No Tony, the problem is not Brexit – it’s Parliament

Screenshot 2019-10-10 at 10.37.52

Tony Blair, on the Andrew Neil show, recently argued for a second referendum rather than a general election on the basis that “If Brexit is the problem, and Brexit is the question, go back to the people on Brexit”

This is utter nonsense.  The people have already given their answer on Brexit – they voted to leave the European Union.  As Andrew Neil pointed out, the fact that the current Parliament finds itself unable to agree on how to implement that decision, doesn’t mean we need to ask the question again – it means we need a new Parliament who CAN get on with the job and get it done.

It’s really simple, Tony.  If you go to a solicitor and ask him to negotiate your divorce, you don’t expect him to come back to you three years later and say “You know what, the other side have really been playing hardball and we just can’t come to an agreement, so would you like to have another think about whether you really do want a divorce? Would it not just be easier to stay married?”  No – you fire that useless solicitor and find one who can do the job!

Brexit is NOT the problem.  The choice on the referendum ballot was simple – did the British people want to remain in the European Union, or leave the European Union?  And the British people voted to Leave.  The problem is that Parliament, having voted overwhelmingly (by 544 to 53 votes) in favour of giving the decision to the people via a referendum, subsequently decided they weren’t happy with the decision the people gave, and so instead have spent the past three years using every possible twist of logic to try to either cancel Brexit entirely, or try to find some way of staying in the key EU institutions, the single market and the customs union, while pretending that this would still amount to leaving.

We don’t need the people to be given another vote on Brexit – we need Parliament to act on the vote that was already given.  If every MP in Parliament simply set aside their own personal opinions, and instead voted according to the wishes of their constituents, as expressed in the 2016 referendum, we would have left by now, given that 69% of MPs represent constituencies that voted Leave.  As long as the current crop of MPs remain unwilling to enact the wishes of their constituents, it is not a new referendum we need, but a general election, to give the public a chance to elect a set of MPs who do recognise that their job is to serve the interests of their constituents, rather than their own.

MPs and ex-politicians such as Blair can argue all they like that their reasons for blocking a general election are pure, but the public are not fools – these are, to paraphrase Geoffrey Cox, turkeys trying to prevent Christmas, and there is only so long they can hold off the inevitable.  The longer they postpone, the greater will be the eventual reckoning – they would do well to realise that.

Posted in Brexit, politics | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Blonde Ambition – When Jennifer Met Boris

Boris Johnson Jennifer Arcuri Innotech

The great contradiction at the heart of the technology industry is that while the barriers to entry are almost non-existent, the barriers to success are almost insurmountable.

The revolution in open-source technology, and the proliferation of blogs and YouTube videos made by those who are willing to share their expertise for free, means that anyone with access to a computer or smartphone can easily learn the basics of coding, set up a website, create GIFs, memes and other shareable media at almost no cost.

But the same factors that make the industry so accessible, also make it incredibly hard to make money. When so many people are willing to share their expertise for free, only those ideas and products which are truly new and innovative will ever be profitable for their creators. And while one individual may be able to come up with an idea for the next Google, or Amazon, or Facebook, actually turning that idea into a reality will take years of time and effort, requiring the help of a large team of developers, designers and other software experts – all of which adds up to vast sums of money that will need to be spent before the product can even be brought to market. Which is where the venture capitalists come in – ambitious young tech entrepreneurs will desperately compete for the backing of these cash-rich investors, desperate to convince them that their product is the next big thing and worth the risk that the investors will need to take.

Thus it was at a venture capital summit in London, in 2011, that Jennifer Arcuri first met Boris Johnson. According to her, she heard him speak, saw the way the crowd reacted to him, and immediately bowled over to him to introduce herself and invite him to speak at a conference that she was planning to organise a short while later.

There is no denying Ms Arcuri is a force of nature. In her extraordinary interview with Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid on Good Morning Britain, from the moment she started her story of how she first met Boris Johnson, to the end of the interview almost an hour later, Piers and Susanna barely managed to get a word in as she regaled the viewers with her account of how she didn’t really expect him to turn up at that first event but after he did, she somehow managed to convince him to speak at three other events over the next few years, including, in her words

“this fantastic Google hangout with two other events at the same time … He loved it! In fact, he text [sic] me after the event saying “that was the most awesome day, thank you so much for producing that.” Because he really didn’t understand what a Google hangout was.”

Her enthusiasm is infectious, and it is not at all hard to imagine how Johnson would have been charmed by her, perhaps even recognising a kindred spirit, and allowing himself to be badgered into speaking at her events. Not to mention, as she explained to Piers and Susanna,

“The Google hangout page was off the chart with traffic and we had lots of views.. Coming to my events.. took all of 10 minutes – and they made him look like a rock star within the tech community. THAT’s why he came.”

Ms Arcuri, of course, is not a tech geek. But what she appears to be, is a talented and enthusiastic events organizer – and there is plenty of space within the industry for someone with that particular skillset. As she explained to Piers, when he very rudely suggested that the only reason Boris Johnson was speaking at the events was because of his relationship with her,

“No, he’s doing them because – no. I produce really good, sexy, chic, on-point, thought-leading events. And that’s what Innotech was. There was no other event series like Innotech. None. There were lots of other tech events but we brought in policymakers, and that was very different”

The Google hangout she refers to is still available online, and I watched it earlier today. Hugo Rifkind, in the Times, refers to it as “the purest tech wonk waffle” – betraying a staggering ignorance not only of technology, but also of venture capitalism, business and even politics. For it is not at all “tech wonk waffle” – it is Boris Johnson asking a group of assembled industry experts, some of whom were in the room with him and others speaking via video link from San Francisco and Los Angeles, why London had not yet managed to produce a Google or other tech giant and what London needed to do in order to be able to foster the sort of tech talent that was already so prevalent in Silicon Valley. What Johnson’s presence at that event shows is not a man bowled over by a blonde bimbo, as our media would have us believe, but a man who, in his capacity as Mayor of London, was passionate about the possibilities of technology and particularly keen on figuring out what he could do to enable tech entrepreneurship in London.

In recent years, London has come to be recognised as the fintech capital of the world. The fact that between 2008 and 2016, London had a Mayor who was so interested in tech innovation, and so dedicated to ensuring that he did everything he could to foster that innovation within his own city, cannot be coincidental.

The thing about technology, and innovation, is that in order to succeed requires a great deal of faith and a healthy attitude to risk. Boris Johnson has always had the positive, go-get-it attitude that is willing to take a risk in pursuit of a great reward – and Jennifer Arcuri very much appears to be cut from the same cloth. But our Remain-supporting, risk-averse media establishment, not only hate Boris for his determination to actually deliver Brexit, but are also deeply suspicious of the entire tech industry – an industry they don’t particularly understand, that they associate primarily with conspiracy theories about social media manipulation of voters that they believe led to votes for Brexit and Trump. So of course when they look at Boris Johnson’s association with Jennifer Arcuri, and the fact that she went on to attend trade missions alongside Johnson, and receive grants from an organisation set up by Johnson to promote London, they fail to imagine how the relationship could not have involved sex, or an abuse of Johnson’s position as Mayor. And what better way to try to derail Brexit, than to discredit Johnson with the whiff of a sex-for-favours scandal at this crucial point in the process?

But if you actually read beyond the innuendo about the dance pole in Ms Arcuri’s flat, and the fact that Johnson was an occasional visitor to that flat, which doubled as her office (as Ms Arcuri points out, it is pretty common for tech entrepreneurs to save on costs by setting up office space in their flats), there has been surprisingly little evidence of any impropriety. Ms Arcuri flat-out denies that Johnson had anything to do with her being allowed to go on those trade missions, or that he had any say in the grants that her company received. As she explained in the interview, she may not have met the supposed criteria for being allowed to go on the trade missions, but she clearly had the chutzpah to apply anyway, and did a good enough job of selling herself to the team who make the decisions about who gets to go, that she was invited to join. Similarly, the fact that she took the initiative to apply for the grants, and that her application was successful, is a reflection of her own abilities to convince those awarding the grants, that she was a worthy recipient.

If any evidence does emerge that shows that Johnson personally intervened to get her invited onto those missions, or to get her the grants, then he certainly will have questions to answer – but no actual evidence has thus far been mentioned; all we have had has been innuendo and quotes from supposed ‘friends’ of Jennifer Arcuri, which have been firmly denied by Ms Arcuri herself, who insists those people are not her friends. And yes, there was her extraordinary response, when confronted by a journalist from the Mirror, in which she spoke about “If I was banging the dude and there was some kind of like trail, or sex tape, but there’s nothing” – but frankly, given the photograph accompanying those words shows the journalist clearly accosted her in a shopping mall, I find it hard to condemn her for her off-the-cuff response.

The media are making much of the fact that she refused to deny that she and Johnson had an affair, on the basis that any answer she gave to the question would be ‘weaponised’ against Johnson. “How can you weaponise ‘no’?” many of our papers have asked. “Surely, if she simply denied it, that would be the end of it”.

But of course that wouldn’t be the end of it. It was absolutely clear from that interview, and it’s clear from much of the press coverage, that the media have already made up their minds about what happened, and no amount of denials would change their minds. And it is very easy to weaponise ‘no’ with a simple follow-up question along the lines of “So if it wasn’t sexual then exactly what type of hold DID you have over the Mayor of London?” Gossip and innuendo require regular feeding, and the only way to eventually shut them down is for her to refuse to answer any questions about a relationship that may or may not have occurred.

Ultimately, whether or not they had a sexual relationship is neither here nor there. Johnson either did, or didn’t, intervene on her behalf – if he did, the reasons why are irrelevant, and if he didn’t, then the only people who could realistically have any interest in whether or not they had an affair, are his ex-wife to whom he was married at the time, and his children.

It’s hard not to wonder how this story would have played out if Arcuri had been not an attractive young blonde woman with a dance pole in her flat, but a charismatic young man with a pull-up bar and a foosball table in his flat. Would we instead be reading a profile of this incredible young man who had the nerve to introduce himself to the Mayor of London and who had convinced him to speak at his events? Would we be invited to believe that this young man’s success was entirely his own doing, that his presence at trade events and his securing of grants was an indication that he was an up-and-coming young entrepreneur, one who is skilled at making contacts and who, while he has not yet managed to make a profit, is definitely one to watch?

One thing is for sure. Nobody would ever ask a man this question, which Piers Morgan presumably saw no issues with asking Ms Arcuri:

“When a man that powerful comes to speak for a student four times – a very glamorous student if you don’t mind me saying – I mean did you think that maybe his interest lay slightly more than just professional?”

Ms Arcuri’s response was a masterclass in restraint:

“I appreciate where you’re coming from, and I know you mean no disrespect, but I think it’s a little bit unfortunate when a woman looks a certain way and is able to be successful – in however small that might be, and then she is questioned for that success based on the way she looks. I always made sure that Boris got a win out of my events…..Every event he came to had a strategic advantage for him at the time in which we were producing the event, so every one had a very specific message.”

I may be alone in my interpretation of that interview, and in my reading of the overall situation. But watching the interview, I couldn’t help being charmed by Ms Arcuri, and impressed at her handling of what was at times, frankly, an incredibly sexist and downright rude line of questioning. As she pointed out, the fact that her companies have not yet made money is not necessarily a reflection on her abilities as a businesswoman – Amazon took fourteen years to become profitable, Facebook took five years, and Uber is yet to show a profit. What all of the tech giants have in common is that they are run by people who are passionate about what they do, who don’t give up at the slightest setback and who keep fighting for the success that they know is just around the corner. Ms Arcuri, it seems to me, has those qualities in spades. Somehow, I suspect, she will eventually achieve her success – and while she may have Boris Johnson to thank for raising the profile of her earlier events, I suspect she will have very little trouble finding other, equally successful and well-known, participants for future events. Or, she may decide to cash in on her sudden notoriety, get herself a well-paid book deal and use the cash for a completely new venture. Either way, I, for one, wish her all the luck in the world.

Posted in innovation, London, politics, technology | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

For Channel 4, It Almost Feels Like 1963

Martin Luther King - I Have a Dream

If there was any remaining doubt about Channel 4’s obsession with identity politics, it will surely have been dispelled by Cathy Newman’s recent interview with Rory Stewart about his candidacy for London Mayor.

Now anyone even vaguely familiar with Rory Stewart will know he’s had a privileged upbringing and, thus far, an enviable career. Educated at Eton and Balliol, he worked as a tutor to princes William and Harry while at university, before joining the Foreign Office’s Fast Track programme on graduation. After seven years at the Foreign Office he embarked on a 6,000-mile walking tour of Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, and served for some time as the deputy governor of an Iraqi province. He’s been a Conservative MP since 2009 and even stood for the leadership of the party following Theresa May’s resignation. That he didn’t win – or even reach the final two – was possibly one of the first blips he’s encountered in his meteoric rise.

Now, given he’s already had such a glittering career, it is perhaps understandable that many people would see his next move, a bid for London Mayor, as a bit self-serving and even, perhaps, greedy. Isn’t it time for him to take a back seat and let someone else have a chance at one of the few top jobs in British politics?

So Newman’s first question to Mr Stewart about his background, was fairly predictable and, frankly, easily justifiable. Pointing out that there is a great deal of poverty and homelessness in London, Newman asked him whether as “an old Etonian, son of a spy” he worries that he may be a bit posh for the average Londoner. Stewart, playing her at her own game, responded that the mayoral race is “fantastically diverse” and that he was incredibly proud when Sadiq Khan became the first Muslim mayor of London – and he clearly was about to continue, to further explain the reasons why his poshness shouldn’t discount him as a candidate, when Newman interrupted him to say, “And now you want to defeat him”.

Stewart handled the interruption well, continuing to make his point that electors have to balance opinions about diversity against questions about who is the best candidate – who will do the best job for the city of London and who will make the most of the potential that he sees in the job.

But Newman still wasn’t happy. “Do you feel any sense of guilt”, she asked him, “about the fact that you, with your background, will be putting paid to the chances of a Jamaican, comprehensive-educated son of a single mum, Shaun Bailey”

Stewart, to his credit, handled the question well, pointing out that of course if he wins the race to become Mayor of London then that will mean neither Shaun Bailey nor Sadiq Khan can also be Mayor of London, but that the whole point of the mayoral contest is for voters to have a chance to decide who will be the best person for the job.

But what he really should have done, was to pull her up on the incredible offensiveness of her question. Because it is impossible to avoid the underlying implication, that the only way she believes Shaun Bailey could win the mayoral race would be if he were to run unopposed. This despite the fact that Shaun Bailey is the official Conservative Party candidate and is therefore likely to attract a significant number of votes simply for having his party’s backing, whereas Rory Stewart is running as an independent, and many Londoners will have absolutely no idea who he is. The idea that London voters may actually prefer Shaun Bailey to Rory Stewart, clearly has never occurred to Ms Newman.

A charitable interpretation of Ms Newman’s question would be that she hadn’t intended to imply that Shaun Bailey stood no chance against Rory Stewart, and that she had just worded the question clumsily in the heat of the moment. But that interpretation would rely on her having accepted Mr Stewart’s initial response and moved on. Which, of course, she didn’t.

She chose, once again, to press him on whether he actually felt guilty about running against Shaun Bailey. And once again, his response was reasonable and well-argued – no, he said, he didn’t think that one should feel guilty about standing as a candidate in a democratic process, because in a democracy each candidate has the same chance to convince the voters to vote for them, and it is a fair system in which people get to vote for their preferred candidate.

I haven’t seen the whole interview – I have only seen the clip of the exchange that Channel 4 News, incredibly, chose to share on Twitter. The clip ends with Stewart’s explanation as to why he doesn’t feel guilty, so I have to assume that Ms Newman didn’t press the point any further, but it amazes me that, in the process of filming and editing the interview, and choosing clips to share on social media, nobody thought to question how this particular clip would reflect on Ms Newman and her bosses at Channel 4.

Martin Luther-King, in 1963, spoke of his dream of a world in which a man could be judged on the content of his character rather than the colour of his skin. With this interview, Ms Newman and Channel 4 tried to suggest not only that what is most important about the various candidates for the London Mayoral race is their background and – yes – the colour of their skin, but even that those who come from privileged backgrounds should not be allowed to apply. And it was left to Mr Stewart to remind Ms Newman, and the viewers, that the choice facing voters should be entirely about the merits of the individual candidates, what voters see as the content of their characters. I’d love to think that Ms Newman and her bosses at Channel 4 may later reflect on the interview and realise just how regressive their attitudes have become – but sadly, I suspect they are too busy congratulating themselves on how progressive they believe themselves to be.

Posted in identity politics, London, politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Do Labour need some water to wash down that humbug?

Screenshot 2019-09-26 at 12.37.35

For all that his critics may often deplore Boris Johnson’s choice of language, it seems to me that he generally chooses his words quite carefully – by which, I mean not that he couches his meaning in soft phrases designed to avoid offence, but that he chooses the words that most accurately describe his beliefs, and to hell with what his critics think of them.

So when he refers to the Benn Act, forcing him to go to the EU and ask for yet another extension to Brexit, as the “Surrender Act”, he is simply stating what he, and I would imagine most of his Brexiteer supporters, think of the Act.  It absolutely is an act of surrender, to go to the EU and plead with them to grant us yet another extension.  Similarly, his use of the word “traitors” to describe those who have been doing backroom deals with the EU to try to keep us in, and those who have used every judicial means at their disposal, to betray the referendum vote of 17.4 million people, is entirely accurate – to use any other word would be to misrepresent the reality of those people’s behaviour.

What better word, then, than “humbug” could he have chosen to respond to Labour MP Paula Sherriff’s plea that he moderate his language?  Ms Sherriff used the memory of the murdered MP Jo Cox to suggest that phrases such as “Surrender Act” and “traitors” should not be used for fear that they could incite further death threats against herself and other MPs who regularly receive such threats.

Now, notwithstanding the fact that death threats against MPs are absolutely inexcusable and need to be taken extremely seriously, this is a classic Labour tactic, straight out of the Momentum playbook –and “humbug” – meaning “dishonest talk, writing or behaviour that is intended to deceive people” – is the most accurate description possible.

The tactic works as follows:  Labour frequently use terms such as “the nasty party”, “fascist”, “Nazi”, “racist”, “scum” to refer to the Tories, and they speak of Boris Johnson staging a “coup” by proroguing Parliament.  John McDonnell speaks of wanting to live in a world where no Tory MP can travel anywhere in the country without fear of attack.  Momentum hang a banner proclaiming “hang the Tories” outside the Conservative Party conference.  Then they invoke the memory of Jo Cox to criticise Boris Johnson for using the words “surrender” and “traitor”, claiming, outrageously, that these particular words are likely to incite threats of violence, where presumably the words they use are to be considered completely without consequence.  When Tory supporters protest, incredulously, about all the times that Labour have deployed far worse tactics and language, the response is simply “Well now you’re just engaging in whataboutery”.

Screenshot 2019-09-26 at 10.07.11

It’s hard to understand the mindset that is so convinced of its position on the moral high-ground, that it can consider threats of violence against Tory MPs to be completely justified, while at the same time being mortally offended by somebody having the temerity to call out treachery and surrender for what they are.  But “humbug” is a pretty good place to start.  It is utter humbug to seek to shut down uncomfortable debate by invoking the memory of a dead MP, only to then object even more strongly when Mr Johnson rightly points out that the best way to honour the memory of that MP, who famously talked about “more that unites us than divides us” would be to get on with Brexit and try to reunite the country.

Even the Lib Dems have been jumping on the humbug bandwagon, condemning Mr Johnson’s use of the phrase “Surrender Bill” while protesting that their campaign slogan “Bollocks to Brexit” is just a joke.  Though, of course, the Lib Dems have also seen themselves in the firing line from Labour, with Emily Thornberry likening the current leadership under Jo Swinson to the Taliban, with their plan to simply cancel the referendum result and revoke Article 50.  That particular spat, famously, was won hands-down by Tim Farron with his response, via Twitter – “Come on Emily, if we really were like a Middle East terrorist group, don’t you think Jeremy would have invited us to a conference fringe meeting before now?”

Screenshot 2019-09-26 at 12.36.21

I suppose given the tedium of Brexit, these ridiculous spats and barbs at least provide some entertainment – but we should all recognise them for the diversionary tactics they are; dishonest humbug intended to hide the appalling incompetence of our political class.  I, for one, will continue to cheer on Boris Johnson every time he so accurately calls out the treachery, dishonesty and cowardice of those who keep trying to pretend they respect the result of the referendum, while doing everything in their power to prevent its implementation.

Posted in Brexit, politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Christmas can’t come early enough for these turkeys

Screenshot 2019-09-25 at 17.45.12

So the Supreme Court has ruled that Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament was unlawful – by reference to a law that does not exist.  We are told that the length of the prorogation is one of the key reasons for its lack of legality – yet no official guidelines exist, nor have the Supreme Court since provided any clarity, as to what actually would constitute a legal length of prorogation.   The court, similarly, while claiming Johnson’s motives for prorogation are irrelevant to their decision, has ruled that because they could find no good reason for prorogation (i.e. because they could not know his motives), it must therefore be unlawful.  Confused?  You should be.

It’s hard to imagine the UK’s constitutional crisis getting any worse.  We have reached the point where the government can no longer govern, its business is directed by Parliament instead of by the Prime Minister and the cabinet, and the Supreme Court, instead of being the ultimate arbiter of our laws, is now appointing itself lawmaker-in-chief, making up rules as it goes along, while insisting that it is entirely unmotivated by any political opinion over Brexit.  And where a general election is desperately needed to attempt to break the deadlock, our current trenchant block of MPs are steadfastly refusing to allow one to take place.

Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, today delivered a thundering speech in Parliament that went a long way towards expressing the frustration felt by many Brexiters.  Denouncing the current Parliament as a “dead Parliament”, he roared that “it has no moral right to sit on these green benches”.  He continued,

“Twice they have been asked to let the electorate decide upon whether they should continue to sit in their seats, while they block 17.4 million people’s votes.  This Parliament is a disgrace…. They could vote no confidence at any time.  But they’re too cowardly to have a go.  They could agree to a motion to allow this house to dissolve – but they’re too cowardly to give it a go.  This Parliament should have the courage to face the electorate – but it won’t.  It won’t.  Because so many of them are really all about preventing us leaving the European Union at all.  But the time is coming – the time is coming, Mr Speaker – when even these turkeys won’t be able to prevent Christmas.”

It was an absolutely outstanding performance, which at least went some small way towards compensating for the fact that due to the Supreme Court’s ruling, we now face the spectacle of three further weeks of Parliamentary grandstanding, timewasting and deliberate ploys to frustrate Brexit, all while the majority of Parliamentarians continue to insist that that is not at all their intention, that they completely respect the referendum result and really do wish to honour the wishes of their constituents but that they simply don’t wish to see us leave without a deal.  But it’s utterly laughable for them to try to pretend that after three years of these charades, legal challenges and backroom deals with EU officials, a few extra weeks will make all the difference and that they will suddenly find themselves able to make a positive contribution to our efforts to leave.

As unlikely as it looks that we will, in fact, manage to leave the EU on 31 October, I remain hopeful that Boris Johnson will keep calm, carry on and either manage to secure a deal from the EU that he can get through Parliament, or that the EU will decide it’s had enough of our Parliamentary shenanigans and will simply refuse to allow the extension that the Benn Act compels him to request.  And with a general election following shortly thereafter, I look forward to Christmas coming early for those turkeys who continue to betray the electorate they are supposed to represent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Brexit, politics | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Greta Thunberg – Role Model or Victim?

Screenshot 2019-09-25 at 09.58.57

According to a fairly recent scientific study, what you see first when you look at the famous image above, can often depend on as simple a factor as how old you are.  The younger you are, the more likely you are to see the young woman first – and the older you are, not only are you more likely to view the old woman first, but you are likely to guess her age as older, too.

In the same way that people see contrasting images depending on their own perspectives, so, too, do people react differently to Greta Thunberg, depending on their own perspectives and priorities.  To those who feel that climate change is an urgent issue that has not been getting the attention it deserves, Greta is a fearless crusader for their cause, the voice of a generation and a shining example to her peers.  Yet to others, she is a victim – a 16 year-old with Aspergers whose anxiety and single-issue obsession are being exploited by adults, including her own parents, to further an agenda that has more to do with overthrowing capitalism than saving the planet.

Yet the one thing that both groups appear to agree on is that she shames us.  Whether one chooses to blame the politicians whose lack of decisive action on climate change has forced children to “take time out of their childhood” to teach adults about the crisis, or the activists who have deliberately chosen a child to be the spokesperson for their arguments in the full knowledge that nobody would dare subject her to the level of scrutiny they would an adult – either way, the sight of a clearly distressed 16 year-old addressing world leaders and speaking about the terror she feels for her future, should be a source of great shame to every one of us.   Whatever one may or may not think of what she is saying, what kind of world are we creating for our younger generation, when parents, teachers and political leaders are clearly willing to abdicate all responsibility for shielding children from fears about their future, and instead allow those fears to flourish, and be broadcast worldwide to even more frightened and impressionable children?

How many people, I wonder, have actually listened, properly, to what she is saying?  Beyond the brief viral clips on the news and on social media, how many people have actually taken the time to consider whether she truly does understand the science that she keeps urging us to unite behind?

I have to admit that until a few days ago, I hadn’t done so.  The speed with which she has reached the forefront of public attention, and my preoccupation with Brexit and other matters, have left me scrabbling to catch up, and eventually I had to force myself to block out some time and actually watch some of the videos that friends were sharing on social media, and look up a few of her other speeches on YouTube.

And I’m afraid my response was a mixture of “WTF?” and “What a load of utter nonsense!”  Now, before you all dismiss me as a climate change denier – because in our current polarised society you either “unite behind the science” or you are a denier, with absolutely no nuance in between – I completely accept that climate change is real, and that if we wish to halt or even reduce global warming we absolutely need to make a number of radical changes to our way of living.  But it is possible to completely accept the reality of climate change, and still acknowledge that Greta herself is, for the most part, spouting a load of non-specific, meaningless, alarmist drivel that has very little basis in any kind of reality, scientific or otherwise.

My first case-in-point is the short video, featuring Greta alongside Guardian journalist George Monbiot.  Greta begins by telling us that we are “living in the beginning of a mass extinction”.  Now that sounds pretty scary, doesn’t it?  She hands over to her friend George, who tells us “there is a magic machine that sucks carbon out of the air”.  He goes on to explain that he’s talking about trees – and I have to wonder, who is this video aimed at?   Children, surely?  And pretty young children at that.  No video aimed at adults should ever be explaining climate change in such simplistic, childish terms.  Yet if this video is, indeed, aimed at children, why do they then choose to tell those children that “up to 200 species are going extinct every single day….most of our wild animals have gone”?

This is appalling misinformation.  The statement that “up to 200 species a day are going extinct” is, firstly, meaningless unless you define what you mean by a species, as well as how many species there are to begin with.  A quick Google search revealed that the “up to 200 species a day” claim likely refers to the fact that when an animal such as the white rhino becomes extinct, all the organisms and bacteria that depend for that animal on their survival, are also considered to be extinct.

For actual numbers of known species that have gone extinct, however, it is harder to find a definitive source.  I found this article which lists “multiple lizard species and a bat” for 2017, and three different types of birds for 2018.  That is a considerably long way off the 200 species a day that Greta seems to believe we are losing.  And if we really are going to talk about “200 species a day” to include all organisms and bacteria, then shouldn’t we be acknowledging that there are plenty of species whose extinction would actually be greatly beneficial – such as the mosquitos that carry viruses such as Zika and malaria, Guinea worm, tapeworm and ticks, to list just a few.

As to how many species there are currently – there appears to be no known figure, but one estimate is that there are about 8.7 million species, of which about 86% of species on earth, and 91% of species in the ocean, still await description, and new species are constantly being discovered and described.

As for the claim that “Most of our wild animals have gone” – this is utterly risible, with seemingly no basis in fact, and Monbiot and the producers of the video should be ashamed of themselves for peddling such falsehoods to impressionable children – not to mention more than a few impressionable adults who are happily sharing the video on social media.

The video ends with an action plan – Protect (vital nature resources).  Restore (damaged ecosystems).  Fund (projects that protect nature).   And on this I absolutely can get on board – but shouldn’t we also be looking to protect our children, restore their faith in humanity and fund proper climate science education for both adults and children, sticking to the facts rather than relying on alarmist lies to scare children witless?

Greta’s most recent speech, at the Climate Action Summit in New York, is astounding.  Her passion is undeniable – whether you believe she is overacting, or rightly furious, or simply not very well, her ability to speak clearly and confidently in front of such a large audience, while evidently under a great deal of emotional stress, is to be applauded.  Having engaged in both public speaking and debating as a teenager, I remember all too vividly the terror of standing up and speaking in front of a large audience of my peers and their parents, and my frequent inability to prevent my voice from shaking.  Greta appears on the brink of losing her composure but ploughs on regardless – it truly is an impressive performance.

But what is she actually saying?  If you peel back the various accusations of “How dare you?” and the accusations that we have stolen her dreams and her childhood, and that the failure to act on climate change is evil, the main substance of her argument is that “people are suffering… people are dying… entire ecosystems are collapsing.. we are in the beginning of a mass extinction….and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth”  

Now here’s the problem.  Yes, people are suffering and dying as a result of extreme weather and geological events – but reducing or even completely halting global temperature rises will not prevent such events from occurring.  It is utterly ridiculous to believe that by reducing global warming to the 1.5 degree rise above pre-industrial levels that is recommended by the IPCC report to which Greta repeatedly refers, we can prevent any further suffering and death as a result of extreme weather events – yet this does appear to be what Greta believes.

But let’s take a look at the final part of her pronouncement – that “all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth”.  This theme of politicians favouring economic growth over action on climate change, is a constant throughout her speeches.  At an earlier speech to the European Economic and Social Committee she made the following argument:

Once you have done your homework you realise that we need new politics.  We need new economics where everything is based on an extremely limited and rapidly declining carbon budget.  But that is not enough. The political system you have created is all about competition.  You cheat when you can because all that matters is to win, to get power.  That must come to an end.  We must stop competing with each other.  We must co-operate, and work together”

Now these sentiments are all very worthy but has she actually thought about the reality of what she is proposing?  The idea that nations can simply stop competing is completely at odds with the idea that wealthy nations such as the United States and Great Britain can lead the way in cutting their carbon emissions and expect developing nations such as China and India to follow suit.  The reality, as Donald Trump recognises and which caused him to pull out of the Paris Agreement, is that the economic damage that will be done to developed economies by following the protocols of the Agreement, will immediately be exploited by those less-developed economies, with the ultimate benefit to the environment being zero, or even negative.  Only a child, with a child’s limited understanding of the way the world works, could believe that nations could simply agree to stop competing over increasingly limited resources.

The reality is that a great deal has already been done, and continues to be done, by developed nations to reduce their carbon emissions.  And yes, of course there is plenty more that still can be done, but the only way that developing nations in particular will ever be persuaded to reduce their emissions will be if it can be done in a way that does not damage their economies and prevent their continued growth.  Simply expecting developed nations to commit economic suicide in the expectation that developing nations will follow suit, is a childish fantasy – and it is time for the adults in the room to behave like adults, stop indulging that fantasy and get on with discussing solutions that actually do stand a chance of working.  And it’s time for Greta and all the other schoolchildren who look up to her, to go back to school and finish their education, so that when in 10 years’ time the world doesn’t end as they currently believe it will, they have at least some hope of finding a job.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in climate change | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Never mind the coup, let’s have those by-elections

It’s perhaps fitting that a significant number of those who are hysterically screaming about a fascist coup having taken place in the UK, can’t even spell the word.  Within hours of the announcement that the Queen had agreed to Boris Johnson’s request to prorogue parliament, not only was #StopTheCoup trending on Twitter but so, too, were #StopTheCoop and #StopTheCoupe.

In the three years since the vote for Brexit, that small but loud band of agitators determined to stop Brexit at any cost, has progressed from mild hysteria to outright derangement, rewriting history and mangling the English language in the process.  When words like “Nazi” and “Fascist” no longer hold any particular meaning beyond “person to whose views I simply don’t wish to listen”, is it any wonder that the word “coup” is now being used not to describe the violent overthrow of a government, but rather government itself using every measure within its power to try to progress the main item on its agenda?   And if you’re going to redefine the meaning of a word to be precisely the opposite of what it used to mean, you’re certainly not going to worry about how you’re spelling it, are you?  When feelings trump reason, and outrage is the default setting, it really doesn’t matter if you talk about a coop, a coupe or a coup – the words themselves are beside the point; all that needs to be noted is that this coup – or coop, or coupe – is A VERY BAD THING and that the people behind it are NAZIS and FASCISTS and, above all, TORY SCUM!

I would suggest that those who know neither the meaning nor the proper spelling of the word “coup” should go back to school, but that’s exactly where many of them already appear to be believe they are.  Where else but the school playground, would one encounter the type of logic of John Major, arguing that prorogation of Parliament is a constitutional outrage, while conveniently ignoring the fact that he, himself, used exactly the same tactic when he was Prime Minister, in order to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny of a report into the ‘cash for questions’ scandal?   Or John Bercow complaining that the Prime Minister is playing fast-and-loose with the Constitutional rulebook, while expecting people not to remember that it was only a few months ago that he unilaterally changed the Parliamentary rules to allow a vote on a cross-party amendment to further weaken Theresa May’s chances of getting her Withdrawal Agreement passed.  This is a “one rule for me and a different rule for others” mentality that should have no place in adult politics, yet has sadly become all too prevalent in recent years.

The real constitutional outrage, about which there is a surprising lack of discussion, is the fact that Parliament currently contains over 30 MPs who no longer even pretend to represent the parties and the manifestos on which they were elected.  Spare me the melodrama about how Boris Johnson’s purge of 21 Tory ‘rebel’ MPs from the party, represents a shift to the hard right – on the contrary, it shows a Prime Minister who is willing to hold his party’s MPs accountable to the manifesto on which they stood and were elected in the 2017 general election. Any Conservative MP who is openly campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU, or who is actively trying to prevent our departure as those MPs are, should have been kicked out of the party months ago – and not only kicked out of the party, but forced to fight a by-election.  When the majority of voters in a constituency have voted for a Conservative candidate, and now find themselves represented by someone whose views most closely align with the Lib Dems, it is only fair that they should be given a chance to decide whether they truly wish to be represented by the individual in question, or whether they would prefer to be represented by a new Conservative candidate.  And of course the same goes for those Labour candidates who have defected from the party since being elected, but still continue to sit in Parliament as either Independent or Lib Dem MPs.

And let’s not have any further obfuscation about how those 21 MPs were not really trying to stop Brexit, but were simply trying to prevent us leaving without a deal. There is no option to leave with a deal – there never was, and MPs and commentators alike are well aware of this fact. Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement is not a deal – it is an agreement to continue our EU membership in all but name, while giving up our voting rights, and continuing to rely on the EU’s good-faith efforts to actually negotiate a long-term free trade deal – a deal they will have absolutely no motivation to negotiate as long as we remain bound by their rules. Signing the Withdrawal Agreement – with or without the backstop – effectively amounts to the “Remain and Renegotiate” option that many on the Remain side argued for during the referendum campaign.

When the Leave campaigners promised that negotiating a free trade deal with the EU would be the easiest negotiation ever, the point they failed to drive home was that the negotiation can only start once we’ve actually left.  The EU made that clear from the moment we triggered article 50 – they will not discuss any future relationship until we’ve agreed the terms of our departure.  So, as painful as it sounds, if we are ever actually to properly leave the EU, there will have to be a period during which we do not have a free trade deal with the EU.

The line trotted out by many Remain-supporting MPs, that “of course we have to respect the referendum result but we also have to ensure we leave with a deal” is a straightforward act of misdirection, to try to convince the public that there is any type of Brexit to be had that actually involves retaining most of the benefits of EU membership while not actually being a member.  Oh, the irony, that the same lies that the Leave campaign is accused of using to convince people to vote Leave, are now being used to try to convince Leave voters that Parliament actually respects their vote.  So deep is the disdain that most MPs feel for ordinary voters, that they actually now expect voters to be convinced by the same lies that they’ve spent the past three years scorning them for believing.

If we are not to have a general election in the next few months, then at the very least, surely, we should expect a by-election to be fought by every one of the MPs who has either defected or been kicked out of the parties on whose manifestos they were elected?  The vote to leave was all about taking back control – but it’s become increasingly clear over the past three years that we will never be able to take back control from Brussels until we take back control of our own Parliament, and remind our MPs that they serve at the pleasure of those who elect them.

These are not principled politicians putting country before party – they are self-important, selfish careerists putting their own interests and beliefs above both party and country.   And if they truly were conviction politicians, they would have the courage of those convictions and allow their constituents a vote on whether or not they still wish to be represented by them, now that they have so publicly renounced the positions on which they were elected.  But we all know they won’t.

 

Posted in Brexit, politics | Tagged | 1 Comment

Matchstalk Men and a Monstrous Woman

Screenshot 2019-08-31 at 16.17.17

Enjoying a pre-cinema drink with friends, I confessed that I couldn’t recall when I had first heard of LS Lowry, but that it really wasn’t that long ago, maybe 5 or 10 years ago.

“Do you not know the song ‘Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs’?” one of them asked.  “That song was about Lowry”.

Well of course I know the song.  I spent most of my childhood in South Africa but one year was spent in England, and I remember hearing the song at school in Windermere, and loving it, and learning to play it on the recorder.  I remember being so disappointed, on returning to South Africa, to find that nobody had ever heard of it, and this being the 1980s, there was no Google or YouTube, so apart from asking around in record shops, where I always drew a blank, I was completely unable to find any trace of it.   I haven’t heard it in years but immediately, at the mention of the title, I could mentally hum the chorus, even if I couldn’t remember all of the words.  And looking back, I imagine the teachers at school probably explained at the time, exactly what the song was about, but all I remembered was a cheerful, catchy song and a funny mental image of matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs. Suddenly it all made sense – of course the song was about Lowry; it wasn’t just a silly song about a fictional character, but about a much-loved artist who found beauty in the often grim realities of life in the coal-mining communities around greater Manchester.

Connection made, I sat down to watch the film with renewed anticipation – keen to know more about the life of this solitary man who had so uniquely captured the world around him.

Well, I have only ever walked out of one film in my lifetime – “Summer of Sam”, because the violence in the first 15 minutes of the film set my nerves on edge to such an extent that I just knew I couldn’t bear to sit through the rest of it. But if it wasn’t for the fact that I was hemmed in between friends on either side, I would have happily walked out of “Mrs Lowry and Son”, and for a very similar reason.  There may not have been any physical violence in the film, but Vanessa Redgrave’s performance as Lowry’s absolutely monstrous mother, and Timothy Spall’s portrayal of Lowry’s endless efforts to win her approval, caused almost every muscle in my body to tense up in anger and frustration.  The fact that the film is almost entirely set in Mrs Lowry’s bedroom, and focuses almost entirely on the interaction between the pair of them, simply added a sense of claustrophobia to my already jangled nerves, and I found myself wondering just how much more of this I could bear to sit through.

Thankfully it eventually came to an end – and even then, my friends for some reason seemed sufficiently enraptured by the film that not one of them moved until the very end of the credits, while I sat impatiently in my seat, desperate to get up, to move, to vent my frustration at that AWFUL woman, and that – sorry to say it – PATHETIC man who simply couldn’t accept that he would NEVER get her approval. I had been unable to contain my snort of derision when the postscript to the movie flashed up a line noting that Lowry had turned down an OBE because “without Mother, there didn’t seem much point”. I mean, seriously?  I know children naturally seek their parents’ approval but surely at some point, when one’s parent is as monstrous, self-absorbed and cruel as Lowry’s mother clearly was, there comes a time when one must simply accept that to continue to dedicate one’s entire life’s work and efforts to that person is an utter waste of time?

This morning, remembering the talk about “Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs”, I decided to see if I could find it on YouTube – and of course I found it immediately, here.  But sadly, whereas before I had always thought of it as a cheerful, catchy tune that I could hum in my head at the slightest recollection, I now found myself moved to tears by the lyrics and my newly-formed understanding of the misery of Lowry’s life.  So thanks to everyone involved in the making of “Mrs Lowry and Son” – you’ve absolutely ruined one of my happiest childhood memories; I may never be able to hear that song again without wanting to cry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in family, personal, Stage and Screen | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Do you really need to learn to code?

Screenshot 2019-07-05 at 10.29.04

In a departure from my usual obsession with politics and current events, this blog is about my efforts over the years to “learn to code”, and my personal opinion on whether or not everybody else should bother.  The short answer is no, but to understand why I think that, I’m afraid you’ll have to read on.

Has there ever before been a term that is quite so ubiquitous while also being utterly meaningless?  We are exhorted to “learn to code” as though it is a finite skillset, akin to riding a bike, or driving a car – a skill we can always manage without if we absolutely must, but which is becoming so universally engrained in our everyday lives that we risk being left behind and cast out into the technological dark ages if we fail to learn it.

But of course learning to code is not remotely like learning to ride a bike, or drive a car.  You don’t simply learn to code and then pat yourself on the back, secure in the knowledge that you can now command any machine to your will.   Because before you can even start to learn to code, you have to decide what specifically it is that you want to be able to do.  Want to learn to build websites?  Okay, you’ll need to learn (for starters) HTML, CSS and JavaScript, then move on to further languages like Ruby, Java, C#, PHP or any number of others.  But what if you’re not interested in building websites, and you instead want to be able to write code that can analyse and interpret large amounts of data?  Well then you might want to start with SQL, or Python.  Want to develop apps and games?  Again, there are a myriad of languages to choose from depending on whether you wish to develop for Apple or Android operating systems.

It all seems so much more complicated than it was when I was at school, learning to write simple programmes in BASIC on the Apple II.  Okay, so those programmes couldn’t do much beyond printing words and characters on the screen, and even fairly simple programmes required what seemed a fairly ridiculous number of lines of code, but at least there was only one language!

I wasn’t sufficiently enamoured of BASIC programming to stick with it beyond what I was taught in school, and my next exposure to “learning to code” was at university, studying for my Bachelor of Commerce in Information Systems, where we were taught the principles of object-oriented programming using COBOL. I use the term “taught” loosely – I hated COBOL, couldn’t get my head round object-oriented programming and can remember absolutely nothing of that particular part of the course apart from the fact that it bored me to tears.  A friend, studying engineering, openly laughed at the idea that we were learning “a dead language” – he was learning C as part of his course, which I later realised would have been a far more useful language to try to learn.  But by this stage I’d already concluded that I clearly didn’t have the right aptitude to be a software developer, and that I’d be better suited to a slightly less technical role.

But computers have always fascinated me, and while I may not have been able to make any headway with programming, I found the early Microsoft Office applications to be a revelation.  Excel and Access, in particular, struck me as wondrous – here were two applications that with a few simple keystrokes or just a little clicking and dragging, could magically churn through masses of data and provide results that would have taken hours to collate manually.  I earned massive kudos in an early job in banking when I was tasked with compiling the monthly sales desk reports, a tedious job that involved pulling in data from numerous Excel spreadsheets, sorting and aggregating it to produce various summary reports and charts.  It usually would take a good half a day to complete and would always fall to the newest member of the team who would have to do it every month until either someone new joined (we had fairly high turnover within the team) or until sufficient number of months had passed for our manager to agree it was time to hand it over to someone else.

After being shown the process, I immediately recognised that much of the manual effort could be automated within Access, and set about creating a database that would pull in the various spreadsheets and, via a few simple queries, spit out the resulting reports and charts.  After a bit of trial-and-error, I had the process down to about 30 minutes of effort – and was a hero among the team.

But my ingenuity came at a cost.  I may have been a bit of a whizz with MS Access, but the rest of the team were not. So when I went on holiday, and the reporting fell to another member of the team, he found himself completely confused by the instructions I had left, and reverted to the old manual process. The problem, of course, was that by this stage everyone had come to expect the process to take half an hour, so nobody was happy that it was once again taking half a day – least of all the poor bloke having to do it.  It was decided that rather than wasting further time having me train the rest of the team in MS Access, I would continue to own the process until such time as it could be properly automated by the IT team – from memory this was a further 6-9 months.   And there was a fair bit of unhappiness from middle management that I had been allowed to go beyond the remit of my job by re-engineering a process in a way that had created such a “key-person dependency”.

There is a point to this story, beyond happy reminiscence.  Over the last couple of years, I have once again dipped my toe into the world of “learning to code”.   The website Udemy.com has literally hundreds of cheap online courses, of varying quality, in absolutely every coding language you could imagine – if you buy them during one of their many sales, you can pick up a course for as little as £12, and it’s yours for a lifetime.  My eye was drawn to a course called “Automate the boring stuff with Python” – a course that is supposedly aimed at non-techy people such as office administrators, who wish to learn how to automate mundane office jobs that would normally take a few hours to do, and that can be done in minutes via Python. This sounded like the perfect course for me, so I dove in.

And to be fair, it is a great course.  It teaches the basics of Python programming in clear, simple terms, and then goes on to teach the learner how to use regular expressions to search for particular text patterns within documents or on web pages, and how to perform basic operations on Word, Excel and PDF documents.

But here’s the rub.  Before you can do anything in this course, you have to install Python on your machine. You also, later on in the course, need to be able to create and run batch files.  Fine if you’re learning on your own machine at home, as I am, but not so great if you’re an office administrator wanting to write a Python script to automate a job you’ve been given at work.  Any company with even a basic level of IT security awareness, will have controls in place that prevent employees from installing any kind of software on their machine.  Sure, you could ask the IT team to install it for you but they will almost certainly ask why you want it installed – and unless your job title is “software developer” or something similarly techy, your request is almost certain to be denied – not only because you won’t be trusted not to introduce bugs into the system, but also because your managers will almost certainly wish to avoid a “key person dependency” situation whereby anybody else needing to be able to do your job will require the same level of technical proficiency, not previously a requirement of the role.  You’ll be left in the maddening position of knowing that you could automate this process if only you were allowed to – and there is nothing more annoying than knowing a quicker way to perform a task but being prevented from doing so.

The other issue I am finding is that learning to code in any language, is just like learning to speak another language – you can learn the basics fairly easily, but you will need to use it again and again and again in order for it to become even vaguely second-nature.  And that’s just the basic stuff.  I’ve been at this on and off for a few months now and while I may have completed this one course, I keep having to go back over sections to remind myself how different concepts work, and the entire course has barely scratched the surface of what can be done in Python.

Keeping with the spirit of “I’ve tried this so you don’t have to” – I’ve also tried web development.  I downloaded a course called “The Web-Developer Bootcamp” from Udemy two years ago and have been dipping in and out of it ever since.  I found HTML, CSS and Javascript all fairly intuitive and easy to learn the basics of – but once the course moved on to DOM manipulation, Jquery, Node.js and server-side frameworks my head started to spin.   Based on various review comments I’ve seen, this course is almost identical to the first half of many of the very expensive bootcamp courses offered by various training facilities worldwide – and I simply can’t understand how anybody could absorb that much information in that concentrated a timeframe and end up remembering any of it!   Maybe it’s once again a matter of aptitude – I’m sure that for those who are destined to become web developers it probably is easier to grasp and retain these concepts, but to me, the bootcamp perfectly illustrated the problem with “learning to code” – it’s all very well to learn the basics of HTML, CSS and Javascript, and most people of average intelligence should be able to grasp those, but there’s actually very little one can do with just those three.  In order to be able to actually build user-friendly, responsive, eye-catching websites, you’re going to need a whole host of skills that go way beyond the basics – and while a bootcamp may introduce the various concepts that you need to learn, it’ll require a great deal of time, persistence and passion to fully get to grips with all of those skills.

Personally, what I’ve found most useful about the Udemy courses has been the fact that in among the various coding concepts, have been high level explanations that have demystified so much about computer programming that I had previously struggled with.  Concepts such as what is a batch file, what is a library, what’s the difference between front-end and back-end programming, what do people mean by the term “technology stack”, and what do terms like PAAS, SAAS and IAAS mean?   And what are all those programming languages used for, and why are there so many?

What I’d love to see, is a course that explains computing concepts without necessarily going into the details of actually learning to write code.  I completed a “home maintenance skills” course a couple of years ago at my local college and it was the single most beneficial course I’ve ever done.  Over the course of six evening sessions, we learnt the basics of plumbing, lock fitting, joinery, painting, and bricklaying, and were introduced to all the key tools and materials used in each.  That course taught me two things – firstly, that unless you absolutely love a particular trade and want to devote lots of time and effort to mastering it, it is far easier to hire a qualified tradesperson to do the job for you.  But secondly, and most importantly, how to talk confidently to that tradesperson and know when they are trying to pull the wool over your eyes about how complicated or expensive a particular job is.

In the same way that I don’t believe everybody needs to learn plumbing, or joinery, or bricklaying, I don’t believe everybody needs to learn to code.  I think those who have a particular aptitude for, and love of, coding, absolutely should learn to code – and those, like myself, who have a bit of a geeky side and like to explore, would also benefit from learning the basics.  But the majority of people, who have no intention of ever becoming software developers, and whose interests lie in other areas, will be best served by learning just enough about computers to be able to speak confidently to the experts and to know when those experts are trying to pull the wool over their eyes about just how complicated a job actually is.

“Learn how to talk about coding” – now that’s a course I really can see a demand for.  Shame it doesn’t have quite such a catchy ring to it.

 

 

 

Posted in innovation, personal, technology | Leave a comment

Anatomy of a Lie

Screenshot 2019-06-15 at 06.49.46

This week, a masterclass from the Guardian, the BBC and the wider media establishment on the construction and propagation of an outright lie.

It started with a report on public health policies, published by the Institute of Public Policy Research, according to its own website the UK’s “leading progressive think tank”.  Think tanks exist purely to shape and influence public policy and therefore research papers are the bread and butter of their existence.

This particular paper looked at the leading causes of “preventable death” in the UK (smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, drug use etc.). and noted that after a number of years of improvements in public health measures that had curbed the impact of preventable disease between 1990 and 2012, in recent years the trend had started to reverse.  The researchers provided an estimate that, had the trend between 1990 and 2012 continued unchanged, up to 130,000 deaths could have been “averted” between 2012 and 2017.

Now, firstly, somebody needs to explain to the IPPR that there is no such thing as “preventable death”.  Death and taxes, we are always told, are the only two things in life that are certain – and the IPPR’s sole aim is to influence how those taxes are spent.   So it’s no surprise that they choose to extrapolate from “preventable disease” to “preventable death” via the use of a measure they call “Disability Adjusted Life Years” (defined in the report as “a measure of lost years due to poor health, either through the presence of a chronic condition or premature mortality…. the sum of years of life lost to poor health and years of life lost to disability“)

The report points out the ways in which the researchers believe that cuts to public health spending between 2012 and 2017 led to increases in “preventable deaths” over this period, and argues very convincingly for more money to be spent on various public health initiatives that will shift focus from “blame and punish” to “empathise and assist”.  To drive this point home, the report is entitled “Ending the blame game: The case for a new approach to public health and prevention”

The Guardian, of course, seized on the above-mentioned “130,000 preventable deaths” figure and ran away with it, simultaneously concluding that the report’s entreaty to end the culture of blame with regards preventable disease, doesn’t extend to finding blame for “preventable deaths”. And so the headline read “Austerity to blame for 130,000 ‘preventable deaths’ – report”

Fast forward just over a week, and Francesca Martinez, a “comedian, author and political campaigner” delivered a powerful rant on the BBC’s flagship political programme, Question Time, in which she stated that “austerity has caused the death of over 130,000 human beings in Britain… that is 130,000 mums, dads, daughters, sons, uncles, aunts who have died because the Tories and the Lib Dems decided to make ordinary people pay for a crash caused by bankers who we bailed out”.  She goes on to say that the Tories and Lib Dems have “blood on their hands” – conjuring a mental image of 130,000 people presumably having been lined up and shot, rather than simply being helped to live a few weeks or months longer due to various public health measures that may have slightly extended their lives.

Now this is where it gets tricky.  Because her underlying point, about the way in which austerity policies have been implemented and the reasons they were implemented, is absolutely valid – though it does, of course, also let Labour completely off the hook for the fact that it was a Labour government that bailed out the banks in the first place, and that so massively overspent during its term in office that the Tories and Lib Dems, who followed them, were forced to implement austerity measures to counter the overspend.

But none of that changes the fact that to claim that austerity CAUSED 130,000 deaths is an outright lie.  Whether Ms Martinez knows it is a lie, or whether she was genuinely taken in by the Guardian’s headline, is neither here nor there – the show is pre-recorded and even if Fiona Bruce herself was not aware of the origin of the figure quoted, the show’s researchers would have easily been able to check it.  Fiona Bruce could easily have interjected to either ask Ms Martinez to explain where she got the figure from, or to point out the inaccuracy of her statement.

But not only did she not interject and instead allow Ms Martinez’s rant to continue unchallenged, but the BBC later chose to share a clip of the entire rant on Twitter, ensuring that those who hadn’t seen the show itself would also have an opportunity to be told that Tory austerity policies had killed 130,000 people.

The Mirror then published a story about how Ms Martinez has been praised for BBC Question Time’s “best ever moment”, in which it claimed that Ms Martinez had been “citing research which showed over 130,000 people died from austerity”.  Except, of course, the research absolutely did NOT show that.  Is it really possible that nobody at the Mirror even took the time to read the report itself?  Or even the full Guardian article which, despite the misleading headline, did at least accurately reflect what the report contained?  Other news sites, such as Huffington Post and iNews, similarly published gushing reports about the entire rant, making no mention of the falsehood about 130,000 deaths.

The worst thing about all this, is that I appear to be almost alone in my utter outrage and despair at the whole debacle.  There is plenty of talk on Twitter about Ms Martinez’s rant, but nobody appears to be pointing out the fact that at the heart of it is an outright lie.

Whether it’s laziness, incompetence or the deliberate propagation of a falsehood for political means, it stinks.  There is a reason why Donald Trump gets away with calling the media “fake news” and why trust in the media is at an all-time low – because the media keep showing, time and again, that they have no interest in reporting the truth and are instead prepared to write and publish just about anything they can get away with in order to grab the attention of the reader.  The fact that such inflammatory lies only serve to deepen the divisions within our society, appears to be of little consequence to these so-called journalists.

When I first started writing this blog I had vague dreams of one day becoming a journalist.  But having spent the past couple of years avidly following the news, and seeing the ways in which headlines and stories are twisted in pursuit of online views, subscriptions and ultimately advertising revenue, I find myself utterly repelled by this aspect of the industry.  There are many journalists whose writing and reporting I greatly admire, but they are a diminishing number who find themselves badly let down by the growing majority who are either too lazy or too caught up in political activism to retain any credibility whatsoever.

The BBC, despite its constant claims of political neutrality, has let itself down badly over this incident and while I may be alone in wanting to shout from the rooftops about just how big a lie this was, I suspect the reason there is so little outrage on Twitter is because this is the level of deception that many of those who closely follow the news, are simply learning to expect from our national broadcaster.   I can think of no more damning indictment than the fact that this failure to uphold standards of accuracy and impartiality, has been greeted not with outrage but with a collective shrug.

 

 

Posted in politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment