Happy Petrov Day

Today is a good day to celebrate being alive, and to thank one man in particular for that — Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov.
On September 26, 1983 — thirty-three years ago today — Lt. Col. Petrov, depending on which version of history you read (and as with everything, there are conflicting reports — I’m going with the version I know best, but they all say similar things) either definitely saved the entire human race, or only quite probably saved us all. There is, at the very least, a very good chance that if Petrov had acted differently I would not have lived to see my fifth birthday, and no-one reading this would either.

1983 was one of the points when the cold war looked very, very, close to turning into nuclear war. Reagan had announced his mad “Star Wars” missile defence plan, which would not have actually worked, but which was intended to create orbiting lasers which could zap nuclear missiles from space before they hit their targets. Had it been at all technologically feasible, this at first sounds like it would be a useful thing to have — certainly if someone was going to drop a nuclear bomb on me, I would want it to be zapped into harmlessness by a giant laser.

The problem is that this would have given the US a massive advantage in a nuclear war. Up until that point, the main thing stopping nuclear war had been a doctrine aptly called MAD, standing for Mutually Assured Destruction, which basically said that both sides should get enough nuclear weapons to completely destroy each other. That way either side would know that the other one would destroy them if they started a war, and so they wouldn’t start one.

(This sort of worked, in that so far the industrialised nations of the world haven’t been blasted into their component atoms and turned into radioactive wastelands in which no life can survive, which on balance we must consider a win. But it does rather assume that the people in charge on both sides are rational human beings, rather than demagogic narcissists with no connection to reality. Since the bombs still exist, there may possibly be a lesson here for the American electorate. Just saying…)

The problem with Star Wars then, is that it would allow the US to think they could actually *win* a nuclear war, because it would protect them from the bombs. This meant, in the eyes of the USSR’s leaders, that were Star Wars to get up and running, the result would be their country being blown to atoms.

A few years earlier, the USA had moved a load of Pershing missiles into Western Europe. Those missiles, in that location, could reach targets in the USSR within four minutes — before they’d have a chance to respond. On top of this, the US had been conducting regular “psy-ops” operations — faking bombing raids and only turning back at the last second, in attempts to provoke the Soviets into revealing details of their own defences.

This, combined with the Star Wars talk, and the fact that the then President of the USA was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and kept doing things like saying Marxism would be left “on the ash heap of history” (less than a year after the incident I’m writing about, Reagan said into a live mic, apparently as a joke, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”), led the USSR’s government to the conclusion that the USA actually thought they could win a nuclear war, and intended to have one.

For most of the last half of 1983, the leadership of the USSR were convinced that a nuclear attack was imminent, and that they had to be prepared for an immediate counterattack as soon as they had the first indication of a missile launch — anything else would be too late. The protocol was simple — as soon as a missile attack was detected, it would be reported to the leadership, who would initiate a war. The leadership of the USSR were in a worse position even than Reagan as far as decision-making goes — the then-premier Yuri Andropov was in hospital, terminally ill, for much of the year, and his second-in-command, Konstantin Chernenko, who succeeded him in February 1984, was also terminally ill and would barely live into 1985. There wasn’t time to second-guess, but even if there had been, there was no-one capable of doing so, and the military doctrine was clear. Detect attack, report attack, counterattack. No deviation allowed. That’s how it went.

And on 26 September 1983, Stanislav Petrov was the officer in charge of monitoring the missile detection systems. His responsibility was simple — if he saw any signs of an attack, he had to report it. And just after midnight, the systems reported five missiles entering Soviet airspace. His duty was clear — he had to let his superiors know, so they could launch all the Soviet Union’s missiles, enough to kill everyone in the world many times over, at the West.

He didn’t. Despite his orders to report any detected missiles straight away, he decided to hold off. The missile detection system was new, and he didn’t trust it, and it made no sense for the US to only launch five ICBMs — surely if they wanted to start a war, they’d launch hundreds or thousands of missiles, to destroy all the Russian warheads and minimise their own casualties?

So he waited for confirmation from land radar, which would give only four minutes for them to counterattack before the bombs started hitting. That confirmation never came. The satellites had detected the reflection of sunlight off clouds, rather than nuclear bombs.

Petrov almost certainly saved the world by ignoring his orders and deciding to wait until he had more data before starting a nuclear war. His reward was to be reprimanded for improperly filing the paperwork involved.

Petrov isn’t the only person to have literally, single-handedly, saved the world — there’s the late Vasili Arkhipov, for example, who did something similar during the Cuban missile crisis, and there were probably a couple on the US side too. But Petrov is one of a very small number indeed, and I believe the only one who is both publicly-known and still alive.

On September 26, we remember him. And try to hope that if we’re ever given a choice between following the rules and destroying the world, or using our head and saving everyone, we’re as sensible as him. Thank you, Lt Col Petrov.

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On Populism And Core Votes

Before I start, a brief apology for not being around much the last few days. I’ve been wrangling home studio software to get some music done for Plok (very soon! I PROMISE!) and also getting some work done on the novel.

But let’s talk about politics for a bit, and in particular about populism and core votes, and how they relate to the Lib Dems.

There’s a recurring pattern that happens on Lib Dem Voice, the major Lib Dem blog. Every few weeks someone says something like “wouldn’t it be a good idea if we did this liberal thing?” — and suggests basic income, or liberalising immigration, or drug decriminalisation, or poly marriage, or something like that.

And every time — every single time — you get a load of comments from people saying “but that thing isn’t popular with the voters. You never hear about it on the doorstep. This poll shows that seventy percent of the public disagree”

The problem with *that* argument is that there are thirty percent of the public who *don’t* disagree, and they have no parties at all taking their side.

We’re doing surprisingly well in local by-elections, as I pointed out the other day. In fact, the graphic there needs updating now — here’s the version as of today:

graphic from political betting showing massive gains for the Lib Dems, tiny gains for the Greens, and losses for everyone else

That’s in large part because we have taken a principled, liberal, stance on the issue of Europe, even though that stance is mildly unpopular in the country at large. However, those gains are not, yet, showing up in the general election polls, where we’re currently languishing at about six percent.

Now here’s the thing. The arguments always say “seventy percent of the public (or whatever the number) disagree with this”. That means there’s *thirty* percent who agree (or at least don’t care). You’ll notice that number thirty is bigger than the other number six.

Given that we’re currently on six percent in the polls, and have got to that low by triangulating and chasing the majority, perhaps rather than worry about trying to take votes from a group of people who are already being catered to by every other party we should try for more of that thirty percent who aren’t being catered to at all.

As an analogy, Apple are the biggest phone manufacturer by a long way. They only have 17.7% of the market. But they have 100% of the iOS market, with dozens of companies competing for a bit of the Android share. If we were vocally pro-immigration, say, we’d have 100% of the pro-immigration vote share (not really because it’s not the only issue people care about — but that also cuts both ways, and we would have at least some anti-immigrant voters who cared more about our other policies) — and might also be able to grow that share by speaking up for it.

This is really just basic sensible strategy. Saying “only five times as many people say they like that policy as say they will vote for us, therefore we shouldn’t go for such an unpopular policy” is just nonsense. It’s *absurd*, in fact.

It makes no sense at all to avoid “unpopular” policies when you’re an unpopular party. What makes sense is to choose at least some policies that are liked by a significant minority who are not catered to by the other parties. Ideally, you should choose policies that go together well, so that there’s as much overlap as possible between the people who like those policies. If there’s, say, twenty percent of the population who would really like a basic income *and* drug decriminalisation *and* land value tax *and* lower barriers for immigration — well, that twenty percent becomes your core vote. If you’re chasing that particular group, then adding one of those “unpopular” policies makes them *more* likely to vote for you, not less.

That’s not even to mention the single biggest point, which is that there’s no point at all in even trying to get into power if it’s not to achieve stuff that other parties wouldn’t do.

Now, there is a time when you compromise your principles, and different people have different points where that’s the case. I can see an argument *when you’re looking to build a broad enough group of voters to get a majority government* for caring about what “the majority” want. If you’re at twenty-eight percent in the polls, and you can get to thirty and a Parliamentary majority by dropping a policy that seventy-five percent of people hate, then I can see doing that. You should water down your policies no more than is necessary to get that majority, mind, but that’s something that’s worth considering.

But, again, the Lib Dems aren’t in that position, and even with the greatest optimism in the world won’t be for *at least* two election cycles. At this point it makes sense electorally *as well as* on principle to actually stand up for policies as distinctive and liberal as possible.

Caring about “what the majority want” makes sense when you’re doing well in the polls and trying to capture a few extra key marginals. In our case, what the majority want is not the Lib Dems. We can either listen to them and just give up, or we can try to build a core vote among those who are *not* the majority.

I fear that the triangulating centrists who think that the point of politics is to do exactly what the public says it wants, and never to argue a point or to challenge the majority when it’s wrong, would rather we did the former than the latter. And even if they wouldn’t, I fear that if the party listens to their shrieking about electability, they’ll shrink the party so much that the six percent in the polls looks like a glorious golden age, and no-one will even notice when the party finally disappears altogether, because by then it will have no distinctive policies and give no-one any reason to care.

I don’t think we’re going to go that way — I think there are enough good, genuine, liberals out there that the party will grow back to its former strength, or even greater.

But we’ll only do that if people argue against policies based on the policies, not based on the polls.

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New on Mindless Ones, my review of Jerusalem

I liked it.

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Is There A Lib Dem Recovery Happening?

It’s Lib Dem conference this week. I can’t be there this time, but as you’d imagine it’s not getting a huge amount of coverage in the media. We’ve been reduced from nearly sixty MPs to eight, and we’re fourth in both seats and polling (though the third in each case is a different party — the SNP in seats and UKIP in polls — thanks to the effect of FPTP exaggerating regional differences).

In fact the current situation reminds me of a Spitting Image bit about the 1992 election, with Paddy Ashdown claiming it was a triumph for the Lib Dems and proportional representation, because “we got twenty percent, and ended up with twenty MPs!” — well, now, we’ve got eight percent…

But while last year’s elections were a complete disaster on every level, and while the party is still doing terribly in the polls, there have been other indications, on the local level, that the party is recovering.

In May, we were the only party to gain both in seats and in control of councils in the local elections — and, indeed, we were once again third overall in England and Wales. We increased our number of council seats by forty-five seats — in comparison Labour decreased by eighteen, and the Tories decreased by forty-eight (UKIP increased by twenty-five). We increased the number of councils we controlled by one — the Tories went down by one, and no other parties increased or decreased.

Then came the referendum, and the massive increase in Lib Dem membership. The party is now at its highest membership in decades, and thirty-five percent of those members have joined in the last three months (many of course will be lapsed members who’ve rejoined, but by no means all — I can think of four people I know well who’ve joined in that time. One is a rejoiner, one a former Tory member of the Ken Clarke type who couldn’t stand the party’s rightward turn, one had never been a member of any party before, and one (my sister) had never even *voted* before June). This has been somewhat overshadowed by the even larger increase in Labour membership, but there’s an important difference there — while the Labour people have joined to take sides in an internal battle over the leadership (and whichever side wins, a LOT of members are going to be angry, and potentially leave), while the new Lib Dem members have all joined to be on the same side.

And most interestingly there’ve been the council by-elections. Of course, one can’t put too much stock in these — I remember a few months ago Corbyn getting roundly mocked for talking about how the mainstream media had ignored a by-election win, when the win he was talking about was a safe parish council seat.

So anecdotes like the Lib Dems winning a council seat from Labour in Sheffield (which has obviously been seen in the media purely through a pro/anti-Corbyn prism) last week, or this week’s quite astonishing result in Derbyshire, where we won in a seat where we hadn’t stood a candidate in the last election, and where Labour had had 67% of the vote last time, don’t by themselves mean anything. Nor does the other seat this week, where we increased our vote by 19% but didn’t win.

But look at this (taken from Political Betting):
image showing relative gains and losses in council by-elections. Lib dems doing much better than other parties.
That’s a graph of net *changes* in council seats since the last elections, so it doesn’t show all the Tory seats that stayed Tory, all the Labour seats that stayed Labour, and so on. So it’s a good way of seeing where the electoral — as opposed to polling — movement is going.

Now, of course this doesn’t mean that the Lib Dems are going to suddenly become a majority government or anything like that. We’re fighting from what was a historical low for the party, so even impressive increases only mean we’re not doing quite as terribly as before.

But it does mean that it’s possible that the party will do much, much, better in the next general election than people are predicting. British political pundits have a tendency to predict that whatever just happened will keep on happening forever, so now we’re seeing people talking about decades of Tory rule. Before last year’s election, every pundit was saying that we’d never have another majority government again.

We have an unstable political system which simply does not respond properly to people’s wishes any more (if it ever did) — it’s chaotic and *can’t* be predicted. Five years ago, if you’d given any professional pundit any single fact about the current British political scene — Prime Minister Theresa May leading a majority government, the Lib Dems reduced to eight MPs, the SNP with fifty-six, Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, Britain about to leave the EU with absolutely no exit strategy — and you’d have been dismissed as a crank. Obviously none of that could possibly happen.

So I’d ignore the conventional wisdom that everything is going to stay horrible, and that the last few Lib Dem MPs will be wiped out next time. In fact, I’m going to stick my neck out now and say that if the next election is in 2020 as planned, the Lib Dems will get *at least* thirty seats, possibly more. I don’t see us doing what Tim Farron suggests is possible and replicating the Canadian Liberals’ jump from irrelevance to majority government, but I seriously wouldn’t be surprised if in ten years’ time we were the largest opposition party (that sounds daft, but remember that ten years ago Blair had just won his third election victory, people were talking about permanent Labour government, and UKIP were on 2% of the vote).

The Lib Dems’ future is still very much up in the air, and I’m certainly not saying that the party is definitely going to make a recovery. But I think the chances are far higher than the media are giving us credit for, and far higher than they were even six months ago. The next few years are going to be interesting.

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Note for Smashwords Customers

I’ve noticed a few formatting infelicities in many of the ebooks I’ve got available on Smashwords. I’m updating them at the moment (just spent four hours hand-hacking the epub version of California Dreaming to get rid of a problem with paragraph spacing), so if you’ve bought them keep checking your libraries for the updated improved versions — anyone who’s already bought the books can get the new copies for free.
(And anyone who hasn’t, now’s as good a chance as any…)

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The Sigourney Quota

Is there a new law which I’m not aware of that says that all cinematic showings much have a minimum quota of Sigourney Weaver in them?
Not that I’d complain if such a rule did exist, mind you — Sigourney Weaver is a fine, versatile, actor who is equally good in dramatic or comic roles. I’m always happy to see her turn up in stuff, and she’s usually good even in bad films.
But… well… let’s look at the last few times I’ve been to the cinema. I went to see the new, improved, Ghostbusters. Sigourney Weaver turns up at the end in a surprise cameo.
I went to see Finding Dory. That also has surprise Sigourney Weaver, playing herself, doing the recorded tour narration for the aquarium.
Then I went to the Starburst Film Festival. That did show some films which had no Sigourney Weavers in at all, such as the low-budget slasher film from Liverpool, or the zero-budget indie comedy from Australia. But it also showed Aliens and Galaxy Quest, both of which have a great deal of Sigourney Weaver in, so the ratio was kept up.
And then today, I went to see the Beatles Shea Stadium gig on the big screen. That was actually the third part of an “experience”, though.
To see it, first you had to sit through an hour of live footage of people like Bob Geldof and Madonna walking on some carpet in Leicester Square, interrupted by interviews with bemused random American filmmakers conducted by John Bishop, who kept claiming to be “from Liverpool”. (He was born there, but he grew up in Winsford like me. He may be a Scouser by birth, but he’s a woolyback by upbringing and it does him no good to try to hide it, he’s not fooling anyone).
Then there was an hour and a half of Ron Howard’s new film, which I think is called The Beatles Anthology TV Version Episodes 2 & 3 Slightly Reedited To Take Out The Bits Where John Makes Fun of Disabled People And To Add In Some Pointless Opinions From Richard Curtis and Eddie Izzard. Something like that, anyway. And in the middle of it there, again, was Sigourney Weaver. Caught in footage of the 1964 Hollywood Bowl show, and then talking about it afterward (she liked the Beatles, apparently).
So, is there a new rule that all screenings must include a Sigourney Quota? Well, we’ll have to see. I think the next trip I have planned to the cinema is to the Widescreen Weekend at the Media Museum in Bradford, the celebration of *really* big-screen films I go to every year. I wonder what they’re showing this year…

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A Brief Thought On Class, and Critical Reaction to Jerusalem

I’m going to be posting a proper review of Jerusalem on Mindless Ones tomorrow, when I’ve had time to finish thinking about it, but my review will probably not be touching on one of the main issues of the book, which is class. For that reason I thought I’d better make a separate post in reaction to the Guardian review of it, which includes this telling paragraph:

The problems are still here, too, though: the chapter narrated by prostitute Marla, obsessed with Jack the Ripper and Princess Di, seems to confuse expletives with authenticity, including 32 f-words – to take one page, chosen at random – and five c-words. This is caricature, not characterisation.

I had two reactions to this. The first was to remember the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch about critics: “A prick in the hands of Pinter is a punctuation point, a marvellous moment, an epithet, the end of an extremely witty line; whereas a prick in the hands of Cook and Moore is just a gratuitous prick… one feels it’s being abused.”

The second was to think about going to university, and for the first time having a social circle made up primarily of middle-class people. I remember when the TV series “The Royle Family” first came out, I was very impressed by it. But I talked to my sister, and she said “It’s boring. I don’t know why anyone would want to watch that programme. It’s just people acting normal. If I want to see people acting normal I can just see that anywhere.”

A week or so later I mentioned the series to a friend from an upper-middle-class background who was studying for an English degree. She said “Oh, I hate that programme. It’s so unrealistic. Nobody lives like that.”

The fact is that a lot of people really have no idea at all how other social groups live — how they talk, how they behave, what their concerns are. And for a Guardian arts columnist, the depiction of how a great chunk of real people talk — the people who don’t live in the major cities, who don’t have jobs in the media, academia, or politics, whose concerns revolve around survival and family rather than around the verbal gameplaying that makes up so much of culture — is so far from their experiences as to seem like caricature.

When I read that chapter, I heard the voice of the viewpoint character in my head. It wasn’t in the Northampton accent she would have — I’ve never been there, and know nothing about it — but it was a very real voice nonetheless. It was a voice just like those of some of the people in my own family — the ones who have succumbed to addiction or alcoholism, the ones who have been unemployed all their lives — and many of the other people who live in the small town they’re from, the people whose horizons are circumscribed by that area and who may never travel even as far as London in their lives. It’s the voice of the people I’ve worked with when I was working on a psych ward — the people whose idea of getting a good job and making something of themselves consisted of getting work filling potholes in roads. It’s not my voice — not any more — but it’s a voice that is, in truth, more familiar to me than the voice of Guardian leaders and arts journalism, the voice of privilege unearned that is also privilege so unseen that it seems perfectly normal.

And even to talk about working-class people in this way seems to condemn them — the very language we use when talking in an academic register, or the register of formal writing that I use for my blog posts, is full of contempt for people whose lives aren’t about having a “career”, or about what is called “the life of the mind”, as if people working in factories or on building sites or as sex workers or unable to find a job at all were in some way mindless.

Moore’s book doesn’t do that. It’s a deeply, deeply, humanistic book, and it treats the concerns of homeless people, sex workers, working-class mothers of six, in exactly the same way it treats the concerns of celebrated artists or of failed poets or of saints. Their lives matter because they’re people, and because people matter.

And people matter even if they have a vocabulary that’s smaller than that of someone who works for a broadsheet newspaper. Even if their vocabulary contains two words that are used by pretty much everyone.

The page the reviewer chose isn’t at random, incidentally. I can tell exactly which one it is. The page he’s thinking of is the one which contains the following paragraph:

It’s all just FUCKING SONGS and FUCKING BIRTHDAY CARDS, you cunt, you old cunt. DON’T YOU FUCKING TELL ME, RIGHT, don’t you fucking tell me because YOU, you’ve got NO fucking right, no fucking right. You sit there with your fucking SPLIFF, your fucking GAN-JAH, fucking smiling ’cause you’re monged and saying to chill out. YOU WHAT? You fucking WHAT? I’ll fucking chill YOU out, you old cunt. Fucking leave YOU with your face in stitches and your ribs all kicked in, see how YOU like it, you fucking, FUCKING…

That’s the only section with anything like the density of obscenity the review talks about, and it’s a short stream of consciousness section where a heroin-addicted sex worker who is descending into psychosis is shouting angrily at someone who isn’t there.

It may well be that the Guardian reviewer has truly never met anyone who talks like that, so to him it may well be confusing expletives with authenticity. It may well be that to him this reads like caricature, not characterisation.

But I know a lot of people — people who won’t read Jerusalem, because the idea of reading a book at all is an absurd one, let alone a 1500-page literary novel — whose reaction to that section would be, if they ever did read it, “It’s boring. I don’t know why anyone would want to read that. It’s just people talking normal. If I want to hear people talking normal I can just hear that anywhere.”

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