We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

An ‘epic’ example of crap PR

It always amazes me the number of businesses who use the Internet without really understanding how it has changed everything in business, not just the bits they find useful. The entire balance of power has been shifting towards information rich customers for years now and one of the things about this shift is that people’s tolerance for a company’s behaviour when things go wrong has also changed dramatically.

It has always been the case that when things go wrong, the single worst thing any company can do is to make a customer feel he is being ignored. In many ways, even a half-arsed press release is (just) better than none at all, but frankly the days when a press release drafted by a PR professional whose job it is to pretend everything is all right are long gone. That approach never worked, only now the fact the PR Emperor has no clothes (and in truth never did) is impossible to hide. Customers are going to tell each other just how much they hate you, if indeed they do, regardless of whether or not you participate in the discussion because companies can no longer frame the terms of the debate. This article is an example of that, in fact.

And so I was amused by a fairly trivial incident: a purchased a copy of the Epic/Microsoft games studio shooter Gears of War for the PC. Cool game. How do I know? Because I have repeatedly played the first two to ten minutes of the game before getting a wargame-g4wlive.exe crash to desktop. And judging from the number of screaming customers on the Epic forums, I am far from alone in experiencing this.

Now the truth is, games these days are bloody complex things and it is rare to get a major game released without some significant kinks, so far be it for me to criticise Epic for releasing a bugged game… it happens and is probably an inevitable fact of life.

Also I have no doubt that Epic has an army of coders working to fix the (many) issues that people have reported and most likely they will solve them all soon. Looking at their forums, both Epic and Microsoft developers posted early comments and that is exactly the correct approach. If people know for sure that someone is on the problem, it is amazing how much slack they will cut a company and in many cases, dealing frankly with the issue and frequently acknowledging there is a problem makes people empathise rather than criticise.

But after the initial surge of developer input, the forum started filling up with often highly irate and typically semi-literate gamers cursing and howling because they had become convinced that as the first attempts to patch the game had not helped a great many people, the companies had just banked their money and written the game off. In truth I think that is highly unlikely at this stage and it is an avoidable self-inflicted wound to have well paid programmers working to fix what may be a difficult problem but because your inept PR department does not make that clear on a daily basis, customers whose game is about as useful as a prismatic beermat are left incandescent with rage at being ignored (as they see it). Crazy corporate behaviour.

Interestingly, posts to the forum filled with F words and imprecations about the marital status of the developer’s mothers when they were born, seem to be generally left on the forum. I posted an invective-free article urging Epic to get themselves a new PR director and the post was taken down, which I must confess I find vastly amusing. So no prize for guessing which department is responsible for the Epic forums then.

The CNN – YouTube debate: Or why I find politics frustrating.

CNN people get paid a lot of money, and no one pays me anything to engage in media politics. Yet I could rig a debate much less crudely than they did. It would be easy – I would simply pick questions, from the thousands of suggestions, that would make the Republicans look bad. I would not pick Democrat activists to ask the questions, on the contrary I would pick Republicans or real independents. There is no need to present Democrats as Republicans or undecided people.

For example, on the Log Cabin (i.e. homosexual) Republican question – I would have picked a real Log Cabin Republican, not got an Obama supporter. Nor would I have got two John Edwards supporters in to pretend to be undecideds. And I certainly would not have got a person who is on two of Senator Clinton’s committees to ask a “when did you stop beating your wife” question (about why the evil Republican candidates did not think American men and women in uniform “were not professional enough to work with gays”) – and then given him a come back after the replies so that he could denounce the Republicans again.

It was just so crude, as were the “we did not know who these people were” lies afterwards. After all the “General” was not a random face on the internet – he had been carefully chosen and had been flown in. Why are the CNN people paid so much money, when then can not even rig a debate with any skill?

Only on the “gun control” stuff did they get close to doing the rigging game well. The people chosen to ask the questions were chosen because of their aggressive manner (which seems to have a been their real manner – i.e. they were not actors putting on a show). The subtext being “people who are against gun control are nasty”.

But the rest of the presentation was pathetic.

As for the candidates:

Mike Huckabee is supposed to have done really well. For example, he turned a how would you control government spending question into an attack on the IRS.

And Fred Thompson is supposed to have done really badly. For example he gave specific policy ideas on tax, social security and the rest of the entitlement programs.

I would turn the judgement of “really well” and “really badly” on its head – perhaps that explains why no one pays me to be involved in media politics.

On two-man teams (and on the current travails of Mr Brown)

For most of my life I have been fascinated by two-man teams. Much is written in the management books about the decision making and leadership skills of individuals. Much is made of teams, of about six to a dozen or so people (a dozen being reckoned by most to be about the upper limit before factionalism sets in), and about the skill of building effective teams. But less, it seems to me, is made of the partnership of two, despite the fact that everywhere you look in the world of human accomplishment, you see two-man teams, often famously named: Rolls Royce, Gilbert and Sullivan, Laurel and Hardy, Powell and Pressberger, Pratt and Whitney, Rogers and Hammerstein, Flanders and Swan… trust me, the game of naming two man teams goes on for as long as you have time to devote to it. I could have machine-gunned this posting with links, but Google is Google – another now famously accomplished two-man team runs that, I believe – and I could not be bothered. Partly this is because this is, be warned now, a rather long posting, and doing proper links would have taken me the whole day.

Even when a single creative genius seems to stand in isolated splendour, more often than not it turns out that there was or is a backroom toiler seeing to the money, minding the shop, cleaning up the mess, lining up the required resources, publishing and/or editing what the Great Man has merely written, quietly eliminating the blunders of, or, not infrequently, actually doing the work only fantasised and announced by, the Great Man. Time and again, the famous period of apparently individual creativity coincides precisely with the time when that anonymous partner was also but less obtrusively beavering away, contributing crucially to the outcome, and often crucially saying boo to the goose when the goose laid a duff egg. If deprived, for some reason, of his back-up man, the Lone Genius falls silent, or mysteriously fails at everything else he attempts. Think Elizabeth the First and … damn, I can not remember his name, but he was crucial, and Elizabeth was never the same after he had died. Cecil, that was him.

That literature and showbiz are so full of two-man teams is evidence of the enormous emotional importance that we all attach to these partnerships. Every TV detective, for instance, seems to have his Dr Watson figure, less inspired, but perhaps emotionally more adult, who buys the pint afterwards, soothes the frazzled nerves of the great detective, and who generally carries the can and tidies up after. For every Holmes there is a Watson, for every Morse, a Lewis. And for every Regan, a Carter. Major kudos to the late John Thaw for having participated in – having lead, actually – two very different but equally famous two-man teams of British TV coppers. → Continue reading: On two-man teams (and on the current travails of Mr Brown)

A “dazzlingly cocky” black hole

I am not quite as vexed by the writings of former Living Marxism (a bit of an oxymoron, Ed) writers such as Brendan O’Neill, Mick Hume or Claire Fox as Stephen Pollard is – life is too short for such intellectual eye-gouging – but I kind of get Stephen’s general point. Those of us who have toiled away exposing the idiocies of Big Government for decades and plugging the case for free markets, etc, find it a bit hard to take for a bunch of Marxists to claim to be such libertarian souls, when in fact they are just as hostile to the market economy as they ever were. No-one has ever proved to me that you can have a liberal, open society without property rights. O’Neill, writing in this week’s edition of The Spectator, rather confirms Pollard’s suspicions in what was quite good rant against modern “anti-capitalists”:

Of course, Marx wanted to destroy capitalism because he thought it didn’t go far enough in remaking the world in man’s image and organising society according to man’s needs and desire. Today’s sorry excuses for Marxists and anti-capitalists think capitalism has gone too far in its development of the forces of production and encouragement of consumerism. I’m with Marx. Let’s replace capitalism with something even more dazzlingly cocky and human-centric. But let’s first deal with the luddites, locavores and eco-feudalists who have given anti-capitalism a bad name.

The problem, of course, is that the “dazzlingly cocky and human-centric” shiny sort of Marxist future is never spelled out. What would it look like? Does it come with a tester? Are there examples on eBay? Seriously, given the manifold failures of state central planning, and the various incoherent attempts by some thinkers to fashion “market socialism” (another oxymoron), it is not really quite good enough for a chap like O’Neill to pose as some sort of hip and clever critic of anti-capitalists, then to claim that he is still a Marxist, but then to leave a bloody great black hole of explanation of what his sort of society would look like. Consider, the various theories associated with Marx have been more or less destroyed, both by practical experience and logical argument: the labour theory of value (which ignores the value of ideas in wealth creation); the theory of the inevitable clash between the “workers” and the “bosses”; the historical “inevitability” of the collapse of capitalism, the immiseration of the proletariat, etc. While some of Marx’s arguments about class had some interesting points, pretty much all of the central tenets of the Bearded One’s ideas are plain wrong. I mean, as intellectual defeats go, this is the equivalent of a village pub football team being annihilated 10-nil by Manchester Utd. There’s no way back.

Samizdata quote of the day

Disturbing reports have emerged that Gordon Brown is rude to his secretaries – or garden girls, as they are known inside Downing Street. He is said to shout at them abusively. On one occasion he is reported to have impatiently turfed one of the girls out of her chair and sat down to use the keyboard himself.

All recent prime ministers – Thatcher, Major, Blair – were loved by the garden girls. All recent prime ministers from time to time endured problems. Only Gordon Brown has vented his frustrations on secretaries, who can never answer back or speak for themselves. In the end this intemperate and regrettable conduct may cause him as much damage as Mr Abrahams.

- the sting in the tale of an article in the latest Spectator by Peter Oborne under the heading At the heart of the Labour funding scandal is the moral collapse of a once-great party.

Amazing fundraising results

Ron Paul is not just doing well at fundraising on this, his second run at the Presidency. He is raising enough to be a contender. I Just received this information from their campaign:

We are closing in on three important fundraising milestones for the fourth quarter:

- During the third quarter, Fred Thompson raised $9,750,821 to be used during the primary election cycle.

- Not counting money that he loaned to his own campaign, Mitt Romney raised $9,896,719.

- Rudy Giuliani finished with $10,258,019.

Ron Paul is currently at $9,708,791 for the fourth quarter.

We are within reach of passing Fred Thompson today! Will you help us storm past these fundraising totals over a month sooner than they did?

Please make your most generous donation: www.ronpaul2008.com/donate

And don’t forget to watch the live counter on our website as we meet these marks!?

I must admit I never in my wildest dreams expected the Ron Paul campaign to do this well. Do I dare to believe we really will have a libertarian still in the running come the Republican convention?

Stealing metal

When I lived in England, not so long ago, one of the minor pleasures of rural life was walking across a couple of fields, along a public footpath through a copse, discovering a small medieval country church, and going inside to contemplate the divine for a few minutes. In those days, the churches were unlocked. They’re not anymore. Presumably there were local lads who would steal from the Lord even then, but not a significant segment of the population who targeted houses of worship. So today there’s wire mesh over the beautiful (one assumes) stained glass to stop thieves pinching the lead from the windows. It’s a small loss, but a telling one. The police have no leads, and the buildings have no lead. Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it was stolen last Thursday.

- Mark Steyn, on escalating metal thefts in Britain.

Some good news: the price of copper and zinc has fallen hard in global markets, so hopefully my front door-knocker is safer than it was a few months ago. Even so, Steyn’s take on the spate of burglaries is telling. A friend of mine, who lives in south Suffolk, near Sudbury, suddenly found the other day that he could not make phone calls from his landline as copper wires had been stolen. In centuries past, horse-thieves were hanged, as their activities damaged the economic system – horses were vital. We do not hang thieves any more – restitution is arguably a better punishment by getting these folk to put victims right – but such crimes are just not taken seriously enough. In parts of England there are still places where mobile phones do not work very well. If some jackass cuts people off from their landlines and someone has to call the emergency services but cannot do so, stealing copper wires is not just bloody inconvenient, it could play a part in someone actually dying.

Theft of copper wires is not just a British phenomenon

“If you respect the host you will get better interviews next time.”

Gary Rosen has been out in China, burning his boats, the ones that might ever take him back to China in the foreseeable future. Good for him. My thanks to the ever useful Arts & Letters Daily for the link.

I particularly liked the bit about how the Chinese regime censors the awkward stuff, and I offer no apology for quoting it at some length:

Someone asked (well, it was me again) how Mr. Liu could reconcile his presentation of China’s peace-loving ways with Beijing’s clear position that, if Taiwan were to declare independence, the mainland would invade – a threat made more credible by its arms build-up across the Taiwan Strait and its provocative military exercises in recent years. Mr. Liu did not like my use of the word “provocative.” In the first place, he said, “You should phrase your questions with more respect.” More to the point, he rejected the underlying premise: “China has a population of 1.3 billion people, including the 23 million people of Taiwan. It is not for them to decide their own status.”

Which is about as excellent an exposition of the imperfect correspondence between the ideals of democracy and of liberty as you could ever hope to encounter, don’t you think?

Rosen continues:

None of this was exactly surprising, since it adhered closely to long-standing Chinese policy. What was surprising, as we shook hands and prepared to leave, was Mr. Liu’s insistence that his remarks were entirely off the record. This was news to us. All of our sessions, unless restricted in some way beforehand, were explicitly on the record, and we had been busily taking notes, with our tape recorders in plain sight. Liu Jieyi, in all his worldliness, was perfectly aware of what we were doing. Out of pique at my impertinence or perhaps because he did not like having lost his cool, he wanted the interview to go away.

This task fell to Mr. Huang, who called us together in the lobby once we were back at the hotel. “I need you to tell me that you won’t report about this,” he said. “It is best to respect the host; that is the international practice.” Pressure had plainly been brought to bear on him, and several in the group, feeling that they had no particular use for Mr. Liu’s words (and not wishing to jeopardize our sponsors or future trips), said they were unlikely to write about the session. Others, myself included, were less accommodating. One member of the group explained that she would find it hard to continue with the tour if the rules were continually changed after interviews. “We are not Chinese journalists,” she told Mr. Huang, “and this smacks of censorship.”

Knowing that I considered the material from the session valuable and might well use it, Mr. Huang pulled me aside several more times the next day to ask again that I “respect the host,” adding that if I did, “I would get better interviews the next time.” The threat in this, as reporters who cover China informed me, was that my future access might be limited; denying visas is a favorite tactic for punishing Western journalists who upset the authorities. But as I said to Mr. Huang, I was unsure that I would ever again report from China, and I could not relent on a key journalistic principle. Moreover, I felt obliged to tell him, his effort to suppress the story had become the story.

You seldom read reportage like that from China, or from any other efficiently administered despotism with a definite future, do you? And the reportage itself explains why. The exception that explains the rule, you might say.

Sensitivity training

On the BBC Newsnight television programme on Wednesday evening, the host, Jeremy Paxman, was joined by a Sudanese government official working in Britain, and a young fellow from the Muslim Council of Britain, to discuss the plight of a woman who faces the prospect of being jailed or flogged with 40 lashes for the crime of allegedly insulting Islam.

You can read the details of her supposed misdemeanour here. At the very worst, this woman is unwise for not realising the depths of mental insanity that is gripping the country she has chosen to live in, but she is guilty of nothing in my eyes. Quite what the British government does about this, including the possible use of military action, is another matter. At the very least this country should persuade any remaining Britons to get out of Sudan, break off diplomatic relations.

What I found so interesting about the BBC show last night was Paxman’s performance. He sat in the middle of these two men as they “debated” the issue of whether the thugs of the Sudanese authorities should show “mercy” to this woman. The Sudan government guy, who spoke with a subtle hint of a grin, kept going on about how this woman should have realised the “sensitivities” of the situation; his performance was one of the most hateful that I have ever seen on such a show. The MCB guy, who seemed very young and almost terrified, was pleading in the most abject fashion for the punishment not to be carried out. No wonder, this story hardly is going to make folk think well of his faith, now is it? All the while, Paxman, who is usually an aggressive interviewer to the point of gratuitous rudeness, sat almost dumbfounded as these two men spoke. But maybe it was deliberate: from his body language I could tell that Paxman thinks that Islamists like the Sudanese official are beneath contempt. Sometimes you are glad of Mr Paxman being around for a programme like this.

The Financial Times

I do not often look at, and never buy, the Financial Times newspaper. Partly, and perhaps unfairly, because of the Marxists it used to employ and partly because the main relatively free market voice in the newspaper is that of Samuel Britton – a man who supported the exchange rate fixing ERM of the European Union. A very bitter political dispute in Britain some years ago, about which people on opposite sides still carry a lot hatred to this day – well if they are unforgiving people like me they do.

However, I happened to see a copy of the Financial Times a few days ago and had a brief look at it.

There was an article by Lawrence Summers suggesting three steps to avoid an American recession. The three steps were basically “more subsides, more subsidies and more subsides”. People who owned money on their houses were to be helped by the government (via various “private” entities it controls), the banks who are suffering a “credit crunch” were to be helped as well, and the whole system was to get more money also.

Why not just print the money and throw it into the streets at random? Or if computers must be used, just tell everyone they have ten per cent more money in their bank accounts?

Perhaps because following a Major Douglas style approach is too open and public. The political merit of complex and private subsidies, as supported by Lord Keynes, is that it both gets powerful private special interests on the side of the credit-money expansion and keeps things from the attention of the general public. Of course one must not ask too many questions about what caused the credit money bubble in the first place – just a bit of vague talk about “animal spirits” or “speculation” will do. As Mr Summers says “the time to worry about bad debts is over” – we must “keep the credit flowing”.

So the way to deal with a credit-money bubble is to increase the amount of credit-money. Well the Federal Reserve, and the rest of the system, have been playing this game a long time – the last serious effort to let the system clear itself out was in the early 1980′s when Paul Volker was head of the Fed. And with the basic situation, the entitlement programs and so on, so vulnerable now I do not see much chance of people of power accepting a clear out – till it is forced on them by events.

As for the Financial Times, articles like the one by Mr Summers reminded me why it is a good idea not to buy it.

I did look at the article directly below Mr Summers’ article. It was about how the Democrats should not give any “hint” that they are hoping for defeat in Iraq – which is odd as many of the Democrats have been doing everything short of conducting a Black Mass to Satan in the hope of that there would be defeat in Iraq. The article also said that the Democrats have a “winner” in their idea of the United States government organizing health care for 300 million people.

Enough said.

What use is handwriting?

Recently I have been teaching a small boy the ancient art of handwriting. Make the small Ts bigger! Careful with those zeros, they’re looking like sixes! Well done, it looks very neat! Yes I know it’s hard, but keep going! And so on. Thank goodness for pencils. But there is a problem here. Is handwriting really that important any more? It was in a comment on that posting from fellow Samizdatista Michael Jennings that the handwriting question recently presented itself to me.

Oh, I am sure that educational experts can correlate handwriting with achievement later on, just as in former times Latin went with being clever. But the fact remains that even highly-educated adults, and perhaps especially highly-educated adults, now hardly make any use of handwriting. We sign our signatures. If we are very pre-computer (as I still am in lots of ways) we write hand-written shopping and to-do lists, but more and more, people surely use electronic organisers for such things, if they use anything at all. And I find that the only stuff I remember now is stuff that I have blogged, because blog postings remain legible and are properly and accessibly stored, unlike my hand-written lists. If we are adolescents or young adults, we still use handwriting to take exams, in great intellectually sterilised halls, into which no information may be taken other than in one’s head. But is knowledge retention now the skill that really matters? Surely knowing how to use computers to acquire knowledge is at least as important.

Recently a friend told me of her worry about her young sons neglecting their homework, but instead becoming utterly engrossed in some immensely complicated and long-drawn-out computer game. My hunch is that they are learning at least as much while obsessing for hour after hour about this game as they would if snatched away from their computer and forced to trudge through yet more school work for a few more tedious minutes each day. But is that right?

I do not need persuading that reading remains an absolutely essential skill, with typing, in one form or another, having become almost as valuable. But: what use now is handwriting? I do not ask this in a sneering, it’s-useless way, as a merely rhetorical question. Maybe handwriting really does still have crucially important uses. If the teaching of handwriting is every bit as valuable as it ever was, I would love to be told this, and told why, so that I can proceed with my own current teaching duties with renewed enthusiasm? But, is it?

The party funding scandal

One potential argument I can see brewing in the aftermath of the latest scandal surrounding the government – over party donations from dubious characters – is that this all “proves” the need for tax-funding of political parties. It does no such thing, of course. If parties receive funding from you and me, regardless of whether we vote for them or not – an outrageous impost – then existing parties will benefit at the expense of new, or yet-to-be-born, parties.

The best option remains that anyone, barring criminals or declared enemies of this nation, should be allowed to give whatever they want to any political party, period. The only proviso is that such donations be placed on the public record. If little green men from Mars want to donate to UKIP or Labour, I have no problem.

I might have a look at a bookie or spread-betting site to see what odds they give for Brown not making it for the rest of the parliamentary term. Might be worth staking a few quid that he will not surive.