Monday, March 31, 2008

Moving the guesswork

Right. I’ve made it through the day. This morning was achingly slow, this afternoon shockingly busy. Not a great combination when you’re shattered.

Here’s another bit of other-people-blog-so-I-don’t-have-to.

Larry writes on the argument that belief in god is the only way to justify morality:

There's a persistent tendency… [to think] that belief held as the conclusion of a logical argument is superior to belief held without logical argument.
This idea is completely retarded.
… A conclusion is no stronger just by virtue of being a conclusion, because conclusions are only as strong as the premises from which one draws the conclusion. The theist (and, sadly, many secular ethical philosophers) just moves the guesswork from the statement about morality to some premises about a god and what it wants.

Post-stag weekend post

Drinking, bowling, surfing, caneoing, drinking, walking, losing an hour in the best nightclub in Bude, getting rained on, drinking, crushing ourselves into a minibus for six hours each way, and getting the stag kitted out in a Pamela Anderson Baywatch swimsuit and wig. All my limbs ache and I need about a day’s sleep.

Excellent fun.

Because I’m incapable of good or even coherent blogging today, here’s some by other people:

Paulie explains centralisation.

The Fat Man on a Keyboard looks at the leftwing strands of the blogosphere.

Marko Attila Hoare thinks that left vs right is now less relevant than pro- vs anti-West.

And (hat tip to somebody; sorry, I can’t remember who) the 100 most beautiful words in English, according to some list. A lot of these words are on the uncommon side – niveous, aestivate – which leads me to wonder if there’s a certain element of showing off here. But, as somebody (also can’t remember) once said, opera sounds better in a language you don’t understand, as the words can be enjoyed purely for the poetry of tbeir sounds, unencumbered by being the dreary things you use to ask whether you need to buy any toilet paper. Same sort of thing here. Plus, for a few of the more obscure, there’s pleasure in finding out the meaning: hymeneal isn’t quite what I thought it would mean. But less fancy words have beauty too: cockle and ripple are good choices. Lilt would be great if not for the sickly fizzy drink.

Can I go to bed now, please? Oh. No, I can’t. Some idiot has scheduled a meeting late this afternoon that I have to both chair and take minutes for. And that idiot has forogtten to book a room.

Friday, March 28, 2008

I’d love to be proved wrong…

…but failing that, I’d like to be the first to congratulate Robert Mugabe for having won tomorrow’s election.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Inquiring minds

The Tories, led in debate by William Hague, have failed in their latest bid for an inquiry into the decision to go to war in Iraq.

Thing is, that decision was made by 412 MPs, so presumably you could go round them with a clipboard and learn a lot.

The thinking back then of one W Hague, for instance, was that the intelligence, if anything, probably “underestimated and understated” Iraq’s nuclear programme, so that there was “at least a significant risk of the utter catastrophe of Iraq possessing a nuclear device without warning” and therefore “the risk of leaving the regime on its course today far outweigh[s] the risk of taking action quite soon”.

About as embarrassing as David Miliband trying to maintain the line that we can’t possibly have an inquiry now because it’d distract the troops.

Press chimps word drool blog post sneer

There’s a pretty well-defined set of ‘punchy’ monosyllabic nouns that often appear in newspaper headlines. The grammar of headlines means that these tend to be used in conjunction with each other, and their clichéd nature means that you tend not to see them in non-media contexts.

You can combine these words in more or less any permutation, and add new ones to convey new developments, in a kind of prefab mechanical substitute for actual writing. Thus:

Gaffe quiz row
A minister has said something that attracted more than the usual level of criticism. Opposition MPs have asked the minister why he said it. The minister has replied that these questions were inappropriate.

Gaffe quiz row probe bid
Somebody of any or no significance has proposed an inquiry into the matter.

Gaffe quiz row probe bid boost
Somebody of slightly more significance has agreed.

Gaffe quiz row probe bid boost snub clash pledge
The Prime Minister has ruled out an inquiry; the Leader of the Opposition has argued that this is a bad decision, and said that he will hold an inquiry if he wins the next election.

Gaffe quiz row probe bid boost snub clash pledge plea storm
The minister has requested that people do something called ‘focusing’ on something called ‘the real issues’; assorted newspaper pundits, probably including the one writing this piece, have disagreed with his analysis.

Gaffe quiz row probe bid boost snub clash pledge plea storm shock
Ditto, but it’s interesting. Why not read on? Please?

One could add ‘surge’, ‘blow’, ‘slump’, ‘hope’, ‘fear’ and others. And there’s a similar set of verbs – ‘axe’, ‘spark’, ‘oust’, ‘brand’, ‘slam’ – but already I feel dirty. Need to go and wash my keyboard out with bleach…

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

You took the words wrong out of my mouth

Steven Poole deftly nails a sneaky way of lying oneself out of a lie:

Increasingly, we hear politicians who are caught out in deceptions, fantasies or bullshit say, in answer, simply: “I mis-spoke”. …
It is useful, to say one “mis-spoke”. You acknowledge that what you said was absolute balls, but the fault is not your own, as it would be if you had lied or been wrong. No, the fault is somehow in the faculty of speech itself, something going wrong in the course of that complex magic between brain, lip and others’ ears.

[I’ve added hyphens; Steven’s original ‘misspoke’ lends itself to mispronunciation.]

Measuring inequality: a story with two ends

John Hutton says:

tackling poverty is about bringing those at the bottom closer to those in the middle. It is statistically possible to have a society where no child lives in a family whose income is below the poverty line – 60 per cent of median average income – but where there are also people at the top who are very wealthy. In fact, not only is it statistically possible – it is positively a good thing.
So rather than questioning whether high salaries are morally justified, we should celebrate the fact that people can be enormously successful in this country. Rather than placing a cap on that success, we should be questioning why it is not available to more people.

Ruth Lister responds:

On the question of inequality, the only real difference between Hutton’s ‘new progressive individualism’ and Thatcher’s reactionary individualism would appear to be that he is at least concerned about poverty. But his attempt to square his enthusiasm for inequality without limit with Labour’s commitment to the eradication of child poverty rests on shaky ground.
It may be the case that it is ‘statistically possible to have a society where no child lives in a family whose income is below the poverty line…but where there are also people at the top who are very wealthy’. However, it is not very likely. Cross-national analysis shows that poverty and the persistence of poverty are closely related to inequality: contrast the Nordics with the UK and the US. … It is easier to climb a ladder where the rungs are closer to each other and where the top is not detached from the bottom, as it is here.

The concepts of ‘poverty’ and ‘inequality’ (particularly where the former is defined partly in terms of the latter) are liable to tie people in knots.

Hutton’s right, statistically speaking, but Lister’s reply on that point is also right. Although being “at least concerned about poverty” is a bigger difference than she credits: Thatcherites didn’t care how rich the rich got or how poor the poor got; one of those attitudes is far more harmful than the other.

There’s research strongly suggesting that inequality causes personal and social ills over and above the effects of absolute levels of prosperity/poverty; this happens all the way through the income distribution, with fairly rich people stressed about keeping up with the very rich people.

But I’d argue that inequality lower down the scale is worse than that at the top: very poor people have disadvantage resulting from both their absolute and their relative conditions, whereas those on middle or moderately above average incomes only have one of these problems.

On the other hand, a society in which everyone had the same amount of money would be a disaster, and nobody seriously proposes it. I’m not aware of any attempt to calculate an optimum level of inequality.

Here’s the thing, though: economic inequality is not one single phenomenon, and trying to treat it as such will result in confusion. The Gini coefficient, for instance, is commonly used to measure overall inequality: if one person in a society has all the money, the Gini is 1; if everyone has the same amount of money, it is 0.

But this doesn’t distinguish between inequality caused by those at the top racing farther ahead and that caused by those at the bottom falling farther behind. These two phenomena have different causes, different consequences and (if they are both seen as problems) different solutions. Lister talks about “a ladder where the rungs are closer to each other” – but in fact rungs at different heights of the ladder have different gaps between them.

If there are different types of income inequality at each end of the scale, then any measurement of these has to be done separately.

Here’s a suggestion: divide the population into, say, the poorest 20%, the richest 20% and the middle 60%. Then work out separate Gini values for each of those three groups. I’d expect the middle value normally to be lower than the two end ones.

For an indication of differences within income groups, look at this chart [PDF, page 6] from the IFS:

The alternating dark and light areas represent successive deciles of the income distribution (ignore the individual bars and their heights). The middle deciles are narrow, meaning that those people’s incomes are quite similar; the sections widen as you go higher up the scale (which is perhaps only to be expected given that this chart shows cash differences rather than percentage differences). But the really wide ones are at the top and bottom, so the high- and low-income Ginis would be larger than the middle-income one.

A particularly large low-income Gini will mean that those at the bottom are a long way behind; a very large high-income Gini will mean those at the top shooting ahead.

I’m assuming that some unspecifiable degree of income inequality is a good thing (consultants earn more than nurses, etc.). I’m also assuming that a very steep slope simply won’t exist across the whole of the income scale – in the middle, a lot of people are bound to be bunched not too far apart. So we can use the level of inequality in the middle as a baseline for measuring those at either end.

We could then compare countries (or the same country over time) using the ratio between the low-income and middle-income Ginis: a higher ratio means that the income distribution becomes very unequal as you get to the bottom. Similarly for the rich-to-middle ratio.

Then, rather than arguing for the reduction of ‘inequality’ per se, one could argue that inequality at the top and/or bottom shouldn’t be so much higher than that in the middle. (Indeed, some proposals to provide a minimum income could result in a much smaller Gini at the bottom.)

Monday, March 24, 2008

Getting cross with health and safety

Now, I’m not saying that religion necessarily turns all its adherents into gibbering, deranged morons… but it helps:

Health officials in the Philippines have issued a warning to people taking part in Easter crucifixion rituals.
They have urged them to get tetanus vaccinations before they flagellate themselves and are nailed to crosses, and to practise good hygiene.

(Hat tip: LF.)

The rights of the uncured disease

Labels matter in politics. Hence anti-abortionists (which is precisely what they are) call themselves ‘pro-life’, positive-sounding as it is (and accurate, as long as embryonic life is the only sort that exists).

They call their opponents variously ‘anti-life’ and ‘pro-abortion’, rather than ‘pro-choice’. Which is interesting: you’ll certainly find one lot camped outside US abortion clinics, urging women with varying degrees of rudeness to keep their ‘babies’; but you never, strangely, find the other lot camped outside ante-natal classes plugging abortions. It’s almost as if they’re not ‘pro-abortion’.

Anyway. In the current debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, one side supports using microscopic hybrid embryos in petri dishes for research on debilitating diseases; the other side is worried about the tiny clumps of embryonic cells.

Ophelia Benson has the perfect label for those opposed to this research:



(Aside: when people talk about MPs having a ‘free vote’ so that they can listen to their ‘consciences’, isn’t it curious that these are so often issues when religious MPs are being whipped into line by their churches rather than their parties? All part of the pathology that makes people think you have to believe in ghosts to believe in right and wrong.)

Credit Crunch Rhapsody

Some prime musical blogging from Tom P. To the tune of a certain Queen number:

Is this the real price?
Is this just fantasy?
Financial landslide
No escape from reality

Open your eyes
And look at your buys and see.
I'm now a poor boy
High yielding casualty

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Daring to eat of the tree of knowledge

Cardinal Keith O’Brien thinks that it’s “grotesque”, “hideous”, “monstrous”, “evil” and “crazy”.

Well, of course drumming bronze-age superstitions into young children’s heads via taxpayer-funded schools is wrong, but language like that is a little harsh, surely?

No, I’m just kidding! That’s not what he’s talking about at all:

What I am speaking of is the process whereby scientists create an embryo containing a mixture of animal and human genetic material.

With full might of government endorsement, Gordon Brown is promoting a bill that will allow the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos.

Yes, it’s curious that the Prime Minister should be doing something with government endorsement, but that’s the kind of constitutional mayhem we should be used to from new Labour.

What I particularly love about the fuming against “a mixture of animal and human genetic material” is that different animal species – including humans – share vast amounts of DNA. Genetically, I am mostly chimpanzee; you are mostly dog; Cardinal O’Brien is mostly rat.

This is the sort of thing that happens when you’re an evolved species rather than being the inbred descendants of a man made out of “the dust of the ground” and a woman then created out of genetic material from one of that man’s ribs and please don’t ask where the extra X chromosome came from.

The moral outrage is the outrage of a moral system that insists humanity should know its place and precious little more, and that esteems the sanctity of a microscopic few-days-old bundle of cells over the suffering of people with serious conditions who could benefit from new research.

(For more information, see the HFEA, which has details of the science, the history, international perspectives, and UK opinion polling and deliberative consultations.)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to prepare myself to stuff my face in celebration of the fact that Jesus was executed by being sealed inside a giant chocolate ovoid, only to burrow out of it three days later in the reborn form of a bunny rabbit.

[Update: Nadine Dorries, anti-abortion Tory MP and sinister reactionary fact-blind idiot, has echoed the Archbisop:

It is a complete mystery to those who know that other methods of research are now available to develop treatments for those diseases which will supposedly benefit from cloning embryos. …
Like most things which pop up in Parliament and appear to have no rhyme or reason to them, just follow the money and all becomes clear: the Bill is a win for the biotechnology industry and lobby groups.

Ah, so it’s all about oil money.

A different view comes from a coalition of medical research charities:

The Bill will allow new avenues of scientific inquiry to be pursued which could greatly increase our understanding of serious medical conditions affecting millions of people throughout the UK, and ultimately lead to new treatments, at a time when such work is being significantly hampered by a shortage of donated human eggs available for medical research.

But, of course, the views of these “lobby groups” are, as Dorries reminds us, biased and unreliable. It is utterly irrefutable that medical research charities want to pursue pointlessly unproductive lines of research, so that they have nothing to show from their work. It’s completely beyond dispute that they want to publicly align themselves with a controversial technique so that they can attract criticism and risk losing donors.

Dorries concludes:

Let's hope reason and belief triumph by third reading.

Belief? Belief? If she had an ounce of courage she’d say ‘faith’. Two ounces for ‘dogma’ and three for ‘ignorant fear’.]

Friday, March 21, 2008

Sleazy rider

Crime is rampant under Labour:

Conservative leader David Cameron has apologised after being photographed ignoring red lights and cycling the wrong way up a one-way street.

So now you can vote blue, go green, and jump red.

The Mirror has produced a lovely, if perhaps less than Earth-shatteringly important, video of these monstrous crimes.

"I know it is important to obey traffic laws - but I have obviously made mistakes on this occasion and I am sorry," Mr Cameron said in a statement.

It’s a small matter, but this explanation lacks a certain, well, explanation of why he made these “mistakes”. Any London pedestrian knows that plenty of cyclists seem to think that the rules of the road don’t apply to them. Cameron is clearly one, and he’s dutifully feigning regret when caught out. That’s not a mortal sin by any means, but it doesn’t speak too well of him. Imagine him as PM:

I know it is important to reduce child poverty - but I have obviously made mistakes on this occasion and I am sorry.

I know it is important to allocate some money for the NHS budget - but I have obviously made mistakes on this occasion and I am sorry.

I know it is important to prosecute serial killers rather than giving them ministerial jobs - but I have obviously made mistakes on this occasion and I am sorry.

I know it is important not to sell our nuclear launch codes to terrorists - but I have obviously made mistakes on this occasion and I am sorry.

Well, maybe not. But you see why his response was so poor.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

How to make a pedant happy and then perplexed

(a) Happy

The sign over the supermarket checkout said:

5 items or fewer

Fewer! Marvellous. And there wasn’t even an apostrophe in ‘items’.

(b) Perplexed

But the five-items-or-fewer(/less) checkout is usually the one with the mini-tobacconist’s behind it. So: if you queue up at one of these with five items, are you still allowed to buy some cigarettes?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

To see past race, you must first look it in the eye

It’s very rare that I read a political speech and then decide that I have to watch it delivered as well. But this one, flawed though it is (show me a speech that isn’t), is really something. The immediate background is that Barack Obama’s former pastor at the Trinity United Church of Christ, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, had made some inflammatory remarks. Yesterday Obama said:

Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety - the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. … The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

The close of that first sentence – coming from a serious presidential candidate – made my eyes widen. He went on:

I can no more disown [Wright] than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

And occasionally [black anger at disadvantage] finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. …
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. … So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle - as we did in the OJ trial - or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.
We can do that.
But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

[Update: The Onion reports 'Black Guy Asks Nation For Change'.]

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sticks and stones, hearts and minds, spin and substance

David J Kilcullen is a smart cookie:

Al-Qaida is highly skilled at exploiting multiple, diverse actions by individuals and groups, by framing them in a propaganda narrative to manipulate local and global audiences. … They use physical operations (bombings, insurgent activity, beheadings) as supporting material for an integrated "armed propaganda" campaign. The "information" side of al-Qaida's operation is primary; the physical is merely the tool to achieve a propaganda result. …
Contrast this with our approach: We typically design physical operations first, then craft supporting information operations to explain our actions. This is the reverse of al-Qaida's approach. For all our professionalism, compared to the enemy's, our public information is an afterthought.

(Hat tip: Alice Fishburn.)

Monday, March 17, 2008

We don’t negotiate with nonentities

Jackie Ashley, following Jonathan Powell, says that we should consider talking to al-Qaeda just as we once talked to the IRA.

This is wrong, and not just for the reason that Paul bluntly gives:

What we are dealing with here are theocratic psychopaths who follow a culture of death, who have a martyrdom complex, and whose warped interpretation of the religion they profess to follow does not allow for any compromise as that means diluting their beliefs.

But it’s not just that there’s nothing to talk about; there’s nobody to talk to. With the IRA, there was a well-structured paramilitary group that had a very clear organised political wing in the shape of Sinn Fein. None of that exists with al-Qaeda – at least, not in any way that would facilitate useful dialogue.

As Jason Burke’s reports have made clear, ‘al-Qaeda’ is not a single entity. First, there’s the group centred on Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, fugitives in the Afghan-Pakistani border regions. Their contact with wider groups is much diminished since 9/11, and in any case they have no interest in compromise. They’re also pretty hard to find.

Second, there is what Burke calls a “network of networks” or “franchises”. These are loosely affiliated groups using the ‘brand’, based mostly in North Africa and the Middle East. While Islamist fundamentalists, they have a variety of local aims; they seem to have better contacts with each other than with bin Laden’s circle – he himself is nowadays more a spiritual leader than an organiser or financier.

The third aspect of al-Qaeda is the ideology of violent jihad, spreading through disaffected young Muslims – many in Western countries – via the internet, itinerant preachers and self-reinforcing group dynamics. Such new recruits may, but need not, have had some direct personal connection with more senior coordinators form among the network of networks.

What this means is that there’s no point of contact with ‘al-Qaeda’ through which coherent discussion or negotiation would be meaningful.

There are, though, at least two respects in which communication has to feature in the counterterrorism strategy. First, in the case of young Muslims who may be falling under the sway of local extremist groups, they need direct engagement in an effort to divert them. Obviously this will have no credibility coming from the Government, and would have to be done by other Muslim groups.

Second, more broadly, al-Zawahiri is right in saying: “The battle will be fought in the media.” This is a struggle of ideas, and a lot of the victory will be won by means of sustained, intelligent public diplomacy to disarm the view that the West is morally bankrupt and that jihadism is the way to justice.

But there’s nobody we can have a discreet meeting with to get this going.

Cameron’s unsure start

David Cameron has come up with a great ‘family-friendly’ policy: redistribution to new babies and away from slightly older children. He says:

Labour are planning an increase in outreach workers at Surestart centres, as one way of supporting parents with young children. That's their idea. But money is tight and we've got to make choices. So I believe that instead of more untrained outreach workers, we need more trained professionals who really know what they're doing. They exist already. They're called health visitors.

He proposes more health visits for families, focused most regularly in the first few months of a child’s life. No doubt at all: that would be a good thing. But, as he says, money is tight, and so he wants to cut the extension of outreach services, focused across a wider age range, that will have been implemented by the time he gets to fight an election.

No doubt at all: that cut would be a bad thing.

He cavalierly waves that away as not really important, insinuating that these outreach workers aren’t “trained professionals who really know what they're doing”. Certainly, they’re not trained as health visitors, but that’s not their purpose. Their role is to make home visits to parents of young children, offering information about services available and families’ entitlements, as well as advice, advocacy and support in navigating the system. They can also refer families to more specialised professionals – such as health visitors.

A report [PDF] assessing Sure Start outreach services gives lie to the insult that these workers are bumbling amateurs:

The components of training for outreach staff are extensive, since these workers need to be prepared to respond to a whole variety of questions and needs. Typical ingredients include courses on domestic violence, child protection, first aid, confidence building, peer support/breast feeding, drugs, Islam awareness training, child and adolescent mental health, early childhood and learning, baby massage, baby yoga, speech and language, signs and symptoms of postnatal depression and general mental health.

Some of this I admit I roll my lefty eyes at: baby yoga the world could surely live without. Most of the rest seems reasonable, though – including, to my distaste, Islam awareness. But to imply that outreach staff are little use is as dishonest as would be claiming that health visitors know about nothing other than health issues.

Cameron claims that his plans to divert resources into health visiting are popular: “it's not surprising that overwhelmingly, parents say it's this kind of help and support they want”. It’s not surprising that a politician claims public support for his plans. But the truth may not be so straightforward, according to the assessment:

there are local variations in what is acceptable in the way services are delivered. Some areas report that non-professional home visitors are not acceptable, whilst professionally qualified staff are. In others the reverse is reported. In some areas professionals are considered threatening (especially if there is an association with Social Services Departments) and paraprofessionals from the local community are welcomed. Particular sensitivity is required in understanding the local context and preferences…

Exactly: letting local people shape the public services they want is what Cameron so regularly emotes about. And yet, here he is, saying that it all should work his way.

The report notes the different approaches that local programmes take:

Where local Health Visitor managers joined the Sure Start partnership at the planning stage, it was likely that the health visiting service would be the structure on which the Outreach and Home Visiting service was built. … When this happened there was unlikely to be a major input from para-professional home visitors, other than as a support resource for this health team.
Where SSLPs [Sure Start Local Providers] had a strong community development ethos the opposite model was more likely, with the outreach and home-visiting work spearheaded by community workers and para-professionals, many of them local parents, with health and other practitioners called upon where specialist input was requested by visiting parents or considered necessary by home visitors.

Why insist that that the form where the “community development ethos” predominates, and in which parents themselves play a greater role, is wrong?

Cameron claims:

Health visitors are the kind of support that parents want. Not laissez-faire: just leaving parents to get on with it. Not nanny-state: some bureaucratic system telling parents what to do. Just sensible, practical, personal support that people trust.

And yet he can’t see that he himself is being too directing and top-down in his approach. Nor does he realise that he’s not bringing any new principles to the table. Compare the sentiments in his quote with those of this, from a training pack for the Sure Start outreach workers that he wants to cut:

It is not our role to take over a family’s problems and issues. We are there to support them in doing for themselves, to present families with choices and to respect and abide by the decision made by the family.

That’s not a lofty ministerial soundbite; it’s what the front-line workers are having drilled into them.

One other thought: specialist health visitors are good, and so is the support from more generalist outreach workers. But the latter more disproportionately benefits the most socially excluded families, less aware of and able to navigate the system than the well-educated, better-off middle class. So Cameron’s policy, as well as redistributing support from youngish children to new babies, will tend to redistribute away from poorer families.

If “money is tight and we've got to make choices”, why not choose to forsake some of that inheritance tax cut?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Punctuating Nuremberg

Norm, delightfully, gives an example of when the difference between a comma and a semicolon was a matter of life and death:

Article 6 (c) of the Nuremberg Charter, signed by the Allied Powers in August 1945, defined the offence of crimes against humanity in these terms:

CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY: namely, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war, or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.

Initially, the English and French versions of this paragraph had a semicolon after the word 'war', where the Russian version had a comma. By means of a special protocol to the original document, this was changed to bring the English and French versions into line with the Russian one. The point of the change was to make clear that the phrase 'in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal' should be taken as modifying not only 'persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds', but also the acts enumerated before the piece of punctuation in question.

The change from comma to semicolon makes sense. But I don’t think it was enough to make this clear: the version with the semicolon would clearly have suggested that “in execution of…” applied only to “persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds”. But the version with the comma instead is at best ambiguous; I’d say it even favours that very same interpretation.

What was needed was another comma, after “grounds”. That would have clearly marked “persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds” as the second item in a two-item list; as it stands, that phrase attaches too seamlessly to “in execution of…”.

(At last, I have an answer to the question ‘what did you do in the war?’ ‘Well, I waited 31 and a bit years to be born, and then I waited another 31 and a bit years to read a blog post, and then I spotted a way of making clearer one of the laws used for trying the Nazis.’ My grandchildren will glow with pride…)

Saturday, March 15, 2008

GDP per capita

You often hear it said that Britain’s economic success in recent years is mostly illusory, that growth has been mainly due to floods of immigrants coming over here: it’s hardly surprising that the economy’s grown when the population has too.

A piece in the Economist this week is relevant here, noting that GDP per capita is a better indicator of how rich a country is than overall GDP.

While, for instance, the total US economy has grown far faster than Japan’s in recent years, the US population is strongly growing, while Japan’s has lately started to fall. In per capita terms, Japan has been outpacing the US. People there, on average, have been getting richer faster.

And Britain? As you’d expect, our GDP growth is pretty good by G7 standards, a close second to the US since 2003. But what about our GDP per capita growth? Well, here I have to admit we’re not second:

The Economist also suggests the standard definition of recessions is flawed:

For example, zero GDP growth in Japan, where the population is declining, would still leave the average citizen better off. But in America, the average person would be worse off. A better definition of recession, surely, is a fall in average income per person. On this basis, America has been in recession since the fourth quarter of last year...

Friday, March 14, 2008

When is a scoop not a scoop? When the detail is devilish

Under the headline ‘Small print shows that jobless will top a million’, the Independent reports:

The small print of the Budget has revealed the Treasury is expecting the number of people claiming unemployment benefit to rise from 794,600 to more than a million by the end of 2010.

They’ve certainly done their homework, for this figure doesn’t appear until box C1 on page 183 of the Budget report [PDF].

However, if they’d done ever so slightly more homework, they’d have seen the footnote on the bottom of that page:

This is a cautious assumption based on the average of external forecasts and is not the Treasury’s economic forecast.

And if they’d read the explanation on the previous page of what box C1 actually was about, they’d have known that it was the “key assumptions underlying the fiscal projections” for the next few years, as approved by the National Audit Office. And on the page before that:

The Government uses cautious NAO audited assumptions, including a cautious view of trend growth, to build a safety margin in the public finances against unexpected events.

But these mistakes happen to most of us now and again.

Aye, atollah!

Oliver Kamm reports on the love-in between the Scottish National Party and the Iranian government over nuclear policy.

It would be irresponsible to exploit this news for the making of cheap puns.

Correction: child mortality

My reach has exceeded my grasp. In a post in December I noted with dismay a government report apparently recording that child mortality had worsened under Labour.

It seems that I misunderstood. In that report, an indicator called ‘infant mortality’ was being used as one of many measures of deprivation. But it appears that - in line with the view of poverty as relative rather than absolute - what was actually being looked at was the difference in child mortality rates between socioeconomic groups.

A new report yesterday gives a clearer picture. Since Labour came to power, child mortality per 1000 live births has fallen, from 5.6 to 4.8 across the whole population. Among the ‘routine and manual’ socioeconomic group, the rate also fell, from 6.3 to 5.6.

The fall among the poorer group is a little less than the overall fall: so inequality in child mortality rates has increased since 1997 (although since 2002, it’s fallen).

That’ll teach me to speed-read fat PDFs. It’s something I’m happy to have been wrong about, though.

The media’s taste in politics

Chris blames the mainstream media for much of the poor quality of political debate:

[Journalists] present doubt and disagreement as indecisiveness, incompetence and splits - not as what they are, which is a mature acknowledgement of the complexity of human affairs.

[The mainstream media] acts as a filter, kicking out of politics good intelligent people… whilst promoting vacuous managerialists who can play by the rules.
In this sense, the MSM acts in the opposite way to markets. The great virtue of markets is that they (sometimes) weed out idiots and incompetents; firms who sell over-priced crap eventually go bust.
But thanks to the MSM, the opposite happens in politics; it's those who offer quality who get booted out.

At first, I agreed with this; then I realised that there’s a sad perspective from which it’s wrong.

The situation is like a market: the product is political statements, the producers are politicians, and the consumers are not the general public but the large media organisations.

Of course, the general public do consume political statements, but only in the sense that we also consume corn: overwhelmingly, the corn we consume is not unadulterated stuff from the farmers but heavily processed and prepared corn in foodstuffs mixed with other ingredients by large food companies, who themselves are the direct consumers of the raw corn from farms.

A few of us go to political meetings to hear politicians for ourselves, or look at party websites to read their statements directly, but for the most part we consume them processed, edited and contextualised (i.e. spun) in media reports. These few big MSM organisations are the main target market for political statements: they operate an oligopsony, dominating consumption.

If this is true, we should expect that the types of political statement produced by the supplier come to reflect the tastes of the MSM; if the big organisations have similar tastes in this respect, we should expect the produce to converge in quality; if these tastes are for the simplistic, the dramatic, the brash and the base, then that’s the sort of political statement we should expect to see.

You reckon?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Deafness and the availability of options

I’ve been thinking more during the week about the deaf couple who want to use IVF to select a deaf baby (they have already had one naturally). The father, Tomato Lichy, was interviewed by John Humphrys on Monday. Here’s a chunk of it:

JH: I don't think anybody would say - no sensible person would say - that deaf people are inferior to hearing people, but the fact is that they have a disability: a pretty serious disability. They cannot hear. Surely you have no right to effectively impose that disability on another child? The child doesn't belong to you; the child is a person in its own right.
TL: You say it's a serious disability. I disagree with that. We have an interpreter here for you to be able to understand me. If I go to a deaf club or a deaf academic conference with thousands of deaf people, you would be lost. You're the one with the disability, because you can't use sign language.
JH: Isn't that a slightly perverse point? I, after all, don't need, somebody to sign for me. I can hear the music of Beethoven or listen to a play by Shakespeare or pop music or whatever it happens to be - you can't. So therefore you have a disability. Surely that's simply a fact?
TL: Well, I feel sorry for you, because you haven't acquired sign language, you can't appreciate deaf plays, you can't appreciate deaf poetry, you can't appreciate the joy of being part of the deaf community, the jokes that go on. I feel sorry for you.
JH: But I could learn sign language if I set myself to it - at least I assume that I could. You can't learn to hear.
TL: Yes, but now it's recognised that deaf people do have a culture, a community of their own. You know, in the old days people used to say that deaf people were certainly inferior to hearing people, but recently Baroness Deech said in Parliament: "I hope that your Lordships will be pleased that the deliberate choice of an embryo that is, for example, likely to be deaf, will be prevented by Clause 14". So in saying that, the government is saying quite clearly that deaf people are inferior to hearing people, and it should be that deaf people should never have been born. She's basically saying that she wants deaf people to be stopped from existing.
JH: Well, no, she isn't saying that, is she? What she's saying is that deaf people have the right to exist because they have been born. It would be utterly absurd to suggest otherwise. But there is a great difference between that and making a positive selection so that somebody is born who is not able to hear, as opposed to somebody who is able to hear.
TL: Again, we're talking about different perspectives about what disability means. I don't see myself as disabled. You're not deaf, but you're labelling me as disabled. I could say "Oh, well, black people are disabled. Deaf people have to struggle to achieve equal rights, and gay people could be regarded as being disabled - let's put them into hospitals and make sure that they're cured, make sure they're not born". That's not the case - we do accept that black people and gay people are equal. Why can't you do the same with deaf people?
JH: But we do. I accept entirely that you are equal to me, but I would not presume - and many people I think listening to this programme would not presume - to make a decision on behalf of somebody else. That's the crucial aspect here, isn't it? On behalf of somebody else, an unborn child, that they should have what I said was a disability, and I repeat that.
TL: But that seems to be somewhat contradictory, because you say that deaf people are equal, but then you say, well, it's better not to be born deaf. That seems a contradictory statement. Really, it's up to us as deaf people to decide whether we're disabled or not.

Two things strike me from this: first, the words ‘disabled’ and ‘disability’ are of absolutely no use here; they are loaded and contentious, generating more heat than light. Second, Mr Lichy has some fair points but his argument evaporates round about the words “yes, but” in his third reply here. Pretty much everything that follows is irrelevant to his case.

His remark that “you say that deaf people are equal, but then you say, well, it's better not to be born deaf” is contradictory illustrates the key failure of logic.

It seems that in fighting the prejudice ‘deaf people cannot do certain things, so they are inferior human beings’, there’s been more focus on rejecting the premise than on rejecting the implication. The premise has certainly been exaggerated, but the implication is the really nasty bit: ability does not determine personal worth. Nor does misfortune.

It’s better not to be born with sickle-cell anaemia. It’s better not to lose your leg in an accident. It’s better not to develop arthritis. But being in these situations – or being born deaf – does not mean that you have less than equal worth as a human being.

It does, though, restrict your options.

It’s useful to be able to speak Spanish. This is a skill that will reduce your chances of finding yourself in a situation where you can’t communicate. But if you can’t speak Spanish, that needn’t reflect badly on you: maybe you’ve not had the chance to learn. Or maybe you think the benefits aren’t worth the effort and expense; fair enough, that’s your call.

If you can’t speak Spanish, it’s still useful to be able to learn – even if you currently don’t want to. Facing a closed door is better than facing a locked door. But if you can’t learn Spanish, that needn’t reflect badly on you either: maybe you’re just no good at languages. That’s unfortunate, but you shouldn’t be blamed nor sneered at for that.

So, by analogy: it’s useful to be able to use sign language. This is a skill that will reduce your chances of finding yourself in a situation whereyou can’t communicate. And if you don’t know sign language, it’s useful to be able to learn it – although if you can’t get you head round it, that’s unfortunate – but you shouldn’t be blamed nor sneered at for it.

It’s also useful to be able to hear. This is a skill that will reduce your chances of finding yourself in a situation where you can’t communicate (among other things). And if you can’t hear… well, the category of people who can’t hear but can develop the ability to is limited to cases of temporary deafness (a far more trivial issue) and deaf people who may choose to have cochlear implants – although these are of variable efficacy and not risk-free. So if you permanently can’t hear, that doesn’t reflect badly on you: you shouldn’t be blamed nor sneered at for it.

Being able to hear doesn’t render you unable to use or learn sign language; but being permanently deaf does of necessity restrict your options for communicating. The asymmetry is undeniable. No amount of well-designed infrastructure or accommodating social attitudes will eliminate situations in which being able to hear would be useful.

Deliberately intending that your child should lack certain communicative options can’t be a good idea. Acknowledging that should pose no threat to your cultural identity and self-confidence.

Uncertainty and public borrowing

Here’s a list of the things that can affect public borrowing levels:

  1. Government policy.
  2. Almost anything else.

As he so often does, Chris takes out his well-sharpened crap-cutter and cuts through the crap:

Darling was repeatedly asked: why should we believe your forecasts for public borrowing? His answer was pretty much wibble. But the thing is, there's an answer which is both consistent with reasonable economics, and which defends him. It runs roughly thus:

You shouldn't believe my forecasts. Forecasts for public borrowing have always been subject to huge margins of error. There's a rule of thumb, which dates back at least as far as Nigella's dad, which says that the average error is 1% of GDP for each year of forecasting horizon… That means my forecast for net borrowing of £43bn next year should read £28-58bn, and the £38bn for 2009-10 should read £8-68bn, with a roughly one-third chance of borrowing being outside these ranges.

But the thing is, Darling didn't say anything like this. He preferred to give the impression that he's on top of things, rather than give an economically coherent answer. Which is why I hate Budgets. They are part of a folie a deux, in which both Chancellors and their media interlocuters pretend that it's possible to manipulate the public finances in detail. But the truth is that Chancellors don't have such control.

So, the next time you hear a politician burbling about the ‘black hole’ in their opponents’ spending plans, bear in mind a different (and equally iffy) physics metaphor: the uncertainty principle.

Talking about group rights

Norm argues that groups may have rights, and that they may do so in a way that isn’t a mere aggregation of individual members’ rights:

The right of nations to self-determination is a case in point. The right of the Palestinians to a state of their own and the right of the Jews to a state of their own includes an entitlement to some territory; but this is, irreducibly, a group right. Individual Israelis and Palestinians don't each have a right to a 'bit of a state' that then gets aggregated with all the other rights to other 'bits of a state' into one overall right to a whole state (and territory).

This I find a bit unsatisfactory, not just because of the vagueness of “the Jews” and “the Palestinians”. Are, for instance, Palestinians living as Israeli citizens in Tel Aviv entitled to a Palestinian state? Are Jewish settlers in the West Bank entitled to the ‘Greater Israel’ they claim? What about Jews or Palestinians who’d prefer a one-state solution? To which state does which group have a right?

(I’m talking, as I presume Norm is, of moral rather than legal rights; of the way things should be rather than the way things are.)

The question of definition has to come down, at least in large part, to one of territorial boundaries, as indeed Norm nods at parenthetically: states are, for very good practical reasons, based on physical spaces (even if they might define themselves in terms of religion, ethnicity, ideology, etc.).

So, who has the right to what?

If states are territorial, then the people of that territory have the right to citizenship; that, certainly, is individual. Those of us who believe in democracy will add that citizens have the right to shape the nature of their state and its government; democracy is inherently collective, but participation is individual – and hence the right to participate is too.

Here’s how I’d cast the Israel/Palestine situation: every person of this region has the right to influence the way they are governed, and to form groupings with others in order to do so. The question of what state boundaries should exist here is part – a fundamental part – of this. If the majority of people living in a geographically well-defined area favour separate statehood for that area, then denial of such statehood is an infringement of their democratic rights. These rights, though, are individual: if enough individuals changed their minds, then the moral case for statehood would fade.

‘The people who want to belong to a Palestinian state within such-and-such borders’ is an operative category here, rather than ‘the Palestinians’. The existence of an ethnic group doesn’t create any irreducible collective rights, but voluntary membership of a political group (defined essentially by opinion, even if the focus is on ethnicity) means that rights can be exercised collectively – any talk of a group right here is, I suggest, derivative from the individual rights of the members.

(A complicating factor, of course, is that some people have been unjustly displaced from their land to make way for others. This is, among other things, gerrymandering. It’s hard to say how long it takes for such a state of affairs to turn from an injustice that should be undone to one that cannot reasonably be undone but whose victims should be compensated, and then to a historically uncomfortable status quo. There’s a distinction well worth making between the people of a territory and the people in it.)

I think that everything one might want to say about ‘group rights’ can be said more compellingly and accurately (albeit at greater length; such is life) in terms of the rights of individuals choosing to join together; otherwise there are problems to do with dissenting weaker members.

Norm’s other example doesn’t convince me either:

Equally, an organization can have certain rights - property rights, for example - which the members of the organization only benefit from while, and in so far as, they remain members of it.

I’m not going to get into this in any depth, because it would become too legalistic quite quickly, but I think the rights of an organisation are wholly parasitic on those of its members. If you look at where ultimate power in an organisation formally lies, be it with the director, the shareholders, the trustees or all the members, there you will find individuals. To the extent that these individuals have to defer to the structures of the organisation, this is a matter of legal agreements that they have chosen to enter into.

But whatever the reducibility or otherwise of group rights, I agree wholly with Norm that these “cannot cancel or override fundamental human rights, which are, these, for individuals”. That’s the key point, and it’s another way of bearing in mind my concern about dissenting weaker members.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Offensive to Muslims and Welsh people (and probably people with a decent sense of humour)

The other day, walking down the street, an Irish guy started matching my step and telling me a series of jokes, in the hope of some money at the end. They were mostly awful, but I couldn’t help but laugh. Especially at this (it works better out loud):

Osama bin Laden’s been arrested in Wales for bestiality. But ’e says they’re Islams and ’e’ll do what ’e likes with ’em.

That was worth some money, I thought.

Pre-emptively liveblogging the Budget

I though it would be interesting to liveblog the Budget speech as it happens, but then I realised I’m going to be busy while it’s on.

So I’ve done it in advance.

12.30: The Chancellor takes the dispatch box, to assorted braying from the government and opposition benches. He begins his speech.

What? Oh, he sits down, to more assorted braying from the government and opposition benches. It’s something past one, I think. Sorry, I must have dozed off there.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Self-Publicists Anonymous

Would just joining the group cure you?

Monday, March 10, 2008

The need for opinion-based politics

I’ve never liked communalist politics, whether based on class, race, sexuality or any other demographic category.

Where there are injustices against members of a certain minority, it’s the business of all decent people. If only that minority is expected to fight the injustice, then success will be harder and society will polarise. Conversely, if there is broader concern for a minority injustice, but it takes the form of an uncritical political privileging of the affected group – and its ‘leaders’ – then the whole point is lost.

As Marko Attila Hoare (via HP) says:

All social classes and ethnic groups should be judged by the same standard; none has any inherent nobility greater than the others; all should be subject to criticism but defended when necessary. So long as one places the support of groups above the support of principles, then principles will inevitably degenerate. It is principles, not groups, that should be supported: support social justice and trade-union rights, rather than the ‘working class’ as such; national self-determination, not Croats or Palestinians as such; religious tolerance, not Muslims as such; anti-racism, not Jews or black people as such.
It is humanity as a whole that should be supported; the only principles worth supporting are those that apply to the whole of humanity.

Exactly. I wouldn’t want to be part of any political movement based on ‘people like me’. The exception, of course, is that I’ll join up with people whose opinions are like mine.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Clegg against the system

Nick Clegg says:

We [the British people] are not the problem. It’s the system that’s the problem.

But he contradicts himself.

Which system is it that he’s blaming? The “two-party system”:

No wonder people are tired of politics. Tired of a system that swings like a pendulum between two establishment parties.

Let me tell you a secret: we don’t have a two-party system. We have a system whereby any number of parties can and do contest elections. It just so happens that the same two parties always head the popular vote. They swap positions with each other, but the other parties remain consistently behind.

Who’s responsible for that? We, the British people. The “system” is one in which we periodically and voluntarily change our favourite and second favourite parties, but not our third. We persist in liking the Lib Dems less than Hague and Howard, less than Kinnock and Foot.

Every general election, the Lib Dems tell us that that can take seats off both main parties, that there are ‘no no-go areas’ for them. And they’re right. There is no systemic reason why the Lib Dems couldn’t do better, and they do have some striking individual successes. But anything resembling a breakthrough eludes them. Because that’s how we choose to vote. Consistently, too few of us like them.

Clegg notes, though, that the share of the vote going to Labour and the Tories has fallen. He’s right: even if we look only at England (the nationalist parties make Scotland and Wales different kettles of fish) and only in recent years, we can see this trend.

In the 1992 election, Labour and the Tories shared 79.4% of the English vote between them; in 2005, they took just 71.2%. Where did these votes go? The Lib Dems rose from 19.3% to 22.9%; other parties rose more impressively, from 1.3% to 5.9%. In 1992, the Lib Dems took about 94% of the non-Labour/Tory vote; by 2005, they had dropped just below 80%.

So, while people are becoming more disaffected with the two main parties, it seems that these same people are also increasingly rejecting the third party. There’s no more a two-party system than there is a three-party system.

Turnout has fallen as well, but that of course reflects poorly on all parties.

Anyway, Clegg is going to smash “the system”. Or at least set up a committee to discuss smashing it. Or at least propose setting up a committee to discuss smashing it. Or something.

Deafness, IVF and cultural freedom

I don’t really write about either disability or human fertilisation much at all, so I’m very alert to the possibility of putting my foot in it here. Informed criticism will be even more welcome than usual.

The Observer carries a story today about two deaf parents with a deaf child. The mother is in her early 40s now, and so they may well need IVF to have another child.

Now the couple are hoping to have a second child, one they also wish to be deaf - and that desire has brought them into a sharp confrontation with Parliament. The government's Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) bill, scheduled to go through the Commons this spring, will block any attempt by couples… to use modern medical techniques to ensure their children are deaf.

There is nothing even remotely wrong, or diminishing of personal worth, with being deaf. Infinitely better to live in a society in which deaf people love the way they are rather than being made to feel sub-standard (alas, there’s still far too much of the latter). As the father says:

Being deaf is not about being disabled, or medically incomplete - it's about being part of a linguistic minority. We're proud, not of the medical aspect of deafness, but of the language we use and the community we live in.

I agree that it makes no sense to be proud of “medical aspects” of one’s life: the hand you’re dealt counts far less than how you play it. I also don’t like the lazy, dismissive way that ‘disability’ is often understood – as mere bodily defect. A fully fleshed-out concept of disability has to be defined relative to a given aim, a method, a physical situation and a social context.

The question that brings this couple into conflict with the HFE bill is whether they should be allowed to stack the deck in favour of a new child’s deafness.

The father says:

It is a cornerstone of modern society and law that deaf and hearing people have equal rights. If hearing people were to have the right to throw away a deaf embryo, then we as deaf people should also have the right to throw away a hearing embryo.

I don’t think this contrast is properly set up, though. Hearing and deaf people, under this bill, would equally have the right to prefer hearing embryos to deaf ones; neither hearing nor deaf people would have the right to prefer deaf embryos to hearing ones. The people here have the same rights – unless, of course, you take the view that all embryos are people with human rights. But such a view would play havoc with most existing and proposed law in this area, and I presume it’s not being advanced here.

But there is a double standard in what any parents – hearing or deaf – can favour in IVF. Why? Once we accept that deafness doesn’t impair worth, why not allow parents to pick either way? (There’s another argument that parents shouldn’t be allowed to pick at all; I won’t address that here.)

Think back to the comment – which I think is representative of many deaf people’s opinion – about taking pride in “the language we use and the community we live in”. But why can a hearing child not grow up to become part of that linguistic community? Surely BSL-spoken English bilinguals don’t get cast out by their own parents?

That last remark is somewhat flippant and rhetorical, I confess. It is a very obvious practical fact that being hearing reduces one’s motive to learn sign language. If one has deaf parents, it can also introduce a tension to do with the forms of language available to learn, and how they might be taught. There’s significant scope for difficulty in communication within the family, which is no small concern.

So, while being born deaf presents a certain set of challenges, being born hearing to deaf parents presents another set: we shouldn’t presume the benefits are all on one side and the costs all on the other.

But. I still can’t conceive that the difficulties of growing up hearing with deaf parents match those of growing up deaf. However we shape society so that deaf people are empowered – which we must – there is a real disparity in the opportunities lost in these two situations. As I type, I’m listening to Renée Fleming sing Verdi. I’m certainly not proud that I can do so, but I am glad of it. Other people can’t do this, and that’s nothing to be held against them, but I don’t believe such a condition should be positively sought on someone else’s behalf.

Deaf culture is far richer than most hearing people appreciate, but surely its survival does not depend on the deliberate antenatal recruitment of members via selective IVF? And surely membership is not exclusive – being hearing doesn’t prevent you from enjoying, say, a play in BSL – nor even from writing or acting in one. As Amartya Sen puts it, none of us is ‘monocultural’; and:

The importance of cultural freedom, central to the dignity of all people, must be distinguished from the celebration and championing of every form of cultural inheritance, irrespective of whether the people involved would choose those particular practices given the opportunity of critical scrutiny, and given an adequate knowledge of other options and of the choices that actually exist in the society in which they live.

I’m very suspicious of a cultural group that maintains itself by conscription or by blocking the exit. I hope that such an attitude is in the minority among deaf people.

The Observer piece opens by noting that the deaf couple, of course, love their deaf daughter. Would they have loved her any less had she been hearing? I like to believe that they would not.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Co-opting the counterculture

David Cameron says:
[The internet] has transformed our lives and is now transforming our political culture. It has given birth to a whole new age of political communication and is putting people firmly in control.

The Conservative party recognises these challenges, and we are already adapting to meet them. Last week, we launched our new ad campaign on Facebook.

Their Facebook page appear to be primarily a shiny press release feed and some videos of Cameron. It’s the same dreary political PR in a marginally different format.Which is fine, but it’s not much to shout about.

It certainly doesn’t merit this level of self-congratulation:

I don't think Gordon Brown understands the changes that are happening in our world. He's still too attached to the old politics - where power and decision-making lies in the hands of a few at the very top. My generation, however, instinctively understands these changes. And I'm proud that it's the Conservative party that is leading the way.

Charles Leadbeater cuts through the crap pretty clearly:

As more politicians take to the web, with their carefully calculated YouTube channels and social-network profiles, so they will diminish its radical potential. The web will become a tool for "politics as usual".

(The new Tory slogan is ‘You can get it if you really want’. What was I saying the other day about consumerist politics? Oh well…)


One other feature of their PR campaign is, as Cameron puts it:

We also introduced a new "friends" programme, giving people the opportunity to support us with however small a donation they like. We understand that for many, the idea of signing up to a party as a full "member" doesn't fit with what they want.

That “fit with what they want” sounds perilously like branding bullshit to me (of which I’ve had rather too much this week).

So, what do you get for your paid-for ‘friendship’ with the Conservative Party? This:

By becoming a friend, you’ll be helping us campaign for the change people really want. Donate as much or as little as you like, and help us to get rid of this incompetent Labour Government at the next election.
As a friend, you’ll receive:
  • A weekly newsletter
  • Regular updates on how to get involved in your local community - for example, in one of our Social Action projects
  • Access to our new Affinity Programme, which will give you discounts on a great range of products

Hmm. I pay them to be my ‘friend’, and in return they email me press releases and give me money off various undefined pieces of tat – sorry, “a great range of products”!

Well, I’m not sold. What was I saying the other day about consumerist politics?

Nice quote

Via Martin Rowson:

Saying atheism is a religion is like saying that bald is a hair colour.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The game of the name

Sometimes – and not just when you see George Bush doing a little dance while he’s waiting for John McCain to show up for a photo-op so that they can pretend not to hate one another’s guts – you realise that the world is largely run by specially bred morons given extensive training in drooling gormlessness.

How else to explain this:

A dispute over the name of Macedonia could derail Nato plans to invite three Balkan states to join the alliance.

All 26 members of the alliance have to agree, but Greece has threatened to block Macedonia's bid because of the northern Greek region of the same name.

I mean, really. How likely is there to be any confusion? Is a new shipment of armoured vehicles going to end up in northern Greece by mistake, with some provincial mayor having to find a shed to put them in and fork up the money for the courier?

For comparison, does the Governor of Georgia often come into his office to find the President of Georgia sitting behind his desk? “Gee, Mikheil, you’ve gone and done it again!” “My apologies, Sonny – I was sort of wondering why the commute had taken a bit longer today, and why I couldn’t read any of these memos. D’oh!”

I reckon that hardly ever happens. The whole fuss is stupid.

And yes, I’m sure it’s something to do with ancient enmities, and ethnic groups spilling across borders, and arguments about unification and separatism and all the usual crap, but pretending that the country doesn’t have the name it does isn’t a way of avoiding these issues, and acknowledging its right to call itself what it likes isn’t going to mean the rest of Nato giving them carte blanche to nick some territory.

Grow up. If the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo can manage, then so can the Greeks and the Macedonians.

(Macedonia’s official name at the UN is ‘the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’, which is much like being called ‘the Former Belgian Colony of Rwanda’ or ‘the Former Indonesian Whipping-Boy of East Timor’ or ‘the Former Roman Backwater with Rotten Weather, Unwashed Natives and a Big Wall Towards the Top, Containing a Suspiciously Large Number of Pubs in Which Shakespeare May Once Have Stayed of Britain’.)

The greatest trick the right ever pulled

Harry Mount doesn’t like the new ‘contextual value added’ school league tables:

Have you ever judged a restaurant by the people that eat there, not by the food or the service? Or rated a book because the other readers had a rough childhood?
This is the idea behind the latest school league tables. Along with exam results, the class, ethnicity and gender of the pupils were considered. And so four excellent grammar schools came in the country's worst 100 schools because their intake was too middle class. The wicked lunacy of these criteria - judge an institution not by its standards, but by its clientele - isn't shocking any more because it's so familiar.

“Wicked lunacy”? Taking into account the scale of the task as well as the end result?

The quality of a book manifestly doesn’t depend on the backgrounds of its other readers; and I’m pretty sure we all do partly judge a restaurant by our fellow diners. If a place that serves food I like gets a lot of stag and hen parties in, I’ll probably stay away.

But imagine two surgeons: one treats ingrown toenails, with a patient survival rate of 90%; the other treats gunshot wounds, with a patient survival rate of 85%. Which surgeon is better – the one with the higher rate, or the one doing the harder task?

It’s an enduring and cosy delusion among fans of (overt or de facto) socially selective schooling that the “standards” of such an “institution” are somehow independent of its “clientele”. The schools themselves certainly know this: that’s why they select. The parents know it, too: that’s why the ones who’ve paid top dollar for their catchment areas are angry about the new admission lotteries.

Baudelaire said: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist” (it was borrowed by ‘The Usual Suspects’). The greatest trick of conservative politics is to present itself as not political at all: contentious ideology becomes common sense while disagreement becomes leftist propaganda, political correctness and overbearing statism. Further strengthening the already strong is nothing more than respecting the natural order of things, while strengthening the weak is a dangerous top-down project of upheaval.

Thus the view that it’s “social engineering” to require state schools to be more socially egalitarian in their admissions. Well, actually, I agree that it is; in fact, it’s social engineering to even have a system of state schools providing universal education regardless of ability to pay. And a good thing, too.

But it’s also social engineering – and in a bad way – to argue that the better-run schools in the state system should only be open to a certain class of applicant. It’s not the default, naturally just setting of society for taxpayers to fund educational gated communities for the well-to-do.

A policy of favouring the already advantaged is as much an ideological stance as one of favouring the disadvantaged.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Visible energy as a substitute for creativity

I work for a pretty large organisation (600ish staff) that periodically worries about its image. Yesterday about 20 of us from the Communications department had a brainstorm to think about possible slogans; our current ‘mission statement’ is, while thankfully factual and jargon-free, a bit unwieldy.

We started off with some exercises to ‘get the creative juices flowing’, by splitting into groups and thinking about what sort of drink, celebrity, vehicle or building the organisation would be. This is a branding staple, and the answers are intended to illuminate how the object is perceived.

Except that’s not how it worked. We already know our ‘brand’ – both as it as and as it would ideally be – partly through experience and partly because we’d just sat through a presentation on exactly that.

So the exercise became a matter of recalling those ‘brand values’, deciding what sort of car would ‘fit’ those values, and then explaining it to the others. Then the chair pulled it all together, saying how interesting it was that we’d all coverged on a certain set of values.

My arse.

Then we split back into groups to ‘brainstorm’ slogans. The ones we came up with were a mixture of dull, silly, cringeworthy, clumsy and not half bad. But the end result was just a list; there was no sense of anything being developed.

Maybe some people work well in these settings; I don’t. If you want good ideas out of me, you give me a brief and lock me in a room on my own, preferably with internet access. You give me a little time and space to spew a bunch of ideas onto the screen and then develop the promising ones. But when sitting around with four other people, one of whom is writing a semi-arbitrary selection of things down, it’s very hard to make progress in that way unless one person completely dominates or you’re all on the same wavelength.

If you want a novel or a poem or a play written, you get one person to go off and do it. So why do we imagine that slogans and other small pieces of corporate creativity have to be done in groups? Sure, the group work creates a certain amount of energy in the room, and yes, it was decent fun (by work standards), but that sort of thing doesn’t take you much past monkeys-with-typewriters territory. There’s a lot of scope for making jokes (I produced some funny but unusable rip-offs of actual ad slogans) but not much for focusing any insight.

Creativity isn’t about suddenly producing some gem amid a torrent of dross; it takes work, it takes critical thought, it takes finessing. But somehow the corporate world has got it into its inhuman head that filtering the spasmodic utterances of a group through a hurried scribe is how to be creative. Amid the forced energy, the individual is lost.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Surely sleepwalking burns calories?

Madeleine Davies (or rather a sub writing the standfirst to her piece) asks:

Can we avoid sleepwalking into obesity without the aid of a weight-watching nanny state? Fat chance

Cliché, mixed metaphor, cliché, pun. Bit formulaic, and a bit of a mess.

Don’t let that put you off the article, though. It might be good. I wouldn’t know.

(Boy, I’m feeling petty today. And lazy.)

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Come again?

A suggestion from Denis MacShane:

Men using brothels and massage parlours should be made to give DNA samples

(Hat tip: Unity.)