The Welsh town that voted 'yes' to independence on Thursday

Saturday, September 20th, 2014 09:47 am
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Whilst Scotland was busy voting no to independence on Thursday a Welsh border town was conducting its own ballot.

To be fair, Hay-on-Wye has form on this when, in 1 April 1977, Richard Booth conceived a publicity stunt in which he declared Hay-on-Wye to be an 'independent kingdom' with himself as its monarch.

According to the Western Mail another bookshop owner, Derek Addyman organised his own vote to coincide with the day Scotland decided whether to go it alone.

Locals cast their votes outdoors in the Cheese Market in a swing bin liner between 11am and 3pm. The question they were voting on was: “Do you want Hay to stay independent?”

The paper says that 530 people voted with 483 votes in favour giving an overwhelming nod for independence.

Should add an edge to the literary festival next year.

How to see into the future

Saturday, September 20th, 2014 08:35 am
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Posted by Tim Harford


Billions of dollars are spent on experts who claim they can forecast what’s around the corner, in business, finance and economics. Most of them get it wrong. Now a groundbreaking study has unlocked the secret: it IS possible to predict the future – and a new breed of ‘superforecasters’ knows how to do it

Irving Fisher was once the most famous economist in the world. Some would say he was the greatest economist who ever lived. “Anywhere from a decade to two generations ahead of his time,” opined the first Nobel laureate economist Ragnar Frisch, in the late 1940s, more than half a century after Fisher’s genius first lit up his subject. But while Fisher’s approach to economics is firmly embedded in the modern discipline, many of those who remember him now know just one thing about him: that two weeks before the great Wall Street crash of 1929, Fisher announced, “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”

In the 1920s, Fisher had two great rivals. One was a British academic: John Maynard Keynes, a rising star and Fisher’s equal as an economic theorist and policy adviser. The other was a commercial competitor, an American like Fisher. Roger Babson was a serial entrepreneur with no serious academic credentials, inspired to sell economic forecasts by the banking crisis of 1907. As Babson and Fisher locked horns over the following quarter-century, they laid the foundations of the modern economic forecasting industry.

Fisher’s rivals fared better than he did. Babson foretold the crash and made a fortune, enough to endow the well-respected Babson College. Keynes was caught out by the crisis but recovered and became rich anyway. Fisher died in poverty, ruined by the failure of his forecasts.

If Fisher and Babson could see the modern forecasting industry, it would have astonished them in its scale, range and hyperactivity. In his acerbic book The Fortune Sellers, former consultant William Sherden reckoned in 1998 that forecasting was a $200bn industry – $300bn in today’s terms – and the bulk of the money was being made in business, economic and financial forecasting.

It is true that forecasting now seems ubiquitous. Data analysts forecast demand for new products, or the impact of a discount or special offer; scenario planners (I used to be one) produce broad-based narratives with the aim of provoking fresh thinking; nowcasters look at Twitter or Google to track epidemics, actual or metaphorical, in real time; intelligence agencies look for clues about where the next geopolitical crisis will emerge; and banks, finance ministries, consultants and international agencies release regular prophecies covering dozens, even hundreds, of macroeconomic variables.

Real breakthroughs have been achieved in certain areas, especially where rich datasets have become available – for example, weather forecasting, online retailing and supply-chain management. Yet when it comes to the headline-grabbing business of geopolitical or macroeconomic forecasting, it is not clear that we are any better at the fundamental task that the industry claims to fulfil – seeing into the future.

So why is forecasting so difficult – and is there hope for improvement? And why did Babson and Keynes prosper while Fisher suffered? What did they understand that Fisher, for all his prodigious talents, did not?

In 1987, a young Canadian-born psychologist, Philip Tetlock, planted a time bomb under the forecasting industry that would not explode for 18 years. Tetlock had been trying to figure out what, if anything, the social sciences could contribute to the fundamental problem of the day, which was preventing a nuclear apocalypse. He soon found himself frustrated: frustrated by the fact that the leading political scientists, Sovietologists, historians and policy wonks took such contradictory positions about the state of the cold war; frustrated by their refusal to change their minds in the face of contradictory evidence; and frustrated by the many ways in which even failed forecasts could be justified. “I was nearly right but fortunately it was Gorbachev rather than some neo-Stalinist who took over the reins.” “I made the right mistake: far more dangerous to underestimate the Soviet threat than overestimate it.” Or, of course, the get-out for all failed stock market forecasts, “Only my timing was wrong.”

Tetlock’s response was patient, painstaking and quietly brilliant. He began to collect forecasts from almost 300 experts, eventually accumulating 27,500. The main focus was on politics and geopolitics, with a selection of questions from other areas such as economics thrown in. Tetlock sought clearly defined questions, enabling him with the benefit of hindsight to pronounce each forecast right or wrong. Then Tetlock simply waited while the results rolled in – for 18 years.

Tetlock published his conclusions in 2005, in a subtle and scholarly book, Expert Political Judgment. He found that his experts were terrible forecasters. This was true in both the simple sense that the forecasts failed to materialise and in the deeper sense that the experts had little idea of how confident they should be in making forecasts in different contexts. It is easier to make forecasts about the territorial integrity of Canada than about the territorial integrity of Syria but, beyond the most obvious cases, the experts Tetlock consulted failed to distinguish the Canadas from the Syrias.

Adding to the appeal of this tale of expert hubris, Tetlock found that the most famous experts fared somewhat worse than those outside the media spotlight. Other than that, the humiliation was evenly distributed. Regardless of political ideology, profession and academic training, experts failed to see into the future.

Most people, hearing about Tetlock’s research, simply conclude that either the world is too complex to forecast, or that experts are too stupid to forecast it, or both. Tetlock himself refused to embrace cynicism so easily. He wanted to leave open the possibility that even for these intractable human questions of macroeconomics and geopolitics, a forecasting approach might exist that would bear fruit.

. . .

In 2013, on the auspicious date of April 1, I received an email from Tetlock inviting me to join what he described as “a major new research programme funded in part by Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, an agency within the US intelligence community.”

The core of the programme, which had been running since 2011, was a collection of quantifiable forecasts much like Tetlock’s long-running study. The forecasts would be of economic and geopolitical events, “real and pressing matters of the sort that concern the intelligence community – whether Greece will default, whether there will be a military strike on Iran, etc”. These forecasts took the form of a tournament with thousands of contestants; it is now at the start of its fourth and final annual season.

“You would simply log on to a website,” Tetlock’s email continued, “give your best judgment about matters you may be following anyway, and update that judgment if and when you feel it should be. When time passes and forecasts are judged, you could compare your results with those of others.”

I elected not to participate but 20,000 others have embraced the idea. Some could reasonably be described as having some professional standing, with experience in intelligence analysis, think-tanks or academia. Others are pure amateurs. Tetlock and two other psychologists, Don Moore and Barbara Mellers, have been running experiments with the co-operation of this army of volunteers. (Mellers and Tetlock are married.) Some were given training in how to turn knowledge about the world into a probabilistic forecast; some were assembled into teams; some were given information about other forecasts while others operated in isolation. The entire exercise was given the name of the Good Judgment Project, and the aim was to find better ways to see into the future.

The early years of the forecasting tournament have, wrote Tetlock, “already yielded exciting results”.

A first insight is that even brief training works: a 20-minute course about how to put a probability on a forecast, correcting for well-known biases, provides lasting improvements to performance. This might seem extraordinary – and the benefits were surprisingly large – but even experienced geopolitical seers tend to have expertise in a subject, such as Europe’s economies or Chinese foreign policy, rather than training in the task of forecasting itself.

“For people with the right talents or the right tactics, it is possible to see into the future after all”

A second insight is that teamwork helps. When the project assembled the most successful forecasters into teams who were able to discuss and argue, they produced better predictions.

But ultimately one might expect the same basic finding as always: that forecasting events is basically impossible. Wrong. To connoisseurs of the frailties of futurology, the results of the Good Judgment Project are quite astonishing. Forecasting is possible, and some people – call them “superforecasters”– can predict geopolitical events with an accuracy far outstripping chance. The superforecasters have been able to sustain and even improve their performance.

The cynics were too hasty: for people with the right talents or the right tactics, it is possible to see into the future after all.

Roger Babson, Irving Fisher’s competitor, would always have claimed as much. A serial entrepreneur, Babson made his fortune selling economic forecasts alongside information about business conditions. In 1920, the Babson Statistical Organization had 12,000 subscribers and revenue of $1.35m – almost $16m in today’s money.

“After Babson, the forecaster was an instantly recognisable figure in American business,” writes Walter Friedman, the author of Fortune Tellers, a history of Babson, Fisher and other early economic forecasters. Babson certainly understood how to sell himself and his services. He advertised heavily and wrote prolifically. He gave a complimentary subscription to Thomas Edison, hoping for a celebrity endorsement. After contracting tuberculosis, Babson turned his management of the disease into an inspirational business story. He even employed stonecutters to carve inspirational slogans into large rocks in Massachusetts (the “Babson Boulders” are still there).

On September 5 1929, Babson made a speech at a business conference in Wellesley, Massachusetts. He predicted trouble: “Sooner or later a crash is coming which will take in the leading stocks and cause a decline of from 60 to 80 points in the Dow-Jones barometer.” This would have been a fall of around 20 per cent.

So famous had Babson become that his warning was briefly a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the news tickers of New York reported Babson’s comments at around 2pm, the markets erupted into what The New York Times described as “a storm of selling”. Shares lurched down by 3 per cent. This became known as the “Babson break”.

The next day, shares bounced back and Babson, for a few weeks, appeared ridiculous. On October 29, the great crash began, and within a fortnight the market had fallen almost 50 per cent. By then, Babson had an advertisement in the New York Times pointing out, reasonably, that “Babson clients were prepared”. Subway cars were decorated with the slogan, “Be Right with Babson”. For Babson, his forecasting triumph was a great opportunity to sell more subscriptions.

But his true skill was marketing, not forecasting. His key product, the “Babson chart”, looked scientific and was inspired by the discoveries of Isaac Newton, his idol. The Babson chart operated on the Newtonian assumption that any economic expansion would be matched by an equal and opposite contraction. But for all its apparent sophistication, the Babson chart offered a simple and usually contrarian message.

“Babson offered an up-arrow or a down-arrow. People loved that,” says Walter Friedman. Whether or not Babson’s forecasts were accurate was not a matter that seemed to concern many people. When he was right, he advertised the fact heavily. When he was wrong, few noticed. And Babson had indeed been wrong for many years during the long boom of the 1920s. People taking his advice would have missed out on lucrative opportunities to invest. That simply didn’t matter: his services were popular, and his most spectacularly successful prophecy was also his most famous.

Babson’s triumph suggests an important lesson: commercial success as a forecaster has little to do with whether you are any good at seeing into the future. No doubt it helped his case when his forecasts were correct but nobody gathered systematic information about how accurate he was. The Babson Statistical Organization compiled business and economic indicators that were, in all probability, of substantial value in their own right. Babson’s prognostications were the peacock’s plumage; their effect was simply to attract attention to the services his company provided.

. . .

When Barbara Mellers, Don Moore and Philip Tetlock established the Good Judgment Project, the basic principle was to collect specific predictions about the future and then check to see if they came true. That is not the world Roger Babson inhabited and neither does it describe the task of modern pundits.

When we talk about the future, we often aren’t talking about the future at all but about the problems of today. A newspaper columnist who offers a view on the future of North Korea, or the European Union, is trying to catch the eye, support an argument, or convey in a couple of sentences a worldview that would otherwise be impossibly unwieldy to explain. A talking head in a TV studio offers predictions by way of making conversation. A government analyst or corporate planner may be trying to justify earlier decisions, engaging in bureaucratic defensiveness. And many election forecasts are simple acts of cheerleading for one side or the other.

“Some people – call them ‘superforecasters’– can predict geopolitical events with an accuracy far outstripping chance”

Unlike the predictions collected by the Good Judgment Project, many forecasts are vague enough in their details to allow the mistaken seer off the hook. Even if it was possible to pronounce that a forecast had come true or not, only in a few hotly disputed cases would anybody bother to check.

All this suggests that among the various strategies employed by the superforecasters of the Good Judgment Project, the most basic explanation of their success is that they have the single uncompromised objective of seeing into the future – and this is rare. They receive continual feedback about the success and failure of every forecast, and there are no points for radicalism, originality, boldness, conventional pieties, contrarianism or wit. The project manager of the Good Judgment Project, Terry Murray, says simply, “The only thing that matters is the right answer.”

I asked Murray for her tips on how to be a good forecaster. Her reply was, “Keep score.”

. . .

An intriguing footnote to Philip Tetlock’s original humbling of the experts was that the forecasters who did best were what Tetlock calls “foxes” rather than “hedgehogs”. He used the term to refer to a particular style of thinking: broad rather than deep, intuitive rather than logical, self-critical rather than assured, and ad hoc rather than systematic. The “foxy” thinking style is now much in vogue. Nate Silver, the data journalist most famous for his successful forecasts of US elections, adopted the fox as the mascot of his website as a symbol of “a pluralistic approach”.

The trouble is that Tetlock’s original foxes weren’t actually very good at forecasting. They were merely less awful than the hedgehogs, who deployed a methodical, logical train of thought that proved useless for predicting world affairs. That world, apparently, is too complex for any single logical framework to encompass.

More recent research by the Good Judgment Project investigators leaves foxes and hedgehogs behind but develops this idea that personality matters. Barbara Mellers told me that the thinking style most associated with making better forecasts was something psychologists call “actively open-minded thinking”. A questionnaire to diagnose this trait invites people to rate their agreement or disagreement with statements such as, “Changing your mind is a sign of weakness.” The project found that successful forecasters aren’t afraid to change their minds, are happy to seek out conflicting views and are comfortable with the notion that fresh evidence might force them to abandon an old view of the world and embrace something new.

Which brings us to the strange, sad story of Irving Fisher and John Maynard Keynes. The two men had much in common: both giants in the field of economics; both best-selling authors; both, alas, enthusiastic and prominent eugenicists. Both had immense charisma as public speakers.

Fisher and Keynes also shared a fascination with financial markets, and a conviction that their expertise in macroeconomics and in economic statistics should lead to success as an investor. Both of them, ultimately, were wrong about this. The stock market crashes of 1929 – in September in the UK and late October in the US – caught each of them by surprise, and both lost heavily.

Yet Keynes is remembered today as a successful investor. This is not unreasonable. A study by David Chambers and Elroy Dimson, two financial economists, concluded that Keynes’s track record over a quarter century running the discretionary portfolio of King’s College Cambridge was excellent, outperforming market benchmarks by an average of six percentage points a year, an impressive margin.

This wasn’t because Keynes was a great economic forecaster. His original approach had been predicated on timing the business cycle, moving into and out of different investment classes depending on which way the economy itself was moving. This investment strategy was not a success, and after several years Keynes’s portfolio was almost 20 per cent behind the market as a whole.

The secret to Keynes’s eventual profits is that he changed his approach. He abandoned macroeconomic forecasting entirely. Instead, he sought out well-managed companies with strong dividend yields, and held on to them for the long term. This approach is now associated with Warren Buffett, who quotes Keynes’s investment maxims with approval. But the key insight is that the strategy does not require macroeconomic predictions. Keynes, the most influential macroeconomist in history, realised not only that such forecasts were beyond his skill but that they were unnecessary.

Irving Fisher’s mistake was not that his forecasts were any worse than Keynes’s but that he depended on them to be right, and they weren’t. Fisher’s investments were leveraged by the use of borrowed money. This magnified his gains during the boom, his confidence, and then his losses in the crash.

But there is more to Fisher’s undoing than leverage. His pre-crash gains were large enough that he could easily have cut his losses and lived comfortably. Instead, he was convinced the market would turn again. He made several comments about how the crash was “largely psychological”, or “panic”, and how recovery was imminent. It was not.

One of Fisher’s major investments was in Remington Rand – he was on the stationery company’s board after selling them his “Index Visible” invention, a type of Rolodex. The share price tells the story: $58 before the crash, $28 by 1930. Fisher topped up his investments – and the price soon dropped to $1.

Fisher became deeper and deeper in debt to the taxman and to his brokers. Towards the end of his life, he was a marginalised figure living alone in modest circumstances, an easy target for scam artists. Sylvia Nasar writes in Grand Pursuit, a history of economic thought, “His optimism, overconfidence and stubbornness betrayed him.”

. . .

So what is the secret of looking into the future? Initial results from the Good Judgment Project suggest the following approaches. First, some basic training in probabilistic reasoning helps to produce better forecasts. Second, teams of good forecasters produce better results than good forecasters working alone. Third, actively open-minded people prosper as forecasters.

But the Good Judgment Project also hints at why so many experts are such terrible forecasters. It’s not so much that they lack training, teamwork and open-mindedness – although some of these qualities are in shorter supply than others. It’s that most forecasters aren’t actually seriously and single-mindedly trying to see into the future. If they were, they’d keep score and try to improve their predictions based on past errors. They don’t.

“Successful forecasters aren’t afraid to change their minds and are comfortable with the notion that fresh evidence might mean abandoning an old view”

This is because our predictions are about the future only in the most superficial way. They are really advertisements, conversation pieces, declarations of tribal loyalty – or, as with Irving Fisher, statements of profound conviction about the logical structure of the world. As Roger Babson explained, not without sympathy, Fisher had failed because “he thinks the world is ruled by figures instead of feelings, or by theories instead of styles”.

Poor Fisher was trapped by his own logic, his unrelenting optimism and his repeated public declarations that stocks would recover. And he was bankrupted by an investment strategy in which he could not afford to be wrong.

Babson was perhaps wrong as often as he was right – nobody was keeping track closely enough to be sure either way – but that did not stop him making a fortune. And Keynes prospered when he moved to an investment strategy in which forecasts simply did not matter much.

Fisher once declared that “the sagacious businessman is constantly forecasting”. But Keynes famously wrote of long-term forecasts, “About these matters there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever. We simply do not know.”

Perhaps even more famous is a remark often attributed to Keynes. “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”

If only he had taught that lesson to Irving Fisher.

Also published at

England Wakes!

Saturday, September 20th, 2014 10:03 am
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Posted by Carl Minns

Janan Ganesh sums up the current political situation quite nicely but if we want a more rhetorical flourish we could always say that "the Battle for Scotland is over. The battle of England is about to begin!"

Now that Devo max is on the table, and the other nations of England are agitating for more powers, the question of how England governs itself must now be answered. As a Liberal, I just find it axiomatic that more powers for local communities is a given but that will not enough in the brave new world of devo max.

It is looking very likely the Scotland will have substantial powers over pensions, welfare and other domestic issues. Under these circumstances it would be a travesty of democracy that the MP for West Lothian should have a say on how these policies operate in West Hull. It would be fundamentally wrong that Scottish MPs could, for example, raise the state pension age for people in England yet be safe in the knowledge that this would not affect their constituents and so be protected from any political fall out.

Whist I am open to persuasion I can not see how devolution of the English pension system to the Regions or County Councils could work without a complete re-writing of the whole system. There are other national services such as the English NHS that are in a similar boat. (Lets park for a moment whether they should be!)

In these circumstances we could go for English MPs only voting on English laws. It is simple and it is elegant. There is one gaping flaw though. Imagine a situation where a government has a Westminster majority but an English minority - to put it politely, it could get messy and i'm not sure a government suffering defeat after defeat on English matters would be a recipe for stability.

If you accept the principle that Scottish MPs should not impose laws on the English and that there are some domestic issues that are too large to be handled at local level then logic dictates some form of English Assembly is needed for national English matters. I am open to persuasion with regards to other solutions but there have to be some non negotiables

1. If the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are competent enough to run their own domestic affairs then the English should be afforded the same rights.
2. The refrain "But the Tories will always win"  is not an argument for negating the basic democratic principle of representative democracy that the people who live under the laws elect the assembly that passes those laws.
3. The status quo is not an option.

The phrase "something must be done" is overused in politics so after writing this I now won't use it! I would like you to picture the following. Imagine a Westminster government with a slim majority but with a large majority of MPs from the Celtic fringe. Now imagine that government pushing through law after law, reform after reform that won't impact on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but will on the English. This would clearly be a case for, at best, a groundswell of resentment, which could allow for, at worst, a virulent form of English nationalism.

The current situation would not be my preferred starting point but the constant tinkering of the constitution coupled with rash, on the hoof promises made in the last couple of weeks, has left a constitutional quagmire, but we are where we are. The status quo is a non starter but so is a solution that leaves an uneven constitutional settlement with unfair consequences.

The Blood is The Life 20-09-2014

Saturday, September 20th, 2014 10:00 am
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Posted by David Herdson

Election pledges won’t count after the Lisbon Treaty experience

In 1787, a group of Americans came together and wrote a whole new constitution for their country from scratch in the space of four hot and humid months.  Two and a quarter centuries later, it’s still going strong.  True, they didn’t have the complicating factors of histories and traditions or established institutions that the UK has now but they did have to contend with other barriers to success, perhaps at least as high.  There is absolutely no reason why Westminster cannot resolve the West Lothian Question between now and April, if it has a mind to.

That David Cameron has placed that question centre-stage, linked to the issue of greater fiscal autonomy for the Scottish parliament, is both just and prudent.  The unfairness giving rise to the question has lingered far too long and tensions within the Union should be reduced if some parts are not given preferential treatment.  On the other hand, linking the two issues – when the Scottish one is a matter of honour for all three leaders – does as much as possible to ensure it’ll be addressed.

What is lacking is urgency.  Considering how little else parliament has to do in what remains of its time, that’s not good enough.  Never mind a draft bill; Westminster should pass a full Act by the dissolution.  That is the only guarantee that it won’t renege on the vow made by Cameron, Miliband and Clegg – a suspicion Scots could justifiably hold were nothing done beforehand given the experience of 1979.  After the more recent ‘cast iron’ promise Cameron made on the Lisbon Treaty , many might also be sceptical of his word if nothing’s done beforehand having had the chance to do so (unlike Lisbon, it has to be said, where Cameron couldn’t meaningfully deliver).

Dealing with the Question now also removes the possibility that a future different government might choose not to act.  After all, no parliament can bind its successor (nor, for that matter can any group of party leaders bind their current parliament without its consent), and one of the reasons the Question has lain unaddressed since 1999 is that it wasn’t in Labour’s interest to do so.  Already, Miliband is making sceptical noises but that shouldn’t stop the government putting legislation forward.  Much louder noises may come from behind the PM if he doesn’t.

What form that legislation should take is another matter – though determining that is precisely what parliament’s supposed to be there for.  The simplest solution of banning MPs from voting on matters that are not applicable to their constituents brings its own problems.  For example, there’d be multiple majorities in the Commons, potentially leading to gridlock if a government had an overall majority, so could decide how to raise the money to be spent on a service but not how to spend it.  It would also mean that England would still share its government with the UK, unlike any other component country of the UK: the same ministers (some perhaps from Wales or Scotland), and the same civil service.

As a first and immediate step, that might still be the best option and perhaps the only one that could be agreed by April next year, preferably with all-party support but by majority if necessary.  Nonetheless, it would still be a second-class resolution and would do little to address the disparity in the distribution of power and spending within England.  Some favour a full English parliament (and, presumably, government), but that would look too much like duplication with Westminster, leading to inevitable rivalry.

Regional parliaments and governments, on the other hand, with similar powers to that enjoyed by Holyrood, would bring greater equality in spending as well as (one would hope) more responsive government and greater diversity of policy.  Some would argue that such a move would merely produce local fiefdoms to be controlled by one party or another but the nature of politics is that opposition always finds a way.  Labour dreamed of Scotland being theirs forever, likewise London.  At some point there’ll be a non-Labour First Minister of Wales.

That, however, is for the future.  Now is the time to make good on the promise to Scotland, and to make good the democratic deficit to England.

David Herdson

California Dreaming: Last Train To Clarksville

Saturday, September 20th, 2014 12:54 am
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Posted by Andrew Hickey

(note, I’m posting this and tomorrow’s post backwards — this comes after Along Comes Mary in the book, but I’ve not finished that essay yet and have done this one).

“Madness!! Auditions. Folk & Roll musicians-singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running parts for 4 insane boys, age 17 – 21. Want spirited Ben Frank’s-types. Have courage to work. Must come down for interview.”

In late 1965, when Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider placed that ad in Variety, the idea of a TV show about a rock and roll band, something like A Hard Day’s Night, had been in the air for a while. There had been talks with both Jan and Dean and the Lovin’ Spoonful about creating shows for them, but things had fallen through or stalled. Rafelson and Schneider decided they were going to just cast four actors who could also sing as their ersatz Beatles. They would work with Columbia/Screen Gems, who would handle the music side of things, and all their “band” would have to do musically would be to add the lead vocals. They would be in control, and not have to worry about the artistic temperament of a bunch of musicians.

As it happened, while the advertisement brought in hundreds of auditionees, including Paul Williams, Bryan Maclean, Van Dyke Parks, and Danny Hutton, only one person was cast because of the ad, and that indirectly. Steve Stills had auditioned, but (depending on who you believe) either told them he was more interested in writing songs for the show than appearing, or was turned down after the second audition because of his crooked teeth. He suggested that if the producers liked him, they might like his friend, Peter Tork, with whom he was in a band called the Buffalo Fish at the time, as many people said that Tork and Stills could almost be brothers.

Tork was hired, but the other three members of the TV show’s cast were known quantities. Michael Nesmith was a folk singer who had put out singles on ColPix, a label owned by Columbia/Screen Gems under the name Michael Blessing. Davy Jones had also put out an album on ColPix, and was signed to Columbia for development as a screen personality, as his show-stealing performances in the Broadway musical Oliver! and subsequent TV appearances had marked him out as precisely the sort of cute, wholesome, British teenager who would make a perfect teen heartthrob in the days of Beatlemania. Micky Dolenz, meanwhile, was a former child star who’d had his own TV series — and who had developed a seriously impressive vocal ability as he’d grown older.

While all four men could sing as well as act, pre-production on the series started before they were cast, and so in the pilot they mimed to tracks by the Candy Store Prophets, a band that were a side project of staff songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. Once the show was picked up by NBC, though, they would be making their own music, or so they were led to believe.

In fact, Nesmith, the most insistent on having some musical input, was allowed to write and produce (but not play on) a handful of tracks, and to have Tork add rhythm guitar on his sessions, but for the most part the music for the show was to be written, produced, and performed by outsiders, and the band members were only to provide lead vocals. In fact the band’s first producer, Snuff Garrett, intended to have only Jones sing on the tracks, but within a few days Garrett was replaced by Boyce and Hart.

Boyce and Hart and the Candy Store Prophets (Gerry McGee on guitar, Larry Taylor, formerly of the Gamblers, on bass, and Billy Lewis on drums), augmented by session musicians, would create finished tracks to which Dolenz or Jones would add lead vocals. Nesmith only sang on his own productions at this point, while Tork wasn’t considered a viable lead vocalist, and neither man was especially happy about being squeezed out of the process of recording songs by a band they were supposedly in.

But at least at first it was hard to argue with the results of that process. Last Train To Clarksville, the Monkees’ first single, is based loosely around the Beatles’ Paperback Writer (Hart had misheard the title as “take the last train” when he heard it on the radio, and used that when he discovered the song’s real title) but with the addition of a variant on the Day Tripper riff and a train-blues rhythm that gives it almost the feel of Smokestack Lightnin’, if it had been recorded by LA pop musicians rather than Chicago blues ones. To top it off, and make sure the Beatles connection was obvious, it had a “no no no” chorus, apeing the Beatles’ “yeah yeah yeah”.

In keeping with the other musical trends of late 1965 and early 1966, the song was, to a first approximation, a protest song, sung from the point of view of a soldier leaving for the Vietnam war, wanting to meet his lover for the last time as “I don’t know if I’m ever coming home”. The need to make the song ambiguous (as the label and TV show certainly weren’t in the business of making political statements) worked to the song’s advantage, as did Micky Dolenz’s vocal, which played up the innuendo of lines like “we’ll have time for coffee-flavoured kisses and a little…conversation” rather than stressing the message, such as it was.

The end result was a song and performance that perfectly captured everything good about pop music in 1966, and when it was released (backed with the Monkees’ version of Take A Giant Step) it started going up the charts even before the TV series premiered. Once the series was on the air, the number one spot was as good as theirs…

Last Train To Clarksville

Composer: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

Line-up: Micky Dolenz (vocals), Bobby Hart (backing vocals), Tommy Boyce (acoustic guitar, backing vocals), Gerry McGee, Wayne Erwin, and Louie Shelton (guitar), Larry Taylor (bass), Billy Lewis (drums), David Walters (percussion)

Original release: Last Train To Clarksville/Take A Giant Step, The Monkees, ColGems 66-1001

Currently available on: The Monkees Rhino CD, plus innumerable compilations.

Tagged: california dreaming, the monkees

There Can Be Only Linkspam (19 September 2014)

Saturday, September 20th, 2014 12:38 am
[syndicated profile] geekfeminism_feed

Posted by spam-spam

  • on being a woman and a war historian | armsandthemedicalman: “As I say, we all bring our own histories, including our subjective constructions of gender, to our historical practice. Which is why it is important not only that we note and acknowledge that women have written and are writing the history of the First World War, but also that we don’t categorise their writing simply as a category of ‘other’. How I embed this in my own practice as a woman writing the history of the First World War is something I am still working on and probably will be for the rest of my professional life.”
  • Steampunk without POC is so 1899 | K. Tempest Bradford: “While I do really want to see this succeed, it would be ridiculous to make a steampunk film with only white characters. There’s no justifiable reason for this cast not to be racially diverse.”
  • Racial discrimination & resignation of Dr. Misee Harris – An Open Letter to media | Black Girl Nerds: Forced out of her job because of her (private!) social media posts. “Dr. Misee Harris wants to go public with this unfortunate story of racial discrimination in the workplace because it has been her mission to empower black women, many of whom, when subjected to this kind of discrimination do not have the financial freedom to leave with dignity the way Dr. Harris chose to.”
  • MacArthur Awards Go to 21 Diverse Fellows | Alison Bechdel is among the winners. “Several of the new fellows are combating pressing social problems, including violence against women and racial bias.”
  • 5 Things I Learned as the Internet’s Most Hated Person | [CW: article illustratively quotes violent threats and misogynistic slurs] “Do you know how weird it is to see an actor from a show you love repost conspiracy videos about how your sex life is somehow ruining video games? Pretty goddamned weird, it turns out.”
  • The Greatest Black Women In Superhero Comics (Who Aren’t Storm) | io9: “Whenever anybody asks about black women in comics, the immediate response is to bring up Storm. But Storm isn’t the only black woman to rock superpowers and a costume. Here are 20 other black female characters in superhero comics who deserve more love and attention.”
  • Smartphones Are Used To Stalk, Control Domestic Abuse Victims | All Tech Considered : NPR: [CW: domestic violence, abuse] “But there’s another kind of privacy concern that is a lot more intimate. You could call it Little Brother, though it’s really more like husbands and wives, lovers and exes who secretly watch their partners — from a distance. They are cyberstalking — using digital tools that are a lot cheaper than hiring a private detective. NPR investigated these tools, also known as spyware, and spoke with domestic violence counselors and survivors around the country. We found that cyberstalking is now a standard part of domestic abuse in the U.S.”
  • Guest post by Kameron Hurley: Why I Stopped Writing About White People | Far Beyond Reality: “There will always be people calling my decision political, of course, without asking themselves about the political decision made by those who have written in unrealistically white worlds their whole lives. What could be more political than a legal, political, and social system that seeks to erase the majority of the world’s population and pretend a minority population – white people make up just 20% of the world’s population – owned the past, and will own the future?”
  • Why It’s Time To Put A Stop To Feminist ‘Infighting’ Accusations | Ravishly: “Feminism is only effective when it is self-critical. When marginalized voices are shut out, you create an environment where dissent is disallowed, which puts holes in our visibility and presence. Inclusion of marginalized women is not optional. With them/us, feminism remains as pockets of isolated consent, a lot of sound of fury signifying nothing. That is what actual divisiveness looks like.”
  • Grin and Bear It?: On Staying in the Picture | Camille E. Acey: “As a black woman in free software/free culture (what I guess could be called a Double Unicorn?), I find that I am often The Only One In The Room and — as one can imagine — there is a certain amount of discomfort/unwanted attention that comes with that. So when it comes to pictures, if the group is truly progressive/diverse or has it’s heart t in the right place and seems to be making strides towards inclusiveness then I am mostly fine for my image to be used to signal to the world that ‘Hey, this is an inclusive bunch’ and further to signal to other black women like me ‘Come on in, the water is warm (or at least not icy cold!)’. However, if the group is less than hospitable and/or does not seem like something I’d want anyone I care about putting time into to, then I do my best to dodge the lens. And so time and time again in different meetups and gatherings, at work and at play,  I’ve literally had to take a moment to determine whether I should ‘Give a grin or get going’.”
  • Tech’s Wakeup Call From Your Trans Coworker | The Bold Italic – San Francisco: [cw: transphobic slurs, discrimination of trans and genderqueer individuals] “A friend of mine who identifies as genderqueer told me about how they had to explain to their own HR department that outing someone without their permission is wrong. If you can’t rely on your HR department, where they’re supposed to know this stuff, then who can you rely on?

    This lack of knowledge about how to properly handle trans issues exists industry-wide. On top of it all, there is an immense pressure to believe that these problems don’t matter, shouldn’t be discussed, or that they don’t exist at all. If we don’t fit in to ‘the culture,’ in tech, we get iced out silently and forcefully.”

We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on Pinboard, Delicious or Diigo; or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

[syndicated profile] improbable_research_feed

Posted by Marc Abrahams

What’s it like to be on stage at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony?

Here’s a visual/aural taste, recorded by Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek, who helped hand out the Ig Nobel Prizes to the winners at last night’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony:

Post Salmond

Friday, September 19th, 2014 10:23 pm
[syndicated profile] stephen_glenn_2_feed
So this afternoon Alex Salmond has announced that he stepping down as leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of Scotland. So as well as asking what next for the UK nation as a whole we are now asking what next for the SNP?

Firstly as has long been muted Salmond himself has already been grooming his successor, it was she who had a major role in planning the referendum agenda and steering the Yes Campaign. Nicola Sturgeon the MSP for Glasgow Southside has been the Deputy First Minister since 2007 and been the Depute Leader of the SNP for the last 10 years. If she were to fulfill what many see as her destiny, if a little earlier than they expected she would be the first women to lead any devolved power in the UK.

But the question is would there be a coronation or would there be a challenger? If the latter who might the competition come from.

One possibility is like Alex Salmond an alumni of Linlithgow Academy and with his was also expelled from the party for being part of the 79 Group his long term friend Kenny MacAskill. While Alex has mellowed on the demand for a republican socialist stance, MacAskill has said that once Scotland voted for Independence there would be a referendum on whether to keep the monarchy. He stepped down from standing with Sturgeon on a joint ticket to be her Depute when Salmond decided to restand for the leadership himself on a ticket with her instead. It is possible that that loyalty may be repaid with him become her deputy ten years on so that may be one reason why he wouldn't want to upset the apple cart.

Another alternative might be John Swinney who had been leader between Alex Salmond and Alex Salmond from 2000-2004. Since 2007 he has been the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth a job which many within the party would say he has be great at. Especially in his first four years when he had to get through his budget as a minority administration. He is closely associated with the gradualist wing of the party, which in light of the failure to secure independence might come to the fore of people's thinking as something that is needed to make the most of the negotiations that will ensue for more powers for Scotland. The down side to a Swinney bid is that in his previous term in charge, unlike Salmond  who had been successful first time, he saw the parties fortunes slump.

The only other person with potential serious intent to lead the party is the man who challenged Swinney back in 2000. Alex Neil had the backing of the fundamentalist wing of the party. Instead of looking for a gradulaist approach it may be that some within the party are seeking a figure head to keep up the fundamentalist approach, if so Neil would be the natural figurehead for such feelings. Some may well feel that Salmond wasn't seeking to separate enough from the rest of the UK and was really fighting on a ticket of keeping the best bits of being in the UK and therefore the voters knew it wasn't real independence. Only if that is the case would Neil stand a serious chance of taking the leadership but it is the mood of the party that is important.

Nicola is in pole position, but as she also was heavily involved in the referendum campaign it is unlikely that she will go totally unchallenged from within. It depends which wing of the party is most angry with the way the referendum campaign was built up to be a success only to fall 10% short that may well decide who will take her on, and such a challenge may even come from both wings.

One thing though is certain. We live in interesting times.

A Swedish TV news report about the 2014 Ig Nobel Prizes

Friday, September 19th, 2014 09:37 pm
[syndicated profile] improbable_research_feed

Posted by Marc Abrahams

Swedish TV4’s Nyhyterna program produced a report about last night’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. Here’s the beginning of their report (which also includes an interview about herring farts with Haken Westerberg, co-winner of the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize for biology):

Udda forskning belönas

Harvarduniversitetet delar varje år ut forskningspriset Ignobel – ett pris som vid första anblick kan tyckas vara spektakulärt eftersom det handlar om udda forskningsinsatser.

andrewducker: (wikipedia)
[personal profile] andrewducker
With 45 minutes to go, did I miss something?

Sandy Denny

Friday, September 19th, 2014 09:26 pm
[syndicated profile] liberal_england_feed

Over the years I have posted several songs by Sandy Denny (photographed here in about 1970):
Read more about Sandy Denny.

What happened at the book launch of Too [video]

Friday, September 19th, 2014 08:34 pm
[syndicated profile] improbable_research_feed

Posted by Marc Abrahams

WGBH Forum produced this video of US launch of my new book This Is Improbable Too. The launch happened Friday, September 5, at Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge. I and several members of the Ig Nobel gang  — Robin AbrahamsMelissa FranklinCorky White, and Gus Rancatore — did brief dramatic readings from studies I wrote about in the book.

You can get This Is Improbable Too from Harvard Bookstore, as well as most other good bookstores, and also from Amazon and the other mysterious online booksellers.

The book has gotten nice reviews in USA Today,  Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, I and it have been bobbing around radio land, on The Bob Edwards Show, Radio Boston, The Marilu Henner Show, and others. More is on the way, including a journey to the fabled radio land of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Star Talk Radio.

The review I’m proudest of is the one in England’s Daily Mail, which said the book is “almost dementedly inconsequential.”


BONUS: My other new book (done together with Corky and Gus): The Ig Nobel Cookbook (volume 1), which also is available at Harvard Bookstore.

Fraternity Roofie Conspiracy

Friday, September 19th, 2014 07:27 pm
[syndicated profile] yesmeansyes_feed

Posted by Thomas


In some corners of the rape denial universe it is popular to say that this doesn’t happen, that all reports of drugged drinks are merely voluntary overconsumption.  There are two kinds of people who say that: (1) those who have chosen to believe it, because they don’t believe anything women say anyway and because it’s convenient for them to believe it; and (2) those who know first-hand that it isn’t true, but want to protect those who deliberately and involuntarily intoxicate others.

When people say, “rape culture,” some people say that there isn’t one.  Even some people who should know better say that. Everyone agrees that rape is bad, right?  But they don’t.  In the comments and threats that assail women who speak out about rape on the internet, when the trolls know people are unlikely to uncover their identities, they say what they really think.  They approve of rape.

These allegations admit of no possibility of accident or miscommunication. Instead, this required a conspiracy of the bartender and the doorman, at a minimum, and probably at least the silent complicity of several members. Someone said, “let’s roofie a bunch of girls …” and someone else thought it was a great idea.  As it became clear that someone wasn’t joking, but was actually planning and preparing, nobody, nobody, said, “no, actually that would be a felony and we cannot do that.”  If you want to know what “rape culture” is, it’s a culture where someone could raise this idea and instead of a chill falling over the whole room, the other people either strain to pretend it’s a joke or gleefully join in.  If you want to know what “social license to operate” is it’s that the idea that women at fraternity parties are targets to be intoxicated and sexually molested is so powerful that the guy that thought this up not only had friends willing to defend his idea, they agreed to help, and they believed that they would get away with it.

As a general moral proposition, to hell with loyalty. If you are ever so loyal to any person that, when that person says, “let’s rape someone,” it even occurs to you that going along with it is a viable option, your moral compass is shot and you need to cut all ties with every single person you know, pack up and walk as far as you can get into the most desolate wilderness until the ruinous effects of your social environment wear off and you once again develop the ability to hear your conscience.  You.  If you’re reading this now, and you’re thinking, “well, I don’t know, I might …”  Stop.  Stop, turn off the computer, and pick a spot on the map where nobody is, and go there.  Until you do, you’re a danger to us all.

Filed under: surviving to yes Tagged: Alcohol, rape, sexual assault
[syndicated profile] political_betting_feed

Posted by MikeSmithson

After Alex Salmond’s not unexpected departure this afternoon following the YES defeat in the referendum the bookies have installed his depity, Nicola Sturgeon, as odds on favourite. Looking down the list of possibles from the bookies it is hard to see any alternative. But who knows?

    I thought that she had good referendum campaign and managed to avoid some of the hubris that made Salmond so unappealing. She was impressive this afternoon in the immediate aftermath of defeat – not an easy time for anybody.

The party has a tough time ahead as it seeks to cash the promises on devolution made by Cameron/Miliband/Clegg towards the end of the campaign. The way the Tories are trying to adjust the offer already by linking change to the way Scottish MPs can operate is an indication that a deal is not done and dusted.

As to a bet I’m not familiar enough with the field to make any comments.

Mike Smithson

2004-2014: The view from OUTSIDE the Westminster bubble

It be International Talk Like A Pirate Day

Friday, September 19th, 2014 09:04 pm
lonemagpie: McGoohan as Number 6 (6)
[personal profile] lonemagpie
In honour of International Talk Like A Pirate Day....

This cabinet is an amazing work of both art and craft

Friday, September 19th, 2014 08:49 pm
andrewducker: (Serious)
[personal profile] andrewducker

(Sent to me by my brother Hugh, who clearly has Ideas about his next birthday present...)

In re slipping on a banana peel

Friday, September 19th, 2014 06:22 pm
[syndicated profile] improbable_research_feed

Posted by Marc Abrahams

Bethany Brookshire (aka SciCurious) attended last night’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. Her report (in Science News)  about the physics prize winner, begins:

Banana peel slipperiness wins IgNobel prize in physics

BOSTON — We’ve all seen the cartoons. Bugs Bunny wolfs down a banana and casually tosses the skin onto the floor. Moments later, Elmer Fudd comes racing in, steps on the banana peel and goes flying. The music plays, and Bugs Bunny wins the day again. That wascally wabbit.

No one has ever really questioned this scenario, though few of us have encountered a banana peel in such a dangerous fashion. It just makes sense that banana peels would be slippery if stepped on. But Kiyoshi Mabuchi and colleagues at Kitasato University in Minato, Japan, were not satisfied with mere legend. They decided to find out just how slick that banana peel really is.

In an awards ceremony at Harvard University on September 18, the researchers received the IgNobel prize in physics for the work. The IgNobels celebrate the truly unusual in science, technology, engineering and math. The studies honored by the prizes often make people laugh. But there’s usually serious science behind the quirky studies.

To determine exactly how slippery a banana peel is, Mabuchi and colleagues sacrificed a total of 12 Cavendish bananas, the iconic yellow banana found on grocery shelves around the world….

BONUS: This video shows a person named Henriette conducting her own preliminary tests without any measurements:

84 per cent Yes vote in Billesdon

Friday, September 19th, 2014 07:02 pm
[syndicated profile] liberal_england_feed
Church Street, Billesdon © Andrew Tatlow

No, Billesdon is not an enclave of Scottish Nationalism. It is a village in Leicestershire and it had its own referendum yesterday.

In it, local residents voted overwhelmingly in favour of the proposed neighbourhood plan. The 84 per cent Yes vote came from a turnout of 55 per cent.

I hope the plan will give them real control over the development and preservation of their village.

Playing with pigs and lasers

Friday, September 19th, 2014 04:36 pm
[syndicated profile] improbable_research_feed

Posted by Martin Gardiner

Pigs, like humans, can get bored. Perhaps they’d like to play a game to amuse themselves? Even better, with interacting humans? A project designed to examine such possibilities is underway at Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Utrecht and Wageningen University Livestock Research Department in The Netherlands. It’s called ‘Playing With Pigs’ and is “researching the complex relationship between pigs and humans through game design”. The research team decided to experiment with laser-pointers and groups of pigs – making a new discovery :

“During the design process we discovered something that, to our knowledge at the time, animal scientists had not noticed until now: pigs like to play with light. For example, pigs are fascinated by the movement of reflected points of light, and are attracted to new light spots on a surface.”

A website dedicated to playing with pigs is available at

Also see: (Improbable pig-related articles)
‘Pigness’ (Cinematic and Televisual) – a thesis
“Can I have a lick o’ your lollipop?” [Sugar pigs]

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Hello! I'm Jennie (known to many as SB, due to my handle, or The Yorksher Gob because of my old blog's name). This blog is my public face; click here for a list of all the other places you can find me on t'interwebs.

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