Another perfect moment in British colonial development

Another perfect moment in British colonial development

I am in London for a week doing some research with small area analysis, and on the weekend had a brief opportunity to actually see the city. As is traditional by now on my annual trips to London, I visited the World Wildlife Photography Exhibition (which was a bit weak this year, I thought), and having a bit of time to kill wandered up the road to the Science Museum. Here I stumbled on a small and interesting exhibition entitled Churchill’s Scientists, about the people that worked with Winston Churchill before, during and after the war on various projects, and Churchill’s powerful influence on British science.

This year will see the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, and you would think by now that popular culture of the victorious countries would finally have got to the point where it is able to handle a more nuanced analysis of the politics of that time than mere hagiography. It’s clear that the allied powers were uncomfortable about some of their actions during the war: the careful elision of Arthur “Bomber” Harris and his fliers from peacetime awards is an example of British squeamishness about the morality of the bomber war, but this squeamishness doesn’t seem to have manifested itself in any kind of clear critical reevaluation of the behavior of the allies at war, at least in popular culture. This silence is starting to be broken by, for example, Antony Beevor’s uncomfortable discussion of rape in Berlin, or his discussion of the treatment of collaborator women in Normandy; but it is generally absent from public discussion. Churchill’s Scientists is, sadly, another example of this careful and deliberate overlooking of the flaws of wartime leaders and their politics when presented in popular culture.

The exhibition itself is small and interesting, walking us through various aspects of the scientific endeavours of the pre-war and post-war eras. It describes the scientists who worked with Churchill, their relationship with him and the public service, and how science was conducted during the war. Churchill was very close friends with a statistician who advised him on all aspects of war endeavours, and also was very supportive of operational research, which was basically an attempt to revise wartime strategy on the basis of evidence. The achievements of these scientists given their technological limitations are quite amazing: drawing graphs by hand on graph paper to attempt to explain every aspect of the statistics and epidemiology of rationing, conducting experiments on themselves to understand the effects of low-calorie diets, and feverishly working to improve tactics and technologies that were valuable to the war. The post-war efforts were also very interesting: there is a life-size installation showing the original model of myoglobin, which was studied using x-ray crystallography and then built by hand using cane rods and beads to create the three-dimensional structure. There is a telling quote about how scientists became used to asking not “how much will it cost” but “how quickly can we get it done and what do we need?” There are also some interesting examples of how the wartime expectations of scientists translated into peacetime success: they had contacts in the ministries from their wartime work, they were used to having funds and knew how to raise money, and they had access to hugely increased resources as the ministries dumped wartime surplus in universities and research institutes. In the 1950s this translated into rapid advances in medicine, genetics, nuclear power and astronomy, all of which are documented in the exhibition.

There are, however, some political aspects that are overlooked. Currently in the UK there is an ongoing debate about whether to stop conducting the Census because it costs too much, and it is clear that since the war there has been a shift in funding priorities and a move away from the idea that science should be funded at any cost. I would have been interested to find out how this happened: did Churchill change his attitude towards funding for science or was this a post-Churchill trend? Was Churchill the last of the Great Investors? What did subsequent conservative party leaders make of his legacy and how do they talk about it? Why is it that the country that invented radar, that perfected antibiotic production, and that contributed more than any other to modern geographical statistics and demography, can no longer “afford” the census? Was the war a high point and an aberration in the history of British science funding? Did its successes distort the post-war scientific landscape and expectations? None of this is really described in the exhibition, which limits itself to Churchill’s positive legacy, and doesn’t seem to want to explore how it was undone. There is also a bit of attention paid to female scientists in Churchill’s war efforts, including women who developed X-ray crystallography and did important nutritional epidemiology research. But we know that much of the computational work done in the war and immediately after was also done by women, but they were slowly squeezed out of the industry after the war. I would have been interested in some description of what happened to all those female scientists and ancillary staff after the war – were they forced out of science the way women were forced out of factory work, or did Churchill’s support for women in science during the war permanently change the landscape for women in science? It seems clear that Watson and Crick’s work – initially sparked by x-ray images of the DNA that are shown in this exhibition – must have been built on the work of crystallography’s pioneers, who were women. But where did those women end up when the war effort wound down?

The other aspect of this exhibition that is sadly missing is a discussion of Churchill and his scientists’ darker sides. We are introduced to the exhibition through Churchill’s love of flying; the website for the exhibition quotes him talking about new technologies in aerial bombing; and the exhibition itself talks about his support for a British nuclear weapon. But nowhere in the exhibition is his enthusiasm for terror bombing discussed, nor the unsavoury way in which he developed this enthusiasm, running terror bombing campaigns against Iraqi tribespeople in the 1920s. Arthur Harris is only presented once in the exhibition, dismissing a biologist who proposed a campaign of tactical bombing of railway junctions (he “wasted his time studying the sexual proclivities of apes,” was the dismissal); but nowhere is the corollary of this position – Harris’s lust for destroying cities – mentioned, or the extensive scientific work that went into developing the best techniques for burning civilians alive. In the year that western governments will demand Japan apologize for its wartime atrocities (again!), one would think they could at least mention in an exhibition on wartime science the extensive research that went into perfecting the practice of burning Japanese civilians alive.

In case one thinks this might have been just an oversight on the part of the curators, later we see a more direct example of this careful elision, when the exhibit focuses on Britain’s post-war nuclear weapons program. Again, we have been presented with Churchill’s direct interest in blowing stuff up; here we are shown video of a nuclear test, and discussion of the research that scientists were able to do on the environmental and physical effects of the bombs. The exhibition doesn’t mention that many of these tests, conducted in Maralinga in Australia, were conducted on land that Aborigines had been expelled from and were unable to return to. It also doesn’t mention the contamination of Aboriginal customary lands, any possible harmful health effects for Aborigines living in the area, and the controversies of the Maralinga inquiries and subsequent compensation for soldiers and workers. Not even a one sentence reference.

Given that we know Churchill was a deeply racist man who supported colonialism and had no interest in the rights of non-white British, it seems hardly surprising that he might have had a slightly cavalier attitude towards ethics in research and military tactics where it was directed against Iraqi tribesmen or Australian Aborigines. It seems like 70 years after the end of the war it might be possible to start talking about this stuff honestly outside of academia, and to publicly reevaluate the legacy of men like Churchill, and many of his senior scientists, in the light of everything we know now, rather than simply portraying all their efforts through only the lens of wartime heroism. Churchill was undoubtedly a great man and a powerful leader, and the world owes him a debt of gratitude. He was also a racist and a colonialist, and some of the decisions he made before, during and after the war may not have been either right or the best decisions for the time. It also appears that despite his greatness, the legacy of his interest in science and education was soon undone, and the reasons for this are important for us to consider now. What does it say about Britain that 70 years after the end of the war it is still not possible to honestly assess Churchill’s wartime efforts but only to extol his great contribution to science; yet 70 years later his contributions to science have been so far wound back that the government is considering abolishing the Census? Does such hagiography benefit Britain, or British science? I would suggest not.

This year is the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, and we are going to see a lot more public discussion of the actions and contributions of the great people of that time. I fear that this discussion is going to be very shallow, and sadly empty of any attempt to critically reassess the contributions of the people involved, and how they shaped our post-war culture. This exhibition is a good example of how the war will be presented this year: stripped of moral context, all uncomfortable truths banished from discussion, and all long-term ramifications for post-war politics and culture carefully sanitized to ensure that no difficult questions are asked, or answered. Perhaps we aren’t doomed to repeat history, but I think this year at the very least we are going to be bored stiff by it.

The Shaikh would not approve!

The Shaikh would not approve!

I discovered tonight that my blog has come to the attention of a Muslim scholar in the UK, in a piece he wrote about the UK census. Like me, this scholar noted the obssessive focus of the UK press on the growth of Islam, rather than the explosion of atheism[1]. Unlike me, the writer of this piece didn’t comment on the simultaneous release of gay marriage laws that privilege the bigotry of the mainstream churches. I wonder why?

Anyway, in previous posts here I have presented the use of Tolkien by fascists as evidence in favour of my thesis that his work is racist. So it’s only fair that I hoist myself on my own petard, and have a look at what kind of people hold my work in high esteem[2]. If we can find even one work by this website that supports the veil, then surely I’m anti bikini? Right?

Fortunately, the Islam21c website gives a convenient collection of all the works of the scholar in question, Shaikh Haitham Al-Haddad, so we can read his opinions in full, and an interesting read they are. Essentially they read like your standard form of leftist religiosity, with perhaps a touch more homophobia and prostration than one might see of a Catholic liberation theologist, but generally in the same vein – they’re the sort of thing that a mainstream leftist christian in America would probably approve of (minus the “peace be upon him”s) or that a conservative Australian catholic unionist (or even Tony Abbott) could get behind. They also have a particular theme that you won’t find in the works of a “mainstream” religious activist in the UK – how to deal with being a Muslim in Britain. And in this regard they don’t read particularly differently to the opinions of a practical Marxist or fascist, in that they attempt to provide guidelines for how to conduct oneself in a world that one simultaneously appreciates and enjoys, but finds morally bankrupt and which (to a greater or lesser extent depending on one’s political and religious leanings) rejects you or your kind. Thus we find advice on whether or not to vote (do so, but do so from a framework of minimizing evil, and aim to follow the advice of Muslim scholars about which party to vote for); advice about how to respond to the killing of bin Laden (which, funnily enough, contains no advice; but condemns al Qaeda while blaming everything on America); an opinion on the London riots (morally reprehensible, but driven by racism and the exclusion of the poor from education[4]); and recommendations about banking practice (if you hold views which require a boycott, as do e.g. vegetarians or environmentalists, then you need people to gather information and present their opinion of whether particular products are valid to use[3]). Every gold card should have a fatwa!

More interesting is the site’s attempts to describe the nature of the hijab (voluntary, but recommended to all), the issue of immodest hijabs (yes, they exist!) and the problems inherent in treating the hijab as a symbol of identity rather than an act of worship (I actually thought these readings would put many a post-structuralist feminist to shame); and most interestingly, its ongoing series of posts on what it means to be British in an Islamic context, built around a debate with another Islamic scholar about the role of music (very appropriate, given the strength of British culture in the production of music). Would that mainstream journalists in the UK could put as much thought into these issues as this obscure website has done! In this context I thought the open letter to David Cameron was particularly impressive.

Although I think I can say I disagree with almost everything on this site, I think I understand the fundamental struggle it describes: to try to live according to a strict set of moral precepts in a world that doesn’t agree with them, or that agrees with them in principle but doesn’t support them practically. You can see this from christian fundamentalists, vegans, pacifists and some kinds of Marxists and libertarians, and the personal struggles their websites describe are all the same. Unlike some christians in the west, though, this site is more honest: it directly blames the Japanese tsunami on a failure to embrace the correct God – a view this tired atheist would have once got angry about, but now appreciates for its cruel honesty. The more times that religious people say things like this, the more potential followers they will lose, because in statements like this they reveal the fundamental cruelty of the god they claim loves them, and the responsibility of all right thinking people everywhere to oppose those gods if they were real. Anyone who submits to a god that kills 10,000 people even though they have never had a chance to convert to his “love” is lacking some fundamental understanding of what compassion is. Or is being very bloody-minded. Either way, it’s better that these things are stated openly than clothed in mealy-mouthed excuses about “the problem of evil.”

Anyway, the post-colonial critique of mainstream analyses of Islam was good, as was the debate about what it means to be British, and the subjugation of nationalism to the greater struggle – very much in keeping with the major streams of international socialist thought. Shame about the hocus-pocus, but you can’t have everything – but who cares when you can hoist faustusnotes on his own petard, and prove without a shadow of a doubt that my website is opposed to bikinis!? And, no doubt, objectively pro-terrorist …

fn1: incidentally, my spell-checker notes that “Islam” requires a capital “I” whereas “atheism” does not need a capital. Typing here, I also note that “Christianity” requires a capital “C”. I think this is bullshit. I think in all future posts, I will capitalize the “A” in “Atheism.”

fn2: my claiming that this islam21c blog holds me in high esteem might be stretching it a bit, but we don’t get a great many hits around here, so please go easy on me.

fn3: In Australia, vegans generally told each other that Toohey’s Red and Coopers were safe beers to drink

fn4: but your average rioter probably doesn’t want to assume this means they receive any sympathy – if our friendly shaikh had his way, they’d be getting a hand amputated!

The UK Census was released today, and the Guardian is “live-blogging” the details[1]. As a statistician I feel obliged to comment on the census, because it’s a fundamentally important part of modern cultural life. As an opinionated bastard, I also take great joy in the release of figures I can distort to suit my view – just like the commenters at the Guardian – so let’s dig in and see what we can say about the UK Census.

Why is it important?

I’m pretty sure someone with more energy than me can trace all of modern statistics back to an Islamic scholar, or worse still, a Frenchie, but as far as most people care modern statistics – and, especially, modern demography – owes a huge debt to the British. The census began in 1801 but Britain has been keeping some kind of records since before they invented the clock, so their contribution to the body of human knowledge is worthy of respect. Furthermore, London has been a very international city for a long time, and the rest of Britain an inward-looking maelstrom of anti-foreigner weirdness, and because British government has generally failed to implement anything resembling a sensible multicultural policy, what happens in London and the way British people regard what happens in London is very interesting to those of us who are a little more sanguine about racial issues.

Foreigners and the tabloid press

The Guardian reports in its headline that now almost 1 in 8 people in Britain was born abroad, and “white British” ethnicity is a minority in London (at 46%). This is the Guardian, that doyen of leftist politics. Check out the comments to that article: almost everyone is commenting on or arguing about the issue of foreigners in London, and aside from one faux-cynical comment about the rich getting richer, no one is noticing the strange economic phenomenon of the decline in home ownership, and if anyone notices the radical changes in religious composition it’s to worry about a tiny minority of Muslims, not to notice the explosion in atheism. This is the prestige that the British ruling class use to pull off their magic trick of robbing the poor: they get everyone looking at the weirdo foreigners while they steal their stuff. Of course it’s all irrelevant: 24% of the Australian population was born overseas, and no one gives a toss. Our Prime Minister was born overseas (in Wales, no less! can you imagine?!) But in Britain having half that many people born overseas is the main point, all else secondary. And as we can see, what is secondary is perhaps much more important than the number of foreigners in the country.

Race vs. origin: a strange British obsession

The debate in Britain about race is a strangely obsessive thing. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) offers a set of something like 15 ethnicities for respondents to choose from, including the ludicrous category of “White British,” which must really mystify any Americans staying in the UK during the census period. What can they class themselves as? Of course there are other equally ludicrous ethnicities, such as “Black African,” which put Ethiopians, Zulus and Nigerian Yoruba in the same ethnicity. What is the point of this? Who does it help? From an epidemiological point of view it’s a complete waste of time. Genetically it’s meaningless – everyone in Iceland, whose DNA has been mapped, gets classed in the same category (“White Other”) as everyone from Hungary. Where do Australians get placed? (There is not – yet – a category for “Mostly White Mongrel”).  This categorization says so much more about the ruling majority’s petty obsessions than it does about the population of Britain, and is a classic example of a classification system that obscures anything meaningful, while revealing a set of pre-conceived preferences that serve only to reinforce a certain worldview.

But this census the ONS did a remarkable thing: for the first time in the 200 years of the census they bothered to ask respondents what language they speak at home, and so we get to learn something of the actual ethnic make-up of the nation, rather than the ethnic composition imagined by those who think the elision of Hungarians and Icelanders is useful. We learn that 91% of British people speak only English at home, and 4% can speak no English at all. Compare this with ethnically “homogeneous” Japan, where about 2% of the population are non-Japanese: so probably about 1% speak no Japanese. Is it really such a big difference?

In Australia we don’t ask about “ethnicity.” [From memory] We ask three questions: where you were born, what languages do you speak at home, and are you Aboriginal? The latter is asked because of the continuing challenges facing Aboriginal people (especially discrimination) and the importance of cataloguing and understanding their culture; the former two questions were a deliberate decision of the Hawke government to make census data representative of modern Australia. In modern Australia, if you are born in Australia you are Australian, and the assumption should be (and generally, is) that your ethnicity is irrelevant. This means that if someone came here from the UK we don’t care if they are black, white or “Asian”: we only care about the fact that they are new to Australia and the languages they speak. From a data-driven point of view, ethnicity is a highly charged and complex notion, debated and disputed at every level – from the genetic and the political to the personal. My father, for example, believes that he is “White English” and he and his friends – all of whom, incidentally, believe I am not “white English” because my Grandfather is Spanish – refuse to write “White British” on the census, and deliberately select “other” so they can write “White English.” The ONS doesn’t report this little protest movement, as far as I’m aware, though I don’t know why: “White English” is as meaningless a category as “black African,” so why not include it? The truth of my father’s situation is much more deeply embedded in other census data – born in Britain, speaks only English, lives in a trailer park – than in the supposed purity of his genetic heritage. Who cares what percentage of his heritage is saxon vs. French? But my father does, because while he is very easily tempted to represent himself in terms of lost and mythical racial categories, it is extremely hard to get him to think of himself in terms of functionally useful social phenomena, such as home ownership or social class. And this is the great trick of the British race “debate”: it gets all those little Englanders to identify with their white overlords, rather than with the gypsy down the road who is in the same economic position as them.

Religion

In the religion category we find that the UK has finally caught up with Australia – and at a rapid pace – with 25% of respondents endorsing “no religion” compared to 15% in 2001. This is a rapid change, and indicates that support for mainstream religion in the UK is declining rapidly, with the main increase being amongst those who reject all religion. The other main article on the Guardian site as I write this is the government’s announcement that religious groups will be given the right to “opt in” to gay marriage laws – that is, they will be automatically assumed to be discriminatory bigots unless they raise a finger to indicate otherwise. Can we think of any reason why the proportion of people who are non-religious might be increasing rapidly in the UK?

Sadly, the number of Jedi has declined by half since the last census, from 390,000 in 2001 to 176,000 now. At least the ONS was brave enough to report this cute little protest movement – the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) refused to release the figures.

Home ownership

The other remarkable finding in this survey is that home ownership rates have declined, from 69% to 64%, even though the population is ageing and so should be expected to have higher rates of home ownership. How is it that the UK has gone through a 10 year long housing boom (that ended just 2 years before the census was taken) yet the number of people renting has increased by almost the same amount that the number of owners has declined? It can’t be because of a general all-round decline in wealth – the number of cars in ownership has increased by about 9%, even though there was no car ownership bubble. So what happened? This should serve as a reminder to everyone that privately-financed housing bubbles are the antithesis of the housing dream: they concentrate the market in the hands of those who own capital, giving them rentier’s power over an essential service. Of course, over the coming days all debate will be focused on race and immigration. How convenient for the rentiers…

The myth of British education and Australian ignorance

The proportion of people in the population with a degree education of any kind increased to 27%, finally breaking even with Australia. Of course, the population has increased by 5% since 2001 – while the British newspapers would love to blame every decline in living standards on foreigners, I’m willing to bet you a groat that they don’t point to temporary foreign migrant workers – mainly skilled labourers, I suspect – who might have bolstered those figures. Already the comments in the Guardian are complaining about “white British” who can’t get a job or a house, so I guess they won’t be rushing to praise the the high levels of education of foreigners in the UK. It’s another example of the sad decline of the UK relative to the rest of the world that with a 4% increase in education level they can finally cut even with the colony they shipped their criminals too. From a great colonial power to a nation that sits hunched over its census reports, bemoaning the shrinking number of “white British” people, and wondering why …

Still, at least the Church of England will be protected from having to offer equality to gays…

fn1: noone who “live blogs” in the Guardian ever turns up in comments to defend their crappy opinions[2], so it’s not actually a blog at all. They should instead say “we are using an annoying and inconvenient format to report important news as it comes in, so that we can attempt to trump the Daily Mail even though they’re much better at getting scoops than us, and don’t belittle themselves by pretending that they care about new media while patently failing to understand it.”

fn2: actually a couple of the anti-sex work campaigners do pop up in comments, but this is because they have blogs of their own and take new media seriously. Monbiot – who for all his chardonnay sipping faults is one of the best and most honest opinion writers in Britain – also engages with his commenters[3]. The rest of them act like what they are: idiot journalists who’ve been forced to produce their second rate thinking in a stream-of-consciousness format, which is really embarrassing for the average journalist[5], especially since the people who are best at this kind of thing are usually sports journalists.

fn3: and links to fully-referenced versions of his posts, which is genuinely excellent[4]

fn4: and you can get stuffed if you expect that kind of devotion around here!

fn5: remember, these were the thickest people at uni![6]

fn6: or second thickest, depending on where you place statisticians in the heirarchy.

Being still sick today, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and go see a doctor about a hand injury that’s been getting worse over the last few months. It’s a common kick-boxing related problem, no big deal, just a strain in the area at the base of my thumb, but it has been slowly getting worse (usually this goes away with some stretching) and so it’s worth checking if there isn’t some kind of minor fracture or strain that requires medicinal assistance or complete rest from punching. So off to the doctor I went.

The doctor I chose was the Abe Orthopedic Clinic near Kichijoji station, and when I turned up at 3pm (the start of afternoon opening hours) it was already full to over-flowing with old people, all of whom were waiting their turn patiently for a “rehabiliation massage.” Each would go into a room and sit on a chair where, for about 15 minutes, they would receive a massage from a physiotherapist. Then they emerged, got charged ridiculously small amounts (“100 yen!” “150 yen!”) and go home. After an hour I was called in, told it was just a minor strain and given a prescription for some kind of anti-inflammatory stick-on treatment, and out I went again. Total charge: 1050 yen for the consultation, about $10 US. Before my health insurance is taken into account that would be about $30 US, about the same as an equivalent consultation in Australia. My drugs cost a further $7 US.

Now let us compare with the same process in the UK. First I have to visit my general practitioner (GP), which I can only do with an appointment in most cases. The appointment will require a wait of 1-4 days, so I couldn’t have done it on a random day when I was already home sick. The GP won’t offer me any medical opinion, but will prepare a referral to a local hospital outpatient clinic, which I then book. This referral will take between 2 weeks and 3 months, usually somewhere more toward 6 weeks – unless one of the new-fangled “Referral Management Centres” decides my referral was inappropriate, in which case I’ll be redirected either to a specialist or back to the GP (with further waiting in both cases). So after 2-12 weeks (roll 2d6!) I will get to the outpatients’ clinic in the hospital, and assuming I am seen on time (unlikely) and don’t need an X-ray, will be given my prescription and sent home. Total cost: nothing.

Which system would you rather be getting treated in? Bearing in mind that when I say “health insurance” about Japan I don’t mean it in the American sense of “capricious company with a god complex that will decide whether you get reimbursed,” but “government-run single payer that covers everything.”

Which system would you be more likely to not bother attending for non-urgent healthcare in, especially if you’re a healthy young male who thinks he’s invincible? So, your health problem niggles away but you wait until it becomes acute because, well, this whole thing is too much trouble. Sure it’s still your fault when your diabetes gets out of control, you lazy shit; but wouldn’t it have been better if the unnecessary barriers to care weren’t there in the first place? And ultimately, from a health system perspective it doesn’t matter whose fault it is: you’ll still be turning up at the emergency department with acute unmanaged diabetes.

This isn’t necessarily just a problem with financing (everything in the NHS is free so queues can be used as a form of rationing). It’s a fundamental problem of the gatekeeper system that the NHS uses: if the gatekeeper doesn’t provide a good range of medical services onsite and/or the time from gatekeeper to gate is very long, it acts as a huge disincentive to voluntary healthcare-seeking behavior. And in modern health systems, voluntary healthcare-seeking behavior is very important: in testing as a component of controlling infectious diseases like HIV and TB; in managing chronic illness like diabetes; and in identifying preventable health conditions like osteoporosis.

Anyway, nothing’s wrong with my hand, and no nasty comments about the real cause of inflammation in my right wrist, if you please!

This is a cute example of the power of hindsight. Today’s Guardian has a discussion of the christmas tree that appeared in front of Downing St: you can read David Cameron’s twit about it here[1]. The Guardian helpfully points out that Cameron got a rare “tall” tree, once again proving inequality is a potent force in British life. Apparently tall trees are now rare because the EU changed subsidies back in 2005, causing Irish and Danish growers to switch from this type of fir tree to something else – biofuels for santa’s sleigh, maybe. Which just goes to show that the European Union’s Leprechauns and Vikings are in league to destroy British christmases.

But cuter still, the Guardian has a link to the article in which the change to subsidies was announced. This article contains predictions by the responsible grower’s organization:

Supermarkets and wholesalers are turning to British varieties of spruce, pine and fir.

After initial worries that British growers would struggle to cope with added demand, their representatives are predicting a £10m increase in profits

Compare with the statement from the same organization today:

While he insisted that the shortage did not equal disaster, Hay said it was inevitable that “the numbers are not going to meet the demand”. Some suppliers have been panic-buying and importing up to 100,000 more European trees than in previous years, Hay said.

I wonder if they ever got their original 10m pound profits? It certainly seems that the “initial worries” were correct. Maybe this is why people just don’t buy British anymore? Finally, we see some evidence that private ownership of environmentally sensitive goods is not necessarily the panacaea for responsible management (at least in Britain):

The other problem was that, as the British public fell back in love with real trees, growers have been selling them at a shorter height, he added. “Over recent years, growers in the UK were inclined to cut their trees as soon as people wanted them and therefore did not allow them to grow larger.”

Maybe the Christmas Tree Growers Association was originally responsible for forestry management on Easter Island?

Privatization of the resources of the commons (fish stocks, white rhinos, etc.) is sometimes suggested as an effective method of conservation, since people will be less inclined to kill off their last white rhino if they have a financial interest in its future[2]. Obviously the Christmas Tree Grower’s Association didn’t get the memo on that one … One argument against this form of stewardship is that as the size of the available stocks decline, the price will go up and the owner may be able to retire permanently on the sales of their last few white rhino horns/christmas trees, giving an incentive to exhaust their stocks as quickly as possible. I think this is why some resource economists would prefer a license system, since an environmentally-minded technocrat can vary the allowable permit as stocks change. I’m guessing that the christmas tree market in the UK is not a perfect analogy for the market in white rhino horns[3], but maybe some of the principles are transferrable. Left to their own devices, owners of a private but exhaustible good may not respond to price signals in a way that is inherently pro-conservation. I guess the perfect market theorist would argue this means that the British preference for christmas trees now outweighs their interest in preserving the stock, and the price reflects this, but I’m not sure if when people pay 10 pounds extra for a bigger tree they are really saying to themselves, “this 10 quid represents the entire extent of the value I place on having a tree at all my future christmases.” But then, the entire concept of perfect information and rational consumers[4] is pretty suspicious if the information marketplace includes the Daily Mail, which will no doubt blame the entire shortage on unelected gypsies in the European parliament.

fn1: would you be comfortable living in a country run by a man who can’t properly orientate photos before he uploads them?

fn2: A method of resource stewardship that reached rock bottom in one of the cannibalism scenes in The Road.

fn3: You have to get up pretty early in the afternoon to outsmart me!

fn4: I’m only pretending to know what these concepts even are.

Britain’s rioters have been returning Games Workshop products, it has emerged.

While I’m trying to find the time this week to write a game report… a brief comparison of London and Tokyo subways, that I thought of while I was riding on the Marunouchi Line (Tokyo) this morning, reading a sign that said the train had air-conditioning and an air-cleaning system installed. Reading it reminded me of being crammed into the London subway (“the Tube”) and the inevitable comparisons.

The London tube is a filthy, grim affair, with narrow, claustrophobic trains travelling through tunnels barely wider than the carriages themselves, like bullets in a chamber. The interior of the tube is so low that tall men have to bow their heads unless they can push to the middle; the seats are so filthy that they are literally ringed with grime at their edges – the centre of the seat is blue cloth but the edge is brown or black with grime. The trains have no airconditioning, and the city famously refuses to find a solution to the problem of the intense heat in the carriages and passageways – in summer in the UK the outside temperature may not go above 23, but down below in the multiple tubular layers of hell, it is well above 35. And of course, in that special London way, there is the constant stink of unwashed bodies packed together. The stations themselves are tiny, cramped affairs with dark, often unfinished tunnels that are already fraying at the edges. Everyone is in the same 3 brands (Zara, TopShop, H&M) and stands sluggishly on the long escalators, staring at the sluggish people passing the other way. Like British houses, the Tube is dark and grey and stuffy.

All this is in contrast to Tokyo, whose metro stations are wide, large and brightly lit with many exits, shopping centres connected to them, and throngs of bustling, active people who walk briskly up the escalators, and are dressed in the myriad contrasting fashions that only Tokyo can support. The trains are bright and clean, wider and taller than the Tube, even though the people here are smaller and shorter. The trains are air-conditioned and they travel through wider tunnels. In contrast to the intense noise of the Tube as the carriages rattle through the claustrophobic tunnels, passengers and announcers yelling over the din, all is quiet and ordered. Screens over every door broadcast the day’s Korean lesson, or some notes on successful communication. People are packed together, but the train is not stuffy or filled with the reek of unwashed bodies.

And so this contrast struck me. In London, the workers are hurled to their destination like so much unwanted snot. In Tokyo they are swished to their place of work as treasures, like the money through the automated tube systems of a Love Hotel.

Of course there’s no point in comparing to Sydney trains… in that “international city” you’re lucky if they turn up at all!

Simon Jenkins, Guardian columnist, ex-HIV Denialist and public health skeptic has a column up at the Guardian that contains his recommendation for dealing with the NHS. Unsurprisingly, his basic recommendation (like every other article he writes on public health risk) is – let them eat cake. Essentially worthless, in a roundabout way it aims at a solution and provides a couple of examples of the kind of magical thinking that lots of free market “solutions” to the NHS’s problems are prone to – and shows why they discredit the real, simple market solutions that might make the NHS work better.

But before we get onto the substance of the article, let’s just contemplate what Jenkins’ presence on the pages of the Guardian has to say about journalism as a profession. This is a man who for several years in the early 1990s was so staggeringly wrong about the science of health that he sided with the HIV denialist movement, writing articles that opposed the link between HIV and AIDS long after the dust settled. The consequences of HIV denialism in Africa are pretty well understood now, and very sad, but here we have this man still writing on health-related topics – and specifically, on disease prevention – in the pages of a major UK newspaper. This is like giving editorials on NASA to a moon-landing skeptic. But somehow journalism manages to struggle on in this way, giving a dangerous idiot high profile space to spread idiocy and lies. And the lies haven’t even changed – his work on swine flue alarmism used pretty much the same arguments as his HIV Denialism. Oh journalism, what happened to you?

So now Jenkins has moved on to health policy, ever an important topic in the UK, in the wash-up of a report from the NHS Ombudsman on appalling mistreatment of old and/or very sick people in some hospitals. The report itself is summarized here and here. Jenkins provides us with a long list of the reorganizations that have been tried in the NHS over the past 50 years, and concludes that the NHS is “too big” and is best broken up – sacking 24,000 back office staff is a good start, apparently. We find Jenkins wondering why no-one has bothered to try and properly reorganize the system, and instead done all this tinkering at the edges, and suggests that the NHS is so big and powerful that it won’t allow internal change. And he also suggests that instituting top-down targets will encourage staff not to care about their patients. I want to look at these ideas in a little more detail, because they illustrate some of the common problem ideas that strident armchair observers force into the debate – ideas that are unproductive or even harmful to the interests of health policy in the UK.

The NHS Is Too Large To Change

Jenkins’ first point is that the NHS is too large to change, that it can successfully resist external tinkering because it is its own monster. He points to the long history of attempts at reorganizing the NHS and asks why they all fail. He says that

Its interests are too institutionalised, its lobbyists, especially the doctors, too powerful, and its internal controls so pervasive as to seize up the system.

but he doesn’t consider a far simpler explanation. The NHS is the main source of healthcare for 64 million people, and there is currently not a great deal of health care capacity outside of it. Has it occurred to Jenkins that the reason attempts to reorganize the NHS fail is that they need to occur slowly and cautiously? It’s very easy to propose radical solutions from the outside, as a senior journalist who can guarantee himself access to what little private health capacity exists in the UK. But for someone like David Cameron or Andrew Lansley actually attempting to modify the system, there are the interests of another 63,999,999 people to consider. You can’t afford to just break that shit overnight with a radical change – you need to be absolutely certain that the system won’t tip over. Yes, let’s break it all up – and if rather than breaking it up, we just break it, who suffers? Certainly not the top opinion writers at the Guardian.

The reason that the NHS has so much institutional weight is that, even though it isn’t the best system in the world, it works, and it works for 64 million people, most of whom have grown up with no alternative system, and couldn’t afford it if it were there. As a politician, it’s not just your own career on the line if you fuck that up – it’s a lot of people’s health. You tread carefully with a system that has that much weight.

The NHS Is Too Large

The next complaint Jenkins makes is that the NHS is just too large. It should be less mammoth. But if it is so large, why is it underfunded relative to the rest of Europe? As a nationalized health system, there is every possibility that it is not large enough, and needs further injections of funds before it can be said to be large enough to do its job effectively. It may be the case that the NHS as a single institution is too large to be effective, but it may just as well be the case that it is not large enough to serve the needs of its population. The more diversified health systems of Europe may be doing better, but they’re also getting a lot more money and have been getting a lot more money for a long time. We don’t have any evidence that the NHS would be performing worse than those systems if it had received the same historical funding.

Targets Discourage Caring

This is arrant nonsense. Health care organizations have always had top-down targets, regardless of the system they work in. Here’s an example of a target: we want 0 post-operative mortality this year. Here’s another: We want 0 prescribing errors this year.

Do those targets discourage ordinary staff from caring for their patients? No, quite the opposite. The impact of a target depends on the system it is instituted in, its suitability for the staff it effects, and the amount of funding and system support for the achievement of that target. It also depends on staff supporting it, and on the existence of infrastructure and management systems that help that target be achieved. The oldest Doctor’s target – first do no harm – is pretty useless, for example, if you have to treat HIV with ineffective medicines because some thick journalist convinced the government that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS.

For some reason a lot of British journalists and health critics have a problem with targets that way exceeds their meaning. Sure, targets can be useless – they can even make it harder for staff to get their job done – but this critique doesn’t necessitate the level of demonization and magical thinking that attends the dreaded T word in some journalistic and (largely, though not exclusively, Conservative) policy circles in the UK. Caring, wholesome nurses don’t suddenly become dark eyed witches because the government set a target on the number of teen pregnancies in their health area that year. Such a suggestion is magical thinking at its finest.

Sacking “Back-office staff” will get the System Working

This is another common refrain of the “common sense” brigade, the old-school unionists and (again, largely, though not exclusively, Conservative) policy radicals throughout the world. Its of a piece with the misperception of publicly-funded health systems as inefficient “public service” that employs people for make-work jobs. And, it’s largely impossible to conceive of as a sensible policy recommendation if one has ever actually worked in a hospital environment. Once one has, it is pretty obvious that these “back office” staff – supposedly so useless compared to their brave and peerless contemporaries, so-called “frontline staff” – are much harder to define and much more necessary than the policy radicals recommend. Exactly which back end staff should we be sacking here – the ones who process the salaries? The ones who enter the data that we use to track hospital quality? The ones who clean the floors? The ones who process the purchase orders that get the syringes to the bedside?

I worked as “Back office staff” for 3.5 years in a community health centre in Sydney. During this time:

  • I implemented a new methadone maintenance dosing database that reduced the risk of dosing errors (that can kill)
  • I merged this system with a client management system that enabled a coherent system for managing dangerous and troublesome clients, reducing (potentially very dangerous) confrontations
  • I implemented a new system of direct data entry that enabled us to reduce the amount of staff time spent on data entry – freeing staff up for frontline service!
  • I helped to coordinate the development of a statewide data standard for collecting information on hepatitis C treatment and management
  • I implemented a client management system for the newly-opened Medically Supervised Injecting Centre, which enabled us to both research the efficiency and effectiveness of the service, and manage client movement and injecting in what could best be described as a challenging work environment
  • I provided data analysis for ministers, health service planners, and my organizations staff – for training days, tracking new problems, and monitoring our performance

So, who was going to do this if I didn’t? And how in the long-term is the health system going to continue to operate at its best if these functions are retarded and slowly disappear from the organizations that form the whole? Do the policy radicals and idiot journalists who vent this type of inane policy “fix” consider that every private organization beyond a certain size has a similar set of “useless” back office staff, who keep the frontline people working smoothly? No, because they see the word “National” in “NHS” and a red film descends over their eyes. It’s a publicly funded service, so anyone who is not directly and immediately doing something that can be described as “health” must be wasting the public dollar.

This is ideology, not sense. But you’ll read it all the time in critique of publicly funded services everywhere.

The Private Market and the Grain of Truth

Of course, Jenkins has managed, by driving his buick very haphazardly, to swat the fly. The NHS could be improved – it could be made more responsive to patients, to health problems, to new threats and new technologies – by

denationalising, regionalising, introducing market forces, contracts, choice, anything to reduce bulk

and he correctly notes that this has been the plan for 20 years. Ultimately the way to improve the NHS is to “break it up” in some sense – to move towards the more decentralized mixed systems of Europe and Australia and Japan, where private and public providers compete for public money to treat patients who largely pay for the service they receive through taxes. Every movement in the NHS over the last 20 years has been towards this system, if not in essence then in practical fact. But no matter how much policy radicals and idiot journalists rant about it being too big, the fact remains that the health system in the UK is underfunded – in private and public contributions – and has been for a long time, and until it catches up with the European standard, too-rapid decentralization would be a disaster. Furthermore, with the British private sector very underdeveloped relative to other nations, time and investment is required. This can’t happen overnight because to dump 64 million people onto the tender mercies of a system that has been moribund and underfunded for 30 years, with no alternative, would be a policy disaster. So health policy in the UK moves slowly and consistently towards this goal, as successive governments find ways to loosen up the NHS and prepare the groundwork for a more flexible, more modern system, while people on the far left and the far right of the debate[1] watch the whole thing, and miss the point.

But the absolute worst thing that could happen while that movement occurs is for the people in charge of it to start thinking that the cause of the NHS’s problems is its overall size, and start hacking into it with gleeful abandon. Which is why people like Jenkins really need to stop talking about health and talk about something better suited to their moral and intellectual stature. I propose football.

fn1: And with health care, in the UK at least, it seems like you don’t have to stray very far to the left or the right to start behaving like you are “far” from the centre. The state of commentary on healthcare in the UK is really rather woeful.

 

 

May Flopsy guide my schemes...

I crawled out into the freezing cold with a hangover today to visit the Asami Shrine in Beppu, to burn my 2010 demon-breaking arrow and purchase a new arrow for 2011. Burning the arrow that symbolizes the year before gives one time to pause and think about what one did in that 365 days, and to think about the year to come. My year to come promises to be busy, but I have a variety of plans I want to put into action in my gaming, research and real lives. Here is a brief outline.

Gaming Plans

Continue the Rats in the Ranks Campaign: My players indicated they want it to continue, and so I’m going to try and play it right through until I work out at what point WFRP 3 breaks. Whether this happens or not I don’t know, but I have a long-term goal for this campaign (or rather, the adversaries I’m controlling have a very distinct long-term goal in Ubersreik, which hopefully my players will discover before everything goes pear-shaped). After that we’ll see where the campaign takes us. It’s fun and my players are good, so let’s see what happens.

Start an Oriental Steampunk sandbox: Based on the one-off Pathfinder adventure I ran last year for a Japanese group, I’ve been thinking for a while now of expanding that into a genuine steampunk (literally!) sandbox. The players from that group have a hook for one more adventure, and from there we could start exploring. I’m thinking of using my ideas for adapting WFRP 3 to steampunk, or even to high fantasy (depending on the direction I want it to go) and just playing along until it gets boring. This will give me the opportunity to get my Japanese players to collaborate in building a semi-oriental/semi-western steampunk world based around a Meiji-era image of the place we are all living in now, with (at the very least!) gnomes.

Introduce the local convention to some English-language-only games: I’m in something of a unique position here to introduce my local Japanese-language gaming convention to untranslated games, and I’m thinking of running a session of WFRP 3 and maybe Exalted for just this reason. Recently a player at the convention said she wanted to play a game “that used loads of dice!” and it occurred to me right then that Exalted was just the game for her. This type of international exchange segues into my biggest possible plan for the year…

Start a TRPG Club at my University: This may seem a bit trivial but it’s actually a plan full of possibilities. My local University has about 100 nationalities of student, many of them nerdy, from all over the world, and they all meet to study and hang out using two languages that I speak – English and Japanese. So these students could bring an untranslated game from their own country – most likely in Thai, Mandarin or Vietnamese, but you never know what else is lurking out there – and run it in a different language for the other students. Or, they could play a game that isn’t translated to their language for a group of their compatriots. This opens up all sorts of options for language and gaming exchange, and a few people I’ve spoken to have been interested, so I’m thinking I might look into doing that this year.

GM Make You Kingdom in English: I’m going to Australia for a few weeks twice this year, and on at least one such occasion I will be in Melbourne, so I’m thinking of inviting regular commenter (and previous player) Paul to join me in a game of Make You Kingdom, translated of course. This depends on me being able to translate the necessary information by the time I go there and also being able to explain the rules for him (and get to Melbourne). I reckon I can do it, and I can even put stuff on this blog. Maybe I can also GM Double Cross 3 at some point too…

All of these plans are going to depend on a few crucial meat-life plans as well, though…

Meat Life Plans

Go to Iceland: I’ve never been and I really want to go. It’s vaguely in the pipeline to do this year, in which case I might pop into filthy scummy London to see some old friends at the same time.

Improve My Japanese: Today I received a New Year’s Card from the Japanese language school in Fukuoka where I did a 6 week intensive last year, and this year I think I’ll be in a position to do skype lessons with them. So, this year I really want to improve my Japanese to the point where I can do the following:

  • Teach Statistics in Japanese: easier than it sounds, but still fiendishly hard
  • Watch TV in Japanese: a lot lot harder than it sounds, and still impossible for me
  • Read a Fantasy novel in Japanese: I may start with A Wizard of Earthsea, because I know it, but from there I want to read Japanese authors. This has always been a big goal of mine in my Japanese study. I have read one novel already, but it was an easy one and really hard work, so at the moment I’m sticking with manga because they have less words and often furigana.

This is obviously an essential meat life goal if I want to be better able to role-play in Japanese. Or just live here happily.

Get fit: I have never been so unfit as I am now, and although my current fitness level is acceptable for a 37 year old, by my standards it’s awful. This year I need to do something about this!

Research Plans

I’ve got a whole research plan written for the next year (it coincides with my starting a PhD through an Australian University), so I aim to do quite a bit of research. This year’s plans are:

An overview of advanced statistical methods for intervention research: Modern research into intervention in health systems requires quite advanced statistical methods, including heirarchical linear models, time series analysis and probability survey research, but combining these can be very challenging. I aim to get a good, solid overview of what is being done in the field and what can’t be done, with the view of using it or improving on it.

Combining heirarchical linear models in Probability surveys: There has to be a way to do this, and I want to work out how. Or alternatively, work out approximations and workarounds to the problem.

Systematize time-dependent difference-in-difference models: Difference-in-difference models are a fancy way for economists to say “linear regression with interaction term” but all the fancy language doesn’t hide the fact that understanding of how to use these models in the health economics literature is remarkably poor. I aim to systematize this, to point out the (trivially obvious) problems in doing this research without considering the time dependent component of the data, and to make recommendations for its application in health services research.

Who knows what trouble this is going to throw up? But that’s my main research goals for the year.

It looks like it may be a busy year for me, but I think I’m going to enjoy it…

I have now had the chance to role-play with gamers from 3 nations – Japan, Australia and the UK – and I’ve seen a lot about American role-players online. From my experiences I’ve begun to get a bit of a sense of the politics, class and background culture of gamers in these 4 nations, so I thought I’d give my judgments here and see what representatives of the countries in question think. Note the word “judgement” in this sentence, it’s hard to do anything but generalize when you only met gamers in London for 18 months, for example, and they were mostly wankers. So, let’s be at it…

Australian Gamers: Obviously the group I have most experience with, I would characterize Aussie gamers as largely middle class, from managerial or professional backgrounds – IT professionals, managers, public servants and the like – with only a small sprinkling of “working class”[1] professions like gardeners or factory workers. This is unsurprising given that Australia is a largely middle class country, but interesting to compare with, say, Japan. I suspect Aussie gamers tend to focus only on the most popular overseas games, as we’re few in number and quite isolated – often in Oz you have to construct gaming groups from friends rather than experienced gamers, and gaming shops are few and far between. The lack of interest in gaming reflects, I think, our historical distance from the US and a strong anti-intellectualism in Australia during the growth of the hobby that held us back from developing in the same way as the UK. I haven’t lived in Oz for 5 years now so maybe this is changing. Gaming in Australia also seemed to include a high proportion of goths.

British gamers: were largely a pack of wankers in my limited experience, but otherwise similar to Aussies[2]. I met my British gamers mostly through pub-based gaming groups in London, and I suspect this is not the best environment to meet nice people, since it tends to attract the kind of people who strangely seem to never be invited to games at other peoples’ houses. Also, pubs are an aggressive and unpleasant socializing environment, and good gaming behaviour requires a supportive environment (e.g. where you don’t have to yell just to be heard). So maybe I didn’t see anything like a representative cross-section of British gamers. I also think the gaming scene may be stronger in the midlands and further North, where I believe it developed historically (I think Grenadier miniatures, GDW, and the major early gaming stores all started in the midlands, which is also where The Elfish Gene is set). So London gamers were middle class, mainly, played a wide diversity of games (though there was a heavy D&D focus in the club I joined) but seemed to have a lower goth-factor, and perhaps less students than Aussies. They were also old, I think – a good half of the club I played in would qualify for the classic stereotype of the 30-something fatbeard (and my God did those fatbeards plumb historical depths of know-it-all bastardry). I note that this gaming in pubs thing is at least partly reflective of housing in London (appalling) and public infrastructure (weak), so that people had nowhere else to play. I once went to a pub with a friend for a drink at about 10pm on a Friday night, and there were 3 guys doing their regular D&D session in amongst the revellers, which I don’t think you’d see anywhere else on Earth. Also, they weren’t being beaten up by the other punters, which would surely happen if you did anything that nerdy in an Aussie pub[3]. So this indicates both a poor availability of good gaming spaces, and a generally more accepting attitude towards nerdish pursuits in the UK than in Australia. Which probably explains how the UK was an important site in the development of modern gaming, and has a larger scene than Australia.

Japanese Gamers: Seem to be from noticeably poorer backgrounds than those in the UK/Australia, with a higher preponderance of factory workers, service workers and the like. They seem to be much more concerned about money and economy than Aussies or Brits, and the gaming industry here seems to take this seriously, releasing most games in an expensive and a cheap format. One of my players doesn’t have a PC, and another has a second hand iBook (6 years old!) which indicates a much lower interest in computers and/or less money. Their online presence is often entirely mobile phone based, largely around the social networking site mixi[4] and they don’t seem to blog much (except for the organizations, such as the club I’m part of). They’re quite formal and very nerdy, and there is a much, much lower level of both rudeness and know-it-all behaviour than one would see in Aussie or British groups. Also, there is almost no culture of home-based gaming, but a very good public infrastructure supportive of public gatherings so no need to visit peoples’ homes. Interestingly, the University I teach at has no gaming club, which would be unusual by Australian standards. Japanese gamers play a wide diversity of games – there are a lot of local games, and then also a reasonable range of translated games. My convention group seems to have a widely varying range of available games, and there is not much D&D focus – one GM is obssessed with Pathfinder but the others seem to change regularly. In fact I detect zero interest in 4th Edition, largely for cost reasons, and little interest in 3.5 because of its splatbooks. Pathfinder is available online for free, and that’s a bit part of its allure, I think. Again, this is partly related to the strong concerns Japanese gamers seem to have about money. I don’t know if Japanese RPGers are different to other parts of nerd (otaku) society here but it’s worth observing that Japan is much more respectful of nerd life than Australia (or even Britain) seem to be, and so I expect much more mixing occurs between nerds. There’s also less evidence of any feeling of exclusivity or reaction against ordinary non-gamers, which one sees a bit of in Australia.

Another noteworthy point about Japanese gamers is that there are a lot more women in the groups here than in the West. I think this is because of the lack of exclusivity of nerd culture here, and its old pre-RPG pedigree.

American (online) gamers: Based on what I see from the internet, American gamers seem to be largely middle or lower-middle class, though with perhaps a wider diversity of classes than in Australia. The thing that interests me most about the US gamers I see online though is that a lot of them seem to be military. One almost never meets an Australian or British soldier-gamer, but they seem quite common in the US online RPG scene. I wonder at three possible reasons for this:

  • Americans are much more likely to be in the military than Aussies or Brits or Japanese, and thus so are gamers
  • US soldiers are much more likely to be gamers than Aussie/Brit/Japanese soldiers (certainly true for Aussie soldiers I think)
  • Self-selection: US soldiers are much more likely to travel than non-soldiers, for longer periods, thus much more likely to have a strong online presence and less likely to have a game going; thus more likely to have a blog about the games they can’t play

I appeal to my American reader(s) for an explanation! Also, another thing I notice about US gamers is they seem to be very white, which on the balance of probabilities probably shouldn’t happen. Is this because the class that gamers are drawn from is largely white, is it because games generally don’t appeal to black Americans, is the internet a primarily white space, or is it that the RPG world is actually quite white only? I think a little of each, and I’ve said before that I think the early history of fantasy and science fiction sets a cultural standard that drives black people away – they can read between the lines the same way a woman does when she enters a workplace and finds it full of girly calendars. It’s not the naked breasts that offend her, but the message it sends her that this is a place for men. I think that a lot of the fantasy canon sends this message out.

It’s worth noting that this racial exclusivity also occurs in Australia to some extent (Asians and migrants are underrepresented in gaming) and the UK, which has a large black/South Asian population (particularly in London!) but you just never saw them in the gaming groups I was part of. In fact, I suspect that the Japanese gaming scene in my country town contains as many foreigners (me) as the club I went to in London had black Britons. Interesting, that…

A few political similarities across nations: It’s hard to find a strong political theme in gaming, with some gamers quite likely to be strongly “left wing” or “statist” (or even anarchist) while some are quite right wing or libertarian. But some properties that seem to be quite common amongst the English-speaking gamers are:

  • Civil Libertarians: Whether from the “statist” left or right, or more libertarian in politics, English-speaking gamers seem to be strongly pro civil liberties. In the Aussie case this is obvious, since most Australians are generally civil libertarians (though pragmatic – Australians are quick to ban something if it’s dangerous). In the British case this is perhaps more unusual, and I can’t comment about the American case because it’s all so topsy turvy over there. I think this civil libertarian streak is driven by…
  • Strongly pro free speech: For older gamers the 80s D&D scares were a major incentive for us to reject censorship in all its forms, since we all saw first hand how nasty it is when it is misguided, and how easily it is misdirected. I think newer gamers have experienced a lot of angst and worry about the “social consequences” of computer games, and so are also generally pro free speech. Obviously for Japanese gamers this is a non-issue, since Japan has extremely liberal (though occasionally contrariwise) rules about what you can publish; but for the English-speaking world this is an important problem, especially in the modern “child protection” ethos that has developed since the mid-90s.
  • Suspicious of “political correctness”: Again, not so much an issue for Japanese gamers since polite language is part of their upbringing, but there seems to be a strong fear of political correctness in the English speaking gaming world, and a lot of confusion about the difference between censorship and being asked not to say bad things (or, as I have found in my theme on racism in fantasy, criticizing the things you love). I wonder how much this suspicion is to do with the origins of a lot of modern political correctness in US feminism, and US feminism’s historical political connection to the religious right, who are the worst enemies of free speech and gaming.

These are just impressions, so please dispute at will.

fn1: Australia has a strong and excellent history of unionism, but to characterize modern manual labourers in Australia as working class seems a bit simplistic. They’re often quite well-paid contractors, and often tradesmen. Australia’s industrial working class is small and even its historical unionism is based in rural and mining industries as much as industry. Those industries are a highly lucrative and protected area of the economy today, and I’m not sure if their employees see themselves as “working class” in any traditional sense.

fn2: This just begs a joke doesn’t it?

fn3: I exaggerate, but gaming in a pub in Oz would definitely attract attention, which would be mostly just interested and slightly confused, but would nonetheless be unwelcome.

fn4: Mixi is, btw, vastly superior to Facebook.