Wednesday, 28 November 2007

by their own petard.

When the guys from Penny Arcade announced that they were taking time off from reviewing games in order to create one, game publishers of the world began to sharpen their knives for the sweetest revenge of all.

However, with their game not out yet, we have a vaguely similar, if a zero-budget, pixelated and sardonic one in Art of Theft.

With the game coming from the keyboard of 'Yahtzee', he of the Zero Punctuation reviews, it was only a matter of time before a parody review appeared. It doesn't have his Yahtzee's accent going for it, but matches him for wit and humour, as well as doing a good job actually reviewing the game.

Monday, 26 November 2007

True Lies

I think my politics sensor is broken.

In almost every situation where I read an article or opinion about politics (in the sense of actual government, rather than political theory), I mentally side with the government. One reason for this could be that when I was growing up, I regularly had the message "Labour good, Conservatives bad" drilled into me. Not because my parents (mostly my mum) were trying to brainwash me, but because they were passing on what they believed. I remember in particular going to meet David Mellor at a prize giving at my primary school, and being told to spit on his feet by my mum. I didn't, incidentally, but being exposed to very one sided political debate for most of my childhood left a clear mark on me.

Hence whenever I hear a piece of political commentary that paints the Conservatives in a good light and Labour in a bad one, my brain throws up an error - "Wait, this can't be true, Labour are the good guys". I generally have to consciously overrule this part of my brain in order to try and think impartially about politics, which is annoying. I have no problem in general arguing left wing points, because I feel on much more solid ground with abstract ideas, but when the issue of the present government comes up, my brain starts to get into too many arguments with itself for me to make consistent arguments.

Another possible reason for my government-leaning tenancies would just be that I don't like the way the media tends to tear over-enthusiastically into people doing a very difficult job. I don't like the fact that the business of running the country has become one of trying to avoid too much bad press, rather than actually, well, governing. So it might be that my brain is naturally sympathetic towards those in power, rather than the Labour party in particular.

I have nothing to compare this with, since my interest in, and exposure to, politics probably started when staying up to watch the election coverage in 1997. In this sense, then, I would be interested to see the Conservatives come into power (my stomach actually tightened while writing that), if only so that I could work out whether my natural bias is with Labour or with the party in power.

Going back to my previous point about the business of spin and media relations getting in the way of governing, I find it pretty ludicrous that there are people calling for the Chancellor to step down over an issue that he can have had no control over. People pointed to the example of Paul Gray taking responsibility and stepping down as head of HMRC as being the right attitude, and implied that the chancellor and even the Prime Minister should follow suit.

It firstly seems ludicrous that the failure to follow government procedures by a junior official should be in any way the responsibility of two of the highest ranked public servants in the country. As you go up the government ladder, the general responsibility for the actions of those below you increases, but the responsibility for any individual failing surely decreases. The fact that Paul Gray decided to step down should surely be the end of the issue. There is no need for either Darling or Brown to take responsibility, because Gray has already done so.

However, the media know that they will have a bigger impact and generate more public interest by, for want of a better term, shit-stirring. Maybe people don't believe whatever the media tells them day to day, but they probably absorb some of it, and when the media is constantly banging on about government spin, hypocrisy, cover-ups and resignations, it can be very difficult to pick out those situations in which the terms are appropriate from those in which there is no real scandal, but which would get no public attention if reported in context.

The problem forms a vicious cycle, because officials are so desperate to avoid even the smallest situation being blown out of proportion (causing the inevitable resignation calls), that they are willing to stretch the truth, leave out facts and even outright lie to the media. When these lies eventually come out (as they almost always do), this then fuels the media's obsession that all politicians are slimy, corrupt, lying bastards, that there is no reason to trust anything that they say, and that the other lot would be much better.

The trouble is that no government will be able to look good for any extended period of time because at the first sign of a mistake (you know, the kind made by humans), the media start to wave their P45s and shout for an election.

I don't necessarily think that it would work, but I would like to see a government, a party, or even a politician make a sincere effort to avoid spin. Yes, there are going to be situations where for reasons of security or dignity, there are things you can't reveal, but I think that the majority of government should be transparent, and able to be examined as such.

Rather than having the ridiculous situation of two parties arguing over who thought of a policy idea first, they should be celebrating the fact that they both want to implement the same idea. Since when did getting one over on the other side of the house with a witty comeback in a debate take the place of doing your best for the electorate?

The fact that Members of Parliament have to be forced to vote with the government because they don't agree with the law being passed is surely ignoring the whole point of having a representative democracy. "Oh, I was going to represent the views of my constituents in this vote, but then my party leader said I couldn't". Whither democracy then?

Equally, if you don't want the public (and/or the media) to know why you are financing something, investigating something or pushing for legislation then you are doing something wrong as a government. Either you are not representing the views of the electorate, or you haven't explained your position well enough.

And this is where it becomes a two-way thing, because in order for a government that actually didn't spin anything to work, the media would also have to avoid spinning. Rather than looking at a statement from the press office and thinking 'what are they trying to hide?', the media could take the chance to explain both sides of the argument to the public and letting the government getting on with actually making the decision.

Clearly a media that simply repeats what the government says is the mark of a less-than-free press, but I would argue that we have swung too far the other way, and that our dictatorial press is making for a less-than-free government.

The only way you are going to get rid of the culture of lies that apparently is destroying our political system is to have an electable politician that actually tells the truth without spin, and with the current media, I'm not sure that's possible.

As usual, that was pretty rambling, and probably inaccurate. For a much better insight into politics and the media (you know, from someone who actually knows what they're talking about) try this blog (listed over there on the right along with a ton of other good ones). In particular the post about lying to reporters that inspired whatever this was.

Friday, 23 November 2007

245 votes

From Sickipedia:
Also, and to stay with the image theme: Thanks to the xkcd store I now have a shiny new olde-style online community map on my wall.
This makes me smile every time I look up from my screen. :D

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Links of a 2.0 nature.

I have been intending to write something long, rambling and uninteresting about gay marriage on here for a while, but Jabberwock has put down pretty much exactly what I would have said, so you may as well read that.

Also, looking back at this particularly embarrassing post, I realised that I missed a great opportunity to plug 'awkward things I say to girls', which is linked over there on the right, but hasn't been mentioned explicitly on here before. It's a great series of stories about situations this guy has got into while talking to girls. I can definately relate to his description of his mental processes and stumbling attempts at humour, and his writing style is brilliant and regularly very beautiful. As well as being hilarious. It's not updated very often any more, but read through the archives - it's well worth it.

Since I've been posting a fair number of link-based posts on here, I thought I'd try out, a social bookmarking program that, again, I had been intending to start using for ages. I'll put anything that requires comment on here, but I'll probably link a lot of stuff on there that'll never make it onto here, too, at least until I can work out how to automatically feed my updates through.

And, as if in some kind of web 2.0 frenzy, I have also finally got a flickr account. I had previously resisted this because the photos that I took tended to be more of the mates-getting-pissed variety than the artistic variety. With my early Christmas present (from me to me) of a new and slightly less amateur camera, though, I've decided to at least try and do something a bit different photography-wise. I'm no expert, but hopefully I'll improve, so check out my account every so often to see what I've added.

Any artistic merit those photos have comes pretty much entirely from the intelligent stuff the camera is doing with focus, exposure etc, btw...

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

My say

From the BBC's Have Your Say section on controlling binge drinking, particularly in young people:

"Why the hell should I be punished by extortionate price hikes due to some peoples lack of control?!

The report states teenagers/children drinking - hello? Isn't it against the law for them to do this?

When the little darlings end up in hospital to have their stomachs pumped/injuries attended to then arrest their parents.

It's nothing short of neglect. Do not try and justify their disgusting behaviour by saying you can't control them 24/7. Yes you can, that is your job as a parent!!"
Contrast with this story also on the BBC. Clearly not exactly the worlds most thorough investigation of a story, but I think that it shows the flaw in the blanket statement from Have Your Say. The parents are going to be the ones least able to control the behaviour of their children once they get into their teens. Hopefully they've passed on the proper lessons at an early age, but once a child starts to rebel, there's really very little a parent can do. If there are childen out there drinking, and there are, they are going to be more of an influence on their peers than their peers' parents can ever hope to be at that age.

The vast majority of the commenters were outraged by the government proposing a tax hike on alcohol, and rolled out all the old 'nanny state' arguments. When it was pointed out the the organisation that produced this report was not a government body, but a seperate group of health organisations, the response was that it was typical that this government was 'hiding behind' lobby groups.
"There ought to be a tax on busybody organisations that continuously poke their noses into other people's business."
While I don't necessarily agree that a tax rise would be the best solutions (clearly there are more complex factors at work than just cheap booze), but the organisation that has come up with these statistics is not saying that drinking alcohol is wrong or should be banned, but is putting forward a suggestion that could reduce alcohol deaths. Maybe I'm being naive, and maybe these organisations are looking to snare a big chunk of government money as a result of this survey, but I would certainly not describe any of the organisations involved as 'poking their noses into other people's business'. As charities, research groups and political pressure groups, the role of these organisations in our politics is job is to produce data and present it to both the government and the public, and that is what they have done. The fact that a 10% tax increase was one of several suggestions wasn't really picked up, because the word tax was mentioned, so everyone wheels out their penny-pinching-Gordon-Brown pens straight away. It's this kind of knee jerk reaction to (ultimately fairly dry) stories that I hate, blowing them out of proportion and picking out the elements that will get the biggest response, but it's the kind of thing that seems to happen more and more in both journalism and public opinion.

The final thing that both annoyed me and came up a number of times in the comments, features in the middle of this post:
"Putting 10%, as I've heard proposed by some groups, on the price of Alcohol is absolutely ridiculous. Do you really think putting that sort of measley [sic] amount on the price of a drink will put off people who want to drink. All the extra taxes will achieve is to give the government more money to squander on beaurocracy [sic] and useless 'studies' and irritate the majority of responsible drinkers whilst doing nothing to put off hardened drinkers."
The comment itself is not necessarily unreasonable; I agree that a higher tax will probably not have the effect that the study groups hope, and that young people who can get enough money together to afford (probably supermarket) alcohol at the moment will be unlikely to be put off by a small increase in that cost. However, I don't like the tone of the message - treating the studies and suggestions with scorn, while not even suggesting at any kind of alternative solution.

It also annoys me that the poster says that all the taxes will do is 'give the government money to squander on bureaucracy'. Maybe he is speaking in exaggerated tones for effect, but I think that his point is still unhelpful. I agree that the level of bureaucracy in government could probably be reduced, but I also believe that the government appreciates this. I can't imagine how difficult it must be to try and keep track of the vast budgets that the government has to deal with, and I don't like the implication of a blasé government throwing tax money around without a care for the effect on the poor workers from whom the money has been cruelly taken.

Again, I'm straying into naive woolly liberal territory again, but I genuinely don't think that the people in and working for the government are just in it for the quick gain. I don't like the way that modern politics forces people to play games rather than govern (but that's another story for another time), and I think that the people who work hard to get elected and into positions of responsibility do it because they want to make a positive difference to the country. This is why it frustrates and annoys me when I see black-and-white, one-sided, over-simplified analyses of the government as a money grabbing behemoth that doesn't care about the man on the street. The government may be a huge entity, but it is made up of individuals that all want to do their best for Britain as a country, whichever party they belong to.

Penultimately, a particularly helpful view of the Labour party from one comment:
"Labour Party Commandments

You must:
  • Work hard to support the idle, MPs, criminals and government employees pensions.
  • Accept higher taxes and bills without complaint
  • Accept that we're watching your every move
  • Use the bus/train to travel to work
  • Not smoke or drink
  • Not drive/fly
  • Eat only organic food
  • Accept that the law is on the side of the criminal
  • Accept that your are second class citizens in what was your country
  • Remember we know best what's good for you"
Does the person who wrote that really believe that that is what the Labour government are trying to do? Presumably not. But why try and understand what someone is trying to do when you can just stand to one side and ridicule them.

Apologies for the any of the above that was rambling, poorly thought out, or just naive liberal bilge, but I think most of it at least vaguely represents my points of view on the topics involved, so I'm not going to attempt to rewrite any more of it at this hour.

And finally, quite a sweet story about a cat.


Clearly I should have posted this yesterday, but I didn't realise until today: My first ever post on my first ever blog was made on the 12th of November 2002, making yesterday my 5th blog-versary. Or something.

There have been large gaps (my total post-count is only about 265 according to Blogger), and I have at one time or another posted on at least 5 seperate blogs.

While this record identifies me as an inconsistent and unreliable blogger, I feel a certain amount of pride that I'm still posting after 5 years, and raise a glass to the next five.

Monday, 12 November 2007


Browsing through the BBC website today, I came across this list of forms that the police have to fill in during an investigation. I've read a fair amount of the archives on coppersblog over the last couple of months, and this is the one main thing that the writers there complain about too.

The thing that strikes me most about the list of paperwork is not the volume of it (though that is clearly a factor), but the number of different mediums in which data is stored. Some information is kept in handwritten logs, some is on numbered forms, some is entered into a national database and some of it is on a local computer system, not to mention the storage of copies of video evidence, photos and audio tapes from interviews. That's a huge amount of information that may need to be recalled at any time, and which will all be stored in different formats and different places.

The problem is that none of this information-gathering is easily disposed of. If any of it was obviously redundant, then it could be removed, but it seems from the descriptions that all of the steps in the chain are recording reasonable information, either to help lead towards a conviction, or to cover the police in case of a mistreatment lawsuit brought by the arrested party. If we assume that there is no redundant information being collected (something which may not be true, but on which I can't really comment), then the only way to reduce the amount of time spent on paperwork is to reduce the amount of time filling in the existing paperwork, and minimising the occasions on which the paperwork has to be filled in.

On the former point, there must be some way of streamlining the existing systems for logging crimes and criminals into a single computerised structure. Even the time saved by having the system automatically timestamp and number everything would surely be useful. In addition, there would be time and resources saved by the reduction in paper forms. Further expansion into a national database (or at least remote access to regional databases) would be possible, to allow co-ordination between separate forces.

All of this is clearly a massive job, but looking at the BBC link above, it was the first thing that came to mind, probably at least partly because my current job involves writing software to do almost exactly this for the NHS, and I could all too easily see how much it could help in the police service.

The second point above, on minimising occasions on which this mass of information needs to be collected is another major theme that comes out of the procedural posts on coppersblog - that there is a huge amount of time lost recording and investigating crimes that are not going anywhere. Front line officers are given no room to judge for themselves what to investigate and what to leave. Clearly the police should not be ignoring crimes, but if the officer knows from experience that there is no chance of a conviction, or even a charge, shouldn't he be within his right to say so. And then to get on with investigating a case that may have a useful outcome. Is it not analogous to allowing your doctor to tell you the best course of action. If your GP says "It's nothing to worry about, leave it for a couple of days and it'll clear up", would you respond "No, give me pills, now." or "No. Refer me to a hospital. Now."? Sadly, maybe this kind of response to medical advice is becoming more common nowadays, but I would suggest that allowing the police to exercise their professional judgement in the same way as doctors is vital to avoid the justice system being clogged up with family arguments, kids fighting, and pub brawls.

As a personal example, when I was 13 or so, I was beaten up in an alley while coming home from school by a guy much older than me. When the police came round to interview me that evening, I told them as much as I could, and gave them a description of my attacker, and they said "It's really pretty unlikely that anything is going to come of this". I never heard anything else from them, and to me, that's fine. I would hate to think that they had to spend any longer than it would take to give me a crime number and record a brief description of my case on it, since, clearly, there was no way they were going to catch the guy. Even if they somehow came across him, it would be my word against his, and there would be no chance of a conviction.

I was going to talk more about government targets here, but I'll have to save that for a later post, as it's getting late and I'm starting to ramble a bit. Either way, if you consider the worst aspects of targets and paperwork, then think how far we've come from these principles, particularly the last one.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Nice try.

Great article on Ted Nelson and Xanadu, neither of which (whom?) I had ever heard of before. Via Coding Horror.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Lexical levity

I found this via this whilst trying to find what this book was called, having heard about it in several places, including HIGNFY and this podcast, which I was recommended to try in this post.

Incidentally, trying to find that book via Google is very difficult if you don't actually know any specific details such as title or author, as any description of it is too wordy to be useful. I finally found it by searching for example words that were given in the podcast.

Friday, 2 November 2007


Awesome doodle games:

Leading to: (recommended in person by Russ).

The whole doodle-for-the-sake-of-doodle, with no real winner, reminds me of Blank White Cards.