Sunday, February 24, 2008

Don't Joke in Britain

We read:

"When it comes to making your co-workers laugh, tread carefully. Sometimes even a great joke can lead to the punch line "you're fired." The daily grind has always been fertile ground for practical jokes, witty one-liners, rude gags and general clowning around. But it is becoming harder to avoid crossing the line into offensive territory, due in part to the ease of electronic communication and the workplace's growing attunement to cultural diversity and worker sensitivity.

Take the PR Newswire employee fired last month for using the term "loony-bin-rally" to slug a press release about a march for mental illness. The company published an apology saying it deeply regretted the "error" and understood how "such terminology feeds the prejudice and discrimination associated with mental illnesses."

Then there was the European head of Barclaycard--the credit card arm of Barclays (nyse: BCS - news - people )--who lost his job last month, allegedly because of a gag that offended fellow employees. According to The Daily Telegraph, Marc Howells was discussing quarterly results with his staff when he told the following joke: "The results were like Muslims--some were good, some were Shi'ite."

It may be difficult to determine when the punishment fits the crime, but there is no doubt jokes are dangerous creatures in an office environment. Careless e-mails build up a trail of evidence that can look 10 times worse when closely analyzed and wrenched out of context. An offhand riposte about a co-worker can worm its way through the office, resulting in an official complaint or even disciplinary action if there is the suspicion of discrimination.

Which begs the question: Is it even worth making a joke at work anymore? Not according to British writer Toby Young, whose 2003 book How to Lose Friends and Alienate People chronicled his many failed attempts to charm co-workers at Vanity Fair through humor. "It is a risk that simply isn't worth taking," said Young



The enviroloonies seem to have found their way out of the asylum again: this time to tell us that 70 per cent of Britons should die for the sake of Gaia. That's not quite the way they put it, of course. Rather, the Optimum Population Trust (there's a pedantic part of me that wants to tell them it's Optimal) tells us that the maximum sustainable population of the UK is 17 million: given that there are north of 60 million currently, we can only avert the coming End Times if the extra pop their clogs soonest.

It's not bad for a paper on demography, economics, the environment and their interactions written by a physicist, that is, a paper written by someone with no knowledge of any of the three basic disciplines. The argument rests on two fundamental pieces of illogic. The first is the use of the Commoner-Ehrlich equation which is that ecological Impact is equal to Population times Affluence times Technology or:

I = P x A x T

Paul Ehrlich, you might recall, is the man who in the 60s predicted hundreds of millions starving in India in the 70s and the US in the 80s. Then in the 70s predicted the same in the 80s and 90s and, in his latest book, Real Soon Now. The flaw in this equation is that technology is held to multiply the impact instead of, as is obvious to even the casual observer, divide it.

If you haven't spotted why yet, consider this. Are we using higher technology than hunter gatherers? Yes? Good, now, if there were 6 billion hunter gatherers around, would Gaia simply be, as at present, a bit grumpy, or even worse off? Correct, there wouldn't be any biosphere at all as that many humans with flints and spears alone would have eaten every thing on the planet and then each other. As, indeed, hunter gatherers did with the megafauna of every place they got to outside Africa, the Aborigines, the Clovis culture in North America, the Maori in New Zealand and so on. The equation should thus read:

I = (P x A)/T

For higher technology reduces the environmental impact. The effect of this upon the logic used in the paper is this. As the paper says, higher technology and increased affluence increase the pressure on the environment, and as none of us is prepared to give up the levels of both which we already have, the only thing we can do to save the planet is to have fewer people. But getting the equation the right way around removes this constraint: we can reduce the impact by having better technology and there's no need to go round slaughtering the chavs [disrespectful young British lower class people] (well, OK, not this reason then). And most importantly, as we'll see, we can do this by creating technology which has lower carbon emissions.

The second conceptual error is that in their calculation of the permissible population level they use the concept of ecological footprints as calculated by Mathis Wackernagel. Now in one way I've got a lot of time for him: it's not everyone who manages to turn their Ph.D thesis into a thriving international business, so hats off, well done sir. On the other hand, that thesis is what is technically known in serious circles as horse manure. For example, when looking at the carbon emissions of nuclear power, the calculation is:

Nuclear power, about 4 per cent of global energy use, does not generate CO2. Its footprint is calculated as the area required to absorb the CO2 emitted by using the equivalent amount of energy from fossil fuels.

Mat bubba: over the cycle nuclear does have CO2 emissions, roughly the same as hydro or wind, less than half solar and a tiny fraction of coal. But our ecological footprint idea gets much worse than that. The essential idea is that we work out how much land a particular activity requires. Then we work out how many activites and how much of such there are and then look at how many hectares of land we need to be able to do all of them. This is what gives us our regular yearly (when Mathis and his boys release their annual update) cycle of we need "three more earths" if we're all going to carry on living like this.

Again there's a conceptual error about technology: thinking that the amount of land we need to do something is static, which it plainly isn't. We get more food off a hectare now than we did last year, as we have every year for at least a century (yields have been going up one per cent a year for at least that long) and so on. But wait, there's yet more.

Each piece of land is only allowed to count once. The land needed to recycle CO2 emissions is somehow different land from that needed to grow the food: that plants eat CO2 to turn it into my food gets missed.

Even given all of this exaggeration the actual end finding of the ecological footprints calculations is that we've got plenty of land to do everything except recycle our CO2 emissions, something which really isn't all that much of a surprise. We've had thousands of scientists labouring away for more than a decade to tell us that, they even wrote a great big report about it. And guess what the result of that report is? If we can invent a few more bright shiny new technologies that don't emit carbon then everything is just hunky dory.

In the end this report is just another sad set of scribblings from people who would appear to have some deeper personal problems. Perhaps it's the thought of people having sex without a full body condom that does it, or perhaps they've come over all Fran Liebowitz ("Children don't smoke enough and I find that they're sticky, perhaps as a result of not smoking enough") but something is clearly wrong, when we read:

"It follows that if it is not possible to constrain affluence and technology, then the only parameter left to constrain and reduce is population."

Their sad misunderstanding about the effects of technology blinds them to the truth, that by not constraining technology we don't have to constrain either affluence or population. The late great Julian Simon once calculated that we had the resources for a permanently growing economy and population for the next 7 billion years. That might be a little Panglossian, to be honest, but it's more accurate than the insistence that there should be fewer, poorer people.


EU threat to British lives

European judges could strip the profiles of more than half a million people from the national DNA database on privacy grounds — undermining its growing value to police as an investigative tool.

As two sex killers caught by the database were jailed for life yesterday and a senior detective joined calls for a universal register, the European Court of Human Rights will hear a case that could mean 560,000 DNA samples being destroyed. Two people charged with offences but never convicted will ask the court next week to remove their records from the database. If they succeed, 13 per cent of the 4.3 million profiles collected since 1995 would have to be destroyed.

The category of DNA profiles facing destruction has yielded vital clues in criminal cases. Official figures seen by The Times indicate that the DNA of 8,500 people never previously charged or convicted has been matched with DNA taken from crime scenes. The cases have involved about 14,000 offences including 114 murders, 55 attempted murders and 116 rapes. Europe will rule on the legality of the database as demands grow for the entire British population to be sampled after its crucial role in catching Steve Wright, the Suffolk Strangler, and Mark Dixie, the killer of Sally Anne Bowman.

Detective Superintendent Stuart Cundy, who led the investigation into Miss Bowman’s murder, said that a universal database would have caught Dixie within 24 hours of the killing. Instead he remained at large for nine months until police took a DNA swab from him after a pub fight. Dixie, 35, was jailed for life at the Old Bailey only hours after Wright, 49, was given a whole-life sentence for the murders of five Ipswich prostitutes. Wright had been arrested after a DNA sample from one of his victim’s bodies matched the profile loaded on the database after his arrest for a minor theft.

Mr Cundy said: “I am all for a national DNA register, with all the appropriate safeguards. If there had been one at the time of Sally Anne’s murder we would have known who it was that day. It could have protected everybody else out there. For nine months between Sally Anne’s murder and the arrest one of our biggest fears and was that this man could attack again. A national DNA register could solve that.”

Richard Ottaway, Miss Bowman’s local Tory MP, said: “A universal DNA database is necessary to solve these crimes.” The Home Office has published proposals for extending the existing database by taking samples from people detained for minor, or non-recordable offences, such as not wearing a seatbelt. Ministers are understood to be awaiting the outcome of the European court case before deciding whether to proceed with the expansion plans.

Human rights lawyers will argue in Strasbourg that a juvenile acquitted of attempted robbery and Michael Marper, who faced charges of harassment that were later dropped, should have their profiles removed from the database. South Yorkshire police, which arrested both, has refused to destroy their records. Peter Mahy, their solicitor, said: “This is the most important case on the human rights implication of retaining biometric data.” He said his clients were concerned about the uses to which the samples might be put and the lack of independent oversight of the national database.


Crowbarring their way into the family home

The UK government's campaign to colonise family life is nearly complete: it is now telling parents to remove video games from their children's bedrooms.

In Britain, as part of an effort to prevent children from playing games that are `unsuitable' for their age, a legally enforceable cinema-style classification system is to be introduced for video games. This will make it illegal for shops to sell classified video games to a child below the recommended age (1). The Brown government's clampdown on violent video games has ugly echoes of the `video nasties' panic unleashed by the Conservative government in the 1980s.

Back then, the authorities' belief that if children watched slasher-gore horror flicks they would turn into crazed psychopaths was routinely ridiculed by opponents of the Conservative government. That was because the notion that watching violent material somehow damages people has always been one of the flimsiest panics around. Indeed, even as New Labour tries to rehash the old monkey-see/monkey-do censorious attitude in relation to violent video games, it is forced to admit that there isn't much hard evidence to suggest that children will grow up to be more violent if they watch Driller Killer or play Manhunt 2.

Unfortunately, however, in today's ultra-suspicious climate, these old arguments about violent material turning out violent young people are more likely to get a hearing, because individual and increasingly parental autonomy is held in even lower esteem than I Spit On Your Grave.

The driving factor behind this return of the creakiest and hoariest of moral panics is not so much violent video games, but rather concern about the remaining free space between parents and children. Ostensibly, the government's proposals to restrict youthful access to violent games are targeted at retailers, who will face a fine if they sell bloody games to underage kids - yet more fundamentally, it is being used as a way for the authorities to crowbar their way into the family home. Government ministers are `advising' parents (that is, piling the pressure on them) to keep computers and games consoles out of children's bedrooms and instead allow children only to play such games in the living room. So determined is the government to colonise every aspect of parenting and family relations that it is now peering even into children's bedrooms, and tut-tutting about what it sees there.

In this sense, outlawing violent video games is a transparent cover for eventually outlawing the existence of truly free personal spaces inside the family home. Given that this government frequently shifts from `offering advice' to threatening coercive action against those who refuse to follow it, these latest moves to kick consoles out of kids' bedrooms are clearly more frightening than any computer game.

The implication of New Labour's hectoring advice on games consoles is that stupid parents do not know what is best for their children. Instead, the authorities themselves must dictate what is appropriate for young people, and even what their bedrooms should look like and contain. Indeed, New Labour has made the social control of children and teenagers a central plank of its Respect policies and its `politics of behaviour' because it recognises that this is a device for controlling and monitoring parents - that is, the adults in British society.

Last week, home secretary Jacqui Smith unveiled proposals for new `parenting contracts', which would be served on mums and dads whose underage children are caught drinking. The contracts would ban parents from allowing their children to visit certain areas or places at stipulated times, and would hold them responsible for preventing their children from consuming alcohol. If parents breach these contracts, they could find themselves before the courts and can be fined o1,000.

It is true that teenagers frequently seek out the thrills of illicit cigarettes and booze - that is a reflection of their impatience and aspiration to enter the adult world sooner rather than later. It is simply not possible or, more importantly, desirable for parents to keep a constant tab on what their teenage children get up to. Enacting `parent contracts' against people whose children drink is to punish parents for things that are, and shall always be, largely beyond their control.

Yet the message of the anti-teen drinking contracts is clear: parents are inadequate slobs who need to be instructed in parenting skills by the powers-that-be. Jacqui Smith says of parents: `The idea that you can hand your kids a six-pack of lager and tell them to disappear off for the evening - with no thought to the consequences - is frankly baffling to me.' (2) But there is no evidence that huge numbers of parents are forcing their offspring to guzzle beer every evening. Rather, Smith's comments about parents (which, notably, caused far less controversy than her comment about walking alone through London) are underpinned by New Labour's unsubstantiated and pretty vile prejudice that everyday parents are bestial and depraved and thus should not have the final say on how they bring up their children.

At school, too, children are increasingly being socialised to believe that their parents are dupes and dopes who shouldn't really be trusted. Consider the furore over the content of children's packed lunches. As part of New Labour's crusade against fatty, sugary food and fizzy drinks, some schools now rifle through children's lunchboxes, confiscate contraband items, and write letters of complaint to unthinking parents. This implicitly breaks a quite sacred bond between parent and child: a mum or dad lovingly packs their child's lunchbox, only to have it ruled unhealthy by a teacher or other school official. This sends the message to children that the authorities know better than your mother how to bring you up.

As someone at the coalface of schooling at the moment, I can see the emergence of a new generation that looks up to the authorities for constant guidance and permission on basic matters. The one group of people teenagers certainly won't be seeking approval from is their parents. Instead, parents are increasingly seen, in cultural, political and media debates, as individuals who are failing to provide the correct healthy and moral guidelines for the next generation in open-prison Britain.

There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that children who play violent video games will grow up to be violent psychopaths. Nor is there hard evidence that parents hand out six-packs of Carling and tell their kids to `get on with it'. However, these stories are themselves evidence of an increasingly demented and nasty mindset amongst government officials, who seem to view most parents as low-life scum in need of short, sharp fines or worse. It is an outrage for officials to barge their way so brazenly into the parental home and order that parents pack away their kids' computers. Who the hell do they think they are? It's time, surely, that we zapped New Labour's encroachment on parental autonomy before they take their draconian measures to the next level.



THE LONE voice in the midst of the debate argued effectively that climate change is both unavoidable and a `cyclical' phenomenon. Scientist Dr Henry Clemmey, who is the managing director of Preston-based Woodford Global Group, asserted that global warming is part of a pattern that has been happening throughout the earth's history.

The former Leeds University academic admits to having seen the effects of climate change within his own lifetime - but believes that mankind cannot be held responsible. "Climate change is something that we can't stop or prevent - but we do need to be knowledgeable about its potential effects," he said. "I think that so many debates about climate change take place against an ignorance of both time and scale in terms of the earth's evolution. "If you look back through the history of the planet, you will find a whole series of cycles. "You will also see that these cycles have taken place before - and will take place again in the future."

He added that the cycle lasted for 60,000 years and was currently warming up and said: "it's not so long ago - in terms of the earth's evolution over the past four billion years - that the climate was far hotter than this."

Dr Clemmey also maintained that when the carbon particles found in the atmosphere now are compared with other periods in the earth's evolution, they show that mankind's recent behaviour cannot be held responsible for climate change. He believes that it is a gradual progression that has led to this point.

His figures were dismissed by glacier expert Professor David Collins and climate change expert Professor Kevin Anderson.

"I cannot always understand the scientists' current obsession with carbon emissions," said Dr Clemmey. "The current changes we are experiencing go far beyond what we have caused by our lifestyles in our own lifetimes - and ultimately the earth will look after itself."


British police to use Tasers on children: "Police have been given the go-ahead to use Taser stun guns against children. The relaxing of restrictions on the use of the weapons comes despite warnings that they could trigger a heart attack in youngsters. Until now, Tasers - which emit a 50,000-volt electric shock - have been used only by specialist officers as a "non lethal" alternative to firearms. However, they can now be used against all potentially violent offenders even if they are unarmed. It is the decision not to ban their use against minors that is likely to raise serious concerns. Home Office Police Minister Tony McNulty said medical assessments had confirmed the risk of death or serious injury from Tasers was "low". But he failed to mention Government advisers had also warned of a potential risk to children. The Defence Scientific Advisory Council medical committee told the Home Office that not enough was known about the health risks of using the weapons against children"

`Most Britons belong to no religion': "Freedom from religion in Britain is becoming as important as freedom of religion, according to a United Nations investigation. A 23-page report by Asma Jahangir, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, says that the 2001 census findings that nearly 72 per cent of the population is Christian can no longer be regarded as accurate. The report claims that two thirds of British people do not admit to any religious affiliation. The report calls for the disestablishment of the Church of England. It says that the role and privileges of the Church do not reflect "the religious demography of the country and the rising proportion of other Christian denominations". The report says that there is an "overall respect for human rights and their value" but it gives warning of discrimination against Muslims."

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