November 13, 2012

QotD: British women in WW2

Filed under: Britain, History, Military, Quotations, USA, WW2 — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 12:24

A British woman officer or non-commissioned officer can and often does give orders to a man private. The men obey smartly and know it is no shame. For British women have proven themselves in this war. They have stuck to their posts near burning ammunition dumps, delivered messages afoot after their motorcycles have been blasted from under them. They have pulled aviators from burning planes. They have died at the gun posts and as they fell another girl has stepped directly into the position and “carried on.” There is not a single record in this war of any British woman in uniformed service quitting her post or failing in her duty under fire.

Now you understand why British soldiers respect the women in uniform. They have won the right to the utmost respect. When you see a girl in khaki or air-force blue with a bit of ribbon on her tunic — remember she didn’t get it for knitting more socks than anyone else in Ipswich.

Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, 1942

Michael Geist on Canada’s new copyright law

Filed under: Cancon, Law, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:52

If you’re not going to read the entire body of the law (and let’s face it, most of us would rather do just about anything other than that), here’s a thumbnail summary of what the new law says:

The good news is that the law now features a wide range of user-oriented provisions that legalize common activities. For example, time shifting, or the recording of television shows, is now legal under Canadian copyright after years of residing in a grey area. The law also legalizes format shifting, copying for private purposes, and the creation of backup copies. This will prove helpful for those seeking to digitize content, transfer content to portable devices, or create backups to guard against accidental deletion or data loss.

Canadians can also take greater advantage of fair dealing, which allows users to make use of excerpts or other portions of copyright works without the need for permission or payment. The scope of fair dealing has been expanded with the addition of three new purposes: education, satire, and parody.

Fair dealing now covers eight purposes (research, private study, news reporting, criticism, and review comprise the other five). When combined with the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent decisions that emphasized the importance of fair dealing as users’ rights, the law now features considerable flexibility that allows Canadians to make greater use of works without prior permission or fear of liability.

The law also includes a unique user generated content provision that establishes a legal safe harbour for creators of non-commercial user generated content such as remixed music, mashup videos, or home movies with commercial music in the background. The provision is often referred to as the “YouTube exception”, though it is not limited to videos.

Denmark discovers that “price elasticity” is a real phenomenon

Filed under: Economics, Europe, Government, Health — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:24

Denmark is getting rid of its “fat tax” imposed last year, as it has failed to solve the problem it was intended to address:

Gone, by popular demand: Denmark’s fat tax. ‘The fat tax is one of the most maligned we [have] had in a long time’, said Mette Gjerskov, the Danish food and agriculture minister, in a press conference on Saturday announcing the decision to ditch the policy. ‘Now we have to try improving the public health by other means.’

[. . .]

It turns out, unsurprisingly, that slapping taxes on things doesn’t necessarily persuade people to consume less of them. So Danes either went downmarket in their buying habits by buying cheaper products, or popped across the border to Sweden or Germany to buy their fatty foods there instead. The only real effect was to hit the profits of Danish companies. Chastened by the experience, the Danish government has also scrapped plans for a sugar tax, too.

As the OECD notes: ‘The impact of imposing taxes on the consumption of certain foods is determined by the responsiveness of consumers to price changes, ie, price elasticity. However, it is difficult to predict how consumers will react to price changes caused by taxation. Some may respond by reducing their consumption of healthy goods in order to pay for the more expensive unhealthy goods, thus defeating the purpose of the tax. Others may seek substitutes for the taxed products, which might be as unhealthy as those originally consumed. Depending on the elasticity of the demand for the taxed products, consumers will either end up bearing an extra financial burden, or changing the mix of products they consume in ways that can be difficult to identify.’

So, simply from a practical point of view, food taxes — indeed, any sin tax, including extra duty on tobacco or minimum prices for alcohol — can have some unwanted negative consequences while largely failing to achieve their intended aim.

Online education is the future of universities (if they have one)

Filed under: Education, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 11:08

Alex Tabarrok explains why 15 minutes of his time has outweighed the rest of his teaching career:

In 2009, I gave a TED talk on the economics of growth. Since then my 15 minute talk has been watched nearly 700,000 times. That is far fewer views than the most-watched TED talk, Ken Robinson’s 2006 talk on how schools kill creativity, which has been watched some 26 million times. Nonetheless, the 15 minutes of teaching I did at TED dominates my entire teaching career: 700,000 views at 15 minutes each is equivalent to 175,000 student-hours of teaching, more than I have taught in my entire offline career.[1] Moreover, the ratio is likely to grow because my online views are increasing at a faster rate than my offline students.

Teaching students 30 at a time is expensive and becoming relatively more expensive. Teaching is becoming relatively more expensive for the same reason that butlers have become relatively more expensive–butler productivity increased more slowly than productivity in other fields, so wages for butlers rose even as their output stagnated; as a result, the opportunity cost of butlers increased. The productivity of teaching, measured in, say, kilobytes transmitted from teacher to student per unit of time, hasn’t increased much. As a result, the opportunity cost of teaching has increased, an example of what’s known as Baumol’s cost disease. Teaching has remained economic only because the value of each kilobyte transmitted has increased due to discoveries in (some) other fields. Online education, however, dramatically increases the productivity of teaching. As my experience with TED indicates, it’s now possible for a single professor to teach more students in an afternoon than was previously possible in a lifetime.

The counter-argument is that there is an ineffable quality of the classroom experience that raises its value well above the same material taught online. Even after many years of teaching, however, what exactly this quality might be remains ineffable to me. Actually, that is not quite fair. Bringing the most advanced students in any field up to the cutting edge of knowledge and beyond has always required a kind of apprenticeship rather than a more straightforward communication of data/knowledge. Fields with greater physicality, not just sports and dance, but also experimental biology, physics, and chemistry will also require more in-classroom teaching with greater attention from a human being. Even recognizing these exceptions, however, still leaves the vast majority of teaching open to massive productivity increases. Until late college, physics is mostly teaching knowledge known since Newton. Most of the mathematics known or needed by most people has not advanced much beyond Euclid and Pythagoras, let alone Euler. No one expects online education to substitute for apprenticing to a master, but much education at the college level is already mass education taught not by a master but by an adjunct.

Rapidly retreating freedom of expression in Britain

It’s almost as if Britain is in some sort of demented race to get rid of freedom of expression altogether:

At 9pm last night, with a knock on the door of a 19-year-old man, Kent police hammered another nail into the coffin of free expression in the UK.

Earlier in the day the unnamed man from Aylesham had allegedly posted a photo of a poppy being burned, with a crudely worded (and crudely spelled) caption. He was arrested under the Malicious Communications Act and held in the cells overnight to await questioning.

It is of course just the latest in a succession of police actions against individuals deemed to have caused offence: mocking a footballer as he fights for his life on Twitter; hoping British service personnel would “die and go to hell”; wearing a T-shirt that celebrated the death of two police officers; making sick jokes on Facebook about a missing child, the list goes on. A few months ago, these could have been dismissed as isolated over-reactions or moments of madness by police and judiciary. Not any longer. It is now clear that a new criminal code has been imposed upon us without announcement or debate. It is now a crime to be offensive. We are not sleepwalking into a new totalitarianism — we have woken up to find ourselves tangled in its sheets.

News of the arrest was first announced on Kent police’s Twitter feed, and it didn’t take long for users to spot the painful irony of their official avatar, which simply says Kent police 101. The number is taken from the non-essential police phone number, but as we all know, Room 101 was where Winston Smith was taken in George Orwell’s 1984 to be tortured and eventually persuaded to recant his individual beliefs and fall into line with officially sanctioned viewpoints.

Protecting children from online pornography – the impossible dream

Filed under: Britain, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:46

In the Guardian, Cory Doctorow talks about the actual scale of effort the British government is attempting to mandate to “protect the children from pr0n”:

In order to filter out adult content on the internet, a company has to either look at all the pages on the internet and find the bad ones, or write a piece of software that can examine a page on the wire and decide, algorithmically, whether it is inappropriate for children.

Neither of these strategies are even remotely feasible. To filter content automatically and accurately would require software capable of making human judgments — working artificial intelligence, the province of science fiction.

As for human filtering: there simply aren’t enough people of sound judgment in all the world to examine all the web pages that have been created and continue to be created around the clock, and determine whether they are good pages or bad pages. Even if you could marshal such a vast army of censors, they would have to attain an inhuman degree of precision and accuracy, or would be responsible for a system of censorship on a scale never before seen in the world, because they would be sitting in judgment on a medium whose scale was beyond any in human history.

Think, for a moment, of what it means to have a 99% accuracy rate when it comes to judging a medium that carries billions of publications.

Consider a hypothetical internet of a mere 20bn documents that is comprised one half “adult” content, and one half “child-safe” content. A 1% misclassification rate applied to 20bn documents means 200m documents will be misclassified. That’s 100m legitimate documents that would be blocked by the government because of human error, and 100m adult documents that the filter does not touch and that any schoolkid can find.

In practice, the misclassification rate is much, much worse. It’s hard to get a sense of the total scale of misclassification by censorware because these companies treat their blacklists as trade secrets, so it’s impossible to scrutinise their work and discover whether they’re exercising due care.

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