Monday, 20 August 2018

Getting back to nature - 'The holy flame of discontent'

Getting back to' nature  - 'The holy flame of discontent

These words are about my experience of growing up with ‘nature’ in the UK and moving to Australia – it’s also a long-winded way of saying “will you please donate to ‘Science for All’, a not-for-profit organisation we have started”

I grew up in England – a country with only remnants of wilderness, patchworks of woodland - a country where all mega fauna bigger than a badger is long-hunted to extinction and where, if you were dropped from a helicopter anywhere, chose a direction and kept walking, eventually you’d find a pub. I grew up in Charnwood, a stone’s throw from where David Attenborough did, right on the edge of the ‘National Forest’ – which in reality is a sign saying ‘national forest’ in front of a field by the M1 where they’re about to build both new houses and a giant incinerator to dispose of human waste into the sky, against all evidenced-based policy on air pollution. It really has to be seen to be believed. One sign does not a forest make.

So moving to Australia was very, very different.

Don’t get me wrong and think I have a rose-tinted view -  Australia is a genuine contender in world rankings for one of the worst countries for protecting biodiversity, below only Indonesia, worse even than China for causing extinction [doi:10.1038/nature24295].

Despite all that, since moving here a few years ago I’ve experienced a deep and profound development of my appreciation for nature which, frankly, it was just too cold to develop in the UK. I just don’t like the cold – I have tried camping in England – and the question from friends (and frankly, myself) was always ‘why’. In Australia – camping under the milky way with the smell of eucalyptus coming from the red gum wood is a very different experience.

While walking past the Victorian Parliament in Melbourne once I was handed a flyer – as life-changing moments go, this is up there – don’t doubt the power of a flyer! It was about how people from Melbourne wanted to set up a National Park on the edge of the city – to protect 300 year-old trees from being logged for office paper and wood chips. As it turned out – the person who handed me it had written an academic paper which provided evidence that the tallest trees to have ever existed grew outside Melbourne 200 years ago – until humans logged them. Watch this clip from David Attenborough’s ‘Secret Life of Plants’ about Melbourne Mountain Ash forests if you know nothing and would like to be inspired [skip to 30 minutes in]. David Attenborough, incidentally, is a public supporter of this project.

So when I found out about this, I had some spare time on my hands and got in touch with people to find out if there was a way I could help with the education side of things, that being my area of professional experience – to see if we could involve people in doing science to find out more.  After a recent trip to meet a friend and primate researcher in Borneo I had decided this was an area I wanted to get into – so start on your own doorstep I figured. Get your own house in order.

At the same time I am working in public health, doing a PhD about involving people in genomics research and realising more and more that words and actions are very interlinked – and we say we want to involve people in ‘science’ and ‘research’ – we say we want ‘citizen science’ but nowhere do I see many examples of people actually giving away the control of this – sharing all knowledge. Choosing which words we use is something very important to me.

So I organised an event around a campfire – where we partner with local experts who taught people how to spot critically-endangered animals with thermal imaging cameras. When such species are found, a radius of 200 meters or so is saved from being logged. The events got more popular than I predicted, a little faster than I thought (you can read more about the development of this project in this article I wrote).

A year or so later, I find myself Director of a not-for-profit organisation called ‘Science for All’ – running projects like ‘Campfires and Science’ where we are working with partner organisations – (including the Royal Society of Victoria, the Victorian Government and local schools) training local people to do science, to get involved in things like understanding local biodiversity by using new tools like environmental DNA.

We are running a crowd-funding campaign – it is to raise money so we can run more of these free events – and keep them safe and high-quality.

Around the fire at ‘Campfires and Science’ we try to nurture the ‘holy flame of discontent’ – teaching people how to question everything by using words, for that’s all I really know how to do. Fire has always been important to humanity – ‘focus’ is the Latin for hearth, ‘hearth’ being from where we have the word ‘heart’ (and ‘oikos’ is the Greek for home and hearth, from where we have the prefix ‘eco’ - ecology). It is my aim to explore all these worlds of words and cultures and understand how we can unite them into collective action. For the ancient Wurundjeri community of Victoria;
‘there is no separation between ‘nature’ and ‘culture.’ The natural world is a cultural world; therefore, the Wurundjeri people have a special interest in preserving not just their cultural objects, but also natural landscapes of cultural importance’ [taken from this paper]

So although I come from a chilly island far away - I hope to make our campfires a home to all who wish to nurture the flame of discontent. Whether it's research, education, knowledge sharing or developing new technology – it is to be a home for those who know things can be better – who want to know more – a place for science, for all. A place to not be restricted by the language of the past but collectively question it, when there is not currently the vocabulary to articulate our dreams of the future.

A belief that things can be better requires a fostering and nurturing of discontent – not as the for-profit media often does by selling us stories that make us feel negative emotions – but by channelling this negative emotion into action, a collective action – agreed by everyone, equally and transparently. We all just have to actually do something.

There’s something you can do - we need your support:

Friday, 22 September 2017

A moral authority

The other morning I stuck up a rainbow flag poster in my window which said ‘chose love’, but I hesitated in case this message offended my neighbours. What I have written here is my reaction to that feeling, which I have chosen to share.

I’m living through my second national debate about marriage equality. Australia is currently having a plebiscite, the UK having had their debate many years ago. I often resist the temptation to publish about politics – I have drafted many unpublished pieces since moving to Australia. However, I decided not to stay silent on marriage quality – because we are not talking about politics – we’re talking about something much more profound – more profound even than human rights….

Arthur C Clarke wrote that ‘the greatest tragedy in mankind's entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion’.

The most well-organised campaigns against marriage equality in the UK, Ireland and currently Australia are from people who identify as religious, or people who get voted into power by the former. However, in my lifetime, it appears that in England, Ireland and Australia - the 'moral authority' has begun to disintegrate of people and organisations of people who describe themselves as ‘religious’. Census results indicate the growing majority of people who don't identify as 'religious' is accelerating. Is this new reality reflected in political power? For example, a party which describes itself as religious is by far the largest in the European Parliament.  

And I use this word power deliberately. As people and organisations of people who label themselves as religious lose 'moral authority' what are they left with?

They are left with something we all have - a personal perspective, utterly subjective, to be considered and balanced with everyone else's perspective – against the objective ideal of human rights and our place within the eco-systems that represent all life.

What we are then left with is people who identify as religious, people who don’t and people who are not described by either of those binaries  - all of whom, have perspectives which, if we chose to, we can consider and balance with everyone else's.

Equally, with equality.

No longer are we seeking permission from those in power, masking it behind religion or morality - for we are not even asking for their permission in the first place - because we don't have to. 

I have literally never asked any one of my elected representatives who they think I should love and marry – would you, honestly, even entertain the idea? It is preposterous. 

Elected representatives are public servants, paid to serve us, asked to help us make informed decisions and then required to reflect our democratic decisions – all together – transparently and accountable. 

At no stage did we, the people, ask them (our representatives) to tell us the answer. If you allow people with control of law, finances or information to encroach into this territory of considering themselves to have more ‘moral authority’ than you, then watch them – and call them out on it. For when you label it, it disintegrates under the weight of it’s own self-evident absurdity.

My perspective, for what it’s worth, is that no one should be allowed to impose their views on others - especially not when it affects human rights. 

So who has ‘moral authority’? Everyone. We all do. All views should be balanced, all decisions weighed.

So what is the best way we have, as a species, of doing that at the moment? It's evidence-based decision making. This is asking collectively, 'what do we know?' (science means knowledge), asking 'what don't we know' and 'what do we need to know' - all while acknowledging what can we never know. 

This is the start of evidence-based decision making. When ‘evidence’ includes data from as many sources as possible – especially ‘qualitative’ research - the 'subjective' (the 'what I feel' – the sense of the qualities something has - opposed to the 'what I'm told’) – then it can be balanced with other kinds of data. This method of constantly asking questions is constantly evolving, and is currently called 'the scientific method'. 

I live in a country where, after recent popular votes, it feels like the plebiscite for ‘marriage equality’ could go either way. What terrifies me most is that some people still feel that legitimate political debate consists of people, who were never invited to do so, telling others what to 'feel' and what to do and who it is OK to love.

Naturally, there have been, are and will be many points in spacetime, where the ‘moral authority’ of the powerful is supreme, whatever label they chose to apply to it. The struggle to overcome that with the rule of law, accountability and evidence-based decision making is an ongoing one in many parts of this planet. Those who feel they are struggling in the other direction, must therefore believe that their personal inner conviction is supreme to others – or perhaps merely use other people’s belief in that to impose their own personal power.

But don’t we all want the same? Love, peace, happiness?

There are many ways up a mountain, each of us should be able to make an informed decision to chose our own path, that is what we sometimes call ‘freedom’.

When I put my poster up in a quiet neighborhood, it took no courage compared to the acts of people in previous movements for human rights, but I did hear that quiet defiant scream of freedom. I want everyone to have the chance to feel that scream of freedom from deep history – the deep sense of universal human rights - from the rule of law, to universal suffrage, from the anti-apartied movement through to marriage equality.

We must feel this and act on it, for what lies ahead is much more important - what lies beyond – is our very balance with the ecosystems in which we all live and upon which we (and all life after us) all depends. There is no 'moral authority' required in these decisions, what we need is evidence-based decision making to prevent the unconscious destruction of life on earth.

Vote with conscience Australia - I hope you show the world you are ready to move forward in hope and love.

Thank you for reading this.

I’m now preparing my next piece for the 2040 vote on ‘equality for trees and all life on earth’.

If you still look down on people who merely hug trees, just wait until the equality laws reach the forest.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Bursting your bubble: UFOs and censored dreams

Bursting your bubble: UFOs and censored dreams

This is the story of how me spotting a UFO over 20 years ago has reminded me to stop being scared of ridicule, start asking more questions and to start dreaming.


How did you get to this link? Probably most likely you saw it on Facebook or Twitter – maybe a friend shared it – but most likely you came to this via your Facebook newsfeed.

Recently we’ve all learned the hard way about how our newsfeeds – the lists of what we see and read – are influenced by complex algorithms which, for a price, can be manipulated in sophisticated ways.  Perhaps this in an inevitability – but it seems no one was quite prepared for the enormous impact.
The result of the British referendum to Brexit was the first shock, Trump’s victory the next – one which had people asking questions ‘How did this happen’ – stating things like ‘but every post I saw was people saying exactly the opposite’.

This is the social media bubble, which Obama warned about as a threat to democracy in his last speech as US President. The recent Adam Curtis documentary ‘Hypernormalisation’ articulates this echo chamber of reinforcement in brilliant detail. It’s the modern equivalent of getting all your news from only your neighbours in your neighbourhood, who all live relatively similar lives to you, and who all get their information in the same way.

The danger is that not only are many people unaware of this – but that a few intelligent people are so aware of it that they are already changing the world with this knowledge. A company called Cambridge Analytica used technology that gets to ‘know you’ from your ‘likes’ on Facebook and then targets adverts at you which reinforce what you already believe (this is very simplified explanation of hugely complex algorithms). The company worked so effectively for both the ‘leave’ Brexit campaign and the Trump campaigns that it has even prompted the head of Mi6 to speak out (James Bond’s boss), as it represents a threat to ‘sovereignty’ – that word which means less and less each week in a time dominated by digital information.

But what does this have to do with UFOs?

I saw a UFO

Well, a little over 20 years ago I went to primary school in Leicestershire, in the middle of England. I have a vivid memory that until writing this, I’ve never shared with anyone. I remember standing on the school field on a sunny day, with a few big clouds in the sky. Suddenly, I saw plane flying vertically into the sky, turning slowly while travelling at high speed until it disappeared into the clouds. I shouted and pointed but everyone else was playing football and no one saw (I think I might have been in goal, spacing out). I knew what I’d seen but it being the 1990s, there really was no way for a 7 year old to report or research a UFO sighting. My Mum remembers me telling her, but that was the end of it.

I didn’t think this was alien, at the age of 6 I’d been to the space centre in Florida, knew very well what was possible with technology - but I had never heard of a plane that could fly vertically – we only knew about concord – that was the only object in the skies over the UK we ever got excited about. What I’d seen looked more like something from Thunderbirds.

So I logged this memory and I haven’t told anyone about it, plagued by a fear I'd be ridiculed. This fear is the most important point of this whole piece.

This weekend I watched a documentary that triggered this memory of mine that I’ve not thought about in years. It triggered it as it was almost identical footage of the UFO I saw over 20 years ago.

It was an English Electric Lightning, taking off in an amazing super-sonic vertical climb. While I don’t know for sure this is what I saw, a basic Wikipedia search informs me that until 1992 they were used in the UK to test new radar tracking technology – and some airbases were quite close to where I went to school.

Unidentified Flying Object is a hopeful acronym, in its very name is the assumption it will be shortened to an Identified Flying Object. We expect to know. It took me 20 years to identify mine, but if I saw a UFO now would I post about it on social media?

Social Media Shaming

How many of us would post something they’ve seen but that they can’t explain? I fantasise that my peers would examine it scientifically and invite the serious scrutiny of others. The reality I fear is that many of us would hide, fearing ridicule and shame, as if these are the worst things that could befall us? Yet there is much worse, it is that of cowardice and ignorance, and cowardice to challenge those who may be ignorant to prove they are not so.

I've other friends who have seen UFOs and it has affected them profoundly – inspiring them of life beyond earth and being brave enough to be open about it publicly.

While I’m almost certain life exists beyond Earth, I personally doubt it’s traveled here in spacecraft. But that’s different from saying ‘you didn’t see a UFO’. History has taught us that we often need to trust the people who think differently, at least enough to test their theories fairly.

For example, many UFOs sightings around Roswell were all real (the military testing new aircraft) – with the CIA withholding information - or actively encouraging rumours of aliens to distract people from the truth – that they had an almost bottomless budget to develop and test new classified technology and then weaponise it. It is near impossible to know of the many wonders mankind has discovered that have been ‘classified’ or hidden from the public domain.

The learning point here is that what those people saw was real – however, it is likely that their theory to explain it was incorrect.

Trust your senses?

Do you trust is your own ‘a priori’ knowledge, your own senses? In an age of digital information, we have been pushed into rejecting even these. Second-hand recorded videos could be computer generated graphics, data can be edited – and so we question what we see – unsure what or who to believe.

What we must teach the generation growing up on this internet is to trust the process of asking questions themselves. Some people call this the scientific method, critical appraisal – I call it asking questions.

It's taken me over 20 years to realise I'm not mad, and yet I'm only just beginning to see the deep, deep delusion of a culture which shames fringe thinkers into silence, before the questioning process has even begun.

It is not conspiracy to say how much tax is spent on ‘defence’, in secret and unaccountable to the public. Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alone make up 70% of global military spending. Global military spending in 2016 was $1.69 trillion, research and development $1.48 trillion.

It is not conspiracy to say that much of the mass media is owned by a small few, billionaires, each with an agenda and much to lose. It is not conspiracy to say that these people influence our elected representatives and that very few of them do not have policies for sale. It is not conspiracy to say the defence budgets serve to protect the already powerful and the already rich, who can afford to ‘influence’ (bribe or blackmail) the those who can buy the most weapons. The military-industrial complex is real. This is all fact.

Therefore the questions we all need to start asking now, as a species, are – who and what are we ‘defending’.  Ask ‘why is THIS story being told to me, and by who?’.

If these people claim to be helping save us – we need to start asking who will save us from ourselves? This is the ‘hypernormalisation’ of which Adam Curtis speaks, the knowledge that things don’t make sense, but a paralysis of knowing how to do anything about it.

You’ve read this far – and that’s a modern miracle

We can all be involved in moving out of this bubble. For the first time in a meaningful way, our reality can be shaped beyond mass media – we can all write, read, think and dream together – in real time.

Yet at this glorious time of potential, the party predicted to win the next UK general election pledges in their manifesto to regulate and censor the internet. This is an unforgiveable assault of the highest order on human communication. 

So take control of your own feeds – burst your bubble - talk to strangers, join groups you’d never join. Find someone you completely disagree with and have a cup of tea with them.

We know that it is knowledge, love and compassion that save us from ignorance, hatred and fear. We know we need more than just weapons to defend the lives we want.

Imagine if everyone, collectively asked, ‘what kind of world are we making’. Imagine politicians being elected on policies of shifting some ‘defence’ budget to a ‘science’ budget. 

It was interesting, hearing a leader of a political party in the UK (Jeremy Corbyn) suggest leading the world by example in nuclear disarmament. Watching that reaction to even having that suggested –seeing the ridicule that was met with even within his own party – as if nuclear weapons are an endlessly sensible option to solve anything. Why is nuclear disarmament such a taboo? It is a self-fulfilling prophesy to doubt that we can do it.

If we wish, we can shift money, collective mental energy from developing weapons to developing peaceful technology. Simultaneous, synchronised mass-disinvestment is a genuine tool that could be used much more effectively

This is all possible. And 'you may say that I'm a dreamer'  - but I no longer fear this as ridicule. Truly, which world would you want to dream into reality? 

We are all in a shared waking dream in this digital age, and we must all begin to ask more questions. Then we may dream together. If you dream it, then it becomes so.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Piano Man

Last night, something happened in bed which hasn't happened to me since I was a small boy.

I'm almost certain it's exactly not what you're thinking....

Here’s a short story about it with links to a forthcoming 4K virtual reality video thrown in for good measure.

I grew up with a piano in my house and as soon as I was able, I started playing and composing. It was one of the happiest parts of growing up at home - sitting down at a piano and just playing when the mood took me.

I left home at 18 and I'm now 31 and have never lived in a house with a piano since. In London I VERY nearly lived with an old lady who was Oxbridge and ex-MI6 because she had a Steinway grand and lived in Sloane Square - but she told me she wanted 'more than a tenant - I want a companion'. I'm still not quite sure what she meant, but I walked away from the deal. I love the piano, but I guess I have my limits.

A couple of years ago my parents decided to give away their piano as no one at home played it anymore and someone else might as well have it. Despite living at the other end of the world, I still got sad knowing it had gone and kept going to play it when I was back visiting - forgetting there was just an empty space there.

After a little bit of moping and looking to the past, it struck me that I'm 31, and if I want a piano, and am dreaming of a piano, I should get one! We recently got kicked out our house in Fitzroy as the landlord wanted to move back in - so found ourselves in a slightly cheaper area, with a slightly bigger detached house. Time to get a piano I thought!

For those who think this might be quite a lot of trouble to go to (why not just use an electric keyboard etc) I recently realised that a significant proportion of my friends don't know the following things about me:

  1. I play the piano and cello
  2. I compose music and record it (hence needing a real piano)
  3. I have my first album coming out in a few weeks (all being well!) on the Atlantic Jaxx label

Having a way to record piano in my own home means I don't have to beg or borrow time on other pianos and can spend more time 'composing' rather than improvising and hoping that one take I managed to do is usable.

So I get online and find a ton of free pianos and manage to get hold of a beautiful Australian made piano and arrange the delivery online.

The night before the piano is due to arrive, I can't get to sleep. This happens to me occasionally, like most people - and almost always after doing something just before bed that involves my pre-frontal cortex and a bright screen.

Usually by 3 or 4am I get off. Last night I didn't get off until 6am, about an hour before the alarm! I couldn't figure it out - I hadn't have caffeine - what was it? Then I realised - I was TOO EXCITED to sleep! I was actually so excited about getting a piano that I couldn't sleep - like that feeling when you're a kid and it's your birthday or Christmas or a big exciting holiday the next day! It had been so long since I'd felt like that I'd forgotten it could happen to adults!

The Comedy Delivery

So at 8am, sleep deprived and not in the best state, I'm greeted by the delivery people with my piano in the back of a truck

The first thing they say is 'we didn't know it was stairs'. I said I didn't know I needed to tell them there were stairs - this being Melbourne, a city with houses that have stairs. I had offered all the information the company requested - and had perhaps naively assumed that piano movers would be equipped to deal with a flight of 5 steps up a porch.

'It'll be an extra $100 as there are stairs'. What can I do but agree? They've got my piano hostage in a truck.

So we take the fence down - and then they deliver the news that I have to help them move it.

I get talking to them, they are international students trying to make a living - both from Amritsar - a fine city, and I told them of my visit a while back to try and build rapport. So we start trying to move the piano.

It becomes apparent very quickly they're not professional movers. One of the guys simply isn't strong enough to lift it - and I'm not a strong man, hence paying removal people! What I have here are the Punjabi Laurel and Hardy. Sadly, I'm the punchline! They're counting in punjabi and I figure out when they say 'jar' I need to lift. But apparently at one point my Punjabi wasn't up to scratch and I mistime a lift, get it half up the step, land it on my foot and cut my hands and hurt my back.

I manage to convince them to count in English so we can synchronise our lifting. This plan would have worked perfectly - if any of us were actually strong enough to lift it. Now, I'm all for diversity and equal opportunities in the workplace - but there are certain expectations when paying for hired muscle, that, well, you've hired some muscle.

We get stuck. We simply can't get it up the final step. We try for ten min, damaging the bottom of the piano in the process, sweating in the heat of the summer day.

Then, like a mirage of tanned muscle, a couple of Australian delivery people spot us. They ask if we need some help (the most rhetorical question I've heard all year) and the two of them proceed to lift it up onto the final step for us as we were all exhausted. I was very grateful, and they wouldn't take a dollar and wished us a good day. I decided this was quite an Australian thing to happen.

Once we'd wheeled the piano into the house the removal people asked for payment, including the extra $100. As you might imagine, I was slightly less enthusiastic about paying the extra money, having done a fair share of the heavy lifting myself.

What followed was rather awkward, as essentially, we'd all been put in this shitty situation by the bad management of the company - them quite fairly being told not to leave without being paid and me, quite fairly, not happy about being essentially mugged in my own house and made to do a job I'd paid other people to do - that they had then outsourced, for free.

The guys were getting quite aggressive, and let's just say I wasn't in the best of moods being sleep deprived - but we parted on good terms and bonded over being students while they helped me reassemble my fence.

Coda and album 'spruiking'

So the coda to this tale is that I now have a piano in my house for the first time in over a decade. Most importantly, I can now start serious work on finishing my second album.

For anyone who is interested, my first album 'Blue Sun' will be released in the next few weeks - here are a couple of places you can subscribe to or following for updates:
Subscribe to the Youtube channel and watch that space for a 4K virtual reality 360 degree balloon ride

More soon - thanks for reading!

Thursday, 16 June 2016

A shared illusion

I’ve watched two significant referendums in the UK play out over the last year or so. Living in Australia means most of my UK news is filtered through social media. I believe in self-fulfilling prophesies – so I’m writing this to help reflect on how we can shape those. We can dream the future, if we wish.  

A shared illusion

Borders, money, laws and human rights only exist if people believe in them. The shared illusion of countries, governments or businesses may also be viewed simply as groups of people acting in either their own interest, or that of their ‘organisation’. This organisation of people may or may not be acting in the 'public interest' or the perceived benefit of the whole world.

Why now for a referendum?

Why are we really having a referendum? If those in power cared what the British public wanted, why didn't they ask before we joined? Why now?

I don't trust most politicians, who I sense are often influenced more by groups of people acting in a self-interest, under a brand or business name than those people they claim to represent. By using politicians as tools, groups of people can manipulate politicians around the world, using all the 'legal' forces they can muster (from trade agreements to guided missiles, guided occasionally by the Geneva convention).

I find this a helpful way to try to comprehend the current referendum – asking who is acting in who’s interests and why?

Where’s the money coming from?

Let’s start with some facts to frame this discussion. The UK is the biggest financial centre on earth. Thus the biggest economic force of power in the UK is the ‘financial services industry’. To imagine it has no influence on politics and the media isn't even naive, it's dangerous. Over the years many people have formed the financial sector into a kind of city state, with huge powers (the City of London Corporation’s key role is ‘supporting the financial services industry’).

The EU represents financial regulation

While publicly, those representing the City have been ambivalent to the EU, there is clear vitriol against proposed regulation and other models such as ‘The Robin Hood Tax’, with some commentators seeing the City ‘under siege’ from the EU which seeks to ‘control and manipulate’ this financial centre. One commentator suggests that EU to many in that sector represents a threat to their self interest in the form of regulation. The Robin Hood Tax, or ‘financial transaction taxes’ (FTT) was attacked by the City of London Corporation. Those working for it stated the likely ‘impact of the FTT on household savings is expected to be large’, suggesting it would destabilise things like pension funds and risk people being able to save for ‘planned large expenses such as, for example, education, building a cushion to be able to deal with large unexpected outlays such as for special health care’,  failing to mention that all of these things could be directly provided by a fairer spread of wealth and could be subsidised by the taxes raised by such a system. Naturally, the biggest threat of this kind of regulation is to those who stand to transfer their wealth to governments.

The UK is the money laundering capitol of the world

Let’s quickly deconstruct the word ‘regulation’. For a country that rightly prides itself on exporting the rule of law, dating back to the Magna Carta, we have a strange doublethink attitude to ‘regulation’ in a free market that has permitted a rotten heart of ‘systematic fraud’ and corruption. The UK’s National Crime Agency states that ‘hundreds of billions of US dollars of criminal money almost certainly continue to be laundered through UK banks’. These financial services appear so powerful that they are arguably accountable only to people expressing their desires and power through a free-market, rather than to any democratic system. The financial industry in the UK perpetuates according to a kind of moral fallacy used to justify corruption, in that it might as well be ‘us’ skimming off the top, rather than ‘them’ (for example, New York, Paris or Hong Kong). Rather than lead by example, the policy is to let the UK wait for the imaginary date the financial services will agree to global regulation. Precisely because the UK financial services are not regulated as tightly as the conscience of a significant number of the public would desire (say for example, to stop facilitating money laundering by people involved in activities labelled as organised crime and terrorism), the UK's financial services are able to outcompete more regulated markets.

So what does this have to do with a referendum? Naturally - these financial powers interface directly with ruling politicians.

Money buys political power on both sides of the debate

The current group of ruling politicians form themselves into a 'party' which can't seem to decide whether there would be more or less financial incentives (including bribes) staying in the EU. There are groups of people lobbying on behalf of considerable amounts of 'wealth' on both sides of the debate and it's not clear to them which the most self-interested path is.  

Rather than risk spoiling their party, which seems to work well for most members, they seem to have decided to use the referendum as a tool to both keep their party united and hopefully silence a growing and noisy party centred on UK 'independence' (wouldn't it be interesting to hear from people from a 'UK interdependence party’) which is weakening their control. This vote, they perhaps hope, will silence that party. 

The opposition party is in disarray, with the leader openly anti-EU yet formally campaigning for it to bind the party around a common cause no one quite seems to comprehend in a world where the actual ‘labour’ and toil is mostly done off-shore.

The probable conclusion of the more prominent members of the current ruling party is that if they use the referendum as a bargaining chip, they might win more in negotiations with others who represent countries in the EU, such as perhaps not regulating people working in finance too tightly.

The gamble backfires? 

However, it seems the plan may be backfiring as people motivated by self interest are expertly using   demagoguery, crafting words to stir up ancient and innate fears of 'the other', helping perpetuate the illusion that because the UK is an island nation, it can chose to exist independently. 

What does independent even mean in this context? Air pollution, fish stocks and desperate human beings are but a few things that do not share in the illusion of borders. In every sense, all life on this earth is interdependent. This is fact has been competently recognised for centuries by trade organisations of merchants (such as the Dutch and British East India Companies), redefining sovereignty as something beyond mere nation-states – arguably creating a financial incentive for peace, not war. Recent trade agreements such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership arguably ‘endanger the sovereignty of the signatory states’ far more than a bloc of nations such as the EU ever could (Dan Carlin explains this wonderfully in this podcast).

When you vote – is it in fear, or hope?

Whatever you chose to vote, just ask yourself in whose interests are you acting? Which illusions are you choosing to share in? What are your outcome measures of success?

Is it a pure financial outcome, a stream of numbers forgotten to history but remembered in your personal bank account? Is it the number of desperate children seeking shelter and 'asylum' rescued or the number turned away and washed-up on beaches? Is it maintaining the faded-flag of an idea of nationhood, straining to stay relevant in a digitally dominated world where people increasingly identify more as ‘global citizens’ – national rivalries seeming as ridiculous as Yorkshire Vs Lancashire. If nations are doomed to evolve or dissolve this also begs the important question about what exactly will emerge instead, and who will be the next big customer of our arms dealers, and to who will they be accountable?

This is how to vote

Are you being honest with yourself about why you are voting? Are you hiding behind other people's lies or fears. Do you question everything you are told with your heart as well as your head – with full knowledge – conscience? Are your own fears or hopes a tool for being used by someone else or are you happy in your personal illusion, your shared illusion, accountable to it?

What ever way this vote goes, I want to share in the illusion that people were capable of voting beyond a self-interest, voting with their conscience and dreaming a better world into reality, born not of fear, but hope.


This piece was written by Jack Nunn on 16th July 2016 and is licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International

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Contact - Twitter: @JackNunn  -

Monday, 30 March 2015

To gather up the crumbs: Whose table is it anyway?

Using only camembert, smoked salmon and controlled laboratory conditions, I had a revelation about the relationship between researchers and publishers. This is the story.

I was in one of the world’s leading laboratories being given a tour of a potentially hazardous area, when suddenly the PA barked ‘ATTENTION ALL STAFF, ATTENTION ALL STAFF’. I was ready for the worst, to evacuate or suit up. But why was I there at all?

I’d spoken earlier that day about public involvement in research and publishing at an event at the inspiring Walter and Eliza Hall Research Institute.
It was organised and paid for by the open access publisher Biomed Central, in order to raise awareness about their work.
The publisher recently asked if I would volunteer my time to be a member of the editorial board of the new journal ‘Research Involvement and Engagement’ and also speak at their events in Australia. It is a new journal being run on a not-for-profit model and BioMed Central are world-leaders in open access publishing, so it was exciting to accept.
I found myself plunged into the mysterious, intriguing and often self-perpetuating world of publishing.
The speech I made essentially asked the question ‘What value do publishers add to research, and therefore the public good’. This is a different question from how valuable is publishing - to which the answer is ‘very’. Publishers make lots of money from publishing research, including open access research. In other words, I sought an answer to the question – ‘what are publishers giving back to the research process, in return for the money they take’.
I also asked how the public could be supported to be more involved in every stage of the research cycle, including publishing and dissemination. I ended with my usual plug for Tim Berners Lee’s eye-opening TED talk about open and linked data, which describes how everyone can access and interpret data - the very embodiment of public involvement in research.
If you’re interested, the full speech I made is here. Briefly, I said I think publishers have an important and crucial role in science, and posed a series of questions to reflect on why do publishers exist as they do - much as one may ponder ‘Why do we have a Royal Family?’ in a neutral and balanced way.
After I spoke, I met interesting people around a delicious buffet of cheeses and smoked salmon and then was fortunate enough to be given a tour of the research institute by a friend and colleague who worked at Walter and Eliza Hall Research Institute.
Within half an hour I’d met world-leading cancer researchers, people developing potential malaria vaccines and seen other labs full of people working late, missing out on time with friends and family in order to do countless wonderful things in the name of research.
As it was a working lab, naturally there were exciting things like negative pressure rooms and gene-sequencers - but also the reminders you were somewhere potentially dangerous, with ‘biohazard’ signs and emergency eyewash and showers at every corner.
Suddenly the PA system barked out ‘ATTENTION ALL STAFF, ATTENTION ALL STAFF.
They had my attention too.  I was ready to evacuate, or go on a three-day lock-down to hunt for an escaped malaria-carrying mosquito.
The announcement continued:
I laughed, half in relief - but on reflection, there was nothing that funny about it. The food was from the BioMed Central event I had spoken at.
Naturally, no one wants food to go to waste - but the funny side wore off when I saw researchers head upstairs to eat leftovers from an event, which like many awareness raising events, is partly funded by open access fees. These are often paid by research institutions to publishers to cover the costs of making it available without a ‘paywall’. However, many publishers also spend significant amounts of money to attract researchers to publish with them. Naturally it’s more complicated than this, but a simple thought struck me and I daydreamed…
I day-dreamed of a world where researchers doing life-saving work had publishers eating their leftovers, at events hosted by researchers. Events where researchers allowed potential publishers apply for the privilege of publishing them - and researchers decide who they will allow to publish their important research.
I imagined what would happen if all researchers collectively and suddenly decided they didn’t want to submit to ‘for-profit’ publishers because they felt reputations and ‘impact factors’ were suddenly irrelevant in a digital age, thus disrupting any business model based on prestige. Would less money go to publishers and more stay within research institutions for research? Would a sea of poor quality research drown good research with no one paid to check it, or would publishing just happen faster, like me publishing this blog -  the reviewing stage happening afterwards, in the open, in public?
It was a wild day-dream and I blame the blue cheese.
So dear reader, if you ever feel you are not worthy to eat the crumbs of others, always ask ‘whose table is it’?
In research, the table is for everyone, and we should all be invited to sit at it as equals.
We just need to figure out who is bringing the cheese and smoked salmon.


Full disclosure: I receive no money for the time I volunteer with BioMed Central. I did, however, eat more than my fair share of cheese at one of their events.

Follow me on Twitter @jacknunn

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Am I normal?

This article is about the dangers of the word ‘normal’, combined with the ever-increasing uptake of health and fitness devices. This has made me dream of a wondrous future for health technology, built on the ideal of open source.

Today my phone told me I wasn't normal. My phone has a built in heart monitor. In fact, many smartphones are capable of giving a rough estimate of your heart rate these days. However my phone now pairs this hardware with some 'fitness' software. Today the software told me that my resting heart rate was outside the 'normal' range. In case there are any insurers reading I won't say if it's too slow or too fast and by what number but needless to say it gave me cause for concern. Suddenly I'm not normal, and more than that I might not be normal in a potentially lethal way. My first issue was with the word 'normal'. Normal can be a very helpful word, especially in a medical context. However, that context is one of statistics and averages, not of individuals. Therefore one person cannot be described as normal, normal is simply a result of statistics; a result being described as normal in comparison to a wider data set. However, normal takes on a different meaning for many people, especially people less familiar with medical terminology and statistics (for example people with a lower level of health literacy, some younger people, or those for whom English is not first language). ‘Normal’ in everyday life is linked to ideas about identity, social belonging and a host of other associations including appearance and behaviour. As I consider myself fairly able to navigate the Internet and seek out trustworthy sources, I was able to quickly learn I didn't have too much to worry about. However it doesn't take a huge leap of imagination to see somebody reading 'not normal' and worrying, perhaps even worrying themselves to death. At this point I would just like to say I think the use of technology in modern health and self-management is a wondrous and fantastic thing. Seeing friends with diabetes managing their blood glucose levels with gadgets, you can begin to see how some of this technology will soon go mainstream. However, developers of technology to help people manage their own health and fitness must learn quickly the dangers of getting it wrong. My example is a very small one, but points to the tip of an iceberg. A free market economy combined with a semi-regulated technology may create an environment which may not afford developers and manufactures the time or conditions to adequately test and refine their creations. This creates a new frontier for the public, patients, users and consumers of devices to have a more active role in the development and monitoring of the quality of information, devices and services. To anticipate this, I dream of some kind of voluntary international mark or accreditation which developers and manufacturers can sign up to (it would have to be international, or it would be pointless). To get the accreditation, developers must show that information is evidence-based, reliably cited and that the words used have been developed and improved by users and consumers and other members of the public. Additionally, there should be a clear way for people to comment and give feedback on content.
Finally, I would encourage all ‘for profit’ developers and manufacturers to make as much of their work and code as possible ‘open source’. If you’re ‘not for profit’ (charity or Government) then there’s absolutely no reason to hold anything back. There is little value to be gained from intellectual property surrounding bad services and products. Make them open source, make them transparent and let the world and the community improve and develop them. Ideas and code, along with hardware, will increasingly form part of a delivery model for a service, rather than the valuable commodity itself. In health technology, the value and revenue will likely come from delivering a service which is useful to people who need it (think of Google ‘giving away’ the Android operating system, letting other people build the hardware and code that then brings the revenue back to Google). Trust will form a huge part of a business model, with users increasingly handing over the most personal of data to servers, perhaps even our whole genomes. And a quick note on law. No one is above it and we all need it to be in place and upheld to protect everyone. As a result, yes, we need lawyers. But revenue won't come from paying lawyers to help monopolize discrete pieces of information that make a wider system work. That will just get us more lawyers.

The example that comes to mind is Apple, patenting the action of moving a finger across a screen to ‘unlock’ the device– or ‘performing a gesture’ as they put it. Well I’m imagining performing a gesture at the people who employ this kind of thinking, especially when applied to health technology.

To quote Dickens, the ‘lawyers always win’. To quote a more up-to-date source ‘the answer to the innovator's dilemma is not here in the courtroom suing people’ (John Quinn, Samsung's lawyer). The balance must be between employing lawyers to protect people and protecting the incentive for creativity.

Openness is a strength, not a weakness. A strange Orwellian paradox is that the more open and transparent a project is, the less likely we are to have products and services with vulnerabilities. In the panopticon, we have ultimate transparency and we need to strike a balance between having everything be open, shareable and hackable/improvable – and having security vulnerabilities in things like pacemakers. The United States Food and Drug Administration has already communicated on this issue and where this balance is struck should be a conversation everyone is invited to be a part of.

When I'm dying, and a robotic combination of code and hardware is keeping me alive, I want to know that anyone has been able to improve the code, that everyone owns it, and I, along with anyone else, have had the chance to make it better.

Is that normal?