The age that could be amazing

Douglas Carswell blogs the internet age is amazing. Indeed, not just the 3-D printers Douglas mentions, but materials science, large and small scale engineering, power technologies, and, perhaps most important genome science all boggle and beckon to the inquiring mind. Synthetic biology promises us atomic-scale engineering and immortality.

But the kids who do that aren’t going to come from schools that fail to teach them hard science, art, language and history, then hide differences in undiscriminating exams.

Nor from Universities that ban the best students as having an unfair disadvantage, and scurry after government grants in a public research environment that stifles controversy and thereby, the food of creativity.

Nor will they come from businesses starved of California-style capital funding, or a country chained by regulation, craving safety, and uninterested in reality… Without a big change back to the days of discovery: 1666, Victoria, or the USA of Carnegie and Rockefeller, tomorrow will feel more and more like Da Vinci: Dreaming of machines that can’t be assembled, and wondering, as he said, whether, we bring our pictures and plans to others that they ‘do not bring them to their mouths, and ask if they are something to eat’.

BBC conundrum – market share and things that no-one else would do

The BBC is expected to both maintain a large share of the viewing audience and to produce programmes that commercial broadcasters would not broadcast. This seems to me fundamentally confused. The confusion arises because of a error in the design of the BBC which set its defined purpose at odds with its means of survival, and, sadly, ensures that its purpose is subverted.

What is the purpose of the BBC (you might ask). The purpose of the BBC is to show programs that no-commercial broadcaster would make (otherwise the BBC is not needed to make them…). It survives because British subjects are are forced to buy a license (to fund programs they would not otherwise individually or collectively pay to be able to watch… again logically required by the purpose). So far so good. The problem arises because someone decided that to take money was not right unless most people wanted to watch (enough of) the programs. This creates a market test which is essentially that the net output of the BBC should be commercially viable: most programs should achieve a wide-audience. So: the purpose is to create programming that no-commercial make would choose to produce and broadcast, but the programs that are made must enjoy a dominant viewer share (Catch 22 anyone?).

In the monopoly world in which the BBC was created, this test would be easily met: there was only the BBC, and everyone watched most of it, even the products that a commercial provider not in a monopoly would not make. But as soon as people have choice, the only programs that have a wide-market are those that commercial providers would (because a large viewership is a commerical sine qua non) would be happy to make. Ergo… either the BBC should be abolished as no longer necessary, or the trust needs to be re-written to fulfill its original purpose.

The current model sweeps the purpose of the BBC under the carpet, driving the BBC by the 95% of BBC activity which is not its purpose (but which people in the BBC like doing (because it generates large salaries for them bases on mass audience appeal), and people like watching). i.e., the BBC becomes a lowest-common denominator monopoly broadcaster: Exactly the opposite of its charter purpose.

The BBC currently has a revenue larger than the total advertising revenue of all of commercial television and 90% of their output would be purchased by commercial providers (because they claim that they need to pay millions to their staff as they would otherwise be poached by commercial TV – I think a strict reading of the charter would suggest that any staff member who would be poached should in fact be fired).

The solution is straightforward. There are several, but here’s one that is simple to start with. The BBC has a large market value: Use this to create a public arts and science trust: Probably the largest in the world, as the BBC channels would no doubt float for several billion pounds. This sale, and the resulting trust foundation would be accompanied by re-writing the charter to state that free-to-air licence holders will pay an amount (<5% of net-commercial broadcast revenue) to the Trust, and jointly arrange to maintain 2-broadcast Television channels and 3 broadcast radio stations (and an iPlayer type service to maintain the availability of this material), which would broadcast the product of the trust. The trust would act as a contestable fund for public service media, licensed under creative-commons license.

Under this model, the license fee would be eliminated, the trust would continue independent of government, all media production would be open, contestable, and copy-left. The TV channels would broadcast arts, science programming (think Bronowski, Sagan, The Edge, TED), and also political coverage: C-SPAN style.

Making intelligent TV need not cost £4.2 billion (which is the BBC budget!). Take an agreeable example from the past: David Attenborough made his first nature series for about £1000. Even elaborate, timeless productions such as Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man had negligible production costs. Stripped down to its essentials, Question Time, a valuable public service could be made for around £200,000 for 50 episodes. use University lecture theatres for free, automated camera and audio with two operators – say £120,000/yr, presenter paid £64,000, guests attend for no-fee.

A widely accepted rule for determining acceptable government activity – that is for justifying coercion of individuals – is that the activity or event being done or prevented must be both essential for all people in the society, and have externalities or free-rider constraints which make it unfair, impossible or too risky for individuals to achieve voluntarily. Classic examples include armed forces (external security), police and justice (internal security), and education. The latter is more controversial than the two former, but, especially in a democracy, are widely agreed as essential (on the basis that only educated and competent to choose law-makers).

Of course there are solutions other than this. One might simply require all commercial broadcasters to show programs deemed of educational importance (perhaps by open vote) as a condition of their licence, or allow channels to specialise, with channels producing little educational or informative content paying a fee which subsidizes those producing material voted as valuable. I like the first idea as having a channel devoted to intelligent material creates a brand, and allows the formation of intelligent viewing habits. Wikipedia is a good example of this power.

The BBC is expected to both maintain a large share of the viewing audience and to produce programmes that commercial broadcasters would not broadcast. This seems to me fundamentally confused. The confusion arises because of a error in the design of the BBC which set its defined purpose at odds with its means of survival, and, sadly, ensures that its purpose is subverted.

What is the purpose of the BBC (you might ask). The purpose of the BBC is to show programs that no-commercial broadcaster would make (otherwise the BBC is not needed to make them…). It survives because British subjects are are forced to buy a license (to fund programs they would not otherwise individually or collectively pay to be able to watch… again logically required by the purpose). So far so good. The problem arises because someone decided that to take money was not right unless most people wanted to watch (enough of) the programs. This creates a market test which is essentially that the net output of the BBC should be commercially viable: most programs should achieve a wide-audience. So: the purpose is to create programming that no-commercial make would choose to produce and broadcast, but the programs that are made must enjoy a dominant viewer share (Catch 22 anyone?).

In the monopoly world in which the BBC was created, this test would be easily met: there was only the BBC, and everyone watched most of it, even the products that a commercial provider not in a monopoly would not make. But as soon as people have choice, the only programs that have a wide-market are those that commercial providers would (because a large viewership is a commerical sine qua non) would be happy to make. Ergo… either the BBC should be abolished as no longer necessary, or the trust needs to be re-written to fulfill its original purpose.

The current model sweeps the purpose of the BBC under the carpet, driving the BBC by the 95% of BBC activity which is not its purpose (but which people in the BBC like doing (because it generates large salaries for them bases on mass audience appeal), and people like watching). i.e., the BBC becomes a lowest-common denominator monopoly broadcaster: Exactly the opposite of its charter purpose.

The BBC currently has a revenue larger than the total advertising revenue of all of commercial television and 90% of their output would be purchased by commercial providers (because they claim that they need to pay millions to their staff as they would otherwise be poached by commercial TV – I think a strict reading of the charter would suggest that any staff member who would be poached should in fact be fired).

Straightforward solutions present themselves. There are several, but here’s one that is simple to start with. The BBC has a large market value: Use this to create a public arts and science trust: Probably the largest in the world, as the BBC channels would no doubt float for several billion pounds. This sale, and the resulting trust foundation would be accompanied by re-writing the charter to state that free-to-air licence holders will pay an amount (<5% of net-commercial broadcast revenue) to the Trust, and jointly arrange to maintain 2-broadcast Television channels and 3 broadcast radio stations (and an iPlayer type service to maintain the availability of this material), which would broadcast the product of the trust. The trust would act as a contestable fund for public service media, licensed under creative-commons license

Under this model, the license fee would be eliminated, the trust would continue independent of government, all media production would be open, contestable, and copy-left. The TV channels would broadcast arts, science programming (think Bronowski, Sagan, The Edge, TED), and also political coverage: C-SPAN style.

Making intelligent TV need not cost £4.2 billion (which is the BBC budget!). Take an agreeable example from the past: David Attenborough made his first nature series for about £1000. Even elaborate, timeless productions such as Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man had negligible production costs. Stripped down to its essentials, Question Time, a valuable public service could be made for around £225,000 for 50 episodes. Venues: Use University lecture theatres for free; Fixed costs: automated camera and audio with operators – say £100,000/yr, presenter paid £64,000, guests attend for no-fee. Variable costs: £1000 per episode for travel? The current budget would pay for the next 20,000 years of Question Time on this budget!!!

Libertarians may ask why not sell off the BBC, retire some debt, and forget about public service broadcasting? This deserves an answer.

A widely accepted rule for determining acceptable government activity – that is justified coercion of individuals – is that the activity or event being done or prevented must be both essential for all people in the society, and have externalities or free-rider constraints which make it unfair, impossible or too risky for individuals to achieve voluntarily. Classic examples include armed forces (external security), police and justice (internal security), and education. The latter is more controversial than the two former, but, especially in a democracy, is widely agreed as essential (on the basis that only educated and competent to choose law-makers). Writers from Adam Smith to Jefferson concur. Jefferson is worth reading. He felt that a good newspaper was more essential to democracy than government: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” these waters are muddied by other quotes: for instance Jefferson famously claimed only half in jest that “the only truth in a newspaper was its advertisements“. To average these out to nothing is to misunderstand the necessity of an informed and reasonable public. The founding father’s logic in supporting a popular and wide suffrage was pinned to this principle: IF A NATION EXPECTS TO BE IGNORANT AND FREE, IT EXPECTS WHAT NEVER WAS AND NEVER WILL BE. Combating ignorance, then, is the goal, and freedom the cause. Judge Jonathan Ross on those criteria, and he does not remotely begin to justify a compulsory deduction from your pocket! But judge public exposure of politicians to their constituents as in Question Time… I say yes, that justifies compulsion: Compulsion to ensure that this gets made even if advertisers dislike what is said, politicians wish it not to happen, people are too lazy to ask.

Of course there are solutions other that proposed here. One might simply require all commercial broadcasters to show programs deemed of educational importance (perhaps by open vote) as a condition of their licence, or allow channels to specialise, with channels producing little educational or informative content paying a fee which subsidizes those producing material voted as valuable. I like the first idea as having a channel devoted to intelligent material creates a brand, and allows the formation of intelligent viewing habits. Wikipedia is a good example of this power.

Nationalisms: English and other

Hugo Rifkin (on Question Time Extras  – via iPlayer so you won’t be able to see it…) claims that English nationalism is distinguished from other nationalisms by “being about keeping others out“. This, he contrasted this with other nationalisms which, he said,  “seeking to raise up rather than excluding“.

If most nationalisms are similar in someway, I think it is more likely to be not so much raising up as opposed to excluding others, but about expansionist building out (think Sudetenland).

If English nationalism is simply about wishing to remain English – leaving individuals, families, friends, and their collaborations to live as they wish and not usurp this role for State, then that seems a source of greatness to me. And rather a proud  source at that.

Media Survival strategy: OpenID Advertising

It will be interesting to see if Mr Murdoch’s innovation of charging for access to his newspaper’s online content works.  We don’t know what he plans: My guess is just like the WSJ, he will simply ask people to pay to read the stories. I think that is doomed. As soon as The Times goes this way, people will swithc to reading the Telegraph or Guardian, their advertising revenue will double, and they have a business model again, having effectively lost one competitor. A which reporter will want to write for a tiny audience?

I can see several mechanisms for making papers and magazines highly successful today.

One very powerful tool would be to make a newspaper like The Times free to anyone with a “Times Buyer’s” card:

Advertisers would scan this card (for high-street and big-box purchases) or use it to authenticate via OpenID for online purchases). At a stroke, this creates a mass market for the paper (who wouldn’t take a free copy of media like The Times, Telegraph or Spectator?), and a verifiable but anonymous revenue stream from advertisers, as well as a motivation for consumers to let choose advertisers in their preferred media (while preserving complete anonymity for the card-holder, the card’s validity for free copies of The Times would be maintained by public-key encrypted notification of purchases.)

The media owners would receive an income stream from their advertisers/sponsors, based not on page views or clicks, but on actual purchases made anywhere, by anonymous, but authenticated buyers of their media.

Just 0.01% of each ‘subscriber’s’ annual purchases would make Media one of the biggest, most profitable, and potentially civilization-enhancing businesses on the planet once more.

More speculatively (say 5 years), once e-paper gets down to a price where a sheet of wirelessly self-updating paper can be given to each person as a loss leader (say £200 manufacturing cost, like an iPhone), I think Newspapers are in for their biggest business boom ever!

Pascal’s Wager: Why it is wrong, and why following it suggests we should be bad, not good!

Pascal’s Wager: Why it is wrong, and why following it suggests we should be bad, not good!
Pascal’s suggested in his wager that, while we could not reasonably prove the existence of God, a rational man would nevertheless behave as if he existed, because the cost was nill and the benefit immense. By God, of course, Pascal meant the 19th Century Christian God. Because this God offered eternal life as the reward for faith and moral behavior, and assured the faithful that they could attain this reward through no-other path, the rewards for faith were indeed high.
But for Pascal’s wager to be valid, we must assess the likely utility of faith in this God not just by comparison to no faith in this God, but to faith in all the possible Gods.
Faith in any one of these other possible Gods may rule out rewards from whichever turns out to be the real God.
And we have many versions of what is required of the faithful, and mistaken choices here again rule out the reward.
Many Gods also do not offer Heaven. Greek mythology, all men pass over the Styx into Hades. To varying fates assuredly (vis Sisyphus), but none to heaven. What if God has been deposed by one of his offspring (a distinctly possible outcome even in modern christendom, and the origin of the Devil – a powerful counter-god, with his own place of eternal life). In Christian mythology, hell is bad, but the wagerer but account for the possibility that Satan is, like 20th century fighters against slavery a moral improvement from his former lord. What Pascal’s wager fails to provide, then, is any guide as to what it is we should do to gain rewards in an unknown after-world.
I also find it repugnant to conflate moral behavior with rewarded behavior, and God might too. SO, you just have to figure out what is right (most of us are well equipped to do this), and then do it (most again can).
PS: Pascal’s Triangle is still just fine 🙂
Pascal suggested in his wager that, while we could not reasonably prove the existence of God, a rational man would nevertheless behave as if he existed, because the cost was nill and the benefit immense. By God, of course, Pascal meant the 19th Century Christian God.
Because this God offered eternal life as the reward for faith and moral behavior, and assured the faithful that they could attain this reward through no-other path, the rewards for faith were indeed high.
But for Pascal’s wager to be valid, we must assess the likely utility of faith in this God not just by comparison to no faith in this God, but to faith in all the possible Gods.
Faith in any one of these other possible Gods may rule out rewards from whichever turns out to be the real God!
And there are numerous extant versions of what is required of the faithful, and mistaken choices here again rule out the reward.
Even worse, many Gods do not offer Heaven. Greek mythology, all men pass over the Styx into Hades. To varying fates assuredly (vis Sisyphus), but none to heaven.
Finally, what if God has been deposed by one of his offspring (a distinctly possible outcome even in modern christendom, and the origin of the Devil – a powerful counter-god, with his own place of eternal life). Belief on the ex-God may now be punished. Alternatively, while in Christian mythology, hell is bad, the wagerer must  account for the possibility that Satan is, like 20th century fighters against slavery a moral improvement from his former lord.
We might too look around, and wonder about the God who chose to expresss his creation through millenia of evolution and extinction, and even today programs sentient beings with crippling genetic diseases. You might too, like me and many moral philosophers, find it repugnant to conflate moral behavior with rewarded behavior, and God might too: Faking it won’t work.
What Pascal’s wager fails to provide, then, is any guide as to what it is we should do to gain rewards in an unknown after-world.
So, you just have to figure out what is right (most of us are well equipped to do this), and then do it (most again can).
PS: Pascal’s Triangle is still just fine 🙂