Live Long and Prosper

NimoyMr Spock, Leonard Nimoy, has been diagnosed with lung disease, at the age of 82. He says that he gave up smoking 30 years ago, in his fifties, say. Presumably, like many people, he’d started in his youth, so he probably had at least a 30-year smoking career.

But the statistics say that immediately you give up, your risk of smoking-related diseases starts to decline. By 82, Nimoy probably wasn’t much more likely to get chronic pulmonary obstructive disease than a lifelong non-smoker.

On the other hand, Nimoy has spent his entire life in Los Angeles, and that can’t be healthy. Here’s how I know.

I did part of my pilot training at Long Beach airport, in the greater LA conurbation. One morning, I got up and looked out the window, and the famous “Holywood” sign on the hillside was unusually clear and sharp.

I got in my plane, a Socata Tampico, and set off on a training flight eastward, over Anaheim and Corona, toward the rough, desert-like lands east of the mountains. And suddenly, visibility declined, as if I’d flown into a slight mist. A smear of greasy, yellow stuff began to collect on the front windshield and roll off upwards with the airflow.

I climbed up a few hundred feet into clear air. It was obvious what had happened. Weather conditions had temporarily blown the LA smog away from the city, and through the valley in the mountains where the Santa Ana river flows (and the Riverside freeway). The yellow gunge was what was going into the lungs of the city’s inhabitants every day.

Merchants of Death

Corporations have no morality. That’s not so much a flaw in capitalism as a fundamental part of it. Google, famously, had an unofficial motto “Don’t be evil.”, but obviously they didn’t mean it. Like all corporations, the limits of Google’s evil are “whatever we can get away with”.

Corporations are constrained to some degree, of course. There are international and national laws, there is the company’s reputation with its customers, and sometimes even the attitude of shareholders. Big corporations devote considerable resources to managing reputations and keeping within the law. (The letter of the law, not the spirit.)

The amount of effort and expense it takes to keep a corporate reputation the right side of acceptable must depend on how controversial are their business model and practices. I mean, an organic bean farm probably doesn’t really need to employ a public relations company, while a corporation which makes money from starving babies to death will be needing some help.

If you haven’t twigged yet, the latter corporations I’m referring to are those which sell “infant formula” milk, and the most notorious is Nestlé, based in Switzerland. The business model follows the old drug dealer scheme: give free samples so that the user becomes addicted, then make them pay. Really make them pay. In the case of milk, if a mother stops breastfeeding and uses the free gifts, then lactation stops and she is compelled to buy more supplies.

In poorer countries, mothers often can’t afford to buy enough formula to feed the baby adequately. The World Heath Organisation estimates that in some poorer countries most formula milk is over-diluted by a factor of three, and often with dirty water. Some babies survive, but are severely malnourished. Some die.

boycott nestleNestlé’s public relations people really have to earn their pay. They have been pursuing two separate strategies, the first being the classic “deny, deny, deny”. If the company is prosecuted for breaking the law in some country, say for bribing nurses or doctors with gifts, they’ll issue press releases with their own story, regardless of the findings of the court. Since news from Switzerland is more readily disseminated than court proceedings in Bangladesh (for example), the wider public may not hear the full story, ever.

The fallback strategy is to claim, or imply, that allegations are all in the past. “The Seventies” is a popular one. Back in the seventies, maybe some unrelated subcontractors did some stuff that we wouldn’t allow in these enlightened times, but everything is fine now. Everything is fine.

Everything is not fine. The campaign group Baby Milk Action documents current cases all over the world where milk formula companies break the law, or violate World Health Organisation standards, or just behave abominably. Nestlé is both the largest producer and most frequent subject of Baby Milk Action press releases, although competitor Danone is trying to catch up on both aspects.

In fact, Nestlé’s reputation is so rotten that the public at large are aware of the odour, not just meusli-eating activists. I know that bad publicity is still publicity, but Nestlé is one of the companies you probably wouldn’t want to associate your business with to give your customers a warm glow. You would think.

I can only imagine that people at Google were lacking due diligence when they selected Nestlé’s “KitKat” as the name of the next Android release, after a previous series of generic and uncontroversial titles. Either that, or someone said “Hey, check it out — they’re even more evil than us! We’ve got to go with this!”

More information: http://www.corporatewatch.org.uk/?lid=240

If It’s Free, You’re Not The Customer — You’re The Product

(Some) journalists are celebrating The Onion, the satirical web newspaper, becoming an incredible 25 years old. If you ever needed to give the lie to the myth that Americans don’t do irony, read The Onion.

Some articles and captions are funnier than others, but when they hit the mark, they hit it hard. One of the recent ones mentioned today was “Let Me Explain Why Miley Cyrus’s VMA Performance Was Our Top Story This Morning.”  — purportedly from the Managing Editor of CNN.com (purportedly a serious news website).

Spam advert You will read that article, I’m sure, but the gist of it is that web publishers don’t care about anything but clicks and views. As The Onion puts it, “All you are to us, and all you will ever be to us, are eyeballs. The more eyeballs on our content, the more cash we can ask for.”

The “cash” comes from advertisers, of course. Since they’re giving away their “news” for free, CNN.com pays for itself, and possibly even makes a profit, from selling ads. Likewise, Facebook is an advertising company. Google is an advertising company. Twitter is an advertising company. Even The Onion is an advertising company, I assume.

shoes advertI say “I assume”, because I’m not qualified to judge, given that I never see advertising on the internet. I don’t mean I ignore it; it literally doesn’t appear on my screen (or phone). Ever.

It’s pretty clear to me that the model the web advertising industry has in mind is that of television ads. You know, they interrupt your programmes and you don’t have any choice, but you put up with them in order to get the free television content. (Or, if you’re a Sky subscriber, the content you’re paying for.) I suppose the majority of, say, Facebook users think of the ads on their computer screen in exactly the same way, but, actually, the internet doesn’t work like that.

Marlbro advertA web page isn’t like a television programme, streaming from broadcaster to your box, with adverts inserted. A web page is more like a menu. Your computer is supposed to say “Yes, I’ll have That. And some of That. None of That. And hold the ads.” But, normally, it just orders everything on the menu. Though it doesn’t have to.

You might think that mighty technical wizardry must be required to stop the ads, or else everyone would be doing it, but it’s really very, very simple; and I don’t know why everyone isn’t doing it. The exact details depend on what your system and browser are (Linux and Firefox for me) but there’s a solution for every situation. You might do an internet search for “adblock”, or read the Wikipedia article  for more information.

Babycham advertThere was once an American television executive who claimed that viewers were “stealing from the company” if they skipped past adverts on recorded programmes. Am I being immoral by reading The Onion, without ever seeing their advertisers’ material? Certainly, if everyone started skipping the ads and the advertisers knew, The Onion would have to either go out of business or start charging for access.

Apple advertAnd similarly, every other web newspaper, forum, social site, media sharing, searching, storage, small ads — everything which offers a “free” service paid for by advertising. (eBay would survive, because they already have a business model which involves (gasp) charging fees.)

It would be a huge change to the spirit of the internet — people are used to getting stuff for free — and surely there would be resistance. Certainly, the sites which have changed to a payment model, such as The Times newspaper, have struggled to achieve profitability, although in an ad-free world, The Times might not be competing against free news of the quality and quantity that exists today.

I think the positives outweigh the negatives. CNN.com wouldn’t have to lead with Miley Cyrus. (Maybe. Today’s Times paid-for web issue has Ms Cyrus on the front page.) The replacements for Facebook and Google wouldn’t have to be so creepy about collecting personal information to sell. You would have a legal right to get the service you pay for. Oh, and a lot of advertising executives would be out of work. Surely that’s an upside.

The Greater Good

You might have heard of the set of imaginary scenarios which have been developed to explore people’s moral choices. One version, on the PBS website, gives you the chance to make interactive life or death decisions about tiny people. [http://www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know/wp-content/interactives/psychQuiz4/quiz.php]

For example, we are presented with a runaway train, about to crash into four unfortunates trapped on the track. We would like to save them by diverting the train onto a spur, but what if there was one person trapped on that track? Divert or not?

lego railway pointsThere’s a general consensus in how people respond to the various scenarios. Most people’s instinctive approach is that doing harm in order to do good can be justified if in some sense the harm is not “intentional”. For example, the majority say that they would divert the train in the first scenario, killing one to save four; but most refuse a modified sequence in which you have to deliberately toss someone onto the track to stop the train. (Second one in the PBS quiz.)

If I have a moral philosophy of life, it would be “Utilitarianism”, described by Jeremy Bentham, one of its earliest proponents, as “the greatest happiness principle”. Actually, terms like “happiness” and “pleasure” have tended to obscure the true concept of utilitarianism, leading many people, even distinguished philosophers, to condemn it for being something that it isn’t.

For example, you might think that a utilitarian idea of the greatest good for the greatest number would make the decision to chuck the fat guy in front of the train a no-brainer. One dead, four saved. But that’s too narrow a view. It ignores the fact that “you” in the scenario would have to do a dreadful, evil thing: deliberately killing a person. You might still decide that it was the least worst option, but that’s how I look at utilitarianism: a framework for thinking about moral choices, not a system of absolutes.

(At around the same period as Bentham, Immanuel Kant was arguing for the “categorical imperative”, in which you must always “do the right thing”, regardless of the consequences. It’s a concept of moral absolutism which I dislike very much. Consequences are important.)

These thoughts and theories came to mind when I heard on the news that the attempt to rescue the two terrorist captives (one British, one Italian) in Nigeria had resulted in their deaths. Perhaps untypically for a bleeding-heart liberal, I think that such military operations are morally justified. I’m not sure I believe the official line that the captives’ lives were in imminent danger, forcing the attack. That sounds a lot like retrospective justification for an operation that went wrong.

But, for the greater good, mounting the operation was the correct decision, even with a known risk that it might go wrong. It has been said that there was a difference in approach between the Italian authorities and the British, in that the Italians would have preferred to pay a ransom. The consequence of that attitude is that Italian civilians become valuable to terrorists, putting further innocent lives at risk. Like the man controlling the railway points, I think it’s consequences which count, not principles.

Money, Money, Money. It’s a rich man’s world.

euro coinsThere’s discussion in the news now about the potential for Greece to be forced out of the Euro currency union, perhaps even the total collapse of the system. But if it happens, it wouldn’t be the first time.

In 1865, several European nations established the Latin Monetary Union, which was an agreement to standardise their currencies and make them interchangeable. By 1868, the Union included France, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Greece, Romania, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Venezuela, Serbia, Montenegro, San Marino and the Papal States. (Although the Papal States were soon kicked out for issuing a large quantity of debased silver coins. Nobody ended up hanging from a bridge though.)

The British Government considered joining. It would have required reducing the gold content of a Sovereign by 1% to make a Pound exactly equal to 25 Francs; and then decimalising the subdivision of the Pound. Perhaps they’d have called them “cents” or maybe “new pence”. The United States very nearly became a member, standardising its currency in 1873 to match the Latin Union’s rules, including the issue of a new silver 20c coin, which was exactly equal in silver content to 1 Franc. (So if Britain and the USA had joined, a Pound would have been fixed equal to 5 Dollars.)

But neither Britain nor the USA joined the Monetary Union, and eventually the diverging economies of the member states made it impossible to maintain the fixed exchange rates on which the system depended. The Union was inoperative long before it was formally dissolved in 1927. Part of the establishment of the Euro in 1999 was a set of rules to ensure that the members’ economies remain in step, but in the event, the rules weren’t rigorously applied when Greece and other countries with less robust economies were allowed to join. (Also, it appears now that Greece had been submitting fraudulent national accounts to the EU for years.)

Interestingly, the UK’s economy has consistently met all the required criteria for membership since 1997, but no British government has ever had the confidence to join. There has always been public resistance to the Euro in the UK, and a strong emotional attachment to the current currency system, which has been in place since time immemorial (1971).

But even as a non-member, a collapse of the Euro would affect the UK. A recent bullish estimate by a “think-tank” (i.e. self-appointed pundits) suggests that it would “only” hit GDP growth by -0.5%, which would currently take growth negative. That’s bad enough, but that’s the optimistic forecast. Even the UK’s Chancellor understands the dangers, putting him and his party in the difficult political position of having to take action to defend the Euro monetary union while many party members and supporters fantasise about disconnecting Britain from Europe.

In terms of the national “deficit”, the gap between government spend and income, only Ireland and Greece do worse than the UK (the cuts aren’t working), although the UK’s total debt is close to the EU average when compared to GDP. But that’s not a great position to be in to take the impact of a failed Euro. Fingers crossed, eh?

In The Big House On The Hill

Parliament Buildings, StormontThere were two local news items today that I felt I needed to challenge. First, it’s reported that Continental Airlines may be given an exemption on Air Passenger Duty for their direct service between Belfast and the USA.

The airline has been playing out a publicity campaign over the past few months about the loss-making route, claiming that the entire reason for its failure to break even was the “green” passenger tax. The local press have taken to simply repeating this assertion, even though no evidence is ever presented to support it, and local politicians have fallen — hook, line, sinker and a copy of the Angling Times — for the scam and have called upon the Chancellor to intervene. Successfully it seems.

So let’s call a spade a spade. It’s a public subsidy to an American airline to keep an unprofitable route running — without commitment, for an unidentified period of time — all for reasons of local vanity. There are many alternative transatlantic services departing every day from a larger airport under a hundred miles away: Dublin. The argument that a direct flight is an asset to promoting investment is ludicrous. Would it increase international investment in, say, Sheffield, if there was a subsidised direct transatlantic flight, given that there are regular services from Manchester? Sheffield, of course, doesn’t have a “power-sharing executive”.

The second item in the news which caught my eye was a proposal by the Environment Minister in the “power-sharing executive” to drop the blood alcohol limit for drivers from 80mg per 100l to 50mg, in line with several other European countries.

To justify this headline-grabbing suggestion, the Minister points out that over the last five years, 75 people have been killed in accidents where the driver was impaired by drink or drugs*. Well, that’s all very sad, but it’s a statistic that has no relevance whatsoever to the issue under discussion. How many of those drivers were way over the current limit? How many would have been taken off the road if the limit had been lower? We simply have no idea. It’s a useless statistic, so either the Minister is seeking to deliberately mislead, or just doesn’t have a clue. (He was once my parents’ solicitor. From their experiences, I suspect the latter.)

The blood alcohol limit could be set to any figure you cared to invent, without making the slightest impact on the safety of the roads, because the real deficiency is enforcement, not measurement. I often drive between Belfast and home in the post-midnight hours, with part of the route on our principal motorway, and the number of police vehicles I see is usually zero. In fact, over the years, I’d say I had seen more suspect drivers (driving unusually slowly, for example) than police cars at night.

To be fair, one of the Minister’s other suggestions is to give police the power to stop any driver for alcohol testing, without requiring “due cause” for suspicion. There have been special campaigns authorized on this basis during several past Christmas holiday seasons, with enough additional convictions to suggest that it could be a useful measure. However, again, the Christmas campaigns have featured a much higher number of patrols and checkpoints, so we’re back at enforcement again. But putting police on the streets costs money, while fiddling with the numbers in the legislation doesn’t.

Taking both news stories together, you could come to the conclusion that those in government in Northern Ireland are lacking in analytical faculties, but keen to jump on any passing bandwagon that might promise public approval. And I would ask “Is it any different anywhere else in the world?”

*Incidentally, 75 deaths over 5 years is only about 7% or so of the total number of road accident deaths.

Let England Shrug

PJ HarveyI’ve been a fan of PJ Harvey’s music ever since hearing the first John Peel Session in 1991, almost exactly 20 years ago. I bought the first album, “Dry”, released early the following year, and every subsequent one, up to “Uh Huh Her” in 2004. The next one, released after a long, three-year gap, was “White Chalk”, and I didn’t buy it. The music just didn’t move me.

I was OK with that. Creative musicians must change and evolve, and if Harvey’s path had diverged from mine, that was just proof that she was still moving, unlike many successful musicians whose music fossilizes into a pale recreation of their glory days. I wished her well.

There was an even longer pause before the release of the most recent album, “Let England Shake”, and again, it was very different: more change and evolution. This time, I didn’t dislike it. Nor like it. I just didn’t know. The music is complex in a way, although not “difficult”, like, say, some off-the-wall jazz might be. The themes in the lyrics include the horrors of war and the contradictions of nationalism: a serious work.

I bought the album, but I confess that it wasn’t because I’d made my mind up that I needed it. It was on special offer at HMV. I brought it home and listened to it straight through three times, and still couldn’t decide. It was rich, complicated, passionate and full of musical creativity. Maybe too much so for my primitive music brain, but in the long run, I think the recording might come to mean a lot to me.

Anyway, if you haven’t heard, last night the album was awarded the Mercury Prize for best British (Isles) album of the past year. So that’s settled then.

Excuse me for my sarcasm. Unlike the confusion I have about the album, I have no problem at all deciding what I think of the Mercury Prize. It’s a worthless sham, a scam perpetrated on the music-listening public. The very concept of a “best” album is ludicrous — completely indefensible by any standard of logic.

The Prize was set up in 1992 by the British Phonographic Industry and British Association of Record Dealers with the objective of boosting music sales in the slack Summer months. The MD of the Virgin Records chain got sponsorship from the Mercury telecommunications company (since defunct), and the prize was named in their honour. The name has been retained, even though sponsorship has changed four times. Barclaycard has been the source of funding since 2009.

The objective of stimulating sales may or may not work. Certainly, the sales of shortlisted albums increase, particularly if they aren’t by already-successful artists. But I wonder if it’s not a zero-sum game, with sales increases matched by decreases elsewhere. There’s no way to tell from the stats. Notoriously, the award of the prize itself is no guarantee of major sales. While sales of last year’s chosen album, “xx” by The xx, went through the roof (going platinum), the previous year, Speech Debelle’s “Speech Therapy” performed conspicuously badly in the shops.

Nomination for the prize or even receiving it, is likewise not a ticket to stardom — in many cases, more like an invitation to file under “Where are they now?” In fact, as a general rule, the only bands or artists who come out unscathed are those who are already established, with a solid track record. Others have disappeared into the pages of music history without raising a ripple. I won’t give you a list because you won’t remember them.

I’ve deliberately avoided using the word “win” in relation to the prize, because you don’t “win” it. You win a race by going to the starting line, and struggling to defeat the other competitors. That’s not how the Mercury Prize works. It’s awarded by a panel of judges, on the basis of work that would have been done anyway. It’s like deciding to give a “prize” to Michelangelo for “best sculpture of the last 500 years”. Nice work, Mike. Well done.

And who are these judges? Well, it’s a secret. Only the panel’s chairman is named publicly, and it’s been the same man since the start, Simon Frith, former rock journalist, and now an academic of the sociology of music. Those known to have served as judges include composer Charles Hazelwood, media person Lauren Laverne, BBC R1 executive George Ergatoudis, R3 presenter Robert Sandall, and music writers such as Conor McNicholas (NME) and Jude Rogers (Guardian). I have no problem with such a list and quite happy to accept that the people on it are knowledgeable and ethusiastic about music. But I don’t care much what they think, and I don’t see how they can decide what is the “best” album of the year. It’s a meaningless concept.

I described the award as a “scam”, and I mean it. Think about it — why is the award “prestigious” and “important”? Because they say it is; that’s all. With the sponsorship money behind it to pay for a big event and full-time publicity staff, the prize gets in the news. Lots of press releases. Jounalists love press releases: they save so much hard thinking when you can just paste them verbatim into your articles. (I’ve had my own words in print so many times, and with so many different bylines.)

You know, I can’t even honestly say I’m glad that PJ Harvey was given the Mercury Prize this year. I suppose it’s nice for her, but I actually just don’t care. It’s a non-event. Full of sound and fury, signifying… nothing.