Saturday, 31 March 2012

Natural Selection

I think I've worked out what the problem is with our political system.  I'm sure you all worked it out years ago, but bear with me.

Darwin provides the explanation, as he does for most systems.  As you know, his thesis was that natural processes of selection weed out those that are unsuitable for a particular environment leaving behind those that are suited.  They can then reproduce successfully and, over time, you develop a population that is matched perfectly to the environment.  So, if you want to change the nature of the population, it is pointless trying to change the population that is living in it so successfully, you need to change the environment around them.  Care is needed, though (normally), as a dramatic change may wipe out the population leaving nothing to repopulate it from.

Equally, if you want to understand the nature of the population, and gain some insight into why it is the way that it is, you need to look at the environmental pressures that it faces.  Assuming that the population is mature, you can then infer that the population is the way that is it in order to survive in that environment.

Applying this to the British political class, we then face the obvious question of what is their environment?  From where do they obtain their shelter and support?  The answer to that one is quite simple - the media.  So, what sort of media do we have?  Taking the Today programme as an example (it being the only one I don't do very well at escaping), we have a series of questioners whose only aim is to trap a politician into saying something embarrassing or admitting that they don't know what they are talking about.  John Humphreys et al have never given me the slightest impression that they are trying to elucidate useful information about a subject of interest to their listeners; they just want to be The One Who Humiliated That Politician.  They want their "Did you threaten to overrule him" moment.

So what type of politician could we reasonably expect to result from that kind of environment?  Simple - the type who simply will not answer any question with any kind of information that might ever be used against them in future.  Or, to put it more simply, not with any kind of information at all.  The kind of answer that is evasive, an answer to a different question to the one that was asked.  A non-answer, in other words.  OscarIndia spotted it last week on Question Time -
politicians can’t get away with saying anything about anything any more
Now, we usually castigate them for this, but perhaps we should be more understanding if, as it now seems to me, that this is merely a rational response to the environment in which they find themselves.  After all, the system which we use for politics has selected that kind of politician; any politician that is "different" gets castigated and, eventually, ejected.  Vide Gorgeous George, Boris, Edwina Currie and so on - the kind of politician who speaks out, speaks up, debates, responds, gets into hot water, is often pilloried, and eventually gets thrown out or resigns.  (Yes, I know Boris is currently mayor, but this is despite the controversies which merit an entire section in Wikipedia).  So we are left, by and large, with the ones who are spineless opinionless grinning idiots.

So why is the media the way it is?  Again, that is quite simple.  Look who they have to deal with - the politicians.  If you were tasked with interviewing someone who you knew was going to avoid every question and purge all their answers of anything controversial or informative, you'd adopt the same hectoring interrogative tone of Humphreys, Paxman, and so on.  You'd interrupt them when they start rambling on with an endless stream of meaningless vacuous drivel.  You'd try to trip them up.  What's more, you'd make it less likely that any future politico will ever give an informative answer to any question you ever ask.

So there we are - a symbiotic relationship.  Our short-sighted soundbite-obsessed media are responsible for our short-sighted soundbite-obsessed politicians, and vice versa.

It's clear to see - just look at recent events.  An economically sensible move is made - to reduce the top rate of tax to below the Laffer limit.  At the same time, another economically sensible move is made, to place older taxpayers on the same basis as others by eliminating a minor imbalance.  Cue instant uproar over a "Granny tax" because Osborne has made the (idiotic) error of doing both at the same time.  All caused by a small slip in presentation.

Or the fuel scare debacle - which could have been defused quickly if Ministers had appeared to say that Francis Maude had made a stupid error because stockpiling fuel is dangerous, stupid and unnecessary.  Can you imagine the media scrum if they had, though?  Or if Maude had re-appeared saying "Good lord no, I didn't mean that, sorry to have put it across so ineptly".  We all knew he had, though, but every politician being interviewed has to avoid saying anything so clear, simple and straightforward so ends up reinforcing the error.

Or the "pasty tax" (oh, really...).  A trivial inconsistency in the list of VAT-exempted products is tidied up and it is front page news.  No, the newsworthy issues are that VAT is so high and that there is an external undemocratic body who set an arbitrary floor beneath which we may not reduce it.  Whether or not a warm, high-fat snack falls on or off the exempted list is neither here nor there, but is made up to be something significant.

So where do we go from here?  I'll admit, that's the hard bit.  There's the obvious option of lining up the entire political and media class of the country and opening fire, but that approach has been tested to destruction in other countries, without much by way of success.  We can discount that, I think.

We should certainly avoid media outlets that trivialise issues and focus on the irrelevant - the Guardian, the Murdoch press, all the tabloids, the Mail (oh, heavens, yes, the Mail) and all of the BBC news output will do for a start.

We should get politicians on Twitter, using it properly and personally.  Not like the No.10 twitter feed, or the car-crash that was #AskEdM, but tweeting personally and listening to others' tweets.  Politicians should have blogs, all of them; the media is half of the problem, so politicians must find ways round the media.

We also need to close down the organised crime syndicate known as News International.  Sorry Rupert, but you company has proved to be engaged in criminal activity in every sector of it that we have looked in.  It's time to stop looking at the company and start closing the company.

None of this is enough though.  We also need some intelligent, plain-speaking, brave people to become politicians in order to challenge the media, break the cycle and be the change.

Off you all go, then.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Spin this

Swindon is the town that, you may recall, caused a fuss by deciding to switch off all its "safety" cameras (speed cameras to you & me).  Now, these "safety" cameras are there to make the roads safer, right?  So by switching them off, Swindon will have made its roads more dangerous, right?  So there will have been more accidents since they turned them off than there were before, right?

A Wiltshire town that elected to get rid of its speed cameras has the safest roads in Britain, a report has revealed.
Swindon, which scrapped its speed cameras in July 2009 to save on council costs and trial other traffic calming measures, has just two accidents per thousand registered vehicles on it roads - the lowest rate in the UK. The town became the first English local authority to decommission fixed cameras, although it decided to maintain mobile cameras used by police.
What? Roads are safer without speed cameras? Well, well, well, who would have thought that? It seems that experiments produce clear results when you don't fiddle with the figures.

Postscript - Oddly, the BBC does not seem to have noticed this news (as of 27 March)...

Monday, 26 March 2012

I do seem to be attracted to the cars of the Axis powers...

Apart from Japan.  But oh my, this one is lovely. So tempting.

(Courtesy of Between the White Lines, which you should all subscribe to. If you like cars.  But not if you don't, as then you'll probably find it really dull & repetitive.)

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Bang bang you're dead

I find gun control a very difficult subject.  On the one hand, I don't like the idea of the populace being armed.  I shot competitively as a teenager, and developed a healthy respect for firearms that I suspect is not shared by most of the people who would buy a gun if they were free to do so.  On the other hand, passing ever-sterner laws against gun ownership has not removed guns from this country, it has just concentrated them in the hands of the criminal classes.

There is, of course, the safety argument.  However, Tim Harford's book (which is very good, you should read it) reports the analysis which shows swimming pools are far more dangerous than guns.  I don't hear any calls to ban swimming pools.

The argument I find hardest to rebut, though, is the one which basically points out that the Police, if they turn up, tend to turn up after the crime has been committed.  The gun in your pocket or your handbag tends to be on hand immediately.  This argument, in other words:

There are more like this here; hat tip to Tom Paine

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Bullsh*t Bingo

I claim full house.  I have had to write to the following department at my local council:

"Commissioning & Business Improvement: Access & Inclusion"

Guess what they deal with?

Yes! Spot on! Schools, of course!

What?  You didn't guess?