Saturday, December 02, 2006

Fellow Blogger Highlights BBC Music Monopoly

This is a couple of days late, but I wanted to highlight some research for the ERC conducted by fellow blogger Andrew Ian Dodge (Dodgeblogium). I personally think he has this point absolutely spot on. It's not surprising that the effective State monopoly on music distribution has ruined its competitiveness in the same way as it has other British industries in the past.


Britain's music industry is is in crisis; sales of singles and albums are collapsing while digital downloads - often illegal - are exploding. Meanwhile UK artists are failing to exploit the new technologies and sales channels that could give them a competitive edge and the record companies continue to work on a pre-digital redundant business model - one where they have a monopoly of recording, releasing and distributing music.

The Economic Research Council, Britain's oldest economic think-tank,has commissioned music technology expert Andrew Ian Dodge, and a published author, blogger and rock musician to explore how the UK could regain its past glory in the music industry. Jo-Anne Nadler, former Radio 1 producer and now an established political commentator and author has written the foreword. The paper describes the current crisis, how artists and the recording labels could adjust to the new digital era and what policy changes government should enact to make this possible.

Please find below a quote from Dodge based on his paper, which is entitled, "Creative Destruction in the Music Industry - THE WAY AHEAD"

Dodge, highly critical of the BBC's monopoly of the airwaves which has stymied musical innovation says; "Still top-quality British music is ignored in favour of BBC-approved bland pap."

Furthermore, Dodge bemoans the music industry's failure to adjust to the new digital era.

"Choice for consumers to access music and for bands to promote and produce their wares continues at an impressive rate. The music business continues to stare at the oncoming future like a deer in headlamps."

Poor Losers

There is a great article in the LA Times that discusses the underlying reasons for the hardening of US public opinion in relation to Iraq. This short excerpt gives you a taste of the author's view:

"Indeed, when partisans claim that the American people are fed up and want our troops home, they're deliberately muddying the waters. The American people have never objected to far-flung deployments of our troops. We've had soldiers stationed all over the world for decades.

"What the American people don't like is losing — lives or wars. After all, you don't hear many people complaining that we still have troops in Japan and Germany more than 20,000 days later."

Deluded About Delusion

I am increasingly using Political Opinions to sift through the mountain of political commentary posted daily on UK blogs. Every now and again I come across a posting that is either brilliant and deserves praise or terrible and deserves ridicule. I came across one at Chris Whiteside's blog that unfortunately falls into the latter category.

Chris describes himself in the third person as "a Conservative activist, living in Cumbria with his wife and young family. He has held a wide range of posts both in the Conservative Party and as a councillor and school governor, and is currently a Vice President of Copeland Conservatives."

Chris posted an entry a few hours ago that left me Engaged and Angry rather than Disillusioned and Bored. I tried picking out pieces of the article here, but I felt that I was doing him a disservice and that I could be accused of taking him out of context. So regrettably, here is the entire text:

The Dawkins Delusion

Professor Richard Dawkins is brilliant at explaining biology in a way which many people can understand. However, his objection to religion sometimes verges on the unhinged.

Ironically, both his recent book, "The God Delusion" and his plans, if correctly reported in the press, to send rationalist material to schools, are open to exactly the same charge which he has brought with some justice against the supporters of so-called "Creation Science" and those who want "Intelligent Design" taught in schools.

From now on, I shall use the expression "The Dawkins Delusion" to refer to the fallacy that science can either prove or indeed disprove the existence of God.

Science is a means of testing how the physical world works. It is a very effective method, and nobody who is interested in the truth has anything to fear from it.

The scientific method consists of putting forward a hypothesis which is capable of being tested and disproved by real world evidence, and checking that hypothesis against the evidence. If the facts line up with the hypothesis, you stick with it: if repeated tests fail to reject the hypothesis, it is promoted to a theory. But if the facts disprove a hypothesis or theory, it has to be discarded, and replaced either with a completely new idea, or a new, modified version which can explain the new data: and which has itself to be tested against the facts.

However, only ideas which are capable of being disproved have anything to do with science. In the past, various religions used to put forward ideas about how the real world works which were indeed capable of such checking: for example, the idea that Heaven and Earth were created on 26th October 4004BC at 9 o'clock in the morning, or the idea that Winter is caused because the daughter of the Goddess of the Harvest had to spend six months of the year in the underworld. We now have very strong evidence suggesting the likelihood that the origin of the earth is closer to 4000 million BC than 4004 BC, and we can explain Summer and Winter because the axis on which the earth spins is tilted towards the sun for part of the year at any given latitude, and away from the sun at other times.

But while some ideas or religious origin are capable of being scientifically tested, others are not. For example, the structure of ethics which is associated with any religion, and also fundamental to the running of human society, can be assessed using logic, but is not subject to science. How could you devise a scientific test of the principle that murder is wrong, for instance ?

Further, both belief and disbelief in a God are philosopical and religious positions, but not scientific ones. I do not believe that any human test could possible be devised which could prove beyond reasonable doubt that God exists, or that He doesn't. Both the Theist and the Atheist have to make a leap of faith.

"Intelligent Design" does not belong in a science class, because there is no way you could conclusively disprove it. Neither do Professor Dawkins's atheist views for exactly the same reason. His belief that this religious position is scientific is The Dawkins Delusion.

I'm glad that Chris bothered to write the article because it will be clear to any reader that he doesn't understand a word of The God Delusion. Has he even read the book? It might be a good start.

The examples Chris gives in his article of scientific progress are not really cases of "putting forward a hypothesis which is capable of being tested and disproved by real world evidence". They are in fact examples of evidence backing up a hypothesis. The balance of this evidence is then used to discredit views based on weaker or no evidence. His penultimate paragraph sums up his misunderstanding when he says "Both the theist and atheist have to make a leap of faith." Wrong, wrong, wrong! The point is that there is NO leap of faith. Rational decisions based on the balance of evidence are made, rather than blind judgments based on dogma. These views will then be adjusted when new or better evidence comes along. This is the strength of a rational, scientific point of view, not a weakness. Intelligent design doesn't belong in a classroom because there is no evidence to support it, not because it cannot be conclusively disproved. Darwin's theory does, because there is.

There is no requirement for the atheist to prove that god does not exist, the burden rightly falls on Chris to prove that he does. He should try proving that a tennis ball that I insist is invisible and untouchable doesn't exist. Hard isn't it? Does this put it beyond the scope of science? No, it probably puts me in a loony bin!

In his book, which incidentally I do have on my desk, Dawkins quotes the following from Bertrand Russell who puts it far more eloquently:
"Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than the dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time."

Dawkins also covers Chris' points on intelligent design and ethics, but I'm afraid this post has gone on far too long already. Maybe he should buy the book here.

Update: I just wanted to add the following from Wired on Dawkins' view of the disproval approach to science that Chris is so fond of:

"Dawkins' style of debate is as maddening as it is reasonable. A few months earlier, in front of an audience of graduate students from around the world, Dawkins took on a famous geneticist and a renowned neurosurgeon on the question of whether God was real. The geneticist and the neurosurgeon advanced their best theistic arguments: Human consciousness is too remarkable to have evolved; our moral sense defies the selfish imperatives of nature; the laws of science themselves display an order divine; the existence of God can never be disproved by purely empirical means.

"Dawkins rejected all these claims, but the last one – that science could never disprove God – provoked him to sarcasm. "There's an infinite number of things that we can't disprove," he said. "You might say that because science can explain just about everything but not quite, it's wrong to say therefore we don't need God. It is also, I suppose, wrong to say we don't need the Flying Spaghetti Monster, unicorns, Thor, Wotan, Jupiter, or fairies at the bottom of the garden. There's an infinite number of things that some people at one time or another have believed in, and an infinite number of things that nobody has believed in. If there's not the slightest reason to believe in any of those things, why bother? The onus is on somebody who says, I want to believe in God, Flying Spaghetti Monster, fairies, or whatever it is. It is not up to us to disprove it."

"Science, after all, is an empirical endeavor that traffics in probabilities. The probability of God, Dawkins says, while not zero, is vanishingly small. He is confident that no Flying Spaghetti Monster exists. Why should the notion of some deity that we inherited from the Bronze Age get more respectful treatment?"

Friday, December 01, 2006

Time For A Shake Up

Over at The Appalling Strangeness, the newly named(?) Nameless One has had an epiphany about the Conservative party. In his own words:

"Fuck the fucking fucks who are in charge of the Tory Party. I have had enough. Fuck 'em. I didn't vote for Cameron, and thought he was a bad idea as party leader. But I never realised he would be this bad. I never realised he would sell the soul of the party for a cheap headline over and over and over again. And I never thought that the likes of Hague would join the crappy Cameron revolution, but it turns out I was really wrong. Really very wrong. The entire Conservative leadership has dropped everything and started panting like a teenage boy on heat at the first glimpse of the pussy lips of electoral success."

He goes on to say:
"I have no idea what the Tory party stands for anymore, but they sure as fuck do not stand for what I believe in."

And herein lies the essential problem with the British political system. Put simply, the first past the post system has led real political debate to the lowest common denominator. It is like the old economic example of ice cream sellers on the beach. In this tale, two ice cream sellers start at opposite ends and get 50% each of the potential business. One guy has the bright idea that if he moves to the middle then he can take all of his half and half the other guy's business as well. So, where does that leave the other seller? Well, he has to move to the middle as well in order to get his business back.

The razor thin difference between the Labour Party and the Conservatives is the political equivalent of the ice cream sellers. In purely rational terms, Cameron is in exactly the right place, but in terms of a vibrant, relevant democracy we are falling very short. A system that is supposed to be representative at its heart is anything but.

Now I'm no fan of ideology and ideological difference. It is ideology that led us into two world wars and that shaped the second half of the twentieth century through the cold war. Let's face it, we don't want a return to the rabid left/right politics that leaves no area for understanding and consensus, but neither do we want watered down political choices. In my view this points us in the direction of a true multi-party system in which the political framework serves to aggregate views rather than the failing, over-mighty party structures. In essence, a more proportional system in which voters can choose a political party that more closely maps their views. These would be parties with a real chance of power sharing and an ability to shape government if they were part of a ruling coalition. This would be in sharp contrast to today's minority parties that make shrill, niche demands knowing that they will never have to deliver.

Many people will throw their hands up at this concept and use the old adage that a proportional system of government is a weak one. My response to that is four-fold:

1) This need not necessarily be the case and there are examples of countries in which single parties do get a majority of the electorate to support them;

2) The way in which a more proportional multi-party system is implemented will have a major impact on the government's strength and weakness (more on this below);

3) Arguing purely for strong government rather than a truly representative democracy is a little like arguing that certain people shouldn't vote. As a democrat, I am happy to bow to the will of the people and would rather that is expressed truthfully rather than filtered through the FPTP system; and

4) Do we really want or need strong government? One lesson from both the Labour and Conservative periods in office is that strong government does not necessarily mean good government. I am not opposed to gridlock and I'm certainly happier with gridlock than the ever tightening grip of a government elected by a minority of people. It is this "strong government" that enables the passing of countless additional laws.

So how should a more proportional system be implemented? One of the major criticisms of proportional systems is that we would lose the link with constituencies. This need not be the case. Why not have a model that increases the size of constituencies from the existing 60-65,000 to 600-650,000 electors. Have 10 seats for each constituency and award these proportionally on a constituency basis. I'm no mathematician, but this would much better reflect the desires of voters than first past the post in which a majority of votes can effectively count for nothing. At the same time, this system would enable smaller parties, of many different shades, to campaign on local and national issues and gain representation if enough of the electorate shared their views. I see no problem with that.

While no system would be perfect, it is likely to address the issues highlighted by the Nameless One. He would be free to set up a party with other like-minded souls and, if enough people shared their views, they could get representation. I for one would feel less Disillusioned and Bored.

P.S. I am not a Liberal Democrat and please don't confuse me with one.

Well Done Britain!

A regular column from Our American Cousin...

As I have written before, we Americans frankly pay very little attention to your politics over there. True to that, this is not about Tories, Whigs or the Queen's marmalade and whatsuch.

Rather, a recent study by two Welsh professors has caused quite a stir over here. I am referring of course to the Antikythera mechanism recently "decoded."

It raises real questions, namely, how does the material record go from no "part" calculators to a full blown lunar calculator? Didn't someone start with a Jr. version that could at least predict the phase of the moon for the next day? I mean, 82 pieces is a lot for being the only one.

But those musings aside, I just wanted to say well done by Wales! Glad to see Cardiff in the news, reminding us Yanks that Britain isn't just London, but a big country with a lot going on, even "two hours and a million miles away."

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Leave The Kids Alone

We are obsessed with sick children in this country. If you were as unfortunate as I was to watch little Nikkita on GMTV this morning you will have probably been as disgusted with the show as it made me. A patently miserable child was paraded in front of the British viewing public to try on wigs to cover her alopecia. The cooing by the presenter Kate Garraway (yes, the one married to New Labourite Derek Draper) when the eight year old put on her wig probably reinforced the inner views of the child that she looked terrible without it. On the contrary, Nikkita looked like a perfectly sweet child without the wig and very uncomfortable with it on. GMTV describes this as making a child's Christmas wish come true. That's a fantastic, somewhat gimmicky goal, if true, but does she really need to be paraded on national television to "earn" this wish?

GMTV also led their news with footage of Gordon Brown. Now I'm sure we all feel terribly for any parent who has a child with an illness and this certainly extends to Gordon Brown, but have we become such an emotional wreck of a country that these stories need to be front page and headline news? What has happened to a respectful silence and distance on these issues?

Update: I have been linked to by Team Alopecia and wanted to welcome visitors from that site and invite any thoughts or comments on this story.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Adoption Of The Voluntary Code Free Zone Badge

So far I have received confirmation from the following sites that they are using one of the Voluntary Code Free Zone badges on their sites. Please comment below if you have added and would like to be listed here.

Self-Confirmed Badge Adopters
Musings of an Owl
The Appalling Strangeness
Right Links
Corporate Presenter
Looking For A Voice
Danvers Baillieu
Saxon Times
The Select Society
The Chosen Man
The Last Ditch
Prague Tory
I'm About To Be Brilliant
The Thunder Dragon
Not Saussure
Famous For 15 Megapixels
Robert Sharp
Out From Under
The Morningstar
Nourishing Obscurity

Update: A brilliant article at The Select Society comparing the blogosphere with mainstream media.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

I Will NEVER Sign A Voluntary Blogging Code

If there weren't already too many intrusions into our daily lives, with CCTV cameras on every corner and substantial data mining of our every digital activity, the Press Complaints Commission Director Tim Toulmin has today called for a voluntary code of conduct for blogs (here). I have never heard of a more ridiculous concept and any suggestion of this in the United States would be shot down in seconds.

Alastair Campbell was quoted as saying that "some of the most offensive stuff" comes from blogs. Well I suppose he'd know, but so what? Why is nothing allowed to be offensive anymore. Here's something offensive for them: I think Alastair Campbell and Tim Toulmin are shitheads and parasites, sucking the life out of the country.

There are two main reasons that I will NEVER sign a voluntary code:
1) Existing laws of libel cover everything written on this site
2) I believe in the internet as a free speech zone. This blog should not have to be answerable to a Quango

I'm sure that there will be some that look at a voluntary code as a way of preventing legislation. This is not a reason to sign. We should also fight legislation above and beyond existing laws. Now is a time to campaign forcefully against this before it builds a head of steam.

The New Cold War

Great commentary here from a fellow blogger at The Appalling Strangeness on the recent killing of Litvinenko. I agree that this was probably a state sponsored killing designed to send a message to other critics of Putin's regime.

Like something out of a spy thriller, another leading Russian and 72nd Richest man in the world was critically ill after "crashing" his Ferrari Enzo in Italy (here). The plot thickens...

Tough Times Ahead At The Beeb

With Michael Grade's departure to ITV, the BBC looks like it is going to have more trouble getting through the proposed licence fee increase above the cost of inflation. It now seems as though getting an increase even in line with inflation will be tough.

I'm a fan of the BBC. I like some of their programming and enjoy both the news website and their radio content. However, as a firm believer in free markets, I think the BBC distorts and disrupts the UK media market. I can fully understand the desire to cater to niche markets, sports and areas of public life that we feel need to be protected, but why on earth does the BBC need to chase ratings with programmes like Eastenders. That is a show that could be entirely funded by third party advertisers and certainly needs no public subsidy. The same could be said of the extremely funny and extremely overpaid Mr Ross. Of course he does a great job with his chat show, but this raises the same questions about what the BBC exists to provide. There are many top UK business executives (Michael Grade might now be among them) who would be hauled over the coals for receiving a pay packet this large. How on earth can it be justified for a man who is effectively a civil servant?

The BBC should be stripped back to core programming. There is no need for it to have four or five digital channels. The website should take advertising revenue and a smaller core should be refocused on high quality, public interest programming. The rest can and should be provided by the private sector.

Arguments for retaining the BBC typically turn on the quality of the shows produced. I would understand this argument if I saw shows that lived up to this promise - Celebrity Scissorhands certainly doesn't. The US model proves that when media companies are left to their own devices they produce great output. Think of ER, The West Wing, The Sopranos etc., etc. Where are the UK equivalents? ITV is in their current position precisely because they let quality deteriorate. The market has spoken and ITV now has to lift its game.

The BBC is the second largest public body after the NHS. Is this really appropriate in a modern western democracy?

Triangulating The CBI

There has been a massive amount written in the last few months about the triangulation tactics of David Cameron. His decision to miss the CBI conference and head to Iraq instead is the next move in his repositioning of the Conservative Party. James Harding, writing in The Times, states:

"The conservative leader has been an energetic advocate of the peripheral, if valuable, role of corporate social responsibility. He has been a champion of the climate change agenda, which may be a global good but is still a cost to business. He has talked more about work-life balance than the balance of payments; he has called on people to look beyond GDP to GWB, general well-being. He has not yet shown himself to be comfortable with capitalism, a champion of British companies committed to the grubby but essential business of wealth and job creation.

"The mistake will only add to the growing doubts about the Tory leader in British boardrooms, stoking the perception that he has an unreliable and ambivalent attitude to business."

He totally misses the point. There is no doubt in my mind that Cameron is as pro business as previous Conservative leaders. The difference here is that Cameron understands the value of symbolic gestures. It is entirely in his interest for the CBI to be up in arms about him missing the conference and the more public this spat becomes the better. The image that it plants in the mind of the electorate is that he's pro the little guy rather than big business. This is in sharp contrast to Tony Blair who was at the conference this week giving advice to British Airways on their religious obligations.

What surprises me is that there are many in the media who are sucked in by these blatant political tactics. I suppose it proves that you can still fool some of the people all of the time.

From The Streets of Cuba

From dig4beats at Flickr. The guy on the right is Luis Posada Carriles:

The Full Monty

The first test of the Ashes series was a huge disappointment. England didn't look as though they could bowl the Australian cricket team out once, let alone the twice that will be needed to win a test. So, the first change England need to make is the substitution of James Anderson for Monty Panesar. More late nights and miserable mornings to come.

Monday, November 27, 2006

BA At A Cross Roads

I have read with interest the debate about whether British Airways employee Nadia Eweida should be able to wear her cross to work. Setting aside the fact that television interviews show that she is clearly barking mad, I still believe that BA has every right to ask her to remove this religious item.

Tony Blair weighed into the debate today at the CBI with the following, "If you want my really frank advice on this: one of the things I have learnt in politics is there are battles really, really worth fighting and there are battles really, really not worth fighting. All I would say to you is get the right side of the line on that one. That's my honest advice." An interesting view of the world from a man who claims to be a conviction politician, but not surprising given Tony Blair's own religious beliefs.

The battle lines have been drawn on this issue and I am a firm believer that it should become a wider debate about the role of religion in society. For those of you that have not read Sam Harris' excellent book "The End of Faith", he makes a strong case for taking the debate to religious moderates. I have attached a video below of a talk he gave in 2005. Well worth a watch (just skip the first minute).

Great Political Ad

This is a terrific political ad from Argentina. Much better than the usual bad mouthing and negativity.

Crimethink On The Rise

The police are putting together a database of men who are most likely to commit crimes in the future (here). In an extraordinary step, this will allow the police to single out people who fit a profile of potential criminals. In the words of Laura Richards, a senior criminal psychologist with the Met's Homicide Prevention Unit, "“My vision is that we know across London who the top 100 people are. We need to know who we are targeting... There are some pretty dangerous people out there, so you need these risk models to wheedle them out, separate the wheat from the chaff". Why am I not surprised? One more step on the road to totalitarianism. It all sounds very reasonable, sensible even, until they're knocking at your door.

"The thought police would get him just the same. He had committed—would have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper—the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you."
- George Orwell, 1984, Book 1, Chapter 1

Why Should We Apologise

Tony Blair has come under pressure today to issue a formal apology for Britain's role in the slave trade (here). While he's apologising for that, he might also want to apologise for the numerous deaths that occurred in the Tudor period. Many innocent people were killed in the religious and political struggle to keep one family in power. In particular, the Prime Minister should issue an apology to the family of Richard III, a man who was cut down in his golden years by a future head of state. Alternatively, we could realise that apologies for the sins and events of generations past mean little and achieve less.

Defending The Right To Cause Offence

More calls from the police to curb our freedoms (here). This time, it isn't the burning of flags that's an issue, but it is coming from the same source, the Met's Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur. The Met is now calling for powers to crack down on protesters that are causing offence. A recent report states, "there must be a clear message that we will not allow any extremist group to display banners or make public statements that clearly cause offence within the existing law".

I'm disgusted by these continued attempts to curtail our rights. We must defend the ability to cause offence. As despicable as many of these protesters are, they must be able to put forward their views. We can then counter them with our own reasoned arguments if we disagree. What we shouldn't do is put the police in charge of censorship. That road leads to a dangerous and dark place.

Scarier still is this quote from the same document, "The result has been to create an imbalance in public perception that is manifesting itself in passionate responses from elements of the community not traditionally given to publicly protesting. What we are seeing in effect is a rise in the politicisation of middle England and the emergence of a significant challenge for capital city policing." I for one am all for passionate responses and the politicisation of middle England despite misgivings from the police.

Intelligent Education?

An extraordinary article here in the Guardian that reports on a number of schools that are teaching Intelligent Design as "a critique of Darwinism". Any teacher that promotes this pseudo-religious nonsense has no place in our schools. It is not part of the curriculum and has no role in a science lesson. If we are going to go down the creationist path in the UK then we will be unravelling hundreds of years of enlightened thinking based on evidence, experiment and peer review. Unfortunately this is the logical next step in our crusade for religious tolerance, with tolerance defined as not being able to question another's unsubstantiated beliefs.

Here is a terrific lecture by Richard Dawkins on his new book "The God Delusion"