Monday, 2 March 2015

Punctuated by weasels

It's been a while since I blogged about Hoggart's Law of the Ridiculous Reverse, so I'm grateful to Mr Scaryduck for drawing my attention to another handy tool for weeding out the stupid. This one is Betteridge's Law of Headlines:
... any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word "no." The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run. 
There are probably counter-examples but, in my experience, the tell-tale question-mark is a pretty reliable indicator that bullshit is present. Quotation marks in headlines are another signal alerting the careful reader to the high probability of daddy cow droppings on the road ahead:
There’s one thing that single quote marks in a headline almost never mean – that anyone has actually said the precise words they enclose.
I'm not sure whether there's a specific expression for quote marks which get wrapped round any phrase the writer fancies, in order to imply that somebody else might have said it, although this one will do for the time being. I guess the idea is just to lend spurious authority to something the writer just made up.

Alternatively,  it might be a case of a writer trying to maintain a bit of distance and wiggle room when making some assertion or insinuation that can't be backed up by actual facts (rather like Betteridge's rhetorical headline questions). If the stuff in quotes is later revealed to be nonsense, maybe people will just imagine that a big boy said it and ran away.

As for the separate category of passive-aggressive "scare quotes", these are a pretty good indication that the writer is presenting an opinion rather than a fact ("so-called").

Fortunately, there's some light relief from the dismal spectacle of weasel words punctuation cooped up in the narrow confines of a news headline, over at The "blog" of "unnecessary" quotation marks, where packs of superfluous punctuation marks can be seen roaming wild and free, just as nature intended.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Wolf Hall, office politics and a new world order

David Timoney's assessment of the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall is spot-on in places:
Portraits of Thomas Cromwell show a bruiser in the mould of Ed Balls. Though leaner, Ben Miles was closer to this, with a loose-limbed gait and accent that suggested both the commoner and the soldier. In contrast, Mark Rylance was too feline, though the screenplay made the most of this in scenes where he quietly watches events, sometimes concealed or paused on the threshold, acting furiously with just his eyes. The moments when he threatened violence were unconvincing.
I'm also on board with his thoughts about the lack of a bigger picture:
The sense of profound historical change, such as the social ramifications of the dissolution of the monasteries or the economic and geopolitical pivot from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, is entirely absent from the confined world of the court. History is reduced to the conservative notion of inter-generational debt: Cromwell's filial-like loyalty to Wolsey and his paternal concern for Gregory are contrasted favourably with the dynastic instrumentalism of the aristocracy.
There were plenty of of things going on during the transition from late medieval to early modern period that were a lot more novel, exciting and interesting than yet more iterations of the centuries-old story of royal reproduction, dynastic bickering and jostling for favour at court.

Our view of the Iberian Peninsular and the Ottoman Empire is coloured by our national story, in which the rise of English and British power around the globe is routinely contrasted with the decline and fall of old, enfeebled empires in these parts of the world. But in the 16th Century, the newly unified Spain was a rising power and the Iberian Peninsula was at the heart of an unprecedented wave of systematic exploration, discovery, trade, colonisation and (often ruthless) exploitation of hitherto unknown lands. At the end of the previous century, a mere two years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue, in a document of breathtaking ambition (and arrogance), the monarchs of Spain and Portugal agreed to carve up the entire non-Christian world between themselves.

As for the Ottomans, this wave of expansion in the west was, at least in part, driven by Ottoman success in the east. The completion of the Reconquista, along with the mariner's astrolabe, the carrack, the caravel and the nau gave the Iberians the some of the means and opportunity to complete voyages of discovery. Much of the motive had come from Ottoman domination of trade routes to the east, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and the search for alternative routes to the Indes. The Ottoman Empire itself wouldn't reach its greatest extent until the 1680s, so we need to loose our hindsight view, coloured by a much later history of decline and the "sick man of Europe" jibe. Like all political careers, all Empires and other power structures end in failure, but, given the brief span of human lives, any that manage to endure for more than a couple of centuries or so must be counted as successful in their own terms.

Then there's a marriage far happier and more fruitful than any of Henry VIII 's dynastic couplings; movable type printing wedded to an alphabetic script. Timoney's right to warn against the ahistorical conflation of this development with the much later appearance of widespread literacy at all levels of society, but it's still a biggie - vernacular Bibles and prayer books, grammars, books of mathematics, philosophy, statecraft and what we'd now call science, all circulating among the educated classes. And, more to the point, printed accounts of newly-explored lands to tempt merchants and would-be adventurers.

"Arabic" numerals were known in the Europe in previous centuries, but their use was spreading by this time - there is evidence of them becoming more widespread even in England from their appearance on 15th century monuments.

By this stage, cannons and portable firearms which had started off in China had made their way to Europe, via the Muslim world, and would eventually displace those medieval icons, the castle and the armoured knight. 

Of course, for most ordinary people busy working the land, or being servants, it was the same old same old, but the well-off and the movers and shakers were no longer living in Ecclesiastes World where 'The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.'

In contrast, the repetitive squabbles over dynastic politics, currying favour with the power brokers and succession crises which feature so largely in Wolf Hall could have been set in almost any any Medieval court (in reality or fantasy).

This sort of highly personal jockeying for power is really just office politics writ large, and this depressingly timeless familiarity may account for a lot of Wolf Hall's appeal. You'd have hoped that the despotic power relations of 16th Century would be unrecognisable to somebody in a modern workplace in a democratic, liberal society, but Nick Cohen's line 'Every time you go into your workplace, you leave a democracy and enter a dictatorship', often seems pretty darn close to the truth. At least the boss can only cut off your income, not your head.

I guess if you are (depending on your point of view) lucky, or unlucky enough to work in the executive suite of one of the big banks, things must be even more like a historical palace drama, with the heads of unfortunate underlings and whistle-blowers (figuratively) rolling, while the rapacious kingmakers and courtiers get on with the serious business of conspicuous competitive consumption, back-stabbing, deceit and looting.

But where would you start, if you wanted to make a BBC-friendly historical drama that focused on the profound, interesting and new things that were happening in the 16th century world? Maybe the big picture stuff would be best left to a documentary, but if I had to pitch an idea for a historical drama that focused on the unique and exciting changes that separated the medieval from the modern, I'd leave the court of Henry VIII and move forward to the mid to late 16th century. By then, England, like Iberia, was to ready explore strange new lands, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no one had gone before (no one, that is, except for the peoples who'd been living in the strange new lands for the last sixteen thousand-odd years but who, as heathens, obviously didn't count).

For a BBC costume a drama combining a well-known period and least one historical character with wide name-recognition, focused on everything that was new and exciting in the early modern period, I'd go to the court of Queen Elizabeth in the age of discovery. Main characters? That well-known swashbuckler Francis Drake and the extraordinary polymath John Dee, rumoured to be the 'intellectual force' behind Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe.*

Dee studied 'geography, astronomy, astrology, optics, navigation, nautical engineering, scripture, mathematics, law, medicine, cryptography', tried to communicate with angels, (leading, bizarrely,. to a spot of wife-swapping with his research assistant), was the 007 before Sean Connery and, as a cheerleader for imperialism, was awarded the rights to 'all newly discovered land north of the 50th Parallel, which would have given him Canada—had Drake gone any further north than Oregon.'

Forget fascinating stillness and  meaningful looks, this could be full-on, over-the-top, borderline insane Ken Russell territory. Naysayers might call it too nerdcore for prime time, but I'd call it an unbridled romp through a larger-than-life age with bit parts for Walter Raleigh, Queen Bess, that well-known patron of the dark arts and part-Time Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II and Will Shakespeare, for extra brand recognition. Pass the popcorn.

*Not having read Jason Louv's book (yet), I've no idea how convincing this claim is, but it would make for a great story.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Afraid of the dark?

A solar eclipse in March could plunge the country into darkness as the sky is covered and energy supplies are put at risk.

The eclipse will block out nearly 90 per cent of the sunlight in parts of Europe – with some of Scotland seeing 94 per cent coverage. And the electricity supplies might not be able to take up the strain, since so much of Europe’s power supply now relies on solar energy.
Screams the Independent. Because Northern Europe has always enjoyed a plentiful supply of reliable, uninterrupted sunshine, so its power networks will obviously collapse on March the 20th due to the unprecedented challenge of a couple of hours of slightly-lower-than-average sunlight and a terrifying two minutes or so of near-twilight (it's not even a total eclipse over most of Europe - you'd have to be in the Faroes or Svalbard to experience a total eclipse, weather permitting).

Spend the time you have left stocking up on candles, canned goods and firearms, or prepare to die.

Amid the general apocalyptic panic and tinfoil hattery, I must admit to being a bit disappointed with the headline contributed by the Daily Mail:
Solar eclipse could see 84% of sunlight blocked out over London. 
Really, people, is that the best you can do? Sunlight, as any fule kno, stimulates the production of vitamin D, which can help protect against cancer, so I was hoping for something more creative, like this:
Solar eclipse could trigger cancer epidemic
as part of the Mail's ongoing project to divide everything in the universe into things that cause cancer and things that prevent it. Have they stopped trying, or what?


Update - since I took that screenshot. I see that those lovely people at the Telegraph have used some of the space saved by not reporting wrongdoing at HSBC to add to the nonsensical scare headlines:
Solar eclipse to disrupt power supplies 

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Gossip and golden eggs

In 1821, John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, Whig Member of Parliament and heir to a huge mining fortune, added the nickname "King Jog'' to his other titles, after after commenting airily that 'a man might jog along comfortably enough on £40,000 a year' (it's hard to give an exact equivalent in today's money, but we'd certainly be talking about at least a million or two). I first came across King Jog when he got a brief mention in T H White's gossipy history of the period from the late eighteenth century to the Regency, The Age of Scandal.

White loved such gossip in high places, but also had this to say about its purveyors:
Their literature was one of personalities. Great thoughts on large political or moral issues were absent, leaving only the trivialities of life and the anecdotes about character which are the bane of serious historians. 
In this sense, the Jack Straw / Malcolm Rifkind scandal belongs in the gossip columns rather than on the front pages. The venality, complacency, self-importance and boundless sense of entitlement might make ordinary people angry with the individuals concerned, but does getting angry help, or do we lose sight of the bigger picture when the red mist descends? Malcolm Rifkind's self-justification, for example, might make many hard-up voters very cross indeed:
I think also if you’re trying to attract people of a business or professional background to serve in the House of Commons and if they’re not ministers it is quite unrealistic to believe they will go through their parliamentary career being able to simply accept a salary of £60,000. 
But, as Michael Greenwell points out in one of the most thoughtful reflections I've seen on the affair, it's not Rifkind's infuriatingly complacent assumption that of course he, personally, must be worth more a lot more than some insulting pittance like sixty grand a year that's the problem.

The larger political issue is that we live in a society where representative democracy takes a back seat to the notion that wealth, and anything else of value, is exclusively created by an elite class of gifted managers, the magic geese who lay the golden eggs on which we talentless moochers in the 99% rely. These geese must be fattened, pampered, petted and cosseted, lest they waddle off and take their god-like talents elsewhere, leaving the rest of us to starve as a result of our own indolent stupidity. If only we had more of these wonderful geese sitting in parliament, instead of ordinary, mediocre folk, we'd all be living in a rich, happy, magical kingdom.

Ironically, even Dan Hodges of the Telegraph, the paper that set up the sting, has completely internalised the belief system behind cash for access:
...they should earn that because they are worth it. Jack Straw will regret till the day he dies admitting on national television he charges £5000 a day for his commercial activities. But that’s what he can command, so like it or not, that’s what he’s worth...
...Forget the vacuous argument we need “more ordinary people in politics”. What we need are more extraordinary people in politics.
In short, he shares the ideology that underpins Straw and Rifkind's desperate self-justifications. But it's only a belief system and not a very convincing one, at that. Even Forbes, the parish magazine for the plutocracy, has noticed that faith that all we need is more highly-paid supermangers isn't very firmly founded in actual evidence:
They [Michael Cooper of the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business and two other researchers] also looked at pay and company performance in three-year periods over a relatively long time span, from 1994-2013, and compared what are known as firms’ “abnormal” performance, meaning a company’s revenues and profits as compared with like companies in their fields. They were startled to find that the more CEOs got paid, the worse their companies did.

Another counter-intuitive conclusion: The negative effect was most pronounced in the 150 firms with the highest-paid CEOs. The finding is especially surprising given the widespread notion that it’s worth it to pay a premium to superstar CEO... 
Forget the vacuous argument that we need “more golden-egg-laying geese in politics.” What Fairyland really needs right now is for more people to notice the non-existence of that new Savile Row business suit the Emperor just bought.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Disarming fanatics, one platitude at a time

The Flying Rodent does some good polemic and, more often than not, the guy has a good point to make. But, as you'd expect, I'm not totally on board with his takedown of this article:
I'll say this for Cameron and Obama - they at least have the savvy to spot that a militia full of murderers that attracts members by claiming to represent real Islam would probably be delighted if the US and UK to declared that yes, IS is properly Islamic and shit.
I guess that this must be the sort of "savvy" pioneered by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, the brainchild of that guy whose visionary interfaith talkathon has demonstrably brought so much peace and understanding to the contemporary Middle East. Sarcasm aside, I haven't noticed any peace dividend being paid out in return for politicians' investment of thousands of reflexive platitudes about respect for great religions and the reprehensible impiety of those whose supposed religious devotion manifests itself an a distressingly antisocial manner.

It's almost as if the politicians' intended audience was actually intelligent enough to realise that they might just be saying these sort of things because it's diplomatic to say them, rather than because they actually believe* any of the stuff that happens to come out of their mouths. I suspect that for your average, non-violent Muslim in the street, this sort of rhetoric is about as compelling as the " hard-working families" blather pols trot out when they want the rest of us to believe they respect us.

And the idea of Islamic State leaders and sympathisers being swayed by non-Muslim politicians parroting the obligatory "great religion" sound-bite is about as likely as Tory politicians being swayed by the Church of England's 'moral vision' thing, when True Believers in the Free Market (peace be upon it) already know that it is only 'easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God', if the rich man in question lacks the foresight to deposit his wealth with HSBC's High-Net-Worth, Tax-Efficient Camel-Through-The-Eye-Of-A-Needle savings vehicle, including complimentary travel insurance and a free in-branch Toblerone.

Maybe, rather than prattling on about "fundamental and deep respect" for people's sincere devotion to religion/England flags/other stuff that they clearly couldn't give a monkey's about but feel it's politic to defer to, politicians should just stick to talking about the stuff they really care about. Like what they actually got into politics to improve and how, specifically, they propose to actually go about doing it. And shut up about whether or not certain actions or attitudes fall within or outside the ambit of a belief system they don't actually share.

Some may think that such facile insta-respect is "savvy", but there are better words. Like "insincere", "patronising", "manipulative" and "ineffective." Stick to what you know and substitute substitute silence for half-truths and platitudes about stuff you neither know nor care about and, who knows, you might even start to sound more like an honest broker whose word can be trusted than a flattering chancer saying what he or she thinks the audience wants to hear.

*Although the Reverend Blair himself added a further level of deception to the twaddle - he didn't just peddle such platitudes, but managed to convince himself they were true.

Friday, 20 February 2015

I am Master of this College, What I don't know isn't knowledge

'"No religion is responsible for terrorism — people are responsible for violence and terrorism," Obama told delegates at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.'

One of the enviable privileges that religion still enjoys is the default assumption by public figures that all religion is good religion. Although those behind Islamic State (there's a clue in the name), are deadly serious about Sharia, praying five times a day, destroying antiquities that might be considered idolatrous, or which might hint at the religious diversity that used to exist within the borders of their self-declared Caliphate and cite the authority of the Quran or hadiths to justify their every action, we're supposed to believe that they're not really religious at all.

It's a neat rhetorical trick - all religion must be good, because any examples of bad religion are immediately re-defined as not-religion or not "true" religion. I suspect that if politicians were able to successfully pull off this trick for their own profession, their standing would be a lot higher. Politics would become a high and noble calling, because broken election promises, being economical with the truth, smears, demagogues appealing to prejudice and hate, corruption, gerrymandering, misleading spin, careerism and all the other things people love to hate about politics would simply be redefined as not-politics.

Amazingly, President Obama manages to pack even more wrongness into this short passage with the idea that individual people are the problem, rather than the ideology they follow, which is dangerously close to the mindset of the people he's trying to counter, who hold that religion itself is perfect and unquestionable and reserve their head-chopping "justice" for the weak, flawed, sinful people who fail to live up to its unimprovable dictates.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Fearful symmetry

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, according to Mister Newton. Although, it turns out that some reactions aren't quite as opposite as you might expect:
As the world gleefully awaited the release of Fifty Shades of Grey, Evangelical Christians were awaiting ... well, it would be inaccurate to call Old Fashioned the Christian version of the film, but it's definitely meant to be the Christian response...
...Fans of Fifty Shades might see echoes of that book in this basic plot summary. In both stories, a man with unconventional notions of romance and sex woos a woman, getting her to at least consider his viewpoint. Except in Fifty Shades, this involves lots of sex, and in Old Fashioned, this involves, well, no sex at all.
Brandon Ambrosino in Vox explores how the Evangelicals' cinematic response to this season's BDSM blockbuster ended up being an awkward mirror-image of everything it stands against, with celibacy and spanking respectively cast as revolutionary acts challenging the permissive/vanilla mainstream.  As any parent will tell you, you need to pick your battles and it often turns out that tactically ignoring some challenges is far a better option than launching an unwinnable counter-attack.

In this case, action and reaction aren't even close to being equal, either:
Since its February 6 release, Old Fashioned has brought in about $258,000. On its opening Friday alone, Fifty Shades pulled in over $30 million, making it the fourth highest opening night box office of any R-rated film ever, according to Box Office Mojo.
Fortunately, Isaac Newton was never a film critic.