Saturday, 31 December 2011

Supping with the Devil

Don't drink fake vodka that could kill you or make you go blind and if you know of anybody who's supplying this illegal, toxic muck, shop them to the police; it might save somebody's life and being nicked is no more than these criminal entrepreneurs deserve.

It's quite a simple good guys / bad guys story. Think about into the legal, but scarcely less harmful, tobacco industry and things get a lot more complicated. The industry continues to invest the profits from harming its customers into advertising, where it's still legal, lobbying, misinformation, moving to less regulated markets, sockpuppetry and fighting any form of restriction every inch of the way, with just the occasional tactical retreat. Operating on the right side of the law, the industry has a lot more freedom to market its product, to openly (if discreetly) influence movers and to shakers and recruit potential consumers than a criminal enterprise producing dangerous knock-off booze or selling illicit drugs.

On the whole, I think it's best to have regulated drug production on the right side of the law. The tobacco barons might be worse than socially useless, but at least they don't generally add the victims of turf war shoot-outs to their tally of avoidable casualties, or create violent, lawless ghettos where society can't protect ordinary citizens, or generate armies of desperate addicts, reduced to robbery, mugging or prostitution to feed their habit.

Looking at the reality of big tobacco is still a sobering experience for people like me who favour a relatively liberal harm reduction approach to drugs over that good versus evil fairy tale called The War Against Drugs. To make licencing and control work, policymakers would have to deal with people who don't mind harming their fellow creatures for profit. And somehow, restrict and tax their activities to the extent that they do the minimum amount of harm, yet not so much that it's not worth trading legally and substantial numbers of suppliers are driven back underground and trade illegally, like the knock-off vodka merchants.

That, I think, is why we're stuck with so much inefficient and punitive anti-drug legislation. Introducing a controlled market in drugs, calibrated to cause the minimum harm seems like the best way to go, but a portion of the benefits would inevitably be neutralised by the drug suppliers bending every rule in the book to translate some of their profits into barely legal ways of promoting their product and growing their market.  People would die, making the policymakers who did deals with ruthless and socially irresponsible suppliers look weak and compromised. And saying what you're for and against in stark black and white terms, rather than dealing in the precise shade of grey that yields the least worst solution in the real world, just sounds so much more sincere and satisfying.

It's easy to be angry at the irrationality and injustice of it all, but damn near impossible to imagine how to effectively sell harm reduction in a way that will trump the emotional appeal of going after the bad guys.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

God rest ye (in peace) merry gentlemen

I belatedly spotted a bit of seasonal decoration in Newport Pagnell today. Most of the local shops have put some sort of Christmas display in their windows, as you'd expect. What I didn't expect, or notice until today, is that the funeral director has joined in. White and silver baubles and a bit of tinselly stuff draped over the black marble headstone in the window.

Is it just me who finds this odd, or are there some places where festive jollity and glitter are just wrong?

Hail to the Chief

Between Christmas and New Year Radio 4’s Today programme gives a select group of prominent public figures a golden ticket become the programme’s guest editor for the day. This morning it was the turn of former banker and businessman Sir Victor Blank, who commissioned series of reports, exploring, with suitable reverence, that magic fairy dust called ‘leadership’ by respectfully asking why certain individuals were blessed with this superhuman talent.

By a fluke of timing, Sir Vic’s attempts to explore the mysterious essence of leadership were surreally undercut by news reports of the carefully choreographed obsequies for the late Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, and the synchronised ascension of the Glorious Successor, Kim Jong-un, to the status of Supreme Leader.

Accounts of the Kim-fest should have been enough to put all but the most sycophantic off Sir Vic’s attempt to enlist them them as star-struck groupies on his leader-worship tour.

Monday, 19 December 2011

My big fat Nazi wedding

Marriage is not just a piece of paper. It pulls couples together through the ebb and flow of life. It gives children stability. And it says powerful things about what we should value. 

David Cameron

There's a little bit of what Cameron says here that that I could just about agree with. When children are planned, or come into the picture, for some couples, a public commitment to try to make their future as a family work, in front of friends and family, might help to cement the relationship. In which case, fine.

But that's about as far as it goes. Couples and families can function (or be dysfunctional) in all sorts of diverse ways and I'm quite happy to be a true localist and trust couples who are old enough to wed or not to wed to make their own decisions, based on the immense variety of individual circumstances, relationship dynamics, beliefs and sheer idiosyncrasies that make every person, every couple, and every family, unique.

As the head of an allegedly pro-individual choice, Big Society / small state government, Cameron seems strangely keen on using public resources in a top-down attempt to vet people's domestic arrangements, using the tax system to 'nudge' them towards officially-documented, state-approved relationships

I can see that some people don't approve of some kinds of relationship. Sometimes the way other people choose to conduct their relationships doesn't impress me much. Take the forthcoming wedding ushered in by that Nazi-themed stag party recently attended by disgraced MP, Aidan Burley. I'm not particularly concerned about Burley, as it's long since been common knowledge that some of the most select members of the establishment find a spot of Third Reich cosplay rather jolly, but the bride-to-be should be having some serious second thoughts about being betrothed to somebody with such a peculiar idea of fun

Some bits of stag party foolishness are forgivable, even endearing to a potential spouse. Ending up blotto in your underpants, singing a medley of Queen's greatest hits with a traffic cone on your head, for example, might mark you out as a bit of a daft lad, but might it also show that you've got a fun side and don't take yourself too seriously. But slipping into a SS uniform, insulting waiters, drinking toasts to 'the ideology and thought processes of the Third Reich' and chanting Nazi slogans? Surely, the only appropriate response from any sensible bride-to-be would be 'the wedding's off, creep!'

In the event that the guy's fiancée already knew of, and tolerated, his behaviour, I'd think it depressing that people like that might actually end up breeding. Mind you, celebrating your forthcoming nuptuals with a "heil Hitler"  is so inauspicious that, matters of taste notwithstanding, we might not need to worry about them procreating. Many modern marriages don't last, but at least most are more lasting than the Hitlers', which endured for less than 24 hours and dispensed with the traditional honeymoon in favour of a suicide pact in an underground bunker.

There are lots of people who do and don't want to get married. A few of them might be obnoxious, boorish prats but that's a problem for them and their nearest and dearest. If I find them obnoxious, I'm at perfect liberty to say so, but not to stop them getting hitched, or whatever else they might decide to do as consenting adults.

It's not a matter for the state to approve or disapprove of, either. In any case, the "tax breaks for married couples" idea is such a blunt instrument that it wouldn't distinguish between the anschluss cementing some oaf with an SS uniform in his dressing-up box to his little Eva and other, more wholesome, relationships, so I don't think much of it as an agent for upholding moral rectitude, even if I was a fan of the 'morality police' concept (which I'm not).

I'm not saying there's no role for the state in helping families - Scandinavian-style affordable, high-quality childcare provision alongside comprehensive parental leave policies seems to have a positive effect in decreasing child poverty and increasing the level of female employment (with a resulting increase in tax revenues) - but giving people a small tax bribe to get married, (whether or not children are planned or involved), without such convincing evidence that the expenditure might pay dividends, seems like an dogma-driven, intrusive and poorly-targeted piece of state intervention to me.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Friends in high places

Kevin Trudeau, the king of too-good-to-be-true late-night TV scams, must pay $37.6 million in fines and restitution after he ignored an FTC order to stop making infomercials.

A federal appeals court has ruled, after thirteen years of litigation, that the feds were within their rights to ban him from making TV ads for his books, which include "The Weight Loss Cure 'They' Don't Want You To Know About" and "Natural Cures 'They' Don't Want You To Know About."

The FTC's pursuit of Trudeau goes back to at least 1998, when the FTC fined him $500,000 for deceptively advertising Eden's Secret Nature's Purifying Product, which falsely claimed to improve your immune system.

After that, Trudeau graduated to perhaps his most cynical infomercial in which he claimed that eating coral calcium could cure cancer. 

According to Business Insider.

 Me, I just love informercials.

For most people a $37.6 million dollar legal bill would be inconvenient, at the very least. Fortunately for Kevin Trudeau, he just happens to be an 'ex-member of The Brotherhood' [that's The Illuminati to you, peasant], who, along with 30 other members of various seceret societies have [sic] created a BRAND NEW elite, private organization that YOU are allowed to join.' This elite, private club was, apparently, 'created to empower the masses.'

With friends like these, not to mention the ablity to achieve the apparently imposssible feat of creating a club that is at once elite and private, yet open to a mass membership consisiting of absolutely anybody who can click on a web link, Mr Trudeau  is clearly not a man not to be trifled with.

In the almost infinitely unlikely event that anyone at the Federal Trade Commission is reading this, please guys, save yourselves while you still can! Don't keep upsetting Mr Trudeau. A man with connections like that could crush you all like ants.


Thursday, 15 December 2011

War (what is it good for?)

Here's a  dramatic1940's colour photo of some workers helping to build a Liberator bomber. I love the tight composition and the old-master-style chiaroscuro effect (photo courtesy of The Library of Congress).

It's a small reminder of the vast amount of material and labour diverted from productively satisfying everyday human needs and desires into the destructive business of war. Writing in post-war austerity Britain, George Orwell lamented the waste in his fictionalised account of a nation inured to total war:
The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.


There are contrasting views, and they don't come more contrasting than this:
But it was not until government spending soared in preparation for global war that America started to emerge from the Depression. It is important to grasp this simple truth: it was government spending—a Keynesian stimulus, not any correction of monetary policy or any revival of the banking system—that brought about recovery.

Joseph Stiglitz, in an essay for Vanity Fair

 I know it's supposed to be a text-book example of Keynsian economics, but still find it quite mind-boggling that such a vast material effort, diverted to ends that weren't just unproductive,* but were actively destructive, could apparently bring about economic recovery. It makes me realise that I need to find a clear economic history of the period that explains what was going on in language accessible to a non-economist.** Such a book ought (assuming Stiglitz and other kindred economic historians are right about cause and effect) to be required reading for policymakers in these post-bust times.

Maybe what the world needs now is war, sweet war (preferably a toned-down version, with none of that unpleasant killing people business).

*I'm talking in purely economic terms here, without any reference to the morality of the conflict.

** Any suggestions gratefully received

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Occupy your bank account (UK)

There's an overriding problem with the Occupy movement. The majority of people have responsibilities that mean they can't put their lives on hold to sit in a tent and protest for weeks on end. And the fact that there are people who can do this leaves the movement open to the charge that the people doing the protesting are just an unrepresentative, pampered or workshy minority (as I've mentioned before).

It's a bit of a Catch-22 situation. Most of the political class seem either unable to comprehend the seriousness of the situation, or are unable to stand up to those lobbying on behalf of a broken system that's dragging the rest of us down, yet the people with the time and commitment to press for change are marginalised.

The best way forward I can see for the Occupy movement is to become a catalyst for the sort of mass activism that involves the majority of people who can't just take a month off to man the barricades. There's already something along these lines, an idea that, I think deserves some support. The Move Your Money project in the US 'aims to empower individuals and institutions to divest from the nation's largest Wall Street banks and move to local financial institutions'.

I'm no great fan of consumer activism when there's any other alternative, being old-fashioned enough to believe in one person, one vote, regardless of that person's spending power, but the call to "Occupy Your Bank Account" is at least something a lot of ordinary people could get involved in and something that could potentially make a difference, if enough people could be persuaded to take their money out of 'Too Big To Fail' banks and put it somewhere else - Move Your Money suggests community banks and credit unions.

Could this work, either in the US or here in the UK? Inertia sticks most people to their existing bank accounts - the faff of changing, (especially if you've got a few direct debits) is enough to put people off moving their money. On the practical side, a lot of people also stick because of the convenience of having a local branch of Whatever Megabank Plc in their area, with gives them access to a network of ATMs more or less wherever they are.

On the ideological side, there's also evidence that a lot of people just don't care or, even more depressingly are venting their anger and frustration on the victims of the financial chaos, rather than on the perpetrators.

There is hope, though. If I google the slogan "occupy your bank account", I find quite a few bank web sites popping up among the activist Facebook groups and so on. NatWest tops the list and, hilariously, that embarrassingly ungrateful state-subsidised amalgam of arrogance, greed and failure, the Royal Bank of Scotland, comes second. Maybe they're just a little bit scared.

If the megabanks have been tweaking their Search Engine Optimisation to assimilate anti-megabank slogans (You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile), it might be a signal that they're a little bit worried that people might get angry enough to empty their accounts.

The Credit Unions suggested by Move Your Money might be a good place for a savings account, should you be lucky enough to have savings but, as far as I know, they don't offer a full range of services, such as, for example, a debit card you can stick into a Link ATM (although it looks as if there are some Credit Union Debit Cards out there). Still, you can find out if there's a Credit Union you could join here.

But if you want to punish the big boys and still be with a big(ish) name on the high street, with Internet banking and a usable debit/cashpoint card and all the other services the average account holder wants, you could always bank with the Co-op:

The Co-operative Bank is still the only UK high street bank with an Ethical Policy voted on by its customers. So, as a customer, it's you who has the final say about where your money goes and where it doesn't...

Being owned by a co-operative, we're accountable to our members and customers, not stock markets and speculators. Also, because we don't have shareholders to consider, we can aim to deliver stable and sustainable growth and whenever possible avoid taking excessive risks.

From the Co-operative Bank's web site. Things aren't quite as ethically perfect as the blurb on the web site makes out - the Co-op Bank still has substantial investments in Imperial Tobacco and British American Tobacco - but I reckon you can keep a clearer conscience banking with the Co-op still than with your average high street bank and, if you join, you have a vote and a voice to change things. They may not have many local branches, but they've got Link cash machines.

I like to think that the Co-op appear third in the search results for "occupy your bank account" because their ethical principles genuinely set them apart from the other banks who just seem to be trying to cynically co-opt the phrase to airbrush their image (the most cynical being the executives at the disgraceful Royal Bank of Scotland, who should hang their collective heads in shame for trying to appropriate an ethical finance slogan whilst having gone further than any other bank in denying 1.1 million of its basic bank account customers access to the majority of free cash machines). Fred the Shred may be gone, but the foul stench of his spirit lingers.

Or you could join the Nationwide, the world's largest building society and the largest UK building society not to be swept away in the suicidal wave of demutualisations of the '80s and '90s (despite the carpetbaggers' attempts to take them down). Remember when the bits of the of the last demutualised society, Bradford and Bingley, had to be nationalised or sold off to Santander?

For the past decade the banks, building societies and other specialist lenders have all taken part in the biggest house price, and mortgage lending, boom in the UK's history.

One thing that has helped the banks in particular has been their ability to borrow money from other financial institutions, rather than just from savers, to fund their mortgage lending.

Building societies are restricted by law to funding just 50% of their lending this way and the average among societies is much less, at about 30%.

It is this borrowing, and the current difficulty in repaying it, that lies at the heart of the problems that have been experienced by the Northern Rock, Halifax and now the B&B.
Noted the BBC at the time. A responsible organisation that didn't participate in the speculative, bubble-inflating madness that the rest of us are still paying for seems like a pretty good place to put your pennies, especially when it gives you access to Link cash machines, Internet banking and possibly even a branch near you.

I'm not sure that any movement can arouse the necessary levels of political engagement and solidarity needed for a mass closure of accounts in the big banks, given current levels of cynicism and scapegoating (if the big banks had attracted the same level of vitriolic abuse as their victims, like the unemployed, the disabled and public sector workers, the buggers really would be running scared).

Maybe the message needs to include an appeal to self-interest, too - after all, come the next, or next-but-one, crash the country might run out of money to bail out reckless banks and then where will you be if you trusted one of them with your life's savings? I'm sure of one thing, though - the current political parties and their leaders aren't up for delivering any real change in the balance of power.

If the politicians had the desire or the ability to deliver real change and sustainable finance, we might have seen it when the time came to dispose of the failed Northern Rock bank. But they weren't able to do anything bold, like breaking it up and selling the bits to responsible mutual building societies, (partly due to European Commission rules putting a time limit on how long the Rock could stay in public ownership). The resulting deal saw the big financial institutions partying like the global financial crisis never happened:

To sum up: the Virgin deal guarantees big losses for the taxpayer, uses exotic financial techniques analogous to those which caused the Rock to collapse in the first place, and leaves us with a bank which is measurably less safe.

And, as we've just seen, the City of London has only to whistle for its toy bulldog, Cameron to come trotting obediently to heel, so it's not too difficult to work out that you've got a better chance of seeing magic unicorns floating down from the clouds to make everything better than you have of seeing the current generation of politicians putting the interests of the people who elected them before those of massive financial institutions. If change doesn't come from below, it's not coming at all.

Emptying bank accounts might work, as might other forms of activism; targeting political parties and their events and conferences, exposing the lobbying and PR industry that trumps democratic mandates, maybe even putting up parliamentary candidates in the style of Martin Bell, the "anti-sleaze" candidate in the 1997 UK general elections. Putting up some tents and making a lot of noise is absolutely necessary to keep the issue at the top of the news, where it belongs, but I don't think it's sufficient any more.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Choice cuts

Too lazy to post tonight, but here are a few things that caught my eye recently. First up, a bizarre slice of hot, steaming 'Obama's a Muslim' teapottery from my all time favourite Internet loon.

Next, Cameron's euro-tantrum on behalf of his City paymasters inspired my favourite blog post title of the week; The Bulldog Flaps its Jowls (second prize goes to From Chamberlain to Churchill to Blimp).

There's an interesting piece on our current age of austerity and historical parallels at Flip Chart Fairytales. The killer quote is from Will Hutton, but don't let that put you off:

[T]he last time Britain endured such an extended period of depression and falling living standards – the 1870s and 1880s – saw the mushrooming of the co-operative movement and the emergence of the Labour party as the more moderate expressions of anger that wanted to challenge the very basis of capitalism.

I've always thought it was a good idea to keep religion out of politics, on the grounds that I've never found 'because God says so' to be a convincing argument for doing or not doing anything. Unity at The Ministry of Truth, has come to a similar conclusion, but after applying a bit more intellectual rigour and a lot more research:

So, the moral of the story is that if you’re after a fig leaf for some of the nastier aspects of human prejudice, then nothing comes close to a hefty dose of That Old Time Religion, but if its civil right and liberties and a robust, fully-functional democracy you’re after then its best to keep all the god-bothering to a minimum and at a safe distance from government.

'If you can keep your head when all around you have lost theirs, then you probably haven't understood the seriousness of the situation' - Nick Cohen takes a peek through the scary door:

Observer journalists are embarrassed because we thought in 2008 that the world would have to change. Naive fools that we were, we imagined that the severity of the crisis would make reform of the banking system inevitable. We believed that we would no longer live in a country where the media greeted roaring house price inflation as a cause for celebration and where ministers could get away with leaving the unemployed to fester on the dole...

...With leaders providing no guide to the future, the public has decided to keep their heads down and plough their own furrows. The suffering of others, the hundreds of thousands whose hopes are falling faster than Icarus from the heavens, no longer concern them. Support for tax increases to improve public services is diving, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey. Half the public thinks that unemployment benefits are too high – presumably the half that has never been forced to live on them. Many more say that if children are poor that is because their parents do not want to work, not because they cannot find work.

Give up and stop pretending that electorates and prime ministers can control the world, they mutter to themselves. Bolt the doors, lock the windows, yank the curtains shut and hope that when disaster comes it will hit your neighbours and leave you and yours alone.

Read the rest here, if you don't freak out too easily. Sweet dreams.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Christmas Carols, Doris and Cleopatra

Some not particualrly original festive thoughts on our Christmas traditions and the only two canonical gospels that mention Christ's childhood (Matthew and Luke):

 We three kings of orient are

Matthew writes about wise men, but doesn't directly say that there were three of them,* or that they were kings. Luke doesn't mention them at all.

Once in royal David's city / Stood a lowly cattle shed and Away in a manger, no crib for a bed

Really? Matthew doesn't mention Mary and Joseph having to travel to Bethlehem to be counted for any census, or getting turned away from any inns and ending up in a stable. He just writes 'Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king'. When the wise men arrive in Bethlehem they see the star standing over where the child was and go into the house. Just a house - no mention of an inn, or a stable and no indication that Joseph and Mary are away from home. If Matthew was your only source, the whole back story about the prospective parents wandering around far from home and ending up in a stable would be lost and you'd conclude that Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem and had a home birth.

But it's in Luke, isn't it?

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Well, it's there in the King James version, but the word 'inn' is apparently a very loose translation of the Septuagint's katalemna, which means something more like "temporary shelter". Innkeepers have been getting a lousy rep for countless generations on account of this one.

As for the manger, the word used in  was thaten. Depending on context this word could mean an animal's feeding trough, but it could also mean a child's crib. Given the context, it's far more likely that the child was laid in a crib rather than a trough, and that the translator has probably just used the wrong sense of  thaten.

All those carols, all that art, all those nativity plays, all those children's crib scenes, all those jokes about Joseph and Mary being in a stable relationship, down to a simple translation error.

Herod, the king, in his raging / Charged he hath this day / His men of might, in his own sight / All young children to slay

At last, something that's definitely in one of the gospels, Matthew. Luke makes no mention of the massacre of the innocents. Some scholars have pointed out that, not only is this story omitted from Luke, but there are no independent records of this atrocity, (for example in Josephus). There is a relatively reasonable counter argument, often used by Christian apologists. These were brutal times and there were probably many atrocities that would seem shocking to us today that contemporaries wouldn't have thought extraordinary enough to mention, (also, history is usually written by the winners, who don't tend to advertise their misdeeds, and countless documents haven't survived the passage of two thousand years).

I could just about buy that, but it's the discrepancy between the two gospels themselves that makes me suspicious. Say you're a a Roman historian and you decide not to record that a paranoid puppet ruler in one of the provinces killed a few local kids.  Or maybe you mention it in passing, but the last copy of your account is lost five hundred years later. Both scenarios are quite plausible.

Now imagine that you're Luke, writing an account of Christ's childhood. Your story isn't a general history of Caesars and other  celebrities, it's a biography of Jesus. Don't you think that if the king, no less, tried to have the baby Jesus killed, slaughtering innocent children in the process, forcing Jesus' parents to flee and live abroad as refugees, it might be worth a mention? Especially as you've found time to mention unremarkable details like the infant Jesus being circumcised.

You just wouldn't hold the front page to report that Jesus had the snip like any other Jewish kid, but not think it newsworthy that his parents also smuggled the baby hundreds of miles to a foreign country to escape an attempted high-level assassination attempt that resulted in numerous collateral casualties. It sounds as if either the massacre didn't happen, or Luke was the kind of guy you wouldn't want editing a newspaper. No Pulitzer Prize for you, Lukey boy.

The missing massacre underlines the fact that we're being told two separate and incompatible stories. In Matthew, Jesus is born in Bethlehem, then his parents get a tip-off from the wise men and flee to Egypt to keep Jesus safe from Herod. Eventually, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him that Herod's dead and it's safe to go back home. Joseph and Mary have trust in God, so they head back home. But not that much trust, because when they find out that Herod's son is now on the throne in Jueda, they decide not to return to Bethlehem, but divert to Nazareth, just to be on the safe side.

In Luke, Joseph and Mary start off in Nazareth, then we have that odd story about Caesar Augustus telling everybody in the Empire to up sticks and return to their ancestral homes to be counted and taxed (if the Romans really had faffed about like that, ordering everybody to return to their birthplace every time they wanted to raise a few sisterces, their empire would have fallen a damn sight sooner). As a result, they wind up in Bethlehem when the baby's due. From Bethlehem, the couple take Jesus to Jerusalem 'to present him to the Lord'. After that, they go home to Nazareth.

Both versions of Jesus fulfil earlier prophecies by being born in Bethlehem and by being a Nazarene, but there are two conflicting back stories. Matthew's inclusion of the flight to Egypt gives him a chance to throw in another authoritative prophecy, but means that his account and Luke's are irreconcilable,

Lo, he abhors not the Virgin's womb

The virgin birth is there in both accounts, but it's very well-known that the idea of a virgin birth might plausibly just be another simple translation error. In the authoritative Hebrew text, Isiah uses the Hebrew word "almah", which could mean "maiden," "young woman," or "virgin," which was translated into the Greek "parthenos" in the Septuagint. It may well be that Matthew and Luke decided that Jesus had to be born of a virgin, to fulfil Isiah's prophecy, but Isiah never had a virgin birth in mind in the first place. The argument isn't a clincher, but taken together with the other discrepancies, it makes the whole tinsel-covered edifice look a bit wobbly.

At this time of year we're used to hearing clerics telling us to pause and think about the real meaning of Christmas, but it seems to me that if more people looked clearly at what was written in the gospels, rather than the familiar, cosy, soft-focus, fuzzy amalgam of two different accounts that now passes for the Christmas story, their reflections might lead to more sceptical conclusions than the clergy would like. Be careful what you wish for, guys - after all, there are plenty more discrepancies where these came from.

But what's with Doris and Cleopatra?  Nothing significant, just a quite interesting factoid I stumbled across when reading round the subject. King Herod the Great , I discovered, was an even more enthusiastic proponent of serial matrimony than Henry VIII. Herod wasn't content with a mere six wives, but seems to have got through nine in his infamous career. According to Wikipedia (and why would anyone lie about it?) his first wife was called Doris and wife number five was called Cleopatra. There's even a rumour that Herod's wife Cleopatra was that Cleopatra, in which case the old girl certainly got around a bit, (sounds more like a case of mistaken identity to me, as it's as hard to reconcile with the other accounts of her life as the two gospels are to reconcile with each other).

I can't help regretting that there's no place for Doris and Cleopatra in the Christmas story. After all, we know to next to nothing about the wise men, not even whether or not they were real, but they've traditionally been given names - Melchior Caspar and Balthasar -and assigned a starring role, which is a tad unfair on some of the other people who were around at the time who unambiguously did exist.

Anyway, however flaky the Christian stuff tacked on to the pagan midwinter festival is, it's still as good an excuse as any to take some time out, get together with friends and family and pop open a bottle of your favourite tipple, so I'll happily drink to that bit:

*As the unspecified number of wise men gave three gifts, or three types of gift, gold frankincense and myrrh, it's not surprising that the tradition of three wise men emerged, but it ain't necessarily so.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

All I want for Christmas

This season's must-have boy's* toy is a tank. None of your puny radio-controlled 1/24th scale rubbish, mind, but a full-sized kick-ass 60 ton steel killing machine. Finance? No problem...

* or tank girl's


Releasing a powerful dose of austerity

A lovely little advert for the quack medicine du jour. Just becaus it's your fault doesn't mean others can't suffer for you. Video embedded or here:

Friday, 2 December 2011

Without the bare necessities

So Mowgli went away and hunted with the four cubs in the jungle from that day on. But he was not always alone, because, years afterward, he became a man and married.

But that is a story for grown-ups.

Rudyard Kipling The Jungle Book

My first introduction to the mythical archetype of children raised by wild animals was probably a showing of Disney's 1967 version of The Jungle Book at the Scarborough Odeon* but the idea goes even further back than those distant days when I were a lad.  Right back to some of civilisation's founding legends, in fact, and the tales of Enkidu, Atalanta  and Romulus and Remus.

Did these legends have any basis in reality? I find it hard to believe. Human babies at the suckling stage are so vulnerable, helpless, immobile and relatively big that I can't imagine any wolf or boar being capable of keeping them alive, even making the massive assumption that such a wild animal might be so awash with maternal hormones that it would categorise a human infant as "offspring" rather than "snack". Toddlers aren't much more self-sufficient and I'd have thought that to have the tiniest hope of survival in the wild, a human child would have to be at the very least four years old or so and remarkably self-sufficient and lucky (by which stage some humans must have been involved in keeping the child alive through infancy, so this wouldn't be a true "wild child").

Real life-examples of children raised by animals have been claimed, from an Irish boy allegedly brought up by sheep, cited by Dr. Tulp, the star** of Rembrandt's painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, to "Mowgli's Sisters", Amala and Kamala, two wild children allegedly raised by wolves in Midnapore, India and discovered by a missionary in the 1920s. In the absence of much surviving evidence, I'm happy to put Sheep Boy down to somebody puckering up to the Blarney Stone, whilst the more recent and better-documented tale of Amala and Kamala looks pretty dodgy under examination.

There are more credible stories of feral children who have lived wild after presumably being abandoned or losing parents or guardians at a later stage (some, but not all, of these stories involve the child allegedly being raised by animals, or living with them in the wild). Most of these children appeared to have no language; possibly because they were been abandoned before having leaned to speak, or, more probably, so early in their language development that they lost the ability to speak.

As we move from legend to better-documented facts, the story gets bleaker (although the fate of Amala and Kamala was itself pretty bleak, whatever the children's true story was):

Feral children have long fascinated scientists. Apart from the sheer pathos of their stories, they raise some gut issues: how do we become human? If we fail to learn critical skills as children, is it impossible to do so later?

Most feral children have been severely stunted and remained so all their lives, suggesting that early human contact is essential to normal development... Being a wild child may conjure up visions of some Blue Lagoon-type idyll, but the reality is unspeakably cruel.
Cecil, The Straight Dopes's über-polymath

 For obvious reasons, nobody today is prepared to perform a controlled experiment on the effect of withdrawing human contact and interaction from small children. According to Herodotus, the Egyptian Pharaoh Psammetichus had no such ethical worries and ordered two children to be raised without anybody speaking to them, in order to settle a hot debate about whether Egyptian or Phrygian was the world's most ancient language. The idea was that the first sounds the children produced without prompting would represent humankind's primordial tongue.

Herodotus wrote that the children were heard to make a sound that resembled "becos", the Phrygian word for bread, so Psammetichus' researchers concluded that Phrygian was the more ancient language.

In modern times, children aren't deliberately withdrawn from human contact in the name of academic research, but a lot of academics have spent a lot of time studying the effect of isolation on children who have been raised without human contact due to abuse or neglect, like "Genie", the pseudonymously famous victim of horrific childhood incarceration and abuse from the 1970's. A common theme is that language skills, emotional development and the capacity for independent living are stunted, usually irreversibly, by lack of human contact in the early years.

It's a tragic reversal of the archetype of the heroic child of nature, freed from the stifling, artificial straitjacket of human society, flowering into an independent, emotionally unconstrained free spirit.

Spinoza 1 - Rousseau 0

* Scarborough's Odeon closed over twenty years ago, which makes me feel very old. More happily, the 1930s art deco building escaped the usual destiny of old cinemas - demolition or a shabby afterlife as a bingo hall - and still survives as the well-maintained home of the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

** Or maybe just the impresario. The real star real of the show is the pallid cadaver of just-hanged ex-robber Aris Kindt, laid out on the slab for our instruction.

Monday, 28 November 2011

The fretful porpentine

I'm generally immune to the urge to share other people's YouTube videos of animals allegedly being adorable. Maybe my standards have started to slip, or maybe the sound of a porcupine's displeasure at having its dinner interrupted really is hilariously cute. You decide:

I think I can just about get away with a porcupine. But if I ever start sharing kitten videos, for the love of God, just kill me.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Why we must act now, according to Chris Dillow

The politicians’ syllogism: “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore this must be done.” 

A brilliant summary of the boilerplate justification for way too many many policy announcements. The rest of the post isn't bad, either.


My beleated contribtion to Lieutenant John Pike's fifteen minutes of fame (with apologies to Ring Lardner).

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

After they were annexed...

Concerning The Way To Govern Cities Or Principalities Which Lived Under Their Own Laws Before They Were Annexed

WHENEVER those states which have been acquired as stated have been accustomed to live under their own laws and in freedom, there are three courses for those who wish to hold them: the first is to ruin them, the next is to reside there in person, the third is to permit them to live under their own laws, drawing a tribute, and establishing within it an oligarchy which will keep it friendly to you. Because such a government, being created by the prince, knows that it cannot stand without his friendship and interest, and does its utmost to support him; and therefore he who would keep a city accustomed to freedom will hold it more easily by the means of its own citizens than in any other way.

Nicolo Machiavelli The Prince

Pay attention, children

That nice Dr Heather McGregor* from executive search firm Taylor Bennett will explain all about executive pay. A silly man on the radio said it didn't seem fair that top executives' pay has grown so much more quickly than everybody else's over the last 30 years.

That was silly of him, wasn't it? Big boys and girls don't worry their darling little heads about babyish ideas like fairness, now do they? This is what Dr McGregor told him:

Anyone over the age of seven who says things are not fair needs to have a reality check.

Some people think that  employees might sit on Renumeration Committees, the way they do in those nasty socialist countries like ... er ... Germany. What a lot of silly billies! Dr McGregor explained why they were just being silly:

You would not give your children a say in how much money you allocate for clothes, for haircuts...
I know most employees are old enough to have families, drive cars, have bank accounts, save for pensions and do other grown-up things, but we mustn't forget that they are really only like dear little toddlers, and it would be ever so silly if toddlers told their mummies and daddies how to behave, now wouldn't it?

I wonder where McGregor, educated at the  independent St Mary's Hall girls' school (which, despite benefiting from tax relief by virtue of its status as a "charity" and charging fees of £12,609 to £20,817 per year, got into "financial difficulties" in 2009 and was taken over by the exclusive Roedean school), picked up the ideas that fairness is a foolish notion, fit only for children, and that the lower orders lack the maturity and intellectual capacity to have a meaningful opinion on the entitlements of their betters?

Any ideas?

*Salary £108,000. If her recruiting skills are as lacklustre as her debating skills, Taylor Bennett could save a few quid by replacing her with somebody on a nursery school assistants' wage, without any loss of intellectual rigour. If they recruited an actual nursery school assistant, the candidate would benefit from already having experience of talking down to people as if they were infants.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Word of the day

Petrichor (PET-ri-kuhr) 

The distinctive aroma of rain falling on dry earth. I never knew it had a special name until now.

2011: Arab Spring, Euro Winter

Democracy is good enough for the Arabs, but the wise old heads of Europe are apparently too canny to let unpredictable voters get in the way of the serious business of running countries. First Greek democracy fell to an unelected Austerity Junta. Then came Italy. Which dominoes will be the next to fall? Spain, France?

The lamps are going out all over Europe. I hope we see them lit again in our time

A big hello to all intelligent life forms everywhere...

 ...And to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys.

A long while back, I was at a friend's house, listening to records. More specifically, he was playing a few tracks from his collection and inviting those present to 'name that tune'. I was successfully able to name the theme tune to the original radio version of The Hitch Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy - or so I thought. That was when I discovered that it wasn't an original theme tune, but a piece by The Eagles, called Journey of the Sorcerer. Apparently, I'm not the only person to have made this  mistake.

Anyway, shout out to the other seven billion confused B Ark descendants out there on Earth 1.0. Your chill-out tune for today is...

The Eagles - Journey of the Sorcerer

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Mock the weak

A lot of people make fun of Milton Keynes, which is fine by me. I think it's a better place to live than most outsiders imagine, although the reality falls short of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation's original vision of a beautifully planned, orderly, harmonious place to live with no building higher than the highest tree. If people want to make fun of concrete cows and the grid roads and all the roundabouts (which really do keep traffic congestion to a minimum), I don't have a problem with that.

In fact, I rather welcome the fact that people treat the place as a bit of a joke, because it means there's less of the thin-skinned, self-important local pride that makes other places look even sillier. I lived in Leighton Buzzard for a short while, at the time when Jeremy Clarkson made a throwaway remark about in a car review about Leighton Buzzard being 'the fifth-best town in Bedfordshire'. The Pages of the Leighton Buzzard Observer carried a furious rebuttal from the affronted council leader (or some such local dignitary), raging and spluttering as if somebody might have actually noticed this remark, or could have cared less.

I'm no Clarkson fan, but this was practically the least offensive thing he's ever said. A comment from Clarkson shouldn't have even been local-newsworthy unless he'd at least called the local council lazy, feckless and flatulent and preferably accused them of murdering prostitutes in between meetings of the planning committee.

What does rile me is comfortably-off people sneering at everybody who lives on the city's poorer estates. Take this nasty little "satirical" e-mail from earlier this year, as reproduced in the Anna Raccoon blog

An Earthquake measuring 5.2 on the Richter scale hit the new city of Milton Keynes on Wednesday morning.

Casualties were seen wandering aimlessly saying “bang out of order”, “mental” and “sorted”. Some are still confused that something interesting actually happened in Newport Pagnell! Some residents of Fishermead were woken before their ‘giros’ arrived and it caused quite a panic!

The earthquake decimated half of the Fullers Slade area causing in excess of £17.55 worth of damage. Several priceless collections of mementos from Ibiza, Corfu, Rhyl and Blackpool were damaged beyond repair including a cute little donkey that ‘broke wind’ when you clapped your hands. 

At a time when unemployment is soaring, the numbers of the working poor are at a record high and desperate people are killing themselves after being thrown on the employment scrapheap, isn't it good to know that there are people out there unafraid of mocking the poorest and weakest members of society? I guess, as it becomes less acceptable to taunt people for their race or sexuality, the sort of inadequates who always need somebody to look down have to find a new target to kick, (preferably somebody too weak to kick back). "Chav" is in danger of becoming the new "queer".

What I love is the irony of the thrusting, aspirational suburban golf club set sniggering at the poor for their lack of taste. It's a bit rich, coming from the class that's spent years disfiguring the countryside with a rash of unsightly mock Tudor "executive" homes. These Petit Trianon playhouses for the petit bourgeois are just the architectural equivalent of a flatulent ornamental donkey for people with more money than sense.

The poor, of course, don't get much of a say about what their accommodation looks like. In Milton Keynes this led to some very strange results on the older estates, where 1970's architects were given free rein to design radical, modernist machines for living to house the "overspill" from Greater London. Some of the designs were pretty stark and brutal. The linear, angular, gleaming, metal-clad lines of the '70s buildings in Netherfield, for example, certainly have what Kevin McCloud would call 'integrity', but it's the hard, uncompromising integrity of a housing project designed by daleks.

I hardly need to add that, being low-cost pre-fabricated social housing, they haven't worn tremendously well. The years and individual redecoration can't disguise the uncompromising geometry, but they have destroyed the pristine, chilly unity of the facades, which look patchier and shabbier by the year A lot of MK's original buildings were only supposed to be temporary, built to house the people who came to build the city, then to be torn down to make way for something better. Forty years later, we're still waiting.

I was in Netherfield the other day, when I spotted something rather extraordinary. I'm a bit conflicted about sharing it as, after all I've said about mocking the poor, it might seem like more middle-class piss-taking, but this is such an astonishing collision between the aesthetic of the suburban executive home and the stark functionalism of '70's prefabricated social housing, that you really have to see it to believe it. Sorry about the quality of the following picture, taken with a low-quality mobile phone camera with a scratchy lens - at least it saved me the job of pixellating out the car number plates:

Yes, somebody has actually looked at one of these Mies van der Rohe-inspired brutalist dwellings and decided that what it really needed was a mock-Tudor facade.

No matter whether the person responsible was rich or poor, (for all I know it might have been the landlord) this is just so wrong it's off the scale. Somebody actually took something from the Decade That Taste Forgot, hybridised it with its opposite and came up with something this unspeakably what-the-hell-were-you thinking?. It's so wrong it's almost right. 'As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table' as somebody once remarked. If you want to marvel in higher quality, somebody's posted a far better picture of the building in question here, or you could just put Farthing Grove, Milton Keynes into Google Maps and find it for yourself on Street View.

Milton Keynes - you've just gotta love the weirdness.

Update (Occupy Milton Keynes)

Having posted this, I think I belatedly get it. Seen from the point of view of a resident, maybe this isn't so mental after all. You've got the powers that be pouring people, like so much fungible human overspill, into their anonymous, generic boxes, then one day one of the residents decides to stop being the passive recipient of somebody else's aesthetic and stick two big fingers up at the people who designed these anonymous hutches. What you see before you is an act of defiance and individuality, a sane protest against an absurd world.

It still looks bloody ugly, though.

Update 2 "Civic" amended to "local", as I ended up talking about Leighton Buzzard, which isn't a city by any stretch of the imagination.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Yay! Techno party!

Not only have the people not been consulted, sending for the technocrats is openly praised as a mechanism for avoiding consultation, whether by referendum or a general election. Instead, "governments of national unity" - a euphemism for something like one-party state - are sworn in as though there's a war on. There's not a war on. Nor has society collapsed, not even in Greece. It's just a common-or-garden economic crisis, no worse than that which British democracy sailed through in the late 1970s. 

Top blogging from the Heresiarch on the rise of technocracy at the expense of democracy. What worries me about the new governing class (apart from the little matters of legitimacy and accountability, or total lack thereof), is the basis on which these people have been appointed. Mario Monti, for example, is a former adviser to Goldman Sachs and Coca Cola and a.'convinced free marketeer with close connections to the European and global policy-making elite'.

Yes, he was an an advisor the Goldman Sachs the company that 'helped the Greek government to mask the true extent of its deficit with the help of a derivatives deal that legally circumvented the EU Maastricht deficit rules' and best mates with the European and global policy-making elites (you know, the ones who were in charge of the Eurozone and were totally unprepared for the global financial crisis in 2008). All very cozy. He sounds more like part of the problem than part of the solution to me.

I do believe that there are people with exceptional talent, intellect and technical skills who can change the world for the better. I just don't believe that it's this bunch of conventional insiders.

If you want to put some faith in experts as saviours, you'd be better off following the scientists at Wellcome Trust's Sanger Institute, who've been studying how the malaria parasite infiltrates red blood cells and may have pointed the way to an effective vaccine against a disease that kills about a million people every year, most of them children under five.

Or Neil Gershenfeld of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, prophet of what might just be the next industrial revolution and 'a bottom up culture of distributed innovation'.Techno utopianism, maybe, but unlike the EU version of rule by technocrats, at least some of his dream might come true and could potentially put a lot people in control of their own lives, rather than reducing them to the status of voicless serfs, toiling to preserve a broken system.

Beats as it sweeps as it cleans

Some people have been making unfortunate claims that the UK's intelligence services were complicit in the extraordinary rendition of terror suspects who were detained and tortured overseas. The Foreign Secretary is concerned. 'The very making of these allegations undermined Britain's standing in the world as a country that upholds international law and abhors torture'.

Lessons have been learned. According to the BBC, there are plans to restrict what can be said about the security services in open court so, if abuses like the ones being alleged were to ever happen in future, the public need never know.

James Dyson secured Britain's standing as a world leader in bagless vacuum cleaner technology. Good to know that we also maintain our lead in sweeping potentially embarrassing information under the carpet. Makes you proud, doesn't it?

Monday, 14 November 2011

Red China - perfect for that special Tea Party

“The ‘Great Society’ has not worked and it’s put us into the modern welfare state,” she said. “If you look at China, they don’t have food stamps. If you look at China, they’re in a very different situation. They save for their own retirement security…They don’t have the modern welfare state and China’s growing. And so what I would do is look at the programs that LBJ gave us with the Great Society and they’d be gone.”

 From The Thoughts of Chairman Bachmann

A leading American right-wing, über-libertarian evangelical praising the achievments of the Communist Party of China? Not long ago, you'd have thought anyone positing a Bible-Belt-Beijing Axis must have skipped a dose of anti-psychotics.

Although I don't consider the Tea Party/Communist Party model a remotely desirable terminus for any political journey, I've got to give Bachmann credit for spotting the obvious* fact that the red flag is flying over a full-on, devil-take-the-hindmost Gilded Age. Comrades, we don't need no stinkin' welfare state! Hell, these guys can execute as many criminals as they like and they don't let no jailbird-lovin' pinko liberal bed-wetters stop 'em. Yep, them good 'ol chicom hordes are just the sort of folk Michelle and her fanbase could happily invite round for Thanksgiving dinner, if only they weren't so darned godless.

Like Lenin, Bachman seems to imagine that her revolution will eventually result in the withering away of the state and a truly complete democracy. It's an interesting theory, but the parallels between America's own Gilded Age, with its grim factories and corrupt plutocrats, and modern China aren't encouraging. In both cases, large doses of laissez faire went hand in hand with Tammany Hall-style graft and cronyism. Real unfettered plutocrats (unlike the idealised fictional libertarian, John Galt) didn't even want to shrink the state becuse of some high-falutin' principle, but were quite content to chow down on juicy government contracts, without getting too pernickerty about 'only trading for mutual benefit' (see the Crédit Mobilier of America scandal).

Apparently, Deng Xiaoping probably never said 'To get rich is glorious!' but Mark Twain really did say, tongue-in-cheek:

What is the chief end of man?--to get rich. In what way?--dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must.

I'd argue that Twain's critique of a lightly-regulated Gilded Age in a developing economy is rather more balanced than Deng and Bachmann's uncritical propagandizing.

Hat tip.

*  To be fair it's probably not that obvious from the vantage point of Tea Party voters who believed that Sarah Palins's proximity to Russia made her some sort of foreign policy guru.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Don't panic! Don't Panic!

We have a plan … there's a lot of scenario planning, thinking about all possible outcomes. We have to deal with the world as it is... I don't think we should be panicking...

Said Baldrick  Lance-Corporal Jones  Vince Cable this week, discussing the Eurozone crisis, before reassuring us all by dropping that phrase about a potential 'Armageddon narrative' into the interview.

Thant's what he says, anyway. I've got a little theory that what the managers* of UK PLC, Deutschland GmbH, et al. actually want is to spread a few warning doses of fear and panic, in the hope that we'll stop thinking, not get too uppity and keep on voting to maintain the status quo, for fear of something worse. Margaret Thatcher's tireless old cheerleader TINA (There Is No Alternative) is still doing her stuff.

Sound advice at the moment would be to really not panic, switch off the noise machine, remember that Britain's not facing a real Armageddon and hold onto the thought that there is always an alternative.

If you want to know what Britain seriously preparing for a real Armageddon looked like, take yourself back to the Cold War and sit yourself down in the driving seat of a Vulcan V-Bomber. With the nuclear doomsday clock at a few minutes to midnight, this is where some lucky soul might have been sitting, poised between being shot out of the Russian skies by a SAM missile** and unleashing the plane's own Blue Steel nuclear missile to incinerate a few hundred thousand souls in the blink of an eye.

Claustrophobic, cramped and functional, this was your office if your job was convincing the other power bloc that we were really serious about Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Real-life Dr Strangelove hardware and quite chilling. I've got a feeling that with a bit more awkward questioning, thought and flexibility and a bit less raah-raah-ing from TINA we could muddle through the Eurozone "Apocalypse" rather better than we'd have survived a nuclear holocaust.

Mind you, have you seen where the Doomsday Clock is at the moment? We're not out of the woods yet, are we? Maybe we should all be having a little panic - just not about the things the political class want us to panic about.

*They're getting to look a little less like politicians with some connection to voters and more like members of a managerial overclass every day.

** Redundant Acronym Syndrome syndrome strikes again

Friday, 11 November 2011

The devil woman wants to know...

... if you've been involved in an accident that wasn't your fault.

 Oh, hang on, those are specs on her head.

Top advertising tip for ambulance-chasing lawyers. Subliminal satanic imagery rarely inspires trust, except among Faustian dabblers in the dark arts, who are probably playing for bigger stakes than a few grand for their dodgy whiplash claim. And don't ever ask your clients to sign up using a red pen...

Spotted on the back of the Thomson Local directory for Milton Keynes.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

From The Illustrated Uxbridge English Dictionary

ductile [ˈdʌktaɪl]

 Noun: A tile with a duck on it.

Image courtesy of Nemo's great uncle's Flikr stream. Silliness courtesy of The Uxbridge English Dictionary.

Church of St Peter and St Paul, Newport Pagnell

At night to Newport Pagnell; and there a good pleasant country- town, but few people in it. A very fair — and like a Cathedral — Church; and I saw the leads, and a vault that goes far under ground, and here lay with Betty Turner’s sparrow: the town, and so most of this country, well watered.

From The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 8 June 1668

Image courtesy of Ned Trifle's Flikr stream 

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The 99% were 'just asking for it'

It started with the banking crisis of 2008. A myth has grown up that 99 per cent of us were innocent in that, and have been forced to bail out the guilty 1 per cent. Actually, a majority of us were probably borrowing more than we should, and we can't just blame the banks for forcing the money into our hands, or the politicians for failing to regulate them. 

Writes Mary Ann Sieghart in the Independent. I'm sick of hearing this sort of pious nonsense about how we are all being miserable sinners who should turn the other cheek and forgive the bankstas and the politicians who told us that There Is No Alternative because we're all, in a very real sense, just as guilty as our abusers.

No we're bloody well not.

I wasn't borrowing more than I should have been, (due to a combination of instinctive risk aversion and dumb luck), but many of those who were didn't think they were being reckless. With house prices climbing further into the stratosphere with every passing year, many people took what they thought was a calculated risk to get an eye-watering mortgage, rather than wait until the tiniest starter home was way out of their reach. The poor saps believed the politicians and financiers who swore that everything in the market was for the best, now that we'd arrived in best of all possible economic worlds. Not to mention being ground down by the relentless hard sell of commission-hungry debt salesmen and the soft soap of the Property Ladder promise of securing your future by canny property speculation.

'But we all voted for the politicians who failed to regulate the banks, so it's our fault, isn't it?' This highly disingenuous claim would only hold water if we seriously assumed that a significant proportion of the population avidly hung on to the newsreaders' every word about the the state of the Hang Seng, the Dow Jones, the Nikkei and DAX, without their eyes glazing over, took a subscription to the Economist and actually had a clue about complex financial engineering, then, in full knowledge of what was going on, recklessly voted for politicians who they knew were negligently ignoring a coming crisis.

They didn't. Even an obsessive economics wonk like Gordon Brown got it memorably wrong, so it's a bit rich to turn round and blame the average guy or gal next door for not knowing about the problems of over-leveraged financial institutions, the US sub-prime market, collateralized debt obligations and sovereign debt. Not to mention the fact that politicians don't always deliver what they promise at election time - just ask anybody who voted Lib Dem last time round.

The argument that we all share the guilt because nearly everyone is in some sort of pension scheme which benefited, in the good years, from financial jiggery-pokery, this is just another unwarranted assumption about how well informed informed consumers are.

How may normal people have a clear idea of how their pensions work? If your eyes don't grow heavy when somebody starts going on about pension provision, then you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din. I've no idea whether my pittance of a works pension is invested in Italian government debt, pork bellies, ostrich farms, none of the above or all of them. Most of us just signed the dotted line and hoped that the out pension provider wasn't actively ripping us off, out of some vague idea that having a pension would be less likely to leave us destitute than just stuffing any spare cash under a mattress and hoping for the best.

Power and knowledge matter. The rest of us don't share the guilt of those who knew what was going on or had the power to change things. We weren't 'asking for it', any more than the rape victim who's accused of contributory negligence just because she wore a short skirt on the night in question. No ifs, no buts, no excuses.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Burn his body from his head

Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate. 

Pope Benedict XVI

Now's the time of year when we get together, in a spirit of Christian tolerance, to celebrate those good 'ol cultural expressions and traditional values. All together, now:

Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, 'twas his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament
Three score barrels of powder below
Poor old England to overthrow
By God's providence he was catched
With a dark lantern and burning match
Holloa boys, holloa boys
God save the King!
Hip hip hooray!
Hip hip hooray!

A penny loaf to feed ol' Pope
A farthing cheese to choke him
A pint of beer to rinse it down
A faggot of sticks to burn him
Burn him in a tub of tar
Burn him like a blazing star
Burn his body from his head
Then we'll say ol' Pope is dead.
Hip hip hooray!
Hip hip hooray!
Makes you proud, doesn't it?
It is no exaggeration to say that civilisation itself is indebted to our Christian heritage. As Johnston writes “Impartial law and politics are near to the very essence of principled civilised communal living. From such study came the democratic ideal of representative Government, with universal adult suffrage and regular elections. This in turn is founded upon concepts of accountability and human dignity, which themselves derive from the Biblical view of man made in the image of God. It is no accident that these ideals emerged in the Christian West (and nowhere else), a civilisation uniquely tamed and moulded by the Gospel.”
Happy bonfire night, everybody!

Thursday, 3 November 2011

So unlike the home life of our own dear Queen

I see Liz Jones, queen of the censorius net-curtain-twitching journalistic busybodies, has taken time out from sticking her disapproving nose into other people's private grief and decided to put some of her own dirty linen on public display. And, by gum, it's mucky!*

*The blog Carmen Gets Around ended in 2013, so if you if you go to, you'll find there's nothing to see here ... move along... I've threfore therefore updated the link which now takes you to the version archived on on the Wayback Machine (you'll have to scroll down a little way for Carmen's takedown of Liz Jones' article "The craving for a baby that drives women to the ultimate deception").

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Engage warp drive, Dr. Dan!

Simpletons with a little spare money and a vague sense of unease about life may wish to try one out of the many new-agey spiritual entrepreneurs who specialise in lightening clients' spirits, and wallets. I don't recommend it myself, but if you really must give all your spare cash to a self-appointed guru, you could do worse than Dr. Dan Mathews, whose web site I stumbled upon by accident the other day. This guy is quality. Hell, you could tick every box on a New Age Bullshit Bingo card before reaching the end of his awesome first paragraph:

Dr. Dan Mathews had a near death experience in August of 1992. On the other side of the veil he was ordained into the priesthood of Melchizedek and was given specific information about the “paradigms” which are defined as the level of consciousness that exists on earth. He was told that since the original downfall of man only three paradigms or realities had existed: one which began at the dawn of time, the second beginning with Abraham and the third emerged during the life of Jesus. Dr. Dan was told that beginning in 2003 humanity would enter into a warp-speed evolution of consciousness by moving through another twelve new paradigms of consciousness.

After Dr. Dan was given this information he was gifted with HOLY DIVINE HEALING. He was instructed to return to his body and use this gift by helping people reconnect to the parts of their soul which have been fragmented since the dawn of time and move gracefully through shifting paradigms with a complete connection to the God Presence within. Since this experience in 1992 Dr. Dan has assisted many people in their transitions through one-on –one sessions completed in person or by phone, group healings and lectures...

Dr. Dan’s private appointments are dedicated to your personal situation and are approximately 30 minutes each. The pricing is a sliding scale $85 -$148 and payment is reflective of your feeling toward the service. Cash is preferred. 

Bargain! Sign up here. Dr. Dan also does group sessions (subject to a minimum 'love offering' of $35). I wonder if he does spiritual development courses, too?

Seriously, though, is this stuff any more bonkers than mainstream religion? Try to make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity. The BBC has tried to explain:

The idea that there is One God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit means:
  • There is exactly one God
  • The Father is God
  • The Son is God
  • The Holy Spirit is God
  • The Father is not the Son
  • The Son is not the Holy Spirit
  • The Father is not the Holy Spirit
An alternate way of explaining it is:
  • There is exactly one God
  • There are three really distinct Persons - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
  • Each of the Persons is God

Common mistakes

The Trinity is not
  • Three individuals who together make one God
  • Three Gods joined together
  • Three properties of God
What the hell's all that supposed to mean? Maybe a diagram would help:

No, it all still looks like complete balderdash to me (although it's considered rude to suggest that believing in a complex set of assertions without the benefit of any supporting evidence might just be a bit silly).

Whatever. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to connect with the God Presence within by moving gracefully through some shifting paradigms at warp factor 5. All love offerings gratefully recieved (cash or PayPal only, please).

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The Occupy protesters can’t win

Here’s a bit more fact checking, this time from Guardian journalists have been disputing the Telegraph’s claim that only one in ten Occupy London protesters at St. Paul's actually occupied in their tents overnight. In this case, it looks as if nobody has definitively proved or disproved the original assertion. There are clearly a few facts to be nailed down here, to do with the sensitivity of the equipment, the time when it was used, whether tents been occupied for long enough to grow warm and show up on the equipment being used, (depending on how sensitively it was calibrated), etc, etc. Those facts are simply facts, regardless of your point of view.

What interests me here, though, is the way the disputed facts are framed, and how sections of the media feel free to dismiss and marginalise the protesters for doing one thing and for doing the opposite.

I don’t know what the real occupancy rates are in the encampment, but there are two ends of the possibility spectrum.

At one end of the spectrum, if there’s any truth to the Telegraph’s story, people aren’t camped out 24/7, but coming and going, presumably because they’ve got other pressing things in their lives to attend to, such as jobs, study, family, etc. At the other end, maybe there are protesters there all the time, people without such constraints who could conceivably be more-or-less full-time protesters; students with some flexibility to their schedule, perhaps skipping the odd lecture, the jobless, spoiled trustafarians and other family-supported well-off kids who don’t have a job to go to and so on.

It seems to me that some sections of the media have framed the debate so that the protesters can’t win. If they’re not full-time, hard-core protesters, sleeping out night after night, they’re dismissed as lightweights who don’t have the courage of their convictions and their protest is rubbished as a hypocritical publicity stunt without any real commitment behind it. If they are on the street night after night, then they’re dismissed as members of a jobless work-shy rent-a-mob with too much time on their hands, who can only afford to spend their lives protesting because they don’t have anything more productive to do.

 Catch-22 lives.*

*If this sounds familiar, just think about all the anti-immigrant stories you've read in the papers over the years. Bloody foreigners, coming over here and stealing our benefits. What, they're working? Bloody foreigners coming over here, stealing our jobs....