Archive by Author | Matt

Fire Brand

Just a short post this week (after last week’s novel), and it concerns a couple of articles that have been doing the rounds on my social media feeds for the last few days.

The New Statesman has always gone for, shall we say, eye catching guest editors (e.g.s being Alistair Campbell, Richard Dawkins and Ai Weiwei) but apparently Manuelbaiting cartoon character Russell Brand has been using the platform to issue a slightly incoherent call for revolution.

Maybe it’s a mistake to take this as anything more than a cynical magazine capitalising on an overly self-important celebrity’s desire to show off to the world. However, I’d like to make that mistake for a while, as I certainly think there are plenty of young people who would agree with the sentiments expressed in the interview. I even think Brand is, for once, being sincere.

However, I believe Brand’s call for revolution is fundamentally flawed: He doesn’t go nearly far enough.

In essence, what Brand (and many of his fellow travellers) are saying is that the current political system is rotten, captured by special interests who control the apparatus of government through craven and corrupt politicians. The solution is to tear the system down and start again, with… a new government. Sure, the post-revolutionary authorities (or “admin-bods” as Brand affectionately refers to them) will exert higher taxes on the rich and redistribute them to the working man, but in’t that, at some level, what the current lot were meant to do? The new administrators will be subject to the same pressures and incentives as today’s politicians. In the end, the pigs will walk on two legs.

The problem with revolutions is that you always end up back where you started. There are serious problems in the world that we need to work together to solve: climate change, war, inequality, suffering. Is more meddling by the state really going to help us do that? To quote from an interview in Brand’s issue of the New Statesman:

Do you think you pay your fair amount of tax as a rich person?

No. I think we should return to the Sixties when we paid 80 per cent tax so government can piss it up the wall on the war machine and bailing out the banks and funding ludicrous “initiatives” to help “stimulate” the economy. The economy that successive governments oversaw the destruction of. I think I pay just about enough, thanks . . . and you?

Not Ted Cruz, Noel Gallagher.

We need our revolutionaries to offer something different, not more of the same. We may not live in a libertarian fantasy world, where all we need is lower taxes and more markets, but it is crucial to remain wary of Hayek’s fatal conceit that we know more, and can control more, than is actually the case.

Hayek himself advocated “a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibilities of the mighty… and which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible”. That sounds like my kind of revolution.



Chequered Results

chess 1Despite its Orwellian sounding name, Intermediate School 318 is an American phenomenon. In a country with high and rising inequality, and a plethora of abysmal inner-city schools, I.S. 318 in Brooklyn, New York, is providing an unlikely arena for its students to excel: chess.

318, the subject of the 2012 documentary Brooklyn Castle (broadcast this week on PBS), draws its students from diverse but mostly poor backgrounds where over 65% of its students fall below the federal poverty line. The triumphs of its chess team are a huge point of pride for students, teachers, and school board in the face of recession induced funding cuts and often bleak futures.

Extra-curricular activities such as chess are commonly provided by schools across the US and Europe. Ostensibly, children are encouraged to participate in pastimes that broaden their horizons beyond the limitations of the traditional classroom. During their formative years, pupils are given a chance to develop interests and skills to become the elusive ‘well rounded’ individual. The benefits of these pursuits in preparing pupils for life in an ever changing and more complex world are widely perceived to be huge.

Much of this is now at risk. Most obviously, and most pressingly to students and schools like those showcased in Brooklyn Castle, government budget tightening has led to the loss of funding for many out of classroom activities, including champion chess teams. But there is a further, in many ways more pernicious, threat to the huge but often immeasurable benefits that truly extra-curricular activity provides: the success of the programmes themselves.

School grades are becoming less informative. As employers and university admissions departments seek to select the best candidates from a seemingly ever increasing supply of applicants, the information conveyed by academic results is becoming heavily diluted by grade inflation and inconsistent exam techniques, among a host of other factors. The obvious result is a desperate rush to find better indicators of a candidate’s quality, such as their extra-curricular record.

So well know is this desire for strong non-academic records, that the activities designed to grant students an escape from the stringencies of classroom based subjects have begun to assume many of the same features.  Focus has been shifted away from the esoteric and intangible benefits and on to more measurable (and therefore more suitable for candidate comparison) aspects. The most easily reported results generally take the form of competitions, the like of which I.S. 318 has been lauded for doing so well in.

To report success at a national or international tournament is, rightly or wrongly, seen by many secondary school students and their admissions advisors as a serious leg up over the horde of other applicants. Little wonder that the most competitive schools and parents are pushing pupils into more competitive environments for activities that are intended as an escape from the daily grind. This trend is well established for more sporty students, who are used to competition for places on school teams followed by competition for trophies followed by competition for scholarships at university.

chess 2

Starting young

The act of observing alters the thing being observed, and what is true in quantum mechanics is also true in secondary school debate, chess and even sports teams. With demonstrable victories becoming increasingly valuable, parents and teachers are keen to ensure the tournaments are consistent enough that the scores received in them can be compared. Standardised measures, just like their academic equivalents, can be taught to by educators reliant on tangible results to justify their slightly increased salary and status.

The presence of well-defined competitive environments with valuable rewards for success seems to inevitably lead to homogeneous outcomes. This is most evident in pursuits such as the European Youth Parliament, Model United Nations and debate teams, where point scoring and research (i.e. the aspects that can be taught and controlled by teachers) have become the focus of nearly every tournament and club at secondary level. It is noticeable that at college level, where the potential rewards for success are almost exclusively limited to individual glory, a much more heuristic scoring approach encourages a somewhat deeper exploration of the issues than the understandably less nuanced approach evident in their High School counterparts.

This lack of diversity not only sends extra-curricular exploits the way of school grades as a means for assessment, but also robs participants of the chance to develop many of the skills and aptitudes that the activities are meant to demonstrate.

For schools like I.S. 318, success by the chess team is a beacon of hope for students facing an uphill battle to graduate with diplomas. But the myopic focus on a single discipline risks leaving many students who are not interested in chess behind. At an inner city school with funding cuts a feature of daily life, hiring one dedicated extra-curricular supervisor pushes the budget almost to breaking point. Hopefully the attention generated by the chess team draws attention to these limits.

The likely outcome, however, is that funding will flow to those with tangible results to show for the investment. At I.S. 318, donors have plugged the funding gap for the wildly successful chess team and its $70,000 travel budget. It’s hard to begrudge the kids, who work spectacularly hard to perfect their craft, but beyond the headline achievements there are huge numbers of children in Brooklyn who could benefit from investment of that scale.

Disproportionate rewards flowing to the already successful has received a lot of attention in the last week or so, following Robert Schiller’s Nobel prize. For millions of school children, the phenomenon is depriving them of a real chance to broaden their horizons and prepare themselves for a dynamic and changing world. Contra a typical attitude, it’s not the winning that counts, it’s the taking part.


Hipster CoffeeThe ideal conditions for writing a blog post – especially an inaugural one such as this – are generally those of tranquillity. Free of pressure either to deliver to a deadline or distractions from pesky friends and family, the blogger can tackle the issues of the day unworried and unhindered.

Oh, and caffeine helps. Hence the congregation of creative types (and their Mac Books) in seemingly every coffee shop in the Western world. The symbiotic relationship between blogger and barista is one of the most visible examples of our hyper-connected, information (or cat picture) sharing civilisation. This ubiquitous sign of modernity exists thanks to a unique bargain: In exchange for shelter from the elements and free Wi-Fi, your correspondent and his brethren are entering into an unspoken understanding that they will pay for the establishment’s particular selection of warm brown liquids at regular intervals during their stay. Everyone’s a winner.

Beneath the surface, this cosy arrangement is showing signs of stress. As the custom has graduated from its indie coffee house roots to the mainstream – and as mobile computers have become ever more portable – a new breed has emerged to exploit this caffeinated social contract: the one-cup-every-five-hours Wi-Fi Hog. This virulent menace has spread to cover almost the entirety of the Starbuksified world, and it threatens to topple the entire blogoffee ecosystem.

The motivations of the Hog are very simple. Convenient Wi-Fi and warm seating areas in the centres of major cities are obviously not cheap, and such amenities are out of the reach of all but a few laptop-jockeys. But coffee shops are not providing them as acts of charity to nomadic students. Sure, there’s a chance one of them might drag themselves away from YouTube for long enough to write a blockbuster that turns your café into a mecca for star struck (and price insensitive) fans but the odds aren’t quite good enough to warrant such a generous subsidy.

In fact, the generous subsidy is being paid by actual coffee drinkers who are understandably miffed at being unable to find a table at which to drink their artificially overpriced stimulants. Miffed enough that the self-same indie coffee shops, that first introduced free Wi-Fi back in the days before my granny had an iPad, are now disabling their internet connections and power outlets in an attempt to boot out the loiterers. Others have resorted to 38th-parallel style lines of demarcation to save some space for the Great Unconnected. Even giants like Peet’s and Panera are imposing restrictions in an attempt to tempt back customers who go to coffee shops to actually buy coffee.

The barista fights backEvidently the cost of providing the service has jumped, as patrons’ plethora of mobile capable devices jam lower capacity systems. Some, undoubtedly, see the services as an opportunity to complement stingy mobile data limits. However, the true costs inflicted by the Hogs are disguised by the cross-subsidy provided by coffee drinkers. At the dawn of the free Wi-Fi era, keeping customers for longer ensured a steady stream of orders. The rise of the Hog has made it more profitable to increase turnover. Perhaps if this intellectual adventure had started a few years later, it would not have begun with a cappuccino.


October 2013