Belgian waffle

Mrs. Pushing the boundary and I spent last week holidaying in Belgium, which contrary to popular belief is quite an interesting country – not least because it’s more like two or three countries, despite its small size.

The day after we arrived was Belgium Day, and some of the broader UK news outlets saw this as a handy hook on which to hang a bit of coverage of the current constitutional crisis that’s been building recently: could this be the last Belgium day before the country splits in two, that sort of thing. More4 News* brought us one report, and Radio 4’s PM programme* another, each along the same lines as the other.

Map of the regions of Belgium

Basically, for those not familiar with the country, it has a north-south divide that makes that in England look more like the divide between the appearance of identical twins. Until now I’d only really been to Brussels, where you’ll find most signs presented in two languages (French and Flemish), and a general acceptance of either language in most places.

This time we headed to the north of Belgium, Flanders (hi-diddly-ho, good neighbour), and here it is far easier to get on by speaking English than French – it’s Flemish all the way. Fortunately pretty much everyone does speak excellent English, or we’d’ve been doing an awful lot of stereotypical gesturing and shouting in the face of their initially bewildering language. It’s particularly bewildering to those of us who only learnt French (and Latin – don’t tell Boris) at school, as it has far more in common with German than anything Mediterranean.

What surprised me was the revelation that actually Flemish is essentially the same language as Dutch (which in turn apparently takes its English name from a corruption of "Deutsche" by mistaken sailors who thought the language they were encountering in the Netherlands was German). This revelation did at least mean we could use online translation tools from Dutch to English to get a pretty good idea of what was going on on local web sites.

Anyway, the lack of French-speaking made the Flanders region feel like a completely separate country from our more familiar Brussels. (You’ll note as the time passes that all our holiday destinations are at or near the end of a Eurostar line: it’s the only way to travel for meat-eating, computer-loving environmentalists, so we haven’t flown in years.) So perhaps it’s no surprise that that’s exactly what many in the region are clamouring for it to become: an independent nation.

Flag-based representation of the Dutch- and French-speaking parts of Belgium splitting apartThe south, more properly called the cartoonish-sounding Wallonia, is characterised in media coverage of the Belgium split story as something akin to the media’s equally broadbrush descriptions of Glasgow East – apparently it’s a poverty-stricken, run-down area of deprivation. I haven’t ventured outside Brussels into Wallonia so I don’t know how true this is, but the fact that it doesn’t seem to house any major tourist areas as the north does suggests it’s probably about right – tourist resorts do tend to try to build walls between themselves and social deprivation, after all (though not always successfully).

The upshot is that many in Flanders feel that the Walloons (would Wallonia and the Walloons make a good band name? Only for a Comic Relief single, I suspect) are taking money away from the northern region and squandering it in the southern region on benefits and other state aid.

There seems something ironic about the country at the heart of the European Union considering a split in order not to have to spread money from a wealthy region to a poorer region, when that’s half the point of the EU (and would no doubt continue via EU convergence grants if the two countries were to separate). And it’s hard to see, on the face of it, any other decent arguments for making the split, when the north and south are already so completely different anyway.

Apparently Belgium is one of the most federal countries in Europe as things stand, presumably explaining the non-Welsh-like way of handling the dual languages outside of Brussels – no pan-country requirements for bilingual signs here.

If they can already coexist in one country while maintaining separate languages, cultures etc., what’s to gain from splitting?

Or looking at it another way, there’s also a lot to lose for one side or the other, in the form of Brussels. This city is important both symbolically, as the home of the EU (and perhaps the sprout), and as a major tourist destination, with that handy Eurostar terminal sitting in its southern station.

So do you split the city down the middle, as Barack Obama definitely maybe probably doesn’t want to happen to Jerusalem, or as did happen to Berlin? Does the slightly more geographically appropriate north get it? Could its low proportion (11%) of Flemish inhabitants mean the south could lay claim to it? It seems the question of how to handle Brussels, which in some ways is like a third different region in itself, may be the biggest obstacle to splitting up the country.


* Yes, I watched and listened to these in my hotel room in Belgium. I think there might be another blog post to be written about some of my more unusual uses of hotel wi-fi when abroad…

Nudge fudge

Fruit machineIt’s been pretty hard so far this month to avoid talk of ‘nudge’ politics [future link].

Apparently it’s big in the US, where Barack Obama is a big fan, and naturally after London elected their answer to ‘Change we can believe in’ in May, the Conservatives are equally enamoured with the nudge phenomenon too. (It’s interesting to notice how much Obama and the Conservatives have in common: it’s as if the entire political spectrum in the US were situated to the right of our own… because it is.)

Where some political philosophies may emphasise people’s rights and freedoms, others their responsibilities, and others the state’s responsibilities to serve and protect them, ‘nudge’ politics is based on the idea that people are basically extremely stupid, and therefore need to be told what to do.

Were such a philosophy espoused by the left, it would no doubt be ridiculed as the nanny state gone mad, but of course this is the new, cuddly and most critically electable Conservatives and it’s therefore perfectly acceptable to the right for them to come out with this idea.

We’re all idiots

The nudge idea is actually quite a reasonable one, as far as it goes. In its propensity to continue to ruin its planet, its self-destructive urge to binge-drink, over-eat and overindulge with drugs, the human race is often its own worst enemy. So unless you take the extreme libertarian view that everyone should be left to get on with it, whatever the consequences (even if those consequences could ultimately be, for instance, the deaths of millions in climate change-caused disasters), giving people a nudge in the right direction is not a bad idea.

NHS Organ Donor Register - non-donorcard - I don't want to help others to live in the event of my death The idea is to provide people with the state-determined ‘best’ option as the default choice, while still allowing people to choose other paths if they disagree. So you enrol someone for a pension but give them the chance to cancel it if they don’t want to pay into it; perhaps you even reverse the current organ donation situation, requiring anyone who doesn’t want to donate organs to carry a card to make their wishes clear.

So where can we see this approach in action already? Where are there millions of people, most of them not really understanding what they’re doing, making uninformed choices which can have bad consequences for thousands of others, all of which can be mitigated by sensibly chosen default options? There’s a 90%+ chance you’re looking at it now: Microsoft Windows.

Curtains for Windows?

The vast majority of the world’s computers run Windows, and certainly almost anyone without the first clue about computers will be using it, probably without even realising they’re doing so. (That’s not to suggest only the stupid use Windows: I have first, second and third clues about computers and still choose to use it.)

For a long time, ease of use, to encourage computer take-up, trumped security. Don’t know what this webpage alert about needing to install the rootkit.exe plugin means? Don’t worry, just hit Enter and the page will work fine.

Users’ freedom to do as they pleased in the short term outweighed the benefits to everyone in the long term. (Don’t understand this pension scheme terms and conditions document? Just throw it away and forget about it for now, then.)

But it soon became clear, halfway through Windows XP’s life, that this approach simply wasn’t good enough any more in the always-connected internet age. Suddenly those auto-installing ‘plugins’ were turning into huge internet-wide ‘botnets’ of unknowing computer users’ systems, working together to send spam, attack web sites and generally make internet users’ lives a misery.

Improvements nudge into view

Microsoft responded with Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), which was effectively a significant new release of the operating system but was shipped as a free service pack to try to get it out to as many of the existing millions of XP machines as possible.

You look like you're installing some spyware. Would you like me to slap you repeatedly until you learn the error of your ways? This release was an early example of some pretty tough ‘nudging’. Vast swathes of default settings had been changed to favour security over ease of use. The firewall was turned on by default, important system patches awaiting installation nagged users into submission, and the browser didn’t even prompt you prominently to install plugins (encouraging casual ‘Yes’-clicking to rid yourself of the nuisance of a pop-up dialog box), instead notifying you through an unobtrusive strip to be sought out only if you were wondering why something obviously wasn’t working properly on the page.

A nudge too far?

The trouble is, even that didn’t appear to be enough. I’m one of those people that gets called on to sort out parental acquaintances’ PCs when they go wrong, and I’ve seen even the most well-patched XP SP2 machines crippled by all kinds of malware that’s tricked its way onto people’s PCs. I once found someone who had actually paid to ‘renew’ a piece of fake anti-virus software that had tricked its way onto his computer – past his existing anti-virus software.

So Windows Vista ups the security and nudging to a whole new level, with administrative elevation prompts often described as ‘intrusive’ in reviews. These pop up whenever you try, or anything else on your system tries, to do something which requires administrative privileges: installing software, changing system settings, generally doing anything which could feasibly result in your computer being turned into a lean, mean, spamming machine, or worse.

Mrs. Pushing the boundary (the wife formerly known as Mrs. Stop Boris) got a bit fed up with these prompts, and Vista’s other beefed-up security credentials and went back to XP. It’s not an uncommon tale (albeit mixed in with the usual teething problems caused by hardware companies keener to sell you new hardware than to spend a few hours writing a new driver for their old hardware), and it illustrates the fine balance to be found between nudging people enough and pushing them too far.

Nudge off

Those of us who know what we’re doing with computers can of course disable all the nudging, although I rather like knowing when something wants admin rights so I haven’t. Governmental nudging would be unlikely to come with a universal off-switch in the same way.

Even at the individual decision level, how would Cameron strike the balance mentioned above successfully? It needs to be easy enough to opt out of, say, a pension plan for those people who genuinely understand the options and don’t think that’s the best one for them, yet hard enough that uninformed people focused on the short term don’t spot a tick-box which to them appears to say “Don’t give away 5% of my money each month after all”.

Con-tradictions

And as with so much of Project Cameron, it could appear that he is seeking an impossible compromise between fundamentally different approaches, like free-market economics and environmentalism, or hugging hoodies but throwing away the key if they’re carrying a knife.

Is this the party David Davis has apparently decided he would like, one which defends liberties and freedoms (apart from freedom from the death penalty and homophobia, of course 😉 ), or is it instead another party which will want to tell everyone what to do for the greater good? Are the two reconcilable in a single manifesto? If and when some concrete policies start appearing from the Conservatives, perhaps we’ll find out.

Religious discrimination round-up

The trouble with starting a blog on which to post about non-Boris-related matters is that it does rather get neglected when things like the Ray Lewis affair kick off at City Hall. If Boris keeps up this rate of gaffes and controversies, Pushing the boundary may not be updated nearly as often as I might originally have expected.

Female bishops are to be ordained for the first time by the Church of England Elsewhere in the past week, the Church of England approved the to my mind wholly uncontroversial plans to permit the ordination of women bishops.

Some of the arguments against this long overdue move that I heard on the news were extraordinary. I stared at the woman who said that because Jesus was a man, all the bishops have to be men too or they couldn’t represent him properly. I mean, popular representations lead me to believe that Jesus had a beard: would she suggest that any bishop who shaves should be similarly banned from ordination?

Surely the real point is that Jesus was a person. Therefore, simply let a person represent him, if that’s what bishops are supposed to do (as an atheist, I don’t claim any expertise).

Fortunately sense was seen and the proposals were passed, bringing the established church somewhat further into the 21st century.

Unfortunately, within a few days of this one step forward, employment law appears to have taken one step back, as a tribunal has ruled that a Christian registrar should have been allowed to refuse to perform civil partnership ceremonies.

This ridiculous outcome suggests that one person’s homophobic selective reading of a sacred text which she chooses to believe in should take precedence over obeying an equality-focused law applying directly to said person’s job.

As I understand them, the fundamental tenets of pretty much any religion are to treat others with respect and love and to remember that all people are equal in the eyes of whichever deity/ies you believe in.

It’s only when you start getting into plucking selected rants from selected books of the Bible (or other religious text) that you find anything suggesting homosexuality is “against God’s will” (as the registrar claimed), but taking that approach would also teach us that menstruating women are unclean to God (and other bizarre suggestions from Leviticus), which makes you wonder if this registrar, Lillian Ladele, suffers a prolonged monthly session of self-loathing and apologetic prayer.

Today’s tribunal ruling sets a dangerous precedent, by suggesting that someone’s personal beliefs can be used to overrule equalities legislation, effectively allowing them to opt out from complying with the law. As Peter Tatchell puts it:

The tribunal has ruled that people of faith are above the law. They can plead conscientious objection and be exempt from the laws that apply to everyone else.

If this judgment stands, it will pave the way for religious people to have the legal entitlement to discriminate on conscientious grounds against people of other faiths, unmarried parents and many others who they condemn as immoral.

We could soon find religious police officers, solicitors, fire fighters and doctors refusing to serve members of the public who they find morally objectionable – and being allowed to do so by the law.

Lillian Ladele claims she was won a victory for religious liberty. No, she has not. She has won a victory for the right to discriminate. The denial of equal treatment is not a human right. It is a violation of human rights.

Public servants like registrars have a duty to serve all members of the public without fear or favour. Once society lets some people opt out of upholding the law, where will it end?

Islington Council, against whom Ms. Ladele’s complaint was brought, are considering appealing against the outcome. I very much hope that they do, and that this time those sitting in judgement remember the importance of protecting gay rights from those who seek to erode them for no more reason than personal beliefs – which in general terms are, after all, exactly what equality legislation is supposed to protect those on the receiving end of discrimination from.

Why politicians can’t win: the postcode lottery

The postcode lottery. (This picture took two hours to make, after waiting for a lottery draw to come on TV so I could get the original image. You're right, it wasn't worth it.)

I’m sure there’s another series of posts to be had on the theme of “why politicians can’t win”, but here’s one reason to get things started.

We hear quite frequently about a “postcode lottery” in health, or education, or whatever other public service is in the media firing line on any particular day.

It’s outrageous, the message runs, that the government allows a situation to arise whereby someone in one area is prescribed a particular drug, or given access to a high quality of teaching, while someone in another area is left pleading on their knees outside their GP’s surgery for a prescription for the same drug, or given shockingly substandard teaching.

That’s certainly a decent enough viewpoint, but there’s no disguising the fact that it amounts to a call for much more centralised control of the public services in question.

Yet the people who play the “postcode lottery” card are often the same people who at other times will trumpet the benefits of “localisation”. The Tories are particularly keen on localisation at the moment, and in fact on Tuesday night they called on their council leaders to ignore central government requests for information and certain non-statutory activities. As Eric Pickles put it:

The time is overdue for Conservative councils to stand up to this bullying and controlling government on behalf of their communities. It is time for Conservative councils to just say no. […] We are not in the business of delivering ‘Labour Lite’; local priorities now must take precedent.

But if local priorities take precedent over central co-ordination, won’t we end up with a postcode lottery in which some localities prioritise some drugs while others prioritise others?

So if they over-centralise, they aren’t giving local people the power to have their own say over their lives, but if they devolve power they cause postcode lotteries. What are they supposed to do to win?