Wednesday, 29 September 2010


Yes, it's a picture of a satellite dish. Screwed to a tree. It sort of captures the spirit of a certain place. Let me explain.

We recently spent a long weekend camping. We decided to head for Christchurch, on the grounds of relative accessibility and the area's reputation for having a generally warm, sunny micro climate. Weather-wise, we more or less hit the jackpot and enjoyed weather as sunny and temperate as you'd have got anywhere in the UK in late September.

The camp site we rolled up at was pretty exceptional, too, although not necessarily in a good way. We picked a secluded-looking site off a forested road. It had its good points - a very clean shower / toilet block (the showers, at 20p a pop were feeble but adequate). An on-site shop and decent facilities, too.  What we didn't notice until after we'd parted with our money at reception (no refunds, natch) was that, screened by the surrounding trees, but only about half a kilometer up the road, was the main runway of Bournemouth International Airport. Also hidden by the trees on the other side of the site was the thundering traffic of the A338.

Almost undaunted, we pitched up (we recently moved up from a tent to a folding camper, an inelegant-looking trailer tent-style affair that goes up a lot more quickly than a tent, is reasonably spacious and has the option of an electric hook-up facility for those little luxuries like kettles, toasters and such). We're used to jolly, informal camp sites with tents or a mixture of tents, caravans, camper vans and in-between contraptions like the one we were using, but this place seemed to be exclusively used by people with huge caravans and recreational vehicles, most of them accompanied by new and expensive-looking vehicles, packed together like sardines in a tin.

 It became clear from quite early on that, although the management welcomed our money, our actual presence in our down-market folding contraption was rather less welcome. We asked for a double pitch, as we had friends arriving the next day. No, nothing was available (except for an exceptionally gloomy patch of ground at the thundering traffic end of the site). When our friends, who have a rather smart camper van, eventually turned up, they were greeted with considerably more enthusiasm and a bit of obsequious fluttering ("yes, of course we can find room for your [insert name of up-market recreational vehicle here]"). Old memories of Basil Fawlty falling over himself to attend to a guest who signed in as "Lord Melbury" bubbled to the surface at this point.

When it became clear that our friends had actually come to meet the people in the rather common camper van, the warmth of their reception cooled, reaching close to absolute zero by the end of our stay. Just before we went home, several bottles of milk were delivered to the site's reception and, apparently one went missing. The management recounted the story to our friends in a frosty tone that implied that the low life in the folding camper or their associates were prime suspects in the case of The Great Milk Theft. 'Of course, we'll have it all on CCTV' they announced, with the triumphant menace of a TV detective revealing a damning piece of evidence.

We didn't enjoy the gentle background noises of wind and birdsong that make camping a relaxing experience, but the traffic rumble was more or less bearable. The aircraft noise was something else. Aircraft of all sizes from light planes to Ryanair passenger jets buzzed us day and night. Boeing 737 screaming a few hundred metres over your head at 2am? We got it...

Despite the campsite, we had quite an enjoyable time, making the most of the sunny days on or near the beach at Mudeford, Swange and Boscombe. Paddling, picnicking and taking the boy on a steam train. It could have been far worse.

And even being in a rather snooty, below-the-flight-path camp site, overshadowed by ranks of vast, tightly-packed caravans, couldn't take away the pleasure of early morning bacon and eggs cooked over a camping stove in the open air. Even if the morning air did smell faintly of aviation fuel. I love the smell of unleaded paraffin oil (Jet A-1) in the morning...

 Being on a site that primarily catered for touring caravans was a novel experience. I was particularly impressed by the quirky names they give to caravan brands, which give an interesting window into the minds of customers, marketers and manufacturers.

There's the frankly aspirational "Sterling Elite". I'm guessing that the "Elite" is rather higher up the mobile home pecking order than some of the company's other products, such as the entertainingly named "Sterling Eccles". The conflation of the of the aspirational and the homely seems to be a bit of a recurring theme - the "Magnum Mendip" is another minor branding classic. The romance of the open road goes slightly further afield with the "Senator Oklahoma" and boldly goes where only a few men have gone before with the space-age "Lunar Lexon". Closer to home you can relax to the soothing sound of the "Fleetwood Sonata".

A must for the more assertive caravanner is the impressively named  "Swift Conqueror", which sounds less like a mobile home than the personification of a vanquishing hero from some martial panegyric ('All hail thee, Swift Conqueror...'). Mind you, the defining characteristic of poetic license is stretching the truth, as any driver who's been stuck behind a caravan on a long, winding single carriageway road will tell you.

My personal favourite, though is the "Buccaneer Cruiser". It might look like a fibreglass box on wheels, featuring a satellite dish, a middle-aged couple and a porta-potty, but it's really a pirate ship! Crewed by the most desperate cut-throats ever to sail the Spanish Main! Yaaar!

And, nestling among the mighty Swift Conquerors and Buccaneer Cruisers, sat our plucky little folding camper. It's called a "Pennine Apollo", by the way, a name almost as silly as "Medip Magnum" or "Sterling Eccles", but it's one I can live with. It sounds like a name Wallace and Gromit might have given their built-in-the-garden-shed moon rocket. As an added bonus, the former owners decorated it with a piratical skull and crossbones sticker, which we haven't removed. All hands on deck, ye scurvy swabs and stand by to board the Buccaneer Cruiser!

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Humpty McDumpty

Spotted in a McDonald's recently. I first came across the definition of a McJob in Generation X:


A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one.

I used to think Douglas Coupland just made that one up, but a quick visit to Wikipedia suggests that term was in use before Coupland's 1991 novel:

McJob" was in use at least as early as 1986, according to the Oxford English Dictionary  (OED), which defines it as "An unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector."

Wikipedia isn't necessarily accurate or definitive in all cases, but I see no reason to doubt it in this case. 

Unsurprisingly, McDonald's don't like the phrase. A couple of years or so back, I remember hearing that the fast food giant's corporate PR goons were lobbying to have the dictionary definition changed to something more complementary.

I'd forgotten all about this campaign until recently, when I saw McDonald's using the phrase "McJob" on a piece of official promotional material in one of their establishments. McDonald's are still putting a lot of effort into spinning the phrase "McJob" to mean something positive. When I Googled McJob just now, top page rank went to the official McDonald's site, second place to an official petition from the spin-meisters at the Golden Arches, complaining bitterly that the dictionary definition of "McJob" is 'out of date' and 'insulting' to people working in McDonalds. Netizens are invited to add their names to a docment asking dictionaries to change to the following corporate-approved, definition of "McJob":

It’s time the dictionary definition of McJob changed to reflect a job that is stimulating, rewarding and offers genuine opportunities for career progression and skills that last a lifetime.

In an even more bizarre twist:

McJOBS (plural, uppercase) was first registered as a trademark  by McDonald's on May 16, 1984, as a name and image for "training handicapped persons as restaurant employees". The trademark lapsed in February 1992, and was declared "Canceled" by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Following the October 1992 publication of Generation X in paperback, McDonald's restored the trademark.

When Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary  included "McJob" in its 2003 edition, McDonald's officials implied they might bring a lawsuit based on the use of this trademark, but they never quite had the chutzpah (or stupidity) to proceed with such an outrageous action.

You know what - good dictionaries aren't written by neutered, officially-sanctioned corporate toadies, but by people trying to record real language, in its all richness, inventiveness and irreverence and I'm lovin' it just the way it is.

When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Insufficiently dedicated follower of fashion

It's me living out, in a small way, my fantasy of a world where it's socially acceptable for people other than Charlie Brown or Homer Simpson to say 'right, this shirt and this pair of trousers are comfortable and cover me decently. I've checked with a woman and made sure they don't clash or make me look like a clown. I'm now going to buy a dozen pairs of each and wear nothing else until 2025 by which time, with any luck, those silver jumpsuits from the future will finally have come in'.

Says David Mitchell. Thanks for sharing - in a baffling modern world of makeover shows and men unafraid to indulge in shopping for clothes as a leisure activity, I thought I was the only fashion-phobic male left on earth.

Reasons (not) to be cheerful

According to a survey, Ireland and the UK are the worst places to live in Europe:
The UK has the 4th highest age – 63.1 – at which people choose or can afford to take retirement, and one of the lowest holiday entitlements. Net household income in the UK is just £2,314 above the European average, compared with £10,000 above average last year, falling behind Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark.
UK workers enjoy a week less holiday than the European average and three weeks less than the Spanish, while the UK's spend (as a percentage of GDP) on health and education is below the European average and UK food and diesel prices are the highest in Europe. Unleaded petrol, electricity, alcohol and cigarettes all cost more than the average across the continent.
Via. I don't believe every hastily-concocted "survey" in the news and would be happy give any reasoned rebuttal of this gloomy survey a good hearing. But not one like this:

A survey claims we are the worst place in Europe to live.

The Sun thinks the exact opposite.

From the Premier League to the X Factor, and from tandoori chicken to Newcastle Brown, we have Europe beat.

We have the finest scenery, the bravest Forces and the most talented workers. We even have Churchill the nodding dog.

We're not called GREAT Britain for nothing!
Via. Add the existence of that trivial, tiny-minded, spiteful, idiotic national embarrassment that calls itself "The Sun" to the list and the scales are decisively tipped in favour of emigration.

The whole comedy smelled of the slaughterhouse

You may remember this summer's top story of weird animal cruelty, when an unfortunate Russian donkey found itself being towed through the air on a parasail as an advertising stunt. Well, to top that, here's a parachuting sheep.

This sheep was the victim of warfare, not advertising. During Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia in the  mid 1930's Italian troops crossing Ethiopia's Danakil Desert were supplied by air drops. The rations dropped included fresh meat, in the form of live animals on parachutes. In all, seventy-two sheep and two bulls were parachuted to keep the hungry Fascist legions on the march.

There's an undeniable element of cruel comedy here although, as operation sheep drop was devised by evil Fascists, the whole comedy smelled of the slaughterhouse.* Even if you don't care about the fate of a terrified creature in what was not a naturally tenable position for a sheep, some of the other stuff the Fascists were dropping wasn't remotely funny - not unless you were Vittorio Mussolini, the dictator's son, who thought dropping bombs on people was hilarious:

We arrived upon them unobserved and immediately dropped our load of explosives. I remember that one group of horsemen gave me the impression of a budding rose as the bombs fell in their midst. It was exceptionally good fun and they were easy to hit as we were not too high up. They offered a perfect target.

Quick biographical note - Vittorio Mussolini scuttled off to Argentina after World War Two, returning to Italy after the all the fuss died down. He lived on until 1997, dying in Rome at the ripe old age of 81. His niece, Alessandra Mussolini, is currently a member of the European Parliament, and leads an Italian neo-fascist party. Memorials to the Fascist war criminals survive to this day.

By accident or design, the Fascist aviators also managed to bomb ambulances belinging to the Swedish Red Cross.
Not content with dropping convectional bombs, Fascist planes also dropped mustard gas bombs and powdered chemicals which blinded, choked and caused skin burns. About 15,000 people are estimated to have been victims of this chemical warfare.

In between dropping sheep, high-explosive bombs and poison gas, the ever-busy Fascists also found time to throw live human beings out of flying planes - unlike sheep, these human beings didn't have the benefit of parachutes. This was General Graziani's novel way of executing captured guerrillas.

 Parachuting sheep article from The Atlantic, via.

* phrase stolen from Josef Škvorecký's magnificent novel, "The Engineer of Human Souls".

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The little boy looked and, horrified, said:

Look at the King! Look at the the King!Look at the King, the King, the King!
The King is in the altogether
But altogether the altogether
He's altogether as naked as the day that he was born.

"Markets are often irrational or rigged" says Vince Cable. No shit, Sherlock! And - you could have knocked me down with a feather when he said this - apparently mergers and acquisitions aren't always a good thing:

Why should good companies be destroyed by short-term investors looking for a speculative killing, while their accomplices in the City make fat fees?

Sarcasm aside,there's nothing new here - just a few fairly moderately-worded comments. Nothing, certainly, to justify the hysterical media backlash from the usual suspects.

It's the ideologues trying to label Cable as "odd", "emotional", "anti-business", "maverick" and "controversial" for daring to question the status quo who really frighten me. Mind you, despite the ritual bitchslap, I don't expect that corporate thought leaders and tax-payer supported entitlement hogs in the City are actually frightened  by some uppity politician elected by those puny little people in the real world. They're just reminding us who's boss.

Now if they'd been having a go at Vince for his Damascene conversion to fast-track economic shock therapy or his bizarre idea that politicians have some sort of Mystic Meg ability to predict which areas of scientific research will be fruitful, all that sound and fury might have actually meant something.

Monday, 20 September 2010

A conspiracy to seize power.

If a political party does not have its foundation in the determination to advance a cause that is right and that is moral, then it is not a political party; it is merely a conspiracy to seize power.
- Dwight D. Eisenhower

Discuss with reference to the coalition agreement. .

I first came across this quote in the comments following one of  Tom Freeman's blog posts on the Labour leadership contest. It provides food for thought in Labour and Lib-Dem contexts. The comment elaborates Eisenhower's words thusly:

Also, you say "Labour is the first opposition party in many, many years to be significantly up in the polls very shortly after defeat. This doesn't suggest massive public revulsion at the party". Well, it is up because of unease at the cuts to come. It is a Blairite myth that for Labour to stay popular, it must "modernise" public services using "choice" and "competition". It is a Blairite myth that the public want to be treated as "consumers" of public services and "stakeholders", and that everything would be just find and dandy if only the government would just hold hands with private sector contractors and consultancy firms, and gabble Birtist nonsense. It is Blairite myth that social democracy is not popular.

The idea that since GOSPLAN doesn't work and Somalia doesn't work, all politics must be conducted within the narrow strip of neoliberalism is infuriating, illogical and utterly disempowering. And no matter which Miliband wins, nothing will change.
I hope this is wrong, but fear it's right.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Aces High - Battle of Britain Day

It's still (just) Battle of Britain day, so I thought a few words about the top scoring Battle of Britain pilot are in order. For all the valiant efforts of British and Commonwealth airmen, the pilot who downed the most enemy planes in the battle was a Czech - Sergeant Josef František. 

František's achievements during one intense month of air combat with the RAF were all the more remarakable, considering that they followed a desperate journey across wartime Europe, fighting and fleeing the Nazi advance all the way.

František was born on 7 October 1914, in Otaslavice, Moravia.. He joined the Czechoslovak Air Force in 1934 and became a fighter pilot. After the German occupation in March 1939, he escaped to Poland and joined the Polish Air Force.

After the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, he flew reconnaissance missions in an unarmed aircraft and attacked the Germans with hand grenades tossed from his plane. He was shot down, but was rescued by Polish aircrew who landed nearby.

When Poland collapsed, František's unit was ordered to withdraw with their remaining aircraft to Romania. František escaped from an internment camp in Romania and reached France via North Africa in October.

In France, František flew alongside escaped Polish pilots. He may have fought in  the Battle of France and may have shot down several German planes, but the records from that time are unclear, contradictory or lost (according to one theory, he may have temporarily been flying under an assumed name in order to protect his family from Gestapo persecution).

After the fall of France, in June, František fled to Britain, trained with the RAF and, in August 1940. joined No. 303 (Polish) Squadron flying Hawker Hurricanes from Northolt.

Although often reprimanded for being undisciplined (both in the air and on the ground), František was a skilled and determined pilot. Within the space of one month, between 2nd September and 30th September he destroyed 17 German aircraft and 1 probable (including 9 Messerschmidt Bf 109s).

Josef František died on 8 October 1940, when his Hurricane crashed in Surrey. The cause of the crash is unknown, although battle fatigue and / or an aerobatic manoeuvre that went wrong have been suggested.

There's more info on the Battle of Britain's top ace here.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Take it to the bridge

Today, Newport Pagnell has been celebrating the 200th anniversary of Tickford Bridge, the last iron bridge in Britain to still carry main road traffic. Excited townsfolk duly assembeld to watch a parade of vehicles from sedan chairs and horse drawn coaches to double decker buses and minis trundle over the bridge. And, as we were in Newport Pagnell, the obligatory Aston Martins joined in:

Then off to the Rose and Crown to tuck into that traditional Newport Pagnell delicacy, Mars bar and vodka cheesecake:

Heston Blumenthal, eat your heart out...

Smallpox Is Good For You

"Spiked" e-zine gets some far better ridicule than my own poor attempt. Here are some spot-on parodies, imagining what "Spiked" headlines would have sounded like in the 18th century:

Against the tyranny of "healthy-eating": three cheers for Marie Antoinette and the peasants' right to eat cake

A flaming disgrace! Parliament's ban on witch-burning reflects a suspicion of anyone who holds strong beliefs

Shrill critics of the South Sea Company are simply hostile to wealth creation

Hands off the slave trade! Wilberforce’s moral posturing reveals a deep-seated loathing of the working class

Smallpox Is Good For You: Mr. Richard NORTH exposes the lies of the vaccinators

The Enlightenment - a fashionable middle-class fad that masks a deep anti-freedom agenda

George III is perfectly sane - it's society that has gone mad

From Our Kingdom, Via:

Talking of batty headlines here are some (real) 21st century ones from "Notes on the Culture Wars", a raving ultra-right-wing Catholic site that the Fifth Columnist links to:

Now It's 6 Muslims Arrested: Papal Assassination Attempt

Live Science: Vampire Novels Change Teen Brains

Sodomites Committing HIV Suicide in Droves

St. John Chrysostom Argues With Obama

FLASHBACK: Catholic Bishop Fires Catholic Prof For Offending Secularists

And, coming full circle, a headline in "Notes on the Culture Wars" reveals that they love Berndan O'Neill in "Spiked":

Leftist Atheist Defends Catholic Priests

Nutters of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your marbles!

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The world's greatest headless dad

Today, Radio 4's excellent "A History of the World in 100 Objects" featured a beautiful jade cup made for the Timurid Emperor Ulugh Beg, grandson of Timur (AKA Tamburlaine The Great). Apparently, Ulugh Beg was a cultured fellow, a lover of mathematics and astronomy, whose patronage got the Observatory of Samarkand built.  A crater on the moon is named after this astronomer-king.

Sadly, although he was a notable intellectual and patron, Ulugh Beg didn't really cut it in the world of power politics.* His rule lasted only two years. The BBC web site notes:

This jade cup from Central Asia would have been valued for its beauty and its protective powers. When this cup was made it was believed that jade would crack if it came into contact with poison...

Ulugh Beg would have owned such a cup to protect himself from assassination by his rivals. However, the cup could not save him from his own son who seized power in 1449 and had Ulugh beheaded.
The clouded jade cup is a rather lovely thing, but this is one of those times when I'd gladly not trade places with the rich and powerful. When my son gets old enough to buy presents, I'd be happy to get a cheap and nasty, mass-produced "World's Greatest Dad" mug and a promise not to decapitate daddy. I'm easily pleased.

*A reputation he shared with the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II of Bohemia.

Brendan O'Neill withdrawn after 'inexplicable' rant

The Catholic Church today sought to distance itself from controversial comments in the progressively radical "Spiked" e-zine, alleging that Britain resembled a Third World country marked by a new and aggressive atheism. Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, described the comments as 'inexplicable'. At the last minute, Brendan O'Neill has withdrawn from the Papal visit. A Vatican press official insisted that O'Neill's absence was purely due to health problems.

In the bad old days, angry authoritarians who wanted to raise their blood pressure by reading incoherent rants about the state of the world had to make do with the thoughts of Richard Littlejohn and Jan Moir. This was all very well, but it did tend to make the reader look like an unstylish, beige-cardie-wearing middle-aged fuddy-duddy. Fortunately, with the new generation of  professional contrairans like Brendan O'Neill and Seamus Milne, a new demographic can now get that edgy, radical, free-thinking hipster look while still enjoying the comfort of blistering tirades against liberal free-thinkers and grovelling respect for reactionary and/or authoritarian institutions.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Some damnable thing

Today we have had a lark of a very high order. Lady Wilton sent over yesterday from Knowsley to say that the Loco Motive machine was to be upon the railway at such a place at 12 o'clock for the Knowsley party to ride in if they liked, and inviting this house to be of the party. So of course we were at our post in three carriages and some horsemen at the Hour appointed.

I had the satisfaction, for I can't call it pleasure, of taking a trip of five miles on it, which we did in just a quarter of an hour - that is twenty miles an hour. As accuracy upon this subject was my great object, I held my watch in hand at starting, and all the time; and as it had a second hand, I knew I could not be deceived; and so it turned out that there was not the difference of a second between the coachee or conductor and myself.

But observe, during those five miles, the machine was occasionally made to put itself out or go it; and then we went at the rate of 23 miles an hour, and just with the same ease as to motion or absence of friction as at the other reduced pace. But the quickest motion is to me frightful: it is really flying, and it is impossible to divest yourself of the notion of instant death to all upon the least accident happening. It gave me a headache which has not left me yet. Sefton is convinced that some damnable thing must come of it.

From the journal of Thomas Creevey, November, 1829

Sunday, 12 September 2010


The grapes in our garden are making a valiant attempt to ripen before the cold weather comes.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Celebrity gossip from the archives

One of the last of the many legendary contests won by the British philosopher A. J. Ayer was his encounter with Mike Tyson in 1987. As related by Ben Rogers in ''A. J. Ayer: A Life,'' Ayer -- small, frail, slight as a sparrow and then 77 years old -- was entertaining a group of models at a New York party when a girl ran in screaming that her friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. The parties involved turned out to be Tyson and Naomi Campbell. ''Do you know who the [expeltive deleted] I am?'' Tyson asked in disbelief when Ayer urged him to desist: ''I'm the heavyweight champion of the world.'' ''And I am the former Wykeham professor of logic,'' Ayer answered politely. ''We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.''
So they did, while Campbell slipped away. 

Lovely. From The Wickedest Man in Oxford

Friday, 10 September 2010

One Step Behind

 Here's a tricky puzzle to outfox Wallander:

Swedish National Police may be in a bit of hot water ... after building a national "shoe database" for use in tracking what kinds of shoes make what kinds of tracks. But how did they build the database? They just went online and downloaded pictures from various websites.

And it turns out that might not be legal.

The police claim that the law lets them ignore copyright in solving crimes, but an intellectual property professor quoted in the article notes that such an exemption only applies in the direct police investigation of a specific crime -- not for the sake of building up a general database. 

Techdirt, via

Scroungers in the bike shed

Ben Chu at the Independent writes about the new Barclays chief, Bob Diamond:

Much attention has centred on his remuneration... In 2007 alone he earned $42m (£27m). And he will soon be earning up to £11.5m a year... What should concern us is less the size of Diamond's bonus than his gargantuan ambition and his minuscule judgement...

Diamond, as head of Barclays' investment banking arm, Barclays Capital, pushed hard for his firm to buy the Dutch bank ABN Amro during the credit bubble. The only reason the deal did not happen is that Barclays was outbid by an even more reckless banker, in the shape of Fred Goodwin of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Diamond was at it again when the Wall Street firm Lehman Brothers found itself in serious trouble in 2008. The Barclays man was determined that the Wall Street giant would be his. And this, remember, is before Lehman filed for bankruptcy, an event so catastrophic that it sent the global economy into its worst slump since the Great Depression.

Just consider what would have happened if Diamond had got his way on either occasion. The toxic assets of ABN drove the Royal Bank of Scotland to the brink of destruction in 2008. Barclays would have been ruined in exactly the same way if it had secured the "prize" instead. An acquisition of Lehman would have been even more deadly. We now know that the Wall Street bank was already doomed, long before Barclays tried to buy it. A Barclays takeover would have put the British bank at the epicentre of the inevitable global economic meltdown. It was sheer dumb luck that Barclays avoided disaster.
This sort of context makes George Osborne's headline-hogging attack on the tiny subset of 'people who think that it's a lifestyle choice to just sit on out of work benefits' sound staggeringly petty and irrelevant. I wonder, though, whether there's method in the madness of picking on a small and relatively unimportant issue:

Parkinson dramatizes his Law of Triviality with a committee's deliberations on a nuclear power plant, contrasting it to deliberation on a bicycle shed. A nuclear reactor is used because it is so vastly expensive and complicated that an average person cannot understand it, so they assume that those working on it understand it. Even those with strong opinions often withhold them for fear of being shown to be insufficiently informed. On the other hand, everyone understands a bicycle shed (or thinks he or she does), so building one can result in endless discussions because everyone involved wants to add his or her touch and show that they have contributed. While discussing the bikeshed, debate emerges over whether the best choice of roofing is aluminium, asbestos, or galvanized iron, rather than whether the shed is a good idea or not.

In this context, everybody understands, or thinks they understand, why it's unfair that they have to work for what they have, when they think somebody else is getting something for nothing. It seems as easy to understand as a bicycle shed (although it's actually a bit more complicated than that). The world of securitization, credit default swaps, asset ratios and collateralized debt obligations sounds as complex and hard to understand as the inner workings of a nuclear power plant. Fixing the meltdown in the nuclear plant and making sure it doesn't happen again might be the most important thing on the agenda, but it's difficult, and a bike-shed-sized sound-bite about welfare "scroungers" is easy.

A relentless focus on the bike shed-sized issues can be quite useful. The Spending Challenge website has encouraged members of the public to "buy in" to the government's agenda of economic shock therapy and endorsed a few ideas for savings of a million quid here or there, thus creating an illusion of "engagement" and "empowerment", whilst ministers get on with making the big decisions they were always going to make. Pure PR Gold from Dave and Nick's Big Book of Diversionary Tactics.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Burning books in 1989 and 2010

7th September 2010: an evangelical pastor plans to burn a few copies of the Koran on the anniversary of 9/11. Hilary Clinton is outraged by the book burners:
I am heartened by the clear, unequivocal condemnation of this disrespectful, disgraceful act that has come from American religious leaders of all faiths, from evangelical Christians to Jewish rabbis, as well as secular US leaders and opinion-makers.

14th January 1989: Salman Rushdie's book the "Satanic Verses" has upset some people. Ishtiaq Ahmed, of the Bradford Council of Mosques, takes part in the first book-burning of "The Satanic Verses" in Britain. He's satisfied with the result:

Finally they had made a statement. Finally that had found a way to express their anger and their frustration, their disgust, their emotions about this book

March 2nd 1989:  Just a couple of days after extremists have firebombed a couple of California bookstores selling "The Satanic Verses", British Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, is outraged,* (not by the book burning mob, or firebombing, or even the death threats to the author, but by the book itself):

We do understand that the book itself has been found deeply offensive by people of the Moslem faith. We can understand why it has been criticized. It is a book that is offensive in many other ways as well.**
To recap; burning books is like, really bad, right? Except when the book in question upsets somebody, when it's the book that's at fault. But what if Pastor Terry Jones' feelings are genuinely hurt by the Koran? What's more offensive, the contents of a book, or the act of setting fire to it? It's all very confusing. As David Mitchell (almost) said

There's altogether too much harping on respect and burning these days. If you can't respect something, you should burn it. If it's not burned, you should respect it.
In other words, just grow up, the lot of you. Especially the "outraged" politicians - it's not fair to expect much in the way of calm, rational thought from baying mobs, being egged on blockheaded evangelical pastors or mad Mullahs, but US Secretaries of State and British Foreign Secretaries ought to know better than to get involved with this politically expedient outrage nonsense. It's not only demeaning, but it encourages a tiny minority of angry half-wits to to think they can censor anything that upsets their particular view of the world and threaten everybody else's freedom of thought and expression with impunity.

* To be fair, the outrage of Geoffrey Howe wasn't a thing to be greatly feared - Dennis Healey found his wrath like being 'savaged by a dead sheep'.

**In this context its's also instructive to read some interesting contemporary statements about the Rushdie affair from former US President Jimmy Carter, the Vatican newspaper, the then Commonwealth Chief Rabbi and the ever-reliable US vice president J. Danforth Quayle (who hadn't read "The Satanic Verses" or, I suspect, any book without pictures) here.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Busybodies and peeping Toms

When I first mentioned The Fifth Column blog, I thought the title sounded, at best, ill-advised, but I didn't look much further - like the bizarre slogans featured in the Meaningless T-Shirts blog, the title in itself was enough  to attract mockery and derision.

I'm indebted to Meridian for actually looking at some of the Fifth Columnist's posts and discovering that 'the name is only about half as disturbing as some of the content'. He's not kidding. If you look at a T-shirt with a bizarre message, what you see is all you get. Look behind the strange title of this  "orthodox Catholic commentary on current events" and a whole wondrous world of wingnuttery is revealed.

The "Fifth Column" blog beats a meaningless T-shirt slogan in an obvious, quantitative way - you can cram way more freaking weirdness into a blog post than will fit onto the front of a T-shirt. "The Fifth Column" also does just what it says on the tin, commenting on current events, a qualitative difference that takes the barking insanity to a whole new level. I'd even say that the blog provides an instructive new perspective on current events, although not in the way the writer intends.

One of the most depressing things about current public debate and journalism is vicious, voyeuristic and irrelevant intrusion into the people's private lives. William Hague's private life is a topical example and there are a couple of posts by the Fifth Columnist that, while they aren't about this specific case - neatly illustrate the sort of prurience and prejudice that feeds this sort of gutter journalism.

I'm not a political supporter of William Hague - the best I could say about him is that his political views are a bit less objectionable than some of the headbangers further to the right of his party. As far as I'm concerned, his policies and political views are fair game - he's entitled to believe what he believes, and anybody who doesn't agree is entitled to lay into his ideas without pulling any punches. All good clean fun.

But, love him or loathe him, I see no reason to think that I have any right to know the details of his sex life. Neither does anybody else (except - if he's in a committed relationship - his partner and, under certain circumstances very close family). He would lose this right to privacy if his sexual activities extended to rape, sex with minors or some such sex crime, but there is absolutely no suggestion by anybody that he's done anything of the sort. So as it stands, I've got no right to know what sort of sex (if any) William Hague is having, or with whom. It seems like normal good manners to me - after all, if I started quizzing complete strangers on a train about whether they were having sex and, if so, with whom I would, quite rightly, be regarded as some sort of creepy perv.

This is where the prurience comes in. Reactionary moralists often complain loudly about how sex-obsessed liberal, secular society is. Yet it's often the most reactionary moralists who display the keenest interest in other people's sex lives. In a disturbing reversal of Elizabeth I's famous declaration that  'I have no desire to make windows into men's souls', these people seem frighteningly keen to make widows into other people's bedrooms.

This is where the Fifth Columnist provides a perfect illustration of the reactionary moralist's smut-obsessed mindset. Take a look at his angry public letter to somebody called Janet Smith discussing such burning questions as the morality or otherwise of anal foreplay and the looming menace of people who claim that the Easter candle is a phallic symbol. It's a bit more unguarded than anything a professional journalist would write and, as such, gives a frightening insight into what "morally conservative" gutter hacks and their devoted readers really think about for a lot of the time.

From prurience to prejudice, the other driver of the William Hague non-story. I don't know or care whether William Hague is straight, gay, bi or celibate. But some people do still think this matters and want to discriminate against gay people just for being gay. They think, wrongly or rightly that William Hague is in the closet and want to out him.

What we're witnessing here is an interesting stage in the power struggle between social liberals and authoritarian reactionaries. It's a struggle that the reactionaries, at least in Britain, are currently losing, although they're fighting every inch of the way.

Not very long ago, it was almost unheard of for a politician, to be openly gay - especially in the Conservative party. To succeed in such an atmosphere of prejudice, many went to extraordinary lengths to conceal their sexuality, even entering into "Potemkin marriages" to evade the ever-watchful eyes of the bigots and busybodies.  Of  course, living this kind of double life was precarious and the ritual humiliation of outed MPs by the bigots and busybodies in the party and the press was routine.

Eventually, a brave few came out of the closet. Alan Duncan was the first Tory MP to come out openly as gay and Iain Duncan Smith, to his great credit, supported him. It was a significant step forward; just a year before, old guard Tory Norman Tebbit endorsed had Iain Duncan Smith in the party leadership contest because he was a 'normal, family man with children'. "Normal" - it's an innocent-sounding little word, but when it gets used by the powerful as a weasel word to exclude and demean people who they just happen to have take a dislike to, it can be as nasty as it is small. I don't know whether Tebbit viewed Duncan Smith's acceptance of Alan Duncan's sexuality as a kick in the teeth, but if he did, I do hope it hurt.

Now that more MPs are openly gay and not therefore vulnerable to exposure and humiliation, the vindictive bullies who used to enjoy bringing them down have lost some of their power. Easy prey is becoming harder to find, so when they do think they scent blood in the water a feeding frenzy ensues. 

The Fifth Columnist also seems to be a tireless witch-hunter, always keen to sniff out anybody who doesn't come up to his standards of normality, although one of his most striking the posts targets religious, rather than sexual, unorthodoxy. There are interesting parallels, though. In the UK, authoritarian reactionaries seem to have it in for William Hague because they suspect or hope that his private life may be unorthodox. In the USA, the same sort of people suspect or hope that President Obama's religious life may not be orthodox. I don't know how many Americans believe that the President is a Muslim, but a Google "obama" and "muslim" and you'll get about 46 million hits. Quite a few of these hits will take you to sites refuting the suggestion, but that still leaves a hell of a lot of crazy conspiracy theorists who believe that he is. 

There are important differences between a person's sexuality and their religion. The most important of these is that a person's sexual orientation is an integral part of who they are, something they are born with, like their race, gender or personality. Sure, like personality, it can be tweaked a bit by societal pressure and life experiences, but whatever it is, it comes from within.

Religion is a system of ideas and beliefs about the nature of things, bundled up with a moral code of one sort or another, defined by some external authority. People may talk about Christian children or Muslim children or whatever, but there's no such animal in reality - there are only children born to parents who subscribe to this, that or the other set of beliefs.Children may like the religion of their parents, or under various degrees of societal or parental influence, pressure or intimidation, more or less grudgingly accept it, or may reject it in favour of an alternative religion or none (provided they are lucky enough to live in a society where such freedom of choice isn't punished harshly).

However, in the reactionary mind-set, this distinction is often reversed. Sexuality is sometimes seen by some reactionaries as a free choice made by an individual, who can either "choose" to be "normal" or "choose" to be abnormal and sinful. Those "choosing" sinful sexual unorthodoxy can be "cured" by the pressure, example and prayers of the faithful.

To reactionary often seem to see religion, by contrast, not as a free, rational choice about the nature of things or which moral code makes some sort of ethical sense, but as something innate and tribal.

For all these differences, the reactionary mind seems bent on rooting out and eradicating the "abnormal" and the unorthodox. Barack Obama, was the product of a racially mixed marriage, born to a father from Kenya. He had an Indonesian stepfather and went to school in Indonesia for a time. To the liberal mind, this makes him the exemplar of the American melting pot. To the reactionary, this makes him unorthodox and therefore suspect.

Not having (or wanting) a window into men's souls, I don't know what Barack Obama's religious views are. He apparently professes to be a devout Christian. This may be perfectly true, or he might be exaggerating the extent and depth of his beliefs, in order to fit in to the culture he inhabits. Just as it used to be important for an aspiring Tory MP to be seen as a 'normal family man' (or woman), there's still a lot of pressure on US politicians to be seen to be church-going Christians. Whether he sees the Evergreen Chapel simply as a "Potemkin Church" for public consumption, I neither know nor care.

Devoutly religious or not, Barack Obama's position on religion sounds a lot more in keeping with the founding fathers' vision of a country where church and state were separate and the free exercise of religion was written into the constitution, than the reactionary rantings of those who demand a display of Christian piety from anyone running for public office:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

The Fifth Columnist, of course, produces his obligatory "Is Obama is a Muslim?" post. Apparently, we can't afford to rule out the possibility of an enormous conspiracy to keep the president's religion a secret - after all, the Fifth Columnist muses, "they"  manged to keep the establishment of Social Security a secret for years (and there are apparently still people stupid enough to believe that Social Security is 'some sort of social insurance program' when rather than 'part of an enormous Ponzi scheme'). "They" manged to keep The Manhattan Project and the cracking of the Enigma code secret. The Nazis kept their euthanasia programme secret for a whole year. Therefore...
Massive conspiracies are common throughout history. All it takes is well-motivated people with the same mindset who see themselves as fighting a common enemy.
Click the link and read the whole thing - it would be hilarious, if the number of people who apparently believe this stuff wasn't so worryingly large.

I've found the Fifth Columnist quite useful - his language is more revealing than the sometimes slightly coy euphemisms and weaselly dog-whistle words used by the Jan Moirs and Richard Littlejohns of this world. His his strange obsessions and fantasies are delineated in loving detail, he is reasonably articulate, knows some history and obviously has considerable knowledge in his chosen field of expertise (although as that field is theology, that's rather like saying that somebody has an impressive grasp of conversational Klingon).

Now, whenever I'm tempted to give some reactionary motor-mouth the benefit of the doubt, I think of the glance the Fifth Columnist has given me into the reactionary mind when it isn't trying to be accommodationist and respectable. I think of the many changes that brave and committed people have made on the way to building a more liberal, democratic society, in which tolerance and freedom of thought and conscience actually matter. There's a long way still to go, but a glance into the strange, narrow, deeply disturbing mind of the social reactionary makes me grateful for what those people have already achieved.

Friday, 3 September 2010

A foolish consistency the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.
(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

 This morning, I heard somebody on the radio using a phrase that was new to me - "cognitive polyphasia".  According to Wikipedia:

The concept of cognitive polyphasia refers to the ability of people to think about the same issue in contradictory terms in different situations. From Greek: polloi "many", phasis "appearance"...

In his research on popular representations of psychoanalysis in France, Serge Moscovici  observed that different and even contradictory modes of thinking about the same issue often co-exist. In contemporary societies people are "speaking" medical, psychological, technical, and political languages in their daily affairs. By extending this phenomenon to the level of thought he suggests that "the dynamic co-existence—interference or specialization—of the distinct modalities of knowledge, corresponding to definite relations between man and his environment, determines a state of cognitive polyphasia".
Ah, yes, the good ol' "dynamic co-existence—interference or specialization—of the distinct modalities of knowledge". Really trips off the tongue, doesn't it? Both the phrase and the definition might sound better in plain language. I think, somebody came up with a very similar concept, plainly expressed, years before M. Moscovici:


The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies...

Orwell didn't do any formal research, but he recognised the general idea and expressed it far more forcibly.

Serge Moscovici didn't come up with a memorable phrase, but some of his research into minority influence sounds interesting:

  • Aims: To investigate the process of innovation by looking at how a consistent minority affect the opinions of a larger group, possibly creating doubt and leading them to question and alter their views
  • Procedures: Participants were first given an eye test to check that they were not colour blind. They were then placed in a group of four participants and two confederates. they were all shown 36 slides that were different shades of blue and asked to state the colour out loud. There were two groups in the experiment. In the first group the confederates were consistent and answered green for every slide. In the second group the confederates were inconsistent and answered green 24 times and blue 12 times.
  • Findings: For 8.42% of the trials, participants agreed with the minority and said that the slides were green. Overall, 32% of the participants agreed at least once.
  • Conclusions: The study suggested that minorities can indeed exert an effect over the opinion of a majority. Not to the same degree as majority influence, but the fact that almost a third of people agreed at least once is significant. However, this also leaves two thirds who never agreed. In a follow up experiment, Moscovici demonstrated that consistency was the key factor in minority influence, by instructing the stooges to be inconsistent. The effect fell off sharply.
Via. The idea that consistency + repetition = influence could explain a lot of the doublethink / cognitive polyphasia we see around us. Consider the desperate contortions politicians get themselves into when they need to change their mind about a policy, but don't want to be accused of that mortal sin against consistency, the "u-turn". Or the assertion that an obvious change in policy isn't really a change in policy at all. Or Governments' maddeningly wasteful insistence on stubbornly clinging on to unworkable schemes to the bitter end.  

With a government headed by two PR professionals, schooled in the importance of relentlessly getting a consistent message out there, I don't expect the incidence of cognitive polyphasia to go down any time soon. To quote from PR Week:

In its communications effort surrounding claims that its new Dry Max product causes diaper rash, P and G has shown the effectiveness of consistent messaging in a crisis. 

The company has held strong in its message that the diaper product does not cause diaper rash...

Our unshakable commitment to comfy bottoms and unconditional victory over Eurasia Eastasia continues unchanged.