Saturday, September 30, 2006

The War Nerd on what is going on in Afghanistan

This is easily the most enjoyable article I've read about what is going wrong in Afghanistan. It's desperately offensive so don't read it if you haven't got a hard head and a sense of humour but otherwise enjoy the show. One quick, relatively mild, example:

"Worse yet, right behind those tanks came American do-gooders whose idea of pacifying the Pushtun was doing incredibly naive stuff like starting a TV news show with female anchorpersons or whatever you call them. I'm not making this up. First thing the US occupation officials did in Kabul was start a news station with some 19-year-old Pushtun girl as anchor. That was our idea of winning hearts and minds. That's what was going to calm down those bearded angry dudes: seeing a perfectly saleable daughter telling them the news, as if she was the one laying down the law."

I'm currently trying to work out how much of it I buy and what it means for the War on Terror and, particularly, British policy.

Pension Problems

The British Airways pension fund is facing hard times. A £2.1 billion deficit is going to be a pain to deal with particularly as the stock market recovery and company contributions have already failed to stem the gap. The company is putting forward a package that involves higher retirement ages, half a billion pounds from the airline and limits to the future growth of the pension plan. The GMB union plans to resist but seems certain to fail in moving BA too far from the position it has set out; the firm cannot accept a solution that leaves the deficit growing at such a rate.

It seems unlikely this will solve the problem indefinitely, the economy wide transition to defined contribution plans would seem a trend BA cannot avoid. Our pension system is transitioning from a well funded if low value largely private one of final salary pensions when Labour came to power towards a defined contribution scheme and the question is whether this will be well funded or poorly funded requiring large amounts of state funding and a major imposition on those of working age in the future. There is some evidence that the Conservatives are thinking seriously about this and Labour are at least making moves in the right direction with rises in the age of retirement but the unions are working hard to scupper this.

Opinion Poll blip or stumble?

It would appear that the Conservative lead has vanished in yesterday's polling. Dizzy highlights that this is likely to have a lot to do with a conference boost for the Labour Party. Certainly this would seem to explain why the Liberal Democrats are suffering more than we are; this would not be the case if the problem were really with the Cameron revolution.

However, some of the detail in the Telegraph's coverage of the poll does hint at a growing problem with a lack of definition in the new Conservative brand. I tend to ignore such ideas when they come from Menzies Campbell but when it is the Economist (premium content I'm afraid) arguing that Cameron is suffering from appearing policy-lite they need to be listened to.

The first thing to remember is that Cameron is actually very far from policy-lite. The reason that the Conservative Party is currently short policies is that a conscious choice was made to make the process of policy formation a slow one and take time about getting the ideas right. This was always going to mean a period in which we had little to show the electorate but has a reward in better plans for government than could have been arrived at by Cameron and Osborne sitting in an Islington restaurant before the leadership election. To decide on policy more quickly would be the genuinely policy-lite approach.

However, this involves very considerable risk. One of the political lessons that Cameron appears to have absorbed is that telling voters they were wrong is something they often respond poorly to; this is one reason why the message of change has been emphasised in his leadership. This is relevant to this situation because voters are rapidly gaining the impression, whether they are right or wrong, that Cameron is about style before substance and they will not easily change their mind. This will make such a reputation a hard impression to shift once the commissions report and it is more obviously untrue.

Before the local elections earlier this year I described the risk that a slow policy formation process implied if it cost us quick electoral results and left Cameron branded as a loser. That time Cameron's gamble paid off as the electoral results turned out well. Could it be that we are now seeing the same scenario unfold but with Cameron as good natured but vacuous instead of good natured but a loser?


This appears to be getting posted up this morning as I write.

A couple of quick thoughts:

1) Why didn't they send a cameraman along with Greg Barker? He appears to be filming himself and it makes an utter mess of the bit at the start. I'm pretty certain that if you were to offer a trip to Washington and meeting McCain you could have got a volunteer for the price of a ticket and a cheap hotel.

2) Of course McCain has been to England...

3) Perhaps try to make the interviews a little more substantial. If time is very limited discussing the contents of his flat might be somewhat less interesting than the thoughts of an American Presidential hopeful on the following:

  • How he envisages the special relationship.
  • Iran.
  • Europe (this would make it less of a love-in).
  • China.
A lifestyle piece requires a lot more time to luxuriate in your surroundings.

4) I'm very curious as to how all the "Write", "Upload Pictures", "Upload Video" etc. will develop. It will all feed into the "Open Blog" but its effect will depend on how rigorous the standard is for 'approval'. If, as seems likely, anything not definitely offensive is allowed up then it might become rather attractive to the crankish.

However, if it functions in a similar manner to Conservative Home's platform, as a way for people to request a spotlight on ideas/articles they are particularly proud of, then it might work quite well. This might require a bit of explaining though so people understand that they won't get angry rants etc. published on a site so closely connected to the party.

That's all for now. We'll see how it develops but I'm very hopeful. Any expanding of the Conservative web presence will strengthen the advantage the right already has on the web thanks to its fine blogosphere. If the two can help each other develop further then we should be able to put the left's patchy Internet presence even further to shame.

Frequent Flyer Miles get an upgrade

Virgin Galactic is nearing its launch and it has emerged that one of the first customers to take a commercial trip to space will be a businessman who has amassed a sufficient quantity of airmiles. Alan Watts, managing director of an electrical engineering firm (wait, does that name mean this is a joke?) will take off on the £98,000 trip in 2009. That's an incredible amount of flying isn't it? What if he turns out to be a DVT risk and can't go? Good luck Alan!

Looks like quite a lot of fun and the price mark is a lot lower than I thought it would be. That kind of price with the reductions that can be expected of a commercial service implies that ordinary people may be able to experience spaceflight within my lifetime. It will be as remarkable experience as flying was for those who experienced it first near the start of the last century. Another remarkable expansion of the human experience; don't let the pessimists get you down.

Pictures of the interior look swanky. Perhaps it is time for Easyspace to paint this all Orange?

Friday, September 29, 2006

A Bittersweet Life = King Kong

I rewatched A Bittersweet Life the other day and realised what the story's dynamic reminds me of. Allow me a moment off this blog's political raison d'etre.

**Spoiler Warning - I'll try to avoid giving away too much but you might miss out on a little suspense if you read this before watching the film**

A Bittersweet Life is the story of Kim Sun-Woo, a middle ranking mobster and hotel manager. While his boss, Kang, is out of town Sun-Woo is asked to keep an eye on Hee-Soo, the boss's much younger girlfriend and to kill her if he discovers her to be cheating. As all this unfolds the other strand to the story, a confrontation between Kang's empire and Baek Jr., a competitor, is putting Sun-Woo in danger as the two crime families face off.

The climactic moments of the film then ensue as Sun-Woo is first enchanted by Hee-Soo and then disobeys his orders as a result. The rest of the film is the consequence of this act as Kang punishes him for his disobedience and then Sun-Woo responds.

I think this story has a lot in common with King Kong. Both heroes start out invincible and wild. Kong's wildness is massive and brutal and obvious. Sun-Woo makes beating up other mobsters look easy and has his boss's complete support. The shadow boxing at the end of the film is intended to highlight this earlier personality I believe.

Beauty then changes them both. Kong finds something he cannot let go of and is made vulnerable. Sun-Woo is shocked out of the warped morality of the mobster and is unable to do what he needs to do in order to remain safe in that world.

Beauty kills both beasts. This is the cruelty that Sun-Woo refers to with his last breath in A Bittersweet Life. Both are shown a glimpse of something beautiful but it is not something they can reconcile with the brutality of their existences and it will destroy them both.

Muslim Protests and the law

I think I can make Iain Dale's point graphically.

Suppose a placard like my hypothetical creation above had been held aloft opposite this actual protest:

It actually seems pretty certain that there would have been more police trouble for a call for deification of a long dead Byzantine Emperor than there was for calls for the death of the Pope.

I think this is largely a result of having enforcement contingent on how nutty the people you wind up are (the protests by the Islamists were going to piss off quieter souls) as the method for assessing such offences is how likely the situation is to turn nasty. This would appear to be the legal enshrining of the same principle which said that the Danish cartoons should not have been published because the Muslim world would respond dangerously. The system is set up to make offending someone more of a problem if they are quicker to take offence and more likely to turn violent in response.

This set up causes huge problems because it gives in to the unpleasant instincts of extremists and, if it goes unchecked, could leave our society chronically unable to defend its values. It creates an awful incentive to react noisily or violently to minor upsets. It provides a legal advantage to those who do not wish to adopt the tolerant attitude which should be required of citizens of a liberal state.

Unfortunately, finding a policy solution to these problems is a more of a challenge than identifying them.

Here comes Giuliani

I'm beginning to think Giuliani will be the next President. His response to 9/11 gave people a respect for him which is going nowhere. Equally I think he can maintain his liberalism and appeal to the centre without the Republican right becoming too infuriated. These sentiments, from Deroy Murdock via an article by John Derbyshire, suggest why the right will forgive him:

"While prominent Republicans can give more conservative speeches than Giuliani, one would have to reach back to Ronald Reagan for a leader who has implemented more policies dear to the right."

Sen. Clinton has a similar advantage; liberals will forgive her a lot. However, I'm not sure she's as likely a winner as people seem to think she is. I think the Democrats feel burned by their choosing a moderate in order to beat Bush last time around and still seeing four more years of Bush. It might be hard to convince them to swallow that again especially if Clinton is playing conservative and they expect a moderate Republican like McCain or Giuliani.

Even if she does get selected Giuliani should give her a run for her money. He can dissociate himself quite effectively from the public dislike of the Bush administration thanks to having remained somewhat at the margins over the last few years and the underlying Republican electoral strength should not be underestimated. Does the old Clinton charisma come with the name?

McCain is being touted as the future President over here and the Cameron-McCain partnership, as will be showcased at the Conservative Party Conference is already being compared to Blair-Bush or Blair-Clinton. However, it looks to me like McCain's time has passed. Two Bushes and a Clinton covered his political prime, his media honeymoon peaked way too early and his crimes against the Republican movement are far less likely to be forgiven as they were against the party itself in the form of his 'maverick' political compromises with Democrats; disloyalty might lead him to screw the Republican party. Giuliani's crimes on values are less of a problem as they can be kept in line by conservative lobby groups. Derbyshire from the article linked above:

"Speaking personally, if I’m going to be made to eat my greens, I’d prefer it was by a tax-averse, social-libertarian, law’n’order Reaganite with a mild gun-control fetish, than by a socialist-feminist nag with a shady past, or a limousine virtucrat who equates reality, as in “Let’s get real,” with his own opinions. Abortion and gay rights don’t weigh enough to swing my vote. On gun control, I’ll trust the NRA to take care of our Second Amendment rights as capably as they have always done in the past, under administrations of every color. On immigration, I believe that by 2008 the tide will be running so strong for enforcement and restriction that no politician, or Congress, who tries to resist it will be credible with the public. On pretty much everything else, I agree with Rudy."

There are other candidates of course, Mitt Romney might go places, but for the moment these are the three big candidates and Giuliani looks the winner to me.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Borat riots conspicuous by their absence

There is a great article over in the New York Times (registration is free) about the contrast between the official reaction to Sacha Baron Cohen's character Borat, insulted, and the popular reaction, mildly amused. This is far from the reaction to Danish cartoons, Papal speeches etc. in the rest of the Muslim world. This sounds remarkably, well, balanced:

"Last fall Mr. Bayen prepared a six-minute feature on the controversy over Mr. Cohen’s MTV performance that included clips of the skit depicting Mr. Nazarbayev, borrowed from Russia’s NTV channel. Mr. Bayen cited a history of political satire dating to Molière and recalled an old refrain from Soviet times: “I have never read Solzhenitsyn, but I condemn him absolutely.”

“I do not feel any false patriotism,” said Mr. Bayen, who, like all ethnic Kazakhs, bears no resemblance to Borat whatsoever. “I saw portions of his show, and I can say it is funny.”"

Here's the response from the man himself to 'his president's' comments:

Musharaff on the Daily Show

It's a good interview. Stewart isn't on his top, lethal, form (he demolishes Ramesh Ponnuru in about three seconds at one point during this interview) and the tea bit at the start is a little lame although it does make a funny lead into his Osama bin Laden question. However, an interview with a head of state is always going to be a little tame and he gets some interesting questions in.

There isn't a huge amount to say about it. He highlights why the 'deal' with tribal leaders in Waziristan should not be thought of as a deal with the Taleban but rather as an attempt to prevent any link up between these two regional powers. This has to make sense in a country where so much power is held by landowners with little political ambition but who, if mobilised, could seriously destablise any Pakistani government.

One thing he doesn't do, which he has been accused of, is seem to exaggerate the extremist threat to his own position. This is supposed to be his strategy for securing American help in maintaining military rule but does not appear in the clip above where he is a picture of calm; it would seem a very good opportunity for him to push such a perspective with an interview on such a highly rated US show. The only way that this view of Pakistani military policy can fit with Musharaff's behaviour in this clip is if we assume that he is emphasising his calm at the moment so that he appears an effective saviour of Pakistan from extremism.

Keep an eye on Pakistan. It is easily the most important country for Britain's War on Terror.

The Sex Lives of Vietnamese Prostitutes vs. Body Armour

This ad is absolutely genuine and truly remarkable. I knew American politics was always a little rougher around the edges than ours but this is a whole new level.

The Brussels Riots

There are riots in Brussels. These riots look an awful lot like the recent riots in Paris. Both sets of riots are supposed to have been sparked by the death of a young criminal (in Paris hiding in an electrical substation, in Brussels in prison). Both are largely composed of poor Muslim immigrants. Both involve torching things (cars in Paris, shops in Brussels).

The first thing to recognise is that this has very little to do with Global or Domestic Wars on Terror at the moment; there may turn out to be a link later but for now there appears to be no connection in Brussels as in France. There is also no real suggestion that this is Islamist violence: there are no calls for global caliphates, rants at American foreign policy or mentions of the prophet Muhammed.

As this is a separate phenomena it also has separate causes. In the War on Terror the lefty fallback that poverty is a root cause of terrorism is innacurate but in this struggle it would appear that poverty and, particularly, unemployment is a major underlying cause of the disturbances. As such, this implies that the solution here will involve taking action to address the economic malaise. Unfortunately, as was demonstrated in France, the still in work majority have no incentive to electorally trade things like their legal job security for increasing employment in the banlieues.

The fear has to be that this resentment and violence will translate into something darker. Surely it can't have escaped the attention of those who recruit and indoctrinate terrorists that there are large Muslim populations in the heart of Europe who are willing to engage in rioting and destruction and risk a backlash from the authorities and non-Muslims for no wider reason than a feeling of alienation and economic depression? Surely they will have realised this could be a superb source of recruits?

The longer the continentals cannot muster the political will for economic reform the greater the possibility that this unfortunate marriage of propensity to violence and desperation with an ideology of extreme violence is allowed to take place.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

On Blogging

There's a somewhat fierce debate underway between Richard North and, well, everyone else as the focus of his rage has moved from the EU and MoD to the UK blogosphere. I think he has rather missed the point. There are a few different kinds of blogs which I will roughly characterise under the following headings:

1) The investigative blog

Searching for administrative errors and exposing 'cover-ups'; this is the category EU Referendum fits into. These are always going to be rare: investigative journalism is, as DK points out, a time consuming affair which many amateurs just do not have the time for. Equally, it is not an overriding priority for blogging: most of these discoveries are of minority interest and will not change the already existing public perception that the EU is a bit venal and the war in Afghanistan is not going great. Investigative work is worthy pressure on military and political leadership which is a decent way to spend one's time but is not important to the exclusion of the kind of political debate upon which governments rise and fall.

2) The analysis blog

This is the type of blog that mine aspires to be but the finest, and purest, example is the Becker-Posner blog. While there are few blogs which are as pure examples of this kind of approach as the Becker-Posner high minded effort they are certainly more common in the US than here. Their primary contribution is to regularly present some, hopefully interesting, new analysis of existing knowledge and contribute to the debate over its significance. They are usually less immediately topical than rapid reaction blogs and have a less adversarial approach.

3) The rapid reaction blog

This is the most populous category; the swearbloggers and the Daily Kos are examples of rapid reaction blogs. They will usually be the first to respond to new arguments presented by their opponents and will often also contain the most broadly resonant rebuttal. These blogs are important as they mean that the Toynbees of this world do not go unchallenged but for the rare occasions when some other columnist deigns to intervene. They are the lifeblood of the new debate which shapes thinking democratic opinion.

4) The gossip blog

This is the category Iain Dale and Guido's blogs fit into. Just because they are focussed on people instead of issues does not make them cheap. In a representative democracy issues of personality and interests are important. As we are electing someone to represent us for a period of years in which they can do largely as they please it is important that we know they are upstanding people so that when issues come up, as they always do, for which there is no prescription in the manifesto they will respond appropriately.

5) The round up blog

Examples of this are the ConservativeHome frontpage and Instapundit. There do not need to be many of these blogs but a good one is a huge asset to the community they serve. Their primary function is to highlight good stuff in the rest of the blogosphere and the mainstream media.

Of course most blogs are a mix but the important thing to note from this analysis is that all good blogs do not and should not look the same. Becker-Posner and Devil's Kitchen are polar opposites but both enrich the political debate. Richard North does not have the handle he thinks he does on what the blogosphere and media should consist of.

One final point, this was in the EU Referendum blog of a few days ago:

Conspiracy or carelessness? A vicious desire to do down the West or merely an ignorant and nasty desire to break up everything of value? Whichever it is, the BBC, the Guardian and the New York Times, together with their acolytes and followers can take responsibility for the murder of Sister Leonella Sgorbati.

This is both based on incredibly spurious research (that the BBC and the Guardian reported growing Muslim anger before it became obvious to the rest of us is hardly surprising from major news sources and does not indicate they imagined it) and shows a deep lack of moral sense. Anyone who blames those who report early incidents of rioting for someone murdering on the basis of a slight to their faith clearly doesn't have the right to lecture us about our immorality. If you kill someone because you heard about an insult to your faith that does not make the person who told you that insult occured a murderer. EU Referendum's search for conspiracy and media chicanery has led it to lose sight of even the slightest notion of what real responsibility means.

Tucker Carlson fights the good fight against "sensitivity"

I have noticed that certain words are used as proxies for awful political logic; anyone who uses them in political discussion get marked down in my book.

The first word I noticed this working for was "people". "People's" armies commit war crimes and oppress actual people at a far greater rate than your average army. "The people" is used as a shorthand for an abstraction of the state's interest separate from that of individuals and families.

Second was "justice". In a brilliant article Dalrymple points out that justice is the last thing we want in healthcare. Historical notions of justice are used to justify refusals to face the reality of the present in situations like Israel-Palestine where the Israelis see a reclaiming of land lost thousands of years ago and the Palestinians see theft of land lost 50 years ago. "Justice" is used in both cases as a justification for a refusal to face up to difficult questions in preference for angry, simplistic, rhetoric.

Finally "sensitivity" is increasingly shorthand for not treading on the toes of a Muslim community that should get used to the implication of living in a free society; you will be insulted. Another case of such hyper-sensitivity has emerged from Germany just this week. In the debate shown above the CAIR spokesperson attempts to make this about a mocking of Islam but is successfully shot down by Mr. Carlson who points out how this misses the point.

She also argues that it makes fun of a serious situation with serious consequences in terms of the struggle against radical Islam. Mocking and being insensitive to our enemies is a great way of making great conflict more bearable. The following verse did not insult or make fun of those killed in the Blitz (the logic used by the CAIR spokesperson when she argues that the ads mocks the victims of jihadists) and played its small part in creating the spirit which saw Britain through:

Hitler has only got one ball,
The other is in the Albert Hall
His mother, the dirty bugger,
Cut it off when he was small.

Niall Ferguson in the Boston Globe

Take a read of Niall Ferguson's interview with the Boston Globe (you may need to register but it is free and quick). He is in superb form which is nice to hear as the reviews of the War of the World have been mixed at best.

In particular, this is an incredibly controversial statement but one which has to have more than a grain of truth in it:

"For one thing, nation states are a relatively recent phenomenon: Even at the beginning of the 20th century, 82 percent of the world's population lived in empires. And the problem with transforming empires into nation states-Woodrow Wilson's central idea, and that of nationalists in Asia and Africa-is that the process is extraordinarily bloody. To imagine an ethnically homogeneous nation state is often to imagine ethnic cleansing."

By couching anti-imperialism in terms of rule by an ethnic other being wrong rather than in terms of liberty within ethnically diverse nations and empires the movement has encouraged the bloodshed that comes from attempting to form ethnically defined states from populations which are never distributed so neatly. As such, there are two motivations for anti-imperialism:

1) A struggle against imperial rulers who mistreat their subjects and do not allow them important freedoms.

2) The kind of struggle that has as its aim being ruled by someone of the same ethnicity as your own.

Most independence movements will be moved by a mixture of both motivations but the more it is about 2) the more it is likely to lead to awful bloodshed.

US Healthcare Outcomes

Marginal Revolution highlights a study which finds vast disparities in healthcare outcomes between different portions of the US population. Asian women in Bergen County, New Jersey have a life expectancy of 91.

The main question I think this raises is why, if life expectancies are the result of lifestyle choices to such an extent, they should be included in measures of development such as the HDI. For example, does the Japanese penchant for fish instead of burgers really mean it is more developed?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Porgy & Bess

Porgy & Bess is going to be showing at the Savoy Theatre from the end of October. I'm really looking forward to it. I've never seen a performance of the Gershwin magnum opus in its original form and am curious to see how the standards fit together.

Over the weekend I saw Guys and Dolls, with Patrick Swayze as Nathan Detroit. It had mediocre bits and quite good bits. However, it has been so long since I've seen a musical that I found the whole experience slightly odd. Also, I spent the entire time wanting to shout "thanks for winning the Cold War" at Swayze.

"A clever sheep"

I consider this my favourite comic sketch ever.

Monbiot on Air Fuel

My little brother, when he was somewhat younger than he is today, once told us that he didn't think he would learn much at school in the coming year because "everything I think of, I already know". I think for most people, certainly myself, your perception of how much of the universe there is left to understand goes in an inverted U through the educational experience. You start out young, clueless and constantly being offered new knowledge by adults; you know that you have a lot to learn. From the beginning of secondary school you have a decent grasp of the basics of a slew of disciplines and it becomes quite unclear that there are things you do not understand. Once in university, however, you start to get a sense of the sheer amount of work science has left to do. By the end of my master's programme I had a pretty good sense of how little we know with how little certainty in my field of Economic History.

George Monbiot does not appear to have absorbed this. His opinion piece for Comment is Free argues that Branson's investment is a poor idea as alternative fuels are not suitable for airplanes. It would seem absolutely bloody obvious that Branson knows this or he wouldn't be planning on spending billions on research. The method for a climate change friendly air fuel is that knowledge that Monbiot does not have; he therefore assumes that such knowledge is not there to be discovered.

The rest of his article is equally questionable.

"Now it could be that Branson's money will help develop a new source of biofuel - algae grown in ponds in the desert for example, or waste products from crops and forestry. If so, that's something we should welcome, while remembering that it can't comprise more than 10% of his fleet's fuel. The problem is that we need to cut carbon emissions by 87% by 2030 in every sector - aviation included - and there's no conceivable way in which a change of fuel could do this, especially if the number of flights keeps growing."

Large reductions can be made. 87% by 2030 is a very strong figure, stronger than any practical policy programme can deliver, and is designed to give the answer that only swinging reductions in consumption will work, but large reductions in SO2 emissions have been achieved in the US without drastic measures. It won't be possible entirely through a change in fuel but more efficient engines and larger planes are already increasing fuel efficiency thanks to market pressure.

"Other forms of agriculture are being driven onto virgin land as the global demand for grain rises. Rising grain prices, blamed by the UN food and agriculture organisation primarily on the demand for biofuels, already threaten the food security of the world's poor - and it is likely to get a lot worse."

Biofuels are not the chief danger to food security. There is more than enough food grown in the world and more than enough agricultural production to allow a shift towards biofuels. Starvation is not a result of global food shortages but localised crises as highlighted by Amartya Sen's finding that there are no famines in democracies.

"Branson's announcement was a marvellous publicity coup, as so many of his initiatives are. But is there anything behind it?"

Don't you feel clever and cynical now? If it were aimed at a PR boost spending £1.6 billion would be deeply inefficient. If he were pledging a few million, or even a few hundred million, then maybe but there is no way that Branson will, in selfish terms, make a positive return on this investment. Whether or not Monbiot is right that more drastic measures are needed as well his scorning of a pledge of huge funds towards an improvement in technology demonstrates that his views may have more to do with a dislike of enterprise than a real concern for climate change.

Dave the Chameleon was 'too sophisticated'

According to a BBC report, Margaret Hodge has apparently told a fringe meeting at the Labour conference that "Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman did not understand what we thought [Cameron] was about" and that the message of the Dave the Chameleon ads was too sophisticated for Barking voters.

If I was from Barking I'd be throwing my laptop at the wall right now in rage.

I consider myself sophisticated; I'm intellectually engaged and have been through a rather expensive tertiary education. I can see no message more sophisticated in the Dave the Chameleon ads than "he says different things at different times and in different places and is quite posh". I'm pretty certain even the most troglodyte Barking resident could have worked it out.

The problem wasn't that it was too sophisticated. Rather, it was that it was entirely negative suggesting the party had nothing positive to say about its own programme, tried to revive a dead class war which no one enjoyed, had a very likeable little character as its chief villain and was chronically patronising.

Her proposal is that Labour needs to choose a line of attack on Cameron quickly to avoid getting their wires crossed. If they choose in a hurry and understand how these things play in the country as well as Margaret Hodge does it should be plain sailing for Dave.

Was Gandhi stylish?

Rachel Campbell-Johnston has written an article lambasting the world and its magazines for their shallowness in selecting Kate Moss as an icon of style. After all, she's "a mere clothes horse". Campbell-Johnston's preferred icon is Gandhi.

Unfortunately this seems to arise from her definition of style "a personality that has been won through moral effort and philosophical rigour" appears to be more an effort to define 'virtuous' or, at a stretch, 'good'.

Let's try

"Characterized by or conforming to style or the fashionable standard; fashionably elegant; smart or chic: She wore a very stylish gown to the inaugural ball."

The homespun pants look never quite caught on and was never particularly chic. Gandhi wasn't stylish; let's leave some meaning in the language please.

Monday, September 25, 2006

18 Doughty Street

Initially I was a little suspicious of the idea of 18 Doughty Street. I'm not convinced that the minor channels on digital television get many viewers and without a decent viewer base such an interactive concept would quickly fall by the wayside. Equally, my monitor is busy and unlike with a TV I'm not used to leaving video running on it while I do other stuff. However, a couple of things have convinced me it is a brilliant idea:

1) Tim Montgomerie's interview with Channel 4. I know Tim does quite a few media appearances these days but even so he did shockingly well. If you didn't know before hand would you have thought he was from the new minority station and Krishnan Guru Murthy a major network anchor?

Guru Murthy's self satisfied assumption that regulation made his network and the BBC 'impartial' was frustrating. Tim's insistence that he preferred to be open about his bias and balance it through other points of view was refreshing. It now seems likely that the channel itself will be equally refreshing.

2) The idea of video podcasting it. I have a fast internet connection and a video iPod. So do a growing number of people. I was sceptical at the idea that I would have the video window running on my computer for a few hours at a time but if I can store it and then watch it the following day on the move then it would be a great way to spend time on the train etc.

One additional idea. I have Microsoft Windows Media Center Edition and an XBox 360 (apologies for the amount of technology I'm referencing in this post). When the XBox 360 is connected to a media center PC it has an 'Online Spotlight' section which allows me to watch BBC or Reuters internet news services on my TV through my computer as well as various other sites. This obviously requires some kind of set up with Microsoft but it is something they're really pushing at the moment so I'd think they would be amenable. This would allow me to watch it on my regular TV from day one unlike the promised internet TV services which are still a while away. It might be another useful method of getting 18 Doughty Street's content out there.

Good luck to all those involved and I look forward to watching.

Lessons for British Cinema from the Koreans

British talent is all over Hollywood. There are British stars: Jude Law, Keira Knightley, Kate Beckinsale, Clive Owen, every Star Wars/Lord of the Rings villain, Kate Winslet, Rachel Weisz. British directors are doing some of the best work in Hollywood: Sam Mendes with American Beauty, Road to Perdition and Jarhead; Christopher Nolan with Memento, Insomnia and the superb blockbuster Batman Begins.

The British film industry itself is somewhat less impressive. It consists of occasional romantic comedies, costume dramas, Guy Ritchie's rather worn gangster niche and various gritty social commentaries many of which, Kidulthood for example, are quite good. However, by contrast to the 60s boom with Zulu and Lawrence of Arabia to the early Bonds this is not a mass market phenomenon. We have quite a good answer to the US indie film industry but we no longer have an answer to Hollywood. As such, the vast majority of the film watching done in England is of American films.

Is it important that Britain have a film industry? I usually steer clear of such econ-nationalism but this is a special case. Good, popular, films provide a people with a sense of themselves and a shared experience. It provides a narrative to our past, present and future. The first post on this blog was about the need for a sense of nation as identified by our political leaders. Film making is a powerful medium through which such a national spirit can communicate itself.

I think South Korea's film industry is an example of the way forward here in its sheer ambition. The quota system undoubtedly aided its development but I do not think it was crucial as this article highlights that before a series of remarkable successes the quotas had merely kept the industry on life support making low budget quota fillers. Equally, the Competition Commission does not think there are any uncompetitive blocks to British films making a bigger splash in the UK although this article thinks there may be to success in competing in the US. To my mind it would seem equally likely that increasing protection will lead to lazy UK film makers instead of their creative renaissance.

It was Shiri in 1999, with a large budget and a willingness to play the American game that changed the rules by beating Titanic's South Korean box office record and proving their was money in South Korean cinema. By 2001 domestic film makers had a 42.2% market share; up from a low of 15.4%. By comparison the share of British companies in the British market is around 4%. They now make both blockbusters such as the Saving Private Ryan-like Brotherhood and the historic epic The Warrior (I've used the Westernised titles as it is easier) and some commercially successful creative efforts such as Old Boy and A Bittersweet Life.

If our emigre film makers can succeed in Hollywood one would assume they can, creatively, follow the same track. Equally, we have advantages over the Koreans in being an English speaking nation which is, therefore, more accessible to those overseas who might constitute an export market. There are a few lessons from the Korean success:

1) Competition in the film industry: these are not film funded by charity or government (National Lottery funding is important to the UK industry and has backed a great many flops).

2) Experience of foreign film-making: there is no lack of UK talent working abroad, particularly in Hollywood as described above, so the more important effort may be luring some of these stars home.

3) Offering something different: watch the best Korean films (plenty of suggestions above) and they're offering something quite different to Hollywood. This is something I am absolutely sure British creatives can come up with.

4) Be fun: I hate to sound philistinical but films about the dingy side of British life are neither particularly relevant to the British experience (we're not a dingy nation these days if we ever were) nor good candidates for the basis of a film experience which British filmgoers and an international audience will want to be a part of.

Britain has a lot going for it in establishing a cinema industry. We have a wealth of history and literature from which to draw. Contemporary creative successes in other cultural forms which can take on the world. Internationally we have the world's most valuable national brand which suggests foreigners would be interested in engaging with cinematic treatments of Britain. Translating these advantages into British films about British topics would be a great achievement for anyone ambitious and talented enough to make it happen.

Simon Jenkins on US Schools

I'm not going to do a big long fisk of this Simon Jenkins column as I have for some of his other recent efforts as it isn't all that bad but it is worth pointing out one particular moment when he utterly misses the point:

"There is a reason why the otherwise privatised United States still regards its schools as quintessentially civic institutions, not as Whitehall’s teaching machines."

So, the US schools are an exception in an otherwise private nation. He uses this as evidence that having schools as a civic institution must, therefore, be a good thing. Unfortunately US public schools are also an exception among US institutions in being pretty dismal. Paul Samuelson has written a brilliant article for the Washington Post arguing that the US succeeds despite poor performance in its schools thanks to a massively successful, but far less civic, tertiary education system.

The lesson from US education is not that 'civic' institutions succeed where more market oriented ones fail but quite the opposite.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Online Gaming and Chinese Gold Farmers

The Sunday Times reports a new documentary by a University of California in San Diego student looking at the economics of internet gaming. Essentially Chinese players work huge stretches gaining the experience, currency and items which make a character powerful and then sell this to Westerners who are not willing to take the vast amount of time required to progress. That this practice has developed to such an extent does not surprise me. People care a lot about these games and there have to be plenty cash rich enough to afford such a service but time poor to the extent that they will not be able to manage the enormous task of reaching the end stages of an online game like World of Warcraft.

The growth of online games begins to make the more modest online worlds imagined by authors like William Gibson in his Virtual Light trilogy appear far less science fictional. There are millions of people for whom the quick typing of "irl" to denote an event or thing belonging to the real world signifies a need to shift their perspective out of a virtual world. They are generally playing as themselves, this is not roleplaying in the classic 'being' your character sense, but they are developing social networks which often overlap with but are not dependent upon real life connections. It is a virtual reality in a far more real sense than could be provided by any futuristic headset.

What no one has ever convinced me of is exactly why this is a bad idea. The most common answer is the truistic but unconvincing "it isn't real". Of course it isn't but the real world isn't perfect. If people want to spend their spare time somewhere else where's the harm?

"It inhibits the development of social skills". No it doesn't. While plenty of people playing these games may well, in real life, have problems with social interaction that is not necessarily a product of playing the game. Plenty of people in the world at large have problems with social interaction. The question is whether it is better for people, when facing such problems, to be interacting in the safe environment of the game or not interacting at all; the answer is clear. Equally, plenty of those playing these games do not have social problems, they choose to spend part of their leisure time playing them because it is a form of social interaction that forms a natural part of a modern, wired, existence; they still have the time to meet friends for drinks etc.

"People get addicted and screwed up". This is probably the most serious criticism of these games. A South Korean who died after playing for 50 hours is the, somewhat heroic, extreme. Others have stories of educations or working lives ruined. However, compare the numbers to those injuring themselves through other leisure pursuits such as harder edged sports or drinking and you'll find this risk is a relatively minor one. Millions play these games without any serious harm.

Online gaming is big and here to stay.

Jeremy Clarkson on Richard Hammond

Gavin Ayling points to the Sun article by Clarkson on Richard Hammond's crash, his recovery and the media and popular reaction. There really is nothing else you need to read on the subject.

Minimum wage and the black economy

The CBI has pointed out to the Low Pay Commission one of the three possible responses of an employer of low paid workers to a minimum wage:

1) Keep them on and accept lower profits or greater losses and the potential to become a corporate casualty of this legislation.

2) Fire them.

3) Move employment to the black economy where the minimum wage and other employment regulation do not exist. This was the option the CBI pointed out that many employers might take. Plenty will not but they are likely to lose out in competition with other, less scrupulous, operators.

The usual response to any questioning of the minimum wage is to point out that being paid very little is no fun at all. However, if you wish to help them you don't have to set up regulation which creates an incentive to either leave them unemployed or less legally protected. Instead you can introduce negative income tax style in work benefits, spread the costs of subsidising the low paid more widely and keep the poor in work.

Osama bin Laden Eats Shit and Dies

According to the French Osama Bin Laden has died of typhoid. Looking up typhoid's causes and symptoms I have concocted the following theory:

Osama bin Laden liked to eat shit; contaminated water is the usual cause of Typhus but surely bin Laden was rich enough to afford iodine tablets?

Now, there is no suggestion he is married and even if he was eating your wife's shit would be a little off; "you kiss our children good night with that mouth?" As he cannot violate the Islamist restrictions on contact with women that means he has to eat a man's shit. This implies he is a gay scat enthusiast.

Osama bin Laden ate shit and then died balding, covered with "rose spots", with perforated intestines and a headache.