2021: an unreasonable worst case scenario

‘Tis the season for retrospectives of the world’s oddest year – humorous, “humorous”, or factual. This is not one of them.

I was meant to write one and didn’t – more than any other year the list of unconnected events and strands from previous decades reaching an unsatisfying conclusion refused to coalesce into a satisfying (in a purely literary sense, which is the best we can hope for) story.

We end the year almost as we started it – a declaration that Brexit is “done” belies years of hard, technical, negotiation ahead of us. Not even Boris Johnson has the balls to claim the pandemic is “done” – though the emergence of vaccines is hopeful the continuing mismanagement of measures to contain the virus (always too little, always too late) has already seen one homegrown mutation put the UK at higher risk. We are blessed with a government that sees getting to the end of a news cycle unscathed as a major achievement – the cabinet simply does not have the range to look further ahead.

But here I am, rattling on about 2020 having already offered myself the caveat that a summary of the year is impossible. We learned a new phrase in the last 12 months: “reasonable worst case scenario”, when uttered by or near Michael Gove it proved the best guide as to what was likely to come next. For 2021 I present an “unreasonable worst case scenario”. This is stuff that could happen, but probably won’t. Hopefully it will offer a little catharsis – things surely cannot be this bad. Can they?

Happy new year.


January

With the wheels coming off the shiny new EU/UK trade deal at speed – fishermen, farmers, and financiers are just the first among many groups to feel the pain. Emergency legislation allows for the recognition of overseas qualifications for health care, engineering, and veterinary science – forestalling three major crises, but every day brings a new issue.

For the man and woman in the street one “brexit bonus” is a rise in price and a drop first in quality and then in availability of fresh fruit and vegetables. The first articles about the possibility of rationing appear in the ever-war-obsessed Mail, leading to noisy rebuttals from the government.

In the US the Georgia run off elections are tightly contested – one Democrat and one Republican join the Senate, just in time to see Vice President Mike Pence refuse to count electoral college votes from “disputed states” and attempts to declare Donald Trump president. Constitutional scholars settle in for another painful year – it is clear that Biden will become President eventually, but the path is complex. There are violent demonstrations in major cities.

The pandemic rages on in the UK – England enters “Tier 5” en mass, with schools and universities mostly (there are many exceptions) teaching online. Those academic and teacher trade unions that have not already balloted for industrial action do so. The vaccination process is in chaos as it emerges incomplete instructions (incredibly, the last page of a pdf was corrupted) have led to many doses of the Pfizer vaccine being lost, and production at scale of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is delayed due to slow development of UK chemical safety regulations following a decision by the Science Minister to diverge from European REACH standard and a huge backlog of freight at UK ports.

One bright point sees Boris Johnson resign on 31 January. Citing continued health problems (rumoured to be long Covid) his speech in a blizzard outside Downing Street sees him luxuriate in having delivered a brexit deal and “beaten” the virus – he announces an end to Tier 5 next month.

The sunlit uplands are just over the next brow. But I am not the one to lead you there. The work has been done, now a new leader will help us reap the rewards.

February

Joe Biden formally becomes the 47th President of the United States, in a delayed, indoor, small scale inauguration (the first in history) following a Supreme Court ruling and a change to the 20th Amendment. Trump has not gone quietly, taking to YouTube to share increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories as Twitter finally ban his account. A sizable minority of the US population respond to his invective about the size of Biden’s crowd and his “ratings” taking to the streets as the combination of several new strains of Covid-19 and a severe winter storm make the streets a very dangerous place to be.

Storms (in particular Storm Gavin) bedevil the launch of the Conservative leadership contest too. The field is missing some notable big names – Liz Truss and Priti Patel have been “encouraged” not to stand, as rumours suggest very negative stories (eye-wateringly so in Truss’ case) are set to emerge. Sajid Javid declines to stand for “personal reasons”. Michael Gove and Rishi Sunak are the early favourites, but eyebrows are raised as Liz Truss and Esther McVey  endorse the unlikely candidacy of Gavin Williamson.

There are reports of significant food shortages in some less accessible areas of Britain – the Scottish Government signs what is almost immediately described by UK caretaker PM Michael Gove as an “illegal deal” with the EU to fly produce directly to Thurso and Inverness.

Schools and universities are still online for most learners – and there’s concern at the Department for Education as a group of undergraduate performing arts students call for a judicial review of a recent refusal to countenance fee refunds in the light of an inability to perform. Gavin Williamson is on typically combative form:

If universities cannot provide high quality education to students then they should refund their fees. This is not a matter for government

March

It emerges that Michael Gove’s first conversation with Joe Biden went excruciatingly badly. The US ambassador confirms that there is “no appetite” for a deal with the UK, and encourages the UK to rejoin the EU and join negotiations for an “unprecedented” EU-US deal. In a speech, Biden describes the UK as an example of the fractious and divisive politics the US needs to move away from. Gove withdraws from the leadership contest.

Most of the UK is focused on the perilous state of the NHS. Covid cases keep rising, and the vaccine appears to be of only limited use against several new strains in circulation. On the eve of the Budget, it emerges that a lack of available staff has caused two large hospitals to close their doors to new patients.

Once again faced with placing spending plans on hold to deal with a new crisis, Rishi Sunak opts for radicalism, and introduces a £25 “covid charge” for GP and hospital visits, time limited for three months. The ensuing uproar nearly topples the government, and Sunak immediately withdraws the plan and stands down from the leadership contest.

Announced alongside the Budget, the government response to the Augar Report sees tuition fees reduced to £7,500 for most courses, but government support unavailable for many subjects deemed “inessential”. UCU immediately begin a strike, and thousands of students join them. Gavin Williamson’s response is typically dismissive – he introduces the Universities (Free Speech and Academic Freedom) Bill, winning positive reviews from the conservative-leaning press as he enters the members vote for the leadership in competition with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

Manchester and Liverpool join Scotland in securing supplies of fresh food via a deal with the EU. As most of the EU, and indeed most of the world, is seeing Covid case numbers fall, there are concerns in the European Parliament about the safety of those making the deliveries. The increasingly embattled Michael Gove declares these deals a breach of international law, and crashes the remaining Brexit negotiations out of spite, three days before the deadline. This particularly hits the logistics industry, who were hoping for an end to complex additional customs declarations made via a government IT system that is manifestly not fit for purpose.

Nissan, Airbus, BMW, and many others close UK factories.

April

Just two months away from his centenary, Prince Philip passes away peacefully in his sleep. The Queen is devastated – there is a national outpouring of grief and sympathy. A subdued state funeral sees one unlikely shot of the stoic and unflappable queen alongside a clearly emotional and gesticulating Gavin Williamson go viral – the internet wag who added the caption “Ooh Betty” faces death threats. “Some Mothers Do Ave Em” is quickly removed from BritBox but becomes an unlikely international hit.

This new found fame and “meme value” sees Williamson win the leadership election, and take office as Prime Minister. There is no large reshuffle – the new PM claims “Britain expects me to get on with the job.”, but Esther McVey becomes Secretary of State for Education, and Gove returns to the back benches.

Williamson’s first acts are divisive and petty – he warns the EU that future “illegal” imports will be met by military force, and sets up a “Commission on British Values” (led by the newly enobled Toby Young – Lord Young of Greater Bristols) in response to what he describes as the “out of control” liberal media, though it is widely seen as a response to the continued proliferation of Frank Spencer memes. These acts particularly inflame the devolved nations of the UK, with Nicola Sturgeon seizing the initiative ahead of May’s elections.

A dark day for Britain sees the total number of deaths with Covid passing 200,000 – with much of the recent peak attributed to the almost total collapse of the NHS. Staff are exhausted and – in many cases – seriously ill. Vaccines are effective against some, but not all, currently circulating strains – the urgent need for new vaccines is noted abroad, but at home staff at Oxford join university colleagues for a symbolic single day of the ongoing strike.

All this is eclipsed as the long-over due eruption of Mount Vesuvius sees a major international humanitarian effort as millions living in central Italy are displaced – the plume of ash grounds all flights in Europe and food and medicines are transported by sea, road, and rail. Due to the continued high level of Covid-19 infections in the UK, aid volunteered is rejected.

Those grounded flights include the “illegal” flights carrying food to parts of the UK. Some areas of Scotland, Wales, and the North of England are now facing severe food shortages – riots break out in smaller towns.

May

There have been calls to postpone the elections in Scotland and Wales – but the anger in both countries ensures that both continue, albeit using online voting. The results are astonishing – the huge SNP victory cements Scotland as almost a single party state, and unprecedented gains by Plaid Cymru sees them hold the balance of power in Wales. Both devolved governments seek permission to hold a referendum on independence, as does Northern Ireland – which has grown closer to the Republic of Ireland as the latter has provided food and financial support. Prime Minister Williamson angrily refuses on all three counts.

The Government is wiped out in local elections in England – Labour retains London, but the big news is the swing to Nigel Farage’s “Reform UK” party. Promising an end to lockdown restrictions, the party now controls many local authorities. It refuses to co-operate with current and future national government anti-Covid measures, citing research shared on a local Facebook group.

With flights still grounded across Europe as the Vesuvius ash cloud persists, the food situation in the UK is becoming perilous. The French decision to close the border in the light of a continued growth in Covid cases makes the UK a genuine “island nation” – Williamson, in the face of worsening food riots, introduces rationing and mobilises the Army. Currency speculation forces a devaluation of the pound – many choose to keep their savings in Euros. Matt Hancock resigns as health secretary, before disappearing in mysterious circumstances. Rishi Sunak resigns as Chancellor of the Exchequer and from parliament – he takes a job in Frankfurt.

The Eurovision Song contest is cancelled.

June

With the school year nearly over, year 11 and year 13 students are still expected to sit final exams despite being taught online for the entirety of 2021. McVey, backed by Williamson, postpones GCSE and A level exams until August and declares all university offers null and void until final results are known. The UKs teachers take action short of a strike and refuse to administer the exams.

In the US, an explosion in Richmond, VA during a Presidential visit is initially attributed to “Continuity Trump” forces. It is the only such event in what is widely seen as a successful first six months of the Biden administration- Covid-19 cases in the US are falling after a successful vaccination programme and the economy is finally beginning to stabilise. However it emerges that the bomb was a part of an assassination plot funded by the government of North Korea, prompting global condemnation. There is no statement from North Korea.

Though the delayed Euro2020 has now been cancelled, Europe is beginning to return to normal and flights resume – restablishing food deliveries to the areas that have signed a deal with the EU. Williamson again warns that such deliveries are illegal, but as rationing continues other international agencies (such as UNICEF, the Red Cross and the World Bank) join the scheme – delivering sorely needed food and aid to most parts of the UK.

It emerges that French President Emmanuel Macron recently described Britain as a  “failed state” at a European Council meeting – this language is leapt on by pro-independence campaigners in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Each nation has opted to conduct a “non-binding advisory” referendum, to be held online on the same day in September 2020. Dominic Cummings re-emerges from a basement in Durham to lead the “stronger together” campaign.

July

The world is shaken as Russian President Vladimir Putin is assassinated in Novosibirsk. Again, initial assumptions that internal opposition was to blame are shattered as once again all signs point to North Korean state activity. This time North Korea does respond, angrily dismissing the charges and asking for clemency and support following the recent death of Kim Jong-Un. A power vacuum at the top of both Russia and North Korea sees Joe Biden put US forces on a state of high readiness.

The UK armed forces are still busy managing food rationing and emergency medical treatment – Covid-19 cases at last seem to be subsiding as a late summer finally sets in. The huge economic damage the extended pandemic, coupled with brexit, has wrought becomes painfully apparent, and Prime Minister Williamson seeks an emergency loan with the IMF. The terms of this loan require the full-scale privatisation of education and health provision – two systems that are now almost completely non-functional in the UK. In parallel, the EU offers an aid package including financing without such stringent conditions should the UK choose to rejoin the EU.

Williamson loses the key vote on the IMF package in the Commons, but an SNP motion on rejoining the EU also fails to pass. Dominic Cummings resigns from “Stronger together”, posting an 8,000 word blog post that describes Williamson as a “gangling ignoramous”, and quotes Vannever Bush, Eric Raymond, and General Otto von Bismark, before announcing Cummings’ attention to move to Russia.

Britain is refused permission to compete in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics – the prevalence of Covid-19 is deemed too high and the risk of infection too great. It is noted that the impact of rationing and poor health care on elite athletes would render the team uncompetitive anyway, but after a bleak six months it is seen as an exemplar of how low Britain has fallen.

As was widely predicted, A levels and GCSEs have been cancelled in England for 2020-21, but with teachers still on strike, there are no alternative measures that can be used for college and university admissions.

August

Eight months after Brexit and Europe looks very different. A widespread pride at the way the Vesuvius eruption was handled has driven the public mood away from the dalliances with populism seen in 2019. Continued problems in Britain has seen Frankfurt establish itself as a global financial centre. But, although both Switzerland and Norway are now applying for membership, there is concern to the east.

No clear leadership has emerged in Russia following the death of Putin. There are several regional groupings seeking independence, and the situation appears to be changing almost daily. The US has moved armed forces into both Eastern Europe and North Korea, the latter secretive state having turned uncharacteristically quiet.

In the UK Secretary of State for Education Esther McVey has declared her intention to “reset” the 2020-21 academic year. The idea is that learners at all levels (from primary to university levels) should simply retake their current year of study starting in September. No additional funding is offered for this. The university and school staff industrial action, scheduled to come to an end later this month, is extended indefinitely.

The revised Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is being distributed through the UK population by the Army. Case numbers are dropping, but deaths are still rising due to poor nutrition as rationing continues and the impact of long Covid. Farmers across Europe report that the spring Vesuvius ash cloud has caused “substantial” damage to the 2021 crop, and another poor harvest is forecast. The EU indicates it will be forced to cut back on food aid to the UK. It will be a hungry winter everywhere.

September

The Young Report (the “Commission on British Values”), timed to be released before the referenda in the devolved nations, calls for a list of “protected cultural symbols” to be defended in law. The proposals see the works of Roald Dahl, JK Rowling, Enid Blyton and the collected writings of Jeremy Clarkson given a special protected status, along with the Robinson’s Golliwog, school Nativity plays, the postcards of Donald McGill, Irn Bru, daffodils, bowler hats, and Carry On films. Disparaging them is to be met by fines or a prison sentence. An annex suggests that Student Unions will be required to host five speakers from an “approved list” in order to maintain charitable designation. Given the current state of basic services in the UK, the report is met with global hilarity.

Scotland and Northern Ireland vote overwhelmingly for independence in advisory referenda. Leave also wins, though less convincingly, in Wales. The three nations join together to seek negotiations with the Williamson administration, and when rebuffed each unilaterally declares independence. Northern Ireland announces it is to seek an “ever-closer union” with the Republic of Ireland, Scotland and Wales apply to a specially created “fast track” to join the EU, and adopt the Euro as currency.

England has been blindsided by what Gavin Williamson describes as a “constitutional coup”. His arguments about the referenda being “advisory” and “non-binding” fail to convince even his own backbenchers. The 1922 committee chair receives more letters than he can count, and Williamson is forced to stand down. A tearful valedictory speech sees him propose to return to his true calling in fireplace sales.

The second leadership election in a year sees few names go forward. Esther McVey is an early frontrunner, as is a surprise bid from Jacob Rees Mogg. All of this is too much for Queen Elizabeth II, who announces her intention to abdicate in favour of her son, Charles.

Amid all this, the announcement that Covid-19 restrictions will end passes almost without comment. Around 60 per cent of the UK is estimated to be vaccinated or to have antibodies against the dominant UK strain of Covid.

Disturbing rumours suggest that Dominic Cummings is pulling strings behind an ongoing Kremlin power battle that shows no signs of subsiding.

October

A private space mission run to resupply the international space station sees an unmanned cargo rocket explode over Siberia. Terrifying at the best of times, the disaster sees US and European military placed on the highest level of alert, and covert operations conducted in both Russia and North Korea.

The latter finds a starving and impoverished population suffering from a new variant of avian flu – shocking pictures show corpses literally lining the streets. International concern yields a statement from new “supreme leader” Kim Yo-jong, who blamed internal dissidents for the deliberate spread of a biological weapon.

Dominic Cummings is declared “interim administrator” of Russia and announces an intention to restore the house of Romanov. The California-dwelling heir to the throne of Russia, 98 year old Prince Andrew Romanov, preemptively accepts the title Emperor.

In the UK industrial action has ended, and schools and universities are beginning to return – teaching the 2020-21 academic year for the second time. Funding for this is provided by a further devaluation of the pound by interim prime minister Sajid Javid – most people in the UK now have savings in Euros or US dollars and many international agencies are expressing concerns about UK finances.

After his coronation, King George VII, indicates his acceptance of the independence of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It is seen as a constitutional novelty, but – in the absence of a fully functioning Westminster government – a necessary one. Wales and Scotland join the EU, Northern Ireland becomes an “autonomous region” of the Republic of Ireland.  Aid and food flows into the nations, who end rationing. Restrictions remain in England, and the NHS has largely reopened – though it is running very low on medicines and supplies.

Jacob Rees Mogg is set to become the first High Treasurer of England since the sixteenth century, after King George’s permission removes the bar on practicing Catholics holding political power. The Church of England sees disestablishment.

November

The UN Climate Change conference takes place in Glasgow, in a newly independent Scotland. Rees Mogg pointedly refuses to attend. A poorly maintained oil storage facility – which saw routine maintenance delayed during the extended UK pandemic -situated off the North East of Scotland develops a catastrophic leak, endangering the coastline and marine life.

This provokes international condemnation, which lasts all of three days when it emerges that an RBMK reactor near St Petersburg appears to have developed a critical fault. Interim Administrator of Russia Dominic Cummings insists that the situation at the obsolete reactor is under control, but a plume of radioactive waste is spread by the first of the major winter storms (Storm Wilson) and contaminates the majority of arable land in north-west Europe. Thankfully a major explosion is avoided, but Russia admits that the remaining RBMK reactors should be shut down immediately.

This increases Russian reliance on gas powered generation, pausing the established trade in natural gas and plunging parts of Europe into darkness. This in turn causes the EU to end the agreement allowing the use of the IFA, BritNed and Moyle interconnectors to bring power into England- and additional hydroelectric power capacity from Wales and Scotland is diverted to the continent.  A series of rolling blackouts begins in England, which now faces a severe lack in generation capacity. Most remaining factories start a three-day week.

Worrying reports of a highly infectious strain of avian flu emerge from garrisons in South Korea. Analysis finds that this is the same strain found in North Korea, and is natural in origin – not a biological weapon. The strain spreads quickly to other parts of the far east.

December

The year ends in darkness in England, as power supplies dwindle and food rationing intensifies. High Chancellor Rees-Mogg calls on the English people to display their customary resolve and pluck – the English people burn effigies of him and begin food raids over the Welsh and Scottish borders. King George calls for peace and tolerance – the governments of Wales and Scotland agree at his urging to send what little food aid they can to England. With the 2021 European harvest ruined rationing of some items also begins in the EU.

Borders are closed quickly as the new strain of avian flu spreads fast, but the first case reaches England (a smuggler from Spain) early in the month. The infection rips through a weakened and starving English population, with the NHS quickly unable to cope.

US astronomers spot a previously unidentified comet passing through the orbit of Mars – the shape and trajectory hid the object from most telescopes.  On YouTube former President Trump describes it as “fake news”. It is estimated that there is only a 15 per cent chance that it will pass near enough to the Earth to be cause for alarm. The new avian flu pandemic hinders international action, and it is decided via a Zoom call to which England is not invited that there is no meaningful countermeasures that can be taken. It is all up to luck.

High Chancellor Rees-Mogg releases the Pearce Review of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework. Nobody cares.

Lockdown LOLs: Icecast, and how to put a banana in your butt

One thing you could do during lockdown is to muck about with internet radio.

I’m not ashamed to admit to being a ds106 radio lifer, and the station has beautifully sprung back into life over these past weeks. At worst, you’re going to hear WFMU (no bad thing!) and at best it will be new and old radio friends turning up to share music and news.

I’ve heard vinylcasts, looper pedal casts, dj sets, and loads of general music and chat from all over the world. Not bad, but how do I join in?

Now station kingpin Jim Groom is an internet millionaire, he uses one of them fancy-pants Apple Macs to broadcast – his documentation covers all the Ladiocast and Soundflower info you might need to run a show from your own room if you own a hosting company and/or a stupidly overpriced laptop with funny software.

For us regular working folks, who might enjoy windows computing and the odd shotgun, the process is different. You’ll need to put a banana in your butt.

A what now?

That’s right.

Have a banana…

Voicemeeter Banana is a spiffy donationware mixer that grabs various bits of audio from your Windows PC and allows them to send them where you need to. It’s an install that involves a restart, but ends up giving you a lot more power over the noises your machine makes. You’ll want to pin it to your task bar as you refine your set up to include your working life alongside your secret DJ side.

A very nice-looking banana

Click on the hardware inputs at the top (there are three if you need them) and assign your microphones. Assign a hardware out (usually A1) to whatever makes your headphones/speakers make noise. If you’ve got spare sound outputs, assign them to A2 and A3.

To get other noises in to the mixer, set your default computer output to VoiceMeeter Input. Click on A1 next to the fader so you can hear it in your headphones. If you are feeling flashy you have an Aux input you can assign something like Skype to. For some programmes you may need to manually set the output to VoiceMeeter Input. Test this first, you should see the lights move up and down on the mixer.

Flying your Banana is largely done using the buttons next to the fader on each channel. A1-A3 send your signal to one or more physical outputs, B1 and B2 send to your virtual outputs. It’s these you need to broadcast.

What what in my butt?

BUTT stands for “Broadcast Using This Tool”. This is the magical piece of software that grabs audio from your PC and hurls it up onto the radio! There’s no clear license, but if you find yourself using it a lot do donate to the developer.

Take a good look at my butt…

Open up your butt and click on settings. Now we will gently insert your banana into your butt by clicking on the Audio tab and selecting VoiceMeeter Output (which corresponds to B1) on your banana.

For DS106 radio broadcast, you’ll need to set your codec to MP3 and choose a bit rate. I tend to use 128k but anything up to 192k should work – do be mindful of the quality of your internet connection and that other people may be using it!

Now click on the “Main” tab and “Add” a server. For ds106 radio the settings are as follows:

  • Name: ds106 radio
  • Type: Icecast
  • address: ds106rad.io
  • port: 8010
  • IceCast mountpoint: live

Ask me, Jim, or another DS106 radio-head on twitter for the username and password.

Save when you are done.

To broadcast first check the #ds106radio tag is clear. Send some sample audio – your voice into a mic, some music from anywhere – to B1 on banana and check that the little lights on butt go up and down. Then press play, and as soon as you see “Connected” you are live.

Butt will broadcast anything you send to “B1” on Banana, so turn the buttons on or off for each channel as you need. For example, imagine you are doing music and voice… you will have a mic on input 1 and your music coming in to the first virtual input. Toggle B1 on hardware input 1 when you need to speak, and have the first virtual input set on B1 to broadcast and on A1 to hear through your headphones.

Troubleshooting

Can’t connect: Check nobody else is on the radio (PROTOCOL). Check wherever you are hasn’t blocked port 8010 (some universities do because of security)

People saying they can’t hear you: Check whatever noise you are making is being sent by banana into your butt. Is the channel where the noise (mic? music?) is coming in set to send to B1?

I can’t hear my music: Are you sending your virtual input to A1 so you can hear it on your headphones? Are your headphones working? Is your source sending into VoiceMeeter Input (or Aux), or some other place? Is your butt set to listen to the right banana output.

The 2010s didn’t happen (in technology)

So I got into mild trouble over on twitter about a suggestion that the 2010s were a decade of technological disappointment.

I’m comparing this to two abnormal decades – the 90s and 00s – that saw technology change pretty much every aspect of western, well-to-do life. The platforms and concepts built during this period still exist now, of course – but are either in stasis or in decline depending on your point of view.

I was 18 in 1996. Here’s a quick list of technologies that have changed my life between then and 2010.

  • Ubiquitous mobile telephony (1995-2001)
  • Ubiquitous internet access. (1997-2000)
  • The (usable) laptop (2000)
  • Home broadband. (2000-2003)
  • Ubiquitous wireless (2005)
  • The rise and fall of magnetic data storage (1995-2005)
  • The rise and fall of optical data storage (2000-2010)
  • The rise and fall of portable, handheld, data storage (2005-2015)
  • The smartphone – constant internet access, multifunction personal computing (2007)
  • Web 2.0, interactivity and social media (2002)
  • Search engine and electronic indexing technology (1998)
  • e-Commerce/online shopping (1998)
  • Using online tools for personal administration (civic interaction/banking/etc) (2000-04)
  • Ubiquitous satellite navigation (2005-2010)
  • The MP3 player (1998-2008)
  • Subscription music services (2008)

These are all things that were either impossible or impossibly expensive when I was 18 and are within reach of my desk in 2020. The internet, clearly, is the big trend-starter – the platform for change if you will.

I’m trying to come up with a similar list for the years between 2010 and 2020, and I’m failing. Electric cars are a far more advanced version of the milkfloats I remember from the 80s – and hybrid technology has to be a contender. But the ipad is just a big smartphone (or a small laptop). The Large Hadron Collider is pretty awesome, but has yet to have an impact on my life. LED lighting is about as close as I can get, but LEDs date back to the early 60s so I’d be arguing for Cerium doped Phosphor LEDs, which feels a bit niche. Someone genuinely suggested Pokemon Go – I was rather taken aback.

But for a decade where tech hype – big data! AI! Chatbots! Personal genetic sequencing! Sodding blockchain! Everything Audrey Watters writes about! – has been everywhere I’m struck by how similar the technological world is to 2005 (though the cultural and political world is very, very different). What have I missed?

Rules are:

  1. Reached widespread use between 2010 and 2020
  2. A person from 2005 would be genuinely taken aback by it.
  3. Has a clear day-to-day impact on our lives.

Carry on…

2018 didn’t happen

It’s still, basically, 2016. We’re still in shock over the two huge geopolitical convulsions that have logjammed the anglosphere – and, though we’ve done our best to kid ourselves that steps are being taken to recover in reality nothing of the sort has actually happened.

The trails of Trump and Brexit both appear to lead back to Russia -findings confirmed multiple times in the mountains of opinion, research, conjecture, and official statements that we have amassed over two-and-a-bit years of hand-wringing. None of this has made the blindest bit of difference to anyone other than the small number of low-level functionaries in the UK and US who have been found guilty of breaking an actual law.

Meanwhile – from poison in Salisbury to drones in Crawley – the UK feels less safe and less orderly, a sensation that can be only be heightened by careful viewing of goings on at Westminster. If I did a book of the year prize it would have to be Erskine May – never has parliamentary procedure been more newsworthy. Procedure is also a great substitute for activity – most government time this year has been spent in interminable debates on broad-brush topics. Speeches in the Commons are now made with at least half an eye on how they can be edited for sharing on Facebook.

The leader of the opposition is stage-managed to a degree that would make Peter Mandelson blush. But Blair never had a cadre of fans determined to paint his every act as strategically designed to further the cause of whatever socialism now is. It’s as if, having seen how Theresa May used a tone-deaf, core vote strategy to narrowly win an election in 2017, Labour are intent on copying her. So, in flitting between nearly taking a strong line on actual issues and (again Blairish) schools-and-hospitals style crowd pleasing, nothing has changed.

Meanwhile on the other side, the grand strategy appears to be that we’ll eventually feel sorry for Theresa May because of how useless she is. This of course means that we forget the cold nastiness of her Home Office days, and mistake her arrogant refusal to ever admit she was wrong on anything as some kind of inner strength. Government resignations (including – a personal highlight – the two most recent Higher Education minsters) from every possible ideological persuasion have done nothing to staunch the inevitability of a shambolic disorderly exit from the EU – and with the 1922 committee card played and lost, the rest of the party seems out of ideas.

This legislative inertia points the way to a disorderly Brexit – the deal on the table being an uncomfortable reminder that red lines don’t allow for a blue sky. It is indeed the best and only deal in that it is the only deal Theresa May could accept – with her increasingly childish parlaying of “laws, money, and borders” into an end to the kind of international cooperation that we spent so long trying to convince the former Eastern Bloc to adopt in the 1990s.

So much of the thin gruel on offer can be traced back to a bizarre hatred for the European Court of Justice. A tale of one woman against the very idea of international law. The checks and balances that have prevented a world war have never looked so vulnerable.

There are any numbers of awful stories about people disadvantaged by this retreat from the global stage – and the numbers hurt by stupidly implemented UK policy have grown too. Universal Credit – in normal times – would be seen as a totemic failure of project management. Ministers would have resigned over it. But in 2018 it’s been mood music.

The man who literally wrote the book about the science of project delivery in government now spends his days trying to prove how tough a universities regulator he can be. But if 2018 has had a theme, I’d go for the weakness of project delivery (with maybe our collective rediscovery of the unicorn as a counterpoint).

Agile project management – invented by software developers so they could ignore specifications and avoid writing project reports – is an essentially reactive structure. One leaps from bad idea to other bad idea, hamstrung by the need to “ship” something, anything, and get through to the next scrum. If you wanted a case study as to the dreck this process can produce then you really couldn’t do better than the Home Office Settled Status mobile app. Notoriously unreliable, compatible with a small enough handful of android mobile phones that law firms and universities have been resorting to just buying some that they know will work – it’s a metaphor for how badly we’ve prepared for everything.

Brexit – I sometimes believe – has been an Agile project. It kicked off far too early, and the first iterations were riddled with basic logical errors. The instinct has been to polish presentation rather than build core functionality – where work has been done it has been on aspects that are meant impress users.

Meanwhile Trump starts from a blank page each morning, and often manages to upset or offend just about everyone by the end of the day. Yet he still has around 40% of the US population agreeing with him. Expecting him to deliver anything would be so basic a category error that the mere idea seems laughable. As I write he’s shut down his government to build a wall – a wryly apt season finale for the scripted reality that is US politics.

Or maybe that’s too generous. Scripted reality was what the Trump campaign felt like, or the early red-white-and-blue Brexit days. Remember the Brexit dividend? If there’s a script now you need to be a conspiracy theorist to discern it – but there again isn’t everyone a conspiracy theorist now?

And shall we talk about how Putin seems to sit at the centre of everything? A modern day Rasputin using magic to control the world? Democracy as a plaything in the world’s first genuinely post-democratic  state? Are we perhaps projecting here a little? If we find a villain does that mean we are absolved of our own villainy?

I’ve been thinking a lot about three other periods of history this year. Have these as three ghosts of Christmas past if you will.

  • The first is the early 90s – the “End of History” days where we all felt that liberal democracy was the cut-scene at the end of the final level… that the Generation X idealist cynicism was the future of progressive protest. We felt like we could leave the strife of the past behind us even as we invaded oil rich countries. Shorn of our own significance, we replayed the prime mover moments of our history, until two buildings fell and the age of fear began.
  • The second is the end of the First World War. Years of pointless deaths ended in the least military way that could be imagined – a far left uprising. We entered into international relations but retained the caution and lust for vengeance. Meanwhile, capital began to collapse everywhere – reality didn’t agree with capitalism so we broke the links to reality. But in the midst of this the golden age of civic responsibility continued, and we still believed that progress was possible
  • The third is the middle of the fifteenth century. New  media gave a voice to the unheard – the elite didn’t like what they said so we overthrew them. Religion and direct experience won out over scholarship, history, and reason – but only because the latter was in the service of corruption and funding. The upheaval lasted only a decade, but the scars shape the world we live in.

We are in the same place that we were twelve months ago – the only change is that matters that were once pressing have become urgent. The dwindling pro-Brexit (or pro-Trump) rump are the “snowflakes” we hear so much about, painfully sensitive to the idea that anyone can hold opinions that disagree with their own received thinking. We’re carving out safe spaces in the conversation about our future for those who cling to old, discredited, ideas based on fear, hatred, and wishful thinking. Sometime soon we need to face this down – agree that freedom of speech does not guarantee a respectful hearing.

But I don’t think 2019 will be that year. 2019 is another placeholder.

The leap not taken

In which the author uses outdated critical theory to draw cultural lessons from a not-very-good young adult book and film. Just imagine that I’ve taken over You Yell Barracuda for the day or something.

So it turns out, culturally, we’re actually OK with experts – especially experts in the humanities and computer sciences domain.

The nerd wish-fulfillment that is Ready Player One – both the Spielberg film and the (slightly #problematic) Ernest Cline novel can both be read, with a following wind, as a validation of properly old-fashioned academic shibboleths like the idea of a Canon, citation practice, contested scholarship, librarianship and – for the post-modernists – bricolage as creative projectI’ll admit to blanching a little when people get dates with manic pixie dream girls via a viva, but for the most part RP1 as academic hero’s quest seems to hold up.

Wade Watts doesn’t really work as a hero in any other way. All the other members of the “high five” have practical skills – Daito’s martial arts, Aech’s self-sufficiency, Shoto’s magnificent eleven-ness. Art3mis is actually a more traditional hero in that she actually does stuff, organises things, takes risks and has a proper story arc with an explicit motivation.

But (filmic) Wade is useless – he hasn’t really done anything apart from sit in his room, gather facts, and make connections. He’s utterly unused to, and largely amblivient to, the real world with the jarringly real problems of social collapse and fuel poverty. Until people actually come along and connect him to the real world, you don’t really get the sense that the Egg quest is anything but metatextual play for him.

Our “real world” is an abandoned, liminal space. It is heavily implied that people have turned to Baudrillardian simulacra in the most crushingly obvious way – a retreat into a fantasy constructed from the detrius of an Eighties childhood. Damn, RP1 needs theoretical sociologists – but Wade is concerned with the text(s) rather than the context.

Until he gets sucked into something approaching a grand narrative by a scholar (and creator) of a previous generation. Again this narrative is textual rather than para-textual – we get hints that Wade’s pure concern with the text itself is a strength in that he is beyond the more worldly interest in the implications of the prize.

Sure, he’s against the idea of IOI owning the Oasis dreamworld – but only, really, because it would obstruct the purity of the text. There are huge issues of inequality (the film goes for a convertability between real and virtual currency absent in the book) within the fantasy itself, but these are of no concern to Wade – neither is the poverty of in-world creativity (with the usual future-culture gap – why were no popular culture stories released between now and 2045?) – as for many a good postmodernist it is all about the intertextual play.

But the quest for historico-cultural connections, and indeed the very idea of an “Easter egg” – something that has never been found, discovered via novel and deep research – that, to me, is an academic project.

However Wade’s prize is five hundered trillion dollars and ownership of a large MMORPG, rather than the chance to compete for an ajunct teaching-only role. I suppose this is research selectivity taken to a logical conclusion.


So this is mainly for my own entertainment at this point, but is there anything we can actually learn from all this?

Well, the purity of the academic project is maybe one part. With two classic unworldly scholars running around – one awarding the prize, the other winning it – we could maybe draw a lesson that academia holds itself to seperate standards beyond the s(a)ecular world.

We could maybe say something about the value of humanities research – fundamentally Wade is into the field of late c20th popular culture, and the life of an old programmer, because it is damn interesting. The narrative arc is useful, yes, but to other people rather than him.

His eventual re-connection with the “real world” (and his subsequent decision to limit access to simulacra!) is quite a peculiar end point. You get the sense he’d have been less happy than he was at the start of the film (the love story between him and Samantha/Art3mis does not in any way convince, let’s be honest) and his decision to pull the ladder up after himself – you know, has he become some kind of a Vice-Chancellor here? – is out of character.

Yes people need to focus on the real world. But just occasionally, people don’t. Again, this isn’t a feature of the novel – there Wade will turn the virtual world off, but some day in the future – after he’s finished this next level, watched this next film, written this next paper…

I sometimes feel like academia and scholarship are beginning to shear away from the “real world” – the fact that the latter can occasionally tip a hat to the former (even when disguised as nerd culture) is consoling. But the other way round, that’s a leap not taken but perhaps with good reason.


Also – big love for the cross-media cataloging effort that is the Halliday Archive. Maybe the real hero is an unnamed metadata architect…

“Give us back our old gods”

The Mail, and a government whip, are taking issue with the idea that academics may be doing down the glories of Brexit. Why?

We love to tell ourselves stories – we love to situate our actions and our emotions within an overall narrative with a start, middle and end. Progress towards a goal, a conclusion, a brighter future. We all do it – the post-doc juggling two temporary teaching contracts in two subjects related to her research interest, the new father promising himself the new responsibilities will change who he is, the voter helping to plot a course towards opportunity, security or honesty.

Brexit – what is it but another one of these great cinematic stories? The plucky island nation, rich in history and passion, seizing the chance to determine for itself a bright future. Seeking freedom from international regulations and rules, the chance to trade on advantageous terms, to make the laws and decisions it needs. Brexit is the hope of a country once again seeking to drive the narrative forward. To make stuff happen, not to have stuff happen to it.

The job of the contemporary academic is to destroy hope. Not just destroy – atomise. Disintegrate. De-construct. The early enlightenment sought to build the ultimate human and holy narrative – connecting for ourselves the cogs in the blind watchmaker’s finely wrought machine. The flowering complexity of late modernism, itself a further reaction to what seemed to be the last gasp of backward-looking romanticism, saw this narrative teeter at the limit of human comprehension. And then it fell – Einstein, Schrodinger,  Wolstencraft, Wittgenstein. Two brutal, pointless, and bloody wars. Foucault, Derrida, Butler, Lyotard, Kristeva, Hall.

The life of the mind took on a new complexion – turned on the connected, ever-growing progress plotted far into the future. It turned on itself, critiquing and unmasking the leaps of logic and the unexpected constants. The expediencies that allowed us to continue to point to the future with hope.

When Donald Fagen sung  “What a beautiful world this could be – what a glorious time to be free” – he sang with irony, with disillusionment, and with a certain wistful longing. For us this is amplified, academic life means a surrender of the absolute, a destruction of a human faith in outcomes to be replaced by a practitioners faith in process.

The new critical study of the history of thought brought new tools to play on old solid assumptions. Morality returned to science, a shock that still reverberates and perplexes.

But outside our collegiate walls the world didn’t change. Socialism promised equality, fascism promised purity, capitalism promised wealth – but life, for most, remained brutal, difficult and painful. Dreams and hopes of a better world kept people alive, and kept them looking for the magic that would repair everything. Sometimes these even seemed to work, for a while, until the next crisis and the next time a swathe of honest hard-working lives were destroyed by the whims of global finance. A button was sought – today the button is Brexit.

The fact that it won’t work and can’t work is immaterial. People want to believe that something will, and Brexit – whatever else it is – is something. Scaffolded by lazy political finger-pointing, populist opportunism and expert equivocation – it’s the event of the season. A fashion – an idea that will reek of the late teens like SuperDry, Elephant’s Breath, Superorganism and the SUV.

Who are academics to take away hope? To ruin the story? The friend you once shared a film with, banished after pointing out plot holes and discontinuities. The woman in the office who read Game of Thrones rather than watched the series. The guy in the pub with the score on his phone when you wanted to watch the highlights.

Brexit – spoilers. Of course they hate it. Of course they hate us. A glimmer of hope occluded by fact. A dream spoiled by a morning alarm. How could they not?

The newspapers and politicians that argued for a dumb deal don’t want us to see how dumb it was. Not just yet. There’s more power, more influence, to wield. Whoever ran all that faked social media has a plan. So any chink in the dream armour must be repaired – anyone who peeps behind the walls of Oz must be silenced.

Because true self-determination, true understanding, in a cold, random uncaring world – is truly terrifying. Universities take young people and help them to deal with the darkest truth of all – that nothing matters, nothing works, and no-one has a clue what will happen next.

Rhythm guitar styling in the why-I’m-not-edublogging tribute band

Hi folks, I – er – haven’t been doing blogging here much because I’ve been busy. Specifically, I’ve taken on the role of Associate Editor at wonkhe.com, and that’s quite a full on job involving plenty of writing, reading and editing.  For those missing the semi-regular UK HE policy posts that used to turn up on here, I can only direct you to the good ship Wonkhe and the associated (and very worthwhile) Monday Morning Briefing – wherein appears some of my writing on that topic.

So – as I’ve failed to engage with the Twitter “pinned post” thing, I’ve just left a pun at the top of my stream to entertain myself.


LOL – right?

That’s sat there for a few months, and then suddenly I think to look at the replies it has been getting. A nice comment from (ds106) Roland, and … this image.

This response, from the totally-a-real-account  shows my OER11 name badge resplendent on a zebraskin sheet, in a room I’m not sure I recognise. Maxim32583813 has only three tweets to their name, this image and two in Russian, copied from a bot that appears to post bad generic status updates.

(I know what you are thinking – you old rogue, Kernohan. Hot Manchester Conference Centre loving. But seriously, nope. Not my style, and apart from anything else I was married at the time. My memory of OER11 is that I presented a really nice thing about guitar tabulature, went to the CUBE gallery, and had a beer with Phil Barker in the Lass O’Gowrie.)

Fair enough, I think to myself. I’m sure it’s just some sophisticated algorithm that has picked up an image related to me to pique my interest. But I want to know what the context of the image was so I do a reverse image search.

Nothing. Nada.

The image does not exist on the internet, other than in that one tweet. I have no context (twitter strips the exif data too). Neither TinEye nor Google Images returns anything.

So what to make of it? I don’t think I know anyone that would go to this level of obscurity to troll me. And I know Pat Lockley, so that’s saying something.

It was the first tweet from that account. There have been two since, none since June and nothing of what I would call “content” other than that image.

The account doesn’t follow anyone I know, no-one I know follows it.  (in fact, no-one at all follows it).

So clearly, the internet is a far stranger place than we give it credit for

404 – UK government not found

This is an interesting page – detailing news of the ongoing reshuffle after the June 2017 general elections. As well as any intrinsic interest there may be in knowing that Boris Johnson is still somehow Foreign Secretary, it has a particular piquancy when compared to a similar page from after the last election in 2015.

Four little words at the top of the latter … “has formed a government”.

Because, in June 2017, we do not yet have a government in the UK. Neither will we until Monday 19th June at the very earliest.

This is also an interesting page – as well as announcing the delay in the long-anticipated announcement of the TEF, it also announces that we are still in the pre-election period (or “purdah” as it is known). These rules prohibit things being announced on behalf of the government when it is not yet clear who the government is. Or if there is one.

When Theresa May went to speak to the Queen on the 9th June she asked – after the Queen had stopped laughing – for permission to attempt to form a minority government based on a “confidence and supply” agreement with another party.

The fatuous announcements currently making the news – Theresa May’s reshuffle (of course the Queen can’t confirm any appointments…”), the alleged agreement with the DUP (who don’t negotiate on the Sabbath) – are designed to convince us that we have a government. That we have “certainty”. Reshuffling looks Prime Ministerial – so does making agreements with other parties, and taking calls from leaders of countries with actual governments.

Here’s the Cabinet Office manual on the issue:

(para 2.30) “Immediately following an election, if there is no overall majority, for as long as there is significant doubt over the Government’s
ability to command the confidence of the House of Commons, many of the
restrictions set out at paragraphs 2.27–2.29 (on “purdah”) would continue to apply. The point at which the restrictions on financial and other commitments should come to an end depends on circumstances, but may
often be either when a new Prime Minister is appointed by the Sovereign or where a government’s ability to command the confidence of the Commons has been tested in the House of Commons.”

So there will be a government when a Queen’s speech is passed by the House of Commons. We don’t yet know what will be in the speech, though the best guess is that it will be very short indeed – we do know that there are likely to be amendments tabled by Labour and others, and we can even suspect that there may be an attempt to vote it down.

Such a vote would constitute a vote of no confidence in a putative Conservative Minority Government – this would be quickly followed by a motion under the terms of section two of the Fixed Term Parliament Act leading (unless confidence can be regained) to another general election 14 days later.

If a Queen’s speech is passed, a government could still very easily fall whenever the DUP decide to renege on a political promise and withdraw from a power-sharing agreement – which is something they have rather a habit of doing. Or it could fall if a small group of backbenchers decide they don’t like what is happening. Or it could fall for any number of other reasons.

So, to summarise: there is no UK government, Theresa May holds very little power, and we won’t know anything until the 19th June.

ge17 on reading opinion polls

As I work for a UK charity, I need to be very careful on social media during the election campaign. Charities are constrained by the requirements of both charity regulations and electoral law. Simply put, charities are forbidden to publicly support or oppose any candidate or party. Although I’m sure no-one sees this personal blog as the opinions of my employer, I will be being cautious and conforming to the rules above during the election period.

There was a little bit of concern, to put it mildly, about the accuracy of election polling in 2015. In response, polling companies have modified the way they collect, analyse and draw conclusions from polling data – but although each company has reacted, they have all done so in differing ways.

Understanding Polling

So, to make sense of any random 2017 poll, we really need to know three things – the polling company responsible, the date of the poll, and the type of poll.

Some people think that the political affiliation of the newspaper or website that publishes the poll also has an impact – in practice no reputable polling company would fudge their data to meet the political predilections of an editor.

But how to spot a reputable polling company? The easiest way is to check that they are members of the British Polling Council. Members are expected to comply to rules, which require each company to share full details of their sampling and analysis methodologies. Though the BPC doesn’t endorse particular methodologies, it ensures that each is clearly documented with, where possible, the underlying data also disclosed.

There’s a similarity with the process of peer review – and as with peer review the lay reader such as you or I will assume that the methodologies and maths have been seen to make sense by other experts.

I’ve been waving the word “methodology” around a bit – this just means the way a sample is taken and the way this sample is analysed and extrapolated to give those all-important headline figures.

There are two main types of polls – phone polls involve ringing people up at random to gather a representative sample, whereas online polls take a large number of willing participants and select a representative sample from within these. Both have common criticisms that can be quickly dismissed – although there are demographic (age, social class…) indicators correlated with the likelihood of home phone use, and although online participants are likely to be more politically engaged than other groups the analysis and extrapolation stage takes account of these differences.

One other red herring is the idea of “clustering”, some people who should know better claim that polls will aim to have results in line with other polls rather than risk being an outlier. Whereas it is sensible to suggest that poll responses are influenced by other poll results (as indeed may be the election itself), the idea of polling companies massaging their figures to fit a trend line is ridiculous.

Let’s have some more definitions – a sample is a small segment of a larger population that is as representative as possible of the wider population. For elections, the wider population is everyone who will vote in the election, and the sample aims to reflect the make-up of this population as closely as possible.

Polling companies may take account of – for example – age, social class, location, previous or current political activity, voting history and likelihood of voting in developing a sample. For most companies a sample will be around 1,000 people.

Responding to 2015

At the last election, polls showed a likely hung parliament right up until the exit poll. This error was claimed by some to have effected the election campaigns, and there was serious disquiet about the state of polling from commentators and politicians. In response, the BPC commission a report into polling practice, which was published in March last year.

A big point of controversy around the 2015 polls concerned how polling samples are made up. The BPC report concluded:

Our conclusion is that the primary cause of the polling miss was unrepresentative samples. The methods the pollsters used to collect samples of voters systematically over-represented Labour supporters and under-represented Conservative supporters. The statistical adjustment procedures applied to the raw data did not mitigate this basic problem to any notable degree.

adding that

[We can] rule out the possibility that at least some of the errors might have been caused by flawed analysis, or by use of inaccurate weighting targets on the part of the pollsters. We were also able to exclude the possibility that postal voters, overseas voters, and unregistered voters made any detectable contribution to the polling errors. The ways that pollsters asked respondents about their voting intentions was also eliminated as a possible cause of what went wrong

The BPC simply felt that the samples used by polling companies contained too many people that are unlikely to vote, and too many people that supported Labour, to be a fair representation of the country as a whole.

Older people are more likely to vote. And they are more likely to vote Conservative. So some polling companies have focused on this correlation as a means of correcting for the 2015 errors.

Kantar Polling (formerly TNS), for example, has adjusted their sample weighting methodology to include more over 70s in the analysed data. YouGov have also increased the numbers of over 65s in their weighted samples.

Rather than adding older voters to the sample (which carries a risk of skewing the poll in other ways), some companies have focused on likelihood to vote as a key determinant of sample weighting.

Ipsos MORI, ICM and YouGov are using reported past voting behavior (did a participant vote in the 2015 election and/or the 2016 EU referendum?) as a sample weighting tool. ComRes use a statistical methodology based on weighting for age and social class instead of self-reported behavior.

Panelbase, as of last week, use 2015 voters not the general population as the basis of their sample weighting.

The “Don’t Know” problem

When you ask people who they will vote for, there will always be some who have not made a decision. The way “don’t knows” are handled in polling is a matter of no small controversy. The always entertaining UK Polling Report (run by Anthony J Wells of YouGov) has a good explanation of the background of this issue.

The TL;DR is that people who say that they don’t know for whom they will vote are likely to end up voting for the same party they voted for at the last election. Some (ICM, Populus) have historically used this as a weighted indicator of future voting, others (Ipsos MORI, ComRes) use “squeeze questions” to flush out a party preference which is then counted in a similar way as definite voting intentions. And there is YouGov, which simply did not include “don’t knows” in their samples, considering them less likely to vote.

The BPC report was pretty scathing on this whole mess, recommending that polling companies.

review current allocation methods for respondents who say they don’t know, or refuse to disclose which party they intend to vote for. Existing procedures are ad hoc and lack a coherent theoretical rationale. Model-based imputation procedures merit consideration as an alternative to current approaches.

So, by 2017, these controversial allocations have changed in some cases.

ICM are now going to add more “don’t knows” to parties previously supported (they used to add half of them, they now add three quarters to Conservative or Labour totals as applicable. They are also going to assume that those who don’t indicate a preference this time round and don’t know who they voted for last time are 20% more likely to vote for Conservatives and 20% less likely to vote for Labour.

Kantar have added a squeeze question for “don’t knows”, and are developing a model to add even those who answer “I don’t know” to the squeeze question to some later polls – based on which leader they find most trustworthy and respondent demographics.

A note on dates

The key thing to look for is the dates during which field work (the actual collection of responses) was carried out, not the date of publication. Wikipedia lists polls according to the field work dates and, as such, has a useful trendline that reflects possible changes in votes over time.

So what?

The above has been a (hopefully readable) summary of how election polling works, but how can we use this information to make sense of polls and preserve our blood pressure. Here’s a few tips from me:

  • Only pay attention to polls from BPS members. Though others may be fun, we don’t know anything about how they were conducted or how they might skew.
  • For analysing trends, only compare polls from the same company. The same or similar methodology producing different results on different dates is suggestive of a change in public opinion.
  • For analysing the differences between polling companies, compare polls conducted on the same date. If you think company X’s methodology overrepresents party A, compare to polls conducted at similar times by companies Y and Z.
  • Remember the margin of error. It is fair to assume that a poll of around 1,000 people will be accurate to around 3%, 19 times out of 20. So a poll showing a party share of 40% may indicate support anywhere between 37% and 43%. This error shrinks slightly for larger samples.
  • Beware unusual polls conducted in novel ways – a good recent example is the YouGov aggregated statistical model that startled everyone over the Bank Holiday. This is a highly experimental model based on extrapolating constituency-level results from very small samples using machine learning approaches. It might be interesting, but we don’t yet know what margin of error it may have, or how it compares to other more conventional polls.
  • Beware outliers – polls at odds with the consensus are often shared and reported more widely than other, more “boring”, poll results. But take account of the margin of error, and the possibility that it just could be an unusual sample.
  • Beware confirmation bias – reputable polls you don’t like are equally likely to be as accurate as reputable polls that you do.
  • Look for the data tables – as in all fields of research, publication of data tables allows us to take a more detailed view of the results. Is the sample “normal”? Are the extrapolations fair? Looking at the raw data can tell us.

 

Roaming Autodidacts and the Neo-Reactionaries #OER17

“[The] literature [on open education] was preoccupied with what I call “roaming autodidacts”. A roaming autodidact is a self-motivated, able learner that is simultaneously embedded in technocratic futures and disembedded from place, cultural, history, and markets. The roaming autodidact is almost always conceived as western, white, educated and male. As a result of designing for the roaming autodidact, we end up with a platform that understands learners as white and male, measuring learners’ task efficiencies against an unarticulated norm of western male whiteness. It is not an affirmative exclusion of poor students or bilingual learners or black students or older students, but it need not be affirmative to be effective. Looking across this literature, our imagined educational futures are a lot like science fiction movies: there’s a conspicuous absence of brown people and women”

(McMillan Cottom, Tressie. 2015. “Intersectionality and Critical Engagement With The Internet” in The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class, and Culture Online eds. Safiya U. Noble and Bredesha Tynes. Peter Lang Publishing. Accessed online)

The earliest reference to Tressie McMillan Cottom’s game changing coinage of “roaming autodidact” is from her presentation at MIT in July 2014. It is such a perfect description of the idealised online learner – effortlessly grazing learning from MOOCs, Wikipedia and sundry open courseware whilst remaining resolutely white, male, western and comfortably off – that it feels somehow timeless.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, Catherine Cronin, Audrey Watters and others have taken the concept as a jumping-off point to understand the worlds of those left behind by online learning, and have begun to tackle the huge ingrained assumptions that colour learning design, resource sharing and platform development – slowly unpicking the lazy thinking that prevents learning online being available to all, and rooting perspectives on learning inside the lived reality of learners, wherever we may meet them.

This is hugely important work. But what happened to all the roaming autodidacts?

Well… They became Nazis.

Or some of them did.

Mencius Moldbug is a roaming autodidact. He’d be the first to admit how much he has drawn on the resources shared by Project Gutenburg, Wikipedia and various OpenCourseWare efforts to create the reactionary neo-feudal monarchical restorationist system of thought described in “Unqualified Reservations” (a body of work supposedly feted by the likes of Steve Bannon and Peter Theil).

He’s undeniably well read. Late last year I paddled through some of the surface waters of his world (and of parallel realms such as Nick Land’s “Dark Enlightenment”) as a painful and possibly misguided attempt to understand precisely what was going on in 2016. I can’t claim to be familiar with the majority of sources he cites (I don’t think anyone could), but the same could be said for any serious book in the social sciences.

When people write PhDs (and I take a moment to honour the sheer work each of you who have done this put in) they draw together bodies of knowledge that have never before been drawn together. They synthesise it, make links and draw conclusions. Examiners (and again, I take a moment…) cannot be expected to be on top of this entire corpus. But what they are incredibly on top of is the safe ways that all of this information (data) can be drawn together and built on. Methods. Statistical, historical, socio-cultural, scientific – these are our tools of discernment. And these are the things that a PhD Viva is designed to allow you to defend.

A roaming autodidact has little use for methods. He (and yes, it is always a “he”) does not need methods to draw conclusions. He needs sources. A researcher knows she can find a source to validate just about any crazy idea, a roaming autodidact knows he can find a source to validate his crazy idea– but he does not know that this is universally true.

Moldbug practices “slow history”, explaining it thus:

“The student of slow history, who has no faith at all in consensus wisdom, official truth, and “everybody knows” chestnuts, is willing to rest enormous judgments on a single, indisputable, authentic primary source”

(Moldbug)

And again:

“The nice thing about reading a primary source from 1942 is that you are assured of its “period” credentials, unless of course someone has hacked Time’s archive. The author cannot possibly know anything about 1943. If you find a text from 1942 that describes the H-bomb, you know that the H-bomb was known in 1942. One such text is entirely sufficient.”

(Moldbug)

This may be “slow”, but it is not “history” in any academic sense. It is cherry-picking. It is appeal to anecdote. Just because this one guy said something in 1942 doesn’t make it any more reliable than this one guy at the bar last Saturday. It’s a single point of information. A datum, if you like.

To start drawing anything reliable at all from it we need a few more sources. And not just the next ones we find, we need a strategy to find a balanced, representative sample of these. And then we can start doing some work around context, purpose, reliability.

But of course, that’s just academic consensus. What do academics know? Moldbug has a problem with consensus (and, indeed, academia) – drawing on a lay perspective of consensus being innately suspicious, and an absence of substantial counter-evidence being doubly so.

As he puts it in relation to Anthropogenic Global Warming:

“The unusual trustworthiness of science, despite the fact that scientists are humans and humans are not generally trustworthy, exists when (a) hypotheses are falsifiable, and (b) the professional institutions within which scientists operate promote, broadcast, and reward any falsification. We can trust a consensus of scientists on a problem for which (a) and (b) are true, because we are basing our trust on the fact that, if the hypothesis is false, a large number of very smart people has tried and failed to discover its error. This is not, of course, impossible. But it is at least unlikely.”

(Moldbug)

But there speaks a guy who doesn’t hang out with academics much. The ones I know love controversy. They love being the voice speaking out against the tide. It’s a great way to get keynote gigs and well-cited papers. Disagreement is the lifeblood of the only academia I recognise. Hell – I’ve never seen a bunch of academics agree on which pub to go to, on the correct citation method for journal articles… If you want to make absolutely sure of academic argument, try attempting to enforce consensus from above (I used to work for a funding council…).

Open education, and open culture, has put a great deal of information into the public arena. Much of it is primary in nature – undigested, undifferentiated. The terms of common open licences do not allow us to care how it is used after release – and it would be perhaps unfair to castigate Project Gutenberg or MITOCW for the genesis of the alt-right and the birth of Trumpism.

Mike Caulfield is doing as much as anyone to work out what we need to do afterwards.

“My solution to the post-truth crisis is to develop a culture of collaborative explanation and exploration via development and use of new and different tools.

My belief is that humans have a couple modes of working with truth. Some are adversarial and propagative, and some are exploratory and collaborative. The adversarial mode is killing us.”

(Mike Caulfield)

Collaborative explanation is academia at its best. It is the guts of the scientific method – where a perfectly executed rebuttal is a cause for joy as truth is further revealed. It is how humans really get stuff done, whereas the adversarial mode (election campaigns are the best example that comes to mind) is how we stop things being done. It is a mode of enquiry that it is important we inculcate the next generation of roaming autodidacts in before they become Nazis. Or some of them do.

Adversarial explanation is academia at its worst. It’s the “I know something you don’t” mode of debate – praising esoterica, and using sources as weapons. It’s the mode of debate that leads to conspiracies and polarisation – “hidden secrets” and arcana. It can make for wonderful storytelling, mesmeric speaking and writing. But fundamentally it is a model of smartness that celebrates breadth and denigrates synthesis. And it is classic Moldbug. He throws sources and connections at you so fast unpicking it and critiquing it all becomes an exercise in translation – with text like that you can only read and react. His obscurantism is a false signifier, adding the illusion of credibility to his painful and regressive positions on race, crime and governance.

Caulfield’s recent work has been focused on the development of online tools to foster what he prefers to term “choral explanation” – multiple voices synthesising into consensus.

But the will is as important as the tool. And teaching roaming autodidacts the will to collaborate, corroborate and develop as a natural everyday response to a primary source is the next great task of the open movement.