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The Wiki Man

The Wiki Man

A fortnightly column on technology and the web

25 February 2009

12:00 AM

25 February 2009

12:00 AM

David Young’s Spectator article ‘Health’n’safety everywhere, except in banking’ (14 February) was inspired. He might have added that bankers are occasionally made to pay for their excesses. Unlike regulators. For years the Food Standards Agency warned we should eat no more than three eggs a week. It now emerges that this figure had no evidential basis at all: there is no reason a normal person should not eat two eggs every day.

I think we should sue. After all, for 50 million Britons to forgo 11 eggs every week seems a heavy loss of net human happiness. A gain in weight, too, since recent trials in Baton Rouge suggest women who eat two eggs for breakfast consume many fewer calories in the course of each day than those who start with bagels.

We won’t get an apology, of course. In fact you’re on safe ground cautioning against any human practice that’s enjoyable. It is an example of the ‘hair-shirt fallacy’ — the unwritten rule which states that, when in doubt, you should recommend whatever course of action involves the most self-denial. Hair-shirtism is a safe bet: people are instinctively Manichaean and easily persuaded that physical pleasures are bad. Also, while experts are routinely sued for negligence, no one gets punished for excessive caution. The Millennium Bug computer scare is widely believed by many commentators to have been a glitch inflated by scaremongers to apocalyptic status; yet who was sued for failing to downplay the problem?


Adam Smith spotted this bias when he remarked that ‘Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience.’ Reactions to climate change illustrate this well; even if the doomsayers are right, we should be on guard for people who instinctively want to tackle problems in the most self-punishing way possible.

One near-universal assumption among eco-puritans is that foreign leisure travel must be the first thing we limit. Why? Are there many better uses for fuel than allowing people to see more of the world they live in? Many more tons of carbon dioxide are produced each day in the boring and often needless practice of peak-time commuting. Why not challenge this first? Or ask why most public buildings need to be heated like the Reptile House at London Zoo.

For this reason, I side with the wild-eyed techno-optimists — such as the people at Tesla Motors, who believe electric cars need not drive like milk-floats: theirs do 0-60 in under four seconds. Or even David Cameron, whose plan for a smart UK electricity grid deserves more attention. This involves intelligent switches which regulate appliances according to the surplus energy available (at present 40 per cent of generated energy is wasted in the grid). This company website www.alertme.com suggests the technology to implement this idea will be available soon.

Need any more cheer in these grim times? Just visit www.viedemerde.fr — a lyrical living catalogue of the misfortunes, humiliations and embarrassments of thousands of Frenchmen, each in under 40 words. Imagine Twitter, only with added schadenfreude. ‘Ma copine est fan de Barack Obama. Pendant notre câlin, sentant l’extase approcher, elle a décidé de me motiver en criant: ‘Yes, you can ! Yes, you can!’ Eh non, je n’ai pas pu. VDM’. An English language equivalent is at www.fmylife.com .


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