Thursday, November 23, 2006

304th post - a brief review of British political blogs, blogging & AWN

Some that were once in my list of political blogs worth reading have now sadly departed, become sporadic or, like my own, grown repetitive and predictable. I started reading the things about a year ago but soon grew weary of the gossipy / muckraking sites which serve little purpose other than to denigrate politicians, amuse a few foolish fans and polish their authors' egos. Like talk radio and many message boards they provide hobbies primarily for ranters and dimwits.

But there is also much good, thoughtful stuff around. For example probably at least a quater of the posts featured every day on Bloggers for Labour are worth more than a glance. Too much football though.

It's about 330 days since this blog was launched so I'm about 9% down on my 'one post a day average' target. I'm pleased to have attracted hundreds of comments from scores of people and that very few of them have been abusive. Many of them have raised interesting counter-arguments and some have led me to modify my own position a tad.

I've never made it above 100,000th on Technorati's rating, although I got very close once, and total readership is difficult to assess. But I can be confident that I have fewer regular readers than the popular / populist political blogs. They, in turn, have fewer than the least popular quality UK daily newspaper and even it reaches regularly only about one voter in a hundred.

Although Jon Snow did read my post about his birthday, claims for the influence of political blogging on either 'opinion formers' or uncommitted voters are highly suspect. Close to nil would be my estimate.

Blogging provides a good way of letting off some steam, testing one's arguments and discovering a few like-minded and some unlike-minded people around the world. It's made me admire a little more the commentators who can churn out quality stuff week after week even when there's very little of interest around to comment on. But, in a curious reversal of conventional journalism, there seem to be more writers than readers in the blogosphere.

As Eddie Warring used to say at the end of his idiosyncratic summaries of Saturday afternoon's rugby league on Grandstand: 'and that's all yer getting'...

Global warming is caused mainly by electricity generation, not transport...

... writes Anatole Kaletsky in the Times today. Attacking Chelsea Tractor drivers and frequent flyers may bring a nice warm glow to the hearts of some in the environmental movement but it doesn’t really help to address the issue. In practice it probably has the reverse effect because such campaigners, seen more as envious and anti-business than pro-climate, make themselves more likely to be ignored.

He writes about the go-ahead being giving "to build the world’s first nuclear fusion reactor [which] could pave the way to commercial availability of electricity from nuclear fusion by around 2045". So too late for me then, malheuresment. But, as he says, that still leaves the issue of what to do in the shorter term.

Noting that "the rational response to global warming is not to find ways of stifling economic growth or curbing travel. It is to accelerate technological advance" he identifies that "the top priority should ... be to develop less-polluting methods of power generation". Quite right, slowing down the world economy would guarantee far more premature death and suffering than even the most alarmist predictions about climate change anticipate.

Renewables alone can’t, alas, bridge the electricity gap but they could meet about a fifth of our needs. The rest will have to come from "nuclear [fision] or more expensive clean coal technologies". But clean coal needs more research and development funding. This would be something really worth demonstrating about but probably isn’t sexy enough to draw the crowds...

Gloucester's Christmas lights switch-on ceremony to go ahead although the lights aren’t there yet

Oh dear. "Some of the lights are still being manufactured in Slovakia" and others have only got as far as Lancashire. But "an illuminated snowman and polar bear [will be supplied] as a gesture of goodwill". So that should cheer things up a tad.

If only there was a way to pin the blame on the penny-pinching Tories now in charge of the City...

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Independent abandons paid for Internet content – good news or another sign of doom?

The Independent newspaper’s web site seems quietly to have dropped its ‘Portfolio’ service which restricted access to most of its comment and editorial pieces. The access fee was a fairly modest fifty pounds a year but I guess it wasn’t generating enough revenue to justify the additional complexity.

I get the Indy’s daily e-mail and this week the little p symbol that showed the restricted content has disappeared. But I’ve not found any announcements to explain its absence.

Thing is, is this good or bad news? In the short term it’s good for freeloaders like me who could never quite bring themselves to subscribe. My logic was that there was too much good stuff on three other quality papers’ sites for me to read for free in a day anyway.

But what about the longer term? The Indy’s pretty adept at spinning news into doom and gloom if it suits its editorial stance so how about this viewpoint? If no one can make money out of putting quality writing onto the Internet won’t the quantity of quality writing inevitably reduce? Newspaper finances are pretty shaky already and getting worse as conventional readership and advertising declines. All Britain’s quality papers rely to some extent on the largess of their proprietors.

The chances of another quality paper being successfully launched are vanishingly close to zero, much more likely is the demise of one or more of the existing titles. We could be in for an accelerating decline in quality as the remaining papers position themselves to attract more readers. Optimists will point to all the stuff writen in the blogosphere but the quality of it would be rated as highly as ‘variable’ only by a kindly soul; the truth is most of it is garbage. And why should it be otherwise? How can a bunch of generally ill-informed amateurs hope to compete with people who do it for a living?

We may end up with much more choice but nothing worth choosing; a bit like multi-channel TV some gloom-mongers might opine....

Monday, November 20, 2006

Why is it so difficult even for EU passport holders to enter the UK?

It’s incredibly easy to get from France to Switzerland; you hardly even have to slow down driving past the border posts. It’s even easier to get from France to Spain, Italy or any of the fourteen other countries that are part of the Schengen agreement.

Yet entering Britain from France can consume lodsa time. Is there any evidence that the ‘jobsworth’ style checks at our ports and airports do any good? Given that the carriers will already have checked all the passengers’ passports is it really essential that someone British repeats the process? Couldn’t these people be better (and, for them, more interestingly) employed on other border control tasks?

All the pre-2004 members of the EU except Britain and Ireland are members of the Schengen agreement which gives people freedom of movement once they’re inside the area. Iceland and Norway have also signed up. Switzerland isn’t a member but still seems to survive despite border controls that allow thousands of people to pass freely each day.

Is it something to do with being an Island nation or another example of our not quite whole-hearted approach to Europe? Perhaps we just like creating employment opportunities for petty bureaucrats! The photograph shows me with one foot (probably) in France and the other (possibly) in Spain. Note the French footpath signs to my left and the Spanish ones to my right. I’m pictured astride the GR10 atop the Pyrenees and there isn’t a uniformed official to be seen...

When there’s nothing to fret about, we fret about nothing. Surveillance, am I bothered?

We live in easy times at least in comparison with earlier generations and if we’re lucky enough to live in the prosperous third of the world. Yet, if you believe some reports, people have never before been so worried.

There’s a good evolutionary case to explain why, as a species, we’re slightly pessimistic and cautious. Our ancestors would have had a better chance of survival with these characteristics than their more gung-ho cousins who would have gone rushing out only to be eaten by lions or suchlike. Of course the real pessimists would never have left the cave and would have starved before getting much chance to pass on their genes.

Now, thanks to the wonders of a liberal market economy, entrepreneurial writers can make a fairly comfortable living out of being gloomy. Professional pessimists such as Henry Porter, to name but a few, are well rewarded for filling comment columns and our airwaves with dismal stories.

He was at it again in the Observer yesterday and today his agent got him onto Radio Four’s Start the Week programme to plug his programme on More 4 (not Channel 4 as Andrew Marr seemed to think) this evening.

What a lot of fuss about not very much! Do we care if the ‘authorities’ know where we are? Is it a worry that someone could read an electronic passport with a scanner? Does it matter that Tesco knows my choice in wine, soap powder or ham? Not really, actually not at all...

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Google and the like, liberators or agents of the forces of darkness?

No question, the Internet is the best thing that's happened to the World in my lifetime. That IP is now dominant is a particular satisfaction as I was told by the strategists at 'head office' (who suffered horribly from the 'not invented here' syndrome) that it had no future when we started running it on our huge Local Area Network in the mid 1980s. Helped to reinforce my prejudice that strategists, like political pundits, are a fine bunch of people as long as you don't want to know about the future.

Will Hutton writes about Google, Wikipedia and all that sort of stuff today in the Observer. Although he lists dangers such as "it becomes easier to find information that suits your prejudices" I think he's an optimist like me about the liberating and democratising effect of widespread availability of knowledge and varying opinion. Most people are sane enough to be able to wade through the vast array of views and 'facts' on offer.

It's amazing that it now frustrates me if it takes more than a couple of minutes to find information that would have taken several fruitless trips to libraries and endless phone calls to establish even just ten years ago. I can find the lyrics to obscure songs that have been rattling around my brain since the 1950s; how can you put a value on that?!

I'm delighted that people from every continent have accessed this little blog. The most searched for things that have brought readers fleetingly my way are: Sego Royal (to a 23rd July post), Jack Dee BBC2 (19th October), JG Ballard on the South Bank Show (19th September) and two bits of hyped up hysteria which I mocked: whatever happened to Bird Flu (28th May) and 24 hour drinking law (25th January). I wonder why so few of the people have ever returned for more of my wisdom?

Talking of reinforcing prejudices, there was a lively little debate in the comments area of my previous post about political blogging. As I've mentioned before, one reason I'm relaxed about the alleged 'success' of rightwing gossipy blogs is that all they do is to reinforce a tiny group's peculiar views. If they go on thinking that their opinions are mainstream because ' all the commenters on Guido's blog agree with me', they'll go on turning off the vast bulk of voters. These sorts of sites are like extended suburban golf club barrooms...

Friday, November 17, 2006

Strategy adviser's critique of political blogs hits the mark

BBC News reports that Matthew Taylor is unimpressed with political blogging and suggests that it is adding to the "shrill discourse of demands" that dominates politics today. "We have a citizenry which can be caricatured as being increasingly unwilling to be governed but not yet capable of self-government," he said.

Depressingly he's correct to say that 'political' blogs "are hostile and, generally speaking, basically see their job as every day exposing how venal, stupid, mendacious politicians are."

It's certainly true that the more visited political blogs seem to feed only a sort of school playground need for gossip and to reassure the sort of people who lack influence or achievement that those more successful than they are are 'in it only for themselves'. As a part of grown-up political discourse they are about as useful as a beer glass in an earthquake.

How will you be celebrating fifty years of European Union?

By any objective measure the European Union must rate as a success. Despite its vocal, usually elderly, opponents (especially in England) there is little doubt that it has helped to boost Europe's economy and to keep the peace amongst countries with a history of being at war with each other on a regular basis.

It evolved from the EEC which started with just six countries in 1957 and had to wait until 1973 to become nine. Before it became the EU in 1992 three others had joined one in 1981 and two in 1986. Three more joined in 1995 and then ten in 2004. By the time the fiftieth anniversary is reached next year another two will have joined to make a grand total of 27.

It must be hard for anyone who wasn't alive then to imagine just how run down Europe was in the 1950s. Ravaged by war and by a dismal lack of investment before it, the industry and infrastructure were on their proverbial last legs. There was still much post-war suspicion between nations. Even in 1964 I remember seeing a poster of Labour's leader Harold Wilson declaring 'No German finger on the nuclear trigger'. He was anxious to convince the electorate that he was as tough as the Tories on 'foreign' policy.

Before it joined in 1973, Britain's economy was in a right old state. Of course it's not only being in the EU that has rescued our prosperity but it's certainly helped. It has, for example and contrary to popular prejudice, removed much of the multiple bureaucracies that bedevilled trade with our near neighbours.

It's a shame that so many powerful media moguls are against the EU. It's easy to see why they are though; they know that individual nations can't regulate multinational company activities on their own. But the EU is more powerful. United We Stand (as it used to say on the backs of some wartime playing cards I had when I was young (but I read it as 'until we stand' - oh dear) and all that type of thing.

Even though the ECSC had been set up in 1951, it is the EEC's formation that really marked the start of the European Union and it is that which will be celebrated next year. Of course there's a little row. Charles Bremner, The Times's splendid Paris Correspondent, reports how cross the French are about the logo (above) that has been selected - mainly because it's in English but they and others have managed to find lots of other niggles with it.

It took about 100 years for the USA to bed in and about the same time for its single currency, the mighty dollar, to become accepted. In comparison Europe seems to be doing rather well...

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is an international challenge; you can't just blame Blair!

Naive green campaigners calling for Britain to restrict flights or to close power stations such as Drax are seeking simplistic solutions to a spectacularly complex problem. Returning Britain to medieval levels of energy consumption, which is what the Green Party is, perhaps unwittingly, suggesting, would have a minimal effect on global levels of greenhouse gas but would lead to misery and millions of premature deaths.

There are some encouraging signs emerging within the EU. Today the Times reports on a proposal to impose charges on airlines that use European airports. This would be much more sensible that Britain taking unilateral action which would merely drive aircraft to other European airports. But, as the article makes clear, even this proposal won't be easy to implement.

Politics is difficult; joining a pressure group or fringe party is easy...

Changing ISP

Do any of my faithful readers have any experience of changing broadband ISPs that they're willing to share with me? Is it a painful process? I use an ADSL connection via a BT telephone line but I'm growing weary of my current provider mainly because of expense.

Any recommendations and/or warnings about ISP performance and/or price (including support costs)?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The environmental fundamentalist's battle with the climate change denier is like two religious zealots fighting

There’s a nice little spat running between George Monbiot and Christopher Monckton which again demonstrates how the climate-change argument has acquired the characteristics of a bust up between religious fundamentalists.

Yesterday the ever pompous Monbiot rubbished Monckton’s articles in the Sunday Telegraph (to which the admirable (apart from his views!) cassilis first drew my attention). Today Monckton, whom Monbiot sneeringly reminds us is a Viscount, replies in the Guardian.

I’m not a scientist but donkeys’ years ago I got a degree in electronic engineering (with Honours) from a (fairly) reputable university. Electronic engineering is basically maths with knobs on plus a bit of science. So I guess I’d be fairly high up any league table of the population’s scientific knowledge.

And I can spot some pretty basic hogwash in both Monbiot and Monckton’s writings. But I haven’t any real way of knowing which, if either, of them is right. My engineering training tells me to look for scientific concusses, the problem with these two chaps is that they look mainly at extreme results. I suspect the truth is somewhere between their positions.

As with religion people must latch onto a seemingly reliable person to guide them through unknowable complexities. But environmental writers are, like priests, highly selective in the texts they choose to interpret and jolly good at spinning them to produce the results that suit their flock’s desires and/or prejudices.

There are many in the ‘green’ movement who take a great delight in anything that seems to show ‘big business’ or the US in a bad light. Equally there are many deniers who prefer to bury their heads because they don’t want their comfortably selfish pleasures interfered with.

But, as any geologist could tell you, our planet is in no danger from mankind's activities. Some species, including our own, may be at risk but extinction is an essential component of evolution. It is only human vanity that leads us to speak about saving the planet rather than our own skins. If we were all wiped out tomorrow we’d leave hardly a trace in the fossil record because we’ve been around for such a short time. As John Maynard Keynes put it 'In the long run we’re all dead'; it’s being so cheery that keeps me going...