Democracy in peril.

I think that democracy is failing.

Politicians all seem to be too busy looking after their own interests or the interests of their cronies. They are isolated and insulated from the views and needs of the great mass of the population.

Government has become so London centric it’s as if the south east of England were a different country.

Yes we have a popularity contest every four years but what then? After the election the Prime Minister gives a press briefing on the steps of number 10 and promises things she has no intention of delivering, just to reassure everyone, the lobbyists line the politicians pockets with silver so big companies and the people with power and money get what they want while the common people who were given so much attention during the election campaign are now simply ignored.

What we seem to have is a system made up of liars who would promise anything just to get re-elected, they would sell their soul to the devil just to secure that chair in the house.

If you look at the arguments put forward by politicians and think about the meaning of what they are actually saying it basically boils down to “Vote for us because we aren’t as bad as the other lot”.

Wait ? Why can’t I vote for someone good ?

Well I could but good luck getting them to win. What we have is a system which strengthens oligarchs and screws the ordinary citizen, over.

The problem is getting worse. Technology is being used to ‘Fix’ elections and referenda by micro targeting individuals with messages customised to their own prejudices and beliefs. Politicians can tell whatever lies they like without the fear of being held to account for any of their lies.

In the recent European Referendum the Brexit campaign used micro targeting of messages on social media and lots of other dirty tricks to exert undue influence on the voters. I do not regard the results of that referendum to be fair and unbiased.

The system is loaded, it isn’t the party with the best policies that wins, it’s the one with the biggest advertising budget. There are supposed to be rules on how much money each party or faction can spend on their campaign but there are ways around these rules for the unscrupulous.

This was not the way it was supposed to be. The internet and the world wide web were hailed as bringing information to the masses. It was supposed to make elections fairer by promoting a well informed electorate, any lies told by politicians would be exposed immediately.

That is not the way it turned out !

What went wrong ?

People vote with their hearts not their minds, you can influence more people with an emotive article or a graphic picture than with an article which contains reasoned arguments and verified facts. Facts don’t tug at the heart strings. And when you are freed from the constraints of telling the truth you can construct some very effective propaganda.

Micro targeting allows you to tailor the message to the recipient and so this becomes a very powerful tool to influence voters.

But this is a slippery slope that we are on.

The success of this strategy will lead to a greater demand for big data about people, and this in turn will lead to politicians relaxing regulations on user surveillance and monitoring, after all it is in their interests to provide themselves with the best tools available to win elections. And that is what it is all about, that is the goal of politicians, to win the next election, not to look after the people or the security of the country or the economy, all these are just the side effects of the need to win the next election. They must be seen to be doing the right thing by the country even if it is an illusion.

What we should be doing is passing laws and regulations to limit the amount of user surveillance and monitoring but this is unlikely to happen and if it does it will be crafted in such a way as to be ineffective, just for show, because it’s popular with the voters.

I don’t have any solutions.

I think I know what the nature of the problem is, but nothing will change unless we’re prepared to have very broad based discussions that get away from the normal platitudes you get in any political campaign “everything’s going to be OK next year if you just vote for me”, it’s a load of crap. This goes for all the major political parties. You know what they are telling you is a load of crap and they aren’t actually going to solve anything.

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Will Technology destroy Democracy ?

Technology has made some wonderful advances, it looks like we will fairly soon have self driving cars, just tell it where you want to go and it will take you there. Your fridge will know when things were bought and when they are likely to go off, it may also give you dietary advice. You might have a personal assistant on your desk listening to your every word you say and controlling your connected home, remembering all of your appointments so you don’t have to and answering any question you ask it.  There are many technologies which are ‘just around the corner’ so the next few years could see some interesting changes.

So how is it that with all the incredible advances in technology we have today and with increasing automation the rewards have not been spread more evenly ?

It seems to me that there is something very wrong about how technology is benefiting the world today. There is also a fundamental threat to democracy which few people seem to be aware of.

It is said that we have entered a new ‘Information Age’ but the information economy seems to be about endless austerity, jobless recoveries, lack of social mobility, and intense concentration of wealth and power for the few whilst most people struggle to make ends meet.

One of the principles of the information age seems to be the spread of free information and services. For example social media, Wikipedia, free software, free ‘Cloud’ storage (which is just your data stored on someone else’s server), free online education and many variations of the above.

Most people would think that this is a good thing. It spreads the power of information to the many. Control of this information has passed out of the hands of a few elites and into the hands of anyone who cares to download it.

But there is a problem. There are consequences which nobody seems to have anticipated.

Revelations about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica came as a shock to many people but this should be a wake up call! I think that this is only the tip of the iceberg and that Cambridge Analytica was not unique among companies.

The actual problem runs far deeper and this is just one example of a struggle which is going on between technology and democracy. There are some benefits to free stuff online but this has blinded us to the fundamental ways technology is eroding our democracies.

A typical server, many racks each containing many computers all linked together.

A server is a group of computers linked together to perform a particular function. The computers in a server are linked to a network and provide services to other computers on that network. Computer programs can be split up to run on many computers in parallel and get results much faster than if the program was running on just one computer. A server may consist of a few tens of computers up to many thousands of computers.

All the servers that crunch ‘big data’ are physically similar. They are placed in obscure sites in anonymous buildings and have lots of security. Because they are very valuable.

When people share information freely, those who own the biggest and fastest servers benefit in ways that ordinary people can’t even imagine let alone emulate. Companies with large servers can simply calculate wealth and power out of free information.

While the free and open information ideal feels empowering, it is actually enriching those with the biggest servers to such an extreme that it is weakening democracy. The uses to which some of this data is put is also weakening democracy, I’m talking about micro-targeting here.

It doesn’t matter if the servers run social media sites, national intelligence agencies, giant online stores, big political campaigns, insurance companies, or search engines. What they are all doing in the background is remarkably similar.

All these servers gather data about people and then process that data to find out all they can about the people the data is about. This data might include emails and tweets or social media likes and sharing, private documents on ‘cloud’ storage, sightings through cloud-connected cameras, or commercial and medical dossiers. There are no limits to the snooping.

All these sites (apart from the national intelligence agencies) need a ‘hook’ something to entice people into this asymmetrical information relationship.

The hook might be free Internet services or music, or easy-to-get mortgages. But there is a price to be paid for these ‘free’ services.

Ordinary people are the sole providers of the information that makes the big servers so powerful and valuable, and ordinary people do get some benefit for providing their data.

They get the benefits of an informal economy usually associated with the developing world, like reputation and access to barter. The real monetary benefits are given to those who own the servers.

More and more ordinary people are thrust into a winner-takes-all economy. Social media sharers can make all the noise they want, but they forfeit the real wealth and clout needed to be politically powerful.

In most cases there was no evil plot, it is just a result of human nature. Many of the people who own the servers are genuinely nice people. But a lot of the people who use the data they harvest have their own agendas. And the people who have wealth and power want what almost all people with wealth and power want … more wealth and more power.

In a world of free information, the economy will shrink as automation rises radically. This is because in an ultra-automated economy, there won’t be much to trade other than information.

The threats to democracy come from the uses to which the data is put.

Our democracies evolved for an analogue age and they developed alongside institutions which support them like a free press and citizens who all have access to the same information. There are rules to follow like the secret ballot and expenditure limits. These institutions and rules keep the whole thing fair and equitable.

But in the past few years things have changed drastically and things are still changing. Most people don’t realise how much things have changed already.

Digital technology works by a different set of rules to those which evolved alongside democracy. It is de-centralised and difficult to control and it is improving at an incredible rate.

Western democracies have rules to make sure that all their voters have access to the same set of information for an election. The statements which a candidate makes are on the whole accurate because they know that if they make a false statement this will be picked up by news organisations and the media and they will be found out. Issues are debated in the media with representations being made from both sides of each argument.

But now we have ‘Big Data’ and micro targeted messaging and the rules which ensure free and fair elections don’t apply anymore.

Using Big Data analysis servers can build up very accurate and detailed psychological profiles of millions of individuals and politicians who pay for the services of companies like Cambridge Analytica can target each one of them with a highly personalised message. They can exploit our psychological vulnerabilities and prejudices on a vast scale and in a way that no regulator has access to.

It is out with the old shared frame of reference against which new information can be judged and in with millions of private frames of reference which may or may not bear any resemblance to the shared frame of reference.

How can we hope to hold politicians to account for their statements if everyone gets a different message and nobody knows what anyone else was told?

But it gets even worse.

Facebook have algorithms which can build up a very accurate psychological profile from what seems like innocent, unconnected and irrelevant pieces of information. The original purpose of these algorithms was to give you more content that you like in order to keep you on the Facebook website longer and therefore expose you to more targeted advertising.

But it didn’t stop there when Facebook amassed all this data about its users the next question was “How can we make more money out of all this data?”

It isn’t just Facebook who are tracking their users, Google, Microsoft and Amazon are doing much the same thing along with a host of other companies and national security agencies of many countries.

The more data they get about you the more accurate their psychological profile becomes, they can make predictions about your political and religious beliefs, how likely you are to take risks, how introverted or extrovert you are and many other aspects of your character which you might not have wanted to share with others.

Pretty soon your car will know about every journey you take, where you started from, where you went to and what time you set off and arrived, your fridge will know everything about your diet and if you like to buy the yellow label discount items from the supermarket and your personal assistant will know how you feel because of your tone of voice and all this information about you will be correlated and cross referenced against all the other sources of information about you.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. All this information will reveal more than you ever wanted to share with the rest of the world. In such a world as I describe there will be no such thing as privacy.

You will be constantly bombarded with messages based on all this information and that will open up a whole new level of manipulation targeted at you personally.

But there is another aspect to this which is fracturing society. In the social media realm we create our own reality which alienates us from one another. This is a result of the algorithms whose purpose it is to keep us hooked to Facebook and other social media platforms.

Democracies need informed citizens who all have access to the same shared base of information but in the social media realm we create our own reality. Social media gives us more of what we want so if we ‘like’ a post with a particular political leaning the AI on the server takes note and makes it more likely that we will see more posts from that particular political leaning in order to keep us looking at the social media platform longer and be exposed to more targeted advertising.

On social media we create our own reality, our own mix of opinion, information, misinformation, real news and fake news. This creates our own bubble in which we only see what we want to see and only hear the views of those people who agree with us.

This is making people more angry and more extreme in their views and it makes it much less likely that we will compromise with each other.

In the end there will only be one winner in the struggle. Either technology will destroy democracy and the existing social order will be destroyed or the current political system will exert its authority and control over the digital revolution.

As things stand at the moment technology is winning and unless things change dramatically democracy will be washed away just like communism, feudalism and absolute monarchies have been.

It will be regarded as a system which persisted for a while but could not adapt to the new technology.

If democracy is washed away what would replace it ?

I think it will be authoritarianism, but not like anything which has gone before !

Corporatocracy. Huge multinational corporations too big to fail will dominate the global landscape and a very few people in the world will, and already do, hold the vast majority of wealth and power.

Their wealth and influence being the key to influence global politics to favour their own needs. They will have and feel no responsibility to the rest of humanity.

Big business has already had such a tight grip on politics that for a long time now people have just accepted that you can’t budge big business and that the worker is in no position to fight back or negotiate.

They monitor us with advanced technology and have built a consumer society which seeps into our cultural psyche. We slowly, through globalisation, will become homogenous until all there are only two classes. The consumer, alienated and kept down by the exploiting classes and the capitalist, who demands a homogenous class of downtrodden and subdued consumers to keep themselves rich, and who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing !

Even now the ruling elites are plotting behind the backs of millions to set up trade deals and line their own pockets and have been doing so since the rise of neoliberalism – oligarchs are pulling the strings of our ‘democratic’ nations. In effect, these past few decades have simply been a restoration of power back to private industry and history is once again repeating itself. Over and over again it is the same struggle between humanity (the working people), and the ruling elites.

In such a world ruled by big business they would probably keep governments and elections just to keep a sham of democracy but government would be under the control of big business. Corporate interests, profits, growth, and returns would come before all else !

 

 

Some thoughts on Terrorism.

Why would anyone deliberately target children?

It is a particularly despicable act to detonate a bomb where you know people will be harmed but it’s even worse when the majority of those in the area are children.

But the act of terror committed in Manchester Arena was meant to cause the maximum horror and outrage amongst ordinary people, that was the whole point of it.  It was meant to provoke a reaction.

There is a vicious circle here which must be broken if we are to have peace, but I can see no way to break it.

It goes like this.

Acts of terror are meant to provoke a reaction.  When some idiot in Syria makes the demand that America should cease all hostilities in the Middle East or they are going to behead an aid worker or journalist they do not expect their demands to be met, in fact it would be very disruptive for them if America did meet their demands.  They don’t want their demands met.  The demand is just there to give them an excuse to commit a horrific act.

The reaction to these horrific acts is the whole point, that is why they do them, to provoke a reaction.

The purpose of the acts is to provoke a military response so they can portray themselves as being in a legitimate military struggle with the forces of western democracy (or Christianity depending on which set of propaganda you read).

When western political leaders say that they are at war with IS or Daesh they give them legitimacy, when they carry out air strikes against Daesh (IS, ISIS, ISIL or whatever) in Syria or Iraq they give them legitimacy, which is what Daesh want.  Daesh want the Jihadi cause to be seen as legitimate by Muslim communities both in the Middle East and here in Europe and Great Britain.  Donald Trump with his stupid ill thought out verbal attacks and his travel ban has been great for Daesh recruitment.

Western political leaders are playing to the crowd, their response is meant for their home audience, with one eye on the next election they feel that they must be seen to be doing something, but this is exactly what the Daesh terrorists want.

Daesh recruit young men (almost always young men) to blow themselves up or drive a truck along a crowded pavement to further the cause of global Jihad, but what does it achieve ?  Nothing except a lot of pain and misery.  The young men they recruit are as much the victims as the people they slaughter.  They have been tricked into killing themselves by perfidious promises of rewards in heaven after they die.  Living in paradise with a number of virgins at their disposal (the number varies), but this is not what is written in the Quran which promises a reward beyond man’s comprehension without actually saying what it is.  The virgins are just Daesh’s misogynistic interpretation of these ambiguous verses.

The acts of random terror in Europe or Great Britain are designed to cause alienation of the Islamic communities.  To drive wedges between people and between communities, to cause suspicion and doubt.  From their point of view it would be even better if there is a backlash against Muslims after the atrocity in Manchester.

Alienation leads to radicalisation, not of the many but of a few vulnerable individuals who are susceptible to the message of the radicals, people who are seeking certainty in their lives.  People who feel that they have no future, people who have lost hope, these are the ones who are most vulnerable to the brain washing of radical Islam.  The radical message promises them that a certainty but it is a specious message.

Global Jihad uses the Internet as the main method for communication and ideological advancement. Western media feeds on the events terrorists create.  Daesh understands this and have become more sophisticated in the way they carry out their recruiting activities and targeting.

And so there are more recruits to the cause and they commit acts of terror both here in the west and in the Middle East and this provokes a reaction and so the whole bloody cycle repeats over and over again.

Sigh.

 

 

More bullets for ISIS

There are a lot of problems in Syria and Iraq at the moment mainly caused by despotic dictators trying to impose their political views on everyone in their country and religious fanatics brandishing their worn out collections of old fairy tales and wanting to impose their religious views on everyone in the world.

It seems to me that any government which has the capability to manufacture it’s own ammunition would be able to cause problems for terrorist organisations like ISIS.

They could produce ammunition which looked exactly like normal ammunition but had a little something extra.

I’m sure it would be possible for them to infiltrate a batch of this ‘special’ ammunition into the supply chain and eventually ‘let them’ accidentally fall into the hands of ISIS or whichever bunch of idiots are causing the problems.

A cartridge (colloquially called a bullet) consists of the actual metal bullet attached to a shell casing full of gunpowder or cordite.  There isn’t a lot of difference between modern powder and the gunpowder which was used a hundred years ago.

This charge of low explosive burns very quickly but doesn’t actually explode, it creates a high pressure gas behind the bullet which propels it down the barrel and out of the gun.

If one were to replace this low explosive with high explosive but kept the look and weight of the cartridge the same then it would explode with much more force and damage the gun and possibly injure the person firing it.

But that would be too extreme. the person firing the gun would realise very quickly that their ammunition had been tampered with as would the group they were in.  They would probably stop using that particular batch of ammunition very quickly once they had identified the problem.

But if one were to put only a small amount of high explosive in just one in ten or one in a hundred of the cartridges then it could damage the chamber without being immediately obvious.  The terrorists who got the batch of altered ammo would have their guns wear out very quickly and they would start to misfire and jam.

If it were done very subtly then they might not even realise that anything was wrong.  They would just think that their guns were wearing out.  But if they did realise and retaliated against some of the scumbag arms dealers who are willing to sell ammunition to these idiots then that’s OK as far as I’m concerned.

I don’t know … maybe governments are already doing something like this.

Would we ever know?

 

Grammar Schools and Public Schools

Grammar Schools

So, the government has decided to bring back grammar schools.

The question which should be asked here and isn’t being asked as far as I can tell is ‘How will this be funded?’ are taxes going to be raised, no I don’t think so.

What is most likely to happen is that other local schools will have their budgets cut.

Who benefits from grammar schools?

The wealthy benefit to a much greater extent than those who are not so well off.  It is promoted by the government as a meritocracy where talented children can be helped to flourish whatever their background, but that is not what happens in practice.

What happens around existing grammar schools is that more well off parents get private tutors for their children to give them an advantage in the tests. So the intake is skewed in favour of the rich with a small proportion of children from less well off families who got in because they were exceptionally talented.

But this benefits the grammar school because these children are very easy to teach because of their innate talent and the school can point to them ans say yes we do take in children from poorer families.

Grammar schools are divisive for society, they will not benefit working class people, instead they will benefit middle class families who have enough money to afford private tutors for their children.

Grammar schools will not raise the oveall standards, they will polarise the education system by raising their own standards at the expense of other schools in the area.

The way to raise overall standards is to have a diverse mix of children from all backgrounds in a school.

Public Schools

It seems ridiculous to me that public schools get charitable status.  They are a bastion of elitism in British society offering very expensive courses to educate the children of rich families. There is no way that these institutions should qualify for charitable status!

The very flimsy justification for them getting charitable status is that they occasionally take in exceptionally talented children from poorer backgrounds and give them a free education.

Firstly they don’t do this for very many children, secondly they also benefit in the same way that grammar schools do.  The children have to be very talented to get in and this raises the overall standards for the school.

But the main reason is that it gives them the excuse to get charitable status and this is the main reason they do it, charitable status gives them huge financial advantages.

In my opinion public schools should have their charitable status removed (all of them) because it is not justified.

But nothing will be done.

A great many people with power in the government and in the civil service were educated in public schools and so nothing will be done about this.

As long as the establishment is full of public school alumni it will continue to be a bastion of privilige and elitism in British society.

 

Is the NHS safe in Conservative hands?

It seems to me that the Conservatives are trying to break the NHS by driving it into debt and reducing the workforce whilst privatising it gradually by the back door with as little publicity as possible.

Of course they don’t want to be seen to be destroying the health service because that would be politically unpopular.  But it is difficult to break the NHS without people realising what you’re doing.

The first thing they did was to decimate community health care and council services.  The people served by these services didn’t go away or stop requiring treatment therefore the burden of treating these people was dumped on the NHS causing already overstretched services to be swamped and budgets to become overspent.

Now Mr Hunt is trying to impose a contract on the junior doctors which will designate weekends as normal working days.  The modest pay increase included in the new contract will be more than offset by the reduction in overtime payments under the new contract, so it’s actually a pay cut.

But for the junior doctors it is not about pay, it is about the drive to fully staffed operation of NHS hospitals seven days a week with no extra staff and no extra funding.  And Mr Hunt says that he isn’t trying to make doctors work longer hours, errr ….  something doesn’t seem to add up there.

The drive to implement a seven day NHS is based on flawed statistics which misrepresent the real situation.  The NHS already works seven days a week.  Routine clinics and services are only run during the week but all the departments and services which are needed are staffed during the weekend.

The much quoted statistic about you being more likely to die if admitted at the weekend than if admitted during the week is deliberately misleading.  Many people are admitted during the week for a variety of reasons, most of which are the result of routine hospital visits.  However the routine services are not run at weekends so if you are admitted at the weekend it is more likely to be the result of an emergency.

People who are admitted as the result of an emergency visit are likely to have more serious problems than those admitted as a result of a routine visit and I would suggest that this is more likely to be the cause of the difference in outcome rather than any deficiency in the care at the weekend.

So why are the Conservatives and in particular Mr Hunt trying to break the NHS?

Is there perhaps some hidden agenda at work here?

Well in 2005 Jeremy Hunt co-authored a book, ‘Direct Democracy: An Agenda for a New Model Party‘.  If we look at the chapter on health we see that the author said on page 78 – “Our ambition should be to break down the barriers between private and public provision, in effect denationalising the provision of health care in Britain”.

I have read a copy of the book although I cannot post any more than a brief excerpt here due to copyright concerns.  It used to be widely available on the web but is disappearing fast as copies available on websites are mysteriously vanishing.  However it is still available in some places.

This book which was co-authored by Jeremy Hunt advocates the de-nationalisation of the NHS and the introduction of an American style insurance scheme were patients pay into their individual pots and decide how to spend it.  This gives grave cause for concern given that Jeremy Hunt is now in charge of the NHS.

Having a seven day NHS is not possible without adequate resources and staff, but if the real reason you’re doing it is in order to break the NHS so you can introduce privatisation as a remedy then it makes perfect sense!

 

The American Presidential Election 2016

2016 is election year and what a horrible choice the American people have before them, they can choose between an egotistical, narcissistic, racist demagogue whose politics seem to change to mould themselves to public sentiment or they could choose a corporate shill who will do what her corporate sponsors want because the money for her election campaign didn’t just have strings attached, it had bloody great chains attached and they will want their moneys worth.

Clinton’s corporate paymasters include media/entertainment companies whose stated aims include an end to net neutrality.

Neither of the candidates is fit to be president in my opinion.

The only one who was worth voting for was Bernie Sanders and his campaign was sabotaged by the Democratic National Committee, a body which was supposed to be neutral but which was in-fact well and truly in the pocket of the Clinton establishment.

Looked at this way perhaps Donald Trump isn’t that bad after all, it’s not that he is a candidate worth voting for it’s just that he isn’t quite as bad as Hilary Clinton.

But I don’t think he even wants to win the election, I think he just started this campaign to boost brand Trump without any intention of winning.

What a choice, heads you loose, tails you loose.