Monday, October 31, 2005

An Ecstasy of Fumbling, Pt 1

It's the time of year again when the war dead come to the forefront of the national consciousness. As much as I think that it is a shame that we seem only to think so heavily about such issues at this time of the year, it is certainly a positive thing that we do take the time to pause and reflect. The rituals of remembrance are highly familiar, and there is something that is almost reassuring about the ceremonies themselves. Wearing a poppy, observing a two minute silence, possibly attending a church service or parade. Yet to a certain extent, these rituals also stifle debate; our terms of reference are narrow and unthinking. When others question the meaning of the rituals - for example the odious Yasmin Alibhai-Brown refusing to wear a poppy for fear of appearing in favour of war, there is almost a stock response of disgust from certain channels. Do we think enough about why we do wear the poppy, however, or is it just a show of societal conformity?

When I think about these issues, I find that I have a strong ambivalence. When I think about white poppies, for example, I am reminded of my belief that pacifism, in its crudest form, is immoral, because it is used as an excuse for appeasement and for refusing to confront evil. Then again, I read a post like this, and my precepts are challenged very strongly once again. What I hope to do in the couple of weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday, therefore, is to write a series of posts connected to the theme of remembrance and war - as much to clarify my own thoughts as to make points for others.

I'm going to start by addressing the question of white poppies. Steve the Pub Philosopher wrote about the Poppy Appeal last week; in the comments, Jeremy Reynolds wrote that "however well intentioned, a white poppy is an insult, a slap in the face, to veterans and their families". I've certainly not come across many topics as emotive as white poppies; two teachers at my school had a proxy battle over the issue. Mr Reynolds is in my opinion wrong; the white poppy appeal was set up itself by many widows or wives of veterans. Whilst a deliberate inversion of the societally accepted form of remembrance, deliberately designed to make a political point, is always going to be provocative, I do not think the white poppy was designed to insult veterans. Insofar as it makes us think again about the fundamental assumptions of our remembrance, indeed, I think they serve a valuable purpose.

I reject completely, however, the principles on which the Peace Pledge Union operates, for it veers towards the crude pacifism that I abhor. I frequently ask pacifists how they would have dealt with Hitler in 1939 without a recourse to arms; I have yet to receive a convincing answer. To say our path could have been different earlier does not help. Firstly, it is reading history with hindsight, and that does not help us consider what actions could have been taken at a specific juncture. Secondly, it implies that human nature can always make the right decisions - it can't, man is fallible, and so there still is no argument against the necessity of a final call to arms. Thirdly, evenly if the agency of one party could be perfect, operating under the belief that an enemy will hold themselves to the same standard is naive in the extreme.

The decision to go to war is not a decision that should be taken lightly. It is a horrible, vile thing, that causes far more pain and suffering than can ever be desirable. And yet I cannot think of a situation in which a blanket refusal to make a recourse to arms is profitable to a country; a single instance where it will not simply encourage an enemy to continue in an ever-more belligerent matter. As a last resort, once all other avenues have been explored, when a failure to act would mean submitting to the will of an evil enemy - then war is justified, to prevent the spreading of greater evils.

John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" is one of the most evocative poems of the Great War. It ends with the verse:

Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch, be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields
This emphasises what must be the key point of remembrance. Men in the past believed that there were causes that were significant enough to die for (whether WW1 was one of them is a different matter). Do we still believe that today? Personally, I do, but societally speaking, I'm not so sure; yet there is a way of life which we keep talking about wanting to defend. Does that mean we are breaking faith with the fallen? One of the messages of our remembrance, therefore, must be this: there are causes that are worth dying for. There are, therefore, causes that are worth fighting for. And whilst the bloodthirsty bellicose cheerleaders for war may be repugnant in their attitudes, we shouldn't let that obscure a more vital point - that unless we are prepared to fight for what we believe in, then ultimately we have to be prepared to lose it.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Some Inconsistency Here...

According to the BBC, the Tories and the Lib Dems are against new proposals of the government to ban drinking on public transport. That hackneyed cliche of the "nanny state" is rearing its ugly head again...

What I do want explained is this, however. If both the Tories and the Lib Dems think it is
"absurd to ban drinking on trains and buses while letting pubs open 24 hours", then why are they complaining about the nanny state? Both parties oppose the liberalising of opening hours - which is surely dictating to the public about where and when they can drink as much as banning alcohol on public transport.

In any case, I don't think they should worry too much about this ban actually seeing the light of day. At the end of the article we find the following paragraphs:

The Home Office would not comment on any leaked documents, but a spokesman said: "As part of the 'Respect Agenda' we are considering a whole range of proposals."

"Nothing has been ruled in or out at this stage."

A paper outlining the government's scheme would be published in December, he added.

It's one of the government's favourite tricks. Just like they were "considering" introducing orange jumpsuit uniforms for those on community service, this is just another ploy to get a headline, to roll out a few soundbites about the "respect agenda", and then leave the policy on some hidden shelf to gather dust. It's another example of Labour's media manipulation; their belief that politics is more about creating a popular impression rather than doing the right thing. And it stinks.

Davis Backs Grammar Schools

David Davis 2, David Cameron 0. That's the running tally of concrete policies that seem to have hit the headlines at the moment, anyway. In the absence of any policy pronouncements, by the way, I think that it is only fair that we judge Cameron by the things that he has written in the past. Until he shows us otherwise, why should we believe he has done a volte-face from that brilliantly-presented document with dreadful content?

If we're marking the strength of the policies that have been put forward, however, it's still obvious that Davis hasn't made the killer blow. His pronouncements on tax will let Blair continue to get away with his incessant repetition of questions at the despatch box that run something along the lines of "How many nurses will you sack to pay for your tax cuts?", thus evading scrutiny of the fact that proportional returns for spending increases simply haven't been obtained. And, as much as I hate Cameron's policy evasiveness, he's probably right to say that it's ridiculous making promises on tax so early in an electoral cycle.

Davis today has hit a stronger note, promising to create more grammar schools if he is elected as Prime Minister. This is undoubtedly a great step forward. Blair's White Paper talks about introducing more choice into schools, but from what I can gather is rather vague about what will actually happen. If, as this Telegraph report suggests, parents will have the power to change the curriculum, then what happens to the National Curriculum? Or is the much-vaunted choice all a charade anyway? Gary Monro points out that the LEAs still will retain power under the new system.

In any case, my faith in Blair's ability to run the education system is non-existent. Just about every single move his government has taken during 8 years in office has been to the detriment of our schools. In 2002 after the A-Level marking fiasco, Mike Tomlinson, Ken Boston and Estelle Morris were all complicit in a cover-up of what was a genuine scandal. Marks and their boundaries were moved arbitrarily, the only problem being that the existing system allowed these arbitrary changes to be made. (That, of course, doesn't excuse the fact that Messrs Boston and Tomlinson claimed within a week of allegations being made that everything was above board, despite not having reviewed a single script.) Curriculum 2000, which introduced AS-Levels, was also an utter debacle. It was also, of course, the typical Labour policy - great in garnering headlines, in giving the appearance of change, yet absolutely useless in making any real change, other than heaping piles of extra work on to teachers and students alike. Whilst attempting to foster the ethos of a good independent school everywhere is a great idea, I haven't seen any evidence that the White Paper will cause anything other than cosmetic change.

Grammar schools, on the other hand, are a serious and concrete solution to the problems that face our school system as it currently stands. The left argue that they want to remove class from the education system. Well, as things are, it's the most class-ridden system imaginable. Those who can afford it send their children to private schools; failing that, you move into the catchment area of the best schools in your neighbourhood (with inflated house prices, naturally); alternatively, if there's a church school in your locale, then you make sure your child gets to the school you want by attending church under false pretences for a few years. A great way of assuring merit is the means of assuring a good education.

Grammar schools, on the other hand, really can select on merit. Now, a dichotomy between grammar schools and secondary moderns isn't desirable, and I don't think that many sensible advocates of reinstituting grammar schools would argue for the system to be brought back entirely as it was (I personally favour a model much more on the lines of the German system, and possibly with selection at 13 rather than 11). And the problem of the system can't be entirely sorted out whilst there are still private schools around for people to "buck the system", as it were (not that this should be taken as a criticism of private schools). What I do know is this, however. Whilst Darlington had its own grammar school, any child, from anywhere in the town or its immediate environs, could get to a top school. Now, if you happen to live in the wrong part of town, you are sent to a failing school, with scant prospects for the future at all. I don't think that's a justifiable system at all.

The problem Davis faces is twofold: one, grammar schools are somewhat difficult to sell in any case (it's difficult to be a 'nice' party whilst advocating dividing students into 'successes' and 'failures' at 11 or 13); two, it seems like a return to a rather unimaginative Tory past, which the media won't like, especially if he defeats their new darling. It will certainly get the backs of the left up, although this isn't a bad thing. Standing on a platform where you are telling parents that their children may be sent to what will automatically be seen as "bad" or "failing" or "reject" schools isn't a ready way for success, however advisable a system that teaches people by ability may actually be. This of course invites the further question of what sort of system could feasibly be introduced - something I hope to return to at a later date.

What Davis has done in the last few days is show how dangerous policy can actually be in a leadership race, especially when your opponent a) refuses to commit to anything, b) has greater momentum, and c) predicates his entire appeal on being nice (tough on ties, tough on the causes of ties). Whilst I'm delighted to see politicians actually trying to stimulate debate on policy, his putting options up there just gives the media more time to shoot them down, especially in the absence of any pronouncements from Cameron.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

No Problem, You're Welcome

It is not entirely without reason that this site is to be found in the "grumpy links" section of "". However, some curmudgeons take their petty gripes with the world too far. Lynne Truss is a classic example of this. According to this Times review, she's written a new book about manners:
She detests waiters who say “There you go” when putting food in front of her, and longs to administer a clip round the ear to anyone who responds to her “Thank you” with “No problem.”.
The latter is one complaint that incenses me as much as the supposed offense obviously irritates Truss. Why? Because in saying "no problem", or "you're welcome", one is actually making an effort to be polite - demonstrating that whatever efforts you have made that were worth thanking really wasn't a problem. The hypocrisy of Truss complaining about this whilst bemoaning a lack of manners, however, is accentuated when you read this passage:
The press of people on our packed island is another factor she skirts round without actually naming. The French, she says, are better mannered, but they also have a much lower population density.
How would a polite Frenchman respond when someone says "merci"? By saying "de rien", or "it's nothing". Similarly in German, the response to "danke" is "bitte" - it's even shouted out by thousands of football fans when they assist the announcer in declaring the score. English culture is somewhat strange in not having an automatic response to the phrase "thank you". And the attempts of many to address this imbalance is welcome. No matter what miserable sanctimonious curmudgeons like Lynne Truss might say.

Birds At Night

This is a sad indictment of our times. Surely the best reason for dimming the lights on skyscrapers at night is so that you save energy, not to try and save the lives of birds?

Friday, October 28, 2005

HawkEye, Cricket Umpiring, and the Greater Use of Technology

Back in May, I wrote that I wasn't yet convinced of the greater need to introduce more technology to assist the cricket umpire in his job. My argumentation was that introducing technology into certain areas reduces an umpire's concentration on the game, and therefore leads to poorer performance overall.

Over at Cricinfo, the modern world's bible for cricket fans, they have launched a new blog, Wicket to Wicket, which they've kicked off by hosting a discussion on the very issue of HawkEye. The greatest coach of modern times, Bob Woolmer, has contributed to the debate himself, where he makes the most persuasive case I have yet seen for the use of new-fangled gadgets and stuff.

(As an aside, Wicket to Wicket is playing precisely the role blogs should be playing in the wider media - acting as a forum for debate where issues are discussed fully and frankly).

Woolmer's point is this:
It [the introduction of HawkEye] would also mean that the human difference between one umpire and another over lbw decisions would vanish. It is particularly difficult when one umpire is seen as an “Outer” while the other is a “Not-outer.” The same appeal would solicit a different decision.
Being the open-minded man that I am (except when I'm right, of course), my opinion has been changed. The umpires are integral to the game of cricket only in that there needs to be some impartial judge of what is going on, and to adjudicate on the most controversial decisions. The laws of the game are absolute, even if the interpretation of the law from person to person is different.

Those different interpretations, of course, detract greatly from the game. The idea of sport is that the better team wins, not the team that benefits, however inadvertantly, from poorer umpiring decisions. Whilst we are reliant on human error for the adjudication on close decisions, the game will be unfair. Who the beneficiaries are will not be consistent from game to game, and no doubt over a long period of time the luck will even out. But in a results-driven game, luck evening out over a long period of time is not good enough. The immediate context is important. And to lose a game you deserved to win, because of a howler of a decision, is one of the most frustrating things imaginable.

Introducing HawkEye means that there will be a recognisable standard. It may not be perfect, but at least it will introduce a level playing field. A bad referee or umpire in any game is irritating. Yet if they are consistent and bad, you at least know the parameters under which you are expected to compete. It is the inconsistency of lbw decisions that causes the biggest problems. With the greater use of technology, the consistency issue will become redundant. If you are given out lbw by HawkEye and think it is unjust, it may not seem much consolation - but had the exact same thing happened to your opponents, they would have been given the same decision. That much cannot be said when we are relying on human judgement.

Umpires are incidental to the game of cricket. And, whilst I respect the job they do, they are fallible, and they do render the outcomes of cricket matches unfair. In sport, we want to create as level a playing field as possible. As far as cricket is concerned, the game will not have that level playing field until HawkEye is used as a matter of course.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Controlling the News Cycle

Is it just me, or are these two stories related? Get all the bad news out of the way at once, and it will stop detailed scrutiny of either...

Miers withdraws from Supreme Court nomination

Prosecutors focusing on Rove

SportBlog Roundup

Tim Worstall's been setting a trail ablaze with his BritBlog roundup, and there are all sorts of similar collective projects currently going on - Once More's Tory bloggers roundup, various carnivals of the godless and liberty (or even the ubercarnival), and this effort at Pickled Politics to name just a few.

One item that seems to have been neglected, however, is the realm of sport. I've seen some really good examples of sports blogging out there (this one at the Yorkshire Ranter, for example), but they rarely seem to get the prominence they deserve. I hope, in some small way, to change that.

In the spirit of the BritBlog roundup, I hope to be able to run a worldwide roundup of the best sport blogging there is. All angles are appreciated (regular readers will know I am a strong believer in the connections between sports and politics), and contributions are welcome on any sport under the sun, too.

In keeping with the tradition of sports at the weekend, writing afterwards, I think it's best if I am to put this up on Tuesday mornings. Whether this is a weekly or fortnightly thing depends on the number of submissions I get; at the moment I am aiming to kick this off a week on Tuesday, so the 8th of November.

Email submissions to me at sportblog at googlemail dot com

How to Balance a Budget

Not content with underfunding the federal engineer corps, the scramble that Bush is having to make to cut spending from his budget (having increased discretionary spending more than any two-term President since Johnson) is taking on another unseemly aspect.

House Republicans voted to cut student loan subsidies, child support enforcement and aid to firms hurt by unfair trade practices as various committees scrambled to piece together $50 billion in budget cuts.
I find it somewhat surprising that these are considered the most obvious programmes to cut - Medicaid, food stamps and farm subsidies (!) are supposedly more politically insensitive. Even so, if I was prioritising between trying to help students fund their way through college, and giving tax cuts to the rich, I think I know which one I would choose. I also think I know which one is most healthy for the life of a country in general.

The particularly interesting aspect of the cuts I quote is the reducing of funding for child support enforcement. Maybe this will put paid to efforts to portray Bush as nothing other than a tool of the religious right. Surely it's not a nice, friendly, family-oriented policy to reduce the effectiveness of parents paying for a child's upbringing?

Brian O'Driscoll

Via Tim Worstall, here is more video footage of the spear tackle that put Brian O'Driscoll out of the Lions tour this summer and out of action for the entire year. As if more proof were needed that the "tackle" was off the ball, highly illegal and designed with the sole intention of hurting O'Driscoll, here it is.

It beggars belief that the citing official believed that there was conclusive proof that the tackle wasn't deliberately singling O'Driscoll out. I saw it for the first time and knew instantly that foul play was the root of the problem - the ball was too far away for anything else to have been the case.

Now, England aren't necessarily exemplary when it comes to disciplinary matters, and certain players have been given bans of convenient lengths to let them play in internationals (Martin Johnson). Yet I can't think of a single incident where deliberate foul play has gone unpunished, or leniently punished on account of "good character" in the past.

The southern hemisphere, and Australia and New Zealand in particular, however, seem to treat foul play as a problem only if it doesn't occur against England or the Lions. Just before the World Cup, Josh Lewsey was kicked in the head by Ali Williams, and no action was taken. On the Lions tour to Australia in 2001, Duncan Macrae held Ronan O'Gara to the ground and hit him at least five times whilst O'Gara couldn't defend himself - one of the worst pieces of thuggery I've seen whilst watching rugby. His "unblemished previous record" was used as an excuse to only ban Macrae for three months, rather than the year that such violence deserved.

According to the Telegraph, these were the comments of Graham Henry, the New Zealand coach:

"There was no intention of hurting anybody. It was just one of those things that happen in rugby. Tana is a role model in New Zealand. He's a very special guy. I would be very disappointed if it was still hanging on."
Of course he wants the whole affair swept under the carpet. His captain and one of his best players were involved in an act of blatant thuggery that the New Zealand Union conspired in sweeping under the carpet. I hope sincerely that it doesn't rest. Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu cheated, and set out deliberately to injure another player. There is no other explanation for their actions. The actions of New Zealand in that match were the actions of thugs and cheats, and it is a total and utter disgrace.

The Telegraph also report:
Umaga will clearly be expected to lead his team in the most prestigious game - the centenary match against Wales - and is only likely to play against Ireland if his squad suffer injury problems.
No wonder. Umaga would have a target on his back. He is a thug, and Graham Henry condones it. Shame on them.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Tories Rout On Civil Liberties

It is genuinely frustrating and demoralising to learn that the Conservative Party has decided to do a volte-face and vote with the government's draconian terrorism act this week.

No matter my disagreements with the Conservative party over race issues, I did at least think that some vestiges of a liberal spirit existed within its collective body. However, their support for ID cards and this terror legislation shows absolute rank cowardice. One can understand that the leadership election is distracting, and that it is awfully sneaky of the Government to schedule these votes now. However, it is shocking that the Tory party even needs to think twice before voting against these measures.

Any small-L liberals left in the Tory party should jump ship now.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

When Enemies Agree

EU Serf at Once More wrote today that he heard David Cameron on the news this morning agreeing with Tony Blair:

Whilst munching on Breakfast this morning, I was treated to the sight of the Blue Eyed Boy agreeing with Tony Blair. He was agreeing with the Governments new approach to secondary education.

Now I may be a Davis man, but I can assure you that, how dare he? was not the first thing that sprung to mind. I was a little intrigued.
He ends up by stating the principle that if Labour are adhering to Tory principles, it's only right for the party to agree.

This is great news. One of the great strengths that Tony Blair had when he was Leader of the Opposition was that he was not afraid to agree with the Tories. He would agree with their good policies, which made his criticisms of their worst policies all the more cutting. There was a man who made arguments on principle, not based on the assumption of party clothes.

On the other side, the biggest weakness of the Tories over the last eight years is that they felt they had to oppose everything that Labour did, simply because Labour did it (the one highly ironic exception being the invasion of Iraq, of course). They still hadn't come to terms with the fact that opposition didn't mean that, at all times, you had to oppose.

There's a danger in following too blindly, of course, as the Tories have found to their cost over Iraq. If they had possessed a more impressive front-bench team than IDS and Michael Ancram, they could have made a principled case for war that expressed reservations about the Labour argument in a forceful way. Because that is the true trick of opposition - creating doubt in the minds of the public without creating the impression of partisanship.

It has become a maxim in recent days that the momentum developed by David Cameron has "shown that the Tory party is serious about taking power again." I disagree - it has been that the Tory party has shown itself to be dazzled by the bright lights of the mainstream media finally being receptive towards a figure somewhat popular in the Tory party itself. Yet if they can become skilful exponents of the art of opposition - knowing when to agree, when to disagree, and thus highlighting the true strengths of their argument - then they really are being serious about getting back into power. They may still be short on ideas, but becoming an "effective opposition" will see them travel half the distance they need to.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

I Want To Hate David Cameron

Question Time on Thursday disturbed me greatly. The panel, ignoring the presence of Estelle Morris (a horrible, horrible, horrible woman), was quite good for a change (if you can ignore the sanctimoniousness of the Amnesty International head), and it contained Matthew Parris, who is without doubt one of the finest columnists currently writing. The first question, predictably enough, referred to the Tory leadership election, and almost without exception, the panel were lauding David Cameron.

Notable, however, was that the only reason given for support was because Cameron had "something about him", that he was going to embark upon "21st Century politics", he was "fresh". In so far as policies were mentioned, buzzwords were still the order of the day - "strong families and strong communities", "caring about the Health Service" - the sort of thing that absolutely no-one disagrees with. Thankfully the audience seemed to cut through the media fog and emphasise how little of any substance he's actually said.

The question I want to ask David Cameron is the same question that I want to ask Burger King whenever I get conned into paying a couple of quid for a fat patty - where's the beef? At the moment he's asking the Tory Party to back him on the basis of not wearing a tie and having a nice smile. Now, a nice smile has been successful before - heck, Ronald Reagan won two Presidential terms on the back of one. But if the Tory party can't actually see that their image wasn't the only reason for their dismal failure at the last election, then they are in serious trouble. An almost racist campaign on immigration, and a total paucity of ideas on anything else couldn't be sold, even by a professional spin merchant like Cameron, in a way that could make inroads on a massively unpopular leader like Blair.

And yet, despite all this, there is something about Cameron that makes you like him. Yesterday, the BBC were saying that he was taking a huge risk in visiting a deprived area in London and appearing on a community radio show. Maybe, but he certainly did it at the right time. When your political stock is as high as you could possibly have imagined, that is when you take risks.

Not suicidal ones, but Cameron is currently attracting large amounts of media sympathy, and even if such a move backfired, it would be unlikely to leave him dead in the water. As it is, the image of him being bear-hugged on the street will have done wonders for his credibility - he was embarrassed enough not to seem a phoney, but nor did he appear totally uncomfortable. In an age where the media has the power to make or break stars, that image is vital. It was, ultimately, William Hague's attempts to pretend to be something he was not that kiboshed his attempts to be taken seriously.

Of course, the problem with Cameron is that no matter how nice a guy he seems, we still don't know what policies he believes in - and my hunch is that he is far more in the Michael Howard than the Ken Clarke mould. And that may be why the dawn of Cameron is a false dawn. As nice a guy as he may seem to be, the bun and the garnish can only get you so far. At some point, you have to give the public the beef. If it's as unappealing as that served up by Burger King, Cameron won't get very far.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

It Takes All Sorts

Quite possibly the best story I have come across in a long time - even better than the lazy Italian postman who is facing jail for taking his letters home rather than delivering them.

A criminal actually asked for a longer jail sentence than he had been given...

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Baseball Blogging

Regular readers of the blog will know that I try and find examples of sports becoming intermingled with politics. Part of this stems from my belief that whenever you get groups of people coming together for whatever purpose, you get politics. Sports, therefore, provide a peculiarly interesting angle to view politics and identity through, because most of the assumptions that operate in the crowd are unconscious, and yet very telling indeed.

This article sums up, for me, a lot of why sports really are important. So much meaning, so much a sense of community, a sense of identity.

Microsoft Expert Mocks UK ID Cards

When even Microsoft think the security is too poor for them to be worried about profits, you know something's gone bad.

Microsoft has warned the UK government's national ID card plans pose a huge security risk that could actually increase the likelihood of confidential personal information falling into the hands of hackers and criminals.

A top security and identity management expert at Microsoft said the current technology proposals are flawed and criticised other IT suppliers for failing to speak out publicly about their concerns for fear of damaging any future bids for a piece of the lucrative ID cards contract.

Jerry Fishenden, national technology officer at Microsoft UK, told the current plans for a central national identity register could lead to "huge potential breaches" and leakage of personal information.

He said: "I have concerns with the current architecture and the way it looks at aggregating so much personal information and biometrics in a single place. There are better ways of doing this. Even the biometrics industry says it is better to have biometrics stored locally."

Fishenden said no systems are ever completely secure and warned that putting vast amounts of personal data and biometric information such as iris, fingerprint and facial scans in one central database would prove too tempting a target for hackers and other criminals.

Microsoft has expressed its concerns directly to the Home Office ID cards team but Fishenden said other suppliers are keeping quiet about their fears over the viability of the current proposals because they want a piece of what would be a multi-billion pound project.

"Every supplier I talk to privately expresses their concerns," he said. "They seem happy to express their reservations to each other. But I don't think we have been as vocal as we should have been on this debate."

Microsoft's comments come as MPs are due to vote on a third reading for the Identity Cards Bill and just a day after Home Office minister Tony McNulty admitted to problems with the proposed biometric technology recognising some people, such as those with brown eyes.

His statement followed a report in the Independent on Sunday warning that one in 1,000 people could be incorrectly identified by the biometric systems because of difficulties in identifying those such as manual labourers who wear down their fingerprints.


Roads or Pavements?

Apparently walking in a cycle lane is now an act of terrorism. What I do want to know is this, however. If walking in a cycle lane is such a crime, when is the crackdown on cyclists using the pavement going to begin?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Only One Party Opposes ID Cards

An update on the 1938 committee: the entire Conservative Party can now be admitted to that august society, after the Tories decided that ID cards weren't important enough to declare a 3-line whip for.

As a result, the Tories may yet prove to be the force that ensures Britain gets expensive and intrusive compulsory identity cards. They can join their fellow anti-ID vacillators in the 1938 Club. Anyone who missed the launch of that fine group of Conservative cowards, can click here to find the full story.

David Cameron Fun

Above: David sees off the big beasts of the Tory leadership, in a book writeen by Clarke.

And find more, here.

Monday, October 17, 2005

What The Media Cycle Can Learn From Cricket

The great curse of journalism is the curse of the cliche. It is a curse which has its most profound effect on sports journalism, where the same phrases are used over and over again, even in the description of events that, if compared, bear little resemblance to one another. Why are good cover drives always "majestic"? Why does a shot in football that hits the post "rattle the woodwork"? Do tactical battles really turn into a "game of chess"? More to the point, if there are so many "positives" to be taken from each game, why does sport always seem so negative?

Naturally, the power of sport is that every individual game, for all its differences, is recognisable because it takes on similar forms. That shouldn't be taken to mean that the same language, the use of the same terminology, is always appropriate. Indeed, it can make the individual game appear stale, an act of conformity, rather than allowing us to appreciate differences, to appreciate individual skill, to appreciate the drama that is what makes sport quite as evocative as it is.

In April, Amit Varma bemoaned the overuse of cliches in cricket.
What shocks me as a reader, and saddens me as a writer, is how in many Indian
publications mastery of this dialect is considered a virtue. And television has
actually sanctified it. For celebrities-turned-commentators, in fact, who have
received no training in writing or commentary, the easiest way to cope is to
pick up such shorthand. And if you learn the dialect, you are at least never at
loss for something to say, for every situation evokes a basket of cliches to
choose from.

Despite its undoubted status as the finest game played on this planet, cricket is perhaps particularly vulnerable to the overuse of the cliche, or the "dialect" as Varma terms it. A Test match, if it runs its full distance, goes on for five days, and involves 30 hours of action - not to mention the lunch breaks! Multiply this by three, four or even five for a whole series, and it is no wonder that a recourse to the same stock phrases is sought. Varma is right to point out, too, that the lack of journalistic training for many celebrities and ex-players means that there isn't a professionalism to the coverage of cricket that in an ideal world there would be.

The point, of course, is that a crude oversimplification of any state of affairs runs the risk of failing to highlight the nuances of a game, which is where the true beauty, and real interest lies. That's not just a failing of cricket coverage, though. Look at the 24-hour news channels. In my university vacations, I often spend time catching up on the world as seen by Murdoch on Sky. The news is shockingly under-developed, and it is the same on BBC News 24, and just about any other news channel I've come across in the world.

The Boxing Day Tsunami, for example, absolutely dominated the news cycle - yet the primary focus seemed to be getting more and more amateur photography of the coming of the waves. More in-depth analysis - such as pointing out the severity of the aftershocks (many of them were among the largest quakes of the last 10 years) was left to the broadsheets. That can't be right. A written article may have room for subtlety that simply cannot be introduced to a TV show. But there is more than enough time for TV news to be more informative. Rather than deciding a channel's angle on a story and repeating it ad nauseam at the appointed minute on the hour, I'd far rather see high-quality, in-depth reporting on a variety of topics. Something like BBC2's "Correspondent" series, only on a more regular basis. The same goes for political interviewing - rather than chasing the soundbite, why can't we actually start discussing things intelligently (not confrontationally) in longer pieces?

The hint, I think, comes from the greatest of all cricket broadcasters, Richie Benaud. The commentators who Varma complains about in his article have a tendency to talk all the time. When you are constantly filling the air with noise, there is a much greater chance of that noise being little more than hot air. There's no time for reflection or considered opinion. Benaud is considered the great cricket broadcaster due to his more cerebral approach - he doesn't lose his friendly manner, but never speaks unless he genuinely thinks that he can add something to the picture. There's time to reflect and take in what you see in front of you.

That's not always possible in cricket, and it's not always possible when considering the news, either. So desperate are the broadcasters to fill their airtime with "breaking news", there is often little consideration of what's important. Richie Benaud shows us, however, that less is more. We don't need to have the minutiae relayed to us. Instead we should be given the really pertinent news, and have it explained to us properly.

There is, of course, one more piece of advice for the news cycle. Channel 4, when it took over cricket coverage, employed Simon Hughes as "The Analyst" - every half-hour or so he'd pop up with some detailed analysis of technique, field placing, or bowling accuracy to help place the match in greater context. The news channels should think about this too. Don't just feed us the same regurgitated crap about a country. Don't just tell us Germany is in paralysis - do a half-hour programme explaining the election results in detail, why their system operates in the way that it does, something like that. Give us the story behind the headline.

BritBlogging Again

Tim Worstall's BritBlog roundup is once more up again. This week he makes the revelation that he used to live in San Luis Obispo, a charming little town in the middle of California, which marks him out as a man of great taste. Very underrated mission town.

He also asks to promote the Wikablog - just like the more famous Wikipedia, but for blogs.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Devoid of Meaning

Just like the "Super Series", the Super Test looks like degenerating into an orgy of pointlessness. Hopefully, it will be the death of crass marketing and rampant commercialism. On the face of it, the idea sounded incredibly strong - get the best team in the world playing against the best players in the rest of the world. Who wouldn't be interested?

Fate has a funny way of biting you in the backside, as the ICC have found out to their cost. When the idea was first mooted, no-one seemed to have a cat in hell's chance of beating the Aussies. That all changed this summer, of course - and memorably so. The Ashes series was quite possibly the most intense, and most exciting series of cricket ever played. The Super matches could never live up to that. Besides, the Aussies were no longer so invincible that only an imaginary team could beat them.

Yet aside from simply sporting reasons, the series was doomed to failure in the first place. Many people have tried to create a team, but most have failed. That's because of what the Americans would call "intangibles". Team chemistry takes time to develop - and the truly great teams are better than the sum of their parts. Chelsea didn't win the league at first in the Abramovich era because there was no backbone to the squad. Now that the new English imports have gelled, there is a nucleus to the side, and they are immensely strong. That took time to develop. Simply gathering the best footballers in the world and lumping them under a new badge wasn't going to work, and dooing the same in cricket wouldn't happen either.

The badge, of course, is the reason why the Super games have been such a commercial flop, too. Sport is important to people because it matters to them, and it matters to them because there are accepted forms of discourse with which anyone can identify. The World XI kit just doesn't look right. Whilst Australia are recognisably a Test side, with their baggy green caps and all, the World XI look a hastily assembled side. It doesn't help that they picked the light blue/dark blue piping on the sweater that is ubiquitous amongst club cricketers who don't own a club sweater, admittedly...

In any case, expecting people to rally behind a nebulous concept of a World XI wasn't going to work in the first place, even accounting for the "anyone but Australia" supporters. Sport matters because people identify with the players on "their" team; they feel like they know them. Even the colours that they wear are important, as it implies a sense of continuity, of history, of a tradition that people are consciously buying into. Tradition matters in sport. The commercially successful clubs recognise this; they build their brand up as something that is constant. The ICC do devalue tradition when they count such a gimmicky match as an official Test; it has none of the context of contest that makes Test cricket so powerful. And they are reaping the whirlwind as the world takes a massive yawn at an overhyped contest totally devoid of any meeting.

10,00th Visitor

Sometime yesterday, this blog received its 10,00th visitor since I started putting a meter on the site. Thanks!

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Blog Management

The ultra observant of those of you who read this at twenty past one in the morning will have realised that I have given the blogroll a bit of an overhaul. I realise that classification in such a way is inevitably crude and often lumps different styles of blogs together when they may not ideally belong in such a juxtaposition. However, there is a point behind this, amazingly enough.

That is, I want to expand my knowledge of blogs. Where categories are weak, or seem increasingly untenable, I want to reclassify and expand the categories. I want to be exposed to different types of writing, with differing predominant concerns and all that jazz. So, feel free to suggest new reading for me. And complain about my categorisations. Please.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Uncontrolled Immigration

Richard's anger at the Tory immigration policy in the last election was certainly understandable - and for the most part I shared it. Where the Tories had to tread carefully, they manifestly failed to, giving rise to all sorts of accusations of racism, "playing the race card", populism, and other such shady motives. The one point that was made more succinctly than any other was that the headline slogan "controlled immigration" was totally ridiculous. In the same way that Labour's slogan "Britain forward, not back" was utterly vacuous, because no-one would suggest the inverse, so talking about "controlled immigration" was ridiculous. No-one sensible advocates uncontrolled immigration either.

I wonder, however, whether we are moving towards a system of uncontrolled immigration. We undoubtedly deal with a grey area on asylum policy. Realistically, under the Geneva Convention, there should be minimal asylum applications in Britain, as refugees should apply for asylum in the first safe country that they reach. I'm not arguing we should hold ourselves to that standard; it would definitely be morally corrupt to turn people away on that basis (although, of course, an EU-wide asylum policy would prevent the burden of applications falling too heavily on any one country).

Today's High Court ruling, however, that was seen as a "test case" as to the Government's policy of deporting failed asylum seekers back to Zimbabwe, seems to highlight an inequity in the system. I blogged about this earlier in the summer, and I still hold my position now. It makes a mockery of our asylum system if someone can apply for asylum, be denied, and yet be allowed to remain in this country because the mere process of coming here has made it unsafe for him to return. There are other problems in our asylum system, such as the fact that successful asylum seekers aren't allowed to work. And to a certain extent, that clouds my point on "uncontrolled immigration" - certainly these people aren't just going to be coming and taking "our" jobs, or any of the usual scaremongering in that sense.

There is a fundamental fallacy, however, in saying that someone is unentitled to asylum here, but the mere fact of getting here entitles them to stay. If they aren't genuinely in fear of their lives coming here, they shouldn't be let in; they should apply through the proper economic immigration channels.

God Help Us All (Again)

Harold Pinter wins Nobel Prize for Literature.

No wonder this guy wanted to resign...

I'm no aficionado of Pinter's works, to be fair. However, I can't help but think that this award is overtly political because of Pinter's outspoken opposition to the Iraq War, and to US foreign policy in general. Has he done anything of note recently to justify the award being given now, and not earlier?

UPDATE: As with most things, I've been discussing this in the pub. The friend I mentioned it to came up with the point that although most Nobel winners don't get the award at the height of their powers, they usually get it by about 10 years after their best works - certainly not 20. So it seems a fair conclusion to draw that he wouldn't have won the award purely on literary merit.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Stating the Obvious

Charity states the obvious. That should be the headline of the BBC article that tells us that the Sutton Trust believes that the top state schools serve the wealthy. Of course they do. The comprehensive system works on a basis of catchment areas. Whilst there are catchment areas, it is possible for parents to move into those of desirable schools - and who's going to be able to afford those most easily? The rich, of course.

Unless you take schools out of the community entirely, and instead operate on a system of social engineering, where government-imposed formulae are use to determine a school's composition, then the comprehensive system will always have this problem. Our school system is now far more geared towards rewarding parental wealth than it ever was when we had grammar schools. When you had to actually be academically the creme de la creme to be able to enter a school, then other factors were far less important (although cultural factors, most notably the family background and attitudes towards education, undoubtedly affect performance too). Of course, most of the highest achieving state schools in the country are selective (and, although I don't know for sure, I would bet that Labour councils launching a crusade against selective schooling are probably responsible for more working-class areas being without these schools). It's hardly surprising, really. It's just a shame that the class warriors of the Labour movement are too blind to see how much they hold back the interests of the working class, that they claim to care so much about.

The Wrong Way Round

Surely Tony Blair has got things the wrong way round when he says that you need more quality schools before you can introduce choice? Yes, quality schools are the object of education policy. But that is so obvious it barely needs stating. However, it is just wrong to say that "there can be no choice unless we're also putting in the investment to create better schools". The Labour-dominated education committee has already demonstrated that results from the Blair cohorts do not justify the massive expenditure increases - that in fact the Blair era has seen as much improvement in schools as the Major years.

Indeed, public service studies have shown over the years that more investment is not a catch-all solution. It might be easy to sell to the public, yes, but in terms of actual yields, it is far more questionable. This Canadian study shows that despite greater expenditure on healthcare than most other nations, the standards are not necessarily higher. The conclusion being, obviously, that reforming inefficient systems is far more important than just ploughing money into a system.

I'm not sold on any form of education voucher or education cheque scheme. Basically, I'm not sure that it provides the safety net, or the impetus for government to make change - in many ways, it just abrogates responsibility. If choice is to work, though, it relies on making the schools the harbingers of change; that the nature of competition is in itself enough to promote reform from within. Now, more investment may or may not be needed. But it's a completely separate argument from introducing choice. There's no need to conflate the two at all.

Except for the usual Blair trick - espouse one popular policy, and attempt to inextricably link it to something worse.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Shades of Grey

Third Avenue and Laban Tall both comment on the soon-to-be debated Assisted Suicide Bill. Laban is, as you would expect, pretty strongly opposed to any notion of assisted suicide or euthanasia. Not without justification, I might add - supporters of the Bill may argue that a case like Harold Shipman is exceptionally rare. Yet any potential legal justification for his dreadful acts should be avoided at any costs, both on ethical grounds and if we wish to retain any trust in our doctors whatsoever. Any euthanasia bill would have to be incredibly well-written to make sure that the rights of the dying are respected without giving the chance for more evil, worldly motives to take over.

His argument, that consists of the line "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.", however, is much more shaky in my opinion. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, certainly. Yet he has given us the power to terminate life at short notice; it is our own moral minefield to negotiate how we use that power. As John Steinbeck might agree, "thou mayest triumph over sin" - did the Lord really intend the perpetuating of suffering? Whether we like it or not, any moral guidance on these matters cannot be absolute, and it must always exist in shades of grey.

Third Avenue's viewpoint is very interesting indeed. He argues against the legal right to an assisted suicide, but believes that judges should be able to turn a blind eye to the law in the right circumstances. So far, that is justifiable, if somewhat against the legalistic times in which we live. What is far stranger is his position regarding the imposition or otherwise of life-support treatment:

A fundamentally different question, however, is the right not to receive or continue to receive medical treatment: and it was this that was at the heart of the Terri Schiavo case here in the States earlier this year (although the issue was muddied by a deeply distressing family dispute). There is no question in my mind that a competent patient, or their competent next of kin, should be able to decide whether to accept treatment, even if its refusal would have a terminal outcome. The alternative, indeed, fills me with dread. For the law to oblige me or my loved ones to accept continued treatment, however horrible, however painful, however much against my or their express wishes, is to open up a new and disturbing view of the relationship between the individual and the state.

I still fail to see the moral difference between killing someone through a direct action, or through killing someone through failing to perform an act that would keep them alive. That is the issue at hand when the Terri Schiavo feeding tube case, for example, is discussed. If a course of action that will certainly result in death is acceptable, then why is a different course of action with the same result different? (And, to turn back to Laban Tall for a minute, if the Lord has given us the power to keep a person alive through a feeding tube, does that mean it should be used?)

A relative of mine was in that situation earlier this year. I was too far away to visit; however, other relatives did visit. The story they brought was terrible - of someone left unable to speak and in obvious pain through the removal of treatment, even if there was little doubt that the results of withdrawal were the most humane. Why subject someone - anyone - to a level of suffering through starving them to death, when a lethal injection, for example, could alleviate the pain?

We are queasy about legislating for this because it appears that the state is legislating for death. Bush's empty rhetoric about creating a "culture of life" has its appeal. Death scares us all, and God forbid we should ever be in a position where these sorts of judgements have to be made. Yet simply because they are grisly doesn't mean we should put them to the back of our mind - as a failure to confront this inconsistency does. They do arise, they cause strife well beyond the patient, and they are impossible to deal with except on a case by case basis.

Of course, as Third Avenue points out, in a legalistic world, that often won't do. If things go wrong, we want someone to blame. If we want someone to blame, people have to have duties. If people have to have duties, then they have to be codified. That leaves us with the unappealing prospect of judges becoming the arbiters of these decisions. No-one wants to leave their lives, or the lives of their loved ones, in the hands of seemingly unaccountable - and certainly remote and distant figures.

The question that should be asked, of course, is - why should they? Why don't we give legal protection to our doctors, that in cases where second or even third opinions have been taken, and extensive consultation with patient and/or next of kin has been sought, and all parties have agreed on the same result, that euthanasia can be allowed? There would still be legal recourse in the case of dissent. But it seems to me that in most cases neither party wants to take it to court. And if it's made pretty clear in any ruling that it's the practicalities of the case that should be decided, not the broader principles, the fear of judicial legislation that is so prevalent in the States should be avoided too.

Most of the time, this could be settled without a recourse to the courts. They are needed as a safety net in any law of this kind, naturally. Yet if we give the legal capability for assisted suicide, then to a certain extent we can take the courts out of a process we don't want them to be involved in anyway. Whilst it remains illegal, we are prolonging suffering, even when making a swifter death an inevitability. If we give the legal capability of assisted suicide, then it can be left, as far as is humanly possible, as a matter between adults, their relatives, and their doctors. And when we're dealing in shades of grey, that's the best solution we can hope for.

The Role of the State

Because conservative support for the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court seems to hinge on whether she is likely to vote for the overturning of Roe vs Wade (which guarantees a constitutional right to abortion in America), I've been skimming around various news sources regarding the pro and anti-abortion arguments (I try and keep away from the terms pro-life and pro-choice; both of them are totally ridiculous). One link I followed threw up something that disturbed me quite greatly. Nothing to do with abortion - I still don't know exactly how you would characterise my position in two words, and to be honest, I don't ever want to get to that stage either. Instead, it was what the comment implied about the role of the state:

It is indefensible for government (which can legally require parental involvement) to, by default, encourage girls to exclude their parents during this time in their lives.

I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw it. Simply by the fact that the government claims competency to legislate in this area, its failure to legislate means that it is actually encouraging a certain type of behaviour. This is an obviously fallacious argument - by that token, government encourages alcohol consumption after 18 in the UK; government, by failing to ban the sale of automobiles, encourages their purchase.

If this is taken as read, how can George Bush actually claim that he believes in smaller government? It goes back to a regular theme of mine; no matter which side of the Atlantic, or which party you support, they all believe in big government, just directed towards their own interests.

That is not the point of the state. In the case of abortion, the state is there to protect the rights of a pregnant mother. There's no blanket solution - any solution in this case has to be one of shades of grey, and anyone who pretends the issue is black and white is an idiot. The state is not there to take sides to encourage or prevent an abortion; to encourage or prevent parental involvement.

By not legislating in a certain area, the government does not promote or discourage anything. It simply butts its nose out of where it isn't in the right position to make a judgement. That's as it should be. There is no hard or fast answer as to whether parental involvement in decisions on abortions is right or wrong. Circumstance is everything, and thus just about every state that has introduced a parental involvement law does allow exceptions in certain circumstances.

The reason this worries me so much is because if the argument is accepted here, the principle could seep into a broader political culture and become intensely damaging; seeing a far more interventionist government because the state is seen as a moral arbiter rather than a force that is there to provide a safety net where it is needed most.

Modern Churches

I've argued with my friends before that the lack of a physical presence of the church is one clear sign of a fading of religious life, and I sometimes refer to sports arenas as "modern churches". The first item in this photo essay makes that point tremendously well - for it is a church that was, in a past life, a sports arena.

It did interest me to see these pictures very much, though. It was pleasing to be made aware of these "megachurches" that seemed to break the mould; combining in many cases modern styles of architecture with a strong, and impressive physical structure.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Brazilian Girls

One of the more bizarre, yet strangely brilliant headlines of our times:

"Brazilian Girls aren't Brazilian"

God Help Us All

Simon Jenkins argues in today's Sunday Times that personality is absolutely vital; that in politics, policy might as well be left behind. Hence his support of David Cameron - and, given the vacuousness of Cameron's policy pronouncements, his presentation seems to be just about the only way in which a thinking person would support him.

Recent experience shows that people want a political leader with whom they can feel comfortable, irrespective of party allegiance or parliamentary popularity. When Blair departs the scene I doubt if anyone will remember a policy to link with his name (other than Iraq). In this he is like Bill Clinton. Yet both men passed the charisma test. They rose above the artifice of political salesmanship.

To that list he should add George Bush - but that's probably too much of an uncomfortable truth to Sir Simon. What depresses me most is that this should be printed as a seemingly unremarkable piece. Where do we stand if the ability to become Prime Minister depends on little more than your ability to come across on TV as a nice, personable bloke who feels the nations pain? We stand looking over the precipice, with Home Office pet projects like ID cards about to become a reality, that's where.

If anyone perpetuates the myth of the personality above all, then it is the media - a media which, I might add, is far more pernicious to politics than the US media. In America, if a politician tries to evade a question, the interviewer will usually respond by saying something along the lines of "that's a very interesting point you raise, and we can come back to that later. But it doesn't answer the question that I've asked". Far less confrontational, and far more effective than the hostility and faux-horror espoused by the Paxmans and Humphrys of the world.

There's a good reason you only see the party leaders on Newsnight once in a blue moon - because they know there is absolutely no point to being there unless they have to be. A question is never answered because there's no intelligent debate. In America, an absence of ideas can steal the show in an interview: that's been the problem facing the Democrats. And it's the problem facing the Tories in Britain, too, however much they like to pretend otherwise. A party taken in so forcefully by so vacuous and forced a speech hasn't woken up to the fact it is sadly lacking in ideas.

That's the sort of atmosphere where demagogues like Blair and Cameron can turn on the glitzy lights and make thinking people turn weak-kneed at the prospect of their becoming leader. And it fundamentally cheapens politics when it happens. It turns schools and hospitals into political pawns; being used as battering rams for one party against another, rather than actually trying to find a way of treating someones family "better and faster". Politics isn't a sport of the blue team against the red team - it's supposed to be about what's doing the best thing for the progression of the country, and for the well-being of its citizens. If, as Jenkins says, "Blair was not the means by which Labour gained power in 1997. Labour was the means by which Blair gained power", then we're in incredibly deep shit.

Of course, it's not right. Blair was able to make Labour a political force, and he's certainly charmed and slimed his way to far larger majorities than the charmless Kinnocks, Smiths and Browns of this world could have done. But let's not forget how abject the Tories were - how much they seemed to abuse the public's trust, how meekly they appeared to respond to recession; how they destroyed their own reputation for economic competence through Black Wednesday and the ERM. Policies, not personalities, causing the collapse of a government.

A leader like Blair can mask governmental defects, simply by being better at the despatch box. But William Hague was brilliant at the despatch box, and look where it got him. Not just because of the Labour spin machine, but because a campaign based on asylum and saving the pound didn't actually appeal to Britain. Because there wasn't anything to stand on, to build an image across, to portray a view of competence to run the country.

Chicken Yoghurt has the right idea. Let's make the two parties boring, cheerless brands. Let's expose the media cycle for the charade it is. Let's reclaim politics and actually have an engagement based on ideas, rather than fashionable stop-the-war slogans and a soundbite or two from a speech. It's a sad state of affairs when Nick Robinson's opinion, or the view of a couple of headline writers, makes or breaks a conference speech.

There's a lot going wrong with this country, no matter what action you think should be taken to remedy it. The education system is in a politically-meddled-with mess, our standing in the world has rarely been lower, we fail to take any leadership in Europe, our police wants to lock people up for three months without a trial, whilst our economy is about to head south if experts are to be believed. And the papers aren't full of discussions on how to solve this. They're talking about what David Cameron did at university and quoting Frank Luntz saying that Cameron "re-invented politics for him". Bloody hell.

Where have all the ideas gone? There are so many things that could be done, could be advocated, and they are sacrificed on the altar of a headline. On the altar of a fifteen second slot on the news. And we wonder why the country seems to lurch from bad news to bad news.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

The Blame Game

This article, I think, epitomises one of the major problems that we have in a media-centric, round-the-clock news cycle world. Despite the fact that the experts on the matter considered the intelligence received of doubtful credibility, the possibility of a bomb attack on the New York subway system prompted the Mayor (in a re-election year, I believe) to announce publicly the threat and ask people not to carry bags on to trains for the back end of this week.

I don't blame Mayor Bloomberg for his course of action. If there had been an attack, and it had been demonstrated that the city authorities had seen intelligence to that effect, then there would have been hell on. "Why weren't we warned?" "City burns whilst Mayor sits on his hands." No-one wants to be blamed like that; few would be willing to stake their political career on such a judgement. And, let's face it, it's the mayor and the city authorities that would be blamed in a case like this (with the addition of George Bush, no doubt). The intelligence experts who cast aspersions on the accuracy of the information are too remote for the media bloodhounds to stick their teeth into.

Of course, the threat itself - whether real, dangerous, or not - contributes again to the climate of fear. It might not be a major victory for the terrorists, but getting people scared, and changing their habits, is what they want us to do. It paves the way for bald-faced lies from politicians claiming the need for ID cards, for example. But it provides the media with their insatiable desire for headlines, either way. The media circus is forcing politicians to make disclosures that they, in reality, shouldn't probably have to make. We should all know to be vigilant about security threats anyway, even if in practice we aren't. But making everyone suspicious of each other isn't going to help. That, however, is the logical consequence of creating a climate of fear.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Diabetes and Obesity

I'm diabetic. I'm also fat. I make no bones about either of these facts. However, I often get annoyed by the juxtaposition of the two. Today's Independent is a case in point:

Unlike other health threats, the death of tens of thousands of people is inevitable. The World Health Organisation warned in a report yesterday that the number of lives claimed by diabetes in the UK is set to grow by a quarter over the next decade, driven by rising obesity and inactivity.

They are referring, however, to type II diabetes - previously known as non-insulin dependent diabetes. So called, because in a type II diabetic, the body's ability to use insulin is impaired, and in many cases can be treated by diet alone, or with the help of tablets. Only in certain extreme cases is the actual injection of insulin required.

I, on the other hand, am a type I diabetic - previously known as insulin dependent. That's because my pancreas has quite simply decided not to produce any more insulin for me. How thoughtful of it. Now, my weight may well make my diabetes harder to control, as some of the problems of insulin resistance that affect type II diabetics are present within me. Even if I were to be of perfect size, however, I would still have diabetes, and have to go through the process of at least four daily injections and regular blood testing.

You can therefore understand why I'm slightly annoyed by the constant linking of obesity and "diabetes" in the press. My diabetes has nothing to do with my weight. And it's a problem that causes a lot of ignorance. When I was first diagnosed, my parents were constantly asked by the ignorant "but he will grow out of it, won't he?". No, I won't, unless the trials of Islets of Langerhans transplants become effective and widely available. I won't even have the luxury of being able to control my condition with tablets, or diet alone.

Ignorance of such a fundamental matter doesn't help people take diabetes seriously either. And the Independent is contributing to it by failing to make the distinction between diabetes that is genetic and diabetes that is much more attributable to personal choices.

Transport for England

Over at the Sharpener, John B has a post where he makes a Londoncentric plea for better public transport. I have to say, I find it hilarious when our friends from the capital start moaning about their transport system. Whenever I visit London, I'm amazed by how easy it is to travel around the city; getting to most places fairly quickly and fairly efficiently. What's more, it seems to me like there's normally a decent choice of services, too. It might not be the wonderfully integrated public transport systems of Berlin or Vienna. Then again, we don't have the traditions of city government that those places have. It's certainly far, far better than the public transport system in the rest of the country.

Whilst the image of the North as a wasteland is far too overstated, it is somewhere near the point when public transport is considered. I am fortunate that my home town is situated on the East Coast mainline, and so travelling to most of the country isn't too difficult. Trying to travel to other parts of the region by public transport, on the other hand, would be nigh on impossible. Certainly, for business purposes it would be completely and utterly impractical. To make a journey from Middlesbrough to Darlington, say - a journey of approximately half an hour by car - would take at least an hour by public transport. Going to somewhere more in the country would barely leave a businessman with time for more than one appointment in a day.

This becomes important when points are raised such as those in the comments, where it was suggested that congestion charging was a great idea. Not only has it had the environmental benefits of cutting down on car use, but it has provided extra money which can be ploughed back into the public transport system. I wholeheartedly agree with these principles. For them to work effectively, however, there needs to be a public transport system in place to begin with. Otherwise a city centre becomes a pedestrian's paradise.

That's nice, but ultimately a bad idea if you want any sort of city growth or city commerce. Even a park and ride system like that in Oxford drives many locals away from the town, because they are sick of being unable to park near the centre. (I think Durham may have some congestion charging scheme, but, if it does, this operates under two fairly important exceptions to the room - one, there is a car park that is just outside the zone, that leads you directly into the city centre; two, it has the cathedral, which is actually worth seeing, and certainly unique to the city.)

My point, therefore, is that whilst the rest of the country has crap public transport, it's a bit annoying to hear Londoners whinge and moan about a transport system that to me seems to be working fine. No, it's not super-modern, all-singing or all-dancing. I've travelled on many better systems. But, to a certain extent, as long as mass transit systems are cheap and quick, they are doing their job. Admittedly, I've never had to suffer the problems of delays on the line that you need to get home, although I have suffered at the hands of Virgin Trains trying to get home from university. And I know how frustrating that can be. But it's a hell of a lot less frustrating than actually being unable to make the journey in the first place.

When John B complains about money being spread around the regions, then he is actually missing the point (there are problems with the distribution of money, but that revolves around it being spent on the Celtic nations, and the North East, as usual, getting screwed over - and that's an entirely different point). The government should be promoting growth in regions other than the productive areas, not to mention providing those things like public healthcare and education that are, and should ever remain, a basic human right (there's another rant in that, too). That means giving some sort of public transport infrastructure to the areas that need it. In the North East, there isn't a choice as to whether to take the bus or the car. And with the environmentalists increasingly gaining the upper hand, the burden of taxation falls heavily on the North-eastern motorist. It's all very well talking about investing more money in the London transport network. That's fine, if it can pay for itself. If it can't, there are many areas of Britain that need the investment more desperately.

Five Men Saying the Same Thing

Isn't the Tory Party Conference fun? Look, guys - we got the message quite a long time ago. It's nice that you seem to have finally caught up, but the public has known at least since 1997 that more of the same just won't do. Picking a leader based on how "sound a chap" he is is no way to select a potential leader of the country.

The five candidates all seem so scared to offend people. As John Bercow said after David Cameron's speech, you can't win an election by pitching your camp in several different tents. As odious as Liam Fox can often be, at least you know he is appealing to one vote. Sadly, that's the Keystone group. And God help us if they ever get running the country.

For all that Michael Howard handled his resignation atrociously, he did give the Tories a great opportunity in one respect. Hanging out dirty laundry in the silly season may not be a good idea, but the protracted leadership debate gave the chance for the party to have an open debate about the future. It had the chance to work out where it needed to focus; and how a genuine right-wing alternative government could be formed. Instead, we have seen the cliched "beauty contest". What the Tories need to learn is that the clothes you wear and the shampoo you use matter far, far less than the substance of what you argue.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Lost Generation

On a slightly different note, what on earth has happened to the Tory generation of 40-50 year olds? All the big hitters, and even the not-so-big hitters, in the leadership race are either younger or older than this group - which would seem to be at the ideal age to make a bid for power. What went wrong?

More than Soundbites

David Cameron is obviously an intelligent guy. By the sounds of it, he's a personable guy too. Certainly he seems to know all about carving out an image for himself that gets himself away from the supposedly negative connotations of his past. Yet whenever I see him speak, I can't help but think that image is all that he knows.

Today's speech to the conference was a classic case in point. The soundbites were great, even if at times the applause he was given seemed more because he'd left a pause, rather than spontaneous agreement with what he had said. However, they seem utterly devoid of policies.

It is a well-known fact the Tories need to modernise their image. All five leadership candidates agree on that. Indeed, it's hardly something radical at all. Still less is it pretty much the sole plank around which a leadership bid can be based. Politics isn't just about presentation. There needs to be something there to present. And however much the Tories try and pretend otherwise, the one home truth they have to face up to is that the policies they used at the last election didn't work.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - they were presented brilliantly. Anyone following the campaign couldn't help but know what the Tories stood for in 2005. And they were rejected - indeed, they failed to garner much more support than the sleaze-ridden Major government did in 1997. That's the problem that's at the heart of the Tory slump. And electing Cameron to the leadership won't help.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Slippery and Evasive

Bush has done it once again. In the same way that the nomination of Chief Justice Roberts was a political masterstroke, in that Roberts has never expressed an opinion in his life, his nomination of Harriet Myers, the White House counsel, has much, politically speaking, to commend itself. With no judicial record to speak of, finding the deal-breaker will almost certainly be hard. No doubt Myers will just continue to perform the Roberts act of refusing to answer any remotely controversial question on the grounds that she may have to judge it in the future.

The one possible problem I can forsee is that she is a far more obviously partisan selection than Roberts, having such a close recent association with Bush. Even so, Bush is a politically smart guy. There's no way he wants a massively contentious confirmation process, with his stock particularly hurt in the wake of the FEMA response to Hurricane Katrina. And yet he's still found someone who will keep the conservatives happy.

One thing I do find interesting, though, is that the catchphrase among the right in America now seems to be "judicial restraint". Of course, few people actually disagree with the principle that judges are there to interpret the law, not legislate. That's not really what they mean, though, is it? They mean that they're not going to protect abortion rights and legislative action. In the same way that Blair has been a genius in Britain at shifting the terms in which debate is phrased so that they automatically favour the Labour party (it is highly significant that a Tory leadership candidate supposedly from the right is talking so heavily about social justice), the Republicans have a knack of finding the right soundbite for unpopular policies.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Name of the Beast

I know I shouldn't be dismissive of the names of storms, especially when in the wake of Katrina we have seen what havoc they can wreak.

But really, Tropical Storm Stan?

PS: I know this really shouldn't be interesting, but for all your hurricane-naming needs, this site is great.