Sunday, 27 January 2008

Hidden Gems of the Web: Take 2

After reading my post of December 1, 'The Information Mine', in which I listed five 'Hidden Gems of the Web', a friend of mine (who posts comments occasionally as 'ActonHighStreet') provided me with the following list of his recommended little-known websites.

N.B. The websites here are rather different from anything I would have chosen so, even if you weren't enamoured of anything in my list, give these a visit!

  • The William Blake Archive
    Collection of electronic versions of works by William Blake. Each page of 20 illuminated 18th & 19th cetury books included here is reproduced, along with several sets of Blake's drawings and paintings. This site is a excellent example of how the internet can be used to preserve our past as well as being an integral part of our present.

  • The Bureau of Public Secrets
    Nothing like I expected from the site's name, this is another archive but of a decidedly different type. This site focuses on a political artistic movement originating in France, Situationism. There are hundreds of philosophical texts here, but rather little in the way of context for the uninitiated. AHS' recommended starting points: Iva Chtchgelov's 'Formulary for a New Urbanism' and Guy Debord's 'The Society of the Spectacle'.

  • The Informal Education Homepage
    An encyclopedia of educational concepts, thinkers and events. Those who do not identify with the 'Guardian-reading' political left might be turned off this place quickly, but the "small group of educators" behind this site do take some pains (there are exceptions) to make it read as dispassionate as possible when covering controversial areas. It is largely rather dry stuff, but if you are interested or involved in any aspect of education it's certainly worth bookmarking.

  • Kill From The Heart & 7InchPunk
    ActonHighStreet has introduced me to countless bands and albums, particularly of the punk rock genre. He recommends these two music-related sites for further listening. Kill From The Heart is a database of hardcore punk discographies from all around the world, named for an album by Texas punk band The Dicks. 7inchpunk contains MP3s, reviews and cover images of vinyl punk uploaded by site users.

  • Always Touch Out & Tube Map Variations
    Two London-centric sites to finish this eclectic list. Always Touch Out is a database of transport development projects in the city, from new tube stations to road widening schemes. Tube Map Variations is a reproduction of the page originally at Geofftech's London Underground site, containing (as the name suggests) variations on the ubiquitous Tube map, from the useful (such as a map indicating times to get between stations) to the plain daft (take a look at the 'translated into German' maps).

Friday, 25 January 2008

Video of the Week (3)

I've been enjoying my holidays and largely refraining from spending too much time in front of a monitor, so haven't had the opportunity to research and produce blog posts. But one thing I want to keep up while I'm away is the 'video of the week' series, especially with last week having brought us such a gem.

Video of the week 14/01-20/01: The Cruise Indoctrination Video. This is thoroughly bizarre; a leaked Church of Scientology internal video consisting of ten minutes of Tom Cruise speaking to camera, eulogising the wacked-out belief system.

There's no embed video this week, the clip in question has been removed from YouTube, with the explanation (now expurged) "This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Church of Scientology International." (Link). The video can be seen instead at

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Video of the Week (2)

NOTE: I will be away travelling for the next month starting tomorrow. I'm sure I will find the time to blog, but expect blogging to be somewhat more sporadic than usual.

Video of the week 07/01-13/01: OYSTAR - 'I Fought The Lloyds'
This is one of those songs that once in a while appear in the singles chart as a result of a concerted effort by campaigners. This time it's the anti-bank charges movement centred around Martin Lewis' (which, you may remember, I picked as one of my 'gems of the web' back at the start of December). Download sales got this to #25 in this week's Top 40.

Coercing Corpses

As predicted by Polly Toynbee in her column in today's Guardian, commentators are up in arms about Gordon Brown's backing of a proposal to move to a 'presumed consent' model for organ donation (Link). For once, I am on her side.

Donation rates in the UK are much lower than in other Western countries, and the gap between people who state that they would be willing to donate organs in a survey (~90%) and those who actually sign up to the register (around 24%) is tremendous. In an opt-in system such as we have at present in the UK, only those 24% could possibly donate, and in fact because registration is not legally valid (i.e. relatives can veto it) a smaller proportion still of the medically fit recently-deceased actually do so.

Most of the arguments against moving to the opt-out model hang on the concept of presumed consent. Typical of the expressions of discontent at the proposal is this statement by Joyce Robin of Patient Concern (quoted in the Times):

"They call it presumed consent, but it is no consent at all...They are relying on inertia and ignorance to get the results that they want."
The antipathy to the opt-out model at several libertarian blogs run along slightly different lines, focusing on the issue of ownership (e.g. Perry de Havilland's furious 'statement' at Samizdata).

Generally, I would see Gordon Brown and Polly Toynbee backing something as a fairly reliable indicator that it's not a good idea. But in this case I have to beg to differ. I do not comprehend the reasoning behind the strength of opposition to this proposal that I'm seeing. As far as I am concerned, everything she's said today just makes sense.

Once you're dead, you're dead and you don't need your organs any more; they may be of use to another individual (not the State. The State here is just the mechanism - it's not like ID cards!); many potential life-saving transplants aren't happening most likely because of inertia (perhaps up to 70%, see above); and it is possible to opt-out under the proposed system if you (or your relatives) sufficiently disagree with donation to do so.

The costs are zero (because the donor is dead - unlike in other potentially comparable situations, such as participation in medical research or uploading of confidential medical data to a centralised database). The potential benefits to others (transplant recipients) are direct and of course highly significant in terms of their lifespan and quality of life. I do not see any reason to believe (as posited by Longrider) that abuse would be any greater than under the current system, particularly since relatives will still be consulted (Link)*.

Finally, the argument regarding 'presumption' is lost on me also. The way things work at present, we are presumed to want our organs to rot when we die. This is simply a pragmatic switching of presumptions.

* On the other hand, I suspect that a market solution as suggested by Tim Worstall would be unacceptably prone to abuse from several sets of interests.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Line-drawing & Censorship

"It should be obvious by now, to anyone who cares, that the principle of free speech is being gradually eroded in the West" - Fabian Tassano (Link)
"The ethos of making pain, suffering and torture acceptable entertainment isn't confined to the more obviously shocking horror movies." - Fabian Tassano (Link)
In my review of Fabian Tassano's intriguing work of political satire, 'Mediocracy' (Link), I wrote that "On-screen violence...seems to be a particular Tassano hot button". This post is intended to expand upon that remark, and explain why I felt the repeated raising of this issue in the book seemed rather strange to me.

Tassano does present a logical argument for criticising screen violence under the mediocracy banner (see this post at Inversions & Deceptions). However, it seems to me rather a stretch to talk about Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie as though they are part of a collectivist ideological hegemony*. Sadistic horror films have been around at least since the 1970s (Link) - the difference was that back then such films were banned by the BBFC. Film censorship has been almost entirely liberalised since then.

The consequence of this has been that more such films have been made. There is little commercial impetus to make a violent horror film if it is almost certainly going to be banned! Now, to a degree this brings us back full circle, only now we are considering the motivations of those behind the relaxation of censorship guidelines. That's an interesting discussion to have, but it doesn't detract from the point made here that there is an audience demand for these films.

So you might consider what gives rise to this demand. In the context of what is more generally an individualist libertarian polemic, it is incongruent to suggest that the clear (if niche) appeal of films like The Devil's Rejects (Link) is a product of some kind of social conditioning. So what is left is that, for one reason or another people enjoy watching such scenes, enough to motivate their making from a purely market-based perspective.

Do you believe that censorship guidelines should be tightened again to stop violent horror films reaching the mass market? A lot of people would say yes, but it seems an unlikely argument for someone who would write a post like this defending the principle of free speech to make.
Do you condemn other individuals for choosing to watch such films, even though they clearly enjoy them and are not harming anyone else by doing so? If so, why? Why do you raise this issue when it doesn't add to your argument and makes you appear rather judgmental towards a (loose) group of people who are not like yourself?**

* For those familiar with 'Mediocracy', here I am using these words in their original, not 'mediocratic' senses.
** This may seem a rather trivial issue to get worked up about. However, similar attitudes are currently threatening to bring about the passing of an exceptionally unjust law in the UK. See here for more details.

Collective Interest

The first post is up at QT's spin-off blog Collective Interest (which I introduced here), thanks to Longrider.

To recap, the specific aim of Collective Interest is to help us (non-collectivists) develop a greater appreciation of and understanding of the basis of collectivist ideas and the collectivist mindset. If you aren't sure what I'm talking about in the bolded section, read the post where I describe my conception of this dichotomy.

I am hoping that Collective Interest will develop into a significantly-sized group blog, where contributors post choice examples of collectivism, pseudo-egalitarianism, authoritarianism, communitarianism, opposition to freedom of choice, and advocacy of the destruction of civil liberties. Perhaps some discussion of the psychology and philosophy underlying these arguments might even get going, which would be great.

Collective Interest's inaugural post sees Longrider excoriate the dogged Labour blogger Neil Harding for a particularly unpleasant expression of his desire to wipe out medical data privacy.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Allardyce Had To Go

Adapted from a comment left at Stumbling & Mumbling

I can only conclude that all of these talking heads criticising the sacking of Sam Allardyce by Newcastle United didn't actually watch much of the appalling excuse for football that Newcastle United played under Allardyce.

He had no idea how to adjust to managing a team like NUFC, how to play with the quality players he had (Emre, Duff, Martins, Milner all wasted under Allardyce) in a way that it would be reasonable to expect the Geordie faithful to get behind. When the fans booed Newcastle against Liverpool, it wasn't because they lost 3-0, but because they were so ridiculously negative, against a mediocre side by Liverpool standards, that if they'd played well into the night they wouldn't have scored.

Instead he tried to turn Newcastle into Bolton, battlers playing percentage football, trying to grind out a draw away to bloody Wigan by playing 4-5-1 - and failing miserably.

Meanwhile, Manchester City have played great football, are currently level on points with Liverpool, and look very good bets for a UEFA Cup place with a manager who has had less time in the hot seat than Allardyce. Meanwhile Newcastle languish in mid-table. However you define "big club", if Manchester City are one then so are Newcastle United.

Newcastle were absolutely right to cut their losses and turf out Allardyce before he started splashing around buying players only for the next manager to have to sell (like Souness did) in the transfer window.

Granted, it would have been better if they'd had someone lined up to replace him but we can't have it all!

Friday, 11 January 2008

Mediocracy - Fabian Tassano

Last weekend I posted about my discovery of Fabian Tassano's blog Inversions & Deceptions; the online spin-off from the book I received on Tuesday and review here.

Note: As far as reasonably possible I am reviewing the book in this post, rather than the ideas

Fabian Tassano - 'Mediocracy: Inversions and Deceptions in an Egalitarian Culture'

This book does not, as you might expect, consist of an extended argument against the developments described in the essays and blog posts linked to in last weekend's post. Instead, it consists of a short (and rather unsubtle) allegorical 'fable', followed by a Devil's Dictionary-like lexicon that comprises the majority of the book's content. I feel that the book would have benefited from an appendix or two containing some of Tassano's more conventional structured argument in favour of the theory that can be found on the website.

I suspect that the format makes it unlikely to change the mind of anyone not already familiar with Tassano and the concept of pseudo-egalitarianism on the political issues underlying the satire. The division of topics alphabetically rather than by how they are linked means that it can appear that 'mediocracy' is a fairly arbitrary collection of aspects of modern life to which the author objects.

Indeed there are some issues to which Tassano repeatedly returns that seem to me to be shoehorned into the theory because they are particular bugbears of his. On-screen violence, for instance, seems to be a particular Tassano hot button ('Fun' is illustrated with a quote from a review of 'Reservoir Dogs').

I find a lot more sympathy with others of his arguments, and as I wrote last weekend had independently observed some of the same Newspeak-esque ideologically motivated redefinition of certain words prior to happening upon Inversions & Deceptions. Readers of Comment is Free will instantly recognise Tassano's redefinition of 'poverty'. The redefinition of 'society' resonates with the concept of collectivism I discussed late last month.

Altogether, though, the combination of some disparate concepts and opinions and labelling them 'mediocracy' that this book attempts leads to a whole that is rather less than the sum of its parts. Chances are, like me, most relatively neutral people who read this will find that they agree with, or at least 'see where he is coming from on', some of the discrete arguments that each word in the lexicon comprises - but others will baffle.

I'd recommend this book to leftists/collectivists because it represents a great insight into the way the opponents of left-wing ideologies see the world. I'd recommend it to conservatives and libertarians because it contains a wealth of ideas and some genuinely shocking quotes. And I'd recommend it to anyone who is interested in politics and open-minded because it is full of starting points for some intriguing debates.

21st Century Health (2)

This is the second half of a post I began yesterday, in response to Johann Hari's Independent column, in which he posits that the British model of healthcare funding is the 'smartest choice' for the coming century.

Yesterday, I contrasted the UK and US healthcare models, and came to the conclusion that of the two the NHS is indeed superior overall. However, there are more than two ways of building a healthcare system.

Few would say the status quo is ideal. The Dr Rant team's description of the NHS as comprising "a centralised, bureaucratic monolith that measures its tractor production quotas each year for [the Health Minister] to produce at the annual party conference" (Link) is as good a nutshell description of the primary perceived problem with (and from a supporter of and worker in) the UK system as I'm likely to find.

When the long-serving NHS GP and medical blogger Dr Crippen exclaims in his post of a welcome return from a 3 month hiatus:

The Paediatric Professor...[at a dinner party] said,
“You know, if I were suddenly taken ill, I would be terrified to be admitted to a British NHS Hospital.”
We went round the table. Each and every one of the ten doctors present felt the same.
...There has to be some degree of acceptance that all is not well in the world of UK healthcare (keep reading the NHS Blog Doctor blog - almost 2 years worth of posts in total - to get a much fuller picture than I could get across). Can the UK learn from the ways in which other nations run their health systems?

The state/private hybrid, means-tested French healthcare system, ranked number one in the world by the World Health Organization in 2000 (Link), is one alternative. Although it is highly regulated, it represents a much more heterogeneous, diverse system than the NHS, and offers universal coverage unlike the US. It is not surprising that the French model is favoured by several critics of the NHS and US systems alike, such as Tim Worstall. And a recent survey (albeit judging on one aspect of healthcare) found the French system to be the best of those in 19 developed countries - the UK was second from last (Link).

The French system is however not universally admired. Like the UK system, it is expensive to administer (though not to the extent of the US's healthcare spending); the arrangement appears to lead to over-prescription of drugs such as painkillers relative to other countries; and it failed to cope well with a countrywide emergency in 2003 (Link).

Alternatives that retain fundamental state control, but avoid the 'monolithic' centralisation of the NHS model include the Swedish system. There, health spending is controlled by local rather than central government (Link). Denmark's model also contains similar elements - responsibility for healthcare management is split between central government, the counties, and local authorities (Link). Both of these models have obvious parallels with the UK's system, but both are much less centralised.

Even supporters of the NHS such as Dr Rant recognise that there is real room for improvement, and that many of its major problems are related to over-centralisation of administration (Link1,2). The Swedish and Danish models provide proven and, I expect, politically palatable alternatives to the current monolith that would help to ameliorate some of these.

So, to conclude the post I began yesterday to respond to Johann Hari's contention that "the [NHS] health funding the smartest choice for 2048", the answer is, er, sort of. As I outlined in part 1, in direct comparison with a non-'socialized' private insurance-based system such as that in the US the answer has to be yes. But when French, Swedish, Danish and other non-US arrangements (e.g. Switzerland) that I haven't mentioned are considered in opposition to the UK status quo, the answer to which is the 'smartest' model is much less discernible.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

21st Century Health (1)

Johann Hari's column in today's Independent excoriates private health insurance and proclaims that the status quo constitues "the health funding mechanism...[that] is the smartest choice for 2048". Is he right?

The argument centres upon the continual development of predictive technologies, making the selling of medical insurance a much safer bet for the insurers, who can predict with ever-greater accuracy who will get ill with what, and price policies (or refuse cover altogether) accordingly. This can take a variety of forms, including mathematical modelling, medical data mining*, and genetic testing. Already, as Hari points out, Americans are finding themselves unable to get affordable insurance because of their medical history or inheritance.

From one perspective, this development helps to ameliorate the information asymmetry between insurers and patients. This is something that was described by economist George Akerlof as representing a cause of market failure in the US system (Link).

"If, I suspect myself to be a lemon, I’d be advised to buy all the medical insurance I can. If, on the other hand, you feel fine and all your ancestors lived to be a hundred, then you may only buy medical insurance if it is cheap. After all, you hardly expect to need it." - George Akerlof, from 'The Undercover Economist'
This might at first seem to represent a refutation of Hari's argument - i.e. such technological advances making the private insurance model more workable, not less. Unfortunately, although it is great news for the business, it does not represent an improvement for the patient. All that it means is that, like the natural disaster insurance company in Silicone Valley(!) that Hari discusses, only the healthiest (who the insurers can be confident of profiting from) or richest will be insured.

Worse still, unlike many other forms of insurance, there is no relationship between need and ability to pay**. While it is true that some illnesses can be prevented or at least delayed by following health advice, it is equally not the case for others. And in the former case, the coercive measures taken by health insurers to make you a safer bet can equate with those we experience from Government as things stand (Link, sweary). The example of Pru Health is, I suspect, just the start:
"Health insurers have begun slashing premiums for customers who lead healthier lives by offering discounts of 75 per cent for those who allow their diet and exercise regimes to be monitored." - Telegraph (04/01/2008)
Of course, in a situation like this - as in the US examples given by Hari, if you have enough spare cash you can opt for the more expensive policies. If you have a little (and aren't too unhealthy), you can access insurance but must submit to the kinds of coercion and invasion of privacy described in the Telegraph article. If you have none, you're stuck with Medicaid or an equivalent. In such a system, personal liberty and privacy are not rights, but commodities!

Incidentally, it is completely true to say that the NHS is not free, but rather taxpayer-funded (Link, sweary). However, the US Government actually spends a greater proportion of GDP on healthcare than does the UK (Link, PDF). Much of this expense constitutes the cost of administering the labyrinthine system (New York Times).

From both an ethical and a financial*** point of view, the US system is a disaster - hence the emphasis of candidates in the current US primary campaigns on 'universal healthcare'. But does that necessarily mean that the NHS healthcare funding model really is "the smartest choice for 2048"? In part 2 of this post I will look to continental Europe...

* Another reason to be wary of current New Labour efforts to computerise and centralise medical data - See this post.
** In fact if anything there is an inverse correlation - Some disabilities/chronic conditions make it difficult to work and frequently require expensive medical care, e.g. osteoporosis.
*** Apart from the finances of the insurance companies and related businesses, of course.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Video Of The Week

They Said This Day Would Never Come: Barack Obama's victory speech following the Iowa Caucuses.

Full text of the speech can be seen here.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Blogger Threatened With Arrest

via Inversions & Deceptions

It has become apparent that a far-right blogger based in Dunstable, Lionheart, has been sent an e-mail warning him of impending arrest by Bedfordshire Police - on suspicion of inciting racial hatred:

The offence that I need to arrest you for is “Stir up Racial Hatred by displaying written material” contrary to sections 18(1) and 27(3) of the Public Order Act 1986.

You will be arrested on SUSPICION of the offence. You would only be charged following a full investigation based on all the relevant facts and CPS consent.

Paul I will see you on the 19/02/08 when I will tell you everything that you need to know. Due to being out of the office for six weeks I will not have access to my email as of tomorrow 04/01/08.

[DC Holden]

It is not clear which of Lionheart's postings was the catalyst for this police action (Pub Philosopher provides links to a few possibilities).

Lionheart describes himself as "an unapologetic Christian". Almost every post on his main blog and a side blog entitled 'Holy War - Al Qaeda's Luton & Dunstable War front' concerns terrorism, Al Qaeda and/or 'jihad'.

In a political stance statement (Link) he takes pains to point out that he is "not a racist", but writes in support of Nick Griffin's BNP and talks of illegal immigrants "robbing, raping and killing innocent British citizens" and "taking the jobs from the British population and taking from our tax paying welfare state". He suggests that Muslims "...take from our welfare system to help cripple our Nation as part of their Islamic War against us".

All of the posts linked by Pub Philosopher contain instances of rhetoric, that could reasonably be described as hate speech aimed at Muslims. Lionheart claims that 'Pakistani Moslem[s]...captur[e] our children so that they can be raped and sold on as dirty kaffir meat'. Another linked post talks of 'gangs of Moslem rapists and murderers...terrorising our society'. A third calls for 'Islam and its adherents [to] be repelled from this Christian land'.

All of this and much more of Lionheart's writing surely constitutes hate speech. But is it incitement? And is the idea of incitement - the possibility that someone else may do something upon reading or hearing your views - much of a basis for a legal restriction on speech in the first place?

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Inversions & Deceptions

Every so often I run across something that leads me to exclaim why on Earth was I not aware of this before now?. Such happened this morning when I followed a link on the new Libertarian Party UK's forums to an essay at a blog called Inversions & Deceptions.

Inversions & Deceptions is the blog of Fabian Tassano, an economist and libertarian thinker & writer. His book, which I have ordered and will write a full article on in due course, is entitled 'Mediocracy: Inversions and Deceptions in an Egalitarian Culture'.

A full definition of "mediocracy" is provided in an essay linked to from the blog and dated December 2007 (Link). I shall not provide an excerpt from it here, because I recommend that it be read in full. It's not long, and when you reach the end you'll have enough information to decide whether to look further into the theory.

Similarly to Oliver James' much hyped 'affluenza' theory, 'mediocracy' is just that - a theory (the difference, and stated reason I come across as having such contempt for the former, is that as far as I can tell unlike James, Tassano doesn't claim scientific backing for the 'mediocracy' theory).

It is also true that, although a certain conservatism comes through occasionally, much of Tassano's thinking fits very well with my own set of opinions and preconceptions. Quite a lot of what I read on his blog today concorded with one or more previous posts here on Question That, or with posts I have half-formed in my mind but haven't put fingers to keyboard on yet.

For instance, Tassano's spot-on statement on freedom of speech (Link, under 'Intellectual Taboos' header):

"It should be obvious by now, to anyone who cares, that the principle of free speech is being gradually eroded in the West. Either by straightforward ditching, or — more subtly — by redefining it in ways designed to legitimise the prohibition of ideologically incorrect viewpoints."

Tassano on collectivism (Link):

"Collectivism is the belief system of the middle class elitist, who is perpetually buttressed by his privileged background and totally insulated from ordinary citizens. As social critics [George Monbiot] and I both know what this means.
Self-interested as libertarians (like everyone else) may be, the true social parasites are those who demand collectivism for other people while being themselves relatively protected from its consequences."

and Tassano on ideology (Link):
"I believe I’d find any dominant ideology oppressive and want to criticise it. All dominant ideologies tend to obstruct cultural progress. Ostensibly it’s progress in the direction that is most likely to undermine them which they obstruct. But I think more generally they tend to obstruct all progress, even that which could support their outlook. If I was living in the late Victorian period I would probably be railing against the repressive effect of Christian ideology."

The mediocracy FAQ explains that the book was written to be accessible and "at least a little humorous". One of the central proclamations is that the 'mediocracy' has a tendency to redefine key terms (as Tassano puts it on the blog under 'the concept', "a key weapon of the mediocratic agenda is the Orwellian redefinition of words and ideas."). Here are a few of my favourite Mediocracy daffynitions:

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Missionary Zeal

Madeleine Bunting's 'Book of the Week' article on Oliver James' follow-up to 'Affluenza' in today's Guardian Review section is more like a polemic than a review.

As past references (Link, 4th from last paragraph) as well as today's article demonstrate, Bunting is a fully paid-up believer in the affluenza theory. Her article is unrelentingly positive towards the book, 'The Selfish Capitalist: The Origins Of Affluenza' (Link). I haven't yet read the book, but if as claimed in the article James wrote the follow-up to "reinforce his case with intellectual rigour", Bunting neglects to put across how. What actual data she does mention is more of the same as in the first book, and the same counterarguments and caveats apply to it.

What she instead uses most of the space allotted to this piece to do exemplifies the argument I made in my post on this topic two days ago (Link). On Thursday I said: "Far too many people are taking 'Affluenza' far too seriously...The affluenza concept sits very well indeed with large swathes of the political left".

Madeleine Bunting falls squarely into that category, and 'the affluenza concept' sits very well indeed with her. The entire piece is written as though 'affluenza' were accepted fact as gravity (in fact at the end she compares it with the discovery that smoking harms health). Picking out a particularly shining example is difficult - the article is entirely uncritical and entirely devoid of consideration of alternative explanations. Try this for size:

"...James is charting the new frontiers in psychology which have the potential to be the most significant indictment yet of the form of market capitalism which has held sway across the English speaking world for the past generation." - Madeleine Bunting
I guess there's no rule that reviews have to be fair and balanced, but is it really too much to ask that a book like this be reviewed with a modicum of objectivity, rather than by someone with such obvious vested interests!

Friday, 4 January 2008

Givin' a Huck

Is the US Republican Party's courting of Christian fundamentalists about to come back and bite them in the behind in 2008?

The results of the Iowa caucus - the traditional opening round of the race for presidential candidacy for both major parties - are in, and it looks like a surprise has been sprung on the Republicans.

By a margin of 9% to his nearest rival, a Southern baptist minister who started the race as an outsider and initially struggled to gain funding for his bid (Link) won the GOP's caucus, and has been thrust into the public eye.

Karl Rove's office may have masterminded the targeting of the religious vote by George W Bush in 2000 and 2004 (Link), while all the while serving the interests of big business and the rich. Mike Huckabee, on the other hand, appears to be the genuine article - as Aaron at Tygerland puts it, "someone with Bible-based principles, not just a prick for hire".

For left-liberals, Huckabee's economic policies range from the positive (probably the most progressive healthcare policies of the GOP candidates) to the bizarre (a replacement of income tax with a flat tax on consumption, seemingly unironically called FairTax).

His social positions, on the other hand, are a disaster area across the board. Huckabee threatens to make the worst nightmares of American liberals on gay rights, abortion, science, guns, and above all the separation of church and state come true (Link). Huckabee is a self-described biblical literalist (Link) and has stated that he wants to "take the nation back for Christ" (Link).

At home - for women and gays in particular - this is frightening stuff. Outside US borders it could hardly be worse. But, of course, the evangelical Republicans of Iowa don't care about either. More worrying for big business and corporate lobbyists, nor do they care about them. The rise of Huckabee has given the powerful something of a scare, and put the rest of us into quite a quandary.

As left-wing journalist Johann Hari put it:

"A panicked corporate Republican establishment – the likes of Bob Novak, Peggy Noonan and George Will – turned on him and threw anything they could find. These Republicans had spent decades inciting the evangelicals to ever-higher heights of rhetorical fancy – only to find the monster they created is now turning on them, demanding their theocratic words be taken seriously." - Johann Hari
Can those of us who have long bemoaned the great influence of the rich and powerful on US politics therefore find something to celebrate in this plucky religious fundamentalist outsider coming to the fore?

Some, like Aaron Heath, say yes. Others, myself included, find Huckabee's positions just too terrifying, were he somehow to gain the presidency, to muster even the smallest cheer at this particular underdog's success - Not that any of the other plausible** Republican candidates represent much of an improvement!

* The title is a pun on the lyrics of this song, by The Darkness.
**Ron Paul, libertarian outside chance who polled 10% in Iowa, is not considered plausible!

Technical Notes

I've changed/updated a couple of things on Question That since the last 'Technical Notes' post. So to keep you informed and me right, here they are:

1. Commenting
OpenID commenting is now enabled on this blog. This means you can sign into Blogger and post a comment using your username and password from any of a number of sites including Livejournal, Wordpress, AOL, Technorati and Magnolia.

This means that you no longer have to have a Google/GMail account to post a comment here - thus removing any incentive I may have had to enable anonymous comments. Anonymous comments make discussions hard to read, and facilitate abuse and spam.

2. Footnotes
I'm in two minds as to whether I should continue using the 'academic-style' posting using superscript numbered footnotes to link to referenced articles and blogs. I began this blog using this system for all but the simplest of posts, but more recently have begun to use more conventional links, like this (Link). I returned to the original style in yesterday's post because it used a particularly high number of references. Which do you prefer?

3. Banner Text
I changed the 'banner text' (the quote that appears below the name of the blog at the top of the page) today. Previously it was "Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent and debate", a quote by ex-US vice president Hubert H Humphrey (Link). I look to change the banner quote on an approximately monthly basis.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Peddling Misery

The holiday season is over, the work-year has started and it's freezing cold outside. What better time to reinvigorate a modish theory of unhappiness?

The theory in question is 'Affluenza', described in the subtitle of Oliver James' book of the same name as follows: "a contagious middle class virus causing depression, anxiety, addiction and ennui."1. James' theory makes use of scanty evidence, augmented by a generous helping of anecdote, to blame 'selfish capitalism' - Consumerism, envy and greed - for a 'spiralling rate of mental illness' in English-speaking nations2.

As a work of popular psychology, James' book is a diverting, sometimes entertaining, and thought-provoking read. So, what's the problem? Far too many people are taking 'Affluenza' far too seriously!

From the point of view of a political debater rather than a scientist, this could not exactly be described as a surprise.

The affluenza concept sits very well indeed with large swathes of the political left. To pick out just two examples, journalist-cum-blogger and self-described "unreconstructed socialist" Neil Clark has leapt on the theory3,4, as has Chris Dillow5, a left-wing journalist who states in his profile that he "despise[s] public schoolboys - and, to a lesser extent, the entire British middle class"6*.

It is repugnant to the individualist right and Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein7, and Tim Worstall (also in the Times)8, ridicule the concept and book; as does conservative commentator and author of 'Rich Is Beautiful'9 Richard North at the site of the Social Affairs Unit10.

Undeterred by these dismantlings of what little evidence there is for taking this theory as seriously as Clark and Dillow, the pages of the Guardian once again featured a thinly-disguised advertorial for 'Affluenza' and for three seminars on the subject taking place in Waterstones11 - An article headed 'Selfish capitalism is bad for our mental health'12 that, aside from acknowledging a point regarding prevalence of mental illness in developing countries made in Tim Worstall's review8, consists of more of the same - dubious data-interpretation and anti-capitalist rhetoric.

The CiF commenters are on top form, and in a thread of 160 comments and counting punch hole after hole in the theory. 'EvilTory' (1:18AM) points out the subjectivity of mental illness diagnosis in the very first comment, getting the sceptics off to a flyer; 'stevejones123' (8:18AM) discusses opportunity and motive for diagnosis; 'englishhermit' (in is own inimitable way, 9:44AM) makes the link between capitalism and mental health that isn't mentioned in the book; and MrJoe (9:54AM) produces some hard, if a little outdated, evidence that distinctly fails to back up James' theory13! That's just up until 10am on the day of publication. When it comes to critical appraisal of the evidence, this thread represents a thumping away win.

None of this is to say that there is no kernel of truth in what James says. But with such slim cherry-pickings14 dressed up as supportive evidence for its central theory, 'Affluenza' is a miserable work upon which to base any political point!

* I hadn't read this profile until researching this post - I certainly didn't expect this sort of statement from such an erudite blogger!

13. (assumed source of MrJoe's stats)

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

The Entitlement-to-Care Record

Is one of the real political motivations behind the development of the centralised medical records system beginning to reveal itself?

Gordon Brown has started 2008 with a somewhat disquieting statement: That he intends to "set out for the first time the rights and responsibilities linked to entitlement to NHS care" in a new 'NHS constitution' (BBC).

Articles in the Guardian and Telegraph speculate that this will translate into people being expected to lose weight, give up smoking and/or take more exercise in order to access healthcare. Unsurprisingly, this has brought an outraged response. Bloggers such as Tim Worstall point out that if this becomes the case, working people across the country will pay (through taxation) for the NHS, only to be denied care on lifestyle grounds:

"What is [Gordon Brown] on about now? Responsibilities? Establishing an entitlement to care?
Is being forced at gunpoint to pay for it every working day of ones’ life no longer enough?"
- Tim Worstall

Another libertarian blogger, the Longrider, also makes the point that the NHS is taxpayer-funded, not "free"* He also makes a more thought-provoking point in the form of the following anecdote:

"One thing I have noticed recently during visits to the GP have been a series of ever more personal questions – how much do I smoke, how much do I drink, how much exercise do I take? I think in future, the answer is going to be increasingly; that’s my concern and has nothing to do with why I’m here. If I have a problem with my hay-fever, then, yes, something that might have an effect on respiration may be appropriate. If I go in with a gammy knee, then none of those things is relevant." - Longrider

All of your answers to the sort of questions Longrider is referring to go onto your computerised medical record. It lists smoking status, average number of units of alcohol per week, BMI, exercise frequency, and probably a couple of other things I don't remember as well.

Surely I don't have to be the cynic of the year to conceive that the possibilities accorded adminstrators by the NHS Spine would be ideal for this kind of condition-setting. Just search for all smokers, or everyone above a certain BMI, or everyone with an alcohol intake of over a certain number of units, and send them a letter telling them if they don't change their lifestyle they will no longer be 'entitled' (what a hideous word to use in this context) to use the NHS that they have paid for through their taxes!

Now I'd be surprised if they were quite that bold about it. The point is, the centralised system makes that kind of thing practical for them.

The first 100,000 patient records were uploaded to the NHS database in the past few days (Daily Mail), from up to five pilot areas: Bolton, Bury, Dorset, South Birmingham, and Bradford & Airedale,. The trusts have timed the upload during the holiday season (I wonder why?), and former NHS manager and privacy campaigner Helen Wilkinson reports that many patients are not receiving promised leaflets setting out options regarding consent to upload of personal data.

In view of the potential implications of today's announcement by Gordon Brown, and taking into consideration the appalling record on data security across several Government departments, and nine NHS trusts (Link), why would any thinking person give their consent?

Especially if you live in the pilot areas, opt out now. Use the letter that you can download from the link below:
The Big Opt Out

* Incidentally, I propose this as another test that can be applied to distinguish between individualist and collectivist debaters in the UK (or 'C' & 'non-C', if you prefer). Collectivists have an irritating tendency to refer to the NHS as 'free'; individualists take pains to point out that it is 'taxpayer-funded' and at best 'free at the point of delivery'.

† See here if you don't know what I'm talking about.