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Losing touch with reality

It feels strange to live through an election period where a change of Government is forecast with—by the sober analysis of The Economist—99% certainty. While it’s democratically essential, even going through the motions of the campaign feels a little disconnected from reality, even before one considers the specific promises made by candidates.

Tonight, Julie Etchingham will host the first televised debate of this election, ostensibly between the two candidates who could plausibly be Prime Minister on 5 July—though it’s hard not to wonder whether more people ought to be involved if a 1 in 100 chance is considered ‘plausible’. It feels like false equivalence—not that I have a better suggestion. It also feels narrowly composed: the recent experience of Prime Ministers leaving office between elections shows us that the candidates are asking us to place our confidence in the leader selection process for each of their parties as much as in them personally.

On Saturday, the always-excellent Stephen Bush had a brilliant article in the FT Weekend exploring how British politics has lost touch with reality. He points out that both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer are guilty of promising things that they cannot plausibly deliver. It is this three-paragraph excoriation of Rishi Sunak’s failure to make even the simplest of changes that particularly stands out:

Remember, too, that Sunak has been unable to achieve some seemingly achievable policy challenges. Although it is early days, it is hard to see how any political party in the general election will manage a better argument as to why Sunak should not be re-elected than the one that came from the man himself. He described his failed attempt to ban future generations from buying cigarettes as evidence of “the type of prime minister I am”, and he was right. Rishi Sunak is the type of prime minister who, when he wants to do something, when it is backed by large majorities in both his own party and the Labour opposition . . . still can’t reliably deliver.

In this case, his attempt to bring about a “smoke-free generation” — the flagship not only of his attempt to rebrand himself as a “change candidate” last autumn but also one of his signature achievements in his speech calling the election — came unstuck because he couldn’t manage the simple trick of not expediting the legal change ahead of an election he didn’t need to hold.

Whether you agree with Sunak’s phased smoking ban or not, the difficult truth for the prime minister is that passing his ban into law was a public policy challenge with the difficulty turned all the way down to “casual”. Yet he could not manage it. Nor is it an isolated example. One of Sunak’s earliest initiatives was a push to teach all children in England a form of maths until 18. If, as looks likely, he leaves office in five weeks’ time, the country will be less equipped to teach maths to 18 than when he took office — because there are fewer maths teachers. There is no prospect that Sunak, a limited prime minister with few achievements to his name, is going to be able to keep the promises he is now making, any more than he could make the snow fall on Christmas Day and the sun shine in June and July.

In 2024, comparisons are inevitably drawn with the 1997 election. In the exit poll for that election, 57% of the respondents felt that John Major could be trusted, versus 56% for Tony Blair. At the start of the 2024 election campaign, 21% of respondents considered Rishi Sunak to be trustworthy, and 28% considered Keir Starmer to be trustworthy. Those figures portend poorly for Sunak, but perhaps worse for the population, representing as they do a complete collapse of trust in politicians.

We can debate how much of that collapse is attributable to a failure to keep simple promises, and how much to the criminal behaviour of some politicians. But it seems unlikely that the continued disconnect between political rhetoric and reality will repair trust—or that a fantastical television debate will do anything but further damage trust in our politicians.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, , , , , , , .

The importance of chat

Last weekend, I read a brilliant article in the FT Weekend about a call centre which receives emergency calls from people trapped in lifts—the people who answer when you press the ‘alarm’ button.

It was written by Aidan Tulloch, who I’ve never come across before, but who is clearly a remarkably talented writer of lyrical and absorbing journalism. It’s a truly absorbing piece that’s worth reading for the quality of the writing alone.

I haven’t been able to get the article out of my head since I read it, and during a conversation with a colleague about something entirely different, I suddenly realised why.

In England, as in most countries around the world, doctors must notify health authorities if they suspect someone of one of the diseases set out in legislation. This allows other doctors—like me—to take action to protect the wider population from whatever threat that disease might pose.

From a process mapping perspective, this is straightforward: one doctor has information that another doctor needs. There are myriad routes to streamline or automate the communication of that message. A lot of the time, that would be enormously beneficial.

But my colleague and I were reflecting on how much more there is, sometimes, to those conversations than a simple passing over of information. There can be relationship building (‘how are you these days?’); education and clarification (‘that really doesn’t sound typical of disease X, are you sure that’s a likely diagnosis?’); reinforcement of the value of the notification (‘what do you do with these anyway?’); sharing of situational awareness (‘we’ve seen a lot of these lately’).

It might be massively more efficient for Stannah—the lift company in the FT Weekend article—to make buttons in lifts that just send an automated notification of a fault. But they’ve clearly understood that there’s much more to the interaction than that core notification.

The surrounding chat can be as important, and sometimes more important, than the actual message to be imparted.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Health, , .

100% faithful

About a year ago, I wrote about liking the first series of The Traitors: an uncontroversial opinion, if ever there was one.

In the latest edition of FT Weekend, Henry Mance rips into the series, says:

The BBC could just as well broadcast monkeys throwing darts at a board. (With budget cuts, it probably will.)

It’s a fun article which is worth reading. Unfortunately, it reveals that Mance has misunderstood the programme.

His fundamental error, from which all the rest flows, is this:

In the game, adapted from a Dutch TV show, there are 22 contestants. Three or four are “traitors”; the rest are “faithful”. The faithful ones have to identify the traitors, and vote them off one by one.

Mance is confusing the stated goal with the actual goal for players. This is like criticising The Day Today for failing to provide a comprehensive news roundup.

For most of the series, the faithful have no incentive to eliminate traitors. Traitors are allowed to replace members who are voted off, and the end-game means that it is plausible to eradicate all of the traitors in the final moments. Attempting to sway people to vote off a traitor early on is a surefire way to leave the programme, as the traitors are likely to try to convince others to banish opponents to save their own skins. The better strategy is for the faithful to eliminate their competitors, people outside their personal alliances who they suspect may eventually vote them off, regardless of their faithful or traitor status.

Mance complains that players are reduced to making banishment decisions based on feelings, with no corroborating evidence: this is true in the early game, but as we’ve discovered, this doesn’t matter. It is not true of the later game, by which point the evidence from the murders and banishments gradually stacks up.

The psychological drama in the programme comes from watching people pursue other goals under the guise of trying to ‘vote out traitors’.

Mance says:

the show is crying out for a contestant to point out the emperor’s lack of clothes: “Hey everyone, we’re no good at spotting liars. So instead of accusing each other of treachery, why don’t we stay friends and just draw lots?”

He doesn’t realise that this is a surefire way for the ‘faithful’ to lose the game… and that, perhaps, ought to have been his biggest clue that he’d misunderstood the format.

This post was filed under: TV, , , .

Murray & Shrigley

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , , .

YouTube and FT Weekend

One of the reasons I, like many others, enjoy reading the FT Weekend is that it seems impossible not to learn something from every edition. Often, the lessons are unexpected.

Today’s edition has a magazine cover-feature by Henry Mance called The search for a non-toxic masculinity1

Much of the article focuses on YouTube and its influence on young boys. YouTube is a site that I only occasionally use. I’m not up-to-date with YouTube culture, and the article’s opening question—‘Do you know who KSI is?’—won a resounding ‘no’ from me.

But quite apart from the obvious, there were three things in this article that have given me new and unexpected perspectives—and ones that I never thought this week’s FT Weekend would provide when I started reading.

YouTubers are mainly blokes hanging out with blokes. One reason is that many began in gaming, which is predominantly male. “I’ve never seen a group of girls have a YouTube show,” a 12-year-old called Rose told me. Her friend Flo added: “It’s what’s normal now. It’s so weird.”

I had no idea that YouTube was predominantly male: in fact, I’d have predicted the opposite. I haven’t previously given it much thought, but I probably conflate social media platforms, which is probably a side effect of not using any of them with any frequency.

When I think of a ‘social media video’, the heuristic which comes to mind is make-up tutorials, dance videos and self-filmed videos of women on holidays. That’s probably partly because it’s this sort of video which is referenced most often in discussions of social media. But I suppose social media refers to a diverse range of platforms, and it’s foolish of me to conflate Instagram with TikTok with YouTube. Each probably serves different needs with different audiences and different popular material.

Of course, I’m culturally aware of Andrew Tate and MrBeast and Marcus Brownlee and Tom Scott and PewDiePie as hugely successful YouTube creators.2 Yet somehow that’s never filtered through to influence my view of what YouTube is, and what is popular on the platform.

Mance’s article has challenged me to think again.

In Britain, children aged between 12 and 15 say that they spend more time on social media than with their friends. One boy told me of Tate: “I feel like some of his stuff is really helpful. Some of the stuff he says is bad. It’s a separate part, that’s how I see it.” But the algorithm won’t make that distinction: it will keep serving up Tate videos, and maybe you will start agreeing with them. The influencers know that provocation boosts numbers. The algorithm pushes boys to similar, and often more extreme, content.

I’ve previously listened to an entire podcast series about the YouTube recommendation algorithm, but it was this paragraph in Mance’s article that somehow made me think differently about it.

For some utterly ill-informed reason, when I think of YouTube, I think of Google, and then think of PageRank. PageRank was the secret sauce of the original Google search engine, based on the insight that the more pages that link to a given page online, the more likely it is to be the page that someone is searching for. One of the clever things about that insight is that if you search for a subject on which opinion is split, the results are likely to be equally split: it essentially has an (obviously imperfect) inbuilt anti-bias feature—or, perhaps, a pro-populism feature.

The YouTube recommendation algorithm is engineered to do exactly the opposite: it aims to serve up videos of similar appeal to the one the user is watching. This naturally tends towards reinforcing any given set of opinions, and actively hiding the opposing view. This was the whole point of the Rabbit Hole podcast—but somehow, it’s Mance’s writing that has helped me to mentally re-categorise recommendation algorithms as something thoroughly different from search engines. I now see much more clearly why they are problematic.

I grew up before the internet was a thing. My influencers came on printed pages. Loaded magazine launched in the UK in 1994, when I was 11, with the strapline “For men who should know better”. FHM (For Him Magazine) relaunched that same year, announcing: “It’s a guy thing”.

To my generation, these magazines came as close as anything to suggesting what it meant to be a man. Loaded “captured the reality of what men were like when we were together”, its first editor James Brown tells me. Its ethos was summed up by the comedian Frank Skinner, who told the sixth issue: “I’ve never gone along with all this new man bollocks . . . I think you can talk openly about how much you like a woman’s tits without being sexist.”

Perhaps the lads’ mags ethos hadn’t faded; it had just moved online, fragmented and mutated. A secondary school teacher I spoke to drew the distinction: we grew up with casual sexism; what exists now is pseudo-intellectualised sexism. Tate doesn’t make lazy jokes about women drivers or overweight women; he preaches about the innate superiority of men and the virtues of physical fitness. And he may not be a blip.

I was nine in 1994: whether it’s because I’m slightly younger than Mance, or whether it’s just because we had different childhoods, I don’t remember these magazines having any real influence on me or my friends. Of course, we were aware of them, but I don’t think we really paid them any attention.

And perhaps that explains why I would never have thought about the continuity between magazines like that and YouTube content—nor the insidious differences between the two.

  1. The online version has a different heading: ‘What does it mean to be a boy online in 2023?’
  2. KSI has still passed me by, but now I know the pseudonym stands for ‘Knowledge, Strength, Integrity’

This post was filed under: Media, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

Five links worth clicking

The first in an occasional series of posts listing things I’ve enjoyed on the web recently.

The UK faces an energy crisis. Could nuclear play a vital role?

In this article for the FT Weekend, Jonathan Ford provides some great analysis and colour around the decommissioning of end-of-life nuclear power plants and the function of the Sellafield site in dealing with nuclear waste.

Everyone knows that midday desert sun can be harmful if one lies in it without protection. And everyone knows that moonlight is essentially harmless. Yet, moonlight and sunshine are made up of the same photons. The former is simply harmless because it is 400,000 times less bright than sunshine. Nuclear radiation can be like sunlight, and it can be like moonlight.

When I think of decommissioning a nuclear power plant, I think of dealing with prodigious quantities of radiation. I’ve never thought about the compounding effect of radiation on the other hazardous materials on site, such as asbestos: and, of course, the vintage of the estate being decommissioned means there’s plenty of that around.

Last year, I read Lorna Arnold’s investigation into the Windscale fire of 1957 which the Ford mentions at the start of this article. If you like Ford’s article, you might also like Arnold’s book.

And if you wonder what’s driving up energy prices, James Meek’s recent article in the LRB is revealing.

File not found

This fascinating article for The Verge by Monica Chin discusses the fact that younger people are unfamiliar with both the concept of directory filing in computing and the underlying metaphors the system represents. This is presenting particular problems for students studying STEM subjects where they need to use command-line interfaces, which are reliant on exact descriptions of file locations.

Students have had these computers in my lab; they’ll have a thousand files on their desktop completely unorganised. I’m kind of an obsessive organizer … but they have no problem having 1,000 files in the same directory. And I think that is fundamentally because of a shift in how we access files.

This rings true in my life, too. I’m the youngest of four consultants in our team at work, and the only one who doesn’t have folders in which to file emails. I rely entirely on search to find things, having made the shift after reading evidence that this method was far more efficient. Though I’ll confess that I recently moved from storing everything in Outlook’s ‘Deleted Items’ to storing everything in a gigantic ‘Archive’ folder out of fear that some system administrator might commit the heinous crime of deleting my ‘Deleted Items’.

However, perhaps indicative of my ‘in-between’ age, I still use structured directories for files, mostly because the search functions in the file storage systems I use are pretty poor. On Apple systems, I do use tags to cross-cut my directory structure (with, for example, a tag called ‘Work – needs updating’ and another called ‘Work – quick reference’) but I’m mostly a file-structure kind of person.

I wonder if this is something me and my colleagues need to rethink. We have an intricately structured shared drive at work, and yet I note that many of my (mostly younger) colleagues have desktops resembling that described by Peter Plavchan in the above quotation. Maybe we need a collective system that’s more searchable and less navigable. Though, of course, the latter is the problem: a ‘big bucket’ approach to file management isn’t great for discovery, or for going back years later to locate something vaguely recollected which was created by someone who has since left the organisation.

I’m very forgetful. I can lead big projects and, within a year, forget that I’ve done them. If I regularly had to encounter an email directory structure that referenced the project, maybe I’d retain the knowledge for longer. Perhaps a search-based approach is poorer for mental retention.

Beauty and decay: inside America’s derelict movie theatres

This Wallpaper article by Harriet Lloyd-Smith may essentially be advertorial for a recently published photo book, but oh my it features some beautiful photographs of dilapidated cinemas by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

There’s beauty in the flaking paint, opulence in the rows of tattered crushed-velvet seats, stories retained in the defunct equipment and abandoned concession stands. Laughs, tears, screams and gasps live on in the crumbling cornices.

I’ve long been a bit of a sucker for this kind of photography. There’s something about the way it reminds me that “this too shall pass” that I find oddly comforting. Nothing lasts forever.

A piano down a mine

This Van piece by Hugh Morris is an entertaining discussion of comedy based on classical music: the sort of stuff Tim Minchin and Bill Bailey get up to.

The idea of good humor punching up is key. But mocking the conventions of a musical culture which is fundamentally a bit silly—people dress up in old-fashioned outfits to play music from ages ago for a group of people sitting in complete silence—comes with a warning. While it’s easy to mock classical music’s foibles, those gags can easily be perceived as jibes or slights, which can then underpin whole ecosystems’ oddly negative behaviors.

This is one to click on when you’ve time to click through and watch the various cited routines, rather than just as something to read. Some of them were new to me, and others I was amused by revisiting. It also brought this delightfully silly story about an error in the Welsh Government’s coronavirus guidance to my attention for the first time.

For my money, the article could have been rounded out with at least a passing mention of Mozart in the Jungle as a recent(ish) TV dramedy in this arena which I very much enjoyed. What other series would invite Lang Lang for a cameo and overdub him with Daft Punk—to brilliant effect?

Bo Burnham: Inside

This Netflix lockdown special by musical comedian Bo Burnham is excellent. It was written, directed and filmed solely by Burnham in a room of his house, which seems an extraordinary achievement.

But still more interesting is how Burnham brings his occasionally dark sense of humour to the experience of lockdown life, and openly and frankly discusses the mental health aspects (including his own pre-lockdown mental health problems). This turns his comedy special into something quite moving, and surprising insightful, as well as very funny.

I know Bo Burnham isn’t for everyone, and indeed he’s never really made much impact on this side of the Atlantic, but I think this comedy special is well worth watching.

This post was filed under: Five links worth clicking, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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