Thursday, 24 April 2014

Bashar al-Assad is doomed

Forget the consensus that Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, has managed to hold on to power for the forseeable. I've been tipped off by a trustworthy official source that he's definitely on the way out:
Hello Friend,
I am Tim Ruler a personal foreign consultant to the Bashar al-Assad President of Syria.
President Bashar al-Assad knowing full well that his regime is coming to an end due to the political civil revolution  that is engulfing Syria,Please Kindly view the attachment for more details...
Obviously, as 'personal foreign consultant' to a shortly-to-be-deposed dictator, Tim needs to take some extra special precautions, like sending a mail that ostensibly comes from "@aol.co.uk" (although the header suggests that it originated in Azerbaijan), entrusting the safety of large amounts of money belonging to his famously murderous and unforgiving soon-to-be-ex boss to random strangers and going by the alias "Arnold Lizard." Given his precarious position, who can blame him?

Now what's in that attachment? Oops! I just accidentally deleted Tim's e-mail...

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Onward, Christian soldiers


I was going to avoid more comment on the slightly premature World War One centenary commemorations / historical punch up, until a tiny bit of history surfaced from the bit of our garden that's actually been dug over and tended (as opposed to the weed-choked no-man's land beyond the Western front of the hen house).

It was a corroded, circular piece of metal, featuring a clasp and the words "Dieu et mon droit." A quick image search, including the Royal motto, identified the thing as the remains of a British army belt buckle (in this case, missing one of its two clasps and the regimental badge that would have originally been surrounded by the motto).

The buckle might, or might not, be of Great War vintage, but there's nothing to rule out a 1914-18 date (as far as I can tell, belts of this generic design were part of the dress uniform of British and Empire / Commonwealth troops from Victorian times right through to World War II).

In a fight to the death, it's always reassuring to know that you've got the supreme being on side, so the slogan "God and my right" must have been a great comfort to the various Tommies, diggers, sepoys, kiwis, etc. who were being forcefully asked to risk life and limb for king and the mother country. The Kaiser's brave lads will have been equally delighted to look down at the words "Gott mit uns" ("God with us") decorating their belt buckles and know that the big guy upstairs was definitely rooting for the German Empire.

In those benighted days, God seems to have schlepped around like some kind of celestial Nick Clegg, making promises He couldn't keep (it would have been hard for even Cleggy to brazenly spin the final result as "punishing" England with victory) and cosying up to the brass hats on both sides, in return for a bit of status and respect. This sort of thing eventually tends to have a negative impact on a guy's popularity with the poor bloody infantry.

Of course, in our more enlightened, ecumenical, coalition-minded times, the Lord of Hosts is a reformed character, who's totally given up selling his negotiable support to the first slippery political chancer who wants to puff up his flagging popularity with a divinely-sanctioned jingo-fest.

If only...

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Standing in rags, but standing on his feet

According to Lucy Worsley, in the trail for the BBC's current 18th Century Season,* 'The Georgians invented modern Britain.' In answer to the rhetorical question 'what have the Georgians ever done for us?', the presenters continue 'apart from':
  • giving us our daily fix of caffeine
  • the cult of celebrity
  • a taste for the opulent
  • fashion
  • benefit gigs
Fair enough, but I can't help feeling that there's something rather big missing here. Something that shaped modern life far more profoundly than any of the above. If you wanted to give it a quick name-check for a trail, you could call it 'the dependency culture.' I'm talking about the huge and lasting social changes caused by the accelerated enclosure of common land and the creation of the working class (in its broadest sense of people with no independent means of subsistence other than the sale of their labour):
The enclosures created a new organization of classes. The peasant with rights and a status, with a share in the fortunes and government of his village, standing in rags, but standing on his feet, makes way for the labourer with no corporate rights to defend, no corporate power to invoke, no property to cherish, no ambition to pursue, bent beneath the fear of his masters, and the weight of a future without hope. No class in the world has so beaten and crouching a history.
Cumulatively and within a few generations, the enclosures created a veritable army of industrial reserve labor. The displaced and disenfranchised were reduced to working for starvation wages that they supplemented through prostitution, theft, and other stigmatized or illegal means.
And that's not lifted from some web site that could be accused of Marxist or bleeding-heart liberal bias, but from Explore Freedom, a recipient of something called the Ron Paul Liberty in Media Award, no less.

There's more than one point of view among historians about whether this process was inevitable, or whether the alternative would have been even worse (small, subsistence farmers without the capital to farm in the most efficient way starving whenever a poor harvest came along), but surely the discussion of the whole enclosure / industrial revolution thing is important enough for the BBC to include in a season that's supposed to tell the story of how modern Britain was invented in the 18th Century?

Or is the (extremely topical) subject of power relations in society now deemed too controversial for the safe, controversy-averse BBC to tackle? Oh never mind, here are some fashionable aristos in fluffy wigs...
Here thou, great Anna, whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take and sometimes tea.
Begging Alexander Pope's (and Queen Anne's) pardon, people in the Eighteenth Century did far more for (and to) us than giving us a taste for opulence, celebrity and a daily fix of caffeine.

*YouTubed here if the content doesn't work in your region.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Spot the difference

Here's the teaser for a four page advertisment feature in our local free sheet, by the Qur'an project:
According to conventional wisdom, people these days have short attention spans, so maybe the people who cobbled this together figured that the punters would skim-read enough to see the NASA logo next to the picture of the holy book and the word "FREE" in red caps, then order their freebie without actually reading these two short passages and noticing that the first one is entirely unrelated to the second.

What have the Big Bang theory and cosmic background radiation got to do with heaven and earth being 'a joined entity', whatever that means? What do they say about this 'joined entity' being separated by a supernatural being? What do they have to do with every living thing being 'made from water'?

These things are a mystery to me, but not quite so mysterious as this puzzle. Why would anybody who lacks the functional literacy skills to understand that two passages, of less than thirty words each, are completely different from each other, want to order a book?

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.