Friday, 16 January 2009

Sir John Mortimer (1923 - 2009)

Today is a sombre day. Sir John Mortimer has passed away. Not only will we remember him for creating memorable characters and a true legend in the form of Rumpole of the Old Bailey, but he converted Brideshead Revisited into the ITV television classic. There have been few writers over the past fifty years that have displayed his erudition and ready wit. More astounding perhaps, has been his ability to write in many forms, from the novel, to television and to several notable stage productions. Amazingly, he managed to maintain an impressive career as a barrister at the same time. The height of which was his defense of Oz magazine against charges of obscenity in 1971. Sir John, you have given us hours of entertainment, hundreds of memorable quotes, and characters that walk with us in day to day life. You shall be missed.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Heathrow: The Third Runway

As environmental campaigners continue their long term struggle to prevent a third runway from being added to Heathrow, even the materialist with little or no care for the planet's long term future cannot help but ask themselves what the appropriate balance is between economic success and environmental prudence. Personally I think that the environmentalists arguments are deeply flawed. Firstly the question is presented in flawed terms. It is not so much a matter of whether Heathrow should obtain a third runway, it is when should Heathrow build it. In terms of timing I don't believe it could be better. The economy is ailing and the third runway will not only attract further tourist interest, it will help keep business presence in London strong. Additionally it provides a stimulus to regional airports. Currently flights from airports such as Newcastle are being squeezed out to make way for long haul flights that are more profitable. This damages the viability of tourism and business interests in the North East due to a simple lack of connecting flights. It also harms the quality of life for those who live in the area. This is not to mention the tens of thousands of jobs that would be created planning, building, maintaining and operating the facility.

The advantage to economic boons such as a new runway at Heathrow is that we can then afford to tackle other environmental issues. The taxes created by the additional flights help pay for public transport and other green initiatives. General prosperity encourages homeowners to add small wind turbines, solar heating and loft insulation not to mention allowing the government a greater scope for providing funds for similar projects. Governments in times of economic boom are also more able to draft higher environmental standards and pass laws as it is less likely the economy will be hampered.

Now, this is not to say that the new runway will solve the economic crisis or indeed have any tangible impact for the next few years and during that time it could do real environmental damage. In fact I would be deeply skeptical about the whole proposal were it not for the high-speed rail interchange designed to accompany it. A major source of emissions involved with any urban location is motor vehicle transport and the proposed interchange could drastically reduce the number of cars driving to and from Heathrow. In turn, simplistic as it may sound, this will reduce congestion on the M25 and other roads and hopefully the efficiency of all vehicles will therefore increase. In addition, it cuts journey times from Heathrow to Kings Cross by two thirds, further encouraging business and tourism.

What has surprised me is the lack of compromise and negotiation on behalf of both parties. I would have thought that promises to increase the number of solar panels, small wind generators, to use green building practices and to leave aside advertising space for green issues would have gone some way towards making the project more realistic environmentally and appeasing the protesters. The only concession that has been mentioned, is requiring the new runway to be used only by the newest and most efficient aircraft. A good start, but I would have thought that more could be done. Ultimately the project needs to go ahead. The world is growing move competitive and with stiff competition for tourism and business locations, the UK needs to keep pace.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Neocon Dreams in the American Heartland

I found the above article, detailing the end of the neocon movement, excellent reading. It appealed to me on several levels. It is well written, fair, but most importantly for my own enjoyment, concludes that the neocon ideology has run its course. While I agree that political neoconservativism is for the time being much depleted, and whilst I should like nothing more than to believe that (like the author of the article) it is gone for good, I find myself unable to agree with his conclusion. The problem lies not with the politicians, but the electorate. Much more than any other ideology, neoconservativism offers stunning rhetoric appeasing to the American palate. Power, Democracy and Manifest Destiny, the pillars upon which the American psyche stakes its health. Of course, these desires are often tempered by other factors. The high valuation of American lives (above the value of their allies and especially civilians) plays a significant role. It seems incredible to me that, should another terrorist attack occur on American soil, that the neocons won't make a quick and well heralded return. What could be more appealing than fast paced democratic change in nations that have not felt its heady pull?

Of course, the new era of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State ( may provide just the opposite. Though she claims to have a platform of diplomacy and believes (as apparently so does Obama) that it is the tool to be most utilized. Interestingly, it is the one that has been utilized the least under the Bush regime. I have often wondered whether a contributing factor to this lack of use has been Bush's almost uncanny ability to irritate foreign leaders at the negotiating table. One need only thing of Germany's Angela Merkle to see why. Personally, Hillary has always struck me as more of a pragmatist than a principled member of any school of political thought. I have no doubt that she will be more willing to negotiate (Iran and Cuba have been repeatedly mentioned) but I also have no doubts that, should she deem it appropriate, she will recommend use of quick and incisive military action.

Many Obama supporters, myself included (I suppose I am one now that all of the genuine lefties have disappeared) will be hoping that he and Hillary adopt a neo-humanist approach. Military action in many places but exclusively for humanitarian purposes would seem to be an excellent approach to tackling many of the world's more pressing issues. Peace and stability could be furthered in many parts of Africa. Genocides could be prevented or, at the very least, their devastating impact could be lessened. Most importantly for many Americans, such a policy could be used to further long term security objectives. If farmers in Columbia are not paid and protected in the growing of food, then they grow drugs, the same is true of the poppy fields of Afghanistan. If genocides and militant instability are allowed to continue in central Africa then arms trading, child soldiery and the lack of political and economic stability necessary for economic action needed to help fight famine and the ravages of disease will not occur. Now I am not claiming that all of these problems could be solved. However, many of the situations could be improved with US humanitarian involvement.

The problem, once more, returns to the electorate. Will they understand that it is worth the lives of thirteen US soldiers to save 2,000 women and children in Mogadishu and, more importantly, that by doing so, and by helping to provide stability, the US discourages the social trends that breed their enemies? This is but one of hundreds of examples that could be prevented. I am not sure that neo-humanism will have the support it needs to be given a chance. Having said that, if it was ever going to, now is the time. Obama supporters still feel optimistic and like they can change the world. The world is waiting to see if they will.

Monday, 12 January 2009

US Travel

The news that all travelers to the US will be required to fill out an online visa application 72 hours prior to departure struck me as a foolish move for a country in the depths of what can only be described as an economic crisis. While the system itself is not necessarily a bad idea as an alternative to in-flight paperwork, the notion that those needing to travel on short notice will no longer have the traditional option is frankly idiotic. Each weekend airlines fill their empty seats with cheap deals from spontaneous travelers wishing for city breaks in DC, New York, Boston and Philadelphia. A 72 hour cut off will deter many of these travelers, cutting off much needed revenue from hotels and other tourist infrastructure. At a time when hotels are finding themselves empty, such a move could be disastrous. Not all short notice travelers do so for fun. It is unclear what would occur if an individual needed to visit a dying family member or attend a funeral. A restriction of that sort seems morally dubious to say the very least.
The other group of passengers that it harms are business travelers. On many occasions I have found myself in-flight less than 72 hours after being told that the company needed me elsewhere. Business moves quickly and investment is often a decision made on very short notice. In the middle of an economic downturn such an imposition on business travel can hardly be a move that will stimulate economic resurgence.

A third group of passengers could also be harmed – the ill prepared. The foreign office is concerned that many of those traveling will simply not know, or understand the restrictions. This could lead to chaos in US airports and an unfortunate number of deportations. Fears also abound that it will harm the economies of US border towns. Tourists that are visiting Canada (Vancouver for instance) will be far less likely to plan ahead for the US Visa-waiver that they will now need for a day trip to anywhere south of the border (Seattle for instance). As I am sure you can all understand, I have the least possible sympathy for this particular group, though I am not anxious for their woes to impede my travel.

There are several positives to such an online system however. In theory it will speed up the immigration process as agents will know who to question in greater depth, there will be one fewer irritating announcement that disrupts the final attempt at sleep prior to landing and possibly, just possibly, it will increase security in a less invasive manner than other US policies. This can only be a positive. No one is hoping for a repeat of the disasters of the past decade and such security checks are an inevitable part of the peace of mind we all enjoy. That having been said, a system without a provision for spur of the moment or necessity driven travel is a system that is broken and that will inevitably lead to problems.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Atheism - A Primer

After reading the BBC story linked above, I got angry for the umpteenth time about something that has been niggling me ever since this campaign started. It's quite simple people, if you believe in a God, you're a theist, more than one, a polytheist, and if you believe there is not even a single God, then you are an atheist. Pretty simple, right?

Evidently not. Everyone from the BBC to the individuals responsible to the ads are referring to them as ads for Atheism. Let’s check again what they actually say. ‘There’s probably no God.’ Enter Thomas Henry Huxley. For those of you who are unfamiliar, I strongly recommend reading the following This great man, a bastion of the scientific community, coined the term agnostic and to this day it is perhaps best described in his own words:

‘When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain "gnosis,"–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of "agnostic." It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the "gnostic" of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant. To my great satisfaction the term took.’

Personally, I am tired of individuals describing those signs as Atheistic. They are not. If anything they represent a weak agnosticism founded upon doubt. What surprises me about the complaint made against them is that they are the best thing that could have happened to the church. Most individuals who see those signs will not be readily influenced by them, however, a significant number of people will see them and begin to think. This thought will lead them to their vicar, to the bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, or to their preferred religious format, whatever that may be. As a result, it is not an advertisement that wins the argument, simply one that raises its profile, calling out the troops on either side in the search for truth. Personally, as many of you will know, I am an agnostic, but should new evidence emerge, I will always be willing to listen.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Video Games as Culture and Society
In reading the news over the past few days I have become increasingly interested in the rise of the video game as a cultural medium and the moral messages they include. As a member of the video game generation, they have always been a part of my cultural experience. The years that certain games emerged and the systems that went with them, had a definitive effect on the manner in which I socialised and the way in which I interacted with other members of my generation. I have never been convinced that video games breed violent or inapropriate behaviour, or at least, no more so than any other medium. Movies, books and television play a similar role in our society and, in my mind, it would be helpful if more people saw them as equals rather than in an artistic hierarchy. That having been said, there is an extent to which a virtual environment in which you are able to make your own moral decisions, and in which these moral decisions have a specific outcome on the extent to which you are rewarded/punished may well have a stronger influence on future behaviour.

More modern games, especially those that are designed as simulators for an actual society (rpgs, mmorps, etc.) seem to be taking increased notice of systems of morality and in doing so could be said to be helping to address a long standing problem in the genre. I call it a problem in the sense that it provides a greater degree of realism with a system of morality in place, than a traditional video game would display. What is interesting for me and specifically my studies is that the systems employed are almost always simple systems of Kantian ethics. There are a series of rules that cannot be broken and, if one breaks them, a set punishment is allotted for the breaking of those rules. In many cases the punishment is the loss of life, or a fine. In others, perhaps games with a more advanced system, the retribution can be in the form of loss of standing or opportunity and in a very few, being stonewalled or met with open hostility by certain sections of the programming.

Mmorps seem to take ethics to a different level. World of Warcraft, for instance, allows a degree immoral behaviour to occur, but associates it with risk. Player killers exist in almost every game of this type, though their are usually a sufficient number of disincentives to discourage such behaviour. If such societal retribution is not sufficient, i.e. the moderators or program itself does not take direct action, then the emergence of society based on mutual protection can be seen. Players group together in guilds specifically designed to usurp power from other unruly players and fight back against those that have harmed them in the past. Retributive justice is taken into the hands of society at large with little account for the state or how the situation might more effectively be managed.

A full scale study of such phenomena would no doubt be fascinating. A blank world with the opportunity for colonisation and the emergence of powerful players with vassals and governmental systems. Would stable governements emerge? Surely the game would begin as life was described by Hobbes, 'Nasty, brutish, and short.' Later a social contract might make an appearance, a form of end user license agreement to force players to obey certain rules and regulations. In any case the amount that could be learnt by philosophers about morals and government would be invaluable. Our culture given a fresh start, allowed to develop from a blank state, into whatever government that may emerge.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Israeli Military Action

I recently read an article on the BBC website that asked the question; in Gaza, who is a civilian? I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the writing and the depth of the analysis and would highly recommend it to all readers. The only frustrating part of the article was the lack of a conclusion. Certainly the author brought into question whether the war was just (namely on the grounds of proportional response and minimizing civilian casualties) but she made no attempt at answering the question she herself had set. Admittedly it is perhaps the most difficult and critical question in an age that has seen warfare change drastically. It is easy to become outraged by stories of children being killed by bombs that failed to destroy an obviously military target. What is difficult is how to judge, for instance, the destruction of the science laboratories at the Islamic University or the slaughter of over 40 Police Officer Trainees on their parade ground.

In the first case the destruction of the science labs was purported to be due to their use in weapons research. Firstly, I think it is very easy to claim that almost any scientific research is weapons based. Certainly anything that can be labeled physics, chemistry, or engineering. As a reason for destruction I think it is inexcusable unless the following conditions are met; either that proof can be provided that weapons are being manufactured in those facilities, or that the weapons being researched are banned by international treaties etc. In either case, the international community has every right to demand proof as a reason for destruction. Destruction of University buildings seems particularly foolish from several other standpoints. Most of the young, liberal and educated Palestinians living in Gaza will have some sort of connection to the University. These are the individuals that ultimately could be expected to be the supporters of moderate government and peaceful coexistence with Israel. Destruction of an educational facility is likely to encourage many of them to adopt conservative views and, at the very least, view future interaction with Israel with increased skepticism.

The Police Trainees are an exceptionally difficult case. The Israeli government has claimed that many of them are also terrorists of some description and even that they have taken part in past rocket attacks. Once again they have made these claims without offering any form of proof to the international community. In addition, these were individuals being trained in first aid, riot prevention and generally in keeping the peace in a community that badly needs them. Such individuals are most likely to do far more good than harm, particularly as Israel has been unwilling to indicate how many of the forty they suspected.

The last thing I wish to touch on is proportionality. Since 2001 only 18 Israelis have died from rocket fire. The newest reports from Gaza have indicated that over 700 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of this assault. I completely fail to see how this can be justified as proportional. The Israeli government has claimed that the political wing of Hamas is just as culpable as the terrorist wing and therefore all of the governmental agencies it controls are legitimate targets. Best as I can judge, this is Israel begging the rest of the Islamic world for a fight and I would be astounded if the recent rocket fire from Lebanon proved to be the last.