Monday, 8 October 2012

Willful ignorance makes me really angry

Let's talk a little bit about Anne Widdecombe. Ann Widdecombe is a former MP and studied at Birmingham University, and later Oxford. She has served as a minister. The point is that she's well educated  and intelligent.

She also opposes gay marriage and is campaigning against its legalization.

This is not, in and of itself, a problem. As much as I absolutely believe gay marriage should be legalized I also believe that people have the right to peacefully campaign and try to influence public policy in whatever way they choose. But the debate should be based on facts and we turn to our MPs to present arguments in a coherent way in order to decide on the best public policy.*

Earlier today, Ann Widdecombe said:
tell me how a party devoted to freedom, that’s always opposed oppression and the power of the state over the individual, can even contemplate creating such a Britain [where gay marriage is legal.] [Source]
 She argues that people's rights to disagree are being trampled by the Prime Minister's support of gay marriage, as Christian teachers could be sacked for doing so.

Willful ignorance makes me really angry. For someone with an Oxford education the argument is profoundly stupid. Teachers preaching bigotry should of course be sacked. If gay marriage is legalized than we should treat a teacher who tells their pupils it's wrong the same as we'd treat a teacher making equivalent arguments about, say, inter-racial marriage.

The right to disagree would still exist: people are free to thing interracial marriage as wrong as long as they don't start sabotaging weddings or preaching hate.

Marriage (gay or otherwise) isn't even on curricula in the UK, except perhaps in the study of civil rights, and if it were a teacher could be expected to toe the line, just like everyone else with a job doesn't openly criticize their employers when dealing with clients. I even had a creationist biology teacher do a perfectly good job of teaching evolution even though she didn't think it ever happened.** A Christian teacher opposed to gay marriage could easily avoid tackling it if they felt strongly about it. Ms Widdecombe's argument about the right to disagree does not hold water.

But why, Ann, why the total non sequitur and rhetorical sophistry of saying that a party "devoted to freedom" would oppose gay marriage? Who's freedom does she care about here? A party "opposed to oppression" would want to stop oppressing gay people by telling them they can't marry. A party "opposed to the power the state over the individual" would absolutely support gay marriage by legislating less stuff.

The only way Ann Widdecombe could make an argument so obviously wrong with a straight face is someone wasting their intelligence. If she truly opposes gay marriage can't she give us argument worth listening to rather than bilge designed to sway those who don't listen too closely to what they are told.

* In theory, at least.
** I should talk more about that, but not in this post.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Westminster Skeptics: Anonymity on the internet, dealing with "trolls", and meeting one of my favorite bloggers

At the start of this month I finished my MSc. dissertation. This meant two things: firstly I get my weekends back and secondly that I moved to London to work.

For the first time in two years this meant I could go to Westminster Skeptics in the Pub on Monday. Today's post is largely based on some thoughts and reactions to the discussions there. The theme was vaguely defined as "social media" and several topics were covered.

Oh, and one of my favourite bloggers, Helen Lewis from the New Statesman Blogs, was there.

Helen Lewis's blogging at New Statesman has really helped me shape myself as a feminist. I'm a white, well-educated, British, upper-middle class man. All societal discrimination works in my favour. Without Helen writing about what online harassment actually looks like I'd never have actually believed it was happening to the scale it was happening.

Also, and maybe more importantly, she highlights the little bits of sexism that usually pass unnoticed by WWEBUMCM's like me.

And if all that sounds too serious for you, or I've made her sound like a one trick pony try reading something more lighthearted or on a different topic altogether.

Between these two things Helen opened my eyes to the realities of modern feminism, and to how society still has a long way to go. But, what is more, I also had my eyes opened to the small assumptions we make in everyday life and this is where I as a WWEBUCMCM can actually do something by catching myself whenever I start to make one of these assumptions.

I realise that's a lot of links to a lot of reading. I don't care. They're worth the read.

Onto some of the stuff discussed at the meet:

Anonymity on the internet

There was some very interesting discussion around anonymity on the internet: is it moral to be anonymous on the internet? Is it moral to 'out' those who choose to be anonymous and, if not, do they deserve protection against outing? The panel included outers and the outed as well as some people who'd faced the anonymous "trolls" of the internet.

All parties agreed that those committing illegal acts forfeit their right to anonymity. Two of the panel had written very worthwhile blogs that they could only have written with the protection of anonymity.

John Gabriel's "Greater Internet Dickwad Theory" is commonly used as an argument against anonymity. It is a little simplistic, however. One major thing that the theory doesn't account for is the mob mentality it is so easy to build up. The internet has made it very easy to find like minded people and to have your viewpoints amplified by not meeting anyone who opposes you. In this environment it's easy for flippant thoughts to become full blown action. Anonymity may be empowering to dickwadery but nothing stirs it up quite like a mob mentality.

Ultimately we need to treat anonymity as a privilege, rather than a right. Those who abuse that privilege should absolutely be exposed. The question then becomes "what counts as abusing anonymity?" 

(Full disclosure: I don't use my real name on this blog, but make no secret over who I am in real life - it is more to differentiate between the real life me who enjoys terrible puns and playing the fool, and the more intellectual face I wear writing here. I tend to use my real name in other parts of the internet, thought.)

Dealing with "trolls"

Or "bullies" as they should really be called.

Actually, that would be a good first step. In internet parlance a troll is a practical joker. Mischievous, but rarely malicious and with a long history. By referring to the horrible abuse some people throw about as "trolling" the media actually make it sound acceptable.

Taking away anonymity wouldn't help much here either? Would people still do some of the vicious things they do if we knew their real name? Well... yes. Some of these are on Facebook groups where you are required to use your real name, and some groups even are happy to go and "troll" in person. Removing anonymity is not a panacea. The truth is that some humans are assholes.

But there is a solution.

It's all about signal to noise ratios. Increase signal, remove noise. Moderators work to delete inappropriate or unhelpful comments, and the community doesn't respond to them. Bullies are less likely to try to work where they won't have an audience.

If a place is being inundated, add to the signal. Ignore the noise. Noise is zombie like. The moment you engage with it you become part of the noise. It doesn't matter how offensive anything is, how harshly you want to take the bully down by attacking the problem like that you become part of the problem.

Staunchly ignoring bullying and effective active moderation will do wonders for a site by attracting more people you want and putting off the ones you don't.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (no spoilers)

I was going to write about Journey on the PS3 this week, but went to see The Dark Knight Rises and thought Journey can wait.

The short version of this is: go see the film. Nolan and Bale really have put on the best version of Batman on the big screen. The film isn't as good as The Dark Knight but is really worth watching. If you don't mind a few non-crucial spoilers Movie Bob has a great analysis of the film.

The performances given were brilliant. Christian Bale, Garry Oldman, Michael Cane, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hatheway, Marion Cotillard and Morgan Freeman all give superb performances. I was particularly impressed with Marion Colillard as Miranda and Michael Cane as Alfred.

I thought the plot twists were mostly well executed, if somewhat predictable for anyone vaguely familiar with the Batman mythos. I have to say I was kicking myself for not putting together the three major clues for the crucial twist at the end. When it came I realised all along the answer had been right there and I'd not followed them through.

The plot did a nice job of escalating the stakes too, although with this it managed to depersonalise the situation. Now that the entire of Gotham is under immediate threat the human story gets a little lost. It may have been worth the time to see how the events reflect one specific person or family instead of focussing on how many people could be killed at the touch of a button.

I also had a problem with the fight sequences. Batman was very keen to just go into battle fists pumping. Sure this wins against crowds of mooks / underlings, but it's not a very clever way of going into battle and doesn't suit Batman who was always known for striking from shadows and out-thinking his opponents. Seriously, mooks, you have guns. Take three steps back and cover him with machine gun fire. It works in Arkham Asylum / Arkham City, it will work in a film too. The bit where Batman and Catwoman sneak into Bane's lair was very effectively done with true Batman style combat.

This was most noticeable where Batman just goes and gets into a fist fight with Bane. At no point does he try to outmanoeuvre or trick his opponent. He just lets himself get overwhelmed. This is disappointing, as it would have been a good way to show that Bane is a match for Batman's tricks. It is a very well choreographed fist fight, though.

The other major flaw with the film is in the pacing. The crux of the film (and this is really not a spoiler, because it's in the title) is that Bruce Wayne has to learn to be Batman again. The end of act two has him in desperate circumstances, and he has to remind himself what it is that made him become Batman to overcome the obstacle. That's great, but if he does act three, why does the film start with him in retirement? Why does he have to learn to be Batman twice in the same film? The film makers wanted to make the case that Gotham had largely been safe for a long time, and that Batman hadn't been needed, but integral to the Batman concept is that Bruce Wayne needs to be Batman as much as (or more than) Gotham needs Batman. It's his coping mechanism, and I felt robbed of scenes of Batman doing cool, Batman-y things.

In the end, though, the spectacle is fantastic, the characters are well executed and well written, the basic plot is solid and John Blake is awesome. Go see it, you won't regret it.

Monday, 16 July 2012

"How should we teach science?"

Earlier today I did an egosearch to check that potential employers googling* my name weren't going to find anything embarrassing.

The first page of results lists my LinkedIn profile, my Facebook profile, my Twitter feed, a page I set up about ten years ago on SoundClick with a song link I really don't want to click on and finally a post I wrote for the "How Should We Teach Science" campaign around three years ago. (No direct link to this blog, which is unsurprising seeing as "Arkady Chenko" is a pseudonym.)

While the science curriculum has changed I still think this is largely relevant, so here it is:

Link to the original.

In trying to make science more vocational, more applicable to the real world, we only patronise those who really want to do it.
Arkady is currently studying for an MPhys. at University of Sheffield.
I was blessed at my local all-boys comprehensive school with some exceptionally good science teaching, and some exceptionally bad. I was fortunate that the good outweighed the bad but, as you will read, many very intelligent people were sorely let down by bad science teaching.
TEACHER A The bad teaching was based on a misconception. The idea was that the class generally misbehaved because we didn’t understand the topic. The real reason was because we were bored (I should state that despite use of “we”, I didn’t personally take part in the misbehaviour, although I was very bored). The teachers response was to cover the topic again, but we’d understood it - and found it simple - the first time. We were the top set in a large school. The teacher, when he took over the class, decided to keep things elementary and simple and take it slowly. We found this patronising, and he didn’t realise when we told him “this is simple, sir” that we were telling the truth. So he kept taking things at an easy to comprehend pace, and we got bored and restless. Imagine, if you will, leading a maths professor through a second order inhomogenous differential equation, stopping to integrate from first principles every time, and you’ll get the idea. This led to a vicious cycle, where even the most teacher’s-pet type students got up to some sort of mischief at some point.
TEACHER B In contrast, the physics teacher we had immediately before this train-wreck was superb. She saw we were all top set and assumed that we’d all want to do A-levels in her subject (which was mostly true until the teacher in the previous paragraph took over). In her lessons we would fill pages with equations and worked examples and notes. She took us through topics in a level depth that we didn’t really need for the SATs she was preparing us for, and which stood us in excellent stead for GCSE. As a top set, she assumed we’d be able to keep up, and that those who couldn’t would either seek her out for further help - which was not unusual - and those who did neither didn’t show enough interest and would be dropped into lower sets.
While not everyone understood everything on a first pass, because we were doing real science and getting to the meat and bones of the physics, not one person had to be dropped a set. Furthermore, even the most troublesome of boys (to most teachers) were quiet, attentive, and would only speak out to ask intelligent questions. The major troublemakers of the school were model students because they were actually faced with material that they didn’t find patronising, but that they found challenging. They weren’t troublemakers because they were stupid, but because they were clever (in top set, at least). We didn’t mess around looking at practical situations where you have to calculate torque, but instead at exotic/esoteric situations where the torque was tricky to calculate.
I fear that the Governments constant move to making science more accessible by making it more applicable to real life all the time will have the effect that teacher A had. Furthermore, students with a real interest in science will find science teaching unstimulating and uninteresting. Teacher B showed me that if we want more people to take science to A-level and University, we must make it challenging and forget about real world applications. Very few major physics break-throughs have many obvious real world applications. But, to quote a Nobel prize winner “physics is like sex. Sure, it gives practical results, but that’s not why we do it.” We do it to satisfy our curiosity and to see what the limits of things are. The greatest scientific achievement of the century was launched with the words “we do this, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”
The students we want doing science at A-level and beyond are the students who do it because it is hard, because they want to challenge themselves, and because they are interested in it. In trying to make science more vocational, more applicable to the real world we only patronise those who really want to do it out of the subject.
I would suggest, then, making science GCSE significantly more mathematical, more practical based, and also teach students about the history of the philosophy of science (i.e. empericism, the idea of submitting falsifiable theories and then throwing out those which do not stand up to testing) at a much earlier age, because it is my belief that the single must useful thing a non-scientist can learn from science is how to tell the difference between an excellent idea and an eloquent con.
Anyone interested in teaching standards should also read Michael Rosen's excellent (and far more regularly updated) blog.

* When does a brand name become a verb? When you no longer feel the need to capitalize it.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

LOCOG force Mount Olympus to change its name

Note: Inspired by articles in the Spectator and in the Financial Times.

It has been reported today that the organisers of the 2012 London Olympics are forcing the Pantheon at Mount Olympus to change the name of their home and to cease referring to themselves as "Olympians".

"We feel the name 'Olympus' is likely to cause confusion," said a spokesperson for the legal team at LOCOG, "and that they are using a variation of the good Olympic name to profit from tourism. They are clearly in breach of Article 3, paragraph 1(b) of the Olympic Symbol etc. (Protection) Act 1995.

"Furthermore, by referring to themselves as 'Olympians' they give the misleading impression that they were legitimate athletes at a prior Olympiad, but the records show this simply isn't true."

Asked whether he felt an ancient Greek mountain was within the LOCOG's jurisdiction he gave a tight-lipped smile and told me the Olympics were a timeless, worldwide phenomenon.

The news did not go down well at Mount Olympus.

"They're doing WHAT‽" Thundered Zeus. "They should know better than to whip up a storm with me" he warned, twirling a lightning bolt menacingly.

Poseidon was a little more measured in his response. "This is earth-shattering news" he said.

"For the first time in over a century, I won't be blessing the victors" said Nike.

Even the usually lovely Aphrodite was livid. "They've got too far," she raged. "It was one thing to force me and my Adonis to delay our wedding because we mentioned 'rings', but this..." her voice cracked holding back tears, "they might as well evict us."

More on this as it breaks.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Feminism and "Men's Rights Activism"

I aspire to be a feminist, but cannot fairly say that I am one. There are people who believe in feminism and there are actual feminists, and I'm no Rebecca Watson, though I admire her work greatly.

This is largely because I really have no starting point to try to comprehend challenges that women face. I was born to this world to well-off, white, upper-middle class parents. Every bit of discrimination society has historically practised works out in my favour. As much as I want to support feminism I really don't know how I can contribute beyond calling out sexism where I see it and not being sexist.

And then this happened. While Jimmy Zinn is a real flake, MRA (Men's Rights Activism) exists. What this approximately says is that gender imbalance now favours women over men and we need to push back.

Somewhat surprisingly, it believes many of the demands of MRA can be met as feminism achieves its goals.

All their arguments play on the same trick - they have enough familiar truth in them that they sound believable, and have reasonable sounding conclusions. The problem is that their conclusions are based on the assumption of a bias against men that doesn't exist. This makes the arguments quite persuasive - I really believed a few of them for a while before seeing how much there is left to do for feminism.

Arguments for MRA fall into a few categories, I'm going to try to tackle one at a time.

Women abusing their spouses isn't taken seriously
The plausible truth: While there is clearly truth behind this, and TVTropes list many examples from media. There is a mainstream perception that a woman beating up a man is funny. There was even an episode of Friends about it, largely playing it for laughs.*

While it seems that society is getting better about this, the problem is that men who admit to being abused by their spouse are seen as weak for not standing up to their weak little wives.

Ah. There's your problem! Until society is comfortable with men and women being equal partners in a relationship, this isn't going to go away. Until society starts treating women as human beings who are just as capable and worthy of respect as men this isn't going to go away.

If you want abused husbands to be taken seriously, support feminism.

Also related: The groin attack, played for laughs. (Not sure when I stand on this. In a slapstick environment I do tend to find this very funny.)

Women control the dating scene / a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.
This sounds counter-intuitive as men are expected to make the first move, but many do see this as putting women in control. Even in the very open world of online dating, where women can make as many first moves as they like and no-one can know or judge them for it, OKCupid still has to compare the success of women's profiles in terms of "number of new contacts per month" (average 7.5), with men using "replies per first message sent" (average 0.6). Men are putting themselves forward for the women to pick and choose, apparently.

So maybe the dating scene is a woman's world. Sit back, wait for the cute guy to nervously make his approach. Maybe toy with him for a bit. That's what they do in the films, right? What if he doesn't approach? Could I approach him? But I wouldn't want everyone to know I did, because ...

And now MRA falls down.

In making the first move, the woman indicates she is sexually available, and seeking and someone out there will try to slutshame her for it. Either that or she'll find that men she never expressed interest in suddenly act as though they are entitled to her, because she was outwardly available. What. The. Fuck?! Men are expected are to be sexually available, but its still taboo for a woman to do so.

The only way  this will ever be balanced is if we stop treating women who are sexually available as second-class people. Support feminism.

* Season 5, Episode 15: The One With the Girl Who Hits Joey

Friday, 25 May 2012

Formula One - a quarter of the way in

We are now five races into one of the most exciting Formula One seasons in memory.

For the first time in a very long time have we had five different drivers win the first five races, and for the first time in even longer have those drivers all been from different teams.

Before the start of the season I tried to guess the relative strengths of the teams. It appears I may have underestimated Mercedes and Lotus somewhat, and overestimated Red Bull.

I hold that McLaren have a car capable of dominating, but are having problems finding the right balance for it, and keep making mistakes. This hurts me as a McLaren fan, but at least it makes the racing fun!

It seems Ferrari are starting to come back. The test after four races seems to have been a turning point, as the have looked far more feisty in the car since then. Well, Fernando Alonso has, anyway. The second Ferrari driver, Felipe Massa, just hasn't been the same since returning from injury. While he probably deserved a World Championship (particularly in 2008) he isn't driving well enough for it. I'm sure if he doesn't improve soon Ferrari will be looking for someone to replace him.

In the midfield, Williams have stood out as much stronger than I thought they were, as shown by their win in Spain. Don't be fooled by Sauber's second place finish in Malaysia - the wet conditions flattered their car. They won't be challenging for wins in dry races.

At the back the difficulty the slow three teams are having is becoming more and more evident. I hope they can close up to the midfield, but at the moment they are really aren't contributing to the sport and exist more as a side-show race. I really hope they can get the advances they need, but it will take something special. Don't expect to see all three of these teams still around in a few years time.

In summary, F1 in 2012 is turning out great. Who's going to win this weekend in Monaco? Don't ask me. I've no idea. For once.

The Monaco Grand Prix qualifying and race can be watched live on the BBC.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Occam-Pi - a review

Apologies for a lengthy absence. After a term of easy work-load the past month or so has been very heavy, and I haven't had time to think much about my Musings. I anticipate this will continue for another couple of months, until I hand my dissertation in.

While there has been a lot of work, that's not to say there hasn't been fun: one of the more enjoyable things I've done this month is learn some Occam-Pi.

Occam-Pi: A brief history
For those of you who don't know what Occam-Pi is, and I'm guessing that's most of you, it is a programming language that mixes the Occam language with Pi calculus.

The Occam language was designed to run on transputers. Transputers are like computers, but run many processors independently of each other (i.e. no shared memory, like multi-core computers) and instead talk to each other using defined data channels.

Occam-Pi has a compiler that allows it to be run on modern computers using threading to simulate having lots of independent processors. It doesn't work perfectly, but it runs well enough.

The review
Occam-Pi makes writing parallel programs very easy. The compiler can sometimes feel very strict, but that is a necessity of writing error-free concurrent programs. The unique nature of this language makes it wonderfully fun to write in, and actually very powerful as a tool to write multi-threaded programs. By enforcing a strict use of data channels it helps you think about multi-threaded programming in a way that other languages don't.

That is not to say the language is perfect, however. There are many minor annoyances about the syntax, which would probably get ironed out with more development.

The most difficult thing about the language is the total lack of debugging facilities and documentation, and the terseness of the error messages. When an Occam program fails a typical error message would be something along the lines of "Error at C:\[path]\occam_program.occ:123. Program failed, state = e, eflags 00000001".

The first bit tells you which line failed, and what line number. That's useful information, but not always accurate, and sometimes totally baffling. The "failed state = e" (or sometimes, = E) doesn't have anything anywhere telling you what that means, and the "eflags" presumably mean something, but I have no idea where to find that information.

So often when a program crashes, I want to be able to see the exact state of the program at the time of the crash - which processes are running, what the values of all the variables are, what is going on at the time. I can't get this information without rigging every process I'm interested in to talk to the screen, but this act is likely to fundamentally alter the way the program runs anyway.

Some of the niceties of other languages are also missing. For example, I can't define my own data types. (Well, I sort of can, but not neatly and they don't get enforced by the compiler). If I want an integer value with a byte tagged onto it, I can define a data protocol to send that pair through communication channels, but I can't use that protocol directly, and always have to decompose it back to an integer and a byte.

There are other things that would be lovely to have. For example, trying to receive on a channel where the sending process has finished will crash the program. That sounds fair enough, but I may be giving that channel a new process which will send down it. More frustratingly, this is true when the receive is part of an ALT statement, which can be used to listen to multiple channels, and act according to which one sends first. Any "dead" channels will not be sent down, but will still crash the program. (Worse, the error line points at the line with the ALT on it, not the line with the channel that failed, so you can't even tell which process had finished...) Much nicer behaviour here would be to simply ignore the channels that won't ever receive, or are shut, and listen to the channels that are still open.

Program flow is defined by indentation. This is the reason I stopped programming in Python, and it hasn't grown on me. Brackets are a far more intuitive way to indicate flow, and it's always easy to see which parts of the program belong where. The main arguments against brackets is that they clutter the screen, and make source code look uglier, as well as allow programmers to write obfuscated programs. Both poor arguments - bad programmers write obfuscated programs and you shouldn't use them; "ugliness" is debatable, and a poor reason to obfuscate the flow of the program.

There are other things, too, that would make Occam-Pi easier to program in. Currently, all IF statements are required to have at least one condition true. This often means appending "TRUE \\ SKIP" to IF statements. If an IF statement has no true conditions, it causes a crash. (True, ignore this sentence.) This is unnecessarily verbose, as the compiler can easily catch this error. Where the crash is desired writing "TRUE \\ STOP" at the end of the IF statement induces a crash.

Also, multiline comments don't exist. I know this doesn't sound like much, but sometimes I want to comment out entire sections at a time to experiment. With only single line comments, this is painful.

To sum up: Occam-Pi is a very interesting language with an easy learning curve at first. However, more difficult programs become much, much more difficult then they need to, especially with the lack of debugging tools making it almost impossible to track down errors apart from the most trivial.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Professional Wrestling is an ART

Last week was Wrestlemania 28, the biggest professional wrestling event of the year, and I followed it on Twitter.

The day afterwards, a tweet was forwarded to me: "'s so sweet to see grown adults on Twitter tweeting about #Wrestlemania as if it wasn't a scripted event between athletic actors."

Maybe I'm wrong about the intent here, but this is clearly patronising and belittling to fans to professional wrestling and I'd like to make a defence of wrestling as an artform by taking this tweet apart word by word as it perpetuates a few myths about wrestling fans I'd love to see the back of.

(To the author of the tweet: this isn't a personal attack. You just had an easy target made of you when this was forwarded to me.)

1. "...grown adults..." - professional wrestling is aimed at adults

It can be aimed at children as well, and WWE strives to make sure all its programming is suitable for children (PG rated). This meant on a storyline level, as well as banning deliberate blood. However, there is still much there for adult fans

 The Rock's return last year, building up to his match last Sunday, was aimed at adults who were teenagers during The Rock's height, and recent storylines involving CM Punk's anti-authoritarian attitudes, and storyline power struggles are likely to go over the head of kids. They're there for the adults.

The storytelling aspects of the in-ring work - like Shaun Michaels facial expressions during Triple H vs. The Undertaker - are likely to go over the heads of the children who just want to see cool moves. But they're there for the adults who like it.

2. " if it wasn't a scripted event..." - kayfabe is long dead

It was back in the 90's that WWE publicly announced that professional wrestling is fake, the storylines scripted, the outcomes pre-determined. Everyone knows, and this isn't news to anyone. Guess what else is scripted: Friends; Eastenders; Wall-E; all the Rocky Films and any time you go to see a Shakespeare play you are watching a scripted event. If we didn't want to watch scripted events, we'd go watch UFC.

For many fans the script is a good thing. We see stories build up and get resolved in satisfying climaxes, and it allows for spectacle that would never possible in a competitive sport. No-one in their right mind would ever attempt a shooting star press (see below) in a real match.
The script allows higher stakes, higher tension, higher drama than real sport. While the quality of the scripts hasn't always been great there have been some wonderfully worked stories too: Ric Flair's retirement match with Shaun Michael's was wonderfully worked. Shawn didn't want to put his old friend down, but Ric Flair insisted that Shawn had to give his all, which Shaun did, after telling Ric "I'm sorry, I love you" right before finishing the match. Or CM Punk getting (storyline) fired, only allowed to do his contracted match for the WWE Title (the most prestigious title belt in the company). CM Punk promised to win the match and leave the company with the title, and the CEO of the company tried to screw the end of the match to ensure that didn't happen. If you want to find out what happened, and the aftermath, go watch Money In The Bank 2011 (WWE).

So there's variable storyline qualities, but the company are doing close to six hours of airtime per week. That's a lot more than Eastenders (2 hours), with a larger cast of characters, performed live, and having to react to situations on the fly if someone gets injured, or tests positive for drugs. And they don't have a tradition of employing experienced writers, although that's starting to change.

3. "...between athletic actors" - ...ok, I agree with this one

That is what professional wrestling is. Acting with a high level of athleticism, much like ballet, and with long drawn out storylines, much like soaps (and unlike ballet). 

For the past year I've been training to do this because it's simply more fun than other way I've found of staying in shape, and - behind the pantomime personas, the people who do it a respectable, responsible people who want to entertain an audience.

Is that really so worthy of scorn?

(Just because it's really amusing, one of WWE's scariest characters - The Undertaker - does a pillow fight on live TV).

Monday, 2 April 2012

Oppression is a human thing

Human history is filled with some human societies oppressing less powerful groups.

It's a problem that, sadly, probably isn't going to go away easily. In the USA Rick Santorum is running a presidential campaign that often seems entirely based on oppressing women and gay people.

But why do humans do this?

In Santorum's case, he claims to be protecting the moral fibre of society as defined by the Catholic Church and has gone so far as to claim those who vote against him are not truly Catholic. He's entirely wrong about this. In fact Washington Post writer, Lisa Miller, cuts right to the heart of the matter when she says "Santorum observes the teachings of his church selectively". That is to say - he picks which matters are important to him and uses his faith to justify those views.

I can't really say on where the need to oppress comes from. It may come from a mental image based on tribes, and spotting outsiders trying to infiltrate the tribe (evolutionary psychology is not without criticism, though); it may come from a desire to feel powerful by exercising that power over others; it may be that people want to "fight back" at perceived changes to society.

In any case, some people will be strongly motivated enough by these principles to run for power and if enough people agree with them, they get to make oppressive ideas policy.

The point I want to make here, though, is that justifications such as "the moral fibre of society", or "my religious views" almost always come afterwards. We are affected by our culture, and justify later.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

A short delay

My usual weekend update will come tomorrow. It's a trickier topic to tackle than I anticipated.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

What's In Your Manifesto?

There has been some discussion amongst people I follow on Twitter of forming a break-away party with those who are unhappy with the role the Liberal Democrats have played in the coalition government.

I'm not the only one who thinks the Lib Dems can be saved but I thought it was an interesting thought - and what would my political party do? Put your manifesto in the comments.

My manifesto

- Evidence based government. Make policies based on the best research of the time, and set the methods down as law. My government would not be afraid of the "humiliating U-turn" if the evidence tells us we're heading down the wrong path. Indeed, when the majority clearly believe the government is heading down the wrong path excuses about not making U-turns feel very shallow.

- Enforce the findings of government inquiries. There's no point to an inquiry if the government decides to ignore findings it doesn't like. If government doesn't want to know the answer, don't ask the question - doing so is a waste of time and money.

- Strengthen manifesto pledges. It is highly frustrating when you elect someone based on principles and promises which seem to be forgotten the moment they get into power. Parties should register their most important promises, along with deadlines, with an independent body. A majority ruling government would be punished somehow (and I haven't worked out how...) for failing to enact something they promised to enact by the deadline they set themselves, and would have to call a referendum to do anything they promised not to do. This would require a cheaper way to run referendums, thought, as at the current pace they could become quite common. However, it would give voters confidence that the party they elect is committed to doing what they say they will do.

Problems with this

- How do you punish a government? You can't really fine them, and forcing them to call a general election is unwieldy and could be used tactically to consolidate themselves.

- Legally binding manifesto pledges could become problematic as times change. Furthermore, weasel words are easy to use to avoid anything bad happening here. Hung parliaments and coalition governments would have to be exempt, or else open a whole new can of worms.

- Evidence and ethics aren't the same thing. Evaluating weak research is probably not something most MPs know how to do, but to give someone the task of doing this would allow them to guide parliament to an unacceptable level.

Improvements? Disagreements? Better ideas? Leave them in the comments.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Australian F1 Grand Prix - quick review

I've just finished watching the Australian F1 GP.

It was an excellent race and revealed a lot about the teams form after testing. I think the predictions I put forward before the GP are supported.

McLaren look to have a very fast car. Jenson Button drove beautifully to win the race, nailing the run into the first corner and never looking in any danger after that.

Red Bull proved they have the race pace, and will be a competitive team. I think they'll take the battle for the championships right down to the last few races. Christian Horner says the Red Bull has much more pace and they underperformed, so expect far closer qualifying margins in future.

Mercedes were also very impressive. Don't be surprised to see them mixing it up in the top 4 on a regular basis. Sadly, they had reliability issues this race, but I think we'll see a win or two for Mercedes this year.

Lotus also ran very well. Kimi Raikkonen drove excellently to recover after a disastrous qualifying, and Grojean was unlucky to retire. I expect Lotus to make the podium several times this season.

Williams were surprisingly fast - especially after last season - and were mixing it up with Ferrari. They'll probably in the battle for 3rd this season based on performance so far. I think I underestimated them, and they should be put into "the chasing pack" group.

Ferrari had a horrific qualifying, but good race pace in the hands of Fernando Alonso. Massa just doesn't seem to be good enough any more. Ferrari need to ditch Massa as soon as Robert Kubica is fit, I think. No question about it. We gave Massa an excuse in 2010, but after last season and his performance today, I don't think he's good enough to do the Ferrari justice.

It was great to see Sauber, Torro Rosso and Force India all finishing within 0.4 seconds of each other. This points to some great battles happening in the midfield.

Near the back, it was harder to read. Both Caterhams retired early, which bodes badly, as I really think they could - with sufficient investment - make it to the back of the midfield back. Then again, the field is much stronger this year than last, so maybe they'll appear even further behind. However, HRT appear in bad shape, after failing to start due to being too slow in qualifying and missing the 107% margin. A few more of those, and they may be withdrawing before the end of the season.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

How can the Liberal Democrat Party save themselves?

This week's post veers quite heavily into supposition and cynicism. You have been warned.

It is a bad time to be a Liberal Democrat supporter. After the excitement leading up to the election ("I agree with Nick", anyone?) and the somewhat disappointing election results, there were mixed feelings as the results came in, and the Lib Dems had more votes, and fewer seats than before, but some felt they held the "balance of power" as they could choose which party to ally themselves with.*

At the time of the coalition the mood was one of cautious optimism. Some felt it would be a good time for the Lib Dems, as they keep the Tories from going too wild. Some felt the Lib Dems would end up being the Tory whipping boy.

And now the Lib Dems are losing members and losing voters as the public perception of "whipping boy" bites hard.

It's easy to see why. The major - ahem - "successes" - the Lib Dems gained were a meaningless referendum on AV**, a bill to massively increase the tuition fee cap, rather than remove it and a larger presence in the cabinet.

So, here's my N step plan to save the Liberal Democrats, and give them a fighting chance next election:

1. Publicly disagree with the Conservatives

I understand that this won't make you popular with the Tories, but it will make you more popular with voters. When you support their policies, make a point of why, and make sure we know what concessions the Tories made to get your support. That way we know that you're not just yes men and are actually participating in government, we know whether you're actually representing the views WE ELECTED YOU to represent.

I realise it might be important to you for the coalition to appear at ease, but we'd be much more comfortable about it if we could actually see the debate between Lib Dem and Tory viewpoints, and how they get synthesized.

Part of the problem here is that, with a Tory majority, most of what goes through appears Tory. When it appears that the Lib Dems are just smiling and nodding, that makes them look weak, and it is impossible to know what contribution you make (or wanted to make) to government.

2. Stop letting the public blame Nick Clegg for everything

There seems to be this thing Cameron does. Whenever something really unpopular happens, like passing a disastrous NHS bill, Cameron suddenly disappears for a while to let Clegg take the flack for it during Prime Minister's Questions and around the media. Nick Clegg, please fight back against this. Make the point that you argued against it, and make it known what concessions you achieved. Once in a while put your foot down - you probably should have over the NHS bill. When Cameron gets annoyed about it, point out he promised not to make any top-down reorganisations of the NHS. Too late now.

Part of this can be achieved via point 1. We want openness and fairness. We should blame the Tories for what the Tories do, because the Lib Dems probably have much less power than it appears. (Part of the reason lots of cabinet ministers are a "success" rather than a success - it doesn't actually affect the Lib Dems' real influence, just their apparent influence, and makes us expect more of than they can deliver with the seats they have. This is not their fault, but a clever move by Cameron, who holds the power.) We also want the Lib Dems to stand up for what we elected them for. Much of the blame comes from this sense of betrayal.

3. Drop Nick Clegg before the next election

This is probably the most cynical point on here. It's unfair to him. He went into a coalition as the clearly weaker party, and really has no proper response to Cameron's (obvious) rhetoric about being equals. To agree would be a lie, and to disagree would show too much weakness.

The answer is that the party needs a scapegoat for everything they "let" the Tories get away with. (Yes, they could block things, but in real terms they're in no position to force the Tories' hand.) Let the focus of this failing go to their most public person, and then drop him as someone who failed the party, because in all honestly, he probably has. His tacit support for Cameron has made the Lib Dems look weak, his inability to publicly stand up to Cameron has cost the party badly. The way he went about, talking about "difficult decisions" when he was the only Lib Dem in a University constituency not to oppose raising the cap on fees - he signed a sheet of paper promising not to vote in favour of such a bill under any circumstances while campaigning at The University of Sheffield - has destroyed may faith in his ability to do what he says he will do, to be open and honest with us about why he's done what he's done.

Drop him, and find someone with genuine charisma, someone who keeps their word and promise, and someone who is a good negotiator to lead the party into the next election, rather than another person who learnt charm from Tony Blair.

* They didn't really. A coalition with Labour was never on - it needed too much support from minor parties, and there were grave political differences.

** They wanted proportional representation. The AV vote, either way, was been a reason to further delay the move to PR. Either the system has recently been changed, or the public recently voted not to change.

Friday, 16 March 2012

F1 2012 rundown

With the first practice session of the 2012 getting underway in less than two hours, here's my interested-amateur opinion on what's going to happen this season.

This is based on coverage from winter testing, team and driver interviews, general trends and gut feelings.

The frontrunners
Red Bull &McLaren.

Painful as it is to say for a McLaren fan, it's hard to see anyone beating Red Bull. Sebastian Vettel is on top form, and it will take a mighty effort to overcome him. They were quick in testing and have a history of hiding their true speed.

Although their headline times weren't that impressive, McLaren are widely considered to be closest to Red Bull. Their final test showed a very competitive car, and those at Red Bull have been praising the McLaren.

Sebastian Vettel will probably be World Champion again, with one of the two McLarens in second - Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton will be closer this season than last.

1st Vettel
2nd Button / Hamilton
3rd Hamilton / Button
4th Webber

The chasing pack
Mercedes, Lotus and Ferrari

I think all these three teams are in with excellent chances of winning a race this season.

Ferrari have been very pessimistic, but Fernando Alonso is a fighter, and will push the team for all their worth. He's also very capable of getting results better than the car deserves. Felipe Massa has had two poor seasons in a row. I wouldn't be surprised to see him replaced at the end of the season, and I think he'll finish several places behind Alonso.

However, many teams say they believe Mercedes could be in with a very strong car this year. They are tipped to have the technology to copy (like the blown diffuser last year, and the F-duct the year before, and the double diffuser before that), and Ross Brawn is an excellent engineer. They have been improving every year (except 2009-2010, but it's hard to improve on the year they had in 2009 as Brawn GP).

Lotus also posted excellent times in testing, and have a special talent in Kimi Raikkonen. However, Raikkonen is not a team leader, and won't push Lotus in the same way Schumacher will at Mercedes. I wouldn't be surprised, however, to see one of these teams sneak fourth place in the drivers championship.

5th Raikkonen
6th Rosberg
7th Schumacher
8th Alonso
9th Grosjean
10th Massa

The midfield
Force India, Sauber, Torro Rosso, Williams

These are the teams who will be regularly scrapping for the lower order points, and may get one or two podium finishes.

Force India have been the strongest midfield team for a while, and really seem to be just about to break into the chasing pack. I can see the young, eager talents of Di Resta and Hulkenberg beating Massa for 10th.

It's hard to read the other three teams, and they are normally close anyway. Williams have made improvements over last year's car, and so these three teams will be racing wheel to wheel throughout the season. Sauber probably have the best driver line up out of the three.

11th Di Resta
12th Hulkenberg
13th Kobayashi
14th Perez
15th Maldonado
16th Senna
17th Ricciardo
18th Vergne

The stragglers
Caterham, HRT, Marussia

These newish teams are unlikely to score many points this season.

Caterham have been putting a really big effort into catching the midfield teams, and I think this is the season we'll see them start to mix it up with them - more at the beginning than the end - I doubt their development can keep up. They are clearly faster than the other two teams, who had very little testing.

HRT have done no pre-season testing, and will probably be much slower than the others.

19th Kovalainen
20th Petrov
21st Glock
22nd Pic
23rd de la Rosa
24th Karthikayen.

Enjoy it!

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Dirk Gently is on TV

Douglas Adams is one of those writers who it is really difficult to get onto the screen. It's probably because he spent so long writing for radio.

The BBC are broadcasting three episodes based on the character of Dirk Gently, from Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.

While I am a massive fan of the Hitch Hiker's Guide series, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is my favourite piece of fiction by Adams. The way he goes off on his usual tangents to present funny or absurd situations is beautifully done, but not as beautiful as they way all these tangents turn out to important to the main plot in one way or another.

Another advantage Dirk Gently has in book form is that readers can re-read sections of the complex plot several times until they get everything that's going on before moving on to the next section. This is a luxury not afforded to TV viewers. 

But the BBC have done a fine job adapting this excellent book. Steven Mangan as Dirk Gently really captures the annoying-but-charming side Dirk, as well as the ambiguity between Dirk as someone who genuinely believes in the principles he's selling, or as a balls-out con-artist who luckily stumbles upon the situation.

I love the little winks to fans of the books that are spread around, too - the words "Electric monk" written on Dirk's web, for example, or the rhinoceros from The Salmon of Doubt. That said, some elements feel a little forced - "Zen Navigation", for example, worked perfectly for Dirk in Long Dark Teatime of the Soul but in last week's episode he claimed it worked but it didn't really work the way Dirk (or the writer) claimed it did.

The ending also felt a little out of place. Without spoiling it, the script did very well to get everyone into the right place but wasn't quite sure what to do with them once they got there.

Fans of the books may be disappointed that the TV series isn't staying close to the books. They shouldn't be. The plot of the books wouldn't work well on film. Much better to take the characters and the feel of the books, and put them into situations appropriate for TV, like this series does.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Muppets: A review (spoilers ahoy!)

Last week I saw the latest Muppets film.

While there are spoilers to the plot here, there's no major twists or turns - the plot is fairly standard, so I don't think the actual film will be spoiled by reading this.


Gary (Jason Segal) is taking is girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), to Los Angeles to celebrate ten years together accompanied by Gary's brother, Walter - a lifelong fan of The Muppet Show. Once there, on a tour of the Muppets' Museum Walter overhears a plot to demolish the museum to dig for oil masterminded by Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), and The Muppets need $10 million to save it and must band together for one last show.

The good

The Muppets: as always the leading puppet cast were fantastic. Miss Piggy, Kermit,  Fozzie, Gonzo, et al. were brilliant. Slapstick is what The Muppets do best, and when they did it, it was perfect. I also really enjoyed The Mooppets, but you'll have to go see the film to find out about them. Having said this, they didn't get up to their usual high jinks that we love so much from Muppets Caper and the original Muppets film.

The Music: All the songs from the film were brilliant. "Life's A Happy Song" was beautifully written and executed, Man or Muppet was also great, and filmed beautifully, and Kermit's "Pictures In My Head" ballad was beautifully done too. Tex Richman's rap was superbly executed as well. Anything sung by Amy Adam's was also great.

The Malefactors: Chris Cooper gave the best human performance in the film by quite a long way. He really got the veering-into-pantomime villian. Uncle Deadly also really stood out as his henchman.

The bad

The script: Gary and Marys' plot thread felt really unnecessary, and mostly served as a distraction from the interesting part of the plot, I felt. They could have been entirely cut out, everything would have been fine (although we'd be missing some of the songs). Furthermore, the really cheesy ending could have done with being a little more self aware. They just played it straight, while other egregious film film tropes were lampshaded (e.g. "that was a really expensive looking explosion. I can't believe we had that in the budget." - Fonzie from the trailer) the ending really needed it.

Nor did the plot really give the Muppets room to be really funny. It leaned quite heavily on people's nostalgia for the Muppets instead, and that doesn't lead to a better film. We love the Muppets for their slapstick, and there wasn't enough of it - far less than any other film, I'm sure. Also, the witty characters weren't really witty enough. Statler and Waldorf didn't get any laughs when we saw them, and fell flat pretty much every time they appeared.

The actors: Apart from Amy Adam's singing, and Chris Cooper, the human actors really weren't that convincing. Jack Black felt very misused as "guest host". The part he played was a funny concept, but wasn't really taken any further than that. In addition, the cameo appearances were really underused (except Jim Parsons and Dave Grohl) as though no thought at all had been given to them.

The conclusion

The Muppets is an enjoyable film, but not one I'd go to see a second time. Put on reruns of the old ones instead.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The benefits system fails graduates - what can we do?

After last week's posts, I'd like to weigh in on the benefits system.

Specifically, I feel that the "default" benefit - Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) completely fails graduates.

Like Emily, after graduating I spent six month unemployed and drawing benefits and so have some first hand experience of the system.

I think they key issue is that JSA is not designed with graduates in mind. It should be clear that anyone with a degree is highly skilled, and they are not workshy - even "easy" degrees require hard work and dedication to get honours in.

But the majority of jobs aimed at those on JSA are inappropriate. I was memory told by one potential employer that I had an excellent skillset, but he didn't want someone with a degree. He wanted someone who would be happy to be a receptionist for ten or more years and was absolutely - but frustratingly - right to turn me down.

I won't go on about it, because Emily did that so well last week, but graduates clearly need a different type of support compared to other people.

For a start, our qualifications tend to be less vocational. Those without a University degree on JSA tend to have qualifications or experience as, say, bricklayers or secretaries or musicians [sorry - in joke there] whereas graduates skills are less focussed.

It is very easy with people who JSA is aimed for to say "we've got these roles that match your skillset." I found advisers had trouble spotting anything that matches the skills for someone with a physics degree as most vacancies advertised required specific skills.

What graduates need, I think, is far better CV support, jobs targeted for those with broad skillsets and good opportunities for progression and more help and advice searching out graduate posts.

I think if the government were to invest in something like this I think it would, in the long run, pay dividends as more graduates get employed faster (making degrees more valuable) and start contributing to the economy.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

The problems in the benefits system II - a response

This week, on Facebook, a huge debate arose over some attitudes to people on benefits, the economy, and jobseekers. The second post said some things that I believe really need to be said, and it said them much better than I could.

The original post this is a response to is reproduced here. The author wishes to remain anonymous, and I believe their aim was to create discussion rather than genuinely put across their views. Any comments that may identify that author will be deleted.

A response
by Emily Cresswell

I should also say, before I say anything else, that I’m also trying to be objective and avoid confrontation, but having been in this situation very recently, I do tend to get angry about the subject. (And fuck, you’ve seen me when I’m angry, and I’m sure you’re aware of the surprising amount of self-control it takes to stop myself from, say, massacring an entire women’s choir with a shovel.)

One massive problem with the entire benefits system is the belief, which you seem to share, that everyone who has a need to claim benefits is of low intelligence or badly educated. You and everyone else need to stop thinking about benefit claimants like they’re some degenerate sub-species; I know at least one friend who once had to spend a very long time convincing the job centre that she didn’t need to go on a literacy course because she already had a degree in Literature. Now, I may not have ever managed to gain anything more advanced than the universal figure of mockery that is the BA in English, but I never expected that I’d ever get to the point where I’d been on Jobseeker’s Allowance for six months, let alone that I’d have to sign on twice. Some people aren’t unemployable for a lack of basic skills; they’re unemployable because they have theoretical knowledge but no practical experience, and at the moment even unpaid work experience is difficult to find in some fields. The schemes that help people to get that experience aren’t cheap, and that’s why they don’t exist any more; graduates can now expect to get an unpaid and completely useless position in Poundland, instead of the minimum wage part-time *actual job* in a professional field with a non-profit organisation that I was lucky enough to get before the Future Jobs Fund ran out of money. There is now nothing to help young people with professional aspirations to find the experience they need to land even an entry-level job, now that we’re living in an environment where older people who have been made redundant are trying to re-enter the career ladder on a lower rung.

I disagree with you entirely on the subject of humility; the feeling that needs to be encouraged is pride. I can only speak from the point of view of someone who’s claimed JSA, but humility isn’t something that’s lacking; it’s something that’s enforced. The only lasting thing I learned from the twenty minutes of waiting and three minutes of actual human contact that a JSA claimant under the age of 25 can expect in their fortnightly or weekly visits to the job centre was that however much effort I put into looking for work, I would still be treated like shit. The stigma and blame culture surrounding benefit claim is so extreme that I genuinely felt like a benefit cheat, and almost that I deserved the treatment I was getting, despite the fact that even my advisor at the time (one of a grand total of three people I met over the combined eight months who didn’t talk to me like a mentally-challenged infant) said that I was entitled to considerably more money than I was getting. The reason that I refused to apply for more benefits was pure pride – I may have been falling back on a very generous overdraft, but I knew that I was better than applying for money that I could live without. Further, I think that expecting money from one’s neighbours rather than the government is nothing short of rude. Assuming I couldn’t get access to benefits eighteen months ago, who should I have turned to first? The man downstairs whose only source of income is his pension? The couple on the top floor who are preparing to move to Canada? The woman in the flat below me who has two small children? If that’s humility, then with all due respect sir, you can shove it up your arse, because I’ve got too much pride to take advantage of people who probably need the money more than I do, rather than take it from a limited fund set up specifically for people in the situation that I was living in at the time.

And for the record, life on a low a salary is much better than life on benefits. Even when I switched from an almost full single-person JSA claim to a minimum wage twenty-five hour a week job, the difference was immense. If I spent carefully, my income came to more than my outgoings, and I hadn’t experienced that since I lived with my parents. Money is nice (even considering that I’m still not earning all that much of it), but the reason I work is because it feels damn good. It’s my pride that makes me work hard, it’s my pride that lets me enjoy the money I earn, and it’s my pride that even occasionally lets me justify buying something that isn’t second-hand. In three month’s time, my pride should be seeing me through to a pay rise that will get me started on paying off that godforsaken loan. I have genuinely never been happier, especially compared to the depressive pit I found myself in thirteen months ago, when humility gave way to inferiority. Humility is only a good thing when it has strength behind it, and the JSA claiming process saps away so much strength that humility wears down to a feeling of utter worthlessness. That kind of mindset will only ever leave people trying to live on less and less money, convinced that they don’t deserve any better, while pride will give them the confidence to work their way out. If benefits have to be cut to make the contrast more stark, then it’s going to call for some very careful research to make sure that no one is harmed, because you, like most people who haven’t claimed benefits in the past couple of years, seem to think that JSA claimants actually get enough to live comfortably on.

Again, I’m trying not to let myself get confrontational, and spending all evening coming up with a response has helped me to calm down a lot, but it’s a touchy subject that a lot of people with a lot of influence are incredibly out of touch with. Also, I apologise for writing you an essay, but as I say, it’s helped me calm down.

The problem with the benefits system: Part I

This is to provide context for the next post. I don't really agree with much of what is written in this one, but it does put into context what was written in part II, and is reproduced for that reason.

This was written by an author who wishes to remain anonymous. Comments are disabled for this post, and should instead be posted on part II.

My horribly prejudiced views and a few suggestions for getting UK society out of the hole it's dug for itself

I'm not sure what the response will be to this post (if any). If you disagree significantly with anything I say, I'm totally open to other opinions. I come from a pretty well-off background (down in no small part to hard work) and am not going to claim that I fully understand the issues I'm talking about. That said, I've done my best to inform myself along the way, and I think some changes need to happen. Read on ...

This is mostly a rant about how I think benefits and lazy parenting have damaged society, but it starts with a little biology.

In ecology, there is a principle which goes something like this: cheats prosper if they are in small enough numbers. Imagine that there is a particular species of beetle which is poisonous to something that might eat it. This is very often accompanied by bright colours to give the hungry sharp-tooth an opportunity to avoid eating them and getting an upset tummy - everyone wins. But let's say that another beetle, not poisonous in the slightest, evolves those same bright colours, mimicking the genuinely poisonous beetle. Now that one also gets avoided, but if it is eaten by a particularly hungry/naive animal, there is no consequence, and it will likely eat more. If there are few enough mimics, the tactic works, but if there are too many mimics, it backfires and even the genuinely poisonous ones are put in danger of being mistaken for a tasty meal.

This situation is reflected many times - some birds (like cuckoos) rely on other species to raise their young. If too many species did this, no young would end up getting raised. Those fish which spend their days picking parasites off of larger fish might occasionally be tempted to gain an extra-tasty meal by eating some mucus, scales or even flesh from the client fish, but the client will then leave, costing all the other fish a dinner. All right if cheats are in a minority. If there are too many cheat-fish, the client fish will never stop to be picked clean.

How does this apply to society? Well, everyone needs some basics to stay comfortable and healthy. Things like food, clean water, sewage services, rubbish collection, healthcare, shelter and so forth. If left to fend for themselves, most people would be unable to keep themselves going in the forest - it would take significant education and practise to gain those skills. And anyway, given the area that we live in, without people farming intensively, cleaning water on an industrial scale etc. we would be unable to provide for our hefty population. We need specialist workers - farmers, water worker, sewage workers, builders and medics, and fortunately we have them. But that work is hard and time-consuming, so those people receive money for their services. We pay for them either directly or indirectly (through taxation) and this shows that we believe we owe them for their time and effort.

So where do cheats come in? People contribute to society by performing a task that someone else is willing to give up their money for. I think of money as "society owes me" chips. It's a way to keep track of how much of other people's work - time and effort - you can claim in return for your own. They can be redeemed for any of the services I've already mentioned, and many more. You can set almost any task for someone else to do in return for these chips, within legal limits, and it would be a case of employment. Likewise you can aquire almost any good by exchanging money for it. Ecologically, cheats are people who are getting more from the system than they are putting in.

There is a basic assumption in our culture now that everyone should be given equal opportunities. It is considered a right that people should be treated equally and have access to a basic level of services, including housing, transport, media, healthcare, nutrition and education (and maybe culture). These things all represent people's work. The ethical basis of this is easy to understand; it would seem wrong for a person's background to limit how successful they could possibly be. It would also seem wrong for people to suffer malnutrition, or not have easily treatable diseases cured when other people are receiving very large bonuses and can afford to buy designer clothes, stay in 5 star hotels and eat in the priciest of restaurants.

There is, however, a risk in providing these things as a right with no responsibilities attached. When people are living solely on what society considers their basic rights, how can society punish poor behaviour? And if it cannot be significantly punished, why should people control their behaviour? Why should they even learn the capacity to control their behaviour? The moment people have the right to get something for nothing, there is also a potentially unlimited work-leak in the system. However, if everyone stopped working and relied on those rights, no-one would receive anything. For anyone to receive services, there must be contributors shouldering the burden of people receiving more than they are giving.

So why are people given things for free? In the UK there are many "benefits" available, most famously the job-seekers allowance, originally designed to keep people in employment; to stop their lives being ruined by stints of unemployment to the point that they become unemployable. There are benefits if you suffer temporary or permanent ill health and are unable to work - now rather than just family having to shoulder the burden (and if not family, whoever takes pity), it is spread over society as a whole. Free school meals are provided for your children if you are entitled to any other sort of monetary support. If you earn less than £16000 a year and have children, you can receive money to clothe and feed your children.

So far so good - we should do our best to protect each individual, especially children. However, bearing in mind that working generally requires effort (by its nature unpleasant unless it is seen as a reasonable investment) we must consider the incentives being created. If a person can now convince a doctor they are sufficiently ill, they no longer have to spend time and effort working. If a person has children, they can claim money - and how they spend it will be up to them. If a person 'looks for employment', they can claim money. There are cases of genuine need out there, and there are others, and the methods the government employs to tell the difference are always going to be controversial because there will always be mistakes. Some undeserving people will get benefits while some deserving people do not. That is the disadvantage of having to deal with so many cases that a single system must be set up to deal with all cases to keep it fair, rather than a panel deciding on a case by case basis.

But the terrible thing is that it is now perceived as, assumed to be, a right. This is a generous scheme, hoping to ease the burden on families. The cost of this is that people now assume they should never have to shell out to help their relative or neighbour who has fallen on hard times one way or another - the government's support scheme has become, in people's minds, the government's responsibility.

And yet there are still many workers. The life you can lead on a low salary is probably not that different from a life on benefits (a commonly-cited reason for people not wishing to start work) so why do people still choose to work? On a moderate salary, you can significantly lower the day to day stress of paying bills, you can afford to travel in your breaks, or buy membership to clubs, eat occasionally in restaurants or see films at the cinema. You can afford conveniences - more efficient white goods, better quality sound and image in your entertainment, maybe a car. You have to prioritise, but you can afford some luxuries. There is competition for these jobs though, and the expectations of an employee can be high. To get a job, you need a skillset incorporating skills particular to the job as well as some basics. The opportunity to gain those basics is currently part of every person's right.

To get a job and contribute to society, it is necessary to learn several basic things as you grow and develop. You need to be able to concentrate on a task and see it through to completion, fighting distraction, frustration and boredom. For many jobs you need to be able to communicate and work with other people and maintain social relationships. At very least you need to maintain a functional relationship with your boss/employer, never mind if you need to deal with customers. Many employers also expect a basic level of literacy and numeracy. Yet many people are missing some or all of these skills and as such are relatively unemployable. Learning these skills as an adult must be excruciating, if working from years of habits to the contrary.

Currently people are given the opportunity to obtain all of these things as a fundamental right. Unemployed parents should generally have access to housing and sufficient money and education (antenatal classes) to feed, clothe and care for their children, and provide the toys, books and whatever else is needed to give their children a good start in life. However, if a child is not given those things by their parents, two really bad things can happen. They may miss the opportunity to learn those basic social and academic skills, which has big consequences when they are later given their opportunity for a fuller education and they may also never learn how to care properly for their own children.

Young children are impressionable, and making effort is unpleasant. For the brain to concede that effort might be the way forward, it has to see it as an investment with a reasonable expected return. Seeing parents never working because they have chosen to live on benefits will, I strongly suspect, result in a lasting impression that this is a reasonable way to live. Conversely, seeing parents come in tired from a hard day's work five days a week will give the impression that it is right to work hard, and build an expectation of full-time employment. Parents who read with their children, who teach them the alphabet and who use varied vocabulary build these things into their children's expectations of the world and also their children's expectations of what makes a good parent. Neglectful or abusive parents do likewise. By the time they reach nursery it can be painfully apparent which children have been given a good start in life.

Parents' attitudes will be formative for children. If someone is living on benefits because they are unable to work, but their frustration at being unable to work and their encouragement and interest in their children's progress is evident, there is every likelihood that their children will go on to work in school and find employment later. If the fact that parents are on benefits becomes a family joke because they really could be working, and the parents spend their time in front of the tv and let the kids do what they want and pay them little interest, why would the kids expect anything different from life? Why would they treat their children differently? It will take a tremendous effort to provide them and their children with enough incentive not to become ecological cheats.

I believe that this cycle is now endemic in the UK. People are given a frankly alarming number of chances by every national institution I can think of.In particular, the institutions responsible for dealing with young people are all based on the principle that by demonstrating expected behaviour and giving people sufficient chances we maximise the chance that they will turn their lives around. But there are too many people who don't, begging the question 'what can be done for them?'. 'Permanent exclusions' rates are so low because of the financial penalties to schools who do. Instead they get shipped around schools as part of 'managed moves' with the opportunity for a clean slate. For those convicted of crime, young offenders institutions are run on the same principle of giving opportunities to improve rather than giving them 'inhumane' consequences that might actually make them rethink their actions and give them cause to make efforts to change their behaviour. They perceive their carers as unreasonable bullies trying to disenfranchise them rather than authority figures who have a responsibility to care for them and an accompanying power over them. People to be confronted and argued with rather than to be trusted, respected and obeyed. I wholeheartedly agree that support and encouragement should be given for progress, but I think the bar is so low and the consequences so gentle that the behaviour never does change. How many grandparents now say 'I was clipped round the ear when I misbehaved and it hasn't done me any harm'? There needs to be a limit to the support and opportunities with an unpleasant ending. Without any final sanction that people really wish to avoid, many people will fail to change their behaviour.

While the current system of benefits remains, where it is the government's (and by proxy the taxpayer's) responsibility to support people who are not willing or able to support themselves, it will only strengthen this cycle. While the lack of consequence remains for poor behaviour, especially to people growing up and developing their ideas about what behaviours will ultimately benefit them, poor behaviour will remain the norm for these people, to the point that they will really struggle to change it later.

I truly believe that when people behave in an antisocial manner, they should lose some of these rights, incrementally. I don't believe that people should have the right to vote in prison nor that they should be able to watch television. I think that at most they should be allowed and encouraged to develop those basic academic skills. If they develop the patience and persistence to master numeracy and literacy to a moderate level, they should be allowed access to literature and puzzles. At this point they should be encouraged to develop some social skills, in a carefully managed program. I am tempted to suggest that people convicted of more serious crimes (for the sake of argument let's say cold-blooded, premeditated murder/rape, extremes of blackmail and paedophilia and theft of large sums of money) shouldn't be fed in prison unless someone is privately paying for it.

You probably think that last comment is outrageous, that no-one should ever have to face starvation. Do you think it is right that those people should be allowed to get away with their crimes and be free to live in society? I doubt it. Do you think it is right that the society whose laws that individual has significantly infringed should have to pay for the work encapsulated in that food? They're already paying the wages of the people who spend their time and effort keeping them safely under lock and key, as well as maintenance of the building. I also believe that reoffenders ought to be treated considerably more harshly (perhaps based on the sum of their various sentences). If people don't develop the humility and resolve to improve their behaviour while they are in jail, it is a wasted exercise.

I think that the government's support has stopped some terrible things happening, no question. But I think it has paved the way for unrealistic expectations and bogus claims, culminating now in a significant number of poorly-brought up people who have the fundamental right to have children despite having little parenting ability. It has probably meant people feel more secure in drifting from their families and never making any links in their neighbourhoods, because they know that they will never really need to rely on them in difficult times, they can just rely on the Government.

Overall, I think we need sanctions that give opportunities to change behaviour but which do allow for self-destruction. We need to force people look to one another for help more by cutting back benefits - maybe then they will learn some humility. We need to make unemployed life more uncomfortable, and frankly ought to stop people on benefits from buying alcohol/cigarettes or gambling, or face equivalent cuts to their benefits. We need to convince people to rely more on the people around them and less on the government. We need people to think twice about bringing children into the world if they won't be able to support them themselves.

I really believe that the only way the people will change their behaviour is if they see people who behave like them going through things that they couldn't bear to go through. That will mean some people going through really bad things, but I think it's necessary to allow that to happen to give people the motivation to sort themselves out. By all means give temporary support to people making tangible efforts. But it has to be temporary, or people will settle on it - they need to know they need to make the most of it while it lasts. I believe this is the only way we will reduce the number of ecological cheats which are weakening our society.



While I recognise that this is a particularly difficult time in terms of job availability, I think that greater individual employability is still an important step to improvement. We are poorer now as a nation than we have been for a long time because we are importing, not exporting. Solving that is going to be a matter for government, entrepreneurs and business. If the government succeeds in germinating new businesses, the larger the proportion of the population able to contribute to society's work, the better. This doesn't mean ensuring everyone has a degree.

The nations which are growing richer now are doing so at least in part because many people there work really damn hard for a small wage which allows the companies to export goods cheaply. The people work because there are consequences to not doing so. Those consequences have made it socially unacceptable for people not to work, and we need that attitude here too.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Who are you? Self-identity for atheists and skeptics.

Hi. I'm Arkady.

Who are you? Fundamentally, I mean - what part of you defines you as "you"?

This is a question that for many years has been answered simply - the immortal soul. This neatly gets around the  Theseus Paradox by creating a part of you that isn't constantly replaced (like our cells) and which doesn't decay or change, like the arrangement of our cells.

However, for an atheist or a skeptic who doesn't otherwise believe in the immortal soul this isn't a satisfying answer.

Part of the the problem with answering this is that we are ever-changing beings. You could try defining yourself by saying "I am defined as a person who does ..." This is impossible to do in practice - the list would essentially be infinite - but such problems never stopped mathematicians working with "the set of all real numbers", so there's no real conceptual problem.

However, even this isn't satisfactory - fifteen years ago I believed the greatest thing to ever happen to music was the Spice Girls. This is something that has fundamentally changed about me, yet I'm clearly the same person, if a little embarrassed about it.

A stand-up comic I've seen* jokes about this, saying he went to a motivational speaker, who told the group "every moment of every second you can reinvent yourself - become a totally new person, who you were not before." At the end of the session, as he was leaving he was asked to pay for the session, and replies "I think you've mistaken me for someone else."

Try using the excuse for not paying a speeding fine and you'll land yourself in more trouble and laughed out. Clearly we do have some innate sense of who a person is, and it is strong enough to cope with the fact that we change both materially and behaviourally. Otherwise the joke wouldn't work.

For anyone who is now thoroughly confused about who they are (you know who you are) I'd like to propose an answer: you are the sum of the actions you take.

When taken literally, and openly, there are several things this implies about how we must approach the world ethically. It means that we must take full responsibility for all outcomes of what we do - intended and unintended. It means that you have to live with your mistakes, but it means taking pride in your accomplishments. It means never saying "I'm a great writer, even though I don't write anything" - you aren't a writer unless you actually write. It means not worrying about thoughts we never act on (some people beat themselves up a lot over these) because no-one will ever know, and it means you change yourself by doing the things that the sort of person you want to be will do. It means reinventing yourself doesn't in any way "betray" your old self, or kill them.

So this week, do something you always wanted to do, but never quite got around to.

* I'm pretty sure he was called Christopher White, but there appears to be another stand-up comic by that name who is more famous, and dominates the Google results.