Wednesday, 31 October 2007


I made a rare trip to the cinema last night to see Michael Moore's new film on the topic of healthcare, 'Sicko'.

Of course, the film is intended for a general, not necessarily politically aware US audience. Of course, the presentation is polemical and slanted - Moore isn't exactly one for making a balanced documentary film. However, I still found it to be both effective and informative.

Anyone still defending the current US system of private insurance based 'healthcare' has a lot of explaining to do after this exposé. The US is the only Western country where the availability of medical treatment for everything except acute emergencies, from finger reattachment to diagnostic scans to inhalers, is dependent on the ability to pay thousands of dollars. I am sure there are patients whose insurance pays for their treatment as advertised, but many are denied treatment for any one of a number of reasons. Others receive treatment on the understanding that it will be paid for by their insurance - then the company refuses to pay.

Moore contrasts the US with Canada, the UK (including one hospital that is very local to me!) and France. Again, this being a polemical a one-sided view of each of these is shown, in which patients can walk into a GPs or hospital and receive free treatment - neglecting to mention the waiting lists, MRSA and clinical rationing familiar to us Brits. To a degree this was necessary for Moore to counter the anti-'socialized medicine' propaganda that Americans are fed in order to keep them accepting of the status quo, but a tiny bit of balance would have been good to see.

The last third of the film, in which three 9/11 rescue workers and several other patients failed by the US system were taken first to Guantanamo Bay ('the only place on US soil with universal healthcare - for "the evildoers"'), then to Castro's Cuba, is unsurprisingly the segment that draws the most headlines and excites the most criticism from Moore's opponents. Whether the care given to these American patients really was equivalent to the healthcare available to the average Cuban, I don't know. I suspect Moore's intention here (apart from generating publicity) was to shame the US system by comparison to this supposed third world socialist backwater - not to suggest that they should be emulated. It was surely heavily staged, and for me the film's central argument would have been as strong if not stronger without this.

Overall, whatever your political persuasion - but particularly if you are of a pro-free market bent, I recommend going to see 'Sicko' at the earliest opportunity.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Orders, Orders

Gordon Brown promised last week to "write a new chapter in our country's story of liberty"1. Meanwhile, two bills currently progressing through Parliament follow in the old tradition of increasingly illiberal legislation in the name of crime prevention.

Building on the dubious 'success' of ASBOs (Anti Social Behaviour Orders)2, provisions are made in two bills for two new types of 'orders':

  • The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill 20073 provides for Violent Offender Orders in Part 8.
  • The Serious Crime Bill 2006-074 provides for Serious Crime Prevention Orders in Part 1.
There has been sparse mainstream media coverage of these, and some of what has been printed has been somewhat confused regarding the orders' contents or between the two types5.

Violent Offender Orders, which are the type discussed in the Times article, are described as "civil preventative orders" provide for the imposition of specified conditions on persons convicted of, or committed to hospital or supervision because of, certain specified violent crimes. The intention appears to be to create an equivalent to the sex offenders' register for such individuals.

Serious Crime Prevention Orders are described as "civil injunctive orders...aimed at preventing serious crime". They can be imposed on individuals who is adjudged to have been involved in 'serious crime' (a variety of offences delineated in Schedule 1 of the Bill), whether or not such a crime has been committed. Restrictions can be applied to individuals' work, communications, travel etc.

Of the two 'orders', it is the latter type that raises serious civil liberties concerns. Adjudged 'involvement in serious crime' does not require judicial proof - a point of concern raised by Jeremy Browne, a Liberal Democrat MP, in Tuesday's debate on the Bill6. In addition to this, unlike the Violent Offender Orders, the range of offences listed in schedule 1 with which suspected involvement could result in being slapped with a restrictive SCPO is broad and somewhat less than intuitive. Who would think that fishing for salmon or trout with a "prohibited implement" (13(1)) might be considered a 'serious crime' along with drug trafficking and armed robbery?

The thinking behind the introduction of Serious Crime Prevention Orders is clearly the protection of the public from organised crime, where there is often insufficient evidence for a criminal conviction. However, it represents a serious encroachment on the principle of innocent until proven guilty, and does not recognise the loss of livelihood etc that would potentially result if an Order of this type were applied to the wrong person.


Hat-tip to PJC Journal for bringing this to my attention.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Hüsker Dü - 'New Day Rising'

This is the first in an occasional series of arts reviews on Question That.

Hüsker Dü were an American alternative rock band who released six albums during the 1980s of which this is the third. They are credited as influences by a range of modern punk, rock and indie bands, including several I have been to see and/or own albums by. Before listening to this I had not heard sought out material by this band, and none of the tracks on here were recognisable as being something that I had heard previously.

Although the style of music could be broadly described as punk rock, the band have put together a varied bag here, ranging from radio-friendly new-wave (e.g. 'Terms of Psychic Warfare') through raucous hardcore ('Powerline'), power pop ('Books about UFOs') through experimental rock ('How To Skin A Cat'). The feedback-heavy guitar sound I associate with some 80s alternative music (e.g. the Jesus & Mary Chain) is present here, but not so strongly as to make it difficult to make out the rest of the instrumentation and/or the vocals. The lyrics on many tracks are still rather difficult to make sense of, not that this is uncommon for the genre.

On hearing several of these tracks, it does not come as a surprise to read that
Hüsker Dü are cited as influences for so many modern rock bands. The downbeat '59 Times The Pain' is reminiscent of Nirvana, 'Books About UFOs' of Ash or Silver Sun. I could see the the bouncy 'I Apologize' going down well at a modern indie rock club.

Hüsker do. 8

'Books About UFOs', 'Terms Of Psychic Warfare', 'Celebrated Summer'
SKIP: 'Plans I Make', 'Perfect Example'

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Going Bananas

As I mentioned in my post last week, the argument about the EU is very polarised. Sometimes it only requires a few words to bring to mind a desired image in the context of the EU debate.

As is, it seems, with the words "straight bananas". The below quotes are just samples, this phrase is appearing just about everywhere that the current EU debate crops up.

"Much of what you have said here is about as true as a straight banana. Be ashamed of yourself." - LizStockeraswas (pro-EU commenter on CiF)1

"...And how could debate here be informed, when it is held in newspapers that take the wilful-idiocy line on Europe, running stories on the threat from Brussels to straight bananas and smoky-bacon-flavoured crisps?" - Celia Brayfield (New Statesman)2

"Strangely enough, opinion surveys that elicit europhobic responses tend to include questions along the lines of "What do you think of Brussels' forcing of straight bananas on the Great British Public?"" - Francis Sedgemore (Guardian)3

What is implied by the use of those words in all of these examples is fairly clear. The insistence of the EU regulations ('Brussels') on the sale of a particular type of banana in Britain is a Euromyth', something created by the influential anti-EU agitators (often named as 'the tabloid press' or even specifically 'Murdoch') in order to make Europe sound like a source of useless, petty, fussy regulation of business.

Is "straight bananas" a Euromyth? Not quite.
Is it true that 'Eurocrats' demanded that bananas be straight? Not quite.

All of this arises from one regulation, European Commission 2257/944, the 'official publication of the European Commission laying down quality standards for bananas'. As the code number suggests it was issued in 1994. Under the heading of 'Quality', the regulation states that bananas in all classes must be among other things "free from malformation of abnormal curvature of the fingers". 'Abnormal curvature' is not defined. The regulation also specifies a minimum length and 'grade' (width) for a banana to be sold in the EC.

So, it is correct to say that the EC at the time did not regulate in such a way that ordinary curved bananas were banned - this is indeed an exaggeration. But neither was the story fabricated from whole cloth as EU-eulogisers would like you to think.


Tuesday, 23 October 2007

George Monbiot vs Matt Ridley

'George Monbiot: Libertarians are the true social parasites' ran the teaser on the front page of today's Guardian.

This is going to ignite some debate in the 'blogosphere', numerous as its self-described libertarians and classical liberals are, thought I.

The column1 turned out not to be the kind of blanket condemnation of the anti-authoritarian, pro-individual liberty lobby I feared it might be. Instead, Monbiot concentrated on the attitudes of some capitalists, in particular the evolutionary biologist turned bank director Matt Ridley2. Specifically, that the less Government interference in the activities of business the better.

Ridley's article for science & philosophy website edge.org3 in response to the 2006 question 'What Is Your Dangerous Idea?' was entitled 'Government Is The Problem Not The Solution', and contends that

"In every [historical] case, weak or decentralised government, but strong free trade led to surges in prosperity for all, whereas strong, central government led to parasitic, tax-fed officialdom, a stifling of innovation, relative economic decline and usually war."

The coda to this story, of course, is the British Government's bailing out of Ridley's Northern Rock4 after they lent out more money in mortgages, including to people with poor credit histories, than they could afford to lend - Overall, the saga serves as an object lesson in the limitations of the self-serving market libertarian* worldview.

"We must ensure that the state is also treated like a member of the hominid clan and punished when it acts against the common good. Human welfare, just as it was a million years ago, is guaranteed only by mutual scrutiny and regulation."

This is not to say that governments are somehow made up of better men and women than is the average board of directors. I could point to a dozen or more examples to illustrate that this is apparently not the case. The personal qualities that are required to become a high-ranking politician are hardly compatible with honesty and integrity. But what a functioning government provides is regulation and accountability.

3. (second essay from the top)

* In contrast to the libertarian socialist or anarchist positions, advocates of which may also use the term 'libertarian' to describe their worldviews - and in fact can reasonably contend that they were first to it!

Monday, 22 October 2007

Comment Is Fascinating

If you were to ask me which website I would miss most (apart from my own blog!) were it to disappear from the internet tomorrow, I would immediately reply Guardian Comment is Free.

No other single website has such a variety of quality writers as CiF. No matter when you open the site, there will be several articles that are worth reading, and the open threads below a large proportion of those will contain some quality debate (along with a lot of drive-by posts that can happily be ignored, of course)

The Guardian is a left-leaning newspaper, so it is not surprising that there is a statistical over-representation of writers espousing viewpoints that might commonly be described as left wing. To give just one example, environmentalists have several writers promoting their cause on CiF, whereas their opponents have only the one semi-regular spokesman, Brendan O'Neill of Spiked online.

The open threads are a different story, however. By rough estimation, the left-right proportion among regular commenters as opposed to writers is around 30-70. Perhaps this is because readers are more likely to comment on an article that they broadly disagree with than one they have no argument with. Either way, it can make for some very interesting discussions.

Admittedly, CiF isn't without a couple of problems. Its moderation vexes a lot of contributors. In my observation the problem with it is not so much that it is bad, but that it is inconsistent. Sometimes trigger-happy moderators delete posts that are even mildly critical of the article or its author (I once had a post deleted for using the word prick!). At other times the kind of nastiness that has led to CiF being referred to as the 'talk radio' of the blogging world goes seemingly un-noticed for hours if at all. A more minor issue is the archiving of columns once they leave the front page - some get missed out and are a job to find later if you want to refer to them!

I expect that I'll be reading and talking about Comment is Free and its writers & commenters for some time yet.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Ian Is...

...Reading: Iain Dale's Guide To Political Blogging In the UK 2007-08.
An excellent guide to what is going on in that new and exciting area of journalism and commentary known as the 'blogosphere'. Although it is written by a prominent Conservative blogger who turns up at #1 in the book's Top 500 Political Blogs, it contains plenty of thoughtful writing from across the political spectrum and beyond. Plus, the directory of blogs at the back makes it really easy to put together a comprehensive blogroll.

...Listening to: Hüsker Dü - 'New Day Rising'.
My music collection contains a lot of 90s and later punk and indie-rock music, plus some of the best-known seventies hits, but not a lot from the eighties. So I've lent my ear to a few albums from a friend's music collection, starting with this - Full review coming soon.

...Looking forward to: Brazilian Grand Prix
The last race of the 2007 Formula One season starts soon (17:00), with three drivers still in the title race. Here's hoping Lewis Hamilton can give us some British sporting success this weekend after last night's disappointment in Paris!

Friday, 19 October 2007

Move Along, Nothing To See Here

Whatever the reasoning behind the statements that have led to the cancellation o f Prof. James Watson's UK book tour, they are not science.

Quotations from the co-discoverer of DNA's double helix structure, reproduced in last week's Sunday Times1, have caused a furore on a scale not seen in many years. The cancellation of an appearance at London's Science Museum has been followed by his suspension as chancellor of a US research institution2 and his return to the US.

Watson's history of controversial statements:

"If you are really stupid, I would call that a disease...The lower 10 per cent who really have difficulty, even in elementary school, what's the cause of it? A lot of people would like to say, 'Well, poverty, things like that.' It probably isn't. So I'd like to get rid of that, to help the lower 10 per cent."

such as the above, quoted from a documentary screened in the UK in 20033, is well known. However, in terms of offence caused, his blundering onto perhaps the most dangerous battlefield in all of scientific debate takes insensitivity into another league. The misuse of science, particularly biological science, to justify discrimination and bigotry in the not so distant past4 means that anyone making claims such as Watson's self-described "hot potato"...:

"All our social policies are based on the fact that their [Africans'] intelligence is the same as ours [Whites'] – whereas all the testing says not really"1

must have some damn good scientific evidence to back it up. Watson clearly had nothing of the sort - He today admitted that:

"...there is no scientific basis for such a belief"5
Before the public perception of modern genetic researchers is further tarnished by this tawdry saga, can we let that be the end of it. There's nothing to see here. No new scientific debate. There never was. Just the prejudiced rantings of an arrogant self-promoter living off past glories.


Thursday, 18 October 2007

Who Knows The Euro-Truth?

The current debate on the EU Referendum is so polarised that the chance of anything meaningful being gained from it is roughly zero.

Immediately upon making that statement in mixed company, it is easy to imagine what would ensue. The pro-EU and anti-EU camps (I've come across very few people who describe themselves as politically interested yet Euro-ambivalent) immediately begin pointing the finger, making clear their scorn for the other camp without much attempt at actually having an honest debate on the issues concerned.

Polly Toynbee's column in Tuesday's Guardian was a case in point1. As far as Polly is concerned, those who would agitate for a referendum on the reform treaty are "Euro-crazies" and "Euro-hysterics". Anti-EU newspapers are "xenophobic", "malevolent" and their owners are "fanatical". Now, she does have a point. Murdoch's Sun's front-page comment calling for a referendum showed Gordon Brown mocked up as Churchill 'giving two fingers to the country' and inside claimed that the treaty is "the greatest threat to our nation since World War 2".2

It is not surprising that opponents of the referendum promised by Labour prior to their re-election in 20053 are adamant that the people would not vote on the treaty itself, but instead act upon prejudiced and ill-informed opinions.


"The new Constitutional Treaty ensures the new Europe can work effectively...It is a good treaty for Britain and for the new Europe. We will put it to the British people in a referendum and campaign whole-heartedly for a ‘Yes’ vote to keep Britain a leading nation in Europe."

This statement was made by a governing party in their bid to be re-elected two years ago. The manifesto it comes from is PM Gordon Brown's only mandate. For him now to try to squeeze out of it on the basis that the reform treaty is not a 'Constitutional treaty' and that 'red-lines' have been negotiated is highly disingenuous.

Even the pro-EU Guardian is clear on the former4:

"The new document, known as the reform treaty, resembles the old one in that it reshapes the EU's institutions, changes its voting procedures, expands the role of the European parliament and national legislatures and includes a charter of fundamental rights."
The fervently anti-EU blogger Devil's Kitchen has posted extensively5 about the latter contention, which was reiterated by Brown tonight4. He has found that opt-outs last just 5 years, and the UK can be fined if it wishes to continue them beyond that time.

"Protocol 10 Article 10 (4): the EU by Qualified Majority Vote can force the UK to pay financial penalties for the opt out."
Those of you who read SELECT Privacy may be reminded at this point of another issue that has brought civil libertarians and the Government and its supporters into conflict.

It may well be the case that as Polly Toynbee and others have suggested that a NO vote in a referendum on the reform treaty would 'lead the UK to the EU's exit door'. It may well be the case that voters on said referendum will vote based on their prejudices, reinforced by right-wing newspapers. It may well be the case that most people who will vote will not understand any of the treaty whatsoever.

However, the stark fact is that a referendum we were promised, a referendum the people still believe they should be given (69% according to a recent YouGov poll4), and a referendum we should get.

If those in favour of the UK's signing of the treaty are concerned that they will lose - They are almost certainly correct in that belief, it is up to them to convince the British public that it, and by extension continued membership of the EU, is good for them and for Britain.

Toynbee's appalling effort this week is most certainly not the way to go about doing that.

3. The Labour Party Manifesto 2005 (PDF) (Page 41-42)

Hello & Welcome

I've taken my time over this. Starting my new blog, that is.

Question That is the name, intended to get across to you the general spirit of inquiry that this blog is intended to espouse. It's also intended to be a little less restrictive than the name of my last blog which I ran over the winter last year, 'SELECT Privacy'.

That was great while it lasted and I learned a lot from writing it. After a while, however, I yearned to leave the slightly OTT polemical writing style behind - I won't be looking to become one of the vaunted 'swearbloggers' this time around. I also quite fancied writing about something other than civil liberties once in a while. Important as the implications for UK citizens of ID cards, the NHS database, Childrens' database and the many other Government initiatives that are too numerous to delineate here are, there are many more issues, concerns and general miscellanea that are well worth writing about. So 'Question That' it is.

Finally, before I start with the actual postings, a little about myself. I am a science research student in my early twenties. I grew up in the North-East of England, spent my undergraduate years at Oxford, and am now living and studying in London. When I'm not working, I post on Guardian Comment is Free on a variety of topics. I admire science writers Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Matt Ridley, and political commentators Johann Hari, Mark Thomas and PJ O'Rourke. My favourite bands are Dover, Ozma and Rilo Kiley.