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.