Eggs, Bacon, Chips or Cheese

At school we used to play a bizarre game.

St Mary’s C of E in Welton, Lincolnshire, was an ordinary, medium-sized, rural primary school. For the most part, the playground games were equally ordinary and universal: classics like tag (though we called it tiggy) and British Bulldogs, plus of course football. These could all be played on the concrete play area that we had access to for most of the year. The school had a much larger grass playing field, but this was usually out of bounds due to the soggy ground that was the inevitable result of the British weather.

However, during the few weeks of early summer, when it was sunny and dry, but we hadn’t yet broken up for the holidays, other possibilities were opened up.

First, we had to seek permission to “go on the grass”. A child would be nominated by their peers to go and ask the supervising teacher, who would then walk to the edge of the concrete play area adjacent to the grass. Meanwhile, the children would all line up along that sacred boundary and poise themselves in anticipation. The teacher would reach down and touch the ground, feeling for moisture and assessing the situation. Then they would loudly announce their decision: yes or no. If it was a no, we would all trudge dejectedly back to our humdrum, concrete-based games. But if it was a yes… the whole school would sprint out onto the grass, screaming with delight. Some would race to see who could reach the far side of the field first. Others would run immediately to secure a preferred area to play. Once the field had thus been ritually claimed, we would decide which game we were going to play. And more often than not, it was Eggs, Bacon, Chips or Cheese.

Continue reading

In Praise of Noughties Music

Musically, of the four decades that I’ve lived through (80s, 90s, 00s, 10s), my favourite is the nineties. It was my teenage decade, the era of personal discovery, so the music that I grew up with – Britpop, basically – has a subjective importance to me that nothing will ever match.

However, I’m moving towards the opinion that of these four decades, the noughties was objectively the best for music. At least, for the indie/pop/rock genre.

Just think of all the great bands that came out of that decade. The list goes on and on: The Libertines, The Strokes, The Killers, The White Stripes, Razorlight, Arctic Monkeys, Elbow, Muse, Franz Ferdinand, The Arcade Fire, Kings of Leon, Kaiser Chiefs, Florence and the Machine, Mumford & Sons, Keane, Snow Patrol, MGMT, The Darkness, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and of course Amy Winehouse, are just a few of the incredible acts which were absolutely massive in the noughties.

Close behind them, you’ve got the likes of Kasabian, The Vaccines, Bloc Party, Vampire Weekend, Doves, Editors, British Sea Power, Fleet Foxes, Goldfrapp, Interpol, The Coral, The Decemberists, The Kooks, Athlete… I could keep going. OK, I will… Bat for Lashes, Rilo Kiley, The Go! Team, Wolfmother, The Zutons, The Thrills, The Delays, Cloud Control, Magic Numbers, Hal, The Noisettes… Even The Duckworth Lewis Method (Neil Hannon’s cricket themed band) got their fabulous debut album out just before the decade closed.

Even the massive commercial bands that critics and musos get a bit snobby about were actually pretty decent. It says something about the musical quality of a decade when the very worst thing it produced was Coldplay.

Brexit, and the Second World War in popular culture

I wrote this in late 2018 and never got around to posting it. Italics added by me now.

I think one of the big differences in ideology and worldview between Leavers and Remainers is their understanding of WW2 and the rise of fascism.

The popular view of WW2, as portrayed in countless books, films, TV series, etc, is that fascism was an external threat: foreign dictators and armies, defeated militarily by the plucky Allies.

Popular culture doesn’t often look at the rise of fascism in the ’20s and ’30s. When it does, it generally subscribes to what I call the “George Lucas Theory of Fascism” – dictators are sneaky super-geniuses who make their way to power using trickery and force.

The other view – the more historically accurate one – is that fascism was a popular movement, a wave of grassroots fear and anger, ridden by opportunistic politicians who styled themselves as the people’s champions.

People didn’t have fascism imposed on them from above. They demanded it themselves.

They wanted strong leaders to tear up state bureaucracy and get things done, reassert sovereignty and regain past national glories, protect them from dangerous foreigners and socialists, and take revenge on the liberal elites they despised.

I can think of only two works of popular culture which come close to portraying the popular rise of fascism, and then only barely: Cabaret and The Sound of Music. And those films are unlikely to have been watched by many ardent Brexiters.

When you ignore all of that, and see fascism as its end result – a political establishment, backed up by military force – it’s easy to see why Leavers regard the EU as a totalitarian threat, and themselves as the plucky Allies fighting it.

But when you know how fascism really starts, it’s obvious which side of the Brexit divide most closely resembles it.

Brexit IS a class issue, and here’s why

This John Harris article, Brexit is a class betrayal. So why is Labour colluding in it?, is a persuasive argument about Labour strategy and why it should support a #PeoplesVote. But it doesn’t do much to support its headline claim – that Brexit is a class issue. (I know, the headlines are written by the editors, not the commentators.)

I think the claim is right: Brexit is a class issue. I’ll try to explain why.

The spectacle of millionaire toffs and spivs inciting popular hatred against “elites” – which Harris mentions but doesn’t analyse – is an obvious example of misdirection from the ruling class.

Continue reading

Meal deal economics

The law of demand is one of the most widely understood laws of economics: if you raise the price of something, fewer people will buy it; if conversely, if you reduce its price, more people will buy it.

The law generally holds true as long as the goods in question don’t have any special properties or constraints. However, there are a number of known exceptions, for example:

  • Veblen goods – expensive goods which are desirable for the status they confer on anyone rich enough to buy them. Contrary to the law of demand, demand for a Veblen good will rise as its price increases.
  • Giffen goods – a cheap but essential good which counter-intuitively increases in demand as its price rises. This is because, if a staple food (e.g. bread) rises in price, the poorest consumers have to stop buying more expensive foods (e.g. meat), and spend the savings on more of the cheapest good.

I hypothesise the existence of another type of good which behaves as an exception to the law of demand: a meal deal good.

Continue reading

“It’s the principle”: why turkeys do often vote for Christmas

US liberals and leftists who won’t vote for Clinton, even though that decision will help Trump, who is even worse, are an interesting case study. It reveals a deep difference, not between liberals and conservatives, but between “principlists” and “consequentialists”.

Consequentialists do what they have to do to get the best available outcome, even if the means – and the end – fall short of their ideal.

Principlists feel an inherent wrongness in doing anything against principle, even if the result is an outcome even further from their ideal.

They’re two totally opposed mindsets – ways of thinking about how to choose action – with little scope for persuasion between them.

Continue reading

Walter Russell Mead’s “The Jacksonian Tradition”: the essay that predicts Donald Trump

In 1999, American foreign policy academic Walter Russell Mead wrote an influential essay, The Jacksonian Tradition. In it, he identified a strand of US political thought associated with its conservative and anti-intellectual middle and working classes.

The article was highly prescient in anticipating the appeal of George W Bush as president. Now, as the US teeters on the brink of electing an unimaginably worse candidate, it’s worth reading again. Mead’s analysis turns out to be just as perceptive an insight into Donald Trump’s supporters and their political attitudes.

It is not fashionable today to think of the American nation as a folk community bound together by deep cultural and ethnic ties.

However, the seventh President, Andrew Jackson, built his political career on identifying and mobilising that community – white, Anglo-Saxon/Celtic, working and middle class – which Mead terms the “Jacksonians”.

His political movement—or, more accurately, the community of political feeling that he wielded into an instrument of power—remains in many ways the most important in American politics.

Jacksonian America has produced—and looks set to continue to produce—one political leader and movement after another.

The future of Jacksonian political allegiance will be one of the keys to the politics of the twenty-first century.

Continue reading

Temper-Trapped

I propose the following definition:

Temper-trapped past participle verb tricked into a buying a music album on the strength of one song, to discover that it’s the only decent one on the whole album.

It’s derived from the band The Temper Trap: I bought their debut album Conditions after hearing the song Sweet Disposition, but was disappointed to find that the rest of the album is utterly mediocre and forgettable.

I’ve recently been temper-trapped again by John Grant. His song Down Here, an infectious indie pop ballad, was stuck in my head for weeks, so I bought the album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, which turned out to be weird electro nonsense: not even the same style of music as the one song I’d enjoyed.

What albums have you been temper-trapped by?

Manufactoria: a brain-expanding puzzle game

I finally completed Manufactoria.

Manufactoria is an online puzzle game, which is deceptively simple and surprisingly deep. Your task is to build a factory machine from simple components which takes an object, inspects it and moves it around the factory floor accordingly. In later stages, you get to modify the object as well.

At first you think you’re just moving objects around and printing patterns of coloured dots on them, but later, when you’re thinking of blue dots as 1s and red dots as 0s, and the patterns as binary numbers, you realise that the system is Turing complete and the game’s progressively harder puzzles are teaching you how to build a binary adding machine. It’s a beautiful, powerful way to demonstrate the principles behind mechanical/electronic computation.

While some games, like Angry Birds and Candy Crush, are meant to numb your brain with repetitive tasks, the best ones expand your brain with new skills and knowledge: Manufactoria is in the latter class.

Play the game online here: Manufactoria at PleasingFungus Games