Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist

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13 June 2006

Wow – at last you can look at the BBC News site statistics in some detail so you can see who reads what (at least for the top ten stories in a given subject or continent – and without exact page views).

Interestingly, the site’s announcement of this feature is in the top 10 even though it doesn’t appear on the front page….

4 April 2006

According to the New York Times, Iraq has as loose a system of gun control as the US – anyone over 25 “of good character” can own a firearm (including AK-47s!) and gun sales are accellerating. The rules date back to the Saddam regime but the US has not tried to change them. How a state can keep the peace without a monopoly on the use of force is beyond me…

1 March 2006

In a recent New Yorker he looks at phenomena once thought to be normally distributed that are actually distributed according to the “power law” – for example ‘problematic’ homeless people, corrupt cops or polluting cars. In other words it turns out that in these cases a hard core cause most of the trouble, which calls for different public policy solutions – for example, giving a lot of help and support to the most ‘undeserving’ of the homeless (eg drug-addicted and/or mentally ill people). The argument here is that they cost the system so much anyway when they ‘go wrong’ that you can spend quite a lot on them and still come out ahead if their self-harming behaviour can be curbed.

Someone I know who has worked in emergency rooms was less sanguine. They suggested that these ‘lowest of the low’ were so damaged that they simply do not respond to any interventions and that public policy interventions should instead be used to help the large number of homeless people who are (as Gladwell points out) just ‘passing through’ homelessness in order to ensure they don’t return to that state.

P.S. Gladwell now has his own blog and has posted there about the power law article.

22 February 2006

I was listening to Joseph Stiglitz talk about Innovative Ways for Financing Global Public Goods and he mentioned as an aside a conference he went to at Davos about global warming which featured some sunny free market thinking from George Newton, chairman of the US Arctic Research Commission. Newton explained that if global warming does melt the polar icecaps at least this might make it easier to get at some oil-fields underneath them (!) A little Googling came up with more details.

20 December 2005

Seems everywhere I look there is news about how revenge corrodes the soul and how the ‘good guys’ often act badly.

Historical papers revealed by the Guardian in the last week told how during and immediately after WWII, Britain ran interrogation centres that sounded as bad as anything the Gestapo came up with. One in Germany that starved and tortured prisoners first targeted Nazi party members or former members of the SS then by late 1946…

suspected Soviet agents. Some were NKVD officers – Russians, Czechs and Hungarians – but many were simply German leftists. Others were Germans living in the Russian zone who had crossed the line, offered to spy on the Russians, and were tortured to establish whether they were genuine defectors.

By a depressing irony, “Of the 20 interrogators ordered to break the inmates of Bad Nenndorf… [six] were mostly German Jewish refugees who had enlisted on the outbreak of war.”

The revelations of the previous week were even more disturbing. During and after WWII, a torture centre was run in London – the “London Cage”. The fact that those tortured appear to have been largely SS men and those accused of war crimes does little to excuse the brutal conditions there.

And now by an odd coincidence Spielberg is about to release a film – Munich – about Israel’s decision to hunt down and assasinate the killers of 11 of its atheletes at the 1972 Munich games (reviewed here).

All of this makes one think about the way that things seem to be going both here in the UK and in the US where torture may now be illegal but evidence obtained under torture may be OK and where peaceful protesters against military recruitment are attacked by police.

Also see my earlier post-Abu Ghraib musings on a similar theme…

But hopefully with that out of my system I can return to our regularly-scheduled Xmas cheer!

8 December 2005

New Scientist magazine – a weekly magazine of science news – a bit like The Economist or Prospect magazine for the scientifically-minded – has recently launched a weekly 12 minute Podcast – a great way to catch up on what’s going on in science while you are driving (or cycling!).

I used to be the magazine’s Net Editor ten years ago (!) and I am pleased to see that it is still keeping abreast of the latest Internet trends…

20 September 2005

Policy has an article in this month’s issue by Johan Norberg (who has a blog). I have posted earlier about Layard’s theories and other theories about how to maximise happiness in society. Layard (baldly summarised) believes money over a certain level doesn’t make you happy so progressive taxation is useful as are social policies like pushing for full employment – even if that is economically inefficient – because employment stability is very important in determining happiness (and since highly stratified incomes produce envy and the perceived need to match your neighbors which produces unhappiness).

Norberg correctly identifies that in societies where individuals have little hope of bettering themselves they tend to be unhappy and uses the example of communist states, and of states where there is low or no growth (Ireland in the 70s and 80s). It is true that low growth and high unemployment lead to unhappiness, but this is not inconsistent with Layard’s thesis – welfare states can have growth and low unemployment as well (though granted it seems to be more difficult).

He does have his finger on something when he says that, “the fact that growth has continued that makes it possible for us to continue to believe in the future”. But this I believe is something we need to work on educating people out of, both in schools and through the media. Unless we can find a way to ‘grow smart’ we will end up running into natural limits sooner or later – especially if developing countries take the same course. It may be true as Norberg says that the increase in wealth in developing countries continues to raise our overall levels of happiness, but it is also true that the rate of increase in happiness is slowing almost to a halt while the cost to our environment of the rise in wealth is increasing.

He also suggests, provocatively, that the welfare state reduces happiness because it takes away the challenges that we need to be happy. But the psychological research he cites refers to the benefits of challenges that are hard but within our power to tackle. The danger of states with inadequate safety nets are that many people living there are faced with challenges that are simply insurmountable – the challenge of getting your kids into university when the fees are not subsidised and the only jobs you can get don’t pay a living wage for example. And those challenges are not, I would suggest, conducive to happiness.

In the footnotes to his article I found the World Database of Happiness which has various interesting indices and lots of links to related papers.

An aside: I have become so used to being able to comment on blog postings or messageboards/comment boxes on media websites that it was irritating to find neither Johan’s blog nor Policy magazine (subheads ironically “ideas, debate, opinion”) have a means of instant
feedback (though at least they offer email addresses for private comment).

29 July 2005

Tea image
If a picture is worth 1000 words how many words is an animated GIF worth?

Update: Images by ‘Stargazer‘ and words by ‘jslayeruk‘.

20 July 2005

A few days ago I mentioned in passing that the US was doing itself a disservice and indirectly helping the jihadists by not mentioning Iraq’s civilian casualties. It turns out that the liberal stalwarts at Mother Jones have done a good piece recently on just this issue – Iraqi Casualties: Unnamed and Unnoticed.

19 July 2005


I just heard about the Blogathon. On August 6th, bloggers will participate in a 24 hour marathon of posting for charity – one post every half hour. I think this is a nifty idea and there are some good charities on their suggested list (though in fact you can blog for any charity you like). I encourage anyone reading to participate themselves, though it turns out I can’t do it myself.

If you are thinking of doing this yourself and trying to find a charity to support, I did some investigation and chose wateraid as my potential beneficiary (when I thought I might participate in the blogathon) because potable drinking water is a basic necessity without which it’s hard to do any further development and the organization appears to be doing good environmentally sensitive and sustainable work in this area.

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