The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Category: Personal

This is not a ban of Liam Fox

In a by now traditional move for the controversial series our defence secretary reports that he is “disgusted and angry” about the upcoming, unreleased Medal of Honor game (that he couldn’t possibly have any personal experience of since it’s not out yet) because it is “un-British“. That seems fair enough to me, in Medal of Honor (note the spelling) you play as an American soldier and it’s made in the US. It’s not British. It’s not meant to be British.

He therefore wants it banned. That bit doesn’t seem fair enough to me.

I’ll admit the idea that our defence secretary thinks that things that aren’t British are bad, and proverbially so, is a little terrifying. That may bode poorly for our foreign and defence policies.

The particular thing that Liam Fox doesn’t like is that the multiplayer mode lets you play as the other side (EA point out that every game has an other side – cops and robbers is the example they use) and EA’s right about that. No matter how much of a racist you are you’ve got to concede that in chess someone has to play black. I don’t like the idea that, in Fox’s world, you’re not even allowed to imagine yourself from the perspective of the other side.

It’s this “imagine” word that is particularly significant in this issue because it’s easy to forget that we’re not actually talking about a war, we’re talking about a video game about a war.

This is not a pipe. This is not a pipe, it is a picture of a pipe.

I don’t like people dying so I’m not a big fan of war, though that’s not a particularly unusual or controversial position. I have a suspicion that the only people who genuinely like war are just fundamentally not going to be like me. I do quite like video games and that’s not a contradictory position because, firstly, not all video games are even about people dying and secondly people don’t die in video games. If people actually died in a video game we would call it real life.

The idea that it is somehow wrong or un-British to play a video game in which one team is called NATO and one team is called Taliban and you both pretend to be soldiers and you both pretend to shoot each for points is ludicrous enough but the particular idea that you should ban a video game because of the names of the teams is just insane.

I have friends in the Army and I don’t like the idea of them being in harms way. I really hate it, and that’s why I really, really want UK forces out of Afghanistan but there is no “our boys in harms way” in this game. It’s a game. If you don’t like the idea you shouldn’t play it but there’s nothing in the game that endangers soldiers or is disrespectful or even involves war. The picture above is an image of a painting by René Magritte called The Treachery of Images which points out that, yes, it’s a picture of a pipe but it’s not a real pipe. Video games show a increasingly detailed portrayal of war but it is not a real war.

At the end of the day Liam Fox has no power to ban this game and he know he has no power to do that. It isn’t even the biggest thing that Fox has on his plate today. This is just him exercising his position of responsibility as an MP and as defence secretary to get in the paper and complain about stuff. Fundamentally this is someone using the deaths of British soldiers to push his agenda. You might agree with the agenda he’s pushing or you might not but either way that’s utterly disgusting behaviour. I’m very confident that no British soldiers gave their lives in Afghanistan so that a politician could stay at home and complain about computer games.

This is not a ban of Liam Fox, this is a post saying that we should ban Liam Fox.

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The notebook you have with you

I quite like my stationary, my big affectation is fountain pens but I like notebooks too. Unlike Glenn Beck, I’m not a big Moleskine fan for a couple of reasons, the first one is the general advertising and culture (Hemingway didn’t use a notebook that you can buy on Amazon.co.uk) that surrounds them and also because I think that if your notebook is too nice you’re not going to use it. I’m currently using own brand ones from Tesco because all you’re looking for is a book of blank paper that you can doodle in.

There’s a photography maxim that says “the best camera is the one you have with you” and this really applies to notebooks too. I have a substantial A4 hardback Moleskine notebook in my desk, it was over a tenner (far too much to spend on blank pages in hindsight) and I’ve earmarked it for serious work – you can’t remove pages from it, it looks very business like and A4 is the right size for holding lots of writing on a page. It’s very rarely out of the house, though, and it spends more time sitting in a bag than being used. Currently it only contains the final notes that I spoke from for a couple of speeches I’ve made recently which look very lonely at the very front of the book. It’s very rarely the best notebook for any job.

The notebook you have with you

Enter the wallet notebook – I keep a WHSmith small memo pad in my wallet (can’t find it online but there’s a photo below). It’s far too small to be any use for doing work in (it’s actually smaller than a pen) but it’s perfect for taking a phone number or address, a to do or just an observation. It’s very rare that I won’t have my wallet on me and therefore keeping things in my wallet makes a lot of sense for me. It works for giving people notes or taking them myself. You wouldn’t write a book in something that size but you wouldn’t leave it at home either.

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New theme

I’ve decided to take pity on my failing eyesight by switching to a theme with bigger text. The previous style, Benevolence, let me include a photo I’d taken of the River Clyde in the header but it only had a narrow column for text. I thought this gave the blog a suitably Glaswegian theme and I do miss that in the new theme.

On the other hand, it’s big and it holds the words well and that’s really what I’m looking for in a blog theme.

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Ofcom gives verdict on the Jeni Barnet radio show

I’m back from a summer holiday and a bit of a relax, so this post has been planned for a while but never quite typed up.

I’ve not mentioned the LBC MMR radio debate on the blog for a while but I received a letter from Ofcom while I was away on holiday a little while ago. The letter was a short message explaining the results of my complaint and attached was an extract from Ofcom’s periodical publication which contains the full judgement. The basic summary is that the complaint hasn’t been upheld and the broadcaster did not breach Ofcom’s code. However, in its other comments (not binding and not particularly potent) they do make some criticisms of the presenter’s conduct and that was really what the whole complaint was about, so in that way I feel the complaint was not wasted.

It is also quite a useful eye opener – it’s very easy to take our broadcasters for granted and that is pretty scary given the amount of power that the media exercise in the modern world. On a more personal level, the most appealing legal job in my experience is that of the communications lawyer. It was explained to me many years ago that these were the people who got to read the jokes that you couldn’t put on TV and I still think that’s a perfectly good reason. In that case it might be quite a good move to get familiar with the regulator’s way of thinking.

One of the most interesting features of the decision for me is basically that it didn’t breach the Code because experts – doctors and nurses – phoned in. That strikes me as counter intuitive and a bit unsatisfying but worth noting, especially because Ofcom later says that the presenter appeared to resort to her anecdotal experience and was perhaps improperly briefed. I was also interested to see that there is a different level of the prominence test for local broadcasters, since LBC is local to London, than for national ones. That, again, is surprising from the perspective that, when you get down to it, London is only a city. It shows that there is a real variety in the obligations that broadcasters need to strive for – something that I certainly didn’t know before this.

Ofcom publishes its decisions in its “Broadcast Bulletin” and these are available both from Ofcom and online, for example the issue which contains the MMR debate decision is available here: http://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv/obb/prog_cb/obb1ev

Performant is not a word (that you should use)

Admittedly it is a word. I just think it’s a very bad word. Teeth on edge sort of thing.

I use a modified version of the Strike Out system when I’m reading things online – if it’s something that’s interesting or important I’ll keep going but if it’s just for fun I will make a quick value judgement and if it’s badly spelt or poorly written in some other way I’m liable to get bored and go read something else. I also have a fairly short trigger for words which were spawned in the bleak hell of the corporate report/presentation.

Blue-sky-thinking-out-of-the-box has me physically wrestling the mouse towards the close box. Performant’s another word that gets a wince out of me. I think it’s a word you use to sound clever, like the egregious user of French. Which can be me sometimes but that’s because French is more beautiful as language than I am skilled in its performance. Remember I’m not here to say I’m perfect, just that using it to my hypocritical self is dicey.

The biggest problem with performant is that it’s a waste of a word, it’s entirely reliant on context to reveal what particular facet of performance you’re actually referring to.  The next is the smugness which fair drips off the word, it’s a masonic handshake of a buzz-word clique, you either get it or you’re not cool.  Thirdly is the fact that other words actually suit the situations where it gets rolled out entirely better.

This is due to me reading a review on the new Ubuntu Netbook Remix (9.04) release which said that the reviewer’s system was “more performant” with the new interface turned off.  The reviewer means his computer was quicker after he disabled the newly added parts and that’s obvious.  It’s still entirely valid though and there’s no shame in saying it was more responsive or merely just “faster”, which conveys more information while being half as many words.  There’s simply no need to dive into corporate speak.

Edit (ugly, rant of a paragraph deleted): In hindsight does every post need a sharp non sequitr about law?  Probably not, I don’t like the word, that’s all I’m actually saying.

An open letter to the Internet in defence of, well, letters

Dear Internet,
I’ve noticed you never get letters anymore, it’s a shame. The only thing that comes through the letter box now is generally a bill. The electronic version of the letter, the email, is also in grim condition. It is either a spam infested wasteland or a firmly stodgy business tool. The current champion of email – Research In Motion has made millions from business email but has struggled to make a similar dent into the consumer market.

Young people, it appears, have decided that email is a big business shill and do not use it for social purposes preferring to use instant messenging and social networking sites. I find that sad as a young person who actively likes email. I think email is the letter of the internet – you write it all in advance, address it and send it off, to get a whole message back.

Letter writing is nice, email is a little less formal – there’s no chance to open an envelope and it can be lost among adverts for various enhancements. Since the email is so much like the much appreciated letter, except less expensive and quicker, it is sad to see that it has been relegated to the position of “work tool” by the young people of today.

Although email is undeniably a fantastic tool for work, as is the traditional letter, and many technologies rejoice to be adopted as one because it will be written into compliance specifications and generally hand around for future decades it does mean that Joe Teenager will not be so keen to go for it. That means that when Joe Teenager becomes Joe Office Worker email genuinely will only be a work tool to him.

RIM has made excellent money from showing how useful not much more than always having access to your email can be but remains very much a corporate business – it only recently put cameras on its phones because of corporate policies against cameras. The Blackberry, however, is a household name – they are quality devices and Barack Obama loves them which are just two substantial points in their favour.

The mobile phone, in my eyes, is not the easel for the next great letter, which should rather be penned in an attic flat, next to a window while it’s raining to really set the scene but with all teenagers (seemingly anyway) possessing phones with email capability this could be the scene of the resurgence of the letter. Next time Joe Teenager (or Joe Twenty Something, or Joe Thirty Something or…) is on a bus for a few minutes with nothing to do he should sit down and start to write a letter, using his phone and sending it off by email. He should occasionally resist the temptation to send a quick text now and again because you can say much more in a letter.

Yours,
A blogger

ScotsLawStudent.com mentioned on Law Actually

Many thanks to Michael of Law Actually for his coverage of the blog/blawg, it’s lovely to very nice to get a mention, Law Actually is one of the blogs I regularly read and follow with great interest. Law Actually, as a matter of fact was the point at which it occurred to me that I could blawg about this university thing. I’d actually not noticed just how much the blog was trending into the tech world until he pointed it out. This has deviated from the high brow, dusty black letter aspirations that I had originally held for it and bears considering.  In a hobby project you get to play to your interests and, hey, I’m interested.

In a nod to the next generation (I’m almost up to my third year now) I’d like to add some tips for new students who see this. I get a lot of search hits from people looking at attending law school and deeply suggest that people should start their own blog, with some caveats, because it’s a great way to put your experience out there.

1) Decide if you want to write anonymously or use your name.

I did to keep my baby steps from being intimately connected to my offline, aspiring to get paid as a lawyer, persona. I suspect you could work out who I am reasonably easily but hopefully prospective employers casually doing a google won’t come across my laughably wide-eyed and naive opinions. If not you need to remember to keep your posts employer-safe and to take it pretty seriously, you might never have your masterpiece on “top 10 jokes to play on the falling down drunk” post come back to bite you but the chance is there and I would suggest keeping it away from your equally masterpiece work on “the concept of occupier liability in virtual worlds” in case it affects you further down the line. By no means think you can’t write the first if you want to but I don’t think you should connect it to identity that you hope to have appear before a judge, in the good way.

2) How much of an online presence do you want to have?

This boils down to:

Do you need a website?

Generally no- all you need is a way to put your words online. A blog works for that with aplomb. You can get a free blog with wordpress.com among many others. A website has potential more functionality than a blog on its own but most people would be very surprised at the functionality of blog software and hosts. You don’t need a website just to host files – wordpress.com gives you 2GB of storage for free which lets you handle media of all kinds, 2GB’s enough to provide a fairly decent archive of podcasts, all attached to quick connections and lots of bandwidth.

Choose a good blog host

Blogging is a great way to publish your words, I’m just about old enough to remember when “publishing your words” amounted to plain, hand written HTML files in your 50MB of ISP hosted storage for most people and modern blogging is so much better. You have three main choices – a social networking site (Facebook etc) blog, a dedicated “blawg” or to post about legal topics on a blog you already write. All options work. I happen to go for the dedicated blawg and it’s the route that most other legal bloggers seem to take. It’s possible to move to another host after you’ve started but it’s fairly heavy work to move everything over.

To Tweet or not to Tweet

Twitter is extremely useful to consider because, frankly, Tweets are wonderfully quick to write in a way that a five hundred word blog post is not. I personally have a sporadic presence on Twitter which finds bursts of updates when I rememeber about it. I am ashamed to point out a distinct causual link between the breaking of my easy-tweet panel applet and a dry spell in my posting. It’s not for everyone and if you don’t like it you can stop using it. It is for many people and there’s a lot of good material put on Twitter. I’m unsure I like the ephemeral nature of it though.

3) How much time do you want to spend on it?

Producing good writing is hard work (and tiring, just ask any student why they can’t get up in the morning!) and regularly publishing them takes a considerable amount of time. You can shortcut that by writing less often or, in a manner of speaking, writing less. You can do what I can’t, which is write fewer words, or you can do what I can do, which is research less. I can not do research with the best of them. You probably won’t see a footnote on this entire site. That couldn’t be more different for other people, particularly on practioner blawgs, for example on firm websites, where the blogger is actually reporting on novel legal research. It’s a (non-peer reviewed, mind) journal article you can get to with google. I have found these useful to give me an overview in a particular question of law. You don’t have to write that sort of blog but if you do put your name to it it would be wonderful to be able to show that you can.

I have let the blog lapse a little, it’s true, but I still check it often and try to update it when I get a minute. It’s hard to fit it in and you always have to remember that, unless, your blog by some miracle is generating a great deal of money for you, it’s not a job and real life committments should come before getting a new post out. Twitter is a good option for people who just want to publish their thoughts and opinions and not spend a lot of time on it but it’s equally not for everyone.

4) The tech bit: How should you write your blog

This is actually not as straight forward as it used to be. Previously if you wanted to type an online journal your only avenue was a desktop computer, without it you weren’t going to get much online. Now your options are considerably more varied so much so that the the previously cutting edge al fresco laptop blogger is in danger of becoming passe. I’ve not read that anyone is blogging from a mobile yet (and don’t really fancy it on my bog standard phone keypad) but I imagine it must be getting done – lawyers and the Blackberry are pretty inextricable these days. I have a reasonably ardous bus commute as part of my day and if I had a way to type on the bus I suspect I could get a fair bit done and the smartphone might be a reasonable way to do it. Currently I use the time for reading but typing might be a good way to pass that time too. Beyond that, it’s a typing task like anything else you do. You find a way to type that you can stand and you do it that way. I use a manual typewriter because of the lovely noise. It’s really not much cop on the bus but it’s a nice addition to my desk at home.

Conclusions

I can’t recommend blogging your law school experience enough, if nothing else it’ll be an interesting record to look back over when you finish your career. I think legal blogging fulfills two crucial roles in today’s world – legal reporting and advertising. I think that having sane, reasoned and knowlege legal comment is crucial. Ben Goldacre recently made a wonderful analogy comparing reporting science with reporting snooker. He pointed out that economics and finance get pretty full fat coverage with shedloads of figures and theories being bandied about and you still need 4 years of university education in that too. If you can watch full fat reporting of a complicated game like snooker you can handle full fat reporting on the way the very world works. It’s like that in law too, it needs a lifetime to master but affects everyone and it’s rarely objectively reported. It’s too often you hear unattributed anecdotes about the broken nature of the law without a voice in the wilderness pointing out the reasoning behind it.

The other one is to educate law students – I relied on family members in the profession, who had been qualified for some time, for my introduction to what will happen at law school and things change in that time so I was playing by ear for a lot of what was happening. I only came across a blawg, and only after my first year was already over, by a chance google result. Other people have searched for information online before even applying and this shows slightly more research than I did and fair play to them that’s a good move. Legal bloggers can and do help these people by having a decent coverage of the mystical place for them when they search.

Additionally I’ve got my original aim of going over things I’ve read for the benefit of refreshing it in your mind, that still works although I’ve not been doing much of it on the blog. Any benefit which might improve your ability to analyse and remember law is to be pounced on posthaste.

Jeni Barnett on MMR – is copyright law right for this case?

Dr Ben Goldacre has received a legal challenge for a recording he put on his site. The recording was a 44 minute extract from Jeni Barnett’s 1pm to 4pm radio phone in chat show broadcast in January 2009 (as far as I know, it’s not clear when the broadcast in question actually took place – I think the 27th (last Friday of January) but I have heard other dates) by LBC, a London based commercial radio station owned by Global Audio. The recording, now available on a variety of sites around the Internet, is not the best listening; it’s very biased and does not constitute much in the way of medical advice.

This being said though, the issue that the publishers have taken umbrage to is not the content of the broadcast but is the fact that such a substantial chunk has been placed on Goldacre’s site (44 minutes is roughly one quarter of the 3 hour broadcast) and Goldacre has received a lawyer’s letter telling him to remove it or face legal action. This step of having the critical site ordered to remove the content is very unusual and what makes this situation so incredibly controversial – this is being regarded as censorship by solicitor. By challenging badscience.net on copyright grounds they have shifted the angle from the disagreement and negative criticism that Dr Goldacre has heaped upon Ms Barnett and onto an economic loss that they have suffered. The site itself is designed as a forum to critique poor logic and science in the media and the extract was originally posted as the soundtrack to a tongue in cheek game of “vaccination canard bingo” in which listeners were to count the number of urban myths about vaccines that were mentioned and he offered that anyone who could think of one that wasn’t mentioned would be given a signed copy of his book. To me that is clear satire and parody, although according to Jeni Barnett’s personal blog that is sarcasm and criticises “the Bad Scientist” for “making another person feel small” (I personally suggest that Ms Barnett is not acting like a professional broadcaster in this situation but that is another issue).

However, the copyright suit is based on a very reasonable point that requires explanation:

Why is the extract so very long?

Ben Goldacre has explained his reasoning himself and I think that quoting his words is the best way to convey it:

http://www.badscience.net/2009/02/legal-chill-from-lbc-973-over-jeni-barnetts-mmr-scaremongering/#more-862

But thirdly, there is a question of the basic tools you need to illustrate a point. The clip I posted was, to my mind, hideous and unremitting: it went on for so long.

In fact it was so long, so unrelenting, and so misinformed that I really couldn’t express to you how hideous it was. If I tried, without the audio, you might think I was exaggerating. You might think that I was biased, that I was misrepresenting Jeni’s demeanour and views in this broadcast, that LBC and their parent company Global Audio are living up to the standards of basic responsibility which we might reasonably hold them to, as they shepherd Jeni’s views and explanations into our cars and kitchens. You might think that I was quoting Jeni out of context, cherrypicking only the ridiculous moments from an otherwise sensible, proportionate and responsible piece of public rhetoric.”

Dr Goldacre claims to have posted the long extract as it was the only way to convey the content which he took issue to without claims of bias or selective editing – in other words fair use of the extract for purposes of review. I think that’s a very carefully thought out reason to put the 44.2 megabyte file on his site and would be accepted without question in an academic debate in which you live and die by the rule “you cite your sources or people can’t trust you” .

MMR

The MMR issue is widely reported and I do not think that I need to repeat that here – I would like to point out that the few remaining advocates of the MMR-autism link run private autism treatment clinics and, with respect, have a massive commercial incentive to claim that anything at all causes autism. There is a clear potential for a conflict of interest in their testimony. Every other research project has failed to repeat their results. This does not help the millions of parents of young children who are determined to take the right course of action for their charges if they are barraged with negative media coverage of what appears to be, and always was, a false result by a now discredited scientist.

I personally feel that MMR is safe and this is not just because I have received it and I am still healthy because that’s not proof. It is possible for some individuals to smoke and use sun beds without contracting cancer even though nearly everyone would say there’s a definite link – some people turn out to be resistant or even just lucky.  It’s impossible currently to work out who will and who won’t be affected in advance just as it is with who will catch measles in an outbreak. Instead I feel the MMR vaccine is safe because I have read studies saying so which are much larger in scale, better equipped and more methodical than the one that tells me it’s not. To use a legal analogy I feel that the studies which have held MMR to be innocent are more authoritative and hold higher precedential value than those that dissent (not to mention that there are many more of them).

Jeni Barnett’s comments

Despite this there are still some seriously dubious statements made in the 44 minutes available on wikileaks including, and I feel this is the most horrifying single offence, reading out an unattributed email from an anonymous listener claiming that the MMR vaccine, as well as causing autism, contains cancer causing chemicals. This kind of comment should never be made on a public broadcast radio station by anyone whose name doesn’t start with “Professor” and has an incredible amount of valid and accepted research to back him up. Saying that children’s vaccines cause cancer is a sure fire way to terrify parents and this should have been as well received as Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand’s Radio 2 phonecall.

Apart from this she also shows undue bias towards callers who subscribe to alternative medicine (her first caller introduces herself as a young mother who looked into alternative medicine to keep her children safe but later admits that she is a homeopath and is therefore actually speaking as a businesswoman with the incentive against other forms of medicine that entails) and is dismissive of other opinions – I have included some of the transcript at the bottom of this post to show what I mean – and finally, when talking to a nurse, accuses her and the Government of scaring people in order to make money before apparently hanging up on the caller without allowing her a response.

The situation is already fairly murky due to a sketchy method of reporting in the UK press – for example, unsolicited quotes that were negative to MMR were sent to non-science section reporters in newspapers and, apparently deliberately, kept away from reporters who had the science background to look at the source critically. That is like sending skewed sports results to a business columnist so that they can report your angle and it reeks of unethical practice and quite a worrying trust shown by reporters.  Jeni Barnett’s comments will pour yet more oil on these troubled waters.

LBC’s reaction

The company who own the rights to the audio have an undeniable right to control (and profit from if they should wish) the distribution of their property and so they have sent a letter to Goldacre with a strongly worded request to remove the extract from his site. They ominously chose to “reserve [their] rights” in relation to him so it’s possible that, even though Goldacre has followed their instructions, there could still be a court appearance in his future. I think that is unlikely in all honesty but cannot be certain either way. While I’m prepared to call this a lawyer being careful to leave their client’s options open, the idea that he could be sued after complying with a letter just seems unfair – the copyright breach is closed now, surely? It wasn’t Goldacre who made the recording, he simply posted it on his site and he has since removed it. In more extreme cases, ones where there is a substantial loss incurred by the copyright holders which lasts after the party has complied with the letter, it makes sense to be able still go after them for the economic loss you have suffered. This is good in cases of libel, for example.

But this case does not fall under libel rules – there was no comment made by Goldacre which affects Jeni Barnett as a professional actress or radio presenter and she will not suffer an economic loss as a result of this blog post by Goldacre. She is, particularly, not a medical professional whose expert and professional reputation is hurt. He said she is misinformed; she accepted it in a blog post and called him a bad scientist in return. At this point I would advise Ms Barnett that a libel action, although within her rights, would appear petty and she would need to show that Goldacre has actually caused her some kind of loss (apart from saying she was wrong).

The extract in itself is from a single show and that should not cut into the radio station’s bottom line since individual shows (and especially not individual 44 minute sections) are not sold, only access to the back catalogue as a whole. For that reason I do not think there is much of a loss caused by this comment made by Goldacre.

Therefore that the letter still retains the right to procede with other action will probably not require that Dr Goldacre needs to start looking for representation – it is just a line in a threatening (as the client is paying for it to be) lawyer’s letter.

However Dr Goldacre is wise to remove the recording from his site simply because Global Audio is a half billion pound company and are simply much too big to stand up to when all you have is an opinion that someone is wrong. Goldacre should not stop thinking she is wrong but at the same time should not rely on that to convince a judge.

Copyright as a silencer?

But should he have to? Is this the right time to use, as Cory Doctrow put it, the “tank mine” that is copyright law if what they appear to really want is to hide the criticism of this particular broadcaster?  The difference in the two parties’ financial positions could only be more stark if Goldacre lived in a cardboard box, he’s an author. Copyright law was invisioned in a time when the only people capable of breaching a publisher’s copyright were equally massive publishing companies with their own mechancial press and the resources to send lawyers to defend their position.

Thanks to the computing revolution individuals today, with only the money they earn through their own jobs, are capable of disseminating copyrighted material on a scale of readership which may exceed that achieved by nefarious publishers in the past but without the resources of a large company to mount a legal defence. This imbalance in the position of debaters is potentially damaging to the quality of debates they feel they can safely produce. The quality of debate someone can have with the words “I am not an expert, this is what I have observed* is limited when book writing, letters after their name wearing members of the scientific community receive legal threats when they criticise. This is a terrible precendent to be setting and has horrible ramifications in any situation but particularly so in the case of public health (if the ratio of immunised to non immunised people in a society drops below 83-96% herd immunity breaks down and that society starts to be at risk from measles epidemics and that threatens us all – parts of London, in particular, are already far past this point and may only be a matter of time).

Conclusion

Jeni Barnett has said on her blog that she wants a debate on the topic – she also says that “acting is all about honesty, if you can fake that you can fake anything” but I digress – and she appears to have got one.  I would have preferred, of course, that the debate had already taken place and was on that fateful radio show.

I believe strongly that people are allowed to have opinions but should never treat them as better than empirically established, peer reviewed facts. This seems obvious to me at least but very few people are really willing to have their strongly held beliefs overruled because they can’t back up their hunch with evidence, especially on the spur of the moment, and that is something that is simply part of human nature but it doesn’t make it anymore credible to use anecdotes and gut feeling against 10 and 20 year long clinical trials and to behave as if they are on equal footings.

As for Ms Barnett, I think it is acceptable to say she is a non-medically qualified person with a strong preference for alternative medicine but she is all that as well as having a microphone, a radio show and a powerful position in the heart in of London and for that she should be careful to stay to the facts and to report both sides of any discussion, regardless of her own bias, as soon as she gets behind her seat in the recording booth and to avoid unduly covering one point of view which will scare a sizeable portion of her listeners.

Ofcom does expect her to, after all.


* Emphasis made by Jeni Barnett on air – I took this emphasis to mean that this was her backing for her statements which made her dimissing, muting or talking over other people’s evidence that much more galling:

John: Afternoon Jeni. I’m not a medical expert, but I listen to the radio and I listen to LBC – I listen to your competitors quite a lot. Every single medical expert that you’ve ever had on LBC, always said MMRs are a good thing and all the evidence against them have been refuted.

JB: …yeah.

John: So?

JB: Does that make it right??

John: Well, yeah! I pretty much think it does, actually! Yeah!

JB: How come?

John: Well, you sound like… when you say ‘My four kids, this ladies’ four kids’ – you sound like one of those people who say ‘My Aunty Flo lived to be a hundred and ten and she smoked a hundred cigarettes a day’! There’s always going to be someone, but in general…

JB: Uh, but wasn’t Aunty Flo ALLOWED to do that?

NB: I completely agree with Dr Goldacre’s decision to post the audio, would his suggestion that Ms Barnett was out of order have had nearly the same weight in text form as it did when the listener could hear her, before telling people that fresh air and star jumps will keep their children safe, ask the microphone “what’s so wrong with childhood illness?” but it cannot be categorically stated enough that this is my personal opinion (which is why it’s not in the body text) as opposed to my legal one and I am not a judge.

Typewriters III

I am now the owner of a 1972 Olympia Sg3. This is a gigantic, desk bound typewriter hailing from West Germany. It’s good for sitting at and looking at the words you have typed after the fact but feels exactly like typing in the way that anyone would today associate with a computer, with one notable exception. The backspace key exists on my typewriter but it is not the same as a backspace key on a computer – the carriage moves back one space but the letter does. NOT go away. The general way that I correct my text on this (I’m using the typewriter)is backspacing through the mistake and replacing them with hard typed x’s which serve to delete the mark and then to take a half line gap upwards and retype the particular word.

It produces text which, although completely legible, is also immutable, your notes are written exactly as typed them. My particular model won’t exceed 10pt but that is more than enough for my purposes. The real power of the typewriter, as I’m finding it, is genuinely being able to take the typed page out of the typewriter and to edit it and, then once you start to redraft to actually type the entire page out again, thereby exposing yourself to the words and arguments you’re put¬ting across without being able to cheat (as I often do) and reusing the typing of earlier versions. The fact that each draft is completely new is a useful step to forcing me to actually think about what I’m trying to submit.

It’s possibly a little hopeful to see this as a panacea as far as producing quality work but it is a tool which a) I’m going to want to use and b) one which by nature of its very construction a device that will require each draft to be thoughtfully produced, instead of simply recycled. I hope that will produce a better finished product than simply copy and pasting into different shapes.

Typewriters II

My search for a reasonably priced typewriter continues apace . It’s absolutely incredible seeing the online market for typewriters – anyone who has ever tried to sell a computer they bought brand new for thousands of pounds a few years later will have discovered that computers are not an investment piece. As it happens there is still a huge amount of interest in the humble typewriter (I’m a case in point) and the prices these machines, generally considered to have been made obsolete by the personal computer, can still command is genuinely surprising in the days of the EEE PC netbook. The days of a typewriter costing a week’s wages are admittedly nearly entirely behind us but they can still command a not insubstantial price.

While I’m only looking at the low end of the manual market I’m still trying to buy something that will stand up to me punching away on it for a fair few years to come and some of the models that appear to be quality typing machines that I’m looking at on Ebay have taken a surprising leap past the £50 mark. An astonishing figure considering that a lot of the sellers suggest the typewriter would merely make a “good talking point or ornament” as opposed to a production machine used for typing. I’m particularly interested in machines which come with a reasonable stack of consumables because the global trade in typewriter ribbons is not as rosy as it used to be and I’m not certain of my ability to track down a replacement with nothing more than the spindles on the typewriter as a clue, not to mention the fact that being able to lug the typewriter onto my desk and begin using it immediately is worth a lot to me.

Additionally the courier fees on these huge pieces of cast iron and steel are also high, with the large desktop machines (that I’m admittedly very interested in owning), especially those designed for larger paper sizes, tipping the scales at nearly 20kg and being primarily solid metal. Savings can be made by buying one of the smaller portable models, which still aren’t hugely portable compared to a 638 gram Sony P but remain a portable possibility when moving around the house or on extended trips, which I hear are less able to keep up with fast typists and are somewhat less solid than their big office bound cousins but are perfectly usable.

Since I’m actively moving to a typewriter to slow myself down and force me to take more time with my work this is not necessarily a bad thing but I think I’d still appreciate the bulk of a desktop typewriter as a visual statement. This is simply to appeal to the Cro-Magnon male in me which whole heartedly believes something can’t be serious until it makes your desk creak.