Sunday, August 26, 2012

Edward Tenner: Unintended consequences

From Edward Tenner, via Ted Logo

Every new invention changes the world -- in ways both intentional and unexpected. Historian Edward Tenner tells stories that illustrate the under-appreciated gap between our ability to innovate and our ability to foresee the consequences.

Edward Tenner is an independent writer, speaker, and editor analyzing the cultural aspects of technological change. Full bio »

The law of unintended consequences - defined

Although I have submitted several posts on this blog, I realise that I have never properly defined "The Law of Unintended Consequences". So, belatedly, here is my offer from Rob Norton - Rob Norton

"The law of unintended consequences, often cited but rarely defined, is that actions of people—and especially of government—always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended. Economists and other social scientists have heeded its power for centuries; for just as long, politicians and popular opinion have largely ignored it.

The concept of unintended consequences is one of the building blocks of economics. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” the most famous metaphor in social science, is an example of a positive unintended consequence. Smith maintained that each individual, seeking only his own gain, “is led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention,” that end being the public interest. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, or the baker, that we expect our dinner,” Smith wrote, “but from regard to their own self interest.”
Most often, however, the law of unintended consequences illuminates the perverse unanticipated effects of legislation and regulation. In 1692 the English philosopher John Locke, a forerunner of modern economists, urged the defeat of a parliamentary bill designed to cut the maximum permissible rate of interest from 6 percent to 4 percent. Locke argued that instead of benefiting borrowers, as intended, it would hurt them. People would find ways to circumvent the law, with the costs of circumvention borne by borrowers. To the extent the law was obeyed, Locke concluded, the chief results would be less available credit and a redistribution of income away from “widows, orphans and all those who have their estates in money.”
See also Wikipedia entry:

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Conforming to the EU Human Rights legislation?

From Daily Mail:

British taxpayers are paying to make jails in Jamaica and Nigeria more comfortable in a desperate bid to persuade foreign criminals to serve their sentences at home.

Ministers have resorted to the tactic – designed to satisfy the human rights of inmates – after it emerged that the UK’s own prison system has turned into a ‘United Nations of crime’.

Research by the House of Commons library, seen by the Mail, reveals how our jails contain inmates from a staggering 156 countries – more than three out of every four member states of the UN.
Jos prison in Nigeria: The government wants to deport some of the 594 Nigerians currently in British prisons
Jos prison in Nigeria: The government wants to deport some of the 594 Nigerians currently in British prisons

Worryingly, the total number of foreign prisoners is rising – despite pledges by David Cameron to fix the mess.
By March this year, there were 11,127 behind bars, at an estimated cost to the UK public purse of more than £420million. This is up from 10,778 in 2011. 
The group, which includes rapists, murderers and burglars, now makes up more than one in every eight convicts.

Meanwhile, it emerged that the dire need to create space in our packed jails has prompted ministers to take the extraordinary step of establishing a £3million annual pot to make it easier for convicts to serve their sentences back home.
Splashing money on prisons abroad is certain to prove controversial. But officials insist it will be cheaper in the long run than the annual £38,000 bill for keeping a single prisoner locked up here.
Currently, money is being spent in Jamaica to ‘assist Jamaican authorities in modernising their prison service and rehabilitation and reintegration activities’.
In Nigeria, one project supports the provision of ‘human rights training for prison officers’. A second project will construct new facilities at a women’s prison in its biggest city, Lagos, to reduce overcrowding.

Jamaica tops the list of the nations with most prisoners in British jails, with 900 inmates. There are 594 Nigerians.

Last night Sir Andrew Green, chairman of Migrationwatch, said: ‘To some extent, this is the inevitable legacy of mass immigration of 3.5million people under Labour. ‘The resources necessary to tackle the rising number of foreign prisoners have not been made available.’ 

Tory MP Priti Patel said: ‘Prison is always the best place for dangerous criminals, but our jails should not be used as hotels for foreigners. Ministers need to take action to deport them to serve their sentences in the countries they come from and then stop them from coming back to Britain.
St Catherine's Prison in Kingston, Jamaica: Money is being spent modernising the Jamaican prison service as well as rehabilitation and reintegration activities
St Catherine's Prison in Kingston, Jamaica: Money is being spent modernising the Jamaican prison service as well as rehabilitation and reintegration activities

‘Living in Britain is a privilege and foreigners who come here and flout our laws should be sent packing without delay.’ 

In November 2010, the Mail revealed how the Prime Minister had decided to spearhead a campaign for foreign criminals to serve their sentences back home.

To do this, ministers must be able  to convince the courts that the offenders will not suffer breaches of their human rights by being made to stay in squalid conditions.

Did our legislators know that by agreeing to conform to the EU human rights legislation we would be funding improvements of foreign prisons?  And that we cannot deport convicted terrorists because their home country uses capital punishment? Or that we need to provide immigrants with multiple wives and large families with mansions?  All because of their 'human rights'? Such are the results of the Law of Unintended Conseqeuneces!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Dollar losing its attraction

From The Times, London:

Soft power is sometimes defined as a way of achieving the outcome you desire without using force. In Britain’s case, this has traditionally been exercised using subtle diplomacy, cultural and legal institutions.
The United States exercises soft power through its culture, films and music, too, but it also does through the ubiquity of the US dollar.
With power comes responsibility. There is a danger now that, in seeking to use the dollar’s reserve currency status to achieve US foreign policy aims, America is undermining that power. 
A key criticism of the US sanctions on Iran, particularly the ban on Iranian banks from using the Swift payments system, is that it has created incentives for other countries to trade with Iran without using dollars. Iran itself has exploited this by using its own currency in bilateral trade deals with India, China, Russia and Japan.
It is a small step from finding ways of trading with Iran without using dollars to trading with each other without using dollars, something that has been noted by the People’s Bank of China, whose officials are talking increasingly loudly about how and when the yuan might become a global reserve currency.
The aggression shown by the New York State Department of Financial Services towards Standard Chartered has just created another incentive to avoid doing business in dollars.
Yet another example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Social media triggers revolutions

Social media - Twitter, Facebook, Sina Weibo, etc - was invented for people, usually young ones, to communicate with each other electronically. They have succeeded extremely well.

But the inventors could not have envisaged that SM users would use it to do more than chat about their daily lives and exchange their views about the best movies, restaurtants and sound tracks. They certainly could not have imagined that SM would have the unintended consequence to ignite revolutions, to change the world.

I am, of course, talking about the so-called Arab Spring, which started in Tunisia, moved to Egypt and Libya, causing regime changes that their citizens could not have imagined possible for many more years to come.  SM nearly caused changes in Yemen and Bahrain and may be doing so in Syria as well. See

There was both hope and fears that users of Sino Weibo would ignite a 'Jasmine Spring'. But that did not happen. Nevertheless, interactions have led to several dodgy factories being shut down or refused planning permission, several cases where persecution of dissidents or victims of miscarriages of justice by local authorities were overturned by central authorities. One does not know how much of the current moves by the Chinese Communist Party to rein in spending by officials, corruption, reversals of local injustices, exhortations to listen to the people, and even talk of major reform and move towards democracy is caused by or, at least, strengthened by SM interactions. By I am sure these interactions have not hindered such thinking and pronouncements. See

Just as the invention of the printing press led to greater freedoms, either of religion or from political repression, so SM is proving to be another turn of the wheel towards greater awareness of wrongs and the garnering of popular support to overcome them. And just as the church in the Middle Ages could not stop the printing press, so today's authorities cannot stop SM. I'm afraid the 'rabbit is out of the hat' and Pandora's Box has been opened. No power on earth can get the rabbit back into the hat or shut Pandora's Box, at least not also getting SM back in it before shutting it.

Beware asking for a king (Aesop's fable)

One of the unintended consequences of asking an outsider for help.  This is illustrated by an Aesop's fable and by three well-documented historical events - in Britain, Southern Italy and Egypt.  There are probably many others.

Aesop’s fable: King of the Frogs: The Frogs were living as happy as could be in a marshy swamp that just suited them; they went splashing about caring for nobody and nobody troubling with them. But some of them thought that this was not right, that they should have a king and a proper constitution, so they determined to send up a petition to Jove to give them what they wanted. "Mighty Jove," they cried, "send unto us a king that will rule over us and keep us in order." Jove laughed at their croaking, and threw down into the swamp a huge Log, which came down splashing into the swamp.

The Frogs were frightened out of their lives by the commotion made in their midst, and all rushed to the bank to look at the horrible monster; but after a time, seeing that it did not move, one or two of the boldest of them ventured out towards the Log, and even dared to touch it; still it did not move. Then the greatest hero of the Frogs jumped upon the Log and commenced dancing up and down upon it, thereupon all the Frogs came and did the same; and for some time the Frogs went about their business every day without taking the slightest notice of their new King Log lying in their midst.

But this did not suit them, so they sent another petition to Jove, and said to him, "We want a real king; one that will really rule over us." Now this made Jove angry, so he sent among them a big Stork that soon set to work gobbling them all up. Then the Frogs repented when too late.

Saxon conquest of Britain: Hengist and Horsa were brother chieftains from Jutland, who led the first Saxon bands which settled in England. They were called in by the British king Vortigern to defend him against the Picts and other enemies.  

The place of their landing is said to have been Ebbsfleet in Kent, probably sometime around 450A.D.. Hengist and Horsa were at first given the island of Thanet as a home, but they soon quarrelled with their British allies, and gradually possessed themselves of what became the kingdom of Kent. 

In 455 theSaxon Chronicle records a battle between Hengist and Horsa and Vortigern at a place called Aegaels threp, in which Horsa was slain. Thenceforward Hengist reigned in Kent, together with his son Aesc. There later followed three subsequent battles, which resulted in the expulsion of the Britons from Kent.

Norman conquest of Southern Italy: Immigrant Norman brigands acclimatised themselves to the Mezzogiorno as mercenaries in the service of various Lombard and Byzantine factions, communicating news swiftly back home about the opportunities that lay in the Mediterranean. These aggressive groups aggregated in various places, eventually establishing fiefdoms and states of their own; they succeeded in unifying themselves and raising their status to one of de factoindependence within fifty years of their arrival.
Unlike the Norman conquest of England (1066), which took place over the course of a few years after one decisive battle, the conquest of Southern Italy was the product of decades and many battles, few decisive. Many territories were conquered independently, and only later were all unified into one state. Compared to the conquest of England, it was unplanned and unorganised, but just as permanent.

Mameluke takes over as rulers of Egypt:  Mameluke (or Mamluk or Mameluk or mamaluke or mamluq or marmeluke or marmluk) (Arabic: مملوك (singular), مماليك (plural), literally means "owned by the king" or "slave." It refers to white slave soldiers, primarily Christians, like the Janissaries but also Mongols, who converted to Islam and were employed by various rulers including the Abbasidand Ayyubid dynasties and the Ottoman Empire.   

Like Janissaries, Mamelukes converted to Islam and served the Muslim rulers until modern times. And like the Janissaries, the Mameluke caste was governed by rules that supposedly prevented children of Mamelukes from inheriting their position and similar restrictions designed to ensure they would never be a threat. As in the case of the Janissary soldiers, the rules were often eroded or disregarded. 

The Mamelukes seized power for a time in Egypt, Damascus and India and set up their own dynasties. They did two signal services to the Muslim and Arab world: They stopped the advance of the Mongols at Ayn Jalut, and they finally drove the Crusaders from Palestine.

American 'right to bear arms'

From Reuters:

The 'right to bear arms' is enshrined in the US constitution. But were the founding fathers aware of the Law of Unintended Consequences?

President Barack Obama answers a question about guns after he signs the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 while in the Oval Office of the White House August 6, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing
President Barack Obama answers a question about guns after he signs the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 while in the Oval Office of the White House August 6, 2012.
Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

WASHINGTON | Mon Aug 6, 2012 7:07pm 
President Barack Obama said on Monday that mass killings like the shooting rampage at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin were occurring with "too much regularity" and should prompt soul searching by all Americans, but he stopped short of calling for new gun-control laws.
"All of us are heart-broken by what happened," Obama told reporters at the White House a day after a gunman opened fire on Sikh worshippers preparing for religious services, killing six before he was shot dead by a police officer.
But when asked whether he would push for further gun-control measures in the wake of the shootings, Obama said only that he wanted to bring together leaders at all levels of American society to examine ways to curb gun violence.
That echoed his pledge last month in a speech in New Orleans to work broadly to "arrive at a consensus" on the contentious issue after a deadly Colorado shooting spree highlighted the problem in an election year.
But like his earlier comments, Obama offered no timetable or specifics for such discussions and did not call outright for tighter gun control laws.

Talk of reining in America's gun culture is considered politically risky for Obama, who is locked in a tight race against Republican challenger Mitt Romney for November election.

Also, there is a novel based on this unique US position: "Unintended Consequences is a novel by John Ross, first published in 1996 by Accurate Press.[1] 

The story chronicles the history of the gun culturegun rights and gun control in the United States from the early 1900s through the late 1990s. Although clearly a work of fiction, the story is heavily laced with historical information, including real-life historical figures who play minor supporting roles. The novel also features unusually detailed and intricate facts, figures and explanations of many firearms-related topics. The cover has a picture of Lady Justice being assaulted by an ATF agent."

Hanging on until it's too late

From Reuters:

One of the unintended consequences of President Assad's decision not to make any substantive reforms s that in due course he may not only lose his position but perhaps his life as well. This will follow the precedent of Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, and many other dictators faced with intractable opposition.

Riyad Hijab is sworn in as new Prime Minister by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) in Damascus in this handout photo distributed by Syrian News Agency (SANA) June 26, 2012. REUTERS-SANA-HandoutRiyad Hijab is sworn in as new Prime Minister by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) in Damascus in this handout photo distributed by Syrian News Agency (SANA) June 26, 2012.
Credit: Reuters/SANA/Handout
AMMAN | Tue Aug 7, 2012 3:51am EDT
Syrian forces pressed on with their offensive against rebels in the largest city Aleppo after the prime minister fled the country, denouncing the "terrorist regime" of Bashar al-Assad.
The defection of Riyad Hijab - who like most of the opposition hails from the Sunni Muslim majority - was a further sign of the isolation of Assad's government around an inner core of powerful members of his minority Alawite sect.
Opposition figures, buoyant despite setbacks in recent weeks of fighting around Damascus and Aleppo, spoke of an extensive and long-planned operation to spirit Hijab and his large extended family across the border to Jordan.