Wednesday, January 26, 2011

William McGonagall and the GDP figures

To describe William McGonagall as the worst poet in Scottish history is to insult the rest of the world by implication. His style was excruciatingly, hilariously terrible – and eminently spoofable, although it’s very hard to do a rip-off that’s as so-bad-it’s-good as the original. But I thought the new GDP figures (in time for Burns Night) gave a suitably momentous occasion for a poor tribute.

Lament for the Wintry Loss of Gross Domestic Product

Upon the birthday of one of the two giants of Caledonian verse
A startling signal came that the economy had taken a turn for the worse,
And fears of recession were raised once again,
For gross domestic product had fallen in the last quarter of two thousand and ten.

Having enjoyed twelve months of reasonable growth
Many had feared the pace might now drop towards that of a sloth.
But woe! It was announced that GDP had fallen by 0.5 per cent
And economists aghast were forced to wonder where the recovery went.

Some counselled that this was an early estimate and subject to revision,
Yet those charged with writing headlines treated such caution with derision;
And the myriad writers of web-logs wasted little or no time
In publicising their interpretations, typed out line by line.

Critics of the government decreed that it surely had blundered
By causing the destruction of one pound in every two hundred:
Its policies for the substantial reduction of public spending
Had doubtless contributed to the recovery’s untimely ending.
These cuts were mostly yet unleashed, it must be noted in the government’s defence;
Yet its portentous talk of them had doubtless ailed consumer confidence.

But surely none could wholly deny the Chancellor’s claim
That people heart-broken by the economic news should not apportion him all the blame
Because Nature had cast upon our fair land a most ferocious frost,
Which had exacted from many industries a severe cost
And accounted for some of the GDP that had been so tragically lost.

The month of December had brought weather most snowy and cold,
Causing discomfort and inconvenience to young and old
When winter’s chilling hand of our nation took hold;
There was more disruption to businesses than can easily be told
As workers were cruelly kept from travelling due to the extreme cold
And great depths of snow meant fewer of retailers’ wares could be sold.

Whatever the causes may be of this tragic decline in national wealth
Or the merits of proposals to restore industry to ruder health,
Naught but time shall deign to tell whether this truly is a double-dip
Or but a temporary financial eddy o’er which sails our troubled ship.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sticks and stones and Tory-led coalitions

Labour has executed a small, but smart bit of media handling:

Ed Miliband's office is writing to the BBC, ITV and Sky demanding they stop describing it as a coalition and instead use Labour's preferred description, a Tory-led government.

Everyone knows that the government is a coalition in which the Conservatives are the larger party and the Lib Dems the smaller party. To describe it as “the coalition government”, “the Conservative-led government” or indeed anything other than “the government” is to specifically draw people’s attention towards one aspect of it.

If the modifier is factually accurate, then that’s fine – as long as the context makes it reasonable to highlight that aspect. “Lib Dem backbenchers have been arguing for X, but the Conservative-led government is maintaining its policy of Y” – fine. “Despite tensions, the coalition government shows no sign of breaking up” – fine.

Otherwise, you’re making a political point. And unless you’re a news reporter who needs to present things neutrally, that’s fair game. Labour calculates, probably rightly, that “Tory-led” is likely to make some left-leaning Lib Dems less keen on the government. And the Tory and Lib Dem leaderships calculate, also probably rightly, that the word “coalition” makes them seem to be doing lovely things such as making sensible compromises, forming a consensus, putting aside partisanship for the greater good. But whatever effects this language has are probably marginal.

(I’d love to see an opinion poll testing the effect of the word “coalition”. For instance, ask half the sample “Do you think the government is acting in the whole country’s interests/understands the problems faced by people like you/whatever?” and ask the other half “Do you think the coalition government…”)

Now. Miliband’s people will not get the news media to start using “Tory-led” in standard reporting. But, as James Forsyth says, “I suspect that this whole row will rumble on for a while yet. It is tempting to dismiss the whole thing as absurd, as only of interest to a few journalists and spin doctors. But labels do matter.”

Yes. And while this spat is not going to achieve its nominal aim – as Krishnan Guru-Murthy says, “because of the associated controversy my own view is currently that I should avoid the phrase [‘Conservative-led’]”. But the effect is that “coalition” has now been outed as a politically loaded term. So we may well see less of it. Guru-Murthy again: “However the exclusive use of ‘coalition’ feels equally unfair and controversial”.

Sentencing policy

I enjoyed Adam Haslett’s review of How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish. I’ve heard Fish’s name around but don’t know his work at all. The book looks pretty interesting.

I have few ambitions that I’m aware of, but one of them is to implement a forward-looking raft of proposals to action sustainable enhancements with respect to my capabilities in the area of impactful prose production in order to deliver on the objective of the progressive maximisation thereof.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A song and dance about Iraq

Typo of the day:

Doing things with words

I’m writing very little here these days, so to sort-of make up for that, here are two people writing about writing:

Cathy Relf reports on a debate between David Marsh and Simon Heffer, style guide supremos of the Guardian and Telegraph respectively.

Tim Radford has 25 tips for journalists (with a lot of them applicable to other types of writer).

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A wake-up call

I’m going to forgo an extended rant about Nick Clegg’s new name for his target voters, “Alarm Clock Britain” – the phrase is only marginally stupider than Miliband’s “squeezed middle”, Cameron’s “great ignored”, Blair’s “Mondeo man”, Hague’s “pebbledash people” or every dreary bugger’s “hard-working families”.

All I will say is that for many people, the alarm clock is the most feared and hated thing in life; Clegg is one of the few people who might be able to boost his popularity by associating himself with it.

Me, I’m hitting the snooze button.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

First past the alternative postal vote

The Independent on Sunday has asked ten “leading advertising agencies” to design billboard posters for the two sides of the AV referendum campaign. They’re all terrible, but this one from King and Tuke did at least make me smile:

Ten anorak points to the first person who can explain the unintended irony.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mr Deputy Prime Minister…

It's Nick Clegg’s birthday today! Cameron and Osborne have got him a cake, and he’s going to help them cut it.


I said, he’s going to help them CUT - oh, never mind.

(You might retort that it’s Brown’s fault for having cooked an irresponsibly large amount of cake to start with, but I bet if he’d done that he’d have won a landslide.)

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Control nudges: the big society fights terror

David Cameron wants to ‘nudge’ us towards better behaviour rather than nanny us, and “has now established a ‘behavioural insight team’ in Downing St to look at ways of changing behaviours without increasing taxes or introducing penalties”.

He also wants to find a new way to stop people killing us all: “The control order system is imperfect. Everybody knows that. … It hasn't been a success. We need a proper replacement”.

Well, this is simple. Rather than those illiberal, statist control orders, we could introduce a system of modern, subtle control nudges – a counter-terrorism strategy fit for the big society.

For instance: terror suspects would be able to leave their homes, but rather than wearing electronic tags they’d wear iPods programmed to play UK Eurovision Song Contest entries on repeat while out of the house. They’d still be free to go and blow things up, but having to listen to this would be a powerful deterrent. In that event that they did still choose to proceed on their mission, this would admittedly be unlikely to change their minds about the merits of the British way of life. On the other hand, it would encourage them to set off their suicide bomb as soon as possible rather than waiting until they’d arrived at their intended target.

They would no longer have their telephones tapped, but in advance of each conversation with their co-conspirators they’d have to ring BT customer services to get their line specially connected for the call. While it’s true that BT customer services is the greatest contributor to violent radicalisation that the world has ever seen, the prospect of going through such an ordeal would daunt even the most dedicated jihadi.

Furthermore, terror suspects would no longer be subject to 28 days’ detention without charge. However, all bomb detonators (I presume there are specialist shops that sell them) would come with timers pre-set to 28 days. This would give those angry youngsters time to calm down and reflect on whether they really want to be doing this. It will also enable police to catch them in the act, as someone standing in a public place for four weeks, wearing a backpack and repeating “Allahu Akbar” while clutching a clock with a big red button on it, will be reasonably easy to spot.

The detonators would still be reprogrammable for shorter times – we mustn’t deny these people their rights, after all – but in order to do so, the aspirant bomber would have to interact with the Microsoft Office paperclip. A gentle, but surely unconquerable, last line of defence. Nudge, nudge.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Campaign for Real Tea

Christopher Hitchens has written a fine piece about one of the greatest cultural and geopolitical matters of our time: how to make a decent cup of tea (via Norm).

He covers sugar policy and milk tactics – and, while I think he’s a little too prescriptive on the former (personally I’m a sucrophile but I’m happy to be libertarian about this), he’s absolutely right that the only way to ensure you add the right amount of milk is to add it, i.e. after the tea.

And, as Norm rightly identifies, the most important issue is this:

ground [coffee] beans are heavier and denser [than tea leaves], and in any case many good coffees require water that is just fractionally off the boil. Whereas tea is a herb (or an herb if you insist) that has been thoroughly dried. In order for it to release its innate qualities, it requires to be infused. And an infusion, by definition, needs the water to be boiling when it hits the tea. Grasp only this, and you hold the root of the matter.

Hitchens bemoans how little this is known in the USA.

Tea, like modesty, irony and imperialism, is something that we Brits understand far better than Americans do (indeed, we have our imperialism to thank for our tea expertise). Perhaps the USA would benefit from the establishment of a Campaign for Real Tea, to promote this simple, vital but apparently not self-evident truth.

It sounds stupid? Well, yes, it does. But I think you’ll find it’d be the least stupid American political movement with ‘tea’ in its name.

That’s a yes, then

The clever thing about breathalysers is that you don’t actually need to use them in order to find out whether people have been drinking:

In the early hours, staff tried to breathalyse a number of prisoners because they suspected they had been drinking.
When the prisoners refused to be breathalysed they became violent along with other prisoners and went on what we call a mutiny.

(Also, I do like that “what we call a mutiny” - very Nicholas Parsons.)