Death by a thousand policy initiatives

With the latest ridiculous policy proposal by the government duly despatched back to Room 101, I’ve been thinking more and more – just what are New Labour good for? All we have had recently is a continual stream of vacuous, ill thought-out ideas, obsessed by ‘getting tough’ and ‘reforming’, when they are actually petty and always aimed at the wrong problem (if there is a problem, which often there is not). Over at Chicken Yoghurt, Justin has neatly summed it up:

Anyway. Is this how New Labour dies? Of shame, laughter ringing in its ears? I can’t remember a single policy idea put out by this government since the General Election that hasn’t been hung, drawn and quartered by pretty much everybody with an opinion. […] All this thinking out loud in the newspapers and half-arsed legislation gives the impression less of power with purpose and more of a fug of pot-addled students fantasising about starting a band when none of them own instruments or have any musical ability.


Kiva (via The Sharpener) is a nice little idea. It’s a microcredit brokering site, which allows anyone in the developed world to make small-scale loans to those in the developing world. Thanks to the Internet and PayPal, you’re able to make small loans in the tens or hundreds of dollars to people who want them. Though touted as peer-to-peer it’s not strictly thus (Kiva acts as a central clearing house), and no doubt you could waffle on about flat earth and the long tail and all the other buzzwords of late, but too much theoretical window-dressing would obscure the good idea that operates behind it.

There’s still the odd wrinkle, with no collateral it’s not clear exactly how loans are guaranteed (interesting aside – “on the ground” microcredit firms use social capital as collateral) and as the volume of traffic increases, it is hard to see if they can keep up the same level of scrutiny (especially after the Daily Kos mentioned them). I hope they have plans for how to maintain the long-term viability of the project. But still, it’s not a simple anonymous handout that passes through levels of bureaucracy. With it being a loan that has to be repaid, but on more generous terms than banks or local loan sharks offer, it encourages work and entrepreneurial spirit without bleeding peoply dry. The personal connection between lender and borrower adds a nice human dimension and an incentive for the lender to take a long-term interest in the welfare of their debtors. If it’s managed well, it could be the start of something big.

Strictly Crap Television

I did something I regretted last night – something I thought I grew out of a long time ago, and something which very few grown people admit to doing. Yes, I watched the BBC1 evening schedule. All the way through.

The first programme I watched was Only Fools And Horses. And not just any episode of Fools and Horses, but the episode – the one where Del Boy falls through the counter of the wine bar while pretending to be smooth. Either the BBC screen this episode every Saturday evening at 5, or I am spectacularly unlucky, because I have seen this episode a good half a dozen times, just by switching on it randomly. However, despite being repeated for the 1000th time, it was still better than what followed – it was funny and intelligently considered on wider issues. It’s quite shameful that the rest of the evening’s entertainment was still outclassed by a 15-year-old repeat.

What followed was, quite frankly, dire. The National Lottery Jet Set is a totally joyless gameshow that effectively makes the licence payer pay for a half-hour long promotion of the National Lottery. Out-take TV is a recycled version of a program that recycles the bits that weren’t good enough to make our screens in the first place. Carrie and Barry is a sitcom about absolutely nothing – just ordinary people in a house and their ordinary lives (this week, Barry tries installing damp-proofing). It’s a sitcom without any sit; in fact, as it’s not very funny, the “com” bit is also rendered unnecessary.

All of these could have been the nadir of the night’s entertainment, if it weren’t for one clear winner. Strictly Come Dancing (for starters, why the fuck did they go with that title? It makes no grammatical sense. Was a ripoff of Strictly Ballroom really the best they could come up with?) was the most appalling programme of the night. Not just the fact that it keeps a long past his best Bruce Forsyth on the screens, nor the fact that it is basically another check-the-boxes talent show (controversial judges – check, phone poll tension – check, useless underdog – check, behind-the-scenes bits- check).

No, the thing that irritates me most is, at least with Pop Idol, Fame Academy, Stars In Their Eyes and the rest, there was the chance of an unknown with talent to make it big. Not so in SCD – all the contenders are celebrities who have made it in some other way. And then they dance. Not particularly well, in most cases. Basically, people who are already famous and successful are made even more famous and successful by being mediocre at something. This is an insult to any sort of notion of fairness or reward, as well as perpetuating the lie that the ability to take part activities like ballroom dancing can be picked up quickly and learned with a few well-drilled movements, with no need for things such as talent or dedication.

Hang on, hasn’t this been going on for years? Well, yes, but usually on commercial television (e.g. Hell’s Kitchen, I’m A Celebrity…). Strictly Come Dancing, however, is a BBC programme. It does not seem fair to me to use the licence fee, ostensibly as a means of maintaining non-commercial, quality public service broadcasting, merely to reward the already rich and (moderately) famous for doing something that many not very rich and totally unfamous people with actual dancing talent could do much better. Public service entertainment should be there to showcase the best and to reward the talented, not merely feed the cult of fetishised celebritism inherent in the commercial television sector.

There was a recent proposal to reform the licence fee, to allow other broadcasters such as Channel 4 to produce licence fee-subsidised public service television. I rejected it initially, as doing so would make the converse move more acceptable – it becomes easier to justify converting or part-converting the BBC’s output to being advertising-funded. However, after watching last night’s spectacle I’ve changed my mind. As BBC1’s Saturday evening output is now no different from that of the commercial broadcasters’, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be advertising-funded. The licence fee could still remain for genuine public service broadcasting, such as news, documentaries, history, science and culture (all the bits that traditional BBC-haters would prefer to be scrapped or reformed to parrot their own political views) that could not be funded by advertising, but it can be cut down and part of the proceeds would up for grabs for other broadcasters to keep the BBC on its toes. We would still have a reasonable proportion of quality televisual output, while the ordinary licence payer is no longer obliged to pay for dance lessons for the wealthy.

Smoking ban

So they’re going to ban smoking in all public places, except for private members’ clubs and pubs that do not serve food. Hang on – what happened to the binge drinking problem? Enforcing a law that says some pubs cannot serve food will only mean people will drink more on empty stomachs and get even more pissed than they do now. So much for joined-up government.

Even though I’m an asthmatic and really, really don’t like cigarette smoke, I still think banning smoking in pubs, although a laudable attempt at improving public health, will not be very productive in the end. Without any corresponding extra measures to help people give up, they’ll just smoke at home instead. Bar staff and customers may benefit from cleaner air, but children and any other dependents who live in smokers’ homes will not.

NAS drives for the home

I had an idea the other day. I was beginning to realise that my laptop was beginning to run out of drive space, and that I had far too many photos and ripped mp3s (from my own collection, for the benefit of any RIAA lawyers out there), and I didn’t want to have to make decisions on what to keep and not what to keep. So I thought about buying another computer to act as a fileserver – just a simple box with a great big hard drive and cheap processor, which I could access as a virtual drive on the laptop.

Trouble is, that’s a bit of a waste of all the extra hardware around the hard drive, as well as the trouble building it, installing it, keeping it secure, not to mention the extra power requirements. I was having qualms. Then Max told me of a new thing he’d seen – the Netgear Storage Central. Approximately the size of a toaster, it’s a budget NAS (Networked Attached Storage) device which plugs into a router, taking one or two IDE drives.

This is a great idea. More and more households are adopting home area networks, usually with wireless (the other week on a train from Edinburgh, two lovely middle-aged ladies from Cleveland were excitedly talking to me about the quality of the wireless network one of them had set up in their house), and with more and more photos, mp3s, movies etc. being recorded that users want to share. A NAS device plugged into the router would take the hassle out of the usual sharing of drives or folders (computer must be switched on, security issues, etc.) between people. The fact that it’s only ?60-70 (without any HDDs included, which makes a 160GB device roughly ?120) makes it even better.

So why haven’t I bought one? Because although it’s a great idea, it’s been done very poorly. To access the drive, you need a Windows-only proprietary client running in the background, rather than go through the normal sharing protocols (sorry Mac/Linux users). It has a custom formatting system, so if it goes wrong there’s no way you can rescue your data unless you buy another one. These would be bearable, if the thing worked, but from the technical support forums it’s clear that they don’t like wireless connections, the firmware is buggy and the devices are prone to overheating.

Which is a real shame, because I think there is a definite market for a cheap, simple network drives (with none of the complex partitioning or permissions stuff nor the high performance that businesses require) in the home. It would save having to buy a dedicated fileserver and would take up less room and energy. Sadly, it seems Netgear haven’t yet delivered the goods. I’ve gone back to the idea of a dedicated box (there are a couple of similar products out there but neither seems particularly good quality either) – either that or wait for them to produce a version that actually works…

My five minutes of non-fame

Last week I got a mysterious email asking me if I wanted to be on television. My head full of bizarre possible program formats (I was really hoping for something Brookeresque like “Cheggers Plays God”) and wondering why they wanted me on it, I said I might be interested, and got an application form and a brief explanation.

The programme, “Eugenius“, actually turns out to be rather formulaic – it’s a reality dating show which pits intelligent, geeky guys against ‘ordinary blokes’ to see whether brains will outdo beauty when it comes to competing for women. I politely declined, not least because I already have a wonderful, beautiful girlfriend who I would never abandon for a TV show, and left it at that.

But then it gradually started to niggle me over the week… first of all the implication that just because I like geeky things, that I’m not going to be good looking? Alright, I’m not Brad Pitt or anything, but I’d like to think I’m not totally repulsive either. Moreover, that geeks only like doing geeky things and nothing else (for example, I happen to quite like watching football, and I’m sure plenty of other geeky types do not conform exactly to stereotype either).

Perhaps, away from the stereotyping, it felt slightly patronising, that television was going to be the only way I was ever going to score (actually, take me back a few years and I might have been inclined to agree). Or indeed, that the females taking part would be the kind of person I would want to go out with. Perhaps it’s just a general distaste or weariness for all things reality TV-esque. Whatever it is, while not totally offended that I was deliberately targeted for a show like this (should I be?), it still left me feeling distinctly uneasy.

I fear when the program does hit our screens I’ll either become a fan or totally hate and rant about it on this blog. Incidentally, if anyone reading this blog is interested in the show, despite my misgivings – I think they’re still desperate for interested to hear from applicants; I was emailed the next day by another person from the same production company asking me to take part, unaware that I had already declined.