Online petitions

I am a great signer of online petitions. In the past few weeks I have supported calls for proportional representation, the need to have a deposit return system for plastic drinks bottles and the need to stop president Donald Trump from being given the honour of having a state visit.

I sometimes wonder about the true worth of on-line petitions. The results can be very significant in that there have been some really important developments in environmental and social issues.

Yesterday, the giant drinks company Coke did a U-Turn on the deposit return system. I had signed a petition from an organisation called 38 Degrees, one of many petitions that I have signed from that organisation. As can be seen below in a photograph taken from their Home Page on their website, they run a great many campaigns, are open to people starting their own campaigns and have had quite a lot of successes.

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The following photos  will give you some idea about the sort of campaigns that they run:

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Looking at these campaigns you can see where they are most likely to have some success. The plastic bottles has already caused Coke and other large companies to react and the Scottish Government is in the process of introducing the first deposit return scheme that has existed in the U.K. since I was a child and used to return glass Lemonade bottles in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

There is every hope that there will be enough public support to protect the world famous Sherwood Forest (Robin Hood’s stomping ground).

But if you look at the campaigns in the second photograph you can see where the problems with online petitions lies. Do I really feel that mass protest about NHS funding is going to have any impact on the present Government and their obsession with “balancing the books”? No!

I would love to have my say on the US-UK Trade Deal but realise that whatever we may say, in terms of the number of online signatures, it is unlikely to have any impact on Theresa May and especially Donald Trump.

Our efforts, through the Government’s own online petitions system to get the state visit of President Trump cancelled was met with a short Parliamentary debate where the item was discussed by our MP’s. The debate was triggered by the petition passing a point where it has to be discussed.

There was a fiery debate in the House but at the end, to quote a recent report:

“There was no vote at the end of the debate, and ultimately it is up to the British Government whether to withdraw the invitation, or downgrade the visit. It seems highly unlikely that, now extended, the government would retract the invitation.”

In conclusion, I enjoy the fact that the ubiquity of the net has given us the chance to have a say on a number of important issues. In terms of educating the public about issues  organisations such as 38 Degrees do a fantastic job. But this needs to be seen in the light of what impact these campaigns can ever have. In terms of bad publicity for large multinationals it can have some effects, in local environmental issues it can get real things done but at a Government level I do not see how an “elected dictatorship” would really quake in their boots at people like me hitting a key on my keyboard to protest at their actions.

Bridging the divide

I watched a very interesting discussion yesterday. It was the first of a number of speakers who has been invited by the TED Talks organisation with the intention of trying to understand the current political and social divides that have given us Brexit, President Trump and is threatening to overwhelm us in the near future with the possible electoral success of the far right in France, Italy and maybe even Germany.

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The speaker was Yuval Noah Harari who is a historian who writes interesting “Big History” books such as his highly successful book “Sapiens” and has just published a new book “Homo Deus” that discusses the next hundred years of our species’ existence on Earth in terms of the rather foreboding development of  Artificial Intelligence that will make most human work redundant. Robots, he states can do manual work now (such as make cars) but in the future they will be able to do most everything else. He even predicts that doctors will be replaced by apps that will know our full medical history and have up-to-date knowledge of every drug and medical technique that no human doctor can ever hope to know!

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Chis Anderson the head of Ted discussed the problems that have arisen from the upheavals of 2016 and said that the series of talks was intended to see how we can somehow bridge the massive divide that seems to have come about with an almost even split between the two main contenders in both the Brexit referendum in the U.K. and last November’s Presidential Election in the U.S.A.

Interestingly Harari posits explanations for the rise of nationalism as a backward reaction to globalisation and the frightening power of technology. To people who feel dispossessed and angry at the closure of factories that have been the staple industries and ways of life of so many places for so long. (Think of Detroit and cars and the Rhondda Valley and Coal Mines).

He states that al history is a fiction and that we tell ourselves stories that allow us to exist in the fiction of the tribe, the nation-state and recently in the the supra-national organisation such as the European Union. The world becomes difficult when we lose faith in the fiction and we often return to an earlier story that we feel harbours a better past for ourselves.

The problem is that the past is just as much a fiction as the present. The “Little Englanders” are harping back to an era that has been overtaken by technology-driven economic change. “Making America great again” has to take into consideration that the Detroit factories have been bulldozed out of existence or remain as bleak ruined reminders of a past age when they had true economic and social power.

The world is thus divided between those who have embraced internationalism and have moved on to a new fiction of the oneness of man and the need to unite across national boundaries to avert the threat of war and to tackle the huge problems of climate change and environmental disaster (such as the disappearance on a daily basis of vast swathes of the rainforests) and those who have returned to an earlier story of the “nation state” where borders are all-important and we co-operate only when it is to our particular advantage.

On the question of how to bridge the divide I felt that Harari did not really have any answers.Like many of us, he can define the problem but does not have a magic wand to suggest an answer.

We live in what the ancient Chinese would call “interesting times”. Wars, famine and massive changes happen in “interesting times”. These times come about when new technologies force us to reinvent ourselves. We go from hunter-gatherers to living in communities that farm. We spend thousands of years as agricultural labourers and then a new technology makes us surplus to requirements and we leave the land and head for the overcrowded industrial cities.

As Harari states, we have always been lucky because there has always been an alternative, new source of employment. From farmworker to factory-worker to services industry employee. But the rise of automation has left us with nowhere to turn. As he states tellingly, the many  thousands of garment industry workers in Bangladesh cannot become software engineers and move to Silicon Valley!

The important point he makes is that the huge “elephant in the room” of  Climate Change and Environmental decay will not go away. We cannot afford to go back to an earlier fiction because no nation can sort these problems by itself. We do need to go forward by international co-operation or there is every possibility that we will hasten the extinction of our really interesting species.

Reading books can prolong your life

I  have always loved reading.

Like so many others I cannot recall when I learned to read but became quite proficient at an early age. I spent many happy hours in wonderful libraries in Hackney, London, where I grew up.

Reading is an essential part of my life. There is literally not one day that goes by when I do not read. Since I retired five years ago I have had the time to spend reading whatever I want. I have decided that I want to keep learning, since I believe that it is of prime importance to keep the brain active as one ages.

I do not believe that watching television or videos has the same mental impact that reading print has. I tend to read both actual books and electronic books. I appreciate that there is a real difference between these two but it is the interaction of your mind with the printed word that is still the same.

Yesterday  I read a report about a study by researchers at Yale University as to whether it can be scientifically proven that  reading improves your longevity.

In this study the researchers looked at the lifestyles of people aged 65+. In particular they compared the activities of passively watching television and how , in reading, there are a number of  cognitive activities involved. Reading the text, decoding it, comprehending the meaning and, in the case of novels, the extensive use of the imagination, in recreating scenes in one’s head and being able to follow dialogue and adjust for accent.

The problem with television is that it is all done for you. You do not need to do much more than watch and comprehend. In some popular television there is very little comprehension required. You may need to think about the quality of someone’s singing or close your eyes quickly to one of the many scenes of excessive violence.

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The Yale study collected data to see if the 65+ groups who watched T. V. but did little reading, lived longer (it was a long-term  study) than those who read more than they watched T.V. and specifically, who read books (I.e. not magazines and newspapers).

The report stated:

Overall, during follow-up, 33% of non-book readers died, compared to 27% of book readers, write the academics Avni Bavishi, Martin Slade and Becca Levy from the Yale University School of Public Health, in their paper A Chapter a Day: Association of Book Reading With Longevity.

“When readers were compared to non-readers at 80% mortality (the time it takes 20% of a group to die), non-book readers lived 85 months (7.08 years), whereas book readers lived 108 months (9.00 years) after baseline,” write the researchers. “Thus, reading books provided a 23-month survival advantage.”

Bavishi said that the more that respondents read, the longer they lived, but that “as little as 30 minutes a day was still beneficial in terms of survival”

Of course there are always exceptions to the scientific proof. You will no doubt find a 100 year old who prides him or herself on hardly reading throughout their long life. But they are the exception. Overall, it is pleasing for those of us who love books to see that reading a book will give us more time on the planet and as the article concludes, more time to read more books!

Hans Rosling; an inspirational human

I first came across Hans Rosling, as many did, by looking at one of his highly entertaining and informative Ted Talks.

Here was a Doctor and Lecturer in International Health issues from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden showing us in his inimitable way how we often have no real idea about the actual statistics about development, population and climate change really are.

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He and his son had developed a brilliant animation programme that allowed you to see statistics almost come alive before your eyes. An example can be seen in the following photo:

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The key thing with Hans Rosling was that he wanted data to be available and discussed. He was in favour of richer countries supporting developing countries because he had the data to prove just how significant the inputs have been in terms of lower deaths from disease, greater life spans, the reduction of population, particularly by the growing availability of education for girls.

As the Guardian obituary (link above)   stated:

“Given the timing, with all the talk about fake news, alternative facts, concern over misinformation and propaganda-by-numbers, Rosling stood for the exact opposite – the idea we can have debates about what could or should be done, but that facts and an open mind are needed before informed discussions can begin.”

He is a sad loss for all of us at a time when we can ill-afford to miss his wisdom, his humour and especially his optimism.

Education in an age of misinformation

I have for a number of years now been a proponent of the widest possible use of information technology in schools.

My most popular post is https://malbell.com/2010/08/27/10-reasons-we-should-allow-mobile-phones-into-schools/ . I regularly get a number of hits on this post and it was my most commented upon. It is number 1 on a Google search for the subject (exact words).

I am though increasingly worried about the fact that pupils and students seem to lack any education into how to actually search and use the vast resources that are available to them on the net.

It seems to me that we live in an age where we are increasingly given what people like to call “False News” but which really should just lies under the general label of “misinformation”.

Too many students will research as far as the first 5 entries on Google and then take great chunks of the material (by highlighting and pasting) and then (if you are lucky) draw it all to a conclusion or more than likely take a conclusive statement from one of the entries and then use this.

The wider problem is that students are not interrogating the information, checking it, deciding whether it is real or not. They seem to rely a lot on Wikipedia. Now I am a supporter of Wikipedia and believe that it is a good thing that there is a source of “information” that anyone can contribute to and which can be edited by others.

The problem is though that there is a lot of unverified information that is presented as fact and that is then used to substantiate arguments in essays.

One of my internet heroes has always ben Howard Rheingold and he came up with an excellent term for this subject. He said that pupils and students needed to have an education that allowed them to be “crap detectors”.

Now more than ever we need to be educating our children in how to use the web. How to detect lies, misinformation and propaganda disguised as “fact”.  There is nothing to be gained if they all have their mobile phones to use and then look up Google and use some piece of fiction and call it fact!

Why we need environmentalists

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The picture above is typical of the spin that we have been getting since the ascendency of Donald Trump to the White House, of the supposed “threat” of environmentalists to our freedom.

The questions that  immediately sprung to my mind on seeing this picture were:

(1) On what basis did this adviser make the statement that he did?

(2) Whose freedom was he referring to?

I did some internet research and discovered the following:

The “Adviser” was Myron Ebell. He has come into the Trump administration from working for the Libertarian Think Tank “The Competitive Enterprise Institute”. As can be seen from below he has been busy recently including making a reasonably unpublicised visit to Number 10 Downing Street to discuss the Trump administration’s views on the dangers of climate change experts alarmist views and their effect on world trade and of course the “special relationship” (and future trade deals) with Britain following Brexit. It appears that Mrs May was too busy to actually meet him!

 

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I found the following profile on Mr Ebell from the Competitive Enterprise Institute website:

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Further research into the educational credentials of Mr Ebell to dismiss the scientists warnings about the threat to our planet of global warming show that this was his educational background:

 

 

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Ebell, as can be seen from above is a political scientist and historian. I can make similar claims myself to this educational background. I do not though feel that I have the knowledge or ability to take issue with scientists who have looked deeply into the subject of climate change.

This brings me to the second question that came to my mind when looking at the initial photograph. Whose freedom?

Mr Ebell’s past employees at the Competitive Enterprise Institute are funded by various industrial organisations, including a large contribution from the energy giant Exxon Mobile (whose CEO, Rex Tillerson has just left to become the new Secretary of State in the Trump administration).

Ebell has been going on for years about the freedom of organisations such as Exxon to continue to find and exploit energy despite the cost to the environment.By denying climate change it gives these organisations “freedom” to continue to put profit before environment and has no concern about the future of the planet and its inhabitants.

So my answer to Mr Ebell is that we do need environmentalists because if they are silenced the consequences for our planet, in my opinion, does not bear thinking about.

Truth stranger than fiction

It seems to me that many of the events of last year would have been rejected as a scenario for a film if they had been put forward the year before.

With hindsight we know that Britain would vote to leave the European Union in the so-called “Brexit” and that Donald Trump (yes Donald Trump!!) would become the 45th President of the United States.

In the last two days I have watched a film called “The Primary Instinct” which was made in 2015. The film is a one-man show, really a long ambling true set of stories taken from the life of the protagonist, Stephen Tobolowsky.

Tobolowsky is a veteran character actor who freely admits to having appeared in about a quarter of all films made in Hollywood over the last forty years (or at least he says  it feels like that). He is also a great storyteller. The important point though is that all his stories are true, always based upon events in his life. He lives by the maxim “truth trumps fiction”.

The joy of Tobolowsky is that he is able to ramble down what look to all the world like blind alleys and then hit you with a powerful point that has been made by the story. It is homespun philosophy that can make you cry. He talks about his father’s blindness and his mother’s Alzheimer’s. He tells you about an incident that happened as a child that would have a powerful implication to an event that happened much later in his life. He talks about his mother attending his Hollywood house in the midst of a drunken, drug taking near orgy and making a point that put all of the events into perspective.

Like all great storytelling it takes you on a journey and you feel compelled to follow it until the end.

It made me wonder though at the power of truth over fiction. As I said at the beginning of this post, who would have believed the events of 2016 if it would have been written down in 2015? Here’s another one for you. I am sitting in a room in Los Angeles in late 2000 at a large film studio. A writer comes in with a scenario for a film.

The film is about a group of fanatical Moslem extremists who would hijack planes and fly them into the famous twin towers of the World Trade Building in New York and also attempt to crash into the Pentagon in Washington.

The long suffering script reader would have a short answer…. I don’t need to tell you what that would have been.

Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. We live in very strange and frightening times. I cannot really conceive of where we are heading but past experience tells me that whatever I forecast will be miles away from what transpires!