Friday, 19 January 2018

Quote of the Day: Dry January is puritan finger-wagging


From Sophie Artherton in the Morning Advertiser:
If someone needs to be enabled to take control of their relationship with alcohol, or they drink so much that they need a whole month off from drinking, I’d call that a drink dependency problem. By its own definitions Dry January​ isn’t fit to solve that.

If Dry January​ isn’t about ‘alcohol dependency problems’ then what it amounts to is puritan finger pointing at people who enjoy a drink. Those behind the movement seem to want us to believe that anyone and everyone who drinks is at risk of becoming alcoholic, taking no account of the many reasons why some succumb to the disease.
Absolutely - Dry January is just another tool from the temperance movement to demonise drinking and we should reject it totally.

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So was there no-one from Bradford available to Chair a social mobility board in Bradford?


It's great news that the Government has send Bradford £11m to set up an "Opportunity Area" promoting social mobility. Here's a chunk from the press release:
The Opportunity Area programme will be delivered by a partnership between the Department for Education and Bradford Council.

The new plan has been developed by a partnership board with representatives from Bradford schools, the council, charities and the private sector.

Bradford is one of 12 Opportunity Areas across the country which are each receiving a £6m share of £72 million to improve opportunities for young people.

The district will also benefit from investment of up to £5 million over two years through the Essential Life Skills programme, to help disadvantaged young people develop life skills such as resilience, emotional wellbeing and employability.

As part of the Opportunity Area programme a Research School has been opened in Bradford, being run by Dixons Academies, which will work to share evidence-based research of what works in the classroom to help raise standards across the district.

Research schools are being supported by the Education Endowment Foundation and the Institute for Effective Education to act as local centres of excellence in Opportunity Areas.
I ought to be chuffed that a Conservative Government is, yet again, supporting the improvement of education in Bradford. All this on the back of successful free schools, academies and a renewed focus on educational outcomes. But there's a bit in all this that makes me really very angry:
Anne-Marie Canning, the Chair of Bradford Opportunity Area Partnership Board,
Who is this person, I wondered. The name wasn't familiar to me but then I don't know everyone involved or connected to education in my city. So I googled:



Great credentials but she's doing a very senior job at a large university in London. I wonder, and don't take this as criticism of her specifically, whether she's going to be able to give the sort of attention to the project that someone who lives and works within Bradford (or at least somewhere nearby) could give? I also wonder why, given recent experiences, a Conservative government is appointing people to chair boards who have this sort of experience in their CV:



Yes folks. Not only is our new chair not from Bradford and working in London but she used to be a Labour Councillor.

In the end it probably doesn't matter greatly but it still sends out a message - loudly and clearly - from the Government in London that only people in London count and that important roles like overseeing the investment of £11m to improve educational opportunities for young people in Bradford cannot be trusted to someone who actually has some sort of connection to the city. And maybe part of the reason why boards and institutions are so ready to snap at the Conservative hand feeding them is because we keep appointing left wing academics, Labour councillors and their assorted fellow travellers to run them.

Was there no-one from Bradford available to do this job? Frankly I don't believe it, it's just a London presumption that nobody in Bradford would be good enough to do the job because, well, it's Bradford isn't it. You know Up North where the thick people live.

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Thursday, 18 January 2018

The politics of "it's not fair" - welcome to the New Toddlers


I'm angry, rage-filled, cross. The little tic above my left eye is twitching, the axe in the shed sings its siren song. I'm close to having had enough. All this has been prompted by an appointment - something I might write about later. Put simply, however, it is time for those of us who like free speech, free markets, free enterprise and a free society to stop putting up with the sort of world where a TV anchor who went to one of Britain's poshest school and then to Oxford can, in all seriousness, say to an academic that he 'doesn't have the right to offend'.

Indeed, as many have already pointed out, the entirety of Cathy Newman's interview with Jordan Peterson consisted of straw men, non sequiturs, misrepresentations and the repeated use of the words 'fair' and 'unfair'. These two words are now the most abused words in the English language - from "it's not fair" being the exclusive cry of the toddler in mid-tantrum, it has now become the mantra for an entire political movement. OK, so some folk like to point at Corbyn's politics and say it's 'Marxist' but frankly this is a bit of an insult to Karl who at least tried to construct a coherent set of theories about history, society and economics. The New Toddlers don't do this, they just scream "it's not fair" ever more loudly. Sometimes, as in the case of former broadcast journalists, they scream "it's not fair" and misquote Gramsci.

These New Toddlers are joined in their screeches by the likes of Cathy Newman who refuse to let sensible things like actual research evidence get in the way of them shouting "it's not fair". Everything from Jessica's uni fees through to Grandma having to cash in some of her three-quarters of a million of housing asset is not "fair". Don't have a job - or better still the precise job (very well paid, of course) you think you deserve - scream "it's not fair" and, as if by magic, some left wing politician or right-on news reporter will appear with the soothing words "something must be done" followed by dragging one of the few remaining grown ups in and accusing them of not being "fair".

The New Toddlers have been weaned on the idea that everything is somebody else's fault - often a strange and nebulous thing called 'neoliberalism'. You're fat and you drink too much? It not fair is it but rest assured something will be done - the bad people who made you fat and forced you to drink a bottle of white wine every second day will be punished. Maybe you've moved to London because that's where all the action is and you can get a great job in a new media design start up or, better still, in some NGO, QUANGO or think-tank. But it's not fair that you can barely afford the rent, let alone buy a house (something the thickoes you left behind in Ormskirk seem able to do from their crappy little warehouse or call centre jobs) - never mind, those politicians and pundits will be there echoing your cries: "it's not fair, it's not right, something must be done, give me more money, stop them charging me so much, tax fat cats more, what about those big companies, we'll have their money, it's not fair."

Hardly a day passes without another screechy, evidence-free campaign: windfall taxes on this, give free things to this group, stop that group, nationalise this, take over that, regulate, intervene, manage, control, fuss, bother...it's not fair, it's not fair. Twitter memes are fired off, clickbait articles written, petitions launched - anyone daring to oppose is ridiculed, abused, piled onto while any, even mild, kickback results in more screams of "it's not fair, stop the nasty abusers". Every women, every disabled person, every gay man, every minority, folk with mental health problems, fat people, drunks, drug users - everyone except smokers - is a victim. It's not fair.

This ever more infantilised society - the world of these New Toddlers - is exploited by those, whether they call themselves Marxists, Fabians or 'social justice campaigners' who want to exercise power by seeming to be kind and caring. These exploiters don't really give a stuff about whether anything is fair (so long as they're running it and getting well paid), what they really hate is that, out there, there are still people who think it's not a bad idea to take responsibility for your own life, who think we should be allowed to say stuff even if some people think it's not fair and get all offended. We're the problem you see because we don't think we need great and good people on public boards and bodies to make life fair. Mostly this is because, unlike Arthur Dent, we listened to what our Mother said all those years ago when we had that toddler tantrum and screamed, "it's not fair".

"Life's not fair. Get used to it."

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Sunday, 14 January 2018

Is cousin-marriage bad for civil society?


Interesting how this question was asked in the first place but the answer is revealing:
This paper tests the hypothesis that extended kin-groups, as characterized by a high level of cousin marriages, impact the proper functioning of formal institutions. Consistent with this hypothesis I find that countries with high cousin marriage rates exhibit a weak rule of law and are more likely autocratic.
Democracy and a liberal society require family to be open not closed. If your culture deems family, and especially family honour as paramount and seeks to maintain family autonomy then you get more consanguineous marriage (with all the attendant issues). The authors here see how the ending of this pattern in Europe allowed strong non-family institutions including, in the end, democracy. This is a lesson that modern day Pakistan needs to learn:
Two months ago, a council of village elders ordered the rape of a 16-year-old girl, whose brother had been accused of raping a 12-year-old girl in Raja Ram village in central Pakistan. Shocking though it is, the case is no aberration. Revenge rape, honour killings, and the exchange of women are some of the routine ways through which disputes are resolved.

Far from outlawing these councils, Pakistan’s National Assembly shocked the country by seeking to give these councils quasi-judicial powers earlier this year. It passed a Bill providing legal and constitutional cover to jirga and panchayat systems, in an bid to ensure speedy resolution for “small civil matters” and free the formal judiciary of some of its burden.

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Saturday, 13 January 2018

How Dungeons & Dragons changed the world...


Mark, from his place in France, has written about computer games. But first he tells us where it started:
I suppose it started at uni, with Dungeons and Dragons. This role-playing combat and treasure-hunting game is based on a map, figurines and rolls of the dice. And lots of rules, looked up in a book, for how armour, weapons, magic spells, and everything else in the fantasy world actually work. (How much time, magical energy and money does it take to develop a micro-fireball oven?) We'd collect together of an evening around the boards, dice and a considerable amount of beer, and play through the night.
To which I respond: Boards? Figurines? Before settling down and remembering the thousands of hours I spent playing the game. And playing didn't just involve turning up for a few hours and rolling some dice (well, absolutely thousands of dice if truth be told) - we also created the dungeons from scratch including new monsters, traps and fiendish puzzles. I once designed (I think that's the term we use these days) an entire assassin's guild complete with its constitution - my career direction was set even then!

The idea that you could create a functional model place into which players could bring their own imagination, creativity and very large two-handed swords may seem unremarkable in this age of on-line gaming, but back in the 1970s Gary Gygax's innovation was quite the opposite - remarkable indeed. Never before had there been a game that put those childhood make-believe games into its system. And, though there'd been plenty of team games, Dungeons & Dragons was the first game to have both team and individual competition - you worked with other players to slay monsters, solve puzzles and run your fingers through the loot while acting as an individual player. D&D even provided a framework - the alignment chart - to allow such individualism to range across all the variations in human character.

D&D begat a host of other 'role-playing games' (RPGs) from Traveller, which involved romping about in space, through other fantasy games like Runequest, and even a Japanese samauri game called Bushido (with by far the most over-elaborate rule book). RPGs were designed based in the wild west or capturing the incipient madness in H P Lovecraft. All these took the same model - create a character, place that character in the game when he, she or it interests with other players, and explore scenarios created by a 'game-' or 'dungeon-master'. But, while each of these games picked up flaws in D&D, the basic combat and magic system remains hard to beat (and the basis for combat systems in a pile of popular computer games).

For me, the biggest thing about D&D was - and is - the character you create as this is central to the game's ethos (not, of course, that slaying bug-eyed monsters controlled by evil priests isn't fun). I wrote about it some while ago:
What you have is a cardboard cut-out character that would suit the typical Hollywood blockbuster based on some comic book. But this is Dungeons & Dragons and you can do better. Your level one male ranger (OK you chose that because you fancied Aragorn maybe) has to round out by interacting with the other players - perhaps he's a bit grumpy when he doesn't get his way, maybe he never buys a round, or has a tendency to quote bad poetry. While doing this, of course, you have to stay alive which means you need to co-operate - even with the righteous lawful good cleric.

By the time Aerosmith (or whatever your ranger's name is) has survived to be 4th or 5th level, you know what he's like, how he'll respond to other sorts of character, his foibles and preferences. And with his recently acquired Sword of Daemon (+2, +3 vs evil things from hell) you have a real character. For sure, some of the character is the player themselves (we aren't all Constantine Stanislavsky, after all), but you'll have wrapped your mind round how to develop a character. And the wonder of this is that, for all there's a dungeon and a dungeon master controlling the game, the success or otherwise isn't just about the quantity of goblins slain or giants hacked to pieces but about having created, with a few others, a game within that game.
Looking back it sometimes seems childish to recall long conversations about what an imaginary character might do in a given situation - indeed, I'm sure that the worldly folk who though D&D was naff would make this point strongly. The thing is, however, that those conversations explored - through the medium of a game - a pile of concepts (what we mean by good and evil, the search for power, the benefits of collaboration) that would otherwise only get considered in the abstract. You learn more about evil by asking what a supposedly evil character would do than through argument, however reasoned. And it isn't simple, you quickly get past kill everyone and take all the gold (although I've done that too).

Dungeons & Dragons stretched the boundaries of the game (or at least the formal game - children had always, and still do, play games of imagination, what we'd now call RPGs) by allowing fantasy, in its widest sense, to arrive into the board game. The game became about personality, conversation, survival and growth rather than, in the old board game sense, winning or losing. Nobody dies when boys play cops and robbers but the idea of death is there as is questioning what is right and what is wrong. The child giving her dolls names, characters and roles does the same and we see it as a valuable way for that child to explore what it is to be human.

But, when children get to big school or thereabouts all this childishness has to stop. Games are either an entertaining means of passing time or else a simple matter of who wins and who loses. Outside drama classes and the school play there's none of this role-play and even the drama class wants you to be the person the playwright wants you to be not the role you want to try out. In the 1970s, for a bunch of mostly boys, mostly a bit nerdy and dorky, Dungeons & Dragons allowed them, without embarrassment, to play those games of imagination again. By making the games of young childhood fit with adult themes, D&D reinvented what grown-ups understand by a game, helped pave the way (along with complex war games from the likes of Strategy & Tactics) for computer gaming, and placed imagination right back at the heart of play where it belongs.
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Thursday, 11 January 2018

"You're fat and your food's a joke" - elite attitudes to out-of-town dinners


So you head off to the big city from rural America. Anything is better than the dull world of backwoods Indiana - you even write a screed saying how dreadful the old place was. And then you find out what people in the shiny city think of folk from your backwood:
Friends at work one day called her over to ask about Cracker Barrel. “It’s just like a chain restaurant we go to treat ourselves,” Ms. Cronkhite said.

A co-worker jumped in: “It’s this really white-trash restaurant that overweight Midwesterners go to.”

Then came the invitation to join some friends at Butter. The San Francisco bar is decorated as a sendup of rural white America, complete with the front end of a Winnebago RV. The menu included such cocktails as the Whitetrash Driver, vodka and SunnyD; Bitchin’ Camaro, spiced rum and Dr Pepper; and After School Special, vodka and grape soda.

“It was, all of the sudden, in my face,” Ms. Cronkhite said. “Things at home we thought were nice or parts of our culture were treated with open scorn and disdain and like a joke.”
This attitude is commonplace (and not new either) - here's Aesop from about 600BC:
A country mouse invited his cousin who lived in the city to come visit him. The city mouse was so disappointed with the sparse meal which was nothing more than a few kernels of corn and a couple of dried berries.
The disdain of city dwellers for the culinary choices of folk from the sticks is reciprocated but there's still a tendency to see those upcountry, working class dishes as an ironic joke, something a bit naff or, worst of all, unhealthy, unpleasant muck. There is a snooty distaste from our metropolitan elite for Wetherspoons, Harvester and other pub eateries selling Sunday lunches, cheap steaks and jumbo fish all washed down with beer, cheap white wine and Coca-Cola. We're better than that is the tone and you're fat is the message.

To some in that metropolitan elite all this is just a bit "Brexit-y" - scotch eggs, corned beef, cheap lager, sandwich spread, spam, value baked beans and, of course, salad cream:




It's not, however, about Brexit just that leaving the EU acts as a sort of conduit for some of that snobbish disdain - typified by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown using 'shops filled with pie and chips' as a sort of anti-Brexit dog whistle, a position so snobbish that Iain Martin's conclusion is the best antidote:
This shows that Vote Leave missed a trick in June 2016. If they had promised on the side of their bus that Britain post-Brexit would have “shops full of pies” I suspect that Leave would have won the EU referendum by a bigger margin. If chips were also provided, it would have been a landslide among British men.

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We weren't members of the EU back then....


I've always found that, among arguments against Brexit, the one that says 'Britain has historic links to Europe' the most bizarre. Here's Yasmin Alibhai-Brown lecturing us about it (but don't pay too close attention to the facts as they're a tad dodgy):
London was built by Romans when they occupied and controlled the land. Vikings settled in England in AD 373. By the 13th century, our market towns bustled with French, Venetian, Flemish buyers and sellers.

Dutch and German brewers supplied beer to Brits. The Black plague of 1348 killed almost a third of Britain’s population and Europeans flooded in to fill labour shortages.

Do most Brexiters realise that despised and persecuted French protestant refugees helped set up the Bank of England? Or that in the Tudor and Stuart periods, European artisans, scientists, artists and inventors settled in England? Several members of the Royal College of Physicians were German; Austrians taught at Oxford and Cambridge, the father of the great engineer Isambard Brunel was French and so on and on.
We could, of course, go on to note the contribution of that Englishman, Alcuin to the court of Charles the Great, how Byron, Shelley and others traipsed around Italy and Greece having a fine old time while writing the occasional poem, and the tales of many merchants, soldiers and scientists.

But that's missing the point. All this stuff - the trade with Europe, the foreigners who came to live in London, the high end tourism of the Grand Tour - took place without us needing to be welded into the iron lung of the EU. We managed all this collaboration, co-operation and trade without any blocs, pseudo-democracy and officious regulation.

There are arguments for and against us leaving the EU but citing stuff that happened hundreds of years before it even existed (and where the idea of European unity consisted of one or other megalomaniac dragging armies across the continent) really isn't a good one.

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