Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Cruel and unusual

From the annals of improbable animal-based weaponry comes more evidence of Man's inhumanity to Man (and to just about every other sentient being you can imagine). In this case, here are your 16th century forerunners of the bat bomb, the anti-tank dog and the weaponized dolphin.

Image from peacay's photostream, published under this Creative Commons license.


Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Carneymania hits Westminster

Over-reaction of the week:
George Osborne announced a new governor of the Bank [of England] ... Andrea Leadsom, a Tory, was so excited about the appointment that, she declared: "I could jump up and down! But I won't!" 
 From a parliamentary sketch by Simon Hoggart.

It's not just the hyperventilating Member for South Northamptonshire who needs to calm down and take a cold shower. I've no reason to question Mark Carney's competence or suitability for the job, but there's a worrying assumption behind all the cross-party adulation.  Carney was the governor of the Bank of Canada and the 2008 global financial crisis happened on his watch. Canada weathered the crisis pretty well. Therefore we need a boss like that in charge of the Bank of England.

Fair enough, if Mark Carney was the sole proximate cause of Canada's good fortune. But it sounds to me as if the main reason Canada came through in good shape was because Canada was in a better place to start with:
Experts here note that Canadian banks are more tightly regulated, more liquid and less highly leveraged. Instead of being highflying investment banks, they tend to operate in a more traditional manner, with large numbers of loyal depositors and a more solid base of capital.

"I think the regulatory framework in Canada is a little more stringent," [Michael] Gregory [chief economist at BMO Nesbitt Burns] said, "and Canadian banks are a little more conservative in terms of lending." The World Economic Forum this month rated Canada's banks as the world's soundest, ahead of banks in Sweden and Luxembourg.
Keith B. Richburg, writing in the Washington Post.

 Mark Carney may have done the right things as governor of the central bank, but the killer fact that leaps out is that he had the huge advantage of working in a country that wasn't being systematically brought to its knees by the recklessness of its own rogue financial institutions.

Maybe what we should be taking from Canada isn't a superstar boss, but a lesson in re-balancing the economy from an economy that doesn't seem to have been that unbalanced in the first place. I find all this hero-worship worrying on two levels. Firstly, the idea that any organisation can be turned around by the quick fix of getting the right calibre of leader behind the executive desk takes the focus away from tackling underlying, systemic problems. A competent leader might help, but don't look to the leader to save us all (or to the ejection of a leader who's perceived to have failed as some short-cut to salvation).

Secondly, the ideology of leadership superstars is rather problematic in itself. At best, it reinforces inequality, by misattributing moral virtue to power  - might is right, whilst the poor and voiceless are the authors of their own misfortune. At worst, it leads to a mindless, fascistic faith in strong leaders, which is the last thing we need at a time when people's economic insecurity and resentment is already being channelled into support for anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner parties (even if Britain's version of xenophobic rage wears Ukip's "mainstream", "respectable"* vanilla face). Back to Simon Hoggart's sketch:
But the key moment revolved round Michael Fabricant, the former disc jockey who has, without anyone noticing, become vice-chairman of the Conservative party. In this role he has just produced a report suggesting that the Tories cut a deal with Ukip.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Casino capitalism

Spotted in a Newport Pagnell pub recently:

It's a terrible quality photo, taken in poor light with cheap phone camera, but just in case you can't quite make the words out, the fruit machine is called 'Banker's Bonus'. I am not authorised to give specific financial advice, so cannot recommend using this fruit machine as an investment vehicle for maximising the return on the contents your back pocket.

If I was in the financial advice biz, though, I'd probably recommend this fruit machine as a safer bet than buying shares in the Royal Bank of Scotland or Lloyds, at least now I've read this post which is well worth a few minutes of your time, especially for its account of how the Spaniards, desperate to privatise their own failed, bailed-out bank, Bankia, flogged it piecemeal to the public by misrepresenting the basket-case organisation as 'solid, healthy and with a vast capacity for generating resources.' The unfortunate punters quickly saw their shares in this 'solid, healthy' bank shed 70% of their value. Standard and Poor's cut Bankia's credit rating to 'junk' earlier this year. Hence the suggestion of that out own government might seek to offload its own toxic waste on the suckers active citizens of our glorious share-owning democracy:

So there is the answer for the UK government. My guess is the government will either try to sell shares in RBS and Lloyds directly to the public, or in the case of RBS buy the rest of the bank first, nationalizing it, and then sell. Nationalizing it first would allow the government to split off the worst parts of RBS’s debts, leaving them on the public’s purse forever, and then privatize the ‘new, clean’ RBS. This way the  public would buy the bank twice (that is what privatizing is – you buy shares in something you already own) AND leave the tax payers to pay off all the bank’s worst losses as well. Of course it won’t sound like that when they come to advertize it. Much like Mr Rato’s Bankia didn’t sound bad.

Don't say you haven't been warned.

Apart from interesting speculation on what might happen, there are some relevant points about the mess we're already in, which undermines Boris Johnson's fatuous quip about  Head Boy Cameron being 'a broom that is cleaning up the mess left by the Labour government':
— the bulk of UK debts is ‘lending’ from the banks. We borrowed it but the loans were made by, OFFERED by,  and remain at the banks. Sure we have a role. We have to pay. But if we can’t, then bye bye banks. No matter how you spin it the debts were created by and are at the banks.  Back to the report.
  • By comparison, UK government debt was relatively low and stable as a share of GDP from 1987 to 2007 and, despite rising sharply due to the recession, was still less than a sixth of total private sector debt in 2009. (My emphasis)
Another problem for the official line. Where is the mention of the out of control public spending and greedy nurses?!!! Apparently it was all less than a sixth of private debts. The long and the short of the PwC report is that the huge rise in UK debt has been due to increases in debts owed by,
… households, private companies and financial institutions rather than increasing public debt, which only started to rise materially during the recent recession.  (My emphasis)

Mind you, as the bankers' most enthusiastic cheerleader, you can see why BoJo would be keen to find someone else to blame.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Dedicated followers of fashion

We have some explaining to do, we have as a result of yesterday undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility in our society.
Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, on the importance of holding on to your credibility. As Chris Dillow argued recently, when an influential public figure uses the "C-word" to describe a person or thing, "credible" is usually code for some sloppy concept like "uncontroversial", or "ideologically acceptable", rather than a testable declaration that the person or thing is believable or convincing in some measurable way.

Sadly , "credibility" lends overtones of rigour, seriousness and gravitas to to some pretty banal value-judgements. In most cases, ideological acceptability just boils down to fashion, which leads me to today's modest proposal. The next time you hear some Very Important Person or current affairs guru pontificating about the credibility, (or otherwise), of some person, idea or institution, just mentally substitute the word "fashionable" for "credible." For example:
  • Joanne Bloggs is suddenly beginning to look like a fashionable leader in waiting.
  • The status quo is no longer a fashionable alternative.
  • The government has made progress in identifying a fashionable package of measures to address [insert issue here].
  • There is no fashionable alternative to [fashionable policy x].
  • No fashionable politician still believes that we can solve this problem by [insert unfashionable solution here].

Rowan Williams was talking about the specific issue of gender equality, which involves a value-judgement that's a long way from from banal and I'm not suggesting that the issue itself is in any way trivial. In fact, I'd say that treating people equally is way more important than the piffling side issue of how credible fashionable the Church of England looks. The nearly-ex-Archbishop did, however, came dangerously close to using the word "credibility" in a more meaningful sense, as noted by that credible publication of record, The Daily Mash:
Religion still main threat to Church's credibility
Because if you're not a believer, religion is, literally, incredible. There's a huge gulf between me and people with widely differing political beliefs and values, but there's almost always some common ground. I might not believe that your proposed solution to problem x would be effective, fair, or moral, but at least we both agree that problem x is a real thing. Even is one of us thinks that problem x isn't really a problem at all, we still both know that x is a thing.

Believers and unbelievers have no such common ground, being in fundamental disagreement about the very existence of the thing they're arguing about, hence the - sometimes bad-tempered - mutual incomprehension. Francis Spufford, batting for the believers, tried to bridge the gulf recently but, as I've written on several occasions, my incomprehension remains intact. To give a flavour of how far apart we are just imagine how surreal Spufford's observation about the existence or otherwise of God, would sound, paraphrased as a political point:
I don't know that any of it is true. I don't know if there's a Bank of England. (And neither do you, and neither does the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and neither does anybody. It isn't the kind of thing you can know. It isn't a knowable item.) 
I'm no expert in anything very much, so maybe it's just me being a bit thick, but how you can have a credible* discussion or opinion about an entity whose existence isn't merely unknown, but unknowable remains an impenetrable mystery to me.

And, finally, here's your inevitable musical bonus:

*in the dictionary sense


Update - see also: 'Church now less credible than concept of omnipotent superbeing, says Rowan Williams'.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The end of a very private era

The last typewriter to be made in a factory in Britain has rolled off a production line in North Wales - 183 years after the first typewriter was patented.

The electric CM-1000, built by Brother, was until recently shipped to America, where some legal firms prefer not to use computer hard drives.

I hadn't previously known how IT-phobic some US law firms could be, but once lawyers had grasped the potentially damaging information that could be unearthed from an electronic data trail, I suppose they were bound to get jittery.

Erik R. Guenther outlines some of the potential pitfalls, giving the example of a draft proposal for a financial settlement, sent as an attachment in a format like .doc. Nothing wrong with that - unless an earlier version of the same document contained an offer to settle at a much lower amount, in which case the recipient - if more IT savvy - might retrieve and track the changes to the document and conclude that his or her opponent was probably willing to settle for a far lower figure than the one ostensibly being sought. In such cases, Guenther suggests that lawyers who haven't completely abjured the computer should make friends with .pdf files.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Narcissus unbound

I just caught up with an episode of All In The Mind, on BBC iPlayer, which included an interesting interview with Jean M. Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before.  Here's a taste of what Twenge's got to say about narcissism from a piece she wrote for HuffPo:
We strive to raise our children's self-esteem in the belief that confidence leads to success, but often err on the side of too much self-focus as we favor competition over consideration. Ironically, self-esteem is unrelated to success, and narcissism leads to eventual failure -- so our obsession with supreme self-confidence doesn't even benefit individuals. And it harms others: though it's commonly believed that aggression arises out of low self-esteem, the most aggressive people are those high in both self-esteem and narcissism, most likely because they lack empathy. In our rush to teach self-love, we have forgotten that it's both harder, and more valuable, to love others just as much.

Of course, parents didn't just make this stuff up. As W. Keith Campbell and I argue in The Narcissism Epidemic, extreme self-centeredness has seeped into every aspect of our culture, from routine plastic surgery to reality TV to the massive debt that allows us to look better off than we actually are. According to a slick website, February 13, 2010 is "Madly in Love with Me" day.* To celebrate, people are encouraged to write a song about how great they are. Having a basic sense of self-esteem doesn't routinely compromise empathy, but once self-esteem bloats into narcissism, other people's needs become irrelevant. If you love yourself too much, you won't have much love left for anyone else.

Modern life also undermines human empathy through our increasingly lonely lives. My colleagues and I recently published a series of experiments showing that people who felt rejected or lonely were significantly less likely to help others.
That sounds plausible to me, although a health warning is in order. Just as true believers in astrology are predisposed to accept 'vague and general personality descriptions as uniquely applicable to themselves without realising that the same description could be applied to just about anyone' (the Forer effect) you've got to beware of confirmation bias when a description of something as potentially fuzzy and slippery as personality types sounds uniquely applicable to what you already think's going on in something as complex and diverse as society.

So take this with a pinch of salt to taste, but I was quite interested by how neatly the characteristics Twenge describes seem to map on to the dominant ideology of recent times. I'm wary of even talking about this in generational terms (for the last few milllennia wrinklies have been warning about "young people today" as the vectors of a coming moral apocalypse, yet the expected end of the world has always reliably failed to arrive). If this is an actual thing, it's located in culture, power relations and ideology, rather than the defective moral fibre of the rising generation.

Aleksandr Zinovyev once coined the sarcastic term "Homo Sovieticus" to describe the "ideal" collectivised, passive, brainwashed, indifferent Soviet citizen. Twenge's description of our plucky little narcissists sounds like a satirical description of an "ideal" Narcissist Citizen, a fully-functioning Mini-Me, adapted to the dominant prejudices and ideology of managerialist capitalism. Some of Mini-Me's vices are the precise opposite of those attributed to Homo Sovieticus, others are similar, but both sets of traits help the possessor conform to the dysfunctional ideology of the times. In the case of the narcissist, these adaptive traits include:
  • Inflated self-confidence (often unwarranted). All members of Mini-Me community just know that, like the children of Lake Wobegon, they are all above average, a useful (but risky) trait in a winner-takes-all society that values a narrow, but intense, focus on short-term rewards over the conscientious long-term effort needed to achieve anything more sustainable. This sense of superiority leads to the next trait:
  • A lack of empathy, an indifference to anybody else who is of no direct use to Mini-Me. As the people who can help you are most likely the most powerful and successful, Mini-Me will socialise (or at least network with) his or her peers and superiors and dismiss anyone less influential as an annoying distraction. This is good news for those at the top, to whom the Mini-Me will defer and pay court, whilst directing any anger and frustration downwards towards the the powerless and less fortunate, who always get the blame for being unforgivably below average.
  • Relentless competitiveness, Sometimes competitiveness works, sometimes cooperation works. For managerialist ideologues extreme competitiveness wins every time - not because it's always the best way of getting the job done, but because there's no better way of stopping your underlings from bothering you than keeping them at each others' throats 24/7. Stops 'em ganging up, joining unions, or displaying other inconvenient forms of solidarity. This competitive urge is also useful for managerialists who'd like to maintain a well-defined pecking order by watching their underlings jump through humiliating hoops, like the confidently clueless baby tycoons on The Apprentice.
  • A sense of entitlement - the Mini-Me community is where we find one of he most profitable of all demographics - consumers who'll buy more stuff just 'because you're worth it'. And if you have to get into debt to buy it, there's a whole industry out there, living and thriving on people's over-confident willingness to embrace debt in order to live the dream, from the primary stage of credit cards for the aspirational, to loan sharks for the penultimate stage of financial desperation, (I'm normally all for motherhood, apple pie n'stuff, and totally against the physical abuse of senior citizens, but I'll make an exception for those whimsical oldsters from the Wonga ad, who I can't see without wanting to batter their smug, plastic faces into a squishy pulp).
  • The sense of entitlement joins forces with the narcissists' relentless self-focus to make them the ideal demographic for charlatans peddling self-help and get-rich-quick publications and courses posited on the claim that happiness, power and riches are just round the corner if you can only be persuaded to be just that little bit more truly, madly, deeply in love with yourself.
  • Lack of political engagement - how can politics be interesting, if it's not, in the words of that other famous slogan, 'all about you'?
Like Homo Sovieticus and Angry Libertarian, I think the conformist Mini-Me is a usefully compliant tool for an elite which ultimately depends on people prepared to unquestioningly buy into a set of self-destructive values that don't challenge the status quo. They're the little people who keep the wheels turning - at least until the wheels come off.

*Did their February 14 turn into "Desperately Disappointed Day", I wonder?

Monday, 12 November 2012

The hallowed tradition of paedophile rape in marriage

The subject of paedophilia is depressingly topical, along with the Prime Minister coining that unfortunate phrase about a 'gay witch hunt' (for all that I can't stand Cameron, I don't believe that he's homophobic, so I can only put the implied - and unwarranted - linkage between being gay and being a child abuser down to thoughtlessness rather than malice). Which brings me, in a roundabout way, back to the Archbishop of Canterbury elect.

Despite aligning with more liberal elements on the subject of women bishops, Justin Welby opposes gay marriage, although he has, apparently, 'promised to reassess his own traditional line on the issue “prayerfully and carefully” and pointedly emphasised his support for civil partnerships.'

Well, Archbishop elect, here's something for you to reassess, when you're defending the traditional understanding of marriage:
We’re also happy with the many, many changes that history has brought to our meaning of marriage (anyone for the legal rape of a 12 year old, given by her father to a thirty-year old? – thought not).
Jourdemayne, the Witch of Eye there, with a bit of historical perspective. Her whole post's well worth your time, but here are the points I've taken away as relevant to the gay marriage debate.

One aspect of marriage that's demonstrably changed over time is that it was once thought OK for young girls to be married well below our current age of consent (especially in the case of dynastic aristocratic and royal marriages). Although these marriages weren't necessarily always consummated straight away, we have specific historical examples of child brides giving birth in what we'd now call childhood.

Another change in our understanding of marriage is that we now take it for granted that women own their own bodies and that non-consensual sex, in or out of marriage, is rape. Back to Jourdemayne: most places, marriage meant that a man could force his spouse to have sex with him. Rape within marriage was a contradiction-in-terms. The phrase “irrevocable consent” was often used in this context (it has other legal applications too).

Famously, Sir Matthew Hale pronounced in 1736 that a “husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract”. 
She wasn't exaggerating with that 'legal rape of a 12 year' old line.

One of the fundamental objections to gay marriage, remember, is an appeal to tradition. Gay marriage would, it's claimed, be such a fundamental break with our traditional understanding of marriage that it would destroy an institution that has been unchanged for centuries. Given that modern marriage is already a world away from the institution that once sanctified what we'd now define as paedophile rape, the idea that we're dealing with some sort of pristine, unchanging institution is pretty close to being total hogwash.

Of course, in the Church of England, such evidence-based arguments have to defer to the sensibilities of faith and prayerful introspection, hence the lag between the acceptance of gay people as full and equal citizens in much of wider society and their faltering acceptance within a church that still seeks to accommodate and respect discrimination when it happens to be faith-based discrimination.

Francis Spufford recently wondered out loud how secularists  can be so committed to their 'hobby' that:
Some of them even contrive to feel oppressed by the Church of England, which is not easy to do. It must take a deft delicacy at operating on a tiny scale, like fitting a whole model railway layout into an attaché case.
If you're a believer in equal marriage, that's not quite such a difficult trick as Francis affects to believe. Believers in gender equality might also find the trick easier than he might imagine, although with Justin Welby backing women bishops, maybe the Church of England  is only a generation or so behind wider society on that particular measure.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Degrees of nonsense

... reading about vampires just isn't as respectable as reading about Jesus and Mohamed ... You can get a degree in theology, but you can't get a degree in repelling vampires. There's undoubtedly a pervasive sense, even now, that religion is a superior class of metaphysics. Throwing salt over your shoulder when you've spilt it is for people who wear their dressing gowns while watching ITV before midday, while attending mass is for the kind of people who possess ties and toothbrushes.

The anthropologist Pascal Boyer once wrote 'Some Fang' (a type of people in Africa) 'say that witches have an extra animal-like internal organ that flies away at night and ruins other people's crops or poisons their food.' It's said that these witches sometimes assemble for huge banquets where they devour their victims and plan future attacks. Many will tell you that a friend of a friend actually saw witches flying over a village at night, sitting on a banana leaf and throwing magical darts at various unsuspecting victims.

Well, he continues, 'I was mentioning these, and other such, exotica over dinner in a Cambridge college when one of our guests, a prominent Catholic theologian, turned to me and said "This is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult, too. You have to explain how people can believe in such nonsense."'

So personally, I've always thought the difference between religion and superstition was not so much degrees of nonsense, but politics.

From a talk by Deborah Hyde, AKA Jourdemayne, who also shares her knowledge of of dark matters here and here.

Classicist 1, Angry Libertarian 0

Here's more anecdotal evidence supporting China Mieville's thesis that 'Libertarianism is not a ruling-class theory'. Here, in his own words, is how an outraged libertarian does shopping:
When I'm at the Wal-mart or grocery story I typically pay with my debit card. On the pad it comes up, "EBT, Debit, Credit, Cash." I make it a point to say loudly to the check-out clerk, "EBT, what is that for?" She inevitably says, "it's government assistance." I respond, "Oh, you mean welfare? Great. I work for a living. I'm paying for my food with my own hard-earned dollars. And other people get their food for free." And I look around with disgust, making sure others in line have heard me.

I am going to step this up. I am going to do far more of this in my life. It's going to be my personal crusade. I hope other libertarians and conservatives will eventually join me.
Enjoy the complete rant here (via here and here). As historian Mary Beard pointed out recently, some people have always wanted to define poverty as a moral failing:
But his [Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus'] view of the behaviour of the underclass is the kind of fantasy that the rich have had about the poor ever since.

My guess is that Ammianus had never actually set foot in an ordinary Roman bar and had never thought about the sheer illogicality of what he was claiming - if these guys really were desperately poor, how on earth could they afford to drink all night?

... The 19th Century notoriously had its "deserving" and "undeserving poor". Our own equivalent of the "deserving poor" is "hard-working families".

Politicians of all parties are forever parroting this pious phrase on television or radio. It's almost as if they've been told to never say the simple word "families" without its knee-jerk accompanying adjective.

Maybe I'm peculiarly counter-suggestible. But whenever I hear them at it, I feel a great well of support coming over me for the feckless and lazy, or - for heaven's sake - for the singletons who don't have families. Are you any less worthy of our political time and care just because you haven't got kids?

... But - OK, at the risk of sounding a bit pious myself - there's also a niggling question of human progress. It would be nice to think that we had actually "come on a bit" since the time of Ammianus more than 1,500 years ago.
Read the rest of her point of view here. You can see how it would be in the self-interest of aristocrats, tycoons and other folk who've done very nicely, thank you, from an unequal society to tell stories about how being rich and powerful is a just reward for simply being better than ordinary folk (whether the alleged proximate cause is good breeding, being favoured by the gods, the great chain of being, piety, the protestant work ethic, better genes, or hard-headed economics, depends on whatever post hoc rationalisiation is in fashion at the time).

Angry libertarians, like the furious individual I started with, aren't actually members of the elite. They shop in Wal-Mart, for crying out loud. Instead of swaying thought leaders and politicians by their entrepreneurial example and the rational power of their arguments, they're reduced to raving in impotent fury at baffled check-out staff when things don't go their way. These folk aren't the One Percent - not even close. Although they like to think of themselves as a breed apart, they're much like the rest of us - largely at the mercy of economic forces beyond their control, insecure, struggling through as best they can.

The difference is the people they identify with - not with their peers, but with the rich and powerful, with their convenient version of events in which there's nothing questionable or contingent about the amazing good fortune they enjoy, because inequality is the inevitable result of their own virtues and the vices of the common people. Libertarians seem to be merely a byproduct of the overclass doing what they do - dividing and ruling. They are the elite's expendable Fifth Column among the rest of us.

Before Obama got re-elected I was a bit 'lesser of two evils, meh', but it's been joyous to see how his victory seems to have triggered mental breakdown-force waves of cognitive dissonance in the Fifth Column of Tea Partiers, birthers, talk radio and Fox News fans and the rest of the elite's useful idiots. This apparent collapse in their morale has to be good news for the demonised victims of their pent-up rage. It's bad enough listening to tedious moralising from members of the overclass, but an organised campaign of abuse from people who are a whisker away from being in the same boat is something the down on their luck could do without.

Speaking of Fifth Columns, if you fancy doing a bit of shopping yourself, one of my own personal favourite Internet loons, Steve Kellmeyer (he of the blog that actually calls itself The Fifth Column), is having a fire sale:
Given events, I have decided to put CultureWarNotes dot com up for sale. Anyone interested in purchasing that domain, please contact me at stevekellmeyer at gmail dot com.
If you want to try before you buy, why not give Notes on the Culture Wars a visit, while stocks last? More wingnuts than a DIY superstore, more paranoid than a Black Sabbath tribute band, (at least under its current, deranged, management). It's nice to think, as Mary Beard put it, that we might actually "come on a bit" from this stuff, now the Fifth Columnists have had a bit of the stuffing knocked out of them.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

More modern styles

Although educated at Eton and Cambridge and even a member of a Pall Mall club, he [the new Archbishop of Canterbury, former oil executive, Justin Welby] is seen as far from an establishment figure.

Theologically, he is unashamedly part of the evangelical tradition, upholding a more traditional and conservative interpretation of the Bible than some in the Church of England.

But he is also a strong advocate of more modern styles of worship. 
According to the Torygraph. I love that 'he is seen as far from an establishment figure' (by whom, exactly?) Let's recap Welby's biography:

The new Archbishop is the son of Gavin Welby and Jane Welby (née Portal). Gavin Welby was a businessman in the drinks trade who, after rumoured involvement with bootlegging in prohibition-era America, became the New York import manager for National Distillers Products Corporation, one of America’s biggest distributors of alcoholic drinks, after the trade went legit. Apparently, Welby senior moved in the same circles as the Kennedy clan and was credited, (if that's the right word) with having introduced John F Kennedy to his first mistress, Swedish aristocrat Gunilla von Post, weeks before JFK’s marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier. This information is taken from an article on the In County Durham site, which goes on to say:
Gavin became one of New York’s most prominent party-givers and was linked in the gossip columns to Pat Kennedy, JFK’s sister. 
I believe that the In County Durham article originated in the Daily Mail, so it should be taken with the usual massive pinch of salt, but Gavin Welby does get a direct name check in JFK's letters, so we can be reasonably sure that, on this occasion, it's not just the Mail making sensational stuff up.  Justin Welby's mum also gets a mention in a 1955 letter from Jack Kennedy, viz:
Did you see in the paper that our friend – the cold, frozen Mr. Gavin Welby – got married to Mr. Churchill’s secy. 
Yes, Justin Welby's mum was Winston Churchill's secretary. She was divorced from Justin's father in 1958, when Justin was just two and later went on to marry Charles Cutherbert Powell Williams, Baron Williams of Elvel, becoming Lady Williams of Elvel.

As for the young Justin himself, the BBC gives a bite-sized précis of his pre-clergy career path:
Bishop Welby, who was educated at Eton and Trinity College Cambridge, spent 11 years as an oil executive and became group treasurer for FTSE 100 oil exploration group Enterprise Oil Plc prior to the biggest career decision of his life.
After Welby heeded the inner voice calling him to the priesthood in the late 1980s, the Telegraph described his rise through the clerical ranks as 'meteoric' (meteors, of course, fall rather than rising, but I suppose that avoiding stale metaphors and sticking to facts aren't top priorities when you're a Religious Affairs Editor). After resigning from Enterprise Oil in 1987, Welby entered training for the priesthood and was made a deacon in 1992. He became a rector in 1995, a canon in 2002, the Dean of Liverpool in 2007 and the Bishop of Durham, with a seat in the House of Lords, in 2011.

So that's Justin "far from an establishment figure" Welby. Dad was a successful businessman and New York socialite who was chums with continental aristocrats and the Kennedy clan. Mum was secretary to Winston Churchill and went on to marry a baron and acquire a title. Educated at Eton and Trinity College Cambridge, Justin went on to become an oil executive and group treasurer for a FTSE 100 oil company. After finding God, this well-connected chap, who occasionally likes to relax at his Pall Mall club (don't we all?), just happened to rise quickly through the ranks of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, bag a seat in the House of Lords and become head of the Established Church (guys, it's called the Established Church for a reason - there's a subtle clue in the name).

Of course he's not an establishment figure! How could he be, when he's 'a strong advocate of more modern styles of worship?'

Stubborn, deeply-ingrained inequality and privilege? Hard-to-shift social immobility? A quick spray and polish with Happy-Clappy Anglicanism and you'll immediately spot the difference. Unsightly class divisions become almost invisible. It's like magic!


For ye have the poor always with you; but that's got nothing to the rich keeping all the best stuff for themselves, obviously.

Rejoice, for the twits are back in charge!

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Conspiracies against the laity

I get e-mail from some web marketing outfit:

I help companies push negative reports about their businesses down the Google rankings, replacing them with positive ones.

Or some companies just want their best testimonials to rank highly on Google.

Is this something that you might be interested in?

Yours sincerely,

This disarmingly straight-to-the-point sales pitch to potential clients is a refreshing change from the disingenuous boilerplate issued by the marketing/advertising/public relations industry for public consumption ('with marketing, businesses attempt to inform consumers about the existence of a product or a company, and its benefits','Advertisers seek only to ensure that consumers make informed choices','The public relations industry also has prevented consumer injury and illness, raised awareness of products that have improved our quality of life, advanced worthwhile causes...').

Far from simply informing consumers when somebody's come up with a better mousetrap, the bullshit industry is also in the business of burying bad news and sexing up the faintest glimmer of positivity. It does trade in facts, but facts heavily adulterated by distortion and misinformation.

Adam Smith thought that 'People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices'. George Bernard Shaw boiled this down to 'All professions are conspiracies against the laity.' Although true in part, that's a bit unfair to most trades and professions. After all, people need some form of quality assurance - you wouldn't want to unknowingly buy an unroadworthy car, have your wiring done by an untrained electrician, or be treated by a doctor who flunked medical exams. Most trades and professions can make a case that at least some of the costs they impose and some of barriers they erect to outsiders are justified by the need for reasonable standards. Training and regulation cost money and practitioners are entitled to a fair reward for their skills, or for the quality of their product.

It's harder to mount such a defence when you're talking about a trade that purports to inform the public, but routinely confuses, manipulates and misinforms. Sharp practice in itself is nothing new. People have known for centuries that buyers need to beware. But in the modern world, marketing, adverting and PR have become separate professions, turning bullshit from a mere adjunct to the real business of providing a good or service into a full-time specialisation. A specialisation that looks a lot like a real conspiracy against the laity.

I'm not chiefly worried about this in terms of the continuing arms race between buyers and sellers. Buyers have always had to beware and probably always will. Fact of life. Deal with it. What does worry me is the political arms race between the mercenary bullshit industry, pay rolled by the rich and powerful, and voters.

Thomas Jefferson thought that 'wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government' [my italics]. To modern ears, the tone reeks of patrician condescension, but the central point - that democracy requires not only a choice between alternatives, but an informed choice - is spot on. Hiring in the bullshit noise machine to drown out the still, small voice of reality and create a biddable culture built on paranoia, a distrust of critical thought and a tolerance of lying is the precise opposite of giving people information and choice.

Talk about subversives threatening the democratic process and the image that would probably come to mind would be of tiny bands of militants, radicals or extremists planning direct action in a bedsit somewhere. It seems to me that most of these groups are small fry compared to the well-funded, well-connected professional bullshitters, hired in the hope of subverting the one person, one vote system and delivering a one dollar, one vote outcome to the highest bidder.

Machiavellian brioche

Yes, I know it's just spell check-ese for 'brio', but I couldn't resist the image of Field Marshal Rommel outfoxing Hitler with a cunning plan involving a slightly sweet breakfast roll, which is why I had to screenshot this one for posterity.

Childish glee aside, this anniversary post on El Alamein is worth a read. In particular, I didn't know how snookered the Germans were by the difficulty of moving their most feared weapon, the 88mm anti-aircraft gun which, re-purposed, could knock out any allied tank:
He [Rommel] had created, not by choice but through the technological exigency of having no other gun that could engage modern tanks at MLR ranges but the 88/56 the most immobile army in history. 
Enjoy (with brioche or brio, to taste).

Celebrity political gossip 2

Apparently Lembit Opik has tweeted thusly: "Pls back Nadine Dorries – victim of witch hunt by her party, and 'on trial' with no opportunity to even know she's been suspended"

Apparently, somebody in the press bubble imagines that there's somebody out there in Real Life Land who actually cares what Lembit Opik thinks about Nadine Dorries running off to appear on reality TV. Bless.

It's liberating to discover a real thing that I almost literally couldn't care less about. In a world full of news that's serious, complicated and hard, it's like having a great big fluffy comfort blanket to cling to.

Maybe there is a point to celebrity political gossip, after all.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Celebrity political gossip

A lot of political journalism, and even reporting on policy issues, is dominated by the search for the “secret sauce”, as Martin puts it: the insider who knows What’s Really Going On. Background interviews with top officials are regarded as gold, and the desire to get those interviews often induces reporters to spin on demand.

But such inside scoops are rarely — I won’t say never, but rarely — worth a thing. My experience has been that careful analysis of publicly available information almost always trumps the insider approach.
 Paul Krugman, in the New York Times

Nick Robinson, I'm looking at you. A timely reminder that most of us could go without news for weeks without missing much, precisely because the high-pressure hose of 'insider' political gossip, rumour and spin tends to flush real facts and considered reflection out of your head.


Friday, 2 November 2012

Any publicity is good publicity

A new age entrepreneur offers to beam healing Reiki goodness to pets. Scaryduck is unimpressed. I caught this post on Google Reader, where Google AdSense had made it unintentionally funnier by displaying content-relevant ads for Jedi Reiki masters and a 'weak chakra' diagnosis service (click screenshot to embiggen):

The Force is strong with this one.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Reports of a new financial order are greatly exaggerated

The fact that a significant proportion of all funds held in Switzerland are illicit is now also widely accepted. The Swiss Bankers Association has agreed that proportion may be as high as 50%. The UK-Switzerland tax deal confirmed this year is built on the assumption that this is the case.
The Guardian
Lloyds Banking Group has now set aside a staggering £5.3billion to settle PPI mis-selling claims after a £1billion increase in its provision for meeting claims today which also forced the bank to report a third quarter loss.
This is Money
It [Barclays bank] increased its provision for payment protection insurance (PPI) by £700 million to £2 billion. With Lloyds announcing an extra £1 billion in PPI provision in its quarterly results today, it takes the total set aside by UK banks for PPI mis-selling to £11 billion and counting.

Barclays have also been ordered to pay fines of £293 million by the US energy regulator after the bank was found guilty of manipulating the American electricity market. The bank says it intends to fight the allegations “vigourously”.
My Finances
The Times reported that Unite has responded to the Financial Services Authority’s September consultation on incentivising staff with research that shows the high pressure bank employers are under to push products, leading to mis-selling scandals such as payment protection insurance.

Unite found banks workers faced being named and shamed, forced to work late, and were threatened with the sack if they failed to hit sales targets.
 New Model Adviser

Andrew Haldane, a member of the Bank [of England]’s financial policy committee, said the Occupy movement was correct in its attack on the international financial system...

... “It is the analytical, every bit as much as the moral, ground that Occupy has taken. For the hard-headed facts suggest that, at the heart of the global financial crisis, were — and are — problems of deep and rising inequality.”

Mr Haldane concluded by telling the activists that they had helped bring about nothing less than a new financial order.

“If I am right and a new leaf is being turned, then Occupy will have played a key role in this fledgling financial reformation,” he said.
 The Telegraph

The analysis may be sound, but as for a new leaf being turned, that sounds like one hell of a big 'if' to me...

'Robbing a bank's no crime compared to owning one' Bertolt Brecht

via 21st Century Fix