Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Whatever is, is right. Yeah, right...

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!

The great thing about David Graeber and his article Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit is that he makes you notice the bugs where the sales executives for our dominant ideology want you to see only features.

Look! More competition! More efficiency!
The growth of administrative work has directly resulted from introducing corporate management techniques. Invariably, these are justified as ways of increasing efficiency and introducing competition at every level. What they end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell things:
Work smarter, not harder, with IT!
Computers have opened up certain spaces of freedom, as we’re constantly reminded, but instead of leading to the workless utopia Abbie Hoffman imagined, they have been employed in such a way as to produce the opposite effect. They have enabled a financialization of capital that has driven workers desperately into debt, and, at the same time, provided the means by which employers have created “flexible” work regimes that have both destroyed traditional job security and increased working hours for almost everyone.
Honey, we shrunk Big Government! Just ignore that colossal, camouflaged, government-issue blimp we built out of several million tons of pork...
In fact, the United States never did abandon gigantic, government-controlled schemes of technological development. Mainly, they just shifted to military research—and not just to Soviet-scale schemes like Star Wars, but to weapons projects, research in communications and surveillance technologies, and similar security-related concerns ... One reason we don’t have robot factories is because roughly 95 percent of robotics research funding has been channeled through the Pentagon, which is more interested in developing unmanned drones than in automating paper mills.

The Bonfire of the Red Tape, or Human Potential Unchained! A modern fairy tale:
And so a timid, bureaucratic spirit suffuses every aspect of cultural life. It comes festooned in a language of creativity, initiative, and entrepreneurialism. But the language is meaningless. Those thinkers most likely to make a conceptual breakthrough are the least likely to receive funding, and, if breakthroughs occur, they are not likely to find anyone willing to follow up on their most daring implications.

What Graeber's demolishing here isn't some complex and abstruse economic theory, accessible only to experts, but the current iteration of the same dumb old Panglossian lie that's comforted the already comfortable and afflicted everybody else for centuries:
I don't think Graeber gets it right all the time; some of the constraints on innovation really are are technical, not ideological. Why don't we have a Lunar colony, giant wheel-shaped space stations and manned, nuclear interplanetary spaceships, like the ones in 2001 - A Space Odyssey? Arthur C Clarke himself lived long enough to give a more plausible account of why the real 21st Century looks different from the lots-of-people-in-space version he'd imagined.

Clarke's version is that, in the 1940s, when he was working on airfield landing approach radar and dreaming of geosynchronous communication satellites, he assumed that those satellites would have to be crewed. As, among other things, a technician working with cutting-edge, high-maintenance vacuum tube technology, he thought that you'd always need a human on site to fix, tweak and maintain the complicated, expensive kit he imagined people sending into space.

So his stories were filled with people who needed to be in space to get useful jobs of work done, from the everyday running and maintaining of communication networks to boldly exploring the final frontier. What he didn't anticipate was how quickly reliable, miniaturised electronics would replace the electronic Bertie Woosters of his youth, which couldn't get through the day without the intervention of some human Jeeves bearing a screwdriver (an actual one, not a reviving cocktail) to keep everything running smoothly.

In Clarke's imagined future and in his science fiction, most mindless human drudge work has been automated, leaving humans, (or at least ones with technocratic skillz), to do cool, fulfilling jobs, like being astronauts.

In the real Twenty First Century, there are plenty of humans doing machine-related drudge work, from assembling iThings in Chinese factories to data entry but, thanks to ultra-reliable miniaturised electronics, the vast majority of astronaut jobs have been automated. Which means that lots of things get done in space, but without the immense cool factor of humans actually being in those awesomely alien places.
Just keep banging the rocks together and you, too, could aspire to one of these!

Here's a bit from the novel version of 2001, where the last human survivor of the spaceship Discovery is about to become the first person to land on one of the moons of Saturn:*
The sun was now an object that no man would have recognised. It was far too bright to be a star, but one could look directly at its tiny disc without discomfort. It gave no heat at all; when Bowman held his ungloved hands in its  rays, as they streamed through the space-pod's window, he could feel nothing upon his skin. He might have been trying to warm himself by the light of the Moon; not even the alien landscape fifty miles below reminded him more vividly of his remoteness from Earth.
That sent shivers down my spine as a kid.

And here's how the real first landing on one of Saturn's moons happened, back in 2005. After travelling for over six years and two billion miles, an automated spacecraft was in orbit around Saturn. Human technicians kept it going, but they were sitting in front of screens on Earth, communicating over a data link with a one-and-half hour time lag. The mother ship released a probe, which landed on Saturn's largest moon and relayed pictures and other data back to waiting techies back in places like Pasedena and Darmstadt.

Or Milton Keynes, where the Open University team behind the probe's Surface Science Package was based. I remember my wife, who's an OU administrator, telling me that, on the day of the landing, the team put on an audio visual presentation in the lecture theatre, so that OU employees could see the fruits of their decade and a half of work.

It was a fantastic achievement and I'm full of admiration for everybody involved, but there's a huge dramatic gulf between the stark sci fi vision of the lone astronaut, floating in the black void a billion miles from home, looking back towards a tiny, shrunken sun and forward to the looming landscape of a frozen, alien world and a university administrator in a bland English new town, known chiefly for its concrete cows and traffic roundabouts, taking forty minutes away from thinking about tenders for photographic services at degree ceremonies to grab a coffee and catch up on the latest discoveries from the Saturn system.

It's less dramatic than sci fi, but maybe it's not lack of progress, just progress by less dramatic means. Although even 'less dramatic' is a relative term when you get an eyeful of this view of the Saturn system which I've shared before, but is well worth a second look (embiggen to full screen for enhanced awesomeness):

Speaking of administrators, I don't wholly take on board Graeber's anarchist view that all bureaucracy is a Bad Thing, or that all administrative jobs are necessarily bullshit jobs. I find it this bit too close to the prevailing right wing/libertarian orthodoxy that the human resources struggling to make large and complex organisations work smoothly must be mere dead weight, which needs shedding so that front-line staff can be "empowered" to break free from the bondage of red tape.

At least that's the theory. But when you get rid of all those terrible bureaucrats, somebody still ends up having to do the all boring admin - often those very front-line staff whose time could be far better spent doing other things:
...a study by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) which found the amount of time nurses spent away from patients, on non-essential paperwork, has doubled, with 2.5 million hours lost a week...
...Dr Peter Carter, General Secretary of the RCN said it was “vital” for the NHS to tackle duplication and free up staff so they could devote more time to patient care.
He said: “Tackling this burden requires smarter systems, proper admin support, well designed technology and better data sharing. [my bold]
The Telegraph

And some of Graeber's other thoughts sound, on first reading, like paranoid conspiracy theories 'There are many forms of privatisation, up to and including the simple buying up and suppression of inconvenient discoveries by large corporations fearful of their economic effects. (We cannot know how many synthetic fuel formulae have been bought up and placed in the vaults of oil companies, but it’s hard to imagine nothing like this happens.)'

But, even though he's not on the money every time, he probably has more of a point when he's sounding most paranoid. Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out to get you. The Phoebus Cartel was an actual thing and everyday scandals like Libor-rigging remind us that massive conspiracies against the laity are still being perpetrated whenever people think nobody's looking.

Sometimes it really is vested interests and power structures holding things back, rather than the inherent limitations and attributes of different technologies. The hard part is understanding when our failure to grasp this sorry scheme of things entire and re-mould it nearer to the heart's desire stems from the laws of nature, against which there really is no appeal process, and when we're only being held back by human cussedness, connivance and coercion. It's the grain of truth at the heart of that most clichéd prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

*They changed the setting to the Jupiter system for the film version.

Sounds a bit like "terrify"

Your word of the day is "Toryfy." Not "Torify", which is  a thing for privacy-conscious geeks, but a new coinage for on-trend political anoraks. First spotted (at least by me) in The Staggers, it describes the way that Ukip looks less like a real political party, and more like a home for disaffected Tories, every time another ex-Conservative MP defects to them. As in 'the defections are Toryfying the Ukip brand.'

This should terrify the Tories, as every ex-Con who joins Ukip will make the Kippers seem more welcoming and less threatening to disgruntled Conservative voters. It should scare Ukip, too, if they value their carefully-managed image as the anti-politics party from beyond the Westminster bubble.

A split in the right-wing vote like this should equal happy days for the opposition. But then again, Labour should also be able to convince voters that they could at least run a whelk stall, unlike George Osborne, who couldn't even serve a up portion of whelks without spilling the lot.


Update - don't just take lefty bloggers' word that the Kippers and Tories are all members of the same big, dysfunctional family. Here's Boris Johnson's latest plea for unity on the right - 'It is only if the great conservative family unites and we stop Ed Miliband seizing back control of this country that we will be able to deliver the referendum that this country wants and deserves.' 

Further update - another Conservative Party donor has gone over to Ukip and says he'll bung Farage a £100,000 cheque. If any more good news about the breakup of the conservative family catches my eye, I'll park it in the updates to this post for the moment and maybe write something more considered if I feel the urge.

And more ... There seems to be some dispute over how much cash the Go Skippy guy gave the Tories before he switched horses. But there's no disputing that he's part of the 'Conservative family' - nobody but a real insider would lose a moment's sleep over being snubbed by William Hague,* of all people.

According to the Express, Skippy Guy's response to Hague not knowing who he was, was 'They called me a nobody now they know who I am', which is the kind of statement you get from an obsessive stalker who's just shot the rock star he once idolised.

A spurned William Hague groupie, splashing an extra £900,000 Ukip's way out of sheer pique? And members of the Conservative family call Ed Miliband weird?

*Yeah, that William Hague:
Now, when he was a teenager he didn't only address the Tory Party conference, he read Hansard in bed and he had a record collection that apparently consisted of one album by Dire Straits and dozens of speeches by Winston Churchill. His dad said: 'He was just a normal happy boy.'
from David Cameron's "tribute" at the Conservative Party Conference (keeping the oiks in their place with condescending put-downs dressed up as hearty banter is one of the esential life skills they teach you at Hogwarts Academy for potato-faced sociopaths).

Mad as a sack of badgers, the lot of 'em.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

If you can't fix the economy you can't fund a war

David Cameron has admitted forgetting to mention the deficit in a keynote announcement intended to pave the way for an an open-ended, multi-billion pound United Kingdom military commitment to the latest instalment of the Middle East's generations-long orgy of war, violence and revenge.

A year after losing a vote to involve the UK in the conflict (on the other side), the gaffe-prone Prime Minister was mocked by chancellor George Osborne for forgetting that the Conservatives' troubled deficit reduction plan was central to the party's economic credibility. 'David Cameron didn't mention the deficit once. Extraordinary. If you can't fix the economy you can't fund a war', tweeted Osborne.

Cameron said it was 'one of the perils' of talking for more than five minutes without having thought about costings, an exit strategy, or the wisdom of becoming entangled in a convoluted, intractable conflict which he'd confidently announced could be fixed by bombing the other side only last year.

Critics, who consider that the threat to UK security from Islamic State has been wildly exaggerated , have questioned why the cash-strapped UK administration is so anxious to get involved in a war three thousand miles away, when its oil-rich "allies" in the region still have shed-loads of the weapons that we sold them and could better afford to fly a short distance in order to test the proposition that dropping a few extra bombs might help the situation in some unspecified way.

The Conservative leader dismissed critics who claim that he lacks credibility, saying 'Look at the pictures of Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich! LOL!'

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Diabolical liberty

First, the Pope came out as an objective deist. More recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury admitted that on some days he's not even a deist. Just how far can this relaxed ecumenicism go? Back when I were a lad, the Not The Nine O' Clock News team asked the same question:

Sadly, the Church of England still hasn't embraced Devil worship, which is a pity, because in some parts of the world, the Satanic community seems more than ready to do its bit for outreach and inter-faith dialogue. And they seem to be making rather a good job of it, if the joyous publication,The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities, currently being distributed by The Satanic Temple is anything to go by.

Okay, it is a bit tongue in cheek, but there is a serious point about liberty and tolerance there, too. Not to mention a paradox wrapped up in a paradox. The well-worn meta-paradox is that most Christian Americans, who live with separation of church and state, take Christianity far more seriously than most people in the UK's biggest constituent country, with its established church.

Within that wider paradox we have the sub-paradox of things like Satanic activity books for tots and the growing acceptance of Wiccans in the US military emerging in a country stuffed with Serious Christians, rather than in a country so irreligious that even the Archbishop of Canterbury struggles with the whole believing in God thing.

Mind you, even though we're behind the curve when it comes to religious tolerance for diabolists, at least the C of E have made a start by omitting the words 'reject the devil and all rebellion against God' from the baptism service in favour of something a bit more inclusive, so the more liberal wing of the church might still end up embracing the Devil and all his works some time before the Anglo-Catholics and Serious Evangelicals have accepted women bishops and gay clergy.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Fear and loathing in West Lothian

Well, the bookies made the right call. But here's another bang-on prediction, this time from somebody who seems to have been in the Yes camp - 'After a No vote, we will see a return to politics as usual as Westminster becomes preoccupied with the next UK General Election.' I reckon this prophecy's been fulfilled in near-record time - in his very first speech after the vote, David Cameron put a 'decisive answer' to the West Lothian question near the top of his to-do list.

Could the fact that 'The Tories are keenly aware that denying Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs the right to vote on English-only legislation could leave future Labour governments in office but not in power, handing the Conservatives an effective veto' have something to do with his sudden desire for a decisive quick fix for an intractable constitutional anomaly that's been baffling better minds than his since the Sex Pistols were in the charts?

It could be pretty frustrating to see an elected Labour government unable to make legislation happen. Although I can remember a time when this might not have been an entirely bad thing...
Without Scottish Labour MPs, English tuition fees wouldn't have been trebled to £3000 and there would have been no Foundation Hospitals. When you consider that these two policies laid the groundwork for £9k fees and the privatisation of the NHS, when you realise that these policies only affect England, the fact that they were passed despite most English MPs voting against them is not just an interesting constitutional quirk. It is an outrage.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

His feet are the right size for his shoes

I just came across a blog post that reminded me of a bit from the Hitchhikers' guide to the Galaxy. Not from the first, perfectly-formed radio series, but from one of its later radio incarnations, where the narrative arc* was less powerful, but most of the whimsical digressions were still the right side of being annoying** and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was still building a bigger universe inside your head than movie makers with a squillion-dollar cutting-edge CGI budget can manage to this day.

The episode, which contained moderate peril and mild language, found our heroes on the planet Brontitall, being pursued by Hig Hurtenflurst, the risingest young executive in a monopolistic, pan-galactic shoe corporation and his poorly-shod foot warriors:

FOOT WARRIOR:Er, yes sir. Awh, ohh!
[FOOT WARRIOR falls over again]
HIG HURTENFLIRST:You two! Carry him to the projector scope.
ARTHUR:What’s the matter with him?
HIG HURTENFLIRST:His feet are the wrong size for his shoes.

Honestly, you just can't get the staff these days. As every micromanager since Procrustes could have told you, everything would be perfect, if it wasn't for maladjusted people failing to fit in. Fortunately, you can always stretch your human resources to breaking point, or chop them off at the knees for fun and profit:
Capital makes the worker ill, and then multinational pharmaceutical companies sell them drugs to make them better. The social and political causation of distress is neatly sidestepped at the same time as discontent is individualised and interiorised.
(Mark Fisher)
Having adapted or conformed suitably to new conditions, the well-adjusted go confidently about their business...
From the 'The Well-Adjusted' an awesomely good blogpost at Bat, Bean, Beam. Go to the related post 'You and Mark Aren't Friends' to see how a state of perfect well-adjustedness can be attained through the magic of a well-curated social media profile, without any of that tedious mucking about that goes with medicalising dissent.

*'Narrative circle' would be a better description of series one, since the story's a time-travel loop.

**As opposed to not entirely sucking.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Please don't break the global economy like we did

Deutsche Bank has compared a possible Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum to the mistakes which led to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Speaking on the Today programme, the bank's global strategist Bilal Hafeez warned that "the economic uncertainty that would ensue from independence, the unstable banking system that would also result, would really result in the Scottish debt having to offer much higher interest rates to attract investors."

I'm guessing that Scots who haven't been asleep since 2008 won't have taken very kindly to lectures on economic prudence from an organisation whose fingerprints were all over the last global economic crisis and the subsequent Eurozone crisis:
Deutsche Bank has long been something of a basket case. In 2007, when the first signs of the impending financial crisis began to appear, it was the most highly leveraged bank in Europe, with assets 68 times its Tier 1 capital. It narrowly managed to avoid sovereign bailout in the financial crisis, but it was a principal beneficiary of the US government’s bailout of AIG and it received liquidity support from the Fed and the ECB. But its problems weren’t limited to US subprime and toxic derivatives. The Icelandic journalist Sigrún Davíðsdóttir reports that Deutsche Bank had lent extensively to Icelandic banks and was left with the toxic loans when the Icelandic banks failed.

Deutsche Bank also turned out to have sizeable interests in Ireland’s teetering banks. When the Irish property market collapsed, the Irish government – partly at the EU’s insistence – bailed out its banks to prevent a chain of contagion spreading out across the Eurozone and risking the solvency of the large European banks such as Deutsche Bank. The banking crisis caused a deep recession in Ireland, while the bailouts caused a fiscal crisis, eventually resulting in sovereign bailout. The price of this has been five years of painful retrenchment by both government and private sector in Ireland.

But it didn’t end there. Deutsche Bank was also heavily exposed to periphery sovereign debt and associated credit derivatives. The exposure of German banks to Greek debt and credit default swaps was the principal reason for German nervousness about the private sector accepting losses: it was two years before the inevitable partial Greek default finally happened – by which time, of course, Deutsche Bank had largely unwound its exposures. It escaped serious damage in the PSI, unlike Greek pensioners whose funds were virtually wiped out. The ECB’s Securities Markets Program helped Deutsche Bank and others unload their toxic Greek debt (and other dodgy sovereign debt) at better than market rates. Guess who holds it now? Yes, the ECB does – and the ECB is of course backed by taxpayers. Yet another disguised bailout for Deutsche Bank.
Frances Coppola