and collect fees. For example, I wouldn't object to paying a subscription of £20 per month say, for the rights to link to any article in UK press. Equally, I am sure the majority of readers would not object to a monthly fee (probably slightly less than £20) for the same privilege. But once you have the GMG, News International, et al all doing different things it breaks down and the newspapers start to undermine demand for their content again. Far more people read a variety of newspaper content than ten years ago. And that is a good thing. Let's not undermine that.

The fact that the major news groups have not got together to make this work is playing Russian roulette with the future of the newspaper industry. If a revenue raising distribution platform is not found soon then newspapers will continue to struggle, the internet will grow in a different way but without the same quality, or we will start to reverse the internet revolution.

Bloggers like myself will still get our free content. But we'll quote it rather than link to it. We all lose.

So, listen to David Simon- he has a point- even if he does labour it as Eric Etheridge argued in the New York Times. But equally, newspapers are going to have to find a way of making this work beyond the free with advertising model that is failing. The only way it can work is if they get together somehow and make it happen with new ways of distributing paid-for content without stemming its flow. It would be fairly enforceable as most bloggers use either Blogger or WordPress who could make subscribing- if such links are used- a condition of service.

Blogging can be parasitical but with a bit of creativity it could make a major contribution to its host. And while we're at it, why is BBC content not available for embedding within blogs? What could possibly be lost by doing that? The US networks do it with ads. Perhaps that content could de distributed through the same platform as the papers.

There is a different way. It just requires initiative, open dialogue, and cooperation to make it happen. So it's a long shot.

Post script: Please follow Save the Observer on Twitter and BUY THE PAPER.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Climate change Thursday #3

This week's climate change Thursday is a tale of two governments. The first is the British government that, as we saw last week, has got its act together in relative- though not absolute- terms.

However, it appears that the public sector itself is not setting a good example. According the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee, recycling in the public sector has declined in 2006-07 to 2007-08 from 38.5 per cent to 35 per cent and the use of renewable energy has declined from 28.3 per cent to 22 per cent over the same period. The problem with this is not just its impact on emissions which is the primary concern but also that it will cost the government cash.

Under the Carbon Reduction Commitment, public sector organisations and local authorities will have to buy carbon credits from the private sector- costing us all money and, as it is a market-based solution, there is no way forecasting what that cost could be. Moreover, what sort of example does it set?

There is further information available about the scheme here if you are interested.

The other government under the microscope this week is the US. Under the Obama administration they appear to be getting on the case. The stimulus and investment package passed included significant investment in renewable energy, retro-fitting of public buildings, and the creation of a more efficient grid. The administration's budget did the same thing. However, it is starting from a very low base.

In an interview with the New Scientist, John Holdren, President Obama's scientific advisor, said:
"Two things are obvious: the industrialised nations have an obligation to lead, and the developing countries have to join pretty soon, or we're going to be cooked."
It is unsurprising that the US is beginning to stir on climate change given the catastrophic consequences it faces if the world fails to act. The only mystery is what took it so long. Just take the agricultural oasis of California as a case in point. A while ago, Energy Secretary, Nobel prize-winning, Steven Chu, said:
“We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California. I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going.”
Now, to have any chance of a comprehensive climate deal at Copenhagen, the Waxman-Markey bill- which introduces a US cap and trade system much like the EU's Emissions Trading System and sets targets for renewable energy- must pass the Senate following its successful navigation of the House of Representatives on June 26th.

There are fears that with healthcare sucking out all of the legislative energy from Congress that the bill could be punted into next year. That would be a disaster for Copenhagen unless a clear direction of travel had been established. Without the bill, what chance that China, Russia, and India, will commit to a substantive deal at Copenhagen?

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Totnes tory primary- over 16,000 vote!

Tory press man, Henry Macrory, has just tweeted that the turnout for Tories' primary in Totnes is 16,639 and they are still counting.

Remember a while ago I blogged on my experiences in Lowdham in Nottinghamshire at a book festival- Revolution in Rural England- where there was enthusiastic support for political change in my audience across the political spectrum. What is happening in Totnes seems to be bearing this out. Phenomenal. If politicians think they can resist the tidal wave of political change- as they are doing- then they have another thing coming.

A staggering Tory primary in Totnes.

I am absolutely staggered- and impressed- by reports that the Tories have held a primary in Totnes in which 10,000 people have voted. I have called in the past for closed primaries in the Labour party- i.e. registered Labour supporters would be able to vote- but this primary in Devon is incredible. A full report has been posted by Michael Crick.

As it happens, I'm currently in the next county along- Cornwall. As I only have wifi access in McDonalds, I can't see there being a lot of blogging this week though I will somehow get 'Climate change Thursday' done.

You may be interested in a couple of things from the weekend.

i) I had a piece on Gary McKinnon on the Huffington Post. As is typical with these things, I got attacked from the right for being too PC and from the left for being un-PC. I really fail to see how describing Asperger's as a disability- given that the doctor who diagnosed Gary McKinnon, Prof Simon Baron-Cohen, described it as such and so does the National Autistic Society- is a major issue. Convince me otherwise?

The sad thing about the discussion is that it is a sideshow from other major issues- the fate Gary McKinnon himself, and widening understanding of Asperger's so that we can insure that individuals and their families get the right support and that they are given every chance possible to fulfil every ounce of their potential just as the rest of us are. If describing it as a disability means that Gary McKinnon and others with Asperger's get that support then so be it.

ii) The Australian newspaper quoted my 'what it means to be left' response which appeared on Open Left. Not quite sure why, but very nice of them anyway.

iii) My LabourList column will appear later today. It's on can and should Peter Mandelson be Prime Minister?

iv) Giles Wilkes, author of a magnificent paper on economic policy, made a comment yesterday on my 'The Economic Consequences of David Cameron' piece. The full piece is here.

Back to McDonalds which I pretend to detest but actually rather enjoy their Sausage and Egg McMuffins. Thanks Ronald.