Sunday, May 30, 2010

"The Medium is the Message"

I don't know whether Marshall McLuhan's famous quote was ever intended to reflect upon the situation we have today with the media.

It would be kind of comfortable to think that the news media were detached observers, providing information about the state of the world to people who would not otherwise have access to it. For at least a century, this has failed to work in the context of newspapers. Even a relatively concise history of the early part of the century, such as The Making of Modern Britain: From Queen Victoria to VE Day, highlights the way in which the newspapers barons sought to influence opinions, and eventually to shape the political dialogue.

For a long time, it felt (at least, to those of us with no real axe to grind - okay, so by not being "part of the solution" perhaps we were really "part of the problem") as though whilst the newspapers were partisan, it was at least possible to trust the BBC to be detached and objective. But in the last few months, I have become less confident in this.

It has always been the case that certain programmes ("Today" on Radio 4, "Newsnight" on BBC2, "Question Time") had a public profile that was large enough to match the gravitas of anybody they chose to interview. But at some stage, either the editorial staff or at least the presenters seem to have become aware of this, and no longer happy with merely presenting the news, have seemed to want to direct the news.

Interviews on "Today" rarely seem to be opportunities for a genuine give and take between journalist and interviewee. Instead, the journalist jumps from thread to thread, trying to find a way of getting the interviewees to say something ill-advised or lose their patience, or find a subject that the interviewees aren't able or willing to give a straightforward answer to, feeling little compunction about interrupting them, and more intent on preventing anything being broadcast that the interviewees have prepared to say. The debate on the political side has ended up controlled by spin doctors, who are priming people at government level about what to say. But the net effect is that interviews cease to be an opportunity to hear how politicians justify the issues of the day, and instead becomes a verbal sparring match between two people, with little interest as to what useful information, if any, the listening audience will take away from the interview.

On top of that, particularly over the last few weeks, with the establishment of the new government, it has become obvious that not only the newspapers, but also the BBC, have a bias to "generate news". So news organisations with editorial input, including the BBC, directed much effort to trying to find weak points as the coalition between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives was established. In its presentation, this moved beyond a simple scrutiny of policies, and much closer to a sustained attempt to attack the coalition, and undermine the government. That is no longer news reporting: that is an attempt to generate news.

The same thing happened this week, in my opinion, with both the Question Time issue, constructed by the BBC, and the David Laws issue, largely constructed by the Daily Telegraph. In the case of Question Time, in the week of the Queen's Speech, a platform was given to relative diehards - John Redwood, Alastair Campbell - who frankly have little to do with the attempts to forge a new form of government in the UK. In the case of Laws, the media have not really done anything to improve the financial accountability of elected representatives, but have succeeded in generating coverage of the private life of an MP (something he had specifically been trying to protect) and depriving the government (and thus the country) of an intelligent minister. But no doubt they got lots of hits on their website, and got themselves talked about.

It is too much to expect that any news organisation can be a completely detached observer anywhere. But surely most people still believe that what they read, hear and see should reflect the issues of the day, not be seeking to shape them. It would be great if the mainstream media spent less time convincing themselves that McLuhan gave them a mandate to try and shape society.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Fridge efficiency

Efficiency of electrical appliances (and other things, for that matter) uses a scale of A-G, with A being the most efficient. However, the scale has proved to be inadequate - there are now also A+ and A++ efficiency scores.

I wondered where this would end.

A+++ - this fridge generates its own electricity

A++++ - this fridge converts atmospheric CO2 into coal.

A+++++ - DO NOT SWITCH ON! This fridge reverses the expansion of the universe, and thus the arrow of time, preventing you from switching it back off again, ultimately leading to a reverse big bang ....

Visual Elements

I've really enjoyed John Emsley's book, Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements- an eminently dippable book about the chemical elements. I had started work on a website which would hopefully capture some of the interest of the book, but then I discovered this one, which to be honest does a better job than I am likely to be able to, and which I therefore recommend.

Oddly enough, I take issue with the Damien Hirst quote on the front page - who talks about "The perfect symbol of Man's attempt to understand, and ultimately to control, nature." It's not clear what Hirst was talking about - most likely the Periodic Table, possibly the concept of elements - and a cursory search on the internet failed to provide clarification. However, it implies that the Periodic Table is a merely human construct - that in using it, we are imposing our own order on nature.

As A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Naturemakes clear, though, the periodic table wasn't really invented so much as discovered. It's not merely a matter of interpretation, with one person's opinions as good as another's - the table represents an ordering of nature that exists independently of human minds. An alien species that somehow managed to develop chemistry (though The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discoveryshows just how amazing it is that this should happen!) would also come up with the Periodic Table, ultimately.

Both Privileged Planet and A Meaningful World slant towards the belief that the presence of this order, and the fact it can be discovered (not constructed) by human minds, is evidence of another mind, ordering the universe. The alternative is that something as elegant and complex should emerge as the product of chance - or as just one possible outcome in the infinitude of a multiverse.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Gender and colours

The definitive subjective work on gender and colour perception can be found here. Courtesy of Randall Munroe of XKCD fame.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A quiet revolution

The events of the last week have potentially revolutionised the nature of government in the UK. Things could have been very different. Gordon Brown could have held on until he was defeated with a no-confidence vote. David Cameron could have simply tried to form a minority government, or disregarded the Lib Dems. Both had the sense to realise that they simply didn't have enough popular support for this option to be the way forward. So Brown resigned (once it was clear there was a way forward) and Cameron negotiated hard to co-operate with Clegg - and the Liberal Democrats were prepared to co-operate. None of these were givens; all were necessary for the well-being of the nation; and it is a matter of satisfaction that all happened.

We now have a government which is representative of the votes of a clear majority of the electorate, and one which has a plan of work and a basis for carrying it out.

Certainly, there are some people within the Liberal party who are not happy about the thought of working with the Conservatives. However, the nature of government that the Lib Dem party has been pushing for since they have sought proportional representation was bound to be collaborative, rather than confrontational. Government versus opposition has been shown for decades not to be good for a country - you can't keep pushing in the same direction without ending up somewhere too far from where everybody wants you to be. Perhaps, if the parties can get over their partisanship at least at a governmental level, the ideal would be a government formed with the agreement of all parties, but with the make-up dictated ultimately by the majority party, who also has the prime minister. But that's a way ahead.

Why only potentially revolutionary, though? How might it not work?

The coalition might not hold together. If three, or 15, or 37 months down the line, the coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats breaks down in acrimony, then one or other party - most likely the Lib Dems - is likely to be regarded as having broken the government. The electorate would punish that party in the polls, and there would be an abrupt return to the old system.

The Liberals might lose their identity. This seems unlikely at the moment, and should be unlikely given the structure of the coalition - they have the independence to vote according to their party sensibilities, as long as it isn't a no-confidence vote. So there is no reason that they should simply end up being regarded as a wing of the Conservative party.

The opposition to the setup at grassroots Liberal and Conservative party level could make it untenable for the coalition to continue to work together. This would be a shame, and shortsighted of the grassroots, I think. Membership of the Lib Dems has increased in the last few days, apparently, according to a voice on Twitter - now it is possible to be a Liberal and have a voice in government - it is no longer necessary to align yourself with Labour or Conservative if you want to influence government. The new regime should strengthen the "third way" in British politics. The harrumphs from the people who simply want to be part of a club which will never have enough members to have any influence will be outweighed by the cheers from the people who never particularly wanted to choose between red and blue but couldn't see that there was an alternative.

Friday, May 07, 2010

The case for electoral reform

Conservative seats won: 306
Labour seats won: 258
Liberal Democrat seats won: 57

Votes cast per Conservative seat: 35,021
Votes cast per Labour seat: 33,338
Votes case per Liberal Democrat seat: 119,397

If the seats had been divided in proportion to votes cast:

Conservative: 234
Labour: 188
Liberal Democrat: 149
UK Independence Party: 20
British National Party: 12
Scottish Nationalist Party: 11
Green: 6
Others: 34

One of the effects of PR would be to give the BNP seats in parliament, which is a slightly unnerving thought. But then, since they represent a proportion of the electorate, where their policies aren't actually illegal, a liberal society has to be prepared to give them a voice.

It is very apparent looking at these figures, how strongly opposed the two largest parties will be to electoral reform, which would completely undermine their ability to dominate the political agenda for generations. But it is also very apparent that the fact that one political party can run a government and control the political agenda for 5 years on the basis of less than a third of the popular vote has nothing to do with democracy. Also, if you don't vote for the MP that gets elected in your constituency, your vote is completely irrelevant in the current system - you might as well not have voted. And in most constituencies, one party has such a dominant position that anybody with a different political opinion is in effect disenfranchised.

Sources: Twitter (Rillaith, GdnPolitics), BBC

A hung parliament - what does it mean?

You may know already, in which case you are excused from reading this - and welcome to add comments, and correct me if I'm wrong.

A hung parliament means that there is no individual party that has an overall majority of the seats. With 650 seats in the House of Commons, a single party needs to secure 326 of them to have a majority. Otherwise, all of the other parties ganging up together have the capability of defeating the government when it attempts to pass any law, potentially incapacitating government. Most significantly, this is relevant in the case of a "No confidence vote" - a vote which declares that the rest of the Commons have no confidence in the government. I believe that if the government loses a no-confidence vote, then the prime minister has to resign.

The ball is, initially, in the court of the Prime Minister. Gordon Brown continues to be the Prime Minister, in constitutional terms, until he no longer has the confidence of parliament (ie. he loses a No Confidence vote). He could do various things. He could attempt to form a minority government, although he is the leader of only the second largest party (at the time of writing, Labour have less than 249 seats, whilst the Conservatives have 291 and the Liberals have 50, and about 35 more to be declared). However, this almost certainly wouldn't work - the Conservatives could very reasonably call for a No Confidence vote in these circumstances - Labour had fewer voters and fewer seats, and therefore don't really have a mandate to continue to be the party of government.

Brown's next obvious option would be to seek a coalition with the Liberals. This may still not give the government an overall majority (315 seats, once all the votes are counted?)! By drawing in the other small parties, it may be possible to organise an alliance which technically commands an overall majority. However, alliances of lots of parties tend to be unstable, and it would be unlikely that such a government would last very long.

Incidentally, this is why the situation is regarded as so uncertain at the moment. A lot depends upon exact numbers of MPs, and people are vary cagy about revealing options when they don't know exactly what they might be.

Another option is for Brown to resign. In some ways, this would be the "honourable" thing to do, since Labour "lost" to the Conservatives. There are other potential benefits for the Labour party. The Conservatives also won't have an overall majority, and they are likely to find it harder to form a coalition government with other parties than Labour. The effect of this is that it may also lead to a government that doesn't last long, but the failure of the government would be a Conservative failure.

Probably the best option, given the financial crisis that is being faced, would be for the three parties to recognise that none of them commanded the enthusiasm of the voters, and that they ought to work together to deal with the economic crisis faced by the country. Either Brown or Cameron could organise this - and form a government made up of all three parties. Neither wants to, of course - the party manifestos would go out of the window, and the government would have to work together for what it decided (together) would be the good of the country. But if any conclusion can be drawn about the outcome of the elections, it is that no party has been given a mandate by the electorate to do the things they want to. If the parties take seriously their stated views about "listening to the electorate", this deserves serious consideration.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Don't forget to vote!

That will be all. Thankyou.

"How feminism [messed] up my love life" - Lori Gottlieb

When I asked several women what "feminism" meant, I got a lot of responses that boiled down to having the same opportunities as men. But the more we talked, the more we came up against the fact that our needs are different and that we might not, in fact, want the same things. And when it comes to dating, we don't have the same opportunities as men, especially as we get older.

This might seem obvious, but somehow I thought that I could just have a baby on my own, put my dating life on hold for a year or two, and then get right back in the game. I thought that's what "equality" and "having it all" meant.

Then, when I was ready to date again, I went to a Thursday night speed dating event. I was now over 40 and everything had changed.

"Mr Good Enough", Lori Gottlieb
Somewhat less blunt than Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both, though addressing related issues, is this new book by Lori Gottlieb. Again a journalist, but now writing not as an observer, but as a participant - Gottlieb finds herself in her early 40s unmarried, and wondering, given that this was not how she envisaged her life unfolding, how she got here.

In many ways, this is a sadder book than Unhooked - the women who find themselves unhappy with the hookup culture at least have the option of backing away from it. Gottlieb writes about women whose expectations have been shaped by glossy magazines and dramas (Ally McBeal, Sex and the City) - all written if not by feminists, then with strong feminist sympathies - who discover that Sunday Brunch with the girls every week is not what they really want, but that it's almost impossible now to do anything about it.

I know that this will arouse the ire of various feminists who will say, "But what about men? Doesn't this apply equally to them?" The answer to that is sorry, but it just doesn't, as the quote from Gottlieb above suggests. The reasons are complex, and Gottlieb does a very good job of identifying them, not simply in sociological terms, but from her own experience.

Monday, May 03, 2010

"The Devil's Casino", Vicky Ward - a review

From here.

This is the second time my attention has been captivated by a book about recent "American" history that has in reality shaped the world. The previous one was Standard Operating Procedure: A War Story, about the Abu Ghraib atrocities. As with that book, Ward has moved well past the headlines, into the personalities and events which shaped them.

This is the story of the biggest bankruptcy in American history - the fall of Lehman. The history of Lehman is explored, back to the time when the people who were running the company in 2008 first appeared (and how they managed to make it into such a large company). It looks at how the company moved from the idealistic vision of those who set it up, to be different from the rest of Wall Street, to a company that hid the scale of its financial troubles from the market until it was too late. At the end, somebody says that "it's not a tragedy, it's a story of hubris." But as Booker points out in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories,
that is exactly what tragedy always is.

A couple of quibbles. Firstly, the sheer number of names. It's inevitable, I suppose, in a thirty year history, that there will be large numbers of people who walk in and out, and the most important people (Dick Fuld, Chris Pettit, Joe Gregory) acquire their own momentum. But a lot of the names simply became a blur, after a while. Ward sought to temper this by having a list of names - a kind of dramatis personae - at the beginning - but it was still pretty overwhelming.

The other quibble is the financial technical speak. I really hoped that having read the book, I would have some better understanding of what it was that was actually happening with the money. But I can't say that I did. I understood how money that had been advanced on property prices that were falling could be under threat (though I still don't really see why, as with negative equity, it wasn't possible to simply wait for prices to rise again - or if the borrowers couldn't pay, how come they were lent to in the first place). I don't understand the bond trading - the concepts of government borrowing, yes, but not how you can make money buying and selling government borrowing. Not real money, the sort that you can then give people as a fat bonus at the end of the year. Ward's book simply takes a lot of this for granted, and a lot of the people puzzled by the banking crisis would really like to know how it works.

But this is an excellent work, despite these "weaknesses", and Ward has done a remarkable and thorough job of telling the human story behind one of the seminal events of our time.

Facebook group does not reveal Disney's dirty secrets ...

... but it may lead to your computer being trashed.