Saturday, May 16, 2009

My prediction for Eurovision final (Saturday)

I fared reasonably well with my top three prediction last year (I got the top two right, and my tip for third came sixth) so I'm going to be a bit more ambitious this time round and attempt the top five. Almost certainly a recipe for disaster, for as much as there's a red-hot favourite this year, the lower placings are very difficult to predict. For a long time I'd been feeling confident that, with both an extremely favourable draw and the Andrew Lloyd-Webber factor, the UK were set fair for a top five placing, but I'm now starting to get cold feet about that after the reports from today's rehearsals. Inexplicably, the juries vote after the final rehearsal, meaning that 50% of the vote is settled on the basis of something the audience don't actually get to see (can't be justified, surely?), so a less-than-perfect performance today may well have dented Jade's chances significantly. So, with that in mind, here's my wild stab in the dark...

Winners - Norway
2nd - Greece
3rd - Bosnia-Herzegovina
4th - Iceland
5th - Portugal

Possible dark horses - UK, Malta

I know I said last night that I thought we were heading back to Athens, and I'd stand by that if only Greece hadn't received such a significantly worse draw than Norway. I still personally don't fully understand the appeal of the Norwegian song, but there are times when a consensus of opinion is so strong you just can't ignore it.

I still can't make up my mind who I'll be voting for myself - with my personal rule of always voting for an entry entirely sung in a language other than English, it'll be either Portugal or Estonia, but on the basis of the semi-final performances they're quite evenly-matched for me. But my heart will be with the superb Icelandic entry all the way.

Of course, the fascination of tomorrow night will be to see how the new voting system works in practice. I suspect that although the political voting patterns will be somewhat diluted, they'll still be very noticeable. Let's not forget that Greece and Cyprus used to regularly swap 12 points even in the days when the voting was 100% jury.

Friday, May 15, 2009

YouGov sub-sample : well I think that answers my question!

I wondered aloud last night whether Labour's collapse in the latest UK-wide YouGov poll really heralded good news for the SNP, or whether the fringe parties would simply benefit at the expense of all the main parties in Scotland. But the detailed breakdown of the poll has now been released, and the Scottish sub-sample for the Westminster vote shows the following -

SNP 38% (+9)
Labour 27% (-1)
Conservatives 15% (-14)
Liberal Democrats 14% (+4)
Others 7% (+4)

As ever there is a huge health warning that needs to be attached to any sub-sample, but it does look potentially significant, especially since YouGov is the pollster that in the last few months has been consistently least likely to show the SNP in the lead for Westminster.

PS. I've just received one of those tedious "hard-working Scottish families love the Labour Party" leaflets - of course that sort of thing has always rung hollow for me, but I suddenly realised looking at it just how out-of-touch it's going to look to the average floating voter in the current circumstances.

What does the Labour freefall mean for the SNP?

Any lingering doubt that we are living in unprecedented political times was removed by the latest UK-wide YouGov poll showing Labour at an all-time low of 22%. By my reckoning, the combined figure for the 'others' also now stands at an astonishing 18%. On the face of it, good news for the SNP - but is it really? Clearly there's now an unprecedented anti-establishment mood out there, but the jury's also out on whether the electorate will still perceive the SNP as a true anti-establishment party, or whether they'll reserve that for fringe groups like UKIP, the Greens and the BNP. But even if the SNP take a small hit themselves, it surely can't compare with what is happening to Labour - and that being the case the signs are good for victory in the popular vote on June 4th.

Get rid of the old, take a hold and be free

My first reflection on tonight's Eurovision semi is that I think we're heading back to Athens next year. The staging of the Greek entry was quite breathtaking - it hardly seems to matter that it's an average sort of song, averagely sung. What does matter of course is that Sakis Rouvas is a major star across many parts of Europe, and all things considered I think he may just have the beating of Norway. On the other hand, I have to admit that I haven't entirely understood the widespread appeal of Norway from the moment I first heard it a couple of months ago! My other confession is that I actually voted against This is Our Night in the Greek national final (the first opportunity I'd ever had to vote in a non-UK selection) which may end up looking like a slightly silly decision in forty-eight hours' time. But then I voted for Yodel In The Canyon Of Love in 1997 as well...

As for my prediction, in spite of the momentary loss of nerve I mentioned on Twitter, I did fare slightly better this time and got nine out of ten right. My only blemish was that I thought Serbia would go through and Albania wouldn't. (Memo to Serbia - revert to one of those powerful ethnic ballads next year!) Funnily enough, when I was drawing up the list I pondered putting Albania in at the last minute - but if I had done it would have been Denmark I'd have left out. As ever, it'll be interesting to see which song was the jury pick.

I'm sure I'd already know the answer to this if I'd been following it closely enough over the last few months - but why were Greece and Cyprus paired together in the same semi-final? If the main purpose of the new (as in new last year) rules is to split up the various Eurovision old pals' act, none dates back further than the Greeks and the Cypriots.

Oh, and Estonia were indeed excellent. It'll be a close call between them and Portugal when I'm deciding how to vote on Saturday.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

My prediction for second Eurovision semi-final (Thursday)

OK, having been unexpectedly side-tracked last night by the random appearance of a 10,000 word dissertation about something I wrote here a month ago (well I'm sure it happens to everyone at some point), back to serious matters. I didn't have much luck with my prediction on Tuesday (only seven out of ten correct), but that may have been partly because I had very strong feelings one way or the other about some of the songs involved. I'm feeling a little more 'detached' about tonight's semi, so let's see if I fare any better. The ten countries I think will qualify for the final tonight, in no particular order, are -


Of course, living in the UK, I don't have a vote tonight but if I did I have a feeling I'd be plumping for Estonia. It fits my criteria of being entirely sung in a language other than English, but in actual fact I think it's the strongest song in the semi anyway. I'll be interested to see the live performance, though - it might help me decide whether I'll be voting for it on Saturday or sticking with the delightful Portuguese entry.

And can they please dispense with the magic button tonight..?

Culture : the root cause of voodoo statistics and the sudden urge to write 10,000 word dissertations?

I've been reflecting recently on how we as human beings have an infinite capacity to rationalise away the most indefensible of things, and on how when we do this in the most determined fashion it's usually because we're defending something we've known since childhood. If an activity, an object, an attitude, a state of affairs was 'normal' and 'comfortable' to us in childhood, it can't possibly be wrong, can it? My own minor examples are that, as a child, one of my favourite toys was a golliwog, and I also sometimes used a racist term to describe a corner shop run by a Pakistani. I recall my absolute incredulity when I first encountered suggestions that there was anything wrong with either of those things - and it was dangerously easy to sustain that incredulity given that the reaction of my peer group was almost unanimously the same as my own. How could any reasonable person find such trivial, silly things offensive, we asked in unison. In retrospect I can't believe that it took me literally years to accept how wrong I was, and to recognise that in a frequently hostile environment ethnic minority communities have every right to complain about the invidious effect of casual, unthinking racism. I wouldn't open my mind to that powerful argument because for some reason it was too painful to let go of a couple of the certainties of my childhood, however unimportant those certainties were. This same pattern can be seen played out time and time again - and people will construct the most astonishingly complex defensive arguments just to avoid having to let go of their familiar certainties, whether those certainties be that cruelty to animals can always be justified because life wouldn't be so easy without it, or that wealth inequality is justified by differential intelligence, or that there was no immorality in the mass slaughter of innocents at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (because it was the US that dropped the bombs, and the US doesn't do genocide). The more well-rehearsed these complex arguments become (and the defence of the Hiroshima atrocity is a good example of one that has become extraordinarily well-drilled), the more you can see the signs of insecurity in the individuals putting them forward. Whether consciously or subconsciously, the defenders of the indefensible have evidently realised "we need something bloody good here, or everyone's going to see straight through us".

And so let's recap. A few weeks ago, I present a very simple proposition that fewer people die in the UK as a result of gun violence than in the US. I suggest this is directly as a result of there being fewer guns around, which in turn is at least partly due to the much stricter gun laws here. I also refute the argument that 'guns don't kill people, people kill people' by pointing out that it would simply not be possible for an individual to kill as many people in a short space of time with virtually any other weapon, whatever their degree of murderous intent. People kill people, but they do so with guns, and could not do so with anything like the same degree of efficiency in any other way. A third proposition I put forward is that increasing opportunities for legal gun ownership would inevitably lead to a large number of lethal weapons ending up in the hands of those who are a danger to themselves or to others. All these common sense propositions are easy to explain. Why then, does it take a 10,000 word (yes, really!) incomprehensible, logic-bending, pseudo-scientific 'analysis' to refute them? And this dissertation has randomly appeared several weeks after the 'debate' ended, remember! If I could make sense of much of it, I might be provoked into breaking my word and responding directly to some of Mr Baker's points, but frankly I can't (doubtless a lack of intellectual capacity on my part). The only thing I will respond to is Baker's convenient wheeze that the huge difference in the murder rate in the US and UK can be explained away with just one word - 'culture'. America is simply a more violent culture, apparently. Hmmm, two wee problems there, Kevin. Firstly, culture doesn't generate itself out of thin air, it's moulded by facts on the ground - one of which happens to be the presence of an absolutely mind-boggling number of lethal weapons. I think that may just have something to do with America having a more 'violent culture' (along with other important factors such as jingoistic American militarism and the legitimisation of violent vengeance through policies such as the retention of the death penalty). Secondly, if as Kevin earnestly believes, he has 'statistically proved' the most important benefit of the prevailing American cultural norms - that more liberal gun laws actually make people safer - why can't he show that the level of violence has not just fallen as a result of such laws, but has fallen to a lower level than in a comparable country that has had stringent gun laws for a prolonged period? As I've said repeatedly, that's the kind of 'statistical proof' that would impress me, and it's distinct absence is one of the reasons why most people in this country are secure in the knowledge that, at least on this one issue, we've got it right and countries like the US have got it disastrously wrong.

And from our perspective we wonder, why can't they see what's so blindingly obvious? As Mr Baker has brought up the issue of culture, that's not a bad place to look for the culprit. It is indeed culture that drives Kevin to write these dissertations of such extraordinary length - at some level he must recognise that the arguments ranged against him are simple, powerful, well-supported and have resonance with many people in his own country, and he feels that if he gives an inch to them he stands to lose something of great value to himself. But that thing only seems valuable to him because of the cultural certainties he grew up with. Viewed objectively, the loss of the right to own a luxury item like a gun really isn't that big a deal, especially not when you consider the benefits both to individual liberty and society of asking people to make that small sacrifice. I will obviously never convince Kevin that those benefits exist, and he will doubtless continue to try to disprove their existence by resorting to a barrage of voodoo statistics, but I remain more than content that I am on the right side of this argument.

Comments policy - As the sainted Kezia Dugdale would say, this is my own little corner of the internet, and I make no apology for setting my comments policy myself, and not allowing it to be dictated by presumptuous visitors from Arizona or anywhere else. Rachel Lucas - the owner of the blog in which this 'debate' commenced - takes precisely the same view. She moderates comments she finds offensive, and closes threads to new comments completely after a certain period of time. Evidently Ms Lucas is a staunch believer in 'reasoned discourse'.

My general position has always been that I will allow any comment, as long it isn't abusive and it doesn't contain strong language. However, I changed that position solely on this gun issue, because people were clearly putting their points to me as an individual and I felt I needed to respond in most cases. It was taking over my whole life and that was why I decided to make a clean break. I think that's a perfectly honest, straightforward position, and if Mr Kevin Baker has a problem with that, well tough. This blog is not written (to the extent it's written at all anymore!) for his benefit, or to satisfy his personal preferences. As I said at the time, another factor in my decision was that it rapidly became obvious that Kevin was not remotely interested in a genuine debate, but only in an ego-boosting gladiatorial contest involving lots of delusional triumphalism on the part of both him and his adoring fans (I Could Not Have BEGGED For Better, Now THIS is Reasoned Discourse, etc, etc). I was also concerned at Joe Huffman's semi-abusive blog post title, directed towards me personally. (Joe, incidentally, seemed astonished that I didn't bother reading the contents of that post - did he seriously expect me to consciously choose to read a post entitled What Did James Say That ****** You Off So Much?) No-one with an ounce of self-respect would persevere with a 'debate' that had descended to that level. But if anyone feels strongly that they want to comment on anything I've said here or in previous posts, they have the opportunity to do so at Kevin's blog, where in any case they can be assured of a much greater audience. For the avoidance of doubt, however, I'd just like to confirm that when I talked about Kevin's quest for 'ever more detailed statistical evidence', yes, I was being sarcastic (I understand some Americans have difficulty picking up sarcasm). Lots and lots of noise jumbled up with big numbers does not a credible statistical analysis make.

UPDATE - Kevin has 'updated' his blog in a kind of non-update sort of way, to point out that I've 'responded' to him in a non-responsive kind of way (which was always my intention given that the vast bulk of Kevin's dissertation genuinely makes no sense to me at all). And don't worry - reliable as ever, he has included the words 'Reasoned Discourse' in his update, yet again without explaining the reference. If I didn't know better, I'd suspect a form of Tourette's is at play here (which I seem to be in danger of picking up myself). However, I'll hazard a guess as to what this tedious in-joke might be referring to - I'd imagine that on many occasions when a proponent of gun control has decided not to continue in debate with Kevin, the stated explanation has been "it's simply impossible to have a reasoned discourse with you". If I'm close to being right, I'd like to gently suggest something to Kevin. If something like that keeps happening again and again with so many different people, isn't it at least worth considering the possibility that "it's not them, it's me"?

Incidentally, Kevin is most certainly misleading his readers on one point. He says in his update "James has disabled comments. I never expected anything more (or less, for that matter)." That being the case, why did he say this to me on April 8 - "they close their comments and often delete them. I don't think you'd do that"? By definition, one of those two contradictory statements must be untrue. A minor point, maybe, but it is a useful illustration of the insincerity that lies behind some of Kevin's rhetoric.

UPDATE (Friday 15th May) - A few extra thoughts. Some members of the Kevin Baker fan club have taken issue with my characterisation of their hero's notion of statistical-based evidence as 'voodoo statistics'. (In the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies - "well they would, wouldn't they?") Not being American, I'm afraid I'll have to rely on British examples to explain what I mean by that phrase. In the 1993 local elections in England and Wales, both the Conservative and Labour parties produced detailed statistical evidence purporting to show that council tax was on average lower in authorities run by them. Even in a world of 'lies, damn lies and statistics' that just doesn't seem to stack up - one party must have been lying, and the other must have been telling the truth, right? Well, actually, wrong. Both parties were telling the truth. As it turned out, it was Labour who were misleading the public, but they were doing so on the basis of a superficially honest statistical analysis. The deceit (and it was without doubt a conscious one) was that they failed to put those statistics in their proper context and explain what it was they didn't show. A few of you have suggested that I have by default 'lost the debate' (the KB fan club thinks that KB has won 'again'? Astonishing!) because I haven't put myself through the torture of going through Kevin's plenitudinous prose line by line, and pointing out where I think his statistics or logic don't stack up. Even if I had a mind to do so, it simply isn't necessary. We live in politically savvy times, in which everyone has been exposed to endless examples of the 'voodoo' approach to statistical analysis that I set out earlier (Lib Dem bar chart leaflets, anyone?). I trust the intelligence of people enough to know they'll instantly recognise Kevin's latest dissertation (and his earlier one) for what it is, without needing someone to hold their hand with a line-by-line rebuttal. If anyone is in any doubt that there are plenty of anti-gun equivalents of Kevin ready and able to compete with him toe-to-toe on who can produce the biggest barrage of seemingly unanswerable statistical evidence, you need only look here for one of the many, many examples on the internet.

But I haven't gone down that road - I've stuck to arguing on the basis of what I believe in, without recourse to voodoo statistics. In a sense that was precisely what Kevin invited me to do - "it's all about the philosophy, James", he said in his original honeyed invitation for this 'debate'. What I didn't fully appreciate was that Kevin possesses the strange notion that his philosophy is literally 'provable' (the last person who believed that was Karl Marx). Well, that's Kevin's delusion and I'm happy to let him wallow in it. But what I won't accept from him or his groupies is the demonstrably absurd suggestion that because I have stuck to arguing my philosophy and Kevin has stuck to arguing on his voodoo statistics, that somehow means my argument has been all emotion and 'hand-waving' (??? - must be an American phrase) where his has been 'cool', 'detached', 'logic-based', etc, etc. Again, I trust the intelligence of any casual readers to see through this in an instant - because Kevin's whole driving force for endlessly debating on this subject (and for learning his lines and his statistics backwards) is emotion. Specifically that emotion is anger at what could be 'taken away' from him, and that leads to the mask of 'reasonable debater' slipping again and again and again. I've already flagged up his descipable debating tactic of producing a photo of a woman with horrific injuries and juxtaposing it with words to the effect of 'this is what James Kelly would call mere bumps and bruises'. So that's the KB fan club's idea of emotion-free debate, is it? Anyone brave enough to read through Kevin's dissertations in full will find quite a few other choice examples of how he breaks up his endless stream of epic quotes and voodoo statistics with similar 'emotion-free' rhetoric.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Ah ah ah I, I knew I was right

Except in the case of Andorra, who in spite of me wishing as hard as I could failed to make it through. Quite simply, the live performance didn't match the quality of the song (almost the exact reverse could be said of Malta). I also seem to have had something of a blind spot with Sweden, which most people were expecting would qualify but I thought would fall short. Probably it was distinctiveness that won the day there. But the qualifier that completely flabbergasted me was Finland - the song is OK but the performance was as uninspiring as in the rehearsals. It can't be put down to political voting so it will remain a mystery (unless it transpires it was the song saved by the juries). So in the end I only correctly predicted seven out of the ten qualifiers, although in my defence I did say that Israel were the next most likely qualifiers (on the subject of which, what has Mira Awad done with her hair?).

I said last night I would be voting for Bosnia, unless there was some sort of revelation in the live performances. As it turned out, there was a revelation, and ironically it came from a song I already rated highly - Portugal. As much as I loved the song, I couldn't imagine it translating well to the Eurovision stage, but I couldn't have been more wrong. So, for the second year in a row, I voted for Portugal!

Thoughts on the show itself - well, I'm not sure 'magic buttons' are really much of an improvement on envelopes. It's still not too late for a drastic rethink before Thursday night, though. How about a 'magic tree', from which a 'magic apple' falls off every time you give it a good shake. And then the apple 'magically' splits open to reveal the name of a qualifier for the final. No? Oh well, just a thought.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

My prediction for first Eurovision semi-final (Tuesday)

Before I begin, I'll just modestly point out that I correctly predicted all ten of the qualifiers at this stage last year (and I'll conveniently gloss over my prediction for the second semi!). Anyway, in no particular order, here are the ten countries I think will qualify for the final tonight -


As with last year, I'm basing this partly on my opinion of the songs, partly on what I've seen of the rehearsals via YouTube, and partly on the familiar political voting patterns (although of course the fact that the juries choose one qualifier complicates matters). I have to admit there may be a danger of my heart ruling my head here - as regular readers will know Iceland and Andorra are my two favourite songs in the contest by miles, and I've also got something of a soft spot for Portugal. I think I'm on fairly safe ground with Portugal and also with Iceland (whatever Keith Mills might think) but Andorra is a borderline call after their particularly ropey first rehearsal. Things have improved somewhat since then, but not enough for me to be fully confident. If they fail to make it, I think Israel might be the next most likely qualifier.

And you might be wondering - which will I be plumping for in the public vote, Iceland or Andorra? Answer (bizarrely) - neither! As I mentioned last year, I have my own long-standing personal rule that I only vote for songs sung entirely in a language other than English, so I just choose the best one that fits into that category. In this case (barring a revelation in the live performances) that will be Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Monday, May 11, 2009

In defence of anonymity

OK, it's official - David Maddox has completely lost the plot. In what must be one of the most self-satisfied blog posts I've read for a long time, he explains the reason why he refuses to engage in debate with the detested 'Cybernats'. It is not, apparently, that they are 'racists', 'bigots', 'ethnic cleansers' who 'generally manage to detract from the sum of human knowledge' (one might have assumed that would be sufficient) - no, it is merely that they refuse to give their own name. Frankly, Maddox ought to be grateful at this moment that they do insist on anonymity - if these were named individuals he was accusing of being on a par with Slobodan Milosevic I dare say he could find himself in some legal difficulty. But of course the whole post is based on a false premise - because just one Cybernat (hisssss!) complained to him that he never responded (and suggested that might be the reason the Steamie attracts so few comments), Maddox is able to address us as if the whole of Cybernat-dom is feeling mortally wounded at the Great One's refusal to engage in debate with us. But if anything, surely the lack of comments ought to be taken as a fairly strong signal of the complete opposite - that Cybernats in general don't actually give a monkey's about a) what Maddox writes in his blog and b) whether he deigns to talk to us or not. If it was such an issue, I'd expect hundreds of comments goading him to respond - such comments are notable for their absence except in this one isolated case which Maddox has mysteriously got terribly excited about. I suppose being largely ignored can do strange things to people - look at the state of nervous excitement Charlotte Brontë worked herself into whenever anyone so much as sent her a letter.

As for the issue of anonymity, all I can say is that AM2/Scottish Unionist must be crying into his pillow now, because this clearly means that Maddox is never going to speak to him again. But it might be worth pondering AM2's stated reasons for remaining anonymous - given that he attracts a lot of abusive reactions, he only feels comfortable expressing his trenchant views behind a pseudonym. Isn't that (rarely for AM2) a fairly reasonable position, and one that is just as reasonable for a Nationalist poster to take? Maddox really ought to get off his high horse here. He attaches his real name to his own witterings for one reason, and one reason only - he's contractually obliged to under the absurd arrangement by which he actually gets very well paid to impose his tedious world view on the rest of us. I dare say the average Cybernat would be more than happy to reveal their own name if it was under the same terms.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

I can spot an anti-UK agenda when I see one

If ever I worried my cynicism about Keith Mills of All Kinds of Everything fame went a little too far, he's yet again set my mind at rest that it doesn't with his latest unfunny diatribe about a UK Eurovision entry. Anyone who has read the political posts on this blog will instantly understand why I'm ideally qualified to spot an anti-UK agenda when I see one (ie. I've got one myself), and Keith ticks all the boxes. I did actually make that point to him last year, and he responded that it was complete nonsense, citing his support for the 2005 UK entry (Touch My Fire by Javine) as proof. I do recall that, but I have to say I'm not convinced. The impression I get is that if the UK comes up with an excellent entry that happens to be to his own taste, he's swept along with his enthusiasm for it (as I think all Eurovision fans are with a good song regardless of country). But in every other circumstance, he reverts to his comfortable default position which is that the UK song is unremittingly awful, the weakest in years, no-one in Ireland will vote for it, a contender for last place, etc, etc. These prejudiced 'blind spots' in his annual analysis are such a pity, because in many other ways Keith has the best coverage of the contest on the internet. Fortunately, his regular co-bloggers Andrew and Peter are free of Keith's agenda and both see the UK as a potential winner. For me, not quite - but definite top five.

YouGov sub-sample : SNP and Tories tied for lead

The latest YouGov poll is not only disastrous for Labour on a UK-wide basis, it also shows the party slumping to a very rare third place in Scotland. Admittedly that is a somewhat nominal finding, as the top three parties are in a virtual three-way tie for the lead. One thing is for sure, though - Glenrothes now seems like a very distant memory!

SNP 29% (+1)
Conservatives 29% (+11)
Labour 28% (-7)
Liberal Democrats 10% (-4)
Others 3% (-2)

As ever, the detailed findings of sub-samples should be taken with a pinch of salt, with the Tory standing looking especially questionable (at least until another two or three sub-samples show a similar position).