Wednesday, 16 April 2014

British Justice. The envy of the world?

Nigel Evans, MP, was happy to sacrifice affordable access to justice on the altar of austerity, until it affected him personally. So far it's a simple story of hypocrisy, but there may be a wider and more subtle form of cognitive bias going on here, too.

I'm thinking of the lingering impression that our system of justice is, if not the envy of the world, at least basically decent. It's a mindset that makes even people who aren't Nigel Evans feel some shock at the idea of a person who's been found innocent being financially ruined by massive legal bills.

The World Justice Project's Rule of Law Index 2014 (.pdf here) tries to assign an overall rank to various countries' legal systems, based on their performance against nine criteria.* By these measures, the United Kingdom ranks 13th, below Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Austria, Australia, Germany, Singapore, Canada and Japan. 13th place isn't hopelessly embarrassing, but it still indicates that even foreigners might have a few things to teach us.

I don't take the WJP's index at face value - two points spring immediately to mind. Firstly and obviously, English law, which applies in England and Wales, differs from Northern Ireland law and differs even more from Scots law, so I don't know where the UK's individual constituent countries would sit in the league table if their scores were disaggregated.

Secondly and more importantly, one of the criteria used in the WJP's Rule of Law Index was 'People can access and afford civil justice.' Nigel Evans was an acquitted defendant in criminal trial, who found that he could access, but couldn't afford, criminal justice. The affordability of criminal justice doesn't seem to have been a factor in compiling in the Rule of Law Index.

But, even if the exact rankings and criteria are arguable, the default assumption that that our justice system is the envy of the world looks pretty questionable. Even columnists writing for the jingoistic Spectator are shaken:
Despite the criminal legal aid bill plummeting over the last seven years, Grayling intends to cut it even more, driving out the talented, specialised independent Bar and replacing it with cheaper options, such as G4s, Serco and Cooperative law ... So much for British Justice. The envy of the world? Not unless you live in Russia or Zimbabwe. And if Grayling has his way it will be far, far worse. The sooner he sets sail on the Maria Celeste the better.
To be fair, our plummeting legal aid budget is still pretty massive, but you can spend a lot of money on something and still end up with a second-rate system that excludes a lot of people - just look at the US health care system.

*Constraints on government powers, the absence of corruption, open government, fundamental rights, order and security, regulatory enforcement, civil justice, criminal justice and informal justice.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Mugged by reality

MP Nigel Evans, who was cleared of rape and sexual assault on Thursday, has said the Crown Prosecution Service should pay his £130,000 legal bill.

You have to feel sorry for poor Nigel. When he agreed with Chris that "we" simply can't afford Britain's £2bn legal aid bill, how was he to know that it was going to affect him, personally? Clearly, when he got behind the slogan that "we" need to tighten our belts, it should have been understood that "we", in this context, meant "somebody else."

A legal bill that swallows up somebody else's life savings is a regrettable consequence of the tough, but necessary, decisions that have to be taken in these difficult times. One that wipes out my life savings is an outrage about which Something Must Be Done. I've heard about another group of people who experience the world in this way:
When highly psychopathic participants imagined pain to themselves, they showed a typical neural response within the brain regions involved in empathy for pain, including the anterior insula, the anterior midcingulate cortex, somatosensory cortex, and the right amygdala. The increase in brain activity in these regions was unusually pronounced, suggesting that psychopathic people are sensitive to the thought of pain.

But when participants imagined pain to others, these regions failed to become active in high psychopaths. Moreover, psychopaths showed an increased response in the ventral striatum, an area known to be involved in pleasure, when imagining others in pain.
Science Daily

Or maybe, if you're feeling more charitable, a liberal is simply a conservative who's been mugged by reality.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Advertising for birdbrains

Here's a guy who's heard that it pays to advertise:

You have to admit it's an impressive display, from that fan of gorgeously patterned feathers, wider than some people are tall, to the extravagant headgear and dandy highwayman coat in shimmering ultramarine.

What's rather less impressive is the degree to which an advertiser with a brain the size of a plump cherry can segment his market and focus on influencing the appropriate target demographic. In short, he's trying to impress the wrong species. Here's another photo with a bit more context:

Although guys showing off to other guys is pretty common, it isn't the small boy in shot he's displaying to - even a peacock isn't dumb enough to waste energy on a mere mammal. The object of his advertising campaign is the poultry cage in the background, where a baffled group of chickens are watching a display that would be fruitless even if the females in question weren't caged and out of reach.

 If only all junk mail looked this good.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Mysterious packaging art

There seems to be more surreal symbolism going on here than would be strictly necessary just to sell hand cream:
Why is the woman with the unfeasibly small head planting her tiny plant in that enormous hole? I've been trying to work out what this is supposed to mean for several hours, but I haven't come up with anything plausible yet.

Filed under "I really need to get out more"...

Friday, 28 March 2014

"In Our Time" versus the Wikis

There was a disappointing edition of the usually interesting In Our Time programme on the radio yesterday. It was an astonishingly uncritical assessment of Max Weber, the guy responsible for the "Protestant work ethic" meme. I didn't object to the experts being Weber fans and I wouldn't expect the arguments against the thesis of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism to be given "equal time" in some display of faux balance. But the counter-arguments are so compelling and straightforward that I'd have expected them to be presented better, however briefly. Between them,Wikipedia and RationalWiki do a better job:
Many scholars, however, have disagreed with specific claims Weber makes in his historical analysis. For example, the economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism did not begin with the Industrial Revolution but in 14th century Italy. In Milan, Venice and Florence the small city-state governments led to the development of the earliest forms of capitalism. In the 16th century Antwerp was a commercial centre of Europe. Also, the predominantly Calvinist country of Scotland did not enjoy the same economic growth as the Netherlands, England and New England. It has been pointed out that the Netherlands, which had a Calvinist majority, industrialised much later in the 19th century than predominantly Catholic Belgium, which was one of the centres of the Industrial Revolution on the European mainland.

Sascha O. Becker and Ludger Wossman present an alternative hypothesis: That Protestantism per se did not help to bring about the rise of capitalism, but that it was a by-product of the Protestants' encouragement of lay people to read the Bible, which led to a higher demand for printing presses, and ultimately, higher literacy rates that enabled commerce to grow.
If this was just academics arguing about the history of ideas, I'd let it go but, as the RationalWiki summary points out, Weber is unwitting godfather to one of the most pernicious misrepresentations in modern politics:
In economic terms, the concept is not very accurate in the 21st century. One of the largest fallacies of the European debt crisis is that the lazy Greeks supposedly work less than Germans; research says the opposite. 
Rational Wiki's quick summary of the (rhetorically solved, but seriously far from over) Eurozone periphery crisis is well worth reading as a brief antidote to the misleading political rhetoric that usually makes its way into news reports. As an added bonus, the footnotes to the entry cite a hilarious list of "OMG, x is The Next Greece!" articles:
  • Republicans: Obama's Budget Proposal Will Put America On 'A Roadmap To Greece'
  • The Huffington Post Puerto Rico is America’s Greece
  • Reuters 'America's Greece' California dreams of raising taxes
  • CBC Philadelphia Is the Next Greece 
  • Niall Ferguson: The Next Greece? It's The US! 
  • Tories warn Ont. could become the 'Greece of Canada'
  • CTV Is Quebec the next Greece? 
  • NZ, the next Greece? 
  • Croatia - the Next Greece 
  • Is Hungary the Next Greece?
  • Wall Street Journal Is Japan the Next Greece? 
  • Is China the New Greece? 
Makes you wonder whether, if Max Weber was around today, he'd call the Protestant Work Ethic a 'killer app', Niall Ferguson style.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

I get junk mail

Junk mailers routinely plaster their bulk mailshots with loads of red ink, bold type and words like "important", "urgent" and "priority" in a desperate attempt grab your attention. I've just had a European election leaflet from that party with the pound shop logo, which looks like some sort of template from Junk Mail for Dummies:

The content lives down to the cheesy huckster aesthetic, with the usual bed-wetting scare-headline about migrants splashed over the front page. There are a couple of smaller headlines about the kippers' second least favourite thing after migrants, the European Union.

If you were being really uncritical, you could almost say that the kippers have something approaching a point about the Europe Union, which is increasingly looking like an elite project with a massive democratic deficit, captured by the same out-of-control financial institutions that crashed the global economy, a project that's currently destroying its own poorest member states with that "doomsday machine called the Euro"© Mark Blyth.

On current performance, it should be super easy for the kippers to make an anti-EU headline from some truly evil or inept scheme that the Persian-cat-stroking super-villains in the European Commission are currently planning to impose on their subject populations.

But what do they pick? The Commission's proposals for a Financial Transaction Tax - one of those rare indications that the Euro-elite aren't completely on board with the project to enable too-big-to-fail trans-national financial institutions to carry on growing and looting the continent entirely unhindered. A reminder that, just occasionally, the Commission tries stick up for the little people, rather than simply offering them up as sacrificial victims on the altar of the Vampire Squid, or whatever other monstrous, Cthulhu-like financial deity happens to be roaring loudest for innocent blood.

And it's also a reminder of the gulf between reality and those UKIP boasts about being the party that takes on vested interests and sticks up for the little guy:

UKIP's Lucy Bostick says 'decimating the City' like it was a bad thing.
It may not be a panacea, the wheelers and dealers would certainly find loopholes and there might be unintended consequences, but as a measure intended to divert a small portion of the financial elite's loot into the common wealth of nations, for the benefit of ordinary people, a Financial Transaction Tax is at least one of the most well-intentioned ideas to have come out of the Commission in recent years.

It's not surprising that a party headed by a former City commodities broker who wasn't even able to set up his own offshore tax-avoiding trust fund properly would be against anything that threatened the narrow interests of the City of London and it's even less surprising that, when faced with an open goal like finding something meaty to criticise the European Commission for, his team missed by a mile.

There are times when you can safely judge a book (or leaflet) by its cover.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Frogs' porn

I went to an stupendous orgy last weekend, a massive non-holds-barred free-for-all of wet, writhing bodies. In fact, I was only there to watch:

Yes, it was our dear old friend, Rana temporaria, greeting the spring with a traditional batrachian frenzy of mating activity. May your spawn be fruitful and prosper, little ones.

Your word for the day is amplexus.