Friday, 25 February 2011

Just because you can't see it, doesn't mean it's not happening

Before the media's head was turned by the much 'sexier' goings-on in Libya, you may recall there was trouble flaring in Bahrain. More on that in a moment. First - the good news.

Before Libya, or Bahrain, properly kicked off, there was a little event in Egypt which you may recall, and it's to that which I want to return for a moment. Listening to rightfully proud Egyptians speaking eloquently to the BBC in Tahrir Square in Cairo, in a language other than their own don't forget, was a lesson in the power of educated, determined and peaceful protest to catalyse change. The Beeb, in the aftermath of Mubarak's fleeing the country, found hundreds of people cleaning up the mess left behind by the protest, self-organised and without obvious direction.

From somewhere, diggers and heavy equipment had appeared to clear away burned cars and makeshift barricades. People apparently sported badges saying, "Sorry for the mess. We will build Egypt." Well they might be proud of what they've done. With very little violence, most of which in any case seems to have come from Mubarak's cronies, they have brought the beginnings of democracy to this most ancient of countries.

Would that the same had been possible in Libya, but there was a depressing inevitability about the descent into anarchy and bloodshed that's going on there. Gadaffi took power in a military coup in the first place, and was always likely to try to retain his grip militarily. The best that can be hoped for there is that it doesn't descend into outright and prolonged civil war. With any opposition completely crushed under Gadaffi's rule, is there even a credible potential leader among his opponents?

With grim stories of large numbers of deaths and widespread violence, and chemical weapons apparently at Gadaffi's disposal, it's only to be hoped that it doesn't go on much longer. But I wonder if the news media feel the same - how interesting it was to watch them basically abandon coverage of the trouble in Bahrain when a larger conflict broke out at the neighbours'. They couldn't wait to pack up their kit and hurry off to somewhere that may give them 'better' pictures. I haven't seen a single piece on Bahrain for at least a week, and I sincerely doubt it's just calmed down and gone back to normal just like that simply because the cameras have left.

Have the cameras haven't turned to face elsewhere because of some ghoulish interest in a 'proper' conflict? I fear there is an element of that. Or does the media only care because there are more British interests invested in Libya? I sincerely hope that all the Brits that are stuck out there get home safely, of course, but the question occurs, what the hell were we doing business with such a despotic regime for in the first place?

Anyway, whatever the real motivations are for the media to switch off in one country and focus on another, I really hope that when they eventually deem Bahrain worthy of their attention again, it hasn't turned into a little twin of Libya.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Power to the people

In Egypt, they set up barricades, burn vehicles, get the Army on their side and turn up in their hundreds of thousands to camp in the main square of the capital. We do things rather differently here, and of course the matter in hand was considerably less of a demand than complete removal of the head of state, but in our own way, people power is just as strong here.

We fill out an online petition, write strongly-worded letters to our MPs, get actors involved, and save the trees that way. The Government have climbed down on the forest sell-off, with their environment secretary even going so far as to say that they 'got it wrong'.

I strongly suspect that that's not how they actually feel, having stated my belief that they're idealogically compelled to see everything as something they could sell off. But they clearly do see the numbers of voters whose names were on the petition - over 400,000.

I don't, to be honest, care why they've chosen to do so. The main thing was the outcome itself, and the right decision has now been arrived at.

Monday, 14 February 2011

I wouldn't let it lie

Those of you who know me will not be surprised by the subject of today's entry, given the date. I write this in full acknowledgement of the fact that plenty of people make their choices on this with open eyes and informed minds, but plenty don't, and this is, in any case, my own feelings on the matter, so yah boo sucks.

Today is, of course, that most ignoble of days, St bloody Valentine's day. A day that should be marked down in infamy as the product of the avarice and complete lack of scruples about preying on people's emotional insecurities of the businesses which stand to profit from it. I know that it could be argued that by refusing so vehemently to mark the day at all, I assign an importance to it just as everybody else does, but my view on it is that, if you want to make any kind of meaningful gesture to your loved one, this is absolutely the last possible day of the year you should do so, unless it happens to also be your anniversary or their birthday. (Most unfortunate for you, if that's the case).

As I've always argued, if you truly care about somebody, if you truly want to make some kind of show of your feelings for them, surely it's better to do so when you think of it, when it's come only at your own instigation and because you just wanted to, not because you've been absolutely surrounded by constant advertising reminders, pink hearts, balloons, fluffy animals and the bloody like. Anything done on the same day everybody else does and only because that's when you're supposed to surely loses any genuine significance whatsoever, and just becomes the worst kind of tokenism, stripped of all its real meaning.

And if proof were needed of the real motivations behind this 'celebration', it's all over the place. A few minutes' searching on the web will bring up the research done by a local paper in Somerset as to the prices of a typical gift before and after V-Day. I quote:

"Ringing around florists on Monday, we were told customers would have to pay, on average, £40.38 for a bouquet of 12 red roses. But, when ordering to collect for this Monday, Valentine’s Day, they were told to stump up, on average, £57.66 for the flowers. The highest increase was at Worle Florists in High Street where 12 roses would cost 80% more on Monday than they do this week."

No further questions, m'lud. Eighty fucking per cent! They may as well have named it "Rip Off Desperate Blokes Who Don't Want To Be In Trouble With Their Girlfriend If She's The Only One Without Flowers" day. So, on any day in, for example, October, you get more meaning in your gift for a shitload less money. Or any of the other 364 days available to you, in fact.

So reject it. Ignore it. Don't satisfy the demands of Mammon for such a vacuous exercise in tasteless, meaningless, trite, pointless folly. Do something that means something on some other day.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Who gets the best jobs? Err, the best people

Unless you purposefully position yourself as some kind of crusading polemicist like Michael Moore, I believe it's reasonably common practice in a documentary to present balanced debate, or at least outline the opposition to your premise, if you have one. Every now and again, though, you see something which works so hard to show the opposite point of view that they seem to undermine their own argument.

I thought this was almost true of Richard Bilton's "Who gets the best jobs?", shown on the Beeb last week. He started out by claiming we're a society increasingly divided by privilege or the lack thereof, that we're retrenching to some kind of immediate post-Victorian position, even drawing comparisons early in the piece to "Upstairs Downstairs". He says that he thought that we were a society where jobs were given to those most talented and best suited to do them, but said that, "Evidence suggests I was wrong."

But some of the stats he quotes, and some of his case he studies, seemed to counter his argument to me. He states, for example, that while only 7% of children go to private schools, 60% of barristers went to 'independent schools'. Firstly, an independent school is not necessarily a fee-paying one any longer, so that's changed already and fuzzies the statistic, which needs better clarification to carry any weight. Secondly, while this does seem like a disproportionate number in that profession, it nonetheless means that 40% of them did not go to independent schools, a state of affairs I cannot believe to have been the case between the wars, for example. The Bar Council also now offers training to barristers to try to limit the tendency to go for applicants from better-off backgrounds, and 1,000 barristers per year go into state schools to try to demystify the profession.

He also cited PR companies, where as many as 30% of the staff of any given London PR firm can be entirely unpaid interns. He says, rightly, that living in London and working for nothing restricts the opportunities to people who can afford to bear that sort of expense in the first place. But that, I would suggest, is not a deliberate policy of the PR companies to 'weed out' poor people. I suspect they don't give a damn where their free labour comes from, provided they pull their weight - this is circumstance, not policy. And, in any case, so few of these interns go on to get a paid job at the end of their internship that they can hardly be said to be getting the 'best jobs'.

So, though he had powerful argument in his favour from the likes of Alan Milburn, I rather think he went too far in stating the opposite view. There was, of course, one thing in this programme which absolutely staggered me, and was quite the stand-out moment of the whole hour. A certain Peter Saunders, author of a book called "Social Mobility Myths" said at first, and entirely reasonably, "If you're bright, motivated and work hard, you will be, to a large extent, successful, almost irrespective of what kind of family you come from."

So far, so fair. It does rather back up what I'm saying about Mr Bilton's interviewees not really making his case for him, but then Mr Saunders went on to say, and I quote,

"There is an ability distribution across the social classes. On average you will find the ability level of children being born into middle class homes is higher, and that is what's driving the difference in occupational outcomes."

Now, despite this utterly stupefying comment completely contradicting what he'd just said, and in a weird, twisted way backing up the programme's central premise, this rather left Mr Bilton dumbfounded. Well it would, wouldn't it? It's completely fatuous to make such a claim. Now I freely admit to not having read his book, and am therefore making the huge error of commenting on his findings without seeing his methodology, but frankly, I don't care, because I seriously doubt there's any way of measuring this before the kids' circumstances have defined their achievements.

When the hell is this class-defined 'ability' being measured? Is it very young, before their education or lack thereof has kicked in? Because if it is, it's meaningless. Kids develop at different rates, so a seemingly dull toddler may blossom into a very bright teenager, and vice-versa, depending on their circumstances.

Which measure of 'ability' is he using? Intelligence comes in many forms, whether it's artistic, vocational or academic, and dismissing a kid who becomes an adult who lays bricks beautifully but can't quote Shakespeare or play the piano is extremely stupid. He may never have sat in front of a piano or been given the opportunity to read the classics. If you take a bright kid from a well-off family and dump him/her into a violent, poorly-performing state school, I seriously doubt his 'ability' would measure the same as if you'd put him through private school, and the same is no doubt true of the reverse.

As scientific claims go, this is a horrible one, and I can't believe it has any basis in fact - it's right up there with phrenology, astrology and the like and I find myself entirely unwilling to believe it. I can, frankly, imagine an entry in Mr Saunders' CV:

"1970 - Applied for position of Professor of Eugenics at University of Berlin, only to find the Chancellor had been forcibly removed some 25 years earlier and the course was no longer being taught."

So, to go back to Mr Bilton. By using nutters like that to back up (or not) his theory, and by showing too many examples of kids who've overcome their perceived disadvantages to do well, and professions trying to widen access, he thankfully left my belief that the best jobs go to the best people intact at the end of his programme.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Latest piece for Wonderlance

Forgive, again, the self-indulgence, but my latest bit for Wonderlance has just come out, here:

For anybody unfortunate enough to miss it, Wonders of the Solar System was the best thing on TV last year by a country mile, and its follow-up is coming out soon. I urge everybody to watch it, it's a truly eye-opening and humbling experience to realise how genuinely insignificant we are.

Friday, 4 February 2011

I couldn't make this up

This is going to sound like a long-winded joke, but I swear this entry relates a genuine event. On my way to work this afternoon, at Imperial Wharf, a bloke (I assume it was a bloke) boarded the train in a full gorilla outfit, full headgear, the works. He also had on a boiler-suit type all black one-piece over the top, from the sleeves of which poked the fur of the gorilla suit arms, like some kind of bizarrely over the top return cuffs. On top of that he had a normal coat, a rucksack and a shopping bag. I assumed he was going to busk for our money, but no. He just took a place on the train like every other commuter and stood there in silence.

The three kids on the carriage stared at him openly, but this is London after all, so everybody else on the carriage, after an initial sidelong glance, continued with their reading/conversation as if there were absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. The two girls sitting next to me did not even break their conversation to remark upon him.

He got off at Shepherd's Bush, passed through the barrier with an Oyster card and then lumbered off in the direction of Shepherd's Bush Green. I have absolutely no idea what business he may have been going about, and for all I know that may have just been a wardrobe choice made necessary due to everything else being in the wash.