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Listening to music in three parts

Part 1 Listening to digital music

I have this theory. In fact I have lots of theories. But for the rest of this paragraph I will restrain myself to blessing you with just one. My theory is that we are all moving to digital music before we are ready for it.

I mean listening to it on an iphone/ipad thing, sure fine. We’re all doing that ok. But in the house? or in the car? How do you listen to it there?

I quite often hear people talk about how they put their CDs in the loft, or never buy real CDs anymore. Yeah, why bother with that crazy shit?! And the news which reminded me of this today was that Amazon will allow you to download (and keep in the Cloud) any physical album you buy.

Now, when I do buy music (which is less now, as the rules of being a grown state you buy less music), when I do buy music, I do still tend to buy a CD. Even though the first thing I will do is rip it.

Why? Because, for some odd, unexplainable, stupid, economic-defying reason it is still cheaper, to pay for something to be designed, made, put together, boxed up, shipped to a warehouse, stored, picked from the warehouse, shipped to a Store, unboxed and put on a shelf, have people decide on how it will look in that store, and have people on hand to offer advice, someone to take payment, pay expensive rent on said store, and factor in shrinkage, THAN PUTTING A BLOODY 5MB FILE ONLINE TO DOWNLOAD.

This is crazy.

I said CDs are often cheaper than MP3s, as a quick test by looking on Amazon for Madonna (YOU SEE I AM DOWN WITH THE KIDS). Of the nine albums shown: five are cheaper on CD, three are only available on CD and one, just ONE, is cheaper by downloading MP3s. iTunes seems little better.

Screen Shot 2013 01 14 at 21 38 06

My buying process goes something like this: like a song on Spotify. Decide to buy it (especially as I don’t subscribe and can often only listen 5 times). Decide that I like more than 4 or so songs from the album, at which point, at 99p per song it is only a little more to buy the whole album. Check the album on Amazon both to download and buy, often the physical album is cheaper and that’s what I’ll buy.

I will then have it on my computer and iPhone (at a bit rate of my choosing – I am a geek) plus have a backup physical copy – which comes in a nice presentation box with photos – that I can also use in the Hi-Fi, lend to a friend and play in a car. Those extras there are pretty handy, and worth getting the CD even if it is a little more than the download only version. Plus, PLUS they can’t do a Amazon-Kindle-look-at-us-while-we-delete-an-ebook-from-your-kindle-which-you-previously-purchased. Not with my physical copy they can’t.

But, even with these physical things sitting very very close to my as I type this, I still play mostly via my laptop. The thing is, they do skip, and worse, I have to stand up and walk a whole meter and find a cd, and put it in the player, and then after a while it will get to the song I don’t care for much and have to get up again and press skip. I know! And then 15 mins into the album my attention span will be all used up and I’ll want to instantly change to a completely different song which probably isn’t on any CD I own, let alone the one I’m playing. Is there no end to the grind?

That’s not to say CDs don’t have advantages. For one they are better quality (no compression, dedicated hardware) when they are not skipping, and also they continue to play even when my laptop does the pretty rainbow circle for a mouse pointer. Which happens every two minutes and lasts 110 seconds each time for me. Sometimes I avoid switching windows or opening a new tab because I like the song I’m listening to and don’t want it to cut out.

But let us get back to the question, if you, the general public  (yes, that was quite patronising) are abandoning the CD for digital music, then what are you doing.

There seem to be three options: use earphones, use a cable into your existing Hi-Fi, use a Hifi or specialist device with an iPhone dock.

Now, if you fancy ‘pumping some tunes’ (once again I demonstrate just how with it I am) in to your living room then headphones are no good. But do we really all rely on little cables connecting our laptop headphone socket with our HiFi external input socket? Or has everyone dumped their HiFi and just use their iPhone (and, yes for you in the corner, also Android devices, bless)  in some specialist dock? (the latter of course will give much better quality, a digital signal basically going to the Hifi’s DAC – digital analog converter darling – and then on to the Hifi’s amp)

Or do we all now party in our living rooms by the sound of an internal laptop speaker? Good news for the neighbors. Less so for crazy parties.

My point, which so far I have failed to make in any articulate way, is that we all seem to be running around going ‘remember those CDs? how quaint! we’re all digital now, yeah, we’ve given all our CDs to Oxfam, yar, darling pass the hummus’, at the same time, we’re not really ready to do so. Cars either just have a CD player, or need to come with a 5 year old child attached to them to explain how you transfer your music from your ‘digital cloud’ on to a stick your car can play. And even if you can do that with your computer, how do you do it with your iPad where files are so twentieth century, god who needs them any more, and who wants a nasty looking USB port to ruin the smooth lines that Steve himself created? How do you get files from a device with no files and no USB port to your car?

And Spotify, how can it take over / destroy / save the music industry if there’s no easy way to get the music to sound ok. I’ve often amazed when people say they just use Spotify now. How do you play it? Oh we just play it out of the laptop speakers. Really? Is this progress? It feels like the McDonalds of progress, instant choice but not a great step for quality.

Me? My HiFi is on the other side of the room to my laptop and I use Apple’s Airport to stream music wirelessly. It’s not an ideal solution, expensive to buy an airport express just for this, requires a special third-party app to stream Spotify and anything else other than iTunes, but does work.

The whole point of laptops is that they are portable, so I’m surprised there aren’t more common technologies to cheaply take the sound your laptop is making and streaming it with no wires to your HiFi. I would have thought that would be a common requirement and yet it seems to be only me looking for it.

Part 2 Why isn’t the music industry doing better with Spotify

We’re told on a regular basis that the music industry is doomed. Mainly due to evil pirates. And the Internet. And Spotify.

We’re also told that Spotify gives the artist a very poor deal, and a number of charts have done the rounds online over the years comparing the money an artist will typically receive from CDs, online, singles, radio play and Spotify, with the sat being a tiny fraction of the rest.

Finally, we know that Spotify itself isn’t rolling in huge profits.

Something seems to be wrong. Because to me, it seems like people are spending money like they never used to, meanwhile, costs are being cut out. With more money in the industry, and fewer people wanting a cut, this should mean good times. So why doesn’t it?

First my logic. I don’t have any numbers. But my instinct is that most people (MOST) don’t buy a new CD each month. What would be the average for an adult, a couple of year? We’ll make it 4 to be generous. Let’s say £10 a CD, that’s £40 per adult a year.

Now it so happens that a Spotify Premium account a month costs about the same as a CD, £10. So for a year that’s £120. So for a typical person, with a Spotify account, they’ve gone from putting £40 a year in to the music industry right up to £120 a year, triple what they used to pay.

Now of course, many people with a Spotify account will be music lovers who, pre-spotify, would buy more CDs than my plucked out the air 4, but I know many people with Spotify Premium who I wouldn’t put in to that grouping.

And higher up in this ramblings I pointed out just how many extra costs the traditional CD has compared with a digital download. That £40 included a cut for the security guard in HMV, and the person who does the Health and Safety training for stores in the south west. And don’t forget the guys in the warehouse, or the one who sources the packaging, or the girl who designed the art layout inside the sleeve.

But that £120? Well yes Spotify get a cut, but the rest goes to the record label itself (i.e. the music industry), and hopefully, a portion of that will go on to the actual artist. So more money is coming in, and more of it is going to the core of the industry.

There are partial answers, but they don’t explain it all. The music industry complains because that’s what it always does (and I get a feeling that they still live in an excess of a previous era).

Spotify is playing a long-term game, expanding both the number of countries and users, and will hopefully become sustainable. And the numbers we have for artists are patchy and mostly from those who have shared (confidential) numbers, and mostly indie outfits. Of course the truth is it is a long tail. And indies are the tail. Lady Gaga is probably played more than all of them put together and can also negotiate a higher play fee, combined probably means she does quite well out of it. The humble CD did equalise things a little: the price of a CD album did not differ too much between major acts and indie bands, so if you bought lady gaga and an indie band you would probably pay roughly the same amount. I’ve also a hunch that Gaga fans will probably play the same song many times, whereas someone who prefers small indie bands is more likely to have a wider range of acts they listen to, which with Spotify’s pay for plays means that they have a small audience listening to their music, plus that audience will listen to it less per person.

And of course the Spotify model is more long-term for the artist as well. With CDs you get a surge in spending, as people buy the CD, they then may listen to it for decades but you earn nothing more directly from this. However with Spotify they could go on earning for years, without doing any extra work. So while it may look to like CDs, downloads, etc are better earners, we will have to see how they compare over a longer time period.

As an aside what I don’t get however is why the adverts on Spotify often seem quite poor, as if they struggle to sell the advert slots. To me this is advertising gold, audio adverts are harder to ignore than magazine, online or even tv ads. Spotify users are likely to be young, tech savvy, probably not too badly off (they have broadband and a computer) and these sound like the sort of things which advertisers like. What’s more adverts can be tailored based on listening tastes. They should be able to target much more accurately than for TV or radio, and hitting the right audience is always the key thing.

Get back to the point and wrap up this bit Chris. So my point is, Spotify, based on my non-fact-based guesswork, looks like it is getting people to spend more money on music than they would previously while reducing the number of people who need a cut of that money. So why is the music industry in ruins, Spotify in loss, and artists complaining of a poor deal.

Part 3 Bloody Hell HMV

A couple of hours ago it was announced that HMV, the last major Music retailer in the UK, is going into Administration. This was shocking in that it was and wasn’t shocking.

It wasn’t shocking because anyone who reads the news will have read a slow drip feed of bad news for HMV, and this Christmas didn’t bring good results.

But it was shocking because it was both the last major music chain (they also did films and games but I wasn’t really interested in those) and the one I’ve visited most in my life. It was also the one I visited when growing up.

Someone tweeted earlier that they’re glad HMV sold Waterstones (the UK last major national bookstore) so not to bring them down with it. I don’t feel the same. I wish I did. I wish I could say I was the bookish type, always lost in a book when growing up, always reading new things. The truth is I didn’t read much, and I don’t know. And the only bookshop I remember in Northampton, where I grew up, was WH Smiths (later on Waterstones, and The Works, did open up a store, and in those days WH Smiths wasn’t too bad, and not the mess of a store it is today). So, I feel bad – and somehow a lesser person – for saying it, but if it was Waterstones announcing closure today I wouldn’t feel the same sense of nostalgia and sentimentality as I do today. I imagine for many towns it will be a choice between WH Smith and the supermarkets which is depressing.

Luckily I have quite a few music shops near me, most sell CDs I’ve never heard of, and nearly all only exist for a few years before they close and new stores open up to replace them. Resident music makes an exception by both being open 8 years (aka ‘forever’ in terms of Brighton’s shops) and even sells some music I have heard of.

Finally, I never quite understand why companies go into Administration in this way. When times are getting tough, why not sell those stores that generate the biggest loses, make the whole company smaller and then focus on rebuilding a much smaller company. It seems to me that Comet, Jessops and HMV all kept nearly all their stores open right up to Administration, and in HMV’s case, they often had large stores, right in the busiest (aka most expensive) part of the shopping centre. Why not move to smaller sized units, and, while not moving to the edge of town, look into units which were a little less ‘premium’.

I’ve been surprised by a number of the recent closures. Comet may not have been great, but it’s where you often went for a fridge or electrical good. And while people may be splashing out less at the moment, white goods are not something that has really taken off in terms of online shopping. And Habitat, a store that overpriced everything and yet always seemed busy. I always thought overpriced+busy=win. But clearly not.

And HMV, yes it had a LOT of competition from Amazon and the supermarkets, but it was the last high street music seller of note, especially with Virgin Megastores gone, if you wanted a CD, or film while in town that is where you went, so I find it surprising they couldn’t find a way to make that work, even if it meant reducing the stores.

The three parts of this are all about how we listen to music, or how we are buying it, which are both connected. We are listening to it online, even if I suspect we are not doing it correctly (according to me, who obviously makes the calls on these judgements), we are subscribing and streaming not download or buying, which to me should bring in more money to the industry, and mean it goes to those we actually play, and it looks like we are losing the last real way to buy a physical album on the high street.

The weird thing about technology progress is that no one plans it through, or has any control of the direction. Each little development and change leads to a knock on effect to our lifestyles and way of living, sometimes we know this will have bad knock on effects but there is little we can do. For roughly the last hundred years (maybe a little less) we purchased music from a store, on a circle shaped thing (mostly), and certainly for the last few decades the most popular concept was the ‘album’ of 10 or so songs released together, with a name and some artwork. Like most publishing industries, we are clinging on to as much of this infrastructure even though the online environment makes it pointless, but for how much longer?

Elected Police Commissioners

In 25 days time England and Wales will elect Police and Crime Commissioners for the first time.

Many are cynical that this will politicize high level decisions by the Police, which it will almost certainly will to some extent, but mostly people seem indifferent or simply unaware.

Me. I hoped that the candidates would not be politically aligned with parties, that we could judge them based on their policies and priorities, not because they are connected to the party we usually vote for. But this was always nothing but naive.

I think the way we split central and locally run services/government in England could be improved, so I approach all change with an open mind to see if it will improve this.  Too much centralised; local councils no more than under funded basic service providers with almost no power and at the whim of central Government control. Secondly, But there are key services which seem to slip through a democratic gap between the two, the Police and Health being examples.

Who do you hold to account for local Policing? What do you do if it is not up to scratch? Your local councillors? MP?

Sussex Police, my local police force, covers two geographical Counties (East Sussex and West Sussex), and three local authorities (East Sussex, West Sussex, Brighton and Hove City). It is overseen, until next month, by the Sussex Police Authority.

There is a weak link between my local councillor (who I obviously can vote for) and the Sussex Police Authority: There seems to be just one Brighton & Hove City Councillor on the SPA. He isn’t from my ward, so I do not directly elect anyone who oversees Sussex Police. I can ask my local councillors to raise an issue with our representative, or I could try contacting him directly, but I have no come back if he ignores me. I could write to my MP, but she has no real power, just soft power due to her status. There’s no direct line between people who I elect and those who oversee the Police Authority.

This may seem academic, but the general idea of democracy is that you have some power to elect those who are making decisions on your behalf. For what it is worth, I think the situation is worse with Health (the people who oversee your local Hospital are probably not even local elected officials, your council and MP have no say at all if your local hospital closes).

So, elected Police Commissioners do make the line of accountability very clear: the good folk of Sussex, including myself, elect a Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner. If they don’t do the things I want (or do the things I think they shouldn’t) then I have the right to not vote for them.

However it does obviously lead to the risk of politicalising the Police force and going for populist policies (which may sound great but may not actually lead to a safer environment).

It does seem quite rare, with only the USA being the obvious example of a country with something similar. For info, France, Sweden and Italy mostly have a national Police force (or several of them) rather than local Police forces, they do have small local forces but they have limited powers. Germany and Canada have State and Regional forces. Oh, and to add to the mix, we are getting a National Crime Agency soon as well – which will probably help with more complex crime, and potentially help the odd situation that the Metropolitan Police act both as the Police for London, and as a national force for serious incidents such as terrorism (even though Scotland proudly has a separate legal system and government, it was the Met who dealt with the car bomb at Glasgow Airport).

So, here are some links

  • Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner website
  • List of Candidates for Sussex
  • The Home Office have set up choosemyPCC website – which is light on information, and has some dubious pictures of ‘scary people’ doing bad things – including smashing the glass of a phone booth, which I feel I should inform younger readers this was something of an issue in the eighties, but perhaps shows (a) how in touch the Home Office are (b) the sort of things they want us to be worried about
  • police.uk has a nice site, which seems to have a similar feel to the new (and excellent) gov.uk. It provides stats and data for your area which is quite interesting, by selecting the map you can see pinpoints of specific crimes in your area.

Candidate Manifestos’ should be on the choosemyPCC site from the 26th October. I’m going to have a think about what’s important to me before then and then see how they compare.

UPDATE 6th November

The candidates statements can be read on the choosemypcc website

The Brighton Argus has a section on the election with more information

UPDATE 12th November 

First I want to mention a Radio 4 documentary which covers the Police. As I mention above some countries, such as France have one national Police force, where as other (and most) have local forces. The documentary covers that Scotland is moving to just one Police force, mostly to save back office costs and to save duplication in specialist services. It looks out reducing the number of Police forces in England too. Worth a listen if you are interested.

I also want to highlight this interview with four of the Sussex PCC candidates and this blog post, much better than mine about the Cambridge PCC.

Who am i going to vote for?

I said above that I was cynical of the political nature of these elections and therefore I am pleased to say, based on look through manifestos and aims:

I am going to vote for Ian Chisnall, an independent candidate for the Sussex PCC.

I like his independence, he has avoided simplistic media-friendly claims about bobbies on the beat and tackling young people in hoodies causing a nuisance. One of his priorities is “Abuse including Domestic Violence, Hate Crime & Trafficking” which I agree with, and another is “Anxiety, the fear of crime and support for Victims of Crime – Sussex is an area with low levels of crime but not all of us feel safe” I feel there is a disparity of between people’s perception of certain crimes and their actual levels and this is a useful acknowledgement of that. There’s no point in directing limited Police resources to issues which are more about perception than real crime. He seemed to approach this with a positive approach to Sussex Police, unlike some of the other ‘must drive efficiency and savings through’ that others are taking.

Of the others, the Godfrey Daniels – the Labour candidate – stood up well. He had experience and a pragmatic approach. The Lib Dem candidate had the most limited website and it didn’t really aspire. The Tory candidate, had business experience, presumably useful when dealing with budgets, but seemed to focus on rural and business crime, do the residents of Sussex really want the Police to priorities a theft from Primark over other things. I also found her pledge for a Special Police Constable in each village dubious, would we attract the right number, and calibre of person to act as a Special, and isn’t it just a form of unpaid intern.

Finally, I’d like to complain about the Home Office advertising campaign, which you can find here.  Look at the names: vandal, burglar, mugger. These all seem to focus on one area of crime, and I can’t help feeling that by advertising it in such a way, people will approach these elections thinking about them regarding this one area (without sounding flippant: street, common crime). No mention of domestic abuse, or dangerous driving, or serious fraud, or questions of liberty. To me these adverts set the frame of what these elections are about and therefore were advantageous to those who are standing for election and empathised such crimes. The Home Office should have been more broad in the advertising.

In any case, I urge you to vote this week, even if you disagree with the principle of these elections. And if you are in Sussex, and you don’t know who to vite for, I urge you to vote for independent candidate Ian Chisnall.

 

 

Underclass

What’s clear over the last few days is that there is a underclass that remains – normally – hidden from the rest of society.

If you’re reading this in August, try the following link, for me, an eye opening interview with Camilla Batmanghelidjh, director of Kids Company. It starts 11 minutes in, do listen.

It seems clear this is a vicious circle, many are automatically condemned from the day they are born. Society fails them.

Of course, we are all different, some strong spirits can start with nothing to their name and climb up to great things. Many can climb several rungs up the ladder, starting at a failing school with little support and going on to University and so on. But we can’t make the assumption that because some can and do, that all have it in them. Do we give up on those who lack of drive?

This quote, 26 minutes in to the above broadcast hit me:

“it’s not about material poverty… their carers are disturbed and dysfunctional and often addicted to substances, stuck in the ghetto where society does not offer a way out. What price do you pay if your parents are the biggest risk to you?”

I challenge you to be unmoved by that.

Of course, after watching people’s homes, livelihoods and lives destroyed by total mindless violence it’s hard to show sympathy towards those causing this, especially when they seem so totally detached from what they are doing and basic norms of how people act. I found my liberal side thinking “let’s be more like Norway, no knee jerk reactions”, but my other side loudly said “send in the water canons… let’s lock up the bastards”.

But sending all those convicted of crimes will probably do little good, if anything will simply create more problems in the future. But we are dealing with a group of people who think they are unstoppable (and with almost nothing to loose, to an extent they are). So what do we do?

How do we show them that such behaviour does not pay in the short term, and deal with the wider issues in the long term? …I don’t know.

At a simplistic level, closing various youth groups, community centres, and support groups is suicidal, cutting off life lines for countless individuals and creating much bigger issues and costs for society at large. Cutting them is stupid and short sighted.

Liberty

We build our society on liberty. To me that means that I and anyone else can do whatever we want, so long as it does not affect others (except consenting adults) in a negative way. If it affects people in a adversely negative way then that is when the law steps in.

But for me, it seems that liberty is stretched to breaking when it comes to children. What you do, and how you live your life directly affects your children in such an absolute way. Children who are neglected or abused are fucked.

This is not news, we have all seen those who are bought up in a world of books, introduced to countless new experiences, are taught morals and responsibility through example. We’ve probably all seen those in at the opposite end as well. And those bought up devoid of parenting, stimulus, decent education, good examples to follow, will struggle to get anywhere in life, and to be blunt can cause society at large to falter. Which is what we have seen this week. Put another way, for the sake of society at large, and the individual children, we need to forsake an element of liberty.

State intervention is difficult, and many actions can be seen as negative in their own light, such as taking children in to care or dictating how parents act. Can you imagine if you needed the equivalent to a driving test to have children? Unthinkable. The work of science fiction. Yet while – obviously – no way advocating it, think of all the unfit parents it would weed out. Bringing up children is one of (if not the) most important thing we can do, and yet it is the one thing where no training, or recognition that we are fit to do so is required. Nor probably should it be, but an interesting point.

Essentially the option often used is to try and expect schools to pick up where parenting in some quarters fails. But schools are just not equipped or resourced to do this. While not at the same level as we are probably seeing her, a friend of mine who teaches the first year of compulsory education (whatever it’s called nowadays, reception?) at a school in a fairly deprived area would explain how many could barely talk, many had never heard ‘no’ before. While Please/Thank you may be somewhat trivial, the fact these are alien terms was symptomatic of a lack of general up bringing.

But perhaps that is one of the only real options, to give kids a chance, and society as a whole to benefit, perhaps we need schools to take on more of the parental role for those who lack parents who are willing and able to offer it. Food for thought, this inner London school buying a ex-public boarding school in West Sussex and sending pupils there : “Under the plan, children will leave Durand Primary School, in Lambeth, south London, aged 13, and board for four nights a week, free of charge, at the school, built on the site of a former public school in west Sussex.” It reminds me a little of Christ’s Hospital, also of West Sussex. It can be a little uncomfortable reading for chattering-class ears, sending poor kids away to induct them in the middle class country side. But may well be a life line to escape.

I think the issue is that the parents are to blame for their kids being on the streets, yet the parents themselves may just as likely need help (rather than punishment) and themselves lived a life where no opportunities existed, yet abuse of all kinds did.

Oddly, Hulk Hogan (yes you read right) who was on the show straight after Camilla Batmanghelidjh put it so bluntly well (28 mins in) “We need to rethink, brother, rethink, get these kid’s heads together in a positive direction. Break the circle, the craziness what’s going on”.

At this time there is understandable anger, myself included, kids should not rule the streets, the Police should not be running scared, teenagers should have some basic level of understanding that what they are doing will ruin people’s lives and hurt hard working people, and that the way you get material goods is to work – we do not have a right to them (yes, we can argue if advertising creates a false impression of what we all should have and desire). An elderly woman woke in her home in Ealing to find teenagers in her bedroom, hundreds of family owned businesses destroyed, property and cars destroyed, historical buildings destroyed, people escaping fire over roof tops and jumping for from high windows. It must have been terrifying.

Police

And the Police should not be in a position where they are running scared from rioters (one scene I saw reminded me of the Runts in City of God). But we need no knee-jerk reaction here.

The Police seem to be in an unfortunate situation of damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Yet their presence on Monday evening seemed somewhat lacking. While trouble was springing up in a number of places, it seemed so many of these had little to no policing, especially when there was warning of trouble which had started two nights a go. There have been times and events where there seem to be a million officers on the street, why was Monday so different? The Police should have been ready and there in numbers.

It wasn’t just numbers, tactics and planning seemed to be absent. Many seemed to stand around, others were outnumbered and left running from the rioters. When one teenage girl said “We came here tonight to show the police we’re in charge and we’re done that” she wasn’t wrong.

During the student protests the Police were accused of being too soft and too harsh, it seems no one was happy with them. The protests would often start off well, good relations, a bad bunch would break off and cause mayhem, the Police would crack down, be accused of (and probably partly guilty of) all sorts of off-the-top actions, and so forth. There were people on twitter I like and respect who would pick out every tweet accusing the Police of something bad and retweet it religiously (I should add, there were things such as kettling people late in to the night on a bridge which were little more than vindictive and I have serious issues with). But it perhaps shows the mentality of many people where their  default position is that the Police are rotten evil and must be held to account. It makes the Police defensive and worried of risk and that isn’t good.

We don’t need to look to the States for ideas, most of us would be against their style of policing (which seems to often exacerbate problems), but there are methods used in Europe which are worth considering in extreme situations. The lawless (what ever the long term issues that underlie it) should be scared when the police term up.

In conclusion, we have let a whole new class develop in this country, gone unseen until now. We need new ways for them in interact with the state, a hundreds of different organisations each with hundreds of forms does not work. Simply handing out benefits and telling them to look for jobs does not work. There are deep issues, and they take money and highly trained, resourced, teams to address. It’s no good just pointing out that others have gone from nothing to greatness, we can’t all be like that. But we can help set direction, and help break the circle.

I don’t have the answer to that, it would be folly for me to think I did, but we need to do something and the current agenda of closing the very groups, organisations, Quangos etc that tried to help is not working, nor could it ever be expected to. In the words of Hulk Hogan: we need to re-think, brother.

UK deficit and protest

The large peaceful protests on Saturday were a success. Clearly Cameron and Osborne (and the little work experience boy standing closely behind them) did not come out and announce an immediate reversal of policy. But the need to think about what these cuts are doing to jobs, living standards and essentially services hopefully will be strong in the mind. Few politicians, no matter how ideological, want to ignore the views of a decent proportion of the public. And while U-turns are unlikely, the knowledge the further cuts announcements will lead to even stronger anger will be hopefully reduced the gun-ho spirit that the Tories have gone about them so far.

It made me think quite a lot about where I stood on it all. From everything I have read, the UK is in a dire situation, by a number of metrics we are (and were) in a worse situation than Greece and Ireland. It is only that the worlds banks have not panicked over lending to us, which more of less was the catalyst of the final nail to requiring international intervention and aid, that has avoided it so far. To an extent this is partly because the UK is seen as a stronger and more resilient economy, but it also has to be said that Osborne’s strong (perhaps too strong) actions last year (especially during the budget) reassured the financial markets (no matter how right or wrong those measures were over all).

It’s worth remembering that there are two key issues: our total debt (how much we owe overall) and the annual deficit (how much our spending is more than our income). Economists tend to break up deficit in to two types: Cyclical and Structural. Cyclical: when we have an annual deficit because the economy has taken a turn for the worst, which means we have less tax money (because of less jobs, less spending, etc) and at the same time our running costs are higher due to increases in things like unemployment pay. Structural: where our spending outstrips our income in both the good and bad years, which is a much more serious and needs addressing. It seems to be the general consensus that the UK has a Structural Deficit.

But is there a problem? As I was interested in the goals of the Saturday march and had a look at their website. Clearly they were against cuts, but what were they advocating instead.

While looking I came across a page called ‘How big is the problem?’. This page does them a disservice as it focuses purely on debt (and debt as a % of GDP) not deficit. It’s my understanding that debt is not seen as such a big issues as deficit, you might have a lot of debt to pay off but it’s quite possible to pay this off over time, especially if a country has an annual surplus (i.e. opposite to a deficit) or small deficit. They point out that the UK has a smaller debt as a percentage of GDP compared to many other countries, including Japan and Germany (their point being our situation isn’t too bad). True, but ask a group of financial experts which countries they are concerned about and they will almost certainly mention the UK, but less likely to mention Japan and Germany.

Talking about the deficit may not help the anti-cuts cause, as it clearly shows the UK is in a worse situation to many (and hence action is needed) but by selectively choosing facts to make an argument does no good. Better to be upfront and explain that while action is needed, the current action is not the right way to go about it. (much of the rest of the site is very good and informative I should add, and the previous page on the site does talk about the Deficit).

So how does our deficit compare:

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[image source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2011/mar/14/new-europe-statistics-interactive ]

So it’s a problem. More so for us than for others. What can we do? three options:

  1. Cut spending, as the Government currently is.
  2. Cut spending but over a longer period than currently planned
  3. no cuts

Along with these options we have other options that can be implemented in tandem to help the problem:

  • Increase taxes and other Government income
  • Decrease tax avoidance and loop holes
  • Expand and grow the economy

The Government is going for ‘option 1’ above, and to some extent is trying all the options in the second list for increasing revenue.

It would be wrong to say that everyone on the anti-cuts march were all of exactly the same views. But that is to be expected, the point was a broad dissatisfaction about the level, speed and direction of the cuts. It’s articulated quite well here.

I saw some were against any cuts at all. I think this is silly. The deficit needs addressing, and simply hoping that higher tax income and a growing economy will solve it all is wishful thinking. Especially as economies often grow faster due to tax cuts, so one revenue raising option puts the dampers on the other one.

I’m not normally in agreement with Ed Balls, but what he says here I broadly agree with.

My main criticism is the speed of the cuts, and where they have been targeted. For example hearing of community workers in deprived London suburbs being laid off and the funding for such work being cut is not good. They can be the only lifeline stopping people spending a life with no education or skills being unemployed, causing trouble and crime. They give people a chance of a much better life, and, to be blunt to avoid being a burden on the state.

Cuts are hard. For example, national quangos and organisations are easy targets, such as the BECTA, the MLA, and the Film Council. But they can often bring more savings (and growth) than they cost. It might be hard to quantity all the work the Film Council did, but if they managed to persuade large films to be filmed in the UK, perhaps by advocating to the Government to provide incentives and getting councils to allow filming at locations even when it will cause disruption, it can create a whole ecosystem of small companies which support the industry. My own area of work (Libraries) could well do with national provision of back room technical provision and licence negotiation, rather than each Library providing it in house (essentially duplicating the same job all across the UK). At the same time, there are national services/organisations I can think which I would miss if they were gone, but not THAT much.

Cuts are, again, hard. Think of the UK Government departments. Where should the cuts fall? Education, Health, International aid? I think not! Business, skills, transport? Essential for long term growth of the country. Social Services/Welfare? Already over stretched in many parts. Higher Education, the Arts? Already cut to the bone.

So where: Defence: we are the third biggest spender on defence in the world, I think we could be sixth or seventh and be ok, we’re not a super power. EU: While most sections of Government were facing cuts (like most countries), the EU budget contribution actually went up, I would have thought it would be a prime candidate for a decent cut (I’m not against the EU, but it’s not a front line service, and plenty of fat that could be trimmed). The Welfare system provides essential support to many who need it for a variety of reasons. The minority who abuse the system need to be cracked down on without affecting honest claimants.

I digress, this article is not here to provide a full list of where the cuts should be. The point is that while any sort of cut is a hard pill to swallow, the cuts currently sometimes feel like they are aimed at those who most need support. Raising HE fees is one (not good) thing, abolishing the organisation that works with young people who would not normally go to University from poorer backgrounds and would be best place to show that University is still an option (especially with the ‘only pay back once earning a certain amount’ and bursaries) is just cruel and badly thought-out.

In terms of speed, cutting too fast will slow the economy. While there are some who feel that every penny spent on public services is dead money, public organisations do spend that money on staff and many third party services (just look at council spending above £500 on most council websites). This all adds to the economy, and I’ve recently heard small businesses say that the cuts to public services have a direct knock-on affect to their business.

However, we can not forget the situation we are in, and we are already talking about four years, if we are not careful we will be entering the next downturn before we even get out of the current one. Furthermore, if the financial markets think we are not doing enough our credit rating could be downgraded, we could even need a bail out.

Finally, Tax. Of course tax avoidance should be reduced, loop holes cut, if someone lives or works in the UK, or a company does business in the UK, they should be contributing a fair amount to the Government. Having the right rules and enforcing it can be difficult in this globalised world, but we need a system that ensures everyone involved in the UK pays their bit. the 20% VAT hits us all, the downside it includes those who can least afford it, but the upside it’s almost impossible to dodge, if your living in the UK, you’re going to pay it.

Listening to the comments on the Telegraph website you’d think the 50% tax rate for those earning over £150,000 has lead to the end of the world. They claim it means anyone with a brain or a business will leave the country and there’s no reason to try and create wealth. This is crap. They pay a little extra tax on some of their earnings, I don’t believe for a second that people decide not to start a business or take a high paid job as a result. It’s not about penalising the rich, it is about us as a whole needing to pay for the essential services for our society and it is right to ask people who can afford it to pay a little more. Suggesting that a person on a low wage, with kids, a mortgage and very little cash, should pay more tax so that high earners don’t have too is frankly shocking.

So that’s me. I guess I broadly agree with the aims of the march on Saturday. Not all perhaps, but most. And the Tories, for all their many (many) faults are tackling a serious problem. Taking measures to try and kick start the economy with lower corporation tax and other incentives is a right move, but one can not help think that in the short run, much of the money going in to the public sector was finding it’s way to UK businesses before it was cut.

Let’s hope we can get out of this rut. History suggests that will come, but how quickly. And let’s hope whoever is in Government when that comes will ensure we continue to offer good education, health and support to those who need it, while making this a country where small businesses and new ideas can flourish.

Political reform : some quick thoughts

Suddenly PR is in the limelight and seems to be getting support from those disaffected by politics in the UK. I’ve long been pondering about how it is best to govern this country. Mainly about where power lies: The UK, nations, regions, counties, local councils, etc.

Some thoughts:
  • We need a Constitution. No “we’ve already got the Magna Carta” is not a valid answer.
  • The Lords needs thinking about. Almost removing hereditary peers has been a massive step. An elected upper chamber is the obvious solution. Though I’m not 100% behind it. Voting brings in a whole range of cons, pandering to popular opinion, short term-ism, and attracting those who want to be ‘politicians’. The current setup, for all its faults, avoids some of this. Appointing ‘good people’ to a upper house has merits and when it works it ensures a group of generally wise people with varied experience and skills can debate and pass legislation. The problem with elected members is that only a small set of people want to stand for election, canvas for votes, etc… and they generally are not the best for the job.
  • However, ‘who selects who sits in the Lords’, and ‘how do they ensure a balanced upper house’ are questions that are hard to answer, and maybe an elected upper house is the only workable solution. If so, I would want long terms (10 years for example) to avoid short term thinking, and measures to avoid whips and parties dictating free thinking.
  • While all those Westminster traditions are cute (the ‘other house’, ‘my Honorable friend’, divisions rather than instant votes), they actually stop the important process of good law making. They need reforming. The Digital Economy bill was a good example of this. While those (there was only 40 or so) in the house were almost universally (and across party lines) against various points and the bill in general, when it went to a vote (division), hundreds emerged from the bars etc to vote as the whips told them to. They had no idea what had been discussed. They may not have even read the bill, but vote as they were told they did. An instant vote taken in the house would have avoided this.
  • We need clear and simple rules about how the nations are given power. Westminster being responsible for the UK and England is stupid and broken. For example when the Treasury was faced with an urgent need to cut spending they looked at what they could cut. This included UK spending (Defence, International Development, national policing, etc) and English services (Education, NHS England, etc). Defence couldn’t be cut, we are still fighting a Blair war, and we have promised to ring fence International Development. But… what about the English Higher Education budget. That could be cut. And few would notice. Scottish HE funding is decided by the Scottish Parliament, whose budget is set by formula, so wasn’t an option to be included in the cuts (this is not a Scottish dig, another time it will be their formula ‘tweaked’ for the worse, the point is this happen at different times in different ways for the two nations). To me this highlights the problem well of our mixed up way of running the UK. Each nation should have the same local powers….
  • Yes that means a English Parliament. Yes that would come with costs.
  • Fixed term elections are an interesting idea. It would avoid the advantage a ruling party has of choosing the best time for them to call an election, and bring about an element of certainty of when election will take place.
  • Voting is difficult at the moment as we are effectively voting on so many things. Who will make a good Prime Minister, Which party has the best policies, which party is best placed to run the country, which local candidate is best to serve your local needs, which local candidate has the best policies. I’m not sure what the answer is…
  • …Maybe we need to elect those to run the executive separately from electing those to sit in the House of Commons. Would be a very big change but worth a ponder.
  • Obviously PR is on the cards. It has pros and cons but I think now the Pros massively out weigh the cons. The current system is simple – in a good way. Who ever gets the most votes in my area gets the seat. Party with most seats runs the country. However, it seems the country is moving away from a two party system (the two main parties now receive far less of the over all vote than they used to), and therefore this system is representing the voting habits of the nation less and less. Other countries have moved to PR quite successful in the last few years. Scandinavia, New Zealand and Germany seem to do it well. We  can learn from Israel and Italy’s mistakes.
  • For me, the current system has another flaw. The party that has the most MPs (who mainly vote as the whips tell them to) runs the executive (which creates the Bills and controls the whips), Makes the whole parliamentary process somewhat pointless (rubber stamping).
  • I’m actually quite optimistic about this coalition government. While no tory fan, the two parties have compromised mainly on giving up their most extreme ideas, the Lib Dems make Tories more socially responsible, the Tories ensure the Lib Dems do not follow some of their more wacky ideas. It does actually make democracy work very well. By definition, the policy areas they agree on (e.g. scraping ID cards and the associated databases) are those which most people voted for (anyone voting LD/Tory voted for a party with that policy), are the things that got through the negotiations with ease. Surely a good thing.

Voting time

I was hoping to write something insightful for the election. Time (well, laziness) has meant I shall spew some random thoughts instead… After the election has happened.

Things that are important to me:

  • Civil Liberties, privacy, and certain fundamentals of justice not being messed with on a whim.
  • Reforming politics and government, in a slow and discussed manner (not Blair-boy’s ‘hey I’m so bored of a Lord Chancellor, lets scrape it…. who’s turn is it on the Playstation?’). I’m actually not convinced that an elected upper house is the answer, but if it is, it needs to avoid the mistakes of whips, parties, and short term thinking. PR must surely be a better system than first past the post.
  • This includes a discussion on where we want discussions to be made, nationally or locally, etc. But this requires a public which understands that ‘local decisions by local people’ and ‘post code lottery’ are one and the same (which is used depends if the newspaper agrees with it or not).
  • A Strong economy, which encourages small businesses (but with fair rules to protect and give employees rights… they are not all ‘pointless red tape’)
  • A strong economy includes a strong financial sector. But carefully regulated to protect citizens from their mistakes and excess.
  • A strong safety net for those (and there are many) who need it, whether it be age, ill health, disability, hard times or bad luck.
  • Review of copyright and libel so they are fit for the 21st century.
  • Strong planning laws to ensure we have a quality built-environment. but with progressive and new ideas (such as shared space streets, like the excellent New Street in Brighton). Quality public buildings and spaces (such as St Pancras Station and Wembley Stadium) are important.
  • Education. I don’t have any answers but it needs to get better. Teachers need to be given space to teach, but in return they need to be good (not all are fit for the job). Endless government schemes don’t help, but nor do unions which seem to be simply against change.
  • Ideas along the lines of ‘some people misuse X, therefore lets stop – and stigmatise X’ are generally a bad idea. Examples of X are ‘benefits’ and ‘not being married (and have kids)’.
  • High speed trains are needed, to discourage air/car use, and to let people travel with ease, and to help move away from a economy focused around London.While Air/Road use should not be promoted, and in the long run other ways of living/working should be nurtured to avoid the need for travel, there is a need for some road improvements and probably (I regret) an extra runway in the South East England in the decade or so.
  • We need an enlightened immigration policy. Though we all acknowledge open borders are not suitable for this small country (I am genuinely at a loss why people manage to illegally enter the Schengen Zone – in say Italy or Eastern Europe – and then rather head for prosperous Germany or beautiful France risk their lives on the bottom of a train trying to get in to the grey UK!), we do not want to be a place where others can not come to work, or escape from prosecution. Students and educated workers bring so much benefit to this country.
  • ‘Heath and Safety gone mad’ is the refrain from the right of politics, and those who dislike the state interfering with their lives. This is easy to dismiss as the usual vile of a Daily Mail reader. Though there is argument that some things need to be rolled back. If people do really stupid things then that is their fault (obvious exceptions for children and those with learning difficulties). Vicarious responsibility can be a problem. Of course much Health and Safety law and practice is there for good reason but there are areas that need to be reviewed.
  • Working together with other European countries makes sense, we have a lot in common, shared values, and common standards benefit us all. But there are areas of the EU which seem wasteful, undemocratic, unaccountable, etc. And these need to be addressed. There needs to be clear lines of what and where the EU can legislate on.
  • Universities can be great for bringing in high tech companies, knowledge workers, and driving a SciTech, Medical, Creative industries economy. I’m not saying the tax payer should foot 100% of their bill, but cut backs have long term negative effects on a country.

This is not a full list, but just some of the ideas that came to mind. Feel free to comment.

Nick Clegg’s Fault. Beware the REAL Nasty.

Tonight is the second party leaders debate. As most in the UK know, Nick Clegg came out of the last one well, using a underhand tactic of using intelligence and good sense to answer the questions. #iagreewithnick immediately became a twitter trending topic.

The upshot of this is that the Lib Dems now have the slight chance that they will come a respectable third in the forthcoming election, instead of just a distant third. Obviously this is a matter of national emergency.

Luckily we have the great British press here to give an impartial view from the side. Especially so close to a general election. They speak the voice of the people. And act as the fourth pillar of democracy.

So on this important day, as the leaders take to the TV studio once again, with the sure knowledge the leaders of the two main parties are well primed in to stop this ‘Nick thing’, the papers are taking a reflective approach…

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We start with the Express. They tackle the emergency by having the lead story, and the two main News stories dedicated to the serious issue at hand.

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The Sun too decides the Nick of Doom is worth the lead story. They also manage to fit in the time of the debate, a welcome bit of advertising for which ever TV channel is doing it tonight (some company called Sky maybe, they’ll love the free advertising from these editorially independent chaps!).

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The Telegraph goes for a modest ‘only the lead story’ approach. No. hang on, what’s that on the bottom right there, I see Andrew Gilligan, everyone’s favourite Liberal-left columnist does some important research. And who could have foreseen the timing!

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Finally we have the Mail. Actually it looks quite tame for them. Just four articles, well, actually the FIRST four articles on their site, 222 comments and some video. They avoided any sort of emotionally charged piece by bringing up the Nazis and Hitler (but remember he wasn’t all bad).

But then I found a few more, in a novel idea of having more articles further down the page (who’d thought).

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http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/election/article-1267921/GENERAL-ELECTION-2010-Nick-Clegg-Nazi-slur-Britain.html

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http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1267912/General-Election-2010-Liberal-Democrats-dirty-tricks-real-nasty-party.html

Lib Dems were the evil ones all along. Who Knew????

It’s like the fairground manager from Scooby-Doo all over again.

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http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/election/article-1267873/GENERAL-ELECTION-2010-Nick-Clegg-received-donations-directly-bank-account.html

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http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/election/article-1267835/General-Election-2010-Lib-Dem-MPs-told-milk-expenses-leaks-reveal.html

That man on the right looks dodgy (and by dodgy I mean Working Class, obviously). God, can you imagine if the whole of parliament was fiddling their expenses.

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http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2010/04/how-to-hang-a-parliament.html

In fairness (members of the press, click here to help sort out your confusion), this is just about a Hung Parliament rather than how evil Nick is.

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http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/election/article-1267839/How-Nick-Clegg-prepared-TV-debate-Sky-presenter-tells-talk-public-like-year-olds.html

No wonder the public like him. He talks to them like they are idiots. Which of course they are!

So that’s six articles from the Mail, all published today, 22nd (except the blog post, posted yesterday).

It’s not just the press who are alerted to his evils. Twitter too has done its bit: http://www.twapperkeeper.com/hashtag/nickcleggsfault

Finally. Serious bit… If you want decent news about the UK (or, for you crazy liberals, the rest of the world). Subscribe to The Economist, and also read the New York Times Europe section. Maybe we could have papers like that.

People power : twitter is highlighting & affecting important issues.

A few weeks a go (why, the 12th Oct in fact) I was sitting at my laptop during the evening, doing this and that with Twitter ticking away on the right. I glanced at the newest tweets to pop in and noticed one from secretlondon.

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Curious, I read the Guardian article it linked to. A gagging order to stop a paper report the proceedings of parliament. This is not very good. I muttered and got back on with the this and that. A few minutes later another tweet from secretlondon came in:

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Now we have seeds of information! To Hansard, To Wikipedia, To Google. Who were Trafigura, who were Carter-Ruck?

Soon other tweets were coming along about this, and I was adding my two pence too, re-tweeting the news and adding my own little links to what I was finding.

Hansard provided the details the Guardian couldn’t report, and it quickly became clear what they were trying to hide.

By now twitter was alight. Hashtags came in to usage. Following these produced more information, once someone found something, they didn’t just share with their followers, but with everyone now following those tags. Previous Guardian articles (amongst others) were brought to our collective attention.

Before this I had not heard of Trafigura or Carter-Ruck. I suspect many were the same, yet now we were angry about what we read about their questionable activities (one apparently dumps nasty stuff in Africa, the other boasts about suppressing the press, regardless of truth). A storm was brewing and I felt it had yet to peek. But it was late and sleep beckoned.

The next morning I was curious if there had been any developments over night.

First thing I came across was a Spectator online article (a publication on the other side of the political spectrum to the Guardian). It quoted the Guardian article heavily, but then went on to quote the part of Hansard that contained the question (and company name) that the Guardian could not and provided links. I tip my hat to them. #Trafigura was now trending, celebrity twitterers (including our Lord Steven Fry) were highlighting it and more.

It felt like it was everywhere, on the news, and over in coffee room colleagues were talking about it. The Streisand effect had truly kicked in. Before noon on the 13th the case had been dropped. The Guardian was no longer prevented on reporting on the story.

Five Days later

Five days later a Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir wrote a homophobic piece (since edited) about the very recent death of singer Stephen Gately. A similar thing happens. A storm brews up. Not organised. But distributed little efforts or raising attention, mainly through twitter, which leads to coverage in main stream media and changes to the article and headline.

Black Out and Breaking News

And back in February there was a ‘black out’ campaign because of a proposed repressive internet law in New Zealand. Again, partly due to the coverage on sites like twitter, the section in question was scrapped.

It’s not just campaigns and activism. Breaking news is spread rapidly via twitter, such as the plane crash in New York (Twitter broke the story, and first images of the plane in the water came from Twitter), and Michael Jackson’s death.

But twitter doesn’t always have it’s own way. There was a Green avatar campaign for democracy in Iran, which sadly never saw success.

We’re seeing two things here…

1 – That information is now able to spread much faster than it ever has before. This has always been the case with the Internet, and has increased each year with new technologies (blogs, social networking), but especially with twitter.

2 – That people spreading this information leads to the main stream press reporting on it, and those under pressure back tracking. (I wonder how essential that middle step is?)

Twitter is such a good tool for the first point. It is instantaneous, not just the web, but on computer twitter clients and phones, and messages are public by default (unlike many other social networking sites where they are restricted to a specific groups or trusted circle of friends). Having an Open technical platform (which allows any other website or application to access tweets) also helps.

So…

My instant reaction is that this must be a good thing. When something bad is happening in the world (sorry, that sounds very simplistic) twitter, and other websites, can spread the information quickly and widely, even to those who don’t follow the news each day. This can lead to positive change.

The Trafigura/Carter-Ruck case is a good example of this. Imagine if it had happened 10 years a go. People (well, only Guardian readers) would have read the Guardian front page but not had a clue what it was about. In fact The Guardian may well not have run it as a front page story (or at all) as it would have simply confused/frustrated their readership. The Guardian took a gamble by putting this on to the front page, knowing (hoping) it would then become a story in its own right. It did, probably more than they ever hoped.

Noteworthy information is a virus, once it is in the wild it is unstoppable.

But all is not rosy. It will be slippery slope. I’m reminded of the 1995 film ‘the Last Supper‘. In the film they start off killing of the worst people in society, but as time goes on, things become more complex and grey and less clear cut. The Trafigura case was clear cut. Those trying to stop the BBC putting Nick Griffin on to Question Time, less so. There’s a thin line between the people power righting wrongs and mob rule.

One final example – baby and bump

Last Christmas I came across a news story about a ‘Lapland in the New Forest’. Long story short it was a con. Promised a lot, but was little more than muddy fields and a few fun fair (pay to use) rides, two santas (queue for hours, not allowed to take photos) and the odd tree with fairly lights, with staff who were untrained and the worst possible people to be interacting with kids.

For some reason I looked up to find out more. And I came across a thread on a web based forum called baby and bump (you can guess what it’s for). The thread was the top result on Google so became one of the main exchanges on the web for those affected by this.

The thread starts off with a few excited people discussing going to the Lapland attraction and how excited the kids are, and how much they have splashed out (money they couldn’t afford to throw away). Then those who visited the first few days after opening reported back, while others are in denial that it can be that bad. Then it really starts, more report back, and others start to join the forum simply to add their experience.

Then the fact finding starts: the owners name and address, other business addresses, legal rights, who in the council to complain to, who in the press to contact, how to file a small claims, the owner is related to the leader of Brighton (my) Council!

I like this example. It isn’t the twitterati or tech-savy web2.0 types, but just families on a simple web forum. No one organised anything, but many added bits of info, supported others, or shared their experiences. I would say it very much played it’s part in the early closure of this cruel con. After returning from a horrible day, cold, upset kids, after paying quite a sum upfront, it must feel frustrating and helpless, I think even finding others who have been through the same must be of some help. The Internet can really help in such situations. But it’s not the power of the internet, it’s the power of people. The Internet just acts as a enabling tool.

So Twitter is allowing us to share information and become aware of facts/situations in a way not thinkable until now, and at a very quick speed.

European Elections : June 4th

A quick post (my reader rejoices).

European Elections are this Thursday. I wont bore you with my long winded thoughts on the EU, but it basically sums up as: conceptually a good idea, fundamentally broken.

The world is changing, the big players include the likes of the US, China, India, Russia and Brazil. These all dwarf us little European countries, the EU can make us a voice on the international stage. Just as importantly, working together can be very good for us (and good for the economy). But at the same time, it wastes huge amounts of money, seems unaccountable and lacks a clear remit. Worst of all, the one thing that should be more important  than just about anything else – safe guarding energy natural resources – the EU failed massively on (the one pipe line which bypasses Russia which was up from grabs was bought not by the EU… but by Russia).

So who to vote for? I used a website aimed at matching your views with those of the closest mathcing parties. The closest match to me? Libertas. Liberwho? A new pan-European party who seem to basically think along the same lines: Not against the EU, but it needs a lot of fixing, limits and it needs to know it’s place.

I can’t say too much more as at the time of writing their website seems to be down http://www.libertas.eu/uk. Small parties can be a bit of a joke, but my brief glance of the site when it was up did not give the impression they are a bunch of nutters.

I like the Liberal Democrats overall positive approach to Europe, though would like to see a ‘we must spend carefully and make the EU more accountable’ element to their position. If the EU is to win the respect of its citizens then it needs to be able to abide by its own rules and treat each pound/euro as if it is its last. They also had the worst leaflet ever. Both visually (argh the colours) and content.

And while talking about leaflets (you weren’t?). The labour one had a cover like this:

labour leafletA stock quote, using a stock photo with some (nice English sounding) made up names. To prove this obvious point I googled for ‘Karen Barford Brighton’, and would you adam and eve it, she exists! See her Facebook profile (which at the time of writing is public accessible). Not sure if I would want to be splashed over the front page of an election leaflet, even if I was a support of one party. Still, leaflet crap, much of telling us that Gordan Brown is the man we want. a: bad call, if anything try to seperate the european labour meps from Brown and co to avoid negative associated – and  b: what has Brown got to do with Europe. There wasn’t a single photo of the candidates in question, just pictures of Brown. Stalin would be proud.

JISC, Monitter and DIUS (Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills)

Earlier this week the Jisc 2009 Conference went ahead. A one day summary of where things are going in Jisc-land.

Like last year, I got a good feel of the day via twitter. I used a web app called monitter.com for real time updates from anyone on twitter who used the tag #jisc09. monitter.com allows you to track a number (3 columns by default) of words/searches, this works well as these can be usernames, tags or just a phase. I used ‘jisc09’, ‘brighton OR sussex’ and ‘library’.

The keynote talks was also streamed live on the web, the quality was excellent. Check out the main Jisc blog for the event.

Linking to all the different sites, searches and resources on the web after the event wouldn’t do it justice. The usefulness was in the way these were all being published during the day itself, using things like twitter (and bespoke sites) as a discovery mechanism for all these different things being added around the web. I didn’t know who most of the people were, but I was finding their contributions. That’s good.

An email came out the next day about the conference and announcing a guest blog post by David Lammy, the Minister for Higher Education, on the Jisc Blog.

He finished by asking for the conversation to continue, specifically on  http://www.yoosk.com/dius which is described as ‘a place to open up lines of communication between Ministers and the HE Community’. Yoosk.com is set up to allow users to ask ‘famous people questions’. Its homepage suggests that it is designed for any kind of ‘famous person’ though seems to be dominated by UK politicians. Looks interesting but can’t help wonder if there are other sites which could facilitate a ‘discussion’ just as well or better.

The dius section of the site seems quite new. In fact my (rather quickly composed) question was the second to be added to the site. I think the idea of practitioners (yuck, did I just use that word?) raising issues directly with Ministers is an interesting one, and hope it takes off, and at very least, he/they answer the questions!

DIUS do seem to be making an effort to use web2.0 tools. I recently came across this sandbox idea of collecting sites from delicious based on tags, in this example, the library2.0 tag. Interesting stuff, but not specific to HE, it will work for any tag and really just creates a nice view of the latest items bookmarked with the tag in question. The code for it is here.

In any case, it is good to see a government department trying out such tools and also releasing the code under the GPL (even 10 Downing street’s flickr stream is under crown copyright, and don’t get me started on OS maps and Royal Mail postcodes). I’m reminded of the Direct.gov team who, when they found out there was a ‘hack the government‘ day to mashup and improve government web services, decided to join in.

DIUS homepage with web2.0 tools

DIUS homepage with web2.0 tools

On the DIUS hompage, just below the fold, they have a smart looking selection of tools, nice to see this stuff here, and so prominent, though the Netvibes link to me just a holding page when I tried it.

Finally, they have set up a blog on the jiscinvolve (WordPress MU) site. At the time of writing it has a few blogs posts which are one line questions, and has a couple of (good) responses. But I can’t help feeling that these sites need something more if they are to work. At the moment they are just there floating in space. How can they integrate these more into the places that HE staff and students inhabit. Perhaps by adding personal touches to the sites would encourage people to take part, for example the blog – a set of questions – is a little dry, it needs an introduction, host, and photos.

To sum up, some good stuff going on here, but need to see if it takes off, it must be difficult for a government department to interact with HE and students, the two are very different but they are trying.  I hope it proves useful, if you’re involved in HE why not take a look and leave a comment?

UPDATE:

March 25, 2009