Friday, 31 December 2010

Dave from PR spins into 2011

According to David Cameron's new year sound bite, the government's spending cuts are an unavoidable result of unprecedented debt levels and not at all ideological. We've heard this one several times before - every Public Relations Professional knows the value of repetition.

It is, of course, a bit more complicated than that. If Dave from PR can repeat himself, then so can I. As previously noted, courtesy of the Left Foot Forward blog, when adjusted for inflation, the current level of public debt isn't unprecedented. In fact it's far lower than it was in the late 1940s; a time of austerity, sure, but also a time when the welfare state was being created. Hacking great chunks out of it now isn't inevitable - it's simply what the small-state ideologues on the right want to do.

By its very nature, selective PR spin abhors context, so here's some more context:

The National Debt was made possible shortly after the Glorious Revolution, when William III arranged to sell debt securities through a syndicate of London merchants. The syndicate became the Bank of England, and the securities founded the National Debt.

The introduction to Three Centuries of the National Debt, which includes some interesting charts giving a historical overview of the National Debt. Chart 1 appears, on first sight, to support the Tory spin

And here I want to say something to the people who got us into this mess. The ones who racked up more debt in thirteen years than previous governments did in three centuries.

Chart 1 seems to graphically support that assertion (although it only deals with the last 110 years) with debt crawling along the bottom of the graph for the first half of the century, ramping up in the '80s and '90s before skyrocketing up to dizzying heights in the late '90s and the noughties, or whatever we call the decade we're just leaving behind.

Chart 1, however, is just showing the debt in pounds sterling. The next two charts show debt as a percentage of gross domestic product. Adjusted to a meaningful context, the "unprecedented" level of debt becomes a relatively modest peak in an alpine range of debt spikes. Whether we're looking at the last century or the last three, we can see that we've been here before - and worse - and that the National Debt has tailed off and been managed down over decades, following bigger spikes than this. The last chart, showing interest payments shows a similar picture - taking the long view, the present levels of debt interest payments break no records:

The real risk from government debt is the burden of interest payments. Experts say that when interest payments reach about 12% of GDP then a government will likely default on its debt. Chart 5 shows that the UK is a long way from that risk. The peak period for government interest payments, including central government and local authorities, was in the 1920s and 1930s right after World War I.

The cuts are a choice, not a necessity. This government is starting to remind me of the bankers who got us into this mess in the first place. In Mark Twain's famous words:

A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain.

By cutting public sector jobs and public services when they're most needed, Cameron and his millionaire chums are leaving us all out in the rain. It's kind of appropriate that the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt recently became the unofficial Minister for Rhyming Slang, just when there's no longer any doubt what a bunch of bankers we've got running the country.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Unconditional surrender

So that was Christmas, 2010. Despite the "War on Christmas" stories filling the media, everybody I know gave and received Christmas cards. Nearly everybody I know sent or received Christmas presents of some sort, even in this time of austerity and looming unemployment for many. Barclays Bank estimated that the British public will have spent £48.8 billion in the run up to Christmas.

The Queen's Christmas message went out as normal, as did the Archbishop of Canterbury’s. The Pope delivered a Christmas Message in the Thought for the Day slot on Radio 4’s Today programme. Every remotely popular television programme had its own Christmas special. Kings College’s festival of nine lessons and carols was broadcast as usual. Up and down the nation, churchgoers were freely able attend carol services and go to midnight mass without being threatened or hindered in any way. Children scoffed chocolates from advent calendars and took part in nativity plays. Homes and workplaces were festooned with tinsel and the houses in some streets were decked with so many flashing snowmen and Santas that they outshone Heathrow's snowbound runways 

If there's been a War on Christmas in the UK, then the anti-Christmas forces have fought half-heartedly and lost decisively. Let's face it, it's over. It's time for the volunteers of the Politically Correct Brigades to accept the inevitable and surrender. Ever since the ignominious collapse of the Winterval campaign, when it emerged that their much-vaunted offensive never actually took place, it was clear that this war wouldn't be over by Christmas and that the anti-Christmas faction has been comprehensively defeated by the massed forces of the Baby Jesus. Christmas has won. Further conflict would only be a tragic waste.

I therefore beg the Politically Correct Brigades to bring this unwinnable, seemingly endless war of attrition to an end by offering their immediate, unconditional surrender to the Archbishop of Canterbury, or Santa Claus and his little elves.

When we've ended this madness, we can all move on. The nation can go on to celebrate the peace with joyful thanksgiving bonfires and we can all come together in the shared warmth from the burning effigies of Oliver Cromwell, Richard Dawkins and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. And newspaper commentators will finally have to find a real story to have an opinion about.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Party games

 'Tis, apparently, the season to be jolly. Here's a hilarious party game you can all play at home. It's called Uxbridge English Dictionary. Listeners to Radio 4's I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue will know how it works. For the rest of you, it's a game that involves coming up with new definitions for words. For example:
auto de fé - the Popemobile

goblet - small mouth

incontinent - not on an island

portent - shoddy piece of camping equipment

roulade - kangaroo fat (essential Australian cookery ingredient)

retard - very hard, in Yorkshire

tensile - Ireland, after the credit crunch

And for a masterclass in Uxbridge English Dictionary, I can do no better than to direct your attention to a classic recording of the game, featuring the late, great Humphrey Lyttelton and, as an added bonus, the late, great, Linda Smith.

What fun.

Hat tip to Tom Freeman.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Political maturity...

... in our democracy apparently consists of knowing who you can and can't disrespect with impunity. Here's short guide for the perplexed (this means you, Vince):

1) The people who voted for you and the British public in general

Tell them what they want to hear at election time, then once you get into power you can do the precise opposite - just tell them that your promise wasn't a promise and anyway, it had to be broken for complicated reasons that they shouldn't worry their pretty little heads about. They're probably too busy watching Strictly to notice what you just did anyway, and they'll have forgotten all about it come the next election. Little people, not worth worrying about.

2) Colossal trans-national  media mega-corporations with very deep pockets

Don't mess with The Man

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Eat the rich

There's a well known story about the  famously eccentric Dr William Buckland that probably never really happened, but I so want it to be true:

Talk of strange relics led to mention of the heart of a French King [Louis XVI] preserved at Nuneham in a silver casket. Dr. Buckland, whilst looking at it, exclaimed, 'I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before,' and, before anyone could hinder him, he had gobbled it up, and the precious relic was lost for ever.

This was brought to mind by the news that researchers in France recently identified what they think is the head of France's King Henry IV. I was hoping that Henry's head would go on to feature in a William Buckland-themed Heston Blumental Christmas special, perhaps stuffed with an orange, flambéed in Cointreau, then served up to an admiring gaggle of celebrities, preferably including Terry Wogan. The French, sadly, prefer to hold a national Mass and funeral for the head, before reburying it in the Basilica of Saint Denis. What a wasted opportunity.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Something for the weak end?

I was deleting some spam the other day, when I came across something a bit retro. Some obscure on-line pill vendor was touting allegedly genuine Viagra in an e-mail with the subject line "for the holidays you need it!" I was amused by the quaintly comic notion that people who are getting it together have scheduled a specific time slot, in the same way you'd plan your shopping to accommodate Sunday lunch, or your great aunt would let her hair down and open that sherry bottle at the back of the cupboard, but only at Christmas.* I'm guessing that such regularity of habit is very much the exception and most people just go for it at those random moments when mood and opportunity coincide.

In the less explicit days of my youth, I'm told that men's barbers used to ask customers whether sir needed "something for the weekend?" which was apparently a discreet way of enquiring whether "sir" wanted to buy some condoms. I was never asked whether I needed anything for the weekend, so maybe this form of words was already dying out when I was young, or perhaps the phrase was just an apocryphal popular cliché that nobody said for real. Or maybe they just took one look at me and decided I clearly wasn't having sex with anybody (to be fair, they were probably right for quite a lot of the time).

It's interesting to witness the recalibration of the British embarrassment threshold over the years, from the days when buying a condom was an oblique and furtive matter (which it surely was, whether or not anybody used the exact phrase "something for the weekend"), to a world where unembarrassed teenagers routinely share their sexploits with their mates by text and with a few hundred on-line "friends" via Facebook. Although the threshold has been re-set, embarrassment hasn't been abolished completely, otherwise people's e-mails wouldn't be clogged with spam advertising bogus Viagra and the like to be purchased in the privacy of your own computer, a market that only exists because openness about potency problems is clearly a step too far for many men.

For the consumer, there's danger in embarrassment and furtiveness - nearly all the libido-boosting money-spinners on sale on the net are probably at best ineffective and at worst harmful, but if you're too embarrassed to see your GP and your knock-off little blue pill doesn't deliver, who you gonna call? Probably no-one, which is why they get away with it.

The embarrassment threshold may have changed, but people are still probably much the same. When young men were being asked whether they needed anything for the weekend, I'll bet there were quite a few who bought rubber goods with no expectation that they'd be needed that weekend, or on any weekend in the foreseeable future, just to avoid admitting to the barber that they weren't getting any. Although the baseline of sexual activity is undoubtedly higher, I also expect that a proportion of the 21st Century bedroom antics being texted and Facebooked to all and sundry are face-saving fictions, produced by over-heated competitive, young - mainly male - imaginations. Boys will still be boys.

*See the opening of Lawrence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman:

As a small specimen of this extreme exactness of his, to which he was in truth a slave, he had made it a rule for many years of his life,--on the first Sunday-night of every month throughout the whole year,--as certain as ever the Sunday-night came,--to wind up a large house-clock, which we had standing on the back-stairs head, with his own hands:--And being somewhere between fifty and sixty years of age at the time I have been speaking of,--he had likewise gradually brought some other little family concernments to the same period, in order, as he would often say to my uncle Toby, to get them all out of the way at one time, and be no more plagued and pestered with them the rest of the month.

or for that matter Ivor Cutler's monologues - I can't remember the exact quote, but I'm sure that one of them started 'it was a Thursday, which was our night for sex'.

C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre

Britain's students have certainly put the trade union movement on the spot. Their mass protests against the tuition fees increase have refreshed the political parts a hundred debates, conferences and resolutions could not reach.

We know the vast rise in tuition fees is only the down payment on the Con-Dem package of cuts, charges and job losses to make us pay for the bankers' crisis. The magnificent students' movement urgently needs to find a wider echo if the government is to be stopped.

(Len McCluskey in The Guardian).

As retail outlets across the country tidy up in the aftermath of yesterday's protests, the corporate world has been caught flat-footed. Business leaders have been surprised by the sudden uprising and are struggling to find a coherent voice. Sir Philip Green, the normally outspoken boss of Topshop, at the centre of the protests, was not prepared to talk publicly. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI), which boasts of being "the voice of business", was surprisingly mute, with none of its current leaders willing to speak on the campaigns by UK Uncut, trade unions and charities.
From another Guardian article headlined "Big business goes on the defensive as tax protesters win the propaganda war".

There are clearly a lot of angry, organised, focused people out there who aren't just going to stand passively by as a cabinet of millionaires wreck what's left of British society just so that the City boys can nationalise their losses without having to endure significant reform or even mild inconvenience.

What a pity Ed Milliband isn't one of them. It would be a step in the right direction if he could find a window in his Filofax for taking a stand.

"I was quite tempted to go out and talk to them [protesters]," he said. "I applaud young people who peacefully demonstrate. I said I was going to talk to them at some point, I was tempted to go out and talk to them." Asked why he had not, he explained: "I think I was doing something else at the time, actually."

From that BBC interview with Ed Milliband last month, when he conspicuously failed to take charge. He really needs to do a lot better, and quickly, or we're all stuffed.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Peter, Groucho and Zaphod

The House of Lords is an undemocratic anachronism that the British establishment loves, because it's a legal way of handing out favours to cronies in a country where more overt corruption is frowned on. The fact that some people are ennobled thanks to their own real merit doesn't alter the fact that the honours system is corrupted by the unworthy bums of party donors, party yes-men and pliant Whitehall mandarins cluttering up the red leather benches.*

That's easy to say if you're still young and idealistic, or if you're older and just don't have a snowball in hell's chance of getting a peerage (whether - like most of us - you never did anything to deserve it and/or you never scratched the right backs). For somebody who's actually achieved something worthwhile to turn down the offer of a peerage, after a lifetime of hard work, effort and sacrifice must be much, much harder. So I'm impressed by Peter Tatchell who has - apparently - been offered a peerage and turned it down:

With the New Year’s honours list looming – and Bruce Forsyth, perhaps, hoping against hope that he might yet get a look-in – one maverick has had no hesitation in turning down a gong.
Arise – or maybe not – Peter Tatchell, the campaigner who has taken principled stands on many issues over the years, not least homosexual rights.

Tatchell, is reluctant to comment, but does not deny that he has been offered a peerage. Mandrake understands that, over the past five years, Tatchell has been sounded out about various other honours, too, but has declined them all because he does not approve of them. 

Like Groucho Marx, who famously refused to belong to any club that would accept him as a member, Peter Tatchell has class. When Douglas Adams, gave his unprincipled narcissist of a character, Zaphod Beeblebrox, the (ceremonial) job of Galactic President in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, he dryly noted that:

It is a well-known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it... anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.

That sums up why the sort of person who'd do favours for a big cheese in the hope of a peerage shouldn't be anywhere near the levers of power and, conversely, why we need more people like Peter Tatchell.

Peter Tatchell's latest campaign is Equal Love, a 'legal bid to overturn the twin bans on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships in the United Kingdom'. It would make the people affected very happy and wouldn't cost the rest of us a penny - what's not to like? The usual killjoys will probably start whining from  press and pulpit  about how terrible it is that they can't stop a group of people from doing something that makes them happy and harms nobody else, but I can't see anything approaching a good reason not to support this campaign. My best wishes go out to Equal Love, and to the (literally) peerless Mr Tatchell.

Hat tip to Harry's Place.

*the Bishops don't deserve to be there either, but that's a separate issue

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The majesty of the law

A crown court judge stormed out of Carlisle magistrates' court yesterday after being convicted of failing to keep her German shepherd dog under control.

Judge Beatrice Bolton's dog attacked Frederick Becker, a university student from Newcastle, when he was sunbathing on the lawn of his parents' home and tore through his trousers.

Ms Bolton was fined £2,500 and, after denying a charge under the Dangerous Dogs Act, called the decision "a f***ing travesty" before shouting "I'll never set foot in a court again".

The 57-year-old, who was described as "the neighbour from hell" by the parents of the victim, later apologised for her behaviour and said she will appeal against her conviction.

Reproduced in full from The Independent. This blogger deems further comment unnecessary.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Libertarians v. pampered wasters

This morning, BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House programme featured a couple of talking heads discussing the recent student tuition fee protests. In the blue corner was a "Liberatarian Conservative" commentator by the name of James Delingpole, who gave us all this small piece of his mind:

I think they probably need to grow up a bit, I mean, you know the problem with kids that age is that their frontal lobes haven't formed properly and they're not really capable of behaving rationally like grown-ups.

He continued, in the same plain-speaking, no-nonsense vein :

This has nothing to do with bankers. This has to do with the very simple fact that the country is £4.8 trillion in debt ... we cannot afford to subsidise wasters to spend three years doing windsurfing, dubstep and X-Factor studies...

Interesting, forthright opinions. I was sure I'd come across this straight-talking scourge of useless wasters somewhere before. It took me a little while to remember exactly where I'd previously encountered Mr Delingpole and his performing opinions, then I remembered that he'd been on the telly a long while back. There was a programme about the upper classes on Channel 4, featuring Deligpole attempting, with various levels of success, to ingratiate himself with a succession of condescending toffs. My memories of the programme are hazy, but the dominant impressions that stayed with me were that:

a) the toffs came across as a bunch of arrogant, self-indulgent wastrels who clearly thought Delingpole their social inferior


b) half of the programme seemed to consist of Delingpole gushing to camera about his moonstruck infatuation with this bunch of condescending, pampered nonentities, the other half was a record of his undignified attempts to gain their acceptance, despite the fact that they would no more consider treating him as an equal than they would an over-affectionate spaniel puppy

My own memories of this rather cringe-worthy piece of TV have grown dim, so I'm grateful to Skipper for this lively review, written at the time:

Which left the upper classes and Mr James Dellingpole [sic], allegedly a journalist. He had been to Oxford and admired the upper classes enormously but had failed to break into their closed circle, something which had clearly upset him. Like Evelyn Waugh he seemed to have a huge crush on toffs, the more blue blooded the better. He desperately admired their 'backbone, spunk and honour'. So he forayed forth into a Mayfair party, Channel 4 cameras at his back, and tried to elicit comment from the various aristos who stalked the event like elusive rare fauna. He did manage to corner the odd startled specimen. Earl Spencer and Prince Michael both snubbed him awfully but did it so politely he seemed not too dismayed. His problem was that: he was poorly dressed -more M and S than Saville Row; his voice also signalled clearly he was not of their tribe; and, just maybe,(though this is no more than conjecture as I have no idea of Mr Dellingpole's ethnic provenance) his appearance might have sparked off negative reactions in a notoriously anti-semitic social grouping. In other words, they saw him as an awful oik who was trying to crash their exclusivity. His approach was too crude and transparent. They were bound to see him off the premises. But was he dismayed? Any sensible person would have been and given up at that point. But he wasn't and, luckily for him, things improved a bit after this disastrous start.

He decided to try the Cresta Run in St Moritz where, I was amazed to discover, a closed group of aristos have risked life and limb since the last century. This was where the film became not no much sociology as social anthropology. The toffs wore plus four tweeds to ride their bob sleighs. One explained: 'This form of dress worked OK when we started and so, on that basis, we haven't changed it.' Seems like that statement sums up the attitude of the British aristocracy and provides their epitaph at the same time. James declared he would try the Run, whatever the dire dangers to various parts of his body. Visibly scared, he survived and, generally, was treated with a modicum of respect by the toffs. Next came living in the fast lane. For this he shacked up with Channel 4 favourite, Charlie Brockett of jungle fame. Charlie, a convicted felon of course, proved too nice a guy to be anything other than charming and James was allowed to drive a Ferrari as well as exchange good natured banter with the fraudster peer. But I suspected throughout that James secretly wanted to be stepped on, to be humiliated rather than merely humoured.

But the real object of James's dreams, it seemed, was to ride to hounds. This he arranged to do with the Cotswold Hunt and, with great commitment and assiduity learned how to ride. He eventually issued forth with the 'unspeakable' though never quite made contact with the 'uneatable'. But he survived again and, though condescended to by all he met, was not treated too badly. He concluded his gallop around Burke's peerage with a wistful soliloquy on the wonders of this vanishing breed, regretting the loss of this selfless group of noble spirits, warning that we'd miss them once they had gone.

I have seldom seen such a witless programme on such a key topic. Instead of analysis and insight we got a pathetic prostration of a yearning apparently self- loathing inadequate before a collection of parasitic, selfish, useless people with whom the French revolutionaries better knew how to deal.

Now, Mr Delingpole, what were you saying about pampered wasters? Tearing into students on the radio this morning, he wore the mask of a modern hard-nosed no-nonsense meritocrat, but behind the mask cowers an old-fashioned, socially insecure, class-obsessed snob, straight out of the pages of William Makepeace Thackeray. I think we'll see a lot more like him coming out of the woodwork to applaud the impeccably wealthy and well-bred Mr Cameron's Great Leap Backwards to a golden age before the welfare state, when the lower orders knew their place and the wealthy preached to the "undeserving poor" on the virtues of thrift and industry.

I understand that James Delingpole also gets paid for writing down his opinions in the Telegraph, He has some partiualrly strong opinions on the complicated subject of man-made global warming (he doesn't believe in it). His degree, by the way, was in English Literature, which means he's perfectly entitled to his opinion, but no better qualified to pronounce on the subject than a graduate in wind surfing studies.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

May the Spirit of Christmas be with you

Christmas can be moderately jolly, but it's best not to take it too seriously...
Jon Knudsen, the pastor of the Løkken Free Church in the Jutland town of Vendsyssel, loves Christmas, but he hates elves.

This weekend, Knudsen’s hatred for the creature he says “comes from the devil” manifested itself in the form of a mock execution by hanging of a Christmas elf outside his church...

One offended resident took action Monday afternoon while no one was watching, however, and pulled down the elf. He left a message with the pastor that the elf was being “kept safe until after the New Year”.

Knudsen reported the theft to the police, and the culprit confessed. The police, however, refused to press charges, stating that their “caseload was too heavy to make investigating theft of a stuffed toy elf a priority”.

I think I'll just offer you this heart-warming tale without further comment. Via

Public service announcement

I've just had an e-mail forwarded to me by a person who (IMHO) is pretty intelligent and well-meaning. It purported to alert people to an alleged scam involving unscrupulous cashiers adding unauthorised cash-back requests to card sales and pocketing the cash from customers who hadn't checked their receipts. The style of the message made me suspicious, so I spent a minute (literally a minute) googling it before discovering that the "warning" was a hoax.

These sort of hoax chain messages have a generic, easily-recognisable style - THE USE OF CAPITALS (generally in the message and the subject line), multiple exclamation marks and an urgent plea to 'pass this on to your friends / family / loved ones'. It always surprises me that even quite bright people do forward them - I'm guessing that the appeal to the welfare of your loved ones, combined with a lack of time for fact checking  is what triggers otherwise rational people to hit the "send" button and propagate the hoax.

I know nothing about the sort of people who start these rumours and don't know whether there's any motivation beyond the rather odd satisfaction of having created an inaccurate meme and watching it replicate. But I'd like to make a small plea to anybody reading this who receives a warning e-mail with lots of caps and exclamation marks, warning about some scam or danger to which you can alert your friends and family by forwarding the warning to everyone in your address book. If it looks like a hoax, it probably is, so please don't spread it. If you still think it might conceivably be true, it's probably serious enough to be worth a couple of minutes of your own time, spent either googling, or going straight to a site like Hoax-Slayer, before clogging up the in-boxes of your friends, family and colleagues.

Together, one e-mail at a time, we could create a world with a just little more head space for thinking about what's real and important, rather than fretting about unreal threats, or cursing the rising tide of disinformation.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Wikileaks revelation: WMD found in Iraq

Well, that's what you'd think from this headline in

Wikileaks: WMD program existed in Iraq prior to US invasion

The article, though, over-promises and completely fails to deliver. No Ernst Stavro Blofeld-style facilities for producing super-weapons that could hold the world to ransom. Just 'containers of liquid sulfur mustard which have been used since World War I' a 'house with a chemical lab' and '155mm rounds filled with an unknown liquid ... several of which are leaking a black tar-like substance ... the rounds tested positive for mustard [gas]'.

It's horrible stuff, as Wilfred Owen and the survivors of the Halabja massacre have testified, but these aren't the sort of weapons that would have been dangerous to the West, or even to Israel (which identified a far more credible potential WMD threat back in the early 1980s and eliminated it by destroying Iraq's Osirak Nuclear Reactor).

The article isn't interesting for drawing attention to any actual buried treasure in the Wikileaks material, but it is moderately interesting to see a new and creative type of spin being put on this stuff. Like Alex Salmond's 'diplomatic tittle tattle' remark and the calls from Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin to have the leaker killed and Assange 'hunted down', the article says rather more about the messanger than it does about the material that's been released.

It's probably just an unhappy coincidence that the author, Jim Kouri, is styled a "Public Safety Examiner", a rather sinister job title that puts me in mind of  the Committee of Public Safety, responsible for centralising denunciations, trials, and executions during the Reign of Terror. I'm guessing, though, that his core competencies are more to do with scaring the public witless about a relatively small terrorist threat, given that the Huckabees and Palins of the world can be relied upon to do the denunciations, along with calls for trials and executions.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Frozen veg

First, he good news. We finally have some tiny florets of fractal broccoli - and I've got the pictures to prove it. The bad news - like the rest of the country, we've been getting severe frosts. I don't know how hardy Romanesco broccoli is, but I think we're about to find out.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Keep calm and carry on

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. This cartoon contains more sense than your average tabloid.

In the year 2025

That zealous convert to the joy of debt, Mystic Nick, has been peering into his crystal ball and knows what we'll all be thinking in the 2020s:

I believe in this policy. I really think we will look back in 10 or 15 years' time and think, actually that was quite a brave and bold and socially progressive thing to do.

Since we're in the prediction business, here's my version of what we'll be thinking a decade or so hence:

Remind me - who were the Liberal Democrats?

Thursday, 2 December 2010

One-liner of of the week

The Cognitive Dissonance Society, formerly known as the Lib Dems...

I wish I'd said that.

You will, Oscar, you will...

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

A tonic for the nation

 I think we need a party in Calais for all good republicans who can’t stand the nauseating tosh that surrounds this event. I managed to avoid the last disaster in slow motion between Big Ears and the Porcelain Doll, and hope to avoid this one too ... I wish them well, but their nuptials are nothing to do with me. Leave them to get married somewhere out of the limelight and leave them alone ... I give the marriage seven years.

Three hearty cheers for the Reverend Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden, whose wonderful outburst on Facebook is the most lively and entertaining thing that has yet been, and probably ever will be, written about next year's dreary royal tat-fest. I'm indebted to The Frisky ("Love.Life.Stars.Style") for the extended quotation.

Sadly, the good Bishop has been suspended. Surely a Facebook group demanding his immediate reinstatement  is called for?

A day in the life

...guitar groups are on the way out...the Beatles have no future in show business

Attributed to Dick Rowe of Decca Records, 1962

A generation ago, the very idea that a British politician would go to Ireland to see how to run an economy would have been laughable.

The Irish Republic was seen as Britain's poor and troubled country cousin, a rural backwater on the edge of Europe. Today things are different. Ireland stands as a shining example of the art of the possible in long-term economic policymaking, and that is why I am in Dublin: to listen and to learn.

George Osborne, 2006

And though the news was rather sad
Well I just had to laugh...

Monday, 22 November 2010

Protocol droid

Japan's Justice Minister, Minoru Yanagida, just let the cat out of the bag:

Yanagida said ... that justice ministers had to remember only two responses to deal with tough questions in the Diet: "I want to refrain from commenting on specific cases" and "We are dealing with the matter appropriately based on the law and evidence."

At Thursday's Upper House Budget Committee, the LDP's Hiroshige Seko reviewed Yanagida's past Diet responses and counted 16 occasions when he used the "refrain from commenting" response and 17 times when he resorted to the "law and evidence" response.

Yanagida replied, "I apologize for comments that lacked thinking, and I will seriously respond in the future."

However, he repeatedly used the same words, prompting Seko to say that Yanagida had simply come up with a third pat answer. 

As reported in Asahi Shimbun. This validates the following observations:

  • Senior politicians and spokespeople are routinely coached to limit their public utterances to a narrow range of anodyne cut-and-paste generalisations pre-screened to eliminate any useful information and/or hostages to fortune. When they stray from this simple script and say something concrete, original and understandable, they are said to have made a "gaffe."
  • Statements from gaffe-averse senior politicians or spokespeople are either totally unspecific or irrelevant. In interviews, their responses are so littered with unanswered questions and bizarre non sequiturs that they scarcely seem able to pass the Turing Test.

Perhaps, to avoid public relations "gaffes", political parties and other PR-sensitive organisations need to avoid letting humans make statements and do interviews. You wouldn't need to develop a super-intelligent AI that could pass the Turing Test - just a far cruder automaton that could mimic the robotic stock responses of a politician avoiding straight answers to questions and staying on message, no matter how tenuous the link between the question being asked and anything resembling an intelligent response. Come to think of it, the Japanese have already developed the hardware, if not the software...

Friday, 19 November 2010

A nice cup of tea and a biscuit

From the blog that brought you the world's largest cup of tea, comes news of the globe's most gratuitously embiggened custard cream. Posted in haste, because if you want to buy, the Ebay listing hasn't got long to go. You can even become a fan of a giant biscuit on Facebook, should you feel the urge. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world...

I'm more indebted than words can possibly express to Simon Morgan for the heads up.

And to finish, would Sir care for a wafer thin mint?

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Epic public health FAIL

epic fail photos - Location FAIL

Re-posted here because this reminds me of something I read in The Guardian a few days ago:

The Department of Health is putting the fast food companies McDonald's and KFC and processed food and drink manufacturers such as PepsiCo, Kellogg's, Unilever, Mars and Diageo at the heart of writing government policy on obesity, alcohol and diet-related disease, the Guardian has learned.
Image courtesy of FAIL Blog

Christmas time

With the annual Christmas shopathon just around the corner, here are some tips for a saner kind of Christmas:

Yes, it’s the thought that counts.  But if it’s the thought that counts, then it is perfectly acceptable for people to exchange the kind of gift that cannot be purchased in a store, namely, the gift of time.  Tell the adults on your Christmas list that this year you’re giving them the gift of free time; you are releasing them from the obligation to buy for you a gift, and you are encouraging them to spend in some other way the time they would otherwise spend at the mall purchasing a material gift for you.  Offer to make time in January for a long and relaxed lunch date (and then make good on the offer).  For friends with children, offer to babysit so that they may have time for themselves or for each other.  For far-away friends and relatives, resolve to write letters; real letters, with details and thoughts just for them, with questions and occasions for beginning ongoing conversation.

From 3 Quarks Daily. The British Retail Consortium has not approved this message.

The epidemiology of General Ignorance

Did you know that studies have shown big breasted women are cleverer than their less amply-endowed peers? Or that evangelical Christians in Brazil have banned the use of USB devices on the grounds that the USB trident is a Satanic symbol? Or that the Early Learning Centre have been removing plastic pigs from toy farm sets to avoid offending Muslims?

If you did, go straight to the back of the class, because these "strange but true" news stories got into the mainstream media despite being total nonsense, as Anthony Cox  points out in his blog. Interestingly, two out of the three stories above seem to have originated as jokes on satirical spoof news sites and were re-reported in the "serious" press as real news. It's a funny old world where questions like this need asking:

Should the readership of the newspaper have to go fact-checking dubious stories? Or should the journalists go and check the facts before publishing them?

So long as simply cutting and pasting juicy, unverified factiods from press releases, The Weekly World News or The Onion is easier and cheaper than the tedious business of fact-checking, I suspect, Dear Reader, that verification up to you.

And while you're about it, check your own preconceptions, too - it's no accident that the loony USB-hating evangelicals story was served up for Guardian readers, many of whom would have no difficulty in believing that religious fundamentalists would come up with some crazy-assed idea like that. It's frighteningly similar to the way that many Daily Mail journalists and readers are ready to uncritically believe that shops are waging war on plastic toy pigs in order to appease Muslims and politically correct liberals.

Lazy, incompetent journalism only flourishes with the reader's consent.

Circa 980: The Conquest of Paradise

Archaeological fragments combined with passages from the Norse sagas have long suggested that the Vikings reached the Americas centuries before Christopher Columbus. Now there's genetic evidence for this early contact:

Researchers said today that a woman from the Americas probably arrived in Iceland 1,000 years ago, leaving behind genes that are reflected in about 80 Icelanders today....

"As the island was practically isolated from the 10th century onwards, the most probable hypothesis is that these genes correspond to an Amerindian woman who was taken from America by the Vikings some time around the year 1000," Carles Lalueza-Fox, of the Pompeu Fabra university in Spain, said.

As reported in The Guardian (via). At least, that's the simplified version. As Discover points out, it's actually a bit more complicated than that:

The core of the article [A new subclade of mtDNA haplogroup C1 found in icelanders: Evidence of pre-columbian contact?] treads the confusing gray zone between rock-hard precise science and the more vague and intuitive truths of history. One the rock-hard part, there is a huge literature on maternal genetic lineages, the mtDNA....But synthesizing this clarity with human history is more difficult, because we are dependent on the bias of text, and even more tendentious clues from oral history and archaeology.

For example, it's certain that there were Viking settlements in Greenland, which eventually perished, probably because of the arrival of harsher conditions in the shape of a "mini ice age" which the Viking settlers, unlike the native Inuit, lacked the survival skills to cope with. Maybe there were some Amerindian genes in the Greenlandic population when the Vikings arrived - after all, via the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, Greenland isn't far from the North American mainland.

Anyway, eventually the Discovery article gets fed up with such speculation and asks the big question on everyone's lips:

Finally, does this explain Bjork?

If it does, they could go on to have a shot at the following queries (humanity's Top 10 "unanswerable" questions, according to Ask Jeeves):

1. What is the meaning of life?

2. Is there a God?

3. Do blondes have more fun?

4. What is the best diet?

5. Is there anybody out there?

6. Who is the most famous person in the world?

7. What is love?

8. What is the secret to happiness?

9. Did Tony Soprano die?

10. How long will I live?

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Blog of the day

I've just discovered a rather splendid blog. Here are some tasters:

Excerpt 1 (especially for the current generation of "Honey I Shrunk The State" libertarians, to be filed under "I think you'll find it's a little more complicated than you imagine"):

Money and property rights are both creations of the state. If the state were abolished, neither would exist. The ‘money’ point is obvious, but the same applies to property: the fact that you happened to own a nice house would be irrelevant, because someone bigger than you would come along and tell you to get out of it or he’d kill you

In other words, when people complain about the money that the state takes off them in taxes, comparing it to their pre-tax paycheque, they’re talking complete and utter nonsense. The correct figure for comparison is the amount of money that they’d have in Hobbes-world. Which, apart from musclebound psychotic thugs, would be vastly less than they’d have under any plausible liberal-ish-democratic-ish society.

Excerpt 2 (a precis of a Reuters article, to be filed under "interesting fact I didn't previously know"):

During the Korean War, Congress enacted an excess profits tax meant to keep military contractors from, well, profiteering. In its infinite wisdom, Congress defined excess profits as anything above what a company had been making during the peacetime years 1946-1949.

 Boeing was mostly a military contractor in those days (Lockheed and Douglas dominated the passenger-plane business), and had made hardly any money at all from 1946 to 1949. So pretty much any profits it earned during the Korean conflict were by definition excess, and its effective tax rate in 1951 was going to be 82%…

It being 1951, Boeing instead sucked it up and let the tax incentives inadvertently devised by Congress steer it toward a bold and fateful decision. CEO Bill Allen decided, and was able to persuade Boeing’s board, to plow all those profits and more into developing what became the 707, a company-defining and world-changing innovation.

And finally, I'm regretfully filing this under "something I've thought for a long time, but never got round to blogging about myself":

Since I’ve already tweeted that it annoys me, as a left-wing kind of person, that some people in the 1980s hated Mrs Thatcher so much that they opposed the most reasonable and fair war that the UK has ever fought, I thought I’d make clear on my blog that anyone who opposes it is pretty much evil.
Back in 1986, I remember watching England being beaten by Argentina in the World Cup quarter finals and listening to left-wing friends cheering Maradonna's infamous "hand of God" goal. It was a reflexive gesture against Thatcher's war and the bellicose jingoism that it inspired. But the thing about reflexes is that they are mindless. As a bit of a Billy Bragg-listening lefty myself, I was sick of hearing about the war and sicker still about the way it had rescued the hated Thatcher government from electoral oblivion, but I also realised that it was about as just as war ever can be.

Nobody lived on the islands before the Brits decided to plant a flag on them back in the 19th Century, so it wasn't a question of colonising downtrodden locals who had a right of self determination. Unless somebody can prove that the native penguins have a strong opinion about which piece of coloured cloth on a stick flies over their islands, it's up to the islanders whether they want to be British, Argentine or whatever else they damn well want. The settlers overwhelmingly wanted to be British, yet they were invaded by the troops of a brutal, undemocratic military junta that wanted to annexe their homeland by force.

You can bewail the loss of life, but it's still not unjust to eject a repressive, near-fascist junta from islands they've invaded against the clearly expressed will of the islands' population.  The Thatcher government can be criticized for the Falklands war, but only in the narrower sense of not preventing it in the first place. By seeming way too relaxed about South America's more unpleasant right-wing juntas before the war and by withdrawing HMS Endurance, the only British naval asset in the South Atlantic, you could argue that the Conservatives gave the Galtieri regime the impression that Britain would be unwilling or unable to defend the islands against the attack it was considering.

This is what I should have said to my fellow lefties back in the eighties but, to my shame, didn't.Well done to Banditry for putting the record straight.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off

Saddling students with crippling levels of life-long debt and effectively making higher education the preseve of the very rich and a few charity cases may be regrettable, but there is no alternative in the real world and our "pampered" students should just shut up and stop whingeing. Right?

Well, in France, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Spain they seem to have found perfectly satisfactory alternatives. Of course, as far as large sections of the Tory Party and the British press are concerned, the rest of Europe doesn't exist in the real world.

Endlessly repeating 'it's harsh, but there's simply no alternative' when there clearly are plenty of alternatives in plain view just across the Channel is worse than just wrong - it's bordering on the delusional.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Milton Keynes as Ballardian consumerist dystopia

Over the last couple of days, I’ve been treated to a surreal sight. The roads in this area (Newport Pagnell and the North East end of Milton Keynes) have been lined by people wearing giant pizza boxes. It’s a promotional stunt by a well-known pizza outlet.

 Posted strategically on both sides of the road, by every roundabout, the shivering human billboards wave at passing motorists, some with apparent good cheer, some robotically.  Muffled up against the November chill, most of the faces are reduced to a pair of eyes looking out from between hat and scarf, although a few have taken to wearing Spiderman masks. Whether the masks are just for a laugh, or a disguise, I don’t know.

It doesn’t make me want to rush out and order a pizza, but as a faintly chilling piece of dystopian  performance art, about the commodification of human beings, it works pretty well.

Cameron condemns badly-dressed student vandals

On Thursday Prime Minister David Cameron condemned as ‘unseemly’ violence at a demonstration in London against his government's plans to increase tuition fees for students.

Speaking to the BBC, the Prime Minister said:

I saw pictures of people who were bent on violence and on destruction and on destroying private property and that is completely unacceptable.

Speaking as a former Bullingdonian, I fully accept that a young chap may sometimes need to engage in a bit of high-spirited horseplay and trash the occasional restaurant in order to let off a little steam, but it is quite clear that the students who broke into Millbank Tower were inappropriately dressed for the occasion. None of the individuals I saw on the television had made the slightest effort to don a navy-blue tailcoat with a velvet collar, a dapper waistcoat or even so much as a club tie.

No Bullingdonian would have behaved in such an unbecoming manner. As any gentleman could have told those students, the correct form when organising a destructive rampage is to book a private dining room under an assumed name, get bally well plastered, then wreck the place. After a rollicking good night, one’s valet should be dispatched to the premises in question, bearing a cheque sufficient to engage tradespeople to make good the damage, along with a friendly reminder that any restaurateur foolish enough to consider contacting the press or police, would incur the wrath of one’s pater, who could make life dashed uncomfortable.

Such vulgar behaviour by students is a clear vindication of our settled intention to put higher education beyond of the reach of the lower orders, who clearly lack the breeding and savoir-faire to benefit from a sojourn in the jolly old halls of academe.

We need to make sure that this behaviour does not go unpunished and, should the police prove incapable of keeping these oiks off our property, I’ve a mind to order my manservant to go and give them all a damn good thrashing.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Yet another slap in the face

This just makes me want to bury my head in my hands and weep:

Deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman has faced anger from Labour MPs after her decision to disown expelled MP Phil Woolas...

According to one MP present at the Monday meeting, Ms Harman was described to her face by one colleague as "a disgrace". Another suggested she should "consider her position" - political code for resignation, BBC Radio 5 Live's chief political correspondent John Pienaar said.

A senior figure in the Labour party takes a decisive, principled stand and says in no uncertain terms that the Party should have nothing more to do with Woolas' disgraceful campaign of racist lies designed to 'get the white vote angry' and this bunch of chimps start hurling abuse at her. The government we've got is lamentable enough - what we don't need now is an opposition stuffed with unprincipled clowns who slap people in the face for displaying an ounce of guts and common decency.

For old times' sake here's the most memorable moment in the career of the odious nonentity Woolas, as he looks suitably uncomfortable after having been publicly slapped down by Joanna Lumley for trying to do the dirty on the Ghurkas. 

Another slap in the face

First, we were told that being given a box of Milk Tray by a friend or relation was no better than a slap in the face. Today's proposition is that being denied the continuing TV spectacle of political has-been Ann Widdecome allowing herself to be dragged around a dance floor like a hundredweight of spuds in a sequined sack by some grinning Rob Brydon look-alike, in a desperate bid to re-launch herself as the nation's number one celebrity eccentric is also a slap in the face.

Surely, no sane person could be remotely upset by either of these eventualities? Or is there some sort of competition going on, with a prize for the person who can find the most bizarrely trivial circumstance to be offended by? I just hope first prize isn't a box of Milk Tray, or there'll be tears before bedtime...

A modest proposal

What sort of work will Iain Duncan Smith's army of serfs be set to? It's reported to be necessary but unglamorous labour:

Scroungers to clear rubbish for £1 an hour

The feckless unemployed will be forced to take part in a punishing U.S.-style 'workfare' scheme involving gardening, clearing litter and other menial tasks for just £1 an hour in a new crackdown on scroungers.

As gloatingly reported in the Daily Fail. There's just a little bit of a problem with this policy - it takes work opportunities away from employers and self-employed people in the private sector, who might otherwise do some of this necessary stuff for a living wage:

There are lots of people who work as street cleaners, toilet cleaners, gardeners and other unglamorous and poorly paid jobs. If these policies go ahead, they will lose their jobs. No employer in their right mind would pay £6 or £7 per hour to employ street cleaners if they could get an unemployed person to do it for free.

Comments donpaskini. This is a bit of a problem when you're expecting the private sector (already being hit by a hefty VAT increase) to replace the jobs lost by the -at least - 610,000 public sector workers you'll be throwing out of work.

My solution - leave the street cleaners who still have a job to earn an honest bob and 'volunteer' some of the army of unemployed to perform the sort of unnecessary, but glamorous, jobs that would otherwise just waste taxpayers' money. For example, why pay somebody an undisclosed, but no doubt generous, taxpayer-funded salary to be David Cameron's personal photographer, when some random unemployed person could come along and take a few snaps for next to nothing?

Nobody loses out seriously. The professional photographer might be a bit miffed, but as someone with the skill and contacts to get such a high profile gig in the first place, this person should find it easy to find alternative work (e.g. a commission from David Cameron to take pictures of David Cameron, paid for with some of David Cameron's own considerable stash of cash). OK, some of the pictures taken by an unskilled claimant might catch the PM with his eyes shut, chop his head off or be a bit shaky but, hey, didn't he remind us that we were all in this together? What better way for Dave to show that he's just an ordinary bloke like the rest of us than to sacrifice his slick professional photos in favour of the sort of dodgy holiday snaps that grace normal people's photo albums.

If the photos of David Cameron were no good, nobody would really care anyway. And if, after a bit of practice, a hitherto unskilled person developed into a half-way decent photographer, then we'd be addressing the skills shortage, one job at a time. And the headlines would get better:

Scroungers to photograph millionaires for £1 an hour

The feckless unemployed will be forced to take part in a punishing Hello Magazine style photo-shoot involving menial tasks like taking pictures of a brilliant Old Etonian with a taste for the good life for just £1 an hour in a new crackdown on scroungers.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Helicopter view

Because everybody likes pictures of helicopters. At least that's what I conclude from the fact that this is by far the most popular photograph I've ever posted on Panoramio, with 4,970 views to date, (over three times more views than any other photo I've posted). The location, in the Shetland Isles, probably helped (the most popular six photos were all taken there).

Which is all slightly annoying, as the Shetland photographs are the only ones I didn't take myself - my partner took them whilst on a trip to Lerwick, where she was overseeing an Open University degree ceremony. Ho, hum...

Sunday, 7 November 2010

This is a slap in the face

Seriously, stay away from this, if you’re going to buy some chocolates for someone you care about, this is a slap in the face to them, spend a little bit extra and get them something really good. If you’re reading this Cadbury, I have a message for you: Wake up.

Seriously, angry chocolate reviewer, life's too short to get that worked up about a box of Milk Tray. Fortunately, Cecil, The Straight Dope's polymath-in-residence is on hand with some rather calmer chocolate analysis.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Factiod goes up in smoke

Following on from yesterday's post -  it was illegal in England, until 1959, NOT to celebrate the anniversary of Guy Fawkes' arrest - fact or fiction?

Well, the QI Forum has come up trumps.  The Act of Parliament in question was the Observance of 5th November Act 1605. I was pointed to this article:

Also known as "Firework Night" and "Bonfire Night," November 5th was designated by King James I (via an Act of Parliament) as a day of thanksgiving for "the joyful day of deliverance." This Act remained in force until 1859.

So, the Act was repealed in1859, rather than 1959 - as confirmed by this (and several references to the Act having been in force for 250 years):

The publication in 1857 of author David Jardine's A Narrative of the Gunpowder Plot only stoked the flames [of anti-Catholic sentiment] higher, and in 1859 the thanksgiving prayer of 5 November contained in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was removed, and the 1606 Act repealed.
As for it being "illegal" not to celebrate Fawkes' arrest. I haven't yet seen the full wording of the Act, (passed in 1606), but Wikipedia simply states that the Act 'called for a public, annual thanksgiving for the failure of the Plot'. This sounds way more plausible than Parliament trying to achieve the impossible and police the observance of a national celebration (imagine the magistrates' November backlog as they tried to process every subject of the crown accused of not celebrating the failure of the11/5 terror plot). I'm guessing that the "illegal not to celebrate Guy Fawkes' Night" meme was kicked off by nothing more than an imprecise description of the Act. Perhaps, given the sectarian origins of the celebration, some disgruntled Catholic's account of "having to" celebrate the arrest and execution of a coreligionist might have been the source of the "fact".

Only a reading of the Act's wording could kill this one stone dead, but I'm now 99%+ sure that the "strange but true - it was once illegal not to celebrate Guy Fawkes' Night" factoid is going straight onto the bonfire of General Ignorance. Along, it would seem, with Wayne Rooney...

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Remember, remember the Fifth of November (or else)

Various web sites, ranging in authoritativeness from The Big Site of Amazing Facts to BBC Cambridgeshire, state that it was illegal in England, until 1959, NOT to celebrate the anniversary of Guy Fawkes' arrest. I've done a little light googling and seen this alleged fact repeated quite a few times, but I haven't been able to find any more concrete details about this law. Further exhaustive research (asking my mum if she'd ever heard of such a thing) drew a blank, so I've posted a query on one of QI's talk forums to see whether anybody there knows anything about it.

If this turns out to be a fact, not just a piece of General Ignorance, I'm intrigued - what a bizarre law. What would have constituted a "celebration" for the purposes of staying on the right side of the law? It must have been a bugger to enforce.

Guy Fawkes was educated at St. Peters School in York, a private school that exists to this day and apparently has a policy of not celebrating the arrest and execution of an "old boy" - I wonder whether the school ever ended up on the wrong side of the law. More info to follow, if I find it.

They're in lurve...

They pretend to hate one another, but Spiked e-zine and the Daily Mail clearly fancy each other something rotten. Janet Street-Porter's infamously idiotic article dismissing depression as a middle class fad could easily settle down and make itself at home with Spiked and Brendan O'Neill can whip up a tasty 'political correctness gone mad'  confection that would grace the Mail's bumper buffet of bonkers. Those two really should get together. They're made for each other...

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

'I was somewhat tickled'

I recall that a few years ago I was somewhat tickled by a quote from slovenly artist Tracy Emin, as she unveiled a stick with a sparrow on it in Liverpool (funded by BBC licence payers to the tune of £60,000… ah those carefree New Labour days). She warbled: “I’ve always had the idea that birds are the angels of this earth and that they represent freedom.”

I was tickled because “birds are the angels of this earth”  struck me as just the sort of thing that Madeleine Basset from the Jeeves and Wooster stories might say, in addition to the stars being God’s daisy chain and that every time a fairy sneezes a wee baby is born.

Top blogging from Brit in The Dabbler. Brit goes on to contrast Emin's saccharine little angel on a stick with Ted Hughes' colder description of birds as half machine, half pitiless force of nature in his  poem Thrushes:

Terrifying are the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn,
More coiled steel than living – a poised
Dark deadly eye, those delicate legs
Triggered to stirrings beyond sense – with a start, a bounce, a stab
Overtake the instant and drag out some writhing thing.
No indolent procrastinations and no yawning states,
No sighs or head-scratchings. Nothing but bounce and stab
And a ravening second.

I think Hughes is almost spot on there - almost, because his description always makes me think of starlings rather than thrushes - with their sharp beaks, jerky but strictly controlled movements and metallic, iridescent plumage, there's something automaton-like about starlings. And when thousands of the robotic little blighters flock together, there's no doubting that they're a primal force of nature...

Geting out of bed on the wrong side

I'm a generally a morning person, more active and (relatively) alert it in the first half of the day. Some mornings are better than others, though, and there are days when I'm awake ridiculously early, but would prefer to dive straight back into unconsciousness, rather than spending the pre-dawn darkness fending off the raging tyrannosaurus of despair armed only with the puny toothpick of hope. After a shower, a cup of coffee and bit of activity, I generally get over it, but I was interested to read a blog post about what may be happening to the brain on mornings like that:

Suppose that, for whatever reason, you woke up during REM sleep, but your serotonin cells didn't wake up quick enough, leaving you awake, but with no serotonin (a situation which never normally occurs, remember). How would that feel?

I didn't know that the brain produces less and less serotonin as you go into REM sleep, so I'm grateful  to Neuroskeptic for the information and the theory that a disturbed sleep pattern could mean in waking a serotonin-deprived condition.

The post is speculative, but it makes it seem worth trying to beat the early morning blues by staying a up just a little bit later than normal in the evening, (like most morning people, I tend to go early to bed). Unsurprisingly, people tend to sleep better after being sightly sleep deprived and they also tend to go into REM sleep earlier in the sleep cycle. If a person was doing most of their REM sleep earlier and tired, they might get through that serotonin-deprived phase of the sleep cycle in blissful unconsciousness rather than snapping awake in the wee small hours without the benefit of an important mood-regulating neurotransmitter.

Going to bed tired and triggering a different sleep pattern might also be one of the fringe benefits of taking a bit more exercise, during the day (besides the immediate natural high and the social context of exercising). Finally, just knowing that an early morning feeling of hopeless doom may, at least in part, be a passing illusion caused by a quirk of brain chemistry is a cheering reality check.

I was also quite interested to see the lack of consensus on whether or not REM sleep is important.- the Neuroskeptic thinks it might be dispensable, whilst somebody in the comments section clearly thinks that's a completely barmy notion - nice to see a healthy battle of ideas going on there.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Womble of Westminster

I am proud to be ginger and rodents do valuable work cleaning up the mess others leave behind.

Members of the commentariat, like this one in The Speccy have been impressed by Danny Alexander's allegedly witty response to Harriet Harman's 'ginger rodent' insult. Some people are easily impressed.

Harman's original comment wasn't the smartest thing she's ever said - making fun of ginger people in Scotland was about as astute as naming an accident-prone submarine "Astute", but Danny boy's sound bite was hardly Dorothy Parker either. Rodents 'do valuable work cleaning up the mess others leave behind'? I think Danny's getting rodents mixed up with the Wombles. Maybe he believes that mice and rats just flit around the house like furry 1970's environmentalists, doing a little light dusting, taking out the bins and sorting out the the recycling.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Trick or treat

Parents groups have begun lobbying government to insist that the entire country is CRB checked in preparation for them to take their inappropriately dressed children to the houses of complete strangers for Halloween....

Caroline Farquharson, spokeswomen for Altringham Concerned Parents Association said, “It’s simply unacceptable that we can’t be sure of the safety of our children when we send them out at night begging for sweets from the doorsteps of complete strangers... And we are simply no longer prepared to send them out alone in the dark to threaten and harass our neighbours in an environment which could pose a potential risk to their safety.”

From this spot-on parody, summing up exactly why I'm more of a Guy Fawkes night guy.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Get me to the church on time

I've never met anybody who wanted to marry a table or a clock. I didn't even know that such people existed. Luckily, there's a timely heads up on the looming menace of furniture betrothal from Rebecca Kleefisch, the Republican candidate for Wisconsin lieutenant governor, as reported in the Wisconsin Daily News, (via) .

Bang go our traditional nursery rhymes:

Hickory dickory dock
The mouse (with a fully functioning human brain)* ran up the clock
The clock and mouse
Became espoused
And, supported by taxpayer-funded domestic partner benefits, lived happily ever after...
Won't somebody please think of the children?

*OK,  it's old news, but the Christine O'Donnell human-mouse hybrid vid was still the funniest thing on HIGNFY last night....

Thursday, 28 October 2010

The price of bread and circuses

There is a really interesting new book by an economist Raghuram Rajan called Fault Lines. He argues that what led to the change was not just greedy banks, but growing social inequality in the West.

And - to put it crudely - when western governments were threatened by growing protests and dissatisfaction with this inequality, they simply bought the people off by giving them a mass of cheap money.

Raghuram Rajan has an extraordinary statistic. That if you look at the the growth in real incomes between 1976 and 2007, 58% of it went to the top 1%.

Faced with this, governments made a political choice. Rather than reform society, they removed all restrictions, gave up on their moral disapproval, and allowed a system to be created by the bankers that let everyone borrow.

It was better to give in and allow the "little people" to borrow rather than let them keep on striking and threaten social order. And what's more you could make lots of money out of it.
The BBC's Adam Curtis, back in June, summarising Raghuram G. Rajan’s Fault Lines. Rajan's book has just won the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award. Yet the housing bubble, which was an integral part of the debt crisis. is being quietly airbrushed out of the picture and our patrician rulers are endlessly - if inaccurately - trying to pin the blame for our troubles on the welfare state and public services that at least went some way towards ironing out the massive inequalities that caused this almighty mess in the first place.

It'll be interesting to see what happens now that the social lubricant of worry-free debt has dried up. "Interesting" as in the famous curse "may you live in interesting times"...

Friday, 22 October 2010

'As bright as Moscow on a cloudy day in June'

But quite a bit hotter...

Punching above their weight

A former British special forces soldier speaks out on some of the kit being used in the Afghan war. For a change, he's quite impressed:

“I’d say the appeal is pretty simple,” he says. “You can’t underestimate the value of having a vehicle that is fast, will never break down, and is strong enough to mount a heavy weapon in the back.”

Oh, wait a minute - he's talking about the enemy's kit. Namely, a Toyota Hi Lux with a big gun on the back. To use a tired expression, somebody's 'punching above their weight' - but it's not the Brits.

We probably wouldn't want British squaddies riding around in those things - at least, not until Top Gear demonstrates that they're also roadside bomb proof (Jeremy Clarkson + Improvised Explosive Device = pure television gold), but it's still a graphic illustration of how much defence spending is wasted on kit that's not that much better than something you could buy cheaply off the shelf (after all, as numerous grieving relatives have found out in tragic circumstances, a lot of expensive military-spec vehicles used by our armed forces haven't been IED-proof either).

Plentiful, good enough, and here right now might serve our forces better than perfect, scarce and probably ready some time this decade.

Although, if the exit strategy from Afghanistan involves bringing the bad guys back into government, maybe we could save even more money by just bringing everyone back home from Afghanistan right now. Human rights in Afghanistan have been abysmal, and elections are better than warlords and crazed fundamentalists, but when I read things like this, I wonder how long any changes for the better will last:
The new negotiations involve agreements to allow Taliban leaders positions in the Afghan government and the withdrawal of US and NATO forces according to an agreed timetable, the newspaper said.
The White House on Wednesday backed the idea of Afghan government reconciliation talks with the Taliban...
(AFP)  Maybe, when NATO has packed up and gone home, the Taliban ministers will play nicely and not get up to any naughty human rights abuses or seizing power, but I wouldn't bet the house on it.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Lightbulb joke

There's a very, very old joke that goes like this:

Q: How many Microsoft engineers does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: None - Microsoft will just redefine darkness as the new industry standard

It just popped into my head when I read this:

A German entrepreneur is bypassing a European Union ban on light bulbs of more than 60 watts by marketing his own brand as mini heaters.


Terrify your kids with a giant robotic clown

No, nothing to do with the spending review this time - been there, done that. But anybody who doesn't find this seriously disturbing probably needs to be securely fastened into a straitjacket, topped off with one of those Hannibal Lecter-style anti-biting masks.

I predict a string of lawsuits if the severely traumatized child victims ever make it to adulthood.


Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Goldmans bankers are lovin' it

An advertisment spotted on Facebook today, of all days. Well, I suppose the Goldmans bankers must be among the very few sections of society celebrating their good fortune today:

The banking industry appeared to have got off lightly in the spending review even as George Osborne pledged to extract the "maximum sustainable" tax revenue from the sector in the coming years.

As the chancellor prepared to announce details of his £2.5bn a year levy on bank balance sheets tomorrow, he won approval in the City for making clear that he was aware of the risks that some firms might leave London if the tax regime was more draconian than in other financial centres.

In contrast to his blitz on benefit-dependent sections of society, Osborne did not spell out any fresh policies on banks. Although he acknowledged public anger about high bonuses, he did not demand banks reduce payouts to staff.

Writes Jill Treanor.

'Ever wondered what sort of people are members of lifestyle concierge services?' the breathless advertising copy reads. A fair question, to which the straight answer is 'a bunch of mindless jerks who'll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes'.

And just in case they haven't rubbed our noses in it enough, the copywriters go on to say:

The only limit to our service is your imagination. Here are just a few ways that Ten can help make life easier and more enjoyable:

   1. Our great relationships with the world’s best restaurants mean we can book tables that no-one else can
   2. Our entertainment team can put you on the guest-list for the best bars and clubs or help you plan your own party
   3. Thanks to our contacts in the industry, we can get you access to the hottest tickets, sold out events and VIP parties or film-premieres. We can also let you know whenever tickets for your favourite acts are about to go on sale
   4. Our travel team specialise in bespoke and luxury holiday packages and our destination specialists can advise on the best restaurants, things to see and places to visit
   5. For emergency assistance abroad, we’re only a phone call away. Our team speaks 19 languages fluently and we are available 24 hours a day
   6. Our motor team can help you whether you’re looking to buy a supercar or upgrade the family run-around
   7. If you’re looking to treat yourself, we could organise for you to have your own personal shopper, or our health and beauty specialists can arrange a visit to one of our favourite spas
   8. Use our reminder service for birthdays or special occasions - a member of our retail team can also recommend gifts or source you those hard-to-find items
   9. Moving house can be a stressful experience, but we can provide support in the run-up and on the day. Once you’ve moved in, our home team can find you good, reliable professional help, in the form of cleaners, gardeners, nannies and maintenance companies
  10. If you have children, our dedicated family experts can find you last-minute babysitters, recommend personal tutors, and offer advice on a variety of topics

Looks like those investment bankers are really having to tighten their belts along with the rest of us...

He shoots - he scores!

It’s weird; we’re having a drip-fed disembowelling of the public sector and above it all looms the gibbous, lowering visage of Wayne Rooney. It’s all round doom here in Aburdistan, like a horror movie where the baboon escapes from confinement when the villagers are distracted by the witch burning. In the end, everything is destroyed.

Some more top quality spending apocalypse porn, this time served up on the Blood and Treasure blog.

Listening to the Spending Review: Shorter version

Lots of middle-aged fat white men who are all going to be completely untouched by the cuts, sitting around in a nice warm studio talking about why everyone else needs to be dumped out on the scrapheap as if they really do share the pain of it all - HIT SELF IN FACE WITH BOTTLE, COLLAPSE IN HEAP ON BLOODSTAINED CARPET, SOBBING ABOUT GENERAL ELECTION RESULT, WAKE UP AT 3AM, HATE SELF, REPEAT.

Anton Vowl just summed up the whole wretched mess more succinctly than I did - the swine.

‘We are the radicals now’

Today, radical extremists launched an unprecedented series of  unprovoked, devastating, co-ordinated attacks on British jobs and public services. Almost as stunning as the attacks themselves, was the shock realization that the enemy isn’t an overseas power, or foreign terrorist group, but a close-knit cell of homegrown extremists, with strong links to the British establishment.

The attacks have stirred fears that elite British universities have become a breeding ground for extremists who operate through private networks and campus dining societies rather than high-profile university political societies.

Why did the ringleaders, David Cameron, Gideon Osborne and Nick Clegg, three enormously wealthy, college-educated young men with a bright future ahead of them, allow themselves to be lured into such a destructive plot?

The new radical ideology seems to be an elite phenomenon, based on money and contacts made at exclusive schools like Eton, St Pauls and Westminster, rather than a product of the presumed grievances of the downtrodden.

There is evidence to suggest that Cameron and Osborne were radicalized while still students at Oxford and that conditions at Oxford at that time were conducive to such radicalization. Despite persistent rumours that he joined the Cambridge University Conservative Association between 1986 and 1987, the third plotter, Clegg, seems to have been a more naïve individual, only recently drawn into the extremist ideology of waging jihad against public services. But by the spring of 2010, all of them were burning with excitement to strike at the heart of British society.

At University, Cameron and Clegg were both keen tennis players, while the pudgy-faced Osborne struck contemporaries as being entirely unremarkable, if well spoken and affable. Former fellow students have professed astonishment at the three’s involvement in the October 20th incident, although some have seen Cameron and Osborne’s membership of the secretive, restaurant-trashing Bullingdon Club as a chilling warning of their appetite for destruction.

According to our security correspondent, Nick Robinson, Cameron, Osborne and Clegg held meetings with their militant followers this September and October in order to make final preparations for today’s attack.

In their propaganda, the extremists have sought to place the responsibility for waging an ideological jihad against the public sector upon the British public themselves. In a time of austerity, this is seen as more cost-effective than having mujahideen come from other parts of the world to attack the UK.

Over the next decade, the influence that such extremists are able to bear on the rest of society is likely to increase greatly. Without setting off one explosive device or spilling a drop of blood, extremists are able to disrupt the life of a nation and its citizens in ways that few of us can yet imagine.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

T'aint what a horse looks like...

The Uffington White Horse has been caught up in an identity battle after it was suggested it could be a dog.

Retired vet Olaf Swarbrick has said the ancient carving in the Oxfordshire hillside is not anatomically correct and has more canine-like features.

According to the BBC. The National Trust aren't convinced by the Swarbrick's theory - Kate Blaxhall of the National Trust still thinks it's a horse, albeit a very stylised one. I tend to agree - I'm no vet, but the figure looks like a horse to me. A horse with poetic licence, a horse pared down to its essence, but a horse nonetheless.

As one of Terry Pratchett's characters once said, 'T'aint what a horse looks like, it's what a horse be'.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Fright night

 They [adults/parents] should not carve menacing or scary faces into pumpkins, but give them smiley expressions and crosses cut into the foreheads instead, the campaign advises.

I've tried to imagine what this idea from various bishops keen to re-brand Hallow e'en as a "Night of Light", purged of all pagan devilry, would look like. Frankly, the result looks way more sinister than some schoolkid mucking about in a witch cozzie, or any of the other mischief that seems to be upsetting the clergy. I usually ignore the whole thing, anyway - I'm more of Guy Fawkes' night guy.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Stacey Island

No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were;
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.

John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII

Shorter version:

No man is an island... apart from Barry