Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Edinburgh Reviews #5: Tony Lee

Tony Lee: XXX Aggressive Comedy Hypnosis
Company: Tony Lee
Venue: Udderbelly – Pasture
Date: 21 Aug '07

Eew. This was frankly enough to make a liberal feel quite prudish. I don’t want to sound condescending, but here is a sample of Lee’s “aggressive comedy”:

“Now, when I clap my hands, you will believe the woman next to you has just done the smelliest, nastiest punany fart.”

I really did feel kind of out of place amongst a crowd who laughed at this. Many times, I found myself laughing more because I felt obliged to than because something was funny. The show was slow to get going, with Lee doing some wholly redundant stuff revolving around his liking to drink vodka during his show, which he indeed proceeded to do throughout the show. I mention this mainly to emphasize the adolescent and macho level on which the show operated. He then took a while doing some pretty pedestrian stuff to weed out those people who weren’t suggestible enough.

I don’t know what was worse, really: the boring start or the tacky and not-especially-funny second half. The climax of the evening was the most enthusiastic victim being persuaded, seeing as it was his birthday, that he was in fact one of the stars of “Puppetry of the Penis”. “Hilarity” ensued. The only interesting bit of the show was available for free – watching the faces of Lee’s volunteers as they emerged from the Udderbelly into the beer garden outside and remembered, as per hypnotic suggestion, everything they had done.



And that concludes Day 1 of my Edinburgh experience.

Edinburgh Reviews #4: Marc Maron & Kirk Fox

Marc Maron & Kirk Fox
Company: Gilded Balloon Productions
Venue: Gilded Balloon – Wine Bar
Date: 21 Aug '07

To be honest, I can’t review these two in the same review. I thought it was a bizarre decision to put them on a double bill in the first place; the standard length of a stand-up slot in Edinburgh is an hour, abnormally short to start with. To close that down to half an hour seems undesirable. To put two comedians together on the basis of not much more than the fact that they are both Americans who have been on TV and are a bit different seems condescending. And to try to rate two very different performances together seems unfair. So:

Kirk Fox:

Clearly, the performance I saw, and for all I know many of them, was adversely affected by a negative review that the show had received (in Fest, of all places – the fact they had good reviews from The Herald and Three Weeks, both much more influential organs, makes me puzzled that it bothered them so much). The audience wasn’t of a great size either, which I suspect had more to do with it. Fox seemed to be down and irritable as a result, although for all I know that is just his style. Whatever, it didn’t work. Even if the material wasn’t actually that bad, the tone of voice and the empty acoustic in the room suggested he was dying. It didn’t help that he hadn’t really made much effort to localize his humour, doing a bit about his score on the US FICO system which obviously meant nothing to any of the UK audience. It helped even less that his material is pretty average in the first place.


Marc Maron:

I cannot be as impartial as I would like to be about Maron, having been aware of his work for a while both as a stand-up comic and, I think, as an even better radio host. Nonetheless, I thought this was a fantastic performance from him. The word “edgy” is used about a lot of comedy nowadays, but this is one place where the word genuinely applies. Maron’s wife Mishna has left him recently, apparently, which would explain why he was quite so angry, even for him. The point, though, is that Maron managed to turn what negativity he had about him into the energy to drive a scorching performance.

As familiar as I am with his established material, it took me a good twenty minutes before I spotted any. In contrast to Fox, he started his section with a bunch of comments about Scotland, ranging from the Scots diet (he wondered why, with so much fried food about, there weren’t nearly so many fat people as in the US, eventually concluding that it was because Americans never stop eating: “It’s part of your freedom in America”), to the bewildering popularity of circus-entertainment-type street performers relative to buskers on the Royal Mile. This was a jumping off point to a standard Maron theme: the idea that art and entertainment are not the same.

By far the funniest material, though, was the obviously very raw sentiment he expressed about his divorce, and his failings with women (“I keep thinking that if I can just find the broken Daddy Box in their heads…”). Continually kneeling on his haunches to get on a more intimate level with the audience, and lowering his voice to the level of a calm, suppressed anger, the performance often felt a bit like a therapy session where we, the therapists, were allowed to laugh directly at the patient. The result was the most disorientating show I saw in Edinburgh. As Maron says, he prefers people to come out of his shows remarking not “that was hilarious” but rather “I hope that guy’s OK”. He certainly managed that.

It is something I find continually frustrating about Maron’s comedy, that I don’t know how much of it is artifice, and how much is genuine. As a result, he has attracted a troupe of fans, at their peak when Maron was on the radio and able to give them a daily fix, who feel rather too concerned for, and familiar with, him. I fight the urge to become one of them. But it is perhaps this very uncertainty that makes Maron’s comedy work so well: if we were certain it was for real and not exaggerated, we would feel guilty laughing; if we were certain it was all show, it wouldn’t be nearly so funny. I just hope that Marc ultimately finds it fulfilling that he can make us laugh.

In any case, this is exactly the kind of show the Fringe is for, and I really hope to see Marc back with a show of his own and a bit more hype.


Edinburgh Reviews #3: Lucy Porter's Love-in

Lucy Porter’s Love-in
Company: Lucy Porter
Venue: Pleasance – One
Date: 21 Aug '07

As the title of the show suggests, Porter’s show this year was all about love, and in particular the idea that love is some sort of mental illness. It is a good concept for a show, and was nicely used to introduce some audience participation into the show: the format was essentially several stories which were followed by a quick show of hands to determine whether the actions described were rational or not. Often, it seems, these stirred up arguments between couples in the audience. Porter has a relaxed manner on stage, and it is hard not to warm to her bouncy energy. She had an easy conversational relation to the audience and, whilst not exactly a Ross Noble, managed a fair amount of entertaining interaction with the audience.

It does however have to be said that, in and of itself, the subject matter is not an especially challenging one for comedy; what gave the show its fresh feel was more the approach taken to the stories told, which was exceedingly open and honest, than the choice of material. Nonetheless, it did feel fresh. Sadly, I cannot say that I loved it. The show was well put together, professional, and I can’t think of much it did wrong. But it wasn’t amazing.


Edinburgh Reviews #2: Norman Lovett's Slideshow

Norman Lovett’s Slide Show
Company: Norman Lovett
Venue: Pleasance – Above
Date: 21 Aug '07

This show is exactly what it sounds like; Lovett has taken his camera around with him in his everyday life for about a year, taking pictures of things he found notable, or (often) annoying. The result is two carousels of 35mm slides, and an hour long chat through them. His material centres on quite an “old-man” set of little fixations: chewing gum on pavements, pretentious shops, gadgets he has bought for his home, etc. In spite of this, he doesn’t come across as a whinging old git – a testament to his charm as a stand-up. I laughed quite a lot during the show, but Lovett seemed disappointed with the audience’s reaction that day overall (a comment he expanded on afterwards when signing DVDs). I can only say that his brand of humour invites the audience not so much to laugh uproariously than to sit back and have a good chuckle. Personally, I thought it was a really lovely show, and every bit as funny in its way as anything I saw. It was only marred, slightly, by Lovett’s occasional irritable remarks about the Pleasance’s staff.


Edinburgh Reviews #1: The Early Edition

The Early Edition
Company: Marcus Brigstocke, A
Venue: Udderbelly – Pasture
Date: 21 Aug '07

Brigstocke was Brigstocke-y, by which I mean pretty good. His one-liners were funny (“The Daily Mail – for those who aren’t familiar, just think of a version of the Metro with the nerve to charge”), and when occasionally he slipped into tirades against things that annoy him, he made good enough points about them that I didn’t especially mind. At one point after a rant about the Daily Express’s Madeleine coverage, he dejectedly remarked that “I don’t know why I said started talking about that, people never like it”; he should not mistake an absence of laughter (in response to what is after all a depressing subject) for disagreement with his view (which was that the justification for Madeleine coverage has long gone, and the Express’s continual insistence on putting her on the front of the paper is wholly manipulative and commercial).

AndrĂ© Vincent was quite limited; he made a few funny remarks, but rather too often fell back on a comedy-camp-person voice almost anywhere he could make one fit. The two guests were Adam Hills and Hattie Hayridge. Hills managed to crowbar in a few obvious bits of material off the back of news items, which he performed with probably the most energy of any of the comedians on the stage; twice in the show he got up from his seat to physically demonstrate some joke or anecdote. He made me want to see his show, but didn’t impress me all that much here. Hayridge didn’t say much, but when she did it was often with a well timed punch line which attracted some of the biggest laughs of the show.

The overall experience was quite enjoyable, but nothing extraordinary.


Sunday, August 26, 2007


For all those legions of you who have missed my wittering over the past week: rest assured, I am not dead, I was merely up in Edinburgh at the Fringe, watching 18 shows in 5 days. But to make up for it, I will now insist on reviewing everything I saw whilst there over the next few days. As much for my own reference as anybody else's. But hey, it's August, there's really not much else to talk about. Enjoy!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Darling of the Airwaves

Just seen Alistair Darling on BBC News 24, talking about the stock market and that. I'd love to be able to tell you what he said, but it was so dull, it washed right over me.

I will therefore restrict myself to wondering when was the last time Gordon Brown went on a rolling news channel as Chancellor of the Exchequer (or indeed, as PM). I suspect the answer is "a long time ago". There could hardly be a clearer example of the difference in their importance. Darling is there for purely cosmetic purposes; as soon as he defied Brown, he'd be out on his arse. With nothing to actually do, he is left with the time to appear on any old programme who will have him.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Big Pharma: Everyone's Favourite Market Failure

Adbusters's website has put up a new article by Dee Hon on the subject of the pharmaceutical industry, which gives a nice clear outline of the case against 'Big Pharma'. Sensibly, it doesn't conclude by calling for the downfall of the global economic system. Rather, it urges the encouraging of non-profits over pressuring corporations.

In recent years, pharmaceutical companies have offered discounts on vital medicines to middle-income countries, while charging the poorest countries only production costs. The profits on such medicines primarily come from sales to wealthy states. Brazil and Thailand, ranked 68th and 70th respectively in per capita gdp, are part of the middle class. Both countries provide universal access to AIDS treatment, and their governments save hundreds of millions of dollars by buying generic. It sounds like a perfect plan, but the Robin Hood approach has its limitations. Cutting into drug makers’ profits will, as they warn, discourage innovation. Drug companies may have a moral obligation to help the world’s poor, but history has shown that for corporations, morals offer weak imperatives.

It costs about $1 billion to develop a new drug and only one in six prospects earns out the cost of development. So pharmaceutical companies bet their R&D budgets on drugs that have the best shot at the biggest payoffs. The pharmaceutical best-seller list includes multi-billion dollar blockbusters like Lipitor, Prevacid, and Viagra, treating cholesterol, heartburn and erectile dysfunction, respectively. They’re the disorders of the wealthy, aging and overfed West.

Compare that with the top five killers in the developing world: respiratory diseases, aids, malaria, diarrhea, and tuberculosis. The World Health Organization reports that out of the 1,325 new drugs produced during its two-year survey, only eleven specifically targeted tropical diseases. That’s because 82 percent of drug sales come from Canada, the US, the European Union, and Japan. Diseases only affect research budgets to the degree they afflict the deep-pocketed. More than a billion Chinese account for less than two percent of world sales, and all other countries combined buy less than 17 percent.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Dawkins Debate

Liberal Leslie has posted on the marvellous Dawkins programme last night, to which I wrote a slightly lengthy response. I would urge people to add their own comments, as I would be interested to see other people's thoughts on the questions raised. While I'm at it, a quick link also to Charlie Brooker's thoughts on the programme - facetious, yes, but also funny. All of which has prompted me to write a post of my own, the general gist of which has been floating around my head for a bit. Full disclosure from the outset: I am an atheist, and I generally think Dawkins is much more right than people give him credit for being.

Dawkins comes in for a lot of lazy criticism nowadays, not least the bizarre claim that he is somehow "just as much a fundamentalist" as religious figures, for sticking to a rational skeptic standpoint. To my mind, there is nothing fundamentalist about taking as a starting point the stance that what most religions today purport to believe requires a good deal of justification; the burden is on the people who believe these things to convince us they are true - either by rational, empirical means, or by convincing us that there are other meaningful means.

The other irritating evasion of Dawkins's arguments that gets thrown around is the idea that he is out of his depth commenting on religion, because he is a theological ignoramus. I went to a talk, not so long ago, by a Christian theologician (Nicholas Lash, since you ask). Its purpose was supposedly to provide a response to The God Delusion. The question asked by its title was "Where does The God Delusion come from?". Like most theistic response to Dawkins, the premise assumes Dawkins to be wrong, and looks to explain why someone might be impertinent enough to even raise the issue. The main thrust of the actual talk, as far as I could tell, was that Dawkins was terribly ignorant of theology, and that frankly nobody had the right to question God's existence without first having spent much of their life bettering themselves by poring over every theological text going.

Dawkins himself answers this and other criticisms pretty well, so I will just quote his response:

I need engage only those few theologians who at least acknowledge the question [of God's existence], rather than blithely assuming God as a premise. For the rest, I cannot better the “Courtier’s Reply” on P. Z. Myers’s splendid Pharyngula website, where he takes me to task for outing the Emperor’s nudity while ignoring learned tomes on ruffled pantaloons and silken underwear. Most Christians happily disavow Baal and the Flying Spaghetti Monster without reference to monographs of Baalian exegesis or Pastafarian theology.

To which I would only add that many of these people seem much happier noisily assailing Dawkins than they are actually taking on the people who have devoted their lives to engaging with their arguments.

Next up: the accusation that Dawkins is a ranting, hate-filled old sod with a chip on his shoulder. Thankfully, this has been answered pretty difinitively now, not by Dawkins himself but by Christopher Hitchens, who has furnished humanity with an example of what such a book might actually look like. Which is not to say that it isn't enjoyable, by the way, just that it really is one for the atheists!

Which leads me to the final point often made about The God Delusion. It is regularly said, indeed it was said today by the TV reviewer in the Telegraph, that Dawkins is preaching to the converted. Again, this is a criticism that does rather better lobbed in Hitchens's direction. Hitchens has written an eminently entertaining, occasionally outrageous and always readable whistlestop tour of the arguments. What it adds to Dawkins's effort is a discussion not just of Judaism and Christianity, but of most organised religions extant today. What it lacks, though, it the clarity of thought and structure. It will likely entertain and fire up the convinced atheist, but I doubt it would convince anyone else.

Dawkins, in turn, is not out to convince the religious, or if he is, I doubt he will get far, though I hope I am wrong. What I felt The God Delusion did brilliantly, though, was preach to the soggy centre. Dawkins's mission should be to convince the great swath of people out there who aren't especially religious that there is nothing dirty about the word "atheist", and no terribly meaningful position to be staked out under the umbrella of agnosticism.

The book does not, indeed cannot, convince people who feel certain about God's existence, who believe in special revelation and all that. Much of the rest of The God Delusion actually deals not with this central question of God's existence, but with much of the apologetics which pass for debate of this question nowadays. "Don't we get our morals from religion?", "Religion gives us purpose", etc.

The important thing it does, though, is make a powerful case to agnostics that the "neutral" position is not some kind of "50/50" middle ground.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Newsnight does Climate Camp

Tonight's Newsnight had some coverage of the climate camp. Paul Mason managed to produce another of his infuriating bits of reporting, but at least this time I wasn't annoyed at him so much as I was at the people he was interviewing at Heathrow.

Mildly annoying were some of the protesters, talking in woolly terms about "the system" as if the present economic model were wholly beyond redemption. But what had me throwing things at the TV was the people on their way into the airport, being asked whether they might consider not flying. I'm sure that on balance, some of them can indeed justify making the flights they are making, but the affront and instant dismissal of the very suggestion that they might have to fly less was ridiculous.

It's not so long since people thought of flying as at best a once a year thing. Personally, much as I'd encourage the use of other transport where possible, I think people can justifiably feel entitled to an annual round trip somewhere, subject to the relevant costs. But I really don't see that anyone should feel they are in some way entitled to be jetting off as regularly as the worst offenders. At some point, some brave government is going to have to say to these people: "Actually, just not flying is a reasonable alternative. Deal with it."

I know that's probably illiberal of me, or some other such heinous crime, but frankly, if climate change is the massive problem it looks like being, then people are going to have to be made to change, and I rather suspect that some measures which will prove necessary are going to be illiberal ones. Pigovian taxes are all very well, but I don't think it's going to go down very well with the electorate if we advocate turning carbon emission into a new status symbol any more than we have to.

Oh, and can I just also say how marvellous George Monbiot was this evening in his debate segment, despite Kirsty Wark browbeating him with an Evening Standard story.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Ashdown Enjoys Jenkins Breaking Wind

It was only towards the end of yesterday that I got round to finishing reading the Guardian and looked at the letters page. There, sat at the top of the page, was the following letter from Paddy Ashdown:
Simon Jenkins's ability to break wind at length on your pages provides one of the Guardian's most enjoyable and readable high points. His seeming aversion to ever expressing a modulated opinion somehow does not appear to diminish the pleasure.

But enthusiasm to make a point is not an excuse for inaccuracies. In his piece this week, he said I had "returned recently from Kabul consumed with imperial zeal" (It takes inane optimism to see victory in Afghanistan, Comment, August 8). In fact, I have never been to Kabul.

As for "imperial zeal", which Sir Simon spends much of his article attaching to me and railing against, if he had read my recent book, Swords and Ploughshares, before commencing bombardment, he would have found it dedicated to the proposition that the era of imperial intervention is over - I call it "gunboat intervention" - and that we have to find a different way of doing things.

Finally, he accuses me of saying on your pages that success in Afghanistan was "probable" (his quotation marks). I said no such thing. In fact, the word "probable" does not even appear in my article.

What I actually said was that failure was likely, unless the policy radically changed. There is a difference between the two.

We all know that, as the Guardian's highly successful resident controversialist, Sir Simon's job - and nature it seems - is to relish failure more than success. But he would be more powerful, and no less enjoyable, if he took a little more care to be a little more accurate.
Paddy Ashdown
Norton sub Hamdon, Somerset

Of course, there is little love lost between our party and Simon Jenkins, so it came as little surprise to read the article which prompted this letter, where Jenkins essentially makes the argument that Afghanistan is a lost cause and that we are being imperialist to continue to try not to let it slide into the mire which Iraq has already found itself in. I don't know if I agree, but if the facts are as slapdash as Paddy suggests, I don't know if it's even worth engaging with.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Electoral Calculus is A Bit Rubbish

One of the things which always happens when polling information comes out is that someone feeds the numbers into Electoral Calculus and quotes its considered opinion to illustrate what this new information would mean for the next election.

So it was today, for instance, over on Iain Dale's blog. He posted a story about some Scottish polling data (mysteriously knocking 2% off the Lib Dems to begin with, now corrected), and within hours a comment appeared saying:
For Westminster seats electoral calculus converts this into SNP 51 (up from 6)seats and labour 8 (down from 41).

Lib dems & the other party are forecast to have nil.

As pointed out in another blog this in itself would eliminate labours UK majority at Westminster.
All very well and good, but when you look at the Electoral Calculus website, you do have to begin to question whether it really knows what it's talking about. Any Lib Dem will instantly have their eye caught by their prediction that we are going to be absolutely slashed at the next election to 19 seats. So click on the link to which seats they see changing hands. Pretty much all the changes are Lib Dem losses. And most of them strike me as being completely based in fantasy land.

From my own background, I am somewhat surprised to see David Howarth apparently on the list to lose to Labour. This being Cambridge, a town which shows no sign of tiring of its status as an island of pretty solid yellow in a sea of blue. I know there are boundary changes, but having looked at them, I don't think they pose a huge threat.

Others faced with the chop include Chris Huhne, Lynne Featherstone, Norman Lamb, Evan Harris, Michael Moore, Jo Swinson, and quite a few who I just can't see losing their seat. So I thought I'd conduct a bit of an experiment. I put in the results of the 2001, 1997 and 1992 elections. Perfect polling data, so would it get it right?

Well, here's a graph:

The white gradient-y ones are the genuine results, the solid ones the predictions from Electoral Calculus. In each case, it underestimates the party in power, and the Lib Dems. Now, I should mention to be fair that when you put the numbers in, it offers you the chance to put in a "Tactical Vote Swing" for each party, or in other words, to put in a fiddle factor to make things work right.

I sympathise with the difficulty of trying to predict elections, but really, is it such a good idea to authoritatively announce that the Lib Dems would lose so many seats on current polling data when, fed with real data from elections, the predictions it makes are wildly off, and always much too low?

CiF: Lets Hear It For The Lib Dems

Something seems to have gone horribly wrong over at CiF. They have managed to let slip an article that says nice things about us (if a little patronisingly). I wonder how that happened.

Sadly, we must postpone the celebrations until reaching the end of the article. Edward Pearce writes a piece thoroughly keen on us as we are at the moment, saying, amongst other things:
Best of all their attractions is the regular charge of being amateur. They are guilty and should glory in the offence. Limited funds and natural disinclination [emphasis mine, see below] have limited the consultancies, the business models, the saturation polling; everything about contemporary politics, false, plastic and metallic. The fact that so many seats have been won, whether at byelections or the long application, by energetic individuals, makes for this essential health.

Norman Baker is a thoroughgoing bloody nuisance, wonderfully so ... New Labour and eternal Conservatism don't care for that sort of thing. Tony Blair would have spoken directly to his party chair, loyalists would have been activated, rules suspended and conformity exacted.

Having said all this, he has to go and spoil things by saying:
I'm not sure I want them in government. The business consultants and the image masseurs would move in.


Their party exists as an arguing, intellectually curious and libertarian island in a sea of management. Given respectable numbers, the intelligence and freedom matter far more than office.

Erm... OK, but since you don't seem to like anything much about the leadership of the other two parties, and have already admitted in the previous quote that we are as a party not naturally inclined to go the way of the "business consultants and the image masseurs", would it really have killed you to say that a Lib Dem government might not be such a terrible thing?

Nevertheless, I for one found it refreshing to find a piece on CiF being nice about us for a change. My paranoid side wonders what might be waiting in the wings to balance it...

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

An Encore for Israel's Noisy Eviction Theatre

Over the years, various incidents have taken place whereby Israel noisily evicted settlers from land which it deemed no longer tenable. Today it evicted forcibly some squatters in Hebron. There were two families living in two houses, numbering perhaps 24 between them. To remove them, Israel sent over 200 police and border guards, and spent over $500,000 (according to alJazeera - note that of the reports I have read, these are conservative figures; Jerusalem Post is reporting 3000 police and security)

Of course, the squatters were joined by quite a few demonstrators, making the total numbers up to maybe 100, according to alJazeera, making the oversized operation slightly more justifiable. But frankly, why did this need to be done? All they have achieved is a media furore, fuelled in part by the Israelis who refused to take part in the action. If these actual squatters do not come back, others will surely take their place. Over 650 Israelis live in Hebron, illegally under international law. Israel today made an attempt to move about 20 of them.

Here is alJazeera's report:

Of course, this is not the first such occasion. In an incident strikingly similar in 2006, three families were evicted by 700 police and 1000 soldiers. Israel has a very developed sense of political theatre over these events; thoroughly symbolic and achieving almost nothing at great expense in practical terms, what these operations do is provide Israel with concrete examples of them facing down their own fanatics in the name of peace.

In a sense, these events mirror the much less violent circumstances in which both Neil Kinnock and David Cameron set about framing their own media narratives about facing down the extremists in their own parties. In each case, both leaders set about noisily assailing the ideological fringes of their own parties; people who had no real influence in the wider party, but who served as convenient pawns in the media games that suddenly surrounded them. In Kinnock's case, it was the militant tendency, in Cameron's it was a more diffuse set of comfort zoners, but media figures such as Norman Tebbitt handily presented themselves to be steamrollered by the New Tory machine (of course, it may not have worked so well for Cameron; he failed to realise that whilst the majority of Labour supporters were not militants, a surprising number of Tories really are the wingnuts of popular imagination).

To get back to my point, though, I will end by mentioning Sharon's eviction, in 2005, of around 9000 people from settlements in the Gaza strip. In that case, the move represented a meaningful withdrawal, but the overblown manner of making the move was just the same. As Chomsky observed of the Gaza evictions:
The "media blitz" on disengagement was quite impressive, manufacturing one of the lead stories of the year. There were pages and pages of photos and reports of the pathos of families forced to leave their homes and greenhouses, the weeping children trying vainly to hold back soldiers, and the anguish of soldiers who were ordered to evict Jews from their homes and to remove the thousands of protesters who flooded to the settlements to resist evacuations (by means that would lead to instant death for any Palestinian), miraculously evading military forces that keep an iron grip on Palestinians.


All ignored was the fact, plain enough, that disengagement on August 15 required no army intervention. The government could have simply announced that on that date the IDF would leave the Gaza Strip. A week before, the settlers would have quietly departed in the lorries provided to them, with compensation to resettle. But that would not have entrenched the message: Never again must Jews suffer such terrible fate; the West Bank must be theirs. (Chomsky, Failed States, p. 195)
Of course, subsequently, it seems that around 6500 of the evictees from Gaza did indeed go straight over to the West Bank and set up home there.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

New Finish Turbodry

"Isn't it annoying when plastics come out of your dishwasher still wet?"

...um, not hugely, no.

Are we now so lazy that we need a chemical to save ourselves the back breaking quick-going-over-with-a-tea-towel incurred by the few items that don't come out the dishwasher dry?

It's enough to turn me into an old git (clearly)...

Prospecting for Nuggets

I went into town earlier to have a mooch around, amongst other institutions, WHSmiths. Irritatingly, they seem not to perceive Shrewsbury to have as much of a market for Adbusters or the Ecologist as Cambridge, though I can't imagine why. What you can buy is several shades of magazine covering the diverse fields of Caravans, Dogs, Angling, Cars, etc, and a whole shelf from floor to ceiling of nigh-on-identical puzzle mags. But evidently a single shelf section is enough to encompass all shades of political opinion one might conceive of. Bastards.

But I digress. Happily, I was able to buy both Prospect and DWM (Doctor Who Magazine for the uninitiated). Prospect is one of those magazines which I derive a bizarre enjoyment from flicking through, and putting aside with a firm intention of reading it thoroughly later, before 4 times out of 5 never actually getting back round to a given article. In the end, I guess I buy it for the single page columns. I suspect I'm not the only one.

So it's just as well that the columns are rather good.

I particularly enjoy Washington Watch, for nuggets like this:
Giuliani's Scary Advisers

That other New York candidate, the Republican frontrunner Rudy Giuliani, has appointed a pretty scary foreign policy advisory team. There is Kim Holmes from the very right-wing Heritage Foundation and former senator Bob Kasten, who proposed ending US aid to any country that voted the wrong way at the UN. Kasten also looked to accuse the UN Population Fund of promoting forced abortions. And Giuliani's senior figure is that original neoconservative, Norman Podhoretz, currently leading the "bomb Iran" brigade.
I thought this was interesting to remark on, because it is often said that Giuliani represents quite a liberal shade of Republican. On the basis of this, it seems that's probably restricted to a social context.

Of more direct Lib Dem interest is the article on taxing the super-rich. Which I have not yet read, although it is top of my list.

Also, I hadn't realised, having not been quick enough to buy Prospect in Shrewsbury for a while, that the magazine has started a blog. Marvellous!

Dodging Hypotheticals

Mark Pack asks whether one should dodge hypothetical questions, over at Lib Dem Voice. He does so at the prompting of this Slate article by former Al Franken Show regular John Dickerson (I'm sure he's significant in other ways, too, but that's how I think of him), the thrust of which is probably summed up best by the line:
But what might not be great for Obama politically is great for us, so we should thank him for taking the risk.
Now, I think the interesting question that springs from this is who are the "we" who should thank him? Voters? Or journalists? Personally, I would have thought both, but from the suggestion that these answers may not be great for Obama "politically", I take it Dickerson doesn't think it necessarily helps him with voters.

Which is weird. Personally, I have always found refusals to answer hypothetical questions absolutely bizarre. Since elections are essentially one big hypothetical question ("If you had to pick one of these people to represent your view for the next four years, and you didn't know what might happen in those four years, which one would you pick?"), surely one of the best ways for the electorate to have a firm idea of the people they are choosing between is to ask them how they might react to certain situations. They have every right to ask hypotheticals. Representative Democracy almost depends on their being able to do so.

Of course, politicians know this as well as anyone, and will answer any question they want to answer, whilst batting off ones they don't with whatever line they can find. But it is a continual source of puzzlement to me why a refusal to answer a hypothetical question on those grounds is regarded as legitimate, and therefore even an option.

Now, at this point, let's take a step back and ask what the applicability of this to Lib Dems is. Obviously, the most politically dangerous and perennial question we face is the hypothetical coalition forming deal one. To which we have already given an answer, whether it is the one the Church Of The One True Liberalism likes or not.

So I should at this point clarify that answering hypotheticals, rather than simply refusing outright, does not rule out the possibility of simply saying "that would depend on several factors, such as a), b), c) and d), so I cannot give you a definitive answer based on the parameters of your question."

So on coalition forming, the answer might well be:
"We would talk to all major parties, and try to ascertain which offered the most opportunity to implement liberal policy. PR would be a prerequisite. We would try, all other things being equal, to support the party with the largest popular vote. Our decision would be highly dependent on all of these. But in any situation, getting liberal policy enacted is what drives us, and the best way to achieve that is to elect a Liberal Democrat government."
Which is a bit clunky, I guess, but then that's the problem with honesty. It doesn't tend to be very snappy. But, if nothing else, consideration of this has at least persuaded me that maybe Stephen Tall was right and I was wrong.

Friday, August 03, 2007

What are the Scottish Lib Dems for?

Thursday's Telegraph asks the question, off the back of some polling data suggesting Scottish support for the Lib Dems has tanked since the SNP got in and we refused to prop them up. Or at least, that's what they want it to suggest.

Bother to read through the article, and you find the following admission:
At this juncture it might be wise to enter a major caveat. The above figures were culled from the regional breakdown of YouGov's UK-wide survey of the opinions of 1,877 voters, of which 167 were Scottish voters. As such it cannot be expected to as accurately reflect voter intentions as could a bigger sample.
Now, lets just break this down a bit. 4% of 167 is about 7 people. 16% would be 27 people (the percentage we had at the last election). A difference of 20 people. In national polls where the sample is a good 1000+, people usually take a margin of error of a couple of percent as read, which means that the numbers for a given party might be off by up to, well, yes, 20 people.

Now, I'm sure there is an SNP honeymoon, building on their squeeze of the "tired of Labour" vote, and that is going to make life uncomfortable for us. But I don't think this poll should make us panic. Apart from anything else, if this were a continuing trend and not a statistical outlier, wouldn't we have heard something about this before?

Sadly, I cannot find any data on YouGov's website, suggesting that they would not themselves want to put their professional reputation behind any interpretation of region-specific numbers. They leave that to Telegraph opinion pieces during silly season.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Stupid Papers clamour for a snap election

Yesterday I took a look over the Guardian's coverage of Gordon Brown's diplomatic ministering to the world, and found it slightly wanting. So today, I felt inspired enough to venture further afield in my reading, taking in the varied delights of The Daily Mail and The Mirror over the course of the day.

First thing to catch my eye was Stephen Glover, making a remarkably tangled and bizarre argument why Brown shouldn't call a snap election, based transparently in Tory self interest. How anyone could fail to spot it as a Tory attempt to goad Brown into calling an election is beyond me. Here is a choice selection of his thoughts:

On the one hand, we have a Brownite Labour Party whose true character is so far only dimly understood. Would it not be better for us to gain some sense of this unknown beast before being bounced into a General Election which Mr Brown would undoubtedly win for no better reason than that of novelty? Let him govern, let us see the colour of his money, before we are rushed into making a decision.

On the other hand, the Tory Party is imploding before our very eyes. Whether this is a temporary setback that will be put right, or whether the Tories are irredeemably hopeless, only time will tell. But just as I would argue that it is in the interests of this country for Labour to be tested before an election is called, so I would say that it is also in the public interest for the Tories to be given a chance to get their act together. A strong democracy should have a robust opposition that can challenge abuses of power. A Tory Party crushed and disoriented at an October election is not what we need.

I need hardly point out to anyone with a brain that the "lets see how they do before we have an election" principle is one which nobody would normally think of applying. One might just as well say (were the polls looking different):
We have a Cameronite Conservative Party whose true character is so far only dimly understood. Would it not be better for us to gain some sense of this unknown beast before being bounced into a General Election which Mr Cameron would undoubtedly win for no better reason than that of novelty? Let him govern, let us see the colour of his money, before we are rushed into making a decision.
Obviously, if you were to apply this idea to every election, then the result would be a Labour government in perpetuity (*shudder*). It is in the nature of elections that you only usually get to find out how a government does after it is elected.

Before I leave the Mail, I would also like to point out that they managed to write a whole front page article about the DNA database without mentioning the Lib Dems or their opposition to its alarming expansion, although at least Nick Clegg pops up in this article on their website.

Meanwhile the Mirror's Kevin Maguire had managed to be leaked ferret out this exclusive about a memo to Gordon Brown written by Philip Gould. The memo is gripping stuff, "sensational" if you speak tabloid, featuring as it does such revelatory opinions as:
The very difficult trick you have to pull off is to retain continuity while being emphatically an agent of change.
or indeed the scorching analysis that is:
This means that we need a bold election strategy designed to dramatically drive our vote up.
Funny, if I were Brown I would be tempted to go for a strategy to drive my vote into the ground...

Ultimately, Gould either doesn't understand the mood for change in Britain, or this memo has been sanitised for the press. How else can you explain his assertion that:
This mood for change is not rational. It is an instinctive sense that eight or 12 years is long enough in power. This will be the key dynamic of the next election.
Meanwhile, general paranoia about the prospect of a snap election continued unabated by any actual *facts*. Take Iain Dale's opinion, responding to Chris McLaughlin's argument that the Labour party is in no state to fight an election:
I reckon this is a smokescreen, and that the argument about having no money is a spurious one. We all know that there are enough donors and trade unions out there who would bankroll an election if called upon. I've just done an interview with the Associated Press on this subject and as I was speaking I realised that I really couldn't think of many arguments for Brown not to hold an autumn election.
Is there any aspect of reality that cannot be shrugged off by those determined to fuel this silly season drive for an election to write about?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Guardian's Love Letter to Brown the Internationalist

One of the things you miss from looking at papers on the internet is the overall effect that the composition of a page of news has on the reader. So it is today with page 4 of today's Guardian. Here is a picture of it:

Of course, one cannot see from this the content of the stories, which are:

UN vote backs Brown's call for action to end Darfur conflict (the picture is of my copy, which is a second edition and has presumably been updated for the final one)
PM recruits world leaders to Africa aid emergency
Charities criticise fall in bilateral payments

Of these, the latter is not so favourable, and is therefore left to languish down at the bottom of the page. Overall, loosely categorising the page into being for or against the notion that Gordon Brown has left the international diplomacy scene generally reeling in the wake of his thrusting efforts on behalf of the world's poor and suffering, we could characterise the page as follows:

(I have made the picture "pro" because Brown looks very statesmanlike and is stood near a big union jack.) Later on, today's star comment piece is Jonathan Freedland's "More bulldog than poodle, Brown has signalled a new special relationship".

We are to believe that Gordon Brown has jetted off to the US, had a "full and frank" discussion with President Bush, secured Britain's right to withdraw from Iraq before the US, twisted Bush's arm into signing up to his resolution on Darfur as well as signing on to his declaration on the Millennium Development Goals, before sweeping by the senate to keep them on board, finally pitching up at the UN to knock the world's collective head's together in support of the initiative he "hammered out" with President Sarko not two weeks before, all before swooping off home without even waiting to hear the result of the vote, so confident was he of the result (it was unanimous, you will be glad to hear). Perhaps he wrestled a bear when he got home, too.

Am I the only person who thinks this not a little bit overspun? Well, lets take a look at the other papers: The Times is notably cooler, taking a full 3 paragraphs before it mentions Brown in its report. The Indy is probably the fairest in its assesment of Brown's role in the matter. The Telegraph is... stultifyingly boring about the whole thing.

Of course, you might say that our national serious press has its own political agenda on Brown, and you might be right. So lets look further afield. The Washington post doesn't mention Brown at all, and includes the interesting paragraph:
The Security Council vote ended months of negotiations led by Britain, France and the United States and involving China, Russia and Sudan. The Sudanese U.N. envoy spent much of the weekend editing the text at the British mission to the United Nations.
Months, eh? How long has Brown been here again?

The New York Times gets 450 words in before it mentions him or Britain. The LA Times is similar. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung gives them hardly a mention (enjoy Google Translate's bizarre attempts with some of these, by the way). Die Welt gives them no mention at all. El Pais, El Mundo, Le Monde, The Australian, al Jazeera, are all similar. Most, if they mention Britain or Brown at all, do so only to quote Brown's threat that "I and others will redouble our efforts to impose further sanctions" if Khartoum don't behave themselves.

But no, the Guardian tells us this is "Gordon Brown's first foreign policy victory". Now, generally, I quite like the Guardian. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that when it comes to getting on board with somebody's political spin, there are few more ready to do so when it suits them. A few months ago, it was moving heaven and earth to tear Brown down. Today, Brown was some sort of international superhero.