¦ What You Can Get Away With

Atomic – Flying Rodent proposes a new direction for the military. “I put it to you that the track record of unusable weapons has proven beyond doubt to be vastly superior to the performance of the ones that we actually can deploy.”
18 Scientists On What They Actually Think About Climate Change – Yes, it’s Buzzfeed, but it’s interesting.
Why we don’t have electronic voting – A simple explainer of the myriad problems that need to be solved before it could happen.
9 questions about Saudi Arabia you were too embarrassed to ask – Sure there’s something we can all learn from this.
How To Tell If You Are In A Soft Science Fiction Novel – “There are Core people and there are Rim people. Core people wear silver, gender-neutral clothing and love fascism and artificial light. Rim people wear floor-length WWII-era trench coats and love modified libertarianism. These are the only two kinds of people. Plus there’s one ocean planet full of mermaids.”

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madeuthinkThe Pitch: This Black Mirror episode is told through the story of four friends, all of them eager modern types who are regular users of social media, obviously. One of them discovers a mysterious and anonymous account that is sending messages to celebrities, revealing supposed secrets and telling them to ‘repent for their sins’. Surprise turns to shock when it’s revealed that the secrets are all true and celebrities all over the world start confessing their secrets. Soon, more and more of these accounts appear, all revealing deeply held, personal and private things that no one but the accused could have known about. Suddenly, it’s not just celebrities being accused but politicians and business leaders as more accounts spring up, each using the same format and all talking about sin. Finally, the accounts turn to the rest of the population, and everyone finds their sins exposed for the whole world. Before long, it’s realised that the Second Coming has occurred, and God has returned to judge everyone through the internet.

The final shot is a room deep within a CIA facility, as a man smiles to himself while typing code into a computer. We see it running the accounts and then a flash of code reveals it to be the Global Online Database.

The Cast:
John (Friend capable of delivering infodumps as dialogue): Ben Whishaw
Alice (Friend good at showing other people what she’s found online): Faye Marsay
Tamara (Friend good at asking questions that move the plot along): Jenna Coleman
Brian (Friend who’s American, to help us sell it there): Aaron Paul
Newsreader: Krishnan Guru-Murthy
Newsreader who didn’t want to appear, but don’t tell Krishnan that he wasn’t our first choice: Jon Snow
Scarily intense fire and brimstone priest interviewed on TV: Donald Sumpter
Very liberal priest who becomes more fundamentalist with each TV appearance: Russell Tovey
Ambiguously smiling CIA person: Rob Lowe

Likelihood of dominating Twitter trending topics while on: Very high
Likelihood of people finding the ending a shocking twist, not a dodgy cop out: Worryingly high
Likelihood of someone implying you’re thick and didn’t understand the subtlety because you didn’t like it: Very high

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Back in October, I covered some of the madness of one of Labour’s ‘we are the One True Party and none shall stand in our way’ true believers, and as a blog written by someone outside the Labour Party could never change his mind, he’s doubling down on it.

The proposition this time is that the surefire way for Labour to win the election is to proclaim that they will govern as a single party, or they won’t be in government at all. Apparently the political equivalent of a child’s tantrum and declaring you don’t want to play with anyone at all will be the secret weapon that makes everyone vote Labour. Quite why Luke Akehurst thinks that a party getting just over 30% in the polls wouldn’t get laughed out of the room for suggesting that, he doesn’t explain (and if we had an even vaguely sensible electoral system the idea would be so bizarre as to be inconceivable).

Yet again, though, it’s someone imagining that what’s happening in our politics is just a temporary blip and things will get back to normal as soon as those naughty voters stop messing about and give their votes to the two big parties, just like they’re supposed to. In this view, no one is voting SNP, Green, Lib Dem, UKIP or whoever else because they agree with their policies, it’s just because they need to be showing Labour and the Tories that they need to recommit to Full Socialism Now/Blairism/Proper One Nation Toryism/Red Blooded Hyper-Thatcherism (delete as applicable) and then they’ll return to the fold. In this view, Labour is the One True Party for voters who are vaguely on the left (where ‘left’ equals ‘not Tory’) but by occasionally being stupidly pluralist it has let voters forget that. If it now forcefully reminds people that it is the One True Party (accept no imitations), they will all be instantly struck by the truth of this statement and happily vote Labour again.

(The mirror of this argument is also used on the right with the same expected result – everyone who is not Labour seeing the error of their ways and voting Tory again, like they’re supposed to. This shared image of themselves is why many people can look from Tory to Labour and back again without noticing much difference.)

One day soon, it’s going to sink in to some people that the old politics has likely gone forever and won’t be coming back no matter how hard they might wish for it. Until then, there’ll be lots of laughs to be gained from watching them insist that the One True Party is so powerful, even reality must bend to its will.

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My name is Emerson, Steve Emerson – Fox News’s branding of Birmingham as city where non-Muslims don’t go wasn’t an accident, but part of a wider skein of the ‘anti-terrorist’ movement.
Why Britain Doesn’t Need A ‘UKIP Of The Left’ – I’ve been trying to do a a similar post to this myself for ages, but it explains how the question ‘why isn’t there a UKIP of a the left?’ rests on flawed assumptions.
What David Cameron just proposed would endanger every Briton and destroy the IT industry – But aside from that, Prime Minister, how was your day?
Davos delegates don’t care about inequality or your debt – What will (keeping the rich happy) and won’t (keeping you happy) be discussed at the World Economic Forum.
Grayling: I’m the first impartial Lord Chancellor in 400 years – He’s obviously not, and Ian Dunt explains why.

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policy-definition-and-ruler_1283516768There’s a certain inevitability in the fact that the day after the Greens break through 10% in a poll, a ‘look at all these wacky Green policies’ article appears in the Telegraph. Those of us with long memories will remember similar articles appearing on a regular basis over the years, right back to 1989 when they normally featured some reference to David Icke as Prime Minister. (At that point, the height of Icke’s weirdness was having played for Coventry City and being one of the Greens’ five Principal Speakers – the wearing turquoise and seeing alien lizards everywhere were still in his future)

However, it seems to me that this sort of coverage misses the main issue and reveals the media’s expectation as to how political parties should work. The general picture painted of political parties is that they’re monolithic entities in which all members will agree with the party line at all times. When a party’s policy on something changes, it’s usually presented as the product of some nebulous process going on behind closed doors (‘party sources tell me they’re thrashing out the details of their new policy…’) that all party members will be expected to adopt when its decided by those same nebulous processes.

In short, most journalists appear to have got their ideas of how parties work from Stalin. Policy comes from above, all members must agree and factions or dissent are intrinsically bad. And in true Stalinist style, any facts that disagree with this narrative should be ignored. This is why coverage of party conferences is happy to depict them as a never-ending range of set piece speeches and photo opportunities, with party members as just a backdrop for the Important People to speak at.

In this view, the only policy-related thing members have to concern themselves with is memorising what the party line is that day, and they definitely should be kept well away from making it. This is why they have such a problem in covering democratic parties like the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, where policy actually comes from members, and especially so with the Greens who properly collate all the policies of the party and put it on their website. (While the Lib Dems are good at encouraging people to make policy, the party’s not so good at actually displaying that policy in an easily-found way)

The problem is that this giant block of policy isn’t seen by the media for what it is – a body of ideas that’s been built up over many years, through many debates and votes of the members – but through their existing idea of how parties work. Thus, they assume that these Green policies have been worked up by policy wonks through the usual processes and aren’t something that’s come from the bottom up. The question that should be asked, but never is, is where are the similar detailed policies from the other parties? Sure, there are various issues and policies on their website, but those are normally limited to whatever’s salient at the time, and all can be easily dispatched to the memory hole the moment someone in the leadership decides it needs to be changed.

People may agree or not with the Green policies, but they should be congratulated for putting them out in the open and sticking to them, not hiding them away or not even bothering to come up with them.

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wpid-wp-1416472228398.jpegA couple of months ago, I wrote about Reluctant Europeans?, David Sanders’ inaugural Regius Professorship lecture at the University of Essex. The lecture, and the panel discussion chaired by John Bercow that followed it, are now available online for you to watch. I think a lot of you will find both parts of it interesting.

The lecture is about an hour long and it’s a very good look at how British people think about European issues. It uses some quite recent academic research but isn’t aimed at a purely academic audience and Professor Sanders is a very good lecturer, so everyone should be able to understand the points he’s making.

The discussion that follows features Sanders, John Bercow (a graduate of the Department of Government at Essex), Professor Dame Helen Wallace, Baroness Shirley Williams and Professor Anthony King. It’s very wide-ranging around the points Sanders raised and has some interesting questions and comments from the audience.

Professor David Sanders’ Regius Professorship Lecture 2014 – Part 1: Lecture from University of Essex on Vimeo.

Professor David Sanders’ Regius Professorship Lecture 2014 – Part 2: Panel Discussion and Audience Q&A from University of Essex on Vimeo.

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It’s the afternoon of the 19th of January as I write this, not long after Lord Ashcroft released his latest voting intention poll for the general election. According to the New Statesman’s database, this is the 22nd opinion poll released so far this year, and there’s at least one more to be released today. We’re still almost four months from the election and we’re currently averaging over one opinion poll being released a day, not forgetting the many different polling aggregators and polls of polls that update regularly based on the new figures that come in.

Given that I’ve blogged, tweeted and discussed polls many times before, and I’m a student in a department that has consistently used various types of polling data, this may be a somewhat heretical question, but are there just too many polls out there now?

It seems to me that we’re in a situation where we’re getting much more polling information than we’ve ever had before but there’s so much that it’s almost impossible to distinguish signal from noise. Minor up and down movements in daily trackers are dissected and analysed by a Twitter crowd of thousands, and that discussion is then forgotten the next day when the reverse movements are treated with the same reverence, despite it being just a return to the norm. Most of the polls are all within the margin of error with each other, giving us the oddly paradoxical result that only those that are significant outliers from that norm get properly remembered.

The other problem is with that so much polling out there it comes to dominate the conversation because everyone can find a little snippet of polling data that supports the argument they want to make. Want to argue that everyone should note the rise of the Greens? Ashcroft’s latest has them at 11%. Want to argue that UKIP are the main threat to the establishment and the Greens are nowhere? ComRes have UKIP at 18% while the Greens are just on 3. Looking to argue that as the election comes closer, people will stop flirting with minor parties and go back to voting Tory or Labour? Populus have them both over 35%. Want to argue about different polling methodologies and the effect they have on the results? Take your pick, and go for it.

This is in January for an election in May. As everyone steps up their operations as the election comes closer, and more and more attention is paid to the polls that do come out, they’re going to dominate the election discussion even more. We could reach a point in April where there’s a different poll showing opinions UK-wide, in Scotland, for a region, a constituency or the important left-handers under 35 demographic every hour of the day.

Yes, data is a good thing, but too much data thrown at people without the time to process it all is going to lead to everyone cherry-picking the results they like best and ignoring the rest. No one needs to change their mind because everyone can find support for what they want to believe.

We’re about to be buried under an avalanche of data, from which I’m not sure anyone will be extracted without injury. At least the election actually happening might give us a break for a few days, right until someone decides they need to know what the result would be if the election had been held a week later.

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