Daily Archives: 20 December 2007

Crazy 8 meme

Good grief – it’s all memes this time of year!

Well, I’ve been tagged by Alix Mortimer for the Crazy 8 meme, and so I’ll have a go:

8 things I am passionate about:

Land value taxation
Intergenerational equity
Secularism
Electoral reform (STV to be precise – god I’m a cliché)
Human rights
2000AD
Science
Boardgames

8 things I want to do before I die:

Finish PartyWatch
Beat Julian at Catan
Go freelance
Own a comic shop
Vote for and be part of the campaign that leads to a Lib Dem plurality government
Be an elected member of the second chamber of Parliament (no Commons for me!)
Read my own obituary
Visit New Zealand in an environmentally friendly way

8 things I say often:

Just fucking Google it!
I’ve got wood for sheep (f’narr!)
It was the cat
What would Judge Dredd do?
Fucking Moby
It’s all gravy
Cool
Yes (I say this too often in fact)

8 books I’ve read recently or am still reading:

The Possibility of Progress by Mark Braund
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling
Thrill-power Overload by David Bishop
The Nikolai Dante Omnibus by David Bishop (which I do NOT recommend)
Reinventing the State by Brack, Grayson and Howard (eds)
Location Matters by Tony Vickers
Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files by John Wagner et al
1984 by George Orwell (which one of these days I will get round to finishing I promise!)

8 songs I could listen to over and over and do:

The entirety of Vespertine and Homogenic by Björk (which is more than 8 tracks)

8 things that attract me to my best friends:

Geekiness
Humanity
Intellect
Liberalism
A sense of the ridiculous
Passion
Pragmatism
Scepticism

8 people I think should do Crazy 8s:

Antony Hook
Amanda Ryan
Alex Runswick
Nick Barlow
Richard Huzzey
Linda Jack
Alex Wilcock
Will Howells

Shadow Cabinet. Who’s up, who’s down (and who should be)

Up:

  • Chris Huhne (to Home Affairs): no big surprise that Chris is one of the big winners here. Brave of Clegg to invite comparisons: if Huhne does too good a job it might be used against his predecessor in the role.
  • Ed Davey (to Foreign Affairs): an interesting move. Have never pegged Ed as a Foreign Affairs guy, although his work (with Teather) on freeing the Guantanamo Three may have given him some relevant experience. As one of the Big Three posts, this rise to prominence has taken Davey a long time. For him, I suspect it has come at almost exactly the right time.
  • Julia Goldsworthy (to Communities and Local Government): Julia has done a sterling job at getting the Sustainable Communities Act through Parliament, so this is a suitable job for her. Given the Lib Dem commitment to devolving spending as well as powers, her Shadow Treasury background is useful as well. At the same time, she doesn’t come with local government baggage. A pretty perfect match between person and post.
  • Steve Webb (to Environment): a good heavy hitter on a post that needs one. Steve has the skills to keep Lib Dem green policies in the public eye. A sensible choice.

Down:

  • Lembit Opik (from DBERR to Housing): Lembit’s role as Shadow BERR has been pretty anonymous. Nonetheless, this move could be a good thing if Lembit (a man of considerable, if squandered, talents) were to put his mind to it. Housing is one of the most important issues we face. It effects everything from immigration (good to have an Eastern European in place then!) through to the state of the economy. Here’s my challenge to you Lembit: make this a flagship issue for the Lib Dems.
  • Michael Moore (from Foreign to International Development): Moore never really got much of a look-in while Ming was leader, as most of the attention went to the leader on this issue. So effectively this isn’t much of a demotion as at least in this role he’ll be his own person.
  • Lynne Featherstone (from International Development to youth and equalities): a bit harsh as Lynne was making real inroads here, exposing the fact that the government had cut billions from the international development budget at the stroke of a pen. Should be good at her new brief, but seems a bit tokenistic.
  • Jo Swinson (from women and equalities to ???): Swinson did a good job at boosting this role’s profile, just as she did a good job as Scottish spokes. This seems like a particularly harsh, and illogical, demotion.

Stagnating:

  • Nick Harvey (Defence): Harvey’s been doing this role for a while now, yet remains anonymous despite the fact that the military have been on the warpath on defence spending and the breaking of the “covenant”. Keeping him here is therefore a little perplexing. However, with Ming being given a special role for “conducting a full review of Britain’s future military capability” this looks rather like a demotion in disguise.
  • Don Foster (Culture): Foster has been in this role forever, yet the only time he ever comes to prominence is this time of year to complain about the number of repeats on the telly. As someone who likes repeats (if you aren’t a telly addict it gives you a chance to catch up and it is better than yet more valueless trash), I would dearly love to see us change this particular tune.
  • Jenny Willott (nothing): Most insiders agree that Willott is one of the biggest wasted talents in the Parliamentary Party. She is passed up for promotion time after time. My understanding is that this is her choice. Utterly perplexing.

UPDATE: It appears that London Young Labour have chosen to make this post the subject of a press release. Any journalists reading this should take note that Jo Swinson has never been either the party youth spokesperson or Chair of LDYS. For a full corrective, see my subsequent post.

Who is closer to the heart of the nation – Bowie or God?

Brian Eno and Nick Clegg with da yootI find these so-called Clegg gaffes rather perplexing. I’m not a great believer in either Bowie or God, although I do at least respect the former.

It’s interesting to see that as far as the Telegraph is concerned, the Bowie and Pogues gaffes were far more serious than admitting to atheism, which only goes to show how times change (note also that while the Telegraph feels the need to point out who Nick Clegg is in the caption accompanying their photo, they take it for granted that everyone knows what Brian Eno looks like, even though he is rather less hirsute than he used to be).

I have to admit – I’m human – that I find it rather odd for the fan of a recording artist to list a greatest hits compilation as their favourite album or for a non-Martian to have never heard Fairytale in New York. The latter provoked an immediate reaction from one of my friends listening to him on the radio who texted me immediately (while I was sitting next to Clegg in fact, and I was planning to ask him about it if he had stuck around for a bit longer).

What’s most confusing though, is that painting Clegg as a young fogey simply won’t do. Young fogeys don’t set fire to cacti collections, drive around America with a Fistful of Theroux or hang out with Christopher Hitchens dressed as circus freaks. It just strikes me as odd that he wouldn’t have been able to answer those questions without trouble. My personal theory is that it was down to stress.

But casting Eno as a “youth” adviser? I’m not sure about the efficacy of having a youth adviser at all, but getting a man six months off from his sixtieth birthday strikes me as particularly odd. Eno strikes me as a pretty positive spokesperson for his own generation, the boomers who are slowly waking up to the fact that mortality applies to even them. Why not make him an adviser for that generation?

On God, I have to say Clegg’s first answer was better than his second. In this respect, it is a moot point whether we have made progress from Ming Campbell, who always seemed to get his answers correct on the second attempt.

His first answer, on Five Live, was a straight “no”. The follow up, a statement coming from his office, gushed about his agnosticism and emphasised that his children we being brought up Catholic. Without the clarification, this story would have had far fewer legs. With the clarification it makes him look like the epitome of the vacillating, anything-you-want-guv career politician. It would seem that Clegg’s instincts remain sharper than his office’s. The same office that nearly plucked defeat from the jaws of victory earlier this week (it’s called a P45 Nick).

It does put all this Christianophobia guff into perspective. Why should a politician feel the need to bend their knee to the pope in this way if we live in such an anti-religious society?

Another MP, who shall remain nameless, sent me their Christmas card. The front of it is a perfectly charming nativity scene. On the back, there is a still more endearing and funny picture of a polar bear which came runner up. I can’t help but feel that this polar bear lost out purely due to political correctness rather than any artistic merit, but where are the likes of Mark Pritchard denouncing it?

Blog Awards – I am the law!

Judge Graham badgeI enjoyed being a judge so much for the ERS blog awards earlier this year I decided I might try my hand again.

This time I’m to be the token male for the inaugural Campaign for Gender Balance Blog Awards.

I’m not going to express my own views about who I think should be nominated here as it obviously would be appallingly inappropriate. What I can do however is start a meme, in time honoured blog tradition.

This meme is very simple and largely based on the nominations process. Tagged bloggers are asked to do the following:

  1. Provide a link to the Gender Balance website (http://genderbalance.org.uk/pages/awards.html) and encourage as many people as possible to submit their nominations that way.
  2. Suggest THREE Blogs that should be nominated for in the Best Blog by a Woman Lib Dem category, and state why.
  3. Suggest THREE blog posts that should be nominated for the Best Blog Post By a Woman Lib Dem category, and state why.
  4. Suggest THREE Blogs that should be nominated for in the Best Blog by a Woman Non-Lib Dem category, and state why.
  5. Name THREE living women you would like to see blog, and state why. These can be women from any walk of life, not just Lib Dems (although that doesn’t mean they can’t be).
  6. Tag five other bloggers you would like to do the meme.

I can do the last bit at least, and nominate:

Tag! Of course, anyone else reading this is more than welcome – in fact encouraged – to do the meme themselves.

Homeophobia? I am not a scientist but…

Article slightly amended from first version – woke up this morning to realised I’d forgotten to make a point.

Rustum Roy writes a belated rebuttal of Ben Goldacre’s diatribe about homeopathy in the Guardian last month. We are to understand that anyone who is sceptical about homoeopathy is to be regarded as a “homeophobe”. This is starting to sound even less like science and even more like identity politics.

A few lines in this article wrestled for my attention. First:

As it happens, there is agreement among all those who have studied liquid water that it is, in fact, the critics, who are totally wrong. Proof? Diamond is the planet’s hardest material; graphite one of the softest. They are absolutely identical in composition, and they can be interconverted in a millisecond with zero change of composition.

I hasten to preface this with the disclaimer that I am not a scientist, but hang on a minute. The Queen is not constantly in fear that, at any given millisecond, her priceless Koh-i-noor diamond might turn into a pencil. I’m sure there are processes that can convert carbon to diamonds and vice versa, but they aren’t exactly easy to come by.

The reason why carbon can exist in multiple forms is fairly well understood – if I remember my GCSE chemistry it is all to do with “spare” electrons – and it is hard to see what relevance it has here. We know, for instance, that water can interchange from liquid to solid to gas, but that doesn’t prove it has a “memory”.

In any case, I’m also not convinced that Goldacre was basing his argument on scepticism about the idea that might have a memory. He only mentioned the word once in his article. The science behind memory metals is now well understood, and there are other applications of the same principle.

But it is one thing to say that water might have a “memory” and quite another to claim that snake venom diluted in water to an extraordinary degree can be used as a cure for feverish symptoms. The argument is not with the science; it is taking that science and contorting it to an absurd degree. I might just as well claim that the alpha waves emitted by my brain can be used to program water.

Roy also writes:

But the main thrust of Goldacre’s argument is the role of the “placebo effect”. Yes, this works. And, yes, it is without doubt present in every homeopathic intervention; but it is far more powerfully present in orthodox medical pills because they are advertised so widely in billion-dollar campaigns.

Goldacre is accurate in pointing out the high rates of positive v negative outcomes in many of the homeopathy studies. But there are enormous discrepancies in any set of randomised controlled trials on the same orthodox pills.

Does Goldacre seriously suggest that a homeopathy paper with a positive outcome would be treated fairly in any mainstream journal?

This is a very circular argument. “My paper won’t get treated fairly, therefore I won’t submit it” is a pretty piss-poor excuse. And once again, Goldacre is not – as far as I’m aware – claiming that “orthodox” pills are the answer to everything. He’s has written plenty of critical articles about “Big Pharma”. When he writes about the placebo effect, he’s talking about its effect in traditional medicine as much as the alternative:

You both think you know about the placebo effect already, but you are both wrong. The mysteries of the interaction between body and mind are far more complex than can ever be permitted in the crude, mechanistic and reductionist world of the alternative therapist, where pills do all the work.

The placebo response is about far more than the pills – it is about the cultural meaning of a treatment, our expectation, and more. So we know that four sugar pills a day will clear up ulcers quicker than two sugar pills, we know that a saltwater injection is a more effective treatment for pain than a sugar pill, we know that green sugar pills are more effective for anxiety than red, and we know that brand packaging on painkillers increases pain relief.

A baby will respond to its parents’ expectations and behaviour, and the placebo effect is still perfectly valid for children and pets. Placebo pills with no active ingredient can even elicit measurable biochemical responses in humans, and in animals (when they have come to associate the pill with an active ingredient). This is undoubtedly one of the most interesting areas of medical science ever.

If the limit of Professor Roy’s ambition is to claim that homeopaths are no worse than big pharmaceutical companies interested more in making lots of money than they are in actually making people well, then whoop-de-doo. I thought you were claiming to be the good guys?

It reminds me of Great Cthulhu’s eternal presidential election slogan “why vote for the lesser evil?“.

In defence of the unknown researcher

There’s one thing I meant to blog about following the announcement of the Lib Dem leadership which up until now I haven’t got around to.

In an interview with Jon Sopel immediately after the leadership election result announcement on Tuesday, Chris Huhne yet again recited the rubric that the “Calamity Clegg” dossier was misnamed by a “junior researcher” without Huhne’s knowledge. Right now, said junior researcher is probably feeling pretty low at the moment. When your candidate is the underdog and is pipped at the post by just 511 votes, it is pretty hard to deny that things like this made a real difference. Speaking personally, I am in no doubt that if the Calamity Clegg thing hadn’t blown up in Huhne’s face he would now be leader.

But this researcher shouldn’t be made to feel all that bad about it and I hope this episode hasn’t disenchanted them. Anyone who followed the campaign will recognise that Huhne had been pushing Clegg pretty hard on his position on public services for weeks before that fateful Politics Show and it was clear that for a long time he was doing it because of a perceived electoral advantage rather than because he genuinely didn’t know the answer or thought Clegg had something to hide. That’s largely Team Clegg’s fault – they should have nipped it in the bud long before it came to a head by going on the offensive and challenging Huhne to sign up to an X-point pledge on public services. If they hadn’t been so pathologically afraid of ever going on the offensive, Huhne would never have been able to make so much headway*. Nevertheless, I do think Huhne crossed a line about a week before the Politics Day incident. If his point was about Clegg’s poor communication skills, he should have started ramming that point home. Instead what he continued to push was the suggestion that Clegg was a rabid rightwinger in disguise. That was Huhne’s mistake, not a junior researcher.

The other factor is, the more junior the researcher, the more likely it was that they were simply doing what they understood to be their job. The office culture is key. “Calamity Clegg” didn’t come from nowhere. It was almost certainly a phrase which had been going around the office, mouthed from time to time by senior team members. They were almost certainly too experienced to have made the mistake, but if they had been using that kind of language the less experienced members of their team could be forgiven for assuming it was okay to put in a press briefing.

I’ve worked in highly pressured political offices and know what its like. I’ve made horrible mistakes like this that have made me feel wretched. Fortunately, I’ve never been in such a situation whereby such mistakes get loudly condemned by senior politicians on live television. Chris sold himself on his strong management credentials, but this blame game doesn’t come across as good management to me. Leave the poor guy (or guyess) alone.

* This incident reminds me of the Hartlepool by-election campaign when Jody Dunn was left on the dangle over her now infamous blog post. What should have been a golden opportunity to turn it around and present Labour as being soft on crime and anti-social behaviour (“I’m sticking up for the people of Hartlepool who are sick of how anti-social behaviour has risen under Labour; Iain Wright is siding with the drunks and people with dangerous dogs” etc) became a noose which was draped around her neck. I have the horrible feeling that the same people who left her on the dangle were behind Clegg’s campaign as well, and none of them could be described as junior.