Friday, May 31, 2013

Scepticism is only a secondary virtue

In a peculiar way, I suppose I should be grateful to Brendan O'Neill, as I'm getting a second post from my reaction to his article in The Big Issue defending climate scepticism.

This one's more of a general reflection on the worth of scepticism in general.

I hear a lot about scepticism: towards politics, in matters of faith or about the future.

And at least some of this scepticism is a good thing. Reasoned doubt means we ask ourselves and others searching questions. We look before we leap; we don't let ideas live rent free in our heads. We politely decline offers to drink the Kool-aid.

But in and of itself, scepticism is not enough. It achieves nothing constructive - it merely clears the ground for new ideas. It's also a tool which can be turned against the positive - curdling dreams, miring visions in if's and but's. at its worst becoming an inverted, black-hatted dogmatism of disbelief.

Or, to put it another way: you can't build a better society on a bullsh*t detector.

German has a great portmanteau word for traits like this, which is Sekundartugend or 'secondary virtue'. Secondary virtues like sceptical enquiry (or thrift or etiquette, say,) are only really virtuous when exercised in tandem with compassion for others; in the absence of love they can serve a bad cause just as well as a good one.

So tell me what you're for, not just what you're against.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A slighly grumpy post about UK Games Expo

I swung into UK Games Expo on Sunday for a quick game of Achtung Cthulhu and a mooch around the trade halls. 

This was the first time it had moved from the Masonic Conference Centre and neighbouring hotel in Edgbaston out to the Hilton at the NEC. Word of the Gaming Gods is that they got 3,500 people along (most for 2-3 days) which is their best attendance yet.  

Good stuff: 
  • The Trade Halls and gaming rooms were a lot better laid out and easier to navigate than the previous venue (there was much less chance of your way being blocked by a marauding dalek). 
  • I was able to lay hands on a copy of Shock.
  • You could still check out board games to play-test in the bar (like this round of Pirates Cove)
  • Good family-friendly atmosphere
  • The USP of always being able to get into a game, whether RPG, board or wargames.
  • Being able to get there by train was much appreciated.

Not so good stuff: 
  • Food and drink prices ranging from expensive to rip-off, with punters shelling out upwards of £4 for a decent coffee or a pint at the main bar, which wouldn't have been so bad were it not for...
  • ... the comparison with previous years, where you could nip outside the con to a range of decent pubs and restaurants, even if you weren't straying more than 5 minutes walk away. 
  • Or go in search of cheap snacks according to means and timing.
  • General sense of soullessness endemic to the Hilton and surrounds made you long for the quirkiness of Apron 'n' Compass central.

The setting for a con matters, so while transferring Expo to the Hilton probably makes a lot of sense for the size of event it's become, it has lost quite a bit of its charm in doing so. 

I'm not sure if that was my last visit to the event, but I'd be reluctant to do more than a day in future. I wish the organisers well, but perhaps I'm not their target audience.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Spacemen 3 covering Will The Circle Be Unbroken

This was how I discovered country gospel standard Will The Circle Be Unbroken, bent out of shape by Jason Pierce of Spacemen 3 / Spiritualized into a sluggish blues of addiction, ecstatic repetition and the shadow of the grim reaper.

This version keeps the original chorus - Will the circle be unbroken /By and by Lord,by and by? Is a better home awaiting / In the sky Lord, in the sky? - and sandwiches it between the grim tale of a junkie funeral; no direct lyrical reference needed to work out how the celestial harbour is going to be reached.

Pierce has had a long and artistically satisfying career out of juxtaposing keep-your-eyes-on-salvation with the psychedelic experience. But this is my favourite thing he's been involved in.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Top 10 acts we saw at The Great Escape Pt 2

Last weekend we went down to Brighton for the Great Escape festival of new music. Between discovering a new city, eating some amazing food and rejoicing in a man dressed as Rowlf playing street piano, we saw some fantastic music.

1. Wolf Alice 

Indie rock 'n' roll in the Pixies / Peejay vein. The only 'buzz' band we managed to get in to see and they didn't disappoint.

2. Luke Sital-Singh

A young Conchord-a-like with a honeyed voice for solo guitar. The original songs are good but I also have a feeling he'd be an inspired interpreter of others' work.

3. Popstrangers

The great indie rock-n-roll revival part 2, this time from New Zealand and checking the boxes marked Pixies, Posies, Pumpkins. Live, they knock this stuff out of the park, so you definitely go see them play while they tour this coming fortnight.

4. Blek

The great Indian indie rock-n-roll revival, pt 3. Has Mumbai nurtured the heirs to the Minutemen?

5. Gabriel Bruce

Just imagine if the title track to St Elmo's Fire was the foundation on which modern music was built.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Scepticism: I do not think it means what you think it means

There is a comment piece by Brendan O'Neill in last week's Big Issue which tries the following argument on for size.

1. Scepticism is hugely important. Hooray for the spirit of rational enquiry, Huxley and Mill!

2. But scepticism is under threat, since speaking out against man-made climate change theories is taboo (solitary case study: Johnny Ball being booed at a science and atheism event).

3. Therefore we should defend climate scepticism and challenge the scientific consensus on it.
Oh really? This smacks to me of sloppy reasoning.

First, the statement no-one can disagree with. We're all wedded to the scientific method here, Brendan. :-)

Then, the extrapolation from an isolated case, which conveniently forgets that the fact that we regularly hear climate-sceptical voices, e.g. in the right-wing press and mainstream political parties. 

This allows O'Neill to (incorrectly, in my view) present this as a censorship issue rather than a science issue.


For the purposes of his argument, he's treating man-made climate change as if it were equivalent to a medieval superstition, a pre-scientific received truth like the creation myths challenged by Darwin, Huxley and others.  

Let's just say one more time for the record that man-made climate change is an idea well established by evidence and the scientific method.

And, what's  more: you challenge a theory like this in the court of scientific appeal through fresh evidence. This is something the sceptics have as yet failed to do, although not for want of trying over the past decade and more, even in states like the US where Government policy has at times been receptive.

Still, the overwhelming majority (97%) of peer-reviewed research papers still agree that, yep, man-made climate change is happening. O'Neill might regard this as placing too much reliance on expertise; I say, if you've got the evidence to the contrary, bring it to the top table.

Let's be clear here what scepticism is not. It's not hanging onto obsolete ideas, it's not  challenging the conclusions of others without convincing evidence to the contrary. Convincing in this case meaning 'that with which you can persuade large numbers of others'.

That, my friend, is dogmatism. 

And it seems to me that dogmatism is what we're dealing with here.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Flashback: my student review of Goya Dress - Rooms

In my wasted youth at University of Hull, I penned the odd review for Hullfire, the student newspaper. For the sake of both completeness and comedy value, I'm adding them to this blog and then listening to the original if I can track it down to see if I agree with 20 year-old me.

Today, we've got Goya Dress, who produced a rather underrated album which as the review below shows I had rather a soft spot for. I also saw them at the Phoenix Festival in 1995, where they were excellent.
KLANG! Oops! A false alarm set off by the name of the band, for while Goya Dress are intelligent and passionate, they are thankfully not over-pretentious.
I'm not sure if 20-year old me had anything more than the vaguest idea who Goya was, so clearly I was in no position to judge.
Essentially old-school indie that wouldn't look out of place on 4AD, dabbling at times in Tori Amos territory, the album delves into the emotional undergrowth, managing to be gripping without being over-sentimental, or worse still, the Cranberries.
Singer/guitarist Astrid Williamson even manages to make all those exhausted cliches about angelic, unearthly voices sound reasonable. 
This was before 'achingly beautiful' was invented, otherwise I would have no doubt dropped that in too.
I could moan about the duration of the album, or complain that two of the tracks are unworthy to wear flowery dresses in the presence of the rest...
Nope, I got nothing.
...but often the Dress are the musical equivalent of a whole box of luxury chocolates, you can overlook the odd hazelnut surprise. (8/10)
 Am I? Yes I really am deploying a variant on the Forrest Gump metaphor. I now want to go back and smack myself upside the head. 

Here's the demo version of my favourite Goya Dress track then and now - Scorch, which I prefer to the album version 


Monday, May 20, 2013

Top 10 acts we saw at The Great Escape Pt 1

Over the weekend we went down to Brighton for the Great Escape festival of new music. Between discovering a new city, eating some amazing food and witnessing the marvel of music industry reps buying cans of Red Stripe on expenses, we saw some fantastic music.

1. Christine and the Queens

Comfortably our favourite act of the whole three days. Came on like a gender-swapped Bobby Conn in a white suit, performed Jacko-moves to electro-pop. And absolutely slayed with accapella.

See also this amazing acoustic cover of Who Is It - a later period Michael Jackson song I had previously thought was irredeemable.

2. Mary Epworth

Psychedelic folk with star-quality somewhere between The Band and Garbage. Had a song about opening the seals of Revelation which pressed my recovering evangelical buttons.

3. Wall

Songs for sleepwalking fanzine editors. Comfortably the most beautiful thing we heard.

4. Ryan Keen

One of the best acoustic guitarists I've heard in a long time. Held Brighton Unitarian Church rapt and got the staff dancing.

Also, claymation video!

5. Embers

Not the finished article yet on record or in stagecraft, but having seen them twice over the festival these young shoe-gazers could become something special. It's not every band that can veer from Bono to blast beats from song to song.

Friday, May 17, 2013

This one goes out to all the bakers

... if they happen to like Paranoid with extra rocket-to-the-moon juice. If they would prefer Guitar Man, they're sadly out of luck.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

A new job (sort of)

Last week the newly renamed Activism Department at Friends of the Earth was launched, meaning my job is now Activism Development Coordinator rather than Network Developer, as it's been for the last nearly five years.

For more information about the overall re-structure you can see:

What I'll be doing for half my working hours will be: 

Helping to staff our new local groups enquiries telephone/email hotline.

Helping to staff our new local groups enquiries telephone/e-mail hotline.

Getting hands-on and supporting local groups proactively with capacity-building work.

Running quarterly teleconferences for coordinators.

Supporting staff and local groups to use Campaign Hubs effectively.

Helping to edit Change Your World.

Supporting one of our programme teams to engage with local groups.

Supporting Marinet (our local group network working on marine issues)

With the other half of my time, I’ll be working on a new project to develop a model of, recruit and train up what we were provisionally but almost certainly won't be actually calling organisers: movement-builders, alliance-makers and networkers for the Friends of the Earth grassroots.

Much is still to be decided about not-organisers, but you may find a few references to them here in the months that follow, as well as more official updates in the other place.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Iron Man 3: John Galt in a tin can

Warning - spoilers ahead

Iron Man 3 is the best picture in the series so far. To the virtues of the first two films - chiefly some inspired casting - it finally brings a fully rounded script and a decent boss fight.

Not content with being officially quite good, actually, it also provides an interesting contrast with Olympus Has Fallen. OHF wants to persuade you that the barbarians are past the gates and raiding your fridge with extreme prejudice. IM3 skewers such jingoistic attitudes neatly by presenting the Mandarin as an orientalist fiction created by the domestic military-industrial complex to scare the Government.

One film wants you to be afraid - the other wants you to at least look behind the curtain to find out who to be afraid of.

Yet having demonstrated it's comfortably the smarter film, IM3 doesn't really have any underlying philosophy of violence other than 'Being John Galt in a tin can with scads of cash means you can do whatever the blinking heck you want.' 

Tony Stark's laissez faire attitude to the state means that he only really saves the day because his girlfriend has been captured and his friend has been injured. As both are also his employees this adds a weird feudal vibe to proceedings.

And as we saw in The Avengers, it takes an alien invasion and the possible destruction of the Earth for Iron Man to act intentionally in the defence of the established order. 

True, this is arguably the point of the character -  the super-rich are different from the rest of us and Tony Stark only takes this argument to its logical conclusion. 

But the fact that we can identify with him shows us not just how good an actor Robert Downey Jr is, but maybe, just maybe, something unsettling about the power fantasies we hold in check too.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Write-up of our Valentine's fundraiser with some top-tips

An interview with my fundraising buddy Rach Shah can now be found on Friends of the Earth's website, with some top tips on organising a party in a good cause, using Escape The Cheese as a case-study.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Top ten things I learnt at People Power 2013

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Sheila McKechnie Foundation's People Power shindig cum campaigners' conference in London about which I'd heard so many positive stories.

I did turn up in a fairly jaded and misanthropic mood, having spent the previous two days on the road and longing less for a day of inspirational talks and more for several episodes of The West Wing followed by (or consecutive with) bed. Mollified by the provision of copious amounts of coffee and pastries, however, I settled down to the event.

People Power was bookended by two absolutely first rate but contrasting speakers in the form of Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve (photo below) and Margaret Aspinall of the Hillsborough Family Support Group – the one all lawyer's flash and the other all softly spoken passion.

Photo made available under Creative Commons license by Ambra Vernuccio -

In between the two lay seminars, workshops and talks by a range of different campaigners, community activists and NGOsters. Props at this point to my colleague Lucy Pearce who did a session on cultural memory. And thanks to everyone who gave generously of their time.

So I settled down to happily borg what I could. Here are my top ten gleanings from the day, presented in the spirit of open source activism.

1. Brer Rabbit is Clive Stafford Smith's number one campaign philosopher. In other words, if you want to be thrown in the briar patch, make your opponents believe that this is the worst thing they could do to you.

I like this – it feels like a good antidote to we progressives' occasional tendency to favour earnestness and the frontal assault over good old fashioned strategy. It's also a handy reminder not to overestimate the intelligence of those who disagree with you.

2. If something's not working – consider stopping doing it rather than working harder. This is Clive Stafford Smith (again), pointing out that what we do is supposed to make the other side work harder, not us.

Both pieces of advice from CSS imagine us as the equivalent of a lightly armed guerilla force taking on a cumbersome legal, political or corporate order. We can move faster than they can.

3. Ah, the inevitable Saul Alinsky quote “Power lies with the people who have money or the people who have the people”

So, mobilisation; mobilisation; mobilisation?

4. Behind the successful implementation of a genius idea can lie years of refinement through failure. The Body Gossip team spent several years trying to get their teenage self-esteem project off the ground before they finally hit on a winning formula.

I sometimes think campaigners get caught in a false logic of repetition: if we are right in principle, we just have to keep doing the same thing until the universe comes around, repeat until your Finland station moment. Whereas a correct strategy also requires the right tactics.

5. Tweet like a human being – as the @_BodyGossip say, people buy into people not products. 

Or as I like to put it: campaigners should try tweeting like they are the rockstars they are (although perhaps not like Justin Bieber) .

6. The power of the elevator pitch

I know, I know, this is an artificial exercise which reduces your idea or your campaign to its lowest common denominator. But not everyone is going to hear you out for 50, 15 or even 5 minutes right off the bat. Complexity is often our friend – but friends shouldn't let other friends info dump the unwary and unheeding.

This is the lesson anyone who ever does a stall for the public tries to learn repeatedly, but it's equally if not more useful when talking to the time-poor and self-important. Like say, the trifling matters of politicans, businesspeople, funders etc, as the Body Gossip team found.

7. Build your team

Another Body Gossip one, this. Unless you're some kind of perfect master (and if you are – why do you need to read this?) you need other people on your team who can compliment your skillset and personality. If you try to do everything, you might not fail – you can teach yourself to do things which don't come naturally to you - but you'll be well on the way to being out of flow, grumpy and burnt out.

Skill gaps* are fairly easy to identify (although isn't it interesting that seldom we recruit at the grassroots for specifc skills? Perhaps this is something you could do more of). But what of personality traits?

If I was a coordinator of a local group again, here's what I'd look for in personality traits 
  • A people person – someone who can help strengthen the social glue of the team, who's fun to be around and can cover for me when I go down the analytical rabbit hole. Someone who's priority is 'are people having fun?'
  • A project wrangler and strategist - someone who thinks 'then' and 'then' and 'then' 
  • A visionary – someone who has their eyes on the horizon and asks the group to look that far ahead too.
In other words, the heart, the mind and the soul of the group.

*For skills I'd go hunt me a media officer and a planning geek right off the bat.

8. Don't forget about soft power and easy activities for volunteers.

Two experienced community campaigners - Steven Heard of SNUB (Stop Norwich Urbanisation) and John Hamilton of Lewisham People Before Profit went out of their way to praise the people who don't attend meetings, don't do publicity stunts or direct action or anything like that, but quietly get on delivering leaflets, putting up posters, doing stalls.

All too often we downgrade this work relative to 'proper campaigning', or view it merely as a gateway for deeper participation, but it's important to remember and value this commitment. And at all costs give these people something that they can do.

9. Don't assume you have the public on your side. 

One of the things that SNUB did in their campaign against unsuitable urban sprawl in Norwich was to hold regular 'village hall' meetings to check that they still had a mandate from the public. That's not just a great weapon for a campaign, it's a tremendously inspiring thing to know that people wish you well and have your back.

Again, a useful counter to the 'we are right and we though we are few we have expert knowledge' starting point that the environmental movement sometimes takes.

10. Online pictures and stories of yourself and your colleagues to promote your local group?

In a workshop on digitial mobilisation (Rachel Collinson from Engaging Networks) my thoughts turned to the idea that people - not issues, not merely being right - are the best recruiters. And how we could do a lot more to present a human face to the world at the grassroots.
So, why not put up profiles of your key members on your webpage? Share the fun that you have. Let your people be your best recruiters.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Flashback: my student review of Tortoise's Millions Now Living Will Never Die

In my wasted youth at the University of Hull, I penned the odd review for Hullfire, the student newspaper. For the sake of both completeness and comedy value, I'm adding them to this blog and then listening to the original if I can track it down to see if I agree with 20 year-old me.

First, here's my review of the acknowledged classic LP by Tortoise - it may have been a little advanced for my tender ears...
Hailing from Chicago, this Tortoise is an experimental beast; for proof you need no further than Djed, the first track from this, their new album, with its minimalist guitars, almost ambient keyboard passages and more importantly its twenty-one minute duration, it's tempting to label it 'prog rock for the nineties'. Happily Tortoise are however 100% free of hour-long guitar solos and lyrics about ice-pixies dancing around the Crimson King.
For which read: young Magpiemoth's only frame of reference for Tortoise was Pink Floyd and his dad's copy of Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds. Slint, not so much,
Unfortunately of the other five instrumentals, only the wonderfully warped easy listening of On The Banks Of Rivers actually merits repeated playing. The rest are mercifully short examples of half-ideas translated into half-songs, and almost entirely tune-free. That said, Millions... is still a challenging, fascinating and uncompromising album. (6/10)
This was the only LP I ever got from reviewing records for Hullfire which I hung onto - as I listened to it I grew to love the half-songs too. At least, my younger self had the sense to see that the synth/gamelan/guitar breakdown mid-way through Djed is mind-blowing.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Open thread: why did you or people you know vote UKIP?

I believe in making the imaginative effort to try to understand and listen to people who don't think like I do. 

I'm not and never have been a member of a political party, although I'd probably self-describe as a radical democrat and tree-hugger if pushed. 

So, I ask not from a party political agenda, but out of intellectual curiosity: why did you, or people you know, vote for UKIP in the elections this week? What were your or their stated reasons?

There's enough analysis going on to keep the Westminster village going for weeks, so let's keep this to personal testimony or what you've heard. 

To reply, click on the comments/no comments section at the end of this text. Blogger allows you can post anonymously, and the only ground-rule is don't post anything offensive and we'll all get on fine.