Thursday, April 30, 2009

Swinish optimism

Our HR department has asked us all to check that our next of kin contact details are up to date.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bad planning, good recovery

Quick-thinking apostrophe use saves the day:

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

People like us don’t have free will, not like those other malicious bastards

This post by Chris reminds me that an awful lot of politics can be explained by the following principle:

  • When people I identify with do unpleasant things, it’s because circumstances have forced them to; when people I don’t identify with do unpleasant things, it’s because they’re bad people.

Living on benefits. Tax avoidance. Industrial action. Crime. War. Terrorism. Any foreign policy issue. My party’s policy. Their party’s policy. It explains all of these things and more – or rather, it explains the knee-jerk attitudes of lazy thinkers to all of these things and more. And lazy knee-jerking counts for a lot.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Who nose?

I’ve just watched the BBC’s Fergus Walsh giving the nation earnest guidance on how best to sneeze (“into the crook of your elbow, not your hand”).

Apparently ducking and covering is handy, too.

I have also failed, over the last few hours, to think of a satisfying way of working the phrases ‘swine flu’ and ‘pigs could fly’ into a not-too-laboured pun.

Work-death balance

One of my colleagues has just got back from holiday. This is roughly how our conversation went:

Me: So did you have a good time?
Her: Yeah, it was great! Not so good to be back, though – last night I was trying to think of a way to avoid having to come in to work again.
Me: I know the feeling. Maybe a serious brain injury?
Her: Or winning the lottery.
(Both double-take.)
Her: A serious brain injury?
Me: Wow. I must be getting desperate.

On reflection, I think winning the lottery would be even better than a serious brain injury.

Anyway, on top of the recession, there’s now a shiny new catastrophe that might get some of us some time off.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Britain becomes more equal

The new Sunday Times Rich List shows the changing fortunes of our economic betters over the last year. It seems that they’ve been hit harder by the credit crunch and recession than certain plebs:

Friday, April 24, 2009

The BNP hates Britain

This little creep Nick Griffin, who makes Robert Kilroy-Silk look like a cross between Cicero and Mandela, cannot bear to accept the way British society has developed. He has nothing to offer our country but poison, lies, hate and fear. His party are no patriots. If being black is unBritish, then their own dark hearts should be first in line for deportation.

British National Party (BNP) chairman Nick Griffin has defended a party leaflet which says that black Britons and Asian Britons "do not exist".
The BNP's "Language and Concepts Discipline Manual" says the term used should be "racial foreigners".
In a BBC interview, Mr Griffin said to call such people British was a sort of "bloodless genocide" because it denied indigenous people their own identity.

The BNP manual, leaked to the anti-fascist group Searchlight and seen by the BBC, says that "BNP activists and writers should never refer to 'black Britons' or 'Asian Britons' etc, for the simple reason that such persons do not exist".
"These people are 'black residents' of the UK etc, and are no more British than an Englishman living in Hong Kong is Chinese.
"Collectively, foreign residents of other races should be referred to as 'racial foreigners', a non-pejorative term... The key in such matters is above all to maintain necessary distinctions while avoiding provocation and insult."

I was wrong: we do still have dragons left to slay.

Update: Safraz Manzoor tears this malignant nonsense apart:

Apparently, I do not exist. This naturally comes as something of a blow as I had a few plans for the weekend which will now need to be cancelled on account of my non-existence.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Brevity is the soul of wit (=26 characters)

The next big small thing:

"I think a lot of people don’t have time to Twitter – it just takes too long to compose a message of 140 characters, and then you start getting bombarded by a few tweets and it’s, like, hundreds of characters that you have to read."
Zak Ryman – CEO, Flutter

Watch the video.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Lefties for effective public spending

Tom P, in a comment at Stumbling & Mumbling, says:

I wouldn't mind seeing a left-wing TaxPayers Alliance. Something that focused on genuine waste and inefficiency at taxpayers' expense, without being refracted through a right-libertarian ideology and suggesting that anything done by the public sector is inherently shit.

He’s right. It makes obvious political sense for right-wingers who see the state – even in a democracy – as an illegitimate, alien imposition that shackles the economy and stifles society to want to sneer at its every (debatable) failure, inefficiency and overreach.

But left-wingers who think there’s real need for what the state does ought to be keen to cut down on waste and inefficiency. If we think the public sector is so vital, then we should view the taxpayers’ money that funds it as sacrosanct. (Tom might be interested in The Other TaxPayer’s Alliance, although they seem to be mostly about critiquing the original TPA.)

Despite the right-wing caricatures, we don’t – not even Gordon Brown, not even Polly Toynbee – believe in taxing for its own sake. We believe in what can be achieved with the money raised in tax, and so we should want the maximum bang for the public’s buck. This is very different from being generically anti-state and highlighting waste as ground for reducing the scope of the public sector. It’s about maximising effectiveness in terms of good outcomes rather than merely minimising inefficiency.

The only worry (at least, for Labour) is political: in taking up the cause of making ‘cost savings’ – as the government intermittently does – would we help to legitimate the small-state brigade or cut the ground from under their feet? A lot depends on language. Phrases like ‘trimming the fat from the wasteful state’ have very different overtones from ‘making our public services more effective’.

Then again, I’m a bit of a verbose pseud and probably not the best person to be devising slogans…

Saturday, April 18, 2009

‘The executive must take tighter control to stop its own power grab’

Today’s Independent leader sounds off about civil liberties, weaving some recent incidents together as demonstrating “the unaccountable and rampant executive arm of the British state”.

The piece manages to a make a couple of fair points along the way, but too much of it is a mish-mash of standard Indy fare. It concludes:

Those who warned that the executive's power grab would end in an unacceptable erosion of our freedoms have been vindicated. The Government was warned when the council surveillance Bill was going through Parliament that it was too loosely drafted and gave too much power to local authorities. …
We need a completely new approach. Any powers granted to public authorities to protect public safety must come with strict conditions of accountability. The police, in particular, need to be brought under much tighter control.
Whichever party forms the next government needs to take back those powers that should never have been conferred. But more than this, it must expunge the mentality that says security always trumps freedom. It is time our arrogant executive was put back in its rightful place.

This is incoherent. How can giving “too much power to local authorities” represent an executive “power grab”? How can “strict conditions of accountability” and “much tighter control” for bodies such as police forces constitute a diminution of the “rampant executive”?

As I say, the editorial isn’t completely nonsensical, but any substantial case it might have is deeply submerged beneath a torrent of boilerplate gripes that gives the impression of having been hastily cobbled together after a good Friday lunch.

Friday, April 17, 2009

McBrideshead revisited

A couple more thoughts following the McBride smear affair.

Gordon Brown’s apology, while correct, was pitifully, pointlessly, self-destructively late. Whatever this episode might or might not say about his ‘character’, it gives us yet another reminder that the man has all the political skills of a drunken, incontinent Visigoth warrior at a meeting of the Cheltenham Women’s Institute (or of a G20 riot officer when confronted with a bolshie protestor and half a dozen cameras).

And this quote is a stunning vortex of doublethink:

I take full responsibility for what happened. That's why the person who was responsible went immediately.

(Liam has also spluttered about this line. It’s surely up there with Blair’s “today is not a day for soundbites, we can leave those at home, but I feel the hand of history upon our shoulder”…)

Secondly, John Lloyd has an interesting angle in the FT:

The Conservatives, rightly, have made the McBride e-mails a large issue. They must, however, reflect on the last time George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, was comprehensively smeared. In October 2005, the News of the World published a picture of Mr Osborne, aged 22, posing with a self-confessed prostitute and cocaine user. Mr Osborne strongly denied the prostitute’s claim that the white powder visible in the photograph was cocaine. The editor of the News of the World at the time, Andy Coulson – forced to resign in 2007 over a separate scandal, the interception of messages between senior members of the royal family – is now head of communications for David Cameron, the Conservative leader.
Mr Coulson was hired not for his political but for his media nous. He had, self-confessedly, little interest in politics, having reported on show-business and celebrities before being elevated to the editorship – although, in an interview with Tony Blair before the 2001 election, he asked the then prime minister whether he and his wife Cherie had joined the “mile-high club” (had sex in an aircraft toilet). In appointing him to such a key post, Mr Cameron was signalling, both to the media and to his party, that he would mould the Conservatives’ presentation around tropes that a tabloid professional would judge had most impact.

So rather than a ‘change of culture’ (as Cameron urges), there may eventually be more of this to come.

(And I do love that somebody, presumably an FT sub, decided that readers needed to be told what the mile-high club is.)

Political gossip, character and Goodhart’s law

Shuggy and Chris (among others) have been pondering the political media’s focus on personalities and why so many people seem to lap up gossip and muck. Shuggy’s sister suggested to him that it’s:

the political equivalent of magazines like Closer or Heat - the sort of journals that publish pictures of celebrities with their cellulite or acne on show, enlarged and helpfully circled with a yellow pencil in case you missed it. … It's what rather a lot of people appear to want - politics like their culture; something nasty, brutish and short.

I think that’s true. Whoever it was that said “politics is show business for ugly people” is being increasingly proved right.

One of the things about celebrity is that once you’ve achieved fame in whatever field (acting, singing, legislating), your activities outside of that field start to get public attention and so your status as a celebrity becomes independent of your main work. So we can follow what Madonna’s getting up to in her personal life without needing to have the slightest idea of when she last actually did something musical.

This is great for political celebrities. As everyone knows, politics is bo-ring. All those issues and policies and ideologies. Yawn! But once we’ve been forced to learn a few of the names and faces involved, then we’ve got a human angle. We’ll still talk about them with a sort of political slant, but that’s just a pretext to chew over what Gordon’s really like, how David and George really get on, and whether Charlie and Ming are ever going to do a comeback tour.

Chris adds some thoughts on why it’s a bad idea to fixate on ‘character’. But he also argues the other side:

one of the most important questions to ask of a potential leader is: how will he respond to unforeseeable events? … Perhaps - only perhaps - character, more than policy statements and ideology, can tell us how leaders will respond to the unforeseeable.

He has a point. But I’m not sold on the idea that we should focus politics on the judging of our (would-be) leaders’ characters to the exclusion of assessing the quality of policies. The reason is Goodhart’s law. To lazily take the Wikipedia summary:

once a social or economic indicator or other surrogate measure is made a target for the purpose of conducting social or economic policy, then it will lose the information content that would qualify it to play such a role.

If we use character as the main indicator of who should run the country, then our indicators of politicians’ characters won’t be reliable, as they’ll have great incentive to manipulate the information we get about them.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

I hate flat-hunting

Maybe I should murder a few estate agents. Then the government would sort me out with free accommodation for the rest of my life. Plus I wouldn't have to keep coming into work.

One After 909

When I first saw, on the Let it Be album sleeve, that there was a song called ‘One After 909’, I thought: ‘Well, that would be 910, surely?’

This is my 910th post, and so the perfect pretext for me to tick another item off my list of Odd Little Things I’ve Had Quietly Sitting Around In My Head For Too Long. Also, methinks, a good pretext to talk about that song.

‘One After 909’ is a long, long way from being the best Beatles song (it didn’t figure in the results of the Normblog Beatles poll a while back), but that still leaves plenty of room for it to be pretty good. And it is remarkable, for being – as far as I know – the Beatles song that spent the longest time in gestation.

It was released, as everyone knows, in 1970 on Let it Be, having been recorded in January 1969 (part of the famous rooftop concert):



But a few takes of it were recorded way back in March 1963; these eventually appeared on Anthology 1 in 1995. There are a couple of false starts, with some entertaining banter each time a take breaks down; then, from about 2’20 to 5’20, there’s a complete version:



Even then, though, it was a golden oldie. It had been a regular feature in Quarrymen/Beatles gigs in the late 50s/early 60s. John Lennon told Rolling Stone magazine that he’d written it when he was 17 or 18 – which would date it to maybe 1958. A (poor-quality) Quarrymen demo tape of it still survives from spring 1960:



Interesting that the 1963 version is slower, and that the 1969 version is very true to the sound of the early days.

More info here and here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed

I don’t mean to sound violent, but can somebody please blow those Saudi theocratic child-abusing bastards off the face of the Earth?

Between the lines

If you think a lot of crap has been talked (on whatever side) about the Damian McBride muckraking, this should impress you. The Times has set a graphologist on Gordon Brown’s letter to Nadine Dorries.

Graphology, whatever its merits (you have no idea how hard I’m restraining myself here), really is much easier when you know who the writer is, exactly what the context of the writing is, and have a huge amount of media amateur psychoanalysis on which to draw.

We can discern from “the ‘t’ bars high on the stem early on in the letter” that Brown “likes to be in charge”; however, “the central cross of the ‘t’ bar farther on in the text” balances this with the revelation that “he also has a sense of responsibility”. Strewth.

Next week: analysis of the Pope’s handwriting suggests that he has Catholic leanings, and inspection of bear faeces, possibly by Dr Gillian McKeith PhD, reveals a liking for woodland habitat.

[Update: I originally made a thinko in this post and said Damian Green rather than Damian McBride. Now corrected.]

Sunday, April 12, 2009

‘I’m gonna live forever’

Rowenna Davis says:

Unlike many other taxes, raising inheritance tax is not likely to distort incentives.

Ah, but no. Inheritance tax, aka ‘death duties’, can be a powerful disincentive to dying. If you know that once you kick the bucket, Gordon Brown is going to grab a chunk of your estate and give it to chavs to buy fags, knives and scratchcards, then you’ll be powerfully motivated to avoid popping your diamond-encrusted clogs.

Indeed, I think it’s now beyond serious dispute that inheritance tax is the main reason for differences in life expectancy between different socioeconomic groups. Thus, on grounds of social justice, we should abolish it.

This relates to a proposal I’ve made before: rather than punish the wealthy for being wealthy and reward the poor for being poor, we should try create some sort of economic disincentive to poverty. Hard to imagine such a thing, but I’m sure the policy wonks could come up with something...

Four words for Damian McBride

And don't come back.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Who watches the watchers watching us watching them?

Bob Quick’s career is sunk because he let himself be photographed while carrying papers displaying details of a counter-terrorist operation. Pesky zoom lenses.

The unnamed riot officer who assaulted Ian Tomlinson will (presumably) be sunk by his rotten luck in being captured on film (as well as the rotten luck of having his victim die shortly afterwards, although on that count I’m more inclined to sympathise with Mr Tomlinson and his family).

As we know, only the innocent have anything to fear from surveillance.

On that subject, I’ve seen this ad in a couple of Tube stations lately:

The caption reads:

A bomb won’t go off here because weeks before a shopper reported someone studying the CCTV cameras

So, rather than CCTV cameras being there to watch us for our own protection, we’re now supposed to watch them for their own protection, as well as watching anyone else who might be watching them for nefarious purposes… My head hurts.

“In good Catholic eyes a person's sexual orientation does not matter” my arse

Vincent Nichols, the new Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, talking this week about advertising for condoms and abortions:

One of the things I regret is that too often in our society a person's whole identity is shaped by their sexuality, or by their sexual orientation. In good Catholic eyes a person's sexual orientation does not matter.

And yet:
Before new sexual orientation laws, guaranteeing equality in goods and services for the gay community were introduced in April 2007, Archbishop Nichols said the legislation contradicted the faith's "moral values". Speaking at a mass at St Chad's Cathedral in Birmingham, he said: "It is simply unacceptable to suggest that the resources of the faith communities ... can work in co-operation with public authorities only if the faith communities accept not simply a legal framework, but also the moral standards at present being touted by government."
He failed in his attempts to get the Catholic adoption agencies exempted from sexual orientation regulations, which forced them to consider gay couples as parents.

By pure chance, yesterday I was watching the Father Ted episode ‘A Song for Europe’, in which Ted and Dougal get picked as Ireland’s entry in the Eurosong Competition:

Charles Hedges, the producer of the show talks to Ted in their dressing room. Ted mistakes the show’s host as being Charles professional partner…
Charles: No, he’s my lover
Ted: (dumbfounded) … he’s, he’s quite a catch! This is my partner, Father Dougal McGuire – not my sexual partner! I mean my partner that I do the song with.
Charles: Yes, I guessed that
Ted: Of course you did – not that there’s anything wrong with that type of thing
Charles: I thought the Catholic Church thought that type of thing was inherently wrong
Ted: Yes, it does. The whole ‘gay’ thing. I suppose it’s a bit of a puzzle to us all. It must be fun though – not the… you know, but the night clubs and the whole rough and tumble of homosexual activity. You know, having boyfriends when you’re a man! Anyway, don’t mind what the church thinks – it used to think the Earth was flat! You know, sometimes the Pope says things he doesn’t really mean. We all get things wrong – even the Pope.
Charles: What about Papal infallibility?
Ted: Yes… Is it for everything? The infallibility, do you know?
Charles: I don’t know
Ted: Right, anyhow, nothing to do with me…

And, in other news, ‘Panicked, Sweat-Covered Pope Reverses Longstanding Ban On Abortion’.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The scourge of Keplarism

The latest post from Alonzo Fyfe deserves a wide readership. Not that I can give it one, of course, just doing my bit:

I consider it to be a moral imperative that we take action to combat the habit of teaching, in our public schools, the doctrine that the sun, and not the earth, is the center of the solar system.

This theory was first proposed by Johannes Keplar. Since then, Keplarists have taken control of the scientific community, driving out all other competing theories. These days the scientific community is involved in its own crusade to demand that all scientists adhere (or, at least, publicly profess) allegiance to the Heliocentric theory.

Unfortunately, when we teach children that the earth is a mere speck of dust circling the sun, and not the center of the universe, they cannot help but draw the conclusion that neither they nor the rest of humanity has any special significance. …
We can see the problem by simply noting the historical fact that, throughout history, no regimes have killed as many people or done as much harm to their fellow human beings then those regimes that were lead by Keplarists. Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot, every one of these leaders – responsible, between them, for hundreds of millions of deaths – were Keplarists. …
I want to remind the reader that Keplarism is just a theory. It is known, even among scientists, as the heliocentric THEORY of the solar system. It is not a fact, and it should not be taught as if it were a fact. …

Read it all.

It’s a good deal, that’s all

The astute and lucid (but excitable) Fraser Nelson, as he often does, lets his yearning to damn the government overpower his better judgement:

There are ominous signs of the markets bracing themselves for [hyperinflation]. An increasing number of mortgage advisers are telling clients to take low five-year fixed deals while they still last.

Oh, come on. I plan to buy a flat in the next couple of months, and I don’t need a mortgage adviser to tell me to go for a low five-year fix while they’re available. Interest rates are at their lowest ever and this simply will not last. I’m not aware of anyone who doesn’t think rates will be back to more normal levels within a few years.

Not everything is proof that Gordon Brown is the worst thing since sliced bread was banned.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Not half

For my own good, I need to learn to stop being appalled at just how much education and how much writing experience it’s possible to accumulate without knowing that one introduces a list with a colon, not a semicolon.

Mild brutality

That video shows Ian Tomlinson’s treatment by the police at (or rather just next to) the G20 protests.

Did this contribute to his death shortly afterwards? Hard to say without a post mortem, but the coincidence would be staggering. Could the police have reasonably expected this treatment to lead to his death? No: it’s a whack on the leg and then shoving him over; he didn’t seem at all injured. As police brutality goes, it’s pretty mild. Does that matter? Not really: his treatment was an unprovoked assault, and even if he’d been fine afterwards, it would still merit that policeman’s head rolling.

I wonder how many other such assaults took place that day.

Bad debt and the nightmare of the anti-stimulus

This week the Institute for Fiscal Studies published a gloomy report [PDF] on the UK public finances, estimating that the government’s budget deficit will climb to 10.4% of GDP in 2009/10 and 10.5% in 2010/11.

On current policy assumptions, the IFS projects total national debt to peak at over 70% of GDP in a few years – or, if you include what the International Monetary Fund estimates we might lose on bailing out the banks, over 80%.

Against this background, the report blows a gentle raspberry at the thought of further substantial fiscal stimulus.

Not good. The best that can realistically be hoped for in Alistair Darling’s Budget later this month is some targeted assistance for a few particularly needy groups.

But things could be worse.

A real debt crisis is when your public finances have been shredded to the point where not only can you not dare a fiscal stimulus to fight the recession but you actually have to tighten fiscal policy – raising taxes and cutting spending – in a desperate bid to slightly reduce your budget deficit. And you find yourself doing this even though that very policy will make the recession worse.

Welcome to Ireland, where yesterday’s emergency ‘Supplementary Budget’ [PDF] did just that:

Prior to the corrective action taken in this Supplementary Budget, a General Government deficit of -12¾ per cent of GDP was anticipated for 2009.

a General Government Deficit of -10¾ per cent of GDP is now forecast for 2009.

It is estimated that the level of economic activity will be reduced by about 1 percentage point on foot of the Supplementary Budget.

Ouch. Is this a good idea for Ireland? Is trimming two percentage points off a huge deficit really worth cutting the already-plummeting GDP by another point? I’m not sure, but Stephanie Flanders of the Beeb has some thoughts. The aim is to improve market confidence in the government’s finances, but one risk is that this hits consumer confidence to the point where the contractionary effect of the anti-stimulus is bigger than expected, and so the budgetary improvement is smaller than expected. It’s playing with fire.

Any lessons for the UK? Ireland’s recession is much worse than ours, and its borrowing and debt seem due to shoot up by more than ours (albeit from a lower base and so to a comparable level) over the next couple of years. But generally, the smaller your economy, the more public debt the markets will tolerate (which is why the USA can get away with such a huge stimulus).

Given that the Irish government’s credit rating has been downgraded and ours hasn’t, it seems that we’re not in the same dire straits. Calls for more big fiscal stimulus here may be whistling in the wind, but any fiscal tightening mid-recession (à la early 1980s) would be unwarranted and dangerous.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Because all roads in life lead to Spaghetti Junction

Paulie is concerned that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is being outpaced by the recent atheist bus adverts, and the Christian ones that followed it. He’s asking for donations to set up a Pastafarian bus ad campaign.

Already taken care of, my brother:


(This piece of guerrilla advertising has been brought you by the fundamentalist al-Dente network. With some help from here.)

Bad science

In our office canteen, there are leaflets from the Raw Food School, explaining the many reasons to adopt a raw food diet (or rather, “a Raw Food diet”). As well as a range of general health benefits (“No matter who you are, you can experience all these changes on a Raw Food diet”), it lists 25 “illnesses, conditions and symptoms” that “Raw Food is known to have healed or helped”, ranging from mood swings to cancer.

Then, joy of joys, we get the science bit:

When we are born, we are given a limited reserve of Enzymes that are necessary to keep our body system in working order throughout the entire duration of our lifetime. The only additional source of Enzymes we can get comes from the food that we eat. Problems arise when food is cooked above 44˚C (112 degrees Fahrenheit) when Enzymes are completely destroyed by heat during the cooking process.
When eating cooked food, the body needs to draw essential Enzymes from the limited natural pool supplied at birth in order to digest the food. Imagine drawing money out of a bank account that is never topped up. Eventually, it will run out. Its exactly the same with Enzymes.
If we continue to eat cooked foods and do not replace Enzymes by eating Raw Food, we eventually begin to use up our bodies’ Enzymes reserves. Without these Enzymes, cooked food is stored in our bodies as toxins, which can than lead to all kinds of diseases and illness.
Ageing is really nothing more than the body running out of Enzymes. Stop withdrawing Enzymes and instead start depositing Enzymes to build, cleanse and heal your body.

At this point I should mention that the place I work is a medical research charity. We employ a lot of people who, to put it bluntly, know stuff. But you don’t need PhD-level expertise to be able to suspect that this wittering about Enzymes (or, as those of us without £290 ‘Raw Foods Transformation’ courses to sell call them, enzymes) is in fact bollocks.

Yes, high temperatures do destroy enzymes. But so do our stomach acids. We do not take over the use of the enzymes in the food we eat; different species have their own enzymes for different purposes. And our bodies create new enzymes all the time, using as (so to speak) raw material the food we eat – whether cooked or not. Ageing is not “running out of enzymes”, and if you eat only raw food you will still age and die.

I don’t suggest that there aren’t any health benefits to eating more raw and less cooked food, but this bullshit about enzymes is painfully bad pseudo-science.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Grand National for beginners

A commentator on the radio:

If there’s one man you don’t want behind you, it’s Tony McCoy.

It’s a race. Would you rather have him in front of you?

Friday, April 03, 2009

Capital clarity

PooterGeek responds to my post arguing that there’s no reason to use title case for ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ in their political senses; he suggests just such a reason.

His broad approach, which is utterly correct, is that such decisions should be made on the basis of what gives clarity for the reader. He offers, for instance, this:

“Gordon Brown always positioned himself on the left of Tony Blair at full meetings of Cabinet.”

Left and right (and centre) are words with more than one meaning; as this illustrates, there’s a risk of ambiguity. PooterGeek suggests that the above would be about seating positions, while the following would be about political stances:

“Gordon Brown always positioned himself on the Left of Tony Blair at full meetings of Cabinet.”

This is a fair challenge to what I’d said – I hadn’t thought of any reasons for this distinction. But, as a solution to the problem of ambiguity, I have just two quibbles with this: it’s insufficient and it’s unnecessary.

Remember that the aim of all this is to communicate clearly. I quite agree that the capitalised version is unambiguously meant in a political sense; the capitalisation will jar with some readers, but if we’re faced with a choice between smoothness and clarity, clarity must win.

However, the physical location version (“positioned himself on the left of Tony Blair”) is not unambiguous.

One can’t expect all one’s readers to have intimate familiarity with one’s own house style guide. The use of title case for Left and Right is far from universal – indeed, I’d guess it’s not even majority usage (the Times, Telegraph and Sun do it; the Guardian, Independent, FT, Mirror, Mail, Express and Economist don’t). This lack of consensus means a writer or editor can’t assume that readers will know that this publication is one that does employ the Left/left distinction, and so “on the left” here could suggest either politics or seating.

So this use of title case won’t in itself remove the scope for ambiguity. Something else is needed. And, indeed, that something else will do the job without any need for title case.

There are plenty of words with more than one meaning that can be used to create ambiguous sentences. Left, right and centre are examples. But in desiring clarity, the wrong question to ask is whether we can construct such ambiguities; the right question is whether we can avoid them without the use of special typographical tricks.

The three examples PooterGeek gives are ambiguous when taken in isolation; when part of a longer piece of writing, the meaning will usually be made clear by the context. But even setting this aside, we can try to rephrase.

In the above case, “Brown always seated himself on the left of Tony Blair” and “Brown always adopted a view to the left of Tony Blair’s” (or “Brown always presented himself as being more left-wing than Tony Blair”) would do.

To PooterGeek’s other examples:

“Nick Clegg was at the centre of a row between two long-opposed factions within the LibDems yesterday evening.”

This could be rendered as either “Clegg was the focus of a row” or “Clegg took a view somewhere between two long-opposed factions”.

“When David Cameron confronted last week’s meeting of the No Turning Back group with this apparent contradiction, many observers wondered if he was addressing his question to the right wing of the party.”

This could work with either “the appropriate wing” or “wondered which wing of the party he was addressing”.

I suggest that in all instances where left, right and centre can be presented as ambiguous between political and other meanings, we can rephrase, without clumsy verbosity, to avoid this ambiguity.

So I still think that the Left/left-Right/right distinction serves no purpose, and it has a real oddness on the page: title case has certain well-defined uses, and resolving ambiguities and vague political terms are mostly not among them. Given this, I think we should avoid it.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Put an end to capitalism

One thing that always bewilders me about the Times and the Telegraph is their habit of using title case for ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ - and even, in today’s Times leader, ‘Centre’:

The Centre Left, by contrast with the Centre Right, has an opportune message and a clutch of would-be messengers. … There is a vacancy for a messenger with a coherent message for a global audience, waiting to govern from the Right.

These capitals make absolutely no sense to me. ‘The left’ and ‘the right’ are generalised, vague descriptions, not proper names of political movements. These terms should surely be treated in the same way as ‘socialism’, ‘democratic’, ‘moderate’ and any other number of other political labels.

To the best of my knowledge, they don’t use title case for ‘far’, so why it should apply to ‘Centre’ I have no idea.

And even in a narrower context, we still see (here in the Telegraph) the likes of “a Labour Right-wing anti-marketeer of the old school”.

To capitalise ‘Right’ here suggests that it’s a distinct grouping, some of whose members are Labour and some not. But the right wing of the Labour Party is, by the standard of the Conservatives, still left-wing. The Labour right and the Tory right are wholly distinct, not sharing any political beliefs that, say, the Tory left doesn't. This usage is category-dependent and can only serve to compare one part of that category (the Labour right) with another (the Labour left). You might as well talk about ‘a Tall office block’ and ‘a Tall man’ as if Tallness is the key identifying feature that both share.

The style seems archaic, but that’s not the problem: the problem is that it’s senseless.

Update: PooterGeek has replied, and in turn so have I.

It takes two to have a global economic imbalance

Quote of the day from Jeremy Warner:

The Germans have sneered at Britain's credit-fuelled, free-spending ways and rightly predicted that they would end badly, but who did they think were buying their BMWs and Miele vacuum cleaners? The tooth fairy?

If Britain, the USA and other countries that have been running current-account deficits will need to start saving more, then Germany, Japan, China and other countries with surpluses will need to start spending more.