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The Nativity × Gaudí

I don’t think I truly understood the meaning of kitsch until visiting the Sagrada Familia today. It’s an architectural wonder. I found it breathtaking, spectacular, beautiful and hideous all at once. I’m very glad I visited.

This 2,383rd post was filed under: Headliner.

Winter sunshine in Paris

I’m increasingly of the belief that Paris is best visited on crisp, sun-drenched winter days, with fewer crowds, a cosier feeling to the café on every corner, and the optimism that comes of spring being just around the corner.

This 2,359th post was filed under: Headliner.

A brief history of bingo

Elderly woman playing bingo

In sixteenth-century Venice, some long-forgotten enterprising businessman came up with a new way to make money. Customers would buy tickets for a fixed price which would be put into an urn. Tickets representing things that people wanted to buy—“precios”, or “prizes”, such as silk, beads, cats, and horses—were put into a second urn, along with some simply marked “pacientia”, or “patience”.

After a while, sales of tickets would cease, and the trader would simultaneously draw tickets from each urn: those whose ticket came out at the same time as one bearing the name of a prize would win it; those whose ticket came out at the same time as one bearing “patience” would win nothing.

This became known as “lotto”, and before long, everyone was obsessed, as captured in the famous diaries of Marin Sanudo:

At present, in this Rialto district, nothing is done except put money on the lottery. First anyone who wished to adventure had to give 20 soldi, then it grew to 3 lire, then to a ducat. And the prizes were carpets and other things; now there are money prizes, 200 ducats, and a piece of cloth of gold has been offered.

As this business grew and grew, the draws got bigger and bigger, sometimes lasting days at a time and drawing huge crowds. Before long, people worked out how to piggyback on the lotto market to make a secondary profit: selling the rights to tickets at inflated prices once the draw had started, with the twin advantages of: the in-play ticket having a higher change of winning because of the elimination of smaller prices (essentially, sixteenth-century Deal or No Deal); and capitalising on the fact that people didn’t have the time to stand around to wait for the culmination of a multi-day draw. This market in second-hand tickets become known as “bagarinaggio”.

This game had sticking power, and—despite an early decline at the hands of over-zealous Italian tax reforms—is the foundation on which everything from the National Lottery to charity raffles to Christmas tombolas is built.

Lottokugeln fliegen auf blauem Hintergrund

Perhaps the closest modern analogue to sixteenth-century Venice’s favourite game is bingo. Unlike most other descendants of the idea, bingo retains the aspect of bringing large crowds together at one time in one place to apparently compete in an activity whose winner is randomly determined.

Before we go on… a personal confession. I don’t enjoy bingo: I find it interminably dull. We used to play bingo at home with relatives at Christmas when I was little, and I always wanted to be the bingo caller because being the player was so very boring. It just does nothing for me at all.

After a period being played underground—especially in the First World War—bingo was finally legalised in Britain in 1960. At once, the craze swept the nation. By 1963, something like a third of the adult population—14 million people—were members of bingo clubs. As high street picture houses and dance halls became unprofitable with the rise of television, they were often converted into bingo halls.

Perhaps because gambling was still a little unseemly, or perhaps to extend their reach, bingo halls often called themselves something else entirely: two large operators, Top Rank and Granada plumped for “social clubs”. It’s hard not to notice the similarity to coffee shops today: these frequently try and sell themselves as community hubs or venues for groups to meet, rather than merely shops that sell hot beverages. Perhaps it’s a necessary part of winning “heart and minds” to facilitate a rapid expansion.

Over the next two decades, bingo halls went from strength to strength. By the 1980s, national bingo games were being launched which networked clubs across the country together, and the first purpose-built bingo halls were appearing on the scene.

But in the 1990s, things changed. Bingo started to decline. This seems to be most commonly attributed to the National Lottery, but—to my mind, at least—this seems an unlikely association. It strikes me that there is a considerable difference between attending a bingo club with friends and the solitary activity of buying a lottery ticket at the corner shop. The bigger problem may have been that the average age of a bingo club member in 1990 was 62, and tastes had simply moved on.

Bingo hall after bingo hall closed—a fifth of all halls closed between 1995 and 2000. The decline continued into the new century, arguably hastened by the introduction of the smoking ban in 2007: industry experts estimate that some 50% of players previously smoked while playing, and many of them left when this was banned.

Also in 2007, in response to claims that the National Lottery’s huge jackpots had harmed the bingo industry, the Gambling Act allowed clubs to introduce games with rollover prizes for the first time. This led to much bigger jackpots: just months after the new rules were introduced, there was widespread media coverage of a £1.1million win.

Despite this—and perhaps giving the lie to the idea that National Lottery jackpots were behind the decline in the first place—the bingo sector continued to shrink, serving just 3 million customers in 2011. By June 2012, just 468 bingo clubs remained—and 16% of those closed by June 2013.

In March 2014, Chancellor George Osbourne cut the tax on bingo halls from 20% to 10% “to protect jobs and protect communities”—though given the moribund state of the industry, it’s hard to imagine there was much left to protect. It has had some effect: chains new clubs are opening, albeit in the single-figures after many years of double-digit decline. I suspect that club number have continued to fall on an industry-wide basis, but can’t find the figures to confirm this. Commentators claim that chains opening new venues is evidence of revitalisation of the bingo industry; I’m afraid I simply can’t see it. I can’t foresee bingo halls being more than a historical curiosity in a decade’s time. Perhaps I’m wrong.

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But, of course, there’s a whole other side to this story. Online bingo has grown exponentially over the last decade: there were 20 UK bingo sites in 2004, while there are 350 today. The lack of venue overheads has transformed the cost structure of the game: online games cost as little as a penny, and rarely more than 10p. And the industry’s expansion has heralded new operators, perhaps better equipped to compete in the digital world that bingo hall operators of old.

Many of the market leaders, such as Foxy Bingo, Costa Bingo and Cheeky Bingo are entirely new operators. It has been said that The Sun makes more money from its online bingo operation that it does from selling newspapers.

Allow me another personal confession: I don’t understand the appeal of online bingo. When given a free trial of a couple of sites, I could not have been more bored. At least in physical bingo, one does have to keep up with marking one’s tickets. Not so in most versions of online bingo, where either tickets are marked for you, or you are declared to have won whether you keep up or not. All of the sites also had chat rooms, but these were qualitatively no different to those that can be found anywhere online: they certainly didn’t strike me as a compelling reason to log on to the sites. The experience isn’t one I’d recommend.

The online bingo market seems like it is still nascent. The explosive growth of advertising for bingo sites is necessary as indications are that brand recognition and loyalty seems fairly poor: when Google changed its search rankings in 2013, it transformed the market. 888, which used to be everywhere, was one of the big losers of this change.

It’s curious that some bingo sites—much like early bingo halls—are starting to position themselves more as online social venues that gambling sites. It’s hard to tell whether this is a reflection of genuine demand, or a fig leaf to cover the desire to gamble as it seems to have been in the 1960s.

With the lack of interaction necessary in online bingo games, I wonder whether they are really “bingo” in the traditional sense at all. Perhaps sixteenth century Italian lotto has taken another evolutionary step; or perhaps online bingo—bingo without the time and concentration commitment—is today’s “bagarinaggio“.

In a case of history repeating itself yet again, politicians seem to be starting to consider online gambling as a possible source of tax income: just like the Italians centuries ago and the bingo halls of the 1960s, the market might be harmed by burdensome tax rates.

Really, I’ve no idea what the future holds. But one thing is certain: I’ll enjoy standing by and watching more than I’d enjoy a game of bingo.

You can read far more on the history of bingo in Britain in this fascinating report written by my friend Graham Soult for Two Little Fleas.



I was invited (though not paid) to write this post by a company marketing a report on Britain's bingo market written by Graham Soult for an online bingo comparison site, Two Little Fleas. Much of the content of this post is based on Graham's report: it is repeated in this post with kind permission. You can see the report in full on the Two Little Fleas website.

This 2,295th post was filed under: Headliner, .

BMA wrong to call for repeal of Health and Social Care Act

The BMA is asking members to sign a petition asking Government to repeal the Health and Social Care Act 2012. The leadership’s rationale is that the Act requires providers to compete, while the BMA believes that “collaboration and not competition is more likely to allow a greater integration of community and hospital services”.

I could not agree more: collaboration is more clearly in the interests of individual patients than competition, and collaboration seems at odds with competition. Yet I don’t think the BMA’s position should be to call solely for repeal of the Act: after all, the Act is not solely about competition. The legislation brought about many changes, some of which are working well.

For example, we are beginning to see the value of a new local authority perspective on influencing the wider determinants of health, as shown by the exemplary nominees for NICE’s local government public health award. This sort of progress can be found in many Local Authorities across England. To campaign for repeal of the Act is to surround this progress with a fog of uncertainty: repeal would reject this progress outright and move staff back into PCTs.

The Act limits the Secretary of State’s powers to intervene in the day-to-day running of the NHS. While the success of this has been questionable at best, we are beginning to see push-back against Government diktat. No one, except perhaps Lansley and Hunt, would argue that the NHS benefits from the Health Secretary holding operational control; yet repeal would reintroduce this.

The Act confers new responsibilities on NICE to support evidence-based social care. The Act provides the first (baby) steps towards regulation of healthcare support workers. The Act gives an unprecedented level of legislative support to research in the NHS. These may be small considerations in comparison to the problems of the Act, but outright repeal would (if I may mix metaphors) cast the baby and the bathwater both into uncertain territory.

How quickly the BMA seems to have forgotten the pain inflicted on our profession through restructure, job uncertainty, and redundancy. Excellent professionals left medicine — and especially public health — to pursue other careers, while others lived for years with the stress of the uncertainty of their positions. For the profession’s trade union to argue for yet another overnight reorganisation “so big, it can be seen from space” seems utterly perverse. Perhaps this is why, despite the BMA’s repeated urging, fewer than 4,000 people have signed the petition. Even if every signatory were a BMA member, this would represent less than 3% of the membership.

Repeal represents only a return to the past. It behoves professionals to put forward an alternative vision. For example, politicians refuse to discuss the threat to universal healthcare of having fewer taxpayers per patient as a result of an ageing population; yet the BMA is uniquely placed to devise a considered, collective, professional vision of the future of the NHS. To campaign only for repeal of what exists, and allow the next government propose and introduce yet another short-term model, seems to me to be a sure route to unhappiness.

The BMA should not call for repeal of the Act: this is opposition without a position. The BMA should identify the most insidious parts of the Act, and work tirelessly to scrap or rework them. But, more importantly, the BMA should thoughtfully advocate for the future health of the nation, not for a return to the systems of the past.



Versions of this post also appear on the BMA website and Medium. It's like it's hunting you down wherever you look, begging to be read.

I took the photo at the top of this post at BMA House in September 2012.

This 2,249th post was filed under: Headliner, Health, News and Comment, Politics, Tweeted, Writing Elsewhere, , , .

BBC’s Eurovision vote seems misleading

Mea culpa (13/05/2014) – Having sat down with a pen and paper, I now realise that I’m wrong on the below. The fact that the televote is used to decide between entries with a tied ranking means there are extreme results in which a country placed bottom with the jury can still score. I regret my mathematical error.

– – –

In 2008, the BBC had to dramatically halt the voting in the semifinal of Strictly Come Dancing. They realised that the judges’ scores meant that Tom Chambers’s position in the competition could not be affected by the phone vote. No matter how many votes he received, he’d still be in the dance off. They stopped the vote as it was deemed to be unfair.

Last weekend, the BBC repeated the error on a much larger scale. The judges’ scores in the Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final meant that Poland could not receive points from the UK, no matter how many votes they received from the public.

Asking people to vote when they have no chance of affecting the outcome is clearly wrong. Will they be issuing refunds to the thousands who voted for Poland – the UK public’s top choice?

This 2,235th post was filed under: Headliner, Tweeted, , .

Six reasons Sambrook is wrong about 24-hour news

Earlier in the year, Richard Sambrook (the former director of BBC News) wrote an article for The Guardian in which he argued that 24-hour news channels were no longer relevant in the modern world. This week, with news reaching The Independent that his thoughts are being taken seriously inside the BBC, I feel like it's time to put across an alternate point of view.

Here are six reasons I believe Sambrook is wrong.

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1. News channels don't need to break news first

Cable news established the 24-hour news habit, but today social media and mobile phones fulfill the instant news needs of consumers better than any TV channel can. Twitter – and increasingly live blogs of breaking news events – consistently beat 24-hour TV channels. Being first – the primary criterion for 24-hour news channels – is increasingly the least interesting and effective value they offer.

Sambrook is right to say that the ability of television channels to deliver lines of breaking news at high speed is limited in comparison to online sources, whether accessed through mobile phones or social media. But most online and social media outlets are poor at putting those lines of breaking news into context. Indeed, at present, news channels are equally poor at this.

In my vision of a news channel, a line of breaking news would appear on screen, in much the same way as it appears online. Perhaps, "Valco supermarket chain in administration". I don't need the channel to break away from whatever it is reporting to bring me this news – it can simply appear on screen. That is the benefit of the visual medium.

Then, within a short period (say within fifteen minutes or half an hour), the BBC can put one of its expert business correspondents on the air to discuss that news in context. They can tell me the relevance of this to the City, to individuals, and perhaps even bring a degree of response from their journalistic contacts.

There is no need to discuss the news immediately and constantly repeat a single line accompanied with endless speculation. Instead, the channel should wait until there is something to report, and report it in a detailed and intelligent way.

 

2. News channels needn’t conform to expensive norms

The infrastructure behind a 24-hour news channel is impressive – and formidably expensive. The biggest cost comes from having created a machine that has to be fed. Every 15 minutes we go back to our reporter in the field for an update on what's happened since the last time we visited them. Most of the time the answer is "nothing".

Going back to a reporter in the field every fifteen minutes is not only expensively, it's also irritating. There is no need to do this. There are two reasons news channels do this: to fill time, and to follow the structure of a conventional network news bulletin every half hour.

We'll return to the former, but the latter is simply farcical. There is no reason (beyond "it's what we've always done") for 24-hour news channels to follow the structure of a conventional news bulletin. There is no reason why we have to return to the same correspondent to repeat the same news every hour. This is a problem of the format, not of the medium. A much more open-ended structure is possible.

 

3. News channels needn’t carry everything live

Newsgathering becomes a sausage machine, dedicated to filling airtime. Hours a day are spent on live feeds waiting for something, anything, to happen. The editor can't risk broadcasting a different report or going live somewhere else in case he misses the start and a rival channel can claim to be "first".

Of course, there is no reason to do this other than it being what rivals do. Every Wednesday, I cringe as presenters on television and radio fill in anticipation of Prime Minister's Questions, which starts a variable number of minutes after midday. Every Wednesday, I wonder why no broadcaster has had the bright idea of scheduling a five-minute discussion previewing the content, and then starting the coverage, cleanly and professionally at 12.05, through the simple use of a few minutes' delay.

The number of people who are insistent on watching Prime Ministers' Questions absolutely live is probably tiny. I know that I, for one, would prefer to watch a slick production with informed commentary and analysis rather than an unedifying scramble every week.

 

4. News channels needn’t uselessly fill time

The need to fill airtime – and particularly the need to be seen to be live – means that in the heat of the moment questionable editorial judgments can be made. Everything seems to be "breaking news". In the last 12 months we've seen the BBC showing live pictures of an empty courtroom in the US, eagerly anticipating the sentencing of already convicted kidnapper Ariel Castro – a story of interest to few if any in the UK.

There is a need to fill airtime. There is not a need to fill airtime with live content. With 24-hours at their disposal, and with less of an emphasis on a presenter reading a single headline every time news breaks, there is much greater scope for in-depth reporting and interviews with newsmakers. Watch an hour of any 24-hour news channel, and you'll almost certainly see an interview cut short, often for no good reason. Allow these to be much more open ended, and repeat them (in edited form, with expert analysis) and much of the airtime will be filled. As with Prime Minister's Questions, make much more extensive use of live delays and on-the-fly editing to increase the standard of presentation, and to allow the programme to naturally flow.

Similarly, I can see no reason why these channels don't make the most of the available air time to show more "explainers". I think an occasional airing of an updated 15 minute background package on what's actually happening in Ukraine would be a valuable service a news channel could offer. And it would fill time at low cost.

 

5. News channels can show pre-recorded packages

The number of stories that are conveyed by live "as it happens" pictures is vanishingly small. Many stories – the economy, climate change – aren't best served by pictures; others (inside Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Zimbabwe) often don't have pictures available until days after the event; many more work better with a well crafted, tightly edited package rather than a live feed.

There is no reason for 24-hour news channels to be so focused on live pictures. Well-crafted, tightly-edited packages would be welcomed by viewers over somebody standing in the rain reporting nothing.

 

6. Sambrook's vision doesn't fulfill the BBC’s purpose

What might a reconfigured on-demand news service look like?

Sambrook's suggested on-demand news service (I haven't quoted his whole plan, for it is far too long) involves people actively participating in creating their own bulletin. This is precisely the opposite of what I believe the BBC should be doing.

We, the people, have terrible news values. The more the BBC tries to align itself with our values, the more it degrades its worth. We need to be told what we need to be told. We need experts to fight for coverage of their areas. We need to know what matters, not what we want to know. And we place our trust in the BBC to make those decisions for us.

If the BBC won't make those decisions, but will defer to us, then there is no point in the BBC existing. I can ferret out news that interests me from a wide variety of sources without the Beeb's help. And in the areas in which I have a particular interest, that's exactly what I do.

But the BBC, and its news channel, should be about expert contextualisation. It should be the outlet which says "actually, this isn't an important story, so we're not covering it in depth" more often that it says "sit up and pay attention, this is boring but important".

It should make the most of genuine experts in their field – including fields it currently covers with a laughable level of credibility, like science and technology. The BBC news channel should be the "news channel of record". It should cover things in depth and intelligently. It should not chase ratings, and it should not be in a race to read out lines of news with no context. It should not be obsessed with live coverage. It should edit, curate, and analyse.

 

 

In his analysis, Sambrook conflates the current output of news channels with the medium of news channels itself. He uses the argument that current output is poor to suggest that there should be no output. I disagree.

I think that news channels can be done better – particularly the BBC News channel, which doesn't have to answer to shareholders, and doesn't have to chase ratings. It should be held to a higher standard, and should drive the quality of 24-hour news up. The BBC should not abandon it altogether.



A version of this post also appears on Medium.

The image in this post was posted on Flickr by Ian Wright, and is used under Creative Commons licence.

This 2,229th post was filed under: Headliner, Media, News and Comment, Responses, Tweeted, , , , .

Drug shortages hamper lethal injections in the USA

I am implacably opposed to capital punishment. There are few issues on which I'm so certain. The state should not kill people. As I've said before, humanity is better than that.

It was only a few weeks ago that I learned that the European Union forbids the export of drugs used for killing prisoners in the USA through lethal injection. For perhaps the first time, I felt a real swell of pride at what seemed a surprisingly strong and principled stand. It is rare to see ethics translated to action on this scale.

But today, Owen Dyer's article in the BMJ (paywalled) has given me pause for thought. This excellently-written article discusses, in some detail, the difficulties drug shortages have caused for the lethal injection programme in several states.

Dyer's article talks through a number of horrendous botched executions, as well as the methods (some illegal) by which states have attempted to procure drugs for lethal injections. I found it a deeply thought-provoking piece. Towards the end, Dyer comes to this point:

Arkansas’ attorney general last year called the state’s capital punishment system “completely broken … it’s either abolish the death penalty or change the method of execution.”

Initiatives are now cropping up in state houses to return to more violent methods. These methods are not so far behind us as some imagine. The last execution by firing squad was in 2010, the last by gas chamber was in 1999, and the last hanging occurred in 1996. The last use of the electric chair was in 2013 in Virginia.

Is it better to bend our principles to supply drugs and assure a more humane death, or to withhold them and ensure a violent death?

The dilemma is complicated by the knowledge that violent methods have less public support, so may – or may not – bring about the end of capital punishment in the USA sooner than non-violent methods.

I tentatively lean in the direction of the greater good, and suggest that drugs are withheld. But it is certainly a complicated issue.

The quotes in this piece have been edited for length.

This 2,225th post was filed under: Headliner, Health, News and Comment, , , .

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