Archive for the ‘Opinion pieces’ Category

Xmas manifesto

Monday, December 21st, 2009

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It’s easy to assume that things are as they’ve always been.  This of course is not the case and recently I discovered that the rate of economic growth during the UK’s industrial revolution, one of my native land’s most significant upheavals, rarely exceeded 1%.  Nowadays, for a country’s economy to be admired, economic growth needs to be at least double this number, which is to say that a growth rate of what was once a time of enormous upheaval has now become commonplace and mediocre.

This has a significant upside.  From a state where it would take two generations or more for what was once simply imagination to become reality we are now in situation where what is unthinkable in our early lives is realized well before the reaper calls.  I remember with fondness when I was young and my father brought a laser home from his work and we invited all the children in the neighbourhood around to see it in action.  Some were so excited that they made repeat visits; readers can try to imagine the depth of their indifference should a similar offer be made today.  I am less enamored with my recollection with my first experience of accessing the internet as where others saw opportunity I saw a page that crashed immediately and instinctively knew that it would come to nothing.

Change in modern life is nowhere more prominent than that brought by information technology.  So significant are the transformations visited that it often feels as if we’re involved in a project no less important than that of redefining what it is to be human.  I exaggerate, and (at the risk of looking foolish a second time) some technologies – twitter for instance – are over-hyped but someone cryogenically frozen in 1995 and thawed in 2009 would need to be equipped with a mobile phone and a broadband connection or would swiftly find themselves unable to use the maps application on their iPhone to guide themselves to any Xmas parties.

But the benefits of new technologies should also be viewed in the context of what is lost.  The demise of some things, say camera film, troubles none but aficionados, the rigid or sentimental of outlook, but other changes are more significant.  There is concern that, with an email arriving every three minutes, the modern workforce is permanently distracted and their days fragmented.  Universal mobile phone usage means that silence, always a precious commodity, is all but extinct and with this a chance for reflection and self awareness.  The Blackberry’s email technology, universal Wi-Fi coverage means that the boundary between work and recreation is blurred as never before.   Our population feels if it is constantly behind, but yet never deserving of a rest.

This situation is I suspect only going to get worse, or better depending on your point of view.  Whilst this technology is undoubtedly transformational, a skill we have yet to learn is when to switch it off.  But with many of us getting four days off at Xmas, this holiday season would be a good time to start.  Power down your television, mobile phone, mp3 player, laptop computer find a comfortable chair, preferably in the sunlight and nowhere near your recently purchased ebook of “1001 Places to visit before you die”. Close your eyes.  Then when you open them again send me an email, twitter or text and let me know how you got on.

Links:

Distracted: The erosion of attention and the coming dark age – Maggie Jackson

Information overload: Switch off  your mobile, iPod, and emails – technology is turning our brains to mush Daily Mail July 2008
Can I have your attention please? Guardian CiF January 2008
Stress of modern life cuts attention spans to five minutes – Telegraph November 2008

Britain introduces identity cards in Manchester

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009
blog post photo

On Monday, November 30, the Manchester Identity and Passport service opened its doors and began issuing the first identity cards to British subjects since 1952. (1)

Although the cards themselves are bad enough, they are perhaps the most benign aspect of the whole enterprise, the true meat of which is the National Identity Register’(2), a centralised database in which details of all those who carry the card will be held. Fifty items per individual of personal data are to be stored (3) on this database and these will include fingerprints and facial scans, with provision for further data to be added at a later date.

Although plans to make the cards themselves compulsory were dropped anyone wishing to avoid being present on the National Identity Register will, from 2011, find themselves listed if they apply for a passport. If the government is successful in rolling out identity cards across the country then this will represent a massive accumulation of personal data and an unacceptable intrusion into the private lives of UK subjects.

Yet despite its scope, since the scheme’s inception the government has failed to make a case for its introduction. The latest attempt came from Meg Hiller, the minister for identity, who, when appearing (4) on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, suggested that a major benefits for the people of Manchester from identity cards would be that they would be able to collect parcels from post offices with greater ease and that young people would now no longer need a passport to prove their age whilst gaining entry to a nightclub.

These are extremely modest improvements to modern life for a project that the Government has forecast will cost £5.6 (5) and the LSE £10.2-19.6 (6) billion to run for ten years. Other justifications for the scheme have included the prevention of terrorism, identity theft and benefit fraud but none of these stands up to scrutiny.

Former home secretary Charles Clarke admitted (7) that identity cards would not have prevented the 2005 London attacks, and reliance on a single nominally secure form of identification could actually make identity theft more straightforward. The only clear agenda satisfied is the current Labour paradigm whereby any problem that might conceivably be solved by a massive and costly database should be so. As well as a nascent identity card scheme, the UK also has the world’s largest DNA database and ContactPoint holds details of every child in the UK under the age of 18.

With the current national deficit nothing short of astronomic (8) there was hope that the identity card scheme would be quietly dropped. It is unnecessary and costly and threatens the civil liberties of UK subjects. It has also been so beset by setbacks (9) that were it a private sector project it undoubtedly have been canned some time ago. Indeed, if the next administration is led by any party other than Labour it will be – the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have both said they will scrap it. But our floundering government would rather push ahead with this costly, invasive and useless idea than consider the taxpayer, never mind come to their senses and start to trust the public.
1) For two different views on Manchester’s first day see: ID cards now available. Count me out, Dave Page, the Guardian, November 30, 2009 and Angela Epstein, the UK’s first ID card holder, Angela Epstein, Jewish Chronicle, December 3, 2009
(2) Overseas identity card schemes do have an accompanying database and are not comparable
(3) As specified by the Identity Card Act, 2006 See: http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts2006/ukpga_20060015_en_1#3
(4) Today programme, BBC, Monday 16th November
(5) ID card scheme ‘to cost £5.6bn’, BBC News, November 8, 2007
(6) See: The LSE Identity Project Report (PDF), London School of Economics and Political Science, 2005
(7) ID cards ‘wouldn’t stop attacks’, BBC News, July 8, 2005
(8) Bank bailout cost hits £850 bln, Kistin Ridley, Reuters, December 4, 2009
(9) See ID cards: Seven years of missed deadlines and U-turns, Nick Heath, Silicon.com, December 2, 2009

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nb: this article first published on Forth.ie where someone commented:

‘It’s a cliche but a true one – if you’ve done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear’

Before you settle into this state of mind, ask yourself this question – what is not justified by this line of reasoning?  Then listen to this song.  no2id PSB micrositeFundamental on Amazon

“A muddled moral and political agenda”

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

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Having been sacked from his position as the chief UK government drugs advisor Professor David Nutt may today be reflecting on the precarious position of anyone who seeks to advise politicians on controversial matters.

For it seems that whilst such an advisory position would appear to call for candour as a job requirement, in reality an expert who expresses an opinion out of step with the thinking of his or her political masters will find this leads to chastisement and the possibility of dismissal.  Nutt irked Home Secretary Alan Johnson by penning an article which criticized the UK’s drug classification system and in particular the way in which the previous Home Secretary Jacqui Smith ignored learned advice against reclassifying cannabis from class C to B.  He also suggested that if the argument against the use of drugs by UK subjects is driven by the drug’s perceived harms, then it would be appropriate to compare these harms to the risks run by users of currently legal drugs as well as other harmful activities.

As far as the Alan Johnson is concerned, this is so say the unsayable.  In his letter requesting Professor Nutt’s resignation Johnson wrote “It is important that I can be confident that advice I receive from the AMCD (Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs) will be about matters of evidence.  Your recent comments have gone beyond such evidence and have been lobbying for a change in government policy”.

When it comes to drugs, Mr Johnson is not the only person who has admired scientific advice only insofar as it agrees with current policy.  As well as ignoring the AMCD’s advice regarding cannabis, Jacqui Smith also vetoed their recommendation that ecstasy be downgraded from a class A drug, a conclusion that involved the AMCD  reviewing four thousand scientific papers over a twelve months period.  Internationally the situation is hardly better.  In 1995 the World Health Organisation conducted a thorough survey on global cocaine use.  Although eventually leaked, the full report was never officially published as the US representative to the WHO threatened to withdraw funding unless the organisation dissociated itself from the conclusions of the study and cancelled its publication.  The report had suggested that use of cocaine did not necessarily lead inexorably toward either individual or societal collapse.

The debate on drug legalization appears, as Professor Nutt has found, to be almost uniquely charged.  The reasons for this are complex but perhaps are rooted in drug use’s consequences being, at worst, easy fodder for any right wing commentator: people enjoying themselves, youth running amok and slothful hippies; successive governments have run scared from sections of the popular press that purport to represent the attitudes of the public.  It is reasonable to be very wary of drugs as some, but not all, of them have the potential to do great harm but our current debate is distorted and muddled and the focus on illegal drugs in isolation blinds to the damage currently visited by the excess use of alcohol.

Despite the positioning of politicians, Dr Nutt’s resignation shows us that UK drug policy is clearly driven not by sober reflection of evidence and what this tells us about harm, but rather lip service is shown to scientific opinion which then partially conceals an unacknowledged moral and political agenda.

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Latest news

Ministers face rebellion over drug Tsar’s sacking Guardian 1 November 2009

Drugs: Prejudice and political weakness have rejected scientific facts Observer 1 November 2009

Today programme interview with David Nutt 31 October 2009

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This post is also published on Forth :: forward thinking from Ireland

Nutt decision shows the immaturity of the marijuana debate

“Let’s fix Britain’s drinking problem”

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

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In a major development for Frontier Psychiatrists everywhere I wrote this article which was published on the Guardian newspaper Comment is Free website on Friday 11 September.  Not that it really matters, but up until this point this blog was semi-anonymous, and this has comprehensively blown my cover…

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The former president of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, said last week that the war on drugs had failed and that there was a need for a new global strategy concerning illegal drug use with a shift toward decriminalisation. Although progress is glacial, his sentiments do appear to reflect a growing change in attitudes, the most concrete example of which has been Portugal’s 2001 decriminalisation of all drugs, giving it the most relaxed drug laws in the European Union.

Portugal’s move has not led to nightmare scenarios of out-of-control drug use or “drug tourism” and has allowed Portuguese healthcare to more effectively offer treatment programmes to its citizens. Should Portugal’s move become a trend, a future UK government may be tempted to follow suit. However, before taking steps that may increase the ease with which currently illegal substances may be possessed and consumed, the will must be found to tackle our crisis of excess alcohol use, a drug that is already legal and widely available.

Many people use alcohol moderately and sensibly. However, millions of us do not. The harm alcohol causes is so broad that it is hard to adequately summarise it. The problems with health and public disorder are well documented, but more invisible is the toll it takes on relationships and mental health. It affects young and old; today an article in the Lancet identifies alcohol as a major factor in teenage mortality.

Despite this, the government’s attitude towards alcohol use has been predominantly soft-touch and we have seen a relaxation of licensing laws as well as local councils that appear to think nothing of allowing so many bars in certain high streets that they become a virtual no-go area to all but the most intoxicated. The large commercial concerns that produce and sell alcohol have been allowed to go about their business largely unchecked and alcohol use is widely encouraged by virtually unrestricted advertising and pricing practice. Also unhelpful is the socially corrosive veneration of alcohol-related culture that is displayed by some influential institutions, including student unions and some radio stations, whose shows regularly encourage people to relate stories of alcoholic excess.

Decisive action is needed towards curbing alcohol misuse. A report this week from the BMA calls for alcohol advertising to be banned and for the trend of music festival tie-ins to be similarly prohibited. A reduction in the density of licensed premises in town centres is also recommended.

Alcohol pricing must more accurately reflect its cost to society with the introduction of minimum prices for alcoholic drinks. More broadly, public opinion makers need to become aware of the effects of the attitudes they propagate and on this issue seek to lead rather than follow. There is cause to be optimistic: the realignment of attitudes toward drink-driving and smoking in public places shows that major shifts in policy and public perceptions on drug-related issues are possible and can take place relatively quickly.

Follow-ups in CiF

The case for legalising all drugs is unanswerable 13 September 2009

It’s time for a U-turn on drugs 14 September 2009 about this report Zero Base Policy

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Addendum 16 September 2009

New Scientist 15 September 2009 Blueprint for a better world: legalise drugs

US healthcare reform in turmoil

Thursday, August 13th, 2009


I was out for dinner with a New Yorker friend of mine recently. She’s British, but she’d brought along an American friend and I happened to mention to him how much I was digging President Obama. Things deteriorated from there. “Obama is a socialist!” the heads of the rest of the table turned, as the conversation up until that point had been about interior furnishings.

“I don’t think that you appreciate what a socialist is” I replied. “You should try living in France; America doesn’t have a party of the left. All you’ve got is centre and right”. The conversation then moved onto healthcare, which was proposed as an example of where liberal economic theory fails to deliver. Our American friend was undeterred by this argument.

“It’s possible to get free healthcare in the United States” he opined. “People come into a hospital sick and get treatment, and once they’re in, the hospital can’t throw them out”

I’ve been thinking about this curry-fuelled conversation over the past few days whilst reading about Obama’s troubles in pushing healthcare reform, something he considers to be the most important aim of his presidency. To the European bystander, US healthcare would seem to be in desperate need of attention. Despite the United States being the world’s richest country, millions of its people do not have healthcare cover and anyone who’s seen Michael Moore’s film Sicko will know that even those with cover can find themselves severely financially compromised by the payments they are forced to make. The system costs more per head than anywhere else in the world, but yet is only rated 37th in comparison to other countries. The effects have been felt beyond that simply of the individual; the struggling General Motors sites the healthcare costs of its staff as a significant contribution toward its instability.

Why then are some American right so vociferous in their opposition of reform? Meetings of members of Congress who are trying to promote Obama’s plans are frequently being disrupted and Congressman David Scott had a swastika painted outside his office. It seems that healthcare reform is being equated with increased state invention in the lives of citizens something that is, in the minds of some, directly comparable to fascism. Former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin – whom, for what it’s worth, I entirely loathe – is not shy of this imagery. She wrote on her blog, in a gross characterisation of the Obama proposals:

…the America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down’s syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society’, whether they are worthy of healthcare. Such a system is downright evil.

Here and elsewhere the NHS has been getting caught in the crossfire.   Palin is presumably referring to NICE’s attempts to decide whether expensive drugs provide value for money.  Republican senator Chuck Grassley has also confidently said that, under the NHS, Senator Edward Kennedy would be left to die untreated for his brain tumour.

If I was the NHS I’d sue for libel.

Misinformation must be blamed for the violent reaction to the possiblity of health care reform, but if I was an American I would be more concerned about the wider issues. If the society that the Americans have built is simply not coherent enough for people to wish to contribute toward the health of their fellow humans then it is in urgent need of reevaluation. Those without healthcare should not simply be the disparaged “them” of my dinner companion’s discourse. For universal healthcare to work “us” is the most important word.

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I should point out that I do not consider myself to be “anti-American”.  An interesting read on the subject is The Eagle’s shadow: Why America fascinates and infuriates the world by Mark Hertsgaard.  Also BBC North American correspondent Justin Webb wrote this interesting piece for Radio 4′s From our own correspondent recently.

Links:
Independent: Is US healthcare so bad that it needs a lesson from Britain? – Q&A
Guardian: US Healthcare
Guardian: Debate over US healthcare reform takes an ugly turn
Guardian: ‘Evil and Orwellian’ – America’s right turns its fire on NHS
Guardian: This NHS row is paralysing progress – if you only read one of these links make is this one

BMJ Blogs: Is it unpatriotic to criticise the NHS?

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Addendum Mark Mardell on From our own correspondent

‘Sexting’

Saturday, August 8th, 2009

There’s a new moral panic this week.  Teenagers are ‘sexting’ each other and, using magic new distribution channels, sometimes these images are distributed way beyond their original recipients.   There’s concern that once set free, sexts are being seen by paedophiles.  As the Mirror newspaper puts it Sex texts sent by teens found on pervert websites.

Paedophiles again eh? They’re everywhere! The Reds have long since ceased to be found under our beds, and this group now cosy up with the equally disparaged – and by and large mythical – terrorists.  They’re all so busy that I doubt they get to meet much.  In reality I expect that paedophiles supposed connection with sexting is tenuous at best as unfortunately they have no need to content themselves with grainy mobile phone videos and they have been inserted into this story to obscure unacknowledged disapproval of teenage sexual relations and to bolster the sense of outrage.

Not that it’s not worth pointing out the dangers of engaging in this sort of thing.  I’m sure that some teenagers have found themselves severely embarrassed when compromising pictures of themselves have been widely aired, and we all remember what happened to Tommy in Trainspotting.  But I find it hard to suppress my feeling that for these unfortunate few, and painful as it is, this could well be the sort of life lesson that we all have to learn from time to time about considering the possible future consequences of one’s actions and sexting will be as passing a concern as happy-slapping was a few years ago.

But to leave the discussion here is to miss the greater issue.  This week there’s an advertisement all over London for Chelsea Handler’s E! show in which someone with a baseball hat is looking up her skirt.  Last year there was a popular film called Zac and Miri make a porno. In my local gym they offer pole-dancing classes, and in every newsagent there are countless soft porn mid-shelf magazines.  Inevitably all this raunch has been marketed to us as a way for women to empower themselves but it’s not clear exactly where empowerment ends and good ol’ sexual exploitation begins.  A market driven society which views people as consumers and uses visions of sexual availability to sell products has led the young to view themselves as equally consumable.  When one of the most prominent models for femininity is the sex kitten, is it surprising that lustful teenage boys, now see nothing wrong about requesting revealing pictures of women of their acquaintance, or that their female peers, who do not yet have the sense that adulthood brings, feel compelled to comply.

BBC: Police warn of teenage sexting
Guardian: Don’t you know what sexting is?

“I don’t think what I’m doing is anything different to what Britney does in her new video. Plus, I love the attention” – Nancy, 14

Comment is free Guardian: Why I welcome the decline of the Twittering classes