It is a routine complaint about modern life that “we” now have far too many gadgets for our own good, and maybe some of us do. (I just googled too many gadgets and got “about 150,000,000 results”.)
But then again, have a read of this, by blogger “6000”, who now lives in South Africa, about his last conversation with his beloved uncle Alan, who died yesterday in a hospital in the Isle of Man:
My brother had been over to see him on Saturday and while I wish that I could have been there too, I enjoyed a 20 minute conversation with him over Skype. My last memory of my Uncle Alan will be his disbelief at the technology in front of him as I showed him Cape Agulhas lighthouse and the turquoise Indian Ocean. He always loved anything to do with the sea. We even shared a joke or two. It might not have been the same as actually being there with him, but for me, it was a special moment – even more so now – and I hope that for him, it was a bit of escapism from his hospital bed.
The way to judge the value and impact of a new technology is not to look at the typical or average uses of it, but at its most meaningful and significant uses. Yes, modern toys are routinely used to exchange trivial chit-chat of no great significance. But so what? Where’s the harm in that? Even supposedly insignificant chat often means something very significant to those doing the chatting, even if some nosy eavesdropper with nothing better to do than moan about other people’s conversations might not be so diverted by it. I imagine that if you had been listening in on 6000 and his uncle last Saturday, you might not have been that amused. Like I say: so what?
And nor should “we” be badgered into looking only at the bad things that new technology can do, or help people to do. Yes, some of the newly enabled chit-chat is significant because it is malevolent. Modern toys are indeed used to do bad things, and to conspire to do other bad things. And airplanes incinerated cities. Cars have long been used to make getaways after bank robberies. Trains took innocent people to murder camps and soldiers to be slaughtered in wars. Sailing ships were used by pirates. Money gets stolen, and is then used to finance other crimes.
But are the facts in the above paragraph convincing arguments against the very existence of laptop computers, Skype, smartphones, airplanes, cars, trains, sailing ships or money? No. The good done by new technology when used by good people to do good things is by far its most significant consequence. Long may this continue to be true.
For the last hour as of 13.34 GMT, the Guardian has been running what it calls an ‘eco audit” asking readers to give their views on whether the destruction of ivory stocks helps save elephants as a species.
I was pleased and surprised to see comments running strongly in favour of the answer ‘no’. The first comment is typical:
It’s a stupid move. It just makes the price of contraband ivory go up and kills more elephants.
Equally annoying has been the whitewashing of [Mandela’s] history. He was given a fair trial and a fair sentence, even Amnesty fucking International said so. He WAS a terrorist.
He was also a politician upon release, who had some good ideas and equally, some fucking insane ones. Ironically, he replaced a notionally democratic but really one party state with another notionally democratic but really one party state, although to be fair, this was hardly his fault.
– Obnoxio the Clown
“Mandela was a great man. The obvious reason was his courage and persistence in fighting against Apartheid. The somewhat less-obvious reason was his willingness to forgive. I’m assuming, of course, that the movie Invictus was relatively accurate in that respect. I remember sitting through the movie and being on the edge of tears for almost the whole movie, so moved was I by his willingness to forgive. A little bonus: His favorite poem, “Invictus,” has been my favorite poem since middle school. In some ways just as impressive, if not more so, was his willingness to learn at a relatively old age. He was a long-time socialist but, by the time he got out of prison, much of the world had learned that socialism didn’t work. He became persuaded of that and, although, as president of South Africa, he expanded the welfare state, he did not make a large move in the direction of socialism. His willingness to reject his wife Winnie’s violent ways was also impressive.”
– David Henderson.
I am sure there will be lots of appraisals of his life in the days and years to come; I have seen a few, mostly respectful (and one or two that are less so). As far as I can tell, Henderson’s is about the most accurate I have seen so far, for it focuses on essentials. A great man indeed. May he rest in peace.
I haven’t read anything by the Guardian columnist Sir Simon Jenkins for a while. He’s one of those infuriating grandees of the media who can be relied upon to say a mix of sensible things along with some jaw-dropping pieces of rubbish. Case in point in the rubbish department, regarding the mass murders by Islamists in a Kenya shopping mall (H/T, Douglas Murray in the Spectator) :
The modern urban obsession with celebrity buildings and high-profile events offers too many publicity-rich targets. A World Trade Centre, a Mumbai hotel, a Boston marathon, a Nairobi shopping mall are all enticing to extremists. Defending them is near impossible. Better at least not to create them. A shopping mall not only wipes out shopping streets, it makes a perfect terrorist fortress, near impossible to assault.
“Celebrity building”. Note the sneer. So what is Sir Simon’s suggestion: that Kenyans go back to living in all those cute little mud huts and not frequent markets where more than a handful of folk are in the vicinity, is that it? And that Westerners, or indeed anyone else, should stop going to large buildings, such as theatres, football stadiums, rock concerts, large rail stations, underground stations, skyscrapers….? We stop running marathons, or gathering for other peaceful reasons, lest nutters go on the rampage? Of course, people can choose to avoid such events and places as much as they want, but Sir Simon, a fan of planning legislation, no doubt would not draw the line at just letting people associate where they want.
It is not as if he is even consistent about this issue of density of people in certain places anyway. Jenkins and those of like minds often also decry suburbia, and wish we all went back to living in denser cities and used public transport (which tends to be more vulnerable to terrorist attacks). It is obscene in my view, as people were still dying as a result of the shootings in Kenya, that this fuckwit writes about “the modern obsession with celebrity buildings”, as if there was something almost shameful or foolish about erecting them and enjoying visits to them.
What this man is proposing is, to put it simply, a form of surrender. I remember when George Bush responded initially to 9/11 by urging people to continue shopping and enjoying life as a way to defeat the Islamists. He got criticised for this, but he was right. According to the logic of what Jenkins says, we should stop being Western, stop making big things, or glossy, flash buildings that people enjoy visiting, and revert to a smaller set of gathering places instead, at least for however long it takes before the death-cultists of Islam decide to turn their attentions elsewhere. Great. Let’s hide under our beds. (So long as the beds are not too large or ostentatious, of course.)
Of course, Jenkins is an opponent of large, modern buildings and has been banging the drum in opposition to such things as long as I can remember. But I did not think he would resort to this line of argument. What is this man going to say if a bomb is set off in one of his favourite classical pieces of architecture, I wonder?
(I have updated my item a bit to remove some clunky expressions. Insufficient coffee and anger do not make for great writing.)
I just got an email from the End of the World Club, about their next meeting. This will be at 6.30pm on Monday September 30th, at the Institute of Economic Affairs, London SW1.
Corrie Chipps will talk about “Lessons from Zimbabwe: A Broke Billionaire’s Survival Guide”, discussing her personal experience of watching a prosperous economy spiral into total collapse and how Zimbabweans have adapted.
Email me (click top left here, where it says “Contact”) if you are interested in this, or other EotWC meetings, and I’ll put you in touch.
I have the feeling that there might be rather more than the usual EotWC turnout for this one. Here is a case where the political and the personal overlap, big time. I for one will definitely be attending, barring disaster or memory failure, and I expect to learn a great deal.
This is old news to some but new to me, and to the Huffington Post, judging from their headline. I had thought Clooney to be the standard Hollywood “liberal”, looking down from a lofty height on the barbarians below. Instead he is looking down from a lofty height on one particular barbarian below in order to deter him from atrocities and warn his potential victims. Cool.
Next stop, armaments.
Which might get hairy, given that some private individuals and nearly all states of the satellite-owning classes are prone to think of themselves as gods already, even without the power to strike down malefactors from the heavens.
Yesterday, I encountered this Economist advert (one of this set), in the tube, which included the following argument that booming Chinese investment in Africa is bad for Africans:
Elephant numbers in Africa are falling fast because of the Chinese demand for ivory.
My immediate reaction was that elephants should maybe be farmed. That would soon get the elephant numbers up again, and it would also be good for Africans, because it would provide them with lots of legal jobs. If you google “elephant farming”, you soon learn that an argument along these lines already rages.
People much like Doug Bandow (and like me) say: Why not farm elephants? And people like Azzedine Downes, as and when they encounter this elephant farming idea, are enraged:
These days, it seems like any idea casually dropped in a coffee break conversation can be, if repeated often enough, and forcibly enough, taken seriously by those not really interested in finding solutions. They are looking for sound bites and this one was a doozy! I have seen these arguments take on a life of their own and so struggled to overcome my own vision of elephants in iron pens being kept until they could be killed for their teeth.
“First of all”, I started. “No-one needs ivory.” “Secondly, your proposal raises so many ethical questions that I don’t really know where to start.”
“Don’t get upset”, he said. “I was just wondering. You are right, it is an awful idea.”
I hope I never hear that idea coming up again and, if I do, I hope it will be just as easy to convince the next misguided soul that it is an awful idea.
I’m afraid that Azzedine Downes is going to hear this notion, seriously argued, again and again, unless he covers his ears.
I think I get where he is coming from. Killing elephants, for any reason, is just wrong, like killing people. Downes doesn’t spell it out, because he is not in a spelling things out mood. (“I don’t really know where to start.”) But it seems to me that what we have here is the beginnings of the idea that certain particularly appealing and endangered and human-like animals should have something like a right not to be killed, just as you and I have such a right. If someone kills us, the government will, depending on its mood, go looking for who did it and maybe, if it catches the miscreant in question, punish them in some way or another. Killing elephants, says Downes, is likewise: murder. See also: whales.
Farming a bunch of humans for their bodily organs would also be murder. A kidney farmer pointing out that he was raising his clutch (herd? pack? flock?) of humans not just for the serial killer hell of it, but in order to profit from selling their kidneys, would make things worse for himself, legally speaking, because this would provide the jury with a rational motive. Motive is not justification. Motive gets you punished, not acquitted.
In the matter of elephants, pointing out that farming elephants for their tusks might, given the facts on the ground in Africa, be the difference between African elephants as a species surviving, and African elephants being entirely wiped out by ivory poachers (for as numbers diminish, so prices will rise and rise), or perhaps entirely replaced by a newly evolved species of tuskless elephants, is, for Azzedine Downes, entirely beside the point. Farmers killing the elephants for their tusks doesn’t solve the problem, any more than the slave trade solved the problem of slavery. The problem of slavery was slavery, and the problem here is people killing elephants, which they would do even more of if they farmed them for their tusks. This is absolutely not just about the mere survival of a species. It is about not doing something morally repugnant. The elephants must be saved. They must not be murdered. End of discussion.
Thoughts anyone? How about the Azzedine Downes tendency proving their love of elephants by buying lots of elephants, and large elephant habitats, and then spending more money protecting the elephants from ivory poachers, but without farming them or otherwise exploiting them, other than as objects of photographic devotion by tourists. Presumably this is sort of what they are already doing, even as the idea of people owning elephants sticks in their throats, just as does the idea of people owning people.
Here’s another thought. How would Azzedine Downes feel about elephants having their tusks removed and sold on to Chinese ivory carvers when the elephants die but not before they die? Die of natural causes, I mean. As a matter of fact, are the tusks of elderly elephants, just deceased, still worth enough for that to be any sort of economically viable compromise? And as a matter ethics, would the Downes tendency tolerate even that?
Elephant tusk donor cards? Well, not really, because how would you know, in this new world of elephant rights, how the elephant or elephants actually felt about such a scheme? In this connection, the recent proposal that humans should be presumed willing to part with any or all of their useful-to-others organs when (as above) they die but not before they die, unless they explicitly say otherwise by carrying a non-donor card, is surely relevant.
Another thought: Will it soon be possible to make something a lot like ivory with 3-D printing? Or with some sort of magical bio-engineering process? Perhaps, but if so, that would presumably take much of the fun out of ivory. But then again, so might ivory farming, if it got too efficient.
Perusing the Samizdata postings category list reminds me that maybe similar considerations apply, or soon will apply, to hippos.
Time for me to stop and for any commenters, who want to, to take over.
In April, my friend Elena Procopiu is going on a trek through the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, to raise money for a charity called the Moroccan Children’s Trust. Elena writes about MCT’s activities,and her fundraising activity for it, here.
There are hundreds of children on the streets of Taroudant suffering daily harassment, humiliation, physical abuse and exploitation as they try to earn a living off the streets. …
… and MCT is trying to do something about that.
Elena’s many friends have started chipping in. I will shortly be doing likewise. I have already learned some geography, by googling Taroudant.
I am looking forward to hearing about this expedition when Elena returns to London. Just as interesting as her report of the trek in the mountains will be what else she will then be able to tell us all about the work of MCT. After the trekking is done, the trekkers will spend a further few days meeting some of the local Moroccans involved, and some of the children and parents they are trying to help. If anyone reading this is inclined to donate also, Elena assures us that this is the sort of thing that all their donations will be spent on. The trekkers are all paying their own travelling expenses.
It makes a difference to me that Elena is personally acquainted with the people who run MCT, which as of now seems to be quite a small operation, with no big London HQ or any such nonsense. The boss of the enterprise is a British doctor. I’m guessing that MCT began when he was doctoring in Morocco, but then realised that many of his patients, or potential patients, had other problems besides medical problems.
I say “or potential patients”, because it is a sad sign of the times we live in that an important part of MCT’s work is helping people fill in forms, so that they can then visit doctors, attend schools, and so on. Sadly, being a bureaucratic un-person can be a slow sentence of death to someone already on the poverty line, in a country like Morocco.
Really helping total strangers can be very difficult. Time and again, people who are trying to help, or who say they are, only end up making matters worse (for coincidental evidence of which you need only note the immediately previous post here this very morning). Which is why, for me, having a personal friend involved in a particular charitable effort makes the difference – all the difference, actually – between me saying no and me saying yes, to a request for a donation. That way I will get the lowdown on how the money is really being spent, and whether it is reasonable to go on hoping that it is doing some actual good. Meanwhile I am genuinely doing a favour for a friend, who I already know I really will be helping.
I hope to be reporting further about this, perhaps with photos that Elena says she will be taking on her travels.
UNESCO has published some statistics (in a fact sheet) about how badly Nigeria is doing educationally. But, says James Stanfield:
Unfortunately, these statistics fail to take into account the thousands of unregistered low cost private schools that exist across Nigeria and the millions of children who attend these schools.
But why is this unfortunate? First, the state of the world is better than someone says it is, which is good to know. Second, a bunch of people with the desire to govern, in practice to derange, the entire world is ignorant of what is really going on in it. To me, that also sounds rather good. Accurate statistics are the lifeblood of government.
Stanfield’s answer to why it is unfortunate that UNESCO is wrong about Nigerian education goes like this:
Without an education crisis and UNESCO would quickly become redundant. Second, by widely exaggerating the number of out of school children, this also allows UNESCO to point the finger at Western donors for failing to meet their funding commitments.
If proving UNESCO wrong about education in Nigeria would really lead to UNESCO’s demise, then Stanfield might be right to call UNESCO’s mistaken statistics unfortunate and to set about convincing UNESCO and the world of UNESCO’s wrongness. But they will surely have no such effect. “If only” says Stanfield’s title, UNESCO would admit its errors. But UNESCO being wrong about it hasn’t stopped education improving in Nigeria. UNESCO will go on being wrong about education in Nigeria. Education in Nigeria will continue to improve.
I do not object to the substance of Stanfield’s blog posting, merely its rather unfortunate wording about how unfortunate the UNESCO “fact” sheet really is. The ideal arrangement is for people like James Stanfield to carrying right on telling everyone how well education is now doing in places like Nigeria. This tells rich donors that they can keep their money instead of giving it to UNESCO, and it tells people in rich countries to stop fretting about education in poorer countries, and instead to tackle their own educational problems, by dismantling their own state education systems.
I like this:
CAPE TOWN. After 28 years of silently tolerating it, a group of unemployed local musicians have joined forces to release a Christmas single, entitled ‘Yes we do,’ in response to the Bob Geldof inspired Band Aid song, ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’
Thankyou to Tim Worstall for spotting this.
Speaking at the launch of the single, whose proceeds will go towards teaching discipline, literacy and contraception at British schools, composer and singer Boomtown Gundane said that for years he had been irked by Geldof’s assumption that hungry Africans were also stupid.
Sadly, it’s a joke. But quite a good one, I think.