Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Why? Thoughts on terrorism too close to home.

I don't get it. Really I don't. I cannot begin to comprehend why someone would blow themselves up in the foyer of a concert hall filled with youngsters enjoying a fantastic night out. I doubt you can either. Yet someone did. Not only blew themselves up but planned the attack on the literally innocent - an audience mostly of young teenage girls.

For only the second time in my life - and that is twice too often - I've been looking at a terrorist attack from the point of connection rather than as a distant, shocked onlooker. Back in 1984 I didn't go to Party Conference but dozens of friends and colleagues did. As people were pulled from the rubble I worried that one of them would be someone I knew. Fortunately this wasn't the case but I recall - in days before mobile phones and text messaging - trying to find out.

Today, having been briefed about the Bradford people - including children - affected by the Manchester Arena bombing, I discover that one of those affected is a colleague's wife who had bought tickets for their daughters as a Christmas present - all three injured in the attack. They'll be OK it seems but it keeps running through your head how close it is - and how some Mums and Dads have a different and terrible shock to deal with today.

I've been involved in politics all my life. I get the passion involved and how sometimes is spins into anger. But what is gained by blowing yourself up among a load of children? What is achieved?

There will be a great deal of speculation. Lots of pointless chatter about who to blame and who's at fault. Fingers will point at religion, at past wars and at current foreign policy. Shouty arguments about the precise words used in a Tweet will crop up. And, in all this, we won't be an inch closer to understanding what made some young man strap on a bomb and blow himself - and hundreds of innocent girls - up in Manchester last night.

Right now we can pull together. Recognise the commitment, bravery and dedication of emergency services, doctors, nurses and others who responded so quickly to what happened. Plus the taxi drivers, hotel managers and Manchester residents who went out of their way to help. It's a reminder that most people are good people, regardless of size, shape, colour or creed, and that ordinary people will always do extraordinary things at these times.

But at some point we have to ask why the bombing took place. Not through some dull old analysis of geopolitics. Not by sweeping statements about Muslims. But simply by asking what made that person strap on that bomb and head off to murder and maim innocent girls having a great night out in Manchester. What got into their mind, infected their behaviour and made such a terrible act, in some evil and warped way, justified? We owe it to the 22 people killed yesterday, to their families and friends, to the injured and hurt, and to people everywhere who look on and simply ask: "why?".

For my part I don't get it.


Thursday, 18 May 2017

How Dungeons and Dragons will save your life (or something...)


I thought that, rather than another partisan piece about the forthcoming election (just vote Conservative), I'd comment on characterisation in Dungeons & Dragons. As you know studying for my first degree (Upper 2nd Special Honours) was largely spent playing D&D, quite literally thousands of hours playing, discussing, arguing and creating. I've written before how my moral thinking is, in large part, shaped by discussing D&D's alignment chart - what it actually means to be good or evil, to see the law as paramount or challenging it as a statement of freedom.

So let me introduce you to Maoul.

Maoul is a thief (as an interesting aside I'll note that when we played back in 1980 the character-type was thief not what it is now, the less immoral and slightly PC somehow, 'rogue'). Looking at the character sheet from all those years ago I can summon my mental image of Maoul - 4' 11" tall, dark-skinned, ambidextrous, 19 dexterity. From these attributes my cheeky little first level thief developed into an altogether more laid back figure, confident and assured but still a little chippy about six foot tall paladins who think they can boss everything because of their muscles (and righteousness).

Like any good (true neutral) thief, Maoul prefers not to fight - that is, after all, what huge barbarian warriors and that annoying paladin are there for. So he'll go find a rock to sit on while the scrap's on, fire a few arrows and check out where in all this there's a profit to be made. At some point in his travels, Maoul acquired a magic whip - it never misses but only does 1-3 points damage, which is fine when there are hundreds of goblins but worse than useless against a fire giant - so he'll crack this at anything from the fight getting too close to his place of comfort.

All this came back to me while playing one of the computer games derived from D&D (Icewind Dale on this occasion - I like this one because you get to create the whole party not just one character as in Baldur's Gate). Partly because, while Maoul is a 17th level thief, it is often more interesting to play lower level characters than super-powerful, magic-laden masters of the universe. I suspect this is because we are a little closer to understanding how a first level fighter might feel venturing into some kobold-infested hole.

The things we've rolled and the decisions we make based on that roll provide a loose outline. We know the degree to which a character is strong, fast, sturdy, bright, considered and engaging. We've maybe rolled for gender, height, handedness and physical characteristics (these weren't in the Player's Manual but the Judge's Guild produced tables for just about everything). From this we choose what they will do - hit things hard, cast spells, keep the party alive, pick locks and find traps (as the game developed sing heroic ballads and bore people about 'the balance' were added). And then the alignment - what degree of lawfulness and goodness our character will present.

What you have is a cardboard cut-out character that would suit the typical Hollywood blockbuster based on some comic book. But this is Dungeons & Dragons and you can do better. Your level one male ranger (OK you chose that because you fancied Aragorn maybe) has to round out by interacting with the other players - perhaps he's a bit grumpy when he doesn't get his way, maybe he never buys a round, or has a tendency to quote bad poetry. While doing this, of course, you have to stay alive which means you need to co-operate - even with the righteous lawful good cleric.

By the time Aerosmith (or whatever your ranger's name is) has survived to be 4th or 5th level, you know what he's like, how he'll respond to other sorts of character, his foibles and preferences. And with his recently acquire Sword of Daemon (+2, +3 vs evil things from hell) you have a real character. For sure, some of the character is the player themselves (we aren't all Constantine Stanislavsky, after all), but you'll have wrapped your mind round how to develop a character. And the wonder of this is that, for all there's a dungeon and a dungeon master controlling the game, the success or otherwise isn't just about the quantity of goblins slain or giants hacked to pieces but about having created, with a few others, a game within that game.

Dungeons & Dragons - the proper game not the computer versions - is back (they even sell it in Waterstones which is more mainstream than it was in my day), and a new generation of young people are creating characters, slaying bugbears, and learning about good and evil. I think this is great, Dungeon & Dragons remains the most creative game I ever played allowing players the scope to build their own worlds, to develop characters and to slay (or not slay) huge monsters. It also annoys assorted god-botherers into the bargain. I hope today's players do what we did - invent new monsters, create our own dungeons, and even a new pantheon of gods.


Monday, 15 May 2017

"You will eat want we tell you to eat" - fussbucketry on our TVs

The clip starts with one person presenting how standardised packaging for "junk food" would look - this is accompanied by "ewwww" sounds from the others round the table as they agree they'd never eat something packaged like that. "But I wouldn't eat it anyway" giggles one of the participants.

None of the people round the table 'debating' the subject - "Junk Food: should it come with a health warning" - is is any respect an authority. No nutritionists are present, no-one who understands advertising, not even a public health professional. Instead we've a bunch of TV presenters and journalists who proceed to demonstrate just how much they loathe the choices of a lot of ordinary people out there in the real world.

We see James Caan, he of Dragons' Den fame, exclaiming "yes, yes" at the idea of banning Burger King and KFC. And Rachel Johnson, Remainiac extraordinaire suggesting that parents are incapable of resisting the pestering of children to buy a "bottle of water and a Cadbury's for a £1 in WH Smiths". Not, of course, that station forecourt booksellers are the favoured haunt of mums with screaming kids in tow.

For me this three minute long clip sums up so much that is wrong with our society, with government and with the punditry that sets the tone. "We can't afford...", "one in eleven children...", "Our NHS..." - a collection of ill-informed, evidence-free comments from people who've no idea at all what it's really like to raise a couple or three kids on a low income but who are ready and eager to condemn the failings (or what they see as failings) of those in this circumstance. All summed up by the first presenter (my apologies for not knowing who he is apart from being a vaguely familiar TV presenter sort) saying "people are making the wrong choices" and that we have to educate them into making the right choices (by telling lies about cancer, heart disease and rotten feet).

What we have is a bunch of privileged - in every meaning of this word - people given a platform to promote an intolerant and snobbish disdain for what other people do. The tone and the comments display a belief that somehow people like those gathered here to 'debate' the issue of "junk food" have some sort of righteous duty to stop other people making what they've decided are the "wrong" choices.

For me this agenda - nannying fussbucketry - is at the heart of the elite attack on the personal choices of ordinary people. The subtext of the debate is that we are not capable of making our own decisions, right or wrong, but must be guided by great and good people who have experience of presenting TV shows, writing newspaper columns and telling bad jokes. Every TV entrepreneur, actress, comedian and writer of columns in weekly magazines must adopt - with passion - a cause that involves lecturing poor people about how they're doing it all wrong.

Whether it's food, drink, bicycles, dress sense, or buying blue toys the great and the good want you to do what they say. They want to tell you that you've bought the wrong sort of car, gone on the worng holiday, visited the wrong restaurant and had the audacity to buy cheap semi-sparkling wine. These great and good believe they know what you should do and what is good for you. Like nineteenth century Methodist preachers they're going to bang on about how you are not living you lives properly.

And, if you're not compliant enough, these splendid folk will campaign for the government to damn well make you do what they want you to do. Moreover, such wonderful people are not to be challenged - fussbuckets like Jamie Oliver are to be given acres of print and hours of sychophantic TV without ever once being challenged on the evidence for the fads and food fascism they're promoting (or indeed the way in which it's used to promote their latest money making scheme).

The little clip I linked to above isn't a debate (although Nick Ferrari does at least try) it's a love-in where a bunch of self-important semi-celebrities outbid eachother as to who can be the most illiberal, the most snobbish and the most patronising about poor people. There's an important debate to be had about diet, food and obesity but conducting it on the basis of "let's ban stuff" and "you'll all get heart disease and diabetes if you eat this stuff" is simply dreadful - especially when this is done without any evidence.

The problem is that the views of such folk - nasty and bigoted views about people not in their high society - influence the decisions made by politicians. We can see the trajectory, the slippery slope, towards advertising bans, sin taxes, mandated school dinners, forced reformulation and standardised packaging. Add in bans on new shops, the removal of shiny branded livery and restrictions on what can be sold to minors and we have the full agenda. Unless we shout at these fussbuckets, these health fascists, expect this to happen, expect a duller world made ever drearier by the pompous nonsense of great and good folk on TV.


Saturday, 13 May 2017

In which Professor Mazzucato discovers government is useless

Various people had a bit of a laugh about a tweet from economist Mariana Mazzucato moaning about the officious nature of the UK Home Office.

The humour came, of course, in that Professor Mazzucato is a popular advocate of the argument that it's the state that drives innovation with the private sector toddling along behind making profits from all those clever things government has done (I oversimplify but not by much). The Professor's entire opus is about how government is brilliant.

I am, however, a little more interested in what this Tweet tells us about government. Mostly it tells us that, when it comes to administrative functions, government is rubbish. This doesn't matter when all it represents is some inconvenience and annoyance to an economics professor but it does matter when the issue in question is whether a family has any money at all. The other day, I was told that a housing association was giving out food parcels to some of its tenants because of the delay between getting an assessment under the new universal credit (or indeed, on occasions, other benefits) and actually getting any money. This isn't because the benefit isn't enough but simply a case of government being unable to process simple administrative tasks efficiently (and yes I know the system is complicated but that's about getting the right boxes filled).

We encounter example after example of this administrative uselessness, most of it annoying and delaying rather than life threatening and all of it reminding us that huge bureaucracies operating without either adequate scrutiny or any competition are, in truth, the very antithesis of innovation. Government, the acme of monopolistic bureaucracy, has always operated this way - in 'The Castle', Franz Kafka summed how this governmental incompetence is married with arrogance and a lack of self-awareness to great the impenetrable barrier of bureaucracy:
“Surveyor, in your thoughts you may be reproaching Sordini for not having been prompted by my claim to make inquiries about the matter in other departments. But that would have been wrong, and I want this man cleared of all blame in your thoughts. One of the operating principles of authorities is that the possibility of error is simply not taken into account. This principle is justified by the excellence of the entire organization and is also necessary if matters are to be discharged with the utmost rapidity. So Sordini couldn’t inquire in other departments, besides those departments wouldn’t have answered, since they would have noticed right away that he was investigating the possibility of an error.”
What Professor Mazzucato, a highly regarded denizen of Britain's Castle and an advocate of its greatness, has discovered is that the system will do what the system does, will do that slowly and badly, and regardless of your job title will treat you with the same impersonal disdain you thought was reserved to common sorts on benefits. Your form will sit in a pile, will be processed in due course and will be returned if it is incorrect or incomplete. And there is no option to expedite matters by buying the mayor an expensive cup of coffee.

In the end government is useless. Then we revolt. And, as Kafka said about revolution:
"Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy."


Wednesday, 10 May 2017

It's time to close down public health and get our lives back

It has to stop. There is no basis in protecting health. It is quite simply driven by the mission of public health to treat smokers as pariahs, people to be pushed to the margins of society:
The smoking ban should be extended to include all outdoor public areas, according to health experts.

Exclusion zones should stop smokers lighting up in parks, pub and restaurant gardens, at public events and shopping areas.

All university campuses and schools, beaches and sports and leisure facilities should also fall under the crackdown.
Imagine Glastonbury, Reading or Leeds Festival without smoking (of any kind). Consider what will happen to your local when smokers have to move half a street away to enjoy a fag. Those smokers - getting on for a fifth of the population - won't be there. And what happens when a fifth or more of your business goes away? No more local pub. Half the nations festivals and concerts unviable. Empty bars. Closed restaurants. Hundreds of thousands more jobs destroyed by public health.

I'll say it again - there is no health ground for this at all. None. Banning smoking indoors at least had the merit of a very marginal health benefit to non-smokers working in a smoky environment. These proposals from the Royal Society of Public Health are quite straightforwardly an attack on smokers and their right to make the personal choice to inhale tobacco smoke.

I haven't smoked for over ten years but I don't see why those who choose to smoke should be ostracised, excluded and treated like pariahs. In fact I find such an idea to be offensive and the people making it to be the worst sort of hideous fussbucket. The fanatics of public health aren't going to stop until all of the pleasures on their list of sins are marginalised - booze, fags, burgers, fizzy drinks, red meat, bacon, cheese, chocolate, boiled sweets, jam, cheese, cake, cream: all labelled, resitricted, controlled, hidden away, taxed and if they can get away with it banned altogether.

Children will be force fed a grey, dull vegetable diet washed down with tepid water. The legion of tutting health worrywarts will peer over their specs at mums who let their kids have a Happy Meal. We'll be weighed, measured, lined up, checked and made to fill in forms describing, in ever more detail, our bad habits. All so some public health "nurse" can lecture us about eating or drinking the grey uninteresting pap that the Church of Public Health recommends.

None of this is about making our lives better. It's not about our health. It's about an ideology of control. A belief that because the state provides healthcare this somehow gives them the right to tell us how to live our lives, to ostacise us for smoking, to denormalise drinking, to tax sugar, and to force manufacturers to take anything approximating to taste out of the food we buy.

It's time we stopped indulging these nannying fussbuckets. Time we told them to butt out of our lives. Time to point out that whether we smoke, drink, eat cake or go to a burger bar is absolutely none of their bloody business. Time to close down public health.


Monday, 8 May 2017

Let's ban stuff (or how not to get people's vote)

Today appears to be public health day in the election diary which means that we've proposals from the Labour Party to ban stuff:
"We are going to apply the rules currently applied to children’s TV and apply that to TV more generally, so when you’re sat down with your children, as I do, watching X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent, you’re not going to be seeing adverts for junk food,”
Apparently there is "research that children see the adverts for McDonald’s and hassle their parents to go there". And, of course, parents are incapable of resisting. Like zombies they rise from the sofa at nine in the evening (after Britain's Got Talent with all the wicked advertising has finished) and, as if in some drug-induced trance, take the pestering children to McDonald's, KFC or whatever else was advertised during the latest piece of cash generation for the Cowell empire.

We are, unlike the sort of wise person who becomes a Labour front bench spokesperson on public health, completely captured by advertising, snared by the subtle webs of influence that cunning marketers weave around their products. There is no escape. We are doomed to a life entirely driven by the content of prime time advertising. Like puppets we bounce along to the tunes of neoliberal hegemony as presented by crafty copywriters who force - yes, force - us to consume, consume and consume again.

Research has shown this. That sociologist friend of the Labour Party front bench spokesperson says so and who are we to argue with the author of masterworks whose titles drip with stuff about 'neoliberalism'. Parents everywhere will flock to the party's banner knowing that they will be rescued from their children throwing a tantrum because they've said 'no' to a sugar, fat and salt stuffed snack.

This is easy politics - "for the children" screeches the Labour frontbench spokesperson and the media joyfully laps it up, wraps it in a comfort blanket of "we should do something", and then wheels out all its friends from the public health industry to support the proposals. Action on Sugar, Campaign Against Salt, Fuss About Fat - legions of publicly funded cheery souls pop up on TV and radio sternly explaining how if we banned advertising everyone will suddenly be thin as rakes and healthy as the butchers dog (except we're not allowed red meat any more because that will give us cancer).

Let's get some things clear here.

Advertising does not raise aggregate demand (however loudly kids shout)

People have agency (we don't have to buy stuff just because it's on telly)

Obesity isn't caused by eating sugar (or fat)

Salt is not bad for you (it's an essential nutrient - without it you die)

Obesity - or smoking or drinking - isn't the reason for the NHS funding crisis (quite the opposite)

Banning adverts means less money for TV companies to make programmes you like

Neoliberalism is a word made up by idiot sociologists

Voters are fed up with being bossed around (hadn't you noticed yet?)


Saturday, 6 May 2017

Are there too many VCS organisations?

OK it's the USA but Aaron Renn hits a chord with me:
When I look around older cities, I frequently see that they’ve got a veritable armada of non-profits. Rarely do I see these making a huge difference in the trajectory of the city.
Try to do anything in a city and you’ll be told to meet with all these “stakeholders”, a large percentage of whom are non-profit leaders who claim to speak in the name of some constituency or cause but too often represent their own personal fief.

Anyone wanting to do things in a city has to run this gauntlet of non-profits and find a way to placate them.
Of course, here in the UK we call them the 'voluntary sector' or 'VCS' or 'Third Sector' but the same applies. There are brilliant organisations out there doing fantastic work but for each one of these there seems to be at least one other best described as a 'grant farmer' - sustaining itself and its staff by chasing grants to 'deliver' projects created and designed by local, regional or national public bodies.

As Renn concludes:
In cities, the Pareto principle likely applies to non-profits as it does everywhere else: the top 20% most effective non-profits deliver 80% of the public benefits.