Friday, 29 February 2008

Technical Notes

One significant change and a couple of minor things to mention in Technical Notes this month.

1. Sitemeter
I added a SiteMeter to the site a week ago. I was reluctant to start counting and tracking traffic since - as I discovered when I got to the three-month stage with the old blog - it can be rather disheartening to see just how few people are reading your writings! In the past week Question That has had just under 250 unique visitors.

However, a lot of them are probably not finding what they are looking for. Almost 40 of them came to this post after Googling for "philosophical chasm" or a similar search phrase! While it is nice to know that I am number 1 worldwide Google search result for that particular phrase, I doubt these searchers were actually after a rambling exploration of the ideas of individualism and collectivism!

Anyway, onto the point of this. My solution for improving the quality and quantity of visitors I get from Google is to change the style of post titles I use. While I enjoy coming up with pithy, CiF style titles such as Extreme Measures, they just don't deliver the goods from a Google point of view. So, short snappy titles are out; long descriptive titles containing keywords are in...

2. Colour Scheme
The colour scheme remains unchanged from initial setup. However, I have heard that the blog's colour scheme may not display correctly on all systems. It is supposed to be white text on a dark violet background, with the blog title and dates in pale green, and the post title and hyperlinks in pale blue. If your Question That is displaying differently, I would be grateful if you could tip me the wink, including a basic description of your system.

3. About Me & Banner Text
I have updated the 'About Me' profile (slightly amended and extended) and changed the banner text.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Goodbye, Netscape

The first dominant web browser, Netscape Navigator, has been discontinued by AOL. Product support for Netscape will end on March 1st. (Link)

AOL (America Online) acquired Netscape Communications in late 1998, by which point the company's browser had ceased to dominate the market, being reduced to 40% (Link). The project was not helped by buggy releases and unwise decisions on the part of AOL, and Navigator's market share continued to dwindle.

Mozilla Firefox is descended from what was originally an experimental open source branch of the Mozilla browser engine development project (Link). Now it is the main competitor to Internet Explorer, and has approximately 15% market share.

Netscape added commercial content to keep partners onside, producing a bloated browser with a poor user interface that provided little incentive for most users to switch from Internet Explorer (which, at least for Windows users, is always the default browser option as a result of its bundling with the operating system). Firefox, on the other hand, came up with a streamlined, user-friendly alternative with genuinely useful features (tabbed browsing in particular).

Netscape may be consigned to the Internet history books, but Mozilla is going from strength to strength.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Diktatwatch: Client's Perspective

The first Diktatwatch and, really, the inspiration for the whole idea comes from Shiny Happy Person's NHS junior psychiatrist blog Trick-Cycling For Beginners.

Here, SHP discovers that when you ask a silly question, you, er...

In these touchy-feely days of politically-correct medicine, where we must not allude to the fact that we are giving people drugs for illnesses by calling them 'patients', where daily nursing entries forgo the hackneyed observations of mental state and whether or not major organs appear to still be functioning in favour of 'no spiritual or cultural needs identified', we have endless boxes to tick and reams of clerking proformas to fill in, to ensure a holistic approach.

Some would say it's 'political correctness gone mad'.

I'd be inclined to agree with them.

But if you want me to fill in your patronising, euphemistic, dumbed-down check-lists, there are times it is almost enjoyable, viz:

What is the client's perspective of need?

"I want to get out of this f@#&ing shit-hole, you c@#&s*!"
*The swearing wasn't 'bleeped' in the original post. I have a loose policy of avoiding the strongest swear-words in this blog, mainly to avoid falling foul of filters.

Diktatwatch

Diktat (noun). 2. An authoritative decree or order.

Diktatwatch is intended to become a semi-regular feature on Question That. Of course, there's no guarantees - but I don't think the subject of said feature is going to disappear from modern working life anytime soon.

Management incompetence; Stupid rules; Pointless procedures; Nonsense political correctness; Over-zealous Health & Safety. Ass-covering. Sometimes, all of the previous plus more that I didn't think of.

Watch this space.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Extreme Measures

A demonstration has been organised against the illiberality of the so-called Dangerous Pictures Act, part of the Criminal Justice & Immigration Bill that is currently at the committee stage in the House of Lords.

I posted about the legislation back in November (Link). Between now and then it has been rushed through its third reading in the House of Commons, and into the Lords. Despite the fact that it is clearly bad law based on distaste rather than evidence of harm, the prohibition of "extreme images" remains.

Tomorrow's demonstration at Westminster has been organised by a group called the Sexual Freedom Coalition (Link, NSFW*), who have existed since 1996 to campaign against "bigotry, prejudice and prudery" and for the sexual freedom of consenting adults.

BDSM and its associated pornography are hardly everyone's cup of tea. Perhaps because of that, this appalling legislation has received very little attention from the mainstream media. However, the 'Dangerous Pictures Act' absolutely represents bigotry, prejudice and prudery made law. I support the SFC. If you believe in personal liberty, so should you.

*NSFW = Not Safe for Work. (Although in this context that should be fairly obvious!)

Video Of The Week (8)

Video of the Week 18/02-24/02: War on Scientology

Anonymous, a group who have only the Internet in common, do it "for the lulz" and were described by Fox 11 News as "hackers on steroids" have declared war on the Church of Scientology.

And they seem to be serious. 'Project Chanology' (Link) began with DDOS attacks on scientology.com and a few prank phone calls, but on February 10th around 7,000 people across 93 cities protested against Scientology. Another worldwide protest is planned for 15th March.

Whatever you think of Anonymous, I reckon it's fair to say that, for good or ill, Project Chanology will be regarded as a significant moment in the short history of the Internet. Here's where it all started...

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Why Tassano?

I planned to make the fifth 'Fabian Tassano week' post an exploration of the Mediocracy author's thoughts on the 'il-liberal elite' and associated 'ideological correctness'. However, it became apparent that to cover the ins and outs of these anywhere near satisfactorily would require a pamphlet-length tranche of articles, rather than just one post. In short, although I don't see it in quite the same way that Fabian does, I certainly believe that there is something to this argument (i.e. that these exist to some degree, and are not just an invention of the right), and that it is absolutely worth thinking critically about and discussing.

Instead, I thought it would be a good idea to cut to the chase here and explain as succinctly as possible what it is that leads me to gravitate towards Tassano as a top 12 blog and a recommended read.

Before I began this blog, I wrote another, with a somewhat different focus and writing style to this one, called SELECT Privacy. Partly, I began again with a new name because I wished to write about more than ID cards, surveillance and Government databases every post. But also, I chose the name Question That for the new blog because I wanted to take a more analytical, philosophical look at the causes - the underlying, unspoken motivations - of the problems I ranted about on SP. I have deliberately avoided posting too frequently on the aforementioned concerns because there are plenty of other blogs that do so, and I didn't want this to turn into SP Mark II. But...

...the 'surveillance society' (for want of a better phrase) and the ever-increasing intrusion into the lives of individuals by the state are central concerns to me. The likes of NO2ID are excellent at raising awareness, but I consider that to actually halt the march (in the face of the constant advances in the technologies that facilitate these things, such as data storage and image recognition) a fundamental shift in the relationship between State and individual is needed. When I encounter someone (e.g. Fabian Tassano) or some group (e.g. LPUK) who condemn these things, and express the desirability of shifting the balance of power in favour of the individual, I am very interested in what they have to say. This does not, as you'll realise if you've read the previous Fabian Tassano week posts, mean I automatically agree with all of their other arguments too!

I have highlighted Fabian Tassano in particular here on QT since I discovered his writing 6 weeks ago (Link). This is because he is not only a libertarian blogger with strong views that echo my own on state interventionism, but because he attempts to look at why this is so prevalent. If I had to recommend just one post from which this shines through it would be this one. The point of this isn't that it is utterly accurate in all respects, the point is that he is thinking along the right lines*.

*The linking in of the 'liberal media' and 'ideological correctness' does not resonate quite so much with me; that is a separate, perhaps related, issue I find very thought-provoking on either side of the political spectrum.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Something Must Be Done!

"It has become far too much of an unexamined assumption among commentators of all persuasions that, whatever the problem, "we" (society; in practice, the elite - on behalf of the state) need to think about what "we" should do about it" - Fabian Tassano (Link)

This is the fourth in a series of posts with the common theme of the ideas and writings of Fabian Tassano, author of 'Mediocracy'. The first three have explored and to some extent criticised the arguments Tassano makes. Here, I begin to explain just what it is that has caused me to sit up and take notice.

One of the key points on which I share his perspective is on the issue of state interventionism. In both the book and the associated blog, Tassano consistently highlights the drive towards the subordination of the individual to society - in practice, the manifestations of state power (Mediocracy, pg166).

What Tassano actually does in practice is to add to bring a certain intellectual insight to the anti-big state libertarian table. He discusses just the same political issues that several of the other bloggers I read and often agree with (e.g. Tim Worstall, Devil's Kitchen, Longrider etc) are talking about. These bloggertarians can be relied upon for entertaining, bilious diatribes on the latest piece of state paternalism or coercion. Fabian Tassano writes from a very similar perspective, but takes a somewhat more philosophical view. I have taken the next two quotes from one excellent post on Inversions & Deceptions:

"Until the majority of libertarians realise that interventionistas aren't necessarily just well-meaning and misguided, they will likely continue to be the political losers they have always been, because their opponents will have the advantage" - Fabian Tassano (Link)
"My suggestion is that there is a motive in human psychology to have power over other people (different from the motive to get ‘power’ in the usual sense, i.e. political or organisational power or status) and that this is what drives much interventionist policy. Because this motive is not considered admirable in itself, it attempts to legitimise itself by reference to whatever ideology is available at the time." - Fabian Tassano (Link)

This is an expression of a critical question that in my opinion isn't asked anywhere near enough. Put as succinctly as possible, that question is: What drives interventionists?

There are countless aphorisms that refer to this observation that power tends to be abused. To select just three:
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely..."
- Lord Acton
"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive..." - CS Lewis (particularly apposite with regard to the paternalistic elements of New Labour policy)
and the one that currently graces this blog's banner "Anyone who is capable of getting themselves into a position of power should on no account be allowed to do the job." - Douglas Adams (the kind of people who get into those positions are the same kind who would be most likely to abuse them)

But though most people are at least dimly aware of the concept, many seem distinctly unwilling to accept that it applies in modern, 'democratic' politics. This country is run by a Government that reneges on manifesto commitments (Link), thumbs its nose at international law (Link), has utter contempt for civil liberties (Link,2) and ratchets up the level of coercive interventionism with each passing year, yet we do not make the connection. George Monbiot, for instance, suggests that people are "inherently selfish"* (Link), yet frequently argues that we need more state interventionism! Fabian Tassano makes the connection...
"If the 'market' (i.e. no intervention) produces unfairness because people are selfish and even at times malevolent, why should we think interventionists are any better? Aren't they far more likely to be merely pursuing their own agendas?" - Fabian Tassano (Link)

*I don't actually agree with the word
"selfish" in this context (I'll explain why in a post that should be up in the next week or two), but it is the word Monbiot used. I prefer something like "status-seeking".

Making Greens Redder

Further to my discussion of the links between 'red' and 'green' politics, there's some backing for the assertions I made in yesterday's post (and this older one) at environment-focused blog Conservengland.

Dorothea, who explains that environmental issues come top of her voting priorities, writes of her concern that "the Green Party is being pushed towards the far left" (Link), and references this post at Green Party principal male speaker Derek Wall's blog.

Sean Thompson, the strategist quoted in the linked post, talks of his "work within the Green Party [being] fundamentally about 'making greens redder'" and in the last paragraph discusses 'socialists transforming the green party' and 'prefiguring a new socialist movement'.

As Dorothea suggests, if people wanted the sort of socialism espoused by the SWP, they'd vote for the SWP. In the comments, Green Party councillor Sue Luxton suggests that the article was probably never meant to see the light of day, and concurred with Dorothea that were these far-left elements of the party to become more widely publicised it would put off a significant proportion of the electorate. She's right of course. Yes, there are overlaps between 'left' politics and Green politics, but there's a more meaningful gap between reasonable progressive politics and the kind of revolutionary socialism the SWP advocate.

If Greens consider it desirable to alienate moderates, right-wingers and libertarians by not only allowing environmentalism to be conflated with extreme left-wing politics, but actively promoting this view, this suggests that they are going the right way about it.

"...The patronising waffle about “raising consciousness” will go down in working class areas about as well as a cat at Crufts." - Dorothea (Link)

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Johann Hari vs Libertarians

UPDATE 04/03: Did you come across Question That while trying to find Brendan O'Neill's response to Hari's reference to Spiked Online as "people who take money from the fossil fuels industry itself"? If so, click here!


I'm slightly surprised Johann Hari's latest column (in Thursday's Independent (Link)) hasn't been picked up on by the libertarian blogosphere. Perhaps because it's not up on his website yet?

After all, the article is a straight up call for Government intervention. And it's about what I know is a hot button topic for several of you.

"Just as no libertarian would argue you should have the right to buy and fire a nuclear weapon, no libertarian should argue you have the right to burn unlimited greenhouse gases." - Johann Hari
That specific aspect of the argument, based as it is on the central libertarian principle that one man's* liberty ends where another's begins (alternatively, 'Do what you like as long as you harm no one'), is not something I can find fault with.

I consider two other aspects of the argument, however, to be flawed - or at least not as indupitably valid as Hari appears to believe. They are 1) That carbon emissions are "undeniably harming tens of millions of people", and 2) That Government legislation is any way to go about mitigating the problem.

On 1), I personally believe that climate change is a genuine concern, but am also inclined to think that the threat is being exaggerated, either for effect (I posted about this in more detail here) or because it is easier to obtain funding with big, newsworthy results than small, not-so-newsworthy ones. Predictive computer models are very manipulable when compared to observation-based analyses.
I'm aware of several bloggers who are thoroughly in what I guess Hari would call the 'deniers' (what a hideous term) camp on this issue, and I am pretty confident in saying that they are not taking money from the fossil fuels industry**! They may be wrong, but this kind of 'the people who oppose me are stooges' rhetoric does an argument no favours.

As for 2), that is the subject of tomorrow's main post...

* That's man as in human being, not man as in human male!
** (Added 22/02): "On a related note, if any big business would like to pay me huge sums of cash to report on the massive flaws in the AGW evidence, I am more than happy to take it..." - Devil's Kitchen (Link)

The Spice of Life

"In Mediocracy, equality is not about opportunities for the able...[Rather], human beings are essentially identical to one another, and reducible to simple mechanical interpretations. It follows there is no justification for unequal outcomes." - Fabian Tassano (Mediocracy, pg79)

This is the third post in QT's Fabian Tassano Week series. On Tuesday I wrote a piece comparing Tassano's and Chris Dillow's views on social class. I am flattered to find today that a new article referencing that post has been posted over at Stumbling & Mumbling this afternoon (Link).

Then, I disputed Tassano's suggestion (Mediocracy, pg10) that the presence in society of a privileged class is related to the heritability of talent and ambition. Today Chris Dillow has fleshed out the counter-arguments to this position. Overall, as I insinuated in the first post I agree with Dillow over Tassano here. The concept that the middle class as they are today are innately more talented and ambitious than the average of the population is absurd on the face of it and would require some very impressive scientific evidence (which I am confident in saying does not exist, or else surely Tassano would have cited it by now!) to back it up.

Based on experience trying to defend the ideas covered by 'Mediocracy', I would go so far as to say that this contention not only fails to help, but in fact actively damages Tassano's argument. Which is a shame, because his wider assertion regarding egalitarianism is in my opinion pertinent one!

The wider assertion is exemplified by the extract from 'Mediocracy' at the top of this post. It sounds rather out-there, but it seems to me to be the underlying assumption behind a nonsensical political idea that appears to be prominent on the Left. It can be referred to as "equality of outcome".

Chris Dillow is not arguing for equality of outcome in today's post, but rather illustrating his opposition to inequality of opportunity - pointing out such social factors as the differences in quality of education (pt1) and upbringing (pt3) experienced by 'wealthy kids' compared to 'kids from poor homes'. All fairly banal, maybe slightly skewed against genetic explanations (commenter BGC covers the other side well), but overall acknowledging that both genes and environment play a part in the development of the person. Unlike Tom Hunter:

"Everyone is born with the same intelligence, just some are dealt a bad hand in terms of opportunity..." (Times Online)

What I don't have time to do, beyond the above quote, in this post (I am sitting here in a pub function room, using the wi-fi connection, as a NO2ID social is going on behind me) is to actually vouch for the prominence of "equality of outcome" (Wiki-link) thinking in real political life. Feel free not to accept that it is an influential view - but, at the very least, be aware of it.

From a personal perspective*, from The Blank Slate (pg372-399), and just from pure done-down common sense**, it is clear to me that equality of outcome is impossible in any meaningful sense. Individuals are different. And, a significant proportion of that difference is due to their genes. And, as the title of this post alludes, that is surely a good thing.

What isn't a good thing is that only a fraction of individuals have the chance to achieve their potential. This is of course due to the lack of equality of opportunity. I consider that, in general, it is desirable to increase equality of opportunity, but crucially by raising the mean, not by pulling down the best. In the current political system, that tends not to happen. I'll explore further why that is later in the week...

*Like Tassano's Oxford Forum colleague Celia Green, I was a "gifted child".

**Not something as far as I'm aware Tassano has picked up on, but I wonder how it is that the phrase "common sense", referring in this context to 'honest observation of everyday life', became regarded as 'right-wing'.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

The Helpful Ghost

"In a mediocracy, individuals are considered to be blank slates - mere products of social environment" - Fabian Tassano (Link)

The work that has most influenced my political and social beliefs, by quite a long chalk, is the book whose title is evoked by the above statement. That is Steven Pinker's 'The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature' (Link). As you might expect from the above quote, there's a fair bit of common ground where Tassano's and Pinker's philosophies are concerned.

However, this - the second post in my Fabian Tassano Week series - is concerned more with where Tassano and Pinker appear to me to fundamentally disagree.

Pinker contends that the "official" (to borrow a Tassano phrase that I believe applies, 'ideologically correct') theory of human nature consists of not one, but three intertwined doctrines (The Blank Slate, pg6). The first of these is the titular 'Blank Slate'. The others are the 'Noble Savage' and the 'Ghost in the Machine'. The Noble Savage is, in short, the belief that people in the state of nature are peaceful and egalitarian (The Blank Slate, pg26). This will be given no further consideration in this post.

The doctrine of the 'Ghost in the Machine' was best described by Rene Descartes (hence its philosophical name, Cartesian dualism). It is a later critic of Descartes, Gilbert Ryle, who coined the phrase used here, and described it as the belief that human beings have both a body and a mind, the latter of which are "not in space, nor or their operations subject to mechanical laws" (The Blank Slate, pg9).

Compare, now, Fabian Tassano's description of 'physicalism', which he describes as being one of the two key beliefs characterising the 'Mediocracy' in this book of the same name: "Physicalism, the belief that everything is material...implies that individuals are driven by mechanical forces, that they are manipulable and predictable, and that they do not possess free will or even a meaningful self" (Mediocracy, pg136). 'Physicalism' as described here can, I consider, roughly be taken in this context as being the opposing perspective to that of the believer in the 'Ghost in the Machine'.

Note my use of the word 'believer'. The existence or otherwise of 'free will' is one of the most important open questions in philosophy, and any position one might take on this issue is taken on faith. At best, dualism is a far-from-solid foundation on which to build a theory with real world application. At worst, I suppose, it could be found to be altogether wrong. I doubt that's going to happen any time soon.

An anonymous commenter raised this point at Inversions & Deceptions (Fabian's blog) here. In response, perhaps surprisingly if you've read 'Mediocracy', Tassano described free will as "one of those issues which it's impossible to settle by analysis - or by empirical investigation either come to that" and stated that "I certainly don’t hold that determinism must be false" (Link). Here, in contrast to the various derogatory references to 'physicalism' in the book, Tassano's position on this philosophical hot potato becomes one that is essentially identical to my own, and no longer comes into direct conflict with the arguments of Steven Pinker. There's some excellent libertarian argument in the later comments in the same thread. But, on topic, what gives between the antagonism in 'Mediocracy' and the much more philosophical (in both senses of the word) writing in the linked comments thread?

Tassano explains his anti-physicalism position in the former as follows: "I was careful in the book to confine myself to highlighting prevailing ideological biases, and to avoid arguing about whether particular models are true or not." (Link). This may be perceived by some as a weakness in 'Mediocracy', but to me it is one of its key strengths. More on that later in Fabian Tassano Week.

Nick Clegg vs ID Cards

I just sat down to write my main post for tonight when Nick Clegg MP (the leader of the Liberal Democrats, for those who had forgotten) appeared on the TV behind me. In the 'Politics Slot', he reiterated his opposition to New Labour's ID scheme and his pledge to refuse to sign up to the ID register, "even if it means going to court".

Good on him. As the issue has largely disappeared from the political radar, NO2ID reveals that the Home Office is planning to plough on with the ID scheme despite its clear unpopularity. An official NIR 'options analysis' document has been put up on WikiLeaks (PDF) and annnotated by NO2ID. The document reveals that "various forms of coercion" (pg4), such as requiring young people applying for their first driving licence to register, are under consideration - making a mockery of promises that the scheme would be voluntary. As if civil libertarians ever believed those!

For fellow Londoners, there's a public NO2ID social meeting at The Old Crown pub tomorrow (Thursday) evening from 7pm. More here.

For all, there is the NO2ID Pledge. Join with Nick Clegg MP and say no to ID.

"Say no to ID and it becomes more difficult to put pressure on you and everyone else. Get your friends to pledge too, and everyone protects one another. If you say no, then ID cards will fail."

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Theories of the Class War

"There’s much to be said for class hatred." - Chris Dillow (Stumbling & Mumbling)

Fabian Tassano Week: This is the first of a series of posts with some sort of connection to the ideas of Fabian Tassano, the author of 'Mediocracy' (short-reviewed here) and blogger behind top 12 blog Inversions & Deceptions. The 'Mediocracy' book has caused rather a stir and quite a few negative reactions among the friends (of differing political persuasions) I have lent it to so far - these posts are intended to frame some of my perspectives on the ideas in the book and on the blog.

'Mediocracy' begins with a 'fable', describing the progress of a land called Telluria from an innovative culture driven by individuals of exceptional ability, to the modern state of mediocracy, in which the individual is neutralised and society is all, leading to a stagnant culture. It has all of the subtlety of a sledgehammer and doesn't in my opinion do Tassano's ideas justice, but it does highlight one important aspect of his thinking that is central to 'Mediocracy' and forms the subject of this post:

"Because of the heritability of talent and ambition, and the possibility of passing on the financial advantages acquired through aptitude, an entire social class developed in which exceptionality became relatively likely." - Fabian Tassano, Mediocracy pg10


Contrast Chris Dillow's post today:

"Just consider some of the advantages a middle-class kid has over his poorer contemporaries. He’s more likely to grow up in a home that promotes learning. His parents give him self-confidence and ambition. He has role models to show that people like him can have successful careers - the importance of which mustn't be under-estimated. In living in an expensive house, he gets into a good state school. And he benefits from positive peer effects whilst kids from the ghetto suffer adverse ones." - Chris Dillow


Now, is it me or has Tassano picked up on one of the key, usually unspoken, philosophical sticking points between what might traditionally be called left-wing and right-wing...And one that, I am perhaps going to surprise you by writing here, is a quite significant strike to the 'left'.

The argument that the presence in society of privileged classes is a consequence of heredity of genetic superiority in the areas of talent and ambition is a decidedly shaky one, even to a part-innatist like me (I believe that individuals' characteristics are a result of both genetics and environment, not just environment). This appears to be a crucial foundation of Tassano's 'Mediocracy' theory, yet scientific backing for the assumption is conspicuously absent from the book, and from the associated blog - searches of Inversions & Deceptions for appropriate terms (e.g. 'talent', 'heritability') did not turn up any light. He does turn up research that suggests a relationship between individual success and parental status (Link) but as he points out in the post no fundamental conclusions can be drawn from it.

Without this solid foundation, but retaining the mixed view regarding inheritance of individual characteristics (read Steven Pinker - 'The Blank Slate' for a thorough coverage of this critical area) I am left with a rather more mixed picture of the realities of social class than Tassano can offer.

So onto Chris Dillow's post. His comments regarding the improved opportunities a "middle class kid" has over his "poorer contemporaries" are, on the face of it, unassailable. But the rightist riposte is almost sure to be '...but how much of that is biological, rather than sociological' (e.g. bad parents might be more likely to have children who will grow up to be bad parents for genetic, not sociological, reasons). And if the evidence for this and related contentions is thin on the ground - and I suggest that it is -, it can be argued that is due to the left-wing bias of the academic establishment (as Tassano suggests is the case and Pinker discusses).

Dillow finishes, however, by suggesting that the solution to the class hatred (of his type, presumably) is to "abolish class divisions". This, as commenter Jackart insinuates (Link), is a lofty aim, and it is in the means by which this high-minded objective is achieved where I feel the 'leftist' view runs into problems. It is here that I begin to find common ground with Fabian Tassano. But, more on that later in the week...!

Monday, 18 February 2008

Video Of The Week (7)

Video Of The Week 11/02-17/02: Something Good '08

It's another music video this week, and this is the best example of such I've seen so far this year. A reworking of a Top 5 dance track from 16 years ago that still sounds great today is promoted by a novel music video that doesn't take itself too seriously.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

License To Ill

Requiring smokers to pay £10 and get a GP's signature for a license to purchase tobacco is among new anti-smoking measures being considered by the Department of Health (Link).

The adviser responsible for proposing this policy calls it 'libertarian paternalism'. If you agree that that's an oxymoron if there ever was one (what next? Libertarian Fascism?) you should go and read (actual) libertarian Devil's Kitchen's take on the matter (Link, sweary).

As you might expect, the bloggers who are most outraged are smokers. I'm not a smoker, but I agree with them that this stinks. It's a cast-iron example of the kind of authoritarian thinking that infects this Government. And as an anonymous commenter on the above-linked post puts it, "This is just the sort of cr*p which delegitimizes the State in they eyes of the populace...the State is running amok; it has lost all pretence to being the servant of the People". It makes defending public healthcare rather challenging, because the alternative is increasingly being painted as entailing ever-increasing paternalistic coercion in the name of decreasing NHS costs. Perhaps this is deliberate, who knows? Like a lot of policies this Government comes up with it's difficult to work out what the hell they could be thinking.

In terms of indefensibility, this is in a different league to the ban on smoking in pubs - with this there was at least the justification of the protection of workers' health (TUC). There is no such argument to back this up, just a straight down the line attempt to make it as difficult as possible for people to be smokers. Not content with making people apply for the licenses, provide a photo ID and pay £10, Le Grand suggests that the forms 'be made sufficiently complex' to prevent some people obtaining a licence.

Another article on the Le Grand paper adds a further detail that adds another level of absurdity to the proposal. According to the Times, people applying for 'smoking permits' could "...have to get a declaration signed by their GP that their health was not at "massive risk" from their habit before the licence was issued.". I guess the number of hours of GP-time that this would waste wasn't a consideration.

Nor, it seems, were even the most basic considerations of economics. For if tobacco smokers are putting too much strain on the NHS as a result of their smoking-related illnesses, why not, er, put tax on tobacco up so it covers the shortfall? But no, that would be too sensible for this set of control freaks. Instead, New Labour is considering setting up a whole new branch of the civil service at goodness knows what expense, processing yet more forms and putting yet more personal details on yet more little pieces of plastic. But no, it seems it's not about money, it's for our own good. Seldom has that famous piece of wisdom from C.S Lewis (I used to use part of this as QT's banner quote) been more apposite:

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

Blog Updates & Good News

As you may have noticed, after a bit of a posting lull I've started to post things other than Videos of the Week here on Question That again over the past few days. The reason for the semi-hiatus is that I spent the time away from home, travelling in South East Asia and staying with friends in New Zealand. Now I'm back in the country I intend to get the blog fully up and running again.

I've updated my most-read blogs. I intend to keep it as a top 12 from now. I took off PJC Journal and Mr Eugenides, more because they overlapped with other blogs that remain on the list than because they've gone downhill in any significant way. The 12 represent a nice spread across the political spectrum of frequent-posting thought-provoking bloggers with plenty to say. To give a quick run-down:
A Very Public Sociologist is the blog of a socialist and sociologist named Phil, with a well-articulated left perspective on British politics refreshingly devoid of the infighting and sectarianism associated with most of the better known far-left blogs.
Blogzilla is the blog of internet expert and former director of Privacy International Dr Ian Brown. It's not the most frequently updated blog on the list, but it is very strong on civil liberties and anti-database state/ID cards posting - it's clear the author really knows what they're talking about.
Devil's Kitchen is the big name on the free-market libertarian strand of the British blogosphere. Its author is newly affiliated with the Libertarian Party UK. Profane rants are the immediate stand-out feature of DK's blog, but the ranting is backed up by some formidable argument on a wide range of issues particularly relating to British and European parliamentary politics, economics, and civil liberties.
Inversions & Deceptions is the blog of Fabian Tassano, author of Mediocracy. Offers an intelligent right-wing perspective on academia, education, ideology and political theory.
Liberal Conspiracy started in November and has developed into a major fixture of the centre-left British blogosphere, with semi-regular contributions from a wide-range of broadly 'liberal' bloggers. Worth visiting for Aaron Heath's solid 'Casting the Net' blog review posts; worth staying for some fascinating debates that develop in response to contribitions.
Longrider is a libertarian blog concentrating mainly on attacking authoritarianism wherever it may rear its head. Particularly strong on freedom of expression.
Neil Harding is the bete noire of the libertarian blogosphere, an old Labour blogger who posts in support of Government measures most other issues bloggers are united in opposing including ID cards, the DNA database and the smoking ban. He hates 'Tories' (especially Boris Johnson) and 'bloggertarians', and is IMO easily the most controversial blog of the centre-left.
NHS Blog Doctor is the Daddy of the public service bloggers. He took a long break from blogging recently, but is back going strong now. I am a big fan of many of this category of blogs of which NHS Blog Doctor is perhaps the finest example - they provide a real insight that just wouldn't have been available (certainly not for free) a decade ago.
Obsolete is the curate's egg of this set of 12. As with several of the others it is strong on civil liberties issues, though coming from a somewhat more left-liberal perspective than the likes of DK. Lately it has focused its attentions less frequently on the Government and more frequently on the print media, particularly the tabloids.
Political Betting is a veritable blogging institution, looking at politics - particularly elections both UK and abroad - from the perspective of the gambler, bringing a valuable distant objectivity to often very in-depth discussions. At the moment the US Primaries and London Mayoral Election are the main topics of discussion.
Stumbling & Mumbling, by Chris Dillow (author of 'The End of Politics') is as far as I'm concerned the British political theory blog. Thoughtful posts almost every day, and discussions that in intelligence are a cut above the average blog are what you'll find here. Even if you don't agree with Dillow's positions (and I often find something to disagree with here), S&M is a more than worthwhile regular read.
Tim Worstall is a free-market libertarian and amateur economist who also writes for the Adam Smith Institute and The Business. He usually writes several posts a day when he's not trading in metals, and can be sure to point out dubious facts and bad economics wherever they may appear in the press.


Last but not least, I am very pleased to post that there has been some good news on an issue I wrote several posts about late last year. Jahongir Sidikov, the dissident who passively resisted deportation from the UK to Islam Karimov's Uzbekistan (Link) was granted asylum on 25 January following pressure from bloggers, particularly Craig Murray, and MPs, particularly Bob Marshall-Andrews. QT congratulates them, and also all of the bloggers listed here.

Friday, 15 February 2008

We All Said Stop The War

5 years ago today.

ROBB JOHNSON - 'We All Said Stop The War'

I keep seeing us everywhere, as far as the eye can see
It's like a river, overflowing.
We've got Muslims, we've got Christians
We've got Pagans, we've got Jews
We've got atheists, anarchists, socialists
We've even got a liberal or two
On the day we all said Stop The War
On the day we all said Stop The War

We've got keffiyehs, we've got t-shirts
hijabs and rainbow scarves
We've got placards that say we're angry
We've got placards that make you laugh
We've got whistles, badges, banners
ten thousand djembes and a salsa band
We've got pensioners, we've got pushchairs
arm in arm and hand in hand
On the day we all said Stop The War
On the day we all said Stop The War

We've got the actress and the bishop
We've got tankies, we've got Trots
And some got extra sandwiches in case their mates forgot
We've got respectable housewives from suburbia
who've never done this sort of thing before
With the international sex workers of the world united
and the girl and the boy next door
On the day we all said Stop The War
On the day we all said Stop The War

We've got that whatsername from off of the telly
We've got that bloke I met called Steve
But we are more than just this two million
We are Ramallah and Tel Aviv
We are New York, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Cape Town, Cairo, Bangkok to Glasgow
It's like some river overflowing
On the day we all said Stop The War
On the day we all said Stop The War
On the day we all said Stop The War


Hear the song of 15 February 2003 here (scroll down to the flash player, below 'upcoming shows')

Thursday, 14 February 2008

What's In A Word?

This is another one of my rather rambling 'exploration' posts, where I do a bit of what I'm increasingly inclined to call "amateur philosophy".

Something that I find to be a constant source of both frustration and wonderment when I read political arguments online, the participants often seem to be talking past each other. The debate doesn't seem to go anywhere except maybe round in circles.

You may remember I wrote a post that started out similarly to this a couple of months ago (Link). Then I bemoaned that participants in such debates, particularly those between advocates of ideological positions, such as socialism vs free-market capitalism, tend to display little understanding of the alternative position(s).

I wanted to expand on this contention a bit more here, focusing on one particular aspect of those positions: The assumptions that political/social arguments rely on, that often remain unsaid and that the people making these arguments often take to be self-evidently true. If someone who takes a given underlying proposition to be self-evidently true (and therefore needless to mention) argues with someone who does not - and may even instead consider some other, perhaps conflicting, position to be self-evidently true - it is hardly surprising that those people will end up 'talking past each other'. Sometimes layers upon layers of unsaid underlying assumptions are present.

Underlying assumptions are frequently concealed in particular words, which can have connotations that can only be understood with reference to a certain perspective. Consider this statement, almost meaningless from my point of view, in a recent post by Chris Dillow (Stumbling & Mumbling): "In giving the impression that the only (or even major) irrationality is religion, religion's critics help protect the illusion that managerial capitalist society is rational...In this sense, they are objectively conservative..." This is, I think, a fairly obvious example of what I'm talking about, full of loaded words. Other examples are more arcane, meaning that a discussion can go on quite a while without the participants realising that they each of them are using the same words all the while meaning subtly different things by them.

The above excerpt appears to contain several underlying assumptions. The one I found to be the most striking (indeed I commented on it on the post in question) is that the central phrase 'rational society' is as far as I'm concerned virtually meaningless - never mind talking about 'protecting the illusion' of one. The irony of his reference to "cognitive biases" earlier in the same post is not lost on me!

Note that I'm not talking here about the deliberate mis-use or manipulation of language to confuse or try to influence people (such as that highlighted by Fabian Tassano (Link)). The kind of thing here is not ill-intentioned at all. It is a product of people genuinely holding deep-rooted positions that fundamentally differ in their underlying basis, without necessarily even being aware of it.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Video Of The Week (6)

Video Of The Week 04/02-10/02: Yes We Can

The momentum behind Barack Obama's campaign for the Democratic candidacy has continued to gather strength ever since that initial win in Iowa (see the first Video Of The Week here). This sets excerpts from a speech given by Obama in New Hampshire to music, and features a host of celebrities.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Video Of The Week (5)

Video Of The Week 28/01-03/02: Bird Poops In Mouth

This 'viral video' that swept the web last week is only 21 secondslong, and the title is, on the face of it, fairly self-explanatory. Its background is anything but. The video is a fake out-take from a fake news report from a fake marketing campaign for a soft drink that doesn't exist. Clear?

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Video Of The Week (4)

Video of the week 21/01-27/01: Peter Hain Resigns

Labour Minister Peter Hain resigned his Cabinet posts on 24 January after being referred to the police for failing to declare campaign donations.