Friday, August 29, 2014

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership: why you SHOULD care and DO something about it!

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement (TTIP) is being negotiated behind closed doors at the EU, and on the surface it seems to be common sense:  an agreement that allows standardisation of requirements between the EU and the USA, and which sets down some of the arrangements to do that.  Under the surface, though, is a whole lot more stuff which could remove a large part of our government's ability to impose environmental, employment and safety laws in our own country and for our own people.  And THAT's why we have to stop it becoming a reality.

It isn't that it might not have any advantages for the UK or EU as a trade agreement - but the potential cost in loss of our democratic right to control our laws and make legislation would be undermined fatally if it goes ahead. 

The current government seem to believe that if they promise "more jobs" and "more money" and a "booming economy" we will be prepared to allow any sacrifice to our way of life, our welfare state and our local laws and safety regulations - but they're wrong about that as far as I am concerned, and I hope they're wrong about it for a lot of people.  But we have to mobilise the people of this country who are worn down by the fact that they can't find anyone worth voting for, and have given up on expressing a preference - and make sure they get the facts and figures and make their voices heard before this agreement becomes a fact.

You can read George Monbiot's article for the Guardian about TTIP.  As you will see, Ken Clarke has published a riposte to the article claiming that it's an overreaction.  He actually says in the body of his article:   "This is not about reducing safety levels. It is simply common sense. Would any of us on holiday in the US decline to hire that all-American SUV, or say no to that unfeasibly enormous vat of fizzy pop on the grounds that the regulations "are not the same as the EU's"?"  Well actually Ken... the fizzy pop in the USA contains a whole lot of high-fructose corn syrup, which has been associated with a lot of poor health in the US and is not allowed to be used in the EU - and that might change if this agreement goes ahead.  And yes, I care about that, the possibility that foodstuffs will include unlabelled GM, and the fact that many things which are banned in the EU are allowed in the US, possibly because they are subject to the same sort of crazy agreements.

The damaging part of the trade agreement comes because our governments and the EU can be sued in secret offshore courts, and made to compensate companies for making them follow our laws on minimum wage or cleaning up the environment.  

As George Monbiot says: "During its financial crisis, and in response to public anger over rocketing charges, Argentina imposed a freeze on people's energy and water bills (does this sound familiar?). It was sued by the international utility companies whose vast bills had prompted the government to act. For this and other such crimes, it has been forced to pay out over a billion dollars in compensation."  If we sign this agreement, we may be affected in the same way.

The trouble is, politicians think we're stupid.  If they harp on about the positive aspects of the trade agreement, and wave money in front of our faces, we won't look behind the curtain and see the possible effects of the agreement in the future.  Which might include the government being made to compensate the corporations if their companies are disadvantaged by an increase in minimum wage or a change to environmental safeguards.  We already have dozens of rich American companies refusing to pay tax - now we'll have them demanding compensation on top.

As for the much wider concern that they might be able to prevent us from reversing the privatisation of the NHS... don't get me started.  War on Want have published a comprehensive PDF about the possible outcomes from the TTIP.

There's a day of action tomorrow, as the supporters from 38 degrees will be leafletting and telling people about the possible consequences of the TTIP.  You can find details here and sign up to help at your local protest or with posting leaflets through people's doors.

Sign the 38 degrees petition here:

TV review: Extant

Full Moon over Puget Sound by Shari Maria Silverman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

I was about nine years old when man landed on the moon in 1967, but I wasn’t very much impressed.  As I had been watching Dr Who for about four years by then, I had assumed that Man was able to go to far more distant destinations already.  My idea of what was possible was governed by the programmes I had watched.

How much more difficult must it be to sort the real from the unreal for today’s children, brought up with pixel-perfect special effects and an array of science fiction worlds to inhabit.  Currently I have been watching CBS’s Extant with interest, as it seems to me to have mastered the art of placing the action in the future, with improved gadgets and slight changes to the way things work, but with jumps that aren’t too far to imagine.

Currently, there is room for the plot to move in different directions, and it isn’t clear whether the greatest threat to mankind has arrived via an alien impregnation of a solo astronaut, or via an innovative lifelike robot who has been given the gift of life by a scientist who believes that he can create a simulacrum of a human, without any of the traditional limits on robot behaviour.

It is clear that the future world is already wary of the robots, and it is hinted that there has already been trouble caused by a previous generation of robots at some time in the past.

I find it believable and its production values seem to be high, although I fear that CBS, being driven only by immediate viewing figures, may cancel the show.  The USA doesn’t seem to allow shows to build an audience, pulling them without a chance to find their feet.  This show has some pretty complex ideas embedded within it, and needs attention and intelligence to be understood properly  and to keep track of the constantly shifting line between good and evil which arises. 

In the show, the household seems to have a computer presence which only makes itself evident when there are incoming phone calls or communication of some sort.  You don’t hear the people making an impromptu shopping list, but maybe the house monitors the number of loo rolls or availability of fresh milk automatically.  It’s not too much of a leap to imagine a future where every room is connected, as “OK, Google” is already available on an android phone near you, and the worlds first household robot communications hub is attracting crowdfunding on Indiegogo.

I’m assuming that the writers are committing anachronistic mistakes which will only be obvious at some stage in the future.  Maybe the sort of mobile telephone you have to hold in the hand, thin and beautiful as the futuristic designs may be, will be entirely unnecessary once we all have wearable computers on our wrists, able to conjure holographic keyboards and screens seen only by us.

Cars that drive themselves, GPS systems to track individuals and their vehicles, screens embedded into walls are not too much of a leap, while the very lifelike and realistic robot boy is a long way forward of our current technology.  It’s hard to review the plot without putting in too many spoilers, and I don’t want to do that while the show is still in its first series and needs to attract viewers.  Some of the American press seem to think a review should be a recap of the plot of the episodes, and even more annoyingly, think they can watch two episodes in the middle of a series and understand what is going on.  Fortunately, apart from a quick recap at the beginning of the episode, Extant doesn't go in for the irritating American habit of recapping every five minutes in case one of the audience has drifted off to make a cup of tea, and might return, confused about what has happened since they last looked at the screen (which has begun to infect many of the UK's factual series).  However, the future land where it is possible for a company to constantly monitor an employee’s whereabouts, coupled with robots without the prime directive never to harm a human, expected to understand and live by some sort of acquired morality, is scary.

We seem not to have had the big ethical discussion about the use of drones in warfare, something one character speaks about passionately, having been injured in a drone attack.  It seems quite incredible to me that any medical research to be perpetrated on the public must go through ethical committees and scrutiny before it can be allowed, and yet the changes to the way that warfare is run, including the use of unmanned drone flights which allow people to inflict death and destruction on people many miles away, has been introduced without any formal public ethical debate.  The speech may well make people think.

I’m enjoying the fantasy element, enjoy watching Halle Berry and Goran Visnjic and the little boy who plays a spookily realistic robot, Pierce Gagnon.  I’m apprehensive that most of the themes which are evident in the first few weeks will never have time to blossom if the current viewing figures dictate the future viability of the series.

In the UK, the series is available on Amazon Prime, as part of the membership, and that is how I have been watching it.  Unfortunately, in the last couple of weeks double episodes have been released, never a good sign for a tv series, which may indicate it is about to be cancelled.  Which would be a great shame, as I think the series has a lot of potential, and maybe the audience needs time to build.  I can think of a lot of classic tv series which would have folded at the end of the first series, if the current obsession about viewing figures had been the main directive.  Sometime people need time.

Incidentally, even among the sci-fi-loving young people of my acquaintance who have Amazon Prime, and therefore are able to watch Extant for free, it is little known.  Maybe some of the shiny trailers and polished publicity should be a bit better distributed, to attract the viewing figures which will give it future life.