Archive for the ‘Rants’ Category

Top 5 platitudes from Gordon Brown’s speech

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Gordon Brown’s speech to his flock at the Labour Party Conference today reminded me of the usefulness of the Hoggart Test, the yardstick often applied by Simon Hoggart to platitudinous rhetoric: you can tell whether something is worth saying by examining whether the opposite is absurd.

The following examples from GB’s speech are not taken out of context; they were soundbites that were punctuated with rounds of applause. Could any elected politician get away with the opposite of these statements, as suggested in italics?

“I know the difference between right and wrong.”
I have no sense of morality.

“On the side of hard-working families is the only place I’ve wanted to be.”
Someone has to stand up for slovenly singletons.

“In all times we will put people first.”
Flamingos first, then people.

“We will be the party of law and order.”
We aim to build a society that bears a closer resemblance to the Wild West frontier.

“We will be the party of the family.”
We wish to tear apart basic social units*.

Most long political speeches fail the Hoggart test at some point, and it should be noted that GB’s speech was by no means devoid of significant announcements, but the question still stands: why do we tolerate this kind of bunk from our leaders? It’s a conference speech, not an episode of The West Wing. The people in the auditorium may have been flag-saluting automotons (I know from personal experience that delegates at these events are not independent thinkers) but viewers outside the auditorium aren’t.

*Even Margaret Thatcher, in her famous claim that “there is no such thing as society”, acknowledged the role of families.

The bitch is back

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Joan Collins as Alexis Carrington in Dynasty, courtesy of a screengrab by Brian Byrne

Joan Collins’s latest dispatch from her base in St Tropez, where she keeps her finger on the pulse of British society, has appeared in The Spectator magazine, the journal for people who think society is going to the dogs because of indiscipline among the poor. I would attempt a parody of her views, except she seems to have beaten me to it.

“There’s something dreadfully Mugabe-ish about Gordon Brown’s attitude towards the ordinary citizens of Britain,” Joan writes. “He seems to care not one jot that we are all finding day-to-day living more and more horrible, with the rising prices of goods, fuel and transport, unfair taxes and rocketing mortgages. Thousands of pensioners – the same people who got us through the Second World War – are practically starving while the portals are wide open for every foreign immigrant who arrives and immediately collects massive benefits such as housing, health and maternity care.”

She goes on to note that she knows of two Eastern European girls who have become pregnant upon arrival in Britain and are now living a “relatively comfortable life” on housing benefit.

Where to start? Robert Mugabe’s principal political tactic – appealing to nationalist sympathies to justify attacks on people deemed to be outsiders – bears a closer resemblance to Joan Collins’s politics than those of Gordon Brown. Her idea that pensioners (who, contrary to her assertion, are mostly too young to have fought in the Second World War*) are suffering as a consequence of immigration policy is a classic nationalist false correlation. The two are connected only in the sense that both are a burden on the public purse – a link so tenuous that you could use the same argument to blame the plight of chicken farmers on the RAF, or the road death toll on Olympic athletes.

Joan also betrays the source of her information and opinions. Only a Daily Mail reader believes that you can live a comfortable life on housing benefit. Is it too much to hope that she was spoofing herself?

* The vast majority of Britons of pensionable age (about 80 per cent) would have been 16 or younger at the end of the War, so although many lived through it, it is not true to say that they contributed to the War effort.

Head in hands hold ’em

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I have a confession to make. No, I haven’t watched Cliffhanger again. It’s this: I quite like televised poker. I like watching familiar characters testing their nerves against one another, playing the odds and having to cope with high-stakes success and failure. But none of these is a winning argument. You could say the same about watching Formula One racing, a spectator sport so rich in techie knowledge and so sparse in incident that you may as well be watching Stephen Hawking reading The Silmarillion.

I like the deathless commentary and, in particular, Jesse May, a host so out of place in a jacket and tie that he might conceivably have gotten his break in television in an advertisement for PG Tips.

I know that I’m in bad company with TV poker because the advert breaks are so ghastly. There are endless pleas to send text messages to “girls in your area”, for example, but the most nauseating advert is one for pkr, an online poker video game. The voiceover, which accompanies footage of electronic poker players posturing like gang members in West Side Story, is so densely packed with jargon that anyone who said it in real life would be sent home to watch a Formula One qualifying session. “I’ve come in over the top of pot-sized raises with middle pair, bluffed under the gun with four runners behind me, folded pocket kings on a hunch,” the polygonal man says. “I’ve survived bad beats, sick draws and cold decks, and I’ve lived through fields of thousands to make the final table. Here I come.”

I despair. These guys are giving geeks a bad name.

The webpage of the beast

Monday, June 9, 2008

My friend V came up with a fantastic piece of tittle-tattle recently: Tim Berners-Lee is Satan.

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Poll pot

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Not everyone in PR is stupid, in the same way that not all journalists are lazy and not all estate agents would crap in a cup and attempt to pass it off as chocolate mousse. But occasionally there are examples of stupidity in PR so rank that I’m prepared to just accept the stereotype as fact.

A certain employee of Results PR, for instance, conformed to type when he sent out a press release on behalf of an online discount voucher company. The company had conducted a survey and discovered that nine out of ten online shoppers were planning to use discount vouchers. Alarm bells should start ringing in your head whenever a figure of 90 per cent appears, and sure enough the final paragraph of the report confessed to an elephantine sample bias. All of the people surveyed were registered members of the discount voucher company.

The surprise is not that 90 per cent of members of a discount voucher company were planning to use discount vouchers, but that the 10 per cent who had no intention of using them bothered to reply to the survey. (It reminds me of the Sky News poll – conducted using the interactive red button on the remote control – that declared that 98 per cent of respondents intended to vote in the forthcoming general election. Who, one wonders, were the 2 per cent who thought it worth their while to influence the outcome of a Sky News poll but not have a say in who levied their taxes, oversaw their children’s education, influenced their access to healthcare or sent them to war?)

It is possible that the PR man in question is not stupid. Perhaps he knew there was a sample bias but thought that journalists would be too lazy to spot it. Or perhaps he knew journalists would spot it, but hoped that his client would not. Perhaps he knew that his client would spot it, but also knew that junking the useless research would require him to do more work.

I only hope that no journalist does use the survey. If some do, then they get the PRs they deserve.

Double word standards

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Scrabble photo, taken by Stigeridoo and licensed under Creative CommonsI’ve always been suspicious of Scrabble. It is the Libby Purves of board games; a pastime so steeped in middle-class respectability that it could be the subject of a twee comic song by Tom Lehrer.

But the worst thing about it is the knowledge that at some point someone is going to put down “es” or “aa” and claim that it should be allowed because it is in the official Tournament Word List, as used in American championships.

I have a bone to pick with the compilers of the TWL. The rules on the box of Scrabble I played with as a child stated clearly that abbreviations, slang, proper nouns and offensive words were forbidden. Clearly this has been overturned at some point, but the Wikipedia entry on acceptable words states that proper nouns are still out, and that only acronyms or abbreviations that have been “regularised” (such as Awol, Radar and Scuba) are allowed.

Fair enough. Banning people from using “zoo” on the basis that it is an abbreviation of “zoological gardens” always seemed a bit harsh. But the TWL doesn’t even observe those rules. Why is “ref”, an abbreviation of “referee”, allowed? Why is Pernod, a brand of aniseed liqueur, included?

Why is “es”, the chemical symbol for einsteinium, alright when “cu”, the symbol for copper, is not? Why include “wank” but not “cack”?

How is it that I can be more of a pedant than the compilers of the TWL? This is dereliction of duty on a grand scale.

Babel

Monday, July 2, 2007

Babes. It is a word I hate more than any other. (Except Vengaboys, but that’s a proper noun and doesn’t really count.)

It is a diminutive of a diminutive of a diminutive. Calling someone “baby” is bad enough, but the reduction to “babe” and, in a final attempt at endearment, “babes” makes my toes curl to the point of drawing blood in the balls of my feet. What baffles me is why people stop at the third diminution. What about “babesy”, for instance? Or “babesette”?

I have a message for people who use “babes”:

Life is not a Purple Ronnie cartoon.

The gift of love

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Oh, fantastic, a goat. But wait. This is just a piece of paper. The goat is in Africa, you say? Are you getting it delivered? It’s not for me? Where is my present, then?

It hasn’t happened to me yet, but one day someone is going to give me a gift certificate as a present. A goat in Malawi, a donkey in Angola, that kind of thing. Manners dictate that I thank her (let’s assume it’s a woman) for it, but it shall be through gritted teeth. I understand the intention: I have effectively given my present to someone more deserving. But I haven’t, because I had no agency in the transaction. The giver has given my present to someone more deserving. She has effectively given my present – a sense of well-being – to herself. A gift certificate is not, in fact, a gift at all, but an ostentatious act of piety.

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Toilet reading

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

When people are asked what book most changed their life they usually identify a work of fiction that inspired them, in some abstract way, to re-examine themselves. A poll for Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour programme in 2004 revealed that the most influential book was… Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which is probably the least surprising result since Josef Stalin won his 30th consecutive gold medal at the 1952 Supreme Soviet Moustache Olympiad.

Pride and Prejudice has won every book poll in Britain for which it has been eligible since book polls began, unless the sample has excluded women (in which case the winner is Albert Camus’s The Outsider) or adults (arise, Harry Potter).

But I digress. The point is this: unless readers were spurred to become literature academics specialising in simpering 19th century froth, it probably didn’t change their lives at all. My favourite book is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, but any impact it has had on my life or career is immeasurably small.

The book that had the most impact upon my life was The Lonely Planet Guide to India – although not in the “I went to India and found myself” way you might be thinking. Useful as it was for finding very, very cheap accommodation, it was a book that nearly killed me.

Among its recommendations were a fruit juice stall in Kerala and a restaurant in Jaisalmer that served “excellent lassis”. Very tasty they were too, but with a caveat. They were mixed with unfiltered water containing nasties that resulted in one bout of dysentery and another of suspected giardia. Neither killed me, as it turned out, but I was dehydrated to the point of requiring a drip on the first occasion, and an emergency prescription on the second.

Pride and Prejudice may be a classic of English literature, but I doubt if it had that effect even on listeners to Woman’s Hour.

Rationed thought

Monday, October 16, 2006

Martin Newland, until recently the editor of The Daily Telegraph, writes in The Guardian that “it is possible to be religious and rational”. True enough, but it’s a weasly statment. Just because religion and rationality co-exist does not mean that religion and rationality work in harmony.

An analogy: it is possible to be a soldier and compassionate. Soldiers can look after their comrades, orphaned birds, enemy wounded, but put them in a battle and they’ll shoot another man in the back. This is not because they are not compassionate, but because being a soldier requires that compassion be suspended to get the job done.

The same thing happens to rationality when religion calls for it. Newland helpfully supplies us with a list of what religion – in his case Roman Catholicism – means to him in practical terms. Here it is, unedited: going to mass on Sundays; bringing up his children in the faith; wearing a crucifix as a symbol of faith and protection against harm; crossing his children’s foreheads every night to protect them while they sleep.

The last two of those are self-evidently irrational. They are superstitious. Does it matter? On their own, no. But these are just the aspects of Catholicism that Newland consciously acknowledges. They are the slogans behind which lurks a manifesto of irrational dogma that he and other people indoctrinated in the faith unquestioningly follow. It is a manifesto containing such gems as a ban on wearing condoms even in countries infested with HIV, or the condemnation of homosexuals as “immoral, unnatural and harmful”, in the words of the present Pope.

Newland’s point is that secularism has started to tyrannise religion. He argues that the debate over the social impact of Muslim women wearing niqab is driven by secular intolerance of religious thought. Oh, really? Strange how so few Catholics complained when the boot was on the other foot.

I cannot weep for a Church that wielded power for centuries through patronage and accumulated its vast wealth through a tax on the God-fearing poor. A Church that burned people who disagreed with it and placed under house arrest a scientist who dared to suggest that the Earth revolved around the Sun. A Church that still has the power to harbour sexual abusers whom it put into positions of responsibility.

Newland, to quote his own saviour, is looking at the speck in secular society’s eye.

The debate about wearing niqab was not prompted by secular intolerance, but by questioning secular deference to religion. If Newland thinks that deference to religion is inelastic then God help him.