I’ve been watching Sylvester McCoy’s first story as the Doctor this week, inspired by Time and the Rani turning twenty-seven years old last Sunday and by the BBC celebrating this happy anniversary the day before with another new Doctor, Peter Capaldi, playing the spoons. It wasn’t the most promising debut for Richard’s favourite Doctor, but over the years I’ve come to find a lot of fun in it, most of all revelling with Kate O’Mara in her villainous star turn as the Rani. And who’d have thought back then that Sylvester would star in bigger films than any of Kate’s?
It didn’t seem at the time that Time and the Rani would mark the start of one of Doctor Who’s most fabulous eras – and that heralding another – but it did. I’m not just fond of it for that, though. I’m fond of it because it’s ridiculously bright and cheerful, because I can rouse myself shouting at the screen over its politics, and most of all because some of the bits that most embarrass other fans are absolutely bloody hilarious – and are meant to be.
So I dug out a pair of old reviews, almost the oldest I’ve written that I still have copies of, and read what I had to say about the Rani’s twin mid-’80s TV escapades. They weren’t good. The stories, nor the reviews. And I hesitated before republishing them not just because I’d do very much better today should I manage to get my finger out, but also because it seems unkind so shortly after the sad news has broken of co-author Jane Baker’s passing (following that six months ago of Kate O’Mara). But Time and the Rani Part Two was first broadcast on this day in 1987, and Doctor Who online lists tell me that this is also the birthday of Gary Cady, who caught the thirteen-year-old me’s attention without knowing why in the Rani’s first story back in 1985, so it’s as appropriate a day as I’m likely to find.
These twin reviews were published in September 1995, shortly after the release of the two stories on VHS, in Liberator Magazine 231’s idiosyncratic review section. After all this time – blimey, nineteen years – I can’t quite understand what I was thinking by picking these two stories to review. I have a nagging memory that I’d heard a rumour both Kate O’Mara and Colin Baker were celebrity Liberal Democrat supporters and used that to justify their getting a place, but what my real reason was eludes me. Perhaps the two VHS releases just came out the month I fancied writing Doctor Who reviews. Perhaps I was aiming to write several pieces in the run-up to the no-doubt fantastic TV Movie due the following Spring (a clue: doubt, though I did better immediately before it aired with a review of Survival). But while I used to write reviews mainly to evangelise to a Liberal audience – how unlike today’s blog – and remember, for example, proselytising several Babylon 5 and The Avengers releases, these reviews had a very different agenda. To crit-fic my own motivations, I suspect I was writing about how bad the writers were because it was easier and more fun to write snark than to find an interesting way of praising something I loved (or even a sympathetic way of criticising something). So now the reviews look more to me like bad writing, and I feel I’ve learnt better since. Or you may feel I’ve lost the knack of writing a short review when spending a year chipping ten thousand words out of a novel-length block of notes will do.
Doctor Who – The Mark of the Rani“What’s he up to now? It’ll be something devious and overcomplicated – he’d get dizzy if he tried to walk in a straight line…”The Rani, a new renegade Time Lord played by Kate O’Mara, gets all the halfway decent lines in a generally weak script, and usually at the expense of the Master. Given some of the worst dialogue ever heard in Doctor Who (“Unfortunate? Fortuitous would be a more apposite epithet,” he quips at one point, apparently playing Just a Minute in a story that might have been tolerable at that length), Anthony Ainley falls to the occasion and gives his worst performance as the Doctor’s very arch arch-enemy. He all but twirls his moustaches in capering villainy as the Doctor is strapped to a table sent hurtling along a railway line…
Set in Nineteenth Century Northumberland, this story tries hard to convince you it knows a lot about the period. Sadly, it’s too late for Luddites, George Stephenson didn’t do half they claim and a few of the other characters mentioned – such as a passing inspiration of geniuses – weren’t alive at the time. Colin Baker is excellent and endlessly watchable, his portrayal of the Sixth Doctor being much-underrated, but even fairly high production values, sumptuous location footage and Gary Cady being one of the sexiest men ever to appear in the programme can’t rescue a story damned by a silly plot and an earnestly awful script.
Today’s Doctor Who viewers may be interested to know that The Mark of the Rani is currently one of the stories being shown in rotation on the Horror Channel (as well as available on DVD and in the VHS department of a charity shop near you), so you too can get wood with Mr Cady. It also looks like the primary source of one of the recurring gags in Steven Moffat’s first TV Doctor Who work (as well as inspiring him to write every single female character since he took over the series as the Rani).
The paradox about The Mark of the Rani for me remains that the worst thing about it is also the best, and to take it out would make the whole thing unwatchable. This story’s a tipping point for Anthony Ainley’s Master, up ’til now veering between cracking and creaky performances while saddled with increasingly absurd schemes, then here a career-worst for character and actor and made the butt of all the jokes. You wonder what the programme thinks it’s doing to its lead villain, but his nadir gives the Rani a massive boost. She’s mostly written as coldly clinical, but those bitchy put-downs give her a character – as well as enabling viewer belief in her efficiency that simply wouldn’t have been possible had she gone along with the cackling idiot. Yet I can’t help thinking something’s gone a bit wrong when you need to invent another Time Lord to act as the voice of the viewer, and when even her best line’s stolen from the Police.
Doctor Who – Time and the Rani“I have the loyhargil! Nothing can stop me now!”The Rani is back, unfortunately bringing with her the same authors, Pip and Jane Baker, once infamous in British TV sci-fi for writing the worst Space 1999 story. Here they have a (synthesised orchestral) stab at doing the same for Doctor Who.
Kate O’Mara’s first appearance as the Rani, in which she acted, got her a role as Joan Collins’ sister in Dynasty. She returns with big hair, big earrings, big shoulderpads and a style so over the top it’s out of the trench and half-way to Berlin. Playing in effect a fusion of both evil Time Lords from her last story enables her to survive perhaps the most ludicrous Doctor Who script ever written, apparently based on a half-read article in a dentist’s waiting-room science magazine, with extra bizarre technobabble and a side order of more ‘geniuses’ – even a giant brain on top – because the authors again mistakenly hope it may rub off.
This is the first story with Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor… After which, he gets much better, though he does bring some fun moments first time out. Guest stars such as Wanda Ventham and Mark Greenstreet look rather embarrassed (although considering the latter’s appearance in Brat Farrar just before this, he was probably used to it). On the plus side, while the theoretically far superior earlier Rani story tries hard to be serious and is rather dull, this is immensely colourful and entertaining, in the ‘so bad it’s good’ category.
Worth watching if you like pretty special effects, because you have to see ‘Colin Baker’s exit’ to believe it, but most of all for Ms O’Mara’s hilarious impersonation of Bonnie Langford.
And I didn’t even spot at the time how dodgy its politics were, which would at least have been topical for a political magazine. Oops. In brief, think of the alien ‘hero’ as Nigel Farage.
You can read my lovely Richard’s far more enthusiastic and far more interesting review of Time and the Rani at The Very Fluffy Diary of Millennium Dome, Elephant.
At the same time as watching Sylvester’s opening story, I’ve started reading several books about or starring his Doctor. There may be more on those stories later… And though they’re all you’ll find of her in the regular TV series, the two stories above weren’t all there was to the Rani, either. Kate O’Mara came back for an even camper charity mash-up with EastEnders (no, really), in which a very respectable actor plays her henchman Shagg, then a semi-licit audio play that I can’t honestly recommend, and was due to return to the role again for Big Finish’s official Doctor Who audio series. In interviews she always said she loved the character and wanted to do more with her, and it seems behind the scenes she was just the same, giving her blessing when she knew she wouldn’t be able to do it for a new incarnation of the Rani to take over later this year. The Rani’s also turned up in the pages of several novels and short stories, as well as one 1986 book by Pip and Jane Baker themselves that had eventually more than a little to do with Time and the Rani…
But by tying it specifically to the median, that means that (a) it would encourage policies that kept people's wages up and (b) they couldn't be accused of taking raises while the average person wasn't.
Edit: To be clear, as over on FB people seem to be misunderstanding this a lot, I'm not saying "Let's reduce their pay to less than the median wage." - MP pay is currently 250% of median wage,and that doesn't seem wholly unreasonable to me. I'm saying "Define it as 250% of median wage", what effect would that have?
Last night was the British Science Association dinner and they were kindly giving me a certificate for making jokes about Charles Darwin and the Large Hadron Collider.
Everyone who took to the stage at the British Science Festival dinner seemed to declare their impostor syndrome one way or another, so when it got to my turn, I didn’t bother. Hopefully I have openly declared my ignorance for long enough though no one could believe I was there under false pretences.
Earlier in the day, I had been interviewing Alice Roberts, and her eyes had widened and mouth lifted into a shape of mockery and outrage when I said that I had no science qualifications.
I never promise to impart knowledge, and I would soon flame war my eyebrows if I returned to a bunsen burner, or haphazardly gunk up an accelerator with a clumsily dropped bagel if asked to help out at CERN.
I am an idiot and an enthusiast, a potent combination of ‘skills’ that has somehow turned into a career. Twelve times a year, my job is to put the brakes on Brian Cox, “I think you might have lost some of the people at quantum entanglement”.
He looks quizzical, “surely everyone is running at the same speed as me with non localities and hidden variables”, he thinks, “but I’ll explain more for the benefit of this idiot on my right.”
I try to ensure that no one trusts my opinion, and if they do find something interesting in what I’ve said about the occipital lobe or Schrodinger’s flamboyant trousers, they seek some source material afterwards. I am a reader, an echo of more interesting people.
I know most of my limitations, that includes rock climbing and knitting.
(it is around here that this post could go off on a tangent about the importance of teaching critical thinking in schools, colleges and pubs)
I have to be alert that I will be drawn to ideas that please me and confirm the worldview that I hope is true. Our critical thinking pales every time we find out we are wrong.
When I was drawn back towards science, initially via sceptical examinations of pseudoscience, I started to become suspicious of books offering a view of the world without offering me footnotes and references that would allow the inquisitive me to at least know there was a place I could go and check their statistics or slurs if I wanted to.
“As we all know”
“As has been often chronicled”
“It is truth universally acknowledged”
I am sure it is, but for the benefit of someone who hasn’t been paying attention enough, can you show me where you found this incendiary/startling/disconcerting statistic or anecdote?
(This is why you just can’t trust me, I don’t think I can always show my working out).
Before the start of this year British Science Fair, the new president, Paul Nurse, bruised and horrified a few passers-by with language that made their eyes pop with indignation. Sir Paul asked scientists to be attentive to public figures who use inaccurate information or cherry pick data to make their points and support an ideological, political or financial standpoint. He urged the forming of relationships with those who may be misled or misleading so that they would feel ashamed to misuse scientific evidence. Should these people continue to ignore the science and misuse what there was for their own ends, and here is where the pugilistic words entered the arena, they should be “crushed and buried”.
Some seemed quick to misunderstand the point (or at least the point as I see it. I hope I haven’t misunderstood too, but I did start this post flaunting my shortcomings).
This is not a call to treat science as dogma, there can be only one truth, but to say that if you wish to abuse the science, you need to have evidence for it, and if that evidence doesn’t pass muster, then this might involve the uncomfortable, sometimes tortuous, manoeuvre of changing your position.
Is it censorship to combat misinformation?
I am often wrong, and the older I have become, the easier I find it to be told, “you’ve not understood this theory, law or concept”. At the time, this is not a happy occasion, my stomach is less knotted during the correction, and afterwards I am relieved that I will no longer be piggybacking on the shoulders of the giant that turned out to be a teetering man on stilts. If I was peddling bad science, and I have, I would want someone to approach me and tell me I may be considered to be entering an arena of nincompoopery. It is quite a regular occurrence at my gigs, and I thank all those who have approached me after gigs to update me or challenge me, though please bring references too, so I can check the footnotes of your conversations.
In The Lightness of Being by Frank Wilczek, he writes of how “discoveries of Newton, Maxwell, and many other brilliant people greatly expanded human imagination”. Those who are prepared to peddle falsehoods or misunderstandings, and maintain their cocksure stance whatever the better information they face, help stagnate and congeal that human imagination. Whether the trite anti-evolutionary arguments of “how can there still be monkeys if we come from monkeys” and “how come the eye just appeared?” or matters that concern our life and existence – from vaccination to climate change – the human imagination is strengthened and broadened by deeper understandings of science and evidence, rather than propaganda and shift media sidesteps to secure narcissistic ideologies and bankrupt wishes.
Well, that’s what I think, but beware my paucity of footnotes and lack of appendices.
I will be corrected in bars across the UK, Ireland, Norway (and eventually US and Australia) over the coming months – from Manchester to Belfast, Nottingham to Goole, Leicester to Aldershot, and on and on. Dates HERE
The latest, and lengthiest, DVD is HERE
I am home today but tomorrow morning I set out again for the third and final leg of my Lock In book tour, which will take me to Brookline, Massachusetts; Concord, New Hampshire; Saratoga Springs, New York; Brookyn and Philadelphia. When all is said and done, this tour will have had over two dozen events on it, and I will have seen and signed books for, conservatively, about two and a half thousand people.
When I’m out and about and recount my tour adventures to people (I can reel off my itinerary just about in my sleep at this point), the question often arises about whether all this touring is actually still useful and/or desirable in an age where so many people get their books electronically, and when one (or at least, one like me) can show up to a comic con, at which between 20k and 50k people will show up in one place, where you also happen to be. In this context, book touring can at least initially seem like an anachronism, and of questionable value.
Here’s why it’s not questionable, at least for someone like me (and I will explain what “someone like me” means in a bit — stay tuned). In no particular order:
1. Because print books still matter. Chest-thumping about the digital revolution aside, print books are still 70% of the market in a general sense. I personally sell more electronically than in print, but my print sales are still substantial and I’m not inclined to ignore them. Book tours take me to places where those print books are sold, especially at the beginning of the book’s sales cycle. Showing up can make a difference.
2. Because it pumps up best seller list appearances. Lots of tours (including mine) include stops to bookstores that report to Bookscan, the New York Times, and to local and specialty newspapers and magazines, all of whom collate that information and offer up best seller lists. Best seller lists matter because it’s free advertising in newspapers and online, because bookstores (including Barnes & Noble, the largest book chain in the US) put best selling books front of store, making your work easier for people to find — especially if you’re in genre, because sometimes people won’t intentionally wander over to the genre racks — and because it becomes a useful tool in marketing. When you can claim you are a bestseller, it assures someone who has never read you before that they aren’t wrong for giving you a try; after all, lots of other people agree with their decision.
3. Because it helps to support bookstores, and not just in the sense of selling a whole bunch of books to people at the event to see me, although that doesn’t hurt. It also reconnects people to the fact that there is a bookstore in their city, gives them an opportunity to walk the aisles and look at the wares, and gives the bookstore a chance to make the argument to these folks that shopping at the store is still a great way to buy books and a great way to support local business. Helping keep bookstores in business and front of mind to locals is in my long-term best interest, because, again, print isn’t going away anytime soon… unless the bookstores go away.
4. Because it can generate local and national attention. Aside from best seller lists (which generally happen after the fact), local press often run interviews and features — or even just appearance listings — prior to an event, which can help draw people in to the local bookstore, and which can help my publicist capture the interest of reporters and media outlets further down the line on the tour. Simply just showing up can make the difference in whether there’s a review or feature. And again, people may snark about newspapers/magazines being in decline, but know this: Those newspapers and magazines still go out to tens and hundreds of thousands of people. You can still get a lot of attention from and awareness out of them.
5. Because it develops relationships between you and book sellers. If I come into a bookstore, fill it with dozens of people, all of whom buy books, talk up the book seller to my audience, and show appreciation for and respect to the book seller for having my event at their store, you know what? Weeks and months later, long after I’m gone, that book seller is still likely to be recommending and hand selling me and my books to customers who come into the store — and ordering my books, both in back list and when the new books come out. This matters quite a lot because, again, print isn’t dead, and people are people; they remember the people who have helped them out and have been on their side.
(The flip side of this is that if you come in to a bookstore, act like a jerk and give a disappointing appearance for the people who have come to see you, the book seller is going to remember that, too. So, you know. You try not to do that.)
6. Because not everyone who comes to your book tour is going to come to a comic con or other convention. Note that I don’t think these things are either/or — you can do book tours and appearances at large general events, like comic cons, book fairs and other such things. I mean, I do — I do several conventions and book fairs a year. But anecdotally, there’s a large number of people who show up to my bookstore events who aren’t going to go to something like a comic con. Some of them are people who do not see themselves as “geeks” — i.e., people whose idea of fun encompasses spending a day (or three) in a convention center among tens of thousands of other people. Some people hate large crowds and prefer an opportunity to see you in a more intimate setting. Some people have never heard of you before and found out about you through a book seller flyer or email, or a newspaper write-up. Some people just happen to be in the store when you start doing your thing. And so on. Limiting one’s self to one sort of appearance limits you to the sort of person who will come to that sort of appearance — limits your potential audience, in other words. I’m not sure why I would want to do that.
7. Because people want their moment with you. The number of people who have a book signed specifically to have a signed book is actually pretty small. The majority of the people who are getting a book signed are getting a book signed so they get a little time with you — to talk to you about the book, to get a picture, to share a thought or otherwise spend just a moment with someone whose work they like and who they might even admire in some way. A book tour is a good way to have those moments, and those moments matter — it can mean the difference between someone being a casual fan, and someone being a lifelong reader of your work (and being someone who recommends that work to others).
And yes, this is a very hands-on, time-intensive, retail way of doing things, but again, it’s not just about the moment, it’s about what happens after the moment — the knock-on effects of that moment, over days and weeks and months and years. Looked upon that way, it’s not a bad time investment.
(And once again, it can work the other way, too — if you blow that moment with someone, they’re going to remember that. You have to be fully engaged in the moment, and you have to make sure the person you’re having the moment with knows you are actually happy to be sharing it with them.)
8. Because it’s fun, even as it is a lot of work. I mean, come on. I get to go around the US and meet people who are fantastically happy to see me, perform for them for an hour with the reading and Q&A, and then spend a moment with them as I sign their books and/or take a photo with them. It’s a lot of travel and a lot of work being “on” the whole time, but it’s not hard, and there is, bluntly, a lot of ego gratification, which doesn’t suck, either. People geek out about meeting me. That’s weird. And delightful! But weird. I like it, and I like that every day that I am out of tour, I get concrete evidence that people enjoy what I do. It’s a nice life, you know?
There are other reasons to tour, including some that are very inside pool for publishing and book selling, but you get the idea.
Now, it’s important to note a couple of things here. The first is that in general I get toured a lot more, and a lot longer, than most authors; I’ve toured for five out of my last six books and I’ve toured for no less than two and a half weeks each time. That’s a lot, especially when you consider that I publish new books more or less annually. I am also someone who sells a lot generally and is well-along in his career; my position and perspective are different than many authors.
It’s also important to note that by and large the benefits of touring are not short term; at the end of my tour, Tor, my publisher, will just barely zero out the cost of putting me on tour, or will either eke out a tiny profit or suffer a tiny loss. This is all about the long-term benefits: To me, to them, to booksellers, and to the relationships between all of us and the folks who read my work. In the short term, the book tour benefits might seem iffy. In the long term, however, it is totally worth it.
So, again, for me, touring makes sense, and will probably continue to make sense, for a long time to come. I expect I’m not the only author for whom this is the case.
(Comments are on for a couple of days.)
Since this will probably be the last post for a while, permit me a little off-topic indulgence. This probably has way more personal history than you wanted.
I’ve been trying to work out what has been stressing me these last, ooh, 25 years and how to adjust my life accordingly. I don’t want stress, if possible. There have been obvious triggers: for years, staring at financial markets and trying to will them in the right direction, against a backdrop of telephones continuously ringing; the arrival of three children, neatly timed so that no sooner had one dropped the nappies than another arrived; doing an MBA while working; one Monday morning becoming a Special Adviser to a Coalition government that I had never imagined, and for the politician I most admired. All of these could keep a good psychotherapist busy.
But a constant thread that laces through all these eras is a pressing need to have read what I thought needed reading. I cannot actually recall a time when a nagging sense of not having read enough didn’t weigh on me. Back in the 1990s the pleasure of visiting a bookshop was always interwoven with a gnawing sense of guilt and negligence on my part, at all the unread pages around me. This was compounded by the typical style of a normal book review, which in praising or condemning its subject would usually make reference to half a dozen other authors or works. The Sunday Times Review section became a risk, adding piles to the mental “to read” list.
I sometimes wonder if my first attempted career (books) was a straight consequence of this neurosis. I worked unpaid at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature (convinced I had to read that year’s Booker list, I failed); and then trotted off to an anonymous corner of the Home Counties to edit encyclopaedias for a year (this was not a dream come true). And read. Through the simple device of having not enough money for much else, and existing in a pre-Internet fog of Ceefax-level information, I read like never before. I bought Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, and chewed through a lot of it. Just from memory I recall reading …
… Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, Madame Bovary, Dubliners, Ulysses, Portrait of the Artist, Byron’s Don Juan, Mansfield Park, Bleak House, Dante Inferno, all of Don Quixote, several of the Rabbit novels, Anna Karenina, half the Canterbury Tales, the first three books of Proust, a fair amount of Montaigne, Vanity Fair, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Shakespeare’s History Plays, Crime and Punishment, the Brothers Karazamov …
and these are just the ones I have a distinct sense impression of reading. There was far more. So often, when I try to remember when I read a book, it was in that year.
Yet, it is a pretty thin list. Far too little real history, which came much later. Not much American literature, North or South, nothing from Germany, the usual 19th Century bias. And then life got busy, and the Internet got invented, and wandering into a Borders-side cafe with a bag of new books no longer seemed the greatest luxury but an avoidance of more urgent things.
But the neurosis didn’t dissipate, it merely shifted. Study threw in a whole basket of economics, politics business and history tomes. The Web played a multiple role: flagging more “must reads” (all those guilty purchases of Piketty!); adding high velocity, high quality commentary and endless news sites to the list; and drawing attention to geniuses like Tyler Cowen whose “What I’ve been Reading” posts read like an unsubtle dig at the mortals around us not able to chomp through 20,000 pages of social or economic analysis a month. The Economics and Politics categories of my Feedly add about 100 per day, and only a minority are garbage. Now I tend to have 2-3 books on the go at once, usually a novel, biography, history sort of combo, each one fleetingly visited and barely attended to before the eyelids droop, and the Internet fills up the list overnight.
Enough. Something is clearly broken – the info-surge rather than filling the likes of me with enlightenment instead spreads an even more crushing sense of ignorance. Men are natural “completists”, but reading is a task that can never be completed. Our forebears seem to have understood something we cannot any more – the idea of a still, unmovable canon. Read Patrick Lee Fermour’s A Time of Gifts and you witness a supposedly indifferent student supposedly able to amuse himself by reciting great chunks of Horace and Shakespeare from memory as he trudged across central Europe. How? How did all these fantastic Shakespearean phrases get into the language? People from before knew how to limit their reading, and then focus. It doesn’t seem possible any more.
So, stuttering to an end, I am simply curious: does anyone know of a reliable way out of this trap? Is there a good lasting delineation between Must Read and the rest? I have only a few crude methods of self-medication:
- - Distrust anyone describing anything as “Must Read”, particularly on Twitter
- - If a new novel really is a classic, it will be more apparent in a couple of years. Wait.
- - Delegate: for topics that you are really comfortable with, the brilliant reviews will cover a lot of ground. The ten or so Piketty reviews have saved me weeks, and added real analysis
But perhaps the best self-medication is to take more pleasure in being ignorant. After all, it leads to a better conversation.
- On that topic, I am going to be off for a while to be with more terrifyingly well read people. The Financial Times has hired me for some months on a Fellowship. Sorry this is abrupt.
John McPhee is one of America's great writers, a master of “creative non-fiction” whose eye has fallen on subjects as diverse as tennis (1969's Levels of the Game), citrus farming (1967's Oranges) and the chimera of commercial lighter than air vehicles (1973's The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed). In 1974's The Curve of Binding Energy, McPhee turned his attention to nuclear terrorism as seen from the point of view of Ted Taylor, a talented nuclear weapons designer.( Read more... )
Sunday Funny: SMF (via SMBC)
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The Woman Who Saved Shakespeare and Helped Win Two Wars: Cryptanalyst Elizebeth Friedman (Women In Science 20)
Dale investigates the history of cryptoanalyst Elizebeth Friedman: “When World War I came to the United States, the armed forces simply did not know how to deal with the creation of effective codes, or the deciphering of enemy transmissions, and so took the unprecedented step of handing over sensitive cryptographic work to a civilian married couple who were at the time working at a farcical utopian intellectual community run by an eccentric millionaire. And thus begins the tale of American cryptography…”
Hobby? Craft? Survey!
Kim discusses the potentially gendered connotations of Hobbies vs. Crafting: “My first instinct was that hobbies are masculine and crafting is feminine. Crafting is things like: paper *crafting*, sewing, crochet, locker hooking, scrapbooking, knitting, and rug making. Hobbies are things like remote controlled airplanes, woodworking, and building models. These break down clearly along stereotypical gender interests. What do you think about hobbies versus crafting?”
NOVA Vaccines – Calling the Shots Review
Katie reviews the new vaccine documentary, Calling the Shots: “As skeptics, we know the importance of continuing to beat this dead horse of a subject [vaccines]. It’s one of the most important from a public health standpoint, and one of the most frustrating and infuriating on a personal level. We understand the facts about vaccination, what’s more important is how messaging should reach vulnerable populations.”
Coming Out Stories: The Long Ride Home
Vince shares his coming out story.
The Horror of Math
Jodee wonders why so many people shut down the moment they come face to face with a little math.
Is There a Difference Between Teaching and Having an Impact?
As much as the lecture method has come under fire in recent years, Peter still thinks it has a unique ability to be inspirational.
Scottish Independence Part 3: Interview With A Pro-Union Scientist
The Scottish referendum is nearly upon us! Alasdair continues his series on the topic.
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Featured image credit: K.R. via Flickr
- Disney has gone with Tinker = Engineer and Tinker Bell is the best most amazing engineer that the fairies have ever known.
- Not all the fairies are white! (though they are of course all slender and beautiful).
- Most of the main characters are female.
- Which means there are multiple different female characters who are allowed to be different rather than a single Strong Female Character.
- And the characterisation is consistent across films and the plotting is generally fun, if a bit predictable.
I find it amusing that the films generally fail the reverse Bechdel test i.e. the few token boy fairies rarely talk to each other and if they do, it is usually about Tinker Bell. This film actually passes because of conversation between the pirates (all male) but I was amused that the six girl fairies went off to have adventures and left a token boy fairy to look after everyone at home.
Sorry most of the posts the last few days have been rather thin — I’ve had bad RSI and am trying not to hurt my hands too much. I’ll write more proper posts next week — my hands are improving — but for now you get links.
Even P.Z. Myers is sick of Dawkins’ bigoted rants now. I feel quite weird now that disliking Dawkins is so cool — I’m so rarely on the popular side of an argument.
The City Centred campaign (the Mayor of London, London Councils and the Core Cities Group of Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield ) has called for the devolution of five property taxes to England’s cities – council tax, business rates, stamp duty, annual tax on enveloped dwellings and capital gains property development tax.
It’s an idea that Liberal Democrats such as Caroline Pidgeon on the Greater London Authority have backed as it fits well with Liberal Democrat beliefs in shifting more power downwards, away from Whitehall. Devolving taxes like these will also enhance local government’s ability to plan long term, rather than being subject to the annual whims of spending rounds (and it’s notable how much better Transport for London’s long-term planning has become since its finances moved away from that dependency, even though the New Labour method for doing this was horribly flawed in enough ways to fill a book).
I also like the devolution of property taxes specifically as at the local level there is often untapped potential to invest in improving communities in return for future streams of higher property taxes, something that the Lib Dems have encouraged via various devolution agreements during this Parliament. Good progress so far but an lot more can still be done.
Given the genesis of the group, they’ve obviously focused on cities in their proposals, but there’s no inherent reason to do so – and given the Liberal Democrat belief in general devolution, it strikes me that this makes for a good policy to apply to all councils, core cities or not.
It also is another way of tackling the problem with the Liberal Democrat pre-manifesto’s approach to local government, with its omission of a good simple headline policy as I talked about in We should double local government’s share of public spending:
So far the party’s policy development for the 2015 general election manifesto has been notable for financial commitments being made for everything but local government. That leaves less and less room for anything good to be done about local government.
It’s no coincidence that in the manifesto policy process, local government’s voice has been rather muted, so far. Kirsty Williams and the Welsh Liberal Democrats, by contrast, have worked the manifesto process skillfully and with great success to secure their policy priorities.
Being a member of the Federal Policy Committee, one notable difference I have seen between her approach and that of the local government lobby has been the nature of her demands – very specific, such as wanting tolls abolished on the Severn Bridge, rather than aspirational but vague, such as wanting a major rethinking of our approach to local government.
I suspect too that if the party committed to devolving these property taxes to local government, it would make for a more effective headline local government headline policy than my initial suggestion in that post and would usefully toughen up the ideas currently in the pre-manifesto document in this area which are worthy but limited in detail and ambition:
- Build on the success of City Deals and Growth Deals, to devolve more power and resources to groups of local authorities and local
enterprise partnerships, starting with back to work support.
- Introduce ‘Devolution on Demand’, enabling even greater devolution of powers from Westminster to councils or groups of councils
working together (for example to a Cornish Assembly).
- Establish a commission to explore the scope for greater devolution of financial responsibility to English local authorities, and new
devolved bodies in England.
Time perhaps for a conference amendment… What do you think?
Here’s a blog from my recent visit to South Sudan, also available on the Huffington Post.
While the eyes of the world rightly look towards global crises in Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Ukraine and West Africa, there is a serious and worsening humanitarian disaster almost going unnoticed in South Sudan.
It is deeply saddening to see a country that was once so full of hope for the future, now embroiled in such a painful and destructive war with itself. When I first visited South Sudan less than two years ago I was struck by the optimism and hope that filled the air but today it is an entirely different story.
Since December violence has spread through the country forcing 1.7million people to flee their homes. The conflict between the Government and Opposition party supporters has created in its wake one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Some 400,000 people are now refugees in neighbouring countries, numbers the UN expects to double by December.
And yet the situation could get worse as the threat of famine looms large. This year’s planting season has been neglected by people fleeing their home to escape the violence and aid agencies have warned of the risk of food shortage. Already people are dying from food insecurity and the UN predicts that some 50,000 children could die of malnutrition before the year is out, even before famine is formally declared.
It is an increasingly desperate situation and last week I visited South Sudan to see for myself just how severe it is. It is clear that even now there are already chronic food shortages. At an International Rescue Committee nutrition centre in Ganyliel Town, I saw many children suffering from malnourishment. I met a young mother whose infant child was severely under-nourished and had severe medical problems. Her struggle to feed her child with the limited supply of food available to her was deeply moving.
The UK has contributed £125million to help those caught-up in this crisis. This includes £30 million I announced during my visit for refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries. This will help deliver food, shelter, basic hygiene needs, safe water, immunisation and essential supplies such as mosquito nets, kitchen sets and fuel. But the UN’s Crisis Response Plan remains under-funded, and we desperately need other donors to contribute more too.
The truly appalling tragedy about this crisis is that it is wholly man-made. Ultimately aid cannot fix the problem, only help deal with the consequences. South Sudan’s leaders must accept full responsibility for starting the conflict and now must work to end it. Politicians need to honour the agreements they have already made, but ignored, to stop the fighting. These were the messages I delivered to the South Sudanese Government during my visit, and which they and leaders of the armed opposition need to hear loud and clear from us all.
There are two different parts to the role of Party President – a public cheerleader for the party, epitomised by the number of TV invitations a President usually gets, and an internal management one, epitomised by the fact that they chair the party’s Federal Executive.
It’s up to the candidates – and ultimately the voters – to decide how much importance to attach to the two roles, but my own view is very much influenced by the history of the party having had several Presidents who paid far too little attention to the internal party management role, with result costs to the party’s state of organisation and efficiency, but I can’t think of one who could be fairly criticised for giving that part of the role too much attention.
That’s why in my coverage of the race to succeed Tim Farron, I’ve kept on returning to the question of what the candidates are saying about internal party management matters – and why they should be filling out in greater detail their rather similar overall aspirations. Hopefully, an open four-way contest will encourage the candidates to do just that.
To encourage that, and also to encourage more debate about these matters within the party, I’m running a series of posts from one of the candidates, Linda Jack, setting our her ideas in more detail. Publishing them doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with all their contents, and I’ll be offering a similar opportunity to the other candidates.
But I hope that running the posts will help ensure we get a contest in which the key internal-facing part of the job gets fully debated and as a result whoever wins enters office having had their plans sharpened, filled out and prioritised thanks to the pressures of the contest.
With that, here is Linda’s first post, setting out the four problems she wants to fix.
Linda Jack: Restore, Renew, Respect – Vision into Action
Since announcing my intention to stand for President, the conversations that I have had with members across the country have strengthened my belief in our party’s need to face some hard truths, the most important one being the necessity to rebuild and reconnect. Whoever wins will need to be one of the leading ‘rebuilders’, taking responsibility for internal party issues – structure and systems – and for reconnecting us with the general public.
Our experience in coalition has shone an uncomfortable spotlight on some of the weaknesses in our internal structures and processes; our policymaking systems, and in the way we develop and support the party membership.
I am committed to lead a consensus-building programme, based upon a set of specific reform proposals. We need to create better ‘connection’ between party leaders and our activists and members more generally, ensuring that the sovereignty of the membership is paramount. I am standing on a mandate for change, and in return I will consult widely on reform specifics.
My starting point is our ambition to create a freer, fairer society in which no one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity – the bedrock of our constitution. We must never lose sight of the fact that no other political party in the UK offers a clearer vision of a society where freedom, fairness and equality go hand in hand, or which challenges an overbearing state while seeking to protect the most vulnerable.
I believe fundamentally that our strength nationally is dependent on our strength locally, embodied by the day-to-day campaigning and representation delivered by party members in communities across the breadth and width of the UK. I know that our members have great and practical ideas about how we can reform the party, as well as direct experience of the effect of government policy in practice. We need to bring these ideas and experiences together, and put them to better use. If you chose me I will be that conduit, bringing the voices of the membership directly and powerfully to the leadership.
This is the first of a series of articles, in which I will set out my reform proposals in more detail, but for the moment I would like to highlight the four problems that I will address.
The first is our structures and systems. We have too many overlapping and often unclear organisations and committees. Governance is cumbersome, and only a handful know all the constitutional and additional bodies, and their functions.
Even as a local councillor, I was largely oblivious to the national workings of the party, which only became clearer when I became involved at the national level. There is a perception common to many members of a closed and cliquish culture at our centre, supported by more than just a little bit of ‘self-perpetuation’.
I think this is unpalatable, and unsustainable, and I propose to address both the reality and the perception with a range of measures, including term limits, wider electorates, and more creative use of technology, so that participation is not restricted to those living in the South East of England, or with the time and money to make long journeys to London.
Second are our policy processes. I am proud of our positive vision which has the capacity to meet the huge social challenges of the 21st century. However I believe that we need to do more to realise that vision. Too often we have fudged the relationship between democratic and representative policymaking (for instance, via the use of Conference Motions), the role of specialist expertise, and the need for judgement by elected representatives and the leadership as new issues arise.
I am not proposing that we have constrain our MPs, but I do want to ensure that conference motions are accorded the importance they deserve and demand as being the considered view of the party.
My third concern is about our misunderstanding of the role of central bodies and HQ, in relation to our constituencies. I believe that we need to change the relationship to make it much more one of equals, instead of the current ‘arms-length’ management relationship.
We need the party’s central structures to take a more ‘problem-solving’ and mediating role, supporting the development of each local party’s councillors and PPCs, offering real investment in community politics for the 21st century and utilising the talents of all our members.
The final challenge is perhaps the most vital as we head into the general election, the way we communicate with each other and the public. I am proposing changes to both our internal and external party communications. For many members ‘feedback’ is tokenistic and a tad patronising. I believe that our party-specific messaging needs to be much better connected to the leadership, and our fundraising communications need to be better coordinated, and less frequent.
I hope you will find my ideas interesting, and invite you engage with them in more detail over the coming days. And most importantly, I encourage you to correspond with me, to let me know your thoughts, concerns, and suggestion, because fundamental to my political mission is my belief in our members, and the importance and value of your insights and expertise.
These ideas are a starting, not a finishing point – they are intended to open up the debate and draw on our collective talent and ideas. Together we can restore our party’s fortunes and offer real and tangible hope for the future of this country, a stronger economy and a fairer society yes, but also a stronger society and a fairer economy – with no one left behind.
One of the more snigger worthy aspects of the case being promoted for Scottish independence is that the country would be able to establish a sovereign oil wealth fund, along the lines of Norway, and thus wax fat and rich off into the future. My own political prejudices are that I’m overjoyed at any argument at all that makes it more likely that there will be a yes vote: but this particular reason simply doesn’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. It doesn’t stand up for two reasons, one theoretical the other a matter of simple accounting.
We’ve Sir Ian Wood insisting that it would be very difficult of Scotland to have such a fund:
North-east oil services tycoon Sir Ian Wood has claimed it would be “extraordinarily difficult” to establish an oil fund in an independent Scotland.
The Aberdeen-based industry expert yesterday said it was not possible to squirrel away money while spending it on public services at the same time.
I would upgrade that extraordinarily difficult to impossible myself. For you only get to use the one lot of money once. Yes, even the miracle of the Keynesian multiplier doesn’t actually let you use the same pile of cash twice. So, if you’re using (as the Scottish and British governments are and have been all along) the resource rents and profits from the existence of North Sea oil to pay for social security spending, or lower than otherwise would be the case tax rates, then you cannot at the same time be putting that cash into a wealth fund. This is just a matter of simple accounting. And no, no one does believe that a newly independent Scotland will be willing to either raise taxes in that country, or cut current services, so as to be able to sock that oil revenue away for future generations. It’s simply not going to happen.
The second problem is a more theoretical one. The Norwegians didn’t have a wealth fund in order to make life easy for the future. They actually had it so as to avoid Dutch Disease. When Holland found vast gas reserves back in the 50s it found that exporting all that energy meant vast piles of loot entering the country. This is great: until you note that your exchange rate is therefore spiraling ever upwards. This makes imports cheap, exports expensive and you find, at the extreme, that you’ve no economy left other than the extraction of that natural resource: plus a whole series of import agents. To avoid this you’ve got to stop that money entering the domestic economy: and that’s what the Norwegians have done. The whole point of the wealth fund is that none of it, not a penny (perhaps a little bit of the returns from it) is allowed to enter the Norwegian economy. It’s not in krone, it’s not spent in Norway, it’s not invested in Norwegian industry, it’s not spent on social services either. It’s all invested in other currencies and in other countries. This avoids killing off the rest of the Norwegian economy.
Arguably this is what Venezuela should have done as well: there’s a good argument that over and above the Chavista idiot socialism the country is suffering badly from Dutch Disease. But of course doing so wouldn’t get a left-leaning government elected who promised to spend the oil wealth on improving the lives of the poor.
And that’s where the other of Scotland’s problems would lie. No one at all is suggesting a wealth fund that would go invest in England, or France. But that’s what would have to be done to mimic Norway: they’re all in fact arguing that a wealth fund should invest in Scottish industry. Exactly what is not the point of having one.
There is of course one final complication. Scotland has asserted that it would retain the pound sterling. Meaning that it wouldn’t actually be possible for them to suffer from Dutch Disease anyway as the foreign exchange value of their currency will be set by the vastly larger rUK economy, not whatever is happening with oil up north.
So Scotland can’t suffer from the original problem that leads to a wealth fund, they wouldn’t invest in in foreign parts either, and they can’t actually build one while they spend that oil money on current pleasures anyway. I’d say it’s a lot more than difficult, it’s impossible that Scotland will have an oil wealth fund.
George Osborne has announced that the UK is to be the first Western, or non-China, state to issue a renminbi bond. This is part and parcel of his design to make the City of London the pre-eminent offshore trading center for the currency as the restrictions on non-domestic use are gradually weakened. The bond won’t be all that large in the scheme of such things, around 2 Billion RMB is the general consensus. It’s also tiny as compared to the government’s overall borrowing of near £130 billion a year at present. However, it will help to develop the market:
The UK will become the first western country to issue a government bond denominated in Chinese currency, in a move touted by Britain’s Treasury as a sign of the two countries’ deepening ties.
The renminbi bond will be used to add to Britain’s foreign currency reserves, which hitherto did not contain Chinese currency, said George Osborne, the chancellor, at a press conference following meetings with Ma Kai, China’s vice-premier.
This follows on from the launch of the first “sukuk” (ie, conforming to Islamic principles on no interest but payments from profit participation instead) bond back in the summer.
The basic thought here is that in order to construct a viable bond market you want to have some sovereign issues in that currency or of that structure to act as the risk free benchmark for other issuers. It would be entirely possible for a corporate to issue renminbi bonds in London. It’s just that no one would really have any idea how to price it: there would be no comparators. Thus such borrowing would be very expensive: uncertainty over price in financial markets tends to make the price rather high.
So issue sovereign bonds and that issue or issues can act as that pricing benchmark. If, say, IBM is normally priced at 300 basis points over sovereign (that’s just an example, not an actual price. In some places and at some times IBM has been inside sovereign prices) and we’ve got a sovereign bond in that currency then we know how to price an IBM bond.
The other question is, well, what on earth is the British Government going to do with 2 billion RMB? They’ve said that it will be added to the country’s foreign exchange reserves. In much the same way that previous borrowings in dollars have been (as an aside I worked, in a very minor manner, on the first UK sovereign borrowing in dollars. Nothing fancy in my role, I was the accounting clerk adding up the expenses as a student intern). For large amounts of such foreign currency, say for a currency intervention to stabilise the FX rate or something, central banks can and do make arrangements to swap large amounts of their respective currencies. But it’s always nice to have smaller amounts immediately to hand.
This isn’t, this renminbi deal, a huge development as far as the financial markets are concerned. Once launched the bond is likely to do not very much and to sit in quiet corners of investment accounts for years on end. The import of the story is really the intent that it shows: that London aims to become, and the government intends to aid it to become, the major offshore centre for the trading of renminbi and for the offshore issuance of bonds in that currency. Just as it was and remains for the issuance of offshore dollar bonds and the Eurobond market as a whole (which is now slightly misnamed as it’s not limited to Europe at all).
That Wings over Scotland post from June is still the most read. Although given that Yes stalls were openly handing out Wings’ Wee Blue Book yesterday, they are clearly working together.
Blast from the past: Wisdom from the old Liberal Party (95 comments) by Seth Thevoz
David Rendel selected as Lib Dem PPC for Someton and Frome (10 comments) by Stephen Tall
Opinion: I’ve changed my mind on Scottish independence (45 comments) by Ian MacFadyen
‘Yes Scotland’ takes first poll lead of campaign. Peaked too soon or Big Mo timed just right? (39 comments) by Stephen Tall
Lib Dem pre-manifesto launched: includes policies to reform drugs laws and bus pass discount for under-21s (32 comments) by Stephen Tall
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* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings
You’ve got to be careful making presumptions about voters
Given the polls there are three things that YES/Salmond have to do: Ensure there’s a maximum turnout amongst those currently saying YES; try to win over some switchers, and endeavour to ensure lower turnout levels amongst those inclined to NO.
It is that last category, I’d suggest, that are most important which is why YES/Salmond have to ensure that what they do doesn’t galvanise those who are against change.
I’m far from sure that his approach on this morning’s TV show has got this right. Making the presumptions he did and expressing them in such a dismissive manner could be impeding his overall objective.
His hubris reminds me of claims ahead of the 2012 Scottish local elections. They’d swept to power at Holyrood with an overall majority the year before and Salmond and team repeatedly trumpeted that they were about to win full control of Glasgow. What happened? Labour returned to power with an overall majority and a night that should have been seen as an SNP success looked like failure.