Monday, 15 February 2021

Podcast Recommendations: Culture and Ideas

Podcasts are all the rage right now. I listen to a fair few, and I’ve got opinions about them. Opinions that I’m happy to share with you. You can read the first post in the series, where I talk about the SF podcasts that I’ve enjoyed here, and read on for my opinions about podcasts in the hand-wavey category of culture and ideas.

99 Percent Invisible

99 Percent Invisible (99PI to its friends) is a very difficult thing to describe. Nominally it’s a podcast about architecture and design, but their actual remit is so much wider than that suggests. Recent episodes have included stories about Santa Fe’s Pueblo Revival architecture; the history of movie novelisations; and how the US Government released almost the entirety of Enron’s emails (the episode on city flags and why they’re awful is a classic and was later turned into a TED talk). It’s always fascinating, and they’ve been going for over a decade now, with over 400 episodes in the archive, and an incredibly detailed website that expands on the stories in the podcast. Episodes are released weekly and are usually between thirty and forty minutes long. The only downside is that so much of my conversation these days starts “Ooh, I heard something really interesting on 99PI the other day…”

It’s hosted by Roman Mars, whose smooth West-coast tones are very easy on the ear, and from whom I learned to “always read the plaque”.

More or Less

More or Less is a BBC Radio 4 programme about statistics in the news and in life, presented by Tim Harford (aka the Financial Times Undercover Economist). So many of the numbers we get bombarded with in the media are either only superficially true, based on a misunderstanding, or are just outright lies. More or Less has been gallantly standing up for the truth and to improve public understanding of numbers and statistics for years now.

It’s an excellent show, usually talking about the stats that have come up in the media the week prior to broadcast, and they take listener questions too. They try and get to the original source of statistics, delving into the scientific literature and talking to the experts (experts! Remember them?). Obviously the last couple of series have been pretty focussed on Covid-19, but they occasionally still find time to talk about other things (butterfly decline in the UK in a recent episode, for example). Episodes are half an hour long.

Reasons to be Cheerful

Reasons to be Cheerful, a podcast about political ideas, completely rehabilitated Ed Miliband for me. Released from the shackles of having to be bland and media-friendly (not that that really worked for him), he’s surprisingly passionate and funny. This podcast was started in the wake of the 2015 general election and consists of him and radio presenter Geoff Lloyd discussing ideas in the political and cultural sphere and finding reasons to be cheerful. From universal basic income to improving public transport to the four day week, they cover a broad spectrum of ideas. And they do it in reasonable depth too. They interview a series of experts, and are generally happy to let them talk about their expertise, without that horrid macho interruption so common in media political interviews. They do sometimes make the usual mistake in “UK” politics of thinking UK = England, which can be a bit frustrating at times, but there’s more than enough more general conversations that make up for it.

They’ve got great chemistry together and are obviously good friends off-mic. At times, I feel I listen to it for the the banter between them as much for the ideas.

Episodes are released weekly and there’s over 175 episodes in the archive. The episodes tend to be about an hour long.

Reply All

Reply All, aside from being a function that you should think very carefully before using in your email client, is a podcast about the Internet: about the people who shaped it and how it shapes people. This is another podcast that interprets its remit broadly. They’ve featured episodes on feelings of impotence in the face of the climate emergency; trying to explain QAnon; finding out about the story behind JenniCam, (a blast from the past for Internet users of a certain age); and looking at the story behind spam recordings that sometime briefly take over American government phone numbers. It’s a fascinating insight into the underbelly of the Internet, and the feature where they explain some of the weirder memes floating around the web/social media to their boss has shown me parts of Internet culture that I wish I could unsee, but it’s really interesting from an anthropological point of view.

In tone, it’s often quite light, and the hosts mock each other mercilessly, but they’re not afraid to share their feelings and to go into quite dark places at times. There was, for example, a multi-part story where one of the producers talks to a man in prison for murder, having discovered him because he wrote a blog from the inside (on paper, that his mother took away and typed up for him).

The show is normally released fortnightly, but the schedule can sometimes be vaguer than that, and they always take some time off in the summer where they run reruns. There’s over 170 episodes (including reruns) in the archive and episodes started off at running under half an hour, although these days they’re closer to between forty minutes and an hour.

So there’s the second set of podcasts, the next set will probably fit whatever the theme the post will be about a bit better. You can find the other posts in the series below.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Missing Banksie All Over Again

Some time ago I found a long interview with Iain M. Banks that I didn’t have time to read at the time, so I stashed it into my bookmarks and then forgot about it.  I found it again the other day and started reading.  Early on, the famous essay A Few Notes on the Culture was mentioned and I realised that I’ve never actually read that so took a tangent that I’ve not made it back from.  It’s a really interesting essay both for fans of the Culture and for general fans of future history and worldbuilding.  I found a fantastic quote which seems very apt for the times we’re living in, which I was going to tweet, but then Bankie was never really known for being concise, was he?

The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is – without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple the economic efficacy which is its greatest claimed asset – intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings.

Given the briefings coming from Westminster about turning the UK into a deregulated tax haven, slashing workers’ rights while making corporations even more unaccountable, I fear Banks’ words are all too true.

I think it may be time to get away from it all with a Culture reread.

Sunday, 15 November 2015


In one sense, those who carried out the terrible atrocities in Paris this weekend have won: I’m afraid.  Not of them; I grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. I was nearly blown up more than once during my childhood, so ISIS don’t frighten me (in that way, at least).  No, I’m afraid of my government, and those of other European countries and what they’re going to do now in response.  I’m afraid that there will be an inevitable knee-jerk reaction and tightening of security; further reduction of our freedoms; more profiling of those who are ‘different’.  It’s a cliché to say that this is exactly what the terrorists want but it’s a cliché for a reason, and in their hurry to answer the calls of Something Must Be Done, our leaders enact bad legislation that divides communities, provokes fear, and yet does nothing to make us safer.

I’ve been a member of Liberty for some years now and I’ve never been more convinced of the necessity of this organisation and those like it.  In the inevitable melee to come, we need calm heads who will think beyond the next headline in a way that politicians today seem unable to do.  People who will be a voice reminding our leaders what values they’re supposedly protecting and speak truth to power in a way that will be very unpopular in certain sections of the media.  Shami Chakrabarti and her colleagues at Liberty are brave people, braver than me, and I hope that they, and others like them, will be able to stand up to the calls to give up freedom in favour of security.  If they can’t, I fear that we will, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, end up with neither.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Glasgow Concert Hall steps

The steps at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall are currently under threat of demolition, to make way for a glass atrium.  These steps are one of the few public, non-commercial open spaces in Glasgow city centre.  As such, I, and many other people, oppose the move to demolish them.  I have written to my local councillors and MSP asking them to oppose the move and there is a petition to save the steps, which I’d urge everyone to sign.  My letter to my councillors is below the fold.


Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Submission to the Smith Commission

Lord Smith of Kelvin has been tasked with overseeing the process of devolving further powers to the Scottish Parliament.  As part of this process, the Smith Commission has launched a public consultation asking for representation from the general public, as well as political parties.  This is my submission.


Saturday, 13 September 2014

The inevitable #IndyRef post

I know, I call myself a political geek and yet I haven’t written anything about the Scottish referendum on independence.  Well, not here anyway.  I’ve tweeted (and retweeted) about it and have discussed in person with almost everybody I know.  And that’s one of the things that really excites me about the referendum: just how much it has engaged the entire Scottish electorate.  The news today tells me that about 97% of the Scottish electorate have registered to vote.  That is incredible; this will be the biggest turnout, and the most important vote, of my life.

And after a lot of thinking and soul-searching, I’m going to be voting Yes.  I’m certainly not a natural nationalist and a few years ago I wouldn’t have contemplated such a move, but a lot of exposure to the arguments over the last two or three years (that the UK-wide media are only picking up on now) and a number of other factors have led me to this conclusion.

The democratic deficit

The first, and probably most important, element in my thinking is the democratic issue.  There is one Tory MP in Scotland.  Scotland, over the three or so lustra that I’ve lived here, has consistently delivered centre- to left-wing MPs to Westminster, and yet we’re governed by a centre-right coalition led by the Conservatives, and before that, a centre-right government called New Labour.  When England (which has the bulk of the UK population) is going in one direction, there’s no way that Scotland can counterbalance that.  This is why I believe that a smaller country, with a more representative Parliament would work better.  The existing hybrid constituency-plus-list system works well for us (although I’d really want to see a second chamber for an independent Scottish parliament) and I foresee a resurgence for Labour, and maybe even the Tories, in a Scotland where the whole of politics isn’t overshadowed by the giant that is Westminster.

Governing for the whole country

Following on from that, it feels to me that Westminster doesn’t govern in the interests of the UK as a whole.  It governs in the interests of London and the south east of England.  These regions are where both the population and the wealth of the nation is concentrated, and it distorts the whole of politics.  London and the south east are crowded, so the government tightens immigration rules to breaking point, rather than encouraging migrants to spread to other parts of the country, such as Scotland, which is going to need larger numbers of immigrants over the next few decades as our own population ages.

This isn’t just a function of the current Tory-led coalition, the last New Labour government was guilty of it as well, as I’m sure many, if not all, governments over the decades have been.  And I can see their point: they know where the wealth and population (hence number of MPs) is, so that’s where they focus.  But it means that the rest of the country, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the north of England, suffer for it.  Changing this system would be incredibly difficult without some huge external trigger.  The only one that I can see that might do it is Scottish independence, or possibly the threat of it.  It’ll be good for us, but I hope it’ll also be good for the English regions and the other nations of the rUK.

In recent days, with Westminster panicking as a couple of polls put the Yes campaign neck and neck, or even ahead, of the No, this sort of major constitutional discussion is finally starting to happen.  And it’s too late, for me, at least.  If this had been discussed two years ago, putting forward a federal structure for the UK with powers being devolved down to the nations and regions of the country then I think it would have made a difference.  But now it just seems like a panicked response at the last minute.


There’s been lots of drum-banging by certain kinds of No campaigners about the reduced defence power, prestige and spending of an independent Scotland.  To which I respond: yes, and…?  Trying to be a major player on the world stage has got Britain into a lot of trouble over the years.  I foresee a much smaller armed force for Scotland, something that can be involved in UN- (and maybe NATO)-led peacekeeping operations, with no need for ridiculously expensive jets, missiles, and, of course, nukes.

The difficulties

I have no illusions that independence will be easy, certainly not within the first few years.  Despite what the Scottish Government says, I think that the rUK government won’t go out of their way to make anything easier for us.  In fact, I think quite the reverse.  This article in the Independent has some views of the English on what the rUK government should and shouldn’t do if we leave (and, indeed, if we stay, which is no comfort either).  I suspect that currency union wouldn’t be certain, that there’d be no common research area or many other agencies or services that spanned the nations.  At least not in the first few years.  After a while, things would hopefully settle down and more normal relations would develop.  But then how long did it take for normal relations to develop between the UK and Ireland?  I suspect we’ll eventually muddle our way back into the EU and maybe NATO as well, even if it does take some negotiation and time.

And yet…

And yet, I can’t help but be excited and exhilarated by the prospects of independence.  For me the currency and economics are quite low down on the list of priorities: it’s social justice and the prospects of finer democratic control that are the key.  The idea that Atos won’t be turning down benefits claims of sick and dying people, and that those social tenants who have a “spare bedroom” won’t be charged for the privilege and so forth mean that I’m happy to pay a bit more in taxes to support that.

In the last weeks of the campaign, I think something has changed.  The constitutional settlement of the UK is no longer a settled thing.  If we gain independence, then the rUK will still need to take a long look at itself and change internally.  And if we don’t, then the same will happen.  The English are getting stirred up and are looking enviously at some of the powers that the other nations have.  Devolution to the English regions must happen, and with it, I hope, the democratic renewal that the country needs.  And I go back to the point I made right at the start: 97% of the electorate has registered to vote, many for the first time.  As long as we can retain that engagement over the next years and decades, no matter which way the vote goes, we’ve already won.

Monday, 23 January 2012

A Modest Proposal Regarding the West Lothian Question

There was a discussion on this week’s The Week in Westminster on Radio 4 regarding the West Lothian Question (i.e. the ability of non-English MPs to vote on matters regarding only England).  Since this discussion is now being set in the context of huge constitutional change (that is, Scottish independence) then why not think big when it comes to creative solutions to the Question too.  Assuming that Scotland remains a part of the United Kingdom, my question is: why is nobody discussing a possible federal structure for the United Kingdom?  Scotland already has its own Parliament, we just grant it some more powers and upgrade the Welsh and Ulster Assemblies to full Parliaments and set up one for England as well.  Westminster would remain the ‘Federal Parliament’, with a much reduced number of MPs (and possibly even peers) and a remit to cover only those issues relating to the UK as a whole.  The most obvious of those are defence and foreign policy, but no doubt there are others.

Obviously it would be More Complicated Than That (© Ben Goldacre) but it’s a good starting position, surely? Is the fact that such a discussion isn’t happening at all purely inertia and conservatism (with a small ‘C’) or are there more serious objections to a federal UK that I’ve missed?  That is very likely since I don’t have a political science background and haven’t thought through all the implications, but surely there are many models throughout the world that we could look to, the US being the most obvious, but also Germany, Russia and India spring to mind (and there are more on the Wikipedia page).

As I said above, I’m discussing this purely as a side-issue to that of Scottish independence, so issues specifically relating to whether such a state would satisfy the demands of Nationalists are irrelevant to this discussion.  I’m interested purely in the thought-experiment of a federal UK.  I’d love to hear thoughts on the subject.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Forestry Privatisation Concerns

Whilst I share many of the concerns about the Government’s plan to sell or lease many of England’s forests to private companies and charities, there’s another question that’s been bouncing around in my head ever since I heard it and which I haven’t heard answered yet.  If forests are sold, leased or donated to private companies or charities, will this bring them within reach of Freedom of Information laws?  And if not, then how will they be accountable for managing a fairly major public asset, and one that protests have shown that the public seem awfully protective of?

It’s a truism to say that the (Tory part of the) current government is ideologically in favour of the State not actually doing very much and getting the private sector involved in everything, but they have never satisfactorily answered questions of accountability.  Public companies are accountable only to their shareholders, and their only goal is to enrich those shareholders with no obligation to wider society.  I find this deeply concerning, both in this instance and more generally.  The “Big Society” is all about getting private companies and charities involved in public work.  Once they are, how do we as a society hold them to account, and punish them if they are greedy, incompetent or malevolent?  Democracy might not be perfect, but we can at least, in theory, vote out people we don’t like.  What will we be able to do in the (admittedly unlikely) case that a private company starts cutting down the New Forest for toilet paper?

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Compassion and punishment

One of the many things that has come out of the mass of WikiLeaks documents released recently is that the UK Government was apparently worried about Libyan reaction if Abdelbaset al-Megrahi died in jail.  This led to a rekindling of interest in the case and the ‘revelation’ that al-Megrahi is still alive, leading to questions asked of the First Minister on the Today programme revisiting the decision.  Surely I can’t be the only who finds this vulture-like constant waiting for al-Megrahi to die somewhat macabre?

Even if his conviction was completely sound (and there are many grounds for believing otherwise, although that’s neither here nor there for this post) I would still have supported his release from prison on compassionate grounds as the Scottish government did.  I find it almost amusing that the fact he is still alive, despite his illness, is something that would have been lauded, maybe as a miracle, in any circumstance other than this one.  Indeed, if one were feeling mischievous one could maybe argue that that his continuing health is a sign from God…

However, that’s not the point that I want to make.  My point is this: that when Kenny MacAskill released al-Megrahi, he did so for the right reasons, on compassionate grounds for someone who all medical evidence suggested had only a few months left to live.  The immediate flurry of protest is something that I despised because that key fact was forgotten or ignored – that he’s almost certainly going to die soon enough anyway, probably in a fairly painful and slow way.  This decision was one that was made for all the right reasons and under a lot of pressure to the contrary, from both the media in this country and America, and the US Government.  It’s one of the few times that I’ve felt any pride in my elected representatives, and it made me proud to have adopted Scotland, a nation that still understands and values compassion, as my home.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Immigration again

I watched the last pre-election leaders’ debate the other day and about the only real impression that I got from it was that Birmingham University’s Great Hall is very nice (probably nicer than our own Bute Hall). It was a good debate though, probably the best of the three, as the leaders have all become more comfortable with the role and actually felt like a debate.

As I mentioned in my comments about the first one though, the subject of immigration continued to annoy me, mainly because of the very parochial SE-England attitude, especially in light of this article from the BBC talking about a rise in the Scottish population, where a Scottish Government spokesman called the rise (due in very large proportion due to migration) a key contributor to sustainable economic growth. This is being ignored by the main parties in their drive to appeal to the middle-Englanders without any recognition of the different needs of different regions of the country. I find this dishonest and wrong.

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