Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Good Luck Simon Singh

Simon Singh and Sile Lane of Sense About Science

What a great night at Westminster Skeptics.

The keynote speech was made by medical doctor, philosopher, humanist and polymath Dr Raymond Tallis. David Allen Green contributed a legal overview.

We were addressed by the 'Libel Survivors': Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre and Dave Osler. And Dr Peter Wilmshurst was also there. It's a name so many of us know. Great to put a face to it and to hear about his ongoing case.

Sile Lane from Sense About Science told us about the campaign to change the Libel Laws and the way forward.

The scrum for the bar at half time was followed by Dr Evan Harris MP and a panel which was joined by Professor David Colquhoun.

I was chairing and couldn't take many piccies or notes for a full write up like I normally would.

So here are some 'quotes of the evening'. There were many more, including a few from Evan Harris (who may have a future in stand-up if the politics thing doesn't work out).

Best of luck to Simon Singh at the Royal Courts of Justice today.

"It would be no great advance if scientific truth were to be decided by the litgant with the deepest pockets than if it were determined, as in the past, by the priest, the shaman, or by the alpha male with the most powerful fists"
Dr Raymond Tallis

"Evidence-based scientific medicine represents not only triumph over nature, but a triumph over human nature in the very place where the temptation to deceive others and one's self is overwhelming"
Dr Raymond Tallis

About 'Grand Rounds' in medicine, a peer review process:
"It's a sort of perverse form of S and M because, like the Catholics, we know it's good for us"
Dr Ben Goldacre

"Censorship doesn’t begin in the courtroom, or with the angry letter you get from the lawyer, or even from your home computer. Censorship begins inside your head, it’s the voice that tells you not to write an article in the first place"
Sile Lane, Sense About Science

"The law is now more patches than trousers"
Robert Dougans
Solicitor for Simon Singh

24th Feb: Update

The hearing seemed to go well for Simon. Here's a summary from Jack of Kent

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Westminster Skeptics: Does Political Blogging Make Any Difference to Political Events?

Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy, Mick Fealty of Slugger O'Toole, Jonathan Isaby
of Conservative Home, Guido Fawkes and Nick Cohen

Apologies - still slammed. I'd love to give you all a report on what happened on Monday night at 'The Old Monk Exchange' in Strutton Ground, Westminster. In fact, may well do tomorrow.

'Til then it seemed only fair that all you lovely people should have a chance to look at the photos. Our fantastic panel is above. Thanks guys for an informative and energetic debate.

And below, you can see that the attendance was great (about 160 people, I think) and that our new venue is spacious with very good access to the bar. We have the place to ourselves, and they do nice food.

Jack of Kent also has the photos and may get to a report sooner than I do, so check him out.

I've just read Dave Cole's post on the evening, so I won't write it up. He's said it all, and very well.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The Exotic Vendibles of New York & The Gangs of Southall

Sorry for the break. Broomstick took me to LA for work. Long flight, and cold over Greenland at this time of year, but at least the in-flight food made it all worthwhile.

Came back via New York and was lucky to get the sunshine sandwich between two weeks of snow. The sun was accompanied by an unutterable cold though, so I spent most of the time squeaking nervously at the prospect of the outside world, accompanied by five cats to whom I appear to be massively allergic.

Given that cats can sense these things, they each found a station on me to sit simultaneously, making us look like a Cirque-du-Soleil endurance balancing act.

A bracing walk always cleared the nostrils of cat-dander. So it was a choice between hypothermia and anaphylaxis. Should have just put the sleeping bag in the apartment block lobby, I suppose. Having people step over you without missing a beat in their conversation would have been the quintessential New York experience. And having combined full-strength anti-histamine with Margharitas from Cilantro, I could have passed for any variety of smackhead.

I took a couple of free hours to visit my favourite shop. Which is now gone. Bollocks!

And also walked down Canal Street – and was shocked to find this:

Apparently, the city raided loads of stores and shut them down.

Canal Street was well known for its knock-off goods. I never bought any perfume there in case it caused eczema. Never ‘Chanel’, always ‘Canal’, this was a place where the labels and budgets could be attended to simultaneously.

I’ll lay my cards on the table: I think buying designer goods – real or fake – is atrociously gauche and vulgar, a sign of status-consciousness levels that surpass dignity.

As a worker in the media, I also deeply respect intellectual property rights and see the moral right in their being protected.

However, I was under the impression that copyright and trademark infringement were civil issues. As such, the burden is on the injured party to press for justice. If the law has changed, do let me know. I could do with some public money to pursue a very ex-friend who nicked my idea for a graphic novel and had it published; I also have at least two close friends who’ve had screenplays ripped off. Is there a New York City form I can fill in to apply for my grant?

I haven’t been to NY since Obama was elected, so this probably isn’t breaking news there. There were civil legal attempts to deal with the Canal Street by the intellectual property owners before the property stepped in and there are sales tax issues etc. Also, there is governmental support for luxury goods trademark owners everywhere, not just the US.

Given that the wearing of luxury goods is usually a sign of social rank, sumptuary laws have been used throughout history to identify social rank and to attempt to hinder social mobility. They were at their height in England for a few centuries after the mid-fourteenth century. Peasants were freed from their indentured obligations, not least by the Black Death which made labour a sellers market. This was a time of social change in which the middle classes emerged and experienced the desire to act & look more important than their birth station would have allowed in previous times. The ruling classes were alarmed.

These days, no-one would dare suggest that another human being isn’t inherently good enough to own an item provided they can pay for it, but the payment structure is tautologously designed so that most people can’t. These days, Chavs wear Burberry and receptionists can have D & G handbags, but the price to earnings ratio is massive unless you buy a knock off.

Yes, I know there can be quality issues. But come on, quality is available for less money too, and most people don’t buy designer goods for quality – they buy them to show that they can afford to pay too much for something. Design certainly takes time and money, but a handbag from Tesco has to be designed by someone. Good materials take money, marketing prestige items takes loads of money. Sticking an excluding price tag on an item reflects less the overheads than the desire to occupy a high market niche.

This is why I find the very notion of designer goods odious.

The modern form of sumptuary laws seems to be getting the government to do your trademark and copyright enforcement for you.

I’ve returned to the UK to find a strange echo of futurepast. As with so many religious issues, it seems we’re on a cyclical treadmill.

Retired Sikh judge, Sir Mota Singh, has criticised schools over their handling of the issue of the kirpan. This is a ceremonial dagger, one of the five requirements of the Sikh faith. Singh can’t see why Sikh children should be disallowed from wearing the kirpan in public spaces and points out, rightly, that we’re hardly on the crest of a wave of Sikh stabbings. If there is no violence, surely there is no issue?

Whether Sikh children are missing out on their religious obligation is up for debate, but at least one may be missing out on his education. Last year, a schoolboy from The Compton School in Barnet was refused permission to wear his kirpan at school. He was offered the compromise of a smaller knife which was welded into a metal sheath, but his parents refused and withdrew him. Let’s hope they’ve found educational arrangements which will serve him as well as continued attendance at the school.

I grew up in Southall, west London, and I remember an anecdote told me by a lecturer at Southall College of Technology.

At the time, the town was a fighting ground for two gangs, the ‘Holy Smoke’ and the ‘Tooti Nung’. There was at least one fatal stabbing that I can remember, and the area was festooned with gang tags, LA style. I believe the heroin trade is conducted at a more subliminal level now, but in the eighties it was brash.

A young Sikh man turned up at college wearing what some would call a kirpan, and some a fucking big and sharp offensive weapon. I don’t know whether he was a gang member or not, but his timing was bad given the era.

So the college principal had a dilemma … which he solved by consulting with the elders at the local Gurdwara. They ruled that the wearing of the kirpan was ceremonial, and represented a Sikh’s preparedness to fight for his faith. This militaristic aspect is not suprising, given that early Sikhism was forged in the Muslim Mughal regime in the Punjab which was repressive to minority religions.

So since the kirpan was representative, its physical presence could be attenuated to a small and symbolic dagger worn around the neck. A young man’s affiliation and willingness to fight bravely could not be doubted, but his ability to impale someone at very short notice was.

This judgement was delivered by elders who had probably been born in India and realised that one of their religious tenets was in danger of being misused in a series of testosterone-fuelled, second-generation turf-wars. I think their judgement was probably religiously sound and was certainly societally sensible. Racial tensions were high, and the community would not have benefited from any excuse to criticise them.

For me the core issue is whether, in a secular country, allowance for religious practice privileges some people over others. The right for Sikh to bear functional weapons while others may not do so, falls into this category.

I don’t know if those elders of Southall are still around, but perhaps they could spare an afternoon for Sir Mota who, however many years he has spent as an eminent man, could still pick up a thing or two from them.

Went to Westminster Skeptics last night. Great night. Watch this space for piccies and a report. Right now, it's Mr Jourdemayne's birthday and we have to go out for birthday fun.