Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Producing without profiting, profiting without producing

Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Zero Marginal Cost Society, was a guest on Radio 4's Start the Week on Monday. One of the other guests was a former financial services analyst, the Conservative MP, Kwasi Kwarteng. There's an idea that's been going around in my head ever since, sparked not by what was being directly discussed, but by the juxtaposition of Rifkin's thesis and Kwarteng's former career.

As simplified outrageously by me, Rifkin's big idea is that, extrapolating from current trends, capitalism as we know it will innovate itself out of existence by mid-century, with new technologies driving down the cost of producing useful stuff down to near zero so effectively that the possibility of making a profit will practically evaporate and the global megacorps will die out. With distributed production of everything, the categories of consumer and producer will disappear and everybody will be a 'prosumer', swapping the plans for useful 3D-printed widgets, being a social-media-enabled news producer/consumer and producing/consuming energy for/from distributed power grids based on household or neighbourhood renewable energy generating nodes.

It's not a completely convincing picture - I wonder, for example, how the market for that most basic commodity, food, will work in Rifkin's future and some of Rifkin's ideas have more than a hint of Thomas Friedman-esque blue-skies wacky (I'm sure that both thinkers independently came up with the idea that in the future, we'll all partly support ourselves by renting out the spare space in our homes - good luck with that, if you live in one of the UK's overpriced shoe boxes).

But, even with some major qualifications, it's clear that producing without profiting is a real thing, as the newspaper and music industries are already discovering to their cost, and emerging technologies promise a lot more of it in the future.

On the other hand, we have Kwasi Kwarteng's multi-billion dollar world of high finance, neatly summed up in the title of a recent book as Profiting Without Producing.

It's not the technology alone that promises interesting times ahead, but the fact that it throws the social uselessness of some of humanity's most profitable activities into sharp relief. If the profitability of producing useful stuff tends to stagnate and decline, won't people at some point start to question why astronomical profits only seem to come from activities like currency speculation, high-frequency trading, mis-selling opaque financial products that turn out to be worse than useless, organising risky, debt-fuelled mergers and acquisitions, devising obscure and complex financial instruments to skim the maximum amount of cash from real-world transactions and being bailed out by hostage governments?

If the profitability of the useful continues to decline, in tandem with the growing profitability of the useless, it will get harder and harder to justify the existing order as a just mechanism for differentially rewarding members of society according to their contributions, or to distinguish our version of capitalism from a neo-feudal system, with ordinary people who do all the necessary work finding themselves beholden, for some obscure reason, to an overclass who exist only to extract rents by virtue of owning capital, just as the old landed gentry extracted rents from their estates. Expect some moral gymnastics and far-fetched justifications of the status quo - we've had 'em before:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

When the penny drops, will the financial aristocracy give up their power without a fight? That's where the promise of 'interesting times' comes in...

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Helmsley's Law and Ecclestone's corollary

'Only the little people pay taxes.'
Leona Helmsley
And sometimes not even the little people. Allegedly.

I didn't wander off and make a cup of tea

You don't often see a party election broadcast that deviates from the narrow, managerialist script of variations on the same narrow policy menu offered by the other lot, differentiated only by a smattering of alleged own-brand executive competence, added leadership and extra "hard working families" blather.

But a party that's actually comes right out in favour of workers' rights and against trade deals that would allow the corpocracy to gut environmental protections and social rights? I wouldn't normally approve a message that allows Froggy Farage to absorb the oxygen of publicity through his slimy batrachian skin, but you have to admit that the impersonation is almost spot on:
I've got reservations about the Greens - as far as I can see, civil nuclear power isn't as insanely dangerous as they claim, when compared with other energy sources and it's far easier for a minority party to talk a good game than to actually deliver change (remember the new dawn of Cleggmania?) - but, even so, I'm tempted to give them a go in the European elections. And it's a long time since a party election broadcast tempted me to do anything, except reach for the "off" button.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

The (War on) Terror of St Trinian's

Finally finished reading Flat Earth News by Nick Davies (first published in 2008, but better late than never). Apart from validating my existing suspicion that most of the news product we consume is at best, short on factual nutrition and at, worst, actively harmful to our understanding and mental health, it contains this little gem of an anecdote, which Davies picked up when he managed to talk his way into a two day conference on 'strateigic communications', attended by a selection of the military's top information warriors, spooks, PR professionals and securicrats:
One speaker described a British Tactical Psyops team which had been working in Iraq. Its staff consisted of a builder, a fashion photographer, a telecoms engineer, a nursing graduate, several snipers and a mortar platoon on transfer to make up the numbers. It was headed by a reservist who had been working as the head of English at a girls' private school in Surrey.
This merry band were tasked with persuading the locals to accept British troops, so they produced a newsletter which they struggled to distribute, because they had no transport and, more importantly, most of their target audience couldn't read. Adverts in the local newspaper solved the transport part of the problem, but they found that hardly any of the literate locals in post-invasion Iraq had any spare cash left for luxuries like newspapers. They felt that they were making some headway with radio broadcasts and by handing out sweets and colouring books to local kids, but then the row about the Mohamed cartoons in a Danish newspaper blew up, so sweets and colouring books no longer cut it with the locals.

I can think of a few ways to describe Britian's role in the Iraq war, but I'd never previously noticed the resemblance to a classic comedy caper from the Ealing Films era. Chortle to the hilarous expoits of an ill-matched crew of bumbling, amateurish eccentrics, headed by a Joyce Grenfell/Margaret Rutherford figure from some jolly-hockey-sticks school for "gels." Black comedy gold, just waiting to happen. Screenplay by Alan Bennett, maybe?

Friday, 25 April 2014

Dave from PR explains the Church of England

As we've seen already, simply implying that one thing is related to another thing is not the quite the same as demonstrating that there's any meaningful connection between the two things being compared. Dave from PR just tried to make another dodgy link when he said 'We are a Christian country, we have an established church.'

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that we live in a 'Christian country.'* We do have an established church, so what's the problem? It's the unstated link between the two statements. Cameron's statement is a syllogism in which the linking premise is missing. His "argument" goes like this:
  • We are a Christian country (major premise - assumed).
  • Christian countries have established churches (premise - unstated).
  • Therefore we have an established church (conclusion - stated).
An argument with a bit missing from the middle like this is called an enthymeme.

How many Christian countries have established churches? Here's a helpful map, where all the countries with a state religion have been coloured in:

Lifted from the relevant Wikipedia article

You can see at a glance that state religions only exist in a minority of states, even when you include non-Christian state religions, and that followers of the Nazarene in most of nominal Christendom are doing the Jesus thing without the benefit an established church (as are all of our home-grown Christians who don't belong to the Church of England).

So much for Cameron's missing link (insert your own primate gag here). 

As Dave failed to make any coherent case for our established church,** I agree with Nick on this one, although it's not exactly the sort of big issue that's going to rebuild his lost credibility.

*It's a country with Christians (and a lot of other people) in it and whether that description stands up depends on your definition. If 'Christian country' is shorthand for "a Country where the majority of people who have a religious affiliation identify as Christians", then I live in a Christian country. If it means "a country where most people can actually be bothered to go to church", I don't (just turning up for social obligations like family and friends' christenings, weddings or funerals really doesn't count). Plenty of other definitions exist, depending on which facts you choose to pick, although some are more contrived than others.

** There are arguments which are coherent, but silly, like 'because Henry VIII was having a bad heir day.'

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Bashar al-Assad is doomed

Forget the consensus that Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, has managed to hold on to power for the forseeable. I've been tipped off by a trustworthy official source that he's definitely on the way out:
Hello Friend,
I am Tim Ruler a personal foreign consultant to the Bashar al-Assad President of Syria.
President Bashar al-Assad knowing full well that his regime is coming to an end due to the political civil revolution  that is engulfing Syria,Please Kindly view the attachment for more details...
Obviously, as 'personal foreign consultant' to a shortly-to-be-deposed dictator, Tim needs to take some extra special precautions, like sending a mail that ostensibly comes from "" (although the header suggests that it originated in Azerbaijan), entrusting the safety of large amounts of money belonging to his famously murderous and unforgiving soon-to-be-ex boss to random strangers and going by the alias "Arnold Lizard." Given his precarious position, who can blame him?

Now what's in that attachment? Oops! I just accidentally deleted Tim's e-mail...

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Onward, Christian soldiers

I was going to avoid more comment on the slightly premature World War One centenary commemorations / historical punch up, until a tiny bit of history surfaced from the bit of our garden that's actually been dug over and tended (as opposed to the weed-choked no-man's land beyond the Western front of the hen house).

It was a corroded, circular piece of metal, featuring a clasp and the words "Dieu et mon droit." A quick image search, including the Royal motto, identified the thing as the remains of a British army belt buckle (in this case, missing one of its two clasps and the regimental badge that would have originally been surrounded by the motto).

The buckle might, or might not, be of Great War vintage, but there's nothing to rule out a 1914-18 date (as far as I can tell, belts of this generic design were part of the dress uniform of British and Empire / Commonwealth troops from Victorian times right through to World War II).

In a fight to the death, it's always reassuring to know that you've got the supreme being on side, so the slogan "God and my right" must have been a great comfort to the various Tommies, diggers, sepoys, kiwis, etc. who were being forcefully asked to risk life and limb for king and the mother country. The Kaiser's brave lads will have been equally delighted to look down at the words "Gott mit uns" ("God with us") decorating their belt buckles and know that the big guy upstairs was definitely rooting for the German Empire.

In those benighted days, God seems to have schlepped around like some kind of celestial Nick Clegg, making promises He couldn't keep (it would have been hard for even Cleggy to brazenly spin the final result as "punishing" England with victory) and cosying up to the brass hats on both sides, in return for a bit of status and respect. This sort of thing eventually tends to have a negative impact on a guy's popularity with the poor bloody infantry.

Of course, in our more enlightened, ecumenical, coalition-minded times, the Lord of Hosts is a reformed character, who's totally given up selling his negotiable support to the first slippery political chancer who wants to puff up his flagging popularity with a divinely-sanctioned jingo-fest.

If only...

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Standing in rags, but standing on his feet

According to Lucy Worsley, in the trail for the BBC's current 18th Century Season,* 'The Georgians invented modern Britain.' In answer to the rhetorical question 'what have the Georgians ever done for us?', the presenters continue 'apart from':
  • giving us our daily fix of caffeine
  • the cult of celebrity
  • a taste for the opulent
  • fashion
  • benefit gigs
Fair enough, but I can't help feeling that there's something rather big missing here. Something that shaped modern life far more profoundly than any of the above. If you wanted to give it a quick name-check for a trail, you could call it 'the dependency culture.' I'm talking about the huge and lasting social changes caused by the accelerated enclosure of common land and the creation of the working class (in its broadest sense of people with no independent means of subsistence other than the sale of their labour):
The enclosures created a new organization of classes. The peasant with rights and a status, with a share in the fortunes and government of his village, standing in rags, but standing on his feet, makes way for the labourer with no corporate rights to defend, no corporate power to invoke, no property to cherish, no ambition to pursue, bent beneath the fear of his masters, and the weight of a future without hope. No class in the world has so beaten and crouching a history.
Cumulatively and within a few generations, the enclosures created a veritable army of industrial reserve labor. The displaced and disenfranchised were reduced to working for starvation wages that they supplemented through prostitution, theft, and other stigmatized or illegal means.
And that's not lifted from some web site that could be accused of Marxist or bleeding-heart liberal bias, but from Explore Freedom, a recipient of something called the Ron Paul Liberty in Media Award, no less.

There's more than one point of view among historians about whether this process was inevitable, or whether the alternative would have been even worse (small, subsistence farmers without the capital to farm in the most efficient way starving whenever a poor harvest came along), but surely the discussion of the whole enclosure / industrial revolution thing is important enough for the BBC to include in a season that's supposed to tell the story of how modern Britain was invented in the 18th Century?

Or is the (extremely topical) subject of power relations in society now deemed too controversial for the safe, controversy-averse BBC to tackle? Oh never mind, here are some fashionable aristos in fluffy wigs...
Here thou, great Anna, whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take and sometimes tea.
Begging Alexander Pope's (and Queen Anne's) pardon, people in the Eighteenth Century did far more for (and to) us than giving us a taste for opulence, celebrity and a daily fix of caffeine.

*YouTubed here if the content doesn't work in your region.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Spot the difference

Here's the teaser for a four page advertisment feature in our local free sheet, by the Qur'an project:
According to conventional wisdom, people these days have short attention spans, so maybe the people who cobbled this together figured that the punters would skim-read enough to see the NASA logo next to the picture of the holy book and the word "FREE" in red caps, then order their freebie without actually reading these two short passages and noticing that the first one is entirely unrelated to the second.

What have the Big Bang theory and cosmic background radiation got to do with heaven and earth being 'a joined entity', whatever that means? What do they say about this 'joined entity' being separated by a supernatural being? What do they have to do with every living thing being 'made from water'?

These things are a mystery to me, but not quite so mysterious as this puzzle. Why would anybody who lacks the functional literacy skills to understand that two passages, of less than thirty words each, are completely different from each other, want to order a book?

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

British Justice. The envy of the world?

Nigel Evans, MP, was happy to sacrifice affordable access to justice on the altar of austerity, until it affected him personally. So far it's a simple story of hypocrisy, but there may be a wider and more subtle form of cognitive bias going on here, too.

I'm thinking of the lingering impression that our system of justice is, if not the envy of the world, at least basically decent. It's a mindset that makes even people who aren't Nigel Evans feel some shock at the idea of a person who's been found innocent being financially ruined by massive legal bills.

The World Justice Project's Rule of Law Index 2014 (.pdf here) tries to assign an overall rank to various countries' legal systems, based on their performance against nine criteria.* By these measures, the United Kingdom ranks 13th, below Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Austria, Australia, Germany, Singapore, Canada and Japan. 13th place isn't hopelessly embarrassing, but it still indicates that even foreigners might have a few things to teach us.

I don't take the WJP's index at face value - two points spring immediately to mind. Firstly and obviously, English law, which applies in England and Wales, differs from Northern Ireland law and differs even more from Scots law, so I don't know where the UK's individual constituent countries would sit in the league table if their scores were disaggregated.

Secondly and more importantly, one of the criteria used in the WJP's Rule of Law Index was 'People can access and afford civil justice.' Nigel Evans was an acquitted defendant in criminal trial, who found that he could access, but couldn't afford, criminal justice. The affordability of criminal justice doesn't seem to have been a factor in compiling in the Rule of Law Index.

But, even if the exact rankings and criteria are arguable, the default assumption that that our justice system is the envy of the world looks pretty questionable. Even columnists writing for the jingoistic Spectator are shaken:
Despite the criminal legal aid bill plummeting over the last seven years, Grayling intends to cut it even more, driving out the talented, specialised independent Bar and replacing it with cheaper options, such as G4s, Serco and Cooperative law ... So much for British Justice. The envy of the world? Not unless you live in Russia or Zimbabwe. And if Grayling has his way it will be far, far worse. The sooner he sets sail on the Maria Celeste the better.
To be fair, our plummeting legal aid budget is still pretty massive, but you can spend a lot of money on something and still end up with a second-rate system that excludes a lot of people - just look at the US health care system.

*Constraints on government powers, the absence of corruption, open government, fundamental rights, order and security, regulatory enforcement, civil justice, criminal justice and informal justice.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Mugged by reality

MP Nigel Evans, who was cleared of rape and sexual assault on Thursday, has said the Crown Prosecution Service should pay his £130,000 legal bill.

You have to feel sorry for poor Nigel. When he agreed with Chris that "we" simply can't afford Britain's £2bn legal aid bill, how was he to know that it was going to affect him, personally? Clearly, when he got behind the slogan that "we" need to tighten our belts, it should have been understood that "we", in this context, meant "somebody else."

A legal bill that swallows up somebody else's life savings is a regrettable consequence of the tough, but necessary, decisions that have to be taken in these difficult times. One that wipes out my life savings is an outrage about which Something Must Be Done. I've heard about another group of people who experience the world in this way:
When highly psychopathic participants imagined pain to themselves, they showed a typical neural response within the brain regions involved in empathy for pain, including the anterior insula, the anterior midcingulate cortex, somatosensory cortex, and the right amygdala. The increase in brain activity in these regions was unusually pronounced, suggesting that psychopathic people are sensitive to the thought of pain.

But when participants imagined pain to others, these regions failed to become active in high psychopaths. Moreover, psychopaths showed an increased response in the ventral striatum, an area known to be involved in pleasure, when imagining others in pain.
Science Daily

Or maybe, if you're feeling more charitable, a liberal is simply a conservative who's been mugged by reality.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Advertising for birdbrains

Here's a guy who's heard that it pays to advertise:

You have to admit it's an impressive display, from that fan of gorgeously patterned feathers, wider than some people are tall, to the extravagant headgear and dandy highwayman coat in shimmering ultramarine.

What's rather less impressive is the degree to which an advertiser with a brain the size of a plump cherry can segment his market and focus on influencing the appropriate target demographic. In short, he's trying to impress the wrong species. Here's another photo with a bit more context:

Although guys showing off to other guys is pretty common, it isn't the small boy in shot he's displaying to - even a peacock isn't dumb enough to waste energy on a mere mammal. The object of his advertising campaign is the poultry cage in the background, where a baffled group of chickens are watching a display that would be fruitless even if the females in question weren't caged and out of reach.

 If only all junk mail looked this good.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Mysterious packaging art

There seems to be more surreal symbolism going on here than would be strictly necessary just to sell hand cream:
Why is the woman with the unfeasibly small head planting her tiny plant in that enormous hole? I've been trying to work out what this is supposed to mean for several hours, but I haven't come up with anything plausible yet.

Filed under "I really need to get out more"...