17 November 2010

Flights of fancy

A cuddly video viral has been doing the social media rounds, brought to you buy those chummy Flash Mob enthusiasts T-Mobile. About 4 friends have independently posted it to Facebook as an uplifting piece of work to general applause from others, leaving me genuinely bewildered at what I am missing. You probably need speakers for the full effect:

Of course this ad was never intended for broadcast but, instead, to be shared by friends across social media such as Facebook. As such it succeeds - it makes us feel warm, we share it with people we like who also feel warm. T-Mobile then prays it makes you feel warm towards them as the original sharer of this piece of feel-goodery, because Life Is For Sharing. So why does it leave me feeling utterly cold?

On one level, it's because it is the playing out of a nightmare. I cannot imagine anything worse, having gotten off a long-haul flight, jet-lagged and disoriented, staggered through customs and have someone come up to me singing songs in my face with imaginary instruments. In that situation I want to get out of the airport as quickly as possible, talking to as few people as possible. Contrary to what T-Mobile (and BA for that matter) would have us believe, airports are not places of high drama and emotion - they are large bus stations with better shops. Even if you are met by a long-missed friend, the whole atmosphere is weird and disorienting, too full of people you don't want to hang out with.

But as a piece of marketing, for me it also fails, by trying too hard. It is part of a very complex communications strategy to position T-Mobile as a social facilitator, presenting a piece of creative that is supposed to dovetail with the spontaneity of new media channels by choreographing a not-so-new product of the new digital age: the Flash Mob. This is supposed to look like User Generated Content, unleashing the spontaneous, touchy-feely-sharey person inside us in a situation where we don't communicate, on the heels of previous executions set in railways stations and outdoor public spaces, such as Trafalgar Square. It is utterly false, utterly contrived jolliness that sits ill with the British character, like TV Evangelism, public mourning and talking to strangers in a lift.

Beyond my personal squeamishness, it falls into that other classic trap of big-budget, high-concept advertising - it is in love with its own image. Creating something special, unique, beautiful, funny, frightening or exhilarating is not enough. I want you to give me a reason to use your product. Dramatise your uniqueness, your point of difference from the competition, make me give a shit about you. Life is not for sharing, Doritos are for sharing - you run a telephone network. What's it like? Good coverage? Value-for-money? Fast data-streaming? Flexible packages? Imaginative cross-platform linking or affiliate marketing programme? Do you sing to me in an airport? One of these things is not a USP - can you tell which one?

Worse, by losing sight of its proposition, it is setting up its customers for disappointment, lured by the myth of "Content". This is basically "stuff that makes people use your service" - content can be TV programmes, websites, downloads, updates, mash-ups, forums, anything that isn't a blank screen. By trying to align itself to what its customers do with each other via T-Mobile, rather than with T-Mobile, they lose sight of the most important thing to any mobile customer: good, reliable, fast network coverage. Have you ever tried to use a mobile phone at Heathrow airport? Or on a train? Or sometimes in the middle of central London outside the wrong building, and experienced "no signal"? Maybe if my message is that important, T-Mobile can organise a singing telegram to deliver it instead.

11 November 2010

What's yours is mine

The word 'arrogate' is not one you hear used regularly and even then not correctly. But a supreme example of it in action happened a couple of weeks back during the government's Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). Next to the distraction of proposed cuts to child benefit, the question of the budget of the BBC was always going to be an afterthought. But by freezing the licence fee for the next 6 years, the BBC is effectively being handed a 16% cut in real terms. In addition to these "stealth cuts", the corporation also agreed to absorb £340m that currently comes out of general taxation to pay for The World Service, S4C and BBC Monitoring.

Even at its double-counting best, the previous government never quite had the chutzpah to arrogate the BBC licence fee as part of Whitehall spending. But the licence fee that users like you and I pay has now been co-opted into deficit reduction, as part of Gideon's "you're all in this together" blitz spirit. At a time when more of us will be spending more time in front of the TV than ever, as the cuts and tax rises reduce our opportunities to go out, it's as though it's been decided that even programme quality must suffer its fair share too.

People outside the UK must look on with a sense of bafflement as to how the BBC is funded. A poll tax upon all owners of a television pays for 8 TV channels, 11 national radio stations, 24-hour rolling news coverage, a network of local radio and a comprehensive website. The breadth and depth, not to say quality, of its output is extraordinary by any standards, and the funding model, whose collectivism is a relic from a bygone era, confounds conventional thinking about the power of free markets to satisfy demands. Like the NHS, it is a national treasure whose idiosyncrasies should doom it to failure, yet as a representation of who we are as a nation, it is more emblematic, I would argue, than the Union flag itself.

More baffling to me is everyone's apparent willingness to accept these cuts. The inherent weakness of the BBC's position is the fact it cannot set the licence fee itself, but rather must curry favour with the government of the day, in order to secure its future. The speed at which this deal was done caught many by surprise, and prompted a lot of use of the word "challenging", maybe before they had time to say "wait a minute...". Conscious of not wanting to be seen as being out of touch with the public mood, the BBC has grabbed the lifeline of another 6 years of licence fee, barely pausing to consider the political implications of the quid pro quo. They are Audley Harrison to the Chancellor's David Haye.

The FCO always funded the World Service, because it recognised the political nature of its work, and how ridiculous it would be to ask British TV viewers to pay for its outreach programme. But for all the good the World Service undoubtedly does, surely the next logical place to put its funding would be into the ring-fenced Overseas Development Budget. Why is it any more politically palatable for my licence fee to pay for this service now than it was 10 years ago? Especially at a time when its core operating budget is facing cuts that will affect output. Likewise, is there no part of the Welsh office that could pay for S4C? What could be more important to the people of Wales than a TV station in their own language? Or, if it isn't that important to them, then cut it adrift and see if it can attract any EU money for spurious cultural preservation programmes.

We will be forced to pay above inflation price increases for everything from train fares to toilet seats over the next few years, for no extra increase in quality. Yet the one area where an increase in quality would have a positive impact on people at all points on the socio-economic spectrum will be beggared by a government packed with a privatiser's ulterior motive. Today the same government announced they wanted to measure the success of their policies by taking a sample of people's happiness (story here). I'd suggest the first thing they could do would be let the BBC do what it does best with both hands free.

12 October 2010

Hire Education

As the apologists from the coalition government reeled from the left hook of cutting Child Benefit, they were crunched across the nose, metaphorically speaking, by the right jab of unlimited University tuition fees. Not least because Lib Dems had made a pre-election song-and-dance about not increasing fees, in the unlikely event of them achieving government. Just another of the messy compromises made in fulfilling the coupling of government, and surely the biggest lesson in being careful what you wish for. Another notch on the bedposts of a hungover political party.

For those who may have missed the tuition fee hike proposal, it marks the latest attempt to open up education to everyone by making it affordable by no-one, except perhaps Chancellor Osborne’s personal trust fund. Parents can now enjoy the prospect of helping their children pay £10,000 a year not to attend lectures. Since this represents about the same cost of schooling at Osborne’s alma mater for one year, I’m sure Gideon considers this a perfectly reasonable sum to find. You don’t have to be heir to the 17th Baronet Osborne to afford it, but it sure as heck helps.

The hoary old argument wheeled out every time this subject comes up is essentially reduced to money. Graduates, taken as an average, earn more than non-graduates, ergo they should pay for their golden ticket before they've even got a job. QED. Leaving aside the rather un-Thatcherite nature of this approach – where’s the incentive to earn more if the government will only take it off them in fees? – this argument seems to me to have two key flaws.

First, there is the paradox of wider university uptake. The reason we need to pay more is because more people are coming into the system. This is undoubtedly true, as more professions demand a degree as an entry requirement: social workers, nurses, teachers – all once could attain their chosen vocation through on-the-job training and night school qualifications. No more – it’s the full three years if you want to do any of those jobs. Before long English graduates will be competing for those jobs in McDonald’s with undergraduate BScs in Burger Rotation Management. As you widen the pool of potential professions that require a degree, you drag down the average earnings of graduates – for how long will the statement remain true that a degree is the meal ticket to top tax bracket earnings? Before long you’ll need one just to sign on.

Second, let’s assume it is true – graduates earn more money. What an outrage. Those selfish, self-bettering, hard-working, economy-powering bastards, who do they think they are? Doctors pushing themselves through 7 years of medical school to spend their days just making people better, and all to earn more money. Those sponging parasite engineers who build the technology that drives the economy – scumbags the lot of them. I’m shocked to think that while we train a new generation of minds to solve tomorrow’s problems and make our lives better, they might earn money doing so. They should do it for nothing and be grateful we let them get drunk for 3 years.

The one way of testing out a direct link between earnings and your degree, of course, would be a graduate tax, something the government has ruled out. While fees remain the financial driver, the best universities will charge the most, attracting those who can best pay in the short-term, not through their lifetime earnings, based upon their contribution to the common wheel. The new level playing fields of Eton.

11 October 2010

Let them drink gin

The rumpus over Child Benefit that threatened to wake up the dozing pensioners at last week’s Conservative Party conference has proved what a tricky subject the issue of cuts can be. Far from dividing along the line of traditional political allegiance, Chancellor Gideon “George” Osborne found himself at odds with the Daily Mail, which lined up with the Labour party. The phrase "curious bedfellows" has not been applied so truly since Lyle Lovett married Julia Roberts.

At first glance it is easy to see why there was agitation in the ranks. A primary school class of children could point out the iniquities in a proposal that posited a household with one income of £44,000 might merit no support, whilst another couple earning £86k could claim full benefit entitlement.

An interesting debate raged across the various media platforms that was far more complex than the usual name calling; many recognise the daftness of paying child benefit to someone earning, say, £100,000 a year, but how far down the cutoff point should be largely depends on how far south you live, how much your mortgage payments are, and whether you judge a foreign holiday to be a luxury or human right. Still more, the culture secretary, of all people, perhaps unwisely mused that there should be a cap on benefits paid to large families who continue to reproduce, though no mention of how this would be enforced. In turn, childless couples would then vent that, in fact, they were the biggest victims of a taxation system that seeks to rob them in order to pay to raise the offspring of the sexually incontinent.

Given that only 15% of the country pays the top rate of tax (the point at which Giddy proposes to cut off the award), it is possible that the issue excites more attention from journalists personally affected, rather than an accurate spread of their constituency. Nevertheless, speaking as a parent, I would say the government should look on child benefit as an expression of good manners. A tip, or the equivalent of taking a bottle around to someone’s house for dinner. It’s not something that would cover the costs of child rearing and nor is it intended to be. Consider, for example, if I were to abandon my children, throw them upon the mercy of the state. No matter the punishment levied upon me for doing so, the cost burden would fall squarely on the shoulders of the taxpayer, and for a lot more than 20 quid a week. Child benefit is like the state shoving a score in my top pocket and saying “go on, get yourself something nice in town, you deserve it”. It is tacit recognition that, as lovely as children often are, they are also a responsibility paid for, in large part, by the parents for the ultimate fiscal reward of the state – as they grow into tax-paying citizens (we hope).

It is surely no coincidence that the amount of Child Benefit has always roughly been the monetary equivalent of a bottle of gin (I’d argue it should be index linked to it). Because after a trying weekend of childcare, it’s surely every parent’s right to a gin and tonic on the government. Cheap at half the price.

28 September 2010

Let them eat dinosaurs

As the public sector cuts start to bite, David Cameron took a mouthful out of one of the juiciest pieces of political pork this week: the quangoes. Or at least according to the leaked memo that appeared in the Daily Telegraph. As pieces of political calculation go, it was a no-brainer: many of these bodies are completely unknown to the wider general public, and will be mourned by even fewer. After all, who will miss the Union Modernisation Advisory Board?

As the cuts go deeper, this issue of the perception of their importance, rather than actual importance, becomes more, well, important, in order to sell the idea of austerity to those footing the bill. The Advisory Committee of Organic Standards probably does a lot of important work that will now need to be done by someone else. But it doesn't seem as bad as putting a red line through, say, the Civil Aviation Authority, whose job it is to keep planes in the sky.

But not all quangoes are damned or saved in David's Dantesque underworld; 94 bodies still sit in limbo, neither safe from oblivion nor doomed to disbandment. The government must pick through this collection of committees and panels to decide which ones are still worthy of the public purse and which can go swing. One of those organisations still awaiting news of its fate is something called National Museums & Galleries. Not something that would rank highly in people's minds as of great importance, at least not at the expense of NHS funding. Yet I think it's bodies such as NMG that are the key to the whole acceptance of cuts by the electorate. Or, more specifically, the non tax-avoiding, law-abiding, always-voting middle class.

One of the things the NMG's funding does is pay for free entry into public museums, one of the few great socialist legacies of the Blair years. For the 'squeezed middle'. who will pay the most for the follies of bankers in terms of money (rather than in cut services), the free entry to museums is something to cling to. For a trip up to London with children, just existing seems to cost a lot of money, but free entry into museums makes the trip financially viable, stimulates the economy and reassures people that they still get something back for their taxes. It's proof, however small, that taxation is not a massive black hole that they throw an increasing percentage of their earnings into. It's one of the few times that people who will never trouble social services can actually see money moving in the opposite direction.

It also illustrates one of the differences between household budgeting and national budgeting. When I was unemployed, I took a look at those expenses I could do without and those areas where I could reduce expenditure, and made the adjustments accordingly. For governments the task is, instead, to reduce expenditure where it impacts the least upon those people most likely to vote for them, which doesn't always make for common sense. I'd suggest that for the present Prime Minister cutting the NMG might be the sort of tipping point that makes or breaks his government. I'm off to the British Museum on Friday, and I am pretty confident that I won't have to pay to get in. At least not directly.

12 September 2010

Man doesn't bite dog

I'm not sure of the exact dictionary definition of the word "news" but I reckon, if forced, I'd say it was something to do with things that happen. If you watch a news broadcast or read a newspaper, the common elements to all the stories is the fact that they are generally things that have happened - legislation passed, bombs dropped or footballers falling out of a nightclub. Clearly there are a lot things that happen in the world, and it's the news's job to figure out which ones to report.

If I can stretch to another reasonably obvious thing, I'd underline this point by stating that America is quite a big country where, it stands to reason, a lot of things happen, ergo a lot of news happens. And yet this week, the news agenda has been dominated by something that hasn't happened, which is unusual to say the least. The something in this case is two hundred copies of The Koran, and the thing that hasn't happened to them is being set on fire - at least not in Gainsville, Florida. The pastor of the most ironically named church in the world, the Dove Outreach Centre, Terry Jones (no, not that one) cancelled the event - which he later clarified as, actually, postponing it, lest his sordid little publicity machine be starved of the oxygen it is thriving on.

This non-event has seemed to spark some very real events - riots in Muslim countries, which, given the resulting destruction occurred in what are some of the poorest parts of the world, rather than Terry Jones's doorstep, was rather self-defeating. It certainly made me think that, if that was what happened when you didn't burn a Koran, what forces would erupt if you did? Jones claims he stayed his hand because of assurance given him by a New York Imam that the Ground Zero Mosque would be moved - an undertaking the Imam has denied giving. Given the fact it isn't a mosque and it isn't at Ground Zero, this somehow seems in keeping with the rest of the non-story.

In fact, the only thing that has actually happened in the whole of this saga, is the global news media has reported it as a story, even if its elements are no more substantial than smoke. The reportage makes it real, not the events that haven't happened. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that, in the cut-throat competition for news stories to fill the rolling news schedules and acres of print and pixelled pages, hacks will turn from the real to the imagined. After all, to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, however many things happen in the world, there are vastly more things that don't happen.

11 July 2010

Seeing the redwoods for the trees

I was reading John Redwood's blog the other day - not something I am proud of, but it was one of the many random feeds I get via Twitter, following UK politics. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, Mr Redwood was one of the swivel-eyed acolytes of what became known as Thatcherism, who has rested on his laurels of being a businessman ever since being elected to the cushiest public sector job in the land, as MP for Wokingham, some 23 years ago. What caught my eye was his column on public sector cuts, and his view of the heroic stoicism with which the private sector has borne the recession, as opposed to the mewling and puking he perceives within the public sector as Osborne's austerity budget begins to bite.

John begins his story thus:

In 2008-9 many private sector companies faced declines in their revenue of 25% or more. This was all far more horrific than the cash figures for the public sector this year and next. I do not recall these companies appearing in the media telling us they would have to take lumps out of their service to customers, identifying in public ways they could make their service or product worse, or proposing strikes to complain about the loss of public revenue support.

Instead they got on with the difficult but essential task of bringing costs down to meet the reduced revenue. Managers and workers worked together to reduce stocks, cut costs without damaging customer service, accepted pay freezes or even cuts in remuneration for the bad times, lost pension benefits and bonuses, negotiated cheaper purchases from suppliers. They often also at the same time worked on how they could improve their service or product for customers.

Speaking as someone who went through that painful process, I can identify one very significant cost reduction that John seems to have euphemistically skipped over, and not one that people did willingly or voluntarily. What he might call a total "cut in remuneration", as the ranks of the unemployed swelled, putting pressure onto the already contracting public sector. Which is, of course, a rise in demand for their "service or product".

Which is where John's tidy analogy breaks down, because the public sector receives highest demands for its services at exactly the times when there is less money to pay for it. In fact, given the enormous expansion in responsibilities local government has absorbed over the last 15 years, despite being at the mercy of central government for 75% of its revenue, most of the work of the front line delivery of public services is doing exactly what Mr Redwood challenges them to do: improving the service they provide while getting less money to do it with.

The huge contraction in the UK economy was down to an enormous reduction in demand, following the banking crisis. The total opposite to what local government is struggling to cope with as greater demands are placed upon its services; I do remember sitting in an office when the phone stopped ringing, not something I can imagine they have seen happening at the Social Services offices up and down the land.

05 July 2010

I predict a riot

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, not only can we no longer afford to die beyond our means, it would seem any form of demand we place upon health or welfare services in the next few years is likely to end in an unhappy user experience. That is if we are to believe the government's projected plans for spending cuts, which seem to change on a weekly basis. Two weeks ago we were told there would be across-the-board cuts of 25%, now government departments must prepare for 40%. No doubt by the time you read this sentence, the coalition government's new website for the repeal of unhelpful legislation will abolished the laws of mathematics, allowing fiscal cuts of 150%.

The consequences of this, as has been much remarked elsewhere, not least by those wielding the axe, will not be pretty, with up to 1.5 million public sector workers finding themselves relieved of their ability to earn money. To balance this, George Osborne has promised on his mum's life that the private sector will leap into the breach to magic up 2.5 million other positions by way of compensation, like a fat-fingered, job-creating Dutch boy. Since such a scale of employment growth are unknown in even the boomiest of growth years, it doesn't so much beg the question as to how this will happen as grab it by the collar pressing a knife to its throat.

But when you put together the clues given by recent government policy announcements, the answer becomes clear: you're going to do it. Yes, you. Consider the newly-announced, misleadingly paradoxical Free Schools, where any Tom, Dick or Hermione with a bigger agenda than sense can set up his or her own school. Meanwhile, Ian Duncan Smith wants the Job Centres to be available for the distribution of Rwandan-style food parcels to the poor of this country; maybe we could combine the two, and get school children to grow food for the new starving to generate a wartime spirit and Dig For Victory? This is the Big Society at work or, should I say, at out-of-work. And here's where you come in.

Free Schools, Food Vouchers, growth of the third sector - it's all a bit piecemeal. And with attempts by the new government to tighten immigration from non-EU countries, it surely means it won't be enough to offer people the chance to run a school, job centre or orthopaedic surgery unit. Pretty soon we'll all be obliged to do so. As the rubbish fills the streets and the dead go unburied, everyone will be compelled to take a second job as road sweeper, social worker or Astronomer Royal to fill the gaps left by the collapse of local government under the Austerity Budget. We'll all be like a new immigrant class, with two jobs to hold down just to make sure there are enough people replacing the windows following the bread riots.

On the other hand, the extra money will come in handy to pay for all those tax rises.

14 June 2010

The Beautiful. Gamed.

As the World Cup commercial build-up finally gives way to the football, there's a danger we might be distracted by the sport from our primary duty of buying stuff because there is a football tournament happening. Mindful of this, Mars is suing Nestle for infringement, because it claims its commercials imply an official sponsorship of the England team, a role Mars presently holds. Interestingly, the (Adidas) boot was on the other foot four years ago, when Mars was sued for insinuating a commercial relationship with Team England where none existed.

Yet on the global stage, some of the World's biggest brands are doing the same thing with breathtaking chutzpah: Pepsi and Nike use their stable of Brand Ambassadors to create some of the biggest World Cup-related advertising, without needing to pay a penny to FIFA for the privilege, such is the power of their stars' image. But what irritates me about this is the culture of expectation this generates, which takes these ads beyond merely brand promotion, as though they are a part of the fabric of our culture. No longer a sideline to the main event, they herald it like John the Baptist, and are listened to almost as reverently - it's as though the World Cup isn't real until we have had the honour of being sold to by the mega corporations.

First out of the blocks this year was Nike, undercutting Adidas as official sponsor of the World Cup with a 3 minute 44 second piece of homage to the central role of commerce to the beautiful game (click here to see the full ad). Nike's nominal message "Write your future" comes over as "Write your cheque", as a parade of the world's biggest football stars play out a story of triumph, failure and redemption on a football field, whose actions ripple across the world and into their bank accounts. Apart from the technical prowess of the story telling, and multiple, shifting narratives juxtaposing the players' private battles with the national mental equilibrium back home, it tries to get inside the minds of the world's top footballers.

And what a place that is. Wayne Rooney (above), apparently, will chase down 60 yards of pitch, just to stop Frank Ribery getting his own poster campaign, and having to live in a trailer sporting an enormous beard. Ronaldinho hopes one day to be the inspiration for a QVC video best-seller. And as for Ronaldo - only the prospect of a 50-metre high platinum statue is going to make him hit that free kick into the top corner. Though in his case, I can actually believe that may be true.

Commercial sponsorship is nothing new in football, and I remember the stars of my own childhood mugging for the camera to push a new football boot or aftershave. But if they were lucky, they might have earned over a professional career what Rooney will earn in a season. They played along for the sake of their pension. Given the vast wages already commanded by the elite stars of these ads, the earnings must be secondary to the honour of being part of a celebratory event - after all, they don't just smile and hold the label to camera, they are required to actually act in these 3-minute epics.

Maybe as an alternate ending, we could cut back to Rooney, still living in his trailer because he misplaced one pass (obviously), who still steps outside to torture himself by looking at a poster of his nemesis Ribery (naturally). The camera pulls back further to reveal the caravan is on the edge of an African shanty town, and we see troops of children walking to their jobs at the factory manufacturing certain branded sports equipment for 50p a day. Write your future, kids.

31 May 2010

Won't get fooled again.

Last week my son gave me an interesting insight into how we understand the world when he asked me the following question: Are all brown skinned people vegetarians? He had obviously spent a while mulling it over with all the data at his disposal: of the 30 kids in his class, maybe 8 or 9 are non-white, all of whom have some cultural or religious dietary requirements. In school dinner terms, the safest bet for religiously observant parents is to choose the vegetarian option for their offspring. So in my son's universe of 30, there was a noticeable correlation. QED.

While this is charmingly naive in a 7-year-old boy, it would be ridiculous if grown adults followed this statistical method. And yet it is actually remarkably similar to the approach used by newspaper editors when approaching a story about science and evidence. Perhaps my favourite definition of why we take a scientific approach to information is by Robert M Pirsig in Zen and the art and motorcycle maintenance: "The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn't misled you into believing you know something you actually don't know." Whereas the average newspaper editor seems to operate on the principle that the real purpose of the scientific method is to act as another branch of the entertainment industry.

It was an apposite thing to be considering as it came on the same day the GMC formally struck off Andrew Wakefield, originator of the research that led to what I can only describe as the MMR media hoax. He was not barred from practising medicine because of his bad science but rather his habit of taking blood samples for money at children's parties and performing unnecessary, and bowel-rupturing, endoscopies upon autistic children. His foot soldiers in the war on reason were the British press who ensured the story remained active beyond the point when it became clear the evidence did not support his claims.

Top of the list of offenders was, unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail, though you'd never have guessed it from Tuesday's reporting. Unusually they didn't seek a balancing quote from one of their medical experts: Carole Caplin, Carol Vorderman, Julia Carling or Jackie Fletcher. Nor did they make any mention of the hundreds of column centimetres they had given to popular readings of Wakefield's work. He was hung out to dry as the lone shooter, with the Mail denying its role behind the grassy knoll, as it was shocked, SHOCKED to discover that Wakefield had a vested interest for finding a link between autism and MMR that caused him to ignore the facts. Unlike the Daily Mail, of course.

Of all the coverage devoted to this issue, one fact that continues to amaze me. Wakefield's original research, in 1998, was not ever meant, in itself, to be proof of anything for one simple reason: it was a study based upon 12 very sick children with multiple conditions, including autism. As a sample size for proving anything it is next to useless, and any editor who couldn't see that was either staggeringly stupid or truly desperate for news. Next to this, my son's observation looks like a model of rigour and caution.

25 May 2010

Gods and monsters

One of the most important breakthroughs in modern science happened last week to the breathless delight of the tabloid press. You can tell it was an important story, because it was the fourth story on the Six O'clock News, hot on the heels of the marriage breakdown of a pop star. Nevertheless, the Daily Mail duly fell for the bait dangled by Craig Venter, a "maverick biologist and billionaire entrepreneur" no less, that he had built a synthetic cell from scratch (story here).

How does it measure up according to our Mid-market Daily Science Story index? Reporting single, unverified claim as scientific fact? Check. Unhelpful diagrams showing sciency things? Check. Apocalyptic speculation based upon ridiculous extrapolations? Check. And, finally, explaining something complex with reference to a movie? Check.

And inevitably he was accused of "playing God" with his experiments, a phrase that always confuses me. Assuming we mean on a metaphorical level, I am uncertain how what Venter has done is morally different from the genetic engineering that mankind has been doing for centuries - cultivating wheat, breeding cattle, clearing and creating forests. The fact that he has done it in an extremely roundabout way is, to me, arguing about angels on a pinhead - and, in fact, he seems to have used an existing life form, one of the oldest known, as an incubator. It's hardly Dr Frankenstein's lightening bolt reanimating the departed.

According to this criteria, I've played God a couple of times in my life, creating lives that would never have existed without me - and I didn't even ask the Daily Mail's permission. Politicians play God every day, making decisions that will affect the life chances of millions of people: whether to go to war, whether to feed the starving, whether to fund the medicines of ill people, whether to protect an animal species.

Meanwhile God seems to have moved on from the whole creating life business to acting as a adjuster for insurance companies - setting off volcanoes to ruin our holidays or freak weather conditions to flatten our homes, as anyone who has tried to claim compensation will know. By logical extension, the Daily Mail should accuse the striking British Airways cabin crew of playing God, interfering with holiday plans in ways previously attributed to acts of the almighty.

23 May 2010

What's the big idea?

This weekend I joined Dave's "Big Society". Not Cameron, but a different Dave. And a different "Big Society" come to think of it. I spent 24 hours or so as a parent volunteer at a camp for my local Scout Association and the various junior sections in deepest, darkest Essex.

Just so you don't think that the Conservatives "Big Society" thing was a bit of election puff, it is still very much alive. From a link on the Home page of conservatives.com you can read all about the new spirit of community evangelisation, though it has been diplomatically rebranded as Civil Society, in deference to their government bedfellows, the Liberal Democrats. Speaking at its launch as a government policy last week, the Other Dave described it thus: "...we know instinctively that the state is often too inhuman, monolithic and clumsy to tackle our deepest social problems. We know that the best ideas come from the ground up, not the top down".

Leaving aside the false opposition of exactly which direction of travel the best ideas take, the programme itself wants to get local people organising locally, and in true Tory fashion engages in supply-side economics to tackle this: training an army of Community Organisers to raise the Dunkirk spirit, paid for from the money found down the back of everyone's sofa (I'm paraphrasing here, but not much). It here goes for what it sees as the crux of the matter: the money. And of course, it's true - paying for things is very important, in order to encourage people to build local projects and organisations. But nowhere in any of the 16 pages of "Big Society not Big Government" does it tackle one of the biggest barriers to participation.

Returning to Dave our local Scoutmaster, on Friday he shopped for the entire camp of some 36 people and to get to site early to start to set up the tents, assess the infrastructure and conduct risk-assessments on the proposed activities. Once flag was down on Sunday lunchtime, he supervised the dismantling of the camp and returned the Troop's gear to the lockup and the van to the rental office. To say nothing of the organising, arranging payment, raising the money to subsidise the event and the week-in, week-out running of the various beaver, cub and scout get-togethers.

Dave's employers tried to pressure him into working a weekend shift, despite the fact he had taken Friday as annual leave. Between his work and the Scout movement, there's little room for other things, but Dave does it willingly and happily because he believes he is doing something worthwhile, and a thriving body of local children back this by voting with their feet every Monday. Dave is one of thousands of people who put their careers on hold, or have to juggle their work commitments for, essentially, the benefit of other people's children. He doesn't get paid, and nor does he seek to. But here's where Big Government could come in.

Dave doesn't need the Big Society Bank to sell Social Impact Bonds (no, really) to buy another tent, or even cover the van hire. But if his employers could leverage the social value of Dave's volunteer work somehow, so they could benefit from his largess, they might see Dave's hinterland life as a benefit to them, and Dave as a valued employer. Will the Other Dave, in Downing Street, enact legislation to free potential community activists by helping them to hold down work and take some time for the common wheel? Probably sounds a bit too much like top-down, red tape to Dave's mates in the business community.

08 May 2010

Proportional Reproduction

I listened to a surreal piece of radio on "Today", this morning on Radio 4. As part of the post-election analysis, a reporter visited the ultra-safe Conservative seat of Henley-on-Thames, erstwhile proving ground of political luminaries Michael Heseltine and Boris Johnson (listen here). The local voters seemed both confused and angry as to why David Cameron wasn't Prime Minister. Cameron promised them power if only they'd turn down the heating and love gays, and now it seems they have to hug-a-lib-dem to come close to chucking out the chinz at 10 Downing Street. The trouble with the first-past-the-post system, it would seem, is it isn't first past enough.

It seems everyone is angry with the electoral system right now, and not just people in Henley who can't count. Despite the fact the Liberal Democrats polled about the same as 2005, their usual lack of proportional numbers of seats has sparked actual protests on the streets, instead of the more usual muttering in beer. A thousand people gathered in Trafalgar square to demand change, everyone from Lord Mandelson to Gordon Brown has called the system "discredited"; ironic when we consider the chief losers under the system are currently closer to government now than any of their colleagues had been in a generation. Those who grizzle that we are always ruled by a minority vote have got their wish - no-one with a majority of seats.

It seems electoral reform will be firmly on the agenda; either in the form of a concession to the Lib Dems in exchange for underpinning a Tory government, or propping up a Labour one, or in anticipation of the inevitable election that the alternative to those scenarios would bring in the next 12 months. The time is ripe for change, and surely the people would grasp that to their collective bosoms, wouldn't they? Actually I'm inclined to think it would achieve the opposite.

Most people can understand the simple logic of proportional representation; in order to reflect the will of the people there must be a relationship between the number of votes cast and their representation in the Legislature. Clearly the present system favours those parties who benefit from herd behaviour; wherever people gather to think the same way in concentrated geographies. Not necessarily a sound basis for capturing a national mood. Yet bear in mind that although governments are regularly formed by the representatives of less than 40% of the voting public, nearly 8 in 10 will have the chance to vote in a government of their choice more often than not. This is not an argument in favour of the present system, but a caveat about the obvious support there must be for changing it.

The delicate dance being performed by the party leaders is an insight into what a proportionate result would look like every time. And if, as seems likely, a minority Conservative government limps through the year before calling another election, a lot of people, when presented with the reality of coalitions, will have second thoughts about supporting a referendum on PR. So the very thing that enables electoral reform to happen, a strong showing by the third party in a hung parliament, is the one set of circumstances that will make its prospect the least enticing.

I'm of the view that the current position we are in is the most exciting piece of politics in my living memory; uncertainty and the mewling brats of the stock market be damned, this is real politics in the classic definition of the word: the resolution of difficult things by talking and compromising instead of violence. Instead, the most disturbing aspect about the situation, from my position, is the unseen role of the unelected head of state, should Mr Clegg decide to throw his lot in with the Labour Party - entirely possible, given how cool Cameron is towards Electoral Reform. Under those circumstances, two power bases, neither with a majority, would be competing to run a government - and who would have to choose? Step forward Her Majesty the Queen.

It's one thing to have an electoral system whose nods to proportionality are little better than Mussolini's Acerbo Law, because it's based upon how closely like-minded voters live to each other. But surely that pales beside the daftness of someone deciding who should form a government because she is her father's daughter?

25 April 2010

Well hung?

David Cameron has been exercising an interesting paradox this week - accusing the Prime Minister of spreading fear among the electorate over Conservative spending proposals, while spreading his own brand of fear over the possibility of a hung parliament. Here I am using the word 'paradox' as a euphemism for 'hypocrisy', of course.

Faithful as ever, the Daily Telegraph published statistical evidence backing Mr Cameron's fearmongering from the last hung parliament:

The last time a British election failed to produce a decisive result, in February, 1974, the FTSE All Share Index – a broad measure of the stock market – fell nearly 15pc in a month and ended the year more than 50pc below where it began.

Horrors! Except that share prices had been falling since 1972 in response to the 'Oil Shock', so here I use the word 'evidence' in describing the Telegraph's article as a euphemism for 'fraud'.

Many successful democracies around the world cope with extended periods of political stalemate - in the US 'gridlock', as it is known, was a feature of the 1980s, a time of untrammelled prosperity, according to some - and more recently Belgium went for whole months without even a government, never mind a budget. Similarly, Germany rubs by with coalitions, managing to do all right in terms of economic growth. But for Britain it would be apocalyptic if the soothsayers are to be believed.

On the other hand consider the following: why do so many people vote (maybe not enough, but let's leave that) and yet so few people are members of political parties? Take me as a typical example of someone who is reasonably politically engaged, yet I have never joined a political party. Leaving aside issues of expense and lethargy, I think the main reason is the same as most other people's: my views across a range of subjects are ideologically inconsistent, contradictory even, and don't easily fit into a party programme of one colour or another. I value the dynamic prosperity generated by free market capitalism, yet also rail at its injustices; I think the NHS is a national treasure while despairing at its inefficiencies; Protectionism is counter-productive and stifling, yet the BBC is a wonderful organisation. Most voters are paradoxes, and where we place our cross every five years is an aggregation of the most prominent cluster of concerns plus how we feel about the party leaders' haircuts.

So let us look on the prospect of a hung parliament as an opportunity to try something more in line with most voters. Shifting coalitions could generate support for different issues and try to build consensus for legislation. The electorate could be used to crowdsource suggestions for things that need to change, and their proposals could be tested against the spread of MPs, who would feel less encumbered by Party loyalty. The main outcome is almost certainly nothing would happen; only the most desperately needed laws would get passed, and MPs might find they have to spend more time in Parliament working together instead of part-time investment bankers. And I use the expression 'investment banker' as a Cockney rhyming euphemism.

On the offensive

Last week all over the country there was widespread and flagrant abuse of the law against Religiously Aggravated Offences. Perhaps the most blatant occurred on national television, in front of an audience of over 4 million people, where three men repeatedly insulted, caricatured and lampooned each others' beliefs and the police didn't lift a finger. Perhaps it is lucky for all those people that the police chose such a narrow definition of belief systems that it is illegal to mock.

Somewhat less lucky was Harry Taylor, a self-confessed 'militant atheist', who left some cartoons poking fun at various belief systems in a prayer room at John Lennon Airport, Liverpool. The chaplain who discovered them did what any normal person would do who came across an offensive joke - she called the police. This being Liverpool, a city with a notoriously low crime rate and very little policing need, the local fuzz decided that it would be an appropriate use of public resources to investigate, arrest and prosecute Mr Taylor on the charge of 'religiously aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress'. The punchline is Mr Talyor was not only found guilty and given a 6 month suspended sentence, he was issued an ASBO preventing him from carrying anti-religious materials in public.

You can read about the cartoon contents here - all had appeared previously in national mainstream publications - but it is interesting to see what passes for harassment amongst sensitive sections of the public. The much-derided blasphemy laws were finally abolished some two years ago, and were replaced by these harassment laws as both a sop to the hard-of-thinking and a way of updating outdated legislation. By putting the non-violent exchange of ideas onto a public order footing, it has had the effect of creating a much more virulent blasphemy law, that can be invoked subject to the caprice of regional police forces.

A couple of months ago I realised our reasonably newly-created street was finally on the map (even if it is not quite on Google Maps) when we got a visit from an army of Jehovah's Witnesses; I looked on the event as some kind of rite-of-passage into the normal life cycle of an everyday neighbourhood. Now I realise what I had missed was an opportunity to call the police and claim harassment on the grounds that someone was trying to give me literature that offended my beliefs. In light of Mr Taylor's story, I'd like to think it would be taken seriously - but I somehow suspect religious aggravation is strictly a one-way process.

20 April 2010

Things can only get Twitter

Watching the British General Election this year we have seen a once-in-a-generation media event at work, but not quite in the way people expected. During his successful Presidential campaign in 2008, Barack Obama achieved a lot of success in engaging with a sceptical audience through "new media" - social networks, emails, viral online communications - that left the McCain campaign flat footed. So it was assumed that in the UK 2010 General Election campaigning would follow the same pattern, with the Twitterati leading the charge for change. Yet it seems the biggest difference this year has been from a decidedly old school medium, creating perhaps the most interesting election since 1979.

Things started off much as anticipated: old style rough-and-tumble politics given a new media twist through the creation of posters that were never actually meant to be displayed as such; creative one-liners that were designed to be distributed online (not least because Labour had no budget for a national poster campaign). Here there were also echoes of 1979 as the talents of the Saatchi brothers were brought back on board the Conservatives stalled campaign. Thirty years ago they produced one of the most famous political posters of all time:

This time around we were treated to the rather less impressive (not to say less well punctuated):

'Labour isn't working' was a groundbreaking piece of work for a number of reasons. In particular it challenged the axiomatic truth of political advertising that you never mention the opposition by name for fear of giving them a boost. Such old-fashioned underestimation of the public's reading of media was plainly a generation out-of-date even then - so Saatchis thought it was about time this was taken on a step in 2010. This time they devised a poster that not only name-checked the opposition, it aped the very tradition of political postering. All the Tories had to do was be less awful than Gordon Brown, and they were a shoo-in. So the strategy was to remind the public how much Brown is a figure of contempt for a vocal population of opinion formers, whether the voters themselves actually can be bothered to dislike him or not. And hopefully the digital disgust that can so easily infect online discourse would do the rest. (For a working demonstration of this phenomenon, go to the sadly-still-free Daily Mail online and read the comments stream below any opinion piece. Or, rather, don't - it will undermine your faith in the future of humanity.)

But while it is true that Twitter is alive with a constant stream of electioneering and political trending, and the parties build iPhone aps to help canvass views and sign up voters, in fact the Internet has had far less impact upon this election than media nerds had hoped. The election season opened with two social media false starts: The Conservatives infamous 'Cash Gordon' Twitter debacle that got so out-of-control, Tory HQ had to release news of Sam Cameron's pregnancy to knock it off the top of the news. And the Labour party's misjudged crowdsourcing exercise in poster creation that proved that creating great advertising is not a democratic process.

This lack of impact was confirmed in a more substantive way in a research study by Apex Communications entitled Election 2.0? Don't believe the hype. The summary of its results: "This election will not be decided online. While the use of social media by the national parties, the press and the general public will have an impact on the election, our research shows there is little widespread and effective take-up of online campaigning by individual candidates across the country. No party has yet managed to implement a consistent online strategy at candidate level, and we found very few constituencies where one or other of the candidates is dominating in any noteworthy way."

As if to back this up, the real opportunity emerged from what was new media back in 1979: Television, re-energised thanks to the Leaders Debates. Pre-campaign, expectation was low because of the way the rules of the debate had been negotiated to death - everything seemed so carefully controlled there seemed little prospect of a spark, of people capturing a moment or momentum through a phrase, look or flashpoint. If you didn't actually see the first debate but merely read the reporting afterwards you could be forgiven for believing Nick Clegg was the new Martin Luther King. In fact he succeeded mostly by not joining in - ducking the punches thrown by the lightweight and the Big Clunking Fist - playing rope-a-dope with them until they'd talked themselves out.

Partly this difference between the US and UK elections is one of geography: a British General Election is a mass election of local representatives. They are coming to a street near you and will pretend to care about your broken drains and nearby gypsy camp site. The campaigning is local, the canvassers are neighbours, the constituency boundaries are often walkable - why should I follow my MP's tweets when I can see him talk at my school? An American Presidential campaign, on the other hand, is two candidates for a vast area - the use of technology is not so much modish as necessary to reach those places who will never get a visit from Obama.

Can Clegg maintain his momentum? Has Cameron realised he needs to do more than turn up and smile? Has Brown got a hope? It's almost worth staying tuned to see how this one ends.

13 April 2010

UK General Election 2010: My response to people who argue that it is boring, all politicians are the same and why should they bother?

What do you think this is - Deal or No Deal?

If you can't be bothered to use your brain for 5 minutes and try to get to grips with at least one issue - which will probably not be very interesting, and may even distract you from Eastenders - then go and sit with the children in the ball pit.

05 April 2010

The clot of the amateur

As an advertising professional, I am keenly aware of the way in which the digital media revolution has transformed marketing practices. Especially in the last couple of years, when social media has challenged a lot of the received wisdom of advertising orthodoxy, and forced marketeers to think about their brands in different ways. Two stories this week provided interesting commentary on these trends, and made me think that, when it comes to it, maybe so much hasn't changed after all.

Business Day magazine, in Australia, heralded Twitter as calling last orders on the gluttonous ad agencies, drinking at their clients' expense. Perhaps the most revealing phrase was in the entire article was:

Why pay big dollars to an ad agency when you can create your own inexpensive in-house campaign and get your nephew to launch it on YouTube and Twitter?

Why indeed. For that matter why pay a fancy lawyer big bucks to defend you in court, when your law student daughter would do it for free? Why pay a plumber to fix your heating when you're pretty handy with a spanner yourself? There's an almost charmingly naive assumption that, until now, the only thing keeping an ad agency in business in their ability to operate a camera, or to use PhotoShop. Because the internet has the ability to turn individual creative sparks into global phenomena, we can all do it - and thanks to Blogger, Twitter and Facebook anyone can create an online presence.

I am one of the first people to denounce the preciousness in advertising creativity. It is not a cure for cancer, and the fact that agencies are cabs for hire means we can seldom claim moral worth in the ad campaigns that spill across the media landscape. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean there is no skill involved - and the risk in the fact that "anyone can do it" is just that: your campaign will look like it could have been done by anyone.

Which brings me to the Labour party's "people's poster" campaign, which this week backfired in pretty spectactular fashion. The theory must have looked great and really 'of the moment': instead of wasting money on a big ad agency, members of the public would put forward ideas, and the best would be used as an actual campaigning poster. Saves money and gets supporters involved - a win-win. Given some of the amusing content generated by sites such as www.mydavidcameron.com - driven by word-of-Facebook - you can see why the idea was attractive.

And the winner was:

Although this was supposedly the "People's Poster", the fact that its released coincided with the start of the final series of Ashes to Ashes, leads me to believe it may not have been created by a member of the public at all. But let's run with it, and assume the Cameron-as-Gene-Hunt idea was a bona fide suggestion. I'm not actually that interested in why it was a terrible concept - and that analysis has been done to death elsewhere. But by assuming the wisdom of an online crowd is an exact substitute for the collective brain-power of an ad agency actually shows not so much a lack of faith in their creativity, but a failure to use their agency properly.

An ad agency will take a brief to deliver an objective. The creative is the means to the end - to inspire people to do whatever it is you want them to do - and so, in this case, the "people's poster" process, by making the creative into the end itself, gets the cart before the horse. Maybe the answer isn't a poster (and it almost certainly isn't in today's market with Labour's diminished ad budget), maybe it's not an ad at all. Agency and client will challenge each other's ideas, using the objective as fixed point of reference, and hopefully arrive at a solution that delivers the objective. By removing the agency, and reducing the briefing to a "who can make the funniest joke about David Cameron" competition, the objective vanished and Labour's sense-checking partner wasn't there.

Both the "Twitter nephew" and "people's poster" stories are born of rather old fashioned ideas of advertising, and advertising agencies - the place where you go to waste half your money, in Lord Beaverbrook's immortal phrase. The real revolution online media delivers is explicit measurability of the outcome of your campaign; whereas once you had to guess how many eyeballs saw your ad, today you gather fans' names and addresses via your facebook page, YouTube movie or, maybe, Chatroulette routine. You work together, sharing intelligence and insight to meet commonly-held objectives. And if you want to do that on your own, you're like the man defending himself in court, who has an idiot for a client.

25 March 2010

Appy Now?

One of the delights of being a new iPhone user is entry to the candy store that is the App Store (short for applications, nothing to do with the Apple name). Once you've downloaded the obligatory dull-but-usefuls (Facebook, LinkedIn), you can start to explore the crazier end of the spectrum, and wonder at the quirky pockets of humanity who create some of these things. Yesterday I came across an app to show you the meanings of all UK roadsigns, and I wondered how many drivers were on our roads who didn't know what the signs meant, driving one handed with iPhone in the other.

Almost picking at random, from the current Top 10 list, is an app called 'More Toast!' For a mere 59p, this app lets you make "virtual toast" and "swap recipes" (no, really). It comes in the "lifestyle" category, which makes me wonder about the lives of those who feel the need to look at pixelated bread products and enjoy the sound of a toaster popping when they're away from home. Once upon a time, computer simulations used to transport us to fantasy worlds, interstellar wars and middle earth troll villages. Now they are used to recreate the mundane so we can share it with each other as testament to our common humanity, along with our bowel movements and LOLs via Twitter, MySpace and all the other social media channels.

Fisher-Price recently raised some eyebrows when it made some iPhone apps for 2-year-olds (story here), at last debunking the myth that mobile phones are serious business tools, and not something to mess around on while waiting for the bus. And with iPhone apps set to outsell CDs within two years, it makes sense to start early with the next generation of consumers. But what sort of a generation are we creating?

Back in the last century when I was learning about marketing, the concept of a "felt need" - a problem you didn't realise you had until someone showed you a solution - was usually illustrated by the example of an electric toothbrush. Now I expect marketing course teachers simply point to any one of 1,000 iPhone apps, from The Perfect Egg Timer to Fart Machine Extreme. With apps being created to cater not just for the merest whim, but the most unlikely set of circumstances, will our children no longer learn to tie their laces upon our instruction, but download the relevant app? Well, they would if their shoes had laces in them anymore.

11 March 2010

Better the devil you know?

The more observant of my regular readers may have noticed a tendency to make rude jokes about Catholic clergy and their desire to bugger children. Whether this is an appropriate response to vile actions largely depends on the breadth of your sense of humour, I suspect. But I would argue it is wholly more appropriate than the reaction from the Vatican's chief Ghostbuster, Father Gabriele Amorth, whose remarks about the "Devil in the Vatican" were widely reported across the British press today.

The Fourth Estate seems to have accepted it uncritically as a mea cupla for the many wrongs visited upon children around the world by the Vatican's priests and acolytes, aside from the chance to explore the ghoulish and macabre practices of exorcism. But a closer reading reveals why we will never get to the bottom of the scandal, and the Church will never admit ultimate culpability as a collective: because it wasn't their fault. It was simply a part of the Devil's work, cited alongside the attempted assassination of the previous Pope, as though there were some moral equivalence - yes, we may have ruined the lives of thousands of children in our care, but feel our pain, too, because someone didn't manage to kill our boss.

Far from lapping up the talk of exorcism, and wondering at Ratzinger giving intellectual time to the lurid showmanship of demonic expulsion, we should be outraged that Amorth, and by implication his sponsor, think this is a good enough answer. Citing the influence of the Devil is a specious argument not even fit for a playground: A big boy made me do it, sir. If the Necromancer does stalk the corridors of St Peters, does that get them off the hook? All a big misunderstanding. Naughty, naughty Devil.

The drip-drip of stories of abuse that emerged from the USA and Ireland became a steady flow this week, as investigations conducted in Netherlands, Germany and Austria have added to the pool of suffering (story here). Taken as a whole, apart from being thoroughly unpleasant, surely it is also one of the more statistically unlikely phenomena if explained purely as random distribution. For all our fears, actual incidences of child sexual assault are mercifully rare, and its practitioners drawn from all walks and strata of life. Now, consider what an extraordinary cluster of predators lurks within the Catholic church over such a wide area; this is not a local conspiracy but a global phenomenon that cannot be explained in any terms other than there is something about the organisation that attracts pederasts. It is simply too improbable for the high number of incidents in a single organisation to be a coincidence; the way it has been allowed to conduct itself and how it was viewed by the public provided a perfect cover.

Imagine any other organisation - a company, a charity, a government or police force - with the same sort of track record of its employees raping children. It would not be allowed to exist: the company wound up, charity's status withdrawn, government resigned (or voted out), police force disbanded (as with West Midlands Serious Crime Squad, for example). I think the time has come for the Catholic church to give it up and declare itself out of business. It has proved itself woefully inadequate in policing abusers, preferring to protect not punish, its secretive, male-only hierarchy is a stacked defence against attempts to open it up to scrutiny, and it seems a honey-pot for bullies, giving them means and opportunity to prey upon the powerless.

And beneath it all, at heart its apologists believe its failings were caused by the bad influence of an imaginary friend. That, I think, is the lowest point of all.

02 March 2010

Suffer little children

I see the religious lobby achieved its controversial amendment to the bill on sex education, allowing those educational establishments bizarrely known as "faith schools" to teach personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) lessons "in a way that reflects the school's religious character". Does this mean my local Catholic schools will now start preparing their 13 year-old-boys for sex with their local parish priest?

25 February 2010

Pick your cherries while ye may

The nature of scientific evidence has been under scrutiny this week with the coinciding of three important news stories. Simon Singh was in court for the appeal against the ruling last year by Judge Eady that he libelled the British Chiropractors Association - an action that the presiding judge described as "baffling" (story here) - while the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee delivered a damning verdict upon the funding of homeopathy by the NHS (here). Finally, and a little late in the day, the General Chiropractic Council fessed up the evidence for the efficacy of its treatments, a decidedly mixed bag (here).

What unites these three stories is they are examples of the reliance on cherry-picked evidence by the less-than-scientific, in order to bolster their credentials. In the realms of scientific practice and statistical validity, cherry-picking is one of the big sins; put simply it means ignoring all the evidence that doesn't support your hypothesis. So, if you conduct 100 trials on a new drug and 95 show it performs no better than the current treatment, but five show some improved outcomes, then to present these latter five trials as evidence supporting your drug's efficacy is to do A Bad Thing. Depending on what you are trying to prove, at best you are being unfair, and at worst committing fraud, though that doesn't stop it from being widely practised, and is surely the basis of 1,001 advertising campaigns.

And it also was the basis of an unusual claim by Inspector Roger Bartlett of the Devon and Cornwall Police this week of divine intervention to account for an improvement in crime statistics in his manor (story here). According to Inspector Bartlett the power of prayer by local christian groups has lead to a direct improvement in clear-up rates in the Barnstaple area, and similar decrease in number of serious road accidents in north Devon. Impressively, it would seem Insp Bartlett asked a group of local Christians to pray for a specific reduction in road accident deaths in the area the year before the number of incidents fell by 67%. Rather less impressively, he then continues to list random statistical improvements that he retrospectively attributes to prayer, which rather weakens his case.

But rather than give his notion the fisking it deserves, I wondered if I could try the same thing? Of course I can, for while it seems the good Lord is spending a lot of time helping out the motorists of Devon, he's been taking his eye off the deserving but weak-hearted. In 2006 a double-blinded RCT on the power of prayer was performed Harvard Medical School upon those recovering from coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery, with some allocated to receive unctions and some not, and those two groups further divided, with half being told they were being prayed for and the rest not.

The conclusion? "Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications." In other words, knowing you were being prayed for actually increased the chances of you getting worse, not better.

This then leads me to conclude that, while God clearly cares enough about the commitment of sin (crime) to help reduce it, he's not so keen on the love and compassion bit if you have a dicky ticker. Sounds a bit of an Old Testament sort of chap to me, which leaves me to assume the entire basis of Christianity is flawed, and therefore Judaism is the one true faith. QED. Suddenly things become enormously simple if you just notice what you want to see, and select your evidence accordingly, or look for patterns where none exist.

Meanwhile do be sure to drive carefully in north Devon, if you find yourself in that neck of the woods. God's made an impressive start, but wouldn't want you to ruin his hard work by demonstrating free will and driving off a cliff - he'd rather you wait for that heart attack to strike. And poor Inspector Bartlett would have to explain how his number went back up again without defaming Jehovah.

20 February 2010

Pester Power 2.0

This week David Cameron revealed a new policy that looks like out-Blairing even New Labour. In terms of lack of substance and naked populism, it is an overt attempt to position the party as in-touch with the voters. Of course there is nothing wrong with actually being in touch with voters' concerns, but this latest piece of headline grabbing is so thin you could use it as greaseproof paper to produce some half-baked ideas.

Starting off with the bold headline promise of "Protecting children from sexualisation and commercialisation", he introduces the concept of "premature sexualisation". To me that sounds like the sort of thing Dear Deirdre would tackle in The Sun, but Dave doesn't bother to give any examples of this, or even explain how he came to the conclusion it was of popular concern. It's out there, apparently, and Dave wants you to know he's concerned about it. But he no sooner raises it then he moves on to the bulk of the policy announcement covering measures that are "designed to crack down on irresponsible marketing practices and products targeted at children."

Speaking as a parent who consumes quite a lot of advertising on children's TV stations, I'm struggling to see the problem or why it suddenly merits a policy response. Advertisers have always targeted children, but today they work under greater restrictions than when I was a child. Children are big grabby bundles of Id, as likely to furiously demand to watch a TV show or have another 25 biscuits as they are to covet something they have seen in an ad. Unfortunately, one of the onerous tasks of parenting is managing their expectations, meeting the challenge of their desires, and setting clear parameters.

But let's run with this for the minute and assume ads aimed at children are Very Bad. What's Dave's solution?
  • Banning the most manipulative marketing techniques aimed at young people
  • Strengthening the regulatory framework
  • Giving people the power to make complaints
  • Banning irresponsible companies from winning future government contracts.
The rules around what you can and can't say when advertising to children, and where and when you can say it is listed in tedious detail on the ASA site (or click here), because a lot of people have given this tricky area a lot of thought, in balancing the legitimate rights of businesses to sell products against protecting the rights of children. And anytime you think that balance is not achieved, you can complain to the ASA. So, again, I am struggling to see what "Dave" is announcing that is not already covered, apart from a general breastbeating that he has an ill-defined concern, and wants you to know he cherishes your kids too.

What I think has changed things in Cameron's mind is the Internet in general, and social media specifically. Cameron is supposedly a hip young guy, groovy to the web and all things digital, as we saw a few years ago with his "Web Cam" broadcasts on YouTube. But here he paints new media as a source of unmitigated threat: children vulnerable to new advertising channels and parents powerless to stop it. But in truth, it is a two way street; just as new media gives new routes to consumers, it gives greater powers to parents to express their displeasure, co-ordinate action against inappropriate messaging and mobilise our economic clout. Parents may no longer be the gatekeepers to the advertising channels open to children, but they still hold the purse strings. New media offers creators of products aimed at children new ways of engaging with the people who foot the bill, to persuade them of their worthiness.

He emphasised that "social pressure" is the best way to combat irresponsible behaviour and encourage responsibility, saying that the Conservatives would "make it easier for parents to mobilise against campaigns and products that they think are inappropriate". At present, thanks to the explosion of new technology, parents are doing just that - forming networks, sharing information, creating pressure groups around issues and concerns, and exerting that pressure in co-ordinated ways.

Take the example of the infamous "Lolita Bed" that was withdrawn from sale at Woolworths, after parental pressure led by the raisingkids.co.uk website (story here). Cameron himself supported this campaign as an example of the "sexualisation of children". He seems to have missed the point that it is an example of grass-roots "social pressure" at work, the very thing he will supposedly encourage. Unless he is somehow suggesting a new law allowing vigilante attacks upon toy manufacturers, parents mobilising against campaigns and products is exactly what they are doing at the moment. Cameron is graciously giving us permission to carry on.

Cameron finishes by saying: "A Conservative Government would take the tough action needed to help families and build a society in which we stop treating children as adults". My concern is, instead, that a Conservative Government will build a society where we treat adults as children.

14 February 2010

Dying beyond your means

There's been a bit of pre-election huffing and puffing this week around care for the elderly in the UK. The facts about the size of the challenge are clear; according to the Office for National Statistics, despite large influxes of younger immigrants, overall the UK population balance continues get older. It is projected that, by 2033, 23 per cent of the population will be aged 65 and over compared to 18 per cent aged 16 or younger.

The fastest population increase has been in the number of those aged 85 and over, the 'oldest old'. In 1983, there were just over 600,000 people in the UK aged 85 and over. Since then the numbers have more than doubled reaching 1.3 million in 2008. By 2033 the number of people aged 85 and over is projected to more than double again to reach 3.2 million, and to account for 5 per cent of the total population. Combined with the fact that dementia rates rise rapidly among the over 80s, that's a big bill for care that someone has to foot. That someone probably being those of us who work and pay taxes.

The government suggested this week that those entering retirement might want to chip in a bit. Health Minister Andy Burnham said the government may introduce a compulsory charge of up to £20,000 pounds per person payable on retirement to cover the cost of care in old age - though, it is just one of three options being considered alongside a top-up payment system and an insurance-based approach. Frankly, I think he could suggest that the government will pay by winning the lottery every week, since he hasn't much chance of enacting anything after the general election. But that hasn't stopped Dave "David" Cameron jumping in with a soundbite about a "death tax", and an artless poster highlighting the issue (here).

If it were me, I'd make it £40,000, and we'll take the car as well, just so the Baby Boomer generation can finally feel what it feels like to pay for something. Having been rewarded with the best start in life on the backs of their parents' struggles, they have enjoyed a lifetime of free education, full employment, the sexual revolution and occupational pension schemes that seem designed by Bernie Madoff. And, of course, entitlement to retire at 55. Picking up the tab is my generation, who are presented with a unique opportunity to get screwed at both ends, as we won't get the chance to leech off the next generation in time-honoured fashion. The Boomers have pulled up the drawbridge, and we have to pay for everything ourselves.

£20,000 is less than the operating costs of my 4-person family for just one year, so far from extortion, I reckon it looks excellent value for an open-ended commitment to on-call nurses to wipe your bum around the clock. But it's not something I will ultimately have to pay; by the 2030s I reckon they'll have banned retirement altogether, and we'll just be "executed" when the chip in our hands starts flashing. They'll call it Logan's Stagger.

13 February 2010

It's beginning to add up

I was playing dominoes with my son earlier - the old fashioned tile game, not a see-who-can-order-the-hottest-pizza competition - when it struck me what has been going wrong with the economy these last few years: innumeracy. In short, we have lost the ability to add up a row of numbers. Sure, we can usually manage the small stuff, change from a fiver, that sort of thing, but when the zeros start going on, the wheels start to come off.

It's all coming to a head in Greece right now for this very reason. Many within the Euro zone are pointing the finger at some of the less-than-truthful declarations Greece has made in the past in order to gain Euro membership, and in the present as to the true state of its indebtedness. But I reckon as the number started to rise they simply lost count - put in the best estimate, like an MP's expenses claim. Even the president of the Eurogroup, Jean-Claude Juncker, admitted no-one else in Europe had questioned the figures. If everyone in Europe has lost count of how much Greece owes everyone else, I reckon some kind of number-overload point has been reached.

On a smaller scale, I see it every day all around me - my Twitter fans (!) will know the delight I feel upon discovering supermarket multi-buy deals which are cheaper than single packets. Or take my soon-to-be-ex electricity supplier, E.ON (please). Every April they set a monthly direct debit, based upon my average consumption. Last year we started at £91 per month, until we racked up a £67 credit within 3 months. Taking it down to £81 pm, by Christmas we were nearly £100 in the black, so I was interested to receive this week notification of the proposed new monthly payments from April 2010. They'd done a lot of thinking, carefully analysed our usage, and used all their fingers and toes to come up with a new figure: £119 per month.

And I think it's obvious where this number-weariness has come from: RBS and Northern Rock. As I journeyed into London last week, past Stratford and the site of the 2012 Olympic Games, I was thinking back to 2006, and how quaint it seemed to have a political scandal about those Olympic costs "spiralling out of control" at a cost to the UK taxpayer of £5bn. Even the initial nationalisation cost of Northern Rock at £50bn seems chump change, compared to the hairy barbarian cluster-fuck that is Royal Bank of Scotland. So perhaps I should not have been surprised last week to hear that RBS was planning to hand out £1.3bn in bonuses, despite making a loss of over £7bn.

The only conclusion I can come to is everyone at RBS has also forgotten how to count. Failure to grasp reality was behind the sub-prime mortgage fiasco, and it seems to me that reaching into a pot containing minus £7,000,000,000, expecting to find some cash is the ultimate proof of this. The brain-burning size of the debt has suspended all numeracy functions, and what's more it is spreading: the coverage in the press seemed almost muted. It's such a familiar territory to us now, we couldn't really be bothered to raise a snarl. We have been utterly beaten into apathy and confusion by the sheer size of the figures involved, numbed by numbers. Pretty soon I'm going to be asking my son to add up the weekly shopping as my skull collapses with anger at the idiotic sense of entitlement by morons whose supposed talent for wealth generation has gone almost as far into the red as our savings.

Let's hope I'm not reduced to asking E.ON to count for me.

07 February 2010

A Bridge too far

I was reading this week in the Corriere della Sera one of those "Funny Old World" stories about the England football captain, John Terry, potentially losing his job because of an adulterous affair. There was a general scratching of heads in Italy as to what one had to do with the other, in stark contrast with the British press who wrote, almost as one, that Terry should be demoted over the scandal as though it were an axiomatic truth. So there was a certain tension on Thursday as we waited to to see whether England's Italian manager would adopt a continental understanding or if he had decided to go native.

I was interested to note that, when the axe fell, those named as replacements at both Captain and Vice-Captain were not exactly adroit at staying out of the papers for reasons of bad personal judgement. And throughout this sordid episode, no one has actually suggested Terry be dropped from the team, so clearly there is a higher bar for moral behaviour by captains than mere squad members - just as well given that at least four regular starting XI players have been named in the tabloids for the exact same sins.

I would suggest that those who seek moral purpose in the England football team are probably wasting their time. As my friend Marcus pointed out, by the same criteria that got Terry fired, we should demote the Archbishop of Canterbury for being bad at football. Just as we don't require our national sportsmen to be Cordon Bleu chefs, qualified architects or banjo players, we shouldn't expect them to be moral paragons. Before Terry even got the job he'd been pilloried in the press for public urination in a bar, inappropriate texting to other women and parking his Bentley in a disabled car bay so we knew he wasn't exactly Albert Schweitzer. But he was evidently good at putting various parts of his body between foreigners and a football, and in our whimsical society, such talents earn £100,000 a week.

Indeed, I'd suggest that is the real point of this story. Football is peculiarly sensitive to excessive remuneration for its elite stars, even though those who can command such pay are the small point of a very wide-based pyramid of journeymen pros hacking each other every week for a miner's wage. We accept with a straight face a banker claiming he can "prove" he is worth a bonus of £1m after a government rescue; John Terry proves every week what he's worth in the most unforgiving public arena. Premier League football clubs are falling over themselves to show how in touch they are with those who buy the match tickets, pies and replica shirts through community liaison, charity sponsorship and "Kick Racism Out Of Football" raffles. "We haven't lost touch with our roots and values" they desperately cry via piles of signed polyester.

Yet the most overlooked part of the story reveals some very old-fashioned values still at work within the beautiful game. Wise sports hacks claimed it wasn't the affair that was the problem, but the fact that the Other Woman, Vanessa Perroncel, was the Ex-Other Woman of a former Chelsea colleague, Wayne Bridge, also a member of the England team. Disruption to England's World Cup plans caused by friction within the squad was the real threat, it was said. Demotion for Terry was the only way to achieve team harmony, it was also said. Or to put it another way: John nicked Wayne's bird.

Details over the exact chronology are sketchy, but it seems Bridge and Ms Perroncel had split at the time of Terry's dalliance; her mistake was not having a "Property of Wayne Bridge" tattoo. Did Terry act shabbily toward a supposed friend and former colleague? Probably, but Perroncel is also a grown up with some free will. The fact she is being implied as the chattel of Bridge reveals a lot about attitudes within the press towards women, in particular those who move in Premier League football's rarefied atmosphere. She has no function outside of being the companion to either player.

John Terry may insert vegetables into bodily orifices for all I care, but ever since the story broke he has proved his worth to his team through solid sporting performance. By contrast, Rio Ferdinand, new England captain, fresh back from injury, aimed a punch at an opponent, earning him a three-match ban - the sort of behaviour that can cost a team dear in a World Cup (just ask David Beckham). But as long as he didn't sleep with someone who wasn't going out with someone who also plays for England, moral decency is upheld. And the humbug of the tabloid press can carry on undisturbed.

03 February 2010

Enlightened thinking

Prince Charles is a man often associated with backwards thinking, which I suppose is not surprising, given he has lived his life in reverse. For the first 50-odd years he has been in retirement, pottering in his garden and taking up hobbies, and as he approaches the age at which most would be considering superannuation, he is preparing to begin his first day job, as head of state. This would also explain his somewhat fogyish opinions, not a coherent ideology as such, but a combination of Luddite sentimentalism and spiritualist mumbo-jumbo. Imagine a posh Arthur Scargill running a Reiki clinic.

From talking to his plants to model villages, via a general "why can't we all get along" pantheism, his obsessions are so random as to attract little excitement by me, until today. “I was accused once of being the enemy of the Enlightenment,” he told a conference at St James’s Palace. “I felt proud of that.”

He goes on: “I thought, ‘Hang on a moment’. The Enlightenment started over 200 years ago. It might be time to think again and review it and question whether it is really effective in today’s conditions, faced as we are with huge challenges all over the world. It must be apparent to people deep down that we have to do something about it. We cannot go on surely like this, just imagining that the principles of the Enlightenment laid down in the eighteenth century still apply now."

Well, obviously there are the crackpot ideas from that time that will never last, such as democracy, the rights of man and rational thought. And what has the scientific method ever given us? But I assume this also applies to the serious ideas of the last 200 years like homeopathy and neo-classical architecture, which are rather closer to his heart. How on earth do we evaluate our heritage and decide what still applies and what doesn't?

I've worked out a system for evaluating what we should keep and what we should discard, and it's quite simple. Anything that Prince Charles likes, we get rid of, anything he speaks out against, we should keep. So out with alternative medicine, model villages, polo and overpriced biscuits, and in comes cool architecture, regulation of herbal remedies and critical thinking.

Let's remember England before this Enlightenment nonsense, where everything was judged a result of divine providence, where few could read and even fewer had a vote, and witch-hunting was a bona fide occupation - holistic cures were provided via a ducking stool. But on the plus side, we did have an absolute monarch, who was also called King Charles. Maybe that's what he meant?

Or did he mean the bit after that where we cut off King Charles's head and installed a theocracy for 11 years?

28 January 2010


Interesting social media news from God's ReTweeter himself last weekend, as Pope Benedict urged priests to evangelise via Twitter, Facebook and blogging, on his YouTube channel: "The world of digital communication, with its almost limitless expressive capacity, makes us appreciate all the more Saint Paul's exclamation: 'Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel'"

I know what you're thinking: "the Pope has his own YouTube channel?" Actually, the first thing that entered my head was: "Well, that will certainly make it easier for them to groom young boys for sex."

But in the spirit of enquiry, I thought I'd see how far this project has come, so I checked out the Pope's Twitter account for examples of his own 140-character 'microsermons'. Well, Benedict's right on the money - he's got his Twitter account up and running, and has already racked up 172 followers. Except he hasn't actually posted any tweets yet - not one. I think this is the most literal example of someone not practising what he preaches. And as head of a major religion that claims over 1 billion adherents (including the lapsed), 172 is a little disappointing.

He also isn't following anyone, which I suppose is fair enough until God gets a Twitter account. Being generous, I guess he fears that, were he to start tweeting and his entire flock to start following, lapsed or otherwise, he would permanently crash the Twitter servers, given how shaky Twitter was yesterday during the launch of the new Apple iHype device.

He does have a Facebook page, but, again, it only has two postings, the last one more than 18 months old. Now far be it from me to suggest that, just because he doesn't tweet himself, Facebook regularly, or have a blog, that he clearly doesn't actually get the the whole social media revolution. But it was only a year ago that the Pontiff was actually speaking out against the use of such media: in January 2009 he warned that “obsessive” use of mobile phones or computers “may isolate individuals from real social interaction while also disrupting the patterns of rest, silence and reflection that are necessary for healthy human development".

Believe me, Benedict, the old tweeting can get a bit compulsive, so maybe it's just as well you have drawn back from the brink before submitting to temptation. But if you do, I'll be waiting for your thoughts, as follower number 173.