America vs. the Congestion Charge…

There’s a highly entertaining little story that’s getting everyone’s backs up in London at the moment that I suspect hasn’t really crossed the Atlantic yet, and might amuse a few people. But before I can tell you about it, I’ll have to fill in a little background. The Congestion Charge is a levy or toll imposed on anyone who drives a car in Central London. Cameras track every license plate that enters the middle of the city, checks them against a database of people who have paid (by text message, online or wherever), and if finds any absentee freeloaders joyriding around the city’s many traffic jams, it automatically dispatches a polite letter (and complementary fine) to the car owners / social reprobates in question.

The fascinating thing about the Congestion Charge is that there only seem to be two types of people who complain about it. The first group is the unfortunate shop-owner on the periphery of the zone. These are the people who would actually probably lose business through the changes. They have my sympathy. The other group are the – frankly – grotesquely rich, who insist on driving their cars through the centre because they’re too important and significant to use any form of public transport. Often Conservative politicians seem to fall into this camp, always somehow claiming that the common man of London is appalled by the charge, even though pretty much everyone in the Capital either uses buses, cabs or tubes – all of which benefit from the charge. No one I know in London has ever complained to me about it.

Now let’s get back to your scheduled programming. The latest group of people to have complained about the charge are no longer the super-rich or the political elite of London, but are instead the staff at the American embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square. Except they’ve gone one stage further. They’ve refused to pay it and are now operating as if it simply did not exist. It’s causing a bit of a diplomatic incident, as well as making quite a lot of British people grumble quietly to themselves, shift slightly in their Hush Puppies and gently waggle their hands at the television in vague dismay.

The contention of the US Embassy (and – to be fair – a selection of other equally uncivilised foreign powers, like the Germans) is that they cannot be legally required to pay the tax under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and Optional Protocols which basically gives Diplomats such an extensive range of local law exemptions that from a distance they look like superheroes. The parts of the document you’re looking for, by the way, are articles 23, 28, 34, 36 and 37. My personal opinion is that they’re rather scuppered by the ‘services rendered’ bit of Article 36, but what do I know.

Anyway, the consequence of all this is that they’ve run up bills that could amount to ¬£150,000 worth of fines, which they are – of course – refusing to pay. London’s local government agencies (and its Mayor – Ken Livingstone) are not terribly impressed…

The BBC News story on the fiasco quotes a US embassy spokesman who said, “We consider it a tax, and it is the view of the United States government that all direct taxes on diplomats and diplomatic operations, including this one, are prohibited by the Vienna Convention”. In response, the Mayor’s office has stated, “The congestion charge is not a tax. It is a charge for a service. All staff at the American embassy should pay the congestion charge, in the same way as British officials pay road tolls in the United States.”

Anyway, the whole thing is getting more and more entertaining. The Americans seem to be totally miscalculating the mood of Londoners on this one, who don’t seem at all inspired by their attempt to stick it to the man. And this was not helped by a leaked memo that they just read on Channel 4 News in which an embassy official said, “It is with significant personal pride that I can advise all mission staff that… all accredited US mission personnel are to cease paying the congestion charge as well as any subsequent fines or penalties”. Can I first say – wow! – someone leaked a memo for a story about the American Embassy and the Congestion Charge!? And secondly, I think I should probably also report that I don’t think the British news teams are taking this story particularly seriously – the memo was read in the worst American accent I’ve ever heard, and at times I could have sworn that the newsreader was about to burst into a fit of giggles.

So there we have it – war on the streets of London. And there’s nothing the British like more than a nice bureaucratic pot-boiler combined with a bit of culture clashing and grumpiness about uncouth people not pulling their weight. It’s the best news story I’ve followed in ages.

But what do you guys think? Should the visiting Americans pay their bills, or are they being held subject to a whole new set of taxations without representation? Bring it on, people – let’s get the whole thing right out in the open!

Academia Health Journalism Politics Religion Science

On Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science"…

While I’m talking about the Guardian (reports from friends within the printing presses are that it’s looks beautiful), i thought I should probably mention an article that I read on Thursday last week which I thought was one of the most important things I’ve heard people say in the media for a long time. Ben Goldacre’s piece on why bad science gets promulgated by the media hit more chords for me than any nearby troupe of jazz pianists could have accomplished in their natural lifetimes. And while I thought it was a little blanketly dismissive of ‘humanities graduates’, I do fundamentally agree that humanities graduates are now taught to mistrust science and push the idea of it as just one of many competing discourses. Over the last six or seven years I’ve become more and more suspicious of these rhetorics in the arts, and more and more aware of how they’re being appropriated by mystics and creationists in the States.

The other thing that frankly scared me was that the article – for the first time I think – really expressed the damage that the media can do with the rubbish it writes in search of a story. That I’m not sure I could stand up and point to one news organisation that takes their responsibility in this area particularly seriously really brought home Ben Goldacre’s point for me. If you can stomach it, you should read the whole damn thing: Don’t dumb me down – We laughed, we cried, we learned about statistics…

A close relative of the wacky story is the paradoxical health story. Every Christmas and Easter, regular as clockwork, you can read that chocolate is good for you, just like red wine is, and with the same monotonous regularity, in breathless, greedy tones you will you hear how it’s scientifically possible to eat as much fat and carbohydrate as you like, for some complicated reason, but only if you do it at “the right time of day”. These stories serve one purpose: they promote the reassuring idea that sensible health advice is outmoded and moralising, and that research on it is paradoxical and unreliable.

At the other end of the spectrum, scare stories are – of course – a stalwart of media science. Based on minimal evidence and expanded with poor understanding of its significance, they help perform the most crucial function for the media, which is selling you, the reader, to their advertisers. The MMR disaster was a fantasy entirely of the media’s making), which failed to go away. In fact the Daily Mail is still publishing hysterical anti-immunisation stories, including one calling the pneumococcus vaccine a “triple jab”, presumably because they misunderstood that the meningitis, pneumonia, and septicaemia it protects against are all caused by the same pneumococcus bacteria


On "Liberality" for all…

Normally I’d linklog something like this, but I didn’t think people would really get how jaw-on-the-floor stunned I was about it unless I wrote something a bit more substantial. So here we are. I’d like to introduce you all to the future of literature for kids – Liberality, an American Neo-Con comic book in the vein of The Authority only this time positing a future America where the government has become “an Orwellian nightmare of ultra-liberalism” and a new super-heroic force of famous mechanically-enhanced right-wingers must take back the country from the United Nations. This epic force of good-doers features (I kid you not) Conservative talk-radio and Fox News strop-monkey Sean Hannity, Watergate enthusiast and friend of Nixon G. Gordon Liddy and Iran-Contra Smuggler and Reaganite Oliver North.

Here’s my favourite part of the preview of the comic book, in which the evil new liberal orthodoxy welcomes Osama Bin Laden to the UN to apologise for 9/11 and look forward to a new liberal millennium. What more can I say. Wow.


Brief thoughts about the make-up of the G8…

While watching the lunchtime news today I was suddenly struck by what a strange assortment of countries constituted the G8 and so did a little research on Wikipedia. The G8 constitutes: France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Russia. This group is termed eight of the world’s leading industrialised democratic nations. It does not include Spain or China or India presumably because they’re not leading, industrial or democratic enough.

Anyway, I then decided that I didn’t really know enough about the spread of power inside the G8 so I swiftly knocked up a couple of pie-charts to try and get my head around who had most or least influence in the group and came up with the following (stats courtesy of the impressive CIA World Factbook):

This first one is the make-up of the G8 by population (and ordered by population). The United States contains around 300 million people, which is roughly a third of the population of all of the G8 countries combined – equal to Japan and Russia combined and to Germany, France, Italy, Canada and the UK combined.

This second one is the make-up of the G8 by GDP (ordered still by population though so you can see disparities). The US makes up almost half of the GDP of all the G8 countries combined, much more than its population alone would suggest. In contrast, Russia has much less of a proportion of GDP than it does population. Japan, Canada and the European countries have roughly the same share of GDP as they do of population, with European members again making up a third of the overall proportion.

All of which leads me to two conclusions – firstly that it’s hardly a shock that the US has so much influence in these organisations, and secondly that it’s also hardly a shock that the US right-wing is so snotty about the concept of a United Europe.

The other thing that it reminds me is that the British shouldn’t be so negative about our country. Sure, as a nation we don’t stride the world like giants any more. But for Christ’s sake – we’re a country which at its widest point is only a few hundred miles across and yet we’re the eighth biggest economy in the world. (Or higher – depending on who you ask) That’s enormously impressive. We could change the world with that…


My view of the 2005 General Election…

So an election has come and gone and what a strange experience it was. This was the fourth election in which I’ve voted – in order my vote has gone to the Liberal Democrats when Paddy Ashdown was still in charge, and then for New Labour in 1997 and 2001. Each of these decisions was relatively simple. But this time everything was different. A couple of weeks ago I’d basically decided to vote Liberal – you can read about my thoughts in a post called Some election resources to help you make up your mind) – but a lot changed in the run up to polling day itself.

In particular the way the hysteria over the war built and built made me seriously consider the possibility that the country might abandon Labour entirely. The polls suggested that this wasn’t going to happen, but Labour supporters have been fooled by polls before. And the consequence of the Conservatives getting into power hardly bore thinking about. After all this was a party that had spent months peddling an anti-immigrant agenda that – while not necessarily in itself racist – was clearly designed to appeal to racist people. Not the kind of people that I’d want in charge.

So after much soul searching, I’d decided to vote Labour. But at the last minute, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I stood in the polling station with a pen and my ballot paper for nearly five minutes trying to work out what to do – making my decision at the very last minute. In the end, I voted for the party that argued for a higher level of debate, for the preservation of civil liberties, and for not defying the United Nations. I did not vote for the party whose liberal policies on gay rights I believe in, nor on the party that I think has the best grasp of social services and the economy. I did not vote for a party that I generally and genuinely believe in and think is fit to run the country because I felt that it was important to use my tiny voice to protest against the few things that they did that I felt were dishourable, uncivilised and – bluntly – dangerous.

As I left the polling station I felt scared. And if the Conservative party had got into power again, I don’t think I’d have been able to live with myself. But while the Conservative party has won some more seats, they won almost no more votes and Howard has said he’ll step down. Whether or not this means that they will again run away from the right and try and make some space in the centre ground is unclear to me. I thought they might do so after William Hague stood down and that didn’t really work out. So I guess we’ll see.

And in the end, everything has worked out pretty much perfectly. The country’s swing towards the LIberal Democrats was enormously significant, and should give the government a clear sign about where the centre of the debate has headed. If they want to operate effectively in this country – if they want to get in for a fourth term, then they’re going to have to step away from some of their more illiberal policies. The right people are in government, but they’ve been chastened. And I couldn’t be happier.

Addendum added Sunday May 8th: Perhaps I spoke too soon – I’ve just heard David Blunkett on television decry people who voted Liberal as being ‘self-indulgent and well-off’, clearly dismissive of any vote of principle. I hoped for a humbler party who would listen, and it looks like I’m getting an arrogant party who have been let down by their electorate. Great.


A political accord of non-voters…

I’m watching Michael Portillo on This Week today and he makes a really interesting point about turn-out at the election. He suggests that people tend to vote less when they think they know what the outcome is going to be. It’s only when they’re unsure about the outcome that a large proportion are motivated to go out to the ballot box. Which brings up an interesting possibility – that not voting is based on a tacit accord, that it’s a mechanism of not-voting exchange that operates on assumption of balance. Maybe it’s not a cynical move that indicates people’s disillusionment with politics – maybe instead it’s like Arthur Dent in the beginning of The Hitchhiker’s Guide (book not film) who manages to abandon his place in front of a bulldozer to go down the pub. And how? By rationalising that the foreman was resigned to a wasted day anyway and therefore his moist be-mudded presence was really no longer necessary… This has changed my perspective completely from thinking of non-voters as indolent to thinking that they’re tactical, even-handed and pragmatic. The consequence being, of course, that whenever any one party tries to get their followers out to vote, the cosmic balance makes their corresponding numbers nervy enough to go out in response. Ah. The big wheel keeps on turning. On a simple line. Day by day…


Some resources to help you at election time…

An election approaches in the UK and for the first time ever I’m unsure about who I should be voting for. And just for some perspective, to give you some idea of where I’m coming from, I’ve voted for the Liberal Democrats in my first election, and then for Labour in the last two. This time, it’s much more troubling. I look towards the Labour party and have to admit that they’ve done a pretty good job in most of the things that I care about. But there are two things that really weird me out – their crunch on civil liberties (Damn you Blunkett) and the clumsiness of the war in Iraq. I’m still not prepared to say that some form of military intervention in Iraq wasn’t necessary, but I cannot forgive our government for circumventing the United Nations. And – like many other people in the UK – it’s enormously tarnished my view of Tony Blair.

On the other side of the matter is the Conservative party, who spend most of their time criticising Blair for looking smug and – as far as I can tell – just making stuff up. Their former accusation is pretty much indisputable, but it’s also a bit rich when it comes from a man who honestly looks like he’s had to be trained how to smile and still hasn’t quite got it right yet. The rictus he perpetually exhibits is hideous and creepy – which at least suggests a certain honesty, because the tactics used by the Conservatives appear equally hideous. They’re playing on the most clumsy of rabble-rousing near hate-speech: making people think about their daughters being attacked or raped by early-release prisoners and regularly playing the race card. I’m stunned that anyone could vote for them in good conscience.

And finally, you have the Liberal Democrats. I genuinely like them, I respond to their principled positions and on their decision not to engage in negative campaigning. I can see them doing very well out of this election. But on the other hand, what do they really have to lose? It’s easier to be principled when you’re the third party in the country. And even here there are some policies that creep me out. I’ve had to do my taxes for the first time this year and I hated every moment of it. Forms, complexity, nervousness, insecurity. The idea that I’d have to do another set of that stuff for some kind of local income tax as well horrifies me. Note – I’m quite happy to pay some more money, but it just seems like an enormous extra burden of paper, and fiddling and time-consuming misery.

There are a range of tools on the net that I’ve been using this year to try and get my head around the whole thing. One of the most useful and involving isn’t really about the election at all, but more about politics in general. Political Survey 2005 is a stunning site that gets your opinions and explains how you stand in relation to the British public and to the major political parties and newspapers. If you’re interested (and I guess in the spirit of full disclosure, which I hope will make it easier for people out there to properly interrogate the assumptions that I base my writing on) you can read my results – which suggest that my opinions tend towards internationalism and liberalism in social matters but also towards free market economics. On one spectrum I’m seen as being closest to Guardian and Independent readers, and on the other to people who read the Daily Telegraph. For the most part, people who answered like me have tended to say they’ll vote for the Liberal Democrats. Fascinating stuff.

Another slightly less elegant site is Who Should You Vote For, which uses your opinions on over twenty explicit policy areas to work out which political party you are most likely to agree with. In my case, again, it’s telling me to vote Liberal.

In terms of tracking what’s going on, I’m sticking with old reliable BBC and their election coverage, in particular their poll tracker, which this morning alarms me by suggesting that there are in fact many weird-ass Conservatives in the country prepared to vote for that grinning evil. From there the next logical step is to go and find out about your constituency to get some background on what impact your vote is likely to have. My constituency is the heavily Labour and poshly-named (but slightly unpleasant) Regent’s Park & Kensington North. This tells me that it’s relatively unlikely that Labour won’t win around here – so the question becomes whether to register a protest vote with the Liberals or stick with Labour just in case of Conservative ground-swell.

Finally, They Work for You and The Public Whip are really good places to actually find out what your current MP believes in. Karen Buck MP and I would disagree on a range of core issues, particularly ID cards and some of the more draconian anti-terrorism laws, but would agree on others. Again, I can’t help thinking that a Liberal candidate might more accurately represent my opinions.

Well anyway, there you go – there’s my decision exposed in all its glory as honestly as I think I can present it. Hopefully the resources I’ve been using will be of value to some of the rest of you out there trying to work through your own decision. And I guess we only have a few weeks now until we find out who we’re stuck with for the next few years…


How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?

Today’s front page in the Britain’s Daily Mirror. I’m fairly sure that there’s a large number of people around the world who are asking themselves the same question. If you’re interested in this stuff, the BBC has a page which summarises UK newspapers reactions to the US election result.

Today's Daily Mirror Headline


The tarnish is the flag…

It’s probably evidence of the good that a couple of days off work can do to a man that I suddenly find myself able to write a brief post about politics – a subject that I’d normally handle with kid gloves attached to the end of a long barge-pole, itself glued to the end of some kind of excrement-encrusted stick. In my experience, most arguments about any subject function by flattening down complexities to tiny arguable issues. Normally we derive significant utility from this style of argument – but I think with politics our ability to find core and simple arguable issues disappears. With each person added to a political situation, the complexity grows exponentially, and when we try to reduce things down to first principles we end up with the sparsest and most atavistic of binaries – things like “them” and “us”, and appeals towards cheap solidarity or patriotism, desperate attempts at face-saving and feeble gestures towards self-interest.

Which brings me to a post from the 37 signals weblog called It’s good that you’re upset. It’s not an evil piece, it’s not even a stupid piece – it’s actually a desperately sad and mournful piece that tries to scrabble for positive meaning out of the behaviour of a small selection of incredibly stupid American servicemen overseas. Here’s a quotation:

The world is rightfully disgusted by the treatment of some Iraqi prisoners, but the fact that the world is outraged is a good sign that America is still held to a higher standard. The Arab street remained mostly quiet when Saddam tortured for three decades or when American soldiers were dragged through the streets and hung to dangle in public a few weeks back. And how many leaders in the Arab world will be outraged that one of their own ruthlessly beheaded an American contractor after forcing him to name his parents and his siblings (and donít forget about Daniel Pearl who had to admit he was a Jew before his head was cut off)? The world barely gave notice to the Talibanís systematic and despicable treatment of women in Afghanistan or the destruction of ancient works of irreplaceable art and culture. The world was barely interested in stopping the carnage in Bosnia until over a half-million were killed (and then the UN still didnít want to get involved). The world is still barely affected by the genocide taking place right now in Africa. But, when the US humiliates some Iraqi prisoners, people are outraged and are calling for resignations at the highest levels of our government. And thatís a good sign for America. Weíre held up to a higher standard and itís something we should be proud of. Not the vile treatment, of course, but the worldís response. Weíre in trouble when people stop caring about how we act as a nation.

I wish I could agree, because although the UK’s own parallel media situation has been resolved, I don’t doubt for a minute that some British soldiers somewhere have undertaken very similar actions to the ones that these American servicemen perpetrated. But to try and find in that evidence that the tarnish is so noticeable because the flags are so bright… Well, it’s pretty far from convincing.

The world is not looking towards these things as a momentary blip – that’s not why they’re so powerful. They’re seen as emblematic, as representative, as illustrative of a relationship that America has with the rest of the world. These actions are seen by people to be illustrations in microcosm – direct analogies – with the way America (and the UK) acted flagrantly without consent from the United Nations. They’re seen as directly illustrative of their disregard for international law, directly illustrative of America’s perception of itself as superior to the rest of the world and qualified to police all of it according to what best serves it’s own best interests. Those countries that are railing against America because of these pictures are not doing it because they’re holding America to a higher standard, they’re doing it because they finally feel they have human-scale evidence of the enormous insensitivity and clumsiness of the entire nation.

I think the most important thing I could say at this point is that it doesn’t matter whether that’s true or not. It doesn’t matter whether or not America is a rampaging power, it doesn’t even matter that an incredibly small minority of US forces have been behaving in this way or exposed. What matters here is that we in the west actually understand and accept that the stances of our governments are not seen by much of the world to be moral or good or positive, but rather self-serving, arrogant, interventionist and actually corrupt, and that pretending that we’re well-liked isn’t going to anyone any good.

Net Culture Politics

On a difference between wonks and geeks…

Here’s a suggested difference between geeks and policy wonks that might go some distance towards making the two groups get on with one another better. It is my contention that the two groups simply have radically different registers and types of interaction. Policy wonks – like all politically oriented people – are encouraged to think in terms of combative point-making. The most respected and well-thought through acts of Parliament being those that have been fought over the most. The most convincing politicians are the ones who have solid positions that they can stick with and defend. Political life is a combative life, with positions being tested and retested before they’re taken out into the world. In terms of doing things you want to know that the thing you’re going to do is the right thing before you get too far down the line, particularly when the consequences of getting things wrong are so potentially enormous.

The life of the creative geek community is very different. The atmosphere of an event like ETCon is not one of absolutist positions (or at least it is on occasion but it’s mostly frowned upon), but of gradual accretion, iteration and development. Particularly (but not exclusively) in those realms where development requires time but not a lot of capital investment, ideas are thrown out into the world to see if they’ll stand or fall. Those that succeed are iterated upon. Those that fail are either abandoned or taken further by other groups who will try to solve the errors and mistakes that surround them. In terms of making things, each new idea is expected to be flawed and clumsy and full of holes and everyone knows it and works from that point onwards. It’s the model of the technologist community as competitive craftspeople, and it operates on the assumption that whether something will be successful or unsuccessful / useful or useless is something that must be left up to how people interact with it and its take-up with a community. You make it the best you can, in the way you think is right, and let the world decide if you got it right…

I think this is the distinction that explains why there are so many disagreements between the groups. One group looks for immediate application where there may be only potential. One group sees possibility where there is no immediate practical benefit. And in talking to each group, you have to use a different register. There’s no point talking RDF to policy wonks, because they’ll see no application until you can show them something made with RDF that they consider actually politically useful. And there’s no point telling technologists that their creations are politically naive, because they’ll consider them works in progress, building from a position of naivety towards – in time – something legitimately useful and ground-breaking.

It’s a difficult job – understanding which register to use in which circumstance – but it’s an important one for those people who have to straddle disciplines. Because one way or another they’re going to have to work with geeks or wonks who will by necessity have a very different mind-set. Being aware of the distinction will not only create the possibility of legitimate discussion (and minimise the possibility of large cross-disciplinary enmities) but also inspire actual creativity to emerge between the disciplines…