Thursday, 1 April 2010

Google and China

Google has recently been involved in a rather public spat with the Chinese authorities. The Chinese government wanted to continue the arrangements whereby could operate in mainland China provided they blocked certain sites.

Google said (very understandably from their viewpoint) that censorship violated their principles and they would not co-operate. It is of course arguable that it is their football and they have a perfect right to choose whom they play with. I would myself risk jail and poverty to defend freedom of speech in my own country, but I do think that Google may have got it wrong in China for two reasons.

Firstly, I think Westerners should cut the Chinese authorities a great deal more slack. As I was starting secondary school, China was a closed society just emerging from the Great Leap Forward in which tens of millions had died. The authorities planned everything and brooked neither political dissent nor expression of religious belief. China's present leaders lived through that. You cannot move a thousand million people from Maoism to a liberal democracy overnight. The (still nominally communist) government has been opening its hands as fast as it dare for several decades; only last week, a friend sent me a link to an article in China Daily "House churches [read "not officially registered"] thrive in Beijing". That is a massive step forward. Massive.

Secondly, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the particular issue, this stinks of cultural imperialism. Even in the West, freedom of speech and expression is not absolute. We in the UK (quite rightly in my view) do not allow paedophile rings or terrorists unfettered right to express their views. We don't permit defamation, false claims of medical efficacy, or the publishing of material that breaches copyright. The key thing here though is that these limits are decided (however imperfectly) by society through it's government and not by some foreign firm. Imagine how we would feel if Google were Chinese owned and insisted on running its UK operation how it wanted. If I were a Chinese leader I would be thinking less about Tiananmen Square and more about precedent: for example, the freedom of action they they would have if (to take a hypothetical example) violent groups popped up in Tibet or amongst the Uyghur people and started using the Internet aggressively for recruiting.

The line between good and evil runs through every human heart, everyone makes mistakes, and we are all prisoners of our own background: Chinese leaders, Google executives – and even those who read and right blogs. Given empathy and the occasional touch of forgiveness the Chinese leadership will get there in the end. In the meantime I'd like to see Google showing a touch more respect for the largest sovereign nation on earth, even when they don't agree with them.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Assisted suicide – the thin end of a nasty wedge

There is an ongoing propaganda war underway to make assisted suicide legal, despite the opposition of doctors.

LadyThe morality of suicide doesn’t bother me too much but I’m implacably opposed to the principle of assisted suicide for several reasons.

Firstly, whatever assurances are made and whatever safeguards are put in place, some older people will come under pressure to top themselves. For a few with particularly lazy, self-centred or callous children the pressure would come soon after a change in the law. Within a generation it would undoubtedly be widespread.

Secondly it is widely recognised that people who are depressed are more prone to commit suicide. Legitimising suicide will cut short the lives of some who might otherwise have recovered and gone on to many more happy and productive years.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the effect on our culture and attitudes over several generations is highly uncertain. Western culture instinctively regards human life as precious in and of itself, regardless of whose it is. Medical staff will battle to save the life of a patient, whether that patient is a prince or a pauper. Legitimising suicide slowly erode that attitude. Once we take the momentous first step down that road, who knows where it may end? The champions of assisted suicide for the terminally ill would be as opposed as I to a program like Hitler’s T4, but that is where our grandchildren may end up if we commit them to that path.

Two things remain to be said about this. Firstly it is outrageous to make the casual assumption that it would be a doctor’s job to assist suicide. I remember discussing it with a surgeon on one occasion who said “I wouldn’t do it. Let them hire some public executioners”. Even from an actuarial point of view it is nonsense. The practical arrangements required to kill people are easy. In a world where much of the population don’t have access to good medical care, doctors have better things to do.

Secondly suicide is usually a pretty selfish act. It may relieve my actual or anticipated suffering, but at the expense of the grief of relatives. A six year old really doesn’t want to hear that Granny is dead by her own hand.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Wonderful quote

Lumumba (Kenyan anti-corruption activist) referring to President Obama:

“He’s not your typical Anglo-Saxon”

Monday, 15 June 2009

An Inconvenient Falsehood

A friend recently loaned me the DVD of “An Inconvenient Truth” featuring Al Gore, the politician-turned-environmentalist who was beaten to the White House by George Bush.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         The film was so full of half-truths that it is difficult to know where to  start. One example will suffice. Al Gore cited the drying up of lake Chad as a result of Climate Change. It so happens that I spent three months flying light aircraft around Lake Chad in 1978. This was right at the end of a period of global cooling that took place between (roughly) 1960 - 1980 The level of the lake had been falling for years. There is not the slightest evidence that this had anything whatsoever to do with climate change. It might, but it seems unlikely.

But Gore’s biggest error was the classical one beloved of politicians, and the media: he confuses a positive correlation with a causal relationship. The issue is not whether the climate is changing, nor whether Carbon Dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are increasing, nor whether mankind’s activities are putting out Carbon Dioxide.

The point at issue is the linkage between these observations. Has the carbon dioxide caused the warming, or has the warming caused the carbon dioxide? Or are they both related to something else like sunspots, cloud cover or factor X that we haven’t discovered yet?

There is no “safe side” to this argument. If mankind’s activities are indeed the cause of climate change then Gore’s conclusions are correct (even if his arguments aren’t) and we should be putting our energies into curbing emissions. But if they are not, then carbon capture, carbon trading and all the rest are a dreadful waste of money and energy that we should be putting into safe drinking water supplies, irrigation, storm warning systems and flood defences.

Monday, 8 June 2009

More Perverted Science…


The Guardian (19th May 2009) quoted Sir David Attenborough: this little creature is going to show our connection with all other mammals. Google changed it’s home page icon to reflect the find. On 21 May 2009, the Daily Mail trumpeted Scientists find the 'missing link': A 47million-year-old lemur that could revolutionise how we see human evolution.

But also on 21 May, the New Scientist published an article Why Ida fossil is not the missing link. On 24th May, the Times weighed in with Origin of the Specious: Ida the fossil was hailed as the ‘missing link’ in our evolution. Don’t believe the hype

Because it was hype. The early enthusiasm for the “missing link” idea was based on press releases and media rights rather than scholarly content and careful analysis. Ida was dug up in 1983 and reportedly one of the protagonists had bought her for a large sum of money – which he was presumably trying to recoup. She is an amazing fossil, but later and more sober assessment appears to have concluded that she adds almost nothing to our understanding of human evolution.

We can do without this kind of thing. If science is going to work at all it requires a critical mass of integrity. Once again, as with NASA climate change data, not only does that integrity appears to have been lacking, but also the perpetrators appear to have escaped any significant censorship

Friday, 24 April 2009

The lights of a Perverted Science



Sir Winston used the phrase in his “Finest Hour” speech: and now I have seen it in a respected free world organisation, and my heart quails.

There are four major sources publishing data on world temperatures: the Hadley Centre (UK),  NASA, UAH (University of Alabama, Huntsville) and RSS (Remote Sensing Systems of Santa Rosa). The Hadley, UAH and RSS data sets show temperature rise having more or less levelled out since 2000. The NASA dataset is radically different, suggesting a large and significant rise. This throws doubt on the NASA data.

It gets worse, much worse however. If you compare the NASA data published in 1999 with the NASA data published in 2009 for the same historical data they are substantially different: and different in a way which supports the climate change hypothesis.

It is fairly clear that NASA has been fiddling the books.

Forget the argument about climate change. This is a harbinger of  “a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of a perverted science”. Fiddling data is the unforgivable sin. If an organisation like NASA can get away with it, then the bedrock on which we have accumulated much of our knowledge of the world is breaking up, and all we have left is a fight between the loudest voices and the deepest pockets.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

A lovely day for Anoraks

I've just got back from the Battery Vehicle Society Spring conference. It was one of the best one day event of any kind that I have ever attended - a good number of speakers, very varied, but not a single dud amongst them. Appropriate venue, faultless organisation.

I struggle to pick a highlight but the most memorable bits included a chap who had invested about £40-grand in a ton and a half of Lithium Polymer batteries to put into his Berlingo Electrique to make a super - long-range EV. Others were seeing a real live Zebra battery, some supercapacitors and a talk from a chap designing a rover for a Mars mission. On coming back I joined the EV network - a database of EV charging points public and private (the latter available to other members). I was also encouraged to come across a couple of others who share my scepticism about man-made climate change