Long Distance Relations

Adult Supervision

I’m at a wedding reception in Canada, virtually. To be possibly a little more accurate, I’m watching some friends be drunk in Canada, via webcam over Ustream. Feels a little weird. The video is all right. A bit jerky maybe, but watchable. It sounds though like a circus. A circus on acid. In a swimming pool. On board a submarine. Between the slow video and the strange out-of-sync audio effects, it feels like trying to communicate with astronauts. But what the heck. I mean, they’re at a wedding reception. I’m probably not missing a lot of sparkling conversation.

And it’s one-way of course, so they can’t see or hear me at all. We’re communicating through the system’s “instant messaging” service. In quotes, because it’s taking even longer for the IMs to pass back and forth than it is for the video. Something wrong with that. It only adds to the Apollo mission feeling.

Weird Internet People

Moving nonetheless. A whole bunch of people, some of whom I haven’t seen in years, some of whom I’ve never actually met, all of whom I’ve gotten to know over the last decade or so purely through the Internet. People from other countries, who by other means I’d have met briefly if at all, but now are a community I belong to. A real community, despite being bound only by threads of data, with all the things that appertain. Indeed, this is how the happy couple met.

I love being alive at this time.


Wake Up, America

The Statue of Liberty front shot
"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to be tired, to be poor, and to huddle."

Discussing the social frustrations that led to the riots in the UK, an American friend suggested that the situation was probably exacerbated by the British class system, which he characterised as “You’re born in your class, and you’re stuck there”. While not denying that the USA had its class system too, he thought that they at least had the illusion of social mobility.

Indeed. I don’t think the vast majority of Americans appreciate just how much that is an illusion now.

You have to differentiate between social class as culture and social class in the sense of income group. Traditional class, with all its funny accents and different tastes in wallpaper, may still be a major part of the British cultural tapestry, but just as in America, what really matters is how much money you have. And the really important thing, the thing the American Dream is based on, is your ability to change that. In both countries, social mobility is mostly about being significantly better off than your parents.

But surely it is more difficult to move up the scale in the UK, with all its prejudice about accents and schools and forks, than it is in the US where self-advancement is a core cultural value?

Prepare yourself for a shock.

2005 – Source, Other, better known Source.

In 2005, social mobility in Britain was as good as, or better than, in America. And that was after a period of decline.

In good news for team USA, it has edged back ahead of the UK in the last few years. Possibly because the UK also adopted neo-liberal low tax economics? But comparing social mobility in Britain and America is like comparing fuel economy in fires. The sad truth is, if you want the American dream these days, you need to go to northern Europe or Canada.

Strength of link between an individual’s and their parents’ earnings, 2010 – Source

Oh and where does Ireland fit on this scale, you may ask, if you’re in Ireland? Well it’s hard to compare because of our far smaller and less developed economy, but as the top diagram shows, income inequality tends to go hand-in-hand with lack of social mobility.

Income inequality in Ireland? Don’t ask. It ain’t pretty.

Politics Technology

Why Tories Don’t Get It

Conservative Party poster from 1909, in which ...
Not much to do with the article, but ain't it great?

The basic problem of the Conservative party is that they’re the party of old. Not even the old, just old in general. A young Tory is like a baby smoking a pipe, a puppy barking at strangers, a flower behind glass in a museum. Oddly inappropriate and not very pleasant. It is not youthful to be a Conservative, and in the end the party always has to appeal to and reflect the mindset of the older voter. They absorb it, and come to embody it.

So despite the fact that riots occurred in the 80s in the same cities and even the same neighbourhoods, the problem must be social networking. Because it’s new, and the rioters used it to talk about rioting.

Look, I use social networking to talk about sex. That doesn’t mean it causes sex. I can assure you. It’s just the way these things are done now. If the riots had occurred five years ago, the Tories would have been talking about banning text messages. Five years before that, they’d be trying to shut down Internet chat rooms. As it happens though there were no riots on those occasions, so it’s fortunate that the Tories weren’t in power. Not of course that we’re suggesting any possible oh yes we are.

If I were a British voter, at the last election I’d have been tempted to vote for the Conservatives – or at least abstain from voting for Labour. Why? Mainly because of Labour’s pursuit of ID cards. I thought it was a case of a socialist party going a bit collective on individual liberty. But here are the Conservatives, party of individual rights and responsibilities, wanting to police our texts and sit in on our conversations. Because they don’t know what else to do.

“Free flow of information can be used for good,” said David Cameron to the House of Commons. No David. Free flow of information cannot be “used for good”. It is the fundamental basis of liberal democracy. If you don’t understand that, get the hell out.


Pause For Thought

So it is no more. From today forth, the editors of the Oxford University Press will no longer insist that you should put a comma before the conjunction when you’re listing things, for example: First, second, and third. We say a fond farewell to this venerable institution, a noble oddity now consigned to history’s scrapheap. Except in the US of course, where they will amused to find that the rule they use every day has been declared incorrect by some committee in England.

Alas, the story was apocryphal; the OUP has not changed its editorial rule. The misunderstanding arose because they have chosen not to use their own ‘Oxford comma’ in press releases. These conform instead to the usual rule in the UK, which is to use no comma there. They’ll keep using it in their books.

So no panic. Not that there should have been one anyway, but bad teaching can leave people stressed and anxious when they’re not sure if they’re being ‘correct’ or not.

What is correct? It’s simple. Use a comma when it feels right.

Yes that is a clear, disciplined rule. Note that I say “feels right”, not “at random”. Punctuation is used to convey the pacing of speech, the delivery, the emphasis. Punctuate just as you would pause in spoken language – to express feeling and to clarify meaning. Put in a comma when it helps avoid confusion. There is a notable difference between “I’d like you to meet my wife, my lover and my best friend” and “I’d like you to meet my wife, my lover, and my best friend”.

It must be admitted that the ‘Oxford’ comma is a tricky case – simply because some readers expect one there while others don’t. In Ireland, the UK, Australia, Canada, or just about anywhere else they speak English, putting one in seems like pausing before the last item for emphasis. Readers in America however expect it so its presence conveys nothing special and leaving it out just makes the list read oddly. So bear your audience in mind – as always.

With online media of course you have no idea where your audience is, so you might as well relax. If you really want a loose general rule, using a comma here is probably confusing less often than not using one. But whatever you do, don’t follow any rule to the point where it becomes madness – like this example which, I am assured, is actually from the Canadian Press Stylebook:

“Put commas between elements of a series but not before the final and, or or nor unless that avoids confusion.”

Seriously, someone did that for a bet.


Vote Yes You Idiots

OK United Kingdomites. You face a choice, and there is only one right answer. Your electoral system is a heap of horseshit. You can stick with being very poorly represented, or you can introduce a system which is better. Not a lot better, but better.

Look at what just happened to Canada. An unpopular Conservative government fell and the vote swung to the left – but the Conservatives got back in! The opposition was split between a centre and a left party, and though the left made huge gains, the centre one remained big enough to split the vote. That is your system, that’s what it does. It delivered a government that 3 in 5 Canadians despise.

Choose AV if you don’t want minority rule. Clear?

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