» Random thoughts ¦ What You Can Get Away With

There’s something about the way the volcanic ash story is developing that makes me feel we’re in the opening chapters of one of John Wyndham or John Christopher‘s world-ending novels of the mid-20th century.

Not that I’m claiming the eruption of an Icelandic volcano is the beginning of the civilization-ending apocalypse – though that’s exactly what you’d expect a character like me to say at this stage of the book – but I can almost see the opening lines of the book. It seems strange now, but back in the April of that first summer of the ash, all we were concerned about was an impending General Election… something in that vein, as the main character goes about his life somewhere in the Home Counties, spending the occasional evening in the pub with a melancholic friend who warns that Things Are Going On Behind The Scenes and advises our protagonist to prepare himself (and possibly his family, if they’re included in the book) for Things Going Wrong.

(Of course, ever since I heard him reading The Death of Grass for Radio 4, I find all these protagonists have started resembling David Mitchell. His ‘mustn’t grumble’ world-weariness captures the spirit of this sort of book – where traditional British values are placed under threat by unknowable alien forces – perfectly.)

The other option is that we’re slightly more advanced in one of the more outlandishly silly Bond films of the 70s and 80s and even as I type this, Roger Moore’s strategically raised eyebrow is chasing Donald Pleasance on a volcano-causing submarine somewhere in the North Atlantic.

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According to her website, Jan Moir has a partner referred to only as ‘S’.

Our old friends at Christian Voice have a press release echoing her comments that Stephen Gateley’s death was linked to his being gay.

Christian Voice is run by (and possibly composed entirely of) Stephen Green. Just a coincidence, I’m sure.

When I was out on a walk the other day (more details on Sunday), I noticed this sign:

At first glance, I thought it was just another variant on the same sort of sign you see a lot of when you’re walking – and it is, but note who it’s from. Yes, the Homes and Communities Agency, which is an agency supposedly owned by the public, and out to serve the public, declaring that a large patch of open space is private land. Not restricted, private – normally used to state that the owner doesn’t want plebs tramping over it.

But what if we plebs are the owner?

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I remembered the Straw Man Institute the other day. Reproduced here, just in case the Sharpener site finally goes blunt and falls off the web.

One of the problems of modern newspaper publishing is the question of how to fill the blank pages of the newspaper every day. After all, even though there’s a lot of news out in the world, journalists only have a finite amount of time each day to turn reality into news, so sometimes they’re glad when the news comes prepackaged for them and it’s even better when it’s not just a press release, but an entire study allowing them to quote a whole host of spurious facts, stick in a couple of pictures and they’ve filled a page with the news that watching four or more DVDs a day can help lower cholesterol.

So, as the demand for news has increased, so the number of studies conducted has risen and the number of people carrying them out has grown to. No longer the sole preserve of the ivory towers of academia, just about anyone can call themselves an Institute or a Foundation and start pushing out their own factoids to an eager and hungry press. Everyone’s a winner – the journalist fills his space and gets to the pub earlier, the Insitute in question gets a mention in the press and a plug for their latest pamphlet and the paper’s readers get a few more vague statistics to quote in ill-informed pub discussions.

It’s not limited to the news sections of the papers either – where would sports pages be without the surveys of which flavour pies are most preferred by football fans, for instance? Even columnists, opinionators and leader writers can have their work eased for them by a well-timed report – I’m certain anyone doing a research project about Sure Start must have a momentary frisson of excitement when they realise that they can guarantee their name appearing in the papers if they send a copy to Polly Toynbee. Indeed, just about any columnist with a point to make can normally find the research from somewhere to back it up.

However, there is one need that isn’t being addressed, especially with the recent development of many newspaper columns into denunciations of things the author doesn’t like. Too often, they’re forced to resort to criticising nebulous figures who believe in the antithesis of the author’s beliefs and aren’t able to bring up someone concrete to make people believe that the threat they’ve identified is real. So, why not have an organisation that specialises in coming up with those arguments that no one else will make? One that will publish the unpublishable and allow it to be torn apart?

Yes, the time has now come for the Straw Man Institute. For far too long, columnists (and bloggers, of course) have been left to generate their own straw men to argue against, with the lack of effort immediately apparent to all expert observers. However, the Straw Man Institute will ensure that everyone has someone to shout against and denounce. Be it calling for an immediate surrender to the terrorists and all their demands while we all convert to Islam or calling for the whole of the government to be privatised with the poor sold into slavery and the profits used to subsidise fox hunts, the SMI will make sure that those arguments are out in the public arena and attributable to someone. For far too long, straw men have been ad hoc creations, summoned only for one article or argument and then dismissed. Now, with the SMI, the straw man will take its rightful place alongside all the other nebulous concepts that drive institutes, foundations and think tanks. Let a thousand straw men bloom!

Of course, I’ve since realised that it should be called the Jonathan Swift Institute, just to cover the tracks somewhat.

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Not sure if anyone’s mentioned this before, but a thought occurred to me that there might be a flaw in the way the Lib Dem Voice Golden Dozen, specifically the seven most popular links, is compiled.

Those top seven are based on the seven posts that receive the most click-throughs from the Lib Dem Blogs aggregator, which purportedly reveals the seven most popular Lib Dem blog posts of the week. However, having noticed the sort of posts that get included in those seven, I’m not sure it’s an accurate reflection of what’s popular.

Consider this – as bloggers become more popular and well-known with consistently good posts, they’re more likely to become a regular read for people. Thus, their sites are more likely to find their way into people’s bookmarks and their RSS feeds are more likely to be subscribed to. However, that means that when a blog becomes popular and well-read, no matter how good a blog post is, it’s less likely to be clicked through to from the aggregator because it’s already been read before the reader visits there. While taking the top 7 from the aggregator may help give a boost to blogs that are otherwise little-read, it’s not necessarily showing the top reads amongst Lib Dem bloggers.

(By the way, this isn’t intended to denigrate any of the work the LDV team or Ryan at Lib Dem blogs do, it’s just a thought I wanted to put out there, no doubt entirely as a justification for why I’ve never featured in the Dozen…)

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Can’t remember if I’ve ever suggested this before back in the mists of blogtime, but I was playing poker online last night and wondering how many other of my readers and fellow bloggers play, and whether there’d be interest in setting up some sort of game or tournament for British political bloggers/Lib Dem bloggers or any other grouping that migth create enough interest? Or if there’s such a game already happening, how do I get invited to it?

Which reminds me of a post I ought to write sometime, currently in my head under the working title ‘If it’s so easy to open an amusement arcade or bingo hall in a British town centre, why is it so bloody hard to open a poker club?’

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A thought occurs to me: if you have a phone capable of sending messages by SMS, what’s to stop you branding it as ‘Twitter-compatible’?

An addition to this is the thought that someone – possibly inspired by the Amstrad Emailer – is currently working on a Home Twitterphone system so that you too can join in the fun and send messages through your normal phone. All responses will either be read out to you by the automated SMS voice or printed out and sent to you by post for an additional charge.

I’m not saying this is a workable business model, but I do wonder how much seed capital the right pitch might get from befuddled investors looking to leap on the latest bandwagon.

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