Climate change: An Inconvenient Truth

24 October 2006

I urge you to see Al Gore's documentary 'An Inconvenient Truth'. It's both the scariest film you're likely to see and an inspiring call to action.

According to the film, Gore has been trying to get people to act on climate change for decades. As well as releasing this film - based around a lecture tour he's been giving for years - Gore is training up 1000 people to deliver the presentation themselves all over the world. He's taking this seriously, and so should we.

He's up against some stiff competition. According to his research, about half the reports in the media question the reality of climate change. He contrasts that with hundreds of papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals, not one of which questions the catastrophic environmental changes we're putting the planet through.

The film's greatest success is communicating the urgency of this problem. It shows how major cities and countries (including the Netherlands, and the site of the World Trade Centre) will be flooded if Greenland melts, something which the film paints as likely within the foreseeable future if things don't change. He compares photos of receding glaciers from today and thirty years ago. There's also desperate footage of a polar bear looking for ice solid enough to rest on. For the first time, bears are drowning.

The film also sounds a note of hope: we have the technology and tools to make a difference. And each one of us can make tiny changes that amount to a massive saving in greenhouse gasses.

The film is out now in cinemas, coming soon to buy on DVD and to rent from your favourite video club. Watch it. Be inspired. Save the planet.

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Review: "77 Million Paintings" by Brian Eno

12 October 2006

Screengrab of 77 Million PaintingsBrian Eno's latest project is a DVD-based software package that layers and combines hand-made slides to generate 77 Million Paintings. Accompanied by a generative music soundtrack, the package creates ambient art that is unique each time it is run. Read the full review of '77 Million Paintings' by Brian Eno. It includes screengrabs of nine of my favourite virtual paintings.

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Book review: 'Freakonomics' by Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner

11 October 2006

Book cover: FreakonomicsThere are two themes running through 'Freakonomics'. The first is what a great bloke the co-author Steven Levitt is. Authors are expected to big themselves up on their book covers ('If Indiana Jones were an economist, he'd be Steven Levitt'), but it doesn't stop there. Words used to describe Levitt inside the book include 'the most brilliant young economist in America', someone who is 'so talented that [his work] doesn't need a unifying theme', 'a demigod, one of the most creative people in economics and maybe in all social science', 'a noetic butterfly no one has managed to pin down', and 'a master of the simple, clever solution'. This last one comes after six pages of introduction and two proper chapters, by which time it's too late to be pitching: we're either convinced he's worth reading because of his ideas, or we're not.

And mostly, to be fair, we are. The second theme of the book is how the tools of economics and data processing can be used to test assumptions and explode myths about what motivates people. Along the way, Levitt answers questions such as why do so many drug dealers live with their mothers if dealing crack is supposed to be so lucrative? And do estate agents work in your best interests? He uses data to find teachers faking student exam marks and sumo wrestlers throwing a fight.

There are some surprising conclusions (although not about estate agents, needless to say). Prostitutes typically earn more than architects, he concludes, which is in part a reflection of the demand for their services: "Let's just say an architect is more likely to hire a prostitute than vice versa". Levitt demonstrates that US crime fell in the nineties mainly because of a pro-abortion law passed decades earlier, and that swimming pools pose a bigger threat to children than guns do.

Such ideas are fun to play with, but the book loses its way as it progresses. The concluding chapters are about what makes a perfect parent and what impact a baby's name might have on its life. Both get too bogged down in data to argue a convincing case.

Freakonomics has a lot of fascinating material and is recommended for anyone who enjoys a bit of a brain workout. Don't sweat the last two chapters, though. And don't write Levitt fan mail. It might go to his head.

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Book review: 'As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela' by Mark Thomas

09 October 2006

Book cover: As Used on Nelson MandelaWhat better way to expose the laxity of UK arms controls than for a bunch of schoolchildren to set themselves up as arms dealers? Without breaking the law, Mark Thomas and his team of students were able to trade weapons and torture instruments internationally. His book 'As used on the famous Nelson Mandela' is a damning expose of an industry worth about $1,900 million in exports to the UK - an industry that thrives on death and misery and is often subsidised by the tax payer. The villain in this story is British Aerospace, which Thomas concludes has exerted inappropriate influence on UK foreign policy.

The tone of the book is well-measured: Thomas is able to hint at the dark side of the arms trade without setting up any voyeuristic sideshows. His approach is inherently comic, involving at times ridiculous stunts, but his talent for the one-liner (honed through years on the stand-up circuit) makes the heavy stuff engaging too. There's proper research behind this book and Thomas is both informed and well connected as an activist.

This book is an entertaining and thought-provoking read. If you've enjoyed Mark Thomas's live shows you'll hear his voice clearly as you turn the pages. If you're not familiar with his live work, start with his double CD recorded 'The night [Blair's Iraq] war broke out'. It's a perfect example of how to take a subject seriously while being imaginative and humourous in its presentation - a rare talent.

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Tony Blair's legacy

01 October 2006

When Blair is finally dragged out of Downing Street and his fingers are unprised from the door jamb, the media will be awash with reports of Blair's legacy. Many of these will be rose-tinted (remember when Thatcher left?). It's true that he made the Labour Party electable for the first time in years, but he did that by turning it into the Conservative Party. It's true also that he transformed the art of politics, but he did that by turning it into a battle of spin doctors. With traditional Labour principles scrapped and no replacement ideology, there is no political debate left. Just a squabble over whose turn it is next to run the country. Blair turned politics into the art of projecting personality.

Here's what I think of as Blair's legacy. I wanted to write this when he left, but frankly I can't wait that long.

Blair's legacy (in no particular order):

  1. Policy without any guiding ideology that results in muddled thinking: such as extending pub licensing hours while banning smoking in public.

  2. Introduction of on-the-spot fines issued by police (see Spot fines for anti-social behaviour, BBC News). This erodes the concept of separation of powers, by effectively making police judge and jury on selected crimes.

  3. Banning the right to protest near parliament without permission. (see Parliament protester to fight ban, BBC News). This is a significant infringement of freedom of speech and a direct indication of Blair's contempt for the electorate.

  4. Introduction of Antisocial behaviour orders (ASBOs). This is a back door for creating imprisonable offences that only apply to specific individuals. The BBC lists examples of ASBOs, and Redpepper [link no longer available] has a good analysis. ASBOs can be created against individuals without needing evidence 'beyond reasonable doubt'. Breaching the ASBO can be an imprisonable offence, even if the behaviour that the ASBO seeks to restrict is not.

  5. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIP), giving government agencies the right to monitor anybody's communications data without a search warrant (see The RIP Act, The Guardian). This law reverses the age-old maxim of 'innocent until proven guilty'. A computer user could be be imprisoned for up to two years for failing to provide decryption keys.

  6. ID Cards. These are on the back-burner for now, but threaten to be a massive state invasion of citizen privacy, massively expensive, and with no benefit to the tax payer. It's been suggested that ID Cards will somehow stop terrorists. No credible examples of how have been provided in support of this claim.

  7. Introduction of student top-up fees, breaching a Labour Party manifesto promise that Labour 'will not introduce top-up fees and has legislated against them' (see Timeline: tuition fees, The Guardian and the Liberal Democrats' Scrap Tuition Fees Campaign).

  8. Sleaze. After Blair promised on his election that his government would be 'whiter than white', there has been widespread accusation that the Labour Party had been accepting loans it never intended to repay to avoid having to declare them as donations, and rewarding donors with honours (see Cash for honours inquiry stepped up, the Guardian). Oh, and all the Blunkett and Mandelson reincarnations were pretty sleazy too. Saying (in 2001) that the government wouldn't raise income tax and then putting a penny on NI instead was pretty underhand as well. This bullet could be an article in itself...

  9. Launching air strikes against Afghanistan (see Timeline: Afghanistan, BBC News) for refusal to hand over one terrorist suspect.

  10. The Iraq War. An illegal invasion, prosecuted using lies (Iraq could attack us in 45 minutes?) and a dodgy ripped-off report. They didn't even count the civilian casualties. No credible evidence of weapons of mass destruction has been found. Iraq, now on the brink of civil war, is a mess that will long outlive Blair's tenure.

The dismantling of civil liberties is a particular concern because it creates such wide-ranging powers for the state. While the present government might be considered by many to be mostly harmless, Blair has granted all future governments rights that can be easily abused to suppress the population or large sections of it. This is grossly irresponsible.

Nearly ten years on, it's tempting to think back to the 'New Labour, New Danger' campaign that defined the 1997 election.

Get involved. Make a difference.

For the avoidance of any confusion, I don't represent any of the organisations mentioned above.

Phew! And I didn't even call him Bliar once. Oops. There I go...


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