Of course I’m fucking cynical, that’s why I’m alive and not in gaol

I’m not dead

Mashudur Choudhury, a chap from near enough to where I grew up that it might as well be the same place, went off to Syria to die.

His leaving letter to his missus went, “what good is a husband, father, brother that sits in comfort, sleeps in comfort, eats in comfort but neglects the cause of women being raped, children being attacked, mothers being decapitated, and daughters being murdered?” – this is, in case you’ve lost track of Syria, people being murdered by the government of genocidal lunatic Bashir Assad, who is backed by (not genocidal! Yay Russia! So much progress!) lunatic Vladimir Putin.

Homage to catatonia
I don’t want to minimise the extent to which Choudhury is terrible. He is very terrible. Syria is pretty terrible. Choudhury seems very much like the Stalinists who Orwell wrote about in Homage to Catalonia, who were dogmatic and were as keen to execute non-dogmatic leftist fighters as they were to shoot fascists.

But, rather as with Hausa women in northern Nigeria being kidnapped by organisations that combine Hausa and Wahabbi dogma to come up with something that is revolting, again, what the fuck are we doing intervening in this?

Between 1958 and 1965, my dad grew up in Lagos, the capital of Christian, trading, southern Nigeria; my granddad was one of the most impressive engineers I know who shaped modern Lagos; my grandma was a teacher (I wish she wasn’t also a massive bigot who non-stop tried to get my granddad to move to Australia because there weren’t any blacks left there, but she was).

45 years later, I worked in Lagos, because I was the person at the London office of the multinational consulting firm I was with who said “yes I have family ties to Nigeria; yes I’m willing to do this”. It was the best thing I’ve ever done and the most painful thing I’ve ever done. I knew that I could never live there, but I hated it far less than every other consulting assignment.

Whatever
My mum was Welsh; every progressive thing that my family did feels like it erases the Welsh side of the myth. Now I live in Australia, and I don’t feel even slightly at home in England (London doesn’t count), and the concept of English as opposed to British revolts me. I find UKIP people revolting, and obviously Australia is racist as hell in some ways, but I love the fact that at least Australia – correctly – assigns British people as British, rather than the bullshit divisions between British people that dickheads like Salmond or Farage wish to impose.

I’m British more than I am Australian, but if grandstanding fuckwits abolish Britain on me, then I’m sure as fuck more Australian than I’ll ever be English, Irish or Scottish.

CBA’s Netbank platform was never vulnerable to Heartbleed

The suggestion has been doing the rounds, at least at the more paranoid/self-fancying end of the technology spectrum, that the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA)’s Netbank online banking platform might have been vulnerable to the Heartbleed vulnerability.

TL/DR: it wasn’t.

Heartbleed only hit sites that use certain versions of the OpenSSL secure toolkit, with its Heartbeat function enabled. Netbank runs on SAP for Banking, implemented by Accenture. SAP for Banking is not affected by Heartbleed, which you’d expect given that it runs on Microsoft IIS (“Microsoft” and “open” go together like anchovies and custard). This isn’t a great surprise: no major western-world banks’ online banking platforms were ever vulnerable, because of the massively proprietary, as well as security-crazy, way in which online banking software is developed.

So why all the derp? Well, CBA’s non-transactional Commbank.com.au website does use OpenSSL, was apparently vulnerable to Heartbleed, and was apparently patched after the Heartbleed news broke. You don’t use your Netbank credentials to log into Commbank, it isn’t linked to your secure data, and it uses a different security certificate from Netbank.

This created some scope for confusion – and the scope was fully brought to reality by the combination of utterly stupid PR people, and self-satisfied circle-jerking techies happy to spread unjustified fear among CBA customers.

CBA published a blog post that completely failed to explain the difference between the two platforms, and then responded to comments asking for clarification with a meaningless copy-paste of the original post. Rather than doing the basic research that went into my post here, a whole bunch of tech folk who should know better then went crazy with the “WE DON’T KNOW IF OUR NETBANK PASSWORDS ARE SAFE OR NOT, WOES!!!!!!” line.

Stop it. Your Netbank passwords are safe. Someone in CBA’s PR department needs a long walk off a short pier, is all.

(thanks very much to Johnny and Chris for pointing me towards technical details here. Any screw-ups in this post, of course, are solely my fault.)

The Teaches Of Peaches*

I don’t normally get teary over the death of celebrities. Just out of recent far-too-young deaths, Amy Winehouse and Philip Seymour Hoffman have contributed far more to life than the rest of us ever will, and yet I was a bit sad, rather than losing-it sobbing, for those two.

Peaches Geldof wasn’t an artist on either of their scale. As far as I’m aware, she was a perfectly competent TV presenter – but not of shows that I’d consider watching in a million years, or indeed ever have watched. And yet despite me being fully aware of this, her death yesterday hit me harder than any dead celebrity I can remember. To the point of actual sobbing.

It’s always projection, and sure, this is projection. When Peaches lost her mum aged 11, I was 20 and had lost my mum aged 10 – so I was aware of what it was like to group up having lost your mum at that age from my own experience, even before you factor in the press vultures who followed her around for her entire life.

The single thing that felt worst, in my mind at the time**, about my mum’s death was the way it was reported as a top headline in the local newspaper (which I suspect is part of why I hate small towns and rejoice in the destruction of local newspapers. Big cities, where nobody knows your business unless they are your friend or you are actually famous, are the way forward). Multiply that by all of the newspapers, all of the time, forever, and you get Peaches’ entire life. Imagining how anyone could cope with that is painful.

On top of that starting point, there’s the sheer compressedness of her life. While I’ve done whatever I’ve been up to in the 15 years since Paula Yates died (which feels like about last week, and has mostly consisted of writing about things, sometimes for money), Peaches has gone from a child who lost her mum, to being the mum of two kids who are now in the same place she was 15 years ago, and that I was in 25 years ago.

But understanding the reasons why this pushes my trigger-buttons doesn’t make feel it any less real. Yesterday I was genuinely upset, to a level I rarely reach about anything, about the death of a total stranger. Suddenly some of my sneery judginess about the people who went full-mourning crazy for Princess Di feels a bit less clever and a bit more twattish.

(I’m not going to send flowers to a total stranger’s funeral, or swear at people on the internet for not caring about a stranger’s death, though. I think that’s probably still a boundary everyone would do well to maintain.)

* I hope neither Peaches would mind the title.
** The mind of a 10-year-old is a stupid place, but this is the single thing that I was most able to deal with and be cross about at the time.

The Dorkiest Fun-Spoilingest Thing Ever Written About Breaking Bad

This joke does the rounds a bit too often:
breaking_bad_cartoon

It doesn’t work.

In the show, because Walter White is a salaried professional, his insurance covers the same procedures that national healthcare insurance schemes generally cover in the sensible world.

The nature of the extremely expensive experimental cancer treatment for which he needs the money isn’t specified in the show – but quite often, such a treatment wouldn’t be deemed cost-effective for funding by the UK NHS, Australian Medicare, or the Canadian, French or German systems either. Like many experimental treatments, it also quite likely wouldn’t have had any effect – which is why insurers and national healthcare systems alike are reluctant to provide funding outside of clinical trial groups.

Now, if someone unemployed or casually employed (ie almost everyone from the subculture Walt visits after heading out on the meth-making trip) had gotten sick, that would have been a story where the outcomes were actually different in the US and the rest of the world…

Only sentimentalism could have saved the Australian car industry

There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the news that Toyota will follow its fellow foreign-owned carmakers GM Holden, Ford and Mitsubishi in ending car assembly in Australia. But at least from an economic point of view, there shouldn’t be.

The basic problem for the Australian car industry has nothing to do with unions or pay rates, despite the government’s outrageous lies to the contrary. It’s far simpler than that. Australia is a country of 23 million people, with a new car market of just under a million a year, while car manufacturing is an industry with massive economies of scale where the most efficient factories have annual production levels of more than half a million a year.

Less than half as many cars per worker…

Nissan Motor Manufacturing UK in Sunderland, which is famed for being one of the most productive plants worldwide, is about to increase production from 500,000 to more than 550,000. To knock out those half a million cars, NMMUK employs 6,000 people, and supports around 23,000 jobs in the UK supply chain. So that’s about 80 cars per worker (labour is not the whole story, but it’s a tolerable proxy, and accurate job data is easier to find than full input cost data at plant level).

Toyota Australia employs 2,500 people to produce 100,000 cars year, which is about 40 cars per worker. In the rest of the industry (as of now-ish, before Ford and Holden begin their shutdown), 1200. So carmaking in Australia employs 6600 people directly, for a total of 220,000 cars per year, or about 33 cars per worker (as you might have expected, Holden and Ford are less efficient than Toyota).

Scaling the supply chain in line with NMMUK employment (i.e. assuming Australian suppliers are as inefficient as Australian carmakers) would suggest that about 25,000 supply jobs will be lost when the Australian industry shuts down. Scaling it in line with Nissan output (i.e. assuming Australian suppliers are just as efficient as UK suppliers), you’d assume about 10,000 jobs will be lost.

…and 21,000 jobs, not hundreds of thousands

Data from IBISWorld suggests the actual number of jobs in the industry at risk is about 15,000, somewhere in the middle. So the total number of job losses when the car industry shuts down, including knock-on effects, will be about 21,000 [*]. This is roughly equivalent to the number of public servant jobs the federal government is currently cutting.

(the number of Australians in employment is 11.6 million, as of December 2013; the number of unemployed Australians is 716,000).

These 21,000 jobs are being lost because the Australian car market isn’t large enough to support an efficient domestic carmaking industry, even if every single car Australians bought were manufactured domestically. A large, remote, resource-rich and wealthy island of 23 million people has more productive uses of time and resources than subsidising industries that require greater scale than can possibly be achieved domestically, and where we’ve never excelled at exporting. Economically speaking, we would do better to buy new cars from South Korea, import second-hand cars from Japan, redirect the labour and capital involved towards things we are good at, and spend the subsidy money on things that we actually need.

But whence will come the V8 Supercars of the future?

Economics isn’t the whole story. It’s possible that having a carmaking industry is so important to Australia’s wider culture and self-image that it is worth protecting, whether by direct taxpayer subsidy or by higher import tariffs (which are a tax on everyone who buys a car, whether it is domestic or foreign-made). If Australia agrees as a society that this is the case, then continuing to subsidise carmaking is a completely legitimate decision – just as is the case for the large subsidies that go to farmers.

But if you think that the car industry has closed because wage rates are too high, you are wrong, and you believe the toxic bullshit the Liberals are seeking to peddle in order to erode everyone’s employment conditions. If you think that the decision to stop subsidising inefficient lossmaking industries will cost Australia money, you are wrong, and you believe the economically illiterate bullshit Labor is seeking to peddle in order to bash the Liberals. The only grounds on which to support a domestic car industry are sentimental grounds.

[*] Wider estimates of up to 200,000 job losses have been published in various ‘newspapers’. These are lies.

The Facebook decline paper is a disgrace to Princeton’s name

The obvious answer to the question “why won’t Facebook decline by 80% by the end of December this year” is “because obviously it won’t, what kind of idiot would even claim it would?”. It’s the leading social network in all age groups, and between July and December 2013 total user numbers only fell by 3%.

However, if you’re reading the papers today, you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. The Daily Mail is the worst offender, because obviously the Daily Mail is the worst offender, but plenty of derp is being thrown left, right and centre. I’m quoting the Mail piece, because hell, why not:

Faebook is heading for a catastrophic decline and could lose 80% of its users by 2015, researchers warned today.

(yes, Faebook in the lede is the Daily Mail’s typo. QUALITY JERNALISMS!)

The researchers in question are proper academics, more or less: they’re two PhD candidates at Princeton, John Cannarella and Joshua A Spechler. They’ve written a paper which takes a standard epidemology model, the SIR (susceptible, infectious and removed) model, and tries to apply this to the spread of social networks. It’s not a bad choice in theory: it’s generally accepted that social networks spread virally; and the SIR model applies to diseases which are fatal or immunising (so once you’ve got over it, you can’t get it again, like measles [*]) – most people who give up on a network don’t come back, so fair play.

There are a couple of obvious [**] early alarm bells: the paper is not peer-reviewed, and Cannarella and Spechler are studying for PhDs neither in the epidemiology department nor the digital cultures department. They are mechanical and aeronautical engineers. Working entirely outside your discipline doesn’t necessarily disqualify you from doing good work… but it makes the need for review by someone who does know the discipline even more important than usual.

The global headlines are based on our stupid typo

But what does it say? Well, the paper does make the claim reported in the Daily Mail, on page 6 of the full document:

Extrapolating the best fit into the future shows that Facebook is expected to undergo rapid decline in the upcoming years, shrinking to 20% of its maximum size by December 2014.

Unfortunately, this claim is solely due to the paper not undergoing peer review, or apparently proof-reading, before being made publicly available. Page 7 says:

Extrapolating the best fit model into the future suggests that Facebook will undergo a rapid decline in the coming years, losing 80% of its peak user base between 2015 and 2017.

This second conclusion fits with the charts and data presented in the paper. So nobody at all is actually predicting the 80% decline by December 2014; the journalists reporting on it are gibbering halfwits, and the writers are monumentally half-arsed for failing to spot such a basic and disastrous mistake in such a short piece of work.

But also, the premise of what we’re doing is stupid

What about the “losing 80% of peak user base by 2017″ conclusion, then? This is indeed what the authors’ model predicts.

Unfortunately, the authors’ model is not entirely robust.

My TL:DR summary of the paper’s methodology is “we modelled MySpace’s growth and decline against the number of Google searches for MySpace, and then applied the same model to the number of Google searches for Facebook”.

If you think this is a ridiculous way of doing things, given the niche, geographically and age-group limited status of MySpace versus the universality of Facebook, and given the different corporate natures of the two organisations, you are correct.

There is an excellent piece in The Week which covers these flaws in the paper’s central conceit very well (keywords: no Murdoch; profitable; less spam; universal; vast corporate cash war chest).

But also also, we’ve completely juked the stats

However, if the models line up, then – subject to critiquing the assumptions – there might be something of value in the paper, right? Well, no. This is where things move from “hmm, I’m not sure this fits with existing research on epidemiology or social networking” to “oh, go and stick your heads in a fire”.

The model used is not actually the SIR model. It is a model called irSIR, which the authors have invented (page 3). They have used this because the SIR model doesn’t work. They don’t cite any epidemiology research when justifying their irSIR model, just a “common-sense” theory about how social network users behave, coupled with a couple of descriptive papers about online network usage.

They don’t use any of the work on social ties that digital cultures theorists have spent the last 20 years developing. Nor do they use any of the work on epidemiology beyond the SIR model as detailed in first-year undergraduate classes. Because hell, where would be the fun in that?

Strangely enough, the model they have custom-built to fit their data on MySpace’s decline fits their data on MySpace’s decline almost perfectly.

However, there’s a new problem. The decline thesis doesn’t really fit the data on Google searches for ‘Facebook’, which remain at 2011 levels and don’t show much of a declining trend at all (the dotted bit is Google’s projection; feel free to ignore everything after January 2014 if you’re sceptical):
facebook_google_trends

The authors get past this problem in a way that is truly ingenious: despite not having any evidence that the increase in October 2012 is fake, they scale back all post-October data by 0.8x. As a result, they end up with this beautiful chart, which not only matches the shape of the MySpace curve, but does so over a similar time period and is even steeper:
facebook_curve_rigged

Strangely enough, following the modification to make their data on Facebook line up almost exactly with the data on MySpace, the projected decline for Facebook lines up almost exactly with the recorded decline for MySpace.

In short, this paper is incredibly sloppy, is based on a flawed premise, and only works because the data has been tortured until it confessed.

If the authors apply the same principles to mechanical and aeronautical engineering that they apply to social media uptake, then I’d be fucking reluctant to get in a plane that either of them had had anything to do with.

[*] A small proportion of people who get diseases like measles are at risk of getting them again, which more complicated models have been built by actual epidemiologists to allow for.
[**] If you are used to reading academic papers. Not, apparently, if you are a journalist.

Content filtering is stupid, but you are stupider

There’s been masses and masses of fuss over the last couple of days about the implementation of opt-out content filtering for porn in the UK.

As everyone sensible argued in great detail at the time the PM promised it following a Massive Stupid Media Panic, content filtering is pointless: it’s easy to bypass, provides a false sense of security, leads to false positives so that sex education sites get blocked, and puts the infrastructure in place for a more Daily Mail-friendly government to run wider censorship modes.

However, and unfortunately, most of the last couple of days’ Twitter chat about content filtering has involved gibbering idiots who know fuck all about fuck all talking embarrassing nonsense.

O2, one of the UK’s larger ISPs, has thoughtfully provided a tool so you can see how your website is categorised.

Here’s this website:
Untitled

Like all websites, it’s allowed on the opt-in “open access” feed (where you tick the “I am a dirty whoremonger” box). Like nearly all websites, it’s allowed on the default “default safety” feed (if you leave the “I am a dirty whoremonger” box unchecked). And, like nearly all websites, it is blocked under O2’s opt-in-only under-12 filtering scheme, whose aim is to create a walled garden of whitelisted CBeebies-ish tiny-friendly sites which won’t produce unfortunate results when your kitten-loving sproglet searches for “i love little pussy”.

Because people are monumentally stupid, and crowds even more so, the fact that almost all websites show up as blocked under the under-12 filtering scheme has led to claims that they are blocked under the default filters. Which they aren’t. Almost every tweet today about a website being blocked has been a fuckwit claiming that a website is blocked under the default filter, when it’s actually blocked only on the whitelisted kiddy-friendly filter.

This is not to say that the default filter isn’t problematic. It is problematic. Because it focuses on sex, it is inevitably going to fail hardest at the areas of sex where young people (especially LGBTQ young people) most need information and resources. But if you’re wanking on about how your blog or Wikipedia or the Guardian or basically anything non-sexual has been blocked, then you are a fucking idiot and you are not helping and you should shut up.

Ronnie Biggs wasn’t a hero or a villain, just an idiot

The death of Great Train Robber (which, rather like the Holy Roman Empire, is a descriptive phrase that falls down on all possible counts) Ronnie Biggs has led to some predictable, polarised reactions: the geezer-ish “he was a fackin’ legend!”, and the handwringing “but he was a violent cwiminal!”.

Both are fairly stupid.

Ronnie Biggs certainly wasn’t a great robber. By 1963, he had a record for a couple of inept property crimes, but had been clean for a few years. He asked his (more seriously and more competently criminal) friend Jack Reynolds for a loan; as a favour, Reynolds cut him into the mail train robbery he was planning.

Biggs had a friend who claimed to know how to drive trains; Biggs’s role was to escort his friend to the scene of the crime so that he could drive the train. It turned out that Biggs’s friend had no idea how to drive the train at all. The two of them were instead sent off in disgrace to count the money.

At the same time, going against the plan that Reynolds had devised and the conspirators had agreed to, a thug probably going by the alias of Alf Thomas [1] bashed train driver Jack Mills repeatedly in the head with an iron bar. Mills suffered a black eye, bruising, concussion, and what we’d now call PTSD. After trying to go back to work and not being able to concentrate, Mills took early retirement, and not long afterwards developed fatal leukaemia [2].

So:

Biggs was a man who signed up for an awesome, audacious and non-violent (while obviously, extremely criminal) plan which he had no role in formulating. He screwed up his only actual job in the plan, quite possibly contributing to the failure of the wider exercise. He was an incompetent petty thief out of his depth, not a legend.

Biggs was not a man who was morally culpable for the beating of Jack Mills by someone he’d never previously met, against the plan that he’d signed up for, whilst he was somewhere else. He was an incompetent petty thief out of his depth, not a violent thug.

[1] I’m informed by Archie V on Twitter that the conspirator named James Hussey confessed on his deathbed to assaulting Mills, although the accuracy of his confession is questioned [3].
[2] Which, despite the claims sometimes made by the handwringers, is not caused by a blow to the head.
[3] It’s considered likely that the conspirator known as Alf Thomas was later allowed to escape by the police, in exchange for returning a proportion of his share of the money. Hussey was jailed for the robbery, but had not been accused of the assault before he made his confession.

High Court did the best it could on same-sex marriage

The fact that marriage isn’t yet equal in Australia is saddening, depressing and annoying. But, given John Howard’s 2004 anti-equal-marriage amendment to federal marriage law and the fact that the Constitution explicitly reserves marriage to the federal government, the High Court made the right decision.

For the Australian Capital Territory’s Marriage Equality (Same Sex) Act to have been legal, the court would have had to have agreed with the wording of that act that same-sex marriage didn’t count as “marriage” for the purposes of the Constitution, and therefore didn’t fall within the Constitution’s designation of marriage as a matter reserved for the federal government.

That would have meant that marriage was recognised inherently as something that could only be between a man and a woman, rather than solely because of the wording of the 2004 law. From a symbolic point of view, this would have been terrible. And given that same-sex couples already have de facto status, which in Australia confers the same rights and obligations as marriage for most practical purposes(*), the purpose of the ACT legislation was solely symbolic.

But the High Court ruling is not just symbolism.

The legal position following today’s ruling, is that

  • all marriages in Australia are real marriages, irrespective of the participants’ recorded gender;
  • it’s only the 2004 federal law that prevents marriage equality; and
  • its repeal will put same-sex (and trans*) marriages in exactly the same position as opposite-sex marriage.

Had the court ruled the other way, it would have found that same-sex marriages didn’t count as real marriages at the level of the constitution, which would have been far harder to fix.

When will the 2004 law get repealed? Well, it was a Conservative government that introduced equal marriage in the UK. Even fusty Tory bigots can’t fight the tide of history forever…

(*) there are some differences between marriage and de facto status, mostly related to property division and alimony. However, an ACT ‘Same-Sex Marriage’, being explicitly not considered as marriage under federal law, would not have changed these, certainly outside the jurisdiction of ACT courts and quite possibly even within it.

Did globalisation kill satire? And is that for the best?

How should we judge someone’s words? By intent, by effect, or what? How much does unintended offence matter? Also, LILY ALLEN and TWERKING and EATING IRISH BABIES.

I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one-fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine; and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

The quote above, of course, is from Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, viscerally parodying the callousness of the British regime in 18th century Ireland in letting children starve, and the harrumphing letters to the newspaper that privileged scumbags would write about feckless over-reproducing “professed beggars”.

It’s an incisive pisstake of a very shitty trope, which is vile to the poorest in society, is reproduced by the middle- and upper-classes – and a trope which is being exposed and mocked here by one of the most privileged men in the country. As a result, it’s a textbook example of Satire Done Right but also Satire Done By Someone Privileged.

Scumbag Londoner Wants Our Babies Eaten

Now imagine a version of 18th century Ireland where, as they starved, Catholic peasants were somehow able to read those words as written [*]. As you prefer, this could be based on the knowledge that Swift was writing a parody targeting the British upper- and middle-classes, or it could be completely devoid of context as if this were a book by a wicked Englishman.

In either case, it’d be hard for someone to read those words, on how your children were to be singled out and taken and raised for food, without feeling at best uncomfortable. If you knew it was written as a satire, then perhaps it’d be forgiveable and you’d understand the points being made, but at the same time it’d be hard to disentangle from the sickening way in which people were talking about eating your children. If you didn’t know it was written as a satire, you’d be understandably tempted to find the person who wants your kids raised as an alternative to turkey at Christmas and kick the bastard to death.

Internetglobalisationtwitterbollocks means that we now live in a world where, assuming the piece that you write reaches more than a niche audience of you and your mates/regular readers, it will be viewed devoid of context. There’s a good chance it’ll reach someone who is in the group whose side you’re on, but whose side you’re pretending to eviscerate for the sake of the piece – so the example of the Irish peasant given a copy of Swift is no longer outlandish.

(By The Way, He Directed Major Lazer And Nobody Cared)

Given that the whole point of satire is to upset and confront the powerful, how does that affect the appropriate way to behave in the current environment? I’m really not sure on this. The controversy raging over Lily Allen’s latest video (the best bit is the rejoinder to the horrible Robin Thicke, in which new mum Allen gloriously spells out “Lily Allen Has A Baggy Pussy” in balloons) is a good example.

It’s aimed at savaging the music industry, as highlighted by the white male exec who tells everyone what to do, and most of the content. Allen is pressured into being toned-teenage-model-bodied despite just having had two kids, in front of a mob of dancing rent-a-girls in what have become standard R&B video clichéd moves and poses. If you’re a middle-class white female British artist and a middle-class white male British director, and you both have a fair amount of experience of how terrible MTV is, this is something that might seem like a reasonable, not-especially-clever, not-especially-controversial satire on the world in which you operate.

On the other hand, the video features twerking dancers who are mostly black (four out of six, because he hired the best twerking troupe and there were four of them of whom six are black, says the director), and a couple of lines where Allen disparages rap culture materialist aspirations. Add to that the fact that the USA still dominates online discourse, and is still a society featuring a terrifying racial divide and preponderance of full-on black-hating neo-slaving lunatics even on the allegedly left-leaning side, and you have a recipe for trouble.

Which duly occurs. Both of these are excellent well-written pieces, both worth reading. Both, crucially, come from priors that are very different than any priors that white-Brit-liberal types involved in either making or watching the video would be likely to have. From an African-American perspective, the video co-opts African-American culture, ridicules it, and positions Allen as better than it. Which is quite different from just being someone who escapes the creepy white male exec and his creepy demands.

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa; WHAT NEXT?

Anyway. Today on Twitter, I defended the video (which was a stretch, because I was pretty disappointed by the song), and I went way too far and ignored far too much of the above in doing so.

It’s easy, if the intention seems so obvious when you share the priors of the makers, to dismiss other people as ridiculous for not understanding – like the hypothetical Irish folk who read Swift’s book and believe that he’s even more evil than the average Englishman. In some cases, it’s warranted (various Stupid Onion Comments blogs testify); in others, the cultural context is far less clear, so it isn’t. There are many right-wing places, again particularly in the USA, that publish utterly despicable content; there are some sub-Onion satire blogs that publish pieces which appear more aimed at trolling for its own sake than humour; and Poe’s Law is a thing.

But it’s even easier, when someone else does understand but is still offended by the fact that they are being used instrumentally in that way, to assume they fall into the first category. Which I know I’ve done tonight, and which I regret.

This is the point that I’ve come to realise, and I’m not sure I’d thought about it properly before. When considering the second Swift In A Time Machine (hot tub not included) case, with a well-fed, Irish-born member of the English gentry trying to explain to the starving masses “no, look, the baby-eating thing was a joke to annoy the English. No, really, I’m on your side, that was the point” – I’m not sure that would cut it, even if they believed him. And I’m not sure they’d be all that unreasonable to take it in such a way.

So is there something inherently wrong with Swiftean satire and we were wrong to like it all along? Can that kind of ambiguity only be deployed by people in oppressed groups rather than by privileged people who dislike oppression? Is there something contingently wrong, which means it can only be deployed in a world that’s less connected than the world where we actually live? Or is it just that Lily Allen and Chris Sweeney are insufficiently good at it to be viewed as competent satirists, and actually our man Jonathan Swift would have done just fine?

I’m not sure. If it’s the final one, then I suspect that means everyone who isn’t Chris Morris or Jon Stewart probably needs to be a lot more careful about what they say satirically. And maybe that’s not a bad take-out.

[*] To be clear, I know Swift was a popular author among English-speaking literate Irishpeople, being one himself. Since Johnny questioned it, I should make clear that we’re using a hypothetical device that makes English-language works accessible to people who can neither read at all nor speak English.

The idle musings of John B