Friday, 27 June 2014

Charming bon viveurs to take over Europe

It's political correctness gone mad! Honestly, a bloke can't even enjoy a drink or two without some humourless, holier-than-thou killjoy from the nanny state  brigade popping up to wag a finger:
Jean-Claude Juncker's drinking habits have been discussed at the highest levels by European leaders who privately have concerns over the lifestyle of the continent’s president-in-waiting, it has emerged.

With David Cameron facing defeat in his attempt to prevent Mr Juncker being confirmed as president of the European Commission, it can be disclosed that a series of allegations about his alcohol consumption have been the subject of top-level talks.

According to a one-time ally 'It is part of his charm - hard-living, hard-drinking, and hard-smoking - that is who he is and why he is able to attract a following.'

A source close to Juncker commented:
His lifestyle is appalling, he'd be the first to admit it. He drinks too much red wine and he smokes too much ... I remember we were in Ypres, it was about 3:00am in the morning, we must have drunk the restaurant completely dry - it was one hell of a session, and I called time.

I staggered up into bed, and Juncker shouted at me, 'lightweight' and that really sums him up.
But these trips are 'certainly not just an excuse to get drunk', insisted another supporter 'He's deeply interested in Europe, and the history of Europe and where it's gone wrong.'
Now you know the real reason why you never see Jean-Claude Juncker and Nigel Farage in the same room together.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Above average is the new normal

Please be seated. For today's lesson, let me quote again those old, familar words from chapter 19 of the Gospel According to St Michael, verses 24-26:
And again I say unto you, for a school to be Good, pupil performance must always exceed the national average and all schools must be Good.
When the the Education Select Committee heard this, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, how is this mathematically possible?
But Michael Gove beheld them, and said unto them, With logic this is impossible; but by getting better all the time all things are possible.
But it's not just the current education secretary who sees the very idea of averageness as a dangerous heresy that it must be suppressed, even if we have to undermine the very foundations of reality to root it out. According to Will Davies, lots of people have bought into the dodgy dossier that dragged us into The War On Average:
The challenge is partly an accounting one. The fact that many people view this as gross conformity may be one reason why such reinvention remains unlikely. However, it is no good hoping for socialism, in any traditional sense, without also working on an argument in defence of averageness, in defence of mediocrity and in defence of fairly old-fashioned forms of aggreagtion...

...We claim to dislike inequality, without noticing that when equality appears in the form of Nescafe instant coffee or an 'acceptable' comprehensive school, we turn up our noses at it. 
Accounting? Maybe, but it's also logic (see Michael Gove, above) and language. Take Davies' call to reclaim 'mediocrity', or the qualifier "bog-standard", as all too frequently applied to his 'acceptable' comps.

Put language and logic together and you begin to notice the sheer idiocy of the knee-jerk assumption that average = mediocre. So your life is pretty 'average?' That might mean anything from barely scraping by, if you live in Niger to doing very nicely, thank you, if you're lucky enough to be a bog-standard Norwegian.

Fretting about whether something is 'average' is irrelevant. The important question is, 'is it any good?'

Back in the 1970s, when most watches were still wound up with springs, Seiko marketed its new line of more accurate quartz watches with the slogan 'Some day all watches will be made this way.' Today, almost all of them are.  Those first Seiko watches boasted above average timekeeping, compared with your average hand-wound Timex of the day. Today, nearly all watches are made this way, so a Seiko watch is now functionally more or less average. And that's absolutely fine because, in this context, average is quite good enough for most users' purposes.*

A tiny minority of watches still aren't made this way -  high-end mechanical Swiss watches, which are basically status-enhancing jewellery with a subsidiary timekeeping function, so aren't particularly relevant, except as a metaphor for what I suspect Gove and Co. really mean by words like "excellence" and "rigour" - a hierarchy of ranking and exclusion, as opposed to making things functionally better for most people.

Sometimes, average can be OK and the best really is the enemy of the good.

Here endeth the lesson.

*Of course, no longer being able to charge a premium for being better than the competition must be an enormous bummer for Seiko, which neatly illustrates why the concept of "average" is such a an anathema from a purely capitalist point of view.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Here's a back-room deal for you

News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.
Here's a WikiLeak well worth leaking. It's about The Trade In Services Agreement (TISA), which sounds too dry and boring for the average person to pay any attention to. Professor Jane Kelsey of the Faculty of Law, University of Auckland, New Zealand is not an average person and she cast an expert eye over the leaked material, trying to make sense of it. Her summary isn't far short of terrifying.  Five years on from ' the greatest regulatory failure in modern history', a Techdirt headline sums up what sounds like one of the worst ideas imaginable - 'Secret Global Treaty Will Force Countries To Further Deregulate Financial Sector':
...governments will have total freedom to legislate in any way they please provided it is compatible with TISA -- which means that it must be in favor of the financial industry, not the public. Another section that is written entirely for the benefit of the financial companies, not the public, concerns the protection of personal data:
nothing shall be construed to require a Party to disclose information regarding the affairs and accounts of individual consumers. That means TISA does not affect states' ability to require disclosure of information, presumably to the government, about individuals. It is not concerned with protecting personal privacy or preventing those who hold the personal data from abusing it for commercial or political purposes.
The spying bit is creepy, but it's the idea that, far from 'rebalancing' the economy after the last crisis, our rulers might just give us a further round of economy-destroying financial deregulation, without anybody getting the opportunity to vote for anything less suicidal, that really worries me.

It was only after the last almighty crash that most of us discovered that we were passengers in a car without airbags, but now the driver (who's definitely high on something), wants to rip out the passenger safety belts and take us for another pedal-to-the-metal spin on the autobahn in an unroadworthy vehicle.

Fortunately, there seems to be at least some push back
Given the sensitivity of data protection issues in Europe, this is likely to become a major stumbling block to the ratification of TISA by the European Parliament, assuming it gets that far. Indeed, it's significant that one of the leading German newspapers, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, used the headline "U.S. grab account data of European citizens" when reporting on the leak (original in German.) That underlines the fact that alongside the new information that the WikiLeaks document reveals about the secret negotiations, another important aspect of the leak is that the mainstream media in Europe are finally aware of TISA, and are likely now to start exploring critically its effect on key areas like privacy and public services.
Seen in the light of this massive attempted power-grab, the  industry's routine, shameless lobbying of compliant politicians, as reported by the BBC, seems like a mere sideshow:
... business leaders warn about EU financial curbs eroding "Britain's competitiveness".

Writing in the Sunday Times, 54 people - including Conservative donors and two former ministers Lord Lamont and Lord Flight - said they were "extremely concerned" about the government's "difficulties" in preventing the introduction of new EU financial measures.

They say the measures - including a financial transaction tax, bonus caps and bans on short selling - will hit the "unique global standing" of the City and the wider UK financial services industry.

"As we enter a period of EU reform and renegotiation, we urge political leaders to remember the significant contribution that our industry plays in Britain's economic success," they said.
The article seems to have been edited since I first cut 'n pasted this passage,* with the lobbying reference stripped of any mention of 'Conservative donors' and trimmed down to an anodyne 'Meanwhile, business leaders have warned about EU measures affecting the City' and it's tucked away in yet another piece about the endless saga of Cameron's attempts to block the Juncker presidency, on account of Juncker being insufficiently 'reform'-minded, etc, etc. A story which starts to look a lot more interesting if we assume  that 'reform' in this context mostly refers to aspects of a broad and deep deregulation agenda being pursued by a well-funded and potentially generous City lobby.

This assumption would make Cameron right on one count. There do seem to be vested interests who are pushing for a potentially disastrous 'back-room deal', but the parties to the deal aren't the voting blocs of the European Parliament, but the financial services industry and its tame politicians and institutions.


*Update - link to the version of the article I originally read (Version 3) added here.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Soggy bottom avoidance fail

It seemed like a good idea at the time. A non-stick pizza pan, with holes to get hot air to the bottom of the cooking pizza dough, thus avoiding soggy-bottomed pizza misery.* In theory.

Sadly, this cunning plan doesn't work. What actually happens is that the pizza dough slumps through the holes. It doesn't slump very far, but just enough to form little buttons that, once crisped up in the oven, firmly attach the pizza base to the pan, regardless of any non-stick coating.

When I've sourced a replacement, expect another, hopefully more positive, product review.

*You can't always blame your tools for this condition - if your topping's overly generous, or sloppy enough to seep too far into the dough, then a crisp bottom will never be yours, no matter how good your pizza pan / stone.

Professional male, into strict discipline, uniforms and leather, seeks... with weak oversight to act out domination fantasies in a discreet setting.

According to sources quoted by a local paper, hundreds of pupils at an Academy school on the Isle of Wight have been punished by being taken away from their peers and curriculum or exam work and being put into 'isolation.' Pupils who contacted the paper said that those in isolation were made to sit in silence, facing the wall with their arms parallel to the desk, with Headteacher, Dr Rory Fox (formerly of Her Majesty's Prison Edmunds Hill) ‘shouting’ at them.

Sounds a bit harsh? What had the children at Ryde Academy actually done? They apparently weren't wearing regulation school uniform and this was an attempt to make them (or their parents) comply. The uniform policy seems to be administered by some arbitrary, yet exacting bureaucrat from a Kafka novel:
Confusingly, students who were not placed in isolation yesterday have today found themselves being penalised despite the uniform being acceptable on Tuesday' ... 'Speaking to parents outside Ryde Academy this morning, Island Echo has learnt that some Clarke’s school shoes – an expensive brand – are not acceptable, whilst a number of other leather shoes are not being accepted, despite the school’s policy saying shoes must be ‘leather’.
Although what is or isn't acceptable appears to be academic at this stage of the school year, since the school's own uniform suppliers don't have the the approved kit in stock and the big chains aren't offering much choice of generic school uniform items a few weeks before the Summer holidays.

The whole mess seems to stem from Dr Fox's desire to assert his own controlling, conformist vision of what education is  for 'Dealing with uniform issues helps us to improve general attitudes of co-operation and the skills of following instructions' and his specific obsession with policing female "modesty" a "problem" that seems to preoccupy authoritarians everywhere.

Furious parents are taking time off work to get their kids out of the isolation wing, while the trustees and executives of the taxpayer-funded Academies Enterprise Trust which "manages" Ryde Academy are presumably still laughing all the way to the bank.

Is this omnishambles what they mean by 'Academies – driving success through autonomy?'


Tuesday, 17 June 2014

That very important Eurovision Top Monkey Contest

Time to 'fess up. Like most Brits I'm pretty ignorant about European institutions. In my defence, the way these things are reported doesn't exactly help. I keep hearing, for instance, that Angela hearts Jean-Paul, which makes David jealous. But why, exactly, should I care more about these characters and their love triangle than I would about who's snogging whom in Hollyoaks (i.e. not at all)?

It apparently matters because Jean-Paul Juncker is a lover, not a fighter an "insider", not a "reformer" and electing him would be 'a back-door power-grab' by the European parliament.

If this is important enough to be worth a headline, it's important enough for a bit of context. For example, exactly which reforms would David like to see and Jean-Claude want to block? I'm not asking for in-depth analysis here, but even short mention of list of two or three of the most important issues would help to explain why I should start to care.

Instead, the BBC summary devotes more effort to 'Jean-Claude Juncker: The numbers game' (a handy guide to who's backing Jean-Claude and how the electoral arithmetic's stacking up), than it does to explaining the issues at stake.

And what about the reporting of David Cameron's 'back-door power-grab' sound bite? So the people in the elected bit of the European Union want to grab some power from ones in the unelected bit. On the face of it, that sounds like rather a good thing for democracy fans.

Why not arrange for a lively debate between people who can explain these issues coherently (unlike David Cameron who, one minute seems to be insisting that the European Parliament shouldn't interfere in the appointments to the Commission so that they can get on with appointing an "impartial" technocrat, but also wants to keep open the option of 'a serving prime minister or president' of one of the member states heading up the Commission (I can't think of any current candidates who'd fit Cameron's paradoxical job description, although the next Mario Monti-style prime minister/unelected technocrat who comes along would logically tick both of Cam's boxes)?

I'm sure the answers to my questions are out there, but it's not surprising that I'm in the tiny minority of anoraks who might be interested in finding out, when the mainstream media coverage is so bland and content-free.

Or is the substance of the arguments less important than the grunting struggle for dominance between the top monkey in the British troop and the alpha female of the German troop, (in which case, finding stuff out, rational discussion and, indeed, the last three million years of evolution would seem to have been an enormous waste of everyone's time)?

Monday, 16 June 2014

I'd have done exactly the same thing, but much better

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson takes more than a thousand words to explain why Tony Blair is 'mad', 'unhinged' and 'bonkers' to claim that the 2003 war had nothing to do with the current sectarian bloodbath in Iraq.

The Mash needs far fewer words to let the hot air out of the mayor 'Tony Blair is off his nut, according to people who thought the invasion of Iraq was a brilliant idea.'

Of course the Mash isn't being entirely fair, as Johnson's point is slightly more nuanced than that (but only very slightly). He may have said this in 2003:
I supported, and support, the second Gulf war on a strictly utilitarian calculation. The world is better for removing Saddam from power than keeping him there and allowing the Iraqis to suffer another 12 years of tyranny and economic sanctions.
but he now makes it clear that, although he supported the general idea of a war, he thought that the war had been badly managed:
That is the truth, and it is time Tony Blair accepted it. When we voted for that war – and I did, too – we did so with what now looks like the hopelessly naive assumption that the British and American governments had a plan for the aftermath; that there was a government waiting in the wings; that civic institutions would be preserved and carried on in the post-Saddam era. 

In other words, I wanted to get rid of Saddam, and I fondly imagined that there would be a plan for the transition...
Personally, I don't find the extra nuance very reassuring, because it sums up everything that's most depressing about politics these days. I used to have this hopelessly naive assumption that in a democracy, you had a choice between different parties and candidates, with different policies and you occasionally got to choose between different ways of doing things at the ballot box.

Johnson's attack on Blair is a bog-standard example of what what we mostly get instead of such political choice - a broad political consensus around whatever is currently deemed the only politically acceptable course of action, with a lot of noisy bitching and squabbling about which side is most competent to manage, tweak and deliver the agreed vision. Whatever the issue, there seems to be too much heated discussion about which side has the logistics capability to get us moving further and faster, with no pause to look at any reality checkpoint along the way, or to think about whether better alternative routes might exist, or to ask whether we might be moving in completely the wrong direction.

In short, it sometimes feels as if everything that's worth discussing is off the political agenda to make way for ever more celebrity gossip about rumoured spats between the various member of One Direction.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

To the workers' paradise, by EasyJet!

A huge, wide angular building in plain beige with concrete and metal railing balconies ...
Ordinary, unelaborate interior with a large lounge bar with entertainments stage ... stocky chairs and tables...
What kind of holiday would you have in a place like this? A retro workers' break-style vaction, like the ones organised by Eastern Bloc trade unions in the days before the Berlin Wall came down?
At 7am, the hotel wakes with a start. Loudspeakers crackle into life, blaring out a mixture of revolutionary songs and socialist-era pop. Those guests still asleep are roused by a hotel worker with a whistle.
Bleary-eyed and yawning, the holidaymakers are dragged out onto the hotel lawn for some vigorous open-air exercise.
In fact, the first passage has nothing to do with the second. Although it sounds like something from a Soviet-era holiday camp, the first passage describes a perfectly average* three star hotel, in a popular Mediterranean holiday resort, as reviewed by Gazetteers dot com, which describes itself as 'the travel agents' Trip adviser.' To me, the professionals' honest, unflinching description of the holiday brutalist school of architecture is actually more appealing than the sugar-coated version offered up to the public in holiday brochures and on web sites. I've always like the idea of what you see being what you get.

It almost makes me get the niche appeal of a spartan, ostalgie-themed holiday, although I'm probably too much of a grumpy old git to really appreciate all that early morning 1950's Butlins-style 'Wakey, wakey!' malarkey. But, apparently, not everybody is quite so curmudgeonly about the idea of organised fun as I am.

*The review also notes, in its no-nonsense way, that this is a 'Large, spacious establishment with nothing particularly notable about its style ... has a good range of facilities especially suited to families ... Generously sized adults and children's pools ...Lots of room inside and plenty of sunbathing space', so it's not that the place is actually bad, just ugly.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Fun with water cannon

So the ambitious Mayor of London has made a small ritual sacrifice of public money to the Tories' great and powerful goddess, Laura Norder. This sacrifice, in the form of enough wonga to buy three second-hand water cannon, is presumably intended to address three Serious Issues.
But water cannon aren't just for the serious business of statecraft. They can be fun, too! At times of special celebration the water cannon salute is now an actual thing.* Summer's here, so let's all party! Break out the sunblock, the ice cream and the Wasserwerfer 9000!

But always remember to stay safe when you're having fun, kids. A water canon salute might sound like a great idea, but if you don't take care, it can all end in tears.

*Although this may be a misnomer - I suspect that the 'water cannon' referred to here are the frivolous sort, used for trivial tasks like saving people from dying in blazing aircraft, rather than the useful ones needed for the serious business of shutting protesters up.


Somebody seems to have noticed that the overgrown toddler who goes by the name of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, (AKA Baron Bomburst from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), already has all the toys any child could ever need, so why can't the rest of us have a water cannon to play with, too? If you want to join in the fun, then why not share some of your pocket money with The People’s Water Cannon project?

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The city and the stars

By most people's standards, John William Burgon (1813 –1888) had an interesting and successful professional life. He was an assistant in the antiquities department of the British Museum, then Gresham Professor of Divinity before ending up as dean of Chichester Cathedral. But time, devourer of all things, would already have more or less obliterated his memory if it wasn't for one poem. Or, more precisely, one couplet from his poem, Petra:
match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
a rose-red city half as old as time.
Lines that it's now almost obligatory to quote in any book or documentary about the remains of the eponymous Nabataean city, famous as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but probably famouser as a film location in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

There are a couple of interesting things about 'a rose red city half as old as time.' First, Burgon's best phrase, and the one thing for which he's now remembered, seems to be mostly a quotation from another poet, Samuel Rogers, who used the 'half as old as time' trope in his poem A Farewell, when he wrote about 'many a temple half as old as Time.' As a meditation on the transience of things, Rogers' poem anticipates Edward FitzGerald's famous translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, with passages like this:
...Many an eye
Bright as the brightest now, is closed in night,
And many a voice how eloquent, is mute,
although some of Rogers' other lines simply make it clear why we've forgotten him and remembered FitzGerald:
And now a parting word is due from him
Who, in the classic fields of Italy,
(If haply thou hast borne with him so long,)
Through many a grove by many a fount has led thee...
Haply, I can't bear with this sort of stuff for very long.

The other interesting thing is that Burgon probably meant the ringing phrase 'half as old as time', which sounds like poetic license, quite literally. As the literary scholar, Hugh Kenner, pointed out:
Though romantic, Burgon was being workmanlike. To his generation the age of Time was quite definite; for since Adam was created in the year 4004 B.C. on October 23, Time in the year Burgon wrote, 1845, was exactly 5849 years old, going back through half of which we locate the founding of Petra at 1080 B.C.
Even in that generation, geologists were having a tough time trying to reconcile the evidence in the rocks with the Biblical account of the creation, but as a devout believer in Biblical inerrancy, Burgon's faith in his Bible-based chronology was probably immune to such challenges.

Today, people who study these things estimate that our Universe (and, presumably, time itself), came into existence some time between 12 and 14 billion years ago.
The Universe is old. According to the most recent measurements, it is 13.7 billion years old. The rise of mankind, on the other hand, is fairly recent, with Homo Erectus, the first "modern human," appearing around a million years ago and Homo Sapiens, today's humans, arriving only in the past 200,000 years. Imagine compressing the time the Universe has existed into the span of a single day with the Big Bang occurring at the stroke of midnight. Humans crash the party late - at 11:59:56pm, just four seconds before the end of the day.
From a cosmic perspective, Petra has existed for the blink of an eye, rather than being 'half as old as time.' The earth itself, which has been around for an an estimated four and a half billion years, is less than half as old as time. But the recent discovery of something really ancient reminded me of Burgon's conception of a truly epic timescale:
An international team of scientists, led by astronomers at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), report of two new planets orbiting Kapteyn’s star, one of the oldest stars found near the Sun ...

What makes this discovery different however, is the peculiar story of the star. Kapteyn's star was born in a dwarf galaxy absorbed and disrupted by the early Milky Way. This galactic disruption event put the star in its fast halo orbit. The likely remnant core of the original dwarf galaxy is Omega Centauri, an enigmatic globular cluster 16,000 light-years from Earth that contains hundreds of thousands of similarly old suns. This sets the most likely age of the planets at 11.5 billion years, which is 2.5 times older than Earth and "only" 2 billion years younger than the universe itself (around 13.7 billion years).
Astronomy magazine

To humans, the four and a half billion year age of our own planet is an unimaginable abyss of time, but these exoplanets were already older than that when our world was still nothing but stardust. I know that astronomers have already seen objects even older than the exoplanets orbiting Kapteyn's Star, but there's something about the idea of a planet that ancient, a real place, in our cosmic back yard,* with a surface you could walk on and touch (if only you could figure out how to travel 13 light years) that sends shivers down my spine. I think 'Petra' would be an awesome** name for the planet currently known as Kapetyn b, if only 'more than 80% as old as time' didn't sound paradoxically less impressive than 'half as old as time.'

*i.e. further away than you can possibly imagine, but that's just peanuts compared to space...

**In the 'makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck' sense of the word, as opposed to the conversational 'if you could just pass me your plate, that would be awesome' usage.

Monday, 9 June 2014

None of your damn business, apparently

With less than a year to go before I cast my vote in a general election, I came across an old piece by Tim Worstall in The Torygraph, which explains why we, the electorate, shouldn't worry our dear little heads about who funds the think tanks which exist to influence the sort of political policies that get adopted in our democracy:
There's a new little report out today looking at the transparency of the funding sources of various think tanks in London ... It's also true that the Adam Smith Institute, where I am a senior fellow, got an E grade in this same exercise. That's terribly simple to explain: we didn't answer their questionnaire. Nor do we have any intention of doing so, as who donates to us is none of their damn business. We are delighted to be judged on the quality of our ideas and our arguments.
Although it's a short piece, you have to dig through a loose matrix of "how very dare you!" bluster and 'That's terribly simple' sneers of condescension about 'idiot hippes' and the 'little report' that had the impudence to try and follow the money before you finally hit the bedrock of actual argument.

Tim made two substantial points, but both amounted to attacks on the funding of another, more left-leaning, think tank, rather than convincing arguments against the transparent funding of influential think tanks (The New Economics Foundation gets some stick for openly receiving public funds, then gets hit with the tu quoque argument that they got some of their money from The Network for Social Change, which also doesn't disclose who its donors are).

The "you took public funds" argument is a strange one to make, if you also think that think tanks do useful things (an instance of 'useful things' being the idea of a London congestion charge, which Tim credits his own think tank with pioneering). If think tanks really come up with such great ideas, why shouldn't national or local government openly, accountably use public funds to get their advice and make better policy decisions, deliver services more effectively, or make net savings of public money?

And if think tanks turn out to be giving terrible advice that wastes public funds, politicians could use their existing tool set of oversight, scrutiny and public spending audits to hold them to account and use their own common sense to treat policy wonks' panaceas with more scepticism in future.

It might even be worth a bit of public funding to ensure that a think tank is acting in the general interest rather than in the narrow interests of its financial backers. Here's what the nominally 'left-leaning' think tank, Demos, came up with in the depths of the global financial crisis:
Last year a report by Demos made the news by urging restraint on blaming top bankers for the financial crisis.

City Limits: The Progressive Case for Financial Services Reform, published in March 2011, complained there was too much ‘banker bashing’ from senior politicians.

While the report was covered by newspapers, there was no mention of who had funded the report. But in the report’s acknowledgements, Demos’ then-CEO Kitty Ussher wrote: ‘I am particularly grateful to: the City of London Corporation for its financial support and helpful suggestions.’

The City of London Corporation is one of the British financial sector’s most powerful voices.
Maeve McClenaghan of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

When you can follow the money, a lot of these think tanks start to look less like disinterested 'non-party political, independent and non-profit' brains trusts and more like the sort of aggressively partisan PR front organisations described by Chris Dillow:
 Neoliberal policies promised large gains for a relatively small group of people - capitalists. It was, therefore, relatively easy for them to organize to push their agenda - for example by funding think tanks and sympathetic politicians and through ordinary networking.

Supply-side socialism, by contrast, offers smallish gains for many people. And this runs into the problem of collective action. Whereas there was a class able and willing to organize in support of neoliberalism, there's no obvious strong class base for supply side socialism. 
So long as we aspire to be a functioning democracy, (as opposed to a corrupt banana monarchy, for sale to the highest bidder), it's terribly simple to explain why who pays for agenda-setting think tanks is everybody's damn business.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Discipline, order, security and calm

The Spanish royal family may be mired up to its well upholstered neck in the morass of corruption scandals which have stripped the Spanish establishment of what little credibility it had left but most commentators (and 'most' included some leftist bloggers) queued up to remind us that, whatever his faults, the soon-to-be-ex-King Juan Carlos I 'saved Spanish democracy.' It's a big achievement to claim and the truth, according to documents that have been in the public domain for some time, seems a lot more ambiguous than the heroic, official version:
The hero in this myth is King Juan Carlos, the villain Lt. Col. Antonio Tejero and his Guardia Civil officials, and the victim the democratic government and parliamentary members who were held hostage for 18 hours on 23 February. As the hero, Juan Carlos negotiated with the coup's ringleaders and all important generals by phone, and in a television address he announced that he did not support actions impeding the constitutional process, thereby "saving" the victim, the young democracy forged on 15 June 1977, two years after Franco's death.

The magazine Der Spiegel published communiqué 524, which had been sent by the German ambassador to Spain, Lothar Lahn. Lahn talked about the “understanding if not even sympathy” that Juan Carlos shared with the ringleaders of the plot commonly known as 23-F . Serving as Germany's ambassador to Spain between 1977 and 1982, Lahn was with Juan Carlos on 26 March 1981, when the king shared with him his thoughts about the attempted coup. In his report to authorities in Bonn, Lahn claimed that the king "showed no indication of either antipathy or outrage vis-à-vis the actors (in the plot) but, rather, displayed much more understanding, if not sympathy" and that the plotters "only wanted what we are all striving for, namely, the re-establishment of discipline, order, security and calm." According to Lahn, the king blamed Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez for failing to establish a working relationship with the military, which led to the military acting "on its own initiative." Juan Carlos believed that the coup leaders "only wanted what was best for the country" and that 23-F “should be forgotten as soon as possible.” Juan Carlos interceded so that "nothing too serious" happens to the coup plotters. 
rumors wiki

The official story of the fearless king saving his subjects from tyranny, motivated by an unshakable sense of duty and love of his people fits the facts, but more plausible explanations are available.

It looks to me as if the Tejero coup had little prospect of success, Juan Carlos knew it and simply chose what looked like the winning side. Consider the background:
  • Spain in 1981 was not like Spain in 1936. The rich and powerful weren't clamouring for a crackdown to curb the uppity workers and peasants, because Franco had already delivered that crackdown and ensured that the ruling elite were back in the saddle where they felt they belonged.
  • Europe in 1981 wasn't like Europe in 1936. Franco's Fascist buddies had been replaced by democracies, some of which had already got together to form a huge trade bloc and Spain wanted a slice of the action. It's a safe bet that members of the business elite who'd done very nicely under Franco wouldn't be too thrilled about a second coup that would have destroyed any chance of joining Europe's Common Market and threatened their businesses with sanctions and boycotts.
  • In the '30s, with a feeble League of Nations failing to prevent dictatorships pushing their victims around with impunity, the rebel generals could get away with using the shock and awe of exemplary brutality, along with the support of the Nazi and Fascist military machines to crush all dissent. A Spain that wanted to trade and join Europe's Common Market wouldn't be able to use atrocity and terror to subdue opposition and, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy no longer being the big kids in the military playground, there was only NATO to gang up with, an organisation which, for all its faults, would have been unlikely to let a Tejero-led junta join its gang, let alone prop up that junta with a NATO equivalent of the Condor Legion.
  • Juan Carlos wasn't risking much by opposing the coup - not only was it unlikely to succeed, but even if it had, Francoist thugs may have had the cojones to shoot powerless peasants in the back of the head in the dead of night, but they didn't have the deficit of either deference or sanity needed to put the King of Spain up against a wall for failing to cooperate. The worst Juan Carlos would have suffered would have been the end of his dynastic ambitions and a comfortably-off exile, a fate that would have become inevitable if he'd backed an unsuccessful coup.
To me, the official version sounds like a fairy story from lifted from The Big Book of The Great Men of History. Unlike most other commentators, Miguel-Anxo Murado in  the Graun seems to have got it about right this time.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Epimenides calling

Most telephone cold callers are just annoying, but a few have turned their calling into a self-referential paradox. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you The Cold Call Elimination Team, an outfit that makes its money by cold calling people to sell a service that claims to eliminate cold calls. In a better-ordered world, the entire team would simply disappear in a puff of logic but there's a good reason for the phrase "just world fallacy" and what really happens in our universe is that The Cold Call Elimination Team extract eighty-odd pounds from the bank accounts of that small subset of prospects who are too suggestible, polite, naive, vulnerable or confused to tell phone spammers to stick their offers up their solid waste elimination orifices.

Once The Cold Call Elimination Team have sucked you into their vortex of anti phone spamming phone spamming, what do you get (apart from eighty quid poorer)?

First, your telephone number gets added to an unregulated register which claims to opt you out from receiving unsolicited sales calls (a service which the Telephone Preference Service provides for free, with the important difference that the TPS register is regulated by an actual regulator, Ofcom). Of course, The Cold Call Elimination Team claim that signing up to their register is more effective than joining the Telephone Preference Service. As this endorsement comes from people marketing their own, entirely-free-from-independent-regulation product, I leave it up to you to decide whether it's likely to be a fair and unbiased assessment.

Second, you get a wee box that goes by the name of Call Blocker Pro. As far as I know, this does all the things it claims to do. Unfortunately, those things probably won't help much. Firstly, it can be set to block particular numbers, which might help with repeat nuisance callers who don't disguise their numbers, but if you're being persistently harassed in this way, you want the relevant Citizens' Advice Bureau page, not a little doohickey in a plastic box. But this feature won't deal with a new cold caller with a number Call Blocker Pro doesn't recognise, or one disguising his or her number.

Call Blocker Pro gets round this problem by giving you the option to block all withheld numbers. Unfortunately, some legitimate companies and public sector organisations withhold their numbers, sometimes for perfectly valid reasons, so you might be throwing a small baby out with a large quantity of spammy bathwater. As most people have caller display and voicemail, it's far easier to screen withheld numbers - cold callers will simply ring off, but anyone who genuinely needs to talk can leave a message.

Call Blocker Pro's third major trick is to block international calls - again, fine, so long as you have no friends or family living abroad, but if you do want to speak to Auntie June in Malaga, but not the Non-Existent Computer Virus Rectification Unit in Bangalore, call screening's a well-tested alternative.

If you don't want to give The Cold Call Elimination Team eighty-odd pounds, you can shop around on the Internet and find Call Blocker Pro retailing at a price point of around twenty pounds. Again, I leave it entirely up to you to decide whether the multitude of positive on-line reviews this product has received are the work of savvy, well-informed consumers, very easily pleased ones, or some very busy astroturf-layers. Other boxes with almost equivalent functionality are available.

Other anti phone spamming phone spammers are also available - I'm only picking on The Cold Call Elimination Team because I recently came across one of their customers victims in person. The Telephone Preference service has a list of 'em  here. The dear old Grauniad did an article about it, too, in which they lived up to their nickname, by getting the telecoms regulator Ofcom mixed up with the energy regulator, Ofgem (if they correct that bit by the time you get to it, you'll just have to believe me, as I can't be bothered to do a screenshot).

The worst thing about these companies is that they try to bamboozle the trusting and vulnerable out of cash for little, if any benefit. A lot of the victims tend to be senior. I used to think that as people got older, they all tended to lose their edge, making it easier for charlatans like this to prey on them. If this piece of well-publicised Finnish research has anything in it, though, an alternative explanation presents itself. If cynics are differentially prone to dementia, it may be that phone sharks are preying on naive, trusting older folk because they're the only ones left living independently and answering their own phones, whilst the worldly, cynical ones who'd see through the unsolicited sales patter have long since forgotten who their children are and where they live. Very belated note to Alanis Morisette - that really would be ironic.