Tuesday, 20 May 2014

A very British panic attack

Michael Rosen has a question:
How many people are not learning English? Typical of politicians to run up a flag about something without specifying dimensions or details. How many non-Brits are not bothering to learn English?

How much of a 'problem' is it? So, for example, I hear Turkish people talking Turkish to each other in North London. This is while they are doing business - you know, that thing that the government say is wonderful - running shops - that sort of thing. What's the problem?!
When I think about the things that cause me, personally, problems, 'people not bothering to learn English' hardly registers. The nearest thing to an actual lack-of-English-skills problem I've had recently has been occasionally not being able to understand the odd word spoken by someone in an Indian call centre. Which is, when you think about it, quite a compact, manageable problemette.

Millions of people half way across the globe are learning to speak my language and occasionally not getting it exactly word perfect. Poor little me, boo hoo! Why, oh why can't they be like us hard-working British families™, who can just about be bothered to learn to mispronounce the names of most of the dishes we might find on a typical Indian restaurant menu?

I know that I don't live in an area with a massive mix of nationalities and that, in parts of, say, London, or Birmingham, I might, shockingly, have to deal with people whose English is sometimes less than perfect in person, as opposed to over the phone. Which might, very occasionally, be moderately inconvenient, perhaps, but with a little common sense and good will on both sides, you wouldn't think this would inevitably lead to some desperate-stocking-up-on-ammo-and canned-goods-ahead-of-the-linguistic-apocalypse scenario.

But, you know, they might not be speaking English at all! In my hearing! On a train! And I might feel uncomfortable! And it's perfectly true that anxiety disorders can be a problem, although I'm told that it's easier to calm yourself down by breathing in to a count of seven and out to a count of eleven than by, say, insisting that every single person in the country must immediately switch to speaking in English at all times, in order to spare the feelings of anybody suffering from panic attacks, brought on by the sound of people recklessly not speaking English in a built-up area.

Nope, still doesn't sound like much of a problem to me.

So why do so many of the political class spend so much time talking up this and other immigration-related non-problems, especially when most ordinary people have far more pressing real problems to deal with?

The official explanation is that politicians are responding to people's real, understandable anxieties. Which would be enormously depressing, if true, as it would suggest that the average member of the public is some kind of incurable nitwit who can easily be distracted from his or her actual, serious problems by some annoyance so tiny as to be practically non-existent, like some insane paramedic, who, presented with an accident victim with the remains of one arm hanging on by a couple of tendons, notices, and chooses to prioritise, the issue of the patient's slight runny nose, rather than spending any time trying to stabilise the almost-severed-limb situation.

Although there may be a few incurable nitwits out there, you don't have to be too paranoid to notice that it's certain well-established politicians, journalists and think tanks who are are keenest to start this nitwit-friendly "conversation" and to carry it on loudly and incessantly. Or to wonder why they might want to direct voters' attention and anger towards made-up or trivial annoyances and away from the sort of actual problems that could be fixed, but only at the risk of upsetting the vested interests of Important People (real and corporate) who do very nicely, thank you, out of the staus quo and whose loyalty to the established order, or donations to party funds would be sorely missed.

Any ideas?

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Are we nearly there yet?

Back in 2010, I spotted a hybrid human/electric-powered vehicle called the "Twike" in the wild and was intrigued enough to look up the specs. I concluded that it wasn't a practical or economic proposition for budget motorists like me and suggested that it made more sense for cash-squeezed road-users to use an actual bike for local journeys and a fuel-efficient car/public transport for journeys that were longer, or involved moving family, friends, or useful amounts of stuff around.

I had an irritated response from a Twike enthusiast, who said:
Once you study the impact of what the true cost of oil is, you quickly realize that NOT driving electric is simply unaffordable and unsustainable...

 I have commuted to work and all about town in Chamapaign-Urbana for the past 3 years in a 11-year-old Twike Active. I rarely take dead-dino conveyance, whether public or private... going to the hardware store, picking up groceries, picking up the kiddos...

I once heard a quote that summarizes fuel cell cars quite nicely: "Fuel cell cars were the car of the future 20 years ago, they're the car of the future today, and they'll be the car of the future tomorrow"

IF fuel cells do arrive, and WHEN new and better battery technology arrives, it will be a fairly easy retrofit for a well-designed 11-year-old Twike to upgrade, as it's just a different form of storing electricity!

There is no reason to wait once you know the true costs.
Unfortunately there is a reason to wait, namely that the true, global costs to planet, fuel stocks and society aren't necessarily related to the individual costs borne by the cash-strapped people/families trying to haul themselves + stuff around on a tight budget. It's these sort of privatised costs that drive a lot of us to some combination of bangernomics, bike and buses, not brainwashing by the petrocracy, or some self-destructive compulsion to keep on breathing in great bracing lungfuls of particulates.

2014 update; the car in front isn't a Twike; in fact I've not spotted a second example of the species since my first encounter in 2010.

That's not to say that electric transport isn't gradually getting there. I'm not seeing any Twikes, but I am seeing Milton Keynes' new electric buses on the roads, local electric car charging points (first introduced in 2011, with more to come, although still nowhere near enough to support a noticeable proportion of 'leccy vehicles for conurbation that's home to most of the quarter of a million people in the Milton Keynes unitary authority) and the pre-publicity for a trial of driverless electric pods for (slowly) shuttling people around the city centre, scheduled for the near future (I know, by the way, that Milton Keyenes still isn't a city to the pedants who point out that only the Queen can officially make it so - and she hasn't - but I don't need to wait for some archaic feudal convention to tell me what I can already see; that the place is a city by any reasonable definition of the term).

And, according to former petrolhead Robert Llewellyn, who keeps an eye on electrical vehicle developments, the batteries are the key and they're getting better all the time:
Batteries are getting smaller, lighter, more energy dense, longer lasting and above all, cheaper.

These increases are constant and low level at present. Battery energy density is, according to companies like Panasonic, Samsung and Tesla increasing by roughly 8% a year. No great shakes but in the 5 years I’ve been keeping an eye on this sector, energy density has increased by roughly 40%.

But if they still cost a fortune, so what?

Well, they are also getting cheaper, the cost per kWh of storage a few years ago was around $500 per kWh. It’s now around $400.
So engineers might get us there on the storage front - if their corporate bosses don't sabotage their good work by creating a problem that has nothing to do with the practical constraints of physics, chemistry and engineering, namely, the human-imposed cost of rents extracted via Digital Rights Management.

I'm sure there has to be a better way (for the many end users, rather than the few DRM owners). For example, in theory, you could get over the battery charging time/cost issue by treating electric car batteries in the same way that we now treat camping gas canisters. In this scenario, rather than tethering the car to a charging station for a tediously long period of time, your future motorist gets a low charge warning, pulls into the nearest battery station and has the depleted battery taken out from its quick-change slot and replaced with a fully-charged one from the stack of batteries the station keeps on its charging racks. The motorist gets debited for the price of the leccy + something towards infrastructure/costs/profit and drives off into the pollution-free sunset.

I can see plenty of objections to this scenario - for a start, batteries aren't fungible, like gas, so this would depend on manufacturers agreeing to standardise to a few battery designs, to make battery stations usable for all motorists who pull up (good luck with getting, say, Renault, on board with that). Also, do you give people some credit for changing batteries with some charge left (as opposed to giving them a perverse incentive to obstruct the highway because they want to squeeze every last electron out of their old battery before pulling over and having it replaced, then accidentally run out of juice a few klicks short of the nearest battery station) and what about scammers and blaggers finding ways to nick batteries and sell them on, rather than just having them on hire to exchange for a charged unit when they need to "fill up"?  More seriously, in the longer term, having one, standardised, interchangeable design would tend to slow, or even halt progress towards, and uptake of, the subsequent improvements in energy storage technology, in much the same way that the widespread adoption and dominance of the QWERTY keyboard standard strangled more efficient alternatives at birth.

The battery stations aren't a serious suggestion, but I just mention the idea to point out that there are more ways of killing a cat than hanging it, to use a charming old expression of my dad's.*

Fuel cells, running on fungible hydrogen might be another alternative but, on this one, Twike guy might be right, at least according to Robert Llewellyn, who echoes his scepticism:
Since 1972 when I first heard the term hydrogen is the future I have been waiting. I'm not even mentioning things like infrastructure, the various methods of producing hydrogen, the energy costs associated with splitting water etc etc.
According to  Llewellyn, the great thing about better batteries is that they're not just for cars, but might form part of distributed power networks, like the ones I heard Jeremy Rifkin talking about in a radio talk show plug for The Zero Marginal Cost Society:
However when I talk about batteries I’m not even thinking about them in relation to cars, I’m thinking about our houses, about the grid, about cities, dammit, I’m thinking of the whole country.

The effect that millions of widely distributed batteries would have on the way we generate and distribute power is immense.

Imagine a 100 kWh battery pack built into your house, you have solar panels on the roof which trickle charge them day after day.

Before I explain the difference this could make, let’s look at the cost. Your battery pack is made from ‘depleted’ car batteries and the cost is a great deal lower than buying new ones. It’s not impossible to imagine something the size of a small fridge that could store 100 kWh with no maintenance and 10-15 years of trouble free use.
Talking of decentralised power networks, it would be ironic, but not entirely irrational if progress was driven by that most centralised and statist of institutions, the military. Fewer strategically important power stations to defend, and greater resilience for every remotely defence-related asset - it wouldn't be the first time the military have been distributed network pioneers.

With the prospects for solar generation getting dramatically better, some version of a world with (realtively) cheap, efficient batteries eventually becoming ubiquitous in buildings and electric vehicles is sounding more plausible.

We're not there yet, but we're getting nearer. I still don't think we'll get all the way there in a Twike, though.

*No animals were harmed in the making of my childhood.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Uncle Nigel's country-style fruitcakes

Tryton Foods is investing £4m in the launch of a range of ready-to-bake cakes and cookies under the Aunt Bessie's brand.
marketingmagazine dot co dot uk, 2006

As somebody once (almost) said, the secret of success is sincerity authenticity. Once you can fake that you've got it made. Which is why the processed frozen food product manufacturer, Tryton Foods Ltd (a division of the William Jackson Food Group), markets its packaged foodstuffs as if they came straight from the oven of no-nonsense old Aunt Bessie's Yorkshire farmhouse kitchen, rather than off the conveyor belts of a factory in Hull.

Yes, I'm sorry to have to break it to you, but Aunt Bessie isn't a real person. Just like Mr Kipling (a trademark, owned by Premier Foods, after its acquisition of Rank Hovis McDougall in 2007), Uncle Ben (formerly a brand of Converted Rice Incorporated, since acquired by Mars, Inc), Captain Birdseye (a fictional fisherman created to market an international brand of frozen foods owned by Pinnacle Foods in North America and by private equity group Permira in Europe) and Betty Crocker (first invented in 1921, as a "food agony aunt" by the Washburn Crosby Company, to personalise corporate replies to consumers' baking queries, Betty is now a brand name and trademark of American Fortune 500 corporation, General Mills).

Of course, on a rational level, nobody's fooled, but on an emotional level, the faux human touch must help to shift product, or the manufacturers wouldn't bother creating and maintaining these avatars. The illusion of authenticity often extends to the look and feel of a product, with packaging calibrated to give the brand an authentic, homemade feel;  fake "home-made" jam labels decanting factory-produced jams into jars with gingham-printed lids, or using a logo that looks as if it's been drawn by a kid with a chunky felt tip pen.

The same principles apply to marketing a political product. Back in 2012, I mocked UKIP for having a crummy pound shop logo, which even the party leadership seemed set to replace with something a bit less rubbish-looking.  Two years later, and the party leadership has had to disown a lot of embarrassing things, including a manifesto that the leader subsequently described as 'drivel' and a string of high-profile lunatic (mal)functionaries (Mr Kipper does make exceedingly good fruitcakes), but it looks as if the pound shop logo is here to stay. Not only is there no longer any talk of axing it, but various UKIP apparatchiks concerned with media manipulation and image management have lately been trying to bully and intimidate anybody who dares to illustrate critical comments about the party with examples of UKIP's own branding, whether straight up or altered to make an observation or satirical point.

Thomas Clark at Another Angry Voice had a visit from UKIP's reputation-management goons after he illustrated some of his on line comments about the kippers with UKIP-sourced material. Even after he'd more than reasonably complied with their totally unreasonable demands, these hilariously self-descibed "libertarians" (who've apparently never heard of fair comment or fair use) weren't satisfied - here's an intimidatory rant by an obnoxious clown who goes by the on-line name "stevesmartarse" (you're so funny, Steve), left in the comments after the "offending" material had been self-censored:
You're not above the law AAV. It is illegal to post something impersonating a political party if by copying their style and logos the result would be that people thought that the content was from that party. The content has never been and is not UKIP policy. UKIP's record on throwing out of the party those who have joined under false pretences is second to none. UKIP is made up of ordinary people who are fed up with those 'other agendas' that have betrayed this country and its people for the past 40 years. If you are fed up with that betrayal too, and I suspect you are, then help do something about it, instead of trying to denigrate those prepared to stand up and do something about it. 
This ridiculous over-sensitivity about image management makes me wonder whether UKIP's crummy, amateurish logo is, in fact, a valuable piece of intellectual property, something that looks almost deliberately fabricated to seem home-made.  I wouldn't be surprised to find out that they decided to hang on to the slapdash branding to enhance the "anti-establishment" look and feel of the party. Like Uncle Nige's contrived ordinary-bloke-ishness and the manufactured attention-seeking, headline-grabbing immigrant baiting, maybe the crap logo is part of a smokescreen, designed to hide the real agenda of this pro-the-already-overprivileged, bugger-everybody-else, hyper-Thatcherite political clique and its wealthy donors and influential fellow travellers among the chatterati.

I say, Nigel, old boy, does this thing look as if it was made up by an ordinary person? 'Like something a low-grade bank clerk with the charisma of a damp rag would come up with', you say? That's very good indeed, Nigel, you really must remember that line - I'm sure we can use it later. And how absolutely spiffing - 'low-grade' was precisely the look we were after! I think we jolly well have a winner, chaps. Champers all round!
As I said in my own comment:
The kippers do seem rather over-protective of a logo that looks as if it cost a lot less than a pound to create. Mind you, I'm beginning to think that the amateurish look is a deliberate branding decision.
Put yourself into the well-heeled brogues of the individuals who fabricated this astroturf "anti-establishment" political movement, (funded by ex-Tory party donors and fronted by an ex-public school former City commodities trader and wannabe tax avoider). How, apart from supergluing a proletarian pint mug into the leader's hand and a fag into his gob, do you make your movement look like something created by real people? Do you:
a) Produce a slick, professional logo that looks like the result of an extended blue-skies thinking session by a team of highly-paid latte-slurping metrosexual creative sushi-munchers with hipster specs and post-ironic goatees?
b) Come up with something that looks as if it was cobbled together by old Mrs Goggins at the post office, who only learned to use MS Paint so she could print out some home-made jam labels for the village produce show?
I think you go for b), in which case it must hit a raw nerve when outsiders mess around with the symbol of your fake authenticity...

Anyway, that's enough politics for now so to wind up, here are four fun facts about Aunt Bessie's product line, courtesy of Kay Adeola's blog:
  • The first ever Aunt Bessie’s Yorkshire Pudding was created for a Butlins holiday camp in 1974.
  • Aunt Bessie’s Ltd produces up to a staggering 20 million Yorkshire Puddings a week at its busiest time and half a billion annually.
  • In the last 15 years, Aunt Bessie’s products have become so popular that Aunt Bessie’s Ltd has grown its retail sales value to £190m.
  • Aunt Bessie is actually an Austrian transvestite, who was inspired to grow a beard and enter the Eurovision Song Contest after watching the stoning scene in The Life of Brian.
One of the above facts isn't strictly true and does not, in fact, reflect the views of Kay Adeola, or of any other real person, living or dead. Sorry, Kay, I got bored.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Toxic horsemeat and Trekkies

I've nothing in particular against Liberal Democrat councillors. They didn't sign the coalition agreement and they may well be lovely people, doing good things in local communities. According to our latest local Lib Dem flyer, our lot have successfully 'fought the Conservative run Council's proposals to scrap grit bins', had a pedestrian crossing built at a sensible place in our road (check - I can see it from where I'm writing) and, following complaints from residents in one of the roads coming off ours, they've had a new "no through road" sign put up. Maybe councillors with different affiliations would have done similar things, but I'm happy to give them the credit for actually having got them done.

And then they go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like 'I love you':
It's a 2 horse race on 22nd May. The local election on 22nd May is between the local Lib Dem Focus Team candidates and the Conservatives. Labour has come third in this area for many years. A vote for any candidate other than the Lib Dems could let the Conservatives in.

This may be true in terms of the local electoral arithmetic and tactical voting, but if you actually wanted to toxify your own brand in one short message, then that message would be 'why not vote Lib Dem to keep the Tories out?' [long pause to let the bitter laughter subside]:
Apologies for including another party political broadcast, especially a negative attack ad, but this one does hit the nail on the head (even if it doesn't seem to be doing Labour much good - maybe they should have saved it up for the general election).

It must be terribly depressing to be a progressive Lib Dem at the moment, whether you're looking down at the grit bins, or up at the stars:
In order to be certain, we then ran an analysis of the 100 TV programmes that are most particularly favoured by supporters of each of the three main parties. Sure enough, while only 2 of Conservative voters’ and 6 of Labour voters’ top 100 TV shows are related to science, science fiction or the supernatural, it is 17 of the Lib Dem top 100. The full results will be published next week, but in case you’re wondering the list includes Doctor Who, Red Dwarf, Futurama, Being Human, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Tomorrow’s World.

Is this evidence of the Liberal Democrat ability to think big, and imagine a better world in the future? Is it true that “Science Fiction is a crutch for people who can’t handle reality”? Or is it the other way round...
Freddie Sayers of YouGov

My take on this is that a preference for science, SF and fantasy is evidence of an enquiring mind and a welcome ability to imagine alternatives to the tyranny of the zeitgeist (even if a lot of science fiction and fantasy is really about current issues, rather than distant planets and dragons, it's still an analysis or critique of the present, rather than mere dumb acceptance of the status quo). Of course, not all Sci Fi and fantasy has a progressive agenda, but Freddie Sayers has evidence that Lib Dems like the stuff that does:
It all started in May last year, when we ran a survey on Star Wars and Star Trek. Asked which series they prefer, the country as a whole narrowly prefers Star Wars (29% to 27%). But Liberal Democrat supporters buck the trend, with 36% preferring Star Trek and 20% preferring Star Wars.
As commentator Martin points out:
That Star Wars and Star Trek poll is interesting. Star Trek is basically a manifesto of progressivism. It is an idealistic world of diversity, open borders and no religion where money and capitalism are bad while government and science is good. I would have thought the conservatives would absolutely adore Star Wars, which is basically a gang of old school heroes (Han Solo the cowboy, Leia the Princess, and our hero, the quite Jesus-like Luke) going up against big government with nothing but spiritual faith and a great sense of missing the good old days of the Old Republic. It seems to me like Star Trek is explores the same world John Lennon dreamed about in 'Imagine', while there is really no wonder Reagan embraced Star Wars imagery and mythology in combatting the evil Soviet Empire.
But yeah, this basically is no surprise when you consider that much of sci-fi fits in with the Lib Dem attitude and psyche.
It must be an enormous bummer to be a progressive in a party with leaders who have abandoned the dream of boldly going where no one has gone before by joining the Dark Side and propping up a party for people who'd rather live a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.


Update - if you didn't like the two party political broadcasts I've embedded, I suggest you feast your eyes and ears on the Worst Party Political Broadcast Ever. It's by the English Democrats, (a sort of cut-price, Celt-free version of UKIP) and looks like something slapped together by the English Tourist Board on an off day, intercut with shots of a bloke in a field holding up cards with various xenophobic slogans and statues of  the great and good from the Michael Gove list of approved English heroes, all set to an acoustic dirge, apparently performed by Billy Bragg's evil right-wing twin that goes:
Build a pride,
Hear the call,
From Land's End to Hadrian's Wall,
This is England,
The land of Saint George 
Hat tip to Tom Pride, who embeds the whole atrocity here.

Update 2 -Interestingly, the local Conservatives have just delivered their leaflet, in which they also claim credit for the local grit bin/pedestrian crossing triumph. I might be tempted to try and find out which of the twio parties is lying to me,* if there was a snowball in hell's chance of me voting for either of the above. Which there isn't.

*Of course, there's a third possibility, namely that both parties had a hand in delivering these things, in which case, they're both telling half-truths (or half-lies, if you're a glass half empty person), by claiming all the credit. If this is the true scenario, then the Lib Dems come out as slightly bigger liars than the Conservatives, by virtue of not only claiming all the credit for the grit bins, but claiming that the nasty Conservatives would have taken them away. But I'm way too swiched off by both parties to care which one is telling the biggest fibs in this case.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Occupy Jesus

It wasn't the best ever Eurovision song, nor was it the wurst, but the winner of 2014's camp-fest was definitely one of the most political. A calculated act of transgressive defiance against the stifling 'how dare you like what I don't like!'* cultural orthodoxy of Putinist Russia. As The Null Device notes, the cultural battle lines have been drawn and the outcome is uncertain:
Another interesting consequence may be that of Russia ending up owning a certain type of reactionary conservatism, making it less palatable abroad, and forcing conservatives in eastern Europe to choose between siding with the Great Bear across the border or siding with the gays and feminists within their own borders.**
I was also struck by another, slightly more subtle, level of subversion. Conchita Wurst definitely reminded me of somebody. He was like this guy who also used to be quite famous, but was a bit of an outcast, persecuted even. I've seen his picture loads of times; big soulful eyes, expression somewhere between suffering and transcendence, long flowing locks, full beard. To me, Conchita Wurst looks like Jesus in a frock.

I've no idea whether the resemblance is accidental or deliberate, but if it was intentional, it wouldn't be the first time that camp has appropriated piety - remember how Pedro Almodóvar's films wore the luxuriant excesses of Catholic kitsch like a feather boa?

I find this interesting, because I'm not that subtle myself. If I'm for something, I'm for it, it I'm against it I'm against it, so it's quite an education to see how other people can cross boundaries and identify with the forces which oppress them, oppose their own autonomy and even deny their identity. Conchita is definitely out and proud against the repressive culture endorsed by the Russian state. Is her appearance also an appropriation of the imagery used by Christendom's last bastion of respectable homophobia, the church?*** I don't know, but the example of women, who seem to be subverting the patriarchal hierarchy of Christianity from the inside, makes me wonder.

* © Dustbury
**Not to mention our own cultural conservatives in western Europe - the Caudillo of UKIP has already confessed to having the hots for Putin's manly, bare-chested leadership style.
*** I'm not saying that all churches are homophobic - many, especially in the west are liberal and tolerant - but where homophobia does exist, 'deeply held religious beliefs' are the last culturally acceptable excuse for promoting it and, boy, is the Russian Orthodox church using that one a lot.

Update: For the full drag saviour effect, check out Jonathan Nackstrand's photo as used in Rod Liddle's Spectator blog post.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Church. It's not for guys.

Fewer and fewer blokes are going to church, so worried God-botherers are desperately looking for ways to make churches more guy-friendly:
... or maybe we should lose the gay pin-up look and try for something a bit more Jeremy Clarkson?
There's an interesting paradox here. Wider society at least pays lip-service to the notion of gender equality and, although we're not there yet, secular society has moved measurably further in that direction than most churches. The ostensibly liberal, inclusive, plural Church of England is still only just coming round to the idea of women bishops amid much anguished debate, compromise and furious huffing from outraged conservatives.

There might not be many female cabinet ministers or CEOs, but anywhere outside a church, any commentator who suggested that women shouldn't even be allowed to assume such senior positions in an organisation would get a well-deserved monstering. And if you think the C of E is only just coming to terms with the brave new world of the 1950s, the Roman Catholic hierarchy looks like a living fossil from a time when female suffrage was considered a dangerously radical idea.

And those are just some modern, watered-down iterations of a religion that's spent centuries upholding the idea of a natural, God-given male ascendancy and of female submission and obedience (God the father versus Eve the disobedient corrupter of Adam, one male saviour appointing twelve male apostles and so on). Isn't it odd that women are keeping a vessel designed and captained by men afloat, while the guys themselves are leaping overboard, like rats from a sinking ship?

I don't know the solution to this paradox, although I think that this may be along the right lines:
Perhaps religious rituals are a form of precaution analogous to wearing a seat belt. If so, women’s greater religiosity is a side effect of their risk aversion. 
I suspect that the 'risk aversion' identified here is a symptom of something deeper; unequal power relations. It seems reasonable to assume that power, status and autonomy correlate with confidence and that a relative lack of these things leads to well-founded caution, along with a desire to turn to the safe and familiar for solace.

I also wonder whether the religious 'seat belt' takes two distinct forms, rational and irrational.

In rational terms, the church is a community, a good place to build up networks of friends and allies. According to Clare Allen, fairness and friendship are the foundations for good mental health at any age. Church hierarchies might offer little in the way of fairness, but church pews might offer a lot in the way of friendship, along with all the emotional and practical benefits that a robust network of friends can offer.

In less rational terms, superstition seems to go with powerlessness. Sailors who regularly risked life and limb out on the untamed, unpredictable sea were said to be notoriously superstitious. You can't calm a raging storm, but you can calm your fear of the raging storm with rituals.The less status and power you have, the more exposed you are to the storms of life, to the point where the famous opiate of ritual or a supernatural belief system may be your only solace:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. 
This sort of pattern (with some qualifications) seems to emerge when looking at the relationship between national wealth and religion:
The survey finds a strong relationship between a country's religiosity and its economic status. In poorer nations, religion remains central to the lives of individuals, while secular perspectives are more common in richer nations. This relationship generally is consistent across regions and countries, although there are some exceptions, including most notably the United States, which is a much more religious country than its level of prosperity would indicate. Other nations deviate from the pattern as well, including the oil-rich, predominantly Muslim -- and very religious -- kingdom of Kuwait. 
That might explain why the women are staying, but it doesn't explain why men are going. As a man, you'd think I might have some specific insights on this one, but as somebody who's never found religion remotely convincing in the first place, I don't have any special explanation, beyond the observation that men have, on average, more autonomy and power, which is just the inverse of the argument I've already made. I suppose that there may be a subsidiary effect going on - lack of status differentially attracts more women than men to congregations, leading to what one of the worried evangelicals called 'a common church culture (which often feels quite feminine)', but I'll leave that one for the God-heads to figure out.

Maybe there are broader political implications here, about the congruence between PR and religion and the way that both can lead to people giving allegiance to irrational beliefs and to power structures that don't even give them a fair go.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Highbury and Islington is "the new Epsilon Eridani IV"

The international rich – a mixture of Eurotrash and Middle-Eastern Princelings – are worse still. You only have to visit any nightclub in Mayfair to see the Swiss-educated Euro-riche idea of cool. It’s a bit like Jay-Z as reimagined by someone who works at Goldman Sachs. As for the super-rich, the oligarchs, they don’t even bother showing up. They just buy houses and leave them empty...

...The other group that likes the way London is going is Britain’s army of amateur landlords – the buy-to-let brigade. I’m sure some of them are perfectly nice, but most of the ones I’ve met sound like the bastard offspring of Kirstie Allsopp and Ayn Rand, secure in the conceit that having been the right age to buy a house in Clapham for peanuts in 1996 makes them investing geniuses.
Alex Proud in the Torygraph, of all places. A while back, the Mash satirised this process with the headline 'London property only affordable to extraterrestrials.' But that was just exaggeration for comic effect.

Or was it?


Friday, 2 May 2014

The Dilbert mystery

I worked in a big insurance office when the first collections of Dilbert toons came out, back in the '90s. I became a major fan and introduced the strip to a few of my fellow low-cost, high-density work units,* who also loved it. I still think it's a pretty good description of the absurd reality of corporate life and office politics. I especially like the economy and integrity of the strips, the way the simple, minimalist, consistent line drawings reflect and reinforce the terse, laconic wit of the dialogue. Dilbert, with his blank, deadpan expression is the perfect delivery system for Adams' dry, wry one-liners.

I was also quite a fan of Scott Adams himself, whose career trajectory from downtrodden corporate drone to successful creative artist, living by his wit(s) was an inspiration. I loved the idea of taking all the frustrations and idiocies of working life and turning them, through creative alchemy, into entertainment and a profitable career. It's a perfect escape fantasy; one minute you live the circumscribed life of a lowly team player, faking enthusiasm for (or hiding your resentment at) every dumb idea and bullshit buzzword that oozes down the hierarchy, the next you're a licensed jester, gleefully spearing every new corporate inanity with your pen.

The great thing about being a licensed jester is that you can say what you damn well like and not give a fig for what it will do for your career prospects. It must be great, being able to fearlessly say whatever you damn well like, right?

Wrong, apparently, judging by the title of a recent post on the Dilbert blog, entitled I Miss Having Freedom of Speech. So what's the problem?
Today I wrote two blog posts about events in the news. That writing is some of my best work. You won't see either post. And for that you can thank Jezebel.com, Gawker.com, and Salon.com.

Unfortunately, both of my posts have content that could too easily be taken out of context by the bottom-feeding parts of the media and special interest groups looking to bolster their causes. Even my standard disclaimer wouldn't be enough in these two cases. My opinions in the two posts aren't the least bit offensive, but out of context they would look so. 
What is this potentially explosive content that might be distorted in order to discredit Scott? Too controversial to even hint at - he can't bring himself to mention the thing he was going to write about in his post and when people in the comments plead for a clue, he still ain't sayin' nuthin'. Scott's 'standard disclaimer', by the way, goes like this:
Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy for one sort of unpleasantness or another. It is not intended to change anyone's beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.
The tone of his recent post and the wording of his disclaimer, imply that he's had at least an e-sack full of hate mail and has quite possibly been subject to physical or litigious threats, on account of controversial subjects he's tackled the past.

Other sources suggest that he's waded into some controversial areas and has simply been forcefully disagreed with by people who thought his comments on specific topics were dumb, ignorant or patronising. The most notorious specific examples are:
I’ve been trying for years to reconcile my usually-excellent bullshit filter with the idea that evolution is considered a scientific fact. Why does a well-established scientific fact set off my usually-excellent bullshit filter like a five-alarm fire? 
The reality is that women are treated differently by society for exactly the same reason that children and the mentally handicapped are treated differently. It’s just easier this way for everyone. You don’t argue with a four-year old about why he shouldn’t eat candy for dinner. You don't punch a mentally handicapped guy even if he punches you first. And you don’t argue when a women tells you she’s only making 80 cents to your dollar. It’s the path of least resistance. You save your energy for more important battles.
Taken at face value, these statements seem batshit. Even qualified by his standard disclaimer, they sound pretty bizarre. Maybe he did write these words, but didn't mean them, or was being satirical and meant the opposite of what he wrote, or was deliberately being provocative in order to flush sexist knuckle-draggers and creationist numbskulls into the open, or wanted to "start a conversation" on the issues. But  if you're going to say things like that, you'd better have a very good, specific explanation.

A boilerplate disclaimer that basically says 'I might mean what I'm going to say, or I might not, but I'm not going to tell you which and if you don't like what I say, it's probably your fault for being some kind of literal-minded idiot' triggers my usually-excellent bullshit filter every time. After all, he's an experienced satirical cartoonist who has, so far, been able to negotiate the ambiguity of giving voice to his outrageous or sarcastic characters without having to resort to a 'The views expressed in this cartoon do not necessarily represent the views of Scott Adams' disclaimer after every strip.

Here's a modest proposal. How about deciding whether your basic mode of writing involves saying what you really think, or something else, like being ironic or satirical, then having a more straightforward disclaimer if you feel that you might be misunderstood?

A specific example would be Chris Dillow, who blogs more or less what he thinks. If he's doing something slightly different he adds a 'Note for the hard of thinking' (e.g. 'if you believe in x, then y logically follows - by pointing this out, I don't necessarily mean that I believe in x'). Or there's Tom Pride, whose normal mode is satire. Sometimes he'll post about a real-life story that's so outrageous that it sounds like satire, in which case he'll add, 'not satire.' Simple.

Both blogs are written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view and both manage perfectly well with simple, comprehensible disclaimers, rather than a catch-all get-out-of-jail-free-card statement. If Scott Adams made his disclaimers a bit simpler, we might finally penetrate the mystery of what he really thinks about things like evolution, gender equality and the thing that must not be named because it's so controversial.

*The phrase "low-cost, high-density work unit" came from a descriptive label I found on the underside of one of the desks we worked at, but it could equally well have described  the Dilbert-esque existence of the millions of human resources who populate the little boxes on corporate org charts.


Update - the subsidiary mystery of why Jezebel.com annoys Scott is no mystery (via). If you don't enjoy finding out that your idols have feet of clay (or at least weak ankles), it's been a bad day.