Chaucerian Pub Joke – Bill Bailey

How Opinion Polls Influence Your Opinion, Not Measure It

How would you go about showing that the public’s will is in line with your policy? Watch the following excerpt from Yes, Minister and find out.

Why We Are Not Happy

Armando Iannucci presents an analysis of the reasons for why modern humans are unable to find fulfilment in their lives. Compulsive viewing.

Have You Ever Been This Drunk?

Thoughts on Religion and Democracy

Religious tensions in the Middle East are a palpable truth of the region’s realpolitik. Frequently, atheists or humanists (or people adhering to both views) will contend that religion is the source of much (if not all) of the unrest in the world’s political makup, and that, if only religion would be abolished, the world would be a better place. Such arguments are made on the back of claims that religion is either wholly or for the most part irrational, untestable, unverifiable, and a uniquely potent driver towards violence. In short, a mechanism by which people drive themselves to conflict with others, rather than a force for harmony. The argument is interminable and often misguided. But regardless of whether either party is right, which one that may be, or whether both are mistaken, a related problem remains.

The United States is unique in that it is the sole country on the planet (and readers may correct me) in whose constitution the separation of Church and States is enshrined as a principle by which the affairs of the nation ought to be run healthily. The violation of that is in evidence with every word a US political figure utters in public support for his religion (invariably Christianity) and with the never ending court cases relating to the Decalogue being proclaimed on court walls and the teaching of “intelligent” design in schools. So it is a far from perfect system, even by its own criteria. But at least the sentiment is there in that political scripture: state and church are not to mix.

In countries permitting rule based on religious ideology, things are seen to faulter. An obvious example is the Taliban, whose fundamentalist Islamic actions represseed women, freedom, education and so many values that sane and rational people would hold dear. In Saudi Arabia, religous expression through government leads to a totalitarian rule. Note, incidentally, the hypocrisy of the western “liberators” and democracy bringers: they side with Saudi against terrorism, neglecting to mention that Saudi is itself implicated in it. This is not a staunch defence of democracy, but a staunch defence of the west interests. One fundamentalist group may be sacrificed and another befriended.

George Bush’s religious convictions may play to the tastes of his right-wing conservative god-fearing fans, but the rest of the world is worried, not only on account of the violation of the Church and State principle the US is failing to uphold, but also on account of the unaccountability of God. Democracy’s most treasured principle relates to the accountability of leadership and representation; people are to decide and it is to people that leaders are supposed to be accountable. Yet a leader who elevates God above the electorate surely sacrifices democracy at the same altar. No longer does the popular will suffice – policy decisions are to be ratified in a dialogue with the divine.

And in this way, religion undermines political ideals. American conservatives will shout at this till they’re blue in the face, but it is a fact. A president accountable only to the Lord, puts the people he serves second.

In Britain secular tradition extends deeper, despite the lack of a constitutional divide between faith and government. Britain has never shied away from producing the likes of David Hume, Bertrand Russell or Richard Dawkins as intellectual luminaries. It is for this reason that it was all the more shocking to discover, part-way through Blair’s premiership, that some of his convictions had their origins in religious belief. To appeal to religion for guidance is, however wise the passages of holy texts may be, to appeal to a source whose reasons are not accountable to the public will. And therefore, it is to mimic the retrograde ideologies of the very religious extremists modern US-UK policy seems bent on destroying (it’s link to such regimes as Saudi notwithstanding), and to undermine democracy.

Religious influence over political affairs and the ideal of democracy are not compatible.

Please watch the BBC’s coverage of Tony Blair’s admission that God guided him through parts of his own decision making processes during the last 10 years. Of particular interest should be his conviction that he will be judged by “other people” at the end of his tenure (perhaps on earth). Since the end of his premiership, speculation has arisen on Blair’s intention to convert to Catholicism.

The America Song

Remote-Controlled Rats for Landmine Detection

The following article is taken from The Guardian, 2nd May 2002:

Scientists have turned living rats into remote-controlled, pleasure-driven robots which can be guided up ladders, through ruins and into minefields at the click of a laptop key.The project, which is funded by the US military’s research arm, Darpa, was partly inspired by the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US, and partly by the earthquake in India last January.

Animals have often been used by humans in combat and in search and rescue, but not under direct computer-to-brain electronic control. The advent of surgically altered roborats marks the crossing of a new boundary in the mechanisation, and potential militarisation, of nature.

Scientists at the State University of New York (Suny) created the roborats by planting electrodes into their brains, a paper in today’s edition of the journal Nature reports.Two electrodes lead to the parts of the rats’ brains which normally detect an obstacle against their whiskers. A third plunges into an area of the brain identified as far back as the 1950s as providing the rat with a feeling of pleasure when stimulated.

In 10 sessions the rats learned that if they ran forward and turned left or right on cue, they would be “rewarded” with a buzz of electrically delivered pleasure.

Once trained they would move instantaneously and accurately as directed, for up to an hour at a time. The rats could be steered up ladders, along narrow ledges and down ramps, up trees, and into collapsed piles of concrete rubble.

The Suny team suggests roborats fitted with cameras or other sensors could be used as search and rescue aids in natural disasters such as earthquakes, or in mine clearance.

Sanjiv Talwar, lead author of the Nature paper, said not only did the rats wearing electrodes feel no pain, but they were having a good time.

“If the rat moves left or right as commanded, it feels this burst of happiness,” he said. “It follows this sort of cue very accurately. They work only for rewards. They love doing it.”

The work on guided rats was an offshoot of earlier research which showed that animals wired up to a processor could command a robotic arm by thought alone, a development which could potentially empower paralysed humans.

Asked to speculate on potential military uses for robotic animals, Dr Talwar agreed they could, in theory, be put to some unpleasant uses, such as assassination.

“Is it possible, objectively? I would imagine, if anybody wanted to do something as absurd as that. But yes, surveillance is pretty straightforward, although for these sort of operations you could use robots. You could apply this to birds … if you could fit birds with sensors and cameras and the like.”

Michael Reiss, professor of science education at London’s Institute of Education and a leading bioethics thinker, said: “It could be argued that we have, for 10,000 years or more, pushed farm animals around and directed their behaviour, but this clearly involves a degree of control and degree of invasiveness that in most people’s eyes is a step change.”

Prof Reiss said he was uneasy about humankind “subverting the autonomy” of animals. “There is a part of me that is not entirely happy with the idea of our subverting a sentient animal’s own aspirations and wish to lead a life of its own.”

Dr Talwar said that perhaps there needed to be a wider ethical debate.

But he argued that the roborat programme was not so far from training dogs. “The only thing different, and perhaps creepy, is that instead of whistling or giving food, you’re directly tapping into the brain,” he said.

Responsibility In a Nuclear Age

J. Robert Oppenheimer (April 22, 1904February 18, 1967) was an American theoretical physicist best known for his role as the director of the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort to develop the first nuclear weapons, at the secret Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico. Known as “the father of the atomic bomb,” Oppenheimer lamented the weapon’s killing power after it was used to destroy the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Famously, after the war he recounted his impressions of the bomb’s invention by quoting the Bhagavad Gita whilst trying to hold back tears on television.

In his book Heresies, John Gray reminds us that science is not the answer to mankind’s existential woes or spiritual shortcomings, nor an advance in its will to do good either; it merely amplifies our capacity to express these. Robert Oppenheimer died of throat cancer at age 62 in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1967. The video above should remind us of the responsibility mankind has in handling the fruits of scientific enterprise. The 42nd anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are coming up in August.

 

trinity_explosion.jpg

The picture above is a photograph taken of the first nuclear bomb test at The Manhattan Project. It was named Trinity by Oppenheimer.

In a 6-part series called Pandora’s Box, film-maker Adam Curtis has explored the continuing desire of mankind to fall for the illusion that scientific progress equates to progress for mankind on other levels. The theme of this unwarranted belief in science is explored in the last episode of the series, “A is for Atom”, in which Curtis examines mankind’s custody of nuclear capacity and the hope its discovery brought.

 

All Change: David Cameron vs. Tony Blair

Hiking With A Ghetto Blaster

Why Marijuana Should Not Be Reclassified but Declassified

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The perennial debate about the classification of drugs has again turned to the status of cannabis (marijuana). The UK’s Misuse Of Drugs Act 1971 catergorised “controlled substances” into three groups in descending order of severity: A, B and C. Thus Class A contains heroin, cocaine and MDMA (ecstasy); anorectics and mild stimulants find themselves in Class B and Class C enjoys such members as cannabis and ketamine (a horse tranquiliser). The categories persist to this day, though with various bolted-on caveats. For instance, temazepam is in Class C, but upgraded to Class A if prepared for injection. Cannabis is currently Class C, having been demoted in the recent past (2004) from its lofty flight with the Bs. And so on. Needless to mention, Class A attracts the most severe legal penalties, whether for possession or supply. A rough guide to what a transgression of the law might result in is given below in summary form:

Offence Court Class A Class B Class C
Possession Magistrates 6 months / £5000 fine 3 months / £2500 fine 3 months / £500 fine
Crown 7 years / unlimited fine 5 years / unlimited fine 2 years / unlimited fine
Supply Magistrates 6 months / £5000 fine 6 months / £5000 fine 3 months / £2000 fine
Crown Life / unlimited fine 14 years / unlimited fine 14 years / unlimited fine

Most recently, on the back of new evidence concerning the “harmful effects” of cannabis on its consumers, the UK government has proposed to move the drug back into Category B.

Evermore obviously the boundary between the government’s responsibility to protect the public as opposed to blatantly invigilate it is being erroded, and the persistent call to expend masses of energy in auditing the wisdom of shifting marijuana from one contrived legal category to another does nothing but produce hot guff at the tax-payer’s expense. Of course quite a pretty rant on the government’s approach to civil liberties as a whole might be launched from here, but I’ll spare that pleasure for another day.

Briefly, however, I do not see any legitimate reason the government or any authority could give to justify a prohibition on people from ingesting or inhaling anything. A private individual’s body and mind are not the property of the state, nor should they be.

On the 19th July 2007 Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, revealed to the public that she smoked cannabis at university herself. She was quick to repeat just how “wrong” it was. Presumably, she means that it was illegal (legality and morality do not necessarily – and frequently don’t – correlate). Her name ranks amongst several senior government officials who have admitted to using cannabis. Should we fear the correlation becoming any stronger? One would hate to add becoming an MP to the list of ceaselessly advertised ill-effects resulting from using weed.

What ought to irk the public is the “argument from harm”. The spread of available medical studies on the topic affords no conclusive support of the thesis that cannabis is harmful in all (or possibly even most) of the suggested respects. It is true that correlations between the onset of schizophrenia or depression and cannabis have been found in smokers from particular social or ethnic groups. For example, teenagers have been found to increase their risk of future depression or anxiety if they smoke marijuana. With respect to cancer, the results are inconclusive, with some studies affirming that anti-tumour defence is impaired by its use whilst others claim that no such link is observed. Certainly in a culture exercised by scrutinising the effects of illegal substances, however, we seemingly need frequent reminders that the three biggest legal drugs are certainly no less harmful. The trio of alcohol, nicotine and tobacco all enjoy notoriety for their ability to induce dependence. Nicotine is particularly pernicious since its effects spread to those immediately in the vicinity of the smoker (an effect recent prohibition on smoking in public places rightly seeks to irradicate). Where this happens in households with small children for example it is particularly harmful and unpolicable even if it came to be recognised as abuse by law. Alcohol-related deaths in the UK number some 10,000 annually, not including fatal car accidents whose victims were not under the influence. Psychological dependence on caffeine is probably all too familiar to you or someone you know. A March 2007 study in the journal Lancet has found that both tobacco and alcohol are more harmful as drugs than is cannabis. And the point that cannabis can be enjoyed without smoking it is also frequently neglected when the debate orbits in the public’s attention.

Emeritus Professor of Pharmacology John Morgan offers the following opinion of marijuana’s dangers and what implications this should have for its legality:

Of course, no drug is taken without a concomitant risk, be it psychotropic, pharmaceutical or otherwise. But the inconsistency lies in the fact that demonstrably far more dangerous drugs than cannabis are legally available. Consider, for instance, the millions of instances of alcohol-seeded violence society is asked to suffer. To my knowledge, there exists no established connection between marijuana and becoming violent. Indeed, it has a reputation for inducing quite the opposite effect (exceptions here prove the rule – a privilege alcohol doesn’t enjoy). The argument that it leads to paranoia is quickly debunked when you consider that all psychoactive drugs rely on their responsible use, including consideration of setting. Drinking heavily in the company of people you despise has smaller than normal chances of ending on a positive note either. Taking drugs responsibly is another consideration often thrown out with the bathwater by prohibition advocates. (This is evidenced in the language surrounding drugs: it’s always drug abuse, never merely use.) Responsible use entails consideration of the set and setting in which the drug is taken.

Meanwhile, the positive effects of cannabis use (not its abuse) seldom receive mention. Cannabis is a universally acknowledged social drug of no lower standing than alcohol, and which frequently is set in a context of social etiquette and communion with fellow users. It’s ability to generate creative output in individuals also receives little mention. Instead the theory that it is a “gateway drug” leading to the use of heavier substances has neither been convincingly demonstrated (not to speak of proof) nor has it been divorced in study from socio-economic factors such as poverty, education and other cultural influences. Certainly it is true that innumerable millions use the drug without moving onto heroin or cocaine or esctasy or LSD.

It should arouse the public’s suspicion that a legal drug of alcohol’s destructive potency is legal (and rightly so), but marijuana is not. Note too that the three legal drugs mentioned above are all taxable: alcohol, nicotine and caffeine all require, to varying degrees, specialised manufacturing. On the other hand a cannabis plant can be grown by almost anyone even in the UK’s climate. That is not taxable and is not legal either.

Legalising marijuana would have the following beneficial effects:

1) The production, sale and distribution of marijuana is a lucrative criminal activity. It could be undermined by legalisation since the provision of legal marijuana would be made more securely and reliably available commercially. Police resources would not be unnecessarily expended on processing petty distributors and anyone found in possession. How on earth policing of marijuana possession is supposed to be realistic anyway is beyond comprehension. According to the Office of National Statistics, a third of all young men use the drug:

Prevalence of drug misuse by 16 to 24 year olds in the previous year, 2004/05, England and Wales

Prevalence of drug misuse by 16 to 24 year olds in the previous year, 2004/05, England and Wales. (Click on the graph for the full article) Note, incidentally that the source article is called “Drug misuse”, which is already to suggest impropriety. How do we know young people aren’t just using, as opposed to abusing?

According to Home Office statistics for 2000, when cannabis was a Class B drug, police seizures in the UK numbered 91,000 – that’s 95% of the entire category. See here for data.

2) The production of marijuana, in becoming a legal business activity, would flourish to provide a market specialising in variety and quality, as well as providing tax revenue which could be used to help healthcare funding. The point is that legalising cannabis could be used to actually improve health, not diminish it. The tax revenue and savings on policing could be used to make improvements to quality of life.

3) Marijuana could be sold only to people over a particular age, if required.

4) The principle that repression leads eventually to indulgence would loosen its grip. That is to say, legal cannabis would lose its appeal at least partially for underaged consumers. This is a notable effect in Holland, where interest in drugs is lower than in the UK amongst school children.

In summary, the government have a bad case for keeping marijuana illegal: it is certainly less harmful than either tobacco or alcohol and less addictive than those or caffeine – all of which are legal. It costs a fortune to police. Instead it could be legalised and the savings and resulting tax revenues could be put into healthcare and education about drugs in general. Unlike alcohol, cannabis does not fuel droves of street thugs to commit violent crime. It’s legalisation could open the door to standardised, tested and regulated quality products, just as is the case for the legal drugs. It could create jobs, not put people in prison. Finally, the evident hypocrisy of government officials is laughable: their enjoyment of the drug is now “wrong” but without justification. There is no obvious inherent moral deficit in using cannabis itself. It’s effect on the mental state of the user should not be the subject of prohibition; the government ought to have no stake in our consciousnesses.

How To Teach A Kid To Ride A Bike