Friday, 28 November 2014

Arrested development

So I'm in this reading group and our book of the month has been Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes, the Downton Abbey guy. It's mostly about very posh people and class, so it did put some rather interesting context round the presumably trending topics of Plebgate and David Mellor's taxi rant.

In very brief outline,  Past Imperfect is set around now. The life of the late middle-aged narrator (a  moderately successful novelist from an upper-class background) is changed when an old acquaintance, Damian Baxter, who is dying, gets in touch about something that had happened when they were both young together.

Back around the turn of the 1960s/70s, the youthful narrator had introduced Baxter, whose parents were ordinary folk, to his smart set of posh/aristocratic friends who were stuck in a sort of time warp, doing their own DIY version of the debutante season, even though the official version of "The Season" with the monarch receiving debs at Court had finished by the end of the '50s.

Although low-born, Baxter was handsome, clever and charming, so was, at first, a great success at the marriage market-cum-networking event that was The Season. Hearts were broken, social snubs were variously avoided and delivered, but by the end of the season, the poshos had closed ranks against Baxter, who eventually reacted to their snubs with an action too dreadful to be mentioned in polite circles (spoiler - it's not really that bad), broke with the toffs, but being a very clever chap went on to make shedloads of money and ended up richer than most of the people who were looking down their noses at him.

Many years later, Baxter received an anonymous letter that made him think he made one of the deb gels preggers during that frantic season. As he's now dying, he wants the narrator to find out who bore his unacknowledged child, so that he can bestow his fortune on his own flesh and blood (following an adult case of mumps, Baxter became infertile around the time he split with his posh friends, hence the lack of other heirs to his immense wealth).

The rest of the book is the story of the narrator's attempt to identify the mother and child, which inevitably involves him revisiting the friendships and emotions of his lost youth and meditating on things like youth and maturity, the passage of time, loss, disappointment, the nature of love and friendship and so on.

It's not a bad read, good enough at least to keep you turning the pages and not worrying too much about some of the pieces of plotting that seem a bit contrived. And, more to the point here, I presume that it's a reasonably accurate picture of that gilded upper-class world, given Fellowes' own background (son of a diplomat, childhood home in South Kensington, thence to prep school, Ampleforth College, before reading Eng Lit at Magdalene, where his career in the arts was launched at the Footlights, then marriage to the impeccably upper-crust Emma Joy Kitchener LVO, former Lady-in-Waiting to HRH Princess Michael of Kent and great-grandniece of Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener).

One thing that struck me forcibly, what with all the stuff in the media about toffs behaving badly, is that in Fellowes' world some of the toffs are terrible, boorish snobs, but even the gracious ones are horribly condescending. It's like the difference between the cringe-making embarrassment of a Mitchell/Mellor "do you know who I am?" rant and the habitual condescension of a David Cameron, who has the savoir faire to condescend to the oiks, whilst staying just the right side of identifiable rudeness (apart from the odd lapse like 'calm down dear'). In this world, good manners isn't about being considerate and kind, so much as being able to remind one's inferiors who's boss without anything so frightfully ill-bred as raising one's voice or losing control.

The other thing that struck me was how timeless the truly privileged are, and not in a good way. The book has a lot to say about growing older, growing up, mellowing, dealing with life's sorrows, setbacks and disappointments and maybe finding a little wisdom and humility along the way. But the whole structure of the exclusive, cliquey world of privilege militates against that sort of maturity.

A lot of otherwise ordinary people reach peak tribalism and get completely up themselves around adolescence. I would say we've all been there, but I'm only speaking from personal experience and maybe there are some people who don't pass through this difficult phase and inflict it on others, but it's still quite common. You're young, you know it all, and certain other types of people just aren't where it's at. Maybe it's people who wear the wrong sort of clothes, or listen to the wrong sort of music, or older people ('hope I die before I get old'), or people whose taste in this that or the other is naff, or you find any one of a million other trivial reasons for celebrating your own tribal or individual identity and looking down on people who don't get it and insist on being hopelessly and unforgivably unlike yourself and daring to like stuff you don't like.

Then you grow up a bit. Life takes you down a peg or two and you realise that you're not that special and that a lot of  people and things you'd previously dismissed for no very good reason are actually quite good and worthwhile. Then you cringe for a bit, at how you were a bit of a prat, maybe forgive yourself to the extent that it's all part of the process of carving out your own identity and, after having had the grace to be embarrassed about having occasionally been an insufferable brat, you move on and get on with the rest of your life.

Unless you belong to an elite that teaches you from an early age that you are special and that other people are, and aways will be, your inferiors in any number of tiny but irredeemable ways (having appalling taste, as defined by elite standards, saying the wrong thing - for example I discovered from this book that saying 'pleased to meet you' is apparently a terrible social faux pas in really posh circles - I don't know or care why). Being incredibly posh, it seems, is like being perpetually nineteen and just knowing that you're cooler and objectively better than the other kids because they're on the wrong side of some arbitrary fence (jock/nerd, mod/rocker, punk/new romantic Star Wars/Star Trek, or any other youthful division of People Like Me versus The Others - I'm sure that younger readers, if there be any, can think of more up-to-date examples).

As a posh person, you are brought up to believe in the very core of your being that you are objectively better than the plebs and, if the conditioning works, you stay that way for the rest of your life. Sometimes the exasperation caused by some mere policeman or taxi driver not realising their own essential uncoolness must be too much for an overgrown spoiled adolescent to bear. It's moments like this that separate the true lady or gent, who has completely internalised that impenetrable sense of superiority from the insecure bounder who lets the side down by letting fly with the stuff that one is just supposed to think.

Which is why Pleb/taxigate is so "toxic" for our more privileged rulers. Remember that old Conservative party slogan - "Are you thinking what we're thinking?"  Updated, it could read, "Is Cameron thinking what Mitchell's saying?" IMHO, probably, although his smooth poker face is unlikely to give him away quite so catastrophically.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Distract and survive

Since panic is often associated with focus on potential negative outcomes in a particular situation, it doesn’t require an event of great magnitude. A small leaflet should do the job.
If there was a significant external threat, this advice might be sound, if undignified. But, as people who are paid to think about these risks have already established 'terrorism has been an insignificant cause of mortality in the United Kingdom,' so you're probably way more likely to fall and break your neck on the station escalator whilst reading the leaflet than you are to fall victim to terrorists.

Why has the political class* chosen this moment to go around spreading fear and panic? Could the Orwellian hysteria surrounding Hate Week have anything to do with the fact that, whoever wins the next election, there's more pain to come. Never mind the alleged threat from Islamic State - it's the very real threat to the British State that should be worrying your ordinary commuter. I think that Serious Politicians of all parties know that there's plenty of fear of anger which will need to be re-directed towards distracting external scapegoats like terrorists and migrants if those at the heart of the establishment are to escape their share of the blame.

*I'd love to say 'the government,' but with all the major parties set to line up obediently behind the Big Terror Scare, it looks as if we're bound to keep getting this sort of nonsense, whoever we vote for. There Is No Alternative - contrary to the advice in the "Stay Safe" leaflet, you can't run, or hide from the stupid and there's nobody sensible to tell because all Serious Politicians apparently think the same.

Monday, 24 November 2014

From the Committee of Public Safety

I'm doing my bit for National Counter-Terrorism Awareness Week by trying to raise awareness of the level of threat we're living with. I can't better this piece by Paul Mobbs, so I'll just go with it:
The relative scale of the public's risk of fatality from terrorism was outlined in the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation's report published in 2012.

"During the 21st century, terrorism has been an insignificant cause of mortality in the United Kingdom. The annualised average of five deaths caused by terrorism in England and Wales over this period compares with total accidental deaths in 2010 of 17,201, including 123 cyclists killed in traffic accidents, 102 personnel killed in Afghanistan, 29 people drowned in the bathtub and five killed by stings from hornets, wasps and bees..."

... In my view our politicians concentrate on terrorism because it's the perfect "paper tiger". It's scary, and unpredictable, but by its very nature the success or failure of their policies are not subject to external assessment. The secretive nature of the agencies involved allow politicians to say what they wish, and justify their actions to some abstract threat, without any great risk of being proven wrong.
 The Politics of Terrorism

I've nothing to add, except the observation that the authoritarian politicians, securocrats and tame journalists who regularly pop up to tell us that we'll all be killed in our beds if we stubbornly cling to quaint old-fashioned notions like liberty, free expression and privacy, have lately taken to talking about the problems they face in a "post-Snowden world", where a few years ago, living in a "post-9/11 world" was the go-to excuse for whatever form of abuse or intrusion they had in mind.

The fact that they seem to see some sort of equivalence between the threat posed to their own power by a single whistle-blower and that posed to citizens' lives by a gang of psychopaths who crash airliners into skyscrapers, is a chilling insight into the institutional mindset of the people who boast about keeping us safe.

Friday, 21 November 2014


A disruptive innovation is an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network (over a few years or decades), displacing an earlier technology.
Unofficially, some self-styled "disruptive innovators" seem to have let their focus slip onto shamelessly puffing their own brand, whilst trying to disrupt any competitor, dissatisfied customer or journalist who might conceivably threaten that brand with the depressingly old-fashioned methods of smear and intimidation:
Uber is facing wide public criticism after BuzzFeed News reported that an executive floated the idea of hiring opposition readers to dig dirt on reporters. The aggressively-phrased recruiting document makes no mention of targeting the press, and is instead focused on “our opponents in the transportation industry.” A spokesperson, Kristin Carvell, said the executive, Emil Michael, was not referring to these plans to hire opposition researchers when he spoke of hiring opposition researchers to focus on reporters.

Suddenly, Team Uber are starting to look less like the paradigm-busting smartest guys in the room and more like the hapless proprietors of the notorious  Fawlty Towers Broadway Hotel, who thought they were cunningly protecting their brand by inserting the words 'For every bad review left on any website, the group organiser will be charged a maximum £100 per review' in the small print of their booking document. A plan that turned out not to be so very smart after all.

Now there are still a few people who still think that Uber's attitude is just fine and dandy, including the now reliably disappointing Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame. Although it is worth mentioning that Scott's also keen on the idea of  disrupting his critics, in his case by pseudonymously pretending to be one of his own fans, then leaping to his own defence with comments like, 'He has [i.e. I have] a certified genius I.Q., and that’s hard to hide,'  'Is it Adams’ enormous success at self-promotion that makes you jealous and angry?' and 'It’s fair to say you disagree with Adams. But you can’t rule out the hypothesis that you’re too dumb to understand what he’s saying.'

Which, presumably,also seemed like a good idea at the time but, again, doesn't seem quite so smart now.

Maybe the downside of being a smarter-than-the-average-bear "disruptive innovator" is the danger of believing in your own hype to the extent that you start imagining that you're also smart enough to manipulate the inferior humans around you, whilst failing to realise that you're not actually being quite as clever as you like to think.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Old leaves turning

I passed this (cherry?) tree earlier today and the cascading speckle of ovals and rich, coppery colours were so stunningly perfect that I just had to go back for a picture. The most skilled jewellers have struggled for millennia to match the careless beauty that nature throws away every year.

In general, November is one of my least favourite months, promising nothing but deeper darkness, chill and ever more Christmas tat, with a side order of cabin fever until until the light starts coming back in mid-February, if you're lucky. Then, just when I've decided we're approaching the deepest, darkest pit of the year, nature comes up with one of her "I think to myself, what a wonderful world" moments and even I stop being a miserable old curmudgeon for a while.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Little big news?

In a cover story and article 14 years ago about the emergent disruption of utilities, The Economist’s Vijay Vaitheeswaran coined the umbrella term “micropower” to mean sources of electricity that are relatively small, modular, mass-producible, quick-to-deploy, and hence rapidly scalable—the opposite of cathedral-like power plants that cost billions of dollars and take about a decade to license and build. His term combined two kinds of micropower: renewables other than big hydroelectric dams, and cogeneration of electricity together with useful heat in factories or buildings (also known as combined-heat-and-power, or CHP)...

...Tracking renewables, minus big hydro, plus cogeneration, this database documents the global progress of distributed, rapidly scalable, and (as we’ll see) no- or low-carbon generators ... micropower now produces about one-fourth of the world’s total electricity. 
Rocky Mountain Institute blog.

If true, this is such big, happy news that I'd be even be prepared to overlook the bullshit-sounding pharase about 'emergent disruption.'

You're the cream in my coffee

For the past thirteen months, Baldrick's coffee has in fact been made from mud. With dandruff as a cunning sugar substitute. Just don't ask what he's been using for the milk.
Blackadder Goes Forth

And you really don't want to ask what they're using down at Starbucks. Fortunately, Pastor James David Manning has checked the ingredients so you don't have to. His public information talk is somewhat NSFW, but unintentionally hilarious anywhere else (sorry about the ad):

To paraphrase Blackadder, there is only one problem with his theory. It is complete bollocks. You already knew that, I know, but it is interesting to see that Manning's allegation is contradicted in the actual source he quotes, so we must at least give the the reverend gentleman some credit for saving his debunkers time and trouble:
To many people who actually read the article on social media, they have commented how ridiculous it is. However, for those who are still unsure, Snopes — a site well-known for investigating claims to either be authentic or not — took the time to check into the matter, which they found it to be false. They mention the poor quality of the “Semen in Starbucks” article as the primary factor of dubbing its claim unauthentic.

Nat King Cole was unavailable for comment: