Call this rain?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Blogs and truthiness

No blogging (on this one at least) for a month. Oh well. Mainly due to a change of workload - less thinking and doodling my thoughts out; more disciplined writing for "proper" channels.

My thoughts to some extent now are turning back towards home. One question is whether I will keep these blogs going when I return. The answer is a resounding no. The purpose of the two blogs was straightforward. This one is to keep everyone informed a little about what we are up to. The other is there to capture broader thoughts about US healthcare as they develop. Back in the UK these purposes disappear hence the blogs do too.

The rise of the bloggosphere is interesting. I remember a conversation just before the millenium about the relevance of the internet and I sensed that the ease of publication it afforded threatened to kill the concept of truth - in that anyone could say anything and someone, somewhere would believe it. I wasn't sure of the mechanism by which this would be achieved, but basically its been the blogs that have done this. Funny that seven years later the blessed St Colbert backed me up with his wonderful concept of "truthiness".

There are of course some respectable (or respectable-ish) blogs out there - in the US one thinks of Huffington, Andrew Sullivan, and the Beliefnet group, all effectively the fifth estate operating with greater freedom. Indeed much of the traditional press is trying to operate in this way of which the Guardian's Comment is Free is probably the most successful. I also like Ben Goldacre's work, and there are various private individuals who have something interesting to say and say it fairly well. Professionally, Health Affairs has been a boon, and one or two others have been interesting.

In general though the Bloggosphere is something of an intellectual sewer: about the only thing that can be said in its favour is that it appears to keep relatively large numbers of rather disturbing and disturbed individuals off the streets. One tires of the anti-EU cranks, the BBC-are-the-tools-of-the-Kremlin (what still?) nut-jobs, the Blair-is-the-anti-christ-maniacs, the appalling poets, the foul-mouthed whingers, the whole gang of sentimental, passive-aggressive, Daily Mail programmed morons who besmirch the airways.

Apropos of which - to any chums at the commission - you (we) have been attacked by the lunatic behind the "Burning our Money" website. I once saw a little film he youtubed about the NHS. He managed to make 14 mistakes in about 2 minutes before I grew bored and stopped watching. All I can say if you're winding up this sort of idiot you are clearly doing a great job - so in these times of merger and all hold onto the thought that you must be doing something right! Hang on in there.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The bad news is, we've run out of coffee

So I had to go round the corner to the legendary Zoka's to get post prandial coffees tonight. Zoka's (as featured on Olbermann no less) is something of an institution, a genuinely exceptional coffee house. It was, as usual at 8.30 in the evening pretty well-packed with students. Except they were all working. A good 60% had their laptops in front of them, taking advantage of the free wifi, the remainder had their coursebooks, and no one was talking. There must have been a good 70 people in there, 80% were obviously students, and there were about three conversations, in hushed tones, in the entire place. Astonishing to think how different this generation is from mine.

First, it's 8.30 and you should be in the pub by now (even leaving aside the famous UCL Union thursday nights), but far more than that you should be talking to each other. You should be arguing about Bismark's intentions in the kulturkampf, who is the most absurd Lacan or Baudrillrd, the relative merits of Hayek and Keynes, whether Fermat's last theorem is provable, Renoir or Truffaut, Leone or Kurasawa, Republican or Democrat, Dickens or Dostoevski, even heaven help us Blur and Oasis, but something.

When I was a child, sci-fi distopias consisted of clone like men sitting silently in front of computers that they were plugged into almost organically, we are getting there. Any bets why the discourse is so poor?

Monday, February 19, 2007

An important book?

I've recently been reading Nation of Rebels byJospeh Heath and Andrew Potter, a couple of Canadian academics. It starts with two Seattle vignettes and works its way from there to a thoughtful critique of the ennervating effect of the counter-culture's discontent of post-war consumerism on progressive politics.

The choice of vignettes are interesting and play as touchstones for my (clearly ageing) generation. The first is Kurt Cobain's suicide in his Lake Washington home in 1994 - ostensibly because, in the view of the authors, of his inability to live with being famous - a belief that he was selling out his punk roots by out-selling Michael Jackson. The second were the anti-globalisation riots in Seattle in 1999 where the downtown Niketown was attacked as a symbol of captalist oppression by people wearing Nike trainers. From these beginning the authors construct an argument that counter culture has failed because it is simply a different form of the consumerism that it claims to despise. Thus, there is no fundamental difference between mainstream Macy's and radical REI except that REI's clothes are three times the price. Worse, this reflects a distraction into utopian/ pseudo psychological solutions to problems rather than pragmatic gradualist ones. At its worst this creates an oppositionalism on the progressive wing of politics, which is just as pernicious in its own way as the anti-governmentalism of the radical right.

Well, sort of. It's a thoughtful and reasonably well researched book, and makes some good points, so it's worth reading. But I'm not sure how much it explains the world. It gives some explanation of the failure of the left over the last 30 years - but my own take on this is that there has been a lack of intellectual discipline and an awful lot of self-indulgence influenced by French post-modernist drivel - a point Francis Wheen made far more cogently a few years back.

I'm not sure though that this explains much of the world we are living in, which seems much more about the about an unthinking repetition of the supremacy of unregulated markets in all situations and in the face of evidence, an increasingly naked assertion of might being right and the abuse of religion to get the poor to acquiese to their own oppression.

Their choice of opening vignettes was interesting. I suspect the meanings are far more simple than the authors considered. That Kurt Cobain was clinically depressed, a hopeless heroin addict and his wife was leaving him seem more pressing reasons for suicide than a rather tenuous concept of selling out his punk roots. As for Nike-shod Niketown assailants - it is hardly unknown for looters to attach themselves to a riot, is it?

Feeling old

Saturday we went as a family with our friends Pat and Jennifer to a large family run Italian restaurant downtown. As ever trying to avoid driving wherever possible we took the bus. On leaving the ensuing downpour required a taxi back - but as too many of us the girls taxi-d and I wandered back to the bus stop.

Where I felt old. I got into conversation with a couple of quite charming guys who I guess were about 18 or so, and I realised that they really are a completely different generation to me. Their argot was very skater speak with "man" as much a verbal tick as "y'know" is for my generation. But two things stood out. The first was their complete expectation of I-Pods being the only way to listen to music. For them CDs were completely antiquated, which as I've only had a player in the last 7 years makes me feel extraordinarily old. Oddly though they were very approving of my preference for vinyl, but they looked on me almost as a curious anthropological exhibit. See Homo vinylus with his primitive electromechnical methods of reproducing sound.

The other thing on music was the fact that they talked about bands that I've never heard of. I suspect this is a good thing - after all venerating one's parents record collection leads to the collective horror that was Oasis. What is more worrying is the similarity between my tastes in music and the leader of the Conservative Party's - as a quick check of my profile will attest. I know we are roughly the same generation but there's something wrong about this somehow...

Ah well at least I never liked Pink Floyd!!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Shaking hands with Obama

Eeeek really cringey on the name dropping front, but a recent trip to DC gave me the opportunity to do so. As I’m sure most of you know Obama is the current mega-star of American politics who has risen, as the old saying goes, without trace to stand second behind Hillary in the race for Democratic nomination for president, and he is attracting the predictable smears and innuendo from the hysterical right.

I was fortunate enough to hear him speaking at a breakfast meeting with his senior Illinois senatorial colleague, Dick Durbin, and the contrast between the men was interesting. Both were in different ways tremendously impressive, but Obama, up close, wasn’t like a politician.

By which I mean, despite the controversy, he was not particularly articulate in the slick, political, soundbitey sort of way. Rather his response to questions from his constituents was very measured and very thoughtful and actually engaged with what was asked rather than got his point on the issue across. He also had a sense of seriousness and certainty about him that was intriguing. While charming and personable, he also, oddly, seemed less at ease than Durbin, who was very chatty, interested in what were doing and so forth, but this might just reflect someone standing on the edge of the announcement (he formally announced his candidacy two days after we met him).

I think I would sum it up as that he has charisma, but not the qualities that one usually associates with charismatic people. Whether he can win or not is another matter. I have a sense that he might end up being Hillary’s running mate.

For more on the impressive Durbin - see the other blog

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

second and eight from the 24 yard line

Rather terrifingly, it is fourteen years since I saw U2 at Wembley at the height of their powers. The central conceit was a huge bank of video screens which, apart from playing rather obviously with the whole Leni Reifenstahl element of the very large pop concert in a post-modern ironic kind of a way (TM), also allowed Bono to flick through television channels in the moments when he wasn't phoning Bill Clinton or dressing up as Noel Coward playing an Irish Mephisopheles . All jolly clever and entertaining.

The first bit of channel hopping eventually alighted on some American Football which was left on with the terse summation, "oh, that'll do". I must confess that such was about my reaction to the game prior to my arrival here. I will leave, however, a convert. There is a tactical complexity and skill to the game that I hadn't appreciated, and more than any sport, even Rugby, there is that sense of the team as a body with at least half the side having roles which are essential but in the words of St Paul "unpresentable" and thus treated with "special honour" (defensive linemen know who they are).

This weekend the Seahawks managed to get themselves knocked out at the equivalent of the quarterfinal of the SuperBowl, playing away against a Chicago Bears side which was much stronger on paper. After being tonked there earlier in the season, the Seahawks took the game into extra time and had two very good chances to win the game before finally succumbing to a field goal. Towards the end found myself shouting the same sorts of abuse at Matt Hasselbeck, the Seahawks QB, for frankly inexplicable passing decisions that I used to shout at Andy Cole for his propensity to miss sitters from two yards out. At this point I realised I was a fan...

Monday, January 01, 2007

Christmas and myth

Christmas is now officially over I guess. We have been struck by the difference over here. We have found things more commercialised, yet somehow less socialised. It seems less of a national shared celebration than in the UK. Partly this is the effect of having only one day's public holiday (which makes taking the entire week off rather more difficult especially when you typically only have 10 days annual leave a year), partly the greater prominence of competing festivals (Hannukah and Kwanzaa) and the promixity to Thanksgiving.

I managed to skype the family on Christmas day and we were all struck how Christmas has managed to be barnacled with more and more traditions and myths. The gospel narratives are remarkably thin really - sparse and urgent when present (and Mark doesn't mention the nativity at all). But it's interesting how quickly traditions attach - not least ones that are outwith the initial story. It's also interesting to speculate which will still be attached in one hundred years and which, like Morecambe and Wise specials and Noel Edmonds up the Post Office Tower and truly, utterly, revoltingly, emetically ghastly Last Christmas by Wham will be barely remembered in 30 years time.

Here one of them is the annual Christmas Eve broadcast of It's a Wonderful Life. An emerging one in the UK is ye olde Christmas Documentary on A Fairytale of New York. Leaving aside the possibility that the emergence of the latter is entirely due to a national astonishment that Shane MacGowan is somehow still alive, the reason for both of these phenomena may be that both have at least a resonance with the gospel. It's a Wonderful Life seems to me to be about the importance of compassion and the worth of individuals, while Fairytale majors on grace being found in squalor and the possibility of redemption - what could resonate more clearly with the nativity than that? Together they are my favourite pieces of Christmas art, and both will, I suspect, last decades if not centuries.

I suppose that they might be called modern myths if one was to be pretentious. Generally I'm dubious about myth, remembering Pratchett in Small Gods where the psychotic inquisitor Vorbis taunts the profoundly unwilling Messiah, Brother Brutha (Pratchett never really lost a taste for schoolboy puns) about the difference between truth (what actually happened) and Truth (what ought to have happened to fulfill a prejudice of how the world is).

Increasingly debate on politics, particularly where it touches upon religion, would gain Vorbis's approval, and my last post on the war on Christmas was really a reflection on this, but I could add Political Correctness Gawn Mad, Londinistan, and the inherent superiority of the private sector in every conceivable situation to the list of Vorbisite "Truths". To be fair, my side contributes a tedious refrain of Tony B.liar, the inevitability of American perfidity and the imminent and egregious privatisation of all public services, to this barren landscape.

Perhaps the key test is whether myths illuminate a fact, or are used instead of facts. My Calvinist prejudices show through, but this is the distinction between Communion and Mass, is it a symbol or an ensnaring magic? Myths are powerful tools, and thus need careful handling.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The war on the war on the “war on Christmas” starts here

One of the things that binds Britain with America is a modern obsession that there is somehow a conspiracy of secular progressives and fundamentalist muslims seeking to destroy Christmas. This week we have had the predictably dishonest O'Really ranting on about it (he has been forced to apologise on air for suggesting that a school district in Texas had banned red-and-green clothing) over here and you have had a rather phoney survey showing that 75% of workplaces apparently won't have decorations up because of fear of offending somebody or other – cue the usual bletherings in the Daily Hate Mail.

I offer three observations on why the idea that there is some sort of concerted attack is complete guff, and that the idea that this represents some sort of threat is nonsensical.

First, there is a complete and utter lack of fact behind any of it. As Oliver Burkman shows in today's Guardian, the repetition of these stories is not apocryphal, it's not hyperbolic, it's not even misleading it's downright... what's the word I'm looking for here? Oh, I know, it's downright lying.

Lie no 1 – Birmingham council has replaced Christmas with a festival of “Winterval”.
Fact – Winterval - which ran in 1997 and 1998, and never since - was a promotional campaign to drive business into Birmingham's newly regenerated town centre. OK calling it “Thank goodness we've got rid of the Bullring” might have reflected the local populaces' attitudes more accurately but that probably isn't as catchy. It began in early November and finished in January. During Christmas there was a banner saying Merry Christmas across the front of the council house, Christmas lights, Christmas trees in the main civil squares, regular carol-singing sessions by school choirs, and the Lord Mayor sent a Christmas card with a traditional Christmas scene wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. The first three things you will see on their home page are “Birmingham at Christmas”, “Carols in the City” and just so that even Richard Littlejohn can keep up “Birmingham at Christmas”. So -er – clearly it's been abolished.

Lie no 2 – Luton has replaced Christmas with a Harry Potter themed celebration called Luminos
Fact - Luton does not have a festival called Luminos, nor does it use any alternative name for Christmas. Five years ago, at the height of Harry Potter mania it held something called Luminos. It was in November. It didn't replace that year's Christmas celebrations. So – er – that's not true either

Lie no 3 - The Royal Edinburgh Hospital for Sick Children banned a Christmas CD for mentioning Jesus.
Fact – not only did they not ban it, they made it available at their Christmas Carol Service.

Lie no 4 – The Royal Mail have broken with tradition to issue “non-denominational” Christmas stamps (i.e. Robins, snow, Santa – that sort of stuff) rather than spiritually themed one.
Fact – the Royal Mail has alternated between religious and secular Christmas stamps since they introduced them in the 1960s. The first Christmas stamp was a child's drawing of Santa.

And so on and so on.

To be fair there is one story that seems true and irrefutable. A librarian in High Wycombe has refused to allow a poster for a carol concert on the notice board, as they had rules stating political or religious announcements were forbidden. So the corroborated, practical effect of this war on Christmas is a librarian being officious in Buckinghamshire. Hmmmmm.

Concocting a comforting theory and then rummaging around for a ragbag of half-truths to support it doesn't constitute journalism as commonly understood, but does fit the modus operandi of the Sun, Mail and Express, and I suppose we shouldn't be too surprised if this sort of thing turns up in the thinking of the sorts of -erm - “individual thinkers” who also consider holding the EU to be the ten-horned beast in Daniel 7 (as opposed to the usual corrupt, shambolic exercise in national self-interest that supra-national institutions mutate into) as a fundamental of faith, but the rest of us should adopt a bit of common sense, I would suggest. Hardly a war, more a sort of “Dad's Army shooting themselves in the foot on Christmas”.

The second observation from the UK is that there are a few, a very few, nutters who genuinely do want to abolish Christmas as a prelude to destroying Christianity. But such people really have far less influence than they hope, or the war-mongers fear. I have worked pretty consistently now in uniformly liberal workplaces (to the extent that my wife claims I work for PC World (boom boom)). In that time I have known one person suggest that Christmas celebrations were somehow exclusionary. They were shouted down by the assembled multitudes – Guardian readers to a man – oops – person, and told to stop being so silly. So if they make no headway amongst me and my lefty chums, where exactly are these 75% of offices not having Christmas decs.

Ah yes this 75% in the survey. This survey was by MORI was it? ICM? Gallup? YouGov? Actually no, by a group called Peninsula. A thrusting new research company specialising in opinion surveys and stuffed to the teeth with polling experts? Er- not by the look of their website. They seem to be a business services group – you can outsource your HR department to them - and of course they are in no way be looking to get some publicity by making a bit of a splash by having some noteworthy results and stuff the appropriateness of their methods. No, no, no absolutely not, it is the pure science of the endeavour which appeals to them. Interestingly, there is no sign of the survey that they used, what the questions were, who they sampled etc etc, nor even the results in a sensible form – but they do have lots and lots and lots about the press coverage they got. Double Hmmmmmm

So the proponents of the idea of a war on Christmas are lying (or to be charitable have not bothered to check their evidence properly), and the genuine Scrooges are few and far between and have little influence. But if they were to be successful it would be a big threat, right?

Well the evidence from over here is dubious about that. The commonality of the use of the phrase “Happy Holidays” in the US is completely at odds with its tremendous religiosity. Seattle is supposed to be the most secular city in the US, and Tunbridge Wells is about as religious as England gets, and yet church attendance (I know it's not the same thing as being a Christian) is, I would estimate, somewhat higher, here. So, certainly in terms of outward religiosity, use of “non-denominational” language here (which seems to be perfectly honest very culturally dissonant and irritating to my British ears) doesn't seem to be having a massively negative effect on the church over here.

I've always seen Christmas as a bit problematic for Christians. It is after all something of a syncretism with e.g. the pagan Robin Goodfellow and the Christian St Nick moulded into Father Christmas and then overlaid with the entirely capitalist Santa Claus (that red comes from the Coca-Cola cans kids – well sort of). There seems a lot that we should worry about in the gluttony, drunkeness, greed, debt, and misery that Christmas has become in the west. In the face of this tilting at such an obvious windmill, in the company of an entirely dishonest and disingenuous bunch of Sancho Panzas strikes me as a waste of time.