De omnibus dubitandum
22 Feb 2012
For a while the FairSearch organisation has been fighting in the USA against Google’s anti-competitive behaviours. Now finally FairSearch has crossed the Atlantic and has a European presence: fairsearcheurope.org.
While many Google advocates dismiss it as a marketing tool for competitors like Microsoft, what FairSearch actually does is incredibly vital to our continued enjoyment of a free and unfiltered internet. In Europe this is an even more pressing concern than in the States, as here Google enjoys marketshares of well over 90% in most EU countries.
So an organisation with some economic and political klout behind it, fighting for search neutrality and limitations on Google’s anti-competitive practices, is a good thing. See the slideshow below about why FairSearch matters:
15 Feb 2012
The other day my eye caught an AdWords ad for a book called “The Final Theory” by Mark McCutcheon, an author previously unknown to me. This book allegedly solves all of the existing scientific conundrums and supposedly introduces ‘a new scientific perspective’ that ‘radically re-thinks’ all we know about how the universe works today.
Now, as you may know, I’m a bit of a science geek. I’m also a sceptic. De Omnibus Dubitandum, and all that. The description of this book in the ad and on its website set off all kinds of bullshit alarms in my head. The book’s marketing material focused purely on how this new final theory would overturn all established science and revolutionise our understanding of the laws of physics, casting in to doubt centuries worth of scientific advancements.
I’ve seen similar tones struck in many different promotional materials, usually those published by creationists, homeopaths, energy healers, and other similarly delusional quacks. So I did what any physics geek of sound mind would do: I went to Amazon.com and looked at the book’s reviews.
Amazon tends to be a place where works of atrocious quality are skilfully eviscerated by a horde of merciless reviewers who will destroy a work if it lacks merit. At least, that’s what I thought.
As it turns out, the vast majority of reviews for this book on Amazon are overwhelmingly positive, with no fewer than 71 five-star reviews at last count. According to the Amazon reviewers this book is at least on a par with Stephen Hawkin’s “A Brief History of Time”.
That, too, set of further bullshit alarms. I’d never heard of this Mark McCutcheon fellow before, and I try to keep myself at least moderately informed of what’s going on in the world of science. As this book was originally published in 2003, if it truly had such amazing scientific merit as is claimed by these countless Amazon reviewers, there should by all accounts have been quite a shockwave going through the scientific establishment. And there most certainly was not.
So I dug deeper. Wikipedia was, mysteriously, devoid of any mentioning of the book and its author. In fact, Wikipedia was so diligent in not mentioning Mark McCutcheon and his Final Theory, that I suspected it was a deliberate deletion. That turned out to be the case, as is evident from this administrators’ discussion page (search for ‘McCutcheon’ on that page to find the relevant passages).
Also there are various sceptical forum threads and blog posts dedicated to the book, specifically to how negative reviews on Amazon are mysteriously and inexplicably deleted, leaving only a vast bulk of four- and five-star positive reviews. These positive reviews are themselves rather suspect, as they seem to be posted by new Amazon users without any significant review history, and many of them use very similar phrasings and writing styles.
The last damning piece of evidence comes from a forum thread on a physics community site where the book’s ‘Final Theory’ is thoroughly slaughtered for the nonsensical quackery that it so obviously is.
What is most disturbing about this whole episode is Amazon’s complicity in the whole affair. There is, for all intents and purposes, deliberate censorship at work here in an effort to promote a book that espouses such an obviously farcical concept. Genuine criticism is being silenced in favour of a commercial message, trying to get you to buy a book that contains patent falsehoods, distortions, and lies.
I suppose when there is money to be made, truth is entirely optional.
19 Aug 2011
Imagine your grandfather worked in construction. Imagine he helped build roads and buildings that still exist today. Imagine you would now be getting money, a few pence at a time, every time someone used one of those roads or lived in one of those buildings.
That would be great, wouldn’t it? Free money for something you had nothing to do with! How awesome would that be?
Of course it’s a totally ridiculous concept. You didn’t put any effort in to creating those roads and buildings, and thus you shouldn’t get any reward from their usage either. It’s a plainly stupid idea.
Except that this is exactly how copyright works.
A creative person, a writer or musician or whatever, creates something and gets an initial payment for it. So far that’s no different than most jobs out there, mine included – we do work and get paid for it.
But then that creative person then gets paid every time their work gets used by someone else. Every time a book is reprinted or quoted, every time a song is played on the radio, every time a movie is shown on TV, the creators gets paid.
Hang on a second… why is that? I don’t get paid every time a website I helped create makes a bit of money. A nurse doesn’t get paid every time a patient she helped recover from illness gets a paycheck. A teacher doesn’t get paid every time a former student earns big money.
So why do creatives get paid over and over again for work they’ve done just once?
The thought behind copyright and royalties is that it should encourage artists of higher quality to create more works, as they would earn more money with high quality stuff that gets re-used. And it disallows other artists from copying other people’s work and making money off of that for themselves.
But modern times have caught up with copyright law in almost every single aspect, making a total mockery of the entire concept.
First of all, I don’t think it’s fair that an artist gets paid over and over again for work done just once. If the goal is to encourage good artists to create more art, then paying them once for a piece of work – and have that payment be in accordance to the quality of the work – suffices just fine. That’s how nearly all of us earn our money, and it’s how all of us ensure future employment: by making sure our work is of good quality so that our employers want more of it.
The fact that artists get paid for their entire life for the effort they put in to a piece of work just once is, in my opinion, mind-bogglingly stupid and unfair.
The other aspect of copyright is to protect an artist’s work, making sure others can’t copy it and make money off of it themselves. This was probably a fairly valid point 100 years ago, but nowadays it’s a mostly hollow argument.
First of all, it’s pretty impossible nowadays to find a piece of creative work that is not derivative. Original work is pretty impossible to find. Every piece of creative output, from music to art to design to writing, is inspired by what has come before. Everything is copied, mashed up, diluted and mixed.
Second, I admit there is a good case to be made for copyright to be in effect for a certain period of time. A writer for example should be able to sell his books for a number of years without having to worry about someone else copying his books and selling them as well. A period of, say, 10 years sounds pretty reasonable. That gives the original creator plenty of time to capitalise on their creative output. And after 10 years the work becomes available for others to build upon, mix and remix, and generally integrate in to the collective cultural output of a society.
But copyright law in most countries have set this period of copyright to be insanely long. In the UK for example copyright on any piece of work is valid for the creator’s entire life, and then for another 70 years.
Yes, you read that right. Copyright is valid for 70 years after the creator has died.
This is of course totally and utterly bonkers. People who had nothing to do at all with the creation of a piece of art get paid for decades after the original artist has died. There is no sensible reason at all for these people to be paid, and yet this is exactly how the law works in this country.
This is of course because the people who make the most money off of copyright – the record companies, the movie studios, the big publishing houses – have a vested interest in making copyright last as long as possible. They want to keep on making money from the work the artists they’ve contracted have done, for decades and decades after those artists have died. And they’ve lobbied our politicians – with amazing success – to have the law go their way.
It’s pure and simple greed. There is not an ounce of genuine cultural enrichment at the core of modern copyright law. It’s only about padding the pockets of big corporate media organisations, and keeping the politicians they support in power.
Modern copyright law makes no sense. None whatsoever.
10 Aug 2011
I want to write about the riots currently raging throughout many major UK cities, but my point of view on the matter is expressed much more clearly in the following opinion pieces:
The UK riots: the psychology of looting (The Guardian):
“Between these poles is a more pragmatic reading: this is what happens when people don’t have anything, when they have their noses constantly rubbed in stuff they can’t afford, and they have no reason ever to believe that they will be able to afford it. Hiller takes up this idea: “Consumer society relies on your ability to participate in it. So what we recognise as a consumer now was born out of shorter hours, higher wages and the availability of credit. If you’re dealing with a lot of people who don’t have the last two, that contract doesn’t work. They seem to be targeting the stores selling goods they would normally consume. So perhaps they’re rebelling against the system that denies its bounty to them because they can’t afford it.”"
Caring costs – but so do riots (The Independent):
“How, we ask, could they attack their own community with such disregard? But the young people would reply “easily”, because they feel they don’t actually belong to the community. Community, they would say, has nothing to offer them. Instead, for years they have experienced themselves cut adrift from civil society’s legitimate structures. Society relies on collaborative behaviour; individuals are held accountable because belonging brings personal benefit. Fear or shame of being alienated keeps most of us pro-social.”
London riots: the underclass lashes out (The Telegraph):
“This is not a gospel of determinism, for poverty does not ordain lawlessness. Nor, however, is it sufficient to heap contempt on the rioters as if they are a pariah caste. One of the most tragic aspects of London’s meltdowns is that we need this ruined generation if Britain is ever to feel prosperous and safe again. If there are no jobs for today’s malcontents and no means to exploit their skills, then the UK is in graver trouble than it thinks.”
9 Jun 2011
Day after day we’re being bombarded with messages about how bad the food is that we eat and how toxic the drinks are that we consume.
You can only conclude from all these articles, TV ads, news reports, and Facebook virals, that the human species on the whole is dreadfully unhealthy.
Apparently we need to embrace the forgotten ways of our ancestors, eating and drinking only the pure output from mother nature, skipping all the industrial processing and chemical wizardry that goes on in modern food production.
Because apparently living that pure ‘organic’ and ‘holistic’ lifestyle will make us happier and healthier, and result in longer and more fulfilling lives. Just like our pre-industrial, medieval ancestors.
Those same medieval ancestors that had an average lifespan of around 40 years and tended to lead short, miserable, malnutritioned lives. Right.
The next time you read an article about how bad Coca-Cola is for you, or you see a TV ad for ‘organically grown food’ (is there any other way for food to grow?), or you listen to some hemp-wearing hippy moan on about the dangers of modern medicine, realise this:
Humans today live longer and healthier lives than ever before in the history of the human species.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a Mars bar that I need to wash down with a nice cool can of Coke.
13 Apr 2011
Since a few weeks I’ve been helping the Belfast City Airport Watch organisation with their online stuff – updating their website, posting on Facebook, doing some tweets, and sending out the odd email now and again.
I signed up for this because I live very close to the Belfast City airport, and the noise pollution really is quite impressive.
It’s funny how when you don’t live near an airport, you are quick to judge people who complain about aircraft noise. “They shouldn’t have moved close to an airport then!” is an often heard rebuttal, as is the claim that these regional airports have enormous economic benefit and the comfort of a few residents in the area is a small price to pay.
I used to be one of those naysayers who dismissed people who complained about aircraft noise. But my perspective changed radically now that I’m personally submitted to noise pollution on a daily basis.
It’s hard for people who don’t live near airports to understand how incredibly overwhelming aircraft noise can be. For a few seconds when the plane passes over you have to stop your conversation, put down your drink, stop watching TV, and in the case of big jets even stop thinking for a wee while. The noise is more than just sound reaching your ears – you feel it in your bones and it scratches at your brain.
Unsurprisingly, noise pollution is actively harmful as a recent WHO study has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.
In the case of the Belfast City airport, their rebuttals can easily be, well, rebutted. As if the dangers of noise pollution wasn’t sufficient reason to lobby against expansion of the airport (what price do you put on the health and well-being of tens of thousands of local residents?), the economic value of the airport is limited. It employs only a handful of local residents, and with a perfectly fine larger International airport just a few miles outside Belfast (in a rural area where noise pollution is not an issue) flights and jobs can easily be moved without having a negative impact on the local economy.
And the people affected by the noise didn’t choose to live near a busy airport. The City airport has seen enormous expansion in recent years. When people first moved in to their homes in east Belfast and Holywood it was perfectly quiet. Not so now.
The first thing that struck me when I started helping out the Airport Watch residents association – which is a purely not-for-profit organisation run by volunteers – is that this is a dirty fight. The City airport has powerful backers and deploys sneaky tactics.
For example, from the moment the BCAW twitter account was launched, it was being harassed by ‘egg’ accounts – Twitter accounts without a proper avatar and thus showing only the default egg icon – who were protesting about what the BCAW tweeted, casting (baseless) doubt on facts tweeted by the BCAW, even going as far as tweeting blatant lies about the BCAW.
Also in the comments of articles on news sites like the Belfast Telegraph, certain commenters always applaud the City airport and criticise the BCAW every chance they get – using the same lies and distortions. It’s nothing short of a social media smear campaign, intended to make the BCAW look bad and cast the City airport as a saviour of the Northern Irish economy.
It is also all done in quite an amateurish fashion. Egg accounts on Twitter have no credibility, as they have no history and are easily recognised as the spammers they are. The comments on news sites are always posted under the same usernames, and they only comment on airport-related stories and always with the same anti-BCAW pro-City Airport message. They’re transparently obvious PR spinners with zero credibility. I even managed to retrace one account back to an actual City airport employee.
But despite this ineffectiveness, it does demonstrate that the City airport and its backers – lobbyists and politicians with fingers in relevant pies, no doubt – will and do play dirty. Truth is the first victim of any conflict, and this is no exception. The City airport is deliberately polluting the debate (pun intended) and using dirty propaganda tactics to oppose valid criticism.
And that’s pretty sad. The quality of life for tens of thousands of people is at stake, and the greedy money-grabbing capitalists behind the scenes of the City airport care only for their own continued enrichment. The welfare of people doesn’t matter, and every dirty trick is allowed to ensure that the rich get richer and the poor stay poor and uninformed.
This is not a surprise, of course. This is what capitalism does, this is how it operates. It’s a zero-sum game, with winners and losers.
But sometimes I wish that I wasn’t being confronted with such blatant evidence of moral bankruptcy and unbridled greed quite so often. Sometimes I wish people would just be nice to one another and stop polluting and abusing the world for their own temporary and ultimately fleeting gains.
I’m afraid that’ll always be just wishful thinking.
21 Feb 2011
Apparently a CIA spy has been caught in Pakistan when he shot and killed two men who were allegedly trying to rob him.
That is in itself not a particularly extraordinary news story. Of course the USA has spies in countries like Pakistan (even though supposedly the Pakistan and USA are allies). And of course now and then one of them gets found out.
No, the real surprise lies in the coverage this news story received in the USA. That’s to say, it’s been censored:
“A number of US media outlets learned about Davis’s CIA role but have kept it under wraps at the request of the Obama administration. A Colorado television station, 9NEWS, made a connection after speaking to Davis’s wife. She referred its inquiries to a number in Washington which turned out to be the CIA. The station removed the CIA reference from its website at the request of the US government.”
I can’t sufficiently stress the importance of this small detail. American media organisations are censoring themselves at the request of the US government.
The media is supposed to serve as the government’s public conscience. Checks and balances, freedom of the press, and all that. If the media colludes wholesale with the government and assists the government in covering stories up, then there is no sound basis for democracy any more.
A government thus assisted can lie to its citizens at will, and the media will repeat those lies uncritically, with any dissenting voice silenced under the censoring blanket of ‘national security’. The population will no longer be properly informed and can no longer make informed decisions come election time.
This is disgusting, farcical, and very very dangerous.