Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cause and effect

The appointment of Seumas Milne as Labour's director of strategy and communications has certainly stirred things up, pitching some Labour people into despair. They have a point. But this isn't why I am posting. Instead, I am interested in the way extracts from an article on the murder of Lee Rigby have been used. Milne's critics all quote this line.
Rigby was a British soldier who had taken part in multiple combat operations in Afghanistan. So the attack wasn't terrorism in the normal sense of an indiscriminate attack on civilians.
At this point, in pour in his defenders, including Owen Jones on Twitter. They point out that Milne followed this up by writing,
The killing of an unarmed man far from the conflict, however, by self-appointed individuals with non-violent political alternatives, isn't condoned by any significant political or religious tradition.
 And so the criticism is deemed to be unfair. Milne is not defending the crime.

The problem is that both sides, in trying to score partisan points, are missing the point of the article. Of course Milne condemns the murder. The worse the crime, the stronger his argument is. He was not defending it as being justified, instead he was arguing about what caused it.

These articles are all the same. They are written to a formula and are utterly tedious. You know exactly what they are going to say. There is always a disclaimer - 'this act was horrible, terrible, unconscionable, can't be condoned etc, etc.' This is then followed by an explanation of why this horrible act is really the fault of anyone other than the people who committed it or the ideas that animated them. In this case it is all the result of the wars waged by the West "in the Muslim world." 
To say these attacks are about "foreign policy" prettifies the reality. They are the predicted consequence of an avalanche of violence unleashed by the US, Britain and others ... 
And then off we go into a furious rant directed against the political elites, while the barbaric nature of the murder is taken to show how evil our governments must be to have provoked it. 

This is what you find in all articles of this type. They aren't always about blaming the victims, they are about making the perpetrators into victims. It is the playground excuse, 'they made me do it.' And of course that means ignoring a fascistic, theocratic ideology whose adherents inflict horrible death on their opponents. After all, look at the grim casualty statistics during the period known as the war on terror. The vast majority of civilians who have been killed or maimed have met their fate at the hands of these far right Islamist movements, and most have been Muslims.

This is old ground. But going back over it again makes me even more concerned that a formulaic writer from the Guardian, responsible for some dreadful and, at times, wilfully ignorant journalism pandering to the prejudices of the liberal middle classes, is the person who has been chosen to reconnect the Labour Party to its grass roots, and to reanimate its electoral support and media profile. I am not hopeful.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Bringing home the bacon

There has been a lot of fun poked at the World Health Organisation classifying bacon as carcinogenic. The Daily Mash was quickly in on it:
Following claims that bacon is ‘unhealthy’, angry mobs gathered outside clinics, laboratories and hospitals chanting ‘death to the men in white coats’ and ‘whoever defames the pig should be executed’.
Bill McKay, from Dorchester, said he would rather disembowel himself than live without bacon, the only meat to be approved by the Vegetarian Society.
He added: “We’ve taken a lot of shit from these people over the years. Perhaps the time has come to throw our health experts in jail.”
Rona Cameron, head of bacon sandwiches at the Vegetarian Society, said: “I love pigs, they’re intelligent and sensitive, but these so-called ‘experts’ are deranged, neo-Nazi perverts.”
Wayne Hayes, bacon director at the Bacon Institute, said: “Bacon transforms men into incredibly sensitive and generous lovers and guarantees women the longest and most intense orgasms imaginable.”
That smell of cooking bacon ... one of the most wonderful aromas in the world and something I miss when I'm in Greece. Almost the first thing I have when I get back is a bacon butty. That is why the killer bacon scare has so little traction and lots of ridicule. We certainly don't want it to be unhealthy, but it is more than wishful thinking. Our experience is telling us that there is something wrong with the whole idea. Our instinctive reaction highlights a serious issue, the problems with both the classification of risk and the reporting of research in the media.

This piece explains the classification issues well.
Here’s the thing: These classifications are based on strength of evidence not degree of risk.
Two risk factors could be slotted in the same category if one tripled the risk of cancer and the other increased it by a small fraction. They could also be classified similarly even if one causes many more types of cancers than the other, if it affects a greater swath of the population, and if it actually causes more cancers.
So these classifications are not meant to convey how dangerous something is, just how certain we are that something is dangerous.
But they’re presented with language that completely obfuscates that distinction.
The reporting follows this. It talks bluntly about a substance causing disease, yet rarely about it merely increasing the risk of that disease. When risk is mentioned it gives a percentage figure for the increase in that risk, but rarely says how great the original number was or what the increase is a percentage of. And for bacon, it is tiny, as Tom Chivers explains.
According to Cancer Research UK, 64 people out of every 100,000 can expect to develop colorectal cancer per year. Taken crudely, the IARC’s report suggests that eating 50g of bacon every day would raise your risk from 64 in 100,000 to 72 in 100,000, or from 0.064% to 0.072%. Over a lifetime, your risk is about 5%, according to the NHS; eating 50g of processed meat a day will raise that to about 6%.
 Smoking and bacon are lumped together, despite radically different health impacts.

There is a bigger problem here too. I remember teaching a third year group in social history and we were looking at health statistics on the home front in the First World War. When I asked the students, none had done statistics at any level, and nobody even knew the difference between causation and correlation. It goes much wider than statistics. Simple logical fallacies were foreign territory to many students, they fell for them all and repeated them with depressing regularity. I used to hammer away at the need to teach analytical thinking, simple logic, basic statistics and the like as an integral part of degrees. Although I taught one module on a degree in Hull that covered this ground, I was mainly ignored.

When I see the utter bollocks that is posted on social media, the distorted misattributed quotations stuck onto viral memes, and the blatant falsehoods that should be obvious to anyone who was aware of simple cognitive biases, I am more convinced than ever that the purpose of education is the one that Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner advocated in an old book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity.
Try this: in the early 1960’s, an interviewer was trying to get Ernest Hemingway to identify the characteristics required for a person to be a 'great writer'. As the interviewer offered a list of various possibilities, Hemmingway disparaged each in sequence. Finally, frustrated, the interviewer asked, 'Isn't then any one essential ingredient that you can identify?' Hemingway replied, ‘Yes, there is. In order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.' 

It seems to us that, in his response, Hemingway identified an essential survival strategy and the essential function of the schools in today's world. One way of looking at the history of the human group is that it has been a continuing struggle against the veneration of 'crap '. Our intellectual history is a chronicle of the anguish and suffering of men who tried to help their contemporaries see that some part of their fondest beliefs were misconceptions, faulty assumptions, superstitions and even outright lies. The mileposts along the road of our intellectual development signal those points at which some person developed a new perspective, a new meaning, or a new metaphor. We have in mind a new education that would set out to cultivate just such people - experts at 'crap detecting'.
And those skills have never been needed more.

In the meantime, carry on frying.

Thanks to Anthony for the links

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Depression part two

What can you say about Syria? It's a crime scene: a crime of both commission and neglect.

The commission is by the Assad regime and its gruesome allies. The neglect is by those who should have stood against it, but failed.

There are two positions that have informed this neglect. First, there is the persistent argument of anti-war activists from the 19th century onward that non-intervention is essential for peace and that military action can only exacerbate conflict, not resolve it. This presumption is shared on both the right and left. The second is the old 'realist' perspective that what matters is the interests of nation states. Combine the two, by seeing non-intervention as being in the national interest, and the result is paralysis.

And this is what we have at the present. Non-interventionism is resurgent. Alex Salmond gave a horrible, disingenuous speech in its support at the SNP conference. Labour's leadership is now ideologically committed to non-intervention. Appointing Seumas Milne to be director of communications and strategy compounds this with a heavy dose of apologism as a rationale for doing nothing. At the same time, realists are brushing off their 'Assad as a force for stability' routine, insisting that a murderous dictatorship is a regrettable necessity.

Inaction where action is possible leaves a vacuum. The assumption is that what will fill the gap will be relatively benign. This is not necessarily the case. I always felt that the decision not to take action against Assad after his use of sarin gas on civilians was one of the worst foreign policy mistakes so far this century. It signalled that, even in extreme cases of human rights violations, there was little chance of meaningful opposition. It was a green light. In Britain, it was Miliband that led the flight from action. Corbyn's leadership will only harden the position, though dissent is stirring in Labour's ranks.

Perhaps realists should be brushing off their old notions about world order and the balance of power, because serial abstentions from involvement is changing it, as this superb analysis by John Bew from September argues. And who knows where it is leading us. I am not optimistic, and in the meantime the humanitarian catastrophe gets worse.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Depression part one

The violence in Israel has sparked the usual depressing flood of memes on social media, accompanied by the standard opinion pieces and accusations of media bias. They all are the much the same, whichever side they come from. Either they are totally one-sided, in that they don't mention the actions of the other side at all, or they play a game of justification by saying that one side is solely reacting to the violence of the other. The first is obviously propaganda, whilst the second has the veneer of fair comment it ignores a crucial factor. It is not enough to say that any action is simply a reaction to another. The nature of the reaction is a choice. 

That choice has two dimensions. The moral one is most often commented on, but the other dimension is political. A pattern of co-ordinated violence is never arbitrary. It is not only chosen to intimidate its target, but to impress its own side and consolidate the power of its organisers. Violence is a tactic to counter the narrative of peace, which in this conflict means compromise, acceptance and mutual recognition. It is deliberate. It is the tactic of those who want to fight until they achieve whatever they deem to be a victory, to live in a bloody comfort zone of antagonism and hatred, rather than make the sacrifices and meet the profound challenges of finding an agreement.

I don't want to play these games of blame and recrimination. I want moral clarity and to stand for peace in desperate times.

Season's end

73,000 fans with all the noise and razzmatazz of the Grand Final marked the end of the season for club rugby league last Saturday. It was fitting that a close, dramatic game should end with Leeds completing the domestic treble. There is a test series against New Zealand still to come and I am really looking forward to my first visit to the Olympic Stadium in London for the second test, but it has been a momentous season as it saw the return of promotion and relegation to and from Super League. The result was that nobody was promoted and nobody relegated. That might seem odd, but with it all based on an extended play-off series, promotion from the championship has to be won on the pitch against the bottom Super League sides. The next step is clear. The failure of Championship sides to make it shows the need for strengthening that division and ensuring that any club that comes up has the strength to make a go of it. This will happen and the result will be thrilling and eclipse the dire stagnation of the franchising years. For all its cloth-cap, homespun image, rugby league is one of the most progressive and experimental sports. Let's hope this latest move persists and becomes the success it deserves to be.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Cutting justice

This report was on Channel Four News tonight.

It is a horrible case. Their child was taken away because of suspected abuse after the parents took it to hospital, worried about a health problem. It was put up for adoption against their will. A criminal case was brought and they were able to prove that the marks on their baby were symptoms of disease, not abuse, and were cleared. Not only were the couple wrongly accused of a crime, they were accused of a crime that never happened.

The criminal courts had done their job, but they will never get their child back, because the case in the family court had already taken place and their child had been adopted. The obvious question is why was that evidence not presented at the earlier hearing? The answer is money. They could not afford legal representation. They had to represent themselves and were without the resources to investigate the case and bring in expert witnesses. Cuts had swept away their right to legal aid. This is the heart of the tragedy.

This is what the cuts really mean; innocent loving parents losing their child for life - losing their child for no reason at all - losing their child to a simple diagnostic error.

In a report by Louise Tickle on an attempt by a judge to help people forced to represent themselves, the judge noted,
In one three-month period last year, 80% of private family law cases saw at least one party trying to fight their case without any legal representation at all.
 And from a year ago, this piece points out:
The number of family law cases involving children in which neither party has legal representation has nearly doubled in the last year, a report by official auditors has found.
The knock-on effect has been to increase costs to the taxpayer because cases without lawyers can take 50% longer, the report by the National Audit Office (NAO) concludes.
The findings, released on Thursday, come weeks after a senior judge accused the government of washing its hands of the problem it had created by failing to provide legal aid for parents in child custody cases.
Yes, depriving people of proper representation is MORE expensive. There are no savings. Instead we are left with injustice and personal tragedy.

This is not another scandal about child protection. There are plenty of those, whether of ignoring abuse or over-zealously pursuing the innocent. Mistakes are inevitable. What matters is the opportunity people have to rectify them. That cannot happen without professional advice and advocacy.

The heavy cuts to legal aid are not a peripheral issue. They are central to a basic principle of democratic societies, equality before the law. Amongst the anti-lawyer rhetoric employed by the government lies the ruins of justice. And all we can see is the pain of ordinary people, living ordinary lives, who have simply been unlucky. What a mean spirited and ungenerous government it is to destroy lives in such a casual way and to remove the opportunity of redress against the state when it is the state that is in error. And for what?

Hands off!

Austerity threatens tsipouro. 
A close relative of the Greek spirit ouzo, tsipouro has become increasingly popular during the recession as an affordable alternative to imported drinks, but is now facing a tax increase under European Union rules that could almost double its price.
Coming on top of a raft of other tax increases the government is planning to pay off debts, the news is a disaster for Tyrnavos, a farming town in central Greece famous for its production of tsipouro (pronounced TSEE-poo-roh).
Please note, all tourists now have a duty to double their consumption of the magic stuff. I will do my best to take the lead. You won't regret it (or remember it either).

Monday, October 05, 2015


I grew up in South London. It is anything but a rugby league area, but as a youngster I used to stay in on Tuesday evenings to watch the BBC2 Floodlight Trophy, a rugby league competition specially created for television. I remember too the second half of league matches shown live on BBC's Grandstand on Saturday afternoons, pitched up against ITV's professional wrestling. It wasn't much more than a curiosity, though my friends and I liked to do what so many young kids still do, bad impressions of TV stars. Frequently, we picked up on the unmistakable voice of the rugby league commentator Eddie Waring, who became a northern parody to the disgust of real fans. The first word of our take-offs in mock-Yorkshire brogue was always, "Swinton." I couldn't guess what was to come.

I moved north in 1976. Though I have always missed some things about London, I gained far more than I lost. I suppose the most surprising gift the north gave me was the chance to adopt rugby league with all the passion of a convert. Living not far away, it seemed natural to start going to Swinton and they were soon my team - for the next thirty years and counting.

It wasn't the easiest of choices, but somehow it felt natural. What followed was serial disappointment lifted by short periods of hope before being pitched back into despair. Yesterday the hope was there again, and this time it feels like the club is finally being run properly and maybe the despair is being put behind us. All we need is a stadium back in Swinton to end our exile since the sale of Station Road.

And what a day yesterday was. I am still breathless. How do you follow the drama of winning the semi final by one point in a breathtaking game? The answer should be obvious. Win the final by one point in an even more dramatic, heart stopping game. It was magnificent entertainment, with thirty years of agony packed into those eighty minutes.

There was an unusual highlight too. It came after the match. In comments on a previous post about the semi final, Simon Pottinger picked up on how our number thirty, Josh Barlow, didn't celebrate immediately, but went over to console the York players. This time, after the final hooter sounded, a middle aged fan ran on to the pitch with a banner. Stewards grabbed him, he struggled and the police moved forward to make an arrest. Josh Barlow ran up, all smiles, put his arm around the fan's shoulders, persuaded the stewards into letting him go and sweet talked the police into taking no action. Barlow then led him back to the stands, took his banner when it was offered to him, and paraded it with the team. And there it is, being held up in front of the ecstatic Swinton fans.

I have always said that my favourite Swinton player of all time is Les Holliday. I think that he will now be joined by Josh Barlow for two moments of pure class on two of the best afternoons I can remember as a Swinton fan. What a player, what a team, what a sport.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Musical interlude

Talk Dirty to Me, played as a traditional Klezmer, complete with the rap translated into Yiddish. There are times the internet is magic.

Via  Postmodern Jukebox