Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Labour chooses a new leader, again, except this time it’s kind of fun

After its election debacle last May, when Labour got crushed, the road back, or forward, or in any direction whatsoever has been a bit uncertain. Results were so bad that Labour’s Ed Miliband, the Lib Dem’s Nick Clegg, and UKIP’s Nigel Farage all resigned. Why Farage resigned is a bit unclear, although UKIP only gained one MP, against some higher expectations, and Farage himself didn’t achieve a seat. However, the thing to keep in mind about this election is how dominant the conservative vote was—The Conservatives and UKIP together managed to garner over 50% of the vote, and all those overblown fears about another coalition government, or about an outright Labour win, proved to be misplaced.
So Labour is a bit stuck here. It won 232 seats, down 26, including a landslide win for the Scottish National Party in Scotland, which won 56 of 59 contested seats—practically all from Labour. The big losers were the Lib Dems, who lost 59 seats, and currently hold just 6. So they may be toast. The country has moved in a conservative direction, it might be argued, for a variety of reasons, but perhaps the most important of which is that it’s actually not uncomfortable with where Cameron seems to be taking things. Not my own view, of course, particularly in Green areas, but there it is. Actually, a little more nuance is probably appropriate—the country just wasn’t buying what Labour was trying to sell.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Unsolicited Book Review: The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishaguro

So we’ve got post-Arthurian Britain here, with the Britons and the Saxons occupying the land in an uneasy truce. We’ve got a collective failure of memory across society—no one, literally, can remember much, if anything, about past years, or even months. We’ve got wandering knights on missions. We’ve got an older couple on a search for their son, who left under unclear circumstances—which is not a surprise, since no one can remember anything. We’ve got faeries, ogres and a dragon, monks of uncertain motives, and swordfights. We’ve got really, really big questions. And we’ve also got, sadly, a somewhat tedious and boring novel.

 I was, and remain, a huge fan of Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro’s wonderfully understated, and very powerful, novel about a dystopian future where the central characters are bred as organ providers for humans. It was the understatement that made the book so powerful. Ishiguro isn’t much of a stylist, really, and he writes in a very flat prose style, which in NLMG served to reinforce the essential horror of the situation the principal characters found themselves in. But it served another purpose, which was to let Ishiguro spend time developing the characters of the novel at leisure. The strength of the novel came from these genuinely interesting and human characters that weren’t human at all, but rather organic creations—which made the story so heartbreaking.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Fast track disaster ahead

Like many, I have my share of disappointments with Obama. On balance, he’s infinitely preferable to any of the plausible Republican alternatives—can you imagine what Mitt Romney or John McCain and a Republican Congress would be getting up to these days? Still, there are areas—global warming in particular—where I wish he had been more aggressive. I fully concede the limits of what may have been possible throughout his term, given the implacable opposition he has been facing.

 But still, it would have been good to see a more deliberate attempt to change the trajectory of things. The ongoing corporatization of nearly everything would have been another place to start. I suppose the failure to pursue the banks aggressively should have been a tip-off that the Clinton financial people were still running the show. Plus the Obama administration’s unwillingness to try to put Elizabeth Warren as head of her brainchild, the new (and pretty efficient, I gather) Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (although she has had her payback.) When people start telling me that there’s no real difference between the two parties, in the finance area I tend to agree, with some notable exceptions like Warren.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Shortest Day

And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.


--Susan Cooper

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Denmark surprised the world—well, maybe not the world, but a number of interested northern countries—with a slightly audacious claim this week for ownership of the North Pole. As we detailed in previous posts, the prospect of global warming opening up the Arctic region to various sorts of development has tantalized countries in the region—and not just the US, Canada and Russia, but also smaller countries such as Denmark and Norway. All have reasons to make claims; but all also have reasons to proceed under established protocols of international negotiations. In this case, that’s the UN Law of the Seas treaty, which the US still has not signed, which may or may not put it at some disadvantage at some nebulous point in the future.

Santa is probably unhappy about this. It’s his home, after all, and suddenly here come these countries, to all of which he distributes millions of presents annually to their children, clanging around and making claims right and left to his home. International negotiations over the allocation of the Arctic seabed are expected to take decades, something which Santa is definitely not looking forward to—especially since he suspects he won’t even be invited.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Adventures in headline Writing, Gaza edition

So something happened in Gaza today, something horrible even by the abysmal standards of that terrible situation.

Here’s the headline in The Guardian:

Israeli strike on UN school kills 15

With the following sub-lede:

UN says it was refused time to evacuate civilians before IDF shelled Gaza school, injuring 200

Then there’s The Independent:

Israeli targeting policy under scrutiny after tanks kill 15 in a Gaza school run by the UN

OK, how about The Financial Times?

Israel shells UN school used as a shelter

How about Deutsche Welle?

IDF Shelling Kills 15 in Gaza

and here's the DW sub-lede:

Shelling by the Israel Defense Forces has killed 15 people at a UN school serving as a shelter for displaced Palestinians in Gaza.

Then there’s The New York Times:

At Least 16 Die at U.N. School Used as Gaza Civilian Shelter

With the following sub-lede:

A series of explosions at a school that was sheltering hundreds of Palestinians who had fled their homes also wounded many others. The cause was not immediately clear.

Any questions?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Drones--Threat or Menace?

Wait, what drones? Well, for starters, the ones that Amazon is testing, which have a 50 mile range, and a five pound payload. All so you can get that book faster. Of course, in the US this needs approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. Not only that, it requires that the FAA provide Amazon with an exemption from a bunch of regulations that currently prevent private companies from unmanned vehicle testing. Now, these might strike you as the kind of sensible regulation that you actually might want governments to enforce. The FAA, on the other hand, is currently preparing new rules that will loosen things up a bit, apparently. And if Amazon gets the approvals it wants? Get ready for “Amazon Prime Air.” Although five pounds doesn’t really seem to be a very large payload of books, or coffee, or lawn furniture, or whatever it is that’s so desperately needed from Amazon.

The BBC wises up on climate change

Last year we bemoaned the fact that the BBC, which we do love dearly in spite of its occasional faults, was consistently blowing it on its climate change coverage. This has been, in the past, for reasons of “balance.” It may also have been the direct or indirect result of the political and “scientific” views of David Jordan, the BBC’s head of editorial standards, reputed to be a climate change “skeptic.” At least this was the theory put forward by Guardian commentator John Ashton. Whatever the case, it was embarrassing, and starting to compromise the BBC’s reputation for scientific coverage.

Hah. It turns out some folks at the BBC Trust seem to feel the same way as we do. And The Telegraph, in a story that Science Correspondent Sarah Knapton obviously enjoyed writing, and that the headline writer had a fun time with as well, provides us with the scoop: “BBC staff told to stop inviting cranks on to science programmes.” 200 staffers are now going to training on issues where the scientific consensus is settled, and to learn “not to insert 'false balance' into stories when issues were non-contentious.” And the BBC trust was not alone. In April, the British Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee came to a similar conclusion—the BBC’s coverage of climate change science was lamentable. As Jim Meyer over at Grist points out, the British Government has long accepted climate science, and the BBC was out there looking foolish.

So we’re glad to see that the old regime, if that’s actually what it was, will longer be acceptable, at least at the BBC. This has led to more hilarity, of course. Nigel Lawson, who used to routinely make an appearance to challenge climate scientists, is now complaining that the BBC not inviting him around any more to prattle away is censorship, dammit. Really, just shut up, Nigel, you old crank. You’ve still got The Mail.