Monday, 13 October 2014

Throw away your television

As Douglas Carswell returns to parliament today as the first ever UKIP MP to be elected to the House Of Commons, the issue of whether UKIP leader Nigel Farage should appear in the party leaders' television debates in the run up to next year's general election is once again in the spotlight.

It's easy to think there's no simple answer to this conundrum.  Some people say the debates should be restricted to those party leaders who have a realistic chance of becoming the next Prime Minister - in which case, should Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg even be included, since the next Prime Minister is likely to be either David Cameron or Ed Miliband?  Other people, however, say that UKIP have a right to be included, now that they have parliamentary representation, and can therefore claim to be a serious political movement - but in that case, shouldn't the Green Party, who've been represented in the Commons by Caroline Lucas since 2010, also be involved?  And how about parties like Plaid Cymru, the SNP, the DUP, etc. - all of whom have more MPs sitting in Westminster than either UKIP or the Greens?

However, there is a simple answer, and it is this:  scrap the television debates.

That's right.  Let's get rid of this clunky, unnecessary, counter-productive political device which has been imported from America and shoehorned into our vastly different political system with practically no alterations.

In America, voters have a straight choice between candidate this guy and candidate that guy - the television debates can help to set out the difference between each candidate's vision, and allow people to make a more informed choice when they go to vote.  Here in the UK, we have a multi-party parliamentary system; very few of the people watching the debates will actually be voting for David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg or Nigel Farage - and with many parties competing for representation in the House Of Commons, looking to influence policy, the choice facing British voters is not a simple 'this or that' decision.

The televised leaders' debates serve to make our electoral system seem more presidential, and in doing so, diminish the link between local MPs and their constituents.  They oversimplify politics in a way which doesn't serve the country at all.  It's time to admit that they were a mistake in 2010, and we'll be better off without them in 2015.

As for UKIP…?  They have one narrative - an attempt to frame political discourse as a simple case of UKIP and their supporters against the world (because all the other political parties are the same), and whether they are involved in the television debates or not, this too will be twisted to fit this narrative.

Exclusion from the debates will prove that UKIP are victims of an 'establishment' conspiracy to keep them down - whilst inclusion will give Mr Farage the chance to show how the other party leaders are all 'ganging up' on him, proving that there's no difference between the main parties, and that UKIP is the only credible alternative to a Westminster consensus which is only looking out for itself and not the interests of the country at large.  Once again, we're better off without the debates altogether.

Friday, 10 October 2014

It's all a conspiracy!

My brother has, in the past, postulated that government agents may be engaged to combat conspiracy theories which threaten the ruling order, by inventing and disseminating fake conspiracy theories so patently ludicrous that their sheer absurdity serves to discredit the entire sphere of conspiracy theories. It’s an interesting thought. (He also reckons he might be rather good at this job - he’s probably right, but I can’t image how one would embark on such a career!)

Personally, I’ve no time for conspiracy theories, or those who propagate them. They are fascinating - and yet often so tortured and tenuous that it amazes me just how many people seem to take them seriously. In many cases, it feels as though the theory is not a conclusion reached after examining evidence but a twisting of correlations in order to fit the narrative which the theorist has already decided he wants to tell. In other words, conspiracy theorists know what they want their theory to be in advance - then they go out and look for evidence to support their hypotheses. This is the opposite of an evidence-based scientific process.

It is this dogmatic adherence to principle, often in spite of evidence, which makes me so suspicious of conspiracy theorists in general. Indeed, the absence of evidence supporting the conspiracy theorists’ stance - and sometimes even the presence of evidence directly contrary to it - is more likely to be presented as further evidence in their favour than taken as a sign to reconsider the position (ie. the lack of evidence is, in itself, ‘proof’ that something is being suppressed by ‘the establishment’).

Conspiracy theories can become almost cult-like in nature. And this is exactly why they are nonsense. Anything which has a basis in truth is not advocated solely by hysterical zealots screeching on the internet.

How many times do you see someone on Facebook posting a link to an article claiming to have uncovered some great ‘truth’ about the world in which we live, which is oh so obvious when once your eyes have been opened to it; and yet, if you comment to question the premise - not in a hostile or offensive way, but simply in the spirit of having an open debate on the topic - the original poster instantly becomes defensive, and highly personal? Anyone who can back up their position with facts doesn’t have to resort to such tactics, but is happy to enter into a reasoned discourse and present their side of the argument in a rational, logical way. Conspiracy theorists do the opposite of this, and the great irony is that these people who delight in telling the rest of us among the common herd to ‘open our eyes’ and ‘wake up’ and ‘see things for what they really are’ are actually some of the most closed-minded people one is likely to encounter.

Which is why none of what I’ve written here will make any difference to people who actually believe conspiracy theories - of that, I am certain. “Oh, but of course, you would say that. You’ve been taken in!” they will say. “Of course there’s no evidence to support conspiracy theories - it’s all been carefully removed or covered over by the ruling establishment, to keep you in the dark!” (And thus, as I’ve mentioned, a lack of evidence to support a conspiracy theory becomes, in itself, evidence supporting that conspiracy theory.) But this is precisely the problem I have with conspiracy theorists - the unwavering faith in their own agenda, the twisting of facts to suit their narrative, and the absolute point-blank refusal to countenance anything outside the confines of their own world view makes it supremely difficult to take any of what they say seriously.

Thursday, 9 October 2014


Make the month of October fun/exciting/charitable/healthy/aromatic by taking part in Portmantober! Take the Portmantober challenge, and for thirty-one days find ever more annoying and self-serving ways to mash up the word ‘October’ with another word of your choosing, all in aid of charity/fun/personal development!

How to participate:

  1. Choose your word or phrase: for example, you might want to dedicate the entire month to the teachings of Swiss Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
  2. Write a smug Facebook status informing all your friends that you’re doing ‘Jean-Jacques Roussober’ this year. (Don’t forget to include a good dollop of subtext designed to make your ‘friends’ feel bad if they don’t also join in!)
  3. Tweet with the hashtag ‘#portmantober’ at least once a day, but preferably much, much more often than that.
  4. Convince yourself you’re doing something profoundly worthwhile, while actually just being a tremendous nuisance to everyone you know (and quite a few people you don’t know).

Have fun out there, Portmantoberists!

Good by-election

Douglas Carswell - former Conservative MP for Clacton, and now UKIP candidate in today's Clacton by-election - is almost certainly going to retain his seat in Parliament, and become UKIP's first MP.  Which I find a little odd.

The thing is, voting UKIP is a protest - a kick in the teeth to the corpulent, self-serving, disinterested complacency of the political establishment.  It is a vote for change.  A vote for a different kind of politics - not for 'more of the same'.  Which is why it is a little strange, then, to cast this anti-establishment vote for somebody who, until only a few weeks ago, was as much a part of the ruling elite as any other politician in the mainstream parties.

Mr Carswell is clearly popular with the people of Clacton; at the last general election, he achieved a majority of over 12,000 votes.  But to be so disaffected with 'business as usual' in politics that you vote to maintain the status quo is a bit unusual, isn't it?

Mr Carswell's highly probable re-election in Clacton is likely to owe as much to the benefits of incumbency and local voters' familiarity with him as a candidate as it is to UKIP's rising popularity as a party.

Much more interesting, as a barometer of the political mood, will be the concurrent by-election in Heywood & Middleton.  Following the death of Labour MP Jim Dobbin in September, this is a by-election campaign with no incumbent fighting to retain the seat - it is expected that Labour will hold this constituency, but UKIP's progress here will tell us a lot more about their fortunes ahead of next year's general election than the 'coronation' of an already popular defector could ever hope to.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

#Zzubwords - Westminster

Everybody knows what political ‘buzzwords’ are.  Words which have become so ubiquitous simply to mean ‘a Good Thing™’ - empty words which convey a feeling, rather than a meaning.  Words like ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’; everyone means slightly different things when they say them, but that doesn’t matter - they don’t need qualifications or explanations, because they instantly connote a vague feeling of positivity, and ‘being on your side’.

I have noticed, however, an opposite group of words - words which are used interchangeably without context, to mean a vague, generic ‘Bad Thing™’.  I am calling these zzubwords, and I am hoping to compile a small dictionary of some of the more common ones, and to make this into a semi-regular feature on this Blog.


Although not exactly first in our Dictionary Of Zzubwords alphabetically, in the wake of last month’s referendum on Scottish Independence, this seems an apposite starting point for my collection.  Westminster, of course, is actually just an area of Central London - but those who prey on the prevailing disaffection with mainstream politics to advance their own aims and agendas have realised that an association with politicians and traditional political processes can make almost anything seem sleazy and corrupt.

By perpetuating the idea of some great, expansive divide between ‘ordinary people’ and ‘professional politicians’ - two apparently separate species, who simply cannot understand each other - it is possible to make people suspicious and mistrustful of almost anything, just by associating it with ‘Westminster’, the by-word for self-interested, out-of-touch politics with nothing to offer.

Twitter for business

If you do it right, Twitter is the perfect customer support tool for your business.  It's instant, it's convenient, it's free, it's twenty-four hours.  If you own a business, train your staff to use social media well, and it will pay dividends - and the bigger your business, the more important it is to harness the power of Twitter to keep your customers happy!

Why do I bring this up?  Well, we (as a society) are always very keen to complain about poor service - I think it's good to recognise when service is done well, too.  With that in mind…  I Tweeted about an issue I was having with Barclays' online banking, and I received a very prompt, helpful response from Barclays' official Twitter.  Simple, painless - and fixed my problem straight away.

See?  Customer service is easy!

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

May I take your order?

Anyone who's watched Match Of The Day regularly has probably complained about Match Of The Day almost as often.  Almost all football fans seem to be convinced that the BBC's flagship football programme is biased against their team - and one of the most common complaints is about the order in which the matches are shown.  When Norwich City were in the Premier League, we always seemed to be the last game on Match Of The Day, and supporters felt this was being done deliberately.  Well, I know how to put this issue to bed, once-and-for-all…

Instead of leaving the running order up to a real person, whose judgement can be called into question, there should be a formula for deciding this, based on nothing but cold, hard facts.  The best way is to link the order to position in the league table at the time.  I have done a mock-up of this for last Saturday's Match Of The Day, so you can see how this would work.

There were six games played on Saturday:

  • Manchester City vs. Aston Villa
  • Hull vs. Crystal Palace
  • Leicester vs. Burnley
  • Liverpool vs. West Brom
  • Sunderland vs. Stoke
  • Swansea vs. Newcastle
And this was the Premier League table on Saturday, as Match Of The Day went on-air:

So, my formula would take an aggregate league position (ALP), by calculating the mean average of the two teams' standings in the table.  (For example, if the top two teams in the table were to play each other, their ALP would be 1.5 [1st place + 2nd place, divided by two] and so this would be the first game shown.)

Under this system, Saturday's Match Of The Day running order would therefore be as follows:
  • ALP 4.5 - Manchester City vs. Aston Villa
  • ALP 9.5 - Liverpool vs. West Brom
  • ALP 11 - Swansea vs. Newcastle
  • ALP 11 - Hull vs. Crystal Palace
  • ALP 13 - Sunderland vs. Stoke
  • ALP 14 - Leicester vs. Burnley
(As you can see, two games have identical ALPs - of the four teams involved in these two games, Swansea are the highest in the table, so their match with Newcastle gets shown first.)
Oh, but what if a game between two teams lower down the table is really exciting?!
…you might be saying.

Well, that doesn't matter!  When the formula is in control, the order is what it is - it isn't affected by subjectivity, and the teams whose matches are shown first have earnt that right through their previous good results, so there can be no complaints.  And besides, if the 'exciting' games aren't always right at the start, there's more chance of everyone watching all the way to the end.

The BBC need to implement my system of ordering matching matches now.  They will thank me.

Monday, 6 October 2014

#F1 - Keep fighting, Jules

This is about the time I would normally sit down and write my Formula 1 column about the weekend's race - that's quite difficult to do on the back of the news about Jules Bianchi's crash and surgery for head injuries, though.

There were plenty of talking points from yesterday's Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, and lots of off-track drama to discuss, too - including the news that four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel will leave Red Bull, the which gave him such extraordinary success over the last few seasons, at the end of this year.  However, none of this is quite as important as the health and wellbeing of our drivers.  It was poignant to read reports that the other drivers - such fierce rivals on-track - were all at the hospital with Jules after the race.

Now is not the time to analyse, to evaluate, to speculate, or to blame.  Now is the time for the entire world of motorsport to send Jules Bianchi positive thoughts - and hope that we will see him race again sooner, rather than later.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Don't cry for Jeremy, Argentina

One doesn't haven to be a fan of Jeremy Clarkson to condemn mob violence.  Clarkson and the Top Gear team were recently chased out of Argentina by an angry mob hurling bricks and rocks, after locals took exception to a vehicle number plate which they thought was a jibe about the Falklands War.  (The BBC denies that this was the case, and insists the number plate was purely a coincidence.)

Clarkson is a controversial figure, and not without his critics.  However, to be seeing comments on Facebook and Twitter about this incident supporting the actions of the Argentinian rioters, or even offering to supply them with more rocks to hurl at the presenter, is pretty disgraceful.

Condoning and supporting this sort of 'lynch mob' rioting is never OK.  Not even if the target is somebody you don't like.

Freedom Of Bin-formation Act

This piece originally appeared in my FLiCK Magazine column in June 2014.

I was recently informed that I would have to be more careful when throwing things out.  This isn’t because I’ve been launching empty food packaging and used matchsticks across the room, and missing the bin.  Nor is it because I have been piloting my wheelie bin so violently up and down the drive that I have received a ticket for dangerous driving whilst at the helm.

No, I have to be careful because I have occasionally thrown food waste into the general rubbish bin, rather than the special food waste bin - out of, I admit, laziness - and that I have now been ‘caught’ by the bin men.  The bin men, it seems, have spotted food waste in the regular bin, and they are not happy about this; apparently, if you get ‘caught’ too many times, you may have to pay a fine.

Now, I would like to make it absolutely clear that I don’t have an issue with the concept of recycling, or of being careful with your rubbish for the sake of the environment.  If you’re the sort of person who believes passionately in this stuff, then good for you - I really mean that.  But I definitely do have an issue with the idea of being coerced into behaving in a certain way (in this case, an environmentally conscious way) either through threats or rewards.

The thought of agents of the state (the bin men are employed by the council) sifting through my rubbish to check up on whether I’m being a ‘good citizen’ is like something out of Stalinist Russia, and is frankly rather sinister.

Maybe you think I’m being melodramatic - that comparisons with totalitarian regimes are unnecessarily hyperbolic, bordering on preposterous.  Perhaps you’d be right.  But personally, I find the idea of anyone being legally allowed to invade my privacy, rifle through my things on my property and report to the state on how I am living (who can then levy ‘corrective’ punishments to encourage me to change my ‘behaviour’ if it is deemed not orthodoxy), like some kind of Securitate informer, deeply disturbing.

There will, I am sure, be those who argue that this self-important government interloping is ‘a price worth paying’ for a better, cleaner, more responsible society - but I’m afraid I cannot agree.  The state should exist to protect individuals’ freedoms, not to ride roughshod over them in the name of one ideology or another, and this sort of invasion of privacy is something of which we should be very wary indeed, even in the name of a ‘good cause’ - in fact, especially in the name of a good cause.  Once we accept one pretext for government making life choices for us, we are on very shaky ground indeed.

I don’t ever want to live in a world where the state is peering into our homes to makes sure we are living the ‘right way’.  It may start with our bins - but where will it end?

We are the dead.


In the wake of new Tory proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act, and replace it with some bungling alternative, it becomes ever more important to make people aware of the growing reach of the oppressive arm of the state.  Far from repealing the Human Rights Act, we need to enshrine more individual freedoms in law - including the freedom to dispose of our own property without the state rummaging though our bins to check what we've been up to.  We could call this the Freedom Of Bin-formation Act.

Friday, 3 October 2014

#NCFC season comparisons

Norwich have now won four away games this season – twice as many as we won in the whole of last season. Which is great. But also completely meaningless.

Comparisons between last season and this season have very little worth because relegation to the Championship has made any cross-season analysis inherently uneven. Is it any surprise that a team will win more games in the lower division than in the top flight?

Of course, it’s brilliant to see Norwich doing well, scoring goals, winning games, and (at the time of writing) topping the Championship table. But holding up these facts as proof positive that the manager and/or the squad are an improvement on last year’s is to misrepresent the relative levels of the Championship and the Premier League; I’m not saying that Norwich haven’t improved from last year, but it is foolish to ignore that the opposition have got significantly easier also.