Monday, 7 January 2013

Halfway there and it's all downhill from here (if that were possible)

How times change. In Ancient Greece, apparently, the word "idiot" meant anyone who wasn't a politican, as opposed to now being a fairly concise description of anyone who is, it seems.

Nowhere is this more evident than today's latest rerunning of a developing Coalition tradition: the ceremony of the Repolishing of The Turd, in which two deeply unedifying men attempt to convince an ever more incredulous electorate that they are not irredeemably useless nutsacks. Again, they failed. Dismally.

Both Cameron and Clegg described their agreement as a "Ronseal deal", trying to evoke images of "does what it says on the tin", instead only calling to mind stuff you slap on to planks to make them slightly less rotten.

The full review document is hilarious, or would be if it weren't so tragically self-deluding. Each section tries to paint a lovely, sunny picture of the wondrous progress this rainbow coalition is making to make Britain a better place. Unfortunately, most of what it's trumpeting as triumph is mostly tinkering around margins, and the big picture stuff on the economy, the NHS, education, Social Security (yes, Social Security, not the hideously Americanised "welfare") and the cost of living are just hopeless. It's also very instructive to see that the economy is so wonderfully successful that our friend Gideon, the Chancellor, still has a slightly lower profile than Kim jong Un, but maybe it's not surprising as he might be slightly less popular. The verdict from commentators like the BBC's Stephanie Flanders isn't exactly overflowing with praise, neither (predictably) was it from the dear old Grauniad. Even the Telegraph wasn't exactly brimming with encomiums.

And with the New Year beginning with the child benefit cock-up, train fare hikes, moribund economic news, confusion over the government's internet surveillance policy, the oncoming train wreck of Universal Credit  and Cameron's dubious European sabre-rattling, things don't look like they're going to improve anytime soon.  Strap yourselves in, kids, it's going to be a bumpy year.

But that's not what today was about. No, today was just another empty hubristic PR smugfest for two men who have lost the plot, assuming they ever had it in the first place; an excuse to try and convince the enfeebled masses that everything's peachy and we'll all have jam tomorrow, when everyone knows there's precious little bread today.

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Sunday, 6 January 2013

Irony Alert! Irony Alert!

Apparently, today, Jeremy "Hunt" wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that,

"Just as a manager wouldn't expect to keep their job if they lost control of their finances nor should they expect to keep it if they lose control of the care in their organisation either,"

This is Jeremy Hunt, remember. The same Jeremy Hunt who was basically a cheerleader for Rupert Murdoch while being in charge of the Department of Culture, and is now in charge of the Department of Health while being a proponent of homeopathy.  The same Jeremy Hunt who, as late as 2010, still thought Hillsborough was caused by football hooliganism, who was forced to repay nearly 10k of public money to allow his political agent to live in the house for which he was claiming allowances. And the same Jeremy Hunt who has been known to do some "morally wrong" (copyright, David Cameron) but perfectly legal tax avoidance. He is even the same Jeremy Hunt who was responsible for letting G4S run Olympic security. And the man whose appointment as Secretary of State for Health was hardly met with a ringing vote of confidence. In short, this is a man who should not even be trusted to have the the minimal requisite control to run with scissors.

And yet, he's still in the Cabinet.  Satire is dead.

Friday, 4 January 2013

MMR Pisswizardry (again)

There's a lovely new programme on CBeebies called Get Well Soon. It's presented by Dr Ranj, who (unlike ersatz yet foxy science minx Nina) is the real thing: a doctor who's been practising in the NHS for about 10 years.  He tries to give young children advice and comfort, and demystifies the whole business of going to the doctor or the hospital. How could anyone think that was anything other than admirable and lovely?

Well, someone can. And here they are. Anna Watson, the "author", is a "natural remedy" promoter and clearly doesn't like the MMR vaccine. So she even wants the poor man struck off for giving a puppet an injection.  It's difficult for me to convey the mixture of pity and contempt I have for the author of this article. Thankfully, I don't really have to because this lovely person (source) has done it all for me. Thanks Skepticat UK for doing all of the heavy ligfting and saying pretty much what I was thinking anyway. Please read it it, it's a great rebuttal.
However, what this does demonstrate is something rather more worrying. That beneath the patina of rationality in this country there are still a motley collection of idiots about who look at inconvenient things like, say, evidence, and decide that their own hemipygic view of the world is the one that everyone else must accept.  If homoeopathic medicine were to be revealed tomorrow as appreciably better than placebo for most medical treatment then I'd have to swallow my pride and say that it would have to be accepted. Except that there's no evidence to suggest that it ever would, and plenty to suggest that it's utter monkey toss. THat's how science works. Unfortunately, it seems Ms Watson is unfortunately unfamiliar with this idea. And explaining it to her might be as fruitless as trying to convey the rather nihilistic solipsism of Sartre to a demented gerbil.  Thank heavens she lives in Kingston upon Thames: well away from my child.

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Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Welcome to the New Year, same as the old year.

Except there's no Olympics and no Diamond Jubilee to distract us this time.

A perfect example of this is the simply inexplicable continued role of Iain Duncan-Smith, a man who older relatives of mine would have described as being, "dimmer than a TocH lamp". Matthew Norman wrote a hugely interesting, not to mention entertaining hatchet job on him in yesterday's Independent. The Guardian, as expected, were not much more sympathetic. The Telegraph were a little better, but that's only to be expected.

Norman makes the observation that the chants at the PDC darts championship  show that the government's attempts to demonise the poor are working. It would be seductively easy to follow this logic and attempt to extrapolate this to produce a wider demonising of the the north too, but that would be too simple. After all, many extremely poor parts of England are only a handful of miles from the PDC Championship's venue of Alexandra Palace.

there does, as Norman points out, appear to have a been a fairly concerted attempt by some to paint the poor almost as vermin and while there does seem to be be some short term evidence that some might be buying into the "scrounger" mythology, there is much more to suggest that as a longer term strategy, IDS and Gideon Gideon George Osborne might be playing a dangerous game.

There are a number of reasons why this is the case. The first is that to equate benefit claimants with indolence is very dangerous.The DWP's own figures, for example, suggest that there were more people (around 100,000 more people) claiming housing benefit who were in work, compared to those who were not. More people in lower paid jobs are finding it harder to make ends meet. And April is only going to see things get worse. The introduction of IDS's Universal Credit system is due to arrive at exactly the same time that local authorities have to inflict the latest round of spending cuts on local services.  Many of the communities who need these services most will have them ripped away. Much has been made, for exmaple, of Newcastle City Council's decision to completely cut its Arts funding, for example, might seem less serious. But it affects the jobs of those working in those venues. Middlesbrough is hit just as hard, with its programme of cuts pointing the way to a bleak 2013 for many families.

Many of these cuts are in the North of England, a place where many of the poorest communities can be found. But they are not exclusively there. And this is second reason why the "scrounger" tactic is so very dangerous: in the 1980s it was very easy to set up a North-South antagonism, when older, traditionally northern industries (shipbuilding, steel, etc.) were being dismantled. But now, with retailing in spasms and the economy stalling almost everywhere, that antagonism is more difficult to sustain. There may be a North-South dived, but now parts of the South are suffering too.

There is another reason why IDS and Osborne might find their tactics problematic. Thatcher, hateful as she was, was the daughter of a shopkeeper. A woman who was recognisably not from a position of great privilege, not from the working classes, but from the aspirational middle class. There were many who could at least identify with her background and worldview.  Now, however, most of the hectoring about the poor seems to be emanating from men like Osborne and IDS with little intellectual power, nor even empathy with the lives of the people with whom they are playing. There's Iain Duncan-Smith, a man who was such a disaster as Conservative leader that Michael Howard was seen as a more preferable alternative. And then there's Osborne, a man who sums up the culture of entitlement, entitled (literally) as he is, and never having had a job at all until sashaying into the constituency held a little earlier by Neil Hamilton.

In short, being lectured about poverty by men who know nothing about poverty is likely to make people, many of whom are dicing with its possibility at least, increasingly angry. And to keep on lecturing people about it past the point of sense seems, to me at least, to be the very nadir of stupidity.

In other stupid news:
  • Conservative backbencher Alec Shelbrooke has apparently also proposed a Bill to stop all claimants buying anything with payments other than essentials such as food, clothing, energy, travel and housing.  Fine. Let's do it. But let's also extend that to the system of MP's allowances, and let the Fees Office buy requested items requested by "honourable" members. Let's not show any undue favouritism to the unwashed scum, shall we?
  • Coalition Rail Minister Norman Baker claims "rail fares are not that expensive" on the day that increases massively above inflation in some cases are rolled out. Nice to see a man whose work-related rail fares are paid for out of allowances being a massive bell-end and rubbing rail passengers' noses in it.
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, eh chums!

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Friday, 11 May 2012

Stupid & Celebrity

This morning, as I drove into work, I happened to be listening to BBC 5 Live. As ever Nicky Campbell was leading a phone in designed to make its participants unreasonably angry about some trivial issue to fill an hour of radio air time. Today's subject just happened to be concerned with "celebrity culture": a lack of positive female role models is seen, by the Brownies at least, to be damaging to young girls, who increasingly seem to want to be famous purely for its own sake, not for any real achievements or talents.

Well,, this got me to thinking about the nature of fame and celebrity. It struck me that there are four basic levels of "famous", shown in the diagram below:

At the top level are the Achievers: people who do important and useful things in society and are famous, almost as a by-product. If they were not famous, their function would be no different. This includes people like the Queen, or President Obama, or even academics like Brian Cox or Mary Beard. In the latter two cases, or of someone like Marcus du Sautoy, who has a remit to increase public understanding of their subject, however, they can also fall into the second category, which is:

The Laudate. These are people who are famous for having some talent or skill which exists in a public space. They are the people like the actors and the musicians, inter alia, whose work is designed to be performed to and seen by the public, and whose fame is a function of that exposure and talent. Here, I think of the likes of Yo Yo Ma, Dame Judi Dench, Martin Clunes, or David Bowie. This category also includes top-level sportspeople doing the thing they are famous for.

In fact, these first two categories are very much intertwined. Many who are good at what they do and reach a level of excellence will, as a result, gain some kind of public recognition and may be admired or revered for what they do. But at this point, there opens a divide, and the lowest two levels possibly less admirable

At the third level sit the Nonebrities. These are the people describe as, "famous for being famous", like contestants on particular TV shows. So, I'm looking at you, Chantelle Houghton, famous for appearing on Big Brother (and then only because she was vaguely pretty and looked a bit like Paris Hilton, another nonebrity) and Kim Kardashian, who does God alone knows what.  It also includes people who gain brief exposure from appearances on shows like The Jeremy Kyle Show.

This leads us to the bottom category: the dangleberry. These people don't even reach the heights of the category above. They gain exposure merely by association, like the relatives of those who appear on the Jeremy Kyle Show, or the retinue of a nonebrity.

These bottom two categories are the ones that cause the most public consternation. People who are famous for these reasons tend to be media constructs. Avatars who can be quickly created and destroyed to satisfy the whims of a media and a public who are equally capricious. 

The thing is, some would have us believe that the cult of celebrity is all new. But the gossip rags were far more virulent in the years leading up to (and even during) World War II. It's not even as if a famous footballer marrying a pop star is all that novel. Ask your grandparents who Billy Wright was, and how he married one of the Beverly Sisters. OR, less that a generation after, look at the model of the modern pro footballer, George Best.  The big difference today, it appears is that the balance between our high- low- and middle- brow cultures has become hideously skewed, possibly as a result of making too much of the culture market-led. The push to mass market to follow the money has caused the culture and its values to become focused on the route of most apparent ease. It's an illusion of course, but one which is confusing enough to bedazzle those whose accuity to such things is not yet fully developed, which is where we came in. For young girls especially, it seems as if the predominant role models the media push toward them fall into the latter two groups, with fewer from the top two. This is unsurprising, since hard work and talent aren't necessarily glamorous and won't shift magazine covers, but it does have a more pervasive, and unfortunately malignant, longer term effect. The solutions are not simple and require a major cultural shift form the public, the publishers and the wider media, including the political culture, though it is unlikely to happen any time soon.
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Tuesday, 14 September 2010


I'm vaguely thinkning of writing a book. There, I've said it. Possibly slightly pretentious, After all, isn't that what a lot of people say? Especially ones who haven't gotten around to finshing a PhD thesis yet (and that hasn't quite vanished either). But I think this one is a decent idea.

I call it The Cult Of Stupid. Why? Becasue we are surrounded everyday by people telling us that the world is dumber than it was, that kids are stupider (or more intelligent. Pick a news outlet. And a day). We are supposedly assailed by a culture of anti-intellectualism, where children find the idea of learning siomehow upsetting, where clever is looked down upon and appearance is prized above all. Yes, we do live in the era of brain numbing slop like the now thankfully departed Big Brother, or the large scale manipulation of shows like The X Factor but does that mean that, as a species, we are becoming more stupid?

One of the first things I thought of was teaching.We've just gone through the yearly A Level and GCSE farce, where the pass rate routinely rises, and a group of old farts then pronounces that the results mean nothing and that kids are not as intelligent as thet were back in their time. Well, are they? Are the exams any use? Do they equip children for the modern world? Are we even teaching our children the right skills to survive in the kind of world we are busy creating for them?

I think my plan at this stage is to use this blog space as a repository for ideas and soundings, before maybe plutting them inot a more coherent form. for that reason, there may not be mouch sense of narrative flow here. Or sense, come to that.

Does all of this sound like a good idea for a book of some sort? I'm going to have to think about it...