Sunday, June 26, 2016

Trouble at the business end of democracy: the #Usepens Affair

In the last 24 hours before the referendum, the #usepens hashtag was mainly regarded as light relief at the end of what had been by any objective standard an unusually tough and polarising campaign. Yet its starting point was genuine concern from some Leave campaigners that votes would be tampered with if ballots were marked in the traditional pencil. 

And that's scary - although my reasons for worrying about this are probably different to the original users of the hashtag.

Full disclosure: several careers ago I worked as a policy wonk for the Electoral Commission, the body that advises on how UK elections are run. So while I'm not an expert - I'm way too rusty for that - I do have a reasonable understanding of these things work.

So if any real election gurus read this, feel free to shake your head at my oversimplifications. :)

And the obligatory caveat: this is not a post about the referendum result as such. My hope is that you can read this whether you voted Leave or Remain and understand that what I'm concerned about is actually something more fundamental: confidence in the democratic process itself.

You can bring your pen to vote if you want to (but you really don't need to) 

While there are inevitably points of theoretical vulnerability in the British electoral system - if you really want something to be concerned about, I recommend postal voting or voter registration - the fact that polling stations provide pencils not pens for you to mark your ballot paper is not one which springs to mind.

Think of it this way: you place your vote in a sealed ballot box, which then goes to the count, where it's opened and counted in the presence of politicians and their agents. There is neither time nor opportunity for an intermediate stage where vote-tampering or vote-erasing could take place. 

If you feel you must, you can bring your own pen, as the Electoral Commission pointed out.  But you really don't have to. We've been running universal suffrage elections in this country for nearly a century now and actually we're pretty darn good at it.

And I do appreciate that most people have no idea what happens to their votes once they've cast them - why would they? But why not ask, instead of assuming the worst on social media? 

The unsung heroes of every election

Such theories also do a disservice to the people around the country who make elections happen, from Poll Clerks and Presiding Officers in polling stations all the way up to Electoral Services Managers and Returning Officers. 

These are everyday people like you and me who do this remarkable thing for our democracy: hard-working, dedicated and traditionally of great probity. It's notable that in (thankfully very rare) cases of electoral fraud in recent years, it's been politicians who have been at fault, not the administrators. 

The idea, then, that shadowy forces could somehow suborn election staff in sufficient numbers or do enough of an end-run around them (not to mention a small army of politicians and party officials) to affect the result is more than a little unlikely in the cold light of day.

Democracy: built on trust

Yet when an opinion poll suggests a third of voters (and nearly half of Leave voters) thought the referendum result would probably be rigged, it sounds like there are bigger problems of trust than can be solved through the discrete application of logic in this case

Sure, we could swap pencils for pens in the polling station in the hope it would make people happy, but I suspect that their fears and anxieties would simply latch onto another detail.

This is what really troubles me about the #usepens affair. A well-designed, tried and tested voting system, run by professionals, overseen by politicians with a vested interest in keeping it honest, is colliding with an apparent lack of faith not just in democratic institutions, but now in the electoral process itself.

The reasons for this lack of faith are outside the remit of this article but, as one of my favourite bands once pointed out, society is built on trust.* And without a certain amount of collective trust in the honesty of the electoral process and its results, we can't guarantee legitimacy for the Government of the day and ultimately for democracy itself.  

Take a moment to step back and think about it. That's a potentially huge issue.

A canary in the coalmine 

The legacy of #usepens should be be a canary in the coalmine for politicians and concerned people of all parties and none. This is a collective problem for civil society, not just those paid to worry about such things.

And the starting point is to really understand why so many are so disillusioned that now even the business end of democracy - the ballot paper, the polling station - is regarded with suspicion and distrust.   

* Technically, built on bluff too. But that's another article entirely.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Alyssa Wong creeps me out

Two weeks on, and Alyssa Wong's still creeping me out. The four short stories included in my Hugo voters' packet to support her nomination for Best New Writer* (AKA the John W Campbell Award) are formidable exercises in body and transformation horror. They're several shades grimmer than I usually care to go, but she's darn good at what she does.

Hungry Daughters Of Starving Mothers, The Fisher Queen, Santos de Sampaguitas and Scarecrow (all available online at the links given) take in vampires of the id, mermaids of the Mekong delta, spirit magic in the Philippines and homophobic bullying in small town America respectively. 

And as you might guess from that brief outline, Wong's protagonists and settings are generally not those offered by your typical genre yarn. Whether geographically or psychologically, we're outside white, straight America here.

I tend to find this is good for me - as product of white, straight Britain it stops me reading lazily through the prism of my own life experience and preconceptions. And in this case the pay off in the form of Wong's writing certainly makes the imaginative leap worthwhile. These stories have stuck with me in a way that many don't.

Maybe it's the short story format or the feminist (not to mention LGBT) sensibility with which Wong writes, maybe it's the underplayed brutality of the stories, but there's also something here reminscent of Tiptree. I know as I type that this might be seen as a lazy comparison to roll out, but having only recently read Tiptree it feels relevant and is is high praise indeed in Mothworld. 

My only (very constructive) criticism would be that Wong is trying to compress a lot into her work - they do read like pocket novels. It could be that longer-form writing would give her characters more room to breathe and the decisions on which her stories turn more weight.

That said, this is a very strong body of work to be coming out of the gates with so early in her career. Three of these stories have won awards, with Hungry Daughters winning last year's Nebula for best short story. For this reader, all of them are comfortably better than anything in last year's Hugo short fiction categories.

So, with one more nominee on the Campbell shortlist to read, it looks like it's between Wong and Andy Weir for my first place vote. And for all Weir's deserved success, I'm leaning towards Wong as the deserved winner and better writer.

*Wong is the only nominee on the Campbell shortlist not on the Rabid Puppy slate.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Rocks clever: Old Sunlight by Latitudes

Listening to Old Sunlight, I'm reminded that metal is the beast that ate prog rock whole: its technicality, its lyrical conceits, it's ambition and experimental bent. That can go one of two ways - either the incorporation of 70's styles into yr actl metal (Opeth, say) or accepting the mandate to march to your own drum.

Latitudes mostly take the latter path, playing long, mainly instrumental songs which shift riff regularly, swinging dynamically in the way a really tight rock rythym section can and appropriating ideas from across the metal microgenres. 

As the main signifier of prog of yore, keyboardist and occasional vocalist Adam Symonds sings in a slightly mannered and rather English way. And the production is very clean, which gels nicely with the musical approach, giving it a precise, almost jazz-fusion-y* feel.

The obsessively taxonomic Encyclopedia Metallum describes Latitudes as post-metal - which I like to think is code for 'we're not sure what this is but it rocks. Cleverly.'

In short, they play fussy, technical music reminding me a little of the 'very tight band' in this Scary Go Round strip. So, by rights I should hate Old Sunlight: many is the time I've stood up sitting down in the pub for ideas and heart in music over mere proficiency.

Here's the thing though: Latitudes can play the kablooey out of their instruments, but it's all placed at the service of the piece rather than to foreground a soloist or to justify self-indulgence. The intricacies are still perhaps a little hard for a lay reviewer to truly appreicate, but it's still really rather magical in a strangely funky sort of way.

And most signficantly: it's still on heavy rotation here.

Listen to the whole album on Bandcamp.

 *Ha! As if I know anything about jazz fusion.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Ways of liberation

I'm reading an old Pelican paperback on Zen buddhism (The Way Of Zen by Alan W Watts, still available in case you're wondering) and came accross this resonant quote (p162-3, emphasis mine).

"One must not forget the social context of Zen. It is primarily a way of liberation for those who have mastered the disciplines of social convention, of the conditioning of the individual by the group. Zen is a medicine for the ill effects of this conditioning, for the mental paralysis and anxiety that comes from excessive self-consciousness."

"It must be seen against the backdrop of societies regulated by the principles of Confucianism, with their heavy stress on propriety and punctilious ritual. In Japan too, it must be seen in relation to the rigid schooling required in the training of the samurai caste, and the emotional strain to which the samurai were exposed in times of constant warfare."

"As a medicine for these conditions, it does not seek to overthrow the conventions themselves, but on the contrary takes them for granted - as it easily seen in such manifestations of Zen as the cha-no-yu or 'tea ceremony' of Japan"

Without delving further into the Zen tradition at this point, even superficially it's easy to see the commonalities here with mindful practice as a way of dealing with the complexities of modern life and of re-enchanting the everyday through renewed focus.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Space is the worst frontier: Andy Weir's The Martian

On a basic level, reviewing Campbell Award nominee* Andy Weir's The Martian  is a fairly pointless exercise. There surely can't be that many potential readers out there who haven't already picked it up - it's that rare beast of a science-fiction novel that jumps the fences and conquers the mainstream while still being undeniably genre enough to satisfy the purists.

If there are any purists left, in these latter days.

But on the off chance someone is looking at this blog and is still wondering whether they should read The Martian, the answer is yes. To use my latest qualified praise - it's a very efficient novel: readable, with a gripping first-person narrative voice. I powered through it over a weekend earlier this year to a lot of enjoyment and only a few reservations.

I do think that efficiency's an apposite choice of term - very scientific - in the context of reviewing The Martian. In a reductionist sense the book is about a man tackling a series of biology/engineering/physics problems where the penalty for failure is usually death. 

To be fair, that is pretty much space in a nutshell - it's the final and worst frontier. But crucially, Weir presents these existential challenges as fundamentally solveable by science and a wisecracking narrator. And moving beyond reading the book into reading the readers, this probably helps to account for its popularity. 

I do still wonder why the protagonist Mark Watney's interior life and backstory are so underdeveloped - after all, we're used to stories where someone lost in space is also marooned in their own inner space. 

And by making the novel mostly a first person chamber piece - bar the sections set on Earth where NASA try to rescue their stranded astronaut, which are the least convincingly written - Weir is able to dodge the societal as well as the psychological and hone down his focus on the scientific.

And that's where my lasting reservations with The Martian lie: it's a good first novel that may have achieved its success and effectiveness (that word again) by sacrificing non-scientific complexity, depth and ambiguity. But incorporating more of each could have helped elevate it to something very good indeed. 

Weir is still the one to beat for the Campbell in my book, but let's see how the others shape up.


*In the context of the Hugo Awards(including the Campbell Award for best writer) Andy Weir is another unwitting inclusion on the Rabid Puppy slate as far as can be discerned from public statements.

Interlude: favourite Spectrum game theme tunes

My recent post referencing the old Slaine adventure game on the Spectrum has reminded me of some of my favourite 48K theme music.

Fairlight - you've got to admire the hubris of a game which is so impressed with its theme music that it makes you listen to it all before you can play the game.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood - because you haven't lived until you've heard the Spectrum's puny sound chip try to replicate Trevor Horn's production on Two Tribes.

Heavy On The Magick

Turbo Esprit - someone pointed out on Twitter the other day that Grand Theft Auto wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Turbo Esprit. I think that's overstating it but the marvellous thing about the Spectrum was what its limitations as a machine brought out in terms of ingenuity in game design. So there's a grain of truth there.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Why your mind is a bit like an 8-bit computer game about a 2000AD character

Very much struck by this quote from the Williams & Penman Mindfulness book on perceiving the wandering mind
"For the briefest of moments, all of the thoughts, feelings and memories that flow incessantly across your mind will become apparent. Many of them will seem utterly random. It's almost as if your mind is digging round in the back room, offering up possibilities to gauge if you - your conscious awareness - like them or find them interesting in some way."

Whch is odd - because it's a near-perfect description of the command interface for Sláine - a bizarre Spectrum adventure game based on 2000AD's Conan/Cúchulainn splice

Watch this quick demo and it'll make sense. Sort of.