...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Day 3621: Is it Time to Recall… Aaron Porter?


The Coalition proposes that new graduates pay an amount every month proportional to their ability to pay, with additional help for the lowest earners, repayments to be capped at either thirty years or a maximum total payment ("paying off the loan").

The NUS proposes that graduates pay an amount every month proportional to their ability to pay, with additional help for the lowest earners, repayments to be capped at either twenty-five years or a maximum total payment ("for fairness").

So can ANYONE explain to me why the NUS' proposals are fair and reasonable but the Coalition's are wickedness incarnate?

Today, Captain Clegg has written to the Leader of the National Union of Students, Mr Harry Porter, to ask him to stop gathering elves and pixies and warlocks to march on Hogwarts Cowley Street and instead really consider the actual proposals.

So consider the actual proposals is what I did.

Mr Porter has been getting a lot of facetime in the media recently, leading demonstrations against the government's tuition fees proposals, condemning the Liberal Democrats for breaking their pledges and generally being "the chosen one".

But has anyone told the people marching behind him that his own proposals are FUNCTIONALLY IDENTICAL to the Coalition's?

A quick comparison:

Graduates earning less than £15,000 would pay nothing under EITHER scheme.

Graduates earning between £15,000 and £21,000 would pay MORE under the NUS scheme: yes, that's right MORE under the NUS scheme. Graduates on £15,000 to £21,000 would pay 0.3% of their earnings under the graduate tax and nothing under the coalition's proposals.

Graduates earning over £40,000 would pay LESS under the NUS scheme. Yes, again, it's not the way around you would expect. Top earners would only pay 2.5% under the NUS's tax proposals but would pay 9% under the government's loan and repayment scheme.

Now, I may be being THICK here, but the NUS appears to be proposing a system that is much more generous to the RICH than to the less well off.

Isn't that just a little bit… dishonest?

But how does Mr Porter manage to magic up enough money from the scheme, given that the better off will pay so much less? Ah, well he thinks that he has discovered a cauldron of free money.

You see, the NUS scheme will apply to ALL graduates, not just people starting new degrees in 2012. That's what they call "retroactive taxation", or changing the rules after people have already made their choices. After all, it's not like you can give your university degree BACK. Oh, but they've "had the benefit" of further education, says Harry Porter, it's only FAIR that they pay up now.

Well is it fair? The deal for those people was, surely, they would get an education paid by other taxpayers, and then they would pay their taxes to fund their children's education (not to mention their parent's pensions and their own health service and so on). Haven't they kept their side of the bargain? Isn't this just a sly tax increase on a lot of people who don't actually earn all that much extra for their time at university, a lot of nurses and teachers and, well, university lecturers?

Isn't that just a little bit… dishonest?

Then there's the time horizon. By which I mean, what happens as time goes on and your pool of graduates who didn't pay for their degree at the time gets smaller and smaller. At them moment, say Peter wants to go to University. Peter is going to pay for his tuition from graduate taxes he pays in the future, but he won't need to put in as much because the pool will also be getting contributions from Peter's dad.

In the fullness of time, at most once they have their twenty-five years of tax-paying, the pool won’t be getting that "extra" income from Peter's dad. When it's time for Peter's kids to go to university, they'll have to pay their tuition fees from their own tax contributions just like their dad… but they WON'T benefit from any extra contributions from Pete himself, 'cos HE'S already paying for his own education.

Isn't this pushing costs onto the next generation… which is rather what the NUS accuse the Coalition of doing.

Isn't that just a little bit… dishonest?

Mr Porter is trying to get a head of steam behind the idea of taking the Liberal Democrat's own proposals for "right of recall" for dealing with corrupt MP's who break the law and using them to "recall" Liberal Democrats who signed the NUS pledge (and, one assumes, subsequently break that pledge).

(Never mind the STUPIDITY of a proposal that would open EVERY SINGLE Opposition MP – all of Hard Labour and that Green and the Scots and Welsh Nasties and all – open them ALL to recall for failing to implement THEIR manifestos. Oh yes it would. Since CLEARLY failure to achieve an overall majority is not an excuse for not fully implementing your manifesto.)

In the words of one Student Union president, Mr Joshua Forstenzer of Sheffield University (no doubt quoted for IRONIC reasons):
"If they flip-flop or do a U-turn on this issue, they are betraying the electorate. It is a fundamental democratic principle that we should be able to remove them."
I'm sure Mr Joshua will be calling for the removal from their Parliamentary seats of Mr Andy "crash and" Burnham, Hard Labour's education spokesperson, and Mr Ed "Bully" Balls, Hard Labour's former education spokesperson… and Mr Alan Johnson and Johnson, one time Hard Labour education minister… and Mr Blanket the Security Blunket one time Hard Labour education minister, all of whom stood on a manifesto promise to not introduce top-up fees and then voted to introduce top-up fees. Otherwise, of course, he'd be flip-flopping and U-turning HIMSELF!

I have to say, the FUNDAMENTAL democratic principle is that if you think your representative told you one thing and then did another then you will get a chance to throw them out in less than five years anyway. But perhaps you think that deceiving your electorate is SO heinous that you just HAVE to take a pop at them earlier.

But if DISHONESTY is your measure for facing a RECALL, then shouldn't the first person on the list be… well… Mr Harry Porter himself. For being just a little bit… dishonest.

I think that a university education ought to be available to everyone. But I think that it should only be taken up by people who are academically inclined. Other people should have other opportunities.

The system we have at the moment means that fewer than half of young people get their opportunity because all the effort goes into getting as many as possible squeezed into a university course that won't necessarily be any use to them.

If you're not going to provide those opportunities to the people who DON'T get to go to university, then your system IS transferring a benefit, money in fact (the cost of subsidy), from the unprivileged to the privileged.

I suppose in those terms it's kind of fair to ask graduates to bear some extra cost of their education rather than raising general tax and getting people who never went to university to pay for it. (Though as I say, I'd rather have a RANGE of opportunities so there's something for EVERYONE)

The NUS proposals recognise that. That's why THEIR system isn't so very different from the Coalition's. It just seems that they want to make things easier for themselves by squeezing people who are already pretty squeezed.

And it seems they want to BLAME the Liberal Democrats a system that Hard Labour commissioned, that the Conservatories support and that they agree with.

Only WE made the government proposals FAIRER than theirs.

Remind me: what have they got those students marching for again?

I cannot recall.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Day 3613: There Was This Englishperson, Irishperson and Bank Manager…


It sounds like a JOKE, doesn't it, giving all of the seven billion pounds that we have cut from our spending away to save Ireland's banks.

But it's NOT.

If we can BORROW money at 2% then cutting seven billion pounds from OUR SPENDING cuts the amount we spend on interest by 2% of seven billion pounds.

BUT if we borrow money at 2% and then loan it to Ireland at 4%, we make a PROFIT on the deal and the extra interest that we earn cuts the amount we spend on interest by… 2% of seven billion pounds.

So, we use our greater financial strength to leverage a deal where we are no worse off, Ireland gets seven billion pounds of support for her banks, and in return Ireland doesn't default on the FIFTY billion pounds that she owes to British banks.

This SOUNDS like everybody wins, and that sounds too good to be true… and it IS.

What has happened is that we have taken on more of the RISK of Ireland defaulting. The British taxpayer is directly in line for the hit if Ireland cannot pay back that seven billion, and her ability to do so is moderately uncertain, and remains so as long as this trouble in the markets remains.

The house price crash in Ireland was much deeper than in Britain, and it is far from certain that the losses from money poured into overpriced equity have yet worked their way through the system.

The housing bubble – in Britain AND in Ireland, not to mention the USofA – was driven by cheap credit on the back of the Chinese booming economy. But in the UK it was, at least partly, supported by supply falling short of demand. In fact, our house prices and rents REMAIN unnaturally high because we STILL have a shortfall in family-sized housing, but that's a DIFFERENT problem. In Ireland, they too borrowed money cheaply but they built an AWFUL lot of houses that NO ONE needs.

So people borrowed a lot of money to build "ghost estates" which may as well just be knocked down. That's as good as borrowing money just to burn it. And at some point someone has to take a hit for those losses.

On top of that, though, the fundamental difference between Britain and Ireland is that we still have billions if not trillions of pounds worth of overseas assets. In spite of running a trade deficit for thirty years and more, we still haven't finished burning up the Empire. Ireland does not have such a lucky position. Their major assets remain their people, as I was reminded when the Irish finance minister was on the radio last week saying:

"We still have a highly educated and motivated young workforce and our exports are rising."

Yup, that's because you are exporting your highly educated and motivated young workforce!

Therefore Ireland's creditworthiness looks highly dodge to the markets: they've got nothing to mortgage but their own futures, and they've already done that!

This lack of state resources also makes it very difficult for the Irish government to consider coming out of the Euro and floating their own currency. A currency is only worth what the government can afford to pay to back it and in Ireland at the moment, that's paper! A floating Irish currency would NOT be the "correction" that commentators of the Europhobic persuasion contemplate; it would be a flat plummet. The consequences would be a huge spike in inflation as import prices went through the roof. Raising interest rates to control inflation would only make the government's debt situation worse. And if the government had to start printing currency to meet its day to day needs, well we're into Zimbabwe territory.

Ironically, in this way being in the Euro could actually be PROTECTING the Irish economy, not damaging it.

The argument that Britain has done very nicely, thank you, by staying out of the Euro remains UNPROVEN.

The ability to make our exports more competitive by letting our currency fall in value did not save us from the longest and deepest recession of any country in Europe (although for reasons probably unconnected to the independence of Sterling). And now the Euro is falling relative to pound making our exports more expensive in Europe, and therefore harder to sell, just at the time we are looking for export driven growth. So, yes, being outside the single currency looks like a TERRIFICALLY good plan there. That was SARCASM, by the way.

In Great Britain, interest rates are set very much with the South-East in mind, and this has often done great harm to the export potential of Wales, Scotland, the North even the South-West. Higher interest rates to keeps DOWN inflation in the South-East keep Sterling UP, making exports from the regions HARDER. But do the Europhobes suggest that those parts of the country would be better off outside the pound? No, of course they don't because the advantages of a single currency WITHIN the United Kingdom VASTLY outweigh the losses from differential export potentials.

The SAME is true in Europe.

The problem for the Eurozone, therefore, is NOT the one the Europhobes think it is. The problem, and it IS an intrinsic problem, is that BORROWING at the periphery is unregulated by the European Central Bank, in exactly the way that borrowing by Wales or Scotland or the English regions is NOT unregulated by the Treasury and Bank of England.

This is in fact the EXACT REVERSE of the Europhobic position that interest rates decided at the centre are set at rates inappropriate to the needs of countries on the edges.

(And, ironically, it's a restatement of the more regulation/less regulation argument that we all had about the banks before the collapse of 2008 proved that less regulation was every so very much WRONG.)

The Conservatories, who are supposed to be MONETARISTS, ought to know better. According to THEM, more credit = adding to the money supply = more inflation = BAD! Therefore it is RIGHT for central banks to LIMIT credit and prevent exposure like what has happened in Ireland, Greece and, well, here.

To be fair to the Conservatories in government, they haven't let ideology get in the way of doing the right thing. Master Gideon has been heard to say: "who would have thought Danny Alexander would be rolling back the Frontiers of the State while I was saving the Euro." And I have to admit that's very nearly witty.

In fact, with his put-down to the gloating Eurosceptics – "'I told you so' is not much of an economic policy." – I MIGHT have to think about reappraising the Chancer. Clearly, since getting into Government, he's been getting some good advice from somewhere. Or "Danny Alexander" as we in the Liberal Democrats call him.

The response from the left has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been rather more confused, with a mix of more Blame the Bankers rhetoric and some little-Englander why are WE saving the Irish.

There have been some calls for Ireland to be forced to increase the rate at which companies pay tax. I notice that Ms Pollyanna Toytown is joining the chorus with a piece in the Grauniad, decrying the Irish for luring companies to relocate to Dublin with their scandalously low tax rates. The hussies, she very nearly adds.

This is obviously LUDICROUS.

It's typical of the left wing to demand, nay COMPEL, an increased tax burden as the solution to ANY problem to hand.

But the case for Ireland raising their Corporation Tax rate SHOULD NOT reduce to: "it's not FAIR!"

The bloated public sectors of other European countries are hardly the fault of the Irish. Their OWN bloated public sector is another matter.

The reason Ireland OUGHT to consider raising Corporation Tax is because her government is spending TWICE as much as they raise in tax! That means sacking half the public sector or squaring up to a tax rise.

If – and only if – Ireland can pay for her public sector spending without raising further taxes then that is to be ENCOURAGED. Reducing the tax burden encourages GROWTH, which long term is the only way out of this hole. We can't all be Honk Kong, for example, which has excellent public services AND negligible corporate taxes AND astronomical growth. But we can step away from the Hard Labour model of the ever-increasing Corporate State, provider of everything and crushing wealth creation under the burden of taxes to pay for it.

What Ireland was doing wasn't BAD. They just made a FUNDAMENTAL error about where the MONEY was coming from. Be fair: so did WE!

Take away the reliance on cheap credit and a housing bubble, and Ireland could STILL be a model for a low tax, high entrepreneurship future.

And that's no joke!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Day 3602: THE PRISONER 42nd 43rd ANNIVERSARY: The General


A year ago, my Daddies started watching THE seminal 'Sixties spy psychedelia: "The Prisoner". Or, more accurately, a year ago my Daddies missed a week because they were busy… and never looked back.

But you can never REALLY escape from the Village!

So, one year later*…
Coming again to "The Prisoner's" amazing title sequence, with its irresistible pounding Ron Grainer theme – and just six months after the General Election when most nights I was doing that very drive past the Houses of Parliament and into the Abingdon car park – I'm reminded just how perfectly composed it is. Just one example: as the Prisoner pulls up outside his home after resigning, the title card "Starring Patrick McGoohan" appears, and then he rises heroically into shot, perfectly framed, and then he leans back out of the picture and, still perfectly framed, reveals the sinister hearse arriving behind him.

It struck me, on this occasion that, with that sort of attention to detail, the casual-seeming appearance of the series' title over a scene of McGoohan hurriedly packing cannot, in fact, be as random as it seems. And it's not. This is a picture of a man trying to escape; he is a Prisoner, but the title sequence is telling us that he's already a Prisoner and the prison is his life.


A special announcement from the General's department presages the arrival of Speed Learn, a programme fronted by "the Professor" promising a three-year degree course in three minutes.

The Prisoner, observed by the sinister-seeming Number 12, is contemptuous and, typically kicking against the Village, refuses to sign up to their aim of 100% enrolment, 100% success, and goes for a walk instead. This leads to him coming across the sight of a man fleeing across the beach, pursued by Villagers. Going down to investigate, it turns out that the fleeing man is the Professor himself. The Professor is recaptured and dragged away, but not before the Prisoner has discovered (and concealed) a tape-recorded message from the man.

Warned off by the guards, and with the curfew falling, the Prisoner returns to his house and, intrigued, watches the Speed Learn broadcast. It appears to consist of no more than thirty seconds of a green light.

After the broadcast, Number 2 pays an unexpected house call. Ostensibly looking for the missing message from the Professor, Number 2 takes the opportunity to ask the Prisoner about the Speed Learn course, and presses him with a series of questions about the course which, to the Prisoner's surprise and horror, he finds himself answering correctly.

Returning to the beach after dark, the Prisoner finds the message gone before encountering Number 12. Number 12 returns the message to him, and reveals that it contains a warning about Speed Learn, and "the General".

The Prisoner determines to discover who "the General" is, and begins by attending the Professor's house, where his wife is conducting a free-form art class. He sketches her in a General's uniform. She is not amused. Slipping away from the class, he explores the house and discovers a collection of busts, before the Professor's wife discovers him and tries to throw him out. Instead, he barges his way into the Professor's bedroom and in a sudden strike attacks the man, only for it to turn out to be a wax bust in the bed. The real Professor, it seems, has been taken away for some therapy.

Back in his own living quarters, the Prisoner finds the lighting has been sabotaged, a ploy by Number 12, it would appear, to arrange a quiet tête-à-tête. Number 12 offers the Prisoner the opportunity to broadcast the Professor's warning in place of the next lecture, and arranges for the Prisoner to come to the Town Hall the next day.

With security passes and an alternative broadcast provided by Number 12, the Prisoner succeeds in reaching the broadcast suite, but is injured in a fight with the projectionist. The blood on his arm alerts Number 2, who aborts the broadcast and has his guards seize the Prisoner.

Coming to in the council chamber, the Prisoner is interrogated by Number 12, but Number 2 knows he'll never break and proposes they ask the General instead. Marching them through the Town Hall to the General's Office, where they find the Professor typing up his latest notes, Number 2 reveals that the General is, in fact, a giant computer.

Created by the Professor, used to program the Speed Learn broadcasts, it is, boasts Number 2, capable of answering any question. Number 2 intends to have the machine unmask the traitor in the Village, but before he can, the Prisoner challenges the assertion that the General can answer any question. Rising to the bait, Number 2 allows the Prisoner to program a question for the computer and has the Professor feed it in. The General, unable to answer the question "why?", explodes, killing the Professor and Number 12 and leaving Number 2 struck dumb.

what's your number, please

I've already explained how episodes of "The Prisoner" appear to fall into three distinct groups or phases: first he tries direct escape attempts and the Village treat him with kid gloves; then he has to hold up under increasingly psychedelic forms of mental attack; finally, he's the old lag, knowing many of the Village's tricks and conscious that escape is an illusion he seeks to bring the whole system down from within. Or more broadly: Resignation, Resistance and Rebellion.

The mind control theme – although never far from the surface in "the Prisoner" – is at its strongest in these middle period episodes: the identity-swapping of "The Schizoid Man" and the dream manipulation of "A, B & C" are of a piece with the implanted learning experienced here. Of course, it's not just learning: when asked the right question, people don't just know what the answer is, they appear compelled to regurgitate it, repeating by rote. It's less question and answer and more trigger and programmed response, post-hypnotic suggestion, and we're into "Manchurian Candidate" territory.

And although he says he's interested only in learning how to get away, the Prisoner's real interest here seems to have moved from escape to active subversion. There's a clear sign of this when Number 2 appears to offer the Prisoner his freedom in return for the Professor's missing message, and the Prisoner turns him down. They've both got bigger fish to fry now. Instead, alerted to a "danger" in the Village – in this case the power to implant thoughts in people's minds – the Prisoner investigates and eventually eliminates it. We'll see more of that sort of thing as we move into the third and final phase.

Under "The Schizoid Man" I discussed how the four episodes that we call the second phase have only really one possible order. The General is first mentioned in that episode, and appears here. Colin Gordon's Number 2 appears as "the new Number 2" here, and appears as "Number 2" in "A, B & C".

And in fact, "The General" was broadcast the week after "The Schizoid Man", although a week earlier than in our scheme, and followed by "Many Happy Returns", "A, B & C" having already been shown as the third episode.

But that order is barking mad (although, you might argue by looking at the series, that could almost be a point in its favour).

A small note on dates. As I mentioned before, only two episodes use dates, and they are "The Schizoid Man", which purports to begin on 10th February followed by days or more likely weeks of aversion therapy.

"Many Happy Returns" claims to end on 19th March after many days on a raft as the Prisoner "escapes" by sea.

In between those two, we have set this episode, "The General", which takes three days – starting on the evening of one day, the following day the Prisoner visits the art class and has his assignation with Number 12, and on the third day infiltrates the Town Hall and blows up the titular machine – and "A, B & C" which also takes place on three successive days (or rather nights).

Now it's just about possible that "The Schizoid Man" takes just three weeks, from 10th of February to 3rd March, followed by a week for the other two, making it 10th March and then a week-and-a-bit on a raft taking him to the 19th… possible, but wildly implausible, and breaking the (entirely unsupported by evidence) rule of thumb that one episode on TV represents one month in the Village.

The most logical explanation is that calendars in the Village are meaningless. They manipulate minds; altering the date is hardly going to tax them.

The alternative is that there is an entire year passes between "The Schizoid Man" and "The General".

But that would be absurd… [MM: tumbleweeds, daddy]

the new number two

This is the first of two (in our sequence, consecutive) appearances by Colin Gordon as the increasingly-twitchy Number 2 with a taste for drinking milk, presumably in an attempt to calm his dyspeptic nerves (it doesn't).

Interestingly, we don't see this Number 2 in the Green Dome: he's running operations from the Council Chamber, as seen in "Free for All", with its huge throne with watchful Illuminati eye, although we do see him popping into Peter Swanwick's observation room for a quick "orange alert!". (And next week, he'll be in and out of the special psychiatric unit instead of sat in the comfy chair too.)

He starts off supremely confident, casually strolling into the Prisoner's home-from-home and confounding him by, get this, asking questions which the Prisoner unhesitatingly answers (as I've already noted, this discomfits the Prisoner himself as much as it does the audience).

His slogan: "The freedom to learn – the liberty to make mistakes. Old-fashioned, Number Six."

His first appearance of nervousness is when he is on the telephone – not the big red special phone, but clearly to someone important – reassuring "someone" that the plan will work flawlessly.

It's not until he spots the Prisoner in the broadcast suite before the Professor's next broadcast that he is shocked from his complacency, but he is roused to anger rather than fear. He's quite smart enough to figure out that Number 12 gave the Prisoner the pass to get in, and vindictive enough to drag everyone over to "the General" to "prove" his suspicions by feeding the machine an obviously loaded question.

He's starting to tip over the edge into ranting Bond-villain as he explains the plot.

"You know what you'll get… a row of cabbages," accuses the Prisoner.

"Indeed," replies Number 2, with an admirable mad-eyed gleam, "knowledgeable cabbages!"

He's proud of turning people into cabbages.

So even now, he's so supremely overconfident in his giant adding machine that he foolishly allows the Prisoner to ask it the obvious solipsism.

Thus this Number 2 has the singular honour of being the first Number 2 to be roundly beaten by the Prisoner. Even Anton Rogers managed to come from behind to make a score draw in "The Schizoid Man", but here, 2 is left with his plans – not to mention his big expensive machine – in flaming ruins.

"Don't underestimate me, Number 6," said Number 2 at the head of the show… before immediately underestimating the Prisoner.

follow the signs

It could hardly be more Nineteen Sixties, with its "wonder technology" crossed with the evils of mind control and, what else, a great big computer behind it all. This being the 'Sixties, almost anything would have been a greater shock. When the Professor is pursued across the beach by the mob, it's hard to know whether they are warders or, in a surge of Beatle-mania, his hordes of adoring fans.

And yet, it's oddly superficial, as hollow as the wax cast of the Professor's head.

There are almost too many symbols, striving for 'Sixties "kooky" weirdness, exemplified by the undertakers costumes with sunglasses worn to the Town Hall, or the novelty ghostly hand that grabs the "security pass" tokens, and of which the director is entirely too fond. Yes, we get it!

The room of busts at the Professor's house is clearly trying to be heavily symbolic of… something. Though I admit I really enjoy McGoohan's triumphant flourish when he thinks he's unmasking the General… and it turns out to be a bust of, ah, Number 1.

This week, the cheeky holiday-camp tones of silky seductress Fenella Fielding are replaced by the accents of an American, with all the 'Sixties coding of crassness and commercialisation that comes with it. To make matters worse, he has the temerity to appear on screen, in the person of a smarmy little man with a nasty 'tache; rather than the implied superiority of an invisible, all-present radio announcer, he is, shudder, a television presenter.

The episode is surely not very subtle with all of its implied criticism of educational technique that favours rote learning over applied thought, but with this… salesman fronting the operation, there's a sense of saying there is something grubby and mean about a process that makes learning a commodity. McGoohan, you can feel sure, would have no truck with Tuition Fees!

Then there's some rather heavy-handed stuff about man's relationship with machines very quickly glossed over in a line about the Professor both loving and hating his creation, no doubt tossed in to try to explain the Professor's confused actions rather than explore the dichotomy.

And equally, the Prisoner's solution couldn't be any more 'Sixties either: on the brink of the information revolution, people can cope with the idea of machines that can "think" but not the way that they will "think". That is to say that they assume that computing machines will be thinking at all, and that they will therefore necessarily do this better and faster than humans (just as the machines that "work" have superseded their human builders). The General blows up because, as a machine, it has no soul and therefore can't cope with a sudden rush of existential ennui. Rather than simply replying: "bad command".

It's almost funny, because Number 2 – of all people – clearly does get the idea that what you get out of the computer depends on what you put in, when he composes a "question" for it: 1. There is a traitor; 2. Number 6 got a pass; 3. Passes come from administration; 4. Number 12 works in administration. You hardly need to be Deep Thought to join the dots, do you.

Number 2 boasts that the General can answer any question "given the basic facts", which is tantamount to saying it can answer any question to which it knows the answer.

But in fact it's the computers very ability of synthesis, this process of feeding in facts from which the machine will draw an inference, that is, I'm sure with deliberate irony, exactly what Speed Learn is taking away from people.

In a way, I suppose, it's handy to get the "machine in charge" trope out of the way here, so we can avoid the possibility that Number 1 is a robot brain.

Instead of the usual escape-of-the-week, this time the Prisoner is given a "mission" that he has to "solve". This makes it the first time that an episode of "the Prisoner" isn't really about the Prisoner.

Or does it?

It's not impossible that the whole affair is one big set-up. We see Number 12 observing the Prisoner before any of the events kick off. We can't know how much of what follows is staged for his benefit.

Who, for example, is the wax head in the Professor's bed supposed to be for? We might assume that it is there to keep Mrs Professor fooled while the Village have him away to the Hospital for some "therapy". Only it turns out that she herself made the fake head. So who are we fooling? The doctors at the bedside must be in on the act; Number 2 has clearly been briefed… we come to the conclusion the only possible person meant for this fraud is… the Prisoner.

We've no way of knowing whether the Professor's warning was genuine or scripted by Number 2. For that matter, we've no way of knowing whether the Prisoner hears the original message or one that Number 12 has switched for it.

Number 12's plan to sabotage the broadcast certainly plays out like it's all a set-up. He is blatantly in a better position to switch the broadcasts himself. If he's using the Prisoner as a catspaw, someone to destroy the experiment and take the blame, then he's really not very good at it, and Number 2 sees though him right away. But if he's a fake, why does Number 2 try to hang him out to dry?

Well, what would have happened if Number 12 hadn't been killed trying to save the Professor from electrocution? That is, what would have happened if Number's 2's ego hadn't allowed the Prisoner to feed the fatal question into the General?

I suggest that Number 2 would have had the "infallible" machine "prove" that Number 12 was a traitor… and therefore prove him as a trustworthy ally for the Prisoner, something we know he's been trying to find a way to determine ever since "Checkmate".

So was that the aim of the scheme? To fake the entire Speed Learn experiment in order to fool the Prisoner into thinking he had an ally?

Unfortunately, he seems to be trying much too hard to be too good to be true until he finally proves himself trustworthy in the usual way of "The Prisoner" by being mildly heroically dead!

I think I'm in danger of reading a more interesting story into the episode than the one that is there.

The observant will notice that Number 2 asks the Prisoner "Who was Bismark's ally?" (to which the answer is "Frederich of Augustenberg") whereas the Prisoner asks the telephone operator "Who was Frederich of Augustenberg?" (and is told he is "Bismark's ally).

It's only a little continuity error, but significant when Number 12 makes the point of asking: "what (not "when") was the Treaty of Adrianople", to which the Prisoner parrots the (wrong) answer: "September 1829".

But then Alex suggests that perhaps it's not an error at all, but a more subtle clue. Because Frederich of Augustenberg was Bismark's ally only for a brief period during which the Prussian Chancellor found him useful. That is, it was useful to promote Frederich's case as heir to the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein as it led to the uprising that gave Bismark the excuse to invade and annex the duchies back to Germany. But after that, Bismark quickly removed Frederich from power. So "ally" is a bit of an over-description, and "patsy" might be a better word.

So the answer to the first question – "Who was Bismark's ally?" – is complete; but the answer to the second – "Who was Frederich of Augustenberg? – while technically correct, tells you nothing more than a tiny sliver about Frederich, which is at best misleading.

In other words, this difference points up the limitations of this parrot-learning, even when it isn't 'wrong'.

And it occurs to me that the form of the two questions is interesting: Number 2 poses the question about doing; the Prisoner asks a question about being. Compare the relative stances of Village and Prisoner: "Who was Bismark's ally?"/"Why did you resign?" as opposed to "Who was Frederich of Augustenberg?"/"Who is Number One?"

Of course, I shouldn't have to point out that everyone spends the whole episode discussing the infamously intractable Schleswig-Holstein Question; typically, no one understands it.

who is number one?

Well it's tempting to give it to the old man at the café, merely because he's credited as "Ian Fleming" but he's not that Ian Fleming, so I won't.

A more worthy contender would surely be a (very young) John Castle as brooding Number 12. His sulky glower (those lips! almost a pout!) makes him stand out from the saccharine happiness of the Villagers, and he's never uninteresting to watch. He plays enigmatic very well, and you can never be sure whether he's genuinely on the side of the Prisoner or the Village. We're never given any clue to his motivation for betraying the Village, almost as though he's an embodiment of the Prisoner's unanswerable question "why?".

Why is Number 12 killed at the end? (Or at least, why beyond "it's the end of the episode now" tidying up – if he'd survived, we'd have had to have him and the Prisoner overpower Number 2 and make an escape attempt.)

It doesn't actually make sense whether he's true or false: why try to save the Professor if he's spent the whole episode trying to bring the Speed Learn experiment to an end? Or why does he try to save the Professor if he's really a cold-hearted Village guardian and it's all a set-up to trick the Prisoner into trusting him?

(is he trying to rescue the Professor, too – he knows about the message, so did they secretly collude)

And if it's just simple human compassion that gets him killed (something he's kept well concealed up till now, though maybe that's his motive) then surely that runs against the whole spirit of the episode, that the cold-hearted machine is evil, but having no soul destroys it.

John Castle makes a great guest star, but ultimately it's all a little bit too obvious. Like giving him the Number 12 badge again, he's another double for the Prisoner. He might as well be carrying a placard saying "You can't trust me… or can you? Or can't you? Or can you?"

So actually, I'm going to name Betty McDowall who plays the Professor's wife. She has some rather wonderful moments scattered through her scenes: when she discusses her art group's wacky 'Sixties methods – blatantly nicked by Doctor Who, by the way, for "The Green Death" and the inhabitants of Professor Jones' Nut Hutch – her bubbling new-age enthusiasm is delightfully faked, but on top of that, is her anger when she finds the Prisoner prowling around her home also part of the act?

Like Number 12 – but more subtly – you can never be quite sure just whether she is complicit or compromised.

Ostensibly her motivation is love for her husband, and she does what she does to keep him in line so that the Village won't kill him.

And yet, there are times when it seems she's gone further than that. Her expression, when Number 2 casually suggests that the Prisoner has destroyed her masterpiece (the wax head? or the deception?) is enigmatic.

The final scene of the episode, almost a tableau, is possibly its best. Played in the now-empty courtyard of the Professor's house, it features just a long-shot of the Prisoner attending the Professor's wife. It has an air of epitaph to it, the warrior delivering the dreaded news; the victor honouring the fallen enemy. It's the only time we ever see him going to a woman at the end of an episode – the only time there might be room for an ellipsis. And like the Professor's wife it is enigmatic, ambiguous in its meaning. Does the Prisoner express regret? Forgiveness? Reproach? We can't see their faces and we are left to read our own ending into the story. Subtle and moving.

next time…

That would be telling.

Be seeing you.

*Well, one year and one week, actually, 'cos obviously even though Daddy Richard WATCHED this episode at the right time… and again a year later than the right time, he STILL didn't manage to get his review written for a week!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Day 3604: To FPC or not to FPC, that is the Election


And now for a word from Daddy Richard…

So, I stood for the FPC…

That might come as a surprise*, because I've not mentioned it on Millennium's diary, but the rules of the election said I couldn't use the Internet so I kept quiet.

So, I stood for the FPC and didn't get elected.

But I'm not downhearted.

It was (obviously) STV, and I was eliminated at stage 47; but Alex assures me that means I came "23rd" out of 63! Or seven short of elected!

And that's better than a slapped face, so I'll stand again in 2012.

After all, it took five tries to win Blogger of the Year, didn't it?

So, what are the lessons learned?

Firstly, I think I had good reasons for standing: we need a policy committee that can hold us to Liberal policies even as our ministers are being dragged to the right by the Conservatives.

I think I'm qualified to do that because: (a) I have a good grasp of economics, thanks to a background in mathematics and accounting, and I think that's vital in the current circumstances; (b) I have a good grasp of core Liberal Philosophy, thanks to years of teaching from my beloved Alex, who learned everything there was to learn (that he didn't know already) all from Sainted Conrad Russell of blessed memory; and (c) I've interviewed Nick Clegg several times and I think, think I could stand up to him if I had to.

It's easy to exceed expectations when you're expecting something fairly humiliating, but the result was (at least in my head) modestly respectable.

Even without the ability to flash Millennium's award-winning Very Fluffy Diary around, I got nineteen first preference votes (and thank you to each and every one of you) and after transfers that went up to 37.17 (and thank you as well to everyone who gave me transfers).

In both cases, looking at the figures, I reckon that's almost halfway to what I would need to get elected. Which is a decent start.

It's an STV election, so looking at the effect of transfers, on first prefs alone I started in joint 29th but finished six places higher. In fact only Gareth (who jumped up twelve places to get elected) and David Hall-Matthews (who climbed eleven places, probably with a lot of Social Liberal Forum transfers) did better from transfers. Which I think shows I have a certain amount of cross-over appeal.

So lesson number one is probably: actually I might be in with a chance if I work at this.

But looking at who actually got elected, of the fifteen people with most first preferences, all but one got on.

So lesson number two has to be: get more first preferences.

That means putting my face about more, getting more involved at a regional and conference level and (horror of horrors) making some speeches(!). But also, encouraging some people who might have voted for me had they been Conference Reps to take the step and be Conference Reps.

It also means doing a bit of what might be called "campaigning" were there an election on. Not spending money – that would be silly – but exchanging e-mails with people to see if I can get some support.

The thing is. I have to do this now, after the election because, as I said, the rules don't allow it while the election is on.

Those rules said I must not use the Internet, or specifically: "use e-mail, e-groups, cix conferencing or websites during these elections to promote [my] candidacy".

(Although oddly, the rule against using websites appears not to have been enforced for some people using the Twitter website, nor certain others.)

So I buttoned it for the course of the election.

In fact, I felt constrained from even mentioning it in any form of written electronic communication, even personal e-mails. I didn't feel able to submit questions to other candidates, in case this was seen as self-promotion. And I didn't bat any ideas around online on e-mail lists with people who might have voted for me anyway, just in case.

Which is a shame because I do a lot of my communicating by e-mail. I'm a writer: I feel more comfortable, more eloquent if I can put my ideas down in writing and hone my words. (Judge for yourself if that's successful, of course, but it's the way I feel.) And of course it's cheaper than a lot of phone calls.

I'd like to say "cheaper" may (once) have been the point. It does seem likely that in fact the rule against using the net is historical (archaic, even), rooted in the notion that it would give an unfair advantage to the well-off, those rich enough to be able to afford to make websites.

There'd be an irony there, that in the last five to ten years with the rise of free blogging sites, and Facebook and Twitter, the absolute reverse is true. The Internet provides a hugely democratic and virtually free platform: giving any candidate the ability to lay out positions on all areas of policy, without the constraints of having to squeeze everything in to a single side of A5, and with a great deal more interactivity for the voter (you can post replies and comments or e-mail the author or hyperlink to other views). Ironic, but an innocent irony.

So I'd like to say that, but a little bird tells me that actually these rules are all quite new, just introduced in the last half-dozen years (not, say, dozen or more).

When we have the Federal Executive making the rules for their own election, there's a great danger that they appear to neither like nor understand the opportunities for participation that modern technology continues to unfold. And that they can get elected very nicely on the old rules, thank you very much.

We seem to be actively ruling out the greatest form of democratic access of our age. And when one candidate is able to say "look for my column in the Guardian", that's really not a level playing field. (And that's really not to have a go at Evan, who is a much loved and unjustly-defenestrated former MP, but come on…)

The rules aren't even consistent: candidates for the Peers' panel were permitted electronic campaigning, and to set up websites; candidates for FE and FPC and so on were not.

It's all grown up organically, which is lovely and very Liberal, but it's a hotchpotch, a mess.

It's like the changes to the Presidential election rules, expecting a much larger number of nominations to be gathered in the same small window (which is what, apparently, kept Jennie out of the race, I think unfairly): it favours the people with power and access (and who are tipped the wink) over those at the bottom starting from scratch. And that's not very Liberal at all.

People have been looking to see if there's an "alphabetical bias" (i.e. do you do better if your name is at the top of the list) and with such huge lists it's easy to see how that can happen, particularly if – like me – you filled in preferences all the way down. Those difficult middle rankings are where it's all too easy to just list one or two people in the order they appear on the paper. I imagine.

But surely it's clear that there is a bias: a bias in favour of "the great and the good" (and a bit of a regional bias too). And that's a problem, because MPs already have representation on the FPC, and Peers already have representation on the FPC and the regions already have representation on the FPC.

Fully one third of the elected members are accounted for by two former MPs, a nearly MP, a Peer and a former leader in the Welsh Assembly. All of them decent people, but we need these committees to be cracking open the establishment, not acting as consolation prizes for the establishment.

So we need to regularise the rules so everyone plays by the same rules, and open things up much more to the grassroots members by allowing much greater use of the Internet. I'm not alone in this: Mat and Jennie have said similar things and I've already got one or two others working along similar lines: keep an eye out for more pieces on Lib Dem Voice and other blogs. And I notice today that the lovely Honourable Lady Mark has also added a voice of authority along the same lines.

At the very least, Internet-based campaigning would crack down on some of the inanities of the manifesto booklet.

My third place pet peeve for the manifestos is people – some of whom are lovely – standing for, and getting on, multiple committees, reducing their own effectiveness and reducing opportunities for other people. Show a little heart for those of us who can't even get on one, guys!

My number two peeve is the "I'll be a strong voice for… (name your compass point)" line. It seems bizarre to me, and yet it's clearly successful, that people can bypass policy discussion by appealing to regional solidarity. It concerns me that it is possibly code: either code for policy positions – perhaps opposition to fishing quotas or support for shipbuilding or affordable rural housing; it's not like there aren't policies that would be of greater significance to one region than others and that should be voiced… but then voice them! – or and I think this would be worse, code for "we're not those London elite".

Besides, I'm all for some geographical diversity, but (e.g.) "The North" could mean anywhere from Manchester to Orkney. Some people think it means Islington! Someone standing up to say "I'm a proud Yorkshireman, and I believe in greater diversity, youth engagement, and pies" gets my vote; someone saying "I am the voice of the Angel of the North" goes straight to the bottom of the list, thank you.

But running some way ahead, I must admit, my number one peeve is the tendency to write up "my faaabulous CV" rather than anything suggesting why you should or could do the job you're applying for. If places on these committees are not consolation prizes, they certainly shouldn't be long service awards, either – I don't care how many Focus you've delivered since joining the party as a foetus, if you're standing for the FPC what will you contribute to policy?! Sorry…

Aaaaanyway, does any of this mean that I think that the FPC will not do its job?

Not necessarily; there are good people on there. But I am concerned that there is a strong "establishment" presence, accidentally shored up by the system, and that the voices of the grassroots members may end up marginalised as "wacky".

These next two years, this new FPC have the opportunity – and obligation – to set the groundwork for how we are going to be distinct from the Tories at the next election.

So what should they be doing?

Well, here are some key areas for starters, for a bit of joined-up Lib Dem thinking:

As a country we're already falling behind in the green revolution, when we have nothing but opportunities and this should be looking to be the manufacturing growth area of the Twenty-First Century. We already have the suggestion to use old shipyards as the new wind turbine factories, but we should go further and look to the next generation of North Sea rigs not prospecting for oil, but using wind-generated electricity to crack hydrogen from sea water. Hydrogen, like oil, can be used in fuel cells or in zero-emission cars, to make energy when we need it, not at the whim of nature and is the logical next step in renewable technologies. Those next-generation rigs can be a whole new start for manufacturing, from the shipbuilding areas of the North East and Scotland to new electric car plants in the Midlands, and we can repay some of our debt to the next generation by supporting engineering and manufacturing apprenticeships in those new industries.

We need a structured plan to withdraw from wasting lives and billions of pounds in cash on the "War on Drugs". In Afghanistan alone we make the situation impossible by fighting both the Taliban and the peasants who grow poppies, when we would be better off buying the crop ourselves and, for example, considering more reasonably the medical use of opiates in alleviating terminal pain. And even while remaining mindful of the dangers of schizophrenia, particularly in young black men, the case for looking again at cannabis is surely now unanswerable. Speaking as someone whose flat was nearly blown up by an illegal cannabis farm on our estate, I'd much rather see some licensed (tax-paying) farms, perhaps in the South-West of England where the economy could do with the lift.

We should not be wasting money on Trident; we should not be wasting lives in Afghanistan; and a Strategic Defence Review based on the premise that we need to "project power" globally is a joke. Instead we should be looking to bring Germany and Italy and Poland (for starters) into the defence pact recently signed with the French.

More than anything, we have got to begin the work of addressing the intergenerational divide that sees more assets held by and more resources tied up supporting an ageing generation of baby boomers at the expense of overworked, under-rewarded young people. We as Liberal Democrats are going to get a kicking for breaking our pledge on tuition fees. And we deserve it. We need to break with Labour's prescriptive target of 50% university entrance – academia isn't for everyone anyway – and offer genuine alternatives, like the apprenticeships mentioned above, like support for City and Guilds, like more overseas service. We can't honestly say that it's essential to cut the country's debt and at the same time pile debt onto graduates. It may be better than Labour's scheme but it looks absurd. And in the long term, we have got to start figuring out how to say "no" to the grey vote before the situation slips from unfair to impossible.

*Of course, it might come as a surprise because you only think of me as the "larger" gentleman who wanders around conference with a big stuffed toy and what's he doing standing for a serious Party committee… in which case you've probably not read much of the blog… and didn't get a chance to in the election, for reasons stated above.


Friday, November 05, 2010

Day 3594: What's Depressing About the American Mid-Terms…


…is hearing some Tea Party Wing-Nut exclaiming that:

"it's time for a bit less Big Government; it's time to cut the deficit; it's time to cut taxes for small businesses"

…and thinking, isn't that COALITION policy, these days?


The reports of the US Mid-Terms, (including his own!) all say that President Barry O has taken a SHELLACKING in these elections, which is harsh for a man who wasn't even standing and whose popularity remains more than double that of the only Replutocrat anyone has even heard of. (Oh you know – the OTHER one who isn't a WITCH.)

The FIRST thing to remember after this result is that actually it was NOT the President but CONGRESS who got a KICKING from the electorate, and that is because CONGRESS was who they blamed for the ongoing crisis.

(So if the crisis is STILL ongoing in two years, then the now-Replutocrat Congress may find it's THEM that gets a kicking AGAIN!)

The SECOND thing to remember is that for the last two years, Barry O has had almost as much OBSTRUCTIONIST behaviour from his own Dumbocrat party as he has from the toy-from-pram-flinging brigade opposite. NOW he's got to find a way to work with the Replutocrats but the same is true for them – they've got to find a way to work with HIM.

And if they DO work together, he looks like a MASTER POLITICIAN like Mr President Billary-Hillary. And if they DON'T work together, then THEY end up looking like a bunch of spoilsport rich SOBs (Son of… OBamas…. Obviously).

Meanwhile, as Americaland embarks on a second round of Quantum of Easing, people ask: "is this throwing good money after bad?"

No of course not! It is throwing IMAGINARY money after bad!

But it IS a fascinating TEST CASE, as President Barry O continues, at least for the moment, to try fiscal STIMULUS compared to Great Britain activating AUSTERITY.

Americaland and Great Britain are not DIRECTLY comparable, even if their economy WASN'T hugely greater than ours (US GDP is more than FIVE TIMES greater than UK GDP). Their unemployment is higher than our (10% as opposed to 7%); they're more reliant on a manufacturing sector in decline than we are (ours is already declined); and most of all their housing sector is mired in deep, deep do-do because of the sub-prime mortgaging fiasco.

These are the things that Barry O is blamed for, because it is HARD when the unemployment rate is 10% to see that the stimulus saved you from an unemployment rate of 20%.

Little pause to remember that, once Mr Dr Vince had guided them into it, Hard Labour's economic stimulus WAS right… AT THE TIME. Big question is whether that time has PASSED.

For Americaland, the engine of the economy STILL isn't firing properly – and that's a big risk for ALL of us. So we better hope that Barry O and the Congress can get their acts together!

Day 3593: These Tuition Fees STILL Don't Add Up!


This is what it comes down to: where do we find twelve billion pounds?

With slightly under two million students, and fees between six and nine thousand pounds per year, apparently, plus some living allowances, at a BARE MINIMUM that's two million lots of six grand. Twelve billion quid.

Where can we find the cash?

More cuts? Twelve billion pounds is a tenth of the NHS. Or a third of the defence budget. Surely we can't slash more benefits!

So the government has chosen instead to tax students out of their future.

We've GOT to do BETTER than THAT!

Liberal Democrats, I KNOW it is NAUSEATING to be lectured by Hard Labour on this. They gave a manifesto commitment to not introduce fees… and then introduced fees. We don't need lessons from Labour about broken promises.

But it's EVEN WORSE when the two-faced, lying, bandwagon-jumping hypocrites are RIGHT.

They say we should be ashamed and we SHOULD be ASHAMED.

We DID promise to oppose rises in tuition. WE promised to get RID of the cost of tuition. And we SHOULD keep that promise.

The ONLY excuse for breaking our pledge would be if we could do something BETTER, and – even with the 30% worst off students paying LESS under this scheme – this still ISN'T BETTER ENOUGH.

The proposals now revealed by the Coalition for funding higher education are an at-least-doubled fee paid for by a loan repayable once you are earning over twenty-one thousand pounds (£21,000), with an escalating rate of above-inflation interest.

The simple consequence of this is that people earning up to a certain amount – for you standard three-year degree it's probably about thirty-three thousand pounds (£33,000) – will NOT pay off the loan within thirty years: for those people this is simply a GRADUATE TAX of 9% of your earnings over the twenty-one thousand pound (£21,000) threshold.

People earning above that amount will pay higher monthly contributions, but they will pay off the loan, so they won't be paying for the full thirty years, and in consequence will pay less in TOTAL.

You end up paying the MOST if you very-nearly-but-not-quite pay off the loan. So, for the hypothetical "standard" degree (3 years at £6000 a year, i.e. £18,000), people earning roughly £33,000 would JUST pay off the loan with their last repayment, having paid a total of slightly less than thirty thousand pounds (£30,000).

So the system proposed is moderately progressive. Up to a point, the more your earn, the more you pay back in.

The rather IRONIC fact is that INCREASING the fees actually makes the system MORE progressive.

Increasing the fees increases amount up to which you know you're not going to pay the fees off, i.e. increases the number of people for whom the graduate contributions is a straight 9% tax (limited to 30 years).

For example, at £9,000 per year, or £27,000 for a three year course, only people earning more than thirty-EIGHT thousand pounds (£38,000) will finish repaying.

AND people earning less than £33,000 do not pay any more than they would if the fees were £6,000 (because they have the SAME repayments – for them, it's just a bigger amount written off by the government at the end).

So, why stop at £9,000 then, you may ask. Why not make the fees £90,000 and make the scheme progressive all the way up to the few people earning two hundred grand who are the only ones who will ever pay it all back?

The answer to that one is that what the government calls "writing off" actually means repaying what's left of your loan out of general taxation, and this would be setting up yet another ridiculous bill for future taxpayers.

Which of course brings me back to the point.

This is just DISGUISED GOVERNMENT BORROWING, with a hidden TAX RISE on the poor future graduates to cover the repayments.

The MOST SERIOUS FLAW in our model of government spending is that over the last fifty years, we have been taxing fewer and fewer YOUNG people in order to keep spending more and more on health and pensions and care for OLD people!

We've tried increasing taxes; but the spending on the welfare state kept going up.

We've tried cutting everything else; but the spending on the welfare state kept going up.

We've tried borrowing until the government credit card smoulders.

I'm a bit of a HERETIC and I suspect we DO spend more than is good for us on the health service: it's grown from an essential protection to a national comforter, which we cling on to because it's there, making ever more use of overstretched services BECAUSE they are free-at-the-point-of-need when we might just occasionally be able to cope on our own if there wasn't a giant nanny there to make it all better for us.

But a LOT of our health spending is going on making sure that ever more retired baby-boomers have healthy comfortable and very, very LONG retirements in which to enjoy all the property they bought up before house price inflation made it impossible. And we expect a dwindling pool of working age people to pay more and more taxes to fund this.

And now, on top of that, we're expecting them to pay for their OWN education as well as the cost of OUR retirement AND cleaning up OUR mistakes.

It's really not on.

Instead of dumping the problem in the lap of the next generation, we should be addressing the real problems.

Firstly, Labour's dogmatic target of 50% of people to receive a degree has very badly served both students AND universities. Ridiculously academic qualifications are now widely seen as entry-level requirements to the jobs market. Half of the country get into universities; half are marked as failures. Well done, Labour: you've basically succeeded in recreating the 11+ only at 18.

We need to STOP trying to force every young person into the straight-jacket of a degree. 20% would be a more realistic target, and if you went to a state-funded school, you shouldn't have to pay.

But that's NOT a money-saving scheme, because we ALSO need to provide alternative routes, apprenticeships, city & guilds, incentives to employers, so that instead of the Hobson's Choice – degree or not degree, that is the question – people have GENUINE OPPORTUNITY to get into employment be it at 16, 18 or 21.

So we come back to where we started. Where DO we get twelve billion quid?

Well, almost regardless of the question of higher education, we have got to address our national addiction to the NHS and the welfare state before we lose control completely.

And at the same time, we need to look again at unlocking the amount of unproductive WEALTH bound up in property and investments benefiting very few.

And I'm afraid it means taking head on the power of the GREY VOTE. We've got to stop making promises to pensioners and start KEEPING our promises to young people.

Or sooner or later, they may just turn off the life support.


I should emphasise: all these figures are EXCLUDING the effects of INFLATION, which would make the REAL terms cost of the loan LESS. That is, repaying £100 in a year's time is less onerous than repaying £100 today (suppose you HAD the £100 – if you repay it today it's all gone, if you put it in a back and get a tiy little amount of interenst you will have something left when you repay the £100 in a year). It will – I guess – also affect the starting-to-pay point and thus the amounts repaid as you go along.

Also, these calculations don't work for AVERAGE salaries; there's just no way my simple maths can take account of the way people's salaries grow: e.g. imagine Jane earns £20,000 a year for three years, so pays nothing, but June earns nothing for two years and then £60,000 in the third year, so pays £3,510 in year three even though she's earned the same ON AVERAGE as Jane.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Day 3585: THE SCARY JANE ADVENTURES: Death of the Doctor


Before we get to Scary Jane Smith (yes, it's a running joke now) I thought it was worth a mention of the return of the Eleventh Hour Podcast, with our favourite crazy-people-called-Joe-and-Chris, Joe and Chris, and special-guest-starring Auntie Jennie.

As a ten-year-old baby elephant [R: nine, obviously] the PROFANITY FILTER renders most of it as UNINTELLIGIBLE MORSE CODE, but Daddy tells me it's very good really.

And we promise that Daddy wrote at least HALF his review BEFORE listening to what they had to say!
So there you are then, "The End of Time" could have been even longer as Doctor Who's heroic Welsh bard, Russell Davies, writes in to say that the dying Doctor David actually visited all the previous companions from Ian and Barbara through to Ace (and Benny and Charlie and Lucie and all the others), as well as the Millennium-edition companions we actually see on screen.

I can't help wondering whether this means Tennant materialising on the space freighter and hollering: "come on then, Adric. All aboard allons-y!" or materialising in a Cretaceous glade and watching a rather good meteorite show with a sad shake of the head.

(Not to mention doing for Katarina that thing that he later does for River Song. No, that other thing, that thing with the TARDIS in space and the extended air corridor.)

And one way or another it's quite hard to pop in to visit Leela and Romana. And Sarah Kingdom ought to be a definite gonner… if it wasn't for the clever "out" written into his trilogy of Companion Chronicles by Simon Guerrier.

("Home Truths", "The Drowned World" and "Guardian of the Solar System": well worth a listen, even if Alex and I are killed off in the first one.)

And then there's Sarah Jane's closing valediction, and it's happy endings all round: Ian and Barbara in Cambridge, Ben and Polly in India, rather marvellously Liz Shaw (not dead) on the moonbase (wearing a purple anti-static wig?), the Brigadier perennially stuck in Peru, Tegan (not dead) in Australia, and the Dorothy "someone" who has to be Ace (not dead/not dead/not a bitch and probably dead) having founded the charity "A Charitable Earth".

(And if it is Dorothy for Ace not Dorothea for Dodo that still leaves Ms Chaplet missing-presumed-brainwashed between episodes of "The War Machines". Also, odd that Sarah failed to mention Victoria Waterfield who was fostered "sometime in the late Twentieth Century", not least because Sarah met her… albeit in spin-off "Downtime" aka – at least in our flat –The World-Wide-Web of Fear. Yes, we did tick off all the other companions: Susan, Stephen, Zoe, Nyssa and Mel are all in the future; Vicki née Cressida and Jamie are in the past; Turlough and assuming-she's-alive-god-help-her Peri are on alien planets – so all of them are out of range of Google.)

Really, I ought to frown on this sort of thing, as it is rather naughty, bulldozing all the spin-off lines left and right. But it brings such a warm glow to my heart that I can't help but forgive him. And anyway, the whole premise of The Sarah Jane Adventures is based on bulldozing spin-offs or she'd have been killed off in "Bullet Time" (the Past Doctor Adventure) or "Dreamland" (the Big Finish audio, obviously, and not the Tenth Doctor cartoon!) and more subtly erasing her meeting with the eighth Doctor in Lawrence Miles' "Interference" or the seventh in the comic strip.

So it's all rather lovely, but also rather fannish. They all lived happily ever after, not only belying all those "gritty" and "grim" novels and audios, but also the spirit of "School Reunion" from Russell's own version of Doctor Who. And are we not in danger of carelessly suggesting that best friend Sarah is actually the weakest link, if absolutely every other companion has made a brilliant life for themselves?

Russell has all sorts of mixed messages about optimism (the Doctor makes people better, except when he doesn't; life gets better, except when it doesn't) and about whether Jo is an idiot – or, more hurtfully, a child (except when she isn't). In contrast to the 'Sarah Jane becomes a lonely old spinster' of "School Reunion", he's carefully shifted Sarah's backstory out of the way, and given us 'Jo and all the rest have fantastic lives (don't mention the dead ones)'.

In fact, there's almost a sense that the story is lying to kids about death, especially in the way that the Doctor most treats Jo as a child and does lie to her about the death of the Time Lords. Obviously, the Doctor was never going to be dead, but there's a message here that if you really, really don't believe that someone is dead, then it'll turn out that they're not, and that rather undoes all the good work put in at the start of the episode where Rani's dad tries to explain to her about grief and denial and what Sarah is going through.

So, even though Jo's life has been a fantastic adventure, and she's been so successful, all of her children have followed her example, the moment she steps back into the Doctor's orbit she reverts to "helpless girly".

Why didn't she just punch him and say: "how dare you pretend to be dead! I've got too much to do to be travelling half way round the world just because you aren't dead!"

Or as Sarah ought to have said: "there's nothing 'helpless' about being a 'girl'."

All of which means that although it would be nice to see this as an exploration of what the Doctor means to his companions after he leaves their lives – a sort of, forgive me, companion piece to "School Reunion" – it's not really.

What it is instead, and who can blame it, is a celebration of all things dotty in the person of the irrepressibly wonderful Katy Manning as Jo Jones née Grant.

At times it seems like a pastiche of the old Jo Grant – she knocks something over on her entrance; she plays up the "dumb blonde" – at times it's almost more about the real Katy – the business with the glasses; the other business with the glasses…

What I felt was nice was that Jo wasn't demeaned by this. If anything, she's shown to be acting up because she's actually covering up for being smarter than people take her for, and – in spite of the streak of self-doubt about the Doctor never coming back for her – she shows that she's made a good life for herself succeeding in raising a happy and engaged family with no compromises.

Emphasising the contrast with "School Reunion", Jo and Sarah share a "compare the monsters" conversation like the one between Sarah and Rose in the earlier story. But this is comparative not competitive, more of a shared greatest hits.

Likewise, Russell gives each companion reason to be jealous of the other: Jo has had the life that Sarah lost out on wasting her time waiting around for the Doctor; but equally Jo has never had the Doctor come back for her (or even so much as a robot dog) to say that he didn't forget her. But it doesn't last. It's more of a brief sting quickly healed than a real emotional core to the plot.

And it is delightful when they realise he took them both to Peladon. And Jo mentioning Karfel… what a wicked Bandril Ambassador you are, Mr Russell; all those kiddies going out to snap up copies of "Timelash" on DVD.

I did, incidentally, between watching parts one and two, listen to Big Finish's Companion Chronicle "Find and Replace", staring Katy as both Jo and the irrepressible Iris Wildthyme. In many ways it covers very similar ground – Jo in the present day, looking back and revisiting her time with the Doctor. It takes a very different route (there's a time travelling Number 22 bus involved) but arrives at a similar place emotionally: Jo has had a happy life, but the best of it was with the Doctor and she loves him and misses him, but loves her life too.

That ambiguous blend, that it's possible to regret and not regret at the same time, is very human, very Russell.

Of course, most of the other Russell tick-boxes are on show too.

The plot is moderately perfunctory and full of holes. And there's pizza in it. The human villain's characterisation ("Earth has nothing for me") is borrowed from Lance in "The Runaway Bride" (though with even less reason – I mean, she works for UNIT; how much excitement do you want?). The alien menace looks a bit like an Earth animal (Muppet vultures, in this case) and has an overworked naming convention (the Claw Shansheeth of the Fifteenth Funeral Fleet). Paint the Graske blue and you get a completely different alien… and then call it a Groske. Tee as they say hee. His place names are wacky too, here with the Doctor "dying" in the Wastelands of the Crimson Heart (is that anywhere near the Silver Devastation? Or is it part of the Jaggit Brocade, affiliated to the Scarlet Junction?) And Jo's jailbait grandson Santiago plays the "gay agenda" when he mentions his dad joining the "Gay dads across Antarctica" (not to mention Jo and Sarah snuggled up in bed, er, coffin together!). Santiago refers to the Falklands as Las Malvinas too; this is apparently controversial (like anyone brought up in Peru would call them anything else).

And speaking of Santiago, did anyone else feel that the story was setting him up to join the regular cast? All that heavy business about him never settling down or his parents never being in the same place for long enough for them all to be a family together – did it not seem to be leading up to the obvious "I'm going to stay put for a bit, Sarah Jane's offered me Luke's old room"? Not that I'm not cool with Clyde and Rani pairing. But with Tommy Knight's Luke removed to Oxford, they could have been looking for another pretty young man lots-of-answers-but-doesn't-fit-in, fish-out-of-water character. And it would have been an opportunity to bounce some new ideas around the old team.

Anyway, none of that really seems to matter because, as usual with Russell's writing, he somehow seems to bypass conventional drama and go straight to intravenous emotion.

There is also all the evidence that Russell is having a great big laugh.

Referring to Ace as Dorothy "something" clearly references the fan arguments between those who say her surname was supposed to be "Gale" (as in Dorothy Gale from "The Wizard of Oz", rather missing the point that her being whisked "over the rainbow" by a time storm in "Iceworld" is an allusion, one among many in that story) or those who say it should be McShane as used in the New Adventures and later adopted in the Big Finish Audios (or even more clumsily Dorothy Gale-McShane, which pleases nobody).

Likewise, the idea that Ian and Barbara haven't aged since the sixties. I quite like the idea voiced by some that this refers to their immortality on DVD, but I suspect that it's more of an allusion to Russell's own oft-stated description of Lis Sladen herself.

He even takes the rise out of his own Doctor-worship when Doctor Eleven delivers a very Doctor Ten-ish "the whole universe would shudder…" and then undercuts it with a "gotcha!" (Itself the mirror of Luke's gotcha on Clyde at the opening of the story.)

And do we really have to go into an analysis of the "507 lives"? (508, actually, as it would be the first one plus one more after each of 507 regenerations – the same mistake the TV movie made before redubbing Mr McGann.)

It's a joke. It's a joke! It's not a retcon; it's not a revision; it's not complicated numerology (5+0+7=12=the same as the original number of regenerations, have pity, please!); and it's certainly not a declaration that he's now immortal!

Obviously the series is going to have to do something when we get to Doctor number thirteen because, as Russell admits in interviews, that "thirteen lives" rule has stuck in the public imagination. And obviously whoever is showrunner when the time comes would be mad not to use it as a springboard for storytelling.

Holmes and Hinchcliffe introduced the idea of a limit to the number of regenerations precisely because immortality made for bad drama. Obviously it was a plot device for "The Deadly Assassin" (the Master running out of lives drives the whole story), but additionally the idea was to make it seem that the Doctor could run out of lives too, in order to invest him with a real sense of having something to put on the line in his adventuring rather than merely risking no more than just another "face lift". It makes him less than a god; it makes him a better hero.

And anyway, I don't subscribe to the thesis that twelve regenerations is itself a "retcon": it's not a contradiction of "live forever barring accidents", and in fact the new series has gone some way to smoothing this over, with all that "curse of the Time Lords" and the Doctor repeatedly saying that he does not age but does regenerate. Clearly the idea is that a Time Lord can live forever if… and only if… they stay home quietly minding their Ps and Qs. But if they have an "accident" they've got regeneration as a Plan B to get them out of that too.

Now that's not perfect either – the Doctor is seen to age to advanced years in both "The Leisure Hive" and "The Sound of Drums"/"Last of the Time Lords" – but let's make allowances.

The point being: the Doctor is not going to sit around in an ivory tower for all eternity; he's going to keep putting himself in the way of "accidents" and he knows it.

So are we stuck with thirteen?

Well, in "The Deadly Assassin", Coordinator Engin, the doddery Time Lord in charge of the APC net and dispensing general exposition, states that "after the twelfth regeneration nothing can stave off death" and as I say the entire plot of "The Deadly Assassin" (not to mention the Master's subsequent motivation in "The Keeper of Traken" et seq.; not to mention the entire plot of the TV movie which does this whole Master/Eye of Harmony/planet in peril shtick again; and especially not to mention the entire plot of that famously-reliable continuity-soother "Mawdryn Undead") depends on this strict limit. Though of course, the plot of "The Deadly Assassin" also relies on the fact that this simply isn't true: the Master, after all, believes he can break the rules, and nearly succeeds (as his subsequent longevity attests).

Because the other point that "The Deadly Assassin" makes repeatedly is that the Time Lords do not understand their own technology. (This has been ridiculed, but even today on Earth no single human actually understands all of the programming in Microsoft Windows, so roll that forward ten million years.) The Master is the only one to work out what the Eye of Harmony is and where it is and how to work it – even the Doctor himself only guesses most of this based on the Master's plans. So Engin could be just plain wrong.

Though in fairness, while you can use that to say Engin is wrong about the twelve regeneration limit, it's much harder to explain why the Master would behave the way he does if he doesn't believe that the limit is at least difficult to break.

But there are plenty of ways out of it: fans at the moment are very fond of "something to do with the Time War". After all the Master was resurrected (having previously fallen into the business end of a portable black hole), and the Doc may or may not be carrying around the Matrix in his head, stuffed with the spirits of every Time Lord who ever lived and died. Any number of technobabbly explanations could be used from the "Retcon of Rassilon" to "it's part of the TARDIS; without it I couldn't survive". The simplest approach is just to have a successor take over the role (yes, like all those Arnold Rimmers); the opportunity was missed with the car-crash ending of "Journey's End" of course, where you could have had the Doctor live happily ever after with Rose and DoctorDonna regenerate into a new (say it) female Doctor and take off in the TARDIS. Or there's even the "Curse of Fatal Death" approach – it's a miracle!

Of course, taken with the (much more controversial) "earlier Doctors" aka "those faces in the mind battle with Morbius", although also alluded to by the "secondary" control room containing props and costumes for more than just the Doctors we have known, Hinchcliffe and Holmes were contriving to suggest that Tom was in fact something like the twelfth Doctor so the whole limit was blown to pieces in "The Caves of Androzani" anyway!

(And now all we need is River Song to respond to one of his "I'm nine hundred and a bit years old" speeches with: "Doctor, you're seventeen hundred and seventy two and no one cares that you're into four digits except for you!")

Oh, and the business with the TARDIS key – Sarah and Jo both ought to remember it as the "Twerpee spade" and not the Eccleston Yale – just wave your hands and use the words "perception filter". It's not like the TARDIS really looks like a 1960s Police Box. Why should the key look like a key? And yes, the key does have its own perception filter: the Doctor uses that fact in "The Sound of Drums" for his personalised "somebody else's problem fields". So the Shansheeth's memory weave is having the girls remember the TARDIS key exactly as it is… including the perception filter that makes it look different. Will that do?

By the way, it was quite nice that Matt Smith was in this. But, in spite of his usual top quality performance, he was somehow almost entirely irrelevant (in a way that Mr Tennant really wasn't when he guested last year). In a way he's actually overshadowed by the clips. I mean hooray for the clips, hooray for a rubber dinosaur and hooray for the Three Doctors and an especial hooray for having actual wonderful non-Doctor Who clips of Jo's fabulous life-after-the-Doctor.

But making it a show about the celebration of memories, and the power of memories, the actual right-up-to-the-minute living-in-the-moment Eleventh Doctor is diminished, reduced to guest presenter in his own tribute show, second fiddle to past glories which manage to defeat the bad guys for him.

The focus was always on Jo and Sarah. And maybe that's right.

But maybe that's where "Death of the Doctor" falls down: if you're going to do a cross-over story then it ought to be something huge – a confrontation with a pan-dimensional dark lord, a face-off with the creator of the Daleks; this isn't. At its heart, for all of its alien planets and Muppet-vultures, this is really a "little" story about Jo and Sarah sitting down with the man they both once loved and saying: "why didn't I get what she got?"

So it is a lovely little drama. But for the return of the Doctor into Sarah's life, for the return of Jo Grant, for the return of Russell Davies to Doctor Who… we expected something a little bit more.

Next Time… Clyde and Rani find themselves with an intriguing mystery, a pair of rather stylish robots, and an awful lot of vacant real-estate when they're left on "The Empty Planet".