25 July 2013

Rule of dumb

Outside my house, there is a bus stop. This is not in itself unusual, except this bus stop is a little out of the ordinary. It was erected by my local council at considerable expense, but has never been used as a bus stop. It sits there with a plastic bag over the offending sign, like a gallows prisoner awaiting the drop, to prevent people from making the quite reasonable assumption that where there is a bus stop, there will also be a bus. Like a piece of surrealist art, ceci n'est pas une bus stop, and no public transport will stop there. Because, having planned a route and erected the stops, the council made the unfortunate discovery that our road is too bendy for buses to navigate without the real possibility of striking a pedestrian on the pavement, as they lurch, Italian job-style, around the curves of Gavin Way (the buses, not the pedestrians).

To continue the dual themes of buses and official incompetence, if you drive along Colchester High Street, you may anxiously look for traffic wardens, because it appears you are, unavoidably, driving in a bus lane - the only through route available. Happily you won't get a ticket, despite the road markings, because this is another example of the council putting on its trousers before its underpants, as they decided to ban private vehicles from driving through town, in a half-baked notion this would transform the place into Las Ramblas. Sadly the street cafe lifestyle failed to materialise when it was pointed out the ban would also extend to lorries delivering to the very shops the scheme was supposed to promote. So instead, the landscape has been enhanced with temporary road signs urging drivers to ignore the road markings. Ceci n'est pas un Bus Lane.

Two local examples that, I am sure, could easily be topped by other authorities all over the world. The sort of thing that makes good copy for local journalists, and conversation starters in pubs across the town. But I prefer see these things as positives. For where there are unnecessary bus stops and road markings that need making, so there are jobs for people making unnecessary signs, and mixing vats of unnecessary paint. Incompetence (or maybe, more kindly, jumping the gun), when applied across strategic sectors of the economy, might be just the catalyst we need to kick on the sluggish recovery. I have a feeling that, in 2029, when HS2 is finally completed, late and over budget, and obsolete after the successful launch of the personal jet pack in 2023, a similarly self-serving excuse about economic stimulus is the sort of thing a government minister will grasp at, when pressed as to why his predecessor thought getting to Birmingham quicker for £32bn was a good idea.

And it seems that others have also picked up on the idea of incompetence as a business strategy: Chipotle, an American Mexican food restaurant chain - the thinking man's Taco Bell - this week garnered a heap of publicity, after its twitter account was apparently hacked:



The apparent inability of Chipotle to use twitter went viral, and these tweets earned over 12,000 retweets (against a usual weekly RT number of about 75). Many people who had never heard of Chipotle were caught up in the apparent hamfisted attempts to grasp social media, and spread the story. Today, the restaurant admitted this was actually a deliberate strategy to spread awareness of the brand ahead of more formal publicity promoting its 20th anniversary celebrations (story here). Chipotle had managed to cut through the competing media noise not by being slicker than everyone else, but by being deliberately rubbish.

They may have been inspired by MP and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, who achieved similar, perhaps less wanted, attention after he accidentally tweeted his own name, on 29 April 2011 (he was trying to search for what twitter was saying about him). This inspired an Internet meme of people tweeting the hashtag #EdBalls, culminating in "Ed Balls day", two years after the event, a mass retweeting of the original posting (story here). Once again, idiocy and incompetence had gain traction with the wandering attentions of the world wide web.

From economic recovery through to business and media strategies, random acts of stupidity might be the way forward. Forget planning, forecasting, careful analysis and competence, it seems what the world actually needs is a greater number of idiots in charge of everything. To that end, when I look at the current crop of pinheads with their hands upon the levers, maybe things will turn out okay after all.

17 July 2013

Dawkin the walk

I'm going to stick my neck out here: I like Richard Dawkins. I like his writing, both the polemic tilts against religion and the more considered scientific writing. His contribution to the public understanding of science is profound, and if you ever doubt the scientific explanation of the universe can be poetic, I'd recommend you buy a copy of his "Unweaving the Rainbow". His refusal to kowtow to absurd woolly-mindedness because it happens to wear a dog collar, kippah or Qutwani is as necessary as it is un-English, and is, I am convinced, one of the reasons he is disliked by people who Don't Like To Make A Fuss. His desire to hold religious beliefs to the same burden of proof as any other belief systems often earns him the hilariously unoriginal sobriquet of "Atheist fundamentalist". You know, like one of those atheist fundamentalists you see all the time in England, barracking churches and blowing up vicars.

But he can be a terrible dick on twitter. Overbearing, Pooterish and, in accordance with bad twitter practice, retweeting others' praise of his work. This is particularly true when he steps outside the bounds of his usual academic interests and picks up something from current affairs or, even worse, sport. This week, he rather unwisely stepped into the debate about cricket and the morality of "walking". In a test match this week, an England player, Stuart Broad, was inexplicably not given out by the umpire, despite very evidently been caught after he hit the ball.

By way of background for the non-aficionado, in some quarters it is seen as being in the "spirit of the game" of cricket, that if you know you are out, you should walk off the pitch without waiting for the Umpire's signal, much less wait around on the off-chance that you might get away with it. As the debate over "walking" raged across the social networks, Prof D waded in with his size-10s:
So far, so Dawkins. But for an academic, he was playing remarkably fast and loose with some loaded terms. "Cheat", for example. So I asked Prof Dawkins:
To which he replied:
At this point, many people gently informed him that Australian cricketers have, historically, never walked in a test match (with a couple of notable exceptions). More interestingly, the perspicacious former England Rugby player Brian Moore chipped in the excellent observation that, if Broad declares himself out, despite the umpire declaring him not out, he is putting himself above the rules of the game, appealing to a higher morality. Which means, in the future, should he be given out by an umpire when he didn't hit it, by the same principle he would be entitled to refuse to leave the pitch, and declare himself still in. Clearly appealing to a higher power is sailing dangerously close to the wind for Professor Dawkins, so it was curious that at this point, he fell back onto the line of reasoning adopted by folksy preachers who can't cope with a contrary point of view:
This is like the populist firebrand claiming he doesn't need learning, evidence, strong arguments or thinking - he just knows what he knows, and has his faith to protect him against straw man arguments.
Which steered the conversation back towards something Professor Dawkins does know something about: competition, and its role in the evolution of life. Was not Stuart Broad's action natural in an environment that represents the pinnacle of competitive achievement? Was this not *whispers* Darwinism in action? Apparently not:
I couldn't resist it:
So far I have yet to receive a reply...