Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Immigration and social capital

One thing puzzles me about the immigration debate. While I'm broadly very liberal on this, I do accept that there is an argument that rapid changes in the social composition of an area can diminish social capital.

So - if my street rapidly fills up with people who I don't know and with whom I can't easily establish a social affinity, then I will find it hard to borrow a cup of sugar or find cheap trustworthy babysitter quickly. And lots more, of course.

Now, I don't envy anyone who is having to write a PhD thesis explaining how that diminution in social capital compares to the obvious economic benefits that immigration brings.

But - either way - surely immigration has a similar impact upon social capital as car-use does? One of the classic studies explaining Social Capital (so 'classic' that I don't recall what it was called or who wrote it now) showed the mathematics of a busy street.

In the absence of cars, we strike up relationships with the people who live across the road. But we also then strike up relationships with the people on our side of the road who didn't know us - but who do know the people we've got to know across the road.

With me so far? (This is very much Kevin's territory - not mine, by the way).

The effect of someone moving into my street and not knowing my language or having much in common with me essentially reduces the number of mavens or connectors (using Malcolm Gladwell's terms) across the road that I have access to.

So, why aren't those who oppose immigration into this country also calling for a reduction of car-use and the increased prioritisation of the pedestrians needs? Stopping immigration is surely the most expensive way of increasing the social capital available to us?

Why even consider it when Barnet Council don't have the decency to consider traffic-calming measures that would make my road a bit less attractive to little fuckwit boy-racers looking for a cut-through?

What's the problem with PR for Labour?

I meant to comment on this - a jointly-authored article by John Cruddas and Jon Trickett - yesterday, but didn't get round to it.
"We have become too distant from crucial bases of support, including manual workers, public sector employees, trade unionists and black and ethnic minority voters. But we have also failed to energise the progressive middle class. We need to focus more on policy areas that matter to these groups - such as our threadbare public transport, the casualisation of workplaces, deepening concerns about the anxious state of modern childhood, rising personal debt and an all-pervasive feeling that our lives are running out of control."
Now, there's a paragraph that was written by committee if ever there was one. I'd agree with most of it, as it happens - (with, perhaps, a qualification on the debt issue - I think that rising personal debt has some progressive upsides), but it highlights the problem that the left has.

They're arguing that Labour ought to take these concerns seriously. But it is very unlikely that these are the issues that Labour's election strategists will really be worried about.

Whenever I argue with fellow lefties about proportional representation, one of the main objections is that it will make it impossible for Labour to enjoy untrammelled power. Well, we have it at the moment, but daren't exercise it. And PR could shift the key demographics and make Labour want to appeal to the groups that Compass thinks that it ought to appeal to.

I don't understand the arguments against PR personally. Any ideas?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Standing up for auntie

Fiona Bruce. This is what Gordon is fighting for.

Paul Anderson thinks that Gordon Brown has shown some bottle in refusing to offer a referendum on the EU treaty.

I don’t know whether this is the case or not, but Paul’s understanding of it as a simple conflict with Rupert Murdoch is an interesting one.

But I’ve never seen much written anywhere about why Murdoch is so anti-EU. Is this some personal political hobby-horse that he’d developed over the years? A hang-up that he pursues in his spare time, and one that he’s prepared to place his newspapers in conflict with the government over?

Or does he have a business reason for doing so? Is the problem Murdoch? Or his businesses?

I think that the latter is a more persuasive explanation. The EU – and more specifically, their TV Without Frontiers (TVWF) directives - have made life very difficult for Sky TV to compete with their Public Service Broadcasting rivals. These regulations are designed to ensure that broadcasters actually make programmes for the audiences they serve rather than importing them from very robust marketplaces (in this case, the US).

I did a post a while ago outlining what TVWF was about, and it’s here.

But if Gordon Brown was brave in standing up to them over the EU constitution, everyone should be thankful to him for doing so. Because if he didn’t, you could wave goodbye to…
  • TV made specifically for UK audiences
  • Thriving cultural industries throughout the UK, benefiting from an healthy investment climate
  • Thousands of jobs in creative sectors
  • The values of public service broadcasting
  • TV programmes that aren’t constantly interrupted by adverts
  • Radio 3. Radio 4. Radio Six. Radio Seven. Programmes aimed at ethnic minorities and other interest groups.
  • Progressive payment for entertainment (goodbye licence fee, hello TV stations for kids that are all adverts)
  • Impartial broadcast news (goodbye Fiona Bruce, hello Fox News)
Anyone who has worked around media policy-making (I did for four years) will know that these issues are the permanent elephant in the room. The level of access that Sky lobbyists enjoy, and the amount of muscle that they flex can't be understated.

I remember some analogy - a while ago - about how the fine art of taxation is like having the ability to pluck goose-feathers without much hissing. I'd say that the fine art of government is about giving Sky lobbyists as little as possible without having them turn on you.

And whenever you hear orchestrated calls for a referendum, you can be sure that there is a demagogue somewhere at the heart of it. Tony Blair always capitulated to it. I hope Brown is made of sterner stuff.

So I won't be joining Nick Cohen (in the comments here) in saying 'Bring Back Blair!'

On form

The last five substantial posts at Freemania are all worth a look.

Interesting elevators

There are at least 70 interesting elevators in the world.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Constitutional convention?

Jon wants a Constitutional Convention. I'm not with him on all of his demands (but agree with most of them). It's certainly in the air, isn't it? Brown's recent noises about entrenching some liberties beyond the immediate reach of Parliament, his need to head off demands for a 'constitutional' EU referendum, the fuss around fixed-term parliaments, and Brown's need for a 'vision thing' in order to get the show back on the road.

This is an interesting idea - for me, particularly, in the context of the view that we don't have a constitution at the moment (and don't need one IMHO).

Would a Constitutional Convention be a good or bad thing at the moment? Well, it could turn the tables on the Tories in the short term. If they want to form a double act with the SNP, it could go a number of ways for them. On the one hand, it could fatally undermine their tradition as the Unionist party - and ultimately the direction could be dropped following a damaging split (yay!).

On the other, there is a certain inevitability that they may ultimately become the English Nationalist Party in due course. Focussed upon a southern suburban and rural power-base, resentfully anti-EU and atavistically right-wing. I'd guess that - if they were to yield to these temptations - they would find that people aren't as keen as they say they are. The Tories are great suckers for placing themselves at the head of imaginary armies (as their obsession with Europe illustrates).

I still think that a nine-and-a-half point plan for decentralisation would give Brown all of the 'vision thing' that he will ever need. It's achievable, it would be progressive, and it would ... er ... reduce the power of the PM and be resisted by the civil service.

Oh well....

If dog-whistle messages don't work...

Wheel out the smears.

Who are the carriers for this virus? The negativist bloggertarians. The kremlinologists. Next time someone tells you that Rory Bremner isn't an objective ally of the nastiest end of the Conservative Party, just smack the fuckers in the mouth for me will you?

Stand up for kremlinology and groupthink

I spoke at a conference yesterday - the 'Battle of Ideas' - about weblogs and democracy. On the panel were a couple of journalists - both of whom come from a position that is very different from mine on most issues, I would add.

I may post something on the wider debate in due course, but one thing springs to mind immediately. I was very surprised at the understanding that established journalists have of how the blogosphere works and what it's values are.

Rather than report in this in detail, you can get the same effect by looking at the NUJ New Media blog. Here, it is sticking up for journalists on the blogosphere and getting a wide-ranging response.

They've decided to make the 5th November a 'stand up for journalism on the blogosphere' day. I can't find the justification for the choice of date, but could it be intended to have a dig at Guido by any chance?

The argument being that if we stop paying journalists, the only commentary we will get will be Guidoesque?

Well, the NUJ is hoping to get a debate going and is looking for blog-posts that have commenting on this debate. A lot of the blogs I enjoy reading are very sceptical of the claim that the bad bloggers are poisoning the pristine well the journalists have dug for us.

So if you have any posts on this in your archives, now would be a good time to dredge them up. Here three of mine (chosen fairly randomly) to be going on with. And here's another, if that's not enough for you.

Have you got a blog? Have you been critical of journalistic standards on it? Then let them know. (Heh! Comments are moderated there - surprised?).

Update: Just after posting this, I read this on the Telegraph site - worth a look.

Code of conduct again

The other day, Ian responded to something here and referred to another project being done by Ashok among others, aimed at promoting "a less hierarchical model of online discussion than that offered by the blogpost plus comments model that dominates in blogging" (using standard discussion board technology in this case).

A while ago, I was a lot more forgiving than most of calls for a 'bloggers code of conduct' partly because I shared these concerns about the usefulness of weblogs as a discursive model.

But a well-managed blog could, I believe, be a very powerful tool for promoting deliberation - better, I would argue, than a discussion forum or any custom built tool. There are reasons why most aren't, and I'd like to outline why that is here - and how those reasons can be counteracted. What Ashok, Gracchi and Sharon appear to be worried about is the linear nature of comment threads. And I'd largely agree that this is a problem.

Linear discussions have their uses, of course. I know that fisking is good fun sometimes - and when you're dealing with someone that you profoundly disagree with - someone that you believe is piling error upon misapprehension upon deliberate attempts to mislead, and getting away with it because they have found a platform that indulges such behaviour (Robert Fisk, The Independent, etc) then fisking is a very useful tool for exposing them.

But for a conversation among people who don't believe that each other are beyond reason, linear conversations are oppressive and - potentially - over-adversarial.

Oppressive in a number of ways. Most bloggers and commenters are doing so on a voluntary basis. If I make a point (say a 200 word post - a bit knockabout, designed to provoke a bit, draw out a useful argument) and someone replies with a strongly contradictory 500-word comment, I feel obliged to provide the courtesy of a response. I dash off a 200-word reply and get 1,000 back.

At some point, I either agree with them (yay!) or I'm left in a position that looks like capitulation. The discussion becomes an test of endurance and not a debate. It is also an asymmetrical discussion as my interlocutor can steer the argument around what they know to be my wider positions. I start to feel like a hostile witness being cross-examined by a slippery barrister.

In my case, this blog has been going for a while. After a short read you can find out where I'm coming from on lots of issues. A hostile commenter can use this information to cross examine me. As they have no easy-to-find body of work, I can't do the same with them.

Such a commenter is benefiting from the unearned rewards of negativism. I would add that I've had a number of commenters like this. In almost every case, they've argued with me in good faith, given reasonable arguments, have clearly been fair-minded and open to persuasion. They have not - as far as I know - intended to oppress with their arguments or give themselves an un-earned advantage. But the net result of their responses has rarely generated as much light as heat and often, such exchanges have discouraged me from posting further.

What I'd really like, most of the time, is a more conversational exchange. On that has the civility and detachment of a conversation in a pub, but benefits from the more analytical and asynchronous nature of online discussion. So, ideally, I write a post, a few other bloggers see it, link to it with a post of their own that is more tangential.

A post on another blog that does the same thing as the demon commenter (a point-by-point 500 word rebuttal) is no better than a long reply in the comments, of course. But a tangential post will get some comments of its own. And most of the time, when other bloggers pick up something I've written, that's what I get. Trackbacks are getting better among various weblogs, so this is more practical now than it ever was. Mine tends to always pick up referrals from other Google / Blogger sites, though this is not the case with Wordpress or other platforms.

So, I would suggest that a deliberative blogger could discourage (without going as far as actually banning) most commenters. I would suggest these as useful guidelines:
  • If you have a regular commenter on your non-serious postings, or one that pops up regularly with conversational comments, that's fine.
  • If you have someone who is writing long critiques of every serious post you do in your comments box, you may have a budding oppressor on your hands. In this case, I'd suggest emailing the commenter, thanking them for their responses and suggesting that they set up a blog of their own. If they do, a few long responses to short posts that they have written will help them understand why they weren't as welcome at your site as they thought they were.
  • If they don't respond to your suggestion and continue to post long replies, start to delete them (after fair warning, of course)
  • Tell visitors that you want them to 'play the ball and not the man'. Delete comments that just make personal remarks about you or other commenters. Delete comments where the commenter hasn't read other comments or take much trouble to understand your arguments
  • Delete comments from commenters who offer a commentary on how well they are doing in the argument (and how badly they are doing - this is almost always the opposite of the truth)
For a good example of this last phenomenon, see this thread that I was daft enough to get involved in. Particularly the fuckwit who calls himself Madasafish.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Hey Norm!

At my local tech-shop, they know me very well - a bit like in Cheers when Norm walks in, everyone goes 'Hey Norm!' - they're like that with me at the local geek-emporium.

I may even buy something off them one day. The Bloke Behind The Counter's hopes were raised on Saturday. I went in to tell him that I'm thinking of getting a half-decent PC with lots of multimedia options for home entertainment.

We spent a while negotiating the right spec at the right price. At the end, I said, 'How much for a copy of Vista as well?'

He went pale. "I'm not supporting Vista. It's a pain in the arse. Everyone that I've helped with an upgrade has spent every waking moment since trying to get XP back."

"OK" I said. "Back to square one. I'm going to have to spend more, aren't I? Let's spec out a Mac."

"I don't sell Macs" he replied, knowing that I'd wasted yet another half-hour of his time.

Here's the Register welcoming the new Mac OSX variant. The only drawback I can think of is that BBC's iPlayer doesn't work on it .... yet.

I want one. Any grateful regular readers fancy making a donation?

Who burnt California?

Al Qaeda - according to Fox News.

But only Fox News so far.

Facebook and Social Capital

SocialSim concludes:
"...the connections made between people on FB do enhance bridging social capital and maintaining social capital. Which is a good thing. Yes, the internet can actually be good for social interaction. Hurrah!"
There's evidence on that link as well.

Via Katherine, on ... er .... Facebook.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Mind your backs

1. An injunction on an injunction on an injunction: Ministers Rule Out Smacking Ban.

2. This post about homophobia, tabloids and factories at Left Lion is good for a laugh:

The hazards of getting a tattoo when you live in Nottingham
.
"Another youth was due in court one dinnertime after a fight outside a chippy, and when he came in for the morning shift, the first thing he saw was an enormous blackboard with the odds of his sentence chalked up - from 'Community Service' at 3-1 to 'The Electric Chair' at 1000-1. "

Libel and comments boxes

Further to the Alisher Usmanov affair, Bill Thompson has a piece on the BBC site about libel and comments boxes.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Our imaginary 'Constitution'

A few weeks ago, Tim Garton Ash wrote what I thought to be a very good straightforward piece about the EU 'Constitution' and why we shouldn't be worrying about a referendum. I think there are two - minor - things wrong with the piece.

1. He understates his point 3. The reason not to have a referendum is not just that we are not a plebiscitary democracy. It is because referendums are just not an acceptable way of involving people in making important decisions on complex matters. I don't want to make that case again now - there's plenty examples in the archive here - but the issue of referendums highlights the second issue missing from TGA's piece (and I've not heard anyone making yet either). And it's ....

2. The acceptance of the premise that the document (whatever it is called by its supporters and opponents) will impact upon the British Constitution.

The argument for a referendum is that it is needed because this is a constitutional issue that involves a redrafting of our existing constitutional settlement. Now, I'll admit, there was a man called Bagehot who wrote a book called The English Constitution. But it was really just a sophisticated joke designed to market a user-guide to the English state at the time. Really. Check if you don't believe me.

The fact is, we don't have a constitution in this country that would be amended in any way by the treaty that we are being asked to sign up to. We do have a constitutional settlement, I suppose. Or something that we call a constitutional settlement for compare and contrast purposes.

But the point of our ancient Crown in Parliament fudge is that we can undergo much bigger changes in the way that the state is managed than this treaty without it actually breaching any of Her Majesty's red lines.

When Charter 88 was launched nearly two decades ago, one of the core demands was for a written constitution. I thought it was a bit of misguided liberal handwringing at the time, and I still do - for four reasons.
  1. Show me a written constitution, and I'll show you even more fat overpaid lawyers than we have at the moment, with no noticeable benefit to the public interest.
  2. All of us (even supporters of the idea) *will* be driven insane by having to watch the drafting of a constitution. I will personally be convicted of mass murder after a few days watching it. Pressure groups. Political correspondents. Picture the scene? You know I'm right about this?
  3. Even if it's a good idea in theory, it's like the 'Citizens Basic Income' - an attractive proposition whose introduction doesn't come with a usable roadmap. It would not be possible to introduce a constitution in this country without us first having some seismic structural change (war / inflation / revolution)
  4. Liberties. We have generalised liberties in this country. They have been established by custom and practice, updated and consolidated by the arguments of great men and women. They are defended in a holistic way by our elected representatives, and representative government (the comments are open here!) is a much more effective guarantor of any liberty than written assertions of them in a poxy constitution. The constitutional (that word again) function of liberties is to protect us from the caprice of the electorate and their politicians. We've not done that badly maintaining our liberties in this country.
So, in conclusion, I don't want a written constitution. The fact that we don't have one means that a treaty can't amend it. So we don't need a referendum on it either.

And finally, how come the Conservative Party - historically the defender of the British constitutional fudge, and an implacable opponent of un-British ideas about constitutions - are now pretending that we have one?

If there were a case for a referendum, The Conservative Party are the most poorly positioned outfit to make it.

Postscript: I should really write a follow-up post on how the notion that constitutional change requires referendums is one of Tony Blair's most pernicious legacies.

There. I've written it now.

Oldies but goldies

I usually read most posts at let's be sensible, but for some reason, I missed this at the time.

I've just found it Googling the word bloggertarian. I was going to write a post about how ahistorical a lot of writing about the authoritiarian state we live in (apparently) is.

But I don't need to now.

Not comfortable reading

Mick Hartley quotes André Glucksmann on The Somalization of the Planet. And a few days ago, Christopher Hitchens on Iran.

Fraudulence

Here's the Bad Psychics site.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A second attempt to improve all of your lives

The other day, I posted urging you to download Gilles Peterson's podcast. If you didn't, and aren't planning to, let me have another crack at you.

Featured in that show is a pianist called Elan Mehler. Towards the end of the recording, he plays a cover of Gillian Welch's 'Elvis Presley Blues' - an intriguing choice as it's an old-timey tinged piece of folk-country.

In the podcast, the studio version of Welch's song is followed by Mehler's interpretation. I've listened to it half-a-dozen times and I can't get either tune out of my head (and I don't mean that in a 'Careless Whisper'-type bad way either).

If you don't want to listen to the podcast, the least you could do is play the (admittedly poorly recorded) live performance of the song by Welch (YouTube clip, below) followed by Mehler's version on his MySpace page here.

I promise you you'll be glad you did. But not as glad as you would be having listened to the podcast.



Do it. Don't make me beg.

Blogging for Auntie

David Wilcox has a post that combines two of the regular chestnuts found at this blog:
  1. How weblogs - as a conversational tool can be harnessed to improve public policy
  2. The defence of Public Service Broadcasting - the finest institution created by the UK (and I'd go as far as to include Association Football in that reckoning)
Check it out.

Given our role in creating The Stupid Game, we should keep quiet about games invented in this country anyway.

Liberty - what it's for

This is an odd one: John Angliss quotes me here and finds my argument confusing. Why – I’m not sure.

I said:
"A state is not a democracy if a vote results in the election of an authoritarian regime. If it is possible to win an election and then abolish - say - freedom of conscience / subsequent elections / press freedom etc, then the election has not taken place in a democratic state."
He asks:
"So at which point does the state become authoritarian, if not at the point of the abolition of freedom of conscience etc. etc.? Is it not perfectly possible for a party to come into Westminster and decide to abolish elections, if they have a large enough majority and popular support?"
As John isn’t the only one that finds this puzzling (see the comments under my post), perhaps there is a widespread view among the chattering classes that any country that has elections is a liberal democracy?

There’s a clue in the word ‘liberal’ here. One of the founding principles of liberal democracy is that there are rules that transcend the outcome of the election. That the winners can’t oppress minorities, that they can’t make wholesale constitutional changes in a short period of time without a convincing show of seeking the consent from a significant majority of the population. Different countries do this in different ways of course – we are getting into the pros and cons of a written constitution here – but it is often ‘two thirds majority’.

These constitutional issues are – in turn – subject to international scrutiny. In the case of the UK, membership of the EU would be at stake if particular liberties were repealed. Other countries are subject to diplomatic pressure, and so on.

But – and this is the important bit – if a party can win an election and then abolish key liberties, then it isn’t a liberal democracy and won't be accepted as such.

I thought this was widely understood, but apparently this isn’t the case.

Monday, October 22, 2007

For illustrative purposes

I'm just writing something (not here) about how politicians regard weblogs - and I remembered this. 1 min 20 secs in (approx) -
"... this is the shitroom - you've opened the shitroom door" .... "... this is the problem with the public - they're fucking horrible..."


Sunday, October 21, 2007

FCQ again

I know I've gone on about them before, but why don't you have a look at The Five Corners Quintet?

It makes sense.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Understating perniciousness

A few times over the past year or so, I've noticed Dave Osler saying something along the lines of (and I paraphrase)...
"The problem with those who advocate democracy in the middle east have to face is that the people will vote for authoritarian Islamicist governments given the chance."
... and each time I see it, I promise myself that I'll write a long post pointing out the holes in that argument: That it fundamentally misrepresents what democracy means - and reduces it to the simple process of voting. Democracy is about a robust civil society, entrenched liberties and other important factors as much as it is about voting. A state is not a democracy if a vote results in the election of an authoritarian regime. If it is possible to win an election and then abolish - say - freedom of conscience / subsequent elections / press freedom etc, then the election has not taken place in a democratic state.

But I'm in a hurry today, so I'll confine myself to a few corrections to his latest post about Tony Blair's use of the F word in relation to Islamicist regimes. Dave says:
"If one were to rank the world’s undemocratic governments on a scale of one to ten, Iran would surely exceed the median. There’s no question that Ahmadinejad & Co merit a rating of something like six or seven."
Bollocks. A gander at The Economist Intelligence Unit's Index of Democracy (pdf) has Iran very firmly in the lower quartile, describing it as an 'authoritarian regime'. He goes on:
"....there is some political space in Iran. Constricted and limited political space, but political space nevertheless."
Well, OK. I suppose this is true - but in 169 countries ranked by Reporters Without Borders in their 'press freedom index' (linked to here yesterday), Iran runs in as a creditable 166th. That means that there is a greater political space there than in, say, North Korea - but less that Burma. Not quite Dave's description, I think we can agree?

As it happens though, I'm broadly in agreement with Dave's view about over-use of the F word. But I think that his post contains concrete proof that he is underestimating the perniciousness of the Iranian government - and the threat that it poses. And this isn't a error that is confined to Dave's blog either. Very far from it. Sometimes - under those circumstances, you can understand it when people indulge in a bit of reductio ad Hitlerium to make a point in a public space that is so distorted in other directions.

Fore-baa-ding

I had to drive along a country lane in the home counties this morning. It was very disturbing. Everywhere, sheep are huddled with their hindquarters firmly pushed against any walls that they can find.

It won't help them if they are forced to join in any celebrations this evening.

I fear that the only thing that can save them from a fate worse than death is a South African victory. Who will speak for these casualties of The Stupid Game?

Thinking allowed

The well-tempered web: How the Internet (among other things) is recasting classical music:
"Younger musicians, in particular, are using every available means to reach a potential public that is far larger than the one that already exists."
It's a good article worth reading to the end.

I found it, by the way, in a link from Ashok's excellent blog, which in turn I looked at in a link from comments in this very good post over at Westminster Wisdom on inheritance tax. In response to the piece on Westminster Wisdom, here Ashok is writing one of those 'thinking aloud' posts - the ones where the writer doesn't appear sure what their conclusions are on the matter in hand.

This kind of writing is annoying in a book or a magazine - why pay to read someone who doesn't offer you a proper bottom line? But I learned something reading it and I don't mind this sort of writing on blogs. Perhaps it is one of the most important things that bloggers have contributed to public debate?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Press freedom index

More in the informal 'Best in the world' series here. This time - via Mick Hartley - the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

Accumulated knowledge

There is now a website dedicated to the use of cowbells in popular music. Here is a full list of tunes with this instrument in. Before you click, see if you can name the eight Beatles songs that feature a cowbell.

The Internet's work is now complete.

(Ta Dave the geek)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Stupid Game redux

Further to the post on The Stupid Game, the dormant Pootergeek has briefly risen from his slumber to point me at this slice of common sense.
"...rugby is a crap sport and no one in Australia really cares about it (people in NSW and Queensland might be interested, but they don't care - massive difference. As for Victoria, SA, WA and Tassie ... well they are hardly going to lose any sleep). It's an aspirational private schoolboy wankfest.

... no Wallaby fan goes home to kick the dog after a loss. No mood is altered. No one gets obliterated to drown their sorrows. There are no fights. Everyone drives home safely in their 4WDs and listens to the Best of Burt Bacharach or Norah Jones ...

Part of the reason for the fans' lack of passion is they aren't really sure what happened, and why? If rugby is so good how come they always change the farking rules? If you're looking for a red flag that a game is fatally flawed, note how often its administrators change the fundamental ways the game is played."

Read the whole thing though - he's right about this.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Debate Mapper

I'm sure this has been around for a while, but I've only just seen it. It's not been used much by the look of it, and it's design usability could be better.

But have a look - click on the pic on the right of the site (currently Tony Blair) to see what they have in mind.

I've often thought that a 'debatewiki' would be a good idea, though it would be a bit labour intensive...

(ta for the tip Alan)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Word to the wise

Life improves when you subscribe to Gilles Peterson's podcast.



As you were.

Childhood anxiety

I though that the recent 'Community Soundings' (pdf) report drew conclusions that rang true. Kevin has covered it succinctly and well, I think.

And in the same post, Kevin finds a related matter that provides him with an 'epitaph for new Labour':
"Standards may have been too readily equated with quality."

Intelligence

Some developments worth noting:

1. Renewal is back, this time edited by Martin McIvor. This is good news for democratic socialists everywhere because we haven't had a decent journal for a while, and there is no better man to run it than Martin.

2. Will Davies is involved, and this post is worth looking at for these gems - if for no other:
"New Labour has been duped by the Right into thinking that markets are simply technocratic devices to increase efficiency, but the Right itself never believed this or promoted them for this reason alone. Instead, there are distinctly moral issues at stake in how and why we embrace markets (this isn't about 'are markets moral or not?' but about different markets as different varieties of moral edifice)."
And ...
"For the Left to portray neoliberalism as the celebration of greed and selfishness is rather like the Right portraying socialism as resting on a hatred of freedom. If you insist on viewing your opponents in such terms, you will never understand them."
3. On the subject of 'know your enemy', right-wing libertarianism and hegemony (how they - the RWLs - can get it) - here - linked from Squander Two. It is interesting the class that the RWLs identify as the Enemy Class. It is a mixture of the chattering class and officialdom.

Loathsome as both may be, it is a very impoverished vision of freedom and what we need to be freed from. But it's worth reading, nevertheless.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Asleep at the wheel?

Maybe it because I've not been paying attention that I didn't realise that three times as many people now qualify to pay inheritance tax than did in 1997. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the tax itself, it is surprising - as Mick points out on his new blog - that Labour didn't pick this up as an issue earlier.

Shadowing a regressive policy is one thing. But failing to realise that the Tories had an open goal is another altogether.

More on weblogs and deliberation

A while ago, I posted on how weblogs can help in any moves towards a deliberative democracy by promoting a more conversational approach to issues. I've just seen this on David Wilcox's site - putting a good deal of flesh on the idea.



Over on OpenDemocracy, Nosemonkey (AKA Clive) has a large collection of posts on deliberative democracy and the European Union. No - I've not read them yet in the detail that they deserve, but I'll be picking through them in due course.

"... much more than a musical duo."

Read all about the lovely Patricia McKeever over at The Poor Mouth.

On other matters, here's Hitch at the health farm, doing an Aaro. (ta Neil).


Entering into the spirit of things then Christopher?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Tedious week ahead.

I'm sure that England getting into the final of The Stupid Game has upsides. In the deathless terms used by public administrators, I expect that it will create jobs and provide business opportunities.

But the downsides far outweigh them. We will have to put up with a week of tedious chinless inbreeds lighting each others farts and singing their vile songs. Any regular readers of this blog will know that I'm not intolerant of the sexuality of others, but I find the charmless closet bestiality of Rugby Union tasteless at the best of times.

I feel sorry for the countries that actually have a tradition of playing and liking the game. I understand that some of the upside-down countries are quite good at it and it is played in schools there. I've even met one antipodean a few weeks ago who actually knew the rules and wasn't just making them up to look clever.

But in this country, thirty years ago, it would have been unthinkable for any decent school to play it. The police and the undertaker would have had to be called every time then, and I doubt if anything has changed since. That is how things should be.

It's fine for Irish protestants and the sheepshaggers of other nations, I suppose. But it's un-English, and it's a shame that we will have to put up with a week-long charade in which people who should know better pretend otherwise.

On more serious matters, The Trees are now only one point behind the leaders with a game in hand. But this weekend's triumph was over Cheltenham Town.

Did you know that there is a football team in Cheltenham at all? Until recently, I didn't.

I hope this post doesn't offend anyone who doesn't deserve it. People who support Cheltenham Town, for example.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Advice very likely to be taken.

Advice for The Special One.

Go 120 miles up the M1 Jose. There's a pot of gold there.

(via S&M)

Normblog profile

My Normblog profile is up! I've put 'Miller's Crossing' down as my favourite film (after considering almost all of this lot first). Here's a clip featuring Albert Finney and the voice of Frank Patterson.



I dashed off the answers without as much editing, so I've since thought better of a few of the answers as you may expect. One of Norm's standbys is 'what's your best blogging experience?'

In answering, I forgot the time that a band that I liked gave a nod of approval to a review that I gave them or the time that Sonny Rollins may have graced these pages with his fleeting presence.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Lending people / ignoring demands

I saw this piece on libraries lending people as well as books on one of my favourite blogs, David Wilcox's 'Designing for Civil Society.'

As techies say, the idea is conceptually finished (i.e. there are no actual working examples). Still, using conversational approaches to achieving many policy goals is - I believe - a hugely under-rated approach.

Could it be that the kind of people who thrive in officialdom and public policy formulation didn't get where they are today because of their conversational talents? In my experience, this is often emphatically not the case.

Elsewhere, changing the subject, I found this article well worth reading. It's about the thoughts of Matt Mullenweg, the lead developer on Wordpress, the open source content management platform.

As demands have diversified, Mullenberg has had to face ...
"...an avalanche of feature requests. Mullenweg advocates a minimalist approach to software quality, and believes that many software products have too many options included to satisfy divergent opinions.

"Lots of software, especially open source software, goes the option route because it makes everyone happy. But it creates terrible software. I think WordPress as it is now has too many options. So in making decisions, I piss people off. Sometimes they take it personally, and that's a difficult thing. But if we continue to be a successful product and to grow, I feel we're making the right decisions.

"There are two main methodologies of open source development. There's the Apache model, which is design by committee - great for things like web servers. Then you have the benevolent dictator model. That's what Ubuntu is doing, with Mark Shuttleworth. Ubuntu is doing amazing things, and I think it's going to change the face of the desktop. That's also WordPress, and ultimately that's what's going to work for consumer applications.""
So. Instead of giving people exactly what they want, he advocates making a standard one-size-fits-all solution that meets most requirements - and doing it in a disciplined and competent manner that doesn't lose sight of the most important objectives: Make it easy to use, make it work well, make it work safely.

This is food for thought for economists, managers, politicians and bureaucrats everywhere, I think?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

More Brooker

Yet more of the man. This time, shafting reporters everywhere.

Go over to Hak's to watch.

George Monbiot is a genius

Behold:
I hope that the recession now being forecast by some economists materialises. I recognise that recession causes hardship. Like everyone I am aware that it would cause some people to lose their jobs and homes. I do not dismiss these impacts or the harm they inflict, though I would argue that they are the avoidable results of an economy designed to maximise growth rather than welfare. What I would like you to recognise is something much less discussed: that, beyond a certain point, hardship is also caused by economic growth.
Update; I thought comment was superfluous here, but Norm lays out a couple of less-obvious criticisms here.

Update #2: Chris adds a good deal more here.

Statesmanship

I've just seen this:



He's a class act. Via SCAS who has more detail.

Case dismissed.

The cops have been called to prise apart production team here at NTaH. The point of contention is '... is Charlie Brooker a negativist fuckwit or what?'

The case for the prosecution run as follows:
  • He moans about everything all the time while probably being paid a fortune
  • ... just like all of those posh arseholes on the 'Grumpy old men' TV franchise
  • ... and they're all undoubtedly negativist fuckwits, aren't they?
  • So surely Brooker is one too?
Now here's the case for the defence

Hak has the argument for the defence - the main one. This is the absolute 180 degree opposite of negativism. And I'm going to just teef this one off Will's site without any shame:




The verdict:
Mr Brooker. You are innocent of all charges. You have nothing to defend but your genius. The court apologises to you for wasting your time and bids you good day.

When foxes are shot

The decline of representative democracy in the UK couldn’t be more clearly illustrated than it was in the Chancellor’s statement to Parliament yesterday.

Coming hot on the heels of a farcical week in which the Tories were able to forestall an early election with a well-timed flourish of popular tax pledges, Alistair Darling ‘shot Cameron’s foxes’ (so sez Nick Robinson, natch...).

So Labour’s response to Tory pledges to reduce Inheritance Tax is a strategic move by Labour to neutralise the the issue. Similarly, Labour is sticking its tongue out meekly at non-domicile tax-dodgers to match Osborne’s gesture against them last week.

This is where politics meets battleships. A careful game in which specific demographics in key seats are triangulated - not even on values - but on specific policies. It is a game of mandates, not ideology, principle, character or values.

Now I know that this is generally nothing new. In 1997, the key-seat strategy that Labour applied dictated that a comfortable working majority was our sole focus.

On election night, we fielded calls from non-key seats saying that their canvass returns were better than expected. Activists pleaded for resources to be shifted away from the must-win seats that were clearly already in the bag. In many cases, those calls were ignored (though in East London, where I was working, Labour took all of the seats in question anyway).

In 1997, there was no pretence that the election was about ensuring that people got Labour representation wherever possible. We were campaigning only for Tony Blair only, and we were only interested in ensuring that enough people + 1 chose that particular brand over the alternatives. Tacky? Maybe. But there is much worse to look forward to in future.

Next time, it seems that we will bid for every vote in the carefully selected seats that we care about - this time with very specific numbers. Vote for us and you will be £1 better off than with the other lot. We will have to fight on carefully calibrated pledges designed to buy the most capricious voters in smallish geographical areas. The election will be decided by thousands - not hundreds of thousands - of votes. Never before has the nightmare that Edmund Burke envisaged in his Speech to the Electors of Bristol** come closer to being a reality.

These promises will be honed using the increasingly sophisticated forms of market-feedback. The large bureaucracies of political parties can scientifically target the 'instrumental voter'. Experience shows that the issues in question will be the pet-projects of newspaper editors, and proprietors will quietly gloat about their kingmaker role for years to come. And if those proprietors have any regulatory headaches in other businesses that they manage, you can expect them to just go away.

Never before has de Tocqueville’s aside that “an election is nothing more than an advance auction of stolen goods” been so subtly true.

So, next time that you notice that politics doesn’t appear to be about principles - a clash of ideals, the character and competence of representatives, it is worth reflecting that there is no alternative under our current settlement. Politicians are not bad unprincipled people. They are behaving rationally in response to the stupid situation that we have collectively put them in.

The logical trajectory that the past seven days has set us on will lead to the situation that routinely arises in US Presidential elections - where the vote splits almost - but not quite - 50-50 each time.

This is the legacy of highly centralised politics. It is the legacy of an over-powerful press and well-resourced pressure groups that can push single issues up the agenda. It is the symptom of a system where individual elected representatives are almost powerless and where political parties enjoy significant resources and organisational capacity. It is not a problem that will be cured by electoral reform as this will simply vary the rules by which the defining handful of votes are bartered for.

Outside of the outright abolition of democracy, there is only one solution to this problem: Anyone who wants to win an election in future (as opposed to campaigning on manifestos that are almost identical to those of their rivals, effectively sharing power) can surely have no alternative but to focus all of their energy upon demands for a radical decentralisation. Strong regional assemblies, strong local government, powerful representatives with resources to match their rivals (particularly their own parties in some cases). And weak bicameral central government.

It is a programme that demands a change in public attitudes to public participation in politics and government.

When so many people declare themselves betrayed and disillusioned by politicians, why is it that these demands are never heard? Is it because we have a political culture where self-righteous sulking is now the highest form of expression?

** I know, I know. Its about the twentieth time I've linked to it from this blog. So what?

Sunday, October 07, 2007

1980 - Denman Street, Radford Nottingham


1980 - Denman Street, Radford Nottingham
Originally uploaded by Riff Design

I've just seen this (via Col) - the rest in this set are worth a look as well. About the time this was shot, I was getting into photography myself - and hanging around Radford a fair bit.

It occured to me at the time that taking lots of photos of urban landscapes - off the beaten path - would be a very good investment. In Radford, there was a lot of demolition going on in the late '70s and early '80s, and a number of places were changing forever.

Of course, good investments are only any use to people who have cash or credit. I never got round to walking around and taking photos of everything I saw - mainly because of the prohibitive cost of film to me at the time, and a lack of access to developing facilities.

So, for all of the debates about the quality of digital -v- wind-up cameras, the one thing that digital cameras do allow us to do, is to take hundreds of shots each day at virtually no cost. And Flickr's fantastic geotagging helps share it as well.

Now, the only thing I can't afford is the time - something I had more of in 1980 than I do today.

As an aside, large swathes of Radford were knocked down at the time. It was not a crime-free paradise either. But after all of that 'improvement', Radford now seems a lot less safe than it did before the bulldozers moved in to make things better. It's reputation is certainly a lot worse than it was at the time.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Brown: The Microsoft of british politics

This piece by Potlach is very good.

Via Mick, who has summarised it here.

Choose which link to follow for yourself.

Brown names the day!

Only kidding.

But there are times when a political obsessive blog is worth a visit, I suppose. Here Guido summarises the various authoritative predictions from Kremlinologists everywhere.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

If you go down to the woods today....

... you're sure of a big surprise.

Over in Canada, Terry Glavin has a story about the hazards of confronting a lady bear.


Political blogging v blogging about politics

Here's Norm on the death of the critic. He concludes that...
"if the activity of criticism is more widely diffused, then the critic isn't dead."
Now, Norm's post is largely a response to an argument that he provides a precis of. And it's an argument that Norm disagrees with, so I think you'll have to follow that link and read the whole thing.

But this issue - the way that 'democratisation' is diminishing the value of criticism - seems very pertinent to the narrower question of whether political blogs are a good or bad thing.

Or, more to the point, whether lots of people blogging about political matters (as opposed to political blogging) is a good or bad thing - because the two things are not the same.

I'd argue that political blogging - bloggers who focus largely upon court politics and have a ready opinion on everything - do not improve the quality of public life. The reverse is often the case. Such blogs are, for the most part, tedious rehearsals of the kind of bunfights that only appeal to political anoraks. It simply exacerbates the problems that the tabloid coverage of politics are creating - the centralisation, the perception of spin, the abandonment of principle in favour of crude focus-grouping, etc. I could go on, but I think that Chris makes this point very well here.

But what about the fact that more people blog about political matters? That is - I would argue - a different thing.

It surely must be a good thing that there is a wider discussion about public policy, and that people with an interest in particular issues can network with each other more effectively?

And while the quality of that criticism / political discussion is often quite mixed, it is worth contrasting the pre-democratisation situation with the one that the blogosphere has created.

The day before weblogs were invented, when there was a near-monopoly of comment sitting with a fairly small number of people who have to ...
  • write on a few different subjects each week whether they have any expertise or not
  • reflect the prejudices of their proprietor that their advertisers don't object to
  • have to make it fit in the allotted space, and have to make it interesting
... then we didn't have much to be satisfied about, did we?

Somewhere, every day, on the subject that you want to read about, there is probably a blogger who has written a better article than any of those that are churned out by the professional commentariat. They will be discussing policy rather than politics - something that is frowned upon by the business logic of newspapers. And not being high-volume blogs, they won't have dozens of poisonous off-topic comments underneath them.

They will be presenting new evidence, avoiding the kind of journalistic groupthink that I remarked upon here. They will not be saying anything very exciting - but then, the most pertinent thing to say often isn't very exciting anyway. And they probably won't be writing because some PR has prodded them into it.

I would suggest that it is only a matter of time before variations on the theme of collaborative filtering starts to highlight and reward this kind of writing more than happens at the moment.

Confirmation

Latest news from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious, it's now official.


(Ta for the tip Ben).