The descendants of Abraham

I saw an interview with Ahmed Benzizine, a muslim stone mason who has spent much of his life restoring a cathedral in Lyon.  He has been commemorated by a gargoyle in his image on the outside of the Cathedral.

Ahmed Benzizine and the Gargoyle made in his image.

Ahmed Benzizine and the Gargoyle made in his image.

The Gargoyle has the inscription God is Great in French and Arabic – “Dieu est grand, Allahu akbar.”   Mr Benizine was asked to respond to the objections, that there have been, from some right-wing groups.  He replied that people who objected knew nothing about the history of religion, that Muslims, Christians and Jews are all the descendants of Abraham, that there is only one God, and originally there was only one religion but that has now split into three, but that, he said, is another story!  I think at a time where so much is said based on hate and ignorance that the tolerance, dignity and wisdom of this simple working man humbles many of today’s political leaders?

Posted in Religion, Tolerance | 3 Comments

When did Democracy become a dirty word?

There has been quite a lot of interest recently in the re-writing of American history in Texas by the Christian Conservatives who have come to dominate the education board. Christian Conservatives, claim to be against the power of the state and taxation. In practice, though, they seem to have no problem in using the power of the state and taxpayers money to indoctrinate children with their ideology by rewriting history and science text books in a way that would have made Stalin blush. They see it as their chance to make “corrections” to a history that has been written by the Liberal Left. As Cynthia Dunbar (chair of the Board of Education) puts it:

“We wanted to make sure … there was a patriotic position promoted, because America, after all, is still the greatest nation on Earth.”

Much has been made of their overturning of what Dunbar calls “the myth of the separation of church and state” which may have been supposed to be fundamental to the American constitution but does seem to be a rather obvious target for Christian Conservatives? No big surprise there? What did surprise me though was one of the changes that has not had nearly as much media attention:

“use of the term ‘constitutional republic’ rather than ‘democratic’ or ‘representative democracy’ in reference to the U.S. form of government”

Eh? Did I miss something? When did the description of the USA as a Democracy become a dangerous left wing distortion of history that needs to be “corrected”? When did democracy become a dirty word? What’s that all about?

In Scotland, 1820 a flurry of disorderly events known as the Radical War culminated in a small group marching towards an ironworks in order to arm themselves. So confident were they that they were going to overthrow the existing state that they stopped at a tavern for lunch and asked for a receipt in order to reclaim their expenses from the new government! In the event they were attacked by a company of the Kings Hussars and their leaders were hung.

These “radicals” were not the usual mob of the time, they were artisans (weavers, smiths and wrights – an aspiring middle class) they were small business men, self employed and working to commission they had found time to read and educate themselves and discuss the issues of the day. The radical ideas of Thomas Paine and the French and American Revolutions. They found that their aspirations, and the hopes of the age, were being thwarted and held back by the basically feudal state that still governed society. In Scotland at the time, although the UK was already claiming to be a democracy, only 1 in 250 had the right to vote. The slogan of the radicals was – “No Kings, No Lords, No taxes”.

How things change? 200 years later the UK still has an unelected head of state, till recently the First Secretary of State, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, President of the Board of Trade and Lord President of the Council (all one person) was Lord Mandelson, an unelected “Socialist” Lord who has said that he is “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” and taxes are still very much with us, indeed they have become far higher than the Radicals could ever have imagined.

There’s one bit of good news though? Pretty much every adult now has a say in how the state is run. This is surely one thing that nobody would dispute represents progress in the last 200 years? Well it would seem not.

A quick search on the internet reveals that there is quite a body of people who believe that Democracy is little better than Dictatorship. A fairly typical example of the Anti-Democratic argument is one made by Alexander Marriott in Capitalism Magazine

“If 70% of voters vote to ban gay marriage, does that make it right? If 51% of voters vote to ban smoking, does that make it right? If 99.99% vote to redistribute property, does that make it right? The answer to all of these is “NO!” absolutely not. Truth isn’t determined by how many adherents one can get to go along with you. This is why democracy should be fought off wherever it shows its ugly face”

Marriott argues that in America the founding fathers sought to protect the Nation from the “ugly face” of Democracy by limiting the power of the state (whatever the people might want) by charter (a constitutional republic).

If you accept that there are indeed “right” answers to Marriott’s examples then of course he is correct in stating that “truth” is not determined by what the majority want. So if the majority doesn’t decide the truth then who does decide. This question seems to be answered in four ways by Anti-Democrats

  1. By a strong leader
  2. By God
  3. By Clever chaps
  4. The state has no business deciding the truth in “private interactions”.

1. The Strong Leader
This answer, in various forms, was responsible for most of the misery of the last century and nobody is that impressed by that version of Anti-Democracy these days. The other answers are more of a threat to Democracy these days and are being taken very seriously by a growing number of people.

2. By God
It seems pretty clear from a short perusal of Dunbar’s “One Nation under God: How the Left Is Trying to Erase What Made Us Great” that it is God, not man, that decides what is true and that was, in her opinion, the original intention of the founding fathers. The Texas curriculum now gives emphasis to the Mayflower Compact to instill the idea of America being founded as a Christian fundamentalist nation. The constitution should have placed God at the heart of Law, Government and Human Rights but was rewritten by dangerous liberal lefties like Thomas Jefferson. First you “correct” history then you “correct” the constitution. The resulting “correction” might look somewhat less “liberal” than “The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran” which although it vests sovereignty with God in articles 1 and 2 also mandates popular elections for the Presidency and Parliament in article 6.

The trouble with letting god decide what is the “truth” is which of God’s many representatives on Earth do you put your faith in?

3. By Clever Chaps
This version of Anti-Democracy is currently being touted by a surprising group of people – Environmentalists. Prof James Lovelock a stalwart of the Environmental movement who developed the theory of Gaia makes the case in a recent article in the Guardian that the actions that need to be taken to reverse Global Warming are so extreme that it is not possible for them to take place in a Democracy. Nobody is going to voluntarily give up their cars, flights and non-seasonal fruit and veg they are going to have to be forced. As Lovelock puts it:

“Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.”

The trouble though with letting clever chaps decide what the “truth” is – which clever chap do you put your faith in? As they don’t all agree with each other. Global Warming being a good example as the recent leak of e-mails in the UAE demonstrates.

4. The state has no business deciding the truth in “private interactions”.
This version of Anti-Democracy is also becoming more popular of late although the libertarians who espouse it often climb into bed with the Christian Conservatives, for some reason, their argument is more sophisticated and seems at first to be the opposite of the authoritarianism of the Christian Conservatives. A good example of this argument is the Position of Rand Paul the Tea Party activist and Republican nominee for Kentucky. He has argued that Civil Rights should not apply to private interactions. In other words if the owner of a private business wants to refuse service to blacks or gays or anyone else that’s up to them.

The trouble with Paul’s argument is that the state cannot realistically stay out of such “private interactions”? Say a very drunk person enters a bar, the owner thinks he has had enough and refuses to serve them. The drunk person refuses to leave and demands to be served, what happens? The state recognises the right of the bar owner to refuse service, in this case, so he can call the police and the drunk person can be removed, by force if necessary.

Say a black person enters a bar and is refused service but refuses to leave and demands a drink, what happens? Before the Civil Rights Act the State recognised the right of the bar owner to refuse service to the black person he could call the police and the black person could be removed, by force if necessary. If you follow Paul’s logic that the state has no business interfering in this “private interaction”, then the owner of the bar and the black person have to sort this out themselves! Oh and the owner of the bar would not be able to call the police to have the drunk person removed either?

So it turns out that libertarians do not actually think the State should stay out of private interactions, they think that in cases like this property rights should take precedence over an individuals rights. In other words it is the business of the state to defend the rights of the owner of property to do what he likes with his own property, by force if necessary, even if in so doing you are are denying an individual his rights. It’s an interesting position for people that claim to believe in individualism and to be against the power of the State to take.

The other problem with libertarian arguments against democracy is that when they are combined with the argument that taxation is robbery with violence (which they usually are) it is possible to portray the democratic state as a tyrannical dictatorship and legitimise it’s violent overthrow if you don’t like what the majority have voted for.

When Timothy McVeigh bombed a Federal building in Oklahoma killing 168 people including 19 children under the age of 6 he thought that his action would inspire a revolt against what he saw as a tyrannical regime which had used deadly force to collect taxes, incurred under the National Firearms Act, in Waco.

Timothy McVeigh’s actions may have been more extreme than the actions of most libertarians but his anti-democratic ideology is not.

So where does that leave us? Well for me I have to agree with Winston Churchill that Democracy is still the very worst form of government, apart from all the others!

Posted in Democracy, Libertarianism | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Informed Consent?

Imagine one day that you get a phone call.  It’s from your son; you can barely make out what he is saying because he is so distressed.  He tells you that some people have taken him away from his Mum.  You ask him, where he is? He doesn’t know.  He runs out of credit, it’s an international call, and his phone goes dead.  With a feeling of panic and the taste sick in the back of your throat you realize that you don’t know your own son’s mobile number!

Sounds like a parent’s worst nightmare? 

That happened to me! 

What if I tell you that my son was taken into care at the request of his mother, that we are separated and I live in a different country?  Apparently if the primary care giver, in this case his mother, decides to put a child in care it is neither necessary nor required to inform the father.  Does that make it OK?

I studied Sociology at University, several members of my family and several of my friends work in the caring professions.  I would say that I have, for most of my life, been on the side of Social Workers and felt that they are in difficult situation dammed if they intervene when it is not necessary and dammed if they fail to intervene.  I still think that on the whole, but this one encounter that I have had on the receiving end of Social Workers plunged me into a Kafkaesque experience that has without doubt been the most traumatic experience of my life.  More traumatic than the death of my mother, at an early age, more traumatic than when my first wife left me, taking my 2 year old son with her  to go and live with another man in a different country!  

I feel quite emotional writing this. I haven’t talked to many people about the experience, now I am writing about it on the internet, go figure!

It was traumatic for me I can’t believe how traumatic it must have been for my son?  I will go to my grave feeling guilty that I didn’t do more to help my son when he really needed my help! My son has Autistic Spectrum Disorder – small changes in routine and new environments are incredibly stressful for him.  I can’t emphasise this enough, they are very, very, very stressful for him!   I can’t begin to imagine how traumatic this experience was for him!

As I say my son is on the functional end of the Autistic Spectrum he has many qualities, he is normally sweet natured (more so than most kids I would say) but he finds social interaction difficult in a way that we really can’t conceive.  It is common for kids with Autistic Spectrum Disorder to find puberty difficult.  Who didn’t find puberty difficult?  At about the age of 14 he started to take his frustrations out on his Mum he’s a big lad, even at 14 he was bigger and stronger than his mum.  She was finding it difficult to cope.  We looked into having him come to stay with us but the local school said that they could not deal with special needs and I felt it would be a lot for my wife to take on and the burden would have fallen on her as I would have been at work all day.  I knew that there was a meeting that day I thought that it was to discuss my sons “educational needs”.  The upshot of that meeting was that it was decided that my son should be taken into voluntary care “for the safety of himself and his mother”! 

 I was surprised by people’s reactions, friends and family members who’s opinions I respect suggested that this might be a good thing!  Let the professionals deal with the “problem”.  The first place that my son was placed in was a lovely place, I went to visit him there, not far from his Mum and he was allowed to take his dog!  My son loves animals. I have nothing but admiration for the staff that I met. I felt reassured. Whilst he was there however there was an incident where a much younger kid was taunting him and feeding his dog plastic, finally my son snapped and picked up the kid and shook him.  This incident happened in the presence of a care assistant.  The police were called and my son was charged with assault.  The police made a referral to the children’s reporter.  Nothing even remotely like this ever happened whilst my son was in the care of his mother!

My son was then placed in a home for kids with behavioural  problems.  The day he was placed I received a phone call from my ex-wife, she was more upset than I have ever known her, she said it was a horrible place, locks on the doors, they practice something called “pin down”, where a child displaying, undesirable behavior, can be physically held down, by one or more people, until the undesirable behavior stops!  This may or may not be an appropriate placement for kids with behavioural problems but it is not an appropriate placement for an autistic child!

I phoned Social Services – I had a conversation with the manager who took an aggressively confrontational tone, from the start, she only talked about my son’s behavior, never once referring to his needs.  I got the impression that she felt that I was refusing to accept what a threat my son was to society she ended by saying “sorry to be harsh”! I asked why she would feel the need to be “harsh”  when I just phoned up to get information about my son’s case?  She didn’t really answer that.  One thing she did say that gave me pause for thought  – She explained that whilst my son was currently in voluntary care if we were to take him out of care they could apply for a compulsory care order, in other words we would  loose our right to have a say in what happens  to our own son! “You don’t want to go down that road” she said. She was right no I didn’t!

Whilst my son was in this place my ex-wife after a journey of 5 hours and the expense of bed and breakfast accommodation for a weekend visit was not allowed unaccompanied contact with him,  when I phoned him  the phone calls were monitored – when my son would ask me to get him out, which he usually did, I would hear the care assistant telling my son not to try and “manipulate” me. “I’m not trying to manipulate” my son would say.  Again this infringement on the rights of an individual’s privacy  might be justified in the case of a child that is a danger to society but an autistic child?  When my ex-wife went to visit him she found that he hadn’t been washing his hair, he had run out of toothpaste and it hadn’t occurred to him to ask for more.  In my conversations with the staff I was impressed by them, I am sure that for most of the kids, kids that have been excluded from mainstream schools because of their behavioural problems, they are good at what they do.

I am middle class and educated I know how to find out what my rights are and demand them.  I fired of letters and e-mails with bulleted points!  When a second referral was made to the Children’s reporter claiming that my son was “beyond his mother’s control” (a first step towards a compulsory care order).

 “A referral of a child or children to the Reporter should suggest that there is a need to intervene on a compulsory basis.”

I obtained a copy of the report under the freedom of information act that showed that I had been misled as to it’s nature and intent.  I contacted the Children Right’s Officer for the region, a person that I have tremendous respect for, a person who took the trouble to visit my son, play football with him, and talk to him! Having talked to my son and listening to what he had to say, rather than taking my word for it, he decided to act as advocate for us and advised my ex-wife to take my son out of care there and then.  Despite the threats no compulsory care order followed. Phew!

How many other people have taken the word of the “professionals”? How many other parents have not realized that they can, or known how to question the word of the “professionals”?   How many other children have been placed in “care” that is totally inappropriate?

How can something like this happen?  Of course placing my son in a residential school, one that in my opinion did not meet his needs at all, is incredibly expensive to the tax payer these people charge several thousand pounds a week!  The answer is, in my opinion, that whilst there is no funding available to support a Mother looking after a child in the home there is funding available to provide “care” for a child, if that child is labeled as a danger to society? I may sound totally bonkers saying this, but I seriously believe that a well intentioned, but totally inappropriate, conspiracy took place to label my son as a danger to society so that funding could be found to give him the care that he needed!

I was reminded of my own experience when I read about the case of Ben Haslam – Ben’s parents were told that it was too expensive for their son to continue in the school where he was thriving, and offered them an alternative that involved their son be taken into “care” against their wishes!  They have become involved in a legal battle that has cost them at least £60,000!

My case and that of Ben’s parents show how the rights of parents can be trampled upon but what about the rights of the child?

Michelle Dawson an autistic woman wrote an interesting article – The Misbehaviour of Behaviourists this is a critique of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) an autism treatment that has become very popular with parents because it undeniably gets the results that parents want.  ABA aims as you would expect by it’s name to modify behaviour for example spinning or flapping arms is seen as negative behaviour and is replaced with what is seen as positive behaviour – you know not spinning and not flapping your arms!  Of course the easiest way to enforce “normal” behaviour is to hit a child and that is what they did in the early days of ABA after some law suits this practice has stopped but Dawson raises interesting questions about the ethics of imposing “normality” on children even without the use of violence. 

When it comes to the rights of the autistic child as opposed to the parent the important term is “informed consent”.  Autistic children are not generally deemed capable of giving informed consent. As the parent of a child on the autistic spectrum I can empaphise with  Kathy Mannion who as the mother of autistic children  testified against legislation that sought to protect individuals who cannot consent to treatment – on the grounds that this legislation may impede important research on mental disorder! .  The point being made though is that sometimes good ethics must sometimes be sacrificed in the interests of good science?


Let us Consider though an earlier attempt to replace undesirable behaviour  with “normal” behaviour a project involving the same behaviourist – Dr Lovaas who went on to become the “father” of ABA.  This project was known as  the feminine boy project the aim of this intervention was that the  undesirable “feminine” behaviour of male children be replaced with more “normal” male behaviour obviously the point was “treatment of pre-homosexuality” !   Let us suppose that the children subjected to the feminine boy project did so given the “informed consent” of their parents and that it was not treatment that they themselves sought out?  Hmmm?

Posted in ABA, Applied Behaviour Analysis, Autism, Ethics | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The best year for music?

I have always had strong, rather passionate opinions about music.  One of the few physical fights that I have had, in my life, started with an argument about music. However a few years ago if you had asked me – what was the best year ever for music? I would have had trouble answering.
1968 – Beatles – White Album, Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet, Jimmy Hendrix – Electric Ladyland, Otis Redding – Dock of a Bay

1970 – Marvin Gaye – What’s going on, Led Zeppelin III, Van Morrison – Moondance, The Doors – Morrison Hotel

I would have probably have gone for:
1977 – Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks, Clash – The Clash, Ramones – Rocket to Russia, Iggy Pop – Lust for Life, Bob Marley – Exodus
These days I would find that question easy to answer it was:

1959 – Miles Davis – Kind of Blue, Charles Mingus – Ah Um, Dave Brubeck – Time Out, Ornette Coleman – Shape of Jazz to come

It’s official, I am not very Rock n’ Roll anymore!

Posted in Music | Tagged | 4 Comments

What is the purpose of education?

What is the purpose of Education?  I asked my wife how she would answer that question and she replied “with a yawn”;-) 

I’ve worked in Education (in some form or the other ) for most of my adult life, and I was being subjected (and yes subjected is the correct word to describe much of the experience) to education for most of the rest of it.  You would think that the answer to that question would just trip of my tongue!  Er.. well it’s to prepare people for life I guess?  Bit of a crappy answer? 

We may not have given a lot of thought as to what is the purpose of Education but we all think it is a good thing right? 

Well not always – in earlier times there were those that thought that educating the masses might have undesirable consequences. Davies Gilbert an MP and one time President of the Royal Society said in parliament, when the issue was being discussed at the beginning ot the 19th Century, that: 

“however specious in theory the project might be, of giving education to the labouring classes of the poor, it would, in effect, be found to be prejudicial to their morals and happiness; it would teach them to despise their lot in life, instead of making them good servants in agriculture, and other laborious employments to which their rank in society had destined them; instead of teaching then subordination, it would render them factious and refractory, as was evident the in the manufacturing counties it would enable them to read seditious pamphlets, vicious books, and publications against Christianity; it would render them insolent to their superiors” 

It turns out that the educated masses are more likely to read the Sun newspaper than seditious pamphlets but there you go. That’s progress for you;-) 

Politicians don’t say things like that anymore, at least not out loud. Just like they don’t say things like “legislation in Parliament shows that the interests of women are perfectly safe in the hands of men”  anymore;-) but it seems like Education is going to have to take it on the Chin in the current financial climate.  

One of the first cuts announced by the new Government of the UK was BECTA the government Agency for promoting Technology in Schools. Even though it came out top  in a survey of teachers(48%)  (that took place before the cut was announced) when they were asked which Government Agency they found  valuable!  This agency, employing 240 people, wasn’t just cut it was scrapped.  Other cuts that have been announced include £449m off the Higher Education budget this year, research funding has been frozen and an estimated 200,000 University applicants could be left without a place this summer. 

Labour’s record isn’t much better, if more hypocritical, Gordon Brown had already committed to  £100 million cuts in Education spending before the election. 

It was under a Labour Governement that BBC Jam was closed down.  BBC Jam was an ambitious project which aimed to provide the UK curriculum online to anyone who wanted to study any UK School qualification free of charge. The idea was that if your school was not able to offer you the qualification you wanted you could still do it online or if you had left school and decided in later life you would like a qualification you could get one, or you could simply use it for revision. 

Each to their own I guess but to me this is a more legitimate use of license payers money than say “Britain’s Most Embarrassing Pets“? 

The project was scrapped however after a huge amount of license payers money had already been spent in 2007. Why? – because large media corporations in the private sector complained to the European Commision that the BBC was exceeding its public service remit by offering free content to schools which could be provided commercially! The complaint was upheld. A ruling that has interesting ramifications for the future of public education? Ironically the biggest losers were the small new media companies to whom half of the £90m production budget for BBC Jam had been outsourced. Some of these firms have since gone under. 

It also seems that the results of education may turn out differently from the purpose those responsible had in mind? 

Fukuyama when discussing the reasons for the fall of the Soviet Union has argued in his book “The End of History and the Last Man” that, as well as all the obvious reasons, the state investment in education in the Soviet Union, although provided with the aim of indoctrinating the masses and creating a managerial class to lead industry, produced a new generation that with more education started questioning the system and demanding representation. 

Scotland is another interesting example of public education having results that went far beyond the original purpose of those that introduced it. I am of course proud to be Scottish and seriously believe that the world owes a great, and often unacknowledged, debt to the Scottish people, the thinkers of the Scottish enlightenment people like David Hume, Adam Smith, Francis Hutcheson and Thomas Reid helped create the framework that shaped the modern world and it seems that there is very little in the way of technology that Scottish inventors, people John Logie Baird, Alexander Graham Bell, John Dunlop…  didn’t have a hand in? 

If you go a little bit further back in history though there is less to be proud about? Scotland, Pre-Enlightenment, was seen as the one of the most backward countries in Europe, one dominated by an intolerant, authoritarian, fundamentalist religious establishment that could execute an 18 year old student, Thomas Aitkenhead, for a joke he made on the way home from the pub and where thousands of women could be executed for … well for being “wise” 

Maggie Wall

A rare monument, near my home town, to one of the 1000s of women (and they were nearly all women) who were executed not so very long ago in my country for no other reason than being a bit different?

So what changed in Scotland? Well in 1696, ironically the same year that Aitkenhead was executed, the Scottish Parliament passed the “Act for Setting Schools” establishing a “commodious house for a school” in every parish in Scotland and a salary for a teacher! Every child in scotland was in theory to be provided with a rudimentary education for free!  Scotland was the first country in Europe to introduce such legislation. 

What was the purpose of this education? Well the purpose was that, of those same people that executed Aitkenhead, to ensure that every boy and girl was able to read scripture.  What was the result? Scotland’s literacy rate would be by the end of the 18th Century be the highest in Europe.  You can still visit Scotland’s first free public library, again, near my home town of Crieff. The reading record of the 18th Century shows that the local farmers, tradesmen and household servants were reading both religious works and the secular classics of the time. The Scottish National Poet is Robert Burns a man of humble origins, a plowman by trade, he did however receive an Education worthy of any English Gentleman of the time.  In the words of Burns:

“Though it cost the schoolmaster some thrashings, I made an excellent English scholar; and by the time I was ten or eleven years of age, I was a critic in substantives, verbs, and particles.” 

Innerpeffary Library

Innerpeffary Library

Whilst it may be that Education can result in the advancemnet of the individual and Scoiety even if that was not entrirely the purpose of the Educators it can also be argued that Education can hold back the creativity of the individual. In a recent intersting and amusing TED talk Sir Ken Robinson made the case that the purpose of Education has become – to force everyone into a linear path with college being the pinicale of that path. He describes and education system that has been built on the model of fast food – “We have built our education systems on the model of fast food. Standardized, not customized to local circumstances….Our education system is impoverishing our spirits as much as fast food is depleting our bodies” 

There is no doubt that Sir Ken presents a passionate and convincing case that the education system is failing a great many kids and rather than nurturing their creativity it undermines it.  He describes in this and in other work – kids that are taught to abandon their true creative desires (to become a fireman, an artist or a dancer) and chase the ultimate goal of getting to college instead. 

It’s a long time since I went to School but my experience was a bit different.  I didn’t like School and wasn’t very good at it I am slightly dyslexic which didn’t help (thank god for keyboards and spell check). I was told on more than one occasion that University wasn’t for the likes of me, that I wasn’t Academic enough.  Shockingly a “Guidance” teacher once told myself and other pupil that it was difficult for “Lads Like us” to get into University because all the University places were being taken, by Asian Kids because “they never stop working”, and we should think about other “options”!  I guess Education has changed since my day and I hope that there are less teachers like that, but there are still Counties in England where the High School that you go to and therefore the chances of you going to University are decided by an exam that you take at 11

I ended up going to University and I am very, very glad that I didn’t listen to the “Guidance” of some of my Teachers at School.  I am also very, very grateful that I went to University at a time when it was still felt to be a good use of tax payers money to help people get an Education.  I left Higher Education without saddling myself with the burden of debt and without having been a burden to my parents, who were certainly not in a position at the time to subsidise my Higher Education!

I guess the answer to the question what is the purpose of education is that it should be to nurture the creative potential of the person being educated and enable them to realise their own purpose whatever that might be.  Unfortunately it seems that when this occurs it is often more the result of happy accident than the purpose of the Educators?

Posted in Education | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

A lesson from the fashionistas?

You may be surprised to hear that I am not terribly interested in fashion?  However I did find this talk by Johanna Blakely very interesting. 

Blakely points out that in the American Fashion industry, unlike film, music and software, there is very little in the way of intellectual Property(IP) legislation.  The reason being that the courts decided a long time ago that clothing is too Utilitarian to allow anyone to own the building blocks! The only IP law that is rigorously enforced is trademark, that’s one of the reasons such a big deal is made of logo in clothing brands.  You can copy anyone’s design in full and sell it as your own, the only thing that you can’t legally do is put their logo on it.

The usual justification for the protection of IP is that without ownership there is no incentive to  innovate… So how come there is so much money to be made in fashion design and why is there so much creative innovation if nobody owns any of the designs?

Blakely argues that actually the lack of ownership and the freedom to copy has turned something as Utilitarian as what we wear into an art form.  So how is it that the high-end design side of the business can survive when the same designs can be reproduced and mass-produced for a fraction of the price.  The answer is that in the fashion business, the top designers are not selling to the same customers as the “fast fashion” outlets.  Duh!

Actually it turns out that copying rather than stifling innovation and being bad for business has greatly increased the market for global fashion trends at the bottom end of the market and accelerated the need for creative innovation at the top end of the market so that they can set new trends.  Good business for everyone?

Blakely likens the incentive for innovation for the top designers to that of Charlie Parker, who she says invented Be Bop because he was pretty sure that White Guys wouldn’t be able to copy him;-)

She goes on  to point out some other areas where there is no copyright.  For example:

  • The food industry – you can’t copyright a recipe, again food is considered too utilitarian for this type of protection imagine if before preparing a meal you had to seek permission or obtain a license from the owner of the recipe? 
  • Cars, furniture, haircuts all considered too utilitarian for anyone to own the designs. 
  • You can’t copyright a joke.  How would that work exactly?

She then points out that sales in the low IP industries are way higher than in the high IP industries like film, books and music!  I did wonder how fair this comparison was though – I don’t know about you but I do tend to eat food and wear clothes everyday;-) whilst it is a long time since I bought a CD or a DVD and the reason I don’t buy so many CDs and DVDs is not unconnected to modern technologies that allow one to er.. get round IP Legislation.

Surely there is a case to be made for allowing an individual to be given protection and to be allowed to benefit from his ideas and creativity?  This was the original intent of IP legislation, giving individuals ownership rights over intangibles and the exclusive right to profit from them, but over time this intent has expanded both in duration and in definition.  In the US:

“The original, 1790 Copyright Act established a copyright term of 14 years; if the author were still living at the end of that period, he could renew the copyright for an additional 14 years. n3 Over the next two centuries, Congress periodically added to these time periods. n4 Most copyrights acquired today will last for the life of the author plus 50 years, and Congress is seriously considering extending that term for another 20 years.
The growth of Intellectual Property

At the same time untill the middle of the 19thCentury copyright protected only the literal content and nothing more.  Overtime this has changed and now the protection is afforded “in the substance, and not in the form alone” 
The growth of Intellectual Property

What on earth does that mean? It means that you can own not only the intangible idea of something but also the intangible idea of that idea!  Complicated isn’t it?

The other big change is that now most Intellectual Property is claimed by corporations not individuals.

So you now have the ironic example of Disney who spent $4.32 million in the first 3 quarters of 2008 on lobbying, a major focus of Disney’s lobbying is influence over copyright and patent legislation.

Disney’s first feature-length film Snow white was lifted whole scale from the Brothers Grimm (who themselves “collected” it) but now the Disney corporation spend their time making sure theatre productions don’t use the Disney names for the seven dwarves and gagging business activities like the Foundery fruit beers “Ho White” campaign!

Ho White

You also have the example of Microsoft who have pursued an aggressive and well documented policy that uses IP legislation to secure themselves a monopoly in their marketplace the strategy is known within Microsoft as “Embrace, extend and extinguish” and was one of  identifying new product categories adopting the open standards within those categories, extending those standards with proprietary capabilities, and then using those differences to disadvantage its competitors in the market place.

The debate about intellectual Property is one that crosses ideological barriers I am sure that William Morris would have approved of the collective ownership of designs in the fashion industry leading to a blurring of the distinction between utility and art?  At the same time the Mises institute a Libertarian think tank that has published papers describing Adam Smith as a Proto-Marxist who “originated nothing that is true” also published a paper called “Against Intellectual Property”  by Stephan Kinsella that argues:

that a system of property rights in ‘ideal objects’ necessarily requires violation of other individual property rights, e.g., to use one’s own tangible property as one sees fit”

In other words intellectual Property is inconsistent with the individual’s property rights, pretty much the only rights that the Libertarians recognise?

Hmm maybe intellectual property isn’t such a good thing?  Or am I just saying that to justify my moral ambiguity when it comes to listening to music and watching films that really I should pay for?

Posted in Intellectual Property | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Things I miss and don’t miss about working in London

Phil suggested I write about what I don’t miss about working in London but I thought in the interests of balance I would write about things I miss as well.  When I started to think about it some of the things aren’t as obvious as I first thought.

  1. I don’t miss the one and three-quarter hour journey that I had to make to work and then the same time it took me to get back home again.  That was on a good day!  When things went wrong it took a lot longer. The central line was closed completely, for several weeks, when a bolt fell off one of the trains, they all had to be checked, that added at least an hour to the journey.  I found it particularly depressing in the Winter.  There is something soul-destroying about leaving your home in the dark and getting home again in the dark!
  2. At the same time I miss that journey for the opportunity it used to give me to read!  When you spend more than 3 hours a day on a train that is a lot of reading time.  I used to polish off a book in no time at all or I would read the Guardian from cover to cover.  I have only read two books in the time I have been here – seriously, but then having kids also eats into your reading time, and I barely manage to read the Dilbert cartoon in the Gulf News.
  3. This is a weird one – I feel like I miss my family, but actually when I think about it I see more of them now than I did when I lived in London!  My family lives a long way from London and I used to have 20 days holiday a year.  Now I have 48 days, or something like that, and a paid flight home.  I see my family for 3 weeks every summer and Jack comes out to visit me a couple of times a year on top of that so that’s a lot more contact than I ever had when we lived in London.  I think though that the distance makes you feel a sense of separation?
  4. I miss the simplicity with which you could stop off on the way home and get a decent bottle of wine to have with tea.  There are only really 2 things that you can’t get here – a decent loaf of bread and a decent bottle of wine. 
  5. I miss my job at the BBC and the people I used to work with but I don’t miss the complications that came with Socialising after work. The rush to get to the station for the last train and the one and three-quarter hour journey home in the company of various drunks and neer do wells, wasn’t always the best end to an evening. I didn’t do it that often.
  6. That brings me on to another thing I definitely don’t miss.  Trains have always had a rather soporific effect on me and on several occasions I slept past my stop.  The worst such incident was on one occasion after catching the last train mentioned in number 5 above.  I woke with a start to find myself somewhere near Dover!  It was raining and I only had a few coins in change, it was in the days before I owned a mobile phone. I used up  a couple of these coins phoning taxi companies that had no cars available at that time of night for my location and with a feeling of trepidation had to use my last 20p phoning Haley and waking her up to explain my sad predicament.  Haley phoned a taxi for me, they required a credit card number so she gave them hers it seemed like a very long wait in a telephone box (it was raining heavily by then) before the taxi arrived.  It also seemed like a very long journey home with a taxi driver who, it seemed to me,  found rather excessive amusement in my predicament and never seemed to tire of reminding me how much trouble I was going to be in, with the missus, when I got home!  It was also a very expensive journey which was credited to Haley’s card!  Actually given the circumstances Haley took the whole incident in remarkably good humour but, no I don’t miss falling asleep on the last train home! 
Posted in NoWhere | 2 Comments