Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Sell out? The who?

Since the Euston Manifesto website has encountered some fairly serious spam problems, making the signatories number unreliable, attendance at their meetings is the only real way to gauge the progress they're making (it is also arguable that attendance at meetings is a much better metric anyway, as it is easy and costless to sign an online petition, and once your name is up there, it's up there even if you change your mind). So anyway ...

One year ago: "The meeting last night to launch the Euston Manifesto drew about 250 people"

Yesterday: " Every seat was taken and then some", in the Khalili Lecture Theatre, capacity 140 (corroborated here by someone who reckons that there were 150 "at the peak"; there might have been some standing room but realistically you are never going to fit more than 200 people in a lecture theatre designed for 140 on safety grounds alone.

Looks like pretty steep backward progress (more than a third of the support gone) but:

1. This probably represents a peak number rather than total attendance. Not everyone would have attended every session (and who can blame them; look at this bloody programme! Seven bloody hours of Decency carrying on till 9 at night!), and if people came in to replace leavers, total attendance could have been more than peak (obviously this relies on the entire hall being full or nearly full for every session which is unusual).

2. Tickets apparently sold out with two days to go, so they could probably have sold a few more and/or booked a bigger room if they'd known. On the other hand, I am still mentally struggling to get the numbers up to 250 with these assumptions.

3. Also note that the scheduling wasn't great for them; the conference was scheduled for the same evening as the UCU Israel boycott vote and in the middle of the Hay Festival. Both of these events could have drawn off as many as a dozen potential attenders.

4. And of course a seven hour conference is a lot more inconvenient and less fun to attend than an evening launch party. On the other hand, this has to be seen in the context of 2) above; an all-day event has a lot more scope for partial attenders. It would be very interesting to know if they'd printed more than 140 tickets in anticipation of partial attendance.

So my guess is that underlying support for the Euston Manifesto is more or less flat on last year; it would IMO be wrong to look at the headline numbers and conclude that they're imploding, but on the other hand no matter how many assumptions I make, I don't find myself regarding like-for-like adjusted figures higher than 300, absolute max, as very likely. They've launched a political club, got a fair amount of media coverage and stayed together for a year, which is an achievement in itself, but they don't appear to be going anywhere.

PS: This ought to have done something for the finances of the Euston Group. Even at the low end of everything 140 tickets at £5.50 each is £770. You can hire a pretty damn swanky lecture theatre at City University for £500 for a half day, so there ought to have been a reasonable surplus. The Euston mob are also quite generous donors; an average of £10/head was collected at the launch meeting.
6 comments this item posted by the management 5/31/2007 08:34:00 AM

Friday, May 25, 2007

Weekend pacifist poetry time

The Swans translation of Boris Vian's "Le Déserteur" is pretty good, but I fancied one that was a bit looser so here it is. Like all my ventures into poetry it reads like pastiche Roger McGough, but there's nothing particularly wrong with pastiche McGough. Anyway there you go:

Monsieur President
here's a note
perhaps you'll read it
or maybe you won't

I found in my post
last Wednesday morning
my call-up papers
and my final warning

I hate to annoy you
this must hurt
but my firm intention
is to desert

My children are screaming
my mother is crazy
she laughs at the bombs
and the roots of the daisies

you put me in prison
and ruined my marriage
so tomorrow morning
I'm taking my baggage

Leaving behind
all the damage you've done
and wandering around
between Brest and Toulon

I'll tell your people
they have a choice
shout from the rooftops
at the top of my voice

"Deny your President
refuse to be led
refuse your presence
refuse to be dead"

If you're a leader
lead by example
If it's blood we're needing
Give us a sample

Monsieur President
tell your gendarmes
they can shoot me at will
I will not be armed


7 comments this item posted by the management 5/25/2007 07:02:00 AM

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Big School update

Right. There is now a local petition, being organised by someone who as far as I can tell is a local LibDem (he stood and lost the (safe Tory) Park ward on Peterborough City Council for them in 2002), and therefore is quite likely to be the sort of organised type who will turn out local opposition if it is there. The online petition now has 375 signatures, although there are a few people up there who don't live in Peterborough (apparently "Hugh Jaas" lives in Peterborough, who knew?) and quite a few duplicates, so I am not sure how seriously to take it. I think that Bill Wright's petition is going to be the definitive one; I'll keep tabs on the Peterborough Evening Telegraph (a man's got to have a hobby) to see a) what happens to it, in terms of how much local opposition there is to Alan McMurdo's plans for the school day and b) if there is a lot of opposition, what the response is. I will reinvest the credibility points I won from the BNP election result forecast in this one; I'll put 4 of them on "local opposition not that great" (a speculative punt with not much evidence; Alan McMurdo claims that the parents have always known about this but he would wouldn't he), and the remaining 16 on "if there is a lot of opposition, which I would count as 1500 signatures (assuming he is collecting adult signatures; more obviously if under-18s are being collected) or more, then there will be some material adjustment to the school day plan".

PS: misanthropic cynic that I am, I think McMurdo is being wildly optimistic if he thinks that the "enrichment/enhancement" periods will be filled with children constructively pursuing their extracurricular interests. A combination of two parts scheduling problems to three parts staff inertia means that these will end up as off-the-books playtimes. Which is a shame; I went to the electronics club and was in a band at school[1] and I don't really look back and wish I'd spent more time mooching round the playground.

[1]For about five minutes; I was a really shitty bass guitar player. Thereafter, I just kind of hung around, which is also a character-building experience in its own way.


3 comments this item posted by the management 5/22/2007 08:21:00 AM
Times comment writer Stephen Pollard, what is it about the views of Times comment editor Danny Finkelstein that you find so compelling?

Since it is the latest cool trend in the blogosphere to do jokes that appeared on Matthew's blog a year ago (Update: eight months ago, I am my own Readers' Editor), I thought I'd bagsy this one. The Pollard blog really is a wonder of creation though; on there at the moment is a reader competition for "People who should be shot on sight" (I suggested Brazilian electricians, somewhat tastelessly) where he announces that he will "kick off with two slam dunks".

By the way, the "European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism" has launched! Or at least I think it has. Pollard is referring to it in the present tense in his biography, but the only other presence it has on the internet is that Douglas Murray mentions it on his CV. Frankly, I would still say that if you spot some contemporary anti-Semitism in Europe you would be better off dealing with Sarah Rembiszewski (Western Europe) or Rafael Vago (Eastern Europe) of the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University, as it frankly looks like a much more impressive institute.
0 comments this item posted by the management 5/22/2007 01:10:00 AM

Monday, May 21, 2007

Copyright notice

I include by citation Alex's copyright policy, for the same reasons that he adopted it.


4 comments this item posted by the management 5/21/2007 02:46:00 AM

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Now featuring on d-squared digest: All BNP, all the time!

By the way, while we're discussing the pros and cons of worrying about the BNP, we ought to be aware that when we're talking about "addressing the very real concerns of the white working class", this is the sort of thing we're talking about. Sheer fucking gesture politics in terms of its actual effect on council housing, highly nasty indeed for the small number of people who get affected by it, and all in all an expensive way to send out the message "there's no black in the union jack, signed the Labour Party" to floating voters in Barking. Yes this is certainly the sort of thing we should be doing in order to forestall the dread spectre o'er our land of the BNP possibly getting three seats on the Greater London Assembly.

Just to forestall confusion here, I'm certainly not accusing Dan of advocating Hodgeist policies. But there is a real political debate here, and it has to be recognised that if we're all going to have a big "worrying about the BNP" party, then this sort of thing is what's on the menu for all the mainstream political parties, and it is both a much more unequivocal signal (if you believe in that sort of thing, which I don't) and a much more directly racially polarising development (if you believe in that sort of thing, which I do) than a couple of low-turnout council seat wins. Which is why I don't want to eat at that particular restaurant.

(In the interests of fairness, since I have mentioned Dan by name here, he is unbanned from comments for this particular post).

Update: Of course, there is the Michael Collins approach of blaming it all on "liberals" or on the 60s (surely there will come a time when we no longer have the 1960s to blame? Anyone who was teaching even in 1969 would be coming up to retirement age now). Collins is to be honest not very coherent above; the factual content of his post is that a problem has been identified, the educational profession are trying to do something about it and there is decent reason to believe that it's class-based and amenable to some sort of targeted solution of the kind that has worked, a bit, for young black men. But this all appears to take second place to the need to have a go at "liberals", the constant nemesis of mankind, and obviously "multiculturalism" has to get it in the neck as well.
24 comments this item posted by the management 5/20/2007 11:58:00 PM

Friday, May 18, 2007

From the "makes you weep" department

Last week on Panorama: We fearlessly expose the pseudoscientific loons of Scientology.

Next week on Panorama: Are WiFi signals giving your children cancer?

it's the journalistic equivalent of "please don't put your life in the hands of a rock'n'roll band, they'll throw it all away".
10 comments this item posted by the management 5/18/2007 04:25:00 AM
It is not uncommon to find manure in a Field

While I'm on the short post trail, have a look at this article on some wildly silly comments about youth unemployment by Frank "you were meant to 'think the unthinkable' in the sense of coming up with radical and new ideas, not come up with things that were simply 'unthinkable' because they were stupid, Frank, that's why you're sacked" Field. Talking about youth unemployment is inherently error-prone, and lots of professional economists end up making silly mistakes (I've commented on this tendency in the past in the context of France) because there are so many moving parts and it is so difficult to keep things comparable. I don't think Unity is an economist by trade, so he/she has done a really good job keeping everything clear. (Update: Condescending at all? "yes, very good ... for a noneconomist". That came out a lot more patronising than it was meant to.)


9 comments this item posted by the management 5/18/2007 03:58:00 AM
The person on earth I feel sorriest for today

... is the poor bugger who no doubt right at this minute is wandering round the World Bank offices, trying to hand off a brown envelope with "PAUL'S LEAVING COLLECTION" written on it.


3 comments this item posted by the management 5/18/2007 02:31:00 AM

Thursday, May 17, 2007


German boffins are using supercomputers to speed up the task of reassembling the files shredded by the hated East German secret police, but it will still take seven years. Am I a bad person for hoping that they launch a distributed computing client to help them? I would certainly be more interested in having secret shredded Stasi documents on my screensaver than looking for fucking ET.

In unrelated news, I can't believe I wasn't keeping a running total Galbraith score on Paul Wolfowitz, but I am pretty sure that he followed the exact predicted behaviour; said four times that he would not resign and then did.
0 comments this item posted by the management 5/17/2007 11:01:00 PM
Patria o muerte!

There's a new restaurant opened up near me, advertising "The Genuine Cuban Experience". And it's true; the staff all seem to have a slightly haunted look and there is a big and slightly sinister-looking bloke walking round checking up on them all the time. Every time I go there I feel like I ought to bring a copy of "The Constitution of Liberty" and offer to carry messages to the outside world. And oddly enough, when I go back, the person who served me the last time seems to have disappeared and all of the other waiters claim not to know who I'm talking about.

Apparenty they have excellent healthcare though.


15 comments this item posted by the management 5/17/2007 02:57:00 PM
David Bowie is not Welsh

Eric Sykes is still alive.

New Order did not pay for the recording of Wet Wet Wet's first demo.

The Bosnian Serbs did not take ecstasy before carrying out massacres.

I'm basically putting these here as a reminder to myself more than anything else. Do any other readers have strange beliefs like this, which are completely untrue but it feels like they sort of seem to remember reading them somewhere? It's a very strange sort of jamais vu phenomenon.
7 comments this item posted by the management 5/17/2007 06:18:00 AM

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Resistible Rise ...

Time for an MBA post, I think, providing some of the analytical guts of my argument in this Guardian piece. But first, a digression.

Perhaps the best book ever written about the blogosphere is "The Status Seekers by Vance Packard, and the fact that it was written in the 1950s and isn't about blogs doesn't change this fact. Packard's description of social climbing, the importance of clubs and cliques and the position of dining clubs as facilities for "status lenders" can all be mapped onto the social dynamics of weblogs by anyone with a brain in his head. Give it a read, it's an excellent book (although I would point out that the excerpts available on that website aren't actually the bits I'm thinking about here, helas).

Of course, "D-Squared Digest" is definitely part of the "old money" of the blog world. I have very little traffic to direct, a technorati rank in the upper trillions and a frequency and quality of posting which is a shadow of its former days. Nevertheless, I think that this blog has a certain "tone" which remains from the days when its great grandfather was listed high on the Eschaton blogroll. Atrios never links here - good God why would he, what's to link to - but he probably remembers who I am. If you mentioned to Kevin Drum "hey I saw something good on D-Squared Digest last month", he would probably say "oh I remember that blog it used to be good about five years ago". Although this blog's true status in terms of incoming links is "genteel poverty", subsisting off the pension-like annuity of a) having invented the term "Shorter" (which the Sadly No! guys really don't need to keep crediting to me but thanks anyway) and b) once asking whether the Bush administration had any policies at all which they hadn't fucked up (thanks Brad), I like to think that my outgoing links have a tone, a sort of je ne sais quoi which the mere Google Pagerank of the arrivistes and nouveaus can never hope to replicate.

All of which is by way of a link to Dan Hardie Digest. Dan has a long history with this website as a commenter; he was the first person I ever banned from the comments section, and he is currently odds-on favourite for being the second. But nevertheless, he has written something reasonably intelligent about my Guardian article and I thought a response was merited.

To be honest, I think Dan is arguing at a 45 degree angle to most of what I meant to write. As it happens, I do think that local government is pretty unimportant and may explain why I think this some day (basically because of the role of council officers on the one side and direct local democracy in the form of single issue campaigns on the other side but let's not get into this now). However, my statement that local elections were trivial, unimportant and only attended by weirdoes was meant to be a positive, sociological description, not a normative statement. The fact that mostly weirdoes and hacks vote in local elections is not up for debate; it's something you can read off the turnout figures. The argument that if the BNP were to gain any material power at the local level they could do a lot of harm with it, however, is something of a hypothetical case for me; my whole argument is that this is not going to happen.

The article was called "The Mythical Rise of the BNP" for a reason; I thought at the time that too many people were taking it as a given that the BNP were on the rise, and thinking on from this premise in order to draw conclusions about what to do about it. It was my view at the time that this premise was flawed; that there was at least as good reason to believe that the BNP's political support was stagnating, that they already had as much power as they were likely to get (ie none) and that therefore there was no need to do anything in particular to stop them. Basically, the majority view appeared to be that the BNP were on a rising trend, and my view was that they were about to plateau (which in real terms probably means about to reverse, as political movements like this are very sensitive to loss of momentum). For the reason why, we need to go back to the dot com years. And then still further back to 1962.

It was in 1962 that Everett Rogers first published the S-Curve model of the diffusion of innovations and brought the phrase "early adopter" into the language. The S-Curve model is a beautiful piece of practical sociology, and is eminently implementable; Frank Bass was the first to fit a diffusion-type model to data and had some stunning successes in forecasting things like the size of the market for colour televisions. Before his death, me and Chris Lightfoot were swapping a few emails about what one might be able to do in fitting a Generalised Bass Model" to all sorts of social and political data, to model the development of media scares and moral panics.

It's in the same spirit that I thought it made sense to apply something like Rogers' model to the growth of the BNP. As you can see from the original Guardian piece, my underlying model of the way the BNP had grown over the last few years was to assume that there was an innovation (a new "product", if you like) called "switching political allegiance from the Conservative Party to the BNP". Following Rogers' model, this product would be adopted by innovators (2.5% of the total potential market), early adopters (13.5%), early majority (34%), late majority (34%) and laggards (16%), until everyone who was ever likely to make this switch had already done it.

By some pretty slapdash casual empiricism (but hey, at least I was using a model, which puts me a couple of steps ahead of the curve) matching the characteristics of BNP voters quoted in the newspapers to the stylised psychological profiles of the different categories of adopter, I guesstimated that as of their 2006 triumphs, the BNP were gaining their votes from the "late majority" category - they seemed to be targeting their message at people who would only be comfortable voting BNP if they thought that others were too (the impact of Margaret Hodge's catastrophic mistake in Barking was really influential on me here). As you can see from the curve, once you are appealing to this bit of the market, you are well past the inflection point, and the rate of growth in your support is just about to slow down as sharply as it had recently been accelerating (note that the "S-Curve" in the Wikipedia article would be describing the total BNP vote in this context, while the Gaussian curve on the "valuebasedmanagement" site is describing the number of "new" BNP voters. On this basis, I decided to take the punt that I was right on two assumptions:

a) that the source of the new BNP voters was not defecting Labour voters but working class Tories
b) that the inflection point had been reached and the flow of new supporters from this pool was about to slow down.

I've explained b) above; a) was more of a gut feel than anything else. People who vote in local elections are politically involved. Politically involved Labour supporters aren't going to go over to the BNP. The low-involvement, class-based component of the Labour Party might be more susceptible, but they don't turn out for local elections, and the BNP hadn't done anything like as well in the general election. The fact that BNP success was a low-turnout phenomenon made me sceptical that it was coming from the Labour Party. The new BNP voters didn't feel like mainstream citizens driven to the extremes by Labour's terrible record (and actually Hazel Blears is correct to say that on a lot of doorstep local issues Labour really doesn't have such a terrible record; the John Cruddas case that the party has deserted its working class base is a lot stronger on assertion than fact). They looked, to be frank, like weirdoes. I also noticed that a lot more people said they were "thinking of voting BNP", when specifically pressed to give an answer by journalists, than said that they "would vote BNP". Normally this would make you think of the known "Tory shame bias" in opinion polls, but the BNP really wasn't registering in actual polls, so I suspected that the journalists were getting the answer they'd solicited and any shame factor would be outweighed by the lack of depth of the BNP's support.

(Parenthetically, I'll note that the occasionally made claim that the Communist electorate in France defected directly to the FN is something of an urban myth; the evidence is really not that great that this is that case. It relies on the behaviour of a few Paris arondissements which went from red to black in 1988 (during a communist meltdown) and in Robert Hue's loss of Pas-de-Calais and similar departmentes in 1995. James Shields does not find much evidence of direct switches from PC to FN, suggesting instead that Le Pen picked up a lot of first-time voters in poor neighbourhoods because of the declining role of the Communists as a tribune party)

Contra this assumption, Dan says that an implication of my thesis that BNP voters are disaffected Tories ought to be that the geographical profile of BNP support ought to be the same as that of the Conservative vote. I think that this is fallacious statistical reasoning. Here's an analogy; every shooting involves a gun, so we should expect the geographical profile of shootings in the USA to match the geographical profile of gun ownership? It doesn't. It doesn't because there's a confounding factor which is that the majority of shootings take place in cities, while the majority of guns are owned in rural areas[1].

Similarly, I think that there are probably (at least) two confounding factors which make it impossible to argue that the general pattern of Conservative support has any connection to that part of it which is susceptible to BNP influence. I think we have to realise that the majority of the Tory Party doesn't support the BNP, is not likely to ever support the BNP and abhors what they stand for. There are and have always been soft-fascists within the Tory Party, but they have never been the mainstream and they are regarded as weirdoes there too. The first of these confounding factors that comes to my mind is that fascists have an unusually (IMO, pathologically) high degree of the "authoritarian personality" (or McClosky’s conservatism, or Eysenck’s T-scale or for that matter the first principal component of Chris Lightfoot's Political Quiz, they measure the same thing). And second, class itself.

To start with the first, I'd note that it's quite clear why the majority of Tory voters vote Tory; they do so because it's in their economic interest to do so. There is no particular mystery of why someone living in Sevenoaks might vote Tory. On the other hand, someone living in Blackburn, with a manual job or in receipt of disability allowance, who votes Tory? That's quite a weird thing to do, and a common reason why some people do weird things is that they are weird people. And if you're a weird person who votes Tory, then my guess is that the BNP are going to at least want to have you in their direct mail database.

So are there no middle class weirdoes then? Well, not as many; it's been known since the 1950s that high authoritarian scores are associated with low education and poor impulse control, both of which are characteristics associated with low income (and I don't think that there are confounding factors here)[2]. So my guess is that the sociodemographics of bigots skew below the median income. But furthermore there is the second factor to consider, which is that middle class authoritarian personalities within the Tory electorate are not a particularly happy hunting ground for the BNP because they have already been scooped out by UKIP[3]. UKIP's policies don't overlap with the BNP's all that much, but if you look at Chris's survey, you can see that they are very much fishing in the same tank as regards the personalities of their supporters.

So in other words, the answer is no, I don't think my thesis of the BNP-Tory transition implies any particular geographical profile of BNP support in the way suggested. The BNP-susceptible element are part of the tail of the distribution of the working-class Tory vote (which in itself is not particularly representative of the overall Tory vote) and you don't expect relationships between the tails of the distribution like this to be visible in the broad aggregates.

I can tie my points together with a quick thought experiment. When UKIP emerged as a political force in the 1999 European election (and then improved on its vote in 2004), did the fact that around 10% of the electorate had voted for an anti-Europe party mean that Euroscepticism was now a powerful force in the land, that had to be respected and have its concerns addressed? Or was it actually a sign that the Europhobe rump of the Tory party had given up on mainstream politics, and that the case for Britain in Europe had been definitively and irreversibly won? The Tory party managed to get this one wrong and spent seven years in the wilderness as a result. The answer is the second; the 1999 and 2004 showings were signs of weakness in Euroscepticism, not strength. UKIP exists as a party because the Europhobes have given up on mainstream politics; by leaving the Tory party they implicitly acknowledge that they have no hope of achieving their aim. And furthermore, the electoral successes they have achieved have been entirely artefacts of special situations in low-turnout elections; their overall support is flat to declining. My thesis is that the "rise of the BNP" is every bit as fictional as the "rise of UKIP" was.

And of course, though neither me nor Dan knew this at the time we wrote, the evidence appears to be that the 2007 local elections were "disappointing for the BNP. At present, I think the evidence provides pretty good support for my view that the "rise of the BNP" is not "very real"; it's mythical.

[1] This is not an invitation for anyone to have a big old argument about the statistics relating to gun crime in the USA. If you don’t like this, then pretend I said “Freedonia” instead of the US and treat it as a constructed example of what a confounding factor is.
[2] I'm sure that if you were in the mood, you could twist "bigots tend to be poorly educated and therefore lower down the income scale" to "Davies says the working class are stupid and bigots!", but I think it's pretty clear that this isn't what I said. "Most Xs are Ys" does not imply "Most Ys are Xs", although it does mean that if you're shopping for Xs, you'll do better going to Y than to Z. (Chris Dillow has a good tabular representation of the Bayesian calculation involved, though note that while he's using "60% of the population are stupid" as his example, I'm using "10% of the population are bigots" and this changes the qualitative conclusions markedly.
[3] UKIP has of course had a number of problems with overlaps between its membership and the BNP, but I don't remember any details except that the current leadership of UKIP are quite aggressive in defending their reputation.
31 comments this item posted by the management 5/16/2007 10:24:00 AM

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Down in Sadr City

Extraordinary film on Newsnight (direct link to the film to come) about the Sadrist political movement. As far as I can tell it was made under pretty close supervision of Sadr's deputy (a woman convert from Sunni Islam, apparently), but even so, gives a flavour of the combination of social services and violent insanity that characterises successful politics of the (broadly defined) Islamist kind. There is nothing which isn't the Americans' fault, apparently, unless it's the Israelis'. But it's also clear that the Sadrists are providing the ordinary inhabitants of that ghetto with something that nobody else can get organised to do, and it is true that Sadr himself is not currently advocating violence. I couldn't help but notice the interview with the coffin maker half way through, where he estimates that demand is about ten times its pre-invasion level; obviously Sadr City is most likely more violent than Iraq on average, but the order of magnitude is consistent. They also estimate 4 million IDPs in Iraq which is a hell of a lot.
1 comments this item posted by the management 5/15/2007 03:53:00 PM

Friday, May 11, 2007

That Big School

Update: Check out the comments section for a really nasty nerdfight. The tipping point (ie, the first exchange to contain nothing at all about the actual subject) has been reached so I confidently expect it to get a lot more exciting. Careful readers will note that the cowardice, homosexuality or dishonesty of me and Dan Hardie does not actually imply anything about schools in Peterborough one way or the other.

I've decided to take the unpopular side of this question, again, this time simply because the blogospheric reaction to it has been a) so unanimous and b) based on a small number of media reports (the Times and BBC stories on May 6, plus a Cambridge Evening News one on May 8). This is soooo often a source of errors, because it is quite likely that the original story contains errors or stitch-ups (the Times is in my experience particularly bad for this; the Mail much worse and I am surprised that the Mail doesn't show up on Google news as the original source of this story) and they get magnified by Chinese whispers. I'm not claiming to be completely innocent of this, but it is actually a really bad intellectual habit to automatically gainsay new ideas, and an extremely bad habit to do so on the basis of newspaper summaries of them. It is often a useful prophylactic to this behaviour to preface some of your statements with the phrase "If we assume that this report in the Times is a complete and accurate representation of the situation then …" (another useful prophylactic is to check whether you agree with someone like Libby Purves).

It also strikes me as odd that there is so little local outrage at this proposal. The "superschool" plan has been around for at least a year (update: actually the plans have been available for view in Peterborough since July 2005 update: no, even earlier, there have been artists' impressions available since 2004). There has been a bit of controversy about a few things to do with the plan, but nobody in Peterborough has, over the three year period that they've known roughly what the thing was going to look like, started any sort of campaign about it that has achieved enough traction to register on google.

Indeed, there is something of a shortage of local colour in these media stories. In the Times (update: and in the Peterborough Evening Telegraph, same one both times), one local parent is quoted, saying that her son was "devastated when he discovered he would not be able to kick a football around at lunchtime" (the sport of football keeps showing up in these stories, also a bit of a red flag for me since the sport of football is such a rich source of sentimental bullshit). The only other quote in the Times story (other than the quotes from Alan McMurdo, the headmaster) is from a headteacher in Liverpool, who also mentions football.

The BBC report does a big deal quoting Tim Gill, an "independent play expert" (ie consultant) who has written a book called "No Fear: Growing up in a risk-averse society" but nevertheless does not appear to be a Furediite. Tim Gill is a bona fide expert on playgrounds, but quotes like "crazy" and "bordering on inhuman" do not usually come from people who have carefully considered something, and this looks a bit like a rentaquote. Nobody else is quoted at all.

The Cambridge Evening News might have been thought to be pretty well placed to tap into this vein of local outrage. However, it looks as if their story has been generated after a press release from four Cambridge city councillors (ie not representing Peterborough), plus a ring round of MPs.

It is hard to tell as their site search is a bit frustrating, but Peterborough Today (update: actually, I think the newspaper is called the Peterborough Evening Telegraph) does not seem to mention any local campaign against this school and I am not sure that they have done a story about the no-playground thing at all (update: oh no, they did, but it appeared on 2 May and is nearly word for word identical to the Times one. What's going on?) There is an online petition against the school with 127 signatures (most of them locals from Peterborough, many of them kids), but it was created on May 7, postdating the Times and BBC reports and therefore is as likely to be a part of the echo chamber as a genuine reflection of local views. There is a very, very strong smell of media creation to this story, as far as I am concerned. That doesn't mean that it won't turn into a genuine local issue of course, but that doesn't appear to be how it began.

In any case, I am not so sure that the media reports of no playgrounds and no playtimes are accurate. The plans of the site certainly contain quite a few largish greenish flat things with no buildings on them; I am not an expert on what constitutes a "playground" these days but they certainly don't look like educational space. And regarding timetabling, if you look at the proposed school day on that website, you can see that although there is no "playtime" scheduled, "Period 3" is nearly two and a half hours and all the other periods are an hour and a half (Period 4 is marked "Enrichment/Extension", which I am not sure what it means).

In their general FAQ they say "The large numbers of pupils attending the Academy will necessitate the use of a flexible and staggered day that will enable the Academy to operate without the need for very large numbers of pupils moving around the buildings at any one time". This suggests that they are not planning on having hour-and-a-half double lessons back to back with one another. I would have thought that this most likely means that groups of children smaller than the whole school will end up with their unsupervised breaks at various times spread over the day, but there isn't a big single playtime in which all the classes chuck out. It would not at all be out of the general run of things for someone trying to explain this concept to a journalist to have been quoted as saying the things that Alan McMurdo is quoted as having said.

All the architects' drawings in the brochure and on the website seem to show pupils hanging around and socialising with one another in largish public spaces; on p5 of the prospectus they are actually lounging around on the lawn. Could it be that the Times has got the wrong end of the stick? Could it be that the blogosphere has covered itself in glory once more? Hmmmm; I will reserve judgement for the time being. I will simply add this - to draw any firm conclusions about McMurdo the headmaster's personality and competence (as opposed to taking the piss out of him for talking about "hydrating" or similar, for which there is no excuse) is to implicitly assume he has been quoted fairly, accurately and in context by the Times and this is really quite a strong assumption to make.

Update: More from the Times. (Actually the previous article was the Sunday Times). It looks like I am right about playgrounds, but was wrong to suspect them of a stitchup about playtimes; McMurdo is in favour of a pretty packed school day, with short and supervised breaks. I am not sure how this fits in with the illustrations which might potentially be quite misleading.

But anyway, "If we assume that this report in the Times is a complete and accurate representation of the situation then" is it necessarily so bad?

Here is the website of the ScholaEuropea in Luxembourg. It has 3802 pupils. Here is a map of the school. It does not appear to have much of a playground (zooming around on the google maps satellite photo suggests that there is a bit of a playground outside the "Maternelle" area, but there certainly doesn't appear to be the sort of playground you would need for 3802 pupils to all play in at once; there doesn't appear to be any area suitable for playing football on). It has a few lawns and outside areas between its several buildings, rather like the Thomas Deacon Academy. It isn't a school which has been foisted on the deprived peasants of Luxembourg, by the way; it's the largest of the European Schools, for children of EU officials. They are all pretty big.

It is, of course, 73% larger than the proposed "Thomas Deacon Academy" about which we are all a fluster. If you take out the pupils in the "Maternelle" and the primary school, then ScholaEuropea is about the same size as the Thomas Deacon Academy at 1948 pupils, but I'm not sure that this is a valid thing to do. In any case, it's a big school without much of a playground, and although I can't find any plan of the TDA (update: I did, see above), the stylised one on its website looks not entirely unlike the ScholaEuropea. It also offers the International Baccalaureate in the sixth form … hmmm, it's almost as if somebody concerned with the development of this school has been looking around at international comparisons, isn't it?

I've no real idea whether a school as big as this can work, but the question of whether it can or it can't is an empirical one, where the answer ought to involve rather more evidence and rather less prejudice than we've seen so far. I am pretty sure that the plans for breaks in the day isn't as described in the Times, but I don't know if the actual plan they have is any more sensible. I am in general rather suspicious of schemes that can only work if they have really talented managers at the top, preferring ones that are robust enough to handle merely adequate administration. But, sometimes you have to give people their head, and talented people (which Alan McMurdo certainly seems to be, from a brief google search – he's one of the best people in the country for science education) need to be allowed to develop

It's a reversible investment anyway. If it turns out that the kids are dropping of tiredness, it is not exactly going to be the hardest thing on earth to stick a couple of breaks in the day. There is a whacking great field and sports centre (including, good God, a football pitch! The nation is saved!) on that site, part of which could be repurposed to a playground; there might even be some neighbouring land they could buy. Worst case scenario, the whole thing looks like it would make a decent Travelodge so the money will not be entirely wasted.

At the very least, I'm making a plea for some sort of intellectual charity here (from you lot, that is, not from me; I gave at the office). It is true that some ideas are so obviously stupid that they can be dismissed without careful consideration of the budget plans or the academic literature. But not so many as you'd think, and it certainly makes sense to have a little bit of a look to make sure that your initial information was representative and not spun. I'd hate the anti-managerialism to fall into "common-sense" populism, because that is the one form of organisation that's actually known to be worse than managerialism. If we're going to have a whole load of rules saying what kinds of schools can and can't be built, with these rules being based not on scientific evidence but on "common sense" rules developed by people extrapolating their own personalities into management principles, then how the heck is that not managerialist?


52 comments this item posted by the management 5/11/2007 04:03:00 AM

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

In which I stick my oar in someone else's blogfight

On the general subject of the validity of Johann Hari's critique of Zizek, the subject of much argumentation between "Unspeak" and "Butterflies and Sneers" (also). I think I might provide a service to the community by taking out my rusty old Welsh shovel and shifting away the heap of bullshit which has been piled up by the self-styled defenders of reason, on the general subject of the legitimacy of Johann Hari's critique Zizek and Derrida. To make this entirely clear, the burden of Steven Poole's argument is thus:


Johann Hari's essay on Zizek is objectionable because he clearly does not know what he is fucking talking about.


Maybe he didn't read the book or maybe he read it and didn't understand it. What he didn't do is read it and understand it (unless of course, he is doing this on purpose as some sort of conceptual art project or something). That's an end to it. Steven is presumably too polite to say this in so many unminced words (journalists are notoriously reluctant to accuse one another of plagiarism or invention, for the same reason that the use of poison gas went out of fashion; it's a completely unpredictable weapon that can often dangerously rebound on the user[1]). But I'm not.

In related news, using the term "postmodernist" to refer lazily to Derrida, Zizek, Foucault and any other passing literary theorist or cultural critic is the very definition of "bad writing". It's actually a much more pernicious form of unclarity than simply posting up a massive great thicket of technical terms like Judith Butler sometimes does, because it leaves the reader believing that he has understood something when he is in fact just a little bit more ignorant than he was before he picked up the Independent. This kind of "bad writing" is probably both more widespread and more damaging to the general intellectual climate than anything that can successfully be traced to Grammatology. Perhaps I will start a snortingly funny "Bad Writing Award" for the most egregious example I see this year. If anyone wants to place bets (particularly if they want to place bets on someone other than Johann Hari), drop me a line.

[1] In a virtuouso display of irony, I plagiarised this joke.
15 comments this item posted by the management 5/08/2007 12:50:00 PM
Bits and pieces

  • Congestion "pricing"? Road "pricing"? These are taxes, folks; flat rate excise duties payable on the act of driving a car across a line. There is no market in permissions to use a road; there isn't even any variability of the "price" with demand, although there are nebulous proposals to introduce it at some unspecified point in the future on the basis of something not unlike Soviet central planning. I think I will put forward proposals for "inheritance pricing", "capital gains pricing" and "a progressive rate of income pricing" and see if I can get such breathless support for them from the Wall Street Journal, Economist, etc.

  • Just a little bit of help for any New Yorker fact-checkers out there looking for the source of a quotation commonly attributed to Keynes and regularly in the financial press:

    "The market can stay irrational for longer than you can stay solvent".

    It doesn't appear anywhere in any of Keynes' work to the best of anyone's knowledge. The first published appearance that I've been able to find is in "The Money Game" by George Goodman (writing as "Adam Smith"), who attributes it to Keynes. When quoted in this form, Goodman is almost certainly the original source.

    However, the quote is probably not bogus or apocryphal. When this came up on the PEN-L mailing list, we ended up concluding that the original source was almost certainly Joan Robinson, and that therefore Keynes probably made this remark at seminars at Cambridge in the 30s; there are a number of Keynes quotes where the trail ends up with Robinson in this way.

  • And here is my attempt to branch out into the Gina Ford market with a top child-rearing tip; while a real gun is obviously a much more dangerous weapon than a real sword, a toy gun cannot be used to hit other kids round the head with, although a toy sword can.

6 comments this item posted by the management 5/08/2007 12:49:00 PM

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