Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

In My Stadium

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on November 28, 2010

I’ve had several days off work in a row (took holiday time because I’m on the brink of collapse from exhaustion) and have spent those days intending, but not succeeding, to write pieces on Batman comics and a short story. I’m failing again to write either of those, because I’ve just heard something wonderful.

Last night I found, more or less by chance, what I might call the motherlode – a website containing links to a hundred and sixty Beach Boys bootlegs, mostly live recordings. I have a *LOT* of Beach Boys bootlegs already, but I’ve found at least forty or so live shows on there I didn’t already have. One is a show from 1976 – a badly-recorded cassette tape of a show right at the cusp of the band’s career. Two years earlier, Brian Wilson had been absent from the band, recording at most one or two tracks per album, they’d been one of the best live bands in the world, recording some of the most adventurous rock music being made, and no-one had cared. They’d been playing colleges and tiny venues.

Since then, everything had changed. Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, who’d added so much to the band’s live sound, had left. Brian was back touring with them, but could barely hold a note. They’d just released the worst album of their career so far, the appaling oldies and leftovers album 15 Big Ones… and everyone loved them. The greatest hits compilation Endless Summer had gone double platinum, and they were playing stadiums. They hadn’t yet totally given up on being artists, but they were on their way.

It’s not an especially good show, in comparison with the shows from a couple of years earlier. The harmonies are rough – Brian and Dennis have lost most of their voices by now, but the band haven’t yet resorted to getting in backing vocalists to thicken the sound – and there’s already the first signs of the overuse of synths that would make their 80s shows so sterile. But there’s one moment that still filled me with awe.

In 1962 Brian Wilson and Gary Usher wrote a song called In My Room. It’s a gentle, sweet ballad about solitude:

There’s a world where I can go and tell my secrets to
In my room, in my room
In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears
In my room, in my room
Do my dreaming and my scheming, lie awake and pray
Do my crying and my sighing, laugh at yesterday
Now it’s dark and I’m alone but I won’t be afraid
In my room, in my room

That’s the entire lyric – it’s only a short song. Like most of the best Beach Boys songs it hits a weird balance between terrible, terrible sadness (that song should have been as much a sign as anything of Brian’s impending mental breakdown. Just look at it) and comfort (it’s a close harmony song, sung with his two brothers with whom he used to share a bedroom, and they used to sing together at night in the dark, with their cousin also joining in).

The original record, and pretty much every live version I’ve ever heard, is tiny and intimate, led by Brian’s uncannily pure falsetto. This is very different. It’s recorded in a stadium full of reverb, and Brian’s voice is reduced to a husky growl or a yell.

But the entire crowd join in – ten thousand or more people, singing every word.

And normally I hate that kind of thing. I’m not one for big public displays, or stadium shows, or communal moments. They tend, to me, to smack of the inhuman, the oppressive, the fascist.

But here we have a sad, lonely, ill man singing off-key about his fears and being alone, and ten thousand people *joining in with him*. Telling him “you’re *NOT* alone”.

Brian Wilson would eventually get better – as well as is possible under the circumstances – and I’ve seen him live seven times in the last eight years. Those shows were (with one exception) great shows, but there’s also been an element of therapy about them. The audiences have been there as much just to show Brian how much we care about him as a person – because he’s one of the very, very small number of artists who can express themselves absolutely, who can make us share his feelings, good and bad. We’re there, hoping to support this man who’s given us so much joy. It’s often one of the most amazing musical experiences imaginable – Brian’s band is the best I’ve ever seen – but it’s also like watching your kid at school sports day. You want him to win, but you’ll be proud even if he messes up.

This audience wasn’t like that – they’d been told “Brian is back!” and believed it, they were only there to hear the hits – but they were still doing the same thing. Ten thousand people, all singing “Now it’s dark and I’m alone and I won’t be afraid”.

Quite, quite astonishing…

What I Mean When I Call Myself A Liberal

Posted in politics by Andrew Hickey on November 26, 2010

I was meant to write a couple of posts on comics and a short story today, but I appear to have developed logorrhoea on totally unrelated matters, don’t I? Oh well…

One of the big things I hear a lot from people is that they don’t actually know what the Liberal Democrats stand for, or what liberalism actually is. This is especially true at the moment, with the Parliamentary Party being in a coalition with the Conservatives. It’s also not helped by American English having a fundamentally different meaning for the word ‘liberal’ than Commonwealth English, and by British sites like Liberal Conspiracy (a Labour mouthpiece) using that meaning.

I wouldn’t presume to speak for the rest of the party, but I thought if I wrote something on here at least my readers would get some understanding of my own political position.

This will be incoherent. Large chunks of it will go against party policy. Some of it is utterly wrongheaded, I’m sure. I have a very good understanding of issues to do with civil liberties, electoral reform, LGBT rights, and so on – I’ve spent a fair amount of time investigating these issues. I have almost no understanding of economics, so when I talk about that I’m probably going to contradict myself and talk shit.

So this is what *I* mean when I refer to *myself* as a Liberal. I joined the Liberal Democrats and decided to call myself a Liberal because, of all the political parties that matter electorally in England, the Lib Dems’ policies come closest to the idiosyncratic list below. They’re not the same as that list though. In some cases that’s because of a compromise between principle and pragmatism – you can’t get elected on the platform I’m going to describe. In many others, though, it’s because people who are cleverer than I, who have more knowledge of the issues, have thought long and hard and come to a different conclusion. As few of those conclusions seem obviously immoral or absurd, I go along with them until I understand the issue better.

I’m going to break this up into three sections, Freedom, Hatred of privilege and Democracy, for the three things that motivate me most.

Freedom
The Lib Dems’ most important text is On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (and Harriet Taylor). In particular, the ‘harm principle’ seems to me the single most important point of principle, from which all else should follow:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Not only is this morally right, it is also the pragmatically correct attitude. Anyone who has studied cybernetics knows that to control a system you must have as many options open to you as there are degrees of freedom in the system (this actually follows from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the single most basic law of physics). It is, quite simply, impossible as well as undesirable for a government to try to control its citizenry in every detail of their lives, as the last government did. Assuming each person in a country of sixty million has five options open to them that the government cares about, to get them all to choose the option you want them to would require the government to have 5^60,000,000 (that’s roughly 8 with forty-nine zeroes after it) different options open to it. The only way for a government to control people’s behaviour successsfully is to choose a very, very small number of things it’s interested in, and for those things to be things that most people wouldn’t do anyway. Laws against murder and theft can be somewhat effective (though never 100% effective) because the vast majority of us don’t want to kill or steal anyway, so the government can concentrate on that small number who do.

It’s also possible for laws to work when they’re setting an arbitrary convention – we all agree that we need to drive on one side of the road and not the other, and that it’s better if we all follow the same rule. Nobody has a huge emotional attachment to driving on the left or right, so the government can set a standard and everyone will follow it.

From this follow various other things – laws against free speech, against drug use, against private sexual practices, none of these can ever really work, and where they exist they should be abolished.

Hatred of privilege
Despite the above, Liberals are strong advocates of the rule of law. Those laws which we do support should be applied equally to everyone. Either murder is illegal, in which case all murderers should be prosecuted (though there should be no aspect of vengeance in this – people’s liberty should be limited only in so far as it’s necessary to prevent further harm to others), or it isn’t, in which case none should. And the same rules – rules of evidence, burden of proof and so on – should be applied across the board. These rules should also be biased *against* conviction – if we are going to restrict someone’s liberty, that’s a big, important thing to do, and should only happen if we’re *ABSOLUTELY* certain it’s the correct thing to do.

Having different rules for different people is the original and most important definition of privilege – it comes from the Latin privi legium, private law. And privilege in every sense is something I, at least, want to defeat.

In many cases, this means clearing away bad laws that privilege one group over another. Getting rid of the stupid rules regarding marriage, for example, or allowing immigrants to vote, getting rid of the House of Lords with its appointed and hereditary rulers (and especially getting rid of the bishops from within it, who privilege one religion over all others by being there).

There is also such a thing as economic privilege, however. You can’t be totally free if you can’t eat, or you don’t have healthcare, or you never learned to read or write. There’s a reason both Keynes and Beveridge were Liberals.

Now, while I’m no economist so this is probably the weakest part of this, my view is simple. Every human being should, to the extent it’s possible, have a roof over their head, food, clothing, enough education and access to information to take part in society, and enough medical access that they don’t suffer needlessly. Any society in which that’s not the case is not one which I would call civilised.

My personal favoured method for this is a citizens’ income, which used to be Lib Dem policy but was scrapped as too radical, but the current ‘universal credit’ welfare reforms come very, very close to it. In this, rather than the government giving people housing benefit, money off prescriptions, money for childcare, whatever – a bunch of vouchers and tokens you can only use for one thing each, and which require a great deal of administration – the government just gives everyone enough money to pay for those things and says “here you go”, trusting them to do what’s best for themselves. (Yes, I know there are problems with this. There are problems with every system. This is my ‘ideal world’ system.)

But how is this to be paid for? If someone works hard and earns money, we don’t want to take that off them. If you go down a mine and dig up a load of coal for a couple of hundred quid a week, should you be paying half that to someone else who can’t be bothered to work?

Well no, obviously not. However, not everyone does work. There’s a huge class of people who get their money not from work but from rent-seeking – either from actual rent (landlords) or from the exploitation of other monopolies (bankers, people who live off ‘investments’).

There are only two ways I can think of of getting money, either by creating wealth by making or thinking of something (‘workers by hand and brain’ as the old Labour Party Clause Four had it), or by exploiting government-created monopolies (for example ‘intellectual property’ laws or mining rights to an area).

It’s the latter which should be taxed far more than income from actual work, as a way of redressing economic privilege. Monopolies are effectively gifts from the government (which is to say from the population at large) to individuals, and those individuals should repay the bulk of the wealth they get from these gifts back to the population. Someone who builds or designs a house is creating wealth – there is something there that wasn’t there before, that’s of value. Someone who rents the house out, however, is not creating wealth, just taking advantage of a pre-existing inequality (they have a house and their tenants don’t).

Hark! The sound is spreading from the east and from the west!
Why should we work hard and let the landlords take the best?
Make them pay their taxes on the land just like the rest!
The land was meant for the people.

The hatred of privilege ties very strongly into the need for freedom. Unless a transsexual, polyamorous, black person with cerebral palsy born on a council estate has the same tools to make the life she wants for herself as Prince Harry does, then she is less free than he is. (Of course, it may also be that Prince Harry would quite like to stop being third in line for the throne and become a juggler in a left-wing arts collective, but is being stopped from doing so by his position in society. Privileges can hurt the privileged as well as the unprivileged, though usually not as much).

Democracy
If we are to assume that a government should exist at all, then we want that government to have a few properties. We want it to not do anything that the majority of the people in society think is intolerable. We want it to protect the rights of minorities, no matter what the majority think. And we want it to be effective – we want its actions to have the intended consequences.

The second of these is best solved by some kind of constitution or bill of rights – in the UK the European Convention on Human Rights and its incorporation into British law with the Human Rights Act fulfil this role. Things like this, while a departure from pure democracy, are necessary to prevent democracy turning into tyrranny. (I could easily imagine a situation where the majority of the population decided it was OK to murder fat nerdy blokes called Andrew if they really got on your nerves by writing overlong blog posts. I don’t particularly want such a law to be passed, even if it was the democratic will of the country).

Handily, our third requirement is best solved by feedback – the more information you can get into the system the better. This is handy because it also fulfils the first criterion, that government should not do anything that the majority find intolerable. If we have some kind of democratic system, then these criteria are fulfilled handily.

Some might argue for direct democracy – people voting on every issue. There are problems with this, however. Partly, the problem is that people’s opinions aren’t consistent – I could very easily see a majority voting “yes” to “Should we spend more money on the NHS, education and fighting crime?” *and* to “Should we cut your taxes by a thousand pounds a year?”. The other problem is that most people have neither the time nor the inclination to investigate the issues. I think of myself as a fairly well-informed person, for example, but I have absolutely no idea whether the seven billion pound loan to Ireland that Britain just made was a good decision or a bad one.

So the best compromise is representative democracy – everyone votes for the person or persons who they agree with most on the subjects they know about, and make it that person’s job to find out everything they can about every subject necessary for government. This actually works quite well, because votes in aggregate will produce someone who’s a good compromise on all competencies – people who know about civil liberties will vote for candidates who are strong on civil liberties, people who know about economics will vote for candidates who are strong on economics, so a candidate who is strong on both will get both sets of votes.

However, our current First Past The Post system isn’t a very effective way of getting this information into the system, because a single cross every five years, in a seat where for the most part a maximum of two candidates have a chance (which is nearly all of them), is a rate of one bit every five years. To put that into perspective, for an individual voter to get across the information in this post up to the end of that last sentence would take 520,320 years (assuming elections every five years. If they were every four years, it would only take 416,256 years).

On the other hand, a ranked preferential system like the Alternative Vote (which we will be voting on next year) or Single Transferable Vote (which the Lib Dems like) gets *FAR* more information into the government. In my constituency last time, only Labour or the Lib Dems could have won, so I had a binary choice between those two candidates if I was voting for an MP – one bit of information. On the other hand, there were eight candidates on the ballot. If I’d been able to rank my preferences, that would have given me 8! different ways of expressing myself. That’s 40,320 different options, or on the order of sixteen bits of information. Government is going to reflect public opinion much better – and be more effective – if voters have 40,320 choices than if they have two.

So, anyway, that’s roughly what *I* mean by being a liberal. It may not be what other liberals mean, but I think it’s close to what a lot of them think. If you’re a liberal and vociferously disagree, please do so in the comments – I’ll be very interested to see to what extent people agree or disagree with this…

PEP! 3 Progress

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on November 26, 2010

I’m working on getting the paper version of PEP! 2 out this weekend, but while I’m doing that I thought I’d update everyone on PEP!3 . Nothing’s set in stone yet – it won’t be out for a couple of months – but the plan so far is for it to include:

New fiction by Debi Linton (a story about lesbians who kill vampires) and Richard Flowers (a 10,000 word SF story).
Reprint fiction by Simon Bucher-Jones (as part of the promotion for something I can’t talk about yet, but which I’m excited by).
*TWO* articles by David Allison
Holly Matthies on rugby
Possible articles on First Past The Post And The English Civil War (by Gavin Robinson) and David Bowie (by Gavin Burrows) (both of those time-dependent – both are very busy men, with other deadlines around the same time)
A comic strip by Prankster
And Bill Ritchie has suggested several things as well.

I’m still hoping to hear back from some of the other people who’ve contributed to PEP! 1 and 2, and I’m going to ask a few other people, but hopefully that should whet people’s appetites…

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The Death Of The Bookshop, Chapter 246 of Too Many

Posted in books by Andrew Hickey on November 26, 2010

I will do some comics posts this week, I *PROMISE*, but this was just too depressing not to rant about it.

I shop at Amazon occasionally, and enjoy doing so if I know what I want in advance. A couple of clicks, and I’ll have anything, no matter how obscure, delivered to my house within days. This is A Good Thing.

However, it’s not where I buy most of my books. In Manchester there are (to my knowledge) only two shops that sell new non-academic books (not counting Tesco, WH Smith, The Works etc – I’m talking about actual bookshops here). Both are branches of the national chain Waterstone’s. This is in itself a disgrace given that Manchester is (I believe) England’s second- or third-most-populous city. But anyway.

I don’t buy a huge number of books there in absolute terms – about thirty or forty a year – but given that the average person buys fewer than two, I think that I – and people like me – probably make up a significant proportion of Waterstone’s sales. That won’t continue for much longer.

I’m not boycotting them, they’ve just made a very stupid business decision that will cost them most of the sales they’d have had from me. According to this week’s Private Eye they’ve decided to start turning non-fiction books face-out rather than spine-out, because face-out books sell better.

Now, this is true as far as the big, huge sellers go – the Harry Potters and Dan Browns – but it has one big side-effect. Face-out books take up four times as much shelf space as spine-out books. This means that they are cutting the number of non-fiction books they have available to a quarter of what it otherwise would have been.

Now, the only reason I actually bother going into a bookshop is because I want to browse. I want to discover something on the shelves that I otherwise wouldn’t have considered buying, and flick through and see if it’s interesting. By doing that a couple of years ago I discovered the About Time books, which led to me buying all six of them, plus a large number of the Faction Paradox books. It’s how I decided to buy a Charles Stross book two months ago (and why I’ve now got six Charles Stross books). Most importantly, it’s how I decided to buy all twenty or so of the pop-science books I’ve bought in the last year.

But you can only do that kind of browsing if there’s some *choice* of what to browse. On the pop-science shelves, for example, at any time there are maybe three or four books I want to buy, out of a few hundred. Cut that down to a quarter of the books (and allow for the fact that the ones that will not be stocked are quirky things like The Physics Of Immortality, while the ones that *will* be stocked are Dawkins, Hawking and other best-sellers) and suddenly there’s nothing there I want.

If I want a bestseller i can go to Tesco, or Smith’s, or Amazon. They sell them as loss-leaders. The whole point of going to a bookshop is that they have the non-bestsellers. You simply can’t build a business on selling other people’s loss-leaders.

Waterstone’s will be bankrupt within five years, at a guess. And a number of small publishers will go under before that. And I’ll have nowhere to go on my lunch break from work and just spend a few minutes browsing. I’m already getting increasingly uncomfortable in going there anyway (upstairs, where they keep the proper books, is fine, but downstairs in the realm of celebrity biography and Tragic Life Stories I am made increasingly uncomfortable – those books are giant signals saying “you’re not wanted here”, which I have to brave to get into my comfort zone of books with content) – this means I will have no reason to.

Short-term, Amazon will be getting more of my money, but without being able to browse the end result of this is probably going to be that I read less. And that makes me very, very sad…

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Why I Will Not Be Helping In The Old & Sad By-Election

Posted in politics by Andrew Hickey on November 25, 2010

(Batman posts will come tomorrow, I had to say this now).

I am, despite my unease with some (many) of the coalition’s policies, still a member and supporter of the Liberal Democrats, and still want to see as many Lib Dems as possible elected. I also live relatively close to Oldham & Saddleworth. However, I will not be helping out in the coming by-election.

The reason is simple. In the run-up to the General Election, Elwyn Watkins was quoted in multiple sources as saying, publicly, that he would ‘rip up’ the Geneva Convention and the European Convention On Human Rights. According to these sources, he actually managed to attack the odious, race-baiting Phil Woolas *from the authoritarian right* on the issue of immigration.

I, and many other Lib Dems I know, all contacted both his team and Cowley Street as soon as we were made aware of this, asking him to clarify his position, but until today we got no response. However, after several increasingly angry emails I finally got a reply today – a form email that has been sent out to many others.

In this email, Mr Watkins notably does not deny that he said those things. Nor does he deny that they are his views. Nor does he say they were in any way taken out of context. He does, however, talk about how “the position of the minority who abuse asylum is a genuine concern for local people” and how Labour have “swept the issue under the carpet”.

As I have been very, very vocal in my belief that the party is already too illiberal in its immigration policy, and as the Coalition is even more illiberal than that thanks to the Conservative dominance, I cannot in good conscience bring myself to spend time supporting this campaign, though I still wish good luck to my Lib Dem friends who will be doing so, and I certainly don’t endorse any other candidates.

I also hope very much that me saying this publicly does not lose me any friends within the party – a party of which I remain a loyal supporter. I feel very, very conflicted and upset about posting this (not least because I know many good people who have devoted huge amounts of time and effort to this campaign, without knowing of or endorsing Watkins’ views). I’m shaking and tearful, in fact, because my party loyalty and loyalty to my friends has come into conflict with one of the very small number of principles on which I really cannot remain silent. If you think it wrong of me to post this publicly, because of the damage it may do to the party, please forgive me. I hope I can forgive myself…

ETA David Matthewman has more on this, including the full text of Watkins’ email.

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