28 June 2013

Sci-Fi Noir Pedantry Fun With The Guardian

I've often pondered the possibilities of devising a Voight Kampff test for the Pretend Left. You could ask a question such as "Do you want to ban things you don't like?" or "Have you checked your privilege today?". If the subject's pupils start dilating with excitement at the suggestion of banning something and their muscles twitch in disgust at their shame in not being as pure of class, ethnicity, gender or sexuality as they would like, then what you have is not a genuine, principled liberal but a sort of lefty Replicant that doesn't even realise that they're not what they think they are.

If you're still not sure, you could start burning a copy of that day's Guardian in front of them and see if they have a heart attack.

In the meantime, I've got another Blade Runner-related reason to frazzle the 'left''s favourite newspaper: one of its star columnists has gone and got the whole plot wrong.

Zoe Williams, in an article about mitochondrial transfer (or introducing a third donor's genetic material to IVF treatment) asks "are three-parent babies the first step towards a Blade Runner future?":

is it defensible to make alterations at a genetic level whose impact on future children we simply don't know? Is there any fundamental difference between screening out diseases and screening out undesirable traits? The spectre is sometimes conjured of a Blade Runner future, in which the rich can modify their foetuses to perfection while the poor have to take what nature throws at them. I personally am of the view that, if we do end up in Blade Runner, genetic modification will be one of our lesser problems, but that doesn't mean it's not worth thinking about.


A replicant, yesterday.

The creations that everyone's worried about in Blade Runner are not genetically screened to weed out any supposed imperfections. They are replicants: bioengineered robots which have been genetically engineered but not genetically selected or modified. There's no breeding, foetal modification or rich/poor differentiation at all.

If only there was some sort of well-known, freely available, easily accessible database of films and their plots that hard-pressed, deadline-pressured journalists on a quality, digitally advanced publication could use when they're trying to seem all popular culture relevant and classic movie savvy. What? Oh.

21 June 2013

A vision of campaignbots traipsing around the marginals like canvassing Terminators

Labour Uncut are kindly carrying a post from me, expanding on the idea with which  I won last week's Top Of The Policies on supporting entrepreneurs: data development loans.
However, before we get too caught up in a vision of campaignbots traipsing around the marginals like canvassing Terminators, we should also consider the policy significance of Big Data. Although it has not been a great couple of weeks for data of any kind – in the news for all the wrong reasons as the full extent of the surveillance of the personal variety has been exposed – this must not distract us from the thousands of positive, world-changing uses of mass data collection and analysis.
If it's you're sort of thing, you can read it all here.

03 June 2013

Responses to my questions for London Labour's MEP candidates: #3 Andrea Biondi.

Once again, I'm grateful to another London Labour MEP candidate for a set of very thoughtful responses to my questions on EU issues. Following those of Seb Dance and Sanchia Alasia, Andrea Biondi's are below.

1. The biggest challenge faced by the European project this year has been the Cypriot banking crisis. What is your assessment of the measures put in place by the so-called 'troika' to deal with this and what lessons have been learnt should similar crises arise in comparable euro-denominated economies?

AB: I have three comments on this extremely complex issue.

The first is that the austerity measures (not only in Cyprus) have been driven and adopted outside the ‘ordinary’ European regulatory framework. The Fiscal Compact and the ESM are ‘different’ treaties negotiated and concluded directly between Member states with little involvement of other EU institutions. I would like to see more involvement of EU institutions, in particular of the European Parliament, the only directed elected body. This involvement should start with full engagement and discussion on the proposed banking union.

Secondly, European integration is based on some non-negotiable principles, especially respect for the rule of law, solidarity, and equality (see the first part of the Lisbon treaty). I am convinced that some of the austerity measures – despite being taken in the name of Europe - actually violate those fundamental principles. One example: if the economic measures adopted for Greece meant a dramatic increase in female unemployment, does this amount to a violation of the fundamental principle of sex equality?

Finally – especially on Cyprus:  it goes without saying that the freezing of all bank accounts was crazy. But isn’t it also crazy that the banking sector in Cyprus was eight times the size of any other economic  activity in the island? Is off-shore banking such a good economic policy? We should learn from the crisis in Cyprus and take the opportunity to rethink the EU banking system. So it’s time to engage in the debate about the banking union, scrap the useless stress tests, increase transparency, increase  minimum capital requirements, and impose - as for any other economic activity of general interest - obligations such as universality.

2. A longer term challenge is that of reducing carbon emissions. It has been claimed that the cap and trade Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) has been undermined by the European Parliament's recent failure to agree to the 'backloading' of credits. In such a scheme, do you believe the 'cap' or the 'trade' feature to be the more important? Has the ETS reflected this importance? If not, what reforms or alternatives for regulating the use of carbon would you support?

AB: There is no perfect model. A carbon tax model surely has some advantages over a cap and trade model. However I don’t think it is necessarily helpful to reopen this debate. We need to stick to the cap and trade model and work to make it better. The recent vote was a serious setback, and it’s clear that at the moment there is no chance to have any credible auctions of credits so that the backloading could at least have had some positive effects. The no vote will encourage member states to go their own way, and will produce a very fragmented approach. In my view this is an extremely negative outcome in environmental policy. 

For the future I think some changes to the current system should be introduced. For example, we should have more scrutiny on the possibility of buying credits from outside the EU and more flexibility could be useful.  Of course, the real issue is growth and seeking investments in green energy, but that’s a different story.

3. A growing pan-European economy is dependent upon the flow, exchange and exploitation of information. This whole opportunity is becoming better known as 'Big Data'. What are the threats to this from EU legislation concerning data? How do we balance the potential for businesses and consumers with the need to protect privacy and maintain member nations' national security infrastructures?

AB: The Data Retention Directive was a first clumsy attempt to provide some kind of answers to a growing problem. The next European Parliament will have to work closely with the Commission to amend it and to fix some of the most obvious problems (for example, what does it mean to say that the police can retain data when we are dealing with a ‘serious crime’?).

I would like to focus on two points: first we need to coordinate EU polices with the international dimension of data retention. All Member states are now part of several international conventions which need to be coordinated and perhaps even re-discussed (see Budapest on Cybercrime). Most importantly a new Directive must adopt as a guiding principle the right of privacy of the individual.

It will be really interesting to see how the European Court of Justice will decide a case referred to it by the Austrian Constitutional Court on the question whether the Directive is in breach of the right of free speech, as protected by the Charter of Fundamental Rights. As you know, the Charter is now legally binding and the Court has been very active in applying it as a benchmark for the legality of EU law. So I am hopeful.

There really is no alternative on this issue: we must have an EU solution, not a national one.

4. Although no fault of any of those selected, it has become increasingly clear that the selection processes for the regional lists was unsatisfactory. In London, only 100 or so applications were made. (Just so as you know, I was one of them so do not write this entirely disinterestedly). For a job that has 8 vacancies and is worth a six figure annual salary, that's astonishingly low and points towards a lack of communication and promotion to the regional membership. How would you rectify this for the 2019 process? Whatever the numbers of members interested, is a pre-selection for selection necessary at all? Given modern campaigning and communications techniques, are short-lists for a regional list necessary at all? How could the regional party better facilitate the participation of more than eight people in the selection for 2019?

AB: Let me answer this question on a bit more of a personal level – I can only speak of my own experiences of the selection process.

I applied as an ordinary Labour Party member, with no backing, no sponsorship, and no endorsements (this is still the case). I am not a politician, but I have knowledge and skills that would really help Labour in the European Parliament. So I applied for selection because I wanted to help shape the debate about Europe, because I want to help Labour win in 2014, and because I want to be able to work at European level to achieve practical change that will benefit all Londoners. To my surprise I was shortlisted and given the opportunity to discuss my ideas about Europe for an hour before an attentive panel. And I got selected. So my experience is pretty positive, and I would encourage any interested Labour Party member to apply next time.

Responses to my questions for London Labour's MEP candidates: #2 Sanchia Alasia.

Following the first response from Seb Dance, I am also now grateful to Sanchia Alasia for her views on the issues I have raised with all six non-incumbent candidates for London Labour's list for the 2014 Euro-elections.

1. The biggest challenge faced by the European project this year has been the Cypriot banking crisis. What is your assessment of the measures put in place by the so-called 'troika' to deal with this and what lessons have been learnt should similar crises arise in comparable euro-denominated economies?

SA: The Cypriot banking crisis shows that the eurozone needs to be transformed into a proper economic, monetary and social union.  This means a radical policy shift away from austerity and towards jobs and growth.  To avoid similar crises in the future the financial sector needs to be reformed.  That's why I would campaign for a cap on bankers bonuses and a financial transaction tax, because it's simply not fair that ordinary hard workers citizens, pay for the mistakes the banks have made and it's important that the financial sector realises that they are serious consequences to risk taking.  

Banks are important and we have seen that is the case in the UK, where the government decided to bail out RBS.  But even though RBS suffered £5.2 billion worth of losses, they still payed out over £600 million in bonuses.  Cyprus also demonstrates why it is so important to crack down on tax evasion, my mentor in the European Parliament, Mojca Kelva MEP, is leading a report for the Socialist and Democrat group, calling for tighter definitions of tax havens, so that it goes beyond places like the Cayman Islands.  we also need national governments to cooperate and share more information with each other..

2. A longer term challenge is that of reducing carbon emissions. It has been claimed that the cap and trade Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) has been undermined by the European Parliament's recent failure to agree to the 'backloading' of credits. In such a scheme, do you believe the 'cap' or the 'trade' feature to be the more important? Has the ETS reflected this importance? If not, what reforms or alternatives for regulating the use of carbon would you support?

SA: In the 21st century we face unprecedented global challenges, one of them being climate change.  The EU needs to work towards tackling this important issue and as one of your Labour MEP's I would help to lead the effort to reduce CO2 emissions and tackle climate change.  London has the highest rate of CO2 emissions in the EU and it's currently the fourth biggest killer, bigger than obesity, alcohol and road traffic accidents combined.  This challenge needs to be taken seriously as the quality of our environment is crucial, not just for us now, but for future generations.  I would work hard in the european parliament to secure new legislation so that the target that has already been set to reduce CO2 emissions by 30% by 2020 would be achieved.  I think the ETS in principle is a good scheme as it will force companies to think about more green, carbon friendly production methods on a long term basis, but there is room for a rethink of how it will operate in the future.

3. A growing pan-European economy is dependent upon the flow, exchange and exploitation of information. This whole opportunity is becoming better known as 'Big Data'. What are the threats to this from EU legislation concerning data? How do we balance the potential for businesses and consumers with the need to protect privacy and maintain member nations' national security infrastructures?

SA:  I think that the EU should be at the forefront of a digital agenda.  We have seen how we are now made to accept cookies when visiting websites and this is a good first step.  The balance is of safeguarding individual privacy and sharing necessary information so that europe can thrive is a delicate one, but people should have the right to know what data is being held on them, how it is collected and companies should have robust policies in place regarding the processing and storing of that data.

4. Although no fault of any of those selected, it has become increasingly clear that the selection processes for the regional lists was unsatisfactory. In London, only 100 or so applications were made. (Just so as you know, I was one of them so do not write this entirely disinterestedly). For a job that has 8 vacancies and is worth a six figure annual salary, that's astonishingly low and points towards a lack of communication and promotion to the regional membership. How would you rectify this for the 2019 process? Whatever the numbers of members interested, is a pre-selection for selection necessary at all? Given modern campaigning and communications techniques, are short-lists for a regional list necessary at all? How could the regional party better facilitate the participation of more than eight people in the selection for 2019?

SA: I am sorry to learn that you did not get an interview but it's great that you applied.  I am privileged and humbled to have been chosen as one of the six candidates for London.  I think 100 applications is not a bad number for six positions, it's certainly the highest to date for the London region. I recieved the email from the London region about how to apply and the deadline, I hear that many weren't aware, however I was keeping a close eye on members net regularly as it was something that I believed I have the skills for.  

I think for 100 applications some sort of shortlisting is necessary, I don't think Labour party members would want to receive emails and other communications from 100 different perspective candidates and it would be difficult to keep track. I know some of the regions shortlisted more candidates than slots available and this could perhaps be an option in the future.  I do think it's important that the party has a good range of applications to choose from as this will ensure they shortlist quality candidates.  Having been through the selection process, I can assure you it was no piece of cake and I was certainly put through my paces.  I am now really enjoying the process of hustings that CLPs across London are organising, which gives me a chance to engage with Labour party members face to face, which is my preferred method of interaction.