I Admire the American Political System

Recent events elsewhere in the world have made me particularly appreciate the American system.

The 2016 US Election has been, as they would say, a ‘dumpster fire’.  The media have graded one candidate on a curve, and the discussion has been almost entirely about personalities. There does not appear to have been any sustained news cycle dedicated to policy.  Indeed, even the discussion of actual policies in the debates was atrocious.

It’s clear that the country is incredibly polarised. Nevertheless, I still admire the American political system.

One silver-lining of the Trump candidacy is that there has been plenty of discussion about the US system. I don’t mean admiration for the electoral college (although I’ve heard some good arguments for its retention recently) but more simply and fundamentally, the fact that everything is subordinate to the Rule of Law, and a Constitution which places and incredibly strong emphasis of individual rights and protections against government over-reach.

This may seem like a statement of the obvious, but recent events elsewhere in the world have made me particularly appreciate the American approach.
Continue reading “I Admire the American Political System”

Religious Doctrine and the Internet

If a religious tradition wants to evolve, it may also need to forget

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s series of Reith Lectures is called ‘Mistaken Identities‘.  I really enjoyed listening to the first lecture on ‘Creed‘ and am looking forward to the rest: ‘Country’, ‘Colour’ and ‘Culture’.

In the first lecture, Appiah walked us through the idea that religious practices and doctrines are far more fluid and open to interpretation and change, than the fundamentalists would have us believe.  This is a good thing in my view, as it offers hope that illiberal ideas spread under the guise of religion can eventually be abandoned.

But I found myself wondering whether the Internet and digital technology may actually stifle that process. Continue reading “Religious Doctrine and the Internet”

A Framework for Countering Dangerous Speech

What to do when people engage in incitement and hate speech? This is surely the toughest challenge facing free speech defenders

I’m bookmarking this Washington Post profile of Professor Susan Benesch, whose research looks at ‘dangerous speech’—that is, speech that can incite mass violence.

For Benesch, it’s important that people understand that the type of speech she wants to counter is different from hate speech, which she says is a broad category for which there is no agreed-upon definition. An advocate for free speech, she does not believe that hate speech can or should be silenced. In fact, it’s one of the central reasons she sought to differentiate dangerous speech.

Continue reading “A Framework for Countering Dangerous Speech”

Why Hillary Clinton Will Win

There is an implication that Clinton is not winning on her own merits but because The Donald has thrown the election. Even as she prepares to become the first woman president, Hillary Clinton is still the victim of sexism

Despite having written very little on this blog about the United States Presidential election, I’ve been following it closely.  My main source of news and commentary has been podcasts: The FiveThirtyEight weekly round-up in particular.  But I’ve been reading mainstream news sites and blog commentary too.

Even as she makes history as the first woman to run for president, and even as she prepares to become the first woman to take the office, Hillary Clinton is still the victim of sexism.  Most analyses attribute her lead to the to the failings of her opponent: Donald Trump is egotistical, misogynist, racist.  He is under-prepared and has led a shambolic campaign. There is an implication that Clinton—a historically unpopular candidate—is not winning on her own merits but because The Donald has thrown the election to her.  In another year (so goes the argument), against another candidate, she would lose. Continue reading “Why Hillary Clinton Will Win”

Discussing Fear and Free Speech on Deutsche Welle

This incident was not an anomaly, but part of a wider, worrying trend.

Remember the incident over the summer when a woman was detained by the police, after a crew-member on a Thompson Airways reported her for the ‘suspicious’ activity of reading a book?  Faizah Shaheen spoke about her experiences to the WorldLink programme on the Deutsche Welle English language service, as part of an hour long programme about fear. Continue reading “Discussing Fear and Free Speech on Deutsche Welle”

Quoted in Heat Street on Social Media Prosecutions

Free speech must always include the right to offend.

The Crown Prosecution Service have updated their guidelines for when someone should be prosecuted for something posted to social media.  I spoke to Kieran Corcoran of Heat Street about how the UK laws governing social media really need to be updated:

Robert Sharp, a spokesman for free speech campaigners English PEN, also commented, telling us: “Free speech must always include the right to offend.

“The law already bans abusive, harassing or threatening messages, which is surely adequate to stop the worst social media trolls.

“The words ‘grossly offensive’ are highly subjective and introduce ambiguity into the the law. This in turn chills free speech.

“Parliament should legislate to remove these words from the Communications Act, just as it removed similar wording from the Public Order Act in 2014.

“Other countries look to the UK on free speech issues – criminalising causing offence sets a poor international example.”

The CPS has tried to head off criticism of its new laws by advising prosecutors to exercise “considerable caution” in their decision-making to avoid “a chilling effect on free speech”.

The Public Order Act amendment I mentioned was a tweak to section 5.  See the Reform Section 5 website for more details.

I Made A Freedom of Information Request About Revenge Porn Prosecutions, and What I Learned Will Be Mildly Diverting If You’re Interested in This Sort of Thing

The CPS doesn’t keep track of the gender of victims in revenge porn prosecutions. Additional statistics for social media prosecutions are now essential.

Last month, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) published a report on Violence Against Women.  It received significant pick-up in the media due to the high number of revenge porn prosecutions that have been brought since a new law was introduced.

I made a Freedom of Information request to the CPS, to ask whether they could tell me how many of the victims in the cases they prosecuted were women. I assumed they would have this information to hand.

I received a reply to my request today. It turns out that they do not keep track of that information Continue reading “I Made A Freedom of Information Request About Revenge Porn Prosecutions, and What I Learned Will Be Mildly Diverting If You’re Interested in This Sort of Thing”

So I Built A Cupcake Card Game Simulator

Children as young as 3 can play with adults on an equal footing because the game is entirely based on chance.

Orchard Toys do a great line in table top games for kids.  They include games of chance, strategy and memory using thick card and clear, colourful illustrations. I heartily recommend any of the line as good value for money birthday presents.  (They also have a Pirate Memory Game, a fact which will be hilarious to fans of Little Britain).

One of their games is Where’s My Cupcake?  Children as young as 3 can play with adults on an equal footing because the game is entirely based on chance.  Players take turns to pick a cupcake card off a central pile, and see if it matches one of the cake cards laid out on the table.  If it does, they add both cards to their pile.  If it does not, they check to see if anyone has a matching card on the top of their pile, asking “would you like a cupcake?”  If no-one claims the cupcake card, its placed on the table and the next person takes a turn.  Play continues like that until the pile of cards are exhausted. The player with the most cupcake cards is the winner. Full instructions are here.

The only problem with the game is that because it is entirely based on chance, its actually very hard to let a very young person win, if you want them to!  Sometimes, a string of bad luck can mean they miss several opportunities to put a cupcake on their plate, and they might lose several games in a row.  For someone just learning how to share and play fair, this can be demoralising to the point where they refuse to play.  It would be nice to be able to optimise their chance of victory.

Since the game is entirely procedural, the outcome of the game is pre-determined from the moment the cards are shuffled.   However, the shuffling involves 30 cards with 10 designs on them, which means there are 4.39 x 1039 possible combinations.  Even the fastest super computer in the world would take several millennia to evaluate every combination.

Nevertheless, I decided to script a virtual version of the game, so I could simulate many hundreds of games and discover which player is statistically most likely to win.  Armed with that knowledge, I can ensure that the person I want to prevail is sat in that spot when the game is played, and thereby decrease the likelihood of tears before bedtime. Continue reading “So I Built A Cupcake Card Game Simulator”

These Two Photos Show Eight Years of Change

At first glance, the image looks modern. People mediating their own experience of the moment via a glowing rectangle. Taking their very own version of a famous photograph.

New York Magazine has a long feature on the eight years of Obama’s America.

The first illustration in the piece is a compelling diptych of President Obama: two portraits taken eight years apart.  The difference is stark.  His hair has turned grey and his face is rumpled.

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President Barack Obama, by Dan Winters

However, the photograph that really brought home for me the changes of the past eight years was one taken on inauguration day in January 2009.  Its a version of an image that I’ve commented on before.

Inauguration party, 2009.  Chicago Tribune/MCT
Inauguration party, 2009. Chicago Tribune/MCT

At first glance, the image looks modern.  People mediating their own experience of the moment via a glowing rectangle.  Taking their very own version of a famous photograph.

But when you compare it to the photograph below, taken in 2016, the inauguration image suddenly looks horribly dated.

clinton-selfie
Hillary Clinton waves to a selfie-taking crowd at a recent campaign event in Orlando, Florida. Photo: Barbara Kinney

 

The Exposure of Elena Ferrante: A Writer-on-Writer Attack on Free Speech

The opportunistic words of one writer will mutate, and perhaps cripple, the literature of another.

The Italian journalist Claudio Gatti has caused controversy this week, with the publication of an article that claims to reveal the true identiy of the celebrated novelist Elena Ferrante.  Published in English on the New York Review of Books blog, and simultaneously in German, Italian and French, the article sets out the evidence Gatti has found that points to a particular woman, who he names.1

Anonymity and pseudonymity are often a pre-requisite for freedom of expression.  Whistle-blowers usually need to keep their names away from whatever they have told journalists, lest they lose their jobs or even their liberty.  This is the main reason why English PEN, for whom I work, campaigns so vigorously against draconian surveillance laws and for better protections for those handling journalistic material. Continue reading “The Exposure of Elena Ferrante: A Writer-on-Writer Attack on Free Speech”