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Like most people around the world, I am absolutely hooked on the upcoming American presidential election. It seems to me as if history is being played out in front of our eyes. It’s my belief that, with the now almost certain victory of Barack Obama, America is about to change forever.

I don’t think that the likes of a George Bush (or Sarah Palin for that matter) will ever get elected to the highest office again. This is the beginning of the end of the Christian Right’s domination of American politics.

Why do I think this? One word. Irrelevance.

America’s right wing built its power selling myths to its people. God, guns and gasoline, the belief that America was somehow special and superior to all others. A fear of the outside world. Ferocious self reliance – no safety nets and little care for those that do not make it.

Like a living organism, ideas need a context in which to survive and thrive. America’s relative isolation provided that context. It allowed many of its citizens to believe that they were superior, that life really was a clear and definable struggle of good against evil and that the resources of the world were somehow inexhaustable.

No more. Technology, education, cheap travel, globalisation, climate change, international terrorism and the failure of classical American foreign policy have punctured this myth, with only the most ardent believers (and there are still many of them) continuing to hold out defiantly.

It’s becoming increasingly more evident that, for America to prosper, to compete, and to address complex challenges such as disease pandemics, global warming, nuclear proliferation, financial meltdown and terrorism, it must engage constructively with the rest of the world. With the vessel of isolationism in retreat, the carefully nurtured myths that held fast to its hull have no home to go to.

Lest my American friends think that I am attempting to paint America as one homogeneous, naive, reactionary mass, nothing could be further from the truth. What I am describing is not some overnight phenomenon. Many Americans “get” this changed reality, and have done for years, if not decades. The election of Obama, I believe, will be the tipping point, where the prevailing ideology of the isolationists will finally become a minority view. To regain the upper hand, Republicanism will need to reinvent itself, but given the arch-conservatism of its support base, this is no easy task.

But what do I know? I don’t come from there, nor do I live there, but fascinated in the country I will always be.

It’s not such big news considering the global situation, but Ireland’s fabled “Celtic Tiger” got shot a few months ago. Shot, gutted, skinned, skewered and then roasted. Like an express train travelling at 200kph towards a half-finished bridge, everyone saw it coming, but few dared to scream halt. The whole country was complicit in an unprecedented property scam. Ireland, for a while, became the land of the golden SUV. People were taking four holidays a year. You were measured by the size of your kitchen extension.

And all this time, the government was rolling it in. Larging it up. The cash was there from increased taxes and almost full-employment, so why not give this nation of habitual complainers the services they always wanted? Every spare penny was spent on cushioning: padding out the public services, propping up the salaries, silencing discontent with cash. Nobody complained. How could they? Nobody, after all, likes a party pooper. 

But then, in 2007, the property market crashed. Crash. Bang. Wallop. Thud. Every month since then, less and less money has flowed in as waves of construction workers and their dependents find themselves out of a job. The Irish Government, with no money stored away for a rainy day, is now broke. Officially, indisputably, skint.

And yet, the public expectation is that the Celtic Tiger services stay exactly the same. That’s the public for you and who can blame it? You fight hard to get your privileges, and damned if you are not going to put up a fight if someone tries to take them away. 

You would think, in a situation such as we find ourselves in today, that the political classes might get together to figure out what needs to be done. All the parties – government, opposition, everyone. Get the best administrators, the most capable leaders, the most innovative thinkers, and put together a plan that hurts like hell, but eventually gets the country out of the mess it now finds itself in. 

Instead, what we find is political point-scoring on a massive scale. The entire opposition has decided that siding with the populace is the way to go. That sympathising with Mr and Mrs Murphy on Leitrim St is going to solve the countries problems. That blame is better than solution finding. That it is better to seize the opportunity now to get elected than to be constructive and engaged in solving this overwhelmingly bad situation. 

Well, oppositiony politiciany folks – we need your rampant opportunism now like a chasm in the head. Unless you start telling us how you are going to solve the political crisis by making deep, painful cuts in public expenditure or increasing taxes, could I ask you to fuck off and leave the professionals to it?

There. Rant over.

 

This is a mindblowing podcast from NPR’s “This American Life”. It’s about the Credit Crunch, explained so that even a thicko like me can understand it, but done in a way that is, well, mindblowing.

I’ve been like an evangelist over the last few days, telling my real-life friends to listen to it. 

So now I’m telling you.

We live in a world where many people (lawyers, mainly) are gainfully employed in the business of protecting ideas and the distribution of ideas around the world. These protections, mainly trademarks, copyrights and patents, form a huge body of law known as Intellectual Property or IP. The concept is that if you come up with an idea, you can protect it from rivals, thereby giving you a chance to profit from it. Protecting your idea means that you can recoup the (often sizable) investment that you might spend on bringing that idea to fruition. Without IP, the fear is that others would steal your great ideas without putting in the hard work and you would think twice about coming up with an idea ever again. Innovation would be stifled and progress as we know it would come to a grinding halt. 

Such fear is often a load of bollocks.

In fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the contrary argument is in fact the case. IP often does more to strangle innovation than it does to protect it, and in a world where everyone is talking about innovation as the key ingredient of success in the 21st Century, that’s a problem.  

Silicon Valley is probably a case in point: although there are plenty of lawyers making a tidy sum from IP issues around the Bay Area, nevertheless it’s acknowledged that protecting ideas is not that big of a deal. You join another company with my ideas today, I hire you back with their ideas tomorrow . That’s pretty much the way it goes. Things move far too fast to be worrying about court cases. The Valley’s success, it has been argued, is precisely because there is much freer movement of ideas there than elsewhere in the world.

There are now companies that exist purely to buy and hoard patents: this is a complete abuse of patent law and hugely damaging to companies that want to try new things. Patent law is so often the last refuge of the uncompetitive.

Copyright, in the digital world, is a nonsense. Digital products copy themselves easily. That’s their nature. That’s what they do. Attempts to limit this ability piss off customers and positively entice people to pursue alternatives. Even when ideas and products are shared freely it is still possible to make money. Just ask Google.

Even the world “Intellectual Property” is a bit of a misnomer in the digital world. Property implies zero sum: if I have it, you don’t. It implies constrained supply – there’s only so much to go around. But the “problem” with digital (and with ideas, generally) is that it’s unconstrained. It’s infinite. You can have as much of it as you wish, with no fears that it will run out any time soon. I give you one, I still have mine. That’s the beauty of ideas.

Today’s IP situation is a lot like the world before free trade, when countries used to impose stringent tariffs on imports to protect their native industries. Unfortunately, however, such logic hampered trade and kept people poor (because tariffs worked in reverse). It was only when protectionism was eliminated within market blocs that economies began thrive.

Reducing or even eliminating IP in certain areas would have a similar, if not even greater effect on competition and innovation. I foresee a time when IP in its current form will be dead and people will shake their heads at the lunacy and lack of vision in our era. Hopefully I’ll still be around to see it happen.

I rediscovered this gem on YouTube tonight. The original recordings date back from the 1960’s and many years later they were turned into a series of short animations by Brown Bag Films.  This particular one gained an Academy Award nomination in 2001. All the films have recently been uploaded to YouTube in their entirety.

It harks back to a very different time in Ireland. More certainty, fewer questions, perhaps. Whatever the case, the twists the kids put on the stories were delightful. Note the strong Dublin accents! 

Is it me, or does John the Baptist look very like Chris de Burgh?

Now here is something I definitely didn’t have when I was a kid: YouTube Mobile. 

A couple of nights ago, I was reading a book on Space to the kids. Up came a pop-up Space Shuttle (which one of the twins attempted to rip before I quickly averted his hand). We then had a discussion on the Space Shuttle and then I took out my iPhone, logged on to YouTube and showed them a space shuttle launch for real.

Their jaws dropped.

In the last few nights we have discovered the ISS, Pyroclastic Flows, the Moon landings and Tyrannosaurus Rex and sun spots all from the safety of their bunk-beds. 

Then a few nights later I was reading my eldest son a book on Mexico. We came to a page where the voladores swing around a high pole on a rope tied to their legs. Out comes the iPhone, YouTube is called up and in seconds we are seeing it happening on video. 

He yawned and muttered something like “whatever” under his breath… 

Anyway, moody 9 year olds aside, I think it’s really cool.

These stories came along in threes today. I don’t know what to say.

1) “Neal Beagley, 16, died because of bladder complications nearly four months ago. Authorities said his parents belong to the Followers of Christ Church, a religion relying on prayer in place of medical care.” 

KPTV, via Friendly Atheist

2) “Sheikh Muhammad al-Habadan said showing both eyes encouraged women to use eye make-up to look seductive.”

BBC World Service

3) “Entrusting their recovery to untrained counselors barely out of Bible college, the Mercy girls said that exorcisms and speaking in tongues took the place of treatment, that expulsion was the punishment for peeing without permission, and that DVDs featuring the testimony of former gays were peddled as a cure for lesbianism.”

Nashville Scene, via Friendly Atheist

Whereas the 20th Century dealt with the rise of mass-production, it appears that a big theme of the 21st Century will concern mass-customisation. The basic idea is that the organisations that succeed are those that are best able cater to the multiple specific tastes and whims of different individuals in the most efficient way. 

Current examples of mass-customisation include clothing, footwear, helmets, computers, jewelry and printing. All fairly low-key stuff. It’s possible however that we all could be driving around in custom cars, drinking custom concoctions at the bar – exactly matched to our taste buds, and receiving custom prescription drugs exactly suited to our individual genetic makeup. The possibilities are endless and perhaps a bit frightening if taken to the extreme – custom pets and even custom babies perhaps?

Mass customisation applies not just to products, but also to many services we take for granted. From mobile phone plans to travel to insurance, we already experience a great many options so that we can choose something that best fits our lifestyle. Supermarket loyalty cards are used to generate unique discount plans for each shopper. There is even a trend towards personalisation in education, so that children get an education that is best matched to their innate interests and abilities. Many services, from utilities to postal services to taxation, are wide open to future mass-personalisation. 

So here’s what got me thinking: might mass-customisation help to deal with the problem of criminality? For centuries, the blunt instrument of choice has been the prison sentence. While it no doubt has its merits in some cases, it fails in terms of recidivism rates and ultimately it has not succeeded in making a meaningful dent into crime rates within society. Yes, there are alternatives such as electronic tagging, suspended sentences, barring orders, fines and community service, but even so, prison still remains the number one deterrent.

There is something very Victorian about the concept of prison – it is where someone goes to “learn a lesson” and “pay back their crime to society” – to reform their evil ways, as it were. It all sounds very good, if only it were true. I am deeply skeptical that meaningful reform is possible for most people in a prison environment. It seems to jar with what we know about human psychology. The motivations that put people in jail are so different in each case. It could be poverty, boredom, accident, self-expression, anger or even cold-blooded sadism. To me, prison seems like a “one size fits all” solution that, while effective in some cases, is absolutely useless for many other situations because it fails to take account of individual motivations and values. I sometimes wonder if, 500 years hence, our descendants will look on modern prisons in the same way our current generation recoils from the brutal ways the authorities dealt with miscreants in the sixteenth century.   

Enter the world of personalised and customised sentencing. If we had better information on an individual’s background, genetic, personality and psychological makeup and the means to efficiently design responses to criminal behaviour on a case by case basis, could we come up with more effective solutions, thereby driving crime rates down to nominal levels? The suspicion is that, by gaining a better understanding of what drives individual motivations and how an individual’s behaviour is affected by the environment in which they operate, we might come up with approaches and responses that prevent these behaviours in the future. 

Answers that might emerge could include drugs, implants, educational or psychiatric responses, targeted interventions, and in more serious cases, physical exclusion. Maybe it might just be as simple as specifically targeted drugs, who knows?  

I wonder though, if the means were there to implement it, would society be willing to support it? Even if customised sentencing showed huge drops in criminality, it would still require a big change in thinking. A very large section of society continues to demand longer and harsher prison sentences often as a reaction to the injustice of the original criminal act. Harsher sentences don’t seem to make society any safer. (If this were the case, surely the USA, with its large prison population, would be the safest country in the world). In a mass-customised world, prisoners would be given punishments matched to their psychological makeup and circumstances that would ensure a) that the perpetrator does not re-offend, and b) that the perpetrator understands and regrets their actions. It may not deal so well with a victim’s or society’s desire for revenge. Customised sentencing might mean that the best response for a murder, in one case, is drug therapy, whereas a vandal might require a long-term barring order or deep psychological treatment for something relatively minor.

So, customised sentencing may be both a panacea and a headache. It could offer a world with much less crime, but there are social and ethical issues that will need to be dealt with.

What do you think? Is this a pipe-dream? What other benefits or problems do you see? I’m interested in your views.

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