Chess and war

What kind of people are good at chess? Most would agree it’s those who are good at recognising, memorising and solving puzzles, thinking both tactically – looking at what the best thing is to do now – and strategically – planning ahead and seeing how everything fits in in the long-term.

If playing timed, they also need to be able to think fast. They need to be able to get themselves out of tricky situations. They need to be able to think offensively and defensively. Above all, good chess players are excellent at keeping concentration, staying alert to any threats and opportunities.

To me, it seems as if chess should be compulsory for people who want to become military generals – I don’t think there’s a single quality in the above list that isn’t advantageous in war.

We could use the example of the current Libyan conflict – is there really a long-term strategy in this? Is there an exit strategy? What will happen if it all goes wrong? Hmmm…

Personally, I’d rather we weren’t directly involved in the Libyan conflict at all. I would fully support just arming and funding the rebels, and letting Colonel Gaddafi know that we basically hope he dies (I know one of our recent former Prime Ministers was very nice and friendly and cuddly and gave you weapons but things are different now).

But getting into another war is exceedingly costly when we’re trying to cut spending, hypocritical (what about Robert Mugabe, the Syrian President etc.?) and it’s far easier to get into a war than out of it, as we’ve seen with Iraq and Afghanistan. And just because Russia, China and a league of other Arab dictatorships say we can do it, doesn’t mean you can say “Oh it’s all perfectly fine because we’re adhering to international law.”

Still, we’re in it now, we’re probably not going to leave any time soon, so I just hope we succeed in what we’re trying to do. All I suggest is that all the military generals, David Cameron and anyone else who’s thinking of becoming an army general or Prime Minister be made to take up chess.

Maybe then we’ll be able to think up a coherent strategy for succeeding in Libya and, for that matter, exiting Afghanistan, because all the qualities needed to succeed in chess are immensely helpful in war.

EDIT (24 October): I am of course glad that Libya has been liberated, and the rebels have so much to thank the British government for in helping them end their dictator’s 32-year-long reign. Our intervention was worth it in the end.


Was the American crisis caused by too much democracy?

US House of Representatives passes debt-limit bill

US House of Representatives

The Republicans and Democrats have finally agreed a deal on raising the debt ceiling and both houses of Congress have passed it. The agreed-upon bill has a lot of problems and has no coherent strategy for reducing the deficit other than trillions of dollars of cuts and allowing the US government to borrow trillions more money.

Given the dog’s dinner President Obama has made of trying to recover their economy, however, I think it’s a lot better than it could have been, although I understand why many Democrats were immensely annoyed about the massive compromises Obama has made.

A part of me is annoyed that Republicans seem to be a bit like the Eurocrats who are bailing out Greece (I know that sounds weird given the gulf between their political views) – rigid, completely unwilling to compromise, with little regard to what actually appears to be working and of the trust of their constituents. In fact, just half a year ago, the GOP commissioned a report saying that the best way of tackling deficits is with 85% spending cuts and 15% rises in tax revenue. A couple of weeks ago the Democrats offered almost exactly that – and the rises weren’t even direct tax rises, just revenue gained from closing tax loopholes. But it’s taken until now to reach a deal?

Another part of me sort of understands what they’ve been doing and thinks that the whole ordeal hasn’t been too bad. While I don’t really trust either Republicans or Democrats to handle the US economy, I do believe in low taxes and small government, and I think large-scale spending cuts are necessary in both Britain and the US. The job of Congress (and, theoretically at least, our Parliament) is to hold the government to account. Most of the new Republican Congressman were elected last year on a Tea Party platform of brutal spending cuts and low taxes, so they and their voters have pretty much got what they wanted.

However, most voters are fed up with the Punch and Judy politics in their country. 72% of Americans have nothing but derision for Congress after this ordeal, but I think this is just a culmination of the increasing division in US politics in the last few decades. Generally, little progress happens – it seems like American politics is basically a catfight between Democrats and Republicans, between big government and rampant capitalism with no grey areas in between.

Lack of stuff actually getting done in Britain is usually down to the fact that we can’t do anything, because most of the decisions lie either with quangos, human rights judges or the European Union – in other words, because of lack of democracy. Could the same problem in America be down to too much democracy, too many elections (Congress is elected every two years)? Or maybe it’s because of the strong two-party system?

In principle, I am very attracted to anything that holds the government to account – whether it’s elected senators, the power of Parliament (or Congress) over the exective, direct democracy or anything else. I think there is much we in Britain can learn from the United States, Switzerland and possibly other countries in this respect, and I wish people in this country had more power than they do. Is there a chance, though, that if you go too far, nothing gets done? It is, after all, because of direct democracy that women in Switzerland didn’t get the vote until 1971.

There are other factors in it than simply too much democracy, and all I’ve read about them is in Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. I’m sure there are plenty others who are better qualified to comment on American politics. But it does make me wonder what went wrong.

Reaching out to the right is the only way forward for the Liberal Democrats

Nick Clegg proposing to dumb down the NHS reforms

Nick Clegg tried to win sympathy for his amendments to the NHS reforms, but this approach is not working

The reason for the Lib Dems’ collapse in support last year was because they had failed to reach out to the right.

This may sound ludicrous, given that they’re criticised for being too right-wing, but hear me out. Throughout the Labour years, they relied too much on support from disaffected Labour voters – so obviously if they go into coalition with the Tories, they are going to be disliked by a lot of their voters.

Of course, they also made a stupid pledge about tuition fees which they knew they wouldn’t be able to keep if they went into to coalition with either party, rightly angering their voters – but that was just part of a wider thing about them being too left-wing.

You can’t blame Nick Clegg for this, as he actually brought his party closer to the centre than it had been since the Liberal-SDP merge (God knows where the party would be now if Chris Huhne had been elected leader). But since the AV referendum/local elections this May, he has adopted a new strategy – trying to show that they are having some influence in the government and are not just propping up the Tories.

Given his party’s main source of criticism is the perception that they basically are just propping up the Tories (though that’s not entirely true), this is an understandable idea. He followed it through mainly by trying to dumb down the NHS reforms, which worked, but didn’t work – as public opinion of him and his party is still at an all-time low.

I think he and the Liberals just need to face up to the fact that most of the left-wing votes they’ve lost are gone and he won’t retrieve them any time in the near future. Instead, Clegg needs to see this as confirmation of the need for him to continue shifting his party to the market-liberal centre. Or does he really want to just spend the rest of the term trying to win back left-wing votes, when at best this will only benefit him in the short-term and at worst it will not deliver any meaningful progress?

The way to go for the Lib Dems is to change into a proper liberal party that embraces economic liberalism (good for wooing right-wing voters) as well as civil and personal liberties (good for wooing left-wing voters). They need to build on the reasons why people switched from Labour to them, but also make the party attractive to Tory voters as well. If any of them need inspiration, this blog kept by classical-liberal Lib Dems, supporting tax cuts and a limited government as well as personal freedom, might be helpful.

They’re already on this path unintentionally. Before the AV vote, an ICM poll showed that less than a quarter of Lib Dem voters would put a Labour candidate as a second choice, compared to 31% who would rather put a number 2 against a Conservative candidate. The Liberals’ second-preference support from Labour voters had plummeted from 51% at the last general election to 16%, and they were now second-choice to more Tory voters than ever before.

This is what they need to build on. Going into coalition government with either two parties was always going to be dangerous for the Lib Dems, but perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad if they had been a genuinely centrist party – reaching out not just to the left but to all corners of the political spectrum. And maybe that’s the lesson they need to learn from this, because in the near future, they’re far more likely to win new votes from the right than win back old votes from the left.

Planes, trains or automobiles?

Norwegian train

My favourite way to travel 500 miles

Which would I go by on a 500-mile journey? Train. Trains are usually cheaper than flying, there’s more leg room and generally more space, they’re usually cleaner (at least than the car I use!), they’re more smooth and comfortable and, well, there’s not much point in flying 500 miles unless you really need to get there fast. (I know I sound like a greenie here, but the environmental damage from short flights is clearly something that’s avoidable.)

Of course, if the journey was much longer, I would take a plane. Planes are much more exciting – I still love looking out the window at takeoff – and on longer journeys they offer inflight entertainment, which is usually enough to keep me occupied. And obviously they’re much, much quicker.

As a general point, I’ve never understood why people often drive short or long distances when going by train can save a lot of time, hassle with traffic and even money, what with the price of petrol continually going up here in Britain and I presume elsewhere too.

I am slightly more sympathetic to long car journeys over long train journeys, because it’s nice to be able to stop and stretch your legs at places where you want to stop on your own terms. Personally though I don’t yet hold a driving license so it’s not up to me at the moment.

Another form of transport I really like is the ferry. Personally I’ve never been on a 500-mile trip so I’m not sure about that, but I’ve always liked the space, facilities, comfort, views and ability to go outside on deck – still I guess those who get travel-sick will disagree.

My worst mode of transport is the bus. I don’t mind buses, but they’re often more uncomfortable than cars and you don’t get the benefit of less traffic (but of course you would if more people used them). Short bus journeys are ok, but I would not go on a five-hundred-mile bus journey.

Anyway in my opinion, trains are the best way to go, especially Swiss trains surrounded by the Alps (though the picture above is actually from Norway 😉 ).

Pat Condell – truth-teller or ignorant bigot?

This angry YouTuber is an insult to the many people who kind of agree with him

Pat Condell is an atheist YouTuber who’s in your face and not afraid to insult your religion or your political views. Whether you’re a Muslim, Christian, polite and/or pro-Muslim atheist, Europhile or “middle-class left-wing p***k”, be prepared for his angry wrath.

I used to regularly watch and quite like his videos. Being a former comedian, he has a rather amusing cynical sense of humour and there are some points he makes on Islam, multiculturalism and the EU that either I agree with or are at least extreme mirror images of my opinion.

He has always been subject to controversy, with a lot of popularity (with 164,114 subscribers to his channel as of today) as well as criticism, from the usual accusations of intolerance, racism or “Islamophobia” to malicious death threats (that’s actually a huge understatement if you click on the link).

But a lot of criticism against him is very well-founded. In particular he seems to have become a lot more extreme of late, and his two most recent videos are testament to that. In one, “Insulting religion”, he gratuitously does exactly what the title suggests and appears to blame Islam and Christianity for all the evils in the world. Yes, you have a right to insult religion, but please keep a bit of perspective.

The other video, “An illiberal consensus”, is the one where I got the “middle-class left-wing p***ks” quote from. He keeps repeating this infantile name-calling throughout the video to describe the Guardian and the BBC. I wouldn’t exactly call myself a Guardianista either, but when he uses such labels to attack people who disagree with him, he stoops below the level of many people he criticises.

His claim of BBC bias is a reasonable one I might be inclined to agree with, and again I don’t agree with everything the Guardian says. I also agree it’s a shame that the Yes campaign lost the AV referendum because they were too close-minded and stubbornly limited the campaign to lefties. (See Telegraph blogger Ed West’s convincing take on this matter.) Please don’t insult these views by resorting to infantile personal attacks.

You know, I’m no fan of extremist Islam, and – while I don’t accept his conspiracy theory that from the start, multiculturalism was all about Islamization – I think it’s a misguided philosophy. But what is the solution? Banning sharia law and shutting down extremist mosques is all very well, but what else do we need? Integration between ethnic and religious minorities and the rest of us. And I’m afraid, Pat, that integration is a two-way process. So instead of just attacking Islam, we also need to:

a) Have a healthy, civic nationalist sense of pride in our nation and values, including tolerance.

b) Accept Muslims and all other minorities as fellow citizens (this seems to be a passive feeling that many non-prejudiced Britons have, that Muslims are somehow different)

Judging by Mr Condell’s videos, it seems that he has a long to way to go in achieving these things. He, and a depressing number of other people, stubbornly thinks it’s only Muslims who have to change, and he has no obligation to do anything other than insulting people. Well good for you, Mr Condell, but don’t expect to change anything with that attitude.

EDIT: I now regret some of the language I used, specifically calling Mr. Condell a bigot. (25.13.14)

Am I too lazy or too busy?

I’m a person who can be very hard-working and sometimes almost perfectionist when I’m doing work, but I’m not very conscientious and I can be a procrastinator. 

I usually work hard at school, but at home I find the hardest part of work/studying is the daunting process of actually starting work. Once I’ve started, I normally work hard but I usually need a lot of break time to be able to concentrate on the rest of my work. 

I often find I’ve produced some very good work but sometimes I haven’t covered everything, because I’ve spent too long on one particular part. I like to include a lot of detail and get out everything that’s in my head, but this means I can be quite slow and/or lose concentration later on. This is one of the reasons why I’m slow in exams (though fortunately I am entitled to extra time).

I should also emphasize that while I say I can be a hard-working perfectionist, I’m not always. It depends on the day, the time of day, how tired I am and in what state of mind I am. And if I’m not in the right state of mind when I do a certain piece of work, later when I am I want to do the work I haven’t yet done, not to perfect earlier work.

What I really need to do is organise myself so I know exactly when I’m going to do certain bits of work and studying. Right now, I’m not the least organised person I know, but I don’t have a revision timetable, I often leave too much work to the weekend when I should be relaxing and I generally do homework at irregular times within the deadline.

So to answer the question: am I too lazy, or too busy? Well, because I often (but not always) procrastinate I’d say I’m more on the lazy side, but that doesn’t mean I’m not hard-working. No-one has a perfect work-play balance, but I’d say I have a reasonable one that could do with some improvement.

The Feeling’s new album: not bad…


Together We Were Made is the third effort of English pop/soft rock band The Feeling. After two albums of irresistably energetic and catchy songs that you could sing along to all day, they have now given us a third one, which…isn’t bad, I suppose.

It starts off with lead single Set My World On Fire, which again is not at all bad. Combining a catchy guitar riff with African-style percussion and a tribal sing along in the chorus, it’s certainly original and memorable—but it’s not, indeed nothing on the record is, energetic enough to be a Feeling lead single. This is followed by “Dance for the Lights”, which is an electropop collaboration with Roisin Murphy, employing the band’s trademark harmonies and a guitar solo, that is altogether better.

Then we have the rather average “Another Soldier”, followed by the excellently catchy “Leave Me Out of It” featuring the bassist’s wife Sophie Ellis-Bextor, dominated by synths and vocal melodies until a typically Feeling-esque end of guitars and “Na na na”s. The fifth track “Build a Home” is completely average apart from the reasonably catchy key changes that permeate it.

The latter half of the album has songs that range from a really original combination of hip hop rhythms and the band’s guitars (“Mr Grin”), through catchy piano-led tunes (“Love and Care”, which also retains their usual lovely harmonies, and “A Hundred Sinners (Come and Get It)”) to the slightly boring “Back Where I Came From”. “Say No” is a good soft-to-loud-and-back-again piano-led ballad, in the image of “Rose” and “Spare Me” from their previous two records, but not quite as good. We end off with “Undeniable”, which is perhaps the only song on the album that could be described as really energetic, but there’s still not much in there apart from repetitions of the lyric “together we were made”.

Overall, I would not actively warn against buying this album or any of its songs. There is some good, memorable and quite original music in there. But it does seem as if there’s something missing. Maybe if they had added in a few melodic and energetically animated songs, like “I Thought It Was Over”, “Never Be Lonely”, “Fill My Little World” and “Without You” from their first two albums, the record would collectively sound better. Most of the songs are good, but it doesn’t quite sound like The Feeling.