The meaning of ‘moderate’

I understand why people resist the label ‘moderate’: it sounds mild, milquetoast, and, like its cousin ‘centrist’, like you orient yourself solely by comparison to others. Identify the extremes, position yourself somewhere inbetween, and, there, you’re a ‘moderate’.

But when I describe myself as a ‘moderate’, I mean something different.

When I was a teenager, I went on a bunch of Scout camps. I remember one, where a loud, aggressive kid called Adam — I must have been 17 or so, Adam around 14 — managed to get pretty drunk. This transformed him into (or revealed him to be) an excitable child, one minute jumping up and down, the next flashing everyone, the next bursting into tears. It got bad enough that the grown-ups found out, and believe me, they turned some pretty blind eyes to mild tipsiness. Anyway, later on, when we’d managed to get Adam into our tent and he had calmed down, one of them stuck their head in. “A word, Adam,” he said: “Everything in moderation.”

He didn’t say, “you’re too young to drink.” He didn’t say, “alcohol is bad.” He said, “everything in moderation.” He knew there was no point getting into a debate about the rights and wrongs of alcohol per se, or even alcohol for a 14-year-old. He focused on a message he could confidently deliver: whatever you do, just don’t go crazy, OK?

I’ve thought about that a lot since.

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TV review: Nurse Jackie, series 3, episode 3: “Play Me”

Published on TV Pixie, July 2011

In the so-so comedy series Episodes, which starred Stephen Mangan and Tasmin Grieg earlier this year, there was a great scene where Matt Le Blanc, playing a slightly twisted version of himself, explains to Mangan the difference between British and American TV shows. They’re debating whether the female lead in the show, who in the UK version is a lesbian, should be straight in the US version to create sexual tension with Le Blanc’s character.

“How many years you do the show in the UK?” asks Le Blanc. Four, Mangan replies. “That’s how many episodes?” Twenty four, says Mangan.

“That’s one season for us. Friends did 236 episodes. You’ve got to give yourself places for stories to go.”

It’s strange to write these words, but they’re true: Matt Le Blanc was right. The length of American TV series – even high-cost dramas like Mad Men – typically have twelve to fourteen episodes a year. This makes maintaining the quality of a show for more than a couple of series extremely hard. Even HBO’s Deadwood, after its revelatory first two seasons, lost its way in its third and final year.

To prevent the rot setting in, program-makers sometimes carry out a ‘reset,’ adding a few crucial plot points that move the story in a significantly different direction to keep things fresh. One obvious recent example is Mad Men: at the end of series three, the main contexts in which the series’ action had mostly taken place – the Sterling Cooper ad agency and Don Draper’s marriage – were both jettisoned, in favour of a new agency and a new bachelor life for Don. The result was a fourth series that was uneven, but felt fresher and more intense.

Another great American series, Nurse Jackie, is in the middle of its third series – and it’s about to carry out one of the subtlest, smartest resets I’ve seen. With episode three, screened on Sky Atlantic this week, the third series began to move in a direction that will change the tone of the show markedly.

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Are superstar bloggers turning online journalism into the Premier League?

A minor earthquake hit the blogosphere recently with the news that Andrew Sullivan is to move his blog The Daily Dish from the website of the Atlantic Monthly, where it’s been based since 2005, to the Daily Beast. The news caps a string of trophy hires for the Beast in recent months, including former Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz and Fortune technology reporter David Kirkpatrick. The move makes sense for Sullivan, who’s proven a savvy manager of his blog – moving from a listing Time magazine to The Atlantic just when it was beginning to carve out a strong reputation online, and now moving to the hottest property in online news – and, thanks to the Daily Beast’s merger with Newsweek, getting some old-fashioned print exposure out of it.

But it’s terrible news for The Atlantic, and it’s got me wondering: are news and magazine sites becoming too reliant on big-name bloggers?

Once upon a time, the newspaper was the brand and writers were fairly anonymous. While talented reporters and editors would get poached by other publications, of course, the changes often wouldn’t register on the public. And for reporters, this is still the way things largely work. But bloggers’ brands are largely personal. Like big-name lawyers, they have their own ‘clients’ – readers – who will follow them from publication to publication.

This is good news for the bloggers, but less so for the sites that rely on them.

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The fundamentalist the media loves to quote

Johann Hari’s column this month in Attitude magazine expresses horror at the continuing media presence of Stephen Green, head of the campaign group Christian Voice. Green, you might remember, led the campaign against Jerry Springer: The Opera, which led to much of the show’s UK tour being cancelled a few years ago.

Hari argues that it’s shocking Green remains frequently quoted and interviewed on TV and radio, considering his support for the murder of gay people.

Do you deserve to be killed for being gay? Should you be hanged, or shot, or electrocuted? In Britain today, a man who believes you should be – and who actively supports the on-going campaign to hunt down and kill gay people in Africa – is being given prime-time TV slots by the BBC and Channel Four. When Elton John had a baby, he was given the main response on the flagship Six O’Clock News. He is in the rolodex of all the “moral discussion” programs, wheeled on whenever we inch closer to equality for gay people. He is Taken Seriously, and treated as a neutral commentator by shows like Question Time and newspapers like the Daily Mail. His name is Stephen Green, and if he had his way, you’d be reading this from death row.

Now, I like Johann Hari. But he does get a bit carried away sometimes, and I wondered what evidence he’d cite for Green’s pro-murder views. It comes, it turns out, from a newsletter Christian Voice sent out last year. In it, Green appears to write approvingly about Uganda’s proposed law introducing the death penalty for gay sex in some circumstances: “The Bible prescribes precisely the penalty [Ugandan MP David] Bahati is proposing for sodomy in any situation, whether or not ‘aggravated.’”

Crikey. But I was still sceptical. Noting the Bible’s support for something isn’t the same as endorsing it yourself; some deeply religious people have separated themselves from the nuttier aspects of the chosen faith’s holy texts. So I fished out the newsletter, fully expecting to find a qualification that let Green off the hook.

Spoiler alert: nope.

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Ed Miliband and Me

Fun fact: I once had dinner with Ed Miliband. And, on another occasion, played with his BlackBerry when we were both at a picnic on Regent’s Park.

I point this out not to show off – or at least, not purely for that reason. Rather, to illustrate just how rapidly he has risen – and share some thoughts on his suitability for the position he’s ascended to.

I first became aware of Ed Miliband in the autumn of 2003. As you may now, Ed (I sense that people are going to refer to him generally as ‘Ed’ rather than ‘Miliband’) spent 2003-4 teaching at Harvard University. This is widely-known because it meant that he was out of the UK and away from Government around the time of the Iraq war, which has helped him no end since.

I was studying at Harvard in 2003-4. Not long after I arrived, the campus was covered overnight with posters advertising a course called “What’s Left?” and subtitled something like ‘the future of social democracy in Europe.’ And by covered, I mean plastered. The bloody things were everywhere. Advertising for courses, especially new courses, is common at the start of the year at Harvard like elsewhere. But there were three or four of these for any one of anyone else’s.

The course, needless to say, was being run and taught by one E. Miliband. He’s David Miliband’s brother, someone explained. I was only dimly aware of David Miliband, so the existence of his brother didn’t particularly excite me, and I didn’t take the course. But I was told the first lecture was literally overflowing ,with over 500 prospective students turning up. “Crikey,” Ed apparently said when he walked in. “I guess advertising does work.”

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One social network to rule them all? A modest proposal

I realise this might sound like politician calling for a new taskforce, or a businessman calling for a new tax break, but: we need a new social network.

By this, I don’t mean that we need a new standalone service for sharing a kind of media, be it short messages, photos, videos, sound, shopping lists or anything else. Rather, what’s needed is a framework to pull all the existing Web 2.0 services together in a way that’s fluid, attractive and easy to use.

Social networking versus social publishing

In the beginning of the internet, much time and energy was spent discussing its potential to enable people to reach outside the boundaries of their everyday lives and connect in communities of shared interest. The internet enabled us to explore areas of interest our ‘real’ lives didn’t allow us to investigate: people who lived in small towns with no galleries could learn about art; fans of obscure bands or niche cuisines or unusual hobbies could connect all around the world.

Equally importantly, the web allowed us to adopt a second identity. People could embrace interests that might not be socially acceptable – from kinky sex to stamp-collecting to simple silliness – without risking their real-world reputations.

With the advent of ‘Web 2.0’ and the development of ever more methods for people to create and share content online – from Flickr for photos to YouTube and Vimeo for vidoes to Blogger, WordPress and Twitter for written thoughts – this potential of the web was enhanced. Secret identities are no longer the preserve of superheroes: now each of us can have a second persona under which we publish all manner of content and connect with strangers all over the world.

But just as these services were developing, a funny thing happened: real life started to intrude. Facebook, launched in 2004, grew like topsy to become the website many people spend most time on, and the most vital to people’s lives outside email. In the process, it became the default method of sharing photos, videos and writing for millions of people.

Facebook’s success stems largely from one thing: its grounding in real life. You join under your real name, with a real photo, and connect with your real-life friends. From its origins as a tool to grease the wheels of the stratified social scene at Harvard University, it’s become the online complement to people’s real lives, used to share holiday snaps and plan birthday parties with existing friends far more than it is to meet new people. It’s a true ‘social network’ – the only true social networking site – because it exists almost exclusively as an extension of, and facilitator of, people’s real-life social lives.

There’s nothing wrong with this. Facebook demonstrates that many people – probably the majority – are happy interacting online under their real names, and have no great desire to adopt a second persona or make contact with strangers who share their interests.

But at the same time, the continued success of self-publishing services like Flickr and Twitter shows that there remains a substantial demand for services which let you broadcast to the whole world, rather than just your own social contacts, and which let you adopt a second identity to enable you to say things you daren’t with your first. The success of Twitter, in particular, shows the power of this freedom – many people I know joined Twitter with a username based on their real name, before adopting a name that’s less identifying to free them to be silly or profane.

Millions of people have a non-identifying username which unites their online publishing activity on a host of services: Tumblr, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, as well as endless comment forums. Each of these sites has its own flourishing communities.

But here’s the thing. Facebook is so popular because it enables you to see what your friends are up to, across all different media, in one place. That’s why Facebook, while technically inferior to Flickr as a photo-sharing site, is now the biggest photo-sharing site in the world – it’s convenient to share photos with the network you’ve already built.

But in the wider world of Web 2.0 services, there’s no united network. My Flickr contacts can see my photos, but not my tweets; my blog subscribers can’t see my YouTube uploads. Each service provides tools for finding your connections on other services, but it’s laborious – and you still have to visit each separate site to see what your contacts are up to. I check Facebook every morning, and frequently again later in the day. It takes a few minutes.

If I checked Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, Flickr and Vimeo every morning to see what all those I follow were up to, it’d take an hour or more.

What’s needed is a portal which lets us conveniently and easily see what all those we follow are up to across the different web publishing services: to add social networking to social publishing. And it’s needed for more than just convenience. As Facebook’s power grows, there’s an increasing danger that the convenience if offers will lead people to abandon other services and simply share through Facebook. Already I find myself clicking the ‘Like’ button where before I would have ‘Dugg’ a web page, or shared it on Twitter, because it’s so damn easy. If young people joining the internet get in the habit of doing everything through Facebook, the whole idea of distributed Web 2.0 services – and of the freedom to adopt a second persona online – could wither on the vine.

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Two faces of gay theatre

On Thursday I went to see two plays. One was written in the late 1980s, is about AIDS, and is called Elegies, Punks and Raging Queens. The other was written in 2010, is called Queer in the USA, and is about a gay teenager obsessed with Bruce Springsteen.

Which would you guess offered a broader, more sophisticated portrayal of the varieties of modern gay life? You’d be surprised.

I went to see Elegies in part out of a sense of obligation. Much as people watch hard-hitting documentaries about disappearing rainforests or the abuse of women in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan, I, like many gay men, feel AIDS is something we ought to face, understand, and be saddened by.

But as the show began and the first song was sung, the reminiscences of a former club singer about the wild sights of the Lower East Side in the 1970s, I must admit my heart began to sink. We were in, I feared, for two hours of the same old worn-out story: gay men came to New York and to San Francisco, and it was dirty and dangerous and sexy and fabulous, and then the hurricane came and everyone died.

This story is the creation myth of the modern gay community in the West. And I’m tired of it. Not because it’s not true, because it is; not because we’ve heard it all before, though we have. I’m tired of it because it leaves so much out: the many gay men who didn’t move to the coastal cities, but shuffled tentatively out of the closet in their small home towns; the many straight victims of AIDS, from drug addicts and prostitutes to those who contracted the disease through a blood transfusion or a medical accident or from an unknowing partner.

I needn’t have worried.

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