Who was Millicent Fawcett?

April 24th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

It’s great that today we saw the unveiling of the first statute of a woman in London’s Parliament Square where there has previously only been statues of men (11 of them). The new statute is of Millicent Fawcett – but who exactly was she?

She was a campaigner for the right of women to vote, but she was a suffragist rather than a suffragette, favouring peaceful means of campaigning. You can read more about her statue and her life here.

Posted in British current affairs, History | Comments (0)

Liberal Democrat leader calls for tech giants to be broken up

April 24th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable has called for Google, Amazon and Facebook to be broken up, comparing them to US oil monopolies that exploited their market power more than a century ago.

In an under-reported speech, Cable said recent scandals including the Facebook Cambridge Analytica revelations meant the tech giants had “progressed from heroes to villains very quickly”. He said: “Just as Standard Oil once cornered 85% of the refined oil market, today Google drives 89% of internet searches, 95% of young adults on the internet use a Facebook product, Amazon accounts for 75% of ebook sales, while Google and Apple combined provide 99% of mobile operating systems.”

Cable raised four concerns: the use of platforms such as YouTube “as a conduit for content which society regards as unacceptable”; the systematic spread of fake news; the firms’ sheer size, making them “a barrier rather than a boon to entrepreneurship”, and the inability of tax authorities to force them to pay their fair share. He called for mergers to be more closely scrutinised and for authorities to break up firms that exploit their dominance to harm consumers.

You can read the full speech here.

Posted in Consumer matters, Internet | Comments (0)

Why is the death penalty still in force in the United States and why is its use there in decline?

April 22nd, 2018 by Roger Darlington

I’m currently reading a fascinating book called “Enlightenment Now” by the American professor of psychology Steven Pinker. In the chapter on Democracy, he explores the odd position of the United States in relation to the use of capital punishment.

Over 100 countries have now abolished the use of the death penalty (including all European nations except Belarus) and, while some 90 countries retain the penalty in their law, most have not put anyone to death in at least a decade.

However, the USA is in the top five for the countries that still execute its citizens, together with China and Iran (which kill more than 1,000 annually) plus Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Why is this?

Pinker points out that in the USA, “other than for a few federal crimes like terrorism and treason, the death penalty is decided upon by individual states, voted on by legislators who are close to their constituents, and in many states sought and approved by prosecutors and judges who have to stand for reelection”. As he puts it: “The reason the United States is a death penalty outlier is that it is, in one sense, too democratic.”

However, Pinker explains that seven states have repealed the death penalty in the past decade, an additional 16 have moratoria, and 30 have not executed anyone in five years. He provides a list of reasons why, in his view, “The American death penalty is not so much being abolished as falling part, piece by piece.” Indeed he believes that worldwide “today the death penalty is on death row”.

I hope he is right.

Posted in American current affairs | Comments (0)

A review of “Our Digital Future” by William Webb (2017)

April 20th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

This attempt, by a British professor who has worked for Ofcom and now runs his own consultancy, to predict the future in 10, 20 and 30 years time has three characteristics to commend it: it is short (just 120 pages), it is accessible (no specialist knowledge required), and it is eminently balanced (no over-optimism). The structure of the book is to start by looking at a dozen possible key enablers, then considering specific impacts in the home, workplace, travel, leisure and public services, and finally pulling together predictions for the world in 2027, 2037, and 2047.

For Webb, the key enablers will be the Internet of Things (IoT), augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI) with useful advances in big data and robotics and autonomous vehicles as somewhat important. He notes that: “Most of these enablers are associated with business rather than the individual. Hence the change noticed by the individual may be relatively small compared to the change of the last 30 years.” Perhaps surprisingly, he believers that previous key enablers such as the Internet and broadband communications “have reached a point where they are not enabling anything new and so are unlikely to drive further innovation”.

Looking back over the last 10, 20 and 30 years, he identifies a special event in each decade: respectively the iPhone, the Internet and the mobile phone. Looking forward 10, 20 and 30 years, he anticipates that again there could be a special event in each decade and speculates that these will be respectively IoT, AI, and robotics. Interestingly – the book was written before the Congressional hearings with Mark Zuckerburg – he comments: “I would not be surprised if Facebook no longer existed 20 years hence, although there will be other social media platforms to take its place”. Presciently he writes: “Society may become ever-more concerned about changes wrought by digital and there may be some push-back.”

So how will different sectors change? The office will see widespread deployment of IoT, biometrics and robotics. Transport will not change materially but we will be better connected while travelling and there will be a gradual growth of driverless vehicles. Vehicle maintenance may decline. Agriculture and manufacturing will make extensive use of IoT. Retail will continue to decline. Construction and hospitality will witness little change.

Web concludes soberly: “In essence, the key gains will be in convenience, productivity and reliability. The world will be a similar place to today, but will work better.” He acknowledges: “This will strike many as pessimistic when others talk of flying cars, cyborgs and AI that is superior to humans. I would suggest that it is pragmatic realism.”

Full disclosure:  I currently serve with William Web on the 4G/TV Co-existence Oversight Board

Posted in Science & technology | Comments (0)

The story of German scientists Fritz Haber and Clara Immerwahr and why the use of poison gas should remain a taboo

April 19th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

At about 5pm on 22 April 1915, French and Algerian troops on the Ypres front in Belgium noticed a lull in the German artillery fire that had been targeting their lines. Bracing themselves for an expected infantry advance, they were puzzled instead to observe a greenish-yellow cloud drifting towards them, then lapping over the tops of the trenches.

A Canadian soldier, AT Hunter, who witnessed what was the first use of chlorine gas in war, described a “passive curiosity turned to active torment – a burning sensation in the head, red-hot needles in the lungs, the throat seized as by a strangler. Many fell and died on the spot. The others, gasping, stumbling with faces contorted, hands wildly gesticulating, and uttering hoarse cries of pain, fled madly through the villages and farms and through Ypres itself, carrying panic to the remnants of the civilian population.”

This is the opening to an article in today’s “Guardian” which explains how a German Jew was behind the first use of gas in war, how his wife committed suicide, and why we should still treat the use of poison gas in war as especially abhorrent.

Posted in History | Comments (1)

British political institutions (2): the legislature (and how Berwick might be at war with Russia)

April 18th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

I like to attend short courses at the City Literary Institute in central London and I’m now doing a six-week course on “British Political Institutions”.  The second session of the course was delivered by the City Lit’s Director Mark Malcolmson and covered the legislature, that is the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the residual role of the monarch.

I have myself written a guide to the British political system and you can read about the legislature or parliament here.

In the course of the lecture, we talked about the odd history of what is now the United Kingdom and reference was made to an issue that was new to me: the idea that Berwick-upon-Tweed might still be a war with Russia.

It seems that, thanks to a bureaucratic mistake, all 12,000 residents of Berwick were excluded from the 1856 peace treaty between Russia and England that Queen Victoria announced at the end of the Crimean War.

This omission was made possible by a 1502 treaty between England and Scotland that succeeded in ending hundreds of years of land arguments over the tiny border town which had already switched sides 13 times.

You can read more about this fascinating vignette here.

Posted in British current affairs | Comments (0)

Is the state of the world really as bad as we think?

April 16th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

I’m currently reading a fascinating book titled “Enlightenment Now” written by the American professor of psychology Steven Pinker. The theme of the work is that, if you follow the trend lines rather than the headlines, you will see that we are making spectacular progress on every measure of human well-being. But most people don’t know this or don’t believe it. Why?

Much of the misunderstanding is because of something called the availability heuristic. This is the phenomenon whereby people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind.

In this respect, we are massively influenced by the news on the media. But news is about things that happen, not about things that don’t happen. And, among things that do happen, the positive and negative ones unfold on different time lines.

So, for instance, people vastly overrate the chance of a terrorist attack, because most such attacks are reported, compared to the chance of a car accident, because most such accidents – even those involving deaths – are not reported.

There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the state of the world, but Pinker provides compelling data for why humankind is so much better off in terms of everything from longevity to health to peace than at any time in human history.

Posted in World current affairs | Comments (0)

A review of the new film “Isle Of Dogs”

April 15th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

If you live in London (as I do), then the Isle of Dogs is a former area of dockland bounded by a major meander in the River Thames. In this case of this move, however, it is a fictional island opposite the Japanese metropolis of Megasaki City headed by a cruel mayor who expels all dogs from the city to the island on the ground that they are a health threat to local citizens. It’s not difficult to see this as a liberal-minded allegory for how we threat any group in society which is seen as different.

But this is not an overtly political film because of its utterly whimsical style – after all, this is a work directed and written by Wes Anderson who never does things conventionally and whose last production was the wonderful “The Grand Budapest Hotel”. This time – as with his earlier “Fantastic Mr Fox” – the whole thing is a beautifully-rendered stop-motion animation with some striking visuals but, in spite of the certification and the involvement of a 12 year old pilot, this is not a children’s film. It is just too quirky, with all the references to Japanese culture (including exciting taiko drumming) and the use of Japanese language (not always translated).

The speaking cast is simply incredible with a dozen well-known actors voicing the different dogs, including Bryan Cranstan, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, and Jeff Goldblum plus (in smaller roles) Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton. Some scenes seem random and unexplained, but the whole thing is so charming and enjoyable that it doesn’t need to make complete sense to be an unusual delight of a movie.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

A review of the new movie “Ready Player One”

April 13th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

The much anticipated and hugely hyped latest directorial offering from cinematic wunderkind Steven Spielberg is visually stunning, set substantially in a fantastical virtual world of 2045 called the OASIS. An early visit to the OASIS involves a race and the experience is genuinely thrilling. The movie is also visually rich with an unbelievable number of allusions to (mainly 1970s and 1980s) pop culture – by some estimates around 300 so-called Easter eggs. It seems that every scene, every wall, every item of clothing features some (often subtle, even opaque) reference.

This is an enormous artifice to place on the shoulders of a largely young and under-known cast, notably Tye Sheridan as Parzival/Wade and Olivia Cooke as Art3mis/Samantha and the only stars in the work are British actors Mark Rylance and Simon Pegg who are hardly recognisable in their roles. Above all, this is a film which needs a more engaging plot as the discovery of three keys is just so, well, like a video game.

The problem could be that I’m not in the demographic at whom the movie is pitched and with whom it is doing so well: I’ve never played a video game and a lot of the pop culture appearances simply passed me by (for instance, I haven’t see “The Shining” and don’t want to). The clue is in the source material, since the movie is based on a young adult novel by Ernest Cline. But I acknowledge that for many cinemagoers – especially younger ones – “Ready Player One” is going to be a smash that will need to be seen several times.

Posted in Cultural issues | Comments (0)

The government’s recognised markets aren’t working — now it’s time to fix them

April 12th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

This is the headline of a blog posting by Citizens Advice about the Government’s Consumer Green Paper published this week.

Citizens Advice highlights four issues especially:

  • Consulting on creating an independent consumer advocate for telecoms. Telecoms is increasingly critical to our lives and our economy and yet — unlike all other essential markets — there’s no statutory independent advocate. We look forward to the government taking necessary steps to address this.
  • Developing scorecards for suppliers in essential markets to hold them to account for outcomes, and name and shame poor performers.
  • Giving the Competition and Markets Authority a new direction, signalling a shift in what good markets look like. The government wants to see them focus more on protecting consumers, incorporate behavioural economics and help fix the country’s productivity crisis.
  • Considering new standards for how people with mental health conditions and cognitive impairments are served in essential markets.

Posted in Consumer matters | Comments (0)