History suggests a silver lining to Brexit

Linda Colley on the lessons history can teach us about the aftermath of Brexit, and how it could have a silver lining:

By instinct I am a Remainer, but I think that some form of Brexit may now be unavoidable. If that does turn out to be the case, I suspect that the resulting disruptions and realignments will affect far more than the economy: the trick will be to see if this can be turned to the good, or at least to something halfway productive.

In a recent pamphlet on the constitutional ramifications, Vernon Bogdanor has hinted at ways in which Brexit might conceivably have some constructive, albeit unpredictable, effects. As is becoming clear, and as Bogdanor sets out, Ireland represents a major challenge, and not just for reasons of cross-border trade. The Good Friday Agreement promised Northern Ireland parity of rights with the Republic. But if the UK does pull out of the EU, Northern Irish rights will no longer be protected by Brussels and the European courts, but will come back substantially to Westminster. And by the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, Westminster would be free in the future to modify those rights. Indeed, these challenges extend to all of the UK. The British government has undertaken to incorporate relevant sections of EU law and rights in statute law. But the same caveat applies: such incorporation would mean that these transferred rights and laws could be altered in the future by a sovereign parliament.

As Bogdanor remarks, some thoughtful politicians, such as Dominic Grieve, are proposing a new British Bill of Rights in the event of Brexit so as to protect vital rights against such legislative tinkering. This would be a good idea. It would also be valuable if more UK citizens and all political parties shifted some of their focus away from purely economic matters, and devoted more attention to the political, structural and legal vulnerabilities and quandaries that have been exposed by this crisis, and to the question of how these could be addressed.

Another of Colley’s hopes is that Brexit will force “Global Britain” to, well, actually learn how to speak other languages and learn the history of other nations. We’ll see.

More Calories Please

Public Health England now recommends that:

…adults try to limit the calories of their three main meals to 400 for breakfast and 600 each for lunch and dinner […noting] that the remaining calories of the daily guidelines – 2,000 for women and 2,500 for men – are likely to be made up of snacks and drinks.

To achieve this, the government is challenging the food industry to reduce calories in products consumed by families by 20% by 2024. The categories of foods this applies to includes pizzas, ready meals, ready-made sandwiches, meat products and savoury snacks. It’s likely they’ll achieve this target with smaller portion sizes, which fills me with deep and profound sadness.

I successfully weaned myself off unhealthy snacks and drinks several years ago, so I tend to eat bigger portions for my main meals. There is no world in which I want to eat just 1600 calories for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with the remaining 900 calories on snacks. I can manage this fine when I’m preparing food for myself at home or work, but when I’m on the move it’s clearly going to become harder and harder to find ready-made lunches that have 700-800 calories without adding on crisps or snacks or whatever.

I’m not a nutritionist or a food scientist, but I do know that barely anyone eats the suggested servings for things like breakfast cereal. Just try weighing out 45 grams – it looks like nothing. If retailers have to reduce their portion sizes, I wouldn’t be surprised that people just end up buying multiple portions – a hugely wasteful practice.

Others feel the same way. Susan Jebb, professor of diet and population health at the University of Oxford was interview by the Guardian:

While she welcomed raising calorie-awareness, she noted that the recommendation to eat a total of 1,600 calories for main meals was well below daily levels and assumed people were snacking. “Maybe it is better to have a slightly bigger meal and not to snack,” she said.

Valuing Friendship over Principle

Lately, I’ve been spotting more and more cases of people valuing friendships over principle. Here’s what Quinn Norton, who was hired and then swiftly fired from the New York Times Opinion section for her offensive comments in the past, along with her friendship with neo-Nazi Andrew Auernheimer, said:

I was called a Nazi because of my friendship with the infamous neo-Nazi known on the internet as weev—his given name is Andrew Auernheimer; he helps run the anti-Semitic website The Daily Stormer. In my pacifism, I can’t reject a friendship, even when a friend has taken such a horrifying path. I am not the judge of who is capable of improving as a person. This philosophy also requires me to confront him about his terrible beliefs and their terrible consequences. I have been doing this since before his brief time as a cause célèbre in 2012—I believe it’d be hypocritical for me to turn away from this obligation. weev is just one of many terrible people I’ve cared for in my life. I don’t support what my terrible friend believes or does. But I strongly advocate for people with a good sense of themselves and their values to engage with their terrible friends, coworkers, and relatives, to lovingly confront them for as long as it takes, and it would be wrong to not do so myself.

This is obviously an extreme case. I imagine – or at least, hope – that most people would end friendships with those who become neo-Nazis. And note that I am deliberately talking about friendships, not familial relationships. You can’t choose your family.

But I’ve seen many more cases where people will refrain from criticising friends (often not very close friends) who say or do things that conflict with their principles. I’m not talking about ending friendships with people who say racist or sexist things, because to be frank, most people know better than to do that. I’m talking about expressing political, professional, intellectual, and philosophical differences with friends.

Let me give a slightly painful, personal example. In 2010, I wrote a post entitled Can a Game Save the World, where I criticised comments by Jane McGonigal about the power of games. I’m not in the habit of criticising friends, especially in public, but: given her very public profile; the resounding silence from anyone in the games or tech industry at the time; and the degree to which I disagreed with her, I felt a responsibility to say something, if only to show that disagreement existed within the games community. I certainly wouldn’t bother in most cases.

My post led to arguments. Many mutual friends privately told me they agreed with everything I had written, but for the most part they said nothing because I assume they didn’t want to affect their friendship with Jane, or possibly their professional lives, given her influence.

What’s the lesson? We all draw our own lines, and in our comparatively new online world of having hundreds of friends and kind-of-friends and acquaintances, maybe we aren’t sure how to express differences and disagreements, especially when it seems the only way to do so in public is via a megaphone to the entire world that can only broadcast 280 characters at a time (another reason for blogs to come back!).

But we should remember that adults can have disagreements and yet remain friends. I’m no Chidi Anagonye, I don’t believe in radical truth-telling, but I do think it’s essential for us to practice how to disagree with each other publicly, politely, and firmly, because that’s how we learn what we really believe, and what we’re prepared to do to to defend those beliefs.

After all, “if you won’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

Alex Pareene on the link between the profitability and ethics of newspapers in the Columbia Journalism Review:

In retrospect, it seems inevitable that American journalism’s professional norms around fairness and ethics emerged at a time when newspapers and magazines were good investments for normal financial reasons. Safe investments attract safe corporate investors. Corporations like clear standards of conduct and don’t like offending huge numbers of potential customers, which is how Yellow Journalism gave way to “All the News That’s Fit to Print” and the mainstream media as we knew it. The market played a big role in determining content. A big city paper could lean a little to the left or the right, but it couldn’t go full–John Birch or all–in Yippie without losing the thing that gave it power: monopolistic access to the eyeballs of the city’s literate adults.

What They Want, the Government Can’t Give

It wasn’t a surprise to me, or to anyone else in the UK, that residents of Grenfell Tower heckled their councillors and Tory politicians. And I wasn’t surprised when Prime Minister Theresa May cravenly refused to meet with anyone from the tower.

But what is surprising to me is that even the Queen received criticism:

There were emotionally charged scenes as the Queen and the Duke of Cambridge visited the Westway sports centre earlier in the day. Standing beneath the rumbling Westway flyover, the royals had finished meeting firefighters and police officers who responded to the inferno, when they were met with a spontaneous round of applause from onlookers.

But when the clapping died down, a distraught man beckoned them to come over. “Please come here,” he said. Clutching a missing appeal poster for the siblings Firdaws and Yahya, Rami Mohamed said he was a friend of the missing children’s family.

The Queen climbed into her car as the prince apologised and pledged to return to the Westway centre, which is operating as a relief centre for displaced evacuees and relatives of the missing.

When the royals departed, Mohamed said he was frustrated that so many people arrived for the monarch but it felt like his friends were being left behind. The Queen and the prince spent about 30 minutes in the centre visiting those affected, the day after May declined to visit the area over the security concerns.

Theresa May promised a £5 million cash fund for residents, but that didn’t stop the protests. The truth is, there’s literally nothing that the current government could promise that could. Not £50 million, not £500 million, not even the resignation of the Prime Minister herself.

Even a full-throated apology, for years of austerity, decades of neglect, and unremitting abuse from certain sectors of the press, wouldn’t do — because no-one would believe it. What use are words when there’s nothing stopping the Tories, or indeed the entire ‘neoliberal project’, from continuing to dismantle safety regulations and value money above all else? The right wing, led by the Vicar’s Daughter, would crucify the poor and the struggling on a cross of gold.

But the residents’ moral authority is unimpeachable — they weren’t even kettled on Oxford Circus:

What they want, the government can’t give. And so this will only end with the collapse of the government.

Mr. Corbyn, Please Stop Phone Scammers

My phone number was temporarily stolen last month. Rather than just tweet about it, I decided to write a letter to my local MP, Jeremy Corbyn, with specific suggestions on how to combat identity theft and phone scams.

Dear Mr. Corbyn,

In the last month, I have been subject to multiple identity theft attempts and fraud scams. No permanent harm was done, but it was very distressing. Moreover, it highlights major shortcomings with the government’s regulation of personal data security, particularly for mobile phone companies.

On XX December, I received a text message from Three telling me that my registered billing address had been changed, even though I had not requested this. I was in Canada on holiday and unable to contact Three until I returned on XX January.

It emerged that someone had called Three on XX December pretending to be me (they only needed my billing address and date of birth) and successfully changed my billing address to “19 Haling Park Road, South Croydon, CR2 6NJ” — presumably a forwarding address. They then requested a replacement SIM card be sent there.

The SIM card would have arrived a few days later, giving them possession of my mobile phone number. They attempted to buy £650 of goods from Boots.com on my credit card. This attempt was stopped automatically, and when the scammers called the credit card compnay, they were unable to authorise the purchase because they didn’t know my PIN.

When I returned on XX January, I visited a Three shop and was given a new SIM card. I also changed my billing address back, and XX issued me a new credit card (with new number). Everything was back to normal — although on XXJanuary I received a call from a person with an Indian accent on 0333 338 1019, telling me that they were Three customer support; this was obviously untrue, so I hung up. Continue reading “Mr. Corbyn, Please Stop Phone Scammers”

We can’t afford your perfectionism

For a long time, I refused to pay for membership to The Guardian despite reading it multiple times a day. “Fifty pounds?!” I’d cry. “And for what? Shit I don’t need and junk mail? I’ll pay when it’s half the price and they fire Jonathan Jones.”

I was being a dick. If The Guardian disappeared tomorrow, I’d be all over Twitter rending my clothes. I really do appreciate their journalism and commentary, and while a small part of me would be glad to see the back of their anodyne lifestyle articles and flaming garbage pile of a comments section, and yes, Jonathan Jones, I’d regret not having done more to support them.

There is a segment of the population — let’s call them Silicon Valley Optimisers — who feel intellectually and morally superior to the rest of humanity. One can observe them in their natural habitats of Hacker News, Lesswrong, and Slatestarcodex. They work in technology, they earn a good salary, and they want the best.

No, scratch that — truthfully, I spend a lot of time in Optimisation Land. We want the best, because the world and the conomy expects the best from us. We are hyperanalytical cost-benefit maximisers. There is no charity so pure that we can’t criticise for wasting money; no non-profit too noble to snipe at for using the wrong tech stack; no institution too valuable to be explosively disrupted.

Whether it’s journalism, healthcare, transportation, social security, or politics, we could do better, if we tried. But we don’t care to try, because we’re too busy trying to make shit tons of money, and you don’t make money by working in non-profits or journalism. So fuck anyone else for trying and failing to attain perfection, and what’s more, fuck them for having the temerity to ask us for our hard-earned cash.

The time for that attitude is well and truly over. We cannot afford your perfectionism any more.

If you read the New York Times or the Washington Post, or you listen to NPR, or you value living in a society with civil liberties, you must support those organisations — even if you object to a lot of what they do. The people working there are doing hard work for comparatively little pay, and they need your support.

If you’re always waiting to donate to the perfect organisation that deserves your money, you will never be part of the solution. You will be part of the problem.

The Guardian is not going to fire Jonathan Jones, as much as I might complain. They probably aren’t going to change their shitty comments system, even though I was told several years ago that it was happening ‘any time now’. And like the NYT and Washington Post, they aren’t going to stop producing hard-hitting investigating journalism that tries to speak truth to power. So if that’s something you value, you need to support them now.

Likewise, organisations like Liberty, the ACLU, and the Southern Poverty Law Center — they may be inefficient. They may do political things that irritate you. But if you share their ideals, you need to support them now.

Don’t be an Optimiser. Be a Human.

Photo CC-BY Trevor Hurlbut

Shootings, and how not to prevent them

In order to prevent yet more tragedies like the shooting at the Planned Parenthood centre in Colorado Springs, gun rights activists – and rightwingers in general – often suggest that we need to prevent the ‘mentally ill’ from gaining access to firearms. In fact, even Democrats and centrists say that, “I think as a state, but as a country, we have got a lot more thinking about this, of how to make sure we keep guns out of the hands of people that are unstable,” as the governor John Hickenlooper said (and the Mayor of Colorado Springs, John Suthers, echoed).

This strikes me as one of those anodyne statements that is simultaneously impossible to disagree with and yet completely useless. Of course we should be tough on the causes of crime. Of course we should improve our children’s education. And of course we should prevent those who we think are likely to kill civilians with guns from possessing guns. The question is how we do that.

Robert Dear, the man suspected of the Planned Parenthood killings, was considered to be strange, not dangerous. He had no entry in any database that marked him as being mentally unstable – because no such database exists. It’s hard to imagine how one could ever exist; the notion stinks of Precrime-style profiling, an attempt to predict crimes that haven’t yet been committed. Mental illness is not a crime, and the great majority of people who are mentally ill (a woolly category if I’ve ever seen one) do not commit violent crimes. And even if that were not the case, science is yet to produce a foolproof ‘mental illness’ detector.

I realise that the whole ‘guns don’t kill people, stop mentally ill people from getting guns’ is essentially a smokescreen. My point is that it’s a terrible, incoherent smokescreen. Gun rights activists love to cite the US Constitution, but I can’t think of a worse violation of it than a law prohibiting individuals who’ve been designated as ‘mentally ill’ from ever possessing arms. What if Obama designates all gun advocates as being mentally ill?!!?!!11!

Austerity: The LARP

Everyone in Britain is playing a game called Austerity. Some are playing the game with enthusiasm and conviction. Some are playing with calculation and cunning. And others believe they are not playing, when in fact they cannot escape the game.

Austerity is not a console game with expensive graphics, nor is it an addictive casual game for smartphones. It is a LARP: a Live Action Role-Playing game. Like other LARPs, this game consumes your environment and your life. Unlike other LARPs, Austerity does not take place on a disused Swedish naval destroyer and end after a weekend. You will live and breathe Austerity for as long as everyone continues to believe in it, which means it may have no end.

It has a beginning, though: the Second World War.

Nostalgia is an intoxicating brew. We venerate WW2, the last time Britain was Great, the last time the Kingdom felt truly United, the last time we had a national victory that wasn’t on the field of play. It’s natural to look back fondly on such times, acknowledging the horrors and respecting the sacrifice.

Wait, no. Not respecting the sacrifice – fetishising it.

This is Keep Calm and Carry On. This is Dig for Victory, ration books, Downton Abbey (sort of) and Doctor Who’s innumerable wartime stories.

Dig for Victory and ration books are real, of course. They were part of the civilian mission to harness the entire capacity of a country in the pursuit of victory in a total war. Likewise, war bonds and volunteering and sewing clothes for the men. Money was tight but it was necessary to be thrifty. Virtuous, even. And who can say that the war was not won by such virtuous sacrifice?

Austerity has those sentiments at its heart: sacrifice is necessary for victory against an existential threat such as the Nazis.

Today’s existential threats are the European Union, immigrants, a slightly high debt-to-GDP ratio, and a lack of respect from other countries. To prevail against such enemies, hard choices must be made. We cannot afford to waste money on shirkers, or waste money on fripperies such as arts and culture. We must cut taxes on entrepreneurs and reward hard-working families, because people who are not in families, and people who do not work hard, do not deserve anything.

Now, it may be that these hard choices often end up benefitting those who already have lots of money; but this is where the game becomes important as a justification and a distraction. If players are encouraged to emulate the heroes of WW2, to Keep Calm and Carry On, then we will be prepared to sacrifice anything to save the nation from existential threats: to cut social security, to close those theatres and museums.

Sometimes players get upset when they perceive that other players are breaking the immersion, as can happen in other LARPs. For example, we didn’t have all these foreigners back in WW2, so it’s wrong to have them here now. We didn’t have wind power and solar power either, so that must also be wrong.

But the truth is, we are all breaking the rules in Austerity. If we were really committing to the LARP, then we would be investing hours a day into community gardens and volunteer work. We would be living and fighting and dying, cheek by jowl, on the front lines, the baker next to the banker, the lawyer next to the labourer.

Real believers in Austerity would reinstate the two thousand British Restaurants, communal kitchens that would sell you a healthy meal for the equivalent of £1 in today’s money. They would serve a million meals a day to those who couldn’t afford any better, and they would make the country fit and strong.

Like other LARPs, Austerity is a sham. And like other LARPs, a lot of players don’t want to take on the hard roles – they just want to do the easy fun stuff; the sewing and dressing up and saving pennies while forcing other players to part with pounds. That is why the special mission in Austerity, “The Big Society”, was such a failure.

The real danger of the Austerity LARP, though, is that it’s not actually real. We don’t live in 1945 any more; we live in 2015. We do not face an existential threat to the nation (other than perhaps climate change). We are not obliged to spend £45 billion, or 2.2% of GDP, on a non-productive military. We do, however, have the money to spend more on the institutions that made this country great: social security, NHS, the universities, the schools.

We need to snap the fuck out this playtime and get real.

Eternal Fundraising, Luxuries as Resiliency, Isometric Buildings

Mr. Miller Doesn’t Go to Washington, a bracingly honest story about running for Congress. It just astonishes me quite how much time candidates – and elected politicians – have to spend on fundraising. Hours. A. Day.

I had written before about how crazy it is that we expect politicians to spend four hours a day (or more) on the money chase. But nothing prepares you for what it’s like to be in the candidate’s chair.

First order of business is introducing you to the bizarre rites and rituals associated with reaching out to the 1/20th of 1 percent of Americans who fund campaigns, and I soon learned consultants have studied dialing for dollars with anthropological precision. One consultant’s motto is, “Shorter calls means more calls!”—i.e., more money. So stop all the chitchat. When you make the “ask,” another told me—and that’s typically for the max of $2,600 per person, $5,200 per couple—just say the number and pause: Don’t keep talking. And above all, don’t leave L.A. for an out-of-town fundraiser unless you’re guaranteed to rake in at least $50,000, and preferably 100 large. Anything less and it’s not worth the hassle.

Blessed are the wastrels, for their surplus could save the Earth, a fascinating argument that luxury industries represent a massive pool of ‘unplanned’ resiliency in the face of disasters (as opposed to planned resiliency, which can easily be defunded):

Organic farms are an example [of a less excessive ‘luxury’]: they use their inputs (land, grain, animals) to produce food at higher cost and lower quantity than conventional farming. The advantages of organic food appeal to richer, western consumers. But if the situation were desperate, organic farms could be retooled for mass production of lower-quality but still edible foods. The same goes for factories making super-plasma, hyper-surround cinema-experience televisions (or similar toys for the wealthy). This rich demand maintains a manufacturing base for extreme luxury products, but one that could be repurposed for mass production of less extravagant but more useful products if needed.

Concrete Jungle – Building the Buildings: I had always assumed that the lovely 2D isometric buildings you see in games like SimCity must be the product of superbly trained artist. While I don’t doubt the skill involved, this step-by-step guide on drawing pixel perfect isometric buildings (using 3D intermediates) is fascinating:


Once everything is arranged pleasingly, it’s time to render. I’m using Blender to generate my renders- it’s completely free and it’s rendering engine is delicious. The scene I’m using has the render camera set up to render isometrically (is that a word?) What’s outputted is something that looks like this but bigger: