All posts by Rav

About Rav

City boy coping with liberal guilt and culture shock in Tanzania. Writes about development, politics, culture and technology.

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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A better SDGs – here’s the thing:

The case for radical downsizing of the UN’s post-2015 wish list

The latest incarnation of the UN’s proposals for the SDGs – the Sustainable Development Goals designed to replace the MDGs after 2015 – are, much like the previous version, a bit of a wish-list of nice ideas rather than a prioritized set of achievable goals.

It’s understandable; once someone suggests perhaps targeting reductions in road deaths, increased registration of children, or reform of the financial sector, would you really want to be the one to say no, just to keep the list down to a manageable number? But eight original MDGs was probably too many – surely only the deepest development nerds can remember all of them – and the new proposals have 17!  This is surely a recipe for confusion, especially given that the 17 include such achievable, measurable goals as “sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.” (If we could figure that out, it would be not only the end of poverty, but the End of History, Fukuyama-style.)

But griping is easy. Those of us who would like a set of SDGs we can explain to our relatives without embarrassment need to speak up and make the case for a shorter list that actually prioritises our development challenges – and that means leaving something out. As Warren Buffett knows and the SDG process has forgotten, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

Imagine a better SDGs: a list that was challenging but achievable, that was measurable, and above all, which prioritized the most urgent problems. A list that was short and memorable, and whose selectiveness sent a powerful message: this is no wish list. We’re serious about achieving these.

Here’s my take on a list which is short, memorable and punchy.

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The music of the universe? Of humanity? Or just of the West? – here’s the thing:

“The first three notes just happen to be: do-re-mi…”

What do you think of when you think of ‘music’? Bob Dylan? Bach? A piano? A guitar? If you were in the orchestra at school, maybe a stave? Sharps and flats? Minims and crotchets?

I bet you think of one thing pretty quick: the familiar structure of familiar note intervals, what music experts call the diatonic scale – do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti.

But if you’d grown up in Fiji, Japan, Ghana or Guinea, would you still think of these? Or of something else?

We think of ‘music’ as one of the great social, cultural and artistic forces of humanity. But is there really a ‘human’ music? Or is what we think of as human music really just Western music? Is there anything ‘correct,’ or universal, about middle C, the seven-note scale, major and minor chords? Or are these just one way of doing things? Between, say, C and C-sharp there are a million other possible gradations of pitch – why do we use the intervals we do?

Anyone with a subscription to Songlines magazine probably already knows the answers to these questions. But I didn’t, so, in need of some reading for the Christmas period, I resolved to find out. Conveniently, I’d recently borrowed a book – How Musical is Man? (1973) by John Blacking – which looked like it could help me.

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My new favourite book (and it’s written by children) – here’s the thing:

I have a new favourite book.It’s not a novel. I wouldn’t call exactly call it non-fiction, though, either. If anything it’s an instruction manual. And it’s not written by a famous writer, or journalist, or even a regular joe with a gift for words who had a horrible childhood/exciting divorce.

It’s written by children.

It’s called Work We Can and Cannot Do, and it’s amazing.

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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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