Sunday, 28 December 2014

For display purposes only - please do not touch

Little Britain, the Hermit Kingdom

North Korea and Ukip. Are they by any chance related? I mean:
Of course, there are differences:

Friday, 26 December 2014

Weather alert

According to my newsreader:

All together, now...
Watch out where the huskies go,
and don't you eat that yellow snow.

Although in Wales, it's probably the corgis we should blame...

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Jeux avec frontières

Some 18-year-old technology students at a Kent school have created a free Android game called UKIK:
UKIK has you playing as Nicholas Fromage as he kicks stereotypes of immigrants off the white cliffs of Dover and into the sea.

You tap the screen to power up your kick, and tap again in order to release, then watch as the immigrant you kicked sails through the air.

There are three measurements for your kick in the game. Distance and Score are obvious ones, while the third is "UK Economy Down," which is measured in a rising percentage.

More telling of the game's political slant is what the Score measurement was before an update saw it changed - it measured Racism.
Pocket Gamer

The real Monsieur Fromage, who was quick to remind everybody that he is 'well known for having a sense of humour', warned that the game crossed the line between harmless everyday banter about 'poofters', 'Chinky birds' and hunting peasants and causing real offence to members of Britain's oppressed Ukip-voting minority.

If only we could return those innocent, wholesomely funny, Ukip-friendly days the 1970's when avuncular TV presenters like Stuart Hall (currently residing at Her Majesty's pleasure in Wymott prison, Lancashire) had us all in stitches, at least when he wasn't too busy copping a feel off some dolly bird who was, frankly, asking for it.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Only kidding

Friday's Argus featured a Your Interview with Richard Robinson.
We would like to clarify that the quote "I have become increasingly convinced that we are heading for a disastrous confrontation and that the 21st century will be remembered for a terrible war between mankind and goats" was a reader question and not a response from Mr Robinson.
The next paragraph: "People often underestimate how dangerous a goat can be - I personally know six people who have become severely injured by goats and the annual death toll racked up by goats is over 2,000,000", is also a reader question and not a response from Mr Robinson.
The Argus is happy to correct this and would apologise for the error.
That has to be my personal favourite from Poynter's selection of the best media errors and corrections of 2014

I was also grateful to Poynter's for reassuring me that reports of the death of satire have been greatly exaggerated, with this wonderfully tongue-in-cheek non-apology from the Pan- Arabia Enquirer to all those lovely, lovely people at Bell Pottinger turd-polishers public relations:
Yesterday we received a complaint about one of our articles and subsequently removed it from the Pan-Arabia Enquirer website. Following on from this, we would like to offer our apologies to PR firm Bell Pottinger for a satirical story that suggested that it had won the account to representing the Islamic State. Although the article was entirely in jest, we feel we must apologise for any sullying of the name of a company whose standing in the international community is reflected in a client list that has included the likes of Augusto Pinochet and the government of Bahrain. Oh, and the government of Sri Lanka. And Rolf Harris.
That's got an economical poetic justice to it, reminiscent of the climactic scene from that old courtroom drama QBVII, where (spoiler alert) a respected doctor, who's been suing for defamation, but turns out to have spent his war performing Josef Mengele-style operations on prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, is awarded one derisory half-penny for damage to his "good name." Excellent stuff.


Friday, 19 December 2014

Non-existence fails to dent Santa rally

Despite a Norfolk vicar's shocking attempt to murder the Confidence Fairy by revealing to the assembled boys and girls at a school carol concert that Father Christmas isn't real, Santa has continued to rally in Asian markets.

In other news, market analyst Margaret McPhee has traumatised an audience of young traders by revealing the continuing non-existence of profitability at seasonal gift-deliver, Amazon. She was quick to apologise for her 'off-the-cuff remarks,' after being heavily criticised for 'destroying the innocence, fun and magic of disruptive innovation.'

Thursday, 18 December 2014

USA 1, UK 0

In the US, an elected politician comes right out and blasts the crooks on Wall Street for cronyism, buying influence and trying to block measures intended to stop them syphoning off yet more trillions of public money when their next reckless gamble goes wrong, telling them they should have been broken into pieces.

In the UK, some whiny banker, attached to a failed and bailed bank, posts a windy, rambling screed* about how a comedian, (whose radical schtick amounts to telling people not to bother voting because the revolution will arrive through some unspecified process involving fairy dust and magical thinking),** spoiled his lunch by trying to gatecrash a City boardroom and becomes a viral media sensation to our fawning press.

I'd exchange Russell Brand for Elizabeth Warren any day, although I suppose if we have to keep Brand, in lieu of our elected representatives telling it like it is, he might eventually make enough bankers miss their lunches to starve the buggers out.

As for rising populist stars who somebody actually voted for, they've got Elizabeth Warren speaking truth to power and we've got Nigel Farage, that City alumnus and gurning pillock in clown trousers, tripping over himself in his desperate rush to scapegoat anyone but the real culprits for the mess we're in.

Score one for the Land of the Free.

*Another Angry Voice, does a pretty good job of fisking this rambling, self-pitying rant although, IMHO, he lets the banker off way too lightly when it comes to the most outrageous piece of bullshit, the claim that 'Of all the profligate pissing away of public money that goes on in this country, the only instance where the public are actually going to get their money back [i.e. by selling off the failed and bailed Royal Bank of Scotland] seems an odd target for your ire.'

If the best use of public money you can think of is wasting billions bailing out failed financial institutions, thus tanking the rest of  the economy and screwing up millions of peoples' lives for years to come, with the vague promise of making some of the money back at some point in the future, if market conditions are favourable, you're an idiot, although not as big an idiot as the uncritical churnalists who reprinted this rubbish as a 'hilarious' vindication of Britain's crappiest bank.

** Although Chris would no doubt point out that I'm falling into the trap of managerialist ideology in holding out for a hero...

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

France's gathering gloom

 According to a recent YouGov poll, France is the northern European country that cares least about Christmas. This might reflect the state of the French economy, or cultural attitudes, (perhaps a more generalised negativity, sang froid or hauteur), or maybe the pollsters' sample just happened to include a more-than-averagely grumpy subset of the population - I really don't know. But Christmas itself isn't all joy to the world:
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now...

Christmas marks a cardinal point in the worship of a sacrificial death-and-rebirth deity, whose cult thrived when transplanted to latitudes where all of nature seems to die in Winter and is re-born in Spring and where millennia of pre-Christian worship already reflected the decline and renewal of the life-giving sun. Although Christmas day and the winter solstice don't exactly coincide any more, 'December 25th was the date of the winter solstice in the calendar Julius Caesar devised for Rome in 46BC.'

You don't just sing about gathering gloom at this time of year, you can still feel it all around, as the daylight shrinks and the darkness reaches its greatest extent. Even a modern, industrial society with electric lighting, central heating and supermarkets full of imported satsumas from sunnier places can't quite keep the literal gloom at bay.

Given the connection between Christmas and the winter solstice, I'm not that interested in which northern European countries are more or less likely to enter into the spirit of Christmas. I'd be more interested to see whether or not there's any correlation between Christmas enthusiasm and the prevalence, or lack of, darkness and cold at this time of year.

Do northern Europeans (and people in the higher latitudes of North America) get more excited about Christmas than people who live in the southern hemisphere, or at latitudes where the great division isn't between cold, dark winter and light, warm summer, but between the dry and rainy seasons? Is a Christmas barbie on Bondi Beach or Copacabana less of a big deal than the massive knees-up Europeans invented to brighten up their bleak midwinters? Or is Christmas now so well-established, culturally and commercially, that it thrives when transplanted to any latitude? Maybe the only hint of darkness it now needs comes on Black Friday.

I dunno or, as the French would put it, *shrug*.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Gift idea from Satan's grotto

One of the most stressful aspects of the festive season is finding that special present for that special someone. Fortunately, the perfect present is just a click away on Apple's App Store, at least if that special someone in your life is an aspiring Ukip parliamentary candidate.

Yes, Papers, Please, the border guard simulator, is now available for iPad. Imagine that special person's joy at being able to make all those shifty foreigners stand in line to be frisked, interrogated, scanned, processed and, most thrillingly of all, denied entry. Imagine the heart-warming scene on Christmas morning, watching his tiny little heart melt, his sallow cheeks flush with anticipation and his piggy, hate-filled eyes swim with tears of gratitude.

Unfortunately, I'm fresh out of good present ideas for for normal people. Sorry.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Harry Potter and the prisoner of Jersey

The most interesting historical parallel of my week came from the barrister Harry Potter,* who presents the BBC documentary series, The Strange Case of the Law. He was talking about the fallout from Oliver Cromwell's unsuccessful attempt to try the Leveller, John Lilburne, for sedition in 1649.

Lilburne had mounted his own defence with great skill and had managed to get himself acquitted, much to Cromwell's annoyance. To spare itself the embarrassment of further legal defeats, Cromwell's government had Lilburne seized and whisked away to the extra-territorial stronghold of Mount Orgueil Castle in Jersey, where legal niceties like habeas corpus didn't apply, leading Potter to call Jersey 'Oliver Cromwell's Guantánamo Bay.'

It's an interesting parallel, given the current disclosures about the CIA's use of extraordinary rendition  to circumvent legal protections (along with the absence of disclosure about alleged British complicity).

Then and now, the rule of law matters and sneakily moving the goalposts to get the result you want is an abuse of that important principle, whether the state is offshoring torture or re-defining criminal suspects, or prisoners of war as "unlawful combatants" in order to do things like holding them  incommunicado, indefinitely and denying them access to counsel.

I'm left wondering whether this sort of authoritarianism by stealth is the sort of gambit which particularly appeals to would-be tyrants working in relatively open societies with rhetorical, or theoretical committments to liberty, who are made uncomfortable by the scrutiny that such openness brings. The Land of the Free has its First Amendment and the English Commonwealth styled itself a champion of liberty and was born in the wake of a national upheaval which had seen the collapse of censorship and an explosion of cheap pamphlets voicing all sorts of heterodox opinions.

Maybe some form of out-of-sight-out-of-mind external rendition is the way to go for authoritarians governing relatively open societies, who can't just clamp down directly, unlike autocrats with no pretentions to liberty, who could be sure that people who knew what was good for them wouldn't make too much fuss about other people being locked up the Lubyanka, the Špilberk or Carabanchel and had no need of a Guantánamo, or Devil's Island, with internal exile to Siberia just a few days away by unheated cattle truck.

Extra-territorial rendition from from a society  that claims to be free and open is a form of hypocrisy, which you might see as a sort of back-handed compliment to the freedoms that The War Against Terror is ostensibly being fought to uphold (although I'm guessing that this thought didn't come as much of a comfort to Liburne in his damp prison cell on Jersey, or to the recipients of enhanced interrogation techniques in their far-off legal black holes). As one cheese-eating surrender monkey steadfast ally in The War Against Terror once more or less wrote, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

*I almost feel as if I should apologise for the title of this blog post - I couldn't resist, but the poor guy must be sick to the back teeth with all the lame wizardry gags he must have had to put up with to ever since J K Rowling linked his perfectly ordinary name with young adult fiction's biggest ever mega-brand.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Christ on a bike

The last thing I’ll say for the people that don’t believe in cycling – the cynics and the skeptics. I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry you can’t dream big. And I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles. But this is one hell of a race. This is a great sporting event, and you should believe
From Lance Armstrong's more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger sermon to those poor benighted haters who disbelieved in the cycling miracles he wrought by faith alone (110% positively, definitely, absolutely without any form of pharmacological assistance whatsoever). Lifted from a great post at Salty Current, which perfectly nails the corrosive effect of militant faitheism on public discourse:
The most aggravating aspect of Armstrong’s project was his promotion of faith in faith and celebration of the faithful identity. He and the cycling big wigs consistently worked to create a community of the faithful that would exclude and shun doubters. He flattered his more credulous fans with the notion that they were better people for promoting Hope and Belief. While the believers were in reality the overwhelming majority, they were sold an image of themselves as members of a small elite whose gift of spirit set them apart from the cynical, faithless masses...
...More generally, skeptics were castigated in the traditional way: contrasted with the virtuous faithful, they were portrayed as mean, callous, lesser people who lacked the life-affirming spark of faith. 
The take-out from Demagoguery for Dummies seems to be that you gotta have faith (or, rather, your followers gotta have it). Get that bit right and dealing with impertinent critics is a breeze - here are some bullet points for aspiring Machiavellians:
  • Make your evidence-lite assertions loudly, confidently and often
  • If anybody questions those assertions or, heaven forbid, tries to engage with the evidence, point out that the critic must be some sort of small-minded, out-of-touch nitpicker. 
  • Always remember to keep on repeating how flawed your faithless critics are, in order to avoid getting bogged down in the (lack of) evidence behind your own assertions (attack is the best form of defence).
Follow these rules and, with any luck, you'll never need to do anything as embarrassing or uncomfortable as having a fact-based discussion.

That's not to say that most people of (usually confused) faith aren't perfectly honest, harmless, guileless and even benign. It's when it gets out into the public sphere and people with power, or people with something to hide, use it to shut down evidence-based argument that faith goes really toxic.

Faith might be the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions and the opium of the people, but it's also the weapon of choice for cheats, con-artists, demagogues and the peddlers of quack remedies. Militant faitheist obfuscation makes the strong stronger and the crooked more comfortable.

Evidence is the democratic weapon you can fight back with, if only you can get your hands on it.

Monday, 8 December 2014

British establishment destroys satire

When members of the Chinese establishment get upset at being mocked, they task the State Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television with delivering some stupidly impossible target like stopping everybody in China from making puns.

Here in Britain, it looks as if our own Very Important People have a subtler, more cunning, plan for disarming critics by adopting what I've just decided to call the Tom Lehrer Gambit, named for the great man's famous observation that 'Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.'

How else to explain this weekend's headlines? 'House of Lords refused budget cut as it would mean cheaper Champagne' or 'Nigel Farage blames late arrival at his own Ukip event on immigrants?' These headlines belong in The Daily Mash, not "straight" media outlets.

This can only be part of a deliberate media strategy - instead of ordering somebody else to ban puns, members of the British establishment* are clearly trying to break satire itself by putting themselves beyond parody.

At this rate, I give the satirists of The Daily Mash, Have I Got News for You and The News Quiz six months before competition from the real home lives of the rich and famous puts them out of business.

* Of which Farage is a comfortably-off member, no matter how often he tries to deny it

Friday, 5 December 2014

All the fun of the fair

There may trouble ahead (specifically an 'utterly terrifying' 'hulking great mountain of pain') but, according to my newsreader, there will also be a 2.2% increase in fun and frolics in the shape of railway-based fairs. It doesn't say whether the rides, candy floss and hot dogs will  be confined to station concourses, or whether there will be actual in-train entertainment. I suspect it's the former, on the grounds that it's hard enough finding space for a normal-sized piece of luggage on a Virgin Pendolino, let alone a coconut shy.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Did civilization splutter to a halt in the '70s?

Now, wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite. A report by Credit Suisse this October found that the richest 1 per cent of humans own half the world’s assets ... When wealth accumulates so spectacularly by doing nothing, there is less impetus to invest in genuine innovation.
Michael Hanlon thinks that innovation 'spluttered to a halt more than 40 years ago' and pins at least some of the blame on the direction the political economy has taken since the end of the post-war boom. We've sort of been here before with David Graeber's Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit. Like Gaeber, Hanlon also blames the de-funding of public research:
During the Golden Quarter, we saw a boom in public spending on research and innovation. The taxpayers of Europe, the US and elsewhere replaced the great 19th‑century venture capitalists. And so we find that nearly all the advances of this period came either from tax-funded universities or from popular movements. The first electronic computers came not from the labs of IBM but from the universities of Manchester and Pennsylvania. 
Graeber qualified this by noting that:
 ...the United States never did abandon gigantic, government-controlled schemes of technological development. Mainly, they just shifted to military research.
If  Hanlon's right and Graeber's qualification also stands, maybe the question is how come no people longer seem to be getting obvious trickle-down benefits from the military-industrial complex (jets, radar, ARPANET), that we got in the boom years?

Graeber and Hanlon also agree that dreaming big is off the agenda, due to the lack of space for blue-skies thinking, intellectual timidity and risk aversion:
Those thinkers most likely to make a conceptual breakthrough are the least likely to receive funding, and, if breakthroughs occur, they are not likely to find anyone willing to follow up on their most daring implications. [Graeber]
Could it be that the missing part of the jigsaw is our attitude towards risk? Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the saying goes.[Hanlon]
And they both conclude that things could have been / could be so much better:
For earlier generations, many science fiction fantasies had been brought into being. Those who grew up at the turn of the century reading Jules Verne or H.G. Wells imagined the world of, say, 1960 with flying machines, rocket ships, submarines, radio, and television—and that was pretty much what they got. If it wasn’t unrealistic in 1900 to dream of men traveling to the moon, then why was it unrealistic in the sixties to dream of jet-packs and robot laundry-maids?[Graeber]

If the pace of change had continued, we could be living in a world where Alzheimer’s was treatable, where clean nuclear power had ended the threat of climate change, where the brilliance of genetics was used to bring the benefits of cheap and healthy food to the bottom billion, and where cancer really was on the back foot.[Hanlon] 
There's obviously a huge counter-factual going on here and there's only so far you can go in speculating about discoveries and innovations that don't actually exist in our timeline. Maybe some of the progress Hanlon and Graeber think we  missed out on is down to purely technical limitations and nothing to do with priorities and political economy.

But I'm still left wondering how much better the world might be, if the trillions captured by vested interests for socially useless speculation and rent-seeking were available for real-world innovation and whether, if the innovation motor really has stalled, anybody has any jump leads.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The first rule of Immigration Club

You don't have to be the sharpest tool in the box to realise that the oppressed Ukip martyr's whine of "we're not allowed to talk about immigration, because political correctness," is bullshit, now that any fool with ears can hear the non-stop cacophony of high-profile politicians competing to out-brag each other about how tough they'd be on migrants. If you think the subject's being ignored, you just haven't been paying attention. A small club of noisy, professional immigration bores now dominates the discussion monologue.

The first rule of Immigration Club is: You do not stop talking about Immigration Club.

Since we're now not allowed not to talk about immigration, is there anything new or interesting to be said? Well, things did recently get quite interesting with the hint of a possible, partial solution to the seeming paradox of Schrödinger’s Immigrant. Just as Schrödinger’s Cat exists in a state of being both alive and dead at the same time, Schrödinger’s immigrant exists in a state of both lazing around on benefits whilst simultaneously being out there stealing British jobs.

There's still no convincing solution to the paradox in terms of a general theory of immigration. Theoretically, foreign migrants might be differentially better at blagging their way onto benefits to which they're not entitled than their British-born peers, or more skillful at optimising their work shift patterns to accommodate regular signing on, or getting their mates to sign on in their place, or some other fiddle.

But I'm not aware of any actual evidence to back up this hypothesis, (the Department of Work and Pensions' own figures don't seem to back it up), nor does it seem likely that newcomers for whom English is a second language would be any better at outwitting the UK's institutionally sceptical benefits bureaucracy than native English speakers who've had a lifetime's experience of UK institutions. And, given that fraud accounts for about one per cent of the total annual benefits and tax credits spend (probably less than a fifth of the cost of benefits which people are entitled to, but which go unclaimed), it seems that neither Brits nor migrants are much good at gaming the system, anyway.

But, in terms of the special theory of immigration (that's EU immigration to you), there's a possible solution to the paradox. You can be both in work and claiming benefits if they're the sort of  in-work benefits some politicians are now keen to stop EU migrants getting. An EU migrant worker or self-employed person who's here legally and has passed the EU's "habitual residence test" and the controversial, additional "right to reside" test imposed by the UK government, could be entitled to some in-work benefits, thus becoming that oxymoronic demon of the Ukip imagination, the benefit-scrounger-cum-job-stealer.

Of course, a cohort of low-paid people who are working here legally and have passed the appropriate residency tests getting their wages topped up, just like low-paid Brits, hardly adds up to the shocking blank cheques for illegal foreign scroungers conjured up by Daily Mail migrant scare headlines, but maybe in-work benefits might be a problem, with some element of unfairness in terms of people who haven't contributed gaining a benefit, or with people being incentivised to take low-paid jobs that might otherwise go to British nationals.

For contributory benefits, like Contributory Job Seekers' Allowance and Incapacity Benefit, the problem is self-limiting - if you haven't contributed, you can't claim. No problem. But there are quite a few non-contributory benefits  which might be acting as a draw.

If it is a problem, how big is it? Anoosh Chakelian in the Staggers gives some perspective:
The latest DWP figures from 2014 show that there are 1.73m EU nationals working in the UK, equal to 5.7 per cent of all people in work... ...Less than 5 per cent of EU migrants are claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance, while less than 10 per cent are claiming other DWP working-age benefits.
So we're talking about approximately 173,000 Schrödinger’s immigrants. Or less than half a per cent of the UK's working-age population of something like 38 million. Even if the draw of in-work benefits is a problem (and if it is, does it outweigh the economic benefit of those people coming here, working, spending and paying taxes?), it's clearly not a very big one.

But maybe , even if it's not a big problem, it's a a matter of fundamental unfairness - a few of them can come here and claim in-work benefits, but we can't go there and do the same. Well, it seems to be a bit more complicated than that:
Is the UK benefits system more generous than those in other EU countries?

The systems are very diverse, so comparisons are difficult.

In terms of total spending on social security per inhabitant, the UK does not rank highest...

 ...In the UK, a bigger portion of welfare is funded by the state than is the case in Poland, France, Germany or the Netherlands. In those countries, more is funded from individual and employer contributions. In other words, more benefits are linked to previous earnings.

On the other hand, in several countries, including the Republic of Ireland, Sweden and Denmark, the share of state funding is higher than in the UK.

In Germany, there is a two-tier welfare system - part based on contributions, part non-contributory. An EU migrant made jobless in Germany would get up to 70% of current salary in the first year of unemployment. After that, the unemployed go onto a non-contributory system called Hartz IV. Germany has objected to paying those benefits to EU migrants who have not made sufficient contributions through work. But that policy has been challenged in the courts.

 In Spain, welfare payments depend to a large extent on where you live as payments are handled regionally, rather than centrally. In Madrid there is a two-year residency test for RMI, which is paid to unemployed jobseekers. The benefits system in the Basque Country is rather less restrictive.

In Bulgaria, the EU's poorest country, you do not qualify for unemployment benefit unless you have been working for at least nine of the last 15 months.
BBC News Q & A

It's interestingly counter- intuitive that we Anglo-Saxon free marketeers have a more statist approach to welfare than those bastions of the European social model, France, Germany and the Netherlands. Which, in turn, raises another interesting question.

Conventional wisdom has it that, even stripping out the effects of the the catastrophically mismanaged Euro, we in Britain enjoy a lower unemployment rate than the European average because of our "free market" "flexible" approach to labour.  Or is part of our relatively low unemployment down to the unacknowledged effect of our decidedly un-free market decision to provide state subsidies for low-wage jobs that wouldn't be viable for either employers or employees in an actual free market? I don't know the answer and there are other factors in play (such as wages being supplemented via the unarguably free market mechanism of piling on household debt, which has quadrupled since 1990), but it's an interesting possibility that behind the curtain of all that free market rhetoric may sit a Central Planning Wizard.

Could Iain Duncan Smith be the hapless Wizard of Oz, frantically pulling the levers which maintain the illusion of a flexible labour market, built on free market principles? Could that rough beast, Universal Credit, currently slouching towards Manchester to be born, mark the nativity of a conservative project to keep the ailing free market alive with the life-support of a Citizens' Basic Income?

And talking of free markets paradoxes, what's with these these Thatcherite free-marketeers objecting to the free movement of labour? "We voted for a free trade area, not a political union, " they complain, but it's not much of a free trade area when people who want to move around it to work are being held back by barriers of red tape being thrown up by bureaucrats at the behest of "small-state, free market " politicians.

So the subject does throw up a few interesting surprises, complexities and paradoxes. These might not not get us very far, but they make a change from yet another iteration of the simple, stupid solutions to non-problems that are all members of the Immigration Club ever want to talk about.

My working hypothesis is that they're  deliberately bullshitting in order to crowd more important issues off the agenda - like, for example, the National Health Service (whether or not Nigel Farage secretly wants to privatise it, his health policy shows all the signs of having been made up on the back of one of his fag packets, during one those rare five minutes he spends not blaming foreigners for everything). Or the tax evaders and avoiders, who game around £32 billion out of the system, by the HMRC's own conservative estimate, an exclusive scroungers' club which Nigel was rather keen to join at one point. Sadly for Nige, he flunked his membership application because, despite having been tutored in the City of London, the world's tax avoidance capital, he was too dumb to set up his own offshore tax-avoidance scheme properly.

Immigration Club may generate a lot of noise, but they're basically all mouth and unfortunate trousers. Or, like Mr Shakespeare said:
...It is a tale.
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
Anyway, that's more enough of taking Immigration Club seriously, so it's time to end by winding its members up with a bit of cognitive dissonance. Remember when the the pro-Ukip Nick Griffin's British National Party fell flat on its serially incompetent collective face by trying to evoke our pre-immigration Finest Hour with a picture of a Spitfire of 303 (Polish) Squadron on one of its anti-immigration posters, when as any fule kno, their fellow fascists flew Stukas and things (unsurprisingly, xenophobes and Polish aeroplanes don't mix very well)? I'm indebted to Czech Economist, Tomáš Prouza for adding a Hurricane to our Battle of Britain collection, by tweeting a topical reminder of how Czech migrants, whose papers may well not have been in order, along with a bunch of Poles, helped the the Brits to kick Reichsmarschall Göring's arse:

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Bad mood music

It should cheer me up that there's less substance to David Cameron's spiteful immigration rhetoric than meets the eye. But it worries me that he feels the need to say this stuff. Dave's "Big Society" idea which he hardly ever mentions any more, might have been cynical nonsense, a Potemkin village full of phony communitarian spirit that was really just a front for "shrinking" the state (i.e. monetising it so that profiteers could take their cut, rather than serving citizens directly), but at least there was some pretence at decency.

Now, instead of playing mood music about us all being in this together and helping each other out, he's cranked up the volume and changed the tempo to something you can goose step to. He's cottoned on to the trending idea that all will be well if one or other of a group of people are removed from our presence. He can't and wouldn't condone the idea that stopping everyone at Dover and pushing the foreigners back into the sea to swim home, with a bit of light machine-gunning to encourage the stragglers, would help in any way, but he's more than happy to let people who yearn for the finality of such solutions imagine that he's thinking what they're thinking.

Apparently, politicians* who want power after the next election believe that erecting the facade of a Potemkin concentration camp will make voters like and trust them. The fact that they believe this it is depressing enough - it could only be worse if they turn out to be right.

*The opposition's "me too"-ist tendency as well as the incumbents.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Arrested development

So I'm in this reading group and our book of the month has been Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes, the Downton Abbey guy. It's mostly about very posh people and class, so it did put some rather interesting context round the presumably trending topics of Plebgate and David Mellor's taxi rant.

In very brief outline,  Past Imperfect is set around now. The life of the late middle-aged narrator (a  moderately successful novelist from an upper-class background) is changed when an old acquaintance, Damian Baxter, who is dying, gets in touch about something that had happened when they were both young together.

Back around the turn of the 1960s/70s, the youthful narrator had introduced Baxter, whose parents were ordinary folk, to his smart set of posh/aristocratic friends who were stuck in a sort of time warp, doing their own DIY version of the debutante season, even though the official version of "The Season" with the monarch receiving debs at Court had finished by the end of the '50s.

Although low-born, Baxter was handsome, clever and charming, so was, at first, a great success at the marriage market-cum-networking event that was The Season. Hearts were broken, social snubs were variously avoided and delivered, but by the end of the season, the poshos had closed ranks against Baxter, who eventually reacted to their snubs with an action too dreadful to be mentioned in polite circles (spoiler - it's not really that bad), broke with the toffs, but being a very clever chap went on to make shedloads of money and ended up richer than most of the people who were looking down their noses at him.

Many years later, Baxter received an anonymous letter that made him think he made one of the deb gels preggers during that frantic season. As he's now dying, he wants the narrator to find out who bore his unacknowledged child, so that he can bestow his fortune on his own flesh and blood (following an adult case of mumps, Baxter became infertile around the time he split with his posh friends, hence the lack of other heirs to his immense wealth).

The rest of the book is the story of the narrator's attempt to identify the mother and child, which inevitably involves him revisiting the friendships and emotions of his lost youth and meditating on things like youth and maturity, the passage of time, loss, disappointment, the nature of love and friendship and so on.

It's not a bad read, good enough at least to keep you turning the pages and not worrying too much about some of the pieces of plotting that seem a bit contrived. And, more to the point here, I presume that it's a reasonably accurate picture of that gilded upper-class world, given Fellowes' own background (son of a diplomat, childhood home in South Kensington, thence to prep school, Ampleforth College, before reading Eng Lit at Magdalene, where his career in the arts was launched at the Footlights, then marriage to the impeccably upper-crust Emma Joy Kitchener LVO, former Lady-in-Waiting to HRH Princess Michael of Kent and great-grandniece of Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener).

One thing that struck me forcibly, what with all the stuff in the media about toffs behaving badly, is that in Fellowes' world some of the toffs are terrible, boorish snobs, but even the gracious ones are horribly condescending. It's like the difference between the cringe-making embarrassment of a Mitchell/Mellor "do you know who I am?" rant and the habitual condescension of a David Cameron, who has the savoir faire to condescend to the oiks, whilst staying just the right side of identifiable rudeness (apart from the odd lapse like 'calm down dear'). In this world, good manners isn't about being considerate and kind, so much as being able to remind one's inferiors who's boss without anything so frightfully ill-bred as raising one's voice or losing control.

The other thing that struck me was how timeless the truly privileged are, and not in a good way. The book has a lot to say about growing older, growing up, mellowing, dealing with life's sorrows, setbacks and disappointments and maybe finding a little wisdom and humility along the way. But the whole structure of the exclusive, cliquey world of privilege militates against that sort of maturity.

A lot of otherwise ordinary people reach peak tribalism and get completely up themselves around adolescence. I would say we've all been there, but I'm only speaking from personal experience and maybe there are some people who don't pass through this difficult phase and inflict it on others, but it's still quite common. You're young, you know it all, and certain other types of people just aren't where it's at. Maybe it's people who wear the wrong sort of clothes, or listen to the wrong sort of music, or older people ('hope I die before I get old'), or people whose taste in this that or the other is naff, or you find any one of a million other trivial reasons for celebrating your own tribal or individual identity and looking down on people who don't get it and insist on being hopelessly and unforgivably unlike yourself and daring to like stuff you don't like.

Then you grow up a bit. Life takes you down a peg or two and you realise that you're not that special and that a lot of  people and things you'd previously dismissed for no very good reason are actually quite good and worthwhile. Then you cringe for a bit, at how you were a bit of a prat, maybe forgive yourself to the extent that it's all part of the process of carving out your own identity and, after having had the grace to be embarrassed about having occasionally been an insufferable brat, you move on and get on with the rest of your life.

Unless you belong to an elite that teaches you from an early age that you are special and that other people are, and aways will be, your inferiors in any number of tiny but irredeemable ways (having appalling taste, as defined by elite standards, saying the wrong thing - for example I discovered from this book that saying 'pleased to meet you' is apparently a terrible social faux pas in really posh circles - I don't know or care why). Being incredibly posh, it seems, is like being perpetually nineteen and just knowing that you're cooler and objectively better than the other kids because they're on the wrong side of some arbitrary fence (jock/nerd, mod/rocker, punk/new romantic Star Wars/Star Trek, or any other youthful division of People Like Me versus The Others - I'm sure that younger readers, if there be any, can think of more up-to-date examples).

As a posh person, you are brought up to believe in the very core of your being that you are objectively better than the plebs and, if the conditioning works, you stay that way for the rest of your life. Sometimes the exasperation caused by some mere policeman or taxi driver not realising their own essential uncoolness must be too much for an overgrown spoiled adolescent to bear. It's moments like this that separate the true lady or gent, who has completely internalised that impenetrable sense of superiority from the insecure bounder who lets the side down by letting fly with the stuff that one is just supposed to think.

Which is why Pleb/taxigate is so "toxic" for our more privileged rulers. Remember that old Conservative party slogan - "Are you thinking what we're thinking?"  Updated, it could read, "Is Cameron thinking what Mitchell's saying?" IMHO, probably, although his smooth poker face is unlikely to give him away quite so catastrophically.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Distract and survive

Since panic is often associated with focus on potential negative outcomes in a particular situation, it doesn’t require an event of great magnitude. A small leaflet should do the job.
If there was a significant external threat, this advice might be sound, if undignified. But, as people who are paid to think about these risks have already established 'terrorism has been an insignificant cause of mortality in the United Kingdom,' so you're probably way more likely to fall and break your neck on the station escalator whilst reading the leaflet than you are to fall victim to terrorists.

Why has the political class* chosen this moment to go around spreading fear and panic? Could the Orwellian hysteria surrounding Hate Week have anything to do with the fact that, whoever wins the next election, there's more pain to come. Never mind the alleged threat from Islamic State - it's the very real threat to the British State that should be worrying your ordinary commuter. I think that Serious Politicians of all parties know that there's plenty of fear of anger which will need to be re-directed towards distracting external scapegoats like terrorists and migrants if those at the heart of the establishment are to escape their share of the blame.

*I'd love to say 'the government,' but with all the major parties set to line up obediently behind the Big Terror Scare, it looks as if we're bound to keep getting this sort of nonsense, whoever we vote for. There Is No Alternative - contrary to the advice in the "Stay Safe" leaflet, you can't run, or hide from the stupid and there's nobody sensible to tell because all Serious Politicians apparently think the same.

Monday, 24 November 2014

From the Committee of Public Safety

I'm doing my bit for National Counter-Terrorism Awareness Week by trying to raise awareness of the level of threat we're living with. I can't better this piece by Paul Mobbs, so I'll just go with it:
The relative scale of the public's risk of fatality from terrorism was outlined in the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation's report published in 2012.

"During the 21st century, terrorism has been an insignificant cause of mortality in the United Kingdom. The annualised average of five deaths caused by terrorism in England and Wales over this period compares with total accidental deaths in 2010 of 17,201, including 123 cyclists killed in traffic accidents, 102 personnel killed in Afghanistan, 29 people drowned in the bathtub and five killed by stings from hornets, wasps and bees..."

... In my view our politicians concentrate on terrorism because it's the perfect "paper tiger". It's scary, and unpredictable, but by its very nature the success or failure of their policies are not subject to external assessment. The secretive nature of the agencies involved allow politicians to say what they wish, and justify their actions to some abstract threat, without any great risk of being proven wrong.
 The Politics of Terrorism

I've nothing to add, except the observation that the authoritarian politicians, securocrats and tame journalists who regularly pop up to tell us that we'll all be killed in our beds if we stubbornly cling to quaint old-fashioned notions like liberty, free expression and privacy, have lately taken to talking about the problems they face in a "post-Snowden world", where a few years ago, living in a "post-9/11 world" was the go-to excuse for whatever form of abuse or intrusion they had in mind.

The fact that they seem to see some sort of equivalence between the threat posed to their own power by a single whistle-blower and that posed to citizens' lives by a gang of psychopaths who crash airliners into skyscrapers, is a chilling insight into the institutional mindset of the people who boast about keeping us safe.

Friday, 21 November 2014


A disruptive innovation is an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network (over a few years or decades), displacing an earlier technology.
Unofficially, some self-styled "disruptive innovators" seem to have let their focus slip onto shamelessly puffing their own brand, whilst trying to disrupt any competitor, dissatisfied customer or journalist who might conceivably threaten that brand with the depressingly old-fashioned methods of smear and intimidation:
Uber is facing wide public criticism after BuzzFeed News reported that an executive floated the idea of hiring opposition readers to dig dirt on reporters. The aggressively-phrased recruiting document makes no mention of targeting the press, and is instead focused on “our opponents in the transportation industry.” A spokesperson, Kristin Carvell, said the executive, Emil Michael, was not referring to these plans to hire opposition researchers when he spoke of hiring opposition researchers to focus on reporters.

Suddenly, Team Uber are starting to look less like the paradigm-busting smartest guys in the room and more like the hapless proprietors of the notorious  Fawlty Towers Broadway Hotel, who thought they were cunningly protecting their brand by inserting the words 'For every bad review left on any website, the group organiser will be charged a maximum £100 per review' in the small print of their booking document. A plan that turned out not to be so very smart after all.

Now there are still a few people who still think that Uber's attitude is just fine and dandy, including the now reliably disappointing Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame. Although it is worth mentioning that Scott's also keen on the idea of  disrupting his critics, in his case by pseudonymously pretending to be one of his own fans, then leaping to his own defence with comments like, 'He has [i.e. I have] a certified genius I.Q., and that’s hard to hide,'  'Is it Adams’ enormous success at self-promotion that makes you jealous and angry?' and 'It’s fair to say you disagree with Adams. But you can’t rule out the hypothesis that you’re too dumb to understand what he’s saying.'

Which, presumably,also seemed like a good idea at the time but, again, doesn't seem quite so smart now.

Maybe the downside of being a smarter-than-the-average-bear "disruptive innovator" is the danger of believing in your own hype to the extent that you start imagining that you're also smart enough to manipulate the inferior humans around you, whilst failing to realise that you're not actually being quite as clever as you like to think.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Old leaves turning

I passed this (cherry?) tree earlier today and the cascading speckle of ovals and rich, coppery colours were so stunningly perfect that I just had to go back for a picture. The most skilled jewellers have struggled for millennia to match the careless beauty that nature throws away every year.

In general, November is one of my least favourite months, promising nothing but deeper darkness, chill and ever more Christmas tat, with a side order of cabin fever until until the light starts coming back in mid-February, if you're lucky. Then, just when I've decided we're approaching the deepest, darkest pit of the year, nature comes up with one of her "I think to myself, what a wonderful world" moments and even I stop being a miserable old curmudgeon for a while.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Little big news?

In a cover story and article 14 years ago about the emergent disruption of utilities, The Economist’s Vijay Vaitheeswaran coined the umbrella term “micropower” to mean sources of electricity that are relatively small, modular, mass-producible, quick-to-deploy, and hence rapidly scalable—the opposite of cathedral-like power plants that cost billions of dollars and take about a decade to license and build. His term combined two kinds of micropower: renewables other than big hydroelectric dams, and cogeneration of electricity together with useful heat in factories or buildings (also known as combined-heat-and-power, or CHP)...

...Tracking renewables, minus big hydro, plus cogeneration, this database documents the global progress of distributed, rapidly scalable, and (as we’ll see) no- or low-carbon generators ... micropower now produces about one-fourth of the world’s total electricity. 
Rocky Mountain Institute blog.

If true, this is such big, happy news that I'd be even be prepared to overlook the bullshit-sounding pharase about 'emergent disruption.'

You're the cream in my coffee

For the past thirteen months, Baldrick's coffee has in fact been made from mud. With dandruff as a cunning sugar substitute. Just don't ask what he's been using for the milk.
Blackadder Goes Forth

And you really don't want to ask what they're using down at Starbucks. Fortunately, Pastor James David Manning has checked the ingredients so you don't have to. His public information talk is somewhat NSFW, but unintentionally hilarious anywhere else (sorry about the ad):

To paraphrase Blackadder, there is only one problem with his theory. It is complete bollocks. You already knew that, I know, but it is interesting to see that Manning's allegation is contradicted in the actual source he quotes, so we must at least give the the reverend gentleman some credit for saving his debunkers time and trouble:
To many people who actually read the article on social media, they have commented how ridiculous it is. However, for those who are still unsure, Snopes — a site well-known for investigating claims to either be authentic or not — took the time to check into the matter, which they found it to be false. They mention the poor quality of the “Semen in Starbucks” article as the primary factor of dubbing its claim unauthentic.

Nat King Cole was unavailable for comment:


Sunday, 16 November 2014

Irrefutable proof that flip phones are the future

I've never claimed to hang out with the cool kids but, for once, I'm on the same page as the great and the good. Apparently, Rihanna, Iggy Pop and the editor of Vogue all agree with me that the flip phone is a great design for a mobile phone that's good for, y'know, making phone calls with.

Any of you stubborn enough to disagree with an opinion backed by that much celebrity endorsement are clearly just plain wrong.

At long last, vindicated in the court of fashionable opinion...

The Reverend Doctor is rather more the concern of the poor to stand up for the laws than of the rich; for it is the law which defends the weak against the strong, the humble against the powerful, the little against the great; and weak and strong, humble and powerful, little and great there would be, even were there no laws whatever. Beside; what after all is the mischief? The owner of a great estate does not eat or drink more than the owner of a small one. His fields do not produce worse crops, nor does the produce maintain fewer mouths. If estates were more equally divided, would greater numbers be fed, or clothed, or employed? Either therefore large fortunes are not a public evil, or, if they be in any degree an evil, it is to be borne with for the sake of those fixed and general rules concerning property, in the preservation and steadiness of which all are interested.
From Reasons for contentment: addressed to the labouring part of the British public, by William Paley Archdeacon of Carlisle, 1792.

If there are still black-coated clergy preaching the virtues of political disengagement and knowing your place to the lower orders, their message isn't getting through to a generation that mostly spends its Sundays in debt-fuelled retail therapy, rather than mandatory contemplation of the divine. These days, elites need different mouthpieces to propagate norms of proper deference and passive conformity. How many people could even name the present Archdeacon of Carlisle? My guess is not many. Who has taken his place in our culture?

Who indeed? Anna Chen identifies one candidate - 'Doctor Who was always a bastion of establishment values when it was created just as the Sixties began to swing, but there was something innocent about it, and you could filter out the stories from the residual politics.' But not any more, she reckons in a blog post which challenges the oft-repeated assertion that that bastion of the establishment, the BBC, is somehow riddled with subversive left-wing bias:
The BBC has calibrated its culture to the norms of business and the military, with more armed forces personnel featuring as protagonists in its drama and documentaries over the past few years than I can remember, while the space to challenge the mainstream political narrative has shrunk to almost nothing. Imposing a reading of the world at odds with people's experience, BBC output not only leaves capitalism and the status quo unquestioned, it's actually reinforced. All those celebrity chefs, big swinging business dicks and talent judges constantly putting you in your place in the New Order, clipping your wings, accustoming you to taking orders...
...Respect hierarchy, genuflect before authority, fall in with militarism under the delusion that you have value as an individual. Forget the proud heritage of the post-war era where the mass of the population enjoyed an unprecedented confidence born of an increasingly (if far from perfect) egalitarian society. 

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Thank heavens for Mary Poppins!

I don't usually have much time for the sort of people who bang on about the "nanny state", partly because the complainers usually fall into that tiny sub-set of the population pampered enough to be familiar with actual nannies. But mostly because they seem perfectly happy with a big slice of nannying, so long as it's being advocated by the right sort of people.

The Prime Minister, having been told by some busybody that the Internet contains some material that you would not wish your wife or your servants to read, warns us that 'We must not allow the Internet to be an ungoverned space.'

Those avowed enemies of of the nanny state in the right-wing press could have given him a well-deserved monstering for this nannyish attempt to police the entire spectrum of human thought, just in case a few naughty people might be talking about things incompatible with public health and safety.

But the Daily Mail merely nodded approvingly at nanny's good sense:
PM backs spy chief’s blast at Facebook and Twitter over the help they give terrorists... ...
... Despite all the phoney outrage from libertarians, Snowden and tech companies, most British people recognise the incontrovertible truth that we can never have freedom without security.
And always keep a-hold of Nurse; For fear of finding something worse.

Meanwhile, over in Canada, it's apparetly quite OK to nanny giant energy corporations, in case those beastly tree-huggers pull nasty faces at them and make them cry:
Lawyer Bill Kaplan was speaking in B.C. Supreme Court on Wednesday, where Trans Mountain is seeking an injunction against protesters who’ve obstructed pipeline survey work in a Metro Vancouver conservation area....
...On Wednesday, Mr. Kaplan presented photographs of the protesters with facial expressions he said were malicious. “One of the things I will argue is that is not only intimidation, but that is actually an assault,” he said. “Some of the faces demonstrate the anger, and frankly, the violence demonstrated by some of the people.”
The Globe and Mail

As a matter of fact, since we hired Mary Poppins, the most extraordinary things seem to have come over the household.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The long drop

...From morn
To noon he fell, from noon to dewy eve,
A summer's day; and with the setting sun
Dropped from the zenith, like a falling star 
Now that's poetry in IMAX. Kind of appropriate for today's long drop:
Rosetta will release Philae at 08:35 GMT/09:35 CET at a distance of 22.5 km from the centre of the comet, landing about seven hours later. The one-way signal travel time between Rosetta and Earth on November is 28 minutes 20 seconds, meaning that confirmation of the landing will arrive at Earth ground stations at around 16:00 GMT/17:00 CET. 
Okay, seven hours doesn't add up to a summer's day and comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko isn't exactly Lemnos, but a seven hour drop's still an epic plummet by anybody's standards.

Mulciber/Hephaestus/Vulcan survived his fall. Whether Philae makes it is still in the lap of the (other) gods at the time of writing, although, unlike Vulcan, she (he? it?) has the benefit of a live webcast...

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Anti-Migrant Protection Rampart

Last thought on the Berlin Wall. Its misleading official name was the "Antifaschistischer Schutzwall" (Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart). Of course, it was really for keeping potential migrants in rather than keeping non-existent armies of fascists out:
Nearly a tenth of the Soviet sector’s population moved to western sectors of occupied Germany between October, 1945 and June 1946. Thereafter controls were maintained on the border of the Soviet zone, although they were not strictly enforced; a further twentieth of East Germany’s population had relocated westwards by May 1952 ... Over the next nine years, until 1961, another one-fifth of the DDR population moved west, most of it through Berlin... 
And, while it still stood, it worked:
... The wall drastically reduced migration to West Germany from East Germany. During 1962 to 1988 the flow averaged one sixth what it had been during 1949-61. With the erection of the wall, Berlin quickly went from being the easiest place to make an unauthorized crossing between East and West Germany to being the most difficult.
Nothing to do with real external threats and everything to do with social control.

A bit like the Anti-Migrant Protection Rampart, thrown up by the nationalist wing of the "Conservative family" to counter another non-existent external threat, propped up by people who should know better and legitimated by a bit of faux concern for the workers. Like its "Anti-Fascist" counterpart,* the wall in people's minds is a formidable barrier and it's working, for now:
People think 31% of the population are immigrants. It’s not even like that in London. How do you make policy to confront a problem which doesn’t exist. The solutions are already rolled out. The poor can’t marry foreigners. You can’t bring your family over if you’re poor. There is no legal way for asylum seekers to enter the country.

EU enlargement is over for a generation and EU immigration numbers are now dictated by the relative strengths of different parts of Western Europe.
Left Outside

The idea of a "protective" wall which physically or mentally excludes the world outside the reality they've created is great for members of  well-connected elites who are doing rather well out of a status quo characterised by cronyism, looting, dysfunctional dogma and mismanagement. They don't want the little people who keep the show on the road escaping to something better, or realising that that there might be an alternative:
According to current economic theory, fiscal austerity is essential to make QE work, as government spending pushes up the cost of capital (as measured in bond yields or interest rates) that QE is designed to push down. This is true, if you’re satisfied with a policy set that enriches the rich and slowly crushes everyone else.

It is surely impossible not to think that the gargantuan sums spent on QE would not have had significantly more and better effect if they had been applied, through direct state spending, to rejuvenating our health service, expanding the stock of social and middle-income housing, rebuilding our railways, remodelling our security services, abolishing university fees and replacing our ageing, polluting energy infrastructure.
Leo Schulz, summing up the actual threats that the Anti-Migrant Protection Rampart can't possibly protect us from, not even if it keeps out every last plumber, waitress, fruit-picker and car wash attendant whose free movement is no longer blocked by the Iron Curtain.

*This is is the sort of person who should be outside any genuine Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Goodbye to Berlin

Original photo published under this Creative Commons license by Morriswa.
As I was leaving Berlin less than a week before the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, and as celebrations there were going strong, I decided to look at the balance sheet of transition countries (even if the term is no longer fully adequate) over the past quarter century...
...So, what is the balance-sheet of transition? Only three or at most five or six countries could be said to be on the road to becoming a part of the rich and (relatively) stable capitalist world. Many are falling behind, and some are so far behind that they cannot aspire to go back to the point where they were when the Wall fell for several decades. Despite philosophers of “universal harmonies” such as Francis Fukuyama, Timothy Garton Ash, Vaclav Havel, Bernard Henry Lévy, and scores of international “economic advisors” to Boris Yeltsin, who all phantasized about democracy and prosperity, neither really arrived for most people in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The Wall fell only for some.
From Branko Milanovic's analysis of what happened to the former Eastern Bloc in the quarter century after the Wall fell.

If true, this comes as a bit of a shock* to me, as I'd assumed that a good proportion of former Eastern Bloc countries had enjoyed rising prosperity (with a side-order of rising inequality) since the Wall came down. I was brought up with the idea that the people behind the Iron Curtain were almost as keen to escape from shortages of food and consumer goods, along with multi-year-waits for terrible cars and general economic stagnation as they were from the authoritarian control symbolised by the Wall itself.

If Milanovic is right and few of the transition countries are succeeding, while many are failing, or struggling to improve much on a system with such obvious, systemic failings, why has nobody noticed (except, perhaps, when it comes to the dying Russians)?

Are the shiny shop-fronts of the Western store chains and the roads full of Fords and VWs where there were once just a few tired Trabants and Moscovitchs, just a new facade on a structurally unsound building? Were we dazzled by the atypical example of Germany itself - that '1.5 to 2 trillion euros'** thrown at re-unification must have gone a long way to make the former DDR look good, even though unemployment remains nearly double that of the west and economists think it will still take years for the Ossis to catch up with the Wessis?

I don't know, but perhaps a few unquestioned assumptions need re-visiting.

The only bit that wouldn't surprise me is that, if he's right, Milanovic just banged the final nail into the coffin of  Fukuyama's "end of history" shtick - that whole dodgy big concept always sounded equivocal enough to "work" in the same way as those astrological personality summaries and predictions that sound spookily accurate if you ignore the fact that the wording is so non-specific that it could apply equally well to a huge, random chunk of the population, regardless of star sign.


*Of course, other conclusions are available - there are some counter-arguments in the comments to the post itself, as well as those of the MetaFilter poster who aggregated it and Branko addresses some critics in a later post here.

**In these days of bank bailouts, what's half a trillion between friends?

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Who ya gonna call?

A total of 300 members of the International Association of Ghostbusters* Exorcists attended a meeting at the Vatican this week to focus on the impact of the occult and Satanism on people today, the Catholic Sun reported. The IAE, founded in 1990 by Father Gabriele Amorth, the diocese of Rome’s own exorcist, was formally recognized by the Vatican just this last June. The Vatican’s approval and recognition for the International Association of Exorcists was a “cause for joy not only for the association, but for the whole Church,” said Father Francesco Bamonte, the president of the IAE.

In a message written to Father Bamonte, Pope Francis said that priests who practice exorcism “manifest the Church’s love and acceptance of those who suffer because of the devil’s works.”

The writer finds it odd that 'Pope Francis is, in many ways, seen as a completely modern, progressive leader of the Catholic Church, but he still wholly approves of the need for exorcists within his church.' I'm not sure it's quite so paradoxical as it seems.

Core doctrine hasn't changed that much, (although far more than Church apologists would like to admit**), but there's a more striking difference between the modern Church and the old-fashioned version. The modern Church wields little, if any, coercive power over the general population. When the Church was in its pomp, inquisitors and informers could sniff out dissent, heresy, atheism and other forms of non-approved thought, so that offenders could be shunned, excommunicated, re-educated, de-radicalised, tortured, or, in extreme cases, handed over to the secular arm for exemplary judicial killing. Less dramatic, but still horrific, examples of the Church's coercive power existed within living memory, which is only just beginning to fade.

Trying to have some sort of nebulous, immaterial influence on ill-defined supernatural forces which allegedly have something to do with human well-being, or lack of it, can be a modern form of consolation for those who've been pushed out of the mainstream and have little  real power or influence left.

In this sense, the Church, which is slowly, but surely, moving towards the fringe of relevance, is like those disillusioned hippy types who've left behind any hope of changing the world by challenging power structures, activism and political engagement and are reduced to trying to achieve world peace and universal harmony via the ineffectual New Age toolkit of spiritual development, crystals and sending out lovely waves of healing Reiki energy.

So I'm not that alarmed by a Church that calls the Ghostbusters, rather then the Inquisition, whenever there's something strange in your neighbourhood.

I'm more concerned about the modern secular arm, currently hyping up its own "battle against evil" in a transparent attempt to police the morals, thoughts and lives of the laity with a thoroughness which would have impressed the most rigorous inquisitor:
Technology giants such as Facebook and Twitter have become "the command and control networks of choice" for terrorists and criminals but are "in denial" about the scale of the problem, the new head of GCHQ has said.

Robert Hannigan said that Isil terrorists in Syria and Iraq have "embraced the web" and are using it to intimidate people and inspire "would-be jihadis" from all over the world to join them.

He urged the companies to work more closely with the security services, arguing that it is time for them to confront "some uncomfortable truths" and that privacy is not an "absolute right".
The Telegraph

Nikolai Bukharin allegedly called Stalin 'Genghis Khan with a telephone.' If the Robert Hannigans of this world get their way, we can look forward to Torquemada with the Internet. I ain't afraid of no ghosts, but that prospect scares the hell out of me.

*my snark

**Cardinal Newman's attempt to retrospectively define innovations or changes in doctrine as "clarifications", which only made explicit doctrines which already existed implicitly within Divine Revelations which had been there ever since the founding of the Church, is an ingenious, if unconvincing, example of such attempts to deny the objective reality of doctrinal change.