Pagemaster: Brendan O'Neill (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Put your money where your mouth is
Another row over 'dirty money' broke in September, when it emerged that the Labour Party has received large donations from prominent businessmen, many of whom have played a government role. Though barely newsworthy, this revelation caused great excitement among the Tories, who turned New Labour's own sanctimonious attitude to party funding against it. Jack Straw recently announced proposals to enforce strict rules on political funding and to make the dirty business of political donations public.
Time was when political loudmouths were challenged to prove that their convictions were genuine by backing them with hard cash. Moral support never won an election, much less a strike or a war. While money does not win arguments or change the way people think, it is a vital resource in politics. It buys the time and the personnel required to campaign for the social changes and political principles that inspire people to pay up in the first place.
Yet as the current controversy shows, money in politics has become a source of great anxiety. The spectre of cash in brown envelopes is widely credited for the downfall of the previous government, and the (probably electronic) transfer of £2 million is causing huge discomfort for the present one.
The fact that the science minister Lord Sainsbury has made large contributions to the Labour Party has caused a political storm. The first (and the dumber) implication is that Lord Sainsbury is paying huge amounts of his own money for a position in government, in order to throw somewhat smaller sums of public money at his own GM food laboratory. The second allegation is that Sainsbury is paying to make government policy on the GM issue.
But is this so shocking? When you give money to a political party you are in effect paying that party to pursue your own political interests and beliefs. You would be pretty stupid, would you not, to donate to a party with an opposing political agenda? You would also be daft not to make your voice heard in a party to which you are contributing financially. Party politics is about being partisan, electing people to represent your interests - that's the whole point of it. Whether you are a lowly voter or a cash-rich businessman, you use whatever clout you have to get your point across.
But the notion that government and politics is about representing interests is exactly what New Labour and its Tory imitators object to. Blair's notion of a pure, altruistic government and a society of do-gooders ('it's good to do good' - he said it) rejects the notion that politics should be about - well - politics. Instead, the idea seems to be that government should be some neutral, bureaucratic affair, like managing a bank. It is a sure way to keep any intelligent person's money (and interest) well out of the whole business of politics.
Let's get digital
Whether or not you have your box, digital TV has to be something to get excited about. So why is the television industry quaking in its boots?
It will soon be possible to transmit digital TV down ordinary phone lines. But digital's most distinguishing feature is that it requires a significantly smaller range of frequencies to transmit a channel than normal TV. This leaves room for a large number of channels, and means that the content of one channel can be spread across several other channels in different forms. For example, if 30 channels broadcast the evening film, the film's start can be staggered across each one in five-minute intervals, so that when you come home from work you only have to wait a maximum of five minutes for the film to begin.
Yet the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival this August was dominated by unease over the advent of digital. The festival's opening lecture, by ITV chief executive Richard Eyre, dealt largely with the difficulty of regulating a proliferation of digital channels. But the key question is content - when the TV industry already faces charges of 'dumbing down' from some quarters, will digital inevitably lead to a larger number of worse quality programmes? Sir John Mortimer certainly thought so, when he likened digital to a restaurant with a large menu of poor dishes.
The critics are right to think that making successful programmes may become more of a challenge in the digital market. Niche marketing is a good way to package repeat programmes, but it is a disastrous way to plan new ones. Imagine having to tailor your cutting-edge drama to one of a number of channels categorised as 'hospital drama,' 'inner-city drama' or 'Oxfordshire countryside drama', or deciding whether your documentary on the Middle East is best described as 'travelogue' or 'international relations'.
But new technology does not preclude good programming. If only the industry could take up the challenge of digital with confidence, rather than cowering behind the rhetoric of consumer choice and the difficulty of regulation, the advent of this groundbreaking new technology should be seen as an opportunity to establish whole channels of good-quality programming. Even the BBC might find that commitment to quality is the spoonful of sugar that makes the licence fee medicine go down.
Sandy Starr was a youth delegate at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival.
Of mice and men
Teams of researchers at Princeton University and the University of Tokyo have discovered improved memory and learning ability in two strains of genetically modified mice. The results have sparked 'Mighty Mouse' headlines, and heated debates about whether science could soon be able to enhance genetically the intelligence of humans.
This work is undoubtedly a step towards enhancement of some of the basic information-processing capacities that all mammals share. But it is nonsense to suggest that such studies could lead to the improvement of human memory, much less human intelligence.
Memory in humans and all other mammals is intricately tied in with a piece of the brain called the hippocampus, which is what the studies investigated. It is known that information is shuffled around inside the hippocampus dependent upon the properties of receptors (sites at which actions take place) and their interaction with neurotransmitters (chemicals that allow communication within and between receptor sites). When the NMDA receptor binds to the neurotransmitter glutamate, a current is evoked which opens a channel allowing calcium ions to enter the cell. This is the magical moment when memory begins.
The researchers at Princeton hoped to improve the memory of mice through the increase of an NMDA subtype - while the researchers in Tokyo deleted the genetic code for a non-NMDA hippocampal receptor that inhibits memory, thereby inadvertently extending overall memory ability. The mice were released into a shallow pool of water and swam around until stumbling across a hidden platform. All the mice reached the platform more quickly on later trials, indicating learning. But the transgenic mice performed better than the normal mice, showing further improved learning due to the genetic manipulation.
So will we be able to create humans with super memories? Perhaps. I have no doubt that humans and mice share important properties relating to the hippocampus. But even so, memory in mice and memory in humans are far removed. Simple associative learning - discovering that A follows B, etc - is an aspect of memory and, if you are a mouse surviving from one moment to the next, it might be terrific to have your associative learning enhanced. Humans, however, use memory in a transformative manner to go beyond simple relationships and to develop abstract connections.
The ability to draw abstract relationships and pursue meaningful goals is the hallmark of human intelligence that is sorely lacking in the mouse world - even in the newly created super-mouse world. In animals, memory is merely an extension of their basic biological function with zero intelligent content. For humans, memory is a part of the transformation and interweaving of innate biological processes into higher intelligent function. The transformation of our biological information-processing capacity, which we share with mice, takes place in the sociocultural world, which we do not share with mice. Memory ceases to be slavishly dictated by internal and external events and becomes a tool that can be used in the pursuit of reasoned goals. A genetic and neural influence can remain, but the cause of intelligence lies outside of genetics and pharmacology.
Dr Stuart Derbyshire is head of neuro-imaging at the Neuroenteric Disease Program, University of California in Los Angeles
A fuller version of this commentary is available at http://www.informinc.co.uk/LM/discuss/commentary/09-03-99-MEMORY.html
'Four 9s equal zero' ran smallish headlines in several newspapers, when the disaster predicted by some for the 9th of the 9th 1999 failed to materialise. We have now passed two key computer date deadlines with hardly a snag. On 1 April, as most companies started their financial year 2000 - and their computer systems understood that 00 meant 2000 not 1900 - nothing much happened. On 9 September, the 9-9-99 combination, which computer programmers used in the 1970s and early 1980s as a shutdown code on many systems, unlocked nothing.
Columnists have been right to stress that 9999 was a smaller technical problem than Y2K, but the 4x9 problem was hidden away in the big old systems that many of the same columnists were making up scare stories about just a couple of years ago. The only report I could find was of Japanese firefighters on the island of Ishigakijima, Okinawa, whose computer reset itself to the year 1970 and who had to 'file handwritten reports', which 'in no way hampered their duties'.
As each day goes by, the evidence is mounting that around the world we have coped extremely well with this straightforward problem. Doubt is surely creeping up on even the most committed millenarian doom-mongers that, like 9999, zero-zero may not be the new Number of the Beast after all. Thanks to hard work by planners and programmers around the world zero-zero will add up to little or nothing - just as it should.
It seems that even the dinner-party 'witticism' that 'I won't be on an aeroplane come 1 January 2000' is wearing thin. A poll by the US Air Transport Association (ATA), which represents 28 airlines carrying 95 percent of US air passenger traffic, showed that only 19 percent of those surveyed in September believe the Y2K bug will cause major problems for air travel, down from a figure of 48 percent in June. ATA President Carol Hallett said ticket sales for travel on 31 December and 1 January are 'very normal'. Unlike the guff about Y2K disasters.
Mark Beachill is a computer programmer.
Reproduced from LM issue 124, October 1999