Over the last few months, I’ve often heard that polls can’t be trusted. In particular, I have heard that they can’t be trusted because each one usually involves study of only about a thousand individuals. I have even heard that argument from a retired quantitative linguist.1 So I’ve put together this essay in order to explain how polls work, why a random sample of a thousand should usually be considered sufficient, and why the results should be treated as informative even though they do not enable us to predict precise numbers of votes (which is a particular problem when the results are going to be close — because then, precise numbers can make all the difference).
This is the approximate text of a short talk I was invited to give at the Cultural Value Scoping Workshop organised by Patrycja Kaczyńska at Edinburgh College of Art on 18 January 2017
I’ve been asked to talk about what we’ve learnt about the ‘transactions’ underpinning ‘cultural ecosystems’ as part of this discusion on whether scholarship on cultural value has been advancing. I’m really glad about that – especially about the word ‘transaction’, because one of the principal things that I think we’ve learnt is that, while the metaphor of ‘ecology’ can be useful, the reality of cultural production in our society is fundamentally economic.
I’ve probably spent more time listening to Leonard Cohen than to Bowie and Prince put together, but somehow his death has hit me less hard. I don’t know why. I guess because much bigger things have happened to shake me. This has been a pretty horrible year, all told. Or a pretty good one if you hate the things I love. There was the Brexit vote, which told me that my family weren’t as welcome here as I had once thought. There was the United States presidential election – about which, no words are enough. In the US, the UK, and in France, we have seen the rise of pro-Kremlin nationalists employing a racist and isolationist rhetoric the likes of which I once thought belonged only to the political fringe. This isn’t the world that many were expecting, back in the 1990s when I came of age and I fell under the spell of that eloquence and a voice drenched in resignation and regret.
But it turns out that this is what the future was, and he was right. It really is murder.
The days pass, and I hear him coughing.
There’s much to be said about the UK’s decision to leave the European Union and the US’s decision to elect Donald Trump as president: above all, that we have in neither case seen a simple victory of ‘right’ over ‘left’. Leading conservatives in both countries had opposed the result that ultimately came to pass, and in both countries, the result was followed by a stock market fall, indicating that investors expected the supposedly ‘right wing’ option to be bad for business.
But for now I’d like to observe some important transatlantic similarities in the demographics of the winning and losing sides.
Really looking forward to the coming months. So many plans for research and for bringing it into the classroom – and so many great colleagues to work with.
I’ve decided to introduce two new genres of writing to this blog: the ‘meta-tutorial’ and the ‘proto-tutorial’.
It’s that time of year when students are signing up for study skills classes. One of the skills that science students are likely to be encouraged to develop is the use of LaTeX. Other people may come to LaTeX for other reasons: people who want to typeset their own books; people who’ve heard that LaTeX may have something to do with Digital Humanities; etc. I’ve written this essay as a sort of pre-introduction to LaTeX. It won’t teach you how to use it (I’m not qualified!), but it will try to give non-users a clear understanding of what LaTeX is really for, which may help them to make their minds up about whether the effort of learning it (not to mention simply getting it to work) is really going to be worthwhile. Why such a long essay? Because many of those who evangelise for the use of LaTeX fetishise it to the extent of spreading misinformation about its true benefits and I want to clear some of that up. Continue reading “The LaTeX fetish (Or: Don’t write in LaTeX! It’s just for typesetting)”
Last month, I came out to my friends as a non-supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Since that time, I’ve been public about it in my own small way. It took me a while to admit that my party was led by someone who did not have its voters’ interests at heart, but the key moment came when I was delivering leaflets for the Labour Party’s In for Britain campaign and I ended up talking to a man who had voted both for the Labour Party under Tony Blair and for the Conservative Party under David Cameron. A man – in case this isn’t obvious – from outside my middle class bubble in which people will express solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn even while being unsure that they really agree with him, and in which there are probably more anarchists than conservatives. I picked up that he wanted a Labour Party that he could vote for again. For Jeremy Corbyn, he had two devastating words: ‘Student politics.’ Those words stuck with me.
It wasn’t just that he was a swing voter in a marginal constituency, and therefore exactly the kind of person that Labour needs to be reaching out to if it ever wants to be in government again (if it ever wants to be in government again… a point that I’ll return to).
It was that he was right – and I knew it.
When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks. When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised if someone takes you at your word. You didn’t make them do it, no, but you didn’t do much to stop it either.
Sometimes rhetoric has consequences. If you spend days, weeks, months, years telling people they are under threat, that their country has been stolen from them, that they have been betrayed and sold down the river, that their birthright has been pilfered, that their problem is they’re too slow to realise any of this is happening, that their problem is they’re not sufficiently mad as hell, then at some point, in some place, something or someone is going to snap. And then something terrible is going to happen.
In a few days’ time, my country will hold a referendum on whether to stay inside the European Union or to leave it. I am fairly convinced that the outcome will be a victory for the ‘leave’ camp. London and Scotland will vote to stay in, the UK as a whole will vote to leave (led by those parts that have benefited most from EU membership), and a second referendum on Scottish independence will probably follow, in which case Scotland will almost certainly vote to leave the UK in order to stay in the EU. England will be left behind with the relatively impoverished Wales and Northern Ireland – both of which will lose their EU funding, as will the economically marginal parts of England that the London-based government will continue to do its best to ignore, as it has done for many years.