“Real Artists Ship”

Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Observer (1)

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

There seems to be an obvious solution to the problem of finding a chair for the child abuse enquiry which has so far failed twice to appoint someone with requisite knowledge due to their close establishment figures of the time. That solution is to appoint someone from outside the UK to chair the enquiry. Even if someone with good knowledge of the English legal system is required, then this doesn’t seem to be a problem; enough Commonwealth countries have legal systems that are strongly enough based on the English system to provide someone with the background required.

It seems that we bend over backwards to insist that we should provide democratic and judicial systems to the rest of the world, and insist on international observers for elections etc. Yet, when the failure of democracy and justice is in our own back yard, we fail to apply the same solution.

Voting on Difficult Things

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

On the day of the Scottish independence referendum, it is interesting to think about how large collections of people should make decent decisions on big issues. Voting isn’t a bad way forward, but when issues are big and likely to be irreversible (at least for a while), there is a fear that a bad decision might be made. In particular, there is always a fear that some minor slip-up, or some temporary surge of feeling, might distort the result.

One approach to this is to require a “supermajority”. That is, the change needs the approval of more than 50%, for example needing 66% support or 80% support. Surely, the argument goes, if a decision is that important, it oughtn’t to depend on the whims of a few people around the borderline. This approach brings a bias towards the status quo—it sees the change as the problem, whereas we might want to say that the decision not to change might be just as momentous a decision. Put another way, once something has been fixed one way, it means that a small minority can keep it that way.

Instead, I propose multiple votes over a reasonable time scale. One of the problems with the single vote, even with a supermajority, is the “morning after” effect; a rush of enthusiasm for one side or the other, or a single screwup by one side, can mean that people might make a capricious decision on the day. By repeating the vote a number of times and averaging in some way, these effects could be smoothed out.

Provocative Question (1)

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

If you had to pay to vote—how much would you be prepared to pay?

Mock (1)

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

Something that is easy to forget is that when some activity is assessed by government or some public body, that the organisation or people being assessed will inevitably hold at least one mock/pilot exercise, which is at least as onerous than the real one (perhaps more, as the feedback is often more thorough). I’ve seen examples of this in public examinations (when head teachers complain about the “constant” exam load on their students, it is worth bearing in mind that students are doing one mock exam for every real exam) and in universities with research assessments, teaching inspections, etc. I’m sure the same is true for hygiene inspections in cafés etc., and with quality assessments in hospitals, prisons etc.

Therefore it is worth bearing in mind a rule of thumb: if you say “X will happen every (say) four years”, on the ground it will seem like it is happening every two.

Parlimentary Time

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

When politicians say “there’s not enough parliamentary time” to deal with an issue, the public find this ludicrous. There’s 650 MPs, hundreds more in the Lords, and thousands of assistants of various kinds, only sitting for a part of the year. The idea that there is only time to deal with a handful of issues at a time seems astonishingly inefficient.

Levels of Indirection (1)

Friday, April 19th, 2013

So, let me get this right. The company that sent this letter used a private mail provider, which have been encouraged because it is assumed that they would be able to undercut the publicly run mail service due to “private sector efficiencies”. Then, having taken its admin costs and profit from that service, they were able to subcontract this out to the publicly-run Royal Mail, who were able to do the work at break-even or better for whatever money was left. Who’s efficient now?

This has somewhat of the same flavour as James Meek’s piece for the London Review of Books, in which he points out that one of the completely unexpected consequences of electricity privatisation was that the privatised industries would, to a large extent, be bought up by nationalised companies elsewhere in Europe: “Why was it that we had to lose our nationalised industries in order to hand them over to nationalised industries from other countries?”

Utopias (1)

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

An interesting question raised on AskMe earlier today: why, when there is an event like the Boston Marathon bombing, do some people (people from the UK are particularly noted) make a point of pointing out that similar, indeed much worse, events are happening every day in other parts of the world with hardly a register on news media in “the West”.

Certainly such thoughts have occurred to me, though I find it rather crass to express them at a time such as this. Why do I feel this way, and why might others? Certainly not for the “anit-Americanism” being suggested in some of the responses; my impression is that most people who have commented upon the bombing in that way are not saying that the Boston events should not be reported, but asking why it is reported in that way relative to, say, the low-key reporting of 24 people being killed in incidents in Afghanistan a couple of days later (there may be an exception to this in the smaller number of people who are saying things like “America has perpetrated worst incidents”, which has the dangerous and illogical implication that events such as this are somehow “deserved”).

Nor do such thoughts give rise to the “moral superiority” discussed by other commenters. I wouldn’t want to point out these inequities just to feel smug about doing so—the idea that people would think that I’m getting my moral rocks off by having such a thought seems disgusting.

I think the reason that these thoughts come to mind to me is more to do with a background sense of what I feel ideal news reporting should be like; my “news utopia” reports on things because of the importance of the topic, not because of the nationality or race of the participants. When something so clearly works against this I feel a genuine emotional sense of unsettledness.

It seems weird to me that some people think that the only reason someone could want to be critical is to come out as superior or biased in some way; I feel that the main role of criticism is to bring us collectively towards something better and more equitable.

I used to think that everyone went around with a set of “utopias” like this in their heads; some sense of what, if we could sort out all the pesky details, we could get to that would be better than what we currently have. But, it surprises me how little this mode of thinking exists.

One of my favourite management techniques is the “queen for a day” thought exercise. If you are in a situation, what would you do if you were “queen for the day” and could just make everything work right (in an unmagical way; no defying the laws of physics or having billions of pounds to throw at the problem). This is really useful to act as an anchor point; once you have determined peoples’ ideals, then you can work back from them to find a good solution that goes pragmatically somewhere towards them all. But, it surprises me how often I ask this question and people haven’t given it a thought at all before I mention it; by contrast, I usually have a (contestable, changeable, incomplete) idea of the “ideal” in a particular situation as part of my day-to-day thinking toolbox about the situation.

“You turn if you want to…”

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

Interesting attempt by Labour to shift the use of the phrase “U-turn” in politics:

I’ve never really liked the aversion to “U-turns” in politics. I can see that we don’t want people flip-flopping between decisions, but too strong an aversion to changing your mind in light of changing situations and new evidence can leave politics very unagile and leaden. It would be great if politicians could say “in response to overwhelming public pressure / new evidence … / the shift towards … /etc. we have decided to …” without opening themselves to accusations of U-turning.

City of Edinburgh Council Fail

Monday, July 16th, 2012

Public sector organisations are desperate for people to engage with them online. This has the potential to be, in the long run, transformative and radically cost-reducing.

But not if they do what the City of Edinburgh Council did to me. In April 2012, just after I received my Council Tax bill, I filled out the form on the Council website, and received an email back as follows:

Thank you for submitting your form for Set up a direct debit to pay your Council Tax or Non-Domestic Rates. Your request will now be processed and a bill detailing your direct debit payments issued to you.

Fine. I’ve sorted out my payments and don’t have to worry about this anymore.

But…no. I returned from a little while away to find a reminder notice (with no mention of the original direct debit) and, as I had been away and missed the original payment date, a Sheriff Officers’s letter demanding that I pay the original charge plus a 150 pound penalty fee.

I phone the City of Edinburgh Council, and after fighting with the telephone tree for several minutes finally managed to speak to a human. They said that the Direct Debit had failed and that I was meant to interpret the reminder (which made no mention of the Direct Debit) as an indication of this, despite having received the email saying that my “Direct Debit…was being processed” with no further email or letter to say that it had failed.

A call to my bank received the response that no Direct Debit Mandate had been received from the council, and therefore no payments had been able to be made.

I remain livid about this. I had tried to be a “good citizen” and use the system that the Council were promoting heavily, only to be stiffed with a financial penalty with no explicit warning that my attempt to pay by Direct Debit had failed, just a generic “reminder” which might still have been sent if the DD had been in the middle of being processed. Of course I’m going to appeal against the penalty but I don’t see why I should have to go through all this trouble.

Based on this experience I would advise people not to engage with this way of paying Council Tax—which is a pity as I am usually a great advocate of using technology to improve public services.

What could they have done better:

  1. Informed me properly that the Direct Debit had failed. A generic reminder letter, received after I had already received a positive email to say that my payment was being processed, was not enough. They really need to follow up that positive email with an explicit email/letter to say that the specific means of payment had failed.
  2. Shown some contrition when I phoned up to sort this out. If they had just said “yes, okay, we’re sorry that we didn’t inform you, we’ll take the payment now and waive the penalty charge” I would have been perfectly happy. As it is I’m now fired up to write letters to my Councillors and MP and to the local paper and tweet about it.
  3. Got the damn process right in the first place. If you’re going to try and persuade people to use a new system it really needs to work from the outset, otherwise people will be put off it for years. I’ll probably not engage with this web-based system again, I just don’t trust it. Early failure can poison the well for ever: I still don’t trust the automated cheque paying-in systems in banks because the first time I tried one, 20 years ago or so, it just failed and lost my cheque.

Update 2012-07-18. Edinburgh council sorted out the problem the next day and waived the penalty charge, and gave a very sincere apology. Kudos to them for fast correction of mistakes.

Multiculturalism is my Native Culture

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

There has been much poo-poohing of multiculturalism in the press and politics of the last few years. At best, these critiques argue that it is a half-arsed compromise; at worst, a threat to the existence of civilisation.

Multiculturalism is my native culture. As such, these attacks feel as strong to me as any attack on a specific culture.

I believe that multiculturalism—perhaps more accurately, panculturalism, the belief that through enthusiasm, tolerance and excitment about the rich variety of world cultures—we can create a society that is richer and more exciting to live in than any parochial monoculture.

I’ve visited monocultures, both by travelling half way across the world and getting a train half-an-hour out of London. I find their constant filtering of life through a single lens tedious.

In so many ways—from the trivial issue of being able to get food from a dozen cultures within five minutes of my flat, to interacting on a day-to-day-basis with people whose backgrounds are so different from mine, this is a key part of what makes my life interesting and meaningful.

This ain’t your grandmother’s multiculturalism anymore. People born in major cities in many countries are increasingly growing up as pancultural natives. To them, the UKIPpy desire to create (yes, create, not return to; you cannae step in the same river twice) a new, tedious monoculture is a threat to their native culture as any external “threat”.

We need to reclaim multiculturalism from the idea that it is a compromise for everyone involved, and celebrate the idea that we can create a better society by bringing together the best that we all have to offer.

Pink (1)

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

It’s like feminism never bloody happened:

mother's day pink tool set

“You switch if you want to…”

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

The government and the press occasionally get in conniptions about why people aren’t switching energy providers (or similar service providers) more readily. The government has gone to all the trouble of creating a rich marketplace of competitive providers, with the intention that people will exploit this liquid market by readily moving from provider to provider and therefore putting pressure on the providers to provide efficient, cheap services.

But the people have spoken with their feet—the bastards—by standing still and refusing to change fluidly. Why? Part of the problem is that the stalls set out by all of the providers are obscure and uncomparable. The last time I talked to an energy supplier we had a conversation along the lines of “your last three months gas and electricity usage amounted to about 35 pounds a month; therefore we’ll set your direct debit at 73 pounds a month”. When I asked for an explanation of what “therefore” meant in that sentence, there was, of course, no explanation. It was take-it-or-leave-it; and, the same would no doubt be true for all other providers. Comparison sites help somewhat here.

Another part of the problem is that people have bought into the efficient market hypothesis and therefore don’t see the point in switching. This is meta-capitalism: the effect of awareness of market mechanisms on the market itself (a slapdash version of the “Lucas critique”). People commonly say “it might be cheaper now, but I’m sure it will all even out in the next few weeks”, which is reinforced by headlines like “final energy provider falls into line and puts up prices”. This is where service markets vary from the markets concerned with the purchase of individual items; in a one off transaction, a customer can immediately benefit from the cheapness of a widget there-and-then; with a service, conditions might change rapidly.

There seems to be a further effect here. All providers feel the need to present themselves to the customer in largely the same way: a complex, incomprehensible presentation together with an assertion that they are therefore obviously the best and that if you tie-in now for the next 24 months you will get an even better deal. It seems that there is some conservation law of complexity emerging here whereby the complexity of presentation to the customer remains the same across providers, regardless of the number of providers in the system.

It is odd why there isn’t a provider that tries to distinguish itself by radical simplicity—the “Gordon Ramsay” strategy of “throw away the complex twelve-page menu and write half-a-dozen dishes on the blackboard”. I don’t think that there is anything conspiratorial going on here, it is just that such an approach is too big a risk to try, and the costs for new entrants with a radically new strategy is too high. It is interesting that in another industry—gym subscriptions—which previously had a similar complexity of presentation to the energy firms, has recently been shaken up by the emergence of upfront, fixed price, no tie-in providers. But, it is easier to build a few gyms (or just one) and experiment with a new model.

I wonder if there is an opportunity for a supplier to run a “diffusion line” under a different name, with a radically different level of complexity of presentation? This would bring a new “provider” into the market backed by the requisite infrastructure but without the risk of the original provider exposing its whole customer base to the experimental strategy.

One in 1926; one in 2010

Monday, December 5th, 2011

It is interesting to consider just how over-represented the major public schools are in parliament/government. There are around 500,000 pupils in independent schools in the UK. Eton College has about 1300 pupils. There are over three million pupils in UK state secondary schools. Thus, in each year, around 1 in 2600 school-leavers was an Eton pupil.

In recent elections, around 120 new MPs have been elected. If entry to parliament was distributed equally by school attended, then we would expect to see one new Old Etonian entering parliament every 21 elections!

Gove likes Beyoncé Really

Monday, November 28th, 2011

It is interesting that, in a recent speech, Michael Gove dissed Gordon Brown’s professed liking of the Arctic Monkeys as “teenage” taste. It was Gove who, reviewing on The Review Show started to make politicians look culturally engaged in a contemporary way, with his positive comments about a wide range of both “high” and “low” culture performances—he seemed to show a genuine appreciation of a breadth of culture.

Of course, speeches are not written by people who speak them, and I am sure that this was just a bit of political-machine posturing to try and appear serious in (supposedly) crisis-ridden times. But, this seems a posture that is wide-of-the-mark; once again, politicians, in trying to be serious, end up looking like wonkish obsessives who are out of touch not just with “da yoof” but with serious people in middle age.

Insouciant or Old-farty?

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

John Prescott on the Channel 4 news tonight referring to what was being posted on “the Twittering” made him seem really out-of-touch. There was a time when this kind of casual unfamiliarity with popular culture was an insouciant flag that one’s mind was on more important things, that one did not concern oneself with trivia—a schtick that Brian Sewell plays (more consciously than a lot of people realise) to this day.

I don’t think that this really works anymore. You just end up looking old-farty rather than insouciant, like a desperate old uncle trying to show that you are still down with the kids but just getting it wrong. There seem to have been three stages in this process:

  1. A time when politicians and similar public figures were expected not to engage with popular culture at all—where it would have been seen as bizarre to expect that they would.
  2. A time where they were increasingly expected to have some engagement but didn’t really, and so wheeled out some press-officer verbiage about who their favourite band or Eastenders star is—sometimes excruciatingly off-the-mark (like one of our admissions officers talking about “Florence and the Rage Against the Machine” playing at the university summer ball).
  3. A time now when they genuinely do engage with popular culture, and it would seem weird not to.

Not Really about Scottish Independence (Perhaps)

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

The victory by the SNP in the recent Scottish Parliament elections is interesting less for what it says about Scottish independence, and more about what it says about what sort of political parties are in demand by the electorate. The SNP, unusually for contemporary nationalist parties, is a centre-left social democratic party. One way of interpreting the vote (to confirm this, of course, would need more careful research) is to suggest that the SNP is the only mainstream straightforward centre-left party remaining in the UK, and that the victory represents a latent demand for such a political position that both Labour and the LibDems have moved away from.

So, perhaps the victory isn’t about Scottish independence after all, but about the SNP filling a much-needed role in the political landscape. Would this position, therefore, be tenable across the UK? Or is it just in Scotland where this demand exists to any great extent?

Having said that the vote was not about Scottish independence per se, perhaps it gives support for it in a different way. Traditionally, appeals for the independence of a nation have been based largely on history and sentimentality—the desire of a specific group to identify as “a people”. Perhaps the current situation in Scotland reflects a situation in which a new kind of rationalist argument for independence can be made—essentially, that the political landscape in Scotland has sufficiently moved away from the rest of the UK that representation by the Westminster parliament is no longer sensible, and that a rational basis for the creation of political units is the existence of a coherent political landscape.

Of course, under such a scheme Brighton should probably also be an independent country.


Sunday, October 31st, 2010

Make up your own political joke here…

Access up to Conservative club (turn left)

What you see is what you get

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

Something that I talked to many people about over the years is their sense of how “dense” (in terms of urban buildup) the country is. This is a subject that can readily spill out into hard political argument—for example, a favoured tactic of those who oppose immigration is to argue that the country is “full” and that there is physically no room for more building. This doesn’t seem to me to be the case at all.

One idea that seems to have promise in explaining this is considering the effect of different forms of transport on people’s perception of their environment. I usually travel by train, and this gives me a certain perspective on the density of the environment. For example, leaving from an inner London train station on an inter-city train I am out of the built up area in around 15 minutes. For most other cities, this time period is around 5 minutes. Furthermore, mainline trains rarely go close to smaller villages. As a result, a journey like London to Edinburgh is 4½ hours of essential rurality; 15 minutes to leave London, then a few periods of 5-10 minutes in the outskirts of a city. Overall, the majority of the journey is spent in open country.

Contrast this with a car or coach journey. It can easily take a road vehicle an hour to get out of London, and many other cities take 20-30 minutes to get in or out of. This makes a huge difference to the perception of people as to how much land those cities occupy. If have your journey is taken up with getting into and out of cities, then you could easily imagine that the country is very dense and urban.

I would argue that my country-centric view from the train is more accurate, as can be seen by studying a map. Despite the UK being a very built-up country, the only map page that looks predominantly urban is that displaying London. Most of the rest show towns and cities sitting in a predominantly green, rural context.

There is an interesting study to be done to see if this is borne out across a large sample; could we correlate people’s estimates of the density of the country against their predominant modes of transport?

Apologies, Politicians and Frog-boiling

Friday, September 10th, 2010

One of the things that disappointed me about Vince Cable’s dismal speech about science funding on Wednesday was the lack of any sense of contrition or apology. This seems to have become a common feature of political talk in the last few decades, a sunny pseudo-optimism even in the face of bad news, reminiscent of the caricature of the bad manager: “to enhance your career development we have decided to make you redundant”.

It is easy to see why this kind of speechcraft has developed. Admitting to some kind of problem or apologising for what you are about to do clearly lays the speechmaker open to a direct criticism—by speaking like this you are instantly setting out a potential negative side of the proposed course of action, or else seeming uncertain or indecisive. Nonetheless, I wonder if the longer-term cumulative effect is worse. By couching everything in the same terms, regardless of whether it is good or bad news, the audience gradually loses interest and engagement over months or years. I notice that when I am reading a newspaper and I come across an article that has a politician’s byline, I (with a few exceptions) skip the article even if the headline is of interest.

This seems to be an example of the idea of “frog boiling” discussed in Charles Handy’s book The Age of Unreason(ISBN 978-0099548317). He notes that, according to folk wisdom, a live frog placed in a pan of water that is increased gradually in temperature will let itself be boiled alive—at no point will the change in temperature be significant enough on a short enough timescale for the frog to notice. Similarly, in this example it seems as though the cost of avoiding short-term criticisms is a long-term decline in credibility.

This has been around for a while. I opposed the Iraq War, and, whilst I cannot think of an argument that would have convinced me that it was a good idea, I would have been somewhat pacified had the argument been presented as “we have spent long and hard thinking about this and the alternatives, and, whilst the option of war is not something that we opt for lightly, having considered carefully the options we have decided that regrettably it is something that we must do, for the following reasons”. I still wouldn’t have agreed with the decision, but I would have felt somewhat listened to, and it would have probably influenced my voting behaviour. As it was, I felt utterly ignored, and as a result decided that, regardless of anything, I would hold off voting for Labour for the next couple of elections.

This also seems to be one of many examples where a single principle (in this case, “avoid offering a criticism or negative in your speech”) has become completely dominant, to the point where almost no-one ignores it or bothers to assess the negative consequences of the principle.

Social Mobility

Friday, August 27th, 2010

The so-called “university admissions crisis” this summer has led to a decent amount of discussion in the media about the notion of social mobility. This is a complex concept with a number of possible interpretations, see for example the recent article by Stefan Collini in the Guardian, which presents three different models for social mobility.

One model for social mobility is the notion the idea of “raising aspirations”—the idea that people, regardless of background, should aspire to whatever job (or similar) that they are capable of doing. This is often simplified to the notion that working class students should aspire towards middle class jobs.

There is an important tacet notion here, which is that children from working class backgrounds have a concept of the middle classes. I would argue that this is not an obvious assumption at all. I would argue that this isn’t really true—for many working class children, the class structure consists of “normal people” and “posh people”. The gulf between these two groups seems vast. Interestingly, a similar notion applies the other way, with upper class aristocrats seeing anyone who works for a living as part of a general “working class”.

This massive perceived gulf makes aspirations towards social mobility harder than they ought to be. Working class children might well neither see it either as realistic or desirable to aspire towards being “posh” but don’t really have any notion of there being anything intermediate that could be a reasonable aspiration.