CO116 Raymond Ibrahim on Islam and the West

Raymond Ibrahim is the author of Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War Between Islam and the West.

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Let’s do a bit of science.

Maybe, like me, you have had various social media invaded by people making all sorts of complaints about something called 5G. That’s the newest mobile data standard. Unless you are really special, that doesn’t work on your phone yet, but the networks are being installed, and newer handsets using them will be available soon, probably starting at the top end of the price range.

5G just means the fifth generation, the first was basic cellphones, the second was text messaging, 4G allows internet, and 5G will allow you to control the space shuttle, or something. If you click too far into Facebook or YouTube, you’d be forgiven for thinking that an apocalypse was planned, something between the worst nightmares of the antivaxxers and those people who say that their thoughts are controlled by the CIA via a chip in their brain. So I really just want to give the basic scientific information here.

5G is data transmitted over radio waves. Just like any other form of data transmitted through the air, cellphone voice or data signals, FM radio, broadcast TV or your home wifi. All of them are, technically, radiation. So is light – by which I mean the light that your eyes use to see things around you, and so are magnetic waves, the ones that spin the needle on a compass.

Some conspiracy theorists have been saying vague things that imply that 5G uses some weird special type of radiation that is dangerous or untested. In reality, 5G uses frequencies that are already in use by home wifi systems and digital TV broadcasts. Sure, the content of that signal is new technology, but the content of the signal has no relevance to the frequency it’s broadcast on.

So where does that all collide with radiation that we know can kill us? Basically, the electromagnetic spectrum is split in two halves – ionizing radiation and non-ionizing radiation. Non-ionizing radiation is basically too weak to strip the electrons off atoms, it doesn’t create ions. Ionizing radiation is the dangerous stuff. It can knock electrons off atoms and break molecules, like your DNA, which can trigger cancer.

Electromagnetic spectrum
Electromagnetic spectrum

All radiation fits on a spectrum, the electromagnetic spectrum, with lower and higher frequencies. Imagine if you could turn the dial on your radio, and keep turning it. If you turned down and down, you would eventually be picking up the earth’s magnetic waves, the ones that turn the compass needle.

If you could turn it up and up, you would eventually pick up light waves, first blue light then the higher frequency of red light. Turn it further and you would get UV rays from the sun, x-rays, and so on. But there is a breakpoint that it is important to know about. It exists at a frequency just above what we can see as visible light; light doesn’t hurt us, but UV rays – radiation from the sun – can give us sunburn. This is literally radiation damage. UV rays, and anything with a higher frequency, x-rays, gamma rays, they’re bad news. That’s why anyone giving you an x-ray wears a lead apron; and gamma rays, that’s Chernobyl territory, you don’t want to know.

But, the 5G conspiracy theorists say, there’s so much radiation about these days, surely that can’t be good for us. They’re wrong for two reasons. Firstly, non-ionizing radiation just doesn’t have enough energy to do any harm. It almost doesn’t matter how much of it there is. Think of ionizing radiation like being burnt by boiling water. A teaspoonful on your skin would hurt. A cupful would be bad news. Throw a kettle of it over someone, and they are seriously injured.

Non-ionizing radiation is the equivalent of lukewarm water. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cupful, a bathfull or a whole swimming pool full. If it’s not hot, no amount of it will burn you.

Secondly humans evolved bathed in non-ionizing radiation. It’s called light. And magnetic waves. As it happens, the radio waves that we use for TV, radio, cellphones and 5G, are right in the middle of those two, between light and magnetic waves on the electromagnetic spectrum.

The strength of the lightwaves around us are millions and millions of times stronger than any radio waves – sit out on a sunny day, you can literally feel the sun, from millions of miles away, warming your skin. Magnetic waves coming from the poles of the earth, thousands of miles away, can physically move the needle on a compass. The strength of even our strongest radio transmitters, is a tiny fraction of either of those.

So why are people obsessed with being so worried about these? Not to mention the antivaccine hysteria. My advice is not to laugh at people like this. What they say may be wrong, but that doesn’t mean it is without meaning. I think that people who obsess about technology that they don’t understand are expressing an unease that they have with modernity, their lives and the world.

Patience and listening might help.

CO115 John Hawkins on Politicized Data

John Hawkins is a writer for Bizpaq review, Brass Pills and is the editor Right Wing News. He’s also the author of 101 Things All Young Adults Should Know.

We talked about John’s article The Best Stats & Quotes From ‘Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse’, John’s take on the findings of that book. I mentioned the fact that the number of hours needed to work at minimum age to pay college tuition has increased about tenfold in the last 40 years, and the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam.

Here is the comparison between the minimum wage and average university tuition costs:

And this are the changes since 1979 in average wages, the wages of the top one per cent, and productivity.

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If, when I say TikTok, your mind goes to a clock, then you are not in the demographic for TikTok.

TikTok is a video-sharing app, with a very young demographic. It’s got something approaching a billion users, and that’s not counting the users of a parallel app in China called Douyin, which is basically identical, except firewalled off, to comply with Chinese censorship laws.

To put that in context, Facebook took almost eight years to get to a billion users. TikTok won’t be three years old until September.

The videos are limited to 15 seconds in duration, and as you might expect they normally center on music and youth culture. If you want to feel old, download it and swipe through a few videos. Users who get more than 1,000 followers unlock a feature that allows you to do live streams to all of those followers, and broadcast live video to them. So far, so standard social media.

But the other aspect of TikTok is the ability to send virtual gifts. Basically users can send a digital gifts to each other. In case you don’t know what that is, it just means that a cute little symbol pops up on the user’s screen. Obviously they don’t have any value, except when they do.

Gifts have cute names like Panda, Rainbow Puke, Sun Cream and Drama Queen. But to send them, users must pay for them, and the prices range from a few cents for the panda to almost $70 for the Drama Queen. Remember that there is nothing of value here, apart from the fact that young users seem to be willing to pay to send them.

And they are sending them to TikTok stars, those people with more than a thousand followers – or in some cases millions of followers. Bytedance, the company that owns TikTok and its Chinese equivalent Douyin seems to have hit on a formula  that encourage young people to hand over their money in return for very insubstantial benefits, like having their star call out their name on a live stream.

And it can be very young people – pre-teens, and it can be a lot of money, some kids have sent hundreds of dollars worth of gifts. There is nothing in the software to check their age or limit how much they send. It seems that half of this money goes to the recipient and half to the owners of TikTok, which has propelled them to a valuation of $75b.

I’m not saying all of this to go off on a moral panic or do a Maude Flanders saying ‘somebody think of the children’; there certainly are exploitative aspects to this, but the point I’m interested in is, firstly, that these social networks can mushroom from nothing to apparent global dominance within a couple years, and that they can melt away just as fast. Remember Vine? It was the previous video sharing phenomenon. It was bought by Twitter for only – ha, only – $30m, six months after it launched. It lasted four years in total.

And remember Keek and Mixbit? Me neither, but they were both at one stage the next big video sharing platforms, but they are gone now too.

I think it shows that many areas of the internet are still a wild west, we have some way to go before it takes on the characteristics of a mature business platform. If I were TikTok, I’d take those billions and run. The same probably goes Facebook and Twitter.

CO114 Greg Shupak on Reporting the Conflict

Greg Shupak has a PhD in Literary Studies and teaches Media Studies at the University of Guelph in Toronto. He regularly writes analysis of politics and media for outlets including Electronic Intifada, In These Times, Jacobin, and the website Fairness and accuracy in reporting.

His book, The Wrong Story Palestine, Israel, And The Media is available from OR Books.

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That’s audio from an Egyptian news channel called Extra news, it’s in Arabic of course. That clip is 17 seconds long, and it’s a news item that, in Arabic, contained 42 words. As I understand it, it was broadcast only once on Extra News, the exact same number of times that it was broadcast on all other Egyptian news channels.

And with the exact same text. To the word. And, every Egyptian newspaper ran the same story, 42 words long, word for word.

The news was about the death of Mohamed Morsi. Morsi was the first, and so far only, democratically elected president of Egypt. He won the 2012 elections after the Tahrir Square protests, part of the Arab Spring uprising and that swept through the Arab world nearly a decade ago now.

The Arab Spring was a protest by a mixture of people, democrats, liberals, economic reformists, and Islamists who were against the corrupt elites that ruled – and in many cases still rule – the Arab countries. The Egyptian army, the real controlling force in the country, saw the way things were going, deposed the longtime dictator, and allowed largely free elections.

They didn’t go to script. Morsi led the Freedom and Justice Party, and organization affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The party weren’t Islamic extremists, they confirmed that they were happy for women and Egypt’s minority Christians to serve in government, but they were by no means what people who wanted Egypt to move towards the western democratic model would have hoped for, although he seemed to be firmly against corruption.

He lasted a year. The Army, which controls a huge chunk of the Egyptian economy, with zero oversight, staged a coup, arrested Morsi, and have imprisoned him ever since, on a whole series of charges. He was on trial last month for those charges when he died, apparently of a heart attack.

This is how the Egyptian media announced his death. They all carried an identical 42-word announcement that named him and said he had died, and nothing more, they didn’t even refer to the fact that he had been president, much less on trial by the military.

Every single news outlet waited three days, long after the death had been reported internationally, before they ran the story, and they all used the same text. With one exception – this clip from Extra News. Can you hear a familiar word at the end?

That’s right. The word is Samsung. The extra sentence that this newsreader added on the end translates as ‘sent from a Samsung device’ – like the default signature on the phone of people who aren’t smart enough to not make their every email into an ad for an electronics company.

And like the TV news stations that aren’t even smart enough to copy and paste the right text they get telling them what news to broadcast.

Aren’t we lucky to live in a democracy where the TV news producers are smarter than that.

CO113 Mark Vernon on the Secret History of Christianity

Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer, with a degree in physics, before two degrees in theology, and a PhD in philosophy. He’s written books covering subjects from friendship and belief, to wellbeing and love.

His next book, A Secret History of Christianity, is published at the end of August by John Hunt publishing .

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It’s worth paying attention to what’s been happening in Hong Kong.

In case you don’t know, Hong Kong was a tiny British colony, it’s one of the most densely populated places in the world, even though still keeps some rural areas; it crams its people into a city that uses every square centimeter to the utmost.

In 1898, Britain obtained a 99-year lease on what’s called the New Territories, and those of you who are quick at math will have worked out that in 1997, they had to hand the territory back to the by-then-communist China.

But Hong Kong was a roaring capitalist success story, and China didn’t want to go killing any golden-egg-laying geese, so Deng Xiaoping agreed a form of government called one country, two systems. Basically, that meant that China would remain a communist dictatorship, Hong Kong would remain a mostly-democratic and totally capitalist territory, with a strong independent judiciary, even though Beijing would have ultimate sovereignty.

Don’t get starry-eyed about this, many of the elected officials know that they can take democratic principles so far and no further. The rule of law is much stronger and politics and the media are much, much freer in Hong Kong than in China, but that freedom is tempered in part by a knowledge that if they exercise it too much, it might not last.

One example was the case of the staff of Causeway Bay Books; this was a Hong Kong bookstore that sold books about mainland Chinese politics which would be strictly banned there, if anyone was stupid enough to try to publish them. For that reason, the bookstore was popular with visitors from mainland China.

In 2015, five of the bookshop staff went missing in extraordinary circumstances. It seems clear that they were variously kidnapped or subjected to extrajudicial arrest by the communist Chinese authorities while in Thailand, mainland China and in Hong Kong. They were imprisoned for months and put under enormous pressure to renounce their Hong Kong citizenship, confess to crimes, repudiate their lawyers, disown their families, refuse help from the Hong Kong police and authorities and – the real target – disclose lists of Chinese customers who bought their books.

The message was clear – the seven million people in Hong Kong can play democracy all they want, as long as there is no suggestion of an attempt to export even a shred of it to the mainland. China suffered huge international embarrassment over the affair, they hate this, but they were willing to ride it out, showing how they hate any hint of political expression even more. The five victims are still imprisoned or under house arrest in terrible conditions in China.

Then, this last February the Hong Kong government proposed the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill, better known as the extradition law. This was clearly introduced under pressure from China, and would basically allow anyone the Chinese government wanted to be extradited from Hong Kong without much fuss. In short, it would make future Causeway Bay Books cases legal, and avoid all the messy business of having to go around kidnapping people.

The people of Hong Kong do not have a strong grasp on freedom, but they are not willing to give up what they have. On April 28, 130,000 people marched in protest against the proposed law. Other international and online protests followed, and the Hong Kong government proposed three amendments, limiting the scope of the law somewhat.

Then on June 9, more than a million people, according to organizers, marched chanting ‘Scrap the evil law’ and calling for Carrie Lam, effectively Hong Kong’s prime minister, to resign. Three days later, there were more enormous protests, with many people going on strike or closing their businesses.

The protestors clashed with police, and aimed to physically prevent legislators gaining access to their council to prevent them from enacting the new law.

Then, on June 15, Carrie Lam suspended the new law. That has not stopped the protests. On June 16, the day before this podcast is published, two million people protested.  This, in a territory with a population of only around seven million. Police were obviously ordered not to interfere and the protest was entirely peaceful. Carrie Lam apologized for proposing the new law, but they protesters don’t believe this is enough, they want her to resign. As I’m recording this, I can see that Joshua Wong, a leader of the 2014 pro-democracy protests has been released from prison, an obvious move to placate the protesters.

There are two things to learn from this. First, the Chinese communist leadership have absolutely no regard for democratic values but, secondly, that doesn’t mean that they are immune to public opinion. They take unrest very seriously. They will do everything to try to stop it, sometimes offer concessions, but lock up peaceful protesters, kidnap booksellers, or mow down students with tanks. These protesters are bravely walking a very fine line.

We live in interesting times.

CO112 Justin Strekal on Legalizing Marijuana

Justin Strekal political director at Norml.

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I mentioned last week that I would talk about the earthquake – earthquakes really – in UK politics. In particular that Nigel Farage’s new party, the Brexit Party won the European Parliament elections in the UK by a mile last month.

Continue reading “CO112 Justin Strekal on Legalizing Marijuana”

CO111 Bruce Schneier on Cybersecurity

Bruce Schneier is a public-interest technologist. He’s been writing about security issues for more than 20 years, and he’s a Special Advisor to IBM Security, a fellow and lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and a board member of Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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A couple of quite similar stories caught my eye in the past while.

The first was about a German MP called Markus Frohnmaier. He was elected to the Bundestag, the German parliament for the far-right AfD party in 2017.

Continue reading “CO111 Bruce Schneier on Cybersecurity”

CO110 Grayson Quay on Another View on MeToo

Grayson Quay is a freelance writer. His work has been published in The Washington Times, Reason.com, National Interest, Townhall and others. He is also MA candidate at Georgetown University Master’s Degree candidate.

CO109 Aaron Naparstek on the War on Cars

Aaron Naparstek is a cohost of the War on Cars podcast, and also the founder of Streetsblog.org.

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There have been a couple of stories about facial recognition. This audio is from a BBC report where the police set up a van with cameras filming passersby and searching for records on them based on facial recognition. One man decided that he didn’t like that, and pulled his sweater up over his mouth and nose to frustrate the camera system; the police stopped him, forced him to be photographed, and fined him £90, about $115 for what they called disorderly conduct.

There was no suggestion that he was guilty of any crime, at least of any other crime, if you call not wanting to be filmed a crime.

This was a trial, the police brought a BBC camera crew along with them to film the demonstration, and it was notable that three other people were arrested when the cameras, and the associated computer system recognized them as people who had outstanding warrants against them.

Compare that to the story another British man, this time in the French port city of Calais who will go on trial shortly for an incident that started when police noticed that he was filming them. He says that the police attacked a woman he was with without provocation; the two of them were recording police behavior.

There is an ongoing dispute at migrant camps around Calais, where volunteers distributing food to migrants say that they are suffering intense harassment from the French police. Amnesty International have said that the charges are an abuse of process, and should be dropped. The man faces large fines and up to five years in prison if he is convicted.

This has echoes of the Glik v Cunniffe case in the United States, where the Supreme Court ruled that citizens have the right to film public officials, including police, who are working in public. There is a clear case here to say that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. People have a right to film in public space. It has a good affect too, people, not least the police, who know that their actions are being recorded are more likely to behave in a decent way.

But facial recognition is a whole new technology. It’s notable that San Francisco has banned its use in public. This is not just filming people; it is effectively looking up each person up in a database, just because they went out in public.

Now, the UK operation that led to one man being stopped and fined for pulling up his sweater, that’s effectively the equivalent of setting up a checkpoint and saying that nobody is allowed to pass until they have given their ID and been checked. Is it justified?

It certainly seems like a scary use of new technology, but that alone is not a valid argument against it. You can’t rationally say that, while the rest of society moves on, law enforcement must only use technology invented before an arbitrary date.

But new technology has given governments ways of violating rights that were never before contemplated. If the police can use facial recognition to look up all passersby in a database of, say, outstanding warrants, and then it can use facial recognition to record all passersby in a database.

That is the electronic equivalent of putting a checkpoint on every street corner, and not letting anyone pass unless they produce ID and have their movements recorded. If you don’t immediately see why that is incompatible with democracy, then two things – one, you don’t know the difference between democracy and a police state, and two, you are going to learn about that difference pretty soon.

But remember, in that UK trial, the police arrested three wanted men. That is the electronic equivalent of a cop spotting a fugitive in the street and collaring them. Should we really complain about that? This has the potential to take a lot of criminals off the streets and be a much more efficient use of resources.

My opinion is this: if something is already permissible, there is no good argument for saying that doing the same thing electronically, rather than by a human, is a violation. So spotting a crook in the street, either by person or by machine, fine. But where something is clearly impermissible when done by humans, there is no justification for saying because we can do the same thing by machine, and be more subtle about it, it becomes acceptable. It doesn’t.

So the devil is in the detail here. We could say, if the system is programmed only to flag fugitives for the police to arrest, then that’s OK, but if it is programmed to record everyone who passes, for the authorities to use later however they see fit, that is not OK. But that would require an independent audit of the entire system being used. Let’s see how fast police forces are willing to agree to that.

CO108 Rob Bluey on Standards and Consistency

Rob Bluey is vice president for communications at The Heritage Foundation and Founding Editor of Daily Signal. I mentioned in the interview an article that Rob wrote during the Obama administration criticizing the removal of a website about earmark reform, and contrasted it to the Trump cull of the EPA’s website.

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Last month, a mob of more than 70 men, armed with baseball bats, knives, and rocks launched a series of vigilante attacks around the towns of  Clichy-sous-Bois and Bobigny, about an hour east of Paris. French police arrested at least 20 of them.

Continue reading “CO108 Rob Bluey on Standards and Consistency”

CO107 David Dayen on the Economics of Vaping

David Dayen is a contributing writer The Intercept and a weekly columnist for the New Republic. He is the author of the book Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud., and he’s shortly to become the executive editor of the American Prospect.

We talked about his article How Vaping Giant Juul Explains Everything that’s Wrong with our World.

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There’s a story in the last couple of weeks that, if you’re in Australia, you’ve almost certainly heard, if you’re not in Australia, you’ve almost certainly not heard.

Continue reading “CO107 David Dayen on the Economics of Vaping”

CO106 Mitchell Robinson on Education Reform and Charter Schools

Mitchell Robinson is a writer for Eclectablog and associate professor and chair of music education at Michigan State University, as well as being a former high-school teacher. His research is focused on music education and education policy.

In the podcast we mentioned the Startup podcast featuring the Success Academy, and the Kipp schools.

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I was really concerned to read about something called the Momo Challenge. This is a social media meme, a chain message spread on Whatsapp, Facebook and other platform which tells of a powerful internet message that could induce young people to harm themselves.

Except it’s not.

The whole thing is a hoax.

And that’s not the bit I’m concerned about. Sure, stupid people make up stupid stories from time to time. What I’m really concerned about is the degree of traction this story got from people who should know better, and from people who should know that they don’t know. The basic message was that by some evil technical magic, messages were being inserted into children’s videos on YouTube which would, a bit like the film The Ring, make the kids go and commit suicide.

In the UK, for example, school administrators warned pupils and parents of the danger, major newspapers ran breathless stories of how dangerous it was for teenagers, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland issued an official warning as did various local forces in the US, and the RCMP in Canada said they were devoting resources to monitor the situation.

Not to be outdone, the French ministry of the interior said it was reviewing the situation daily. Spanish police issued a warning to people though it’s not clear what they warned people about, and Belgian police went so far as to say that it had caused the death of a 13-year old boy.

The BBC ran a story, which they have since removed, which claimed that forwarding the messages about the Momo Challenge allowed ‘hackers to harvest information’, which technically is nonsense, probably why they killed the story.

But the entire thing was nonsense. The only interest in this was cooked up by tabloid newspapers, and a few higher-brow outlets who should know better, like the BBC. To be clear, responsible organisations who looked into this, such as the UK National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Samaritans, and the UK Safer Internet Centre investigated and said that the phenomena didn’t exist, and there was no threat to young people or anyone else.

So how did people get so worried that school authorities and even police forces were issuing warnings to parents? That’s what I’m concerned about.

There’s all sorts of nonsense on the internet at any given time, but only rarely does a story break out into the offline world. I think that one of the reasons this story took off, is because it sounds just about plausible to some people who are motivated to believe it.

Obviously the people repeating the story have a very low level of technical understanding of the internet, and that probably goes along with them being the sort of people not really liking the internet; so when a story comes along that confirms all their biases about how the internet was an evil and bad all along, that tells them what they want to hear; they want it to be true, so they don’t analyse it critically.

There are echoes of the anti-vaccine  movement here too, the idea that young people are at risk from things their parents don’t understand is a powerful motivator. You can almost hear the ghost of Maude Flanders saying ‘Won’t somebody think of the children!

But my real concern is that in an age when engagement beats fact-checking, reality can become almost irrelevant.  

CO105 Cathy Reisenwitz on Cars and Freedom

Cathy Reisenwitz is a writer whose work has appeared in The Week, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and others, and she’s appeared as a commentator on Fox News and Al Jazeera, which an interesting combination to say the least.

In the discussion I mentioned the coining of the word NEETs, young people who are Not in Employment, Education or Training. I also mentioned how many young men have not worked a single hour in employment the last year – over 17 per cent.

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On October 29 last year, Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia crashed, killing all 189 people on board died. On March 10 this year, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed killing all 157 passengers and crew.

Both planes were brand new Boeing 737 MAX 8s. In the days since the second crash, aviation authorities in countries starting with China, and finishing with the United States on March 13 have grounded all of this type of aircraft. This is remarkable because not only are these newly-delivered planes, they are a new model.

There are less than 400 of this type of aircraft around the world, the first one was delivered less than two years ago have been delivered around the world so far; Boeing has an order book of nearly 5,000 more, but I wouldn’t be counting on that now if I were them.

This could just be an unfortunate coincidence, but the fact that the two tragedies had similarities in the way that the aircraft crashed is worrying, as is the fact that during 2018 at least two pilots reported problems that could be related that happened when they were flying this model.

It’s notable that the government-ordered groundings began in China, and that the US was the last holdout, which looks like some political or national pride issues are in play here, as well as a concern for safety; so there is no guarantee that this decision-making process is driven by rationality.

But if we look at the risks in other transport and compare it to airlines, all rationality goes out the window. You could look at road accident statistics, and see a huge improvement, and you’d be right. There is some difficulty in measuring things here, because we are looking at death rates changing over time when a lot of other things are changing too; populations are going up, the number of cars is going up, and the amount we use them is going up, so if you saw an increase in fatalities, it could be just because of more driving, not because driving is any more dangerous.

But we don’t see an increase in fatalities; we see a huge decline. Fifty years ago, in 1969, there were more than 53,000 deaths on American roads. In 2017, the last year we have statistics for, there were 37,000 deaths. That seems like a good improvement, down from 53,000 to 37,000, a 30 per cent drop.

But that only tells half the tale. The population shot up in that time, so the death rate actually went down from 26 per 100,000 to 11 per 100,000; so the death rate more than halved – all those airbags, seat belts, driver ed courses, anti-drunk driving measures, anti-lock brakes, and so on have sure made a difference, but that still doesn’t tell the whole story, because the amount of driving has increased. A true measure of the risk is the number of fatalities per 100 million miles travelled.

That has been falling like a stone. It has gone 5 in 1969 to slightly over 1 death per 100 million miles travelled now. So driving now is five times safer than it was 50 years ago. And the improvement stretches back in a straight line for almost a century. In 1920, there were more than 20 deaths for every 100 million miles travelled. Driving now is much more than 20 times safer.

So that’s all good news, right?

Sort of. But look at the speed of reaction around the world to just the suspicion of a dangerous aircraft. Nearly 400 planes grounded, about $50b worth of aircraft, now they’re sitting there doing nothing, and will be for months. Think of the cost of that.

And consider this. After that huge decline in the danger of driving, a non-stop century of cars getting safer and safer. At the end of that century of improvement, driving is still eight times more dangerous than flying. And we don’t see the president giving a press conference ordering cars off the road.

We have a huge cognitive bias about the relative safety of cars. It comes, I think, from the fact that people prefer risks where they feel in control. People trust their own driving more than they trust a trained pilot’s flying; the stats prove they are flat wrong, but they just can’t believe it.

And one other thing, as well as saving lives, all those airbags and seatbelts have been costing lives too. Years ago, most road fatalities were the occupants of cars. But as the safety measures were introduced, some of that safety benefit was consumed not as lower deaths, but as riskier driving. That’s fine for the people in the car protected by the crush bars and rollover cages, but that just moved the risk outside the car. Pedestrians and cyclists are making up a much higher proportion of road fatalities.

All risk is not equal. It’s one thing to say ‘I want to get there faster, so I’ll take a risk and hit the gas’, it’s my life. But it’s another thing to say, ‘I can hit the gas without fear, because I’m protected by airbags and impact bars so I’ll be safe if I hit something, or someone’.

People might not say those things out loud, but the statistics shows that’s what is happening. If we have an excess of caution in the airline industry, perhaps we could move some of that spare caution into the driver’s seat on the roads.

CO104 Christian Toto on the Politics of Hollywood

Christian Toto is the editor of Hollywood in Toto, and a regular commentator on both politics and the entertainment industry.

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Clement Atlee, the British World War II Labour Party leader, and minister was once quoted by Margaret Thatcher, the conservative party leader of the 1970s and 1980s. They both agreed that referendums are ‘a device of dictators and demagogues’.

Continue reading “CO104 Christian Toto on the Politics of Hollywood”

CO103 Michael Tanner on Helping the Poor

Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, with an emphasis on poverty and social welfare policy, health care, and Social Security and entitlement reform.

His most recent book, The Inclusive Economy: How to Bring Wealth to America’s Poor, looks at the ways government contributes to poverty in the United States and suggests reforms that will enable the poor to more fully participate in a growing economy. 

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I saw a couple of things recently related to podcasts, or at least that might resonate with podcast listeners. One was a YouTube video that compared the market valuation of WeWork, the company that offers hotdesking to remote workers, to Regus, a similar but much more established company, now owned by the IWG group. WeWork has a valuation of $47 billion. WeWork have been advertising heavily on some podcasts. Hell, if they have that much money, I should be tapping them for ads on Challenging Opinions. Regus has a valuation of $4 billion and, get this, Regus is does almost ten times the business. Almost ten times bigger, but less than one tenth of the valuation.

Continue reading “CO103 Michael Tanner on Helping the Poor”

CO102 Scott Morefield on Trump, Three Years Later

Scott Morefiled is a reporter for the DailyCaller and a columnist for Townhall. His writings have also been featured  on Breitbart, BizPac, TheBlaze, National Review, The Federalist, The Hill and others.

In the podcast we discussed his article from 2016, and I mentioned a quotation from HL Mencken, and the fact that Trump’s cabinet has a collective wealth of over four billion dollars.

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In the U.S., President Trump was reported recently as saying that EU countries must take back the estimated 800 Isis fighters captured in Syria by US-backed forces and put them on trial.

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CO101 Adam DeCollibus on What Was the Past Like?

Adam DeCollibus is the author of Caravan. I mentioned the excellent Caliphate podcast in the conversation.

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I’ve talked about the Baltic republics, and Ukraine before – their governments, and to a large extent their people – are anxious to make alliances to the West, join NATO, join the EU. It’s notable that of the former eastern bloc countries, the Baltic states that once were part of the Soviet Union, occupied by the Soviet Union they would say, have been the most anxious to integrate with the west, joining NATO and the EU, and adopting the euro currency as soon as they were permitted to do so.

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CO100 David Introcaso on Healthcare Reform

David Introcaso is a healthcare policy consultant based in Washington DC.  He worked for then house majority leader Stenny Hoyer and at Department of Health and Human Services, and he has consulted for the American Heart Association, the American Public Health Association and United Health Group.  He has taught as a adjunct at the University of Chicago and at George Washington University.

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I was reading a piece called Unholy Alliance: Why Do Left-Wing Americans Support Right-Wing Muslims? by Yasmine Mohammed. She’s a former Muslim who, in her own words, ran away from the religious far-right world in which I was raised, and … made [her] way left towards values … like gender equality, free speech and LGBT rights.

And she continued,

Now, try to imagine the shock, betrayal and sadness I feel seeing fellow liberals celebrating right-wing, conservative aspects of Islam. On February 1, I was so upset over World Hijab Day that I spent the day in bed with a migraine. Hijab Day? … Is there a Mormon underwear day? What about a chastity belt day? I risked my life, and my daughter’s life, to escape from the darkness into the light — only to find the light celebrating and fetishising darkness.

That’s what she said, and I think she has a point. I know that many Muslim women want to wear the hijab, and do so without harassment, but for many others, it’s a symbol of oppression and submission. And, let’s be real here, for many women, it’s a bit of both.

Now, I can sympathise with the feeling that women who don’t want to leave the hijab behind, or don’t want to do that yet, they shouldn’t be victimised, they shouldn’t be treated badly on that basis, and them wearing the hijab shouldn’t be used as  a proxy, an excuse for racist or ethnic victimization. So, yes, defend the right of people to wear silly religious garb if they want to do that, and it doesn’t restrict the rights of others.

But there is a whole world of difference between that and saying that wearing the hijab is a good thing, that it should be encouraged or celebrated. Sure, some women in the west wear the hijab because they were brought up with it, and they wouldn’t be comfortable going out without it, and to an extent that is their choice.

But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the hijab springs from a virginity hysteria in the deeply misogynistic culture that it comes from. Yasmine Mohammed is right that it is absolutely absurd for American liberals to be supporting it, or any other of the bronze-age traditions that make up Sharia law.

But they aren’t the only ones who are being hypocritical. Let’s look at many of the people who are setting themselves up who are loudest about keeping the evil influence of Islam out of the west, the Breitbarts and the Tommy Robinsons, the Nathan Damigos and the Black Pigeon Speaks, and all the alt and not-so-alt right. Why do they want to do that? To preserve western values, that’s why. To defend the enlightenment.

The only problem is that the people who are so anxious to keep out Muslims for the sake of western values and the enlightenment are the same people who care least about western values and the enlightenment. Between them they have attacked everything from due process and the rule of law to religious freedom, universal suffrage and democracy, and every individual liberty that has made the western world what it is. There’s an awful lot of hypocrisy out there. I can understand Yasmine Mohammed being disappointed with otherwise-liberals doing the apologetics for the equivalent of the Westboro Baptist Church. And I hate to have to make the choice, but when I do have to make the choice between silly liberals being too tolerant of a totalitarian religion on one hand, and on the other hand, knuckleheads with keyboards dressing their racism up as concern for something that I am actually concerned about … I hate to have to make that choice, but I think I’d tip the balance in favour of people believing in freedom and getting it wrong sometimes, than people believing in totalitarianism and getting it wrong sometimes.

CO099 Jennifer Briney on Unity and Divisions

Jennifer Briney is the host of the Congressional Dish podcast.

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A lot of people are kidding themselves.

We have two rival presidents in Venezuela. Nicolás Maduro, the elected president, the successor to Hugo Chavez. I won’t go so far as to say democratically elected, but … elected.

And Juan Guaido, the speaker of the national assembly who has declared himself interim president; he’s been supported strongly by the current US administration, despite the fact that he has no constitutional legitimacy at all, and to a lesser extent by the EU and other western countries.

People on the left have been calling this just another US-backed coup in Latin America, and there is some reason to say that, but they are kidding themselves if they think that is the only thing going on here. People like UK Labour Party leader tweeted in 2013 “Thanks Hugo Chavez for showing that the poor matter and wealth can be shared. He made massive contributions to Venezuela & a very wide world”.

Maybe not quite. Whatever about the aims of Chavez and his successor, their economics have been a catastrophe for the country. 90 per cent of people live in poverty, and the average Venezuelan lost 11kg, that’s 24 pounds, in 2017. Get that, the economy is in such a mess, people on average lost enough weight to make themselves a weightwatchers star, just because they can’t afford food.

That’s a disgrace in any country but for the nation with the world’s biggest oil reserves, that’s an outrage. It’s said that no society is more than two missed dinners from anarchy, so with years of the whole population going hungry, anyone saying that the current crisis is all down to American propaganda or destabilisation is kidding themselves.

But they’re not the only ones. We’ve had a lot of guff about free elections and democracy, but anyone who thinks that the only motivation the west has is fostering democracy, is really kidding themselves. Marco Rubio let the mask slip a little when he tweeted about how important Venezuelan oil is to Valero Energy and Chevron, and, perhaps as an afterthought, to oil refining jobs in Gulf Coast.

The US administration is bending over backwards to encourage a military coup against Maduro, and I’ve no doubt if he falls, a lot of people, most people, in Venezuela will cheer. A new government might even make life better; it could hardly make it much worse.

But the US strongly supports murderous authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, which are ranked much lower than Venezuela on the world democracy index. They’re not encouraging the people in those countries to rise up and overthrow their government; they’re not openly inciting a military coup. The difference is, as Marco Rubio said, the importance of keeping the Venezuelan oil flowing to US oil companies. If you think that the motivation is democracy, then you’re kidding yourself.

CO098 Max Suchkov on Russian Objectives

Maxim A. Suchkov is a PhD political analyst, Russia Editor at Al Monitor, and a fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies.

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A little more than a year ago, on 27 December 2017, a woman climbed on top of a utility cabinet, one of those boxes you see in the street for telecom equipment, she took off the headscarf that she was wearing, she tied it to the end of a stick and she waved it like a flag.

That might not seem noteworthy, just a little strange, except for the fact that the woman who did it was Vida Movahed, and the utility cabinet she stood on was on Enghelab Street, which means Revolution Street, in Teheran, the capital of Iran.

Vida Movahed

Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, wearing a hijab, a headscarf covering the hair and neck, is required by law for all women in Iran. Vida was arrested almost immediately and is currently on bail awaiting trial.

Within a couple of days, several women posted images on social media of them doing the same thing. One of them, Narges Hosseini, was arrested and charged with openly committing a sinful act which carries a penalty of 10 years in prison and up to 74 lashes; she is also on bail pending trial. Since then many other girls and women have followed Vida’s example, despite dozens of them being arrested and some beaten by police.

Reports indicate that Iran’s hardline Islamic government is unsure whether to crack down hard on these protests, or turn a blind eye – they fear that either strategy could lead to them spreading. Some of their attempts to prevent the protests have been pathetic, such as fixing obstacles on top of utility boxes.

Iran is different to Saudi Arabia, where women were only recently given the right to get a driving licence, and still can only go to university, or even go shopping, with the permission of a male guardian.

The place of women in Iranian society is complex. There are female members of the Iranian parliament, some of whom have expressed something akin to grudging support for the Girls of Revolution Street, as the protestors have become known. Before that revolution, women had comparatively much more freedom. In 1979, thousands of women protested in the streets at the introduction of this very law, making the hijab compulsory.

Iranian schoolgirls show their attitude to the compulsory hijab laws

The courage of the women in the recent protests cannot be overstated. They protest, often alone, often in a street full of hostile men. They are well aware that rape, and torture, including sexual torture, are common Iranian prisons, particularly for prisoners protesting against the regime.

And, should they try to escape and claim asylum, every single one of them is banned from entering the United States under Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban.

CO097 Michael Pento on Social Justice and the Market

Michael Pento is a president and founder of Pento Portfolio Strategies. Michael is a well-established specialist in the Austrian School of economic theory.

His steadfast advocacy of free markets has been broadcast on radio programs throughout the country, and he is a regular guest on CNBC and FOX Business News and Bloomberg, and his writing has been published in Forbes, The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal and others.