Policy Games

Ever since last year’s UK elections produced a hung Parliament and the current Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, I’ve been following politics with a keen eye – particularly the travails of the Lib Dems, who find themselves in (sort of) power after many, many decades. It’s been interesting to see the spirited debates on places like Lib Dem Voice and the reactions of party members to their drubbing in last month’s local elections (alternately complacent and apocalyptic).

When I saw that the Social Liberal Forum conference was being held in London on a Saturday (yesterday, actually), with two cabinet members speaking (Chris Huhne and Vince Cable) and tickets for only £25, it seemed like a brilliant opportunity to see how political parties come up with policies at an early stage. The Social Liberal Forum is an:

Internal party pressure group with the aim of developing social liberal solutions and approaches which reflect these principles and which find popular support.

Despite being only two years old, it has around 1800 members and claims to have influenced Lib Dem party policy to a significant degree; so going to the conference wasn’t exactly like going to a proper Party Conference with all the attendant votes and such, but it was definitely a step up from the usual local confab.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve been to dozens of conferences from TED to SXSW to FooCamp to book publishing conferences in Italy and spoken at many of them, and my feeling about those is that you rarely learn anything new (apart from maybe TED; otherwise, books and the web are better) but they’re very good places to gauge the general feeling of a community, and of course, to swap gossip. The purpose of the SLF Conference wasn’t clear to me – was it to listen to some speeches, or was it to try and formulate a bit of policy – but either way, I was hoping it’d at least be a novel experience. I also strongly believe that there is desperately little political engagement among the tech community and I wanted to see how things were done.

Due to general laziness and not knowing my way around City University, I ended up missing the first session, which apparently was quite good, but I did arrive just in time for the second session, Deficit Reduction – Ideology or Necessity?

(Side note: This month there was a very big kerfuffle within the Lib Dem community about how attendees to the upcoming Party Conference will need to provide accreditation, i.e. address and passport/driving licence/NI number, to check that they’re not about to embarrass everyone with protests a terrorist. Both the Conservatives and the Labour Party already do this for their conferences, so I think the Lib Dem organisers were taken aback by the strong opposition regarding privacy, civil liberties, etc, not to mention the fact that the decision was made in private.

Anyway, the reason why things are different this year is apparently because David Cameron is speaking at the conference and that the Home Office and the police have ‘suggested’ to the Lib Dems that increased security measures should be in place. After a lot of back and forth in the comments, it emerged that the measures have happened mostly because they couldn’t get insurance for the venue otherwise.

The reason why this is relevant is because when I walked in to the conference venue, all I had to do was say my name and I could pick up a badge. Since I wasn’t asked to show ID, I could have just said any of the names I saw laid on the registration table; and because there was no bag search or metal detectors, well, who knows what someone could have done to two Cabinet Ministers, multiple MPs, and a room full of party activists… but hey, David Cameron wasn’t there, so I guess it’s all OK).

The two speakers were Vince Cable, Business Secretary in the Cabinet, and Ed Randall, a Senior Lecturer in Politics and Social Policy at Goldsmiths. After an endearingly unorganised struggle with the microphones, Vince Cable entered the room and was greeted by a round of applause. I found this a bit odd until I realised that the sentiment was probably along the lines of, “Wow, how awesome are we as a group to get Vince Cable, a Cabinet Minister, to come along to our audience?” rather than “This guy is so amazing he deserves applause wherever he goes.”

(Side side note: There were about 200 people in the room and it was about 90% white, 70% male, and mostly middle-aged. Not many students – I guess they’re all too annoyed with the Lib Dems to come along any more. When I tweeted this observation (along with the caveat that it was probably the same at other Conservative and Labour gatherings), someone told me that it used to be worse. Well, I hate to think what the last meeting was like then…) Continue reading “Policy Games”

Social Liberal Forum

I’m going to the Social Liberal Forum in London tomorrow, a conference being run by the Liberal Democrats. I’m not a member of the Lib Dems and to be honest I’m pretty disappointed by them, but I feel it’d be an interesting and useful experience to go to a political conference, just to see how these things work and what people say, unmediated by the usual lens of newspapers. Will post some more thoughts on it later.

The Pursuit of Perfection

Not only have the terms of success changed but also the very terms of life. For a person who can live within his illusions, the career has to be perfect, the wife has to be perfect, the children have to be perfect, the home has to be perfect, the car has to be perfect, the social circle has to be perfect. We agonize a lot over perfection, and we dedicate a lot of time, energy, and money to it – everything from plastic surgery to gated communities of McMansions to the professionalization of our children’s activities like soccer and baseball to pricey preschools that prepare 4-year-olds for Harvard. After all, we are all on the Ivy League track now.

– Neal Gabler, The New American Dream

The American Dream is no longer about seizing opportunity but about realising perfection. Social games and the wider gamification movement promise to help us in this pursuit of perfection, whether or not we desire it.

Until the next extension...
…Until the next extension

Animal Crossing was one of my favourite games on the DS, a vibrant simulation of a friendly village full of activities. After running some errands for my neighbours in the virtual village and earning some cash to buy furniture for my house and pay off the mortgage (yes, that’s the word they used), I realised that the implicit goal of the game was to – basically – buy as much furniture and have as big a house as possible.

Sure, you could discover stuff washed up on the beach and dig for dinosaur bones and go fishing, but it all became so much easier if you had the best kit – which cost money to buy and needed a place to store. I wasn’t particularly bothered by this, because it seemed like an interesting challenge.

It wasn’t until I was harvesting my optimally-packed apple trees (which I’d planted in place of the village’s native, low-yielding trees) and pulling up some weeds that I had the chilling realisation that the world of Animal Crossing could be made perfect. When you pull out weeds, you don’t get dirt flying everywhere; when you rearrange your furniture, you don’t chip the walls or spread dust around. If you put in enough time, you can make your own perfect world in Animal Crossing. There will be not a pixel out of place.

Certainly Animal Crossing wasn’t the first game to simulate a perfectible, human-scale world, but it was one of the most popular. I eventually gave up on Animal Crossing when I realised that continually expanding my house and paying off my mortgage wasn’t my idea of fun, but I still find myself occasionally playing its spiritual child, Cityville, even after I swore off it. While Cityville didn’t have any weeds, its sibling, Frontierville, did and it gave off the same smell of perfectibility, as did The Sims; sure, your Sims might occasionally leave dirty plates and vomit around the house, but it’s nothing that a few clicks can’t solve.

TS Characters The Sims Maid 06
No Mr. Muscle needed here

There is a simple reason why Animal Crossing and Frontierville and The Sims are ‘perfectible’ worlds – it’s because good computer games tend to be easier to make and more fun to play when they have clear rules and processes, and when they don’t have to keep track of too many variables. If you wanted to simulate the growth and removal of weeds more accurately, with the spread of roots and the influence of rain and the use of weedkiller, then it’d eat up a lot more of your game development budget for little return – so I don’t think there’s any sinister agenda going on here. It’s just about having fun; hopefully no-one is mistaking The Sims for real life.

The problem is that when you take the conventions of games like RPGs and simulations and you apply them to the real world, you end up with something that feels like but is not actually a description of the real world. While I can set myself some tasks in Chore Wars to scrub the garden table and mop the floors, no amount of repetitions will get rid of the nasty stain on the table or the bits of dirt ingrained into the floor – unlike in game worlds, where perfection can always be realised given enough effort.

This isn’t is a flaw in Chore Wars since it has the reasonably limited goal of encouraging you and your friends to do chores, but it is a flaw of the gamification movement, which basically says that if we apply game mechanics to the real world, we can and will transform it into a better place.

It’s a seductive message – who doesn’t want to improve the world? Who doesn’t like games these days? And I agree that gamification has a lot of value – in a limited form – by motivating people to achieve specific and well-understood goals like eating healthily or exercising well. The problem is that games have always, out of necessity, been a very simplified and abstract simulation of the real world, and that we just can’t expect the real world to behave like our game worlds.

By extending the simple algorithms of games to the real world and abstracting complex and non-perfectible problems as things to be ‘solved’ with a tick box, gamification can create a veneer that makes all of those messy problems appear perfectible. There isn’t just one solution or even one hundred solutions to some problems – there might be as many different solutions as there are people in the world. Sometimes we might not know when we’ve solved a problem or made any progress; and sometimes there just are no solutions to a problem. It’s hard to see how the conventions of games – conventions designed to be fun and relatively easy to code – can cover all these contingencies without becoming as complicated and subtle and unpredictable as, well, life itself.

Some gamification advocates might call this pessimistic or worse – an unfortunately common tactic used in place of proper debate – but I simply see it as being realistic. There’s genuine value in applying game mechanics to certain problems and activities in the real world, but by overpromising and overhyping the potential of games, the only result can be disillusion and frustration.

Screen shot 2011-04-09 at 14.05.00
Just my opinion, is all

The reason why the new American Dream is so chilling is because imposes practically unachievable goals and ultimately destructive desires upon us all (I’m including the entire rich world here). It distracts us from examining our own lives and deciding what we want ourselves in favour of buying more and more stuff.

Gamification holds out the promise of achieving those goals. It tells us that if you play the right games with enough enthusiasm and persistence, then you can have a perfect life and make a perfect world – at least, according to the game, if not necessarily in reality.

I’m sure that many games that seek to improve our lives and the world will work, to an extent. But many will not, whether through poor design or badly-constructed goals. We all need to be careful about games that promise to change our lives. Just as the unexamined life is not worth living, the unexamined game is not worth playing.

We don’t need your permission any more

One of the most annoying things in life is asking for permission: permission to build an extension, permission to volunteer at a school, permission to start a business. It’s always irritating to imagine some distant bureaucrat with little interest or understanding of your life in control of your fate.

Almost every sphere of life and work – from education to science to media to retail – involves us asking for permission every time we want make or do anything, whether it’s to start a project, raise funding or get access to the market. The ‘permission system’ suffocates creativity, but it’s so pervasive that we can hardly imagine a different world. Yet it’s finally being dismantled, brick by brick, by the internet, and we’re all going to benefit.

Imagine you’re a bright young filmmaker with a brilliant idea for a new documentary. When you approach a broadcaster, you find that they’re only concentrating on five subject areas this year, so you change your idea accordingly. After some emails, you finally get to pitch your idea to a commissioner who tells you that they’re already making a similar show, so you’ll either have to wait a year or change it drastically. You opt to change it, trying to ignore the feeling that this is a mistake.

Now the commissioner likes your idea, but they’ll have to check what channel controller thinks. A week passes, and unfortunately it seems that your idea doesn’t fit within the channel’s strategic priorities, but you should definitely try again.

After a few rounds of this, you become good at guessing what commissioners will like, and following some dedicated networking, you discover what the channel priorities really are. You learn how to craft ideas that will have the right mix of buzz and relevancy and risk, and you’re rewarded with commissions. In short, you’ve become an expert at creating mediocre ideas to order.

I don’t mean to be hard on the TV industry. The few commissioners that I know are all good people who want to do a good job. But when you’re bombarded by dozens of ideas a week and you always need to get permission from your bosses, it’s safer to stick with tried and tested idea than taking a risk – after all, they don’t want to get fired.

The same story applies to every other industry where the cost of production has been high and the amount of ‘shelf space’ has been limited, whether for books or clothes or computer programmes. Back in the days where it used to cost a lot more to print a book or manufacture a new product and you could only fit so many into a shop, it made sense to be cautious and ensure that investments were made carefully; and since there were fewer people coming up with ideas, the ‘permission bottlenecks’ were also less of a problem.

But the world has changed. With new technology, the cost of producing consumer goods has plummeted; with the internet, we have unlimited shelf space; and with better education, we have billions of people who are capable of coming up with good ideas. Continue reading “We don’t need your permission any more”

On Justice (2010 Reviews, Part 1)

Since moving into a new flat two months ago, I resolved to demolish my pile of unread books that had been eyeing me reproachfully for far too long. Counting some extra books I tackled after the pile of doom, I read:

  1. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel
  2. The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
  3. The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr
  4. The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk
  5. The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser
  6. Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
  7. The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones
  8. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
  9. The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

1. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel

Michael Sandel’s lectures on Justice, provided for free online by Harvard University and WGBH Boston, are as strong an argument for distance learning as you’ll ever find:

Most of my lecturers are university (Oxford, Cambridge, UCSD) were not particularly good or bad; they were merely average. In fact, I’ve only seen a single person who can rival Michael Sandel for clarity, engagement, and presence in the lecturing stakes – Prof. V. S. Ramachandran. Since Ramachandran, like Sandel, is a Reith lecturer, I can safely say that they are both exceptional.

(It says something about undergraduate education that Sandel’s free lectures online, with the ability to pause and rewind them at will, eclipses much of my ‘world-class’ education – but that’s for another post)

Justice (the accompanying book) is an expanded version of his lectures, covering the same ground with many of the same arguments and examples. While it’s arguable that there’s no point buying the book if the lectures are free, books are surely a superior medium to videos for helping people understand complex ideas and problems – even if videos are easier to watch.

For example, Sandel has a particularly fine explanation of Kant’s moral philosophy and his idea of heteronomy, one whose subtleties might be lost – or at least smoothed over – if done as a video:

People often argue over the role of nature and nurture in shaping behavior. Is the desire for Sprite (or other sugary drinks) inscribed in the genes or induced by advertising? For Kant, this debate is deside the point. Whenever my behavior is biologically determined or socially conditioned, it is not truly free. To act freely, according to Kant, is to act autonomously. And to act autonomously is to act according to a law I give myself – not according to the dictates of nature or social convention.

One way of understanding what Kant means by acting autonomously is to contrast autonomy with its opposite. Kant invents a word to capture this contrast – heteronomy. When I act heteronomously, I act according to determinations given outside of me.

… It is 3:00 a.m., and your college roommate asks you why you are up late pondering moral dilemmas involving runaway trolleys [a subject covered earlied in the book].

“To write a good paper in Ethics 101,” you reply.

“But why write a good paper?” your roommate asks.

“To get a good grade.”

“But why care about grades?”

“To get a job in investment banking.”

“But why get a job in investment banking?”

“To become a hedge fund manager someday.”

“But why be a hedge fund manager?”

“To make a lot of money.”

“But why make a lot of money?”

“To eat lobster often, which I like. I am, after all, a sentient creature. That’s why I’m up late thinking about runaway trolleys!”

This is an example of what Kant would call heteronomous determination – doing something for the sake of something else, for the sake of something else, and so on. When we act heteronomously, we act for the sake of ends given outside us. We are instruments, not authors, of the purposes we pursue.

What I enjoyed so much about this example is how it gave a word to a feeling that had been nagging at me for a while, the problem that it is so easy to completely relinquish your actions to external factors instead of internal ones; the use of investment banking and hedge fund management is sadly all too apt for Harvard and Oxbridge students (many of whom I know myself). Continue reading “On Justice (2010 Reviews, Part 1)”

Can a Game Save the World?

On December 9th 2007, a curious event took place at the University of South Carolina football stadium. As 29,000 people filed inside, each was given a piece of paper bearing four names and phone numbers. During the event, each person called those names and asked them to vote for Obama in the coming primary election.


Those 29,000 attendees called over 35,000 voters in the space of ten minutes – enough for the Guinness Book of Records to certify the event as the ‘largest phone bank‘ in history – and all for very little cost to the Obama campaign.

The record only stood for a few months, because on August 27th 2008, a line of people six miles long – over 80,000, all told – waited for seats at Invesco Field in Denver. They were there for Obama’s acceptance speech as the Democratic nominee for the election, but once again, they were going to be called upon to help out the campaign with more phone calls.

These events were replicated hundreds of times across the country, and some were focused more directly on making calls. I recall hearing about one in which the speaker walked the attendees through how to make their very first phone call to a voter. Yes, you might be nervous, he said, but I’ll show you how to do it – and he then proceeded to make a live call through the loudspeakers. Suitably encouraged, the thousands of attendees made their own phone calls – and why not, since everyone sitting next to them was making a call.

Of course, the majority of phone calls were not made in stadiums or live events, but at home or in campaign offices. Ever tech-savvy, the Obama campaign aimed to track and analyse all calls made. Even in September 2007, during the earlier days of Obama’s primary fight, the campaign had developed online tools and leaderboards:


Naturally, there was an Obama ’08 iPhone app, which provided news updates to half a million users and (of course) encouraged users to make phone calls to votes. Over 50,000 calls were made, a figure that doesn’t include calls made by people who used an iPod Touch, and whose calls couldn’t be tracked.

Day Before Election Leaderboard by Sagolla

The campaign had a single, clear goal: get Obama elected as President of the United States. Accomplishing this goal would require gaining a majority of the delegate votes in the Democratic Presidential Primaries in over fifty states and regions; each of those states had different rules for selecting their delegates, some of them quite unusual and rather game-like. With the Primaries won, the campaign had to win the general election.

Not only did this require a massive ground operation, going door to door in every state – not only did it demand massive phonebanking operations, some of which are describe above – but it also needed hundreds of millions in donations to adverts. In the end, Obama raised over $600 million dollars, most of which came over the internet:

3 million donors made a total of 6.5 million donations online adding up to more than $500 million. Of those 6.5 million donations, 6 million were in increments of $100 or less. The average online donation was $80, and the average Obama donor gave more than once.

70,000 campaign supporters used their MyBO fundraising pages to raised $30 million from friends and family; donation meters, leaderboards, targets, goals, rewards, and achievements – all of these most powerful reward and tracking mechanism, ripped straight from game design, were applied to the business of winning the most important and most serious game of 2008: winning the US election.

And they won. Continue reading “Can a Game Save the World?”

The Death of the BBC

…and the Case for Public Service Games

The BBC is a world-class broadcaster that produces some of the very best TV, radio and news. It’s also an organisation that is desperately holding on to its past glories, while ignoring the potential and importance of the internet.

What is the BBC for? According to its Royal Charter, the BBC’s purpose is to create and distribute content that will “inform, educate, and entertain,’ – content that would not exist without a broadcaster that is publicly funded by a compulsory TV licence fee. As the Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, said recently:

The BBC exists to deliver […] programmes and content of real quality and value. Content that deepens understanding, changes attitudes, makes people encounter the world with new eyes and new ears. Content – news, music, drama, documentary – which would not be made and which they would never enjoy if the BBC did not exist.

Look around you. Look at commercial media both here and around the world. Is it possible in 2009 to believe that – with all its undoubted shortcomings – if you took the BBC away you would end up with anything other than a big black cultural hole?

The BBC’s mission is truly noble. It spends millions spent on science and nature documentaries that are the envy of the world, thoughtful examinations on history and politics, daring and challenging dramas, news that strives to be fair and impartial, and unabashedly intelligent radio and music. If you took the BBC away, there really would be a cultural gap because I really doubt that the commercial sector would take up the mantle.

But, of course, that’s not all what the BBC does. It also spends hundreds of millions on game shows, soap operas, dramas, chat shows, pop music, and light entertainment – genres that are served reasonably well by the commercial sector. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this, providing that the BBC’s programmes were somehow better or different than those on ITV, Channel 4, or Sky; but they’re not. Eastenders, Spooks, and Strictly Come Dancing may be great shows, but they’re not unique or distinctive when compared to Coronation Street, Primeval, and the X-Factor on ITV.

As it happens, most people seem perfectly fine with the current state of affairs, and they don’t care if the commercial sector is harmed by the BBC. To most, the BBC provides good value for money – it gives them a decent selection of shows that they watch regularly – some of which really are unique and ‘public service’, others which are simply entertaining – and they neither think nor care that this is unfair.

Nevertheless, the fact that the BBC openly competes with the commercial sector when it isn’t supposed to is a contradiction that has severe consequences. This contradiction is a legacy from when it was very expensive and difficult to make TV, and there were technical limits to the number of channels that could be broadcast; under those circumstances, it made sense to have the BBC create a wide range of programmes. But now that it’s easier to make TV and we have more or less unlimited channels via digital TV and the internet, the BBC’s production of decidedly ‘competitive’ TV and radio programmes seems less justifiable but somehow excusable given that it’s been doing so for the past several decades.

And so, we love the BBC for its documentaries and its worthy cultural content, and we ignore the fact that many show we enjoy, like The Weakest Link and Eastenders, are in fact perfectly possible outside of the BBC. Given popular sentiment, the BBC is not likely to stop making game shows and soap operas, so there’s nothing to worry about there.*

(*Except for the problem of the high salaries being paid to top performers like Jonathan Ross, which continues to draw negative attention from the media and the government. We’re outraged that a publicly-funded organisation is paying such a high salary to anyone, but it’s mainly because the BBC is competing with the commercial sector, and in the commercial sector, salaries can reach into the millions).

Putting aside the BBC’s anti-competitiveness for a moment, there are two other big problems.

The first is the issue of the TV licence fee and its murky future in a digital world. The second is the fear and lack of understanding the BBC’s upper echelons have of the rapid shift in audience attention to interactive forms of media and entertainment; that is, games. Continue reading “The Death of the BBC”

Briefly, on British politics

In case you aren’t in the UK or haven’t been following the news lately, there is something of a crisis in British politics. Partly caused by an expense scandal in which some MPs have been making rather dubious claims, the Labour government is now seeing cabinet ministers resigning more or less every single day. Forget about Obama’s speech in Cairo, or a plane crashing in the Atlantic – the one thing that’s on our TV screens every hour of every day is the political crisis. To be fair, we also had the local and European elections yesterday, but in this country, if it’s not a general election, it’s not a real election.

On confusing party and government

The response by Labour party MPs and activists to the resignation of cabinet ministers and/or rebel MPs is typically, “How dare they harm our party’s chances in the elections!” Take this quote from the Guardian:

The Labour MP for Chorley, Lindsay Hoyle, said grassroots members were angry at the “treacherous behaviour” of senior figures such as former communities secretary Hazel Blears.

“People are also bitterly disappointed with James Purnell [former work and pensions secretary]. More consideration should have been given to the damage this is causing the party.”

What Lindsay Hoyle doesn’t seem to realise here is that most people don’t care about the damage that James Purnell has caused to the party, because no-one actually cares about the Labour party any more. This is not an idle claim; it looks like Labour attracted a mere 23% of the local election vote today. Granted, people often use local elections as a protest vote, but 23% is disastrous any way you look at it. Less than 1 in 4 voters ticked the box for Labour today. No-one cares about damage to the Labour party.

The astonishing thing is that MPs are using this language in public at all. If this were America, you’d have people saying ‘James Purnell is damaging this country by walking out now’, etc, rather than being so tone deaf about what voters care about.

On cabinet reshuffles

It seems like there’s a cabinet reshuffle every year or so. I find the nature of these reshuffles to be mystifying. How on earth is any minister supposed to do a proper job if they keep on moving around so often? What makes a Health Secretary a good Home Secretary? Why does an Agriculture Secretary make a good Foreign Secretary? Why is it so difficult to keep these guys in a job longer than two years? Everyone knows how much inertia the civil service has, surely the longer someone is in a job, the more chance they have of effecting coherent and working policy. I note that the US seems to get along perfectly well by appointing Secretaries for four year stretches at a time, with much less drama.

On poor government and apathy

Stuart Ian Burns wrote today:

Basically, we’re screwed. When Gordon Brown eventually goes (and under normal circumstances he should), there’s no one to take his place, at least no one better (better than that?). The Tories will win the next election either way and they’re going to be just as rubbish, and all along, those of us who are desperate for something to believe in are going to continue to be sidelined in favour of greed and make-do and mend and the usual lies and spin.

If the Tories will the next election – and they probably will – it’s because, for most people, there is no viable alternative.

Why is there no viable alternative? It’s not because there is no ‘British Obama’. Of course there is the potential for a intelligent, charismatic and inspirational leader in the UK – there are 60 million people in this country, I find it hard to believe there isn’t someone out there who could do the job. No, I think there are two problems.

The first is that the British electorate are cynical and apathetic. It’s true. Exactly why this is the case is down to a combination of factors, including the political system, our country’s history and age, the media, and the current political climate. But I don’t think that we always have to be cynical and apathetic. There’s a reason people were obsessed with the US election last year – it’s because we wanted it. We wanted to be excited. I want to be so inspired that I’ll go out every weekend knocking on doors and calling people up and posting leaflets about a candidate I care about, a candidate who I think can really make a powerful, historical difference.

People will do that. It wouldn’t even take that much convincing – we already have a perfect model to follow. What I find laughable are the craven attempts of both the Conservatives and Labour party to imitate Obama’s grassroots and online strategy. They just don’t get it. You can’t just whack up a Facebook page and Daily Kos-like site, and expect people to take part; there needs to be substance and hope behind the structure. It’s like people who expect ‘social media’ to suddenly make their products successful – you’ve got to have a good product first.

The second problem is the structure of British party politics. As I am repeatedly told, we have a Parliamentary system here, not a Presidential system, and that’s why we don’t have public primaries to elect party leaders (and thus Prime Ministers). But that’s not a good reason – it’s just an explanation of a poor system. In any case, it is largely the MPs of the political parties who determine who their leader will be. What’s more, the existence of party lists means that prospective MPs are often parachuted into safe seats, for which they have to do pretty minimal campaigning and don’t have to face a primary challenger.

I gather that this may be changing with the Conservatives (I need to check the details) but the point is that the closed nature of party politics is such that a putative British Obama would have a hard time at becoming an MP, let alone party leader.

What’s the solution? My crazy idea is that the Liberal Democrats should decide to go for broke this election – they’re not going to win anyway, so they might as well try anything. First, they should cede power to the entire public (not just party members) in electing both MPs and the party leader. Then, they start a massively local and grassroots campaign to find out what people actually care about – and do this not simply by holding town hall meetings that no-one actually goes to, but doing a simultaneous door-stop/leaflet/online campaign. Next, harness the energy of young people (who are hopefully inspired by this) to ‘do an Obama’. It may not work, but at least they’ll have given it a real try. Of course, this all relies on having an inspiring leader, and while I don’t have a real beef against Nick Clegg, he’s no Obama.

Still, it’s an idea.

My Daily Read

“You’re better off reading a bunch of blogs than most columnists.” – me, earlier today.

Every time I open the Guardian, or the Times, or any other newspaper, I am disappointed by the poor quality of the columns and editorial. For the most part, they’re barely-informed polemics that are constrained by word limits and motivated by shock-value. If the authors ever were good writers (and to be fair, many of them were), they’ve had the life sucked out of them by having to churn out their column, week in and week out, for years. With a commercial need to cater to a mass audience, authors cannot indulge their own interests and instead lazily rehash their own mundane experiences (‘I waited a whole 30 minutes for a bus yesterday!’).

I could go on, but Stephen Fry describes the problem much better (and funnier) than I could in his podcast on commentary and opinion in journalism. My point is that I would rather read nothing at all than most newspaper columns.

So where do I go for my daily dose of commentary and opinion? Weblogs. Let’s skip past the obvious fact that most weblogs are of little interest to more than a tiny, personal audience and get to the main point – which weblogs are good?

Now, if you’re like me and have been using RSS readers to subscribe to weblogs for years, you’ve may have heard of these. But most people don’t even know what RSS means, so I think it is actually quite useful to list these:

  • Marginal Revolution: There are many well-written economics blogs out there, but Marginal Revolution, written by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, combine an easy readability with a sharp analytical bent. The blog is supremely up-to-date, and even better, links to the outstanding posts from other ‘econblogs’. Like the best blogs, it occasionally strays from its main topic to cover literature, history and entertainment; for example, see a post on how to survive if suddenly transported back to 1000 AD. It beats any other economics commentary I’ve read; the only problem is that it’s US-centric.
  • 3quarksdaily: Despite its name and intention to be a ‘one-stop intellectual surfing experience’, 3quarksdaily remains on my list of daily reads due to its commentary and links on non-Western politics. The depth of thought there is a refreshing change from the frequently breathless and hasty commentary found on other blogs, and I find it to be a excellent antidote to typically Western views. I do have to admit that I skip at least half of the posts (let’s face it, art is just not my top interest), but those I do read are worth it.
  • Arts and Letters Daily: It doesn’t get much better than A&L Daily – these guys post three links every single day to the very best articles, book reviews and opinion from around the world, whether it’s from a newspaper, magazine, journal, weblog or video. They might not be the most timely of blogs, and they don’t write anything themselves, but if you ever find yourself bored and in need of intellectual stimulation, A&L Daily is perfect.
  • Fafblog: Now, Fafblog is a special case. Firstly, he (it?) barely updates weekly, let alone daily. Secondly, he was recently recruited for the Guardian’s Comment Is Free section, which somewhat contradicts my earlier point. In any case, Fafblog is without doubt the funniest political commentator on the web. You can forget The Onion – that’s for students. This is the real deal. Just check out the classic post, In case of Emergency.
  • FiveThirtyEight: Now that the US election is over, there is admittedly less point in reading FiveThirtyEight. However, during the months preceding it, this weblog provided consistently clear, informed and analytical commentary on the election race. Unusually, the author, Nate Silver, also performed some of the best polling analysis in the world, and was a frequent guest on various news networks. It was basically pointless reading any other polling predictions whatsoever – FiveThirtyEight was widely acknowledged as being the best, and in any case was happy to link to other interesting blogs.
  • The Iceland Weather Report: Are supermarkets in Iceland really running out of food? What’s going on with the riots? Is everyone really depressed over there? You could read an article written by someone who’s visited the country for two days and knows nothing about the place, or you could read a clear-headed weblog from someone who lives there, and even better, can write extremely well. Your choice.
  • Cosmic Variance: New Scientist? Don’t make me laugh. Scientific American? I can barely stay awake. Cosmic Variance is really the best place I’ve found for news and commentary about physics, space and other hard sciences; it’s engagingly-written, and is great for scientists and ‘laypeople’ alike.

I have about 70 other feeds I subscribe to, but most of them are just pure news. I also read most of the New York Times every day, which occasionally has decent columns, and the New Yorker, The Atlantic, and the Economist.

I actually tried, unsuccessfully, to unsubscribe from the Economist a few weeks ago, after I became yet again enraged by its smarmy, supercilious tone, and seeming indifference to being completely and utterly wrong every single week – but then I discovered the unsubscription process was a little more circuitous than I first thought. I also grudgingly admitted that it had some interesting reporting from around the world, but I’m not terribly happy about it and am considering swapping it with the London Review of Books.

In case you think I’m freeloading, I probably pay more for my reading than 95% of the UK population, given that I subscribe to the Economist, New Yorker and Atlantic. I would pay for the New York Times as well, but it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense given the distance (however, when an eBook version arrives, I’ll be there).

It is also worth noting that all of the blogs I’ve mentioned do not charge their readers anything. Yes, believe it or not, there are people out there who are prepared to make gifts of their writing.

Democracy Scorned

The energy and public participation in the 2008 US Election has made many in the UK very jealous, and is raising questions about, say, why we don’t have primary contests to choose party leaders. Here’s how leadership contests currently work:

  • Conservatives: MPs choose two candidates, who party members can then vote on
  • Labour: the totality of party member votes represent only one-third of all votes counted. The other two-thirds are made up by MPs and MEPs, and members of affiliated organisations, i.e. unions.

Both processes are laughable, although to be fair, the Conservative leadership contest gives a little more power to party members. Not that the party wants it that way – a proposed change in rules to restrict leadership votes to MPs was only narrowly defeated in 2005. Why did they want to change the rules?

Some have argued that party members are unrepresentative of the electorate at large and are prone to elect a leader reflecting their views rather than those of the country at large.

Oh, the irony. I find it darkly amusing that UK political parties are simultaneously upset about their unrepresentative party membership, and bewildered about the massive drop in party membership, when members are completely disenfranchised.

I don’t hold out much hope for either party opening up any time soon, so I’ve been interested in other avenues. One avenue is the reform of the House of Lords. As most people know, the second chamber of the UK is not elected; instead, Lords are appointed by the political party in power. Pretty much everyone, with the exception of some Bishops, agree that the House of Lords should be directly elected (and called a Senate), which is a refreshing outbreak of sanity.

Exactly how they should be elected has been debated for about a decade, and the current thinking is recorded in this surprisingly readable white paper, An Elected Second Chamber: Further reform of the House of Lords. It was generated by a cross-party group, and it presents a reasonably clear consensus, which is also refreshing, except for two main problems.

The first is that the reform process has stalled since the Labour Party don’t want to do anything until after the next election, which will probably be in 2010. The second is that, on close inspection, the recommendations for reform would – once again – disenfranchise citizens from the political process. Here’s how: Continue reading “Democracy Scorned”