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.

Great engineers (according to the BBC)

I smiled when TED gave a slot to a boy who they hailed as an engineering hope for Africa when he had managed to follow plans for a small farm windmill and assembled it from standard parts… That’s not actually innovation, I am afraid.

 

But today on Radio 4’s women’s hour we heard of young british woman who had made an evaporative cooler (yip – putting a wet blanket over a box, with a lid). This was hailed as a design breakthrough. I couldn’t see it, and I couldn’t see, either, how useful this would be given that her first (yes, she’s a multi award winner) prize wining design was for a wheel-barrow to carry — you guessed it — water!

An initial wonder concerns whether African’s can really have failed to develop the wheel barrow, or if, perhaps more likely, the tracks they are carrying water over make the alternative of carrying one bucket n your head better than pushing 5 on a barrow).

But aside from that, what use is a terribly inefficient, and ineffective passive evaporative cooler going to be in an environment where water has to be carried several miles, 5-gallons at a time?

Given that neither the ‘wheel barrow’ nor the ‘water power refrigerator’ are even engineering or design breakthoughs, let alone inventions, this seems to set a low bar for aspiring female engineers. But maybe that’s the point.

Drugs policy comes home to roost: failed states, violence and crime

America’s internal and external war on drugs has had many effects, from sentencing young men to death (from AIDs contracted when raped while jail for drug non-offenses), to generating 100s of billions of dollars for violent criminals, and corrupting police forces and even armys.

After 30 years, the use of drugs is exactly where it was when LSD and other drugs were legal (yes, they used to be legal – and society didn’t collapse: wonders never cease). Few people wish to use drugs, and those who do… guess what: they are.

But it now appears that America’s war on drugs is about to create another narco-state (in addition to Afghanistan, and much of South America). This time right on the border: Mexico!

Still time to fix all of this, and simply too: Just decriminalize all drugs – the gangs will dry up within 6 months, farmers will go back to making food, crime will plummet as addicts no longer need to steal to feed their habit, drug deaths will drop by 90% as bad doses are eliminated, and drug use will remain the problem it always has been: a hard choice for a tiny minority of people.

Bill Gates and education

We owe  many of the enduring institutions of our civilization to a handful of businessmen who ended their lives with large amounts of capital and gave it to the future in the form of charitable education and research investments: Rockefeller, Mellon, Carnegie, Wellcome*, and more recently Howard Hughes, and JP Getty.  Bill and Melinda Gates control the worlds two largest fortunes, but have a different vision than these great pioneers of philanthropy. The Gates foundation has two core beliefs:

  1. The world would be better if people were more able and skilled.
  2. Education and health are the source (rather than partially being results) of variation in how able people are, and many skills they have. 

For this reason they are throwing 100 billion precious dollars into Africa and education. I believe that this is one of the biggest tragedies of our century. There are several very important things that can only be achieved with the concerted investment of  billions of dollars in one project: Creating new drugs, life forms, new manufacturing processes and materials to name a few. Without a new round of investment in the future of discovery, we will all be poorer.

Of course if Gates was right, and preventing malaria or vaccinating against AIDS and re-jigging schools would make everyone as intelligent and diligent as he is, then that would unquestionably be an even bigger stimulus for world development. But I think they are wrong. Most of what they see as causes, are consequences. Poverty, like wealth reflects ability, and much of social chaos is a consequence of a low drive to cooperate. Experiments in intermediate “causes” of wealth such as schools are therefore invaluable for understanding the causal chain.

It was therefore sad, but revealing (in the sense that we might see that what we are doing is not working and, like a good scientist, stop and think) to read in this New Yorker article about just how wrong are the assumptions of the foundation.

A failed school recently  received  a million-dollar intervention from the Gates Foundation, making the school more ‘intimate’, and much more expensive to run. The result? Learning fell, gangs increased, and, thankfully, half the parents pulled their children from the school.

Now, if you were the Gates foundation, and you found that adding $1,000,000 and your vision to a school wrecked it so bad that people fled, might you not rethink? It’s not to late to stop, and to change. Warren Buffett: If you are reading this – take your money and put it into a Wikipedia-based global discovery laboratory. More in another post about how this could drive costs out of science while at same time creating an invisible hand to coordinate and drive innovation and wealth just like the industrial and scientific revolutions did before.

*Wellcome Trust is an interesting case: The trust simply owned shares in a for profit pharmaceutical company. At the time of his death, everyone thought Wellcome had made a horrible error, forgetting to put the company inside the trust. At the time (in the midst of the last global depression), the company was worth a few million in todays money: Barely a month of two of grants from todays trust! What happened to turn this tiny ‘mistake’ into a billion pound charitable behemoth? The US branch of the company had an innovative CEO who 10x’d the company, then doubled it again! The charity despite receiving income only from a tax-paying entity, rode this prosperity to its present position.

The States in the union

The US people are different than when, in 1776, the population was just 1% of todays’ 300 million. Importantly then, citizens were almost entirely ethnically English speaking Protestants, with shared manners and customs. Sharing a belief also that religion was private and government was a necessary evil.

To a large extent that held true even into the 1950s. But 40+ years after the 1965 immigration act removed national quotas, US demographics include 100 million+ people differing massively in ethnicity, language, religion, and political and habitual attitudes and abilities.

The melting pot no longer needs to simply transfer energy to new ore, mined from the same lode as now heats the glowing pot, nor merely anneal tensions of class or creed. Instead it is tasked with forging an alloy, steering a course where the mid-way is disaster. And it is unclear that this new task can succeed, and still preserve the small government that characterized America up to the 1900s.

It seems to me that for America to succeed as a shining city on the hill in the 21st century, as she did in the 20th, she now faces a choice as difficult as that facing Lincoln – to risk even war (and the lives of 20% of fighting Southern men) for unity, or accept – tolerate- some real irritating, repugant diversity.

Americans still trade freely across state lines, and this trade has many virtues, minimizing poverty and maximizing efficiency, and, between nations, averting war between great powers. But trade in goods doesn’t determine what purpose people see in their lives: Whether they want a great orchestra, or want to learn about space or genetics, or want their children to learn Omar-Khyam and Quantum electrodynamics. That seems the diversity that is needed now in America: large-scale freedom to really experiment with goals in life, and social arrangements and values.

The EU has successfully emulated America in opening up freedom of trade that greases wheels and prevents war, but while Europeans almost universally enjoy the freedom of trade and ability to travel, whenever they are allowed, they vote against the many thousands of controls now imposed- right down to the number of hours that people can legally choose to work (!!!), and the sizes and measures in which goods can be sold.

The EU government is essentially a remote activist-court, self-tasked with making the laws that people “should” have voted for, but did not. The single currency energized commerce across the EU, leap-frogging the EU over the US in GNP. But legislatively it is becoming a dictatorship of the proletariate. That just won’t hold over time. And I think it can’t hold within America either.

When people disagree over which way to go forward, they have to divide and try both ways. The alternative, forcing one side to follow the other is very costly. The goal, then, would be to preserve the union of trade and defense and a slim set of rights (habeus corpus, double jeopardy, speech, association, trial by jury… hmm – perfect: no constitutional changes required!), but avoid the EU-model of an ever more intrusive state imposing what individuals choose not to do voluntarily.

Essentially winding the clock back to the core ideas of federation, emphasising states rights, but with minimal universal rights enforced, and with a tempered model of manifest destiny – more isolationist and less unilateral interventionist, and much more scope for between-state experimentation.