Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Dr Who Misguidedly Endorsed by Templeton Foundation

I was intrigued to read on that an episode of Doctor Who has been shortlisted for the Epiphany Prize, an award which is presented at the Movieguide Awards, a "faith and values awards gala", and which, according to its website,
"endeavor[s] to encourage the production of feature films and television programs which are wholesome, uplifting and inspirational and which result in a great increase in either man’s love of God or man’s understanding of God. These Prizes are intended to encourage spiritual wisdom, knowledge and growth."
Now, Who has always seemed to me a pretty staunchly rationalist, humanist programme. What could they have possibly found in it to support this set of criteria?

The episode in question is Gridlock. The one with the people in little boxy hover cars, who've all been stuck in traffic for years, feeding gas-dependent crabs (Macra) off their fumes. What, I asked myself, was going to "result in a great increase in either man’s love of God or man’s understanding of God" in that?

Unfortunately, the website doesn't give any explanation of their decision. But I'm pretty sure that the Templeton Prize people must have nominated this episode on the grounds that there's a couple of quite moving hymn scenes in it ("The Old Rugged Cross", and "Abide With Me", according to Wikipedia).

So are they right to see a religious message in this? Not if the writer has anything to do with it. After all, this is the man who wrote The Second Coming. If you listen to the podcast commentary for the episode on the BBC website, then you will hear the following exchange:
Russell T Davies: It's a very Doctor Who thing, this. It's easy to write dystopia, and I remember when I first thought of this, thinking 'oh, there'll be cannibals, and pirates, and they'll all be eating each other', and you think those things only in order to get rid of them, and come out the other end at what is a very Doctor Who story, and what I absolutely love about this is that they're not all killing each other in these cars. And they live like this, and they survive, and they have hope, and they have optimism, and that's why they end up singing a hymn: because.. um.. I think it's very human. I think in the most appalling circumstances, people will.. well, they're [Ardal O'Hanlon's cat character and his wife] breeding, in a funny way they're happy, they're.. um.. like.. you could also argue that's their greatest downfall, that they don't try to get out of their world.

David Tennant: And that's what's complicated about that moment, which I think is why it works, because on one hand there's a wonderful kind of sense of community going on -

RTD: Yes.

DT: - Which gives you.. belief in the human spirit and warms the cockles of your heart. At the other side, it's an opiate of the masses -

RTD: Yes.

DT: - And I remember we talked about... cuz I think originally.. the original stage direction was that the Doctor was moved by this, along with everybody else -

RTD: Towards Valerie -

DT: Right.

RTD: - because he was so rude to her.

DT: Yes.

RTD: You know, he'd actually upset her.

DT: Yes. And I remember we talked about whether that was right or not, and actually -

RTD: No, you were right, because there was a stage direction just saying 'he puts his hand on her shoulder during the hymn'. And you brilliantly didn't want to -

DT: Right.

RTD: - I absolutely agree now I watch it, because actually you're right, this faith that they all have is brilliant, and stops them all murdering each other, and is fantastic. Equally it stops anyone saying 'What the hell is going on here?', and that's.. the... next.. er.. the hymn does change everyone; it makes Martha part of the world, and she joins in singing, it makes you - the Doctor - break the world, and start jumping from.. and defying the laws of physics, and all the laws of gravity of the world, by going from car to car to car. Which noone's ever thought of doing -

DT: Mmm.

RTD: - so.. yes, it has both things happening in opposite directions at the same time.

DT: It's very moving though, as well.

RTD: Look at them.

DT: I do think it's a brilliant bit of writing, though, to put him.. Doctor Who, seven o'clock on a Saturday night, and to use it in this way.

RTD: I hope so. Good.

DT: I can't imagine anyone else would think of that, and I think it's a stroke of genius, I really do.

RTD: Oh thank you. You should have been my neighbours, cuz I bought this CD of Welsh Male Voice Choir, and when I'm writing it, when there's a piece of music that goes with a scene, I have to keep repeating it and repeating it; I must have had The Old Ragged Cross coming out of my house about a thousand times, and they're going 'I knew he'd turn! Knew they'd get him in the end!'


RTD: But there it is: The Doctor's inspiration goes the opposite way.
Now, note a couple of things.

1. The series typically encourages us to identify with the companion as a representation of what we might do in that situation. It encourages us to view the Doctor as correct, except on very rare occasions. In The Unquiet Dead, it is the Doctor who takes the pro-asylum seeker stance in the face of Rose's cultural objections. In The Silurians (just out on DVD, and a treat it is too, folks), the Doctor holds the moral high ground in holding out for peace in the face of increasing hostility from both the "monsters" and from UNIT. One could go on. The point is, the Doctor's judgment is the one we are almost always supposed to accept.

2. The reasons that Davies and Tennant give here for why the hymn might signify a good thing as well as a bad one are the kind of arguments which atheist apologetics for religion employ. Neither the good thing nor the bad thing about the hymn, in their eyes, is based on the actual existence of God.

Still, hymns, eh?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

GMTV Sunday

What the hell is the point of a programme that goes out at 6.10am on a Sunday? Who exactly can watch this? And why is there no facility to watch it again on the internet (certainly not one I can find after 5 minutes of Googling)?

I really don't see why politicians would want to go on it. Almost nobody sees the interviews, the only things which ever make the news are the bits the press decides are newsworthy. And since nobody (to a first approximation) really saw the original interview, they are free to take it as out of context as they want.

This must be the most influential programme for insomniacs ever made.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Lion and The Unicorn: Gladstone vs. Disraeli

I have just finished reading Richard Aldous's book The Lion and The Unicorn: Gladstone vs. Disraeli. I thought readers of the aggregator might be interested, so here are some comments.

Generally, the book is pretty good, although I would have to admit that, since it is the only book I have read on the subject, I have little to compare it to. Aldous has an easy style which kept me reading during term time (no easy feat, and one which many of my favourite authors have failed to accomplish before now). He likes to open his chapters with little novel-esque scenes to set up the action to follow, which mostly work quite nicely, although the novelty wears off by the end. On the whole, it's a good read, and well worth a look for anyone who, like me, knows comparatively little of their history.

Having said that, a few niggles. It seems to be slightly obsessed with the state of health of its protagonists, at the expense of perhaps more detail about their actual activities in parliament at the time. It came across to me (perhaps wrongly) as having a slightly pro-Disraeli bias. Aldous at times allows the very personal way in which he casts their story to make it sound as if he likes Disraeli better (probably a reasonable judgment, by the sounds of it), and consequently, as if he thinks Disraeli the greater figure. This is not helped in the least by the very cursory treatment which Gladstone's Prime Ministerial career post-Disraeli is given.

I understand that this is a book about the interplay between the two figures, not simply a history, but nevertheless, for someone who doesn't necessarily know the history of the two from anywhere else, I found it genuinely unsatisfying that the period from Disraeli's death in 1881 to Gladstone's in 1898 receives just 6 pages of epilogue, mostly concerned with Gladstone's funeral. After all, three of Glastone's four terms as PM (1868–74, 1880–85, 1886 and 1892–94) fall in this period, and the page or so devoted to discussion of this time can be summed up as carrying the message "oh, yeah, Gladstone was PM for 6 more years, but nothing very exciting happened, and his Reform Act wasn't as good as Disraeli's."

Nevertheless, this is a good piece of historical writing, and worth a look as a much easier way of understanding some of the political interplay that led to the formation of the Conservatives and Liberals out of the Whigs and Tories, and the era which followed, than trying to piece together articles on Wikipedia (the extent of my former understanding of 19th century politics).

Thursday, January 24, 2008

You know you're in trouble when... first read something that you could genuinely describe yourself as "disgusted" at. Not just your common or garden intellectual disapproval, but a genuine visceral reaction.

Well folks, today I hit that point, thanks to this story, tucked away on EducationGuardian:
Students will be "blackmailed" into holding identity cards in order to apply for student loans, the Tories have warned.

According to Home Office documents leaked to the Conservative party last night, those applying for student loans will be forced to hold identity cards to get the funding from 2010.

Anyone aged 16 or over will be expected to obtain a card - costing up to £100 - to open a bank account or apply for a student loan.

The document says: "We should issue ID cards to young people to assist them as they open their first bank account, take out a student loan, etc."

What is it about ID cards that gives Labour such a blind spot on this? They talk about a "voluntary phase", and no compulsion without further legislation, and then they immediately start cooking up schemes like this, which to my mind can only be described as fucking despicable. As NO2ID state:
This is less a phased introduction than a clandestine one. There is to be no choice.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Here, Mr. Dale!

Iain Dale's obsession with the Lib Dems continues today with an attempt to make Clegg look out of step with the party on the EU reform treaty (as long as for "party" you read "four bloggers"). He asks: "are there any LibDem bloggers at all who support their new leader's calamitous stand?" Well, on the condition that I don't accept the stance as calamitous at all (awkward, maybe), I would like to step forward.

Paul Walter has already put forward the best worded technical argument on this that I have heard (including from Ed Davey), and I don't intend to retread that particular strand of the case against a referendum. If you haven't read Paul's post, read it, and then add the rest of my post to it, to achieve a full appreciation of my point of view.

My main reason for disliking the idea of a referendum is that it just seems like a really stupid way to work our membership of the EU. When these documents get put together, years are spent by our (constitutionally) elected representatives hammering out the clauses they want and those they don't. There are now 27 countries in the EU, and they all have their own positions. It's a long and drawn out process. Nonetheless, if we believe there is merit in membership of the EU at all, then it is a worthwhile one, and any treaty that makes the EU work better is worth negotiating.

Once all this stuff is put together, right at the end of the process of wrangling that has formed this constitution, its final step before being passed into law is for each country to ratify it. And this is the stage when it is appropriate for the British people (or the people of any other country, for that matter) to have their say?

Think of it this way. You commission an architect to design a building for you, on the basis of your brief for what it must do. They then go away, and get the building's design accepted by your neighbours, which involves the odd compromise on one or two points. They have to change one or two building materials to comply with environmental regulation (quite right too!). They draw up a design. At the end of it all, they stand back and say "There you are, it may not be exactly what you wanted, but we did our best. You can now either accept the job we've done, or tear it up."

What would be on offer to the public in a referendum on this treaty would not be a meaningful say on the treaty, it would be petulance. If we want to be in the EU, we have to accept that treaties must be negotiated, and must inherantly be compromises. If we don't like what they come out with, we should not derail the process for the rest of the nations who are quite happy with the way it is going. There is no point in sending them back to the drawing board, we are unlikely to get anything better back if we do. If we don't like it, we should leave the EU.

And that is why the referendum the Lib Dems are proposing is the only sensible one to be offered. Referenda are always blunt instruments, and the idea that a referendum is the appropriate instrument with which the British public should express a view on something like the contents of the EU reform treaty is barking. Not when we have already had, for some time now, a much more sensible instrument with which to do so: a representative democracy. Nobody could argue that a party's position towards the EU was not a big issue in the minds of many when they elected the parties that they did.

(You might, of course, take issue with the way our representative democracy is organised. For instance, you might point out that the Tory party is not as outright anti-Europe as many of its MPs and supporters might like, and that as such, your only option for expressing an explicitly anti-EU stance is to vote for a party like UKIP with little chance of success. I know. Frustrating, isn't it? Why not vote for a party with a committment to change that, then.)

So lets not waylay the EU's progress any more. If the great British public are so set against the EU reform treaty, despite the government's having done their best to negotiate it in our interest (it is not in their interest to do otherwise, surely?), then lets take the opportunity to leave them all to it. But lets not insist on remaining in the EU, sending them back to the drawing board with every attempt they make to reform the EU. And if we entertain the notion that actually, given an in or out vote, the majority would vote to stay in the EU, then can we also accept that membership of the EU entails a committment to compromise and due process, and that referenda are wholly inappropriate to that process?

When we passed Maastricht, there was a case for a referendum. When we entered the EC, there certainly was. And there is a case now for a referendum. And it is the one the Lib Dems are offering. But I just don't see that it is in any way helpful to have a referendum on the reform treaty. Once we accept that we want to be members of something called "the European Union", and that we do not want to be the only members of it, then we no longer have the right to expect it to be everything we might want. It belongs to other people as well. If, on balance, we don't like it, we should get out of it.

And that is why what Nick Clegg has done is eminently sensible.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Sun's editor talks to HoL Communications Committee

As Baronness Scott mentions on her new blog, Rebekkah Wade, editor of the Sun, recently talked to the House of Lords select committee on communications, which asked a few interesting questions about the political stance of the Sun and who sets it. There is not yet a written transcript of their exchange, but here is a video of it, which the committee's homepage has made available:

She states that her views are well known to Murdoch, and that they are very much involved in why she was appointed:
Wade: I've worked for Mr. Murdoch since I was.. um, well, for 18 years, and 12 of those years, I've either been an editor or a deputy editor, so I think it would be fair to say that before any appointment, you know, he knew me pretty well - any senior appointment. Erm... In that way he would be aware of my views, both social views, cultural views and political views.
What stood out for me, though, was just how much she visibly virulently dislikes the Lib Dems. Twice in the following exchange she goes out of her way to make digs at the Lib Dems, and she makes it quite clear by omission that in the 2005 election she had no intention of giving fair coverage to the Lib Dems:
Chair: When it comes to an election, who decides who you'll support, is it Mr. Murdoch or is it you?

Wade: Well, if I can.. I've been editor for a couple of elections, but if you take the 2005, where the Sun in the end backed Tony Blair, famously with the Vatican chimney on the top of Wapping and we announced that there'd be blue or red smoke - I can't remember whether we had any yellow smoke even ready but anyway... sorry, apologies to the Lib Dems...


In the run-up to the election, I was very careful to give, um, the Labour party and the Conservative party equal opportunity to show their wares, so to speak, in the Sun, so Sun readers could make up their own mind, seeing, you know, very fair coverage of both sets of policies. In the end however... I would.. I talked to.. I did talk to Mr. Murdoch, of course; I mean, Mr. Murdoch is a lifelong newspaper man, he's also lived through political change, both here and in America and Ausralia, his advice is always exemplary and... and good, but at the same time I also spent a lot of time talking to Trevor Kavanagh, who was the political editor at the time, and his deputy at the time George Pascoe-Watson, who has now taken that role, and Les Hinton, erm, our exectuive chairman. You know, I.. I.. the way I edit the paper, I do seek advice and I.. I think I'm actually very lucky to have a traditional proprietor like Mr. Murdoch, and.. and that was.. coupled with I've always had Les Hinton there as well, who as you know was a journalist. So.. yes I.. yes I do seek advice from them, and yes it is a.. um.. a consensus... issue, but... I... wanted to back Tony Blair, I voted for him, and, er... that's what happened.

Chair: But when, I mean, when it comes to it, I mean cutting through all that, I mean when it comes to it, if Mr. Murdoch said, in your editorship, um, you will back Labour or you will back Conservatives, that's actually what you'd do?

Wade: If Mr. Murdoch told me to back the Lib Dems I'd resign. Em.. I can't imagine that he would.

Chair: I think we're probably agreed on that.

Wade: Um.. sorry, Lib Dems... I'm going to be nice about the Lib Dems a bit more later on.
Well, I'm still making my way through the video, but I'm yet to find the promised bit of being nice to us. But what I find interesting about the bits quoted above is just how obvious in her body language and tone of voice her dislike of our party is. It clearly goes far beyond a simple intellectual disagreement. I wonder why?

I can't really be arsed to type out any more of their exchanges, but it's notable in the exchange above and in plenty of other answers she give that she is very conscious of exactly how she portrays her relationship with Murdoch. I have included in my transcript a lot of her hesitations and rephrasings, not because I want to make her seem stupid, but to emphasize those points where she is being especially careful about what she is saying. Uniformly, she is incredibly careful not to suggest areas of policy input from Murdoch, even when directly asked for an example of a disagreement she has had with Murdoch; on that occasion, she makes a very awkward and transparent attempt to make the whole thing into a joke about the relative seriousness of reality TV programmes.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Real News

Avid followers of the bits of furniture in my sidebar may have, at some point, clicked on my link to the Real News. If so, they may have looked and thought "huh... not a lot to see here". Which at the time was true. However, lately, the site has really hit its stride, so I have added to my sidebar their blog applet for playing their videos. I do hope people make use of it, or go look at the full site from time to time.

While I'm here, a word about the Real News. Those with keen memories (and socks to match) may remember this report in the Guardian. It was set up under the name Independent World Television, as an effort to create a source of TV-style news that was neither government nor corporate funded. It is funded by subscriptions from anyone who wishes to help them. As such, it is a great liberal project (although I'm not quite ready to start calling for the license fee to be done away with just yet).

Originally, their stated aim was to build their operation steadily until they had a nightly news programme of an hour in length, and go from there. They may or may not be still aiming for that, but currently the stage they are at is more that of adding maybe two or three videos a day to the site, a rate that has been steadily increasing for the last couple of months. Who knows where they may be this time next year. Anyway, having been keeping an eye on them for a while, I think they have now reached the stage where drawing attention to them might genuinely achieve a few results. So that's what I'm doing!

I think some of what they are doing is really worthwhile, so I have been donating £5 a month. If the project doesn't grow any further, I may stop, but as of right now I think it has enormous potential. Internet journalism has been crying out for a newsgathering operation run on a model like this for some time. Lets face it, bloggers can't make a living doing just that (well, most of us can't), and so there's always going to be a limit to the valuable journalism that comes out of the internet that way. This seems like a very natural direction for news media to move in online. Now they just need to stop analysing news that would be reported anyway, and start really breaking a few stories. That's always going to be a tough step.

Anyway, I leave you with this, I think possibly the most interesting video they have so far produced.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Nick Clegg's Speech

Tom Papworth has posted a forthright message of support for the choice side of the "Choice vs. One Good Local Service" debate. Jonathan Calder reckons that "Nick's speech at the weekend has gone down [very well with] the party (to judge by Lib Dem bloggers, at least)". Paul Walter will no doubt be adding me shortly to his extensive trek through the coverage that the thing has so far generated.

Actually, what I really want to talk about is the first of those. I was surprised to see that I agreed with a good deal of Tom Papworth's post. But what I would like to pick up on is the following sentence:
Choice is too often seen as a Trojan Horse for privatization, but that is a lie spread by those for whom individual as opposed to collective solutions are anathema. Real choice may very well be private, but it just as equally may be public, voluntary, charity, religious, co-operative, self-help or any of a host of other possibilities.
My problem is not with the presence of this pair of sentences in Tom's post. It is with their absence from Nick Clegg's speech. The problem is,
“the state must oversee core standards and entitlements. But once those building blocks are in place, the state must back off and allow the genius of grassroots innovation, diversity and experimentation to take off”
does sound like some kind of bizarre bit of Tory trojan-horsery coated in Lib Dem custard. The press in this country are at best thick, and at worst going to take everything we say in as unhelpful a way as they can find. We know this already. So why are we not at least reaching out to the former constituency amongst them by spelling out, as Tom did, why this is not just about privatising?

I know the Lib Dem Blogs have broadly gone with this speech. But people in the Clegg inner circle would be silly to imagine that there isn't a sizeable group within the Lib Dems who this will be making feel slightly awkward. And they needn't feel slightly awkward. I am as much of a social liberal as anyone, but I am quite happy with this policy provided that we make it as explicit as possible that we don't mean simply privatising the provision of education.

So why not follow this speech up with some announcements on new bits of policy window-dressing to make it easier for local communities to start up co-operatives for this purpose. (I know Cameron did this not so long ago, but if ever there were a bit of territory which we surely have a natural claim to, co-operatives are it.) We need to make some noise about something a little bit more specific than "the genius of innovation" which we want to see in the place of a central, state controlled service, otherwise people will simply fill in the blanks with their own personal nightmare. As Tom points out,
(The point of choice - and competition, and markets, and all those other scary things that cause Social Democratic stomachs to knot in fear - is that it is the most effective driver in improving standards.)
a lot of this isn't about a fully formed articulate opposition to choice, it is about fear. And I'm not going to say there's nothing to be afraid of, because there is, and it's called Thatcherism. We need to make it more obvious that that's not what we're about.

New Hampshire: Not Over Yet?

I haven't seen much discussion of this in the British press (or indeed in the mainstream US press), but it's an interesting story.

In the aftermath of New Hampshire, the press and the pollsters were falling over themselves to announce that the people of the state had managed to flummox them. It was women! It was veiled racism! It was the large proportion of swing voters who only made their minds up in the booth! (That one, by the way, seems especially dubious since the exit polls showed the same supposed lead for Obama.) It was Hillary's crying!

A few people, however, had a different thought. Exit polls showing a vote one way, the count going the other. Rings a bell. Might it be worth investigating further? After all, 81% of New Hampshire's ballots were counted using Diebold's dodgy optical scan counting machines, not by hand. Of course, nobody has any evidence of any wrongdoing, but still, looks interesting, no?

Well certainly Dennis Kucinich (everyone's favourite Genuine Lefty Democrat) thought so, and he has requested a recount, together with an unheard of Republican candidate, Albert Howard. Many sources in the MSM are busy snorting derision at Kucinich; the Telegraph's coverage of this issue has stretched as far as this item in their campaign diary:

Eternal optimist

The anti-war Democrat Dennis Kucinich's less than emphatic 1.4 per cent return in the New Hampshire primary did not stop him demanding a recount, citing "serious and credible reports, allegations, and rumours" about voting irregularities. However, Kucinich needs a miracle, not a recount.

As Kucinich has made clear, he doesn't expect to change his position much from this - after all, the exit polls predicted more or less perfectly the results for all the candidates apart from Clinton and Obama. His press release said:
Democratic Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich ... has sent a letter to the New Hampshire Secretary of State asking for a recount of Tuesday’s election because of “unexplained disparities between hand-counted ballots and machine-counted ballots.”

“I am not making this request in the expectation that a recount will significantly affect the number of votes that were cast on my behalf,” Kucinich stressed ... but, “Serious and credible reports, allegations, and rumors have surfaced in the past few days…It is imperative that these questions be addressed in the interest of public confidence in the integrity of the election process and the election machinery – not just in New Hampshire, but in every other state that conducts a primary election.”


He added, “Ever since the 2000 election – and even before – the American people have been losing faith in the belief that their votes were actually counted. This recount isn’t about who won 39% of 36% or even 1%. It’s about establishing whether 100% of the voters had 100% of their votes counted exactly the way they cast them.”
I think he's absolutely right. Whether the machines are actually at fault or not, a lot of the US establishment seems pretty keen to have them rolled out ever more extensively, and it's not at all clear why. Is there anything seriously at fault with paper ballots counted by hand?

Anyway, his request has now been granted, (since at least there is a paper trail in this case - touchscreen voting machines, being introduced elsewhere, would have left no meaningful backup option) and the count will be going ahead, albeit after a frustrating delay; according to Huffington Post:
The recounts will begin on January 16, at a time and location to be announced after the state has completed an estimate of the cost and received payment based on that estimate.
The Huffington Post article is a good one, actually, although they take a rather cooler line on the whole thing, pointing out that the kind of discrepancy between hand-counted and machine-counted areas seen in the 2008 vote has also been seen in the previous primaries to have used machine counting. And that may well be the case, and it may simply reflect the demographics of the areas. But the point is that machines which have been shown to be very open to tampering are always going to leave a trail of questions, and hence erode trust in results that could well be perfectly valid. They need to go.

Paper ballots which people write their vote on are the most straightforward way of doing it, they have happened for hundreds of years, and if anyone feels there might be grounds for a recount, then one can be conducte easily. I know they're not perfect, but at least the process is transparent. At the end of the day, what's wrong with this is not any specific allegation of wrongdoing - none has been made. What's wrong is that elections are being left in the hands of a company whose CEO, in August 2003, announced that he had been a top fund-raiser for President George W. Bush and had sent a get-out-the-funds letter to Ohio Republicans saying he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year."

As Bill Maher (a lesser-known-in-the-UK talkshow host) points out...

... "only [Diebold] know for certain what went on in that primary".

ps. Note also, in that clip, Tony Snow's immediate attempt to cover for Diebold and move the conversation onto something entirely different, voter fraud - an obvious Republican cause, since it will be mostly poor voters likely not to have voter ID organised on the day.

More on concerns about voting machines from Dan Rather's rather good programme, available in its entirety here.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year

Apart from that, I would just like to draw people's attention to this, a rather more reactive and, dare I say it, blog-like posting from Loz Miles, about the Archbishop of Canterbury's last sermon of 2007:
Speaking out against "political correctness" during his final sermon of 2007, the Archbishop of Middlemarch has surprised Britain's Christians by inventing a completely made-up world on the spur of the moment.
Go read!