Archive: Politics

Bobby Fischer Against the World cover

This year everyone has been talking about the Senna documentary, including me. But while praise for Senna has come from F1 fans and non-fans alike, I have been more impressed by another sport documentary from this year — Bobby Fischer Against the World.

Chess may seem like an unlikely game to take to the big screen. But chess comes alive in this riveting documentary about one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century.

The term ‘flawed genius’ may be an overused cliche, but if it applies to anyone surely it is Bobby Fischer. The film tells the story of how a variety of factors contributed to a great man’s decline.

The centrepiece of the film is the famous 1972 World Chess Championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. The individual American took on the might of the Soviet chess system, which had dominated world chess for a quarter of century. This Cold War face-off had as much political significance as chess significance, as is cleverly illustrated through the use of archive news footage.

But the chess itself is never forgotten. The significant moments of the match are explained in a very vivid and accessible manner. I would guess that little or no chess knowledge is required in order to enjoy this film. The world’s most popular board game doesn’t have a sexy image, but after watching this film you wonder why.

But what stays with you is the tale of Fischer’s decline. This is where this film excels over Senna. It is a painfully honest assessment of the downsides of Bobby Fischer’s character. In the Senna hagiography, the driver’s flaws are only ever briefly brought up, and even then it is only to sweep them straight under the carpet.

In contrast, Bobby Fischer Against the World in unafraid to shine the torchlight on the enigma of the world’s greatest chess player who managed to alienate everyone he knew. At times it is painful and embarrassing to watch as a successful man becomes a delusional, anti-American, antisemitic and all-round offensive man.

In doing so, the film paints a genuinely complete picture of one of the 20th century’s most significant figures in sport. Senna, in contrast, only skims the surface.

I recently learned about a Twitter account that campaigns against Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee’s excellent culture hub in the centre of the city.

Typical tweets include:

[blackbirdpie id="124581248428548096"]

[blackbirdpie id="124933453421617152"]

I went to see Friends with Benefits a few weeks ago, and it was pretty awful. The highlight is one funny joke about iPads in the middle. The rest is just mush. No harm in that of course. But the great thing is that I saw it in Dundee, at the Odeon, which is about a ten minute drive away from the DCA.

It’s funny because I was only just thinking about how extraordinarily well-served by cinemas Dundee is. I live about a 40 minute walk away from three cinemas. Two are “mainstream”, and the other is the DCA, which usually shows films that the others wouldn’t. The DCA shows some films that I really like. While the two mainstream ones may not be in the “town centre”, at least they are there.

Where I used to live, in Kirkcaldy, no such luck. There is the Adam Smith Theatre, which shows a small selection of films that were on general release six months ago. Besides that, you had to go to Dunfermline, a half hour drive away, then drive to the outskirts of that to get to the nearest cinema.

Off the top of my head, I think I have seen six films at the cinema this year. Three of them were at the DCA; the other three were at the Odeon (one of these films was also shown at the DCA). Maybe it’s just a coincidence, or maybe I’m just a snob. But the three I saw at the DCA were by far and away the better three.

I understand the arguments against the public subsidy for the DCA. But the idea that, if the DCA wasn’t there, a multiplex Odeon would magically sprout up in the city centre, is a tad fanciful.

Cinemas are rare beasts these days. It’s no conspiracy. It’s because commercially it doesn’t add up the way it used to because of changes in society (for the positive) over the past few decades. With this in mind, I have felt lucky to live somewhere with as many as three cinemas nearby.

After moving to Dundee a year ago, the DCA quickly became one of my favourite things about the city and I celebrate its existence. The great thing is that, for those who do not like what is shown at the DCA, there are two other cinemas that are just a stone’s throw away (even if they are not in the “town centre”).

I would hate for the most unique cinema of the three to go.

I have created the Ed Miliband random statement generator. It took some pretty extreme coding skills, so I’m quite proud of this.

For anyone who doesn’t know what this is about, check out this astonishing video:

Yes to fairer votes

It will come as little surprise to long-time readers of this blog that I will be voting yes in the alternative vote referendum on Thursday. But now that the focus of this blog is less on politics, I haven’t actually written much about it. With just a few days to go, until polling day, I have decided that now is the time.

The deceptive claims of the No to AV campaign have been comprehensively taken apart umpteen times elsewhere, I am sure. But one section of the No to AV leaflet particularly irritated me.

No to AV finish line

It shows a group of four runners crossing a finish line on a running track. A big arrow points to the trailing runner who appears to cross the finish line in fourth place: “The winner under AV”. The message? “Awooga! AV is unfair because the loser wins!”

I don’t know a great deal about athletics, but I am pretty sure that there is a fixed finish line. The first person to complete the set distance wins the race. It might be 100 metres. In this photograph here, it is the man in blue who ran 100 metres first.

But what is the distance in a voting system? I have tried to work out what it is under first past the post, but I cannot tell. Here are some examples from last year’s UK General Election. Can you see where the finish line is?

2010 UK parliamentary election result for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath

It is pretty clear in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, where I used to live. With 64.5% of the vote, a clear majority were in favour of the Labour candidate.

2010 UK parliamentary election result for Dundee East

In my neighbouring constituency of Dundee East it is somewhat less clear. No party received a majority of the votes. Second-placed Labour took 33.3% of the vote. But the winning SNP took 37.8%. It’s not very cool. The SNP might not be what the majority of voters wanted.

Anyway, we have narrowed the first past the post winning threshold down to something between 33.3% and 37.8%.

2010 UK parliamentary election result for Argyll and Bute

But looking at the results for Argyll and Bute, the “finish line” analogy becomes really confusing. The first-placed Lib Dems took only 31.6% of the votes. But Labour had 33.3% of the votes in Dundee East, and came only second there.

In first past the post, the finish line changes position. In fact, there is no finish line. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get a majority of the votes. Theoretically you could get an extremely low share of the vote, far from a majority, yet still win under first past the post.

So which is the system where the loser can win?

Alternative vote sets a threshold where candidates must aim to gain the support of the majority of voters. A candidate is not deemed to be the winner until he crosses the finish line, which is unambiguously 50%.

(It is theoretically possible for a candidate to win under alternative vote without crossing that threshold — but only in unusual circumstances and after all other options have been exhausted.)

Alternative vote may not be perfect (although the perfect voting system doesn’t exist anyway). But it is a whole lot more desirable than the current rotten system.

It has become de rigueur for every election to have at least one online quiz that tells you how you should vote. The 2011 Scottish Parliament electon has Scottish Vote Compass.

I have not exactly found myself becoming hooked on the Scottish Parliament election campaign. To be honest, I care much more about the alternative vote referendum. Nevertheless, I thought I would give it a go and see what it said.

On this chart, I am represented by the star icon towards the bottom-right.

My position on the Scottish Vote Compass

It is perhaps no real surprise to learn that the Liberal Democrats are my closest match. The Greens are second apparently, although it doesn’t really look like it from the graph to me.

While I was at it, I decided to once again take the daddy of all political quizzes, the original Political Compass.

This time my score was:
Economic Left/Right: 0.50
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -6.51

So I have moved a bit to the left, and have become slightly less libertarian, since the last time I took it in 2009 — a reversal of the trend.

There was great excitement at work yesterday when I updated the University of St Andrews homepage to advertise some exciting news related to economics, which was my chosen subject in a previous guise.

A public lecture is being given by Professor Eric Maskin on the subject of how Members of Parliament should be elected. Very interesting in the context of the AV referendum coming up in May.

Pop fact: Nobel Prize winner Eric Maskin lives in the same house that has in the past been occupied by two other Nobel laureates, one of whom was Albert Einstein. He has also been known to dress up as Einstein.

When I was a student at the University of Edinburgh a few years ago, I saw him give a lecture on the same subject. I would highly recommend going along if you have an interest in economics, public choice theory or voting systems.

The lecture is open to the public and is taking place next Tuesday, 22 March at 17.15.

I was asked a question in the comments to the previous post by an “anonymous fan“. (A fan? Wowser.)

What do you make of the Lib Dems being in government and to what extent do you still support them?

I thought the question would be of wider interest, so I have decided to respond in a full blog post.

My previous three posts about the Liberal Democrats on this blog may give some clues as to how I feel. If you haven’t read them before I recommend you take a look:

Actually, just looking at those headlines tells a worse story than is actually the case.

I have supported the Liberal Democrats for a very long time — long before I could even vote. But I was only a member for a very short period of time — less than a year.

I joined the party mostly because of my involvement with the Dunfermline Liberal Democrats, which I did to keep myself out of trouble before I found myself a job. But I didn’t use my membership very much. I voted in the Mid Scotland and Fife list selection. But beyond that, the annual subscription would just have represented money down the drain in exchange for a flimsy membership card. My decision not to renew was driven by apathy and laziness, not anger.

Why I am at ease

I am not angry with the Liberal Democrats. In fact, I am sure I am much more at ease with the situation than many Lib Dem activists are — for several reasons.

Firstly, I voted for the Lib Dems in May fully expecting them to go into coalition with the Conservatives. Going by the opinion polls, the parties’ positions, what the leaders were saying, it seemed to be clearly the most likely option. I was quite surprised that most others seemed to think it was impossible to comprehend. So I didn’t have the same sense of shock that many others seemed to.

I didn’t believe that the Lib Dems were “Labour plus fluffy kittens, minus Iraq War“, as a lot of people seemed to think. I support the Lib Dems because they are a liberal party. This is the complete opposite of Labour’s core ideology, which is of big government and authoritarian encroachments on civil liberties.

In case you can’t tell, I despise Labour. The idea of them being in power right now chills me. They don’t even know what to say in opposition, never mind what to do in government.

So I am happy that the Lib Dems made the best choice in choosing to go into coalition with the Conservatives (not that Labour were ever interested in joining forces with the Lib Dems anyway). The Conservatives at least have a more liberal wing, which is lacking in Labour.

Of course, coalition government is not easy — but it’s not supposed to be. By its very nature it involves compromise, and not all of them are comfortable compromises to make. But this is the nature of the situation.

Damaged reputation is a blow to liberalism

The most painful aspect is the damage that has been done to the Lib Dems’ reputation, which makes it seem less likely that the party will do well in future. This is a big blow to liberalism.

Promises have been broken. But they always are, even in good economic times, even with a thumping majority. Just look at Labour. The SNP Scottish Government has managed it too, although they have the excuse of being a minority administration. The Lib Dems’ excuse is that they are in coalition.

Sadly, it seems like the political culture here is not yet mature enough to tolerate the idea of making compromises. That is a shame, as it is also a blow to the campaign for proportional representation, which faces a big moment in a couple of months.

In general, I feel quite sorry for Nick Clegg. I think he has done a reasonably good job in a no-win situation, and I haven’t found much to be angry about yet.

But I wouldn’t describe myself as a supporter of the Liberal Democrats. As I have said before, governments are to be opposed, not supported. It is quite right that the Lib Dems are scrutinised in government. Not all of the scrutiny has been fair in my view, but I am not about to push against the scrutiny.

Political Innovation - Innovative Conversational Politics

There is an event coming up that will interest a lot of Scottish political bloggers. Political Innovation is taking place on 13 November at the University of Edinburgh’s Informatics Forum.

The Political Innovation project is a series of free-to-attend practical events at which people with ideas on political innovations can meet up with technical experts, journalists, bloggers, politicos and others with an interest in politics and public affairs. The event will allow to find about about innovative projects like these ones. You may even want to get involved in one of them.

It sounds pretty good to me and I plan on attending. It will be a good opportunity for bloggers to meet up and chat with others that are interested in this sort of thing.

As far as I know, it has been a while since there was a bit meetup of Scottish bloggers, and from time to time people ask me when there is going to be another meetup. The political focus of this event might not appeal to everyone, but it sounds like the ideal place for some of us to catch up, as well as meet other interesting people and discuss innovative ideas. Best of all, they will be supplying lunch. :-)

A couple of weeks ago I allowed my membership of the Liberal Democrats to lapse. It is not that I have ripped up my membership card in disgust. Quite the opposite — I have found surprisingly little to be upset with the coalition government about.

Nonetheless, I think governments are for opposing, not supporting. So I don’t think it is appropriate to continue being a member. I see little point.

Besides, I find it quite difficult to get very wound up about politics these days. I maintain a vague interest if I happen to hear something on the news, but I can no longer call myself an active follower of politics.

No doubt this is a disappointment to those people that started reading this blog for the politics articles. I no longer consider this to be a political blog and am currently in the process of working out what I should do with it in the future.

I have realised that I’m easily entertained. I have a pile of CDs that I bought back in October but still haven’t got round to listening to. There are a couple of DVDs that I bought before Christmas that I still haven’t watched. And I’m struggling to play all the games I’ve bought in the past few months too.

What am I doing that means I have so little spare time? I would say that it’s all because I currently spend so much time commuting to work (generally around three hours per day, or two if I’m lucky). But my chief means of entertainment while travelling, listening to podcasts, has also been causing me undue hassle due to the rising backlog sitting in my iPod waiting to be listened to.

I guess it’s lucky that one of the biggest problems in my life just now is the fact that I have too much interesting and fun stuff to listen to. But I have genuinely found it a tricky balance to get right, and am trying out creative ways to organise my spare time more efficiently as a matter of priority.

Having too many podcasts to listen to has been the case for as long as I can remember. It’s a bit like having an RSS reader, and before you know it, you have subscribed to so many RSS feeds that you never get them all read. This is okay as long as you don’t let anything get too out-of-date before you get round to it.

However, the mild annoyance of having a huge backlog of podcasts became a major problem recently when, almost without noticing, I ended up being four or five weeks behind on almost every podcast I listen to. This became a major problem with the current affairs podcasts I listen to, particularly just after the General Election had taken place. They had almost all been rendered completely out of date!

So since the election I have been on a drive to listen to more podcasts, weed out the ones I don’t really like, and prioritise the more newsworthy ones. Before, I had around 260 podcast episodes downloaded but not yet listened to. Having unsubscribed from and deleted a few podcasts, I have got that number down to 170, where it seems to have stabilised.

It took me about a month to do it, but I have managed to catch up with all of the podcasts that I deem to be “current affairs”, and have even sub-divided this into high-priority and low-priority sub-categories. Apart from F1 podcasts (which have always been consumed fairly quickly), these are now listened to first.

Of the podcasts that are less centred around the news, I have split these into a ‘B’ and ‘C’ list. Bs are podcasts that either I really enjoy or I think I should listen to. Cs are podcasts that I have assigned the lowest priority to. I am on the verge of unsubscribing from some of these.

I start listening to these podcasts if there are no current affairs ones waiting, with one C being placed after every two or three Bs. Just now, the oldest of these is from way back on 2 April — ten weeks ago. It is certainly interesting to see whether or not I really miss listening to these podcasts.

It certainly feels like I have become a lot more organised, even though there are almost 40 hours’ worth of podcasts waiting to be listened to. And that is just in this list alone.

I haven’t even mentioned the comedy podcasts, which I listen to as part of a different routine. I listen to one Adam and Joe podcast per week (on a Monday, to cheer myself up, geddit?). Then during whatever bits of time I have on Monday or Tuesday I listen to Iain Lee or Barry from Watford. This is a huge backlog of its own, but because the Iain Lee ones are generally around 10 or 15 minutes long, it’s easy to squeeze them in here and there.

There is so much cheap (in fact, free) entertainment that there is simply too much interesting stuff to get through it all. I recently calculated that the amount of podcasts I was downloading amounted to 1½ hours of listening every day. No wonder I was struggling.

It is worth being a bit more discerning with how I spend my spare time. But it is always difficult to make the decision to stop listening to a particular podcast. I have been listening to some of these for three years now. But a bit like a favourite shirt that’s worn out, I’m not sure I can actually bring myself to chuck it out.