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Lib Dem Spring Conference: finding a cause worth fighting for

According to tonight’s BBC news, the big thing on our minds at the Lib Dem Spring Conference was the Income Tax threshold. In fact almost nobody here in York was talking about it. Uppermost in our minds were the European Parliament and local elections due in May this year, and broader manifesto issues for the general election in 2015.

The BBC headline came from a speech by Danny Alexander, the Treasury Secretary. It got a dutiful standing ovation, but was pretty uninspiring stuff. Much more interesting was the party’s stance on the European Parliament elections, which was showcased the night before at the conference rally. This is to shamelesslessly advertise the party as being in favour of the EU and set itself up as being in contrast to Ukip, with the Tories and Labour as fence sitting irrelevance. Defence of the EU being is cast in terms of the risks presented by leaving it, especially to jobs. Thinking Liberal hardly not approve of this. It is exactly the strategy I advocated in the wake of the disastrous 2012 elections. It is a core vote strategy that is at long last getting professional execution. Until now the professionals have preferred a floating voter strategy aimed at the middle ground. They seemed constitutionally unable to execute a core vote strategy, which showcases the party’s core beliefs. We will have to see how this strategy works out, but if nothing else it is inspiring for activists.

Personally I think this could be a bit of a turning point for the party. Nick Clegg ushered in a new era when he took up the party’s leadership in 2009 (I think). The old guard, epitomised by the chief executive Chris Rennard were swept away. This needed doing, but a lot of wisdom was swept away in the process. The party’s campaigning has been flawed under Mr Clegg. There was a brief moment of triumph in the 2010 General Election campaign, but the end result was disappointing. And entering into coalition government exposed flaws in the party’s strategy in a very painful way – even though the process of entering government was something that few had dared to imagine beforehand. Dismal electoral results in local and London elections followed.

But at last the party has come out fighting. It is discovering a sense of purpose. This was evident in a policy motion on immigration this morning, where the party has failed to succumb to tide of anti immigration rhetoric that is otherwise overwhelming the political landscape. Other policy motions, on planning and constitutional reform were less convincing. Though in the former case party activists are at least starting to engage with the clear need for more housing in the south of the country.

If nothing else this proves the need for three party politics. Labour and the Conservatives would rather duck and weave around the issues of Europe and immigration, appealing to voters on both sides of the argument, while suppressing proper debate. The Lib Dems increase the costs to them of doing so.

Will it work? It may not. But increasingly Lib Dem activists relish the prospect of going down fighting. And who knows, perhaps rewards beyond the imagination of the average political commentator?

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Labour can win in 2015. A disaster beckons in 2020.

Is it just me, or can I see a certain spring in the step of Britain’s national politicians? Ever since the party conference season last September they have been focusing on one thing above all: winning the General Election due in May 2015. The perplexing state of the country is now simply a source of ammunition to batter the other side. Actually solving the problems can be left until afterwards. What a relief!

The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, is having the better of it, if the relentlessly superficial media chatter is to be believed. This is quite a turnaround, since the same chatterers had him as toast as late as August. He has abandoned his party’s “too far, too fast” criticism of the government’s austerity policies, which helped rally the faithful (and rattle Lib Dem activists) but cut little ice with the country at large. The recovery of the country’s economic statistics has not invalidated their argument, but it has made it far too complex a proposition to argue, especially since their rhetoric had placed far too much reliance on these “flatlining” statistics in the first place. Instead they are focusing on living standards, and things, like fuel bills, which affect them.

From a campaigning perspective, this change of tack is astute on at least two counts. First, it appeals to direct personal experience, rather than the ephemeral world of economic statistics, to which the country’s GDP growth statistics belong. Second, it is such an intractable problem that the government is unlikely to be able to neutralise it. All that remains is to find some eye-catching policies to embarrass the government and keep the political debate on their ground. The centrepiece of this is the pledge to freeze energy prices for two years if Labour takes power, while they put in place a longer term fix to limit the damage inflicted by the greedy energy businesses they blame for the problem. A second push has been to enforce a “living wage” significantly higher than the legal minimum wage, through government procurement, and a tax break for employers who raise their wages.

In this line of attack Mr Miliband is the first of our national politicians to make political capital out of one of the most important developments in the British economy, along with many other developed economies, notably America’s. For the majority of people, wages are not keeping up with growth in the wider economy. In Britain this trend was clearly established, I read in this piece by Chris Giles in the FT, 2003/04; since 2010 (i.e. when the current government took over) wages have not even kept up with average prices. The benefits of growth are going to mainly to a privileged elite, while government interventions tend to be focused on the other end of the spectrum: the very poor. While the main economic issue is slow growth of pay, the main flashpoints are in taxes (especially for things like fuel) and energy costs.

There is, however, a snag. How on earth to actually fix it? This does not seem to bother Mr Miliband too much. His policy proposals are at best ineffectual, and at worst will actually make things worse. In the field of energy Britain is being overtaken by a crisis, as old nuclear and coal-fired power stations are shut down, and replaced by renewable energy sources that place wholly different strains on infrastructure. What the country badly needs is investment, in new capacity, and, especially, in distribution infrastructure (e.g. moves towards a “smart grid”). Just how Labour’s attack on the energy companies is going to solve this problem is, to say the least, unclear. And, if some of what I read is true, the pressure will break out into real problems in two or three years time. Labour’s living wage policies are no better thought through. Using government procurement to do heavy lifting in this area, along with many others, risks weighing it down with compliance costs – a process that tends to push out smaller businesses, as well as inviting scandal and fraud. The tax break looks totally unsustainable and an invitation to unscrupulous companies to manipulate the system.

The Conservatives are planning their counterattack. There is growing talk of 1992 (which this blog has long been banging on about), when a well-funded late campaign destroyed what had seemed to be an inevitable Labour victory. They will focus, probably, on frightening voters about the economy and taxes; their newspaper allies will concentrate on personal attacks on Mr Miliband to undermine his credibility as a prime minister. The Lib Dems are crafting a “centre ground” campaign, no doubt hoping to benefit from the damage the big parties will do to each other.

I have urged my readers not to underestimate the Conservatives. That advice still applies. But my current instinct is the Labour will weather the storm enough to form a minority government. That is when Mr Miliband’s problems will start. The country will face electricity shortages; clever schemes to enforce the living wage will unravel; living standards for the majority will stay under pressure; Labour activists and trade unionists will be on the government’s case to raise benefits and expenditure. The calamity that has struck Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems will visit Labour, for very similar reasons. I understand Labour’s strategy for winning in 2015; how on earth are they going to win in 2020?

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The Great British Bake Off: a lesson in fairness and manners

This year’s Great British Bake Off ended last night. It was an immensely enjoyable show, and also very popular with the general public. Drawing wider lessons from such apparent trivia is a tricky business – but I was particularly concerned by this article by one of the contestants (Ruby Tandoh) in today’s Guardian. There has, apparently, been a lot of abusive comment in the press and on social media. What does this say about the state of British manners?

First let’s have the good news. The manners displayed in the contest itself were quite beautiful. In spite of the highly pressured atmosphere, and the obviously competitive nature of the activity, the contestants behaved wonderfully to each other. They actually seemed to like being together – bonding in response to the common task. This applied even to the comments made by the contestants without the others there. This is not always the case with these game shows (though we do not watch many of them), where rather silly competitive stuff often gets said. Nobody forgot that this was just a pointless contest about cakes and bread. This is all part of the charm of the programme, and clearly it helps make excellent viewing. This is welcome relief against the apparent conventional wisdom that bad manners make good viewing.

It is also worth pointing out that the judging was inevitably hard, but scrupulously fair. One of the judges, Mary Berry, being a particularly fine exemplar of good manners while at the same time passing difficult judgements. The other, Paul Hollywood, was less tactful, but never rude and always fair. This huge effort to be fair in the face of something very subjective also made for very good viewing. There are important social lessons there in a cynical world.

So what was the fuss about? Well I know about it mostly from Ms Tandoh’s article. My Facebook friends hardly talked about it, still less said anything inappropriate. I did pick up an article in The Daily Mail while I was on holiday last week though, claiming that Miss Tandoh should have been knocked out that week, but wasn’t because a tendency to burst into tears had affected the judges. We watched a recorded version of the show, which showed this accusation to be clearly nonsense. Apparently there was a lot more of this rubbish around. Miss Tandoh’s view is that it was largely misogynistic – responding to the fact that the final five contestants were all women.

What this clearly shows is that bad manners are rife on social media. That Britain’s awful press  pick up on this and stir it up further is entirely unsurprising. But people buy these papers and clearly like to read it. I can’t say for sure whether this means that standards of social behaviour are slipping, or whether social media is simply exposing behaviour that was previously concealed. I suspect the latter.

Regardless, it shows that the British public has a lot to learn about manners on social media. But it is rather wonderful to have a TV programme like the Bake Off to show how good manners can done in a thoroughly modern way, and that it brings with a feel-good factor with it. Miss Tandoh’s article is model of good manners itself. She has put her critics to shame.

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Lies and statistics

This week The Economist has an interesting article, Unreliable research: trouble at the lab, on the worrying level of poor quality scientific research, and weak mechanisms for correcting mistakes. Recently a drug company, Amgen, tried to reproduce 53 key studies in cancer research, but could get the original results in six. This does not appear to be untypical in attempts to reproduce research findings. The Economist points to a number of aspects of this problem, such as the way in which scientific research is published. But of particular interest is how poorly understood is the logic of statistics, not only in the world at large, but in the scientific community. This is, of course, applies particularly to the economic and social science research so beloved of political policy think tanks.

One particular aspect of this is the significance of a concept generally known as “prior probability”, or just “prior” for short, in interpreting statistical results. This is how inherently likely or unlikely a hypothesis is considered to be, absent any new evidence. The article includes an illustrative example. Hypotheses are usually tested to a 95% confidence level (a can of worms in itself, but let’s leave that to one side). Common sense might suggest that this means that there only a 5% chance of a false positive result – i.e. that the hypothesis is incorrect in spite of experimental validation. But the lower the prior (i.e. less inherently probable), the higher the chance of a false positive (if a prior is zero, at the extreme, no positive experimental result would convince you, as any positive results would be false – the result of random effects). If the prior is 10% there is a 4.5% inherent probability of a false positive, compared to an 8% change of a true positive. So there is a 36% chance that any positive result is false (and, for completeness, a 97% chance that a negative result is truly negative). Very few

The problem is this: an alternative description of “low prior” is “interesting”. Most of the attention goes to results with low priors. So most of the experimental results people talk about are much less reliable than many people assume – even before other weaknesses in statistical method (such as false assumptions of data independence, for example) are taken into account. There is, in fact, a much better statistical method for dealing with the priors problem, called Bayesian inference. This explicitly recognises the prior, and uses the experimental data to update it to a “posterior”. So a positive experimental result would raise the prior, to something over 10% in the example depending on the data, while a negative one would reduce it. This would then form the basis for the next experiment.

But the prior is an inherently subjective concept, albeit one that becomes less subjective as the evidence mounts. The scientific establishment hates to make such subjective elements so explicit, so it is much happier to go through the logical contortions required by the standard statistical method (to accept or reject a null hypothesis up to a given confidence level). This method has now become holy writ, in spite of its manifest logical flaws. And , as the article makes clear, few people using the method actually seem to understand it, so errors of both method and interpretation are rife.

One example of the scope for mischief is interesting. The UN Global Committee on Climate Change presented its conclusion recently in a Bayesian format. It said that the probability of global warming induced by human activity had been raised from 90% to 95% (from memory). This is, of course, the most sensible way of presenting its conclusion. The day this was announced the BBC’s World at One radio news programme gave high prominence to somebody from a sceptical think tank. His first line of attack was that this conclusion was invalid because the standard statistical presentation was not used. In fact, if the standard statistical presentation is appropriate ever, it would be for the presentation of a single set of experimental results, and even that would conceal much about the thinness or otherwise of its conclusion. But the waters had been muddied; our interviewer, or anybody else, was unable to challenge this flawed line of argument.

Currently I am reading a book on UK educational policy (I’ll blog about it when I’m finished). I am struck about how much emphasis is being put on a very thin base of statistical evidence – and indeed how statistical analysis is being used on inappropriate questions. This seems par for the course in political policy research.

Philosophy and statistics should be part of very physical and social sciences curriculum, and politicians and journalists should bone up too. Better than that, scientists should bring subjectivity out into the open by the adoption of Bayesian statistical techniques.

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European elections: saving the Lib Dems from wipeout

Winner Lib Dem Golden Dozen Blogs – 9 December 2012

The Liberal Democrats have just selected their candidates for elections to the European Parliament in June 2014.  These elections are important to the party – it takes itself seriously as a player in this forum, and it contributes a lot to the party’s strength and depth nationally.  But the party faces a wipe-out.  It needs some radical thinking to have a chance of avoiding such a fate.

The problems start with the party’s low opinion poll standing.  The typical 9-10% is not enough to get the party representation in any of the regional constituencies, except the South East, under the PR system that is used.  But it is worse than that.  The party has always underperformed in these elections.  Its usual campaigning methods are worse than useless.  The party’s appalling showing in the London 2012 elections is a much better guide: closer to 5-6%.  Complete wipe-out.  How to save the party?

The first point is that the party needs to acknowledge the root causes of its campaigning weakness in this type of election.  The party’s electoral successes in local and Westminster elections have been achieved using campaigns that focus on three things in particular: identifying local issues that stir the passions of floating voters, a ruthless third party squeeze (“Labour can’t win here, etc”), and identifying voters and getting to them to the polling stations.  All three are useless in Euro elections – and yet they are so deeply embedded in Lib Dem campaigners’ thinking that they infect everything the party does.  The party fails to put over a message that motivates voters, and since canvassing covers such a small proportion of the potential electors (and usually they are based on other sorts of elections anyway), the polling day knock up has very little impact on the result.

Unfortunately, it gets worse.  The party’s Euro candidates tend not to be, shall we say, the party’s most inspiring campaigners. They are very interested in the goings of the European Union.  This makes them well qualified to be Euro MPs – and indeed the party punches well above its weight there.  But they are not good at finding messages that connect with voters.  Even when they think they have found a killer, like using European arrest warrants to catch terrorists and paedophiles, this in practice has little resonance with the public.

So the party’s normal messages and techniques are ineffective, and the Euro candidates struggle to find an alternative.  In the last election I remember delivering piles of tabloid newspapers that were clearly going to have little or no effect.  Motivating the activists is a real problem, never mind the voters.

So what to do?  The basic strategy is quite clear, and has been talked about for some time.  Find enough voters who feel positive about the EU’s role in Britian’s future to turn up and vote to reach about 15-20% of the vote share.  No other significant party is rallying that vote.  The Labour Party is trying get these voters by default, but without prejudicing its chances with the more sceptical majority.  The Tories don’t seem to think these voters even exist.

Next, how can effective campaign be mounted?  What will be needed is poster and Internet advertising, mass direct mail based on promising demographics, and a good freepost (the single leaflet delivered for free by the post office).  This is supported by an online and social media campaign.  All this activity, combined with the right messaging, will draw in media attention.  Almost no need for local activists to do much legwork – they can get on with their local campaigns.  This will cost a lot of money – so the first priority will be to raise it.

The party is getting better at fundraising, but many party activists have little idea about how it works.  Donors, rich and not so rich, need to be motivated in a very similar way to ordinary voters.  They need to be inspired by the campaign’s messages, and think they might catch on with the wider public. You don’t raise the funds first, then decide on the campaign’s messages; it is the other way round.  So the work on messaging needs to start now.

Here is my humble suggestion.  The campaign theme should be “Save Europe!”.  No doubt this can be improved on, but note the key features.  First and foremost it is pitched as a response to a threat.  People are more motivated by response to threats than positive ideas, and motivation is critical.  The “No” campaign for the AV referendum was highly successful as it pitched AV as a threat to the status quo.  So is pulling out of the EU a threat to the status quo.  The party can be progressive and conservative at the same time!  Further is the idea of “Europe” – vague and big.  The idea is to appeal to people with an international consciousness.  There is a double meaning: first to save Britain from leaving the EU, and second for the country to play its full part in solving a continental crisis that will affect us anyway.

How to build on this idea to make the threat seem real?  “Save jobs” and “Save the Environment” should be the focus.  Messing around with EU membership is a clear threat to jobs – and indeed one of the main appeals will be to businessmen who fear for the future of Britian’s relationship with the EU.  The environment allows the party to play on its international outlook.  Indeed it is an appealing idea to use an Earth from space picture with Europe visible on the surface as a campaign logo.  It also sets the party up for some skirmishing that may be needed with the Greens.  And it contrasts with Ukip’s outlook.

Ukip are the rising starts of Euro elections, which frightens the two main parties.  But if the Lib Dems are after core voters rather than floaters then Ukip’s strength is an opportunity.  It helps define the party: “We are the party which is against everything Ukip is for.”  The more they know about Ukip, the more they know about us.  The party should indulge in some relentless negative campaigning against Ukip – including how they have behaved in the European Parliament – though not straying into accusations of racism.

So you get the general idea.  The best next step would be to appoint a national organiser to work on messaging and strategy.  This needs to be somebody comfortable with challenging the Lib Dem conventional wisdom on campaigning, but with a degree of political realism (contrast some of the Yes to AV campaign types).  Though much of the campaigning needs to be done in the regional constituencies, a lot of the design effort can be done nationally – and the Internet and media campaign needs to be led nationally too.

I do hope the party wakes up to the danger and tries to a bit radical!

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My heart attack

Last Monday, three days ago now, I lay, conscious, on an operating table at St George’s hospital, Tooting.  A tube had been inserted into my artery in the right arm at the wrist, through which dyes and then wires were inserted.  On my left wrist a drip had been inserted into vein so that drugs could be injected rapidly.  Two surgeons were doing their stuff around the area of my legs, looking up at two monitor screens.  A large cylindrical  device was being pointed at my chest at various angles.  I lay as still as possible, as the surgeons exchanged comments and gave occasional orders to technicians outside the room, who would respond over the intercom.  Some music was playing quietly in the background.

The surgeons were doing an angiogram.  They were pumping dye into my bloodstream to make the blood flows visible through an X-ray camera and spot any problems with the blood flow to my heart.  And they did find a problem.  “One of your arteries is completely blocked.  This almost certainly caused your heart attack,” one of the surgeons said to me, “We want to insert a piece of wire to clear it.”  I consented.  The surgeons then completed a procedure known as an angioplasty.  This involved using a piece of wire pushed through my arteries to insert an stent, a small length of tube, into the blocked bit to open it up, after first inflating a small balloon to create the space.

It was really only then that I fully realised what had happened – that I had indeed suffered a heart attack, and that as a result my life was in the hands of these two surgeons and their team.  Until then I had thought the problems might be some sort of viral attack (as my elder brother had suffered a few years before) with few longer-term implications.  The previous evening, my family visitors remarked on how well I was looking – though the medically literate among them could spot the abnormal trace on the heart monitor that I was wired into.  This is a shock.  I had no indication until then that I was at risk.  I take regular exercise; I’m not overweight; I have never smoked; I eat my five a day; I even make sure I have a couple or more portions of oily fish a week; my blood pressure has always been normal; no tests that had been run on me had shown me with anything other than a very healthy heart.  It really can happen to anybody.

The problem seems to have started over two weeks beforehand, while we were on an organised tour of Sicily.  One night, after dinner, and a day when I had felt slight constrictions to the chest area, I started to suffer acute chest pains.  I couldn’t sleep.  Eventually, at about 3 or 4 a.m I took some aspirin, and the pain subsided and I got some sleep.  I was puzzled at what had caused this episode.  The chest pains pointed to a heart attack, but none of the other symptoms did.  I wasn’t breathless, I could carry out normal physical activity.  As the pain subsided, the idea that it was severe indigestion took hold.  Gavascon seemed to help with the contuining mild episodes of pain.  The local diet can be pretty acid.  The day after the attack I had no trouble in climbing to the top of a stone tower to get a wonderful view of the western Sicilian coast.  The next day, though, I  felt lethargic and a bit feverish, collapsing into my hotel bed for an afternoon; but a couple of days after that things seemed to return to normal.  We continued with the tour, returning home at the end of the week.

The episode has was scary enough for me to go to my GP in the week after we returned.  I probably wouldn’t have done this had my wife not insisted on it, though I had noted that my fitness at the cardio-vacular exercises in the gym had fallen rather sharply.  My GP tended to agree with my diagnosis of acute indigestion, as he would have expected that a real heart attack would have had more of an impact.  But he did recommend that I did some blood tests.  This I did last Friday morning, at 8.30 a.m.  By midday my GP had rung me to say that one of these tests had revealed a high troponin level, indicative of heart problems.  He recommended that I go to St George’s A & E to get an ECG (electro cardiogram – where they put a dozen electrodes on your skin and get traces of your pulse).  This I did straight after lunch, expecting to be home for tea.  But the ECG showed an abnormal trace.  I was admitted to hospital, hanging around in A & E while a bed was cleared.  The next step was the angiogram – but that couldn’t be run until Monday.  Meanwhile I was kept under observation, with a cocktail of drugs administered by tablet and injection.

Now I am at home in rehab, recovering from the damage to my heart from the blocked artery, and the operation itself – but the prospects for a full recovery are good.  But I’ll be on pills for a long time, probably for the rest of my days.  At the moment there are six different sorts of pill, but it should come down to less than that after a year.  My fitness regime will have to be adjusted downwards so as not to place too much strain on the heart.  I am quite lucky though, first that the original attack did not do more damage, and second that the problem was picked up before the blockage to my artery caused more damage to the heart and maybe a more serious attack.

Why me?  I don’t hit any of the main risk factors – except that I was not avoiding cholesterol in my diet.  In fact I was a heavy cheese eater, and relished meat fat and chicken skin.  That will now change.  But some peple are just more at risk than others.  My physical fitness may have helped reduce the effect – though a bit too well if it had meant that I had avoided having it checked out.

It is customary at this point to praise Britain’s NHS and scorn its critics.  I will try and be a bit more objective, after my close observation of the service at work.  But it doesn’t come out badly.

Firstly I am immensely grateful to all those many professionals that helped me through the episode.  I always felt that they had my interests at heart and they did their best to help me.  Nurses, doctors, technicians, pharmacists and surgeons – I can’t fault any of them.  I now have very benign feelings towards St George’s hospital, which happens to be my local one – from being a rather anonymous presence beforehand.

Second I cannot fault the overall effectiveness of what the NHS acheived.  From the point of that blood test a system was quickly kicked into action that was appropriate at every step, acheived the right outcome, while managing the risks properly.  And at points the service was better than good.  The surgery was world class; the briefing from the cardiac rehab nurse afterwards was also deeply impressive.  The speed with which my blood sample was analysed and acted on was very impressive too.

Effective, yes, but how efficient?  Here I was left with a few question marks.  I ran into an awful lot of different professionals in my journey, having to repeat my story to up to ten different doctors.  This is a warning sign from a process management standpoint – though the need for specialists, 24 hour cover and risk management does not make the matter easy.  And there was an awful lot of paper records and documents.  It isn’t surprising that there were communication breakdowns; I’m still waiting for my discharge papers.  And the whole thing about the service going on hold for the weekend does not feel right either.  At least one, and probably two nights of my four night stay were clinically unnecessary.  Room for improvement, I would say – and that matters in a tax funded system where overall resources are subject to arbitrary limits.

It is clear though that I was much better off under the NHS system than I would have been under the US one, especially before Obamacre kicks in.  I would not have qualified under any of the government funded schemes, and neither would I have been covered by an employer plan.  I would either have to to have bought my own insurance plan, which would suddenly have become a lot more expensive.  Or I would have to have winged it without insurance, which would have landed me in serious trouble.

But then very few people outside the US think that their system is in any way sensible.  A universal insurance scheme, like most advanced countries run, would have caused a little more bureaucracy at the start of my hospital visit, but nothing very burdensome.  And I don’t believe that health professionals would be any less caring or professional if they were not working for a state provider.  Neither do I beleive that the vagaries of private sector management are any worse than the arbitrary resource management of a nationalised, tax-funded system.

But the NHS did do the job it was supposed to do.  And for that I am thoroughly thankful.

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My day at the Olympics

Yesterday I joined London’s Olympic party, when we went to see the gymnastics at the North Greenwich Arena, better known as the O2 (but the company isn’t an Olympic sponsor…) or in its prior guise as the Millennium Dome.  It was the women’s artistic individual overall final.  All too brief – but I’m glad we made it, for once in a lifetime!

The event was due to start at 4.30pm, but we decided to make a day of it.  We set off at 11.30 in the morning, and took the river bus to Greenwich.  We opted to lunch there, about 2km from the arena, since we’d heard so many scare stories about the dominance of the Olympics sponsors (McDonalds for restaurants, Heineken for beer, etc).  Greenwich town is near another Olympic venue – Greenwich Park for equestrian events – so had plenty of Olympic atmosphere.  After a long but rather mediocre lunch at a Tex-Mex restaurant, we set off by bus for the arena, as directed by one of the many Olympic volunteer helpers.  London Transport nearly undid the glow of goodwill by taking out of service the bus that was due to take us, with a long wait for the next one shown on the indicator.  But another bus turned up, untracked by the indicator, a few minutes later, with space enough for everyone.

At the venue we were cheerfully herded through the security checks.  All very quick, but it was quite early (about 3pm).  It didn’t help to try and figure out what was going on in the complex system of queues and barriers, just follow the crowds and go where people were pointing.  In the Dome we found a profusion of restaurants (but no McDonalds, or Burger King, come to that), with no conspicuous restrictions.  The scare stories were overdone.  But a sign at one of the bars in the arena itself said “proud only to accept Visa cards for payment” or some such.  I think most people, me included, find that the Visa monopoly on payment cards quite offensive, so they should have put “ashamed” instead of “proud”.  We paid cash, which was fortunately allowed for a bottle of water (though not for tickets or merchandise…).

So we took our seats perched up high in the arena with over an hour to go.  But they kept us entertained and warmed us up, with videos and explanations and previews, and finally a dance by the English Ballet from Swan Lake (from their current show which coincidentally we are due to see next week).

And then it all started.  There were 24 gymnasts (limited to two from each country – a bit hard on the Americans and Russians) divided into four groups, each taking on one piece of “apparatus” – the beam, the vault, the uneven bars and the floor (which is not an “apparatus” in my pedantic book) – the last set to music.  It was quite a lot to take in.  The top contenders were all in one group, so the pros could concentrate on just them.  But the two British contenders (Hannah Whelan and the 15 year old Rebecca Tunney) were in another group – and the predominantly British crowd were keen to give them full support.  And again, the floor exercise tended to draw attention, with its sheer size and, of course, the music.  There was a screen and a scoreboard, and a bit of commentary – but it is easier to follow on the television at home.  There were one or two performances that I wanted to see but missed – like the American Gabrielle “flying squirrel” Douglas on the uneven bars.

The organisers could have helped us a bit more.  They were selling a daily magazine for £5 on the day’s events, but this gave just two pages to the gymnastics, gassing on about the two British girls, with two thirds of a page on the the girl they considered the favourite (the US Aly Raisman), who did not end up with a medal, plus a brief profile for the main Russian contender (Victoria Komova) and an even shorter mention of her team-mate (Aliya Mustafina) – these ended up with Silver and Bronze respectively.  So they almost failed to mention the winner, Ms Douglas, at all!  Still, better than the forecast at the beginning of the magazine which predicted an American who failed to qualify for the final at all (Jordin Wieber).  This whole things misses the point about people who turn up for the events – who are unlikely to be attending more than one event in a day – so don’t want masses of superficial waffle on everything – but some substance on the event they are watching.  A list of the 24 finalists, and their scores in  earlier rounds, and perhaps a little profile would have added to the event.  All the magazine could do was while away 15 minutes on the train home.

No matter! It was lovely to be there, and to make your own choices as to what to follow, rather then the choice of some television producer.  The performances were astonishing.  I am no gymnast, and don’t know much about the sport.  But I am irrestiably drawn to it each Olympics, and have been watching the drama of the team finals and the men’s event on the television.  There was a thrilling finish on the floor exercises as the Americans and Russians slugged it out.  But Ms Douglas was already in a significant lead, the others having wobbled a little in earlier rounds and she clinched the deal with confidence – quite wonderful to watch.  Interestingly the leading women contestants did not seem to be so pally with each other as were the men – they seemed a bit more absorbed in their own worlds.  Tears from the Russians in the end as they failed in their bid for Gold, in spite of the American favourite having come a cropper in qualification.

Alas for Ms Whelan.  She was already struggling after a poor beam and indifferent floor, when she came a cropper on the vault and score zero points (the only gymnast to do so on any apparatus) – she ended up 24th by some distance, though she would not have done much better in the placings if she had got a middling score there.  Ms Tunney did better, ending up 13th after an uncertain start on the beam -she should still have her best years ahead of her.  After her vault (she led and so was the first score to be posted in the third rotation), she even topped the leader board for a minute or so – as my picture shows.

What a wonderful experience!  My head had was never really convinced by the economic case for London hosting the Olympics, and still isn’t.  But the gain is deeper than economics.  It makes us Brits feel world class again.  The organisation is generally excellent, the spirit wonderful.  The tone set by the opening ceremony was shear genius – celebrating Britain inclusively for what it is, and not trying to wallow in past glory.  We can be cynical about lots of it (the scare stories about transport chaos, the sponsors’ monopolies), critical about details (the daily magazine) – but it feels good.

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Football: after optimism fails, England fans try low expectations.

I’m not a football fan, in any of its forms.  I don’t follow a football (soccer) club.  But I do get swept into the excitement of the big international championships that take place every two years: the European Cup and the World Cup.  The European Cup for 2012 has started but there’s almost no visible excitement in this football-mad nation (England – here not the other British nations) – so there’s nothing to be swept by.  The Jubilee Union Jacks are slowly coming down – but few George Crosses are replacing them.  What is happening?

I think that what we are seeing is the playing out of two competing theories of motivation amongst pop-psychologists and sports coaches.  First: nothing succeeds like optimism.  Second: excessive expectations only bring disappointment.

The first theory has become very fashionable.  Various statistical studies, at least in the myth, have shown that high expectations improve performance.  So it helps to think that you are going to win.  This type of thinking is now deep in the popular culture – as you can see from the silly boasting by contestants in reality TV contests, replacing the formerly very British (or anyway English) modesty.  But England football fans have tested this idea to destruction – going into contests with high expectations, and much talk of how we can win.  The results (especially the 2010 World Cup) have been dismal.

So the alternative theory gains ground.  Teams can be paralysed by the weight of high expectations; they often peform better when they have less to prove.  And indeed some of the most memorable England football performances have been when the team has been written off (I still remember beating Germany 5-1 in a qualifying match a decade or so ago).  It seems that the county’s fans have taken this idea seriously; keeping mum about the side’s chances, in the hope that this will improve the performance.

Meanwhile I may well miss England’s first match tomorrow – consciousness is so low that somebody is try to arrange a meeting that conflicts with it!

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Are introverts on the autistic spectrum?

I haven’t blogged on psychology so far – it’s not a subject I know much about, academically at least.  But this blog by Sophia Dembling in Psychology Today (thanks to Nic Prigg @nicola_prigg on Twitter) has really set me thinking.

Ms Dembling highlights a recent suggestion by a young research, Jennifer Grimes on introversion.  Instead of thinking about it as part of a spectrum with introversion at one end and extroversion at the other, might these not be entirely separate characteristics?  Instead try thinking about introversion on an autistic spectrum – with autism at one end, introversion at the other, and Asperger’s syndrome somewhere in between.  That’s not to suggest that introversion is a disability, as autism can be, but as a more helpful way of thinking about both it and autism.  It also opens the door to thinking about people who are both extroverted and introverted at the same time.

This carries me way of my depth.  I am familiar with autism in theory, but I don’t now any people with more than mild personality characteristics that I would describe in that way.  But I do know what it’s like to be an introvert – as I am a rather extreme version myself.  This comes out of the various psychometric tests I have taken, as well as a life time of personal observation.  I am very shy, introspective and do like to spend periods of time alone to collect myself.  I also spend a lot less time than most grooming social and family contacts – which means that I have a smaller close social circle than most.

But I can do empathy – and rather well.  In the organisations I have worked with I often take up the role of reconciler and peacemaker, seeing both sides to a dispute.  I usually read between the lines quite well, leading to an ironical sense of humour.  My friendships are stable and long-lasting, and only wither if I don’t devote enough time to them (which unfortunately happens quite a lot).  I can do politics – rather well when I put effort into it.  This is all somewhat opposite to how I’ve understood autism.  I would say the same for other introverts I know too.

So my first reaction is to think Ms Grimes is barking up the wrong tree.  But then perhaps that’s what she means by a spectrum – I’m not autistic, but share characteristics with those that are.  It has certainly set me thinking.  Perhaps a lot of my empathising skills are learned rather than innate? It would explain flashes of extrovert behaviour when my inhibitions are overcome (very rare).  And I do sometimes miss things in social situations too.  Which is no doubt what the what a lot of this is  about – trying to think of old problems in new ways.

The other thing that strikes from this article is how difficult psychology is as an academic discipline.  You are chasing shadows the whole time.  We can’t physically see what is going on in our minds, and be sure what is generating the same symptoms in different people has the same cause.  There is little that objective analysis can grasp on.  But we know the subject is important – a better understanding of the mind is critical to the well-being of us as individuals, and of society as a whole.

 

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Time to wake up to the de-industrialisation of advanced economies

Trying to understand the global economic crisis?  This article from Joe Stiglitz is required reading.

I have flagged it already on Facebook and Twitter, but without much in the way of reflection. In fact it has produced an epiphany moment for me.  I have maligned Professor Stiglitz in a past blog as producing only superficial commentary on the crisis, alongside his fellow Nobel laureate Paul Krugman.  This was based on one or two shorter articles in the FT and some snatches on the radio; I wasn’t reading or listening carefully enough.  Professor Stiglitz is one of the foremost economists on the current scene.  He used to be part of the Clinton administration, and worked at the World Bank in the 1990s, but his views proved politically unacceptable.  He also wrote the standard text book on public economics, which I used in my not so recent degree course.

The article is wonderful on many levels, but the epiphany moment for me came with his observation that, underlying the current crisis, is a long-term decline of manufacturing employment in the US, and by implication, other advanced economies too.  He draws an interesting parallel with the Great Depression, which was caused, he claims, by a comparable shift from agricultural employment – again in the US; I think that such a shift was less marked in Britain, but the depression was also less severe.  This decline in employment brought about a doom-loop of declining demand across the economy as a whole – which was only reversed by World War 2.  The war effort caused a boom in manufacturing industry which was readily redeployed into the postwar economy.  This view of the Great Depression rises above the fierce controversies over fiscal and monetary policy, and places them in a proper context.

We have been witnessing the decline in manufacturing employment for some years, and grappling with its social consequences.  The important point is that it is mainly irreversible. It has been brought about by technological change, which has improved productivity.  There is a limit to the number of manufacturing products that we can consume – just as there is a limit to the food we can consume, and we are at that limit.  So the number of jobs declines.

Of course the picture is complicated by the rise of manufacturing in the developing world, and especially China, and their exports to the developed world.  In the US I am sure, and certainly in the UK, more manufacturing output is now imported than exported, causing a further loss of jobs.  This is reversible, though, and in due course will reverse, as the developing world advances and loses its temporary competitive edge.  But this won’t be enough to reverse the overall trend of rising productivity.

But advancing productivity should be good news in the long run.  It releases the workforce to do other things, or, if people prefer, to increase leisure time.  So what replaces the manufacturing jobs, in the way that manufacturing took over from agriculture?  Services, of course.  What is, or should be, the product of these services?  Improved wellbeing.

Services have rather a poor reputation in our society.  Traditionalists see them as ephemeral, compared to the real business of making things – a bit like Soviet planners were obsessed with producing steel rather than consumer goods.  More thoughtful people associate them with poor quality jobs in fast food restaurants or call centres.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.

We need to develop clearer ideas of what tomorrow’s service-based economy will look like. That’s important because the way out of the current crisis is through investments that will take us closer to this goal, just as war led to investment in manufacturing in the 1940s (and earlier in Europe).

And the key to this is thinking about wellbeing.  This is important because one of the answers could be an increase in leisure, hobbies and voluntary activities – which is not normally regarded as economic activity at all.  Reflecting on this, I think are two areas whose significance will grow and where investment should be made, both of which raise awkward political problems – health and housing.

It is easy to understand that health and social care will take up a higher proportion of a future economy than they do now, and not just because of demographic changes.  These services are vital to wellbeing.  But we are repeatedly told that we can’t afford to expand them.  And that is because we are reaching the limits of what state-supplied, taxpayer funded services can deliver in the UK. (In the US it’s another story for another day).  The health economy of tomorrow will have a larger private sector component, whether integrated with the NHS or parallel to it.  But what should our priorities now be, while this private sector is on the back foot?  It seems sensible to make the NHS more efficient and effective, but foolish to cut jobs.  We should be building the skill base alongside the reform programme.  The chief critics of the government’s NHS plans (including the Labour front bench) are that NHS reforms should be stopped so that they can focus on the critical business of raising efficiency.  But maybe it should be the other way round – we should be pushing ahead with reform, but relaxing the efficiency targets and letting the costs rise a bit until the economy starts showing greater signs of life. then, as any cuts are made the private health sector can take up the slack.

Perhaps housing is pushing at the boundaries of what “services” are.  We traditionally view this as a capital investment.  But what I mean is providing more and better places for people to live in, whether they own them or not.  Most of the country is quite well off here, but poor housing is probably what divides rich from poor more than anything else – and more investment in the right places (decently sized social housing) could rebalance things nicely and dramatically improve wellbeing.

But beyond this we badly need to get out of a manufacturing mindset, both in the private and public sectors.  We should not view division of labour and specialisation as the ideal form of organisation (massive call centres, and so on), and we should value listening skills much more – I nearly wrote “communication skills” but most people understand this about getting over what you want to say, not understanding what your customer or service user actually needs.  This is happening only very slowly.

So I would add a third priority: education.  We need to greatly expand the teaching of life skills at school and elsewhere.  This would not only help build the skills that tomorrow’s economy needs.  It would help people make better choices in a changing world.

 

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