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Winter fishing trips

If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.

– Attributed to Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal et Duc de Richelieu

There’s been some excellent commentary on the Telegraph surgery subterfuge story, so I’ll just throw in this old quote from Cardinal Richelieu. I’ve not had time to think about Vince Cable’s actual comments on the upcoming News International decision, although my instinct is that it is a painful lesson learnt about the need to be circumspect about decisions that require an impartial judge. The other, more important side to the story is about setting a dangerous precedent, one that I suspect should be (and hopefully already is) illegal, as per David Howarth’s piece in the Guardian.

The Telegraph surgery visits were fishing expeditions. They weaken the established principle of collective responsibility that allows for private disagreement. To do so simply for the purpose of generating revenue, with the potential risk furthering a corporation’s political agenda, is not in the public interest. Given a prominent platform (such as a national newspaper), secretly recording any surgery visit would likely provide more than enough material to be turned into a harmful story. That includes simple mischief making that interferes with the workings of the state.

Many commentators are saying, “there’s nothing new here”. Arguably, however, if a major newpaper chooses to publish the interviews, then it is news to all intents and purposes. Systems requires some degree of trust to work effectively. It does nothing for the right’s beloved constituency link to force MPs to treat all their constituents as spies looking to make money. It would foster suspicion, and could create competition for an MP’s time – not to solve problems, but create them. That sounds profoundly unhealthy to me.

A free press play an important role in a liberal democracy. So does a trustworthy one. Countries are weakened by exactly this kind of chipping away at the foundations. If there is a need for more access to MPs’ personal views, it should be argued for in full view of the public, not by subterfuge targeted at individual parties.

Well done, Matt Cardle

Low as my opinion of the X Factor is, good on Matt Cardle for running the gauntlet and coming out a winner. I hope it gives him a chance at the artistic career that past bands and songwriting didn’t manage to deliver for him.

It’s interesting that Cage Against The Machine came in 21, while The Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird hit no. 3. The latter didn’t get old media that I noticed, so the Facebook campaign was very successful.

There’s may be some lessons to be learnt about campaigning here. Because Surfin’ Bird is a Family Guy reference to me (“have you heard the word” has been a running gag for annoying songs for my friends for ages), I never connected it to the Christmas chart competition. I’m not really one for keeping on top of Facebook groups, privacy-loving luddite that I am. So No. 3 via FaceBook alone is not a bad attempt at all – perhaps not quite enough to win the prize, though?

On the other hand, “Cage Against The Machine” did catch my attention – it had the obvious link to last year’s No. 1, Suggs, and articles on the BBC website and elsewhere. But 4′ 33″ is more a concept than a single, more performance art than recorded work. You need to be very arty farty or have a certain sense of humour to really go for it. While I was happy to cast a few pennies against the X Factor anyway, I wouldn’t bother with it otherwise. Too much reliance on concept, not enough meat.

Neither choice really made the same standout, visceral comment that Rage Against The Machine did – nor could the artists offer to do a free concert if they won. Although perhaps it was simple as various contenders to repeat last year “splitting the vote”. I really can’t get too worked about the charts myself, but probably anyone determined to repeat the RATM victory needs to coordinate better next year.

Anyway, the issues I have with the X Factor revolve around the corporation and the humiliation, not the artists. So good luck Matt Cardle, and I hope you enjoy the ride.

This is good fridge

My favourite spam comment/link so far: This is good fridge.

A new euphemism for “this is good s*@#” from an appreciative reader? A link to a site with an impressively well stocked refrigerator  for the party season, available to you for only £299.95, not including delivery? Inquiring minds want to know.

But not enough to actually click on the link.

Internet freedom and real world protest

There is an excellent article in the Guardian by Richard Stallman on internet protest. Stallman is a leading light in the open source movement, and one of the creators of the Linux platform (although the whole GNU/Linux conversation is a bun fight I won’t get into). He can often be a bit of a fanatic, which is of course how he’s managed to make such a contribution to the world. His closing paragraph deserves a bit of attention:

States seek to imprison the Anonymous protesters rather than official torturers and murderers. The day when our governments prosecute war criminals and tell us the truth, internet crowd control may be our most pressing remaining problem. I will rejoice if I see that day.

Stallman is actually pulling back on his past fanaticism here; I wouldn’t ever have expected him to acknowledge a potential need for “internet crowd control”. His priority is clear, however: open government before internet lockdown. RMS, as he’s often called, isn’t just promoting a point of view: he’s an extremely capable technologist. As long as the tools are being made, they will be used by people who believe it’s the only way they have a voice.

Note that the tool used in these protests is a utility tool, not a hacking one. It was built to stress test websites, a standard part of the development process. Trying to get rid of such a tool is the equivalent of trying to ban kitchen knives and claw hammers because they can cause damage.

The full article is worth a read. It points out that taking down the MasterCard website was more akin to the Top Shop protests than actually causing any damage. Although perhaps the protester’s histrionics weakens both their credibility and message. Large flashmobs simply descending on stores pretending to be shoppers, but not buying anything, would cause far more disruption to the business. High street retailers live or die by the shopping experience they provide – never being able to find a changing room on a Saturday could be quite a blow. You don’t need to glue your hands to the window and scream for attention to hit them where it hurts.

Perhaps not the wisest choice of photo

Apologies for being so shallow, but in this proud moment of getting to debate in the House of Commons as part of the UK Youth Parliament, is that lad just checking out his leader’s arse?

(from’s front page)

Settling in to a life in politics, perhaps, unless anyone can correct me on how unfailingly chivalrous and polite male MPs are in the House.

Cynic that I am, I would suspect this photo is chosen in part to encourage girls to get involved in politics. It certainly suggests that boys would heartily approve.

Lessons from past leaders

It’s generally not wise to ignore the comments of past leaders. Especially in Gordon Brown’s case: the complaint was really about his leadership, but his intelligence and knowledge and good intentions are well known. I was completely unaware he had released the book he was rumoured to be writing, Beyond The Crash. It got almost no media coverage whatsoever. The man was Chancellor of the Exchequer for a decade: how incompetent does the press have to be to ignore such work during a bad economy?

Samuel Brittan in the FT comments:

The question is not whether there is going to be a double-dip recession but whether output is falling increasingly behind potential; and unlike many macroeconomists Mr Brown can envisage this in terms of wasted lives and unused human potential .. my personal view is that the “cuts” of the coalition government mainly matter because of their role in tipping the balance of world debate towards a misplaced fiscal fundamentalism. Mr Brown is no Scottish wizard, but we would be wise to heed his warnings – and I write as someone who did not even vote for him.

Speaking of past leaders, Tony Blair also has some good advice for adherents in “progressive” politics from a recent talk (hat tip to John Rentoul in The Indepedent). I particularly liked his comment at 19 minutes in, which bracketed the section Rentoul transcribed:

I remember meeting a party activist who said to me, “The people have voted against us, now, four times in a row. What’s wrong with them?”


The final, final thing is this. In my view, for a progressive to win, you’ve got to be really good, and do really well, right. The conservatives can win, even in an average year. That’s my experience of politics.

Said with humour, but a serious message. Conservative fiscal messaging makes for a tough political opponent in a downturn. Many on the left however seem stuck in a “what’s wrong with the public?” stance. 2011 is going to be about finding a message that doesn’t trigger the public’s fear of governments spending money when there’s no money left.

Here’s the full video:

Oh happy, geeky day

Tron is an important precursor to Toy Story and the phenomenal success of the Pixar animation studio. It introduced 3D computer animation to the movies. The Light Cycle scene in particular is an all-time favourite, and one of the inspirations for John Lasseter (he of Toy Story fame). That was over a decade later, coming out in 1995 as compared to Tron in 1982. I was only 9 when it was released, and was completely blown away. In retrospect, it really captured where the digital world world was headed. I’m still waiting for the digital desk the bad guy has.

As befits a movie well before its time, some of the lines still resonate today:

Those of you who continue to profess a belief in the Users will receive the standard sub-standard training, which will result in your eventual elimination. Those of you who renounce this superstitious and hysterical belief will be eligible to join the Warrior Elite of the MCP.

– Sark, Tron (Disney, 1982)

In the technology world today, the network is re-asserting itself. We have Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, social networks, collaboration tools, WikiLeaks. Favouring the end user, the individual, is still seen by many who prefer a centralised model as a “superstitious and hysterical belief”.  The standard sub-standard training that doesn’t prepare you for survival, rejecting the truth before you can become “eligible” to join the “Elite” – all good anti-totalitarian messages! Orwell would approve.

Anyway, enough trying to read serious messages into Disney films. Oh happy, geeky day! for the sequel is out after a 28 year wait – Tron: Legacy.

I’ll probably leave it until the week between Christmas and New Year, but I’m looking forward to it. Definitely a cinema moment for me, not DVD. But I write this piece, perhaps foolishly, in more or less complete ignorance of the film. I’ve studiously avoided trailers and spoilers. The look and sound of this film being just as important as any actual plot, I want it as much of a surprise as possible.

Disappointment comes from high hopes, and I confess to having them: Jeff Bridges (The Dude abides, dude), apparently a cracking Daft Punk soundtrack, a unique aesthetic to update from the original, an original sound design to adapt. So I’ll enthuse about the possibilities, but remind myself how visually impressive yet absolutely awful the remake of The Sorceror’s Apprentice was. Classic Disney doesn’t necessarily survive the re-imagineering.

Technically, they will have had untold freedom compared to 1982. We’re all familiar with Pixar (Toy Story etc), DreamWorks (Shrek), The Matrix, to see how far CGI has come since the early eighties. We moved on from lines and curves to fractal geometry, algorithms to draw trees, even entire armies (Lord of the Rings).

Artistically however, what a wonderful context they work within. They are creating modern cyberspace, seen through the eyes of a living program. It doesn’t have to be human or realistic, as all those examples above did. They have a perfect license for as much stylistic interpretation as desired. Has there been any large scale artistic challenge interpreting cyberspace quite like this since the original Tron?

Artists and geeks can often be passionately focused (or, so fixated on believing they have the “correct” approach that it reaches the heights of religious bigotry). I bet it was a long, interesting discussion on how the latest technology should be used, a chance to look with fresh eyes at the digital canvas and brush. On one techie website (Slashdot), I recall some discussion about a teaser trailer where some fanatics were most offended the Light Cycle game suddenly allowed driving in curves, not just right angles!

The soundtrack is actually a different story. They were comparatively conservative here, with much of the music was played by the London Philharmonic. Composer Wendy Carlos was at the forefront of electronic music, but there is comparatively little electronica to be heard. Nothing like the fantastic Vangellis soundtrack for Blade Runner, released in the same year (on the bright side, I could follow the plot for Tron at that age). This time around, Daft Punk have all the musical tools to do an entirely electronic soundtrack with as much “humanity” as required to keep the audience engaged. Given a few decades of people growing up with or adapting to electronica, I’m really looking forward to hear what they’ve decided to do.

Against all that, the sequel is not a film made by a group of artists excited about doing something new and exciting, with tools never before used, supported by a studio taking a glorious leap into the unknown. Perhaps it will show signs of art by committee. Fingers crossed. I shall try to go in with my inner 9 year old self in wide-eyed, uncritical wonder.

Here’s the original light cycle scene. The sparse production design remains pretty radical. It’s a critical action set piece – but no music, just sound effects. Amazing stuff.

While checking links for this post, I found the production team behind Tron: Legacy is doing a remake of Disney’s The Black Hole, from 1979. That’s the only film I can remember watching on an actual home projection system at some primary school event. A genuine film film, not a VHS, Betamax or DVD film. Ah, back in the day ..

It’s funny how bad much of these films can seem now, when they were so perfect for young eyes having their minds blown away. There will be a real joy in seeing them re-made with today’s graphical technology and another 30 years of film making development. Film is still a maturing art form. I guess my one hope of all the things the industry has learnt, is that in return for inspiring John Lasseter to go on to create Pixar, Lasseter’s knack and craft for storytelling has fed back into computer effects dominated Tron.

Sums up the character flaws of Labour for me…

This story about the 100% Labour-run Newham Council is a reminder of the very real “spend! spend! spend!” trait in much of the party. Bear in mind that Newham, in the east end of London, is the sixth most deprived borough in the UK. There are people there that need help. So, what does a bunch of comfortable Labour politicians choose to do with their money?

  • A £111m office block.
  • A £547,000 per year newsletter.
  • The UK’s most expensive town festival, after the major Sir Robin Wales (born and bred Glasgow Labour boy) doubled its budget and named it after himself.

In their first round of cutbacks, they’ll mainly be letting go staff that work with young people. In one of the toughest parts of the country. Still, at least anyone feeling guilty will have £1,853 designer light fittings to brighten up their day.

Where do people get the idea that Labour likes to spend money?

Computer love

It seems to be true – blog regularly and thou shalt receive visitors. A warm welcome to everyone who has dropped by; thanks to everyone who’s left a comment. Initially, most of the comments were just the automated posts clogging up the filter. It’s nice to get hundreds of comments saying, “I’ve been reading your blog with interest and I value your opinion”, but it was starting to sound insincere.

Thank for all the attention, spambots, but I don’t think there’s a future for us.

Our children’s country

We all have our favourite charities. My life has been fairly lucky, so one area I favour is children’s charities. That’s fairly common, for all the obvious reasons. Everyone wants children get a fair shot at life. It’s fascinating to me that “children” isn’t a word front and centre on the various party websites.

We do talk about equality, social justice and families. The Lib Dems had the pupil premium as one of their four manifesto priorities, for instance, and rightly so. But when you look at any political website, things quickly move to a break down by department or policy area. Children’s needs cut across education, the economy, environmentalism, family law, and so on. Yet there is nothing collecting these issues into an easy-to-absorb fashion. There is Liberal Democrat Youth, but inevitably its focus is on engaging the young themselves, not the parents and relevant experts. The Tories talk about families, but you fear their real focus isn’t preserving the institution of marriage (give ’em tax breaks and don’t let the gays in!).

With some experience of working within a large corporation, I know this is more about marketing and communications than detailed policy work. But good marketing has a particularly useful benefit: it listens to everyone with an interest, and it results in changes across a wide number of departments.

For example, for every baby in the new year and onwards, I’d like

  • their parents to have support in the critical early years
  • their schooling to receive extra attention if they’re from a poor background
  • an understanding of modern Western liberal democracies and economies, i.e. finance classes rather than the market vs. state screaming match we have today
  • a choice of higher education suited to their needs (not just “degrees all round!”)
  • their ability to find work eased by efficient, low cost public transport
  • their long term security safe from environmental disaster

None of this is new. But unless I’ve missed something, there is nowhere you can go to get a clear, reasonably concise description of “this is the terrain through which we would like our children to navigate from 0 to 21 years”. Something written from several perspectives. Would it be easier to explain tax plans when you can tell different stories about growing up, relevant to the various bands of taxpayers? The current approach of jumping around from policy area to policy area, with detail upon detail of premiums, exceptions, means-tests, fees, interest rates, caps, gini coefficients, is painful enough for me. And I quite clearly like writing long winded articles; most people don’t even like reading them (thank you, by the way, if you’ve got this far).

The Lib Dems tend to be policy wonks, and highly motivated on particular issues. I believe this leads to policy-by-policy negotiation, sometimes leaving them weak in a coalition with a larger party. It makes it difficult to argue in areas such as general taxation, which is not directly allocated to any specific public good. Tuition fees has just provided a very prominent example of why this is a problem.

We need to move past policy wonkery to building a clear, credible narrative. What do we think the child should see when the veil of ignorance is taken away?

The future is our children’s country. I’d like to see what the Lib Dems think the map of that country should look like.