My must-reads this week November 18, 2016

by Stephen Tall on November 18, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

My must-reads this week November 11, 2016

by Stephen Tall on November 11, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

Nate Silver, Donald Trump and the polls (AKA: question data, doubt certainty)

by Stephen Tall on November 9, 2016

I’m shocked, stunned and just a little bit scared. So I’m not going even to attempt to write something coherent about President-elect Trump.

While Brexit made things uncertain for the UK, the US election has made things uncertain for the world. Maybe “only” for four years. But that’s a heck of a long time.

So a brief something I can be emotionally detached about: pollsters and forecasters.

I don’t think I’m alone in having spent much of the past couple of months refreshing Nate Silver’s every couple of hours to check his latest reading of the runes. Now Nate has taken a lot of stick over the past few weeks for sticking stubbornly to his model which showed Clinton’s chances significantly lower than others.

In a story which will come to rival the Chicago Daily Tribune’s “Dewey beats Truman”, the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim took him head-on: ‘Nate Silver is unskewing polls — all of them. And he’s panicking the world‘.

I doubt Nate’s feeling cheery about the outcome but he’s still got the last laugh. Because what he consistently argued turned out to be scarily prescient: polling errors are pretty common and this contest, because of its high number of undecided voters and unconventional Republican candidate, was extremely uncertain. Here’s how he summed it up:

As I write, it looks like Clinton will secure a narrow win in the popular vote, but, having lost the battleground states, is defeated in the electoral college. The exact scenario posted a few weeks’ ago: ‘How Trump Could Win The White House While Losing The Popular Vote‘.

It took some guts for Nate Silver to adhere to the model and while pollsters and forecasters are taking a half-deserved bashing (the national polls were close; the state polls not) it feels right to give him some kudos.

Final point: I like data. I find it fascinating in politics. We also use it intensely in my day job at the Education Endowment Foundation (generating evidence from randomised controlled trials in education). But it’s also right to be cautious, even sceptical, about data. Don’t trust it blindly, but question it intelligently. One trial in education doesn’t prove (or disprove) anything. Look with an open mind at the weight of existing evidence and then apply some critical, professional judgement when interpreting its findings. Few things are certain: “everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere”, as Dylan Wiliam is fond of noting.

And anyway, uncertainty feels like the best bet right now. Otherwise all I’ve got is an inevitable dread of the next four years.

The US election: 4 things that strike me which aren’t simply “The Donald is awful”

by Stephen Tall on November 7, 2016

We are just a day away from whole democratic world going to hell in a handcart. Potentially. I mean, of course, the chance (a roughly 1-in-3 chance) of Donald Trump being elected US president.

I can’t be bothered to write, and I’m sure you can’t be bothered to read, yet another post exhausting the infinite reasons he is unqualified in every possible way for this responsibility. So here are four things about this election campaign which have struck me which aren’t that:

1. ‘Is Hillary a flawed candidate?’ is a banale, flawed question. The answer, obviously, is yes, she is. She is disliked by a significant chunk of the electorate, spanning Alt-Righters to Feel-the Bern-ers. Case closed. However, the more interesting question is, ‘Is the view that Hillary’s a flawed candidate fair?’ To which I’d answer a resounding no. I’d go further: virtually every critique of Hillary I come across is either explicitly or implicitly gendered. Much of it has its roots in the intense dislike 1990s’ Republicans had for Bill and his ‘co-president’ Hillary. This vilification has sometimes resulted in a cagey over-defensiveness by Hillary (one of her biggest flaws) which further fuels that hatred. I’m not saying she’s purer than pure. But she’s no grubbier, despite having her every action scrutinised more than any other living politician. She is, though, more experienced than any other recent candidate — First Lady, senator, Secretary of State — and you can bet your bottom dollar if she were a bloke that would have been judged to outweigh the case for the prosecution.

2. Much has been made of the comparison between Brexit and Trump, in particular its appeal to ‘left behind voters’, those who we’re told haven’t benefited from globalisation. Perhaps, though this ignores two things: (1) the working population voted to Remain but were out-voted by the non-working population; and (2) Trump voters earn on average more than Clinton voters (especially those who are Hispanic or black – and isn’t it strange how we don’t hear so much from them?). The closer comparison between Brexit and Trump is discomfort with foreigners, ‘otherness’. Sometimes that racism is implicit (as with Vote Leave’s ‘Stop the Turks invading’ slogan), other times explicit (Trump labelling Mexicans as rapists). This doesn’t mean, by the way, that Leavers or Trumpkins are automatically racist — there are legitimate reasons for choosing those sides — but it does explain why they’ve assembled a mass movement those legitimate reasons alone wouldn’t have garnered.

3. One of the saddest pieces of archive film footage that’s been doing the social media rounds is a clip of the 1980 Republican primary face-off between Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush. There you have two Republicans, both of whom would go to win the presidency, discussing illegal immigration in compassionate, practical, conservative terms — the polar opposite of Trump’s demands for border walls and deportations. What has the GOP come to, that it should shrug off any wish to lead but instead pander to the basest mob instincts?

4. I remember how important the 2004 Bush-Kerry election seemed at the time. Here, after all, was a chance for America to deliver a slap-down to its neo-con president. Matthew Parris wrote a typically shrewd article arguing that a second Bush win was the best outcome, that his ideas had to be allowed to reach their logical, failed conclusion so that voters could see they’d been tested to destruction. Indeed, his victory set up Obama’s in 2008. I say that to console myself in case Trump wins. Sometimes bad things happen for a reason (or, more rationally, Good Things follow Bad Things because reversion to the mean). Besides if we think the 2016 election has been gruesome, think how much worse 2020 might be. Chances are Hillary will be a one-term president. Chances are, if she wins tomorrow, the presidency will revert to the Republicans after 12 years of Democrat incumbency. Then imagine a Trump with some self-control, a Trump capable of pivoting, a Trump who understands how to organise a campaign. And then keep your fingers crossed a Republican emerges who can put Trump’s proto-fascism back in its box.

My must-reads this week November 4, 2016

by Stephen Tall on November 4, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

by Stephen Tall on November 2, 2016

ishiguroThe Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

This is the sixth novel plucked from my #40booksby40 list. And what I’m about to write pains me because Ishiguro is one of my favourite writers… but The Buried Giant is a crashing disappointment.

I should say, at the outset, I’m not a fantasy fan-boy. If tales of ogres and she-dragons in Saxon Britain are your bag, then perhaps you will wring more enjoyment from this book than me.

Of course, this is Ishiguro: so the novel’s form is merely a device for subtly exploring the themes which power all his work: memory, loss, identity. Previously, though, he has done this by creating characters we care about in situations with which we can identify. Not this time. Instead we get a sledgehammering, throat-ramming parable which is utterly unengaging.

The protagonists, Axl and Beatrice, are on a quest to find their son, but are hampered by a ubiquitous mist which robs they and everyone else of their memories. Along the way they meet a warrior and a knight, inevitably named Sir Gawain, and discover the cause of their forgetfulness is an Arthurian el pacto del olvido designed to keep the peace.

To be fair, the last 50 pages rattle along pretty nicely, but its scant recompense for the preceding 250.

The original meaning of the three Rs

by Stephen Tall on October 28, 2016

We all know what the three Rs stand for, don’t we? More accurately, we know what they stand for now. ‘Twas not ever thus…


So if, like me, you end up desperately searching for YouTube videos to show you how to do even the most basic things, like drill a hole or bleed a radiator, you know what to blame: the Great Exhibition.


From: ‘Is vocational education for the less able?’ by Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas in Bad Education: Debunking Myths in Education, Philip Adey and Justin Dillon (eds) (2012, McGraw Hill)

My must-reads this week October 28, 2016

by Stephen Tall on October 28, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

  • How One Man’s Bad Math Helped Ruin Decades Of English Soccer | FiveThirtyEight
    I feel sure there must be more to it than this but..? > How One Man’s Bad Math Helped Ruin Decades Of English Soccer
  • Confusion reigns as West Ham and Chelsea fans gear up for EFL rally
    “At the end of the day, we’re all united in our desire to see refugees have their teeth punched out.”
  • Trump’s party of angry, white, abusive males – The Washington Post
    So this is really good ?Trump’s party of angry, white, abusive males – The Washington Post
  • Trump Time Capsule #148: ‘Rosebud,’ and Hillary – The Atlantic
    Cat memes were big before the Internet » The Weird Familiarity of 100-Year-Old Feminism Memes
  • St Anne's College, Oxford > About the College > Helen King elected as Principal of St Anne’s College
    First police officer ever appointed to head an Oxbridge college Helen KIng elected principal of @StAnnesCollege
  • Why real creativity is based on knowledge | Tim Leunig | TEDxWhitehall – YouTube
    I’m usually “meh” about Ted talks. But Tim’s the real deal > Why real creativity is based on knowledge | Tim Leunig
  • UKIP: the local by-election evidence – Election Data
    Why the next Ukip leader faces a tricky 2017
  • New teachers: 30% of 2010 intake quit within five years – BBC News
    Poor teacher retention rate has “more to do with economics than politics” says John Howson
  • You’ll Likely Be Reading One Of These 5 Articles The Day After The Election | FiveThirtyEight
    Pictured: the DOOMSDAY scenario> You’ll Likely Be Reading One Of These 5 Articles The Day After The Election
  • Review: Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

    by Stephen Tall on October 27, 2016

    wintersonOranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson

    This is the fifth novel plucked from my #40booksby40 list.

    If you know it only as a “coming out novel” or, worse, “that lesbian book”, you are missing out, bigly. Jeanette Winterson’s Künstlerroman is many things: rawly personal, laugh-out-loud funny, gorgeously big-hearted, seriously wise, indulgently surreal, and, yes, brilliantly written (she was just 26 when it was published).

    I recall watching the BBC adaptation, which I loved though remembering it always makes me sad: Charlotte Coleman, who played 16 year-old Jeanette, died far too young. But what the TV series couldn’t convey was its Biblical structure: each chapter is named after one of its books, with Jeanette’s life-story framed by it, even as she starts to reject her oppressively evangelical upbringing.

    There are scenes which will strike a chord with anyone brought up in a religious family (though, to be clear, mine was much more liberal): the goldfish-bowl social life, friendship, jealousies and judginess can be found in even the mildest Anglican congregation.

    Ultimately, Jeanette is reconciled to her mother, to her upbringing, underpinned by acceptance of what is:

    Families, real ones, are chairs and tables and the right number of cups, but I had no means of joining one, and no means of dismissing my own.

    Universal basic income: nice idea, but that’s as far as it goes

    by Stephen Tall on October 27, 2016

    Six months’ ago I wrote a blog-post, 3 policies I support in principle, but not in practice, one of which was the universal basic income.

    I was prompted by an email I received from Someone I Respect taking me to task for having glibly listed it as a Good Liberal Thing:

    “The cheapest rent for a studio in Oxford seems to be c. £750pcm, or £9k per year. Plus council tax, and utilities. So probably £11k a year. Plus food, etc. Are you really going to give that to everyone? You need really, really high rates of tax to get that back. No-one in the party has ever been able to give me a numeric example of a citizen’s income.”

    But Tyler Cowen today makes perhaps an even more important argument against its political acceptability:

    It’s fair to ask whether a universal income guarantee would be affordable, but my doubts run deeper than that. If two able-bodied people live next door to each other, and one works and the other chooses to live off universal basic income checks, albeit at a lower standard of living, I wonder if this disparity can last. One neighbor feels like she is paying for the other, and indeed she is. It’s different from disability payments, which enjoy public support because they require recipients to pass through a legal process certifying that they are not able to hold down a job.

    An unaffordable policy which is regarded by most voters as falling foul of the free rider problem probably needs a bit more tweaking before its manifesto-ready.

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