Sunday, December 11, 2011

Radical Euroscepticism has resulted in a massive failure of diplomacy

Experience has taught me that scepticism is an extremely healthy worldview, so long as it is tempered by a touch of pragmatism and a generosity of spirit. But, if you are arguing with someone who appears so sceptical that they will reject any possible mutual search for common ground, the motivation to continue to engage with that person rapidly evaporates.

Many in the British Conservative party have been pumping out antagonistic posturing sceptical rhetoric about the EU for decades. The current economic crisis has caused the heads of European governments to finally lose patience with such Eurosceptic rhetoric, and the consequences are clear to see.

The UK has become isolated from its partners in Europe: Britain has been forced into a position in which it alone has to veto proposals accepted by the rest. Without the Eurosceptic rhetoric, Britain would have been able to develop allies in its alternative view of how to tackle the crisis. Indeed, it is possible that such proposals might never have come forward in the first place if other countries had perceived Britain as interested in pursuing compromise solutions. Instead, when David Cameron made some modest suggestions, he did not have a friend in the room.

As Andrew Rawnsley has written, "Even Eurosceptics will soon find that there is nothing splendid about isolation. Our capacity to shape the future of the world's wealthiest economic bloc, which is also our most important export market, has just been dramatically diminished. This will have consequences not just for Britain's influence in Europe, but its standing in the world." The only thing Cameron has blocked is British influence.

Radical Euroscepticism - the kind of scepticism that exhibits itself as rampant antagonism towards the EU - has resulted in a massive failure of diplomacy. It has meant that David Cameron has been unable to build relationships within the EU. This historic diplomatic failure may have long-lasting repercussions for British jobs.

Photo: "Frog" by Jonathan.vail

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Why bash the bishop over Occupy Exeter?

There's been a good-natured occupation of Exeter's Cathedral Green by the Occupy movement. Here's a video of them moving in, accompanied by a friendly and constructive speech by one of the clergy:

Photos and another video are at the Exeter anti-cuts alliance website.

Now I'm conflicted about the Occupy movement. This is not what democracy looks like to me.  I don't want decisions about the future of my city, country and planet to be taken by those groups who shout angriest and loudest that they speak for everyone. And I'm angry that many people have failed to engage in our democratic processes in the past. However, the movement has its heart in the right place when it attacks corporate greed and inequality, it has captured imaginations, and it has real potential to help more people engage constructively in these issues.

But I note the spin by The Telegraph and others on comments made by the Bishop of Exeter, Michael Langrish. He has said plainly that he is very sympathetic to the questions raised by Occupy Exeter folks. He echoes the warmth of the cleric in the above video. The bishop also notes the protest appears misdirected at the church. This is positive. A key message that Occupy Exeter is trying to get out there is that this isn't about the church, but about the failure of our financial sector. The bishop is a thoughtful figure to be engaged with, not the enemy.

Yet The Telegraph portrays him as "dismissing 'copycat' protests", and praises his "robust stance". The BBC emphasizes the bishop's concern that this looks like a protest against the church, rather than his friendliness to the cause.

However, Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou, of Exeter University's Theology department, seems to have taken this spin at face value. She has tweeted:
"Bishop of Exeter against #occupyexeter: 'Each day we will remind protesters that this is sacred space'. Jesus would probab be ashamed of him"
The bishop is clear he would rather there weren't protesters on Cathedral Green, but he and his clergy have gone out of their way to engage with Occupy folk, to offer practical help, and to highlight how the church shares a similar mission. To say the bishop is "against" Occupy Exeter is therefore simplistic and misrepresents his views.

More importantly, it is divisive to portray the bishop as an enemy. Claiming that Jesus would be ashamed of him is an unhelpful insult. The bishop's status means that his sympathy with the issues being raised could carry some weight with many people who have so far been left cold by the Occupy movement. Let's build support, not barricades.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

When councillors get fixated on "progress"

John Lewis is coming to Exeter. That's terrific news. Everyone's delighted. Great success. Congratulations all round.

Unfortunately, officers and councillors of the County Council and the City Council are planning a weird scheme (pdf document) to make the road outside John Lewis one-way. It's at the point where New North Road joins Paris Street, an area known (apparently) as London Inn Square.
The proposal is to remove the route marked with a red line

What's so weird about that, you might ask. After all, the road has 22,000 pedestrians crossing it daily. It "acts as a physical barrier between the main shopping area and Sidwell Street", and "Sidwell St / Paris St has seen 20 collisions in a 3 year period (14 involving pedestrians)". Moreover, "People should be able to enjoy their surroundings without concerns about crossing busy roads, or being subjected to poor air quality caused by cars and lorries which need not be in the middle of the city." (All quotes from the scheme flyer linked above.)

Yes, fine. It would be better for cars not to be cutting through the shopping area at all. But the big question is: Where will the traffic go then?

What the proposed scheme mostly doesn't fix

Before I come to the question of where the traffic will go instead, I want to look at that "20 collisions in a 3 year period" statistic. It's potentially very misleading. There's no indication whether this refers just to the immediate area affected by the proposed scheme or to the whole of Sidwell Street and Paris Street.

And this ambiguity matters: the plethora of signs and road markings at the top of Paris Street and the intersection between Sidwell Street and Cheeke Street are dreadful, with different rules for cars, buses, taxis and bicycles.

Paris Street will be unchanged
So, for example, Paris Street is one-way for cars, but two-way for bicycles. Drivers who want to go straight on have to cut in front of buses leaving a bus stop at a pedestrian crossing; a crossing that also has 3 sets of traffic lights, two with a "straight on" filter (so the red lights confusingly only apply to the right-hand turn); and at just at that spot when cars are having to uncomfortably squeeze in front of the buses (and take in all the lights and road markings), a bike box, some bike racks, and a route sign suddenly become visible (they're likely to be obscured by a bus before that point). The route sign, by the way, tells you nothing about what happens if you turn right, but lots about what's straight on (Crediton, Tiverton, railway stations and the University) and if it wasn't visible until you're at the lights, you're also likely to be in the wrong lane for going straight on, so you'll somehow have to break lane discipline, while taking account of pedestrians, cyclists, buses and other vehicles all doing different things. Meanwhile the cycle lanes come and go.

Paris Street was two-way not so long ago, and it was all much less confusing. There was also a central island for pedestrians in New North Road, which the council removed.

Incidentally, having a taxi rank right next to this confusing semi-one-way intersection is also daft.

Meanwhile, inadequate signs at Cheeke Street mean that cars sometimes go the wrong way up Sidwell Street, a route on which only buses and taxis are allowed. In fact there are two cars in Google Streetview doing precisely that. They end up having to turn right out of Sidwell Street into New North Road. I once saw a small boy almost mown down crossing New North Road when the pedestrian light was green. It's possible the driver had gone through a red light, but I think it's more plausible that the lights in Sidwell Street assumed that buses would be going straight on into the High Street, rather than turning right.
As I say, the proposed scheme mostly wouldn't fix these threats to safety, although, to be fair, the layout of the taxi rank would be improved, and most traffic would be removed from Sidwell Street between the High Street and Cheeke Street.

Where will the traffic go?
Current route in red (New North Road, Sidwell St, Cheeke St)
Encouraged route in blue (Bonhay Road, Western Way)
At peak times, 300 cars an hour travel along the route to be closed. So what will happen to this traffic?

Firstly, the councils say that they will "encourage drivers crossing the city to use more appropriate roads such as Bonhay Road and Western Way".

I can imagine that suiting people driving from the areas around Crediton, Tiverton and Exeter St David's station, although the perennial bottleneck that is Exe Bridges might be a reason why they are not using Bonhay Road currently. People driving from the areas around Exeter College and the University might take more persuasion.

My guess is, though (and it'd be nice if the councils published their research so that we can be working with actual data rather than guesses), that most of the traffic going east via New North Road
originates far from easy access to Bonhay Road or Western Way. They will be heading to places like the hospital, the business parks, industrial estates, edge-of-city retail parks and the M5. A route via Bonhay Road and Western Way is going to seem a big diversion. Moreover, buses from the Cowley Bridge direction (the north-west of the city) will still need to get to the bus station, just off Paris Street.

In fact the councils estimate that "half of the existing traffic turning left into Sidwell Street is expected to divert onto Blackall Road and York Road".

Current route in red (New North Road, Sidwell St, Cheeke St)
Likely alternative in blue (Blackall Rd, Pennsylvania Rd, York Rd, Summerland St)

Note the bus station is off Bramfylde Street, hence all the bus stops there

This alternative route is unarguably residential, with four zebra crossings, two mini roundabouts, and several severe speed bumps. St James is a conservation area, but this seems to count for nothing.
Blackall Road is residential
Mini roundabout and zebra crossing in Blackall Road

The alternative route also features a left-hand turn from Pennsylvania Road into York Road that often results in long waits by cars coming out of York Road and by cars turning into York Road from the other direction. And at the top end of York Road, there are often jams by the traffic lights. This is not a route that can sustain much more traffic. Yet it is estimated that 150 an hour additional vehicles would be travelling along these roads if this scheme is approved.
The junction of Pennsylvania Road, York Road
and Longbrook Street
The junction of York Road, Sidwell Street
 and Summerland Street

This route also goes directly past the gates of the local primary school.

It's at this point that the councils need to be reminded of their own stern warning:
"People should be able to enjoy their surroundings without concerns about crossing busy roads, or being subjected to poor air quality caused by cars and lorries which need not be in the middle of the city."

The councils trumpet the importance of making it easier for people to cross the road and of minimising air pollution, but somehow this doesn't apply to the children at the school.

Another likely alternative route is via Longbrook Street and then (again) up York Road. This is again a largely residential street.
Longbrook Street
So what are our councillors doing?

The ward that will suffer from the proposed scheme is St James. St James has two Liberal Democrat city councillors (Natalie Cole and Kevin Mitchell). The City Council is in minority Labour control. Labour is strongly targeting this ward. The election is in May 2012.

But it would be too simplistic to suggest that it's just a case of Labour hoping St James residents will punish sitting city councillors for failing to stop this scheme. St James also has a Liberal Democrat county councillor (Philip Brock) and the County Council is held by the Conservatives. Moreover, an improved area around John Lewis could be trumpeted as a Conservative success by a Conservative challenger to the sitting Labour MP.

Meanwhile, the three councillors for St James (Cole, Mitchell and Brock) support a further alternative proposal that sends traffic down Longbrook Street and then right along King William Street. This alternative avoids the majority of the residential areas and the school, but still sends traffic along quiet streets, and also past the front door of a community centre.

The Labour candidate for the forthcoming city elections (Keith Owen) notes the concerns of residents, expressed forcefully at a meeting last month when council officers explained the scheme. Yet he is careful not to indicate his opposition to the scheme. [But see the update below] When it comes to planning matters, Labour councillors in Exeter tend to vote en bloc, often in favour of development, rather than each individual making up his or her own mind on the merits of the particular case.

None of these councillors seems to be arguing the merits of the status quo, on the basis of the scheme's damage to the quality of life of St James residents. [Again, see the update below]

Many Exeter people want Paris Street made two-way again
It also seems that none of the councillors is arguing that the decision to make Paris Street one-way was a huge mistake, and should be reversed. Rather than travelling a few hundred yards to get to the bus station, bus passengers were sent a long way round, clogging up Sidwell Street. The new proposal sends bus passengers on an even bigger diversion, via narrow residential streets. Taxi drivers are also unhappy with the current situation. Moreover, Sidwell Street is clearly currently more dangerous for pedestrians and road users than it was when Paris Street was two-way. It would be good to know how the figure of 7 collisions a year compares with the rate before Paris Street was made one-way.

Over the past decade there have been large numbers of changes to the road layout in the area of the new John Lewis. And yet somehow it is still worth spending up to £2m on yet another scheme, at a time when the County Council is implementing cuts of £40m, on top of £55m last year. It has been claimed that John Lewis would not come to Exeter if Paris Street were to be made two-way again. Well John Lewis is coming. Has a commitment been made on Paris Street?

In Exeter, the quality of decision-making when it comes to planning decisions is very poor. Just read the minutes of planning meetings, or go along to one. Attendance is variable; details are glossed over; reasoning is typically nebulous or tautologous; officers' opinions are often accepted uncritically; "progress" is automatically seen to be a good thing, even if it isn't actually progress.

Parties can afford to make these kinds of cavalier decisions, because it is just one ward out of many. But the real question is how councillors get fixated on a particular idea as representing "progress". Is it that they get jazzed up by grandiose words in "vision" documents? Or a desire to leave their mark on the city? Do they somehow talk themselves into corners through macho posturing? Or are they somehow intimidated by developers, officials, lawyers, or business imperatives?

I don't know. I doubt it's any of these reasons; and it's rather than councillors simply believe that this is the best way forward. But in that case, rising above the issue of whether this proposed scheme is sensible or not, is a bigger concern: I resent the fact that councillors and would-be councillors treat residents disrespectfully by failing to provide well-reasoned arguments for their decisions.

So come on councillors and would-be councillors, whatever ward or electoral division you represent. Your decision on this issue is affecting my community. You owe us an account of your personal decision.

Update 3 Dec 2011

I'm pleased to note from this week's Express and Echo that at least some councillors are giving the proposal careful consideration.

Jill Owen, county councillor (Labour) for Priory and St Leonard's, comments on the displacement of traffic from Sidwell Street:
"I don't think the displacement issue has been made clear enough to everyone and I hope that it is looked at very clearly and in great detail. This is a very important scheme but it seems it is being done with indecent haste. If we do something that is not right then it will be very difficult to turn back."
Meanwhile, James Taghdissian, city councillor (Conservative) for Polsloe, notes that Mount Pleasant Road, Stoke Hill Road and Prince Charles Road might well turn into rat-runs.

And last week's Express and Echo carried a very welcome letter from the Labour candidate for the St James ward on the city council, Keith Owen. He comes out as opposed to the plans, and gives clear arguments about the various options. I'm delighted to note that he makes a case for the status quo.

These proposals go before Devon's cabinet on 14 December. I hope they will take the concerns of residents seriously.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Tintin and the Wreck of the Treasured Memory

I had been prepared for the new Tintin film to be dreadful. The many excoriating articles about the film in The Guardian and elsewhere had set up low expectations.

The reviews though were surprisingly vague on what exactly was wrong with the film. They tended to be strong on highly emotive condemnations and amorphous pseudo-intellectual critique, but weak on actual details.

And the film wasn't as bad as all that. Lots of humour. Good voice performances by the cast. Ambitious set-pieces. Great opening credits. A rollicking score.

But, in all honesty, I didn't enjoy the film much. I rarely felt invested in it. In fact I was positively alienated at times. And after about an hour I couldn't wait for the film to end. Not a good sign.

And that's crazy, because Spielberg is an amazingly talented director. I'm a huge fan of each of the writers, Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish. The cast is fantastic. The composer, cinematographer and editor are also top rank.

So what was it about the film that made me feel this way?

I'm not 100% sure. I think a lot had to do with the film lacking the huge charm of the books. Of course film is a very different medium from graphic novels, but I'm not a comic snob, and I don't have a feverish devotion to Hergé's originals that blinds me to their flaws. But I did enjoy the originals; whereas the film jarred.

Now I've no idea if this charm gap is something to do with the storyline or dialogue or direction or music or acting or something else, because I couldn't get past the distancing caused by the 3D effect and the 3D glasses, and, most of all, the famous Uncanny Valley.

For me, the characters ended up creepy, not charming.

There were other problems I had with the film - Captain Haddock's accent seemed wrong, the action rather too involved at times, the self-empowerment guff misplaced, the theme music forgettable - but I suspect these didn't make much difference to my enjoyment.

To avoid me being completely negative, here's an idea for an experiment the producers might consider. Allow freelance animators to re-render the visuals in their own way, giving them a cut of additional sales their work generates. I suspect that, all else being equal, more people would download a traditionally animated version than your sophisticated motion capture version. Go on. Dare you.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The angrier we protest, the simpler the answers

The Exeter Anti-Cuts Alliance sums up "a momentous week in global protest terms". The blinkers are off:
People can see that their governments, everywhere implementing the same austerity measures, are in the hands and the pay of the global corporations and banks and their (largely invisible and unaccountable) wealthy owners.
Occupy, Uncut, anarchists, anti-capitalists, socialists, Anonymous... all are angry about the corrupt system that has resulted in the world's economic woes. You're angry with the politicians. You're angry with the bankers. You're angry with the rich. You're angry about the cuts.

Except... you know what? I'm pretty angry with you. You failed to get behind the only party that was warning about the impending economic crisis and bankers' behaviour; the only party that's against illegal wars and an authoritarian state; the only party taking climate change seriously; and the only party that wants to improve our democracy.

So you cynically failed to engage with the arguments; you failed to rally support for democratic change; and you bleat about "betrayal" and "propping up the Tories" when the reality is that the people were divided on what should be done. We need honest politicians to work together. But you have worked yourself up into a frenzy that dictates that all politicians are venal and that anything less than an automatic transmission of belief into action constitutes a betrayal.

You are holier-than-thou and angrily shout and protest as if you speak for everyone who cares about these matters, as if we don't live in some kind of democracy, imperfect though it is. That you see yourselves as equal to the heroes of Tahrir Square, Tunis, the Libyan NTC and Syria is ludicrous.

Right. You care. Good. Now take a breath. Stop with the sloganeering, the posturing and the negativity. And think how you can engage constructively, collaboratively and cleverly. We can win this one.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Why is Chris Huhne hitting the nuclear button?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Homer Simpson is the perfect person to be put in charge of safety of a nuclear power plant.


Because he's made so many mistakes, there are no new mistakes for him to make.

OK, so this reasoning is not exactly analogous with why Chris Huhne believes that, despite all the mistakes that have been made, it's a good idea to start building new nuclear reactors again.

But he does have a quote from Winston Churchill that he feels has resonance with how the British have tried to exploit nuclear energy over the past 50 years:

"Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all other possibilities."
Perhaps Churchill can be excused this barb, given that he was half-American.

Yesterday, Huhne, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, gave a speech to the Royal Society explaining why the future of nuclear power will be different to its past. He was explicit about the many mistakes that have been made in relation to nuclear power, but averred that nuclear power should be a key part of our future energy mix.

His speech makes five main points:

1. We're still paying for the electricity that nuclear power generated in the fifties, sixties and seventies.

In particular:
  • In the UK, there is currently enough high-level nuclear waste "to fill three Olympic swimming pools. We have enough intermediate-level waste to fill a supertanker, and a lot more low-level waste."
  • We have the world's largest plutonium stocks, which have to be guarded, converted and stored for many years.
  • The government spends £2 billion every year, cleaning up this mess.
  • The costs of decommissioning are still increasing. Now over £50 billion. 

2. Any new nuclear construction must be without public subsidy.

Huhne repeats the Coalition Agreement's vital principle that any new nuclear construction cannot have public subsidy. Whether "Feed-In Tariffs", the Carbon Floor Price or insurance liability count as public subsidy is not made clear.

3. Despite the costs and risks, nuclear should be a key part of our future energy mix.

The reason he gives for this is that "we face the greater risk of accelerating climate change if we do not embark on another generation of nuclear power. Time is running out. Nuclear can be a vital and affordable means of providing low carbon electricity".

Moreover, by 2023, all but one of our current nuclear reactors reach the end of their lives, leaving an 18% gap in the electricity supply. So that gap has to be plugged.

Huhne cites costings for the three large-scale low carbon technologies:

technology £ per megawatt hour
offshore wind 130
gas with carbon capture 95
nuclear 66

These figures include waste and decommissioning costs. He also notes that world gas prices have risen hugely over the last year, and are expected to be volatile. He argues that there are considerable uncertainties about promising renewable technologies such as wave and tidal, and costs remain high.

So he concludes that nuclear is the cheapest low carbon source of electricity.

4. A portfolio of energy generation technologies is needed.

We've been wrong before about the economics of nuclear power. We can be wrong again: "The industry still has to prove that it can build these enormous investments on time and to budget."

A "broad portfolio" of low carbon technologies is therefore needed, to handle the economic risk.

5. We must learn the lessons of the past.

And this is where Huhne invokes Churchill's quip above about how you can count on Americans to do the right thing... after they have exhausted all other possibilities. In relation to nuclear policy, Huhne says, "we have made pretty much every mistake human ingenuity could devise. And boy, are we British inventive."

  • Fostering a culture of secrecy in relation to strategic national decisions.
  • Conflating energy needs with military needs, and so leading to confused, expensive design decisions.
  • Letting the drive for innovation prevent the gains to be made from standardising designs: all 11 Magnox power stations were built to different specifications, for example.
  • Failing to take into account the environmental impact of nuclear power stations.
  • Failing to devise a costed plan for cleaning up afterwards, heaping costs on future generations.
  • Letting waste pile up.
  • Setting up a body that was supposed simultaneously to give the Government impartial advice and to promote nuclear energy, resulting in a lack of proper oversight.
  • Failing to ensure that regulatory systems were geared towards long-term protection.
  • Letting costs spiral without proper scrutiny.
  • Hiding subsidies in complex financial arrangements.

My reflections on this speech

I'm not at all convinced by the cost arguments presented here. Even if cost differentials turn out to be roughly as quoted over the next 30-50 years, fossil fuels and uranium are finite resources and so are not likely to be cutting-edge 22nd Century solutions. If we are serious about sustainability for future generations, I would have thought we need to focus our technological efforts on harnessing renewable resources.

This is a bit of an over-simplistic cop-out on my part though, because a lot hangs on accurate energy cost estimates. Such estimations are complex, well beyond my capabilities to unpick, and controversial. They need to take into account numerous hard-to-quantify risks and trends. But several authoritative sources have come up with estimates in which nuclear is not always the most cost-effective low carbon technology (e.g. Mott MacDonald, 2011). Of course in all discussions of such calculations there's also political game-playing, vested industry interests, scaremongering and so on, most of which serve to baffle non-experts like me into seeking simplistic grounds on which to decide.

Furthermore, although the commitment to "no public subsidy" sounds like it will finally put the viability claims of the nuclear industry to the test, governments have a long-standing habit of sneaking in subsidies by the back door. And this industry has a, as Huhne puts it, "terrible reputation for secrecy". Huhne says, of course, that he wants to encourage open competition, rather than monopolistic practices, and to ensure tough, transparent regulation, rather than a slipshod, secretive industry. And that's great; but what are the grounds for hoping that this government can get this right in the nuclear industry when the governments so clearly have got it wrong in the past in this industry and in others?

Nevertheless, on secrecy, I do wonder to what extent I'm still subconsciously influenced by that terrific nuclear thriller from the 1980s, Edge of Darkness:

But most importantly, in relation to climate change, the time-scale for nuclear looks wrong. If Britain started building 10 new nuclear reactors now, they would deliver a 4% cut in carbon emissions some time after 2025 [1]. Action is required now. As Greenpeace says, "It's too little too late at too high a price."

In addition, heat and transport energy needs are largely not addressed by nuclear power, and it would only supply a fraction of our electricity. So it is difficult to see why it is getting this level of attention as a way of addressing CO2 emissions. There has been huge investment into nuclear research and development in comparison with the research into renewables. At the same time, there are serious challenges associated with the idea that a huge investment in renewables and energy efficiency could be enough to cover both the lost nuclear power and the fossil fuels we need to stop using. So I don't have the answers, but I don't think that nuclear is the solution.

(These reflections are based on Huhne's speech. So I'm leaving to one side the familiar issues of aesthetics, safety, waste management, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and uranium mining)

Over the years I've moved from equanimity about nuclear power to ambivalence to scepticism to opposition. I'm still open to contrary arguments. But it seems to me that appearing to have "exhausted all other possibilities" does not imply that what we do next constitutes "the right thing". We are ingenious in our ability to create new ways of failing. And I'm not yet convinced that there are strong enough grounds to be confident we'll avoid repeating old ways of failing.


Monday, October 3, 2011

Doctor Who: The War Games

Continuing my catch-up of highlights from the last 50 years of Doctor Who, we reach the end of the Second Doctor's era.

(Spoilers follow)

And the difference in ambition between earlier stories and "The War Games" is huge: 10 parts, richer music and camerawork, multiple time zones, a more complex story, diverse motivations... and... we finally meet the Doctor's own people...

The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe discover a planet on which soldiers abducted from various times in Earth's history are being brainwashed into continuing their conflicts in simulations of those periods. The idea is to train an army to conquer the universe. The plotters are helped by a renegade Time Lord, "The War Chief", one of the Doctor's own race.

There is a revealing exchange between the Doctor and the War Chief, in which the Doctor is defensive about his reasons for leaving his home planet and rejects the War Chief's quest for power.

WAR CHIEF: You may have changed your appearance, but I know who you are.
THE DOCTOR: Oh do you?
WAR CHIEF: Your machine is a TARDIS. You're too familiar with its controls to be a stranger.
THE DOCTOR: I had every right to leave.
WAR CHIEF: Stealing a TARDIS? Oh I'm not criticising you; we are two of a kind.
THE DOCTOR: We most certainly are not!
WAR CHIEF: We were both Time Lords and we both decided to leave our race.
THE DOCTOR: I had reasons of my own.
WAR CHIEF: Just as I had.
THE DOCTOR: Your reasons are only too obvious: power!
WAR CHIEF: How much have you learnt of our plans?
THE DOCTOR: I know you've been kidnapping soldiers from the Earth from various times in its history and bringing them here to kill one another.
WAR CHIEF: But do you realise our ultimate objectives?
THE DOCTOR: No objective can justify such slaughter!
WAR CHIEF: The war games on this planet are simply a means to an end. The aliens intend to conquer the entire galaxy. A thousand inhabited worlds.
THE DOCTOR: Yes, but why choose the people of the Earth?
WAR CHIEF: They are the most suitable recruits for our armies. Man is the most vicious species of all.
THE DOCTOR: Well that simply isn't true!
WAR CHIEF: Hmm... Consider their history; for a half a million years they have been systematically killing each other. Now we can turn this savagery to some purpose. We can bring peace to the galaxy - and you can help. You see, I'm not the cold-hearted villain you suppose me to be. My motives are purely peaceful.

The climax sees the Doctor calling for help from the Time Lords via a small box, a means of communication that cropped up again earlier this year in "The Doctor's Wife". The last episode is on the Time Lord home planet (which we now know to be Gallifrey).

Having seen the Time Lords appearing as from Hell in the Tenth Doctor's final story, the Time Lords in the War Games initially appear monk-like. They seem austere, gentle, peaceful, thoughtful, serene, slightly aloof. But then we come to their punishments... They decree that the planet behind the war games plot is to be isolated forever from the rest of the universe by a permanent force field. And the leaders of the plot are removed from time, as if they never existed.

Meanwhile, the Time Lord's punishments for the Doctor's crimes (stealing the TARDIS and interfering in history) are particularly cruel. They force a regeneration on the Doctor and exile him to a single time on a single planet (Earth); something like torture for an inveterate wanderer in time and space. But they go further, and wipe Jamie's and Zoe's memories of the Doctor, apart from their first encounter with him. Just as with Donna Noble in recent series, the loss of memories of so many adventures that saw these companions develop and grow as people seems shocking. Jamie and Zoe do not know they have suffered, but a central part of their existence has been lost to them. Moreover, this action also punishes the Doctor horribly. There is no possibility of his ever being able to reminisce about old times with these dear friends.

How was it?

Not too bad. A bit long, with some (unintentionally) laughable moments, particularly the mannered acting of the Security Chief and the unrealistic fight scenes. The bad guys come across as interestingly intelligent and diverse, although subsequent television history means that Blackadder's General Melchett has made one of the protagonists less scary than he might otherwise be! Nevertheless, some interesting ideas, pursued intelligently, unfolding nicely, and without crudely spelling everything out. The Doctor's terrific fear of the Time Lords is palpable, and his attitude to them hints at a liberal critique of the powerful.

Audience Reaction 2011

I decided to show just episodes 8 to 10 to one of the 21st century companions with whom I have been erratically sharing this Doctor Who catch-up. Despite the borderline offensive stereotypes (particularly of the Mexican bandit), the historical periods were of interest. But boredom thresholds were quickly breached. The special effects, music, dialogue and pace were the familiar culprits. Nevertheless, clear improvements in these aspects over previous stories were noted. The quality of the ideas was also appreciated.

Idle Questions
  • Why did the War Chief not regenerate when shot by the security guards?
  • Aren't ground troops a slightly underpowered way of conquering planets?
  • How will the Doctor get his TARDIS back?
For an alternative view...

Next time on LW's DW catch-up...
The very next episode, the Third Doctor appears in "Spearhead from Space".

Friday, September 16, 2011

No more Torchwood, touch wood

I've been busy defending Torchwood: Miracle Day to friends over the past couple of months. Now I've seen the finale I'm rather regretting that.

I never said Miracle Day was very good; just that it was a return to the ups and downs in quality of the first two series, after the blip that was the exceptional third series Children of Earth.

To be fair, I never found compelling the concept, characters and stories of the first Torchwood series (left). I stuck with it for the first two series in the hope of the writing being able to build on the flashes of brilliance that it occasionally showed. Children of Earth worked brilliantly (no thanks to the previous two series), and made me care about Jack and Gwen.

I defended Miracle Day in response to the outpouring of critical ordure that was being heaped on it in relation to the story, the characters, the sex and the violence. I didn't think it was terrible. Just not terribly good. Much like the first two series.

The final episode, though, made me rather ashamed for having stuck with Miracle Day. There were no satisfying pay-offs. No real answers. No authentic emotion. No explanations for the numerous loose ends and idiosyncratic tangents. It was naff and pointless. And an insult to the intelligence of the viewer.

I still think over the whole series that the actors did their best with, on-the-whole, weak material. The ambition was great, and the writing and direction did have their moments; but mostly this series failed to work for me at all in terms of mystery, suspense, character, story, incidental music, you name it.

If there is another series of Torchwood, I'd watch it. I tend to like sci-fi, and I couldn't bear not knowing how Jack's and Gwen's lives continue. But I'd rather there is no more Torchwood, unless it's up to the quality of Children of Earth. This series was 10 hours of my life I'm not going to get back.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Exeter's newspaper: neither Express nor Echo?

Back in the early 18th century, Exeter was one of the earliest English cities outside London to have a weekly newspaper [1]. Exeter's popular local daily paper - the Express and Echo - has been going since 1904. Now in 2011, the Echo has just gone weekly. What's the story?

Over the years, I've bought the Echo only intermittently. I like to support local journalism. After all, who else would spend the weeks and months (sometimes even years) needed to scrutinise local developments and ferret out hidden scandals?

However, as with many local papers, much of the time there's not much to report; and adverts, trivia and worthy campaigns are the main content. Recently, tedious parking stories have been trying the patience of readers. The Echo's journalists do their best. But often there's not enough in the paper to interest me.

Times are particularly hard for local newspapers at the moment. Advertising revenue is down; and people are preferring to get their news instantaneously and free from the web, rather than a day late from a local rag that costs money.

It's in this context that the Echo has just gone weekly (also see the comments on this announcement at HoldTheFrontPage and thisisexeter).

What does this mean for Exeter's newspaper?

A brief history of the Express and Echo

The publisher, Northcliffe Media, is owned by the Daily Mail and General Trust, but mostly does not follow The Fail's blatant biases and obsessions.

The Echo tends to go for human interest, but that's popular journalism. It tends to favour the sitting MP (Labour's Ben Bradshaw), but he's a nice chap and a former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, so that's understandable. And the Echo tends to bash the city and county councils, but again that's understandable, since it's a key part of the paper's role to hold these councils to account.

The editor, Marc Astley has been with Northcliffe for 20 years, and has edited the Echo since 2007 [2]. He was previously deputy editor of the Nottingham Post and assistant editor at the Hull Daily Mail [3].

The Echo most recently cost 36p, and its circulation was around 17,000 a day [4]: not bad for a city of only 120,000 people.

What is the new weekly Echo like?

At first glance it looks like the old daily edition, but bulkier. It costs £1 and promises "20 pages of local sport. Plus 88 pages of property. And the latest job vacancies." Curiously, the word "Exeter" does not appear on the front page, except in the tiny url. But this seems to be a tradition [5].

It has some big stories this week (well, "big" for local news), including...

  • a front-page exclusive on highly confidential police information left in a car sold at auction;
  • plans for a new site for the Exeter Royal Academy for Deaf Education (a long-standing contentious issue);
  • the deferral of plans for a £19m research centre at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital;
  • a proposed expansion of Exeter International Airport;
  • multi-million pound plans for a training facility for successful local rugby team the Exeter Chiefs;
  • and the news that there are more "increasing risk" drinkers in Exeter than anywhere else in the country.
These stories and more are covered in some 46 tabloid-size news and features pages. On average about half of each page is taken up with advertising, in addition to the 18 full-page advertisements. The writing style seems quite flat. Neither especially sensationalist nor particularly formal.

Other familiar sections for local papers are present:
  • Property (88 pages, as a separate pull-out section)
  • Sport (20 pages)
  • What's On (11 pages)
  • Classifieds (7 pages)
  • Letters and opinion (6 pages)
  • Cars (5 pages)
  • Jobs (4 pages)
  • Announcements (2 pages)
  • Puzzles (1 page)

Do we need a printed Echo?

According to the excellent Exeter Memories website, James Owen launched the Echo in 1904 with the words:
"We claim to do no more than to give our friends news served up in the brightest, crispest manner we know how. Performance being at all times preferable to promise, we will not trouble our readers with protestations. Here is the paper and we must be judged by it."
The first issue leads with a report on the Russian-Japanese war, and follows up with the story of a cyclist decapitated in an accident.

But in 2011, Catherine Fraser, features writer for the paper, notes (p. 21):
"A few people have wondered whether a regional newspaper is relevant in this world of instant information, local and national, on the radio, television and internet, either through traditional routes or, increasingly, mobile phones, and have suggested that we just shut the presses down forever."
Nevertheless, she makes...
"... no apologies for the same agenda of bringing you all the local news, battling bureaucracy, running campaigns and taking pride in our place in the city. ... there is no question that a local newspaper still plays a very important role in its community - and beyond."
She cites as an example the story of a local woman with breast cancer, a story which led to significant donations and fundraising events, and then became a national story.

Almost all the stories, with the front-page exclusive a clearly deliberate exception, became available on the thisisexeter website in the days leading up to publication day. The larger stories were available from online sources, particularly the BBC, although not typically as readily as from the Echo. The old knotty question remains as to whether the Echo's website (a free, generic and badly-designed Northcliffe construction based on automated feeds) is undermining print sales, and whether that matters given the income from online advertising.

In relation to news, The Echo is also competing with BBC News online, the BBC television programme Spotlight (and related shows from the South West studios), and ITV Westcountry News. These services have shrunk in recent years, with the economic downturn: they cover larger geographical areas than previously, have less resource, and lack some of the content they once had. But they are still formidable competitors. Radio, too, offers potentially more immediate and dynamic news than the printed page. Exeter FM, Heart and BBC Radio Devon seem to be surviving for now.

What about advertising?
If the value of printed news is under question, how much more this must be true of other sections. Perhaps I underestimate the proportion of people who prefer to shop for houses or cars through printed newspapers rather than through the Web. But why would one choose to pore over pages and pages of houses or cars most of which don't fit my needs than use the user-friendly and powerful web-based search engines that show me far greater detail, tailored to my particular requirements?

88 pages of property is a huge amount, in straitened times, so clearly estate agents believe that they make enough sales via such ads to justify the cost. Moreover, is heavily promoted at the start of the property section, so it is clear that these printed pages still happily co-exist with online house-buying tools.

On the other hand, at just 5 pages, the motoring section is a pale shadow of past years. So either far fewer people are buying and selling cars than previously, or the convenience of being to locate a car online is winning out. Maybe something similar is true in relation to jobs. And it's clear that classified advertising is also potentially threatened by internet-based initiatives such as eBay and Freecycle.

Isn't the paper a focus for citywide debate?

In the time before websites, Twitter and Facebook, local newspapers served hugely important civic functions of galvanising and hosting public debate in favour of reform [6].

These days, the Echo's leader column and opinion pieces are largely anodyne; while the letters pages are dominated by the largely lowbrow scribblings of a small number of slightly bewildered eccentrics.

Yet the newspaper can still serve as a focus that can easily be lost in the cacophony of digital channels and online sites. You still frequently hear "Did you see that article in the Echo about...?" Twitter has an Exeter community, but its core is tiny in comparison with the Echo's circulation. And even a medium renowned for being tomorrow's chip wrapping is far less ephemeral than the rapidly-changing Twitter, at least for now, when it comes to its impact on citywide debate.

What's the future for Exeter's newspaper?

It could be argued that Exeter's printer newspaper is neither express nor echo. Firstly, it lacks the "express" immediacy of the TV, the radio, and the internet. And secondly, its role in "echoing" the views of the good people of Exeter has been overtaken in some respects by Twitter and the web. Yet there is a fluidity right now about how all these media operate, a fluidity that inhibits hard-and-fast conclusions about the future for print newspapers.

It is possible that if the move to a weekly format fails, the Express and Echo could become an adjunct of the Western Morning News, a stablemate in Northcliffe's South West Media Group. After all, we have seen other media services having to enlarge their geographical areas in response to changing financial circumstances.

Yet news is a peculiar thing. A minor burglary a few miles away is not news; a burglary up the road is. A primary school next door getting bad results is not news for me unless my children go there; a big company going bust elsewhere in the county is, if it has implications for the economic health of the city. Getting "local" news right is very hard to do, and I doubt that newspapers, TV, radio or the internet are yet in a stable state, conceptually or financially.

My own view (pace Marshall McLuhan) is that the medium isn't the message. The polis requires good local journalism, and I don't mind if that journalism is attached to the printed page, the airwaves or the broadband connection, so long as it is somehow sustainably funded. The future of local journalism is not clear.


  • Pictures of the first issue of the Express and Echo, the sub-editors and the machine room are from Exeter Memories.
  • "Old printing press", by -Kj

Monday, September 5, 2011

Archers Update

Today I finally managed to catch up my podcast listening to the latest edition of The Archers.

The great thing about the podcasts is that you never need to miss an episode. The downside is that you can fall weeks behind when you're busy.

I've been weeks behind since... not sure... probably April or May.

So I'm taking to the opportunity to jot down a few thoughts...

!!!!!! Spoilers below !!!!!

  1. The Archers Timeline is brilliant. Never again do I need to wonder when exactly Emma first slept with Ed; when Usha first arrived in the village; when Brian had an affair with Caroline (shudder); when Pat proposed to Tony; or when Kenton joined the Navy. (Hmmm... not sure those count as "spoilers"!)
  2. Something dreadful seems to have happened to Emma Grundy (née Carter). She used to have the scarcely-suppressed passions of a Hardy heroine. Now she appears to be turning into a more feckless version of her mother (double shudder). Almost as disappointing as the failed descent of the religiously self-righteousness Shula into Madame Bovary.
  3. Against expectations, Little Henry Archer is still not yet showing signs of the autism that would fit so well the story arc of the beautiful, tragic neurotic Helen; Little George Grundy seems so far unaffected by his mother being his aunt; Miles and Flora Little Freddie and Little Lily Pargetter are staying the right side of insanity for now; Little Phoebe Tucker has yet to turn into anything resembling the glorious monster that is Kate Madikane (née Aldridge); and Little Ruairi has yet to display the consequences of his journey from the controlled mania of his mother Siobhan to the beautifully portrayed cauldron of irritation, selfishness, indulgence and neglect practised by Brian and Jennifer.
  4. Josh "crayfish" Archer is turning into a most interesting character. Difficult to believe that he's from the same family as David, Ruth, Pip and Ben.
  5. Ambridge Extra gave voice to Rhys the Bull barman; introduced tension into the marriage-made-in-heaven of nasal but fragrant Alice Aldridge and thick but hunky Christopher Carter; and fleshed out the character of Jamie Perks. But it didn't move or excite in any way. And it failed to fix the woeful neglect of the wonderful Kirsty Miller!
  6. Clarrie "E. Coli" Grundy deserves our sympathy, in a great storyline. But the marketing genius that is Brenda Tucker does not. How can the word "re-branding" have failed to cross her lips yet?
  7. The partnership that is James "Occupation: Property development/management consultant/waster" Bellamy and Leonie "The Rightful Heir to Lynda" Snell is fantastically ghastly. Excellent!
  8. Happy 90th Joe Grundy, another of my favourite characters.

Monday, August 22, 2011

How the BBC's Newsnight can recover

There's a useful debate over at The Observer on "Has Newsnight lost its way?" As anyone who's followed my tweets over the last year can tell, I'm pretty much with John Naughton's views. There are some good comments there too.

The guests are drawn from a narrow pool, often lacking the intellectual heft that a serious-minded analysis requires. Moreover, the discussions often seemed designed to generate heat rather than light, and they are far too short to allow proper elaboration and critical engagement. Meanwhile, Jeremy Paxman's interviews have become shallow lazy exercises in attention-seeking rudeness rather than the razor-sharp dissections they should be.

More broadly, this comment from Naughton is particularly telling:
"What was most striking about Newsnight's attempts to cover the recent unrest was the absence of any sign of intellectual curiosity."

Rather than dwell on the negatives though, I'd like to summarize my view of how Newsnight can recover:

1. Newsnight needs to sharpen its focus on what gets lost in the hubbub of 24 hour news. This means putting events into social and historical contexts, and worrying away at the kinds of questions that Naughton notes are missing: the hows, the whys, the shoulds. It means forensic analysis and not accepting simplistic answers.

2. The presenters and reporters need to be given time to do their jobs. Maitlis, Esler, Mason, Urban, and Watts are all good journalists. They are being let down by an agenda that is about grabbing attention rather than pursuing understanding. They need more time and a clearer mission.

3. Interviews need to be more subtle. The old-fashioned bombastic interviewing style of Paxman and Wark has had its day. It's time for careful questioning rather than trying to provoke gaffes.

4. The excellent Max Atkinson has noted a number of production mistakes that need to be stamped on. Examples include distracting graphics, silent speeches, and patchwork formats.

5. More intellectuals should be invited on, and they need to be given time to develop their views and to engage directly with each other. Lack of proper time for these discussions and too much interruption lead to superficial analysis.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

LonWon's 2011 Five Self-Denying Ordinances for the Arts

Blinkers by Alex E. Proimos which is a comically overinflated way of saying that I've decided to attempt to enhance my personal enjoyment of certain art forms by stopping doing certain things that have historically failed to enhance my enjoyment by much, or have actually diminished it.

1. No spoilers

Yes: previews in the press (especially the Radio Times), review programmes on radio (Saturday Review, Front Row), and review programmes on TV (The Review Show, The Culture Show) have all in their time served to ruin the unadulterated experience of TV, film, radio, theatre and novels. Enough. Enough. Enough.

Of course, there is still the problem of how to identify what to see, to hear, and to read. So these articles and programmes have their place. But I shall be preferring "Is it any good?" over "Why is this good (or bad)?", "What resonances did this have for me?", "How does this tap into the zeitgeist?", etc.

And Wittertainment is an exception, because I love the show in itself, and Kermode and Mayo are mostly good about spoilers. But again, the minute I decide this is a film I will see, I will skip ahead.

2. No opera or dance*

Yeah, sorry, I'm a neanderthal. But there we go. I've tried. And tried. But they do nothing for me.

* Unless strongly recommended by many people I trust, of course.

3. No horror or graphic violence*

I may be a neanderthal, but I'm also squeamish.

And inconsistent... I finally saw "Saving Private Ryan" and "Get Carter" recently, having put them
off for years because of the violence, and thought them both excellent. So see the footnote. There are always exceptions.

* Again, unless strongly recommended by many people I trust.

4. No interviews with actors, directors or writers

OK, this is more controversial. Many people's enjoyment of various art forms is strongly enhanced by behind-the-scenes insights into artists' intentions and experiences. Well, rarely for me, it seems. This'll be different for most other people, I would think.

5. No "making of" programmes

See (3).

Like spoilers and interviews, such programmes are invariably beguiling, especially about things I love or make me think. But experience has taught me that for my personal enjoyment it's best to stick with the products of creativity rather than the creative process.

Maybe I'll return to these 5 Self-Denying Ordinances for the Arts in a year's time, and realize how closed-minded they have made me. Or, like a typical bigot, I will remain smug in my self-constructed self-reinforcing tiny little world view forever.


Monday, June 27, 2011

Do we need a House of Lords?

My answer: We could easily do without a House of Lords, by beefing up the powers of Commons Select Committees and by formalising the role of expert advisory working committees in defining problems, proposing legislation and reviewing legislation.

... if we're going to stick with a Second Chamber, for reasons of political tradition or constitutional nervousness (which are not entirely unreasonable considerations, in my view), we need to get clear what we intend the purpose of such a chamber to be; and then we need to specify how its members are selected in order to achieve that purpose.

It seems apparent that many people see the Second Chamber as providing an opportunity for wiser heads to scrutinise legislation passed by an occasionally over-enthusiastic House of Commons; a place for more deliberation and less populist rhetoric; for arguments derived from expert knowledge rather than campaigning slogans, party whipping, or clichés; a process that does not ultimately veto legislation but can help make it better by calm scrutiny and cautious revisions; a constrained addition to the checks and balances of our political decision-making.

So how to select the members of such a Second Chamber?

It's clear that the unelected nature of the Lords increasingly offends our democratic sensibilities. But straightforward direct election would run the risk of reproducing the House of Commons and so failing to create an independent scrutinising body.

After all, how likely would it be for people to vote on a substantially different basis for a senator than for an MP?

An alternative idea for selecting senators is a mixed approach:
  1. Election by regional STV (Single Transferable Vote).
  2. Nomination by professional, union and other bodies, followed by votes in the Commons.
  3. Ex-officio representatives of local councils.
  4. Sortition (akin to jury duty).
  5. Co-option, requiring a majority vote.
The proportions of the Second Chamber that come from these different selection methods would need to be decided. But the key point is that there is no overlap with the constituency-based voting that determines the Commons. Methods (2), (3) and (5) involve indirect election; method (4) involves random selection; and method (1) relies on much larger geographical areas than single constituencies.

Of course there will still be objections that...
  • Anything other than 100% direct election is undemocratic.
  • This proposal embeds the power of Vested Interests, the Establishment, the status quo, the political classes, etc.
  • Instead of rewarding the wise and experienced, it favours the mediocre technocratic time-servers.
  • It will challenge the supremacy of the Commons, leading to constitutional crisis.
I think I'd dispute all of these objections. But I'm not fussy: I'd prefer to go with whatever sensible reform consensus can be built than for the anachronistic House of Lords to await reform for a further 100 years.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Reflections on "The Prestige"

"Now you’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled"

I saw The Prestige yesterday, and enjoyed it much more than the reviews had led me to expect. Christopher Nolan is a superb director.

The ending is intriguing and not entirely obvious. So I've been reading a lot of posts about exactly what happened. The IMDb FAQs do a good job of explaining in broad terms what we see and where the main issues of contention are amongst viewers. But I wanted to post a few reflections on my reactions to the film, before I forget. So go away now if you don't want spoilers!


Here are my four thoughts...

1. I guessed that "Borden" might actually be twins about halfway through, which was great because I could then appreciate a lot of the hints dropped during the film. It also meant that I found the tragedy of the Bordens' relationships with Sarah and Olivia very moving.
Borden: I love you.
Sarah: You mean it today.
Borden: Of course.
Sarah: It just makes it so much harder when you don't.

2. I wrongly thought that Cutter was somehow manipulating the situation to steal all three men's tricks. I'm not sure this theory really hung together, but I do think Cutter is a more ambiguous character than he seems on the surface. His motivations for wanting Tesla's machine and for betraying Angier at the end are not clear cut.

3. I didn't foresee that Tesla's machine might actually work. I assumed that Tesla and his assistant were pulling a fast one on Angier (with "Edison's men" being part of the con); and when we see (in Caldlow's flashback) two Angiers appearing at the same time I was amazed, even more so when the camera pulls back to reveal many drowned Angiers in tanks in the abandoned theatre. I loved this twist.

4. After some reflection, I love the film even more, because it is also possible that Tesla's machine doesn't work. The inability to choose between the two possibilities is delicious.

This fourth point is the one I want to linger on slightly.

One view is to take everything at face value, to believe that Tesla's machine creates a duplicate, which is drowned and disposed of at the end of every performance. This works logically, and is satisfying emotionally, in that the tragedy of Angier's story is that he doesn't know if the machine transports-the-original-and-leaves-a-copy or leaves-the-original-and-creates-a-copy-elsewhere. Every night he doesn't know if he is to die horribly in the tank or take rapturous applause as the prestige. The Angier that comes out of the show believes he was transported, but he has no way of telling if his life actually began just moments ago. Every night, the prestige thinks "Transported again!" Every night, the man in the tank always thinks "WHY AM I IN THE TANK?! I WAS ALWAYS TRANSPORTED BEFORE! WHAT WENT WRONG TONIGHT?!"

In this view, Borden is simply stumbling across what happens every night. The blind stage hands take the tank containing the drowned Angier to the old theatre, whether Borden is there or not. No-one knows but Angier. Cutter discovers Borden trying to free Angier and believes that Borden was responsible for the tank being there. Cutter is puzzled as to why the stage hands had been taking the tanks away every night, but later discovers the reason: Tesla's machine works.

But there is another view.
Cutter: You're a magician, not a wizard.
What if the story of Tesla's machine is simply fiction, written by Angier to misdirect Borden? In fact, why did Angier give Tesla his "diary" in the first place? Borden's trick baffles Angier, and Borden's fake diary sends Angier halfway across the world. So Angier decides in turn to create an illusion that will baffle and obsess Borden, and thereby gain revenge for the humiliation.
Angier: [to Borden] You always were the better magician. We both know that. Whatever your secret was, you have to agree, mine is better.
The film begins with the line "Are you watching closely?" and ends with "Now you’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled". We want to believe the science fiction ending. We want to believe that we've just seen proof of a strange inventor's amazing duplicating machine. And emotionally we want to believe that this story is about the tragedy of a man who is so obsessed with magic and revenge that he drowns himself nightly. We're not really looking. We don't really want to work it out. We want to be fooled.
Angier: You never understood, why we did this. The audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It's miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder, and then you... then you got to see something really special... you really don't know?... it was... it was the look on their faces...
So how does illusion work then?

I don't know. I'm not a magician. And before the film I couldn't have told you how the tricks with the caged bird were done. So what do I know?

But it's far from impossible for this to be an illusion.

Firstly, Angier has a strong motive to create an illusion: the death of his wife, the humiliation of not knowing how Borden does his trick, compounded by the humiliation of being sent on a wild goose chase to visit Tesla.
Angier: The man stole my life. I steal his trick.
And again:
Angier: I don't care about my wife. I care about his secret.
Secondly, Angier has the means to create an illusion: He might, for example, have had waxworks created to be put in the tanks, hoping that Borden will follow them to the abandoned theatre and be mystified. He might have paid Root huge sums to have his features altered and to do the 100 shows without getting drunk. Root also has a motive: he was tricked by Borden into losing his lucrative gig, and tied-up and suspended on stage.
Root: Did you think you were unique, Mr Angier? I've been Caesar. I've played Faust. How hard could it possibly be to play the Great Danton?
Thirdly, events after Angier's return to London have the structure of an illusion, as described by Cutter:

The Pledge is the implicit one that that this is a magic show, like any other (with theatrics, trap doors and light effects). And yet there is a buzz that something more is going on: For example, there are only 100 shows; the impresario is apparently made to believe it is somehow "real" magic; the stage hands are blind; Angier does not allow his mentor Cutter backstage; and the ticket prices are astonishing. We are to believe that the explanation will be extraordinary rather than mundane.
Angier: No one cares about the man in the box, the man who disappears.
The Turn is the drowning of Root in front of Borden.
Judge: What a way to kill someone.
Cutter: They're magicians, your honor. Men who live by dressing up plain and simple truths to shock, to amaze.
Judge: Even without an audience?
Cutter: There was an audience. You see, this water tank was of particular significance to these two men. Particularly dreadful significance.
The misdirection is solidified in several ways. Root is no longer "mute, overweight, and... very drunk". Moreover, Cutter identifies the body in the mortuary as Angier. Even if Cutter wasn't fooled, he might have his own reasons for not revealing it was Root, such as not wishing to give away professional secrets, or loyalty to Angier, or blackmail. Furthermore the fake diary gives Borden a story of a real Tesla duplication machine.

And finally, the Prestige is Angier turning up at the prison. The man Borden saw die is alive after all.

In this view, the tragedy of Angier is that his elaborate illusion and murder - for an audience of one - is pointless. He gets the satisfaction of having fooled the hanged Borden twin, but here in front of the dying Angier is the face of his enemy, and his enemy's manner here suggests that he simply does not care about Angier's illusion. He has lost his brother and and he has lost Sarah, whom he "loves more than magic".

(By the way, and this is a really minor point, is that while I think it is likely that Angier set up Borden for the murder, it is also possible that he didn't. In the machine-works view, it is possible that Borden's arrival backstage was unanticipated. Angier might simply have taken advantage of the situation to let Borden hang. In the machine-is-a-fake view, Borden's arrival backstage was very much anticipated. It is the turn. But again there is no guarantee that it was part of Angier's plan for Borden to end up charged with murder.)

So which view is correct? The machine-works or the machine-is-a-fake? Each results in a very different interpretation of the ending, each tragic in its own way. I don't know. And it's not really the point. Nolan wouldn't have filled in the blanks of the machine-is-a-fake view for us anyway:
Borden: Never show anyone. They'll beg you and they'll flatter you for the secret, but as soon as you give it up... you'll be nothing to them.
The point is: were we even looking for a "mundane" solution? Wikipedia, for example, gives the impression that the magic is real, while IMDb doesn't question the veracity of the Tesla tale, even when describing alternative theories about the efficacy of the machine.

I believe that Nolan's film is illustrating the contention that we want to be fooled, and so we don't really look.

I didn't look.

Did you?