Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Twitter year

By the end of 2013 I had posted 43,800 Tweets in total since my first some three years ago. Assuming an average number of characters of 120 and six characters/spaces per word that amounts to 876,000 words. That is roughly as many words as there are in three of the novels of Charles Dickens. Am I mad? How do I find the time?

The thing about Twitter is that you mostly do it in “downtime” when you have nothing else to do. Of course you could be reading an improving book or, if you are a writer like me, you could be doing “proper” writing. But Twitter is addictive and it is also informative and entertaining. Regular users of Twitter don't really need to have the benefits explained to them and those who don't use it can only really find out by giving it a trial. I have never succeeded in explaining to a Twitter sceptic why I like it. You have to try it.

A Tweeter of the Year

2013 brought some personal highlights and a few low points. Lets get the main highlight out of the way first. The Conservative broadcaster and journalist Iain Dale named me as one of his “Top 100 tweeters of the year”. He placed me in the “Bloggers” category. I was very pleased about this as Iain is a master of social media and one of the best bloggers around in his day. I was also chuffed because I am emphatically not a Conservative – so Iain was not leaning towards a political kindred spirit!

Going Viral

Towards the end of the year I had my first personal experience of a Tweet going viral. I saw a tweet on my timeline with a picture of a blonde woman grinning at the camera and holding the dead body of a leopard she had shot. I then tweeted the picture with my own caption like this:


Well the effect of this was astonishing. The tweet went viral and by today it has had nearly 2700 retweets. For those unfamiliar with Twitter a “retweet” is when someone posts your tweet, often with a comment, under their own twitter ID. This doesn't not necessarily mean they agree with your tweet (thought usually they do) but just that they want their followers to see it. I think that the largest number of retweets I have ever had before for any tweet was less than 100. There is a correlation between the number of followers you have and the number of retweets you get. So the football pundit Gary Lineker, with over 2m followers, would get 500-1000 retweets for most of his tweets and more for special ones. But for an ordinary non-Celeb, like me, to get approaching 3000 retweets is unusual.

The Power of Twitter

What have I learned from this. Well obviously the power of Twitter. Every retweet leads to many more retweets in such a situation – rather like a digital chain letter! When this happens you cannot look at all the retweets – the sheer volume is difficult to handle. It also dominates your “Connect” line so you may miss some of the more usual responses to your other tweets. But you can handle that! It also increases your followers – mine went up by 300 in the space of a couple of weeks. You also have to be very careful – particularly on a subject like Animal Rights.

But be very careful…

I care very mush about protecting the world’s wildlife and I deplore hunting. But I am not an animal rights activist and some of the actions of some of those who are troubles me. I would describe myself as mildly militant on the subject and not against affirmative action – in the protection of Badgers for example or in combating the killing of dolphins in Japan. But some activists go too far and some of these people responded to my Tweet with some rather nasty threats at the leopard-killing woman. As the instigator of the original tweet I feel some vicarious responsibility here, but obviously you cannot reply to all of the tweets you receive given the scale of the matter.

…there’s lowlife waiting to ambush you!

Twitter is a free-for-all and that is a key part of its appeal. In the past I have tried to be accurate and honest in what I say and since the Sally Bercow affair I have been particularly careful – as I am sure have many other regular and responsible tweeters. But in the past I have occasionally used bad language for effect. This caused one of the low moments for me this year. During the Trent Bridge test match I was contacted by a Daily Mail sports writer who was, or so he said, interested in the work I was doing as part of the “MCC Reform Group”. I gave him a twenty minute interview and passed him one or two titbits about our campaign. A few days later the following brief piece appeared in the Daily Mail:


The writer who perpetrated this is a particularly noisome character who had previously insulted much more famous people than me (Brian Moore and Jonathan Agnew amongst them). And he is a poor journalist as well as he completely ignored the information I have him during the interview to make instead a personal attack on me. But what he said, though cruelly selective, was true. So I immediately made a resolution never to swear on Twitter again on the grounds that there is low life around who may use it against you!

A Year to remember

So that's my 2013 Twitter year. The very good, the occasionally bad and once very ugly. What I have left to last to say is how many friends you make on Twitter. I have, I think, become close to dozens of people via the medium. Some are kindred spirits on sport or politics but many are not. We exchange views – and above all use Twitter as a link to other things. The link to this blog will be tweeted and drive traffic as a result to the blog. I feel better informed by following links on Twitter to blogs and other pieces in the public domain that I would otherwise not have seen. And, as we have seen with the leopard Tweet, you can if you are lucky start a campaign of awareness about something you feel strongly about that might just make a difference. So if you are not on twitter why not give it a try – you might surprise yourself. But keep it clean!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Proud Scots who are proud to be British as well

I lived in Scotland for three years then in Hong Kong, which was run by Scots in those days, for four more. I have many Scottish friends and love their country. I have never, ever heard Scots of my acquaintance demean their Scottishness of which they are justly proud. But I've never heard them deny or denigrate their Britishness either. More than the English Scots can resolve easily the slight paradox of being binational. They are simultaneously Scottish and British - and proud of it. They don't see themselves as victims - on the contrary they rather relish the fact that they can emphasise their Scottishness (at Murrayfield) or their Britishness (at London 2012) without there being an ounce of conflict in this.

When it comes to Mr Salmond's referendum Scots will surely ask themselves whether they want to break up the United Kingdom, after three hundred years, or not. And whether they as individuals will give up one of their bits of national identity, their Britishness, or not. They will be no less Scottish if they stay British. And that I think will clinch the argument for "No".

Friday, December 06, 2013

The Queen's Mandela tribute wasn't very good

Here is what Britain's Head of State said about Nelson Mandela:

"The Queen was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Nelson Mandela last night. He worked tirelessly for the good of his country, and his legacy is the peaceful South Africa we see today.
Her Majesty remembers with great warmth her meetings with Mr. Mandela and sends her sincere condolences to his family and the people of South Africa at this very sad time."

Now let’s play a tasteless game. Let’s say that it was former United States President George Bush (Senior) who had died. Let’s apply The Queen's words to him instead:
"The Queen was deeply saddened to learn of the death of George H.W. Bush last night. He worked tirelessly for the good of his country, and his legacy is the peaceful United States we see today.
Her Majesty remembers with great warmth her meetings with Mr. Bush and sends her sincere condolences to his family and the people of America at this very sad time."
OK the bit about a "peaceful United States" might seem a bit fanciful but you could make the case. Actually you could make the case for the US being peaceful rather better than you could say the same about South Africa. With one of the highest murder rates in the world South Africa is sadly far from “peaceful” 

Nelson Mandela was so much more than a man who worked for his country (although he did of course do this). This is a pretty down key commendation that applies to most politicians. Its looks like whoever drafted the Monarch’s “tribute” dusted-off things that she’d said in the past about others and gave them a whirl again.

The bit about “the warmth of her meetings” is a bit gratuitous and changes the focus of the tribute a bit from Mandela to The Queen. It adds little of substance other than motherhood stuff. So what should she have said (and keeping to approximately the same word count)?

How about this:

"The Queen is deeply saddened at the death of Nelson Mandela. Mr Mandela suffered at the hands of those who abused him and his people - but in his battle he ultimately triumphed to live to create the democratic and proud South Africa we see today.
Her Majesty sends her condolences to Mr Mandela’s family and to the people of South Africa who can remember with pride a truly great man.”

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Capitalism is good, but it doesn't have to be driven by greed as Boris would have us believe

In an opinion piece in The Times today Danny Finkelstein, defending Boris Johnson's assertion of the virtue of greed,  points us to Korea as an example of why capitalism (the driver of the successful South) is good compared with "Marxism" (the ideology of the failed North). It is not his finest hour! The Korea story is so obvious it teaches us nothing. The success of the South compared withe the failure of the North is not mainly about economic systems. It's not about the virtues of capitalism but about the virtues of freedom and democracy. There should not need to be a defence of the latter when confronted by the extreme venality of totalitarianism. Of course command and control political systems usually historically incorporated central planning of the economy - as in North Korea. But they don't have to and you can look to modern China or modern Russia to see what unbridled capitalism within non-democratic mega States leads to. 

The capitalism of China or Russia is cowboy capitalism. Here greed is not an inevitable consequence of corrupt and unregulated Laisser-Faire, it is it's driver. Yes we have greedy, uncontrolled and dodgy capitalists in the West as well. But nothing as venal as the billionaire "businessmen" who emerged when the leaders of China and Russia decided that greed was good and that they wanted some of it's rewards.

The choice for us is not the imposition of a Socialist state compared with greed-driven capitalism. Our membership of the European Union, among it's many benefits, precludes the possibility of the imposition of command and control in any member state. Capitalism is at the heart of the EU and any country which doesn't embrace that reality could not join or would have to leave. One of the extreme ironies of the UKIP and Tory Right call for withdrawal from the EU is that it would make Socialism in Britain more not less likely! A democratically elected Socialist government in a Britain cast adrift from the EU could do things which would be impossible if we were still a member! Is that what the "Better Out" brigade really want? 

"Greed" is a deadly sin and you don't need it to make capitalism work. Capitalism isn't great - but it's better than all the alternatives. To make it work it must be regulated which means curbing its excesses - and these excesses often come from greed. So our choice is not between North and South Korea as a model but between totalitarianism and democracy and we made that choice long ago when we abolished the divine Right of Kings! But to argue for unrestricted capitalism and for everything to be left to the market is to argue for the crony capitalism of Russia or China where no meaningful checks and balances exist at all. 

Monday, December 02, 2013

We don't vote for Growth. We vote according to how we feel as individuals.

The vast majority of voters is not that bothered with macroeconomic indicators. I suspect that if you asked people what "Growth" is few would be able to give you even a sketchy explanation. The same applies to the "deficit" and even to something closer to our individual personal experience like inflation. Real economics are at the personal not the macro level.

"It's the economy stupid" did not mean "It's the growth of our Gross Domestic Prouduct". It meant "Have I a job?", "Can' I afford to finance my home purchase?", "Is the cost of food and essentials affordable for me?", "Have I enough money for a holiday", "Can I afford to keep warm this winter?" - and so on.

The worst political rhetoric is to make claims, even if true, which simplify and generalise. The man without a job for a year just won't believe you if you say that there are more people in employment than ever. The Pensioner who can't turn on the heating at current energy prices won't be impressed by a price freeze.

And the problem with individuals alienation from politics (which is what all this is) is that it leads to scapegoating. So the EU is blamed, or immigrants, or bankers or politicians. In reality individual hardship is always a combination of personal failure and bad luck. Not everyone can get on their bike to find a job.  And not everyone's skills and experience is in demand in sufficient numbers. And the cumulative effect of being unemployed is pernicious. So don't tell the long term unemployed that the Economy has returned to growth. They'll tell you where you can stuff your statistic.