All entries for December 2008

December 18, 2008

That RAE analysis in full

Times: “Former polytechnics give Oxbridge a run for its money in rankings”

Guardian: ...”ex-polytechnics have failed to wrest a significant number of the stars awarded for research away from the research giants of the Russell Group of universities including Oxford and Cambridge.”

December 17, 2008

Britain's broken back

As President-elect Obama promises to invest in the United States’ infrastructure during the recession, here there’s little sign of progress.

A depressing Friday-night journey from Nottingham to Southampton last week gave me plenty of time to ponder the uselessness of Britain’s transport network. In fact I only had to go about ten miles down the M1 before it became a car park.

We’re a long, relatively thin country with a large proportion of the population spread along a spine running from London to Liverpool/Manchester.

But the spine’s broken.

As of last weekend we’ve now got one medium-speed rail line running from North to South. It’s not bad, but it’s nowhere near enough. It’s also ludicrously expensive, hence why I was sat on the M1.

We’ve got two North-to-South motorways, the M1 and the M6. They are renowned, probably across most of Europe, for being over-stretched.

And then we’ve got internal flights, the use of which ought to be a national embarrassment.

No-one really knows how to solve the problem, and there certainly isn’t a consensus. We’re building Crossrail at the same time as considering putting the brakes on Heathrow’s expansion. We’re widening motorways at the same time as encouraging people to use public transport. It must be the least well-planned area of public policy in Britain. Nothing adds up.

One decision ought to be a no-brainer. We need new railways, stretching from the North to the South. They don’t necessarily need to be TGV-fast – in some ways making them as cheap as possible might be the most important priority.

And it actually makes more sense for them to be freight lines than passenger ones. Anyone who’s tried overtaking a lorry which is itself overtaking another lorry will tell you what causes most of the congestion on the roads.

But we’ve not built the country for rail freight. I spent much of the summer listening to people fight for or against a Tesco Megashed in Hampshire. It was to be bigger than T5 at Heathrow, and would have served most of their supermarkets in the South-East of England. It was right next to a railway line, but they had no intention of ever using it.

Personally I’m not a fan of expanding Heathrow, as it seems obvious to everyone that it was built in the wrong place. The more we expand it, the more we compound the problem. The Thames Estuary idea apparently favoured by Boris Johnson seems a good idea to me, and is worthy of investigation by the government.

Unfortunately it’s all a bit too late. A recession is the ideal time to do some of these things (it’s cheaper and employs people). But it’ll take decades for anything to be done.

We’re in real danger of becoming a country of motorway-bound I-Spy players.

December 12, 2008

You wouldn't bail–out a bookshop…

Thomas Friedman, one of America’s best op-ed writers, has written the first decent summary I’ve seen of why the U.S. government shouldn’t bail out the Detroit car companies.

...our bailout of Detroit will be remembered as the equivalent of pouring billions of dollars of taxpayer money into the mail-order-catalogue business on the eve of the birth of eBay. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into the CD music business on the eve of the birth of the iPod and iTunes. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into a book-store chain on the eve of the birth of and the Kindle. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into improving typewriters on the eve of the birth of the PC and the Internet.

Read it to find out why.

Is that a bandwagon I see before me?

Just about every newspaper in the land seems to be compiling a Top 10 Films of the Year list, so here’s mine, just in time to beat the Long Eaton Topper.

999. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Lost Skull
Truly appalling. I wanted my money back and compensation for hurt feelings.

998. Sex and the City
Must admit, I didn’t watch it.

10. Body of Lies
Funny when it shouldn’t be, scary when it should. I do think DiCaprio’s just about the best actor out there at the moment, despite his annoying good looks. Russell Crowe’s not much far behind, and put the two of them in a Ridey Scott film and you’re guaranteed a winner.

9. No Country For Old Men
Good, but not as good as everyone made out. The Coens seemed to go off on a violence trip, which while appealing to the mostly male film critics of this world, only sometimes made for brilliant cinema.

8. How To Lose Friends and Alienate People
Simon Pegg – makes you proud to be British. My only concern is that he’s kind of the John Cleese of our generation, meaning he’ll a miserable old git in about 30 years time.

7. Gomorrah
Different from any film on the list (or any film released this year). Beautifully shot and eerily quiet.

6. Quantum of Solace
Well, I’m never sure about James Bond films after just one viewing. So I went back a couple of weeks later and it was just as good. Not Casino Royale, but a great lead-in to what will definately be a superb Bond 23.

5. Wall-E
Cute. Not Toy Story, but close. Please, no sequels though.

4. Juno
Warm, funny, not afraid of being a ‘small’ movie,

3. Batman: The Dark Knight
Simply the best, biggest and boldest action film in years.

2. In Bruges
The funniest film of the year, under-rated, and under-seen. Once I get hold of the DVD I’ll be inflicting it on anyone who can take the foul language.

1. There Will Be Blood
Far superior to No Country for Old Men, which thrashed it in the awards ceremonies that matter. Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano were nothing short of brilliant, and from the film’s opening seconds you know you’re watching something timeless.

I’ve missed a few I’m sure. Waltz with Bashir might have made it in had I seen it yet. Australia has an outside chance, but the reviews haven’t been brilliant.

EDIT: I’ve seen Australia now. It’s good, but parts of it annoyed me enough to keep it out of last year’s top 10. Too much comedy, too many shots straight out of the Moulin Rouge playbook (every time I saw the Aborigine grandfather, I thought of Kylie Minogue) and an act too long.

Later/next week I’ll do the ten films I’m most looking forward to in 2009.

December 11, 2008

Half–price, my arse…

The Times has fallen for Tesco’s boast of a 50% off sale starting tomorrow.

Offers include…

  • Isla Negra Cabernet Sauvignon Was £7.49 now £3.74
  • Tesco Oak Smoked Scottish Salmon 400g Was £10.98 now £5.49
  • Tesco Creamy Brie 350g Was £2.69 now £1.34
  • David Beckham – Instinct After Dark 30ml – Was £17.50 now £8.75
  • Tesco Finest Crackers Was £20 now £10
  • Boxed Cards – all lines Half Price

Let me translate.

If you bought any of these things today, yesterday or last week, you were mugged.

Isla Negra Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance, should never have been sold at £7.49. In fact, it probably wasn’t in very many stores. But that daft price point allows Tesco to claim that the new £3.74 price represents ‘half’ of something. ASDA were selling it for £3.33 the whole time.

David Beckham Vinegar Perfume – Which mugs bought it for £17.50? Other shops were selling it for £9.79 all along.

Boxed cards and Crackers – Tesco’s probably realised many people have already bought their stash for this year and they’ve got a tonne left over.

Tesco Creamy Brie – go and look at a supermarket comparison website. Like the wine, it was overpriced in the first place.

How long before people get wise to this nonsense?

How many TV execs does it take to waste £945m?

Reading Andy Duncan’s (the boss of Channel 4) reaction to the BBC’s post-Media Apocalypse plans, you kind of have to respect the guy’s nerve.

[Their proposals are] overdue recognition from the BBC that it should be using its privileged position to help support the broader public service ecology.

Andy Duncan, you see, seems to view Channel 4 not as a commercial broadcaster, owned by the nation, but as a charity.

How the company makes £945m in revenue each year and only manages to generate a profit of £1.6m* is beyond me. Is it being run like a 1960s cannabis-filled temple of peace and love, or a business?

Its public service obligations aren’t an enormous burden – a few hours on just one of its four channels. So how are they managing to drag the whole company down to the point where it’s only just breaking even?

One possible solution being bandied around is to give them BBC Worldwide. It, in stark contrast to C4, makes £916m in revenue each year, of which £112m is profit.

Based on Channel 4’s financial performance to date, it would be a bit like letting Zippy, George and Bungle take over Google.

*Yes, I know they’re a publicly-owned company and so don’t make profit in the traditional sense, but the figure suggests they’re only just about scraping by.

Hug a German

Peer Steinbrück is the German finance minister, and a Social Democratic member of the country’s governing coalition.

Can we adopt him or find some distant relative of his that allows us to claim him as British?

From Newsweek:

The speed at which proposals are put together under pressure that don’t even pass an economic test is breathtaking and depressing. Our British friends are now cutting their value-added tax. We have no idea how much of that stores will pass on to customers. Are you really going to buy a DVD player because it now costs £39.10 instead of £39.90? All this will do is raise Britain’s debt to a level that will take a whole generation to work off. The same people who would never touch deficit spending are now tossing around billions. The switch from decades of supply-side politics all the way to a crass Keynesianism is breathtaking. When I ask about the origins of the crisis, economists I respect tell me it is the credit-financed growth of recent years and decades. Isn’t this the same mistake everyone is suddenly making again, under all the public pressure?

December 09, 2008

How to fix Britain's parents

Ian McEwan’s book The Child In Time puts its protagonist on a Thatcherite Official Commission on Childcare, a body formed to write an “Authorised Childcare Handbook” on behalf of the government, and dripping in sinister, authoritarian intent.

Twenty-one years after the novel was published, is it time to ask whether the handbook is such a bad idea?

Ironically it’s New Labour who have moved towards that ground since 1997.

In 2000, the then Home Secretary Jack Straw said, in a speech given after the passing of the Human Rights Act that:

parenting is a public – as well as intensely private – act… We must recognise people’s right to act according to their own lights, and their right – it’s in the ECHR – to respect for their private and family life. But Government cannot duck its responsibilities to help people make a success of parenting. This is essential if we are to achieve our goal of a stronger civil society, offering people more opportunities in life. Parenting is hugely important to creating the kind of society we want to live in.

Three years later, Clem Henricson wrote a report (PDF) for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, suggesting that a legalised parenting code is needed:

a code has the potential to influence attitudes to parenting, enhancing its social significance and creating an ethos where parents have a more fully recognisable role.

This is, after all, a problem where Britain is doing worse than many other countries. A 2006 report by the Institute for Public Policy and Research put the UK right at the bottom for teenage behaviour in Europe.

But the proof that a parenting code is needed comes not from reports, speeches and academia.

The failure of parenting is there to see on television and on the street.

Jeremy Kyle, Supernanny, Jamie’s Ministry of Food, even the grain of truth in Vicky Pollard on Little Britain, all point to there being something wrong. For every great parent, there seems to be another whose children will inherit all of their bad attitude and bad behaviour.

I was nearly pushed in front of a bus a few weeks ago, for instance (maybe the kids read my blog?). Every time I go to Tesco, I see a parent dragging their child around, screaming at them and showing little sign of affection towards them.

Gangs and knife crime are directly linked to inadequate parenting. But it’s not always the parents’ fault. The circle of bad parenting from one generation to another can only be broken by intervening.

Jo Frost, the Supernanny, who’s found fame on both sides of the Atlantic with her parenting classes, appears to have no problem finding parents who just don’t know how to control their children. But by the end of the episode, nine times out of ten, she’s taught mum and dad how to love their children.

How can we get every parent a supernanny? It doesn’t immediately seem like something that can be taught in schools – and teachers have got enough on their hands already.

Is an “Authorised Childcare Handbook” the answer? No, almost certainly not. Never mind the authoritarian undertones, parents would store it along with the government’s 2004 booklet Preparing for Emergencies. In the bin.

But maybe what we do need is an army of Supernannies. Such an army is supposed to exist – Tony Blair promised it in 2006 as part of his ‘Respect’ agenda. But a review carried out this year found ‘parenting practitioners’ are spread thinly and sporadically around the country.

And figures released by the DCSF after an FOI request show just 3500 families have received help from trained parenting advisers since 2006.

That’s supposed to be expanded to most local authorities over the next three years, but it feels like things aren’t moving fast enough.

We need cutbacks in government spending during the economic downturn, but we can’t afford to cut back on helping parents be parents. If we do, the next generation of children will be the same as the last.

Up the Thames without a paddle

The organisers of the Boat Race look a bit silly now that ITV has, not altogether surprisingly, lost interest in broadcasting it.

They sneakily fled the BBC back in 2004, in order to try and cash in on greater sponsorship opportunities (oh, and more money).

Now, ITV’s said it’s bored of the race, which doesn’t fit with its football, football and boxing approach to sport.

It’ll almost certainly go back to the Beeb.

Barney Ronay at the Guardian reckons it shouldn’t though. He says:

Taken purely as a sporting event it’s not immediately clear why the BBC would have any interest in broadcasting the race. The perception that the crews themselves are a bunch of itinerant third-raters may be out of date; but this is still not a spectacle that demands, on its merits, to be broadcast live on terrestrial TV.

Maybe this is true.

But then it’s also true of ‘International Bowls’, the Great North Run, cross country horse prancing (I’m going to get a kick from the missus for that one), and if we’re honest, any kind of rowing full-stop.

And yet, how many millions stayed up until 2am to watch Pinsent and Redgrave?

How many millions watch the London Marathon as if it’s not just pictures of sweaty people jogging?

TV sport has never been about showing events that are entertaining or exciting. Just look at bowls.

At least in its brevity, the Boat Race offers a Red Bull shot of sporting aggression and 100% effort.

Which is more than can be said for darts.

December 08, 2008

Top Top Gear

Hats off to the producers of last night’s Top Gear. I don’t think I’ve laughed so much in ages.

Jeremy Clarkson did a proper review of the Ford Fiesta. It answered questions like:

  • Can I afford it?
  • Will it break down?
  • Is it economical?
  • Is it easy to park?
  • What if I go to the shopping centre and get chased by baddies in a Corvette?
  • What if I need to launch a beach assault with the Royal Marines?

You know, useful stuff.

Cue one of the best Top Gear films of all time. Clarkson roared around the inside of Festival Place in Basingstoke, knocking stuff all over the place. Being a bit of a dive, the mess was actually an improvement.

Watch it here (48mins in)

December 03, 2008

The Obama backlash begins

They like him, but not that much.

President-elect Obama has been thwarted in his attempt to get a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

In a run-off Senate election in Georgia, the Republicans won 60% of the vote after their candidate, Saxby Chambliss (what a name!) campaigned on the basis that a Democrat victory there would be like giving Obama a blank cheque.

Georgia agreed with him.

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise – McCain won the southern state in the Presidential election by 52 – 47%.

But the bigger margin of victory in this Senate race suggests the country might just be hedging its bets after months of Obamamania.

Strangling the Kangaroo

First the BBC’s local video service. Now Project Kangaroo has been throttled by the powers-that-be.

You might not have heard of Kangaroo (its working title), but it’s basically a British iTunes for video, that was put together by the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. It would work online (like the iPlayer) and eventually through TV set-top-boxes.

Some of the programmes would be paid for by ad breaks, others would be pay-per-episode (like iTunes).

But the Competition Competition, in its infinite wisdom, has said it would restrict competition in the VoD (video-on-demand) market.

As the five-year-old child in BBC sitcom Outnumbered said last week: “Beeping, beeping, beeping, beeping, beeping, beeping, bollocks.”

Is there something with this country about throttling innovation?

I’ve got the Microsoft-powered BT Vision which is pretty good, but has some flaws that Kangaroo would rectify. For instance, there isn’t the option to watch something free, but with adverts. I’d rather do that than pay my £14 a month subscription.

And surely the presence of services like BT Vision, Tiscali TV and the Sky Player all suggest competition is already healthy? What’s more, in the case of BT Vision, the Beeb, ITV and Channel 4 are all putting their shows on there, with no indication they’ll disappear when/if Kangaroo launches.

I guess Kangaroo’s problem is that it’s too close to the BBC, ITV and C4. If an independent had made it, and licenced programmes from the broadcasters, there wouldn’t be a problem. But we’re only a small country. There aren’t the billions of dollars available to make your own iTunes unless you’re established, and in all likelihood, a broadcaster.

BBC iPlayer took aeons to happen because of competition worries and the anti-innovation mindset at the BBC Trust. It’s still not as brilliant as it could be because of arbitrary limits placed on what it’s allowed to offer.

The likely delay, or perhaps cancellation of Kangaroo, is a massive shame and says something about this country today. Skippy probably wouldn’t mind pushing the Competition Commission down a mine-shaft. And I wouldn’t blame him.

P.S. As if proof were needed that Britain’s losing its innovators, the Project Kangaroo boss, Ashley Highfield, recently left… for Microsoft.

December 02, 2008

MI5, not nine–to–five

Leigh Holmwood over at The Guardian takes the words out of my mouth.

Is it just me or is this series of Spooks turning out to be the best yet?

It’s not just him. Last night’s episode was fantastic and recent ones have been brilliant too. I can’t think of one this series that has left me indifferent. It’s like a season of 24 condensed into an hour.

New-boy Richard Armitage is the only disappointment for me. He’s not been given an awful lot to say, and he’s not disarmed quite enough Russian ‘badasses’ for my liking. Maybe next year he’ll get something interesting to do. Ros Myers (Hermione Norris) is getting all the good scenes.

The series finishes, tragically, next week. It’s only eight-episodes long (previous series were ten). Leigh’s article on Organ Grinder drops a cliffhanger by suggesting the next series could also be the last. Let’s hope not! I can think of several BBC shows I’d scrap to make room in the budget for more Spooks.

Incidentally, another show well worth watching is Outnumbered – it’s probably the funniest thing on TV right now and yet no-one knows it. Semi-improvised, the stars of the show are the children.

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