Thursday, 31 July 2014

More on hippy kippers

A quick afterthought on the apparently incongruous conjunction between UKIP's fan base (which I'd previously imagined as a collection of buttoned-up, angry squares) and the Glastonbury New Age scene. Maybe it's not so strange after all. Here's a wee snippet from the web site of Colleen Tucker, student of the Ageless Wisdom, Angelic Jedi Reiki Master, Teacher, Shaman, Soul Midwife and UKIP county treasurer:
The Archangels themselves have also inspired the development of a range of Angelic Mist Sprays. These beautiful sprays are liquid light technology tools for raising vibrations and clearing negativity.
If you trusted gut feelings and anecdote more than evidence, you might buy this product. How might a person who trusts gut feelings and anecdote more than evidence vote? As they say on popular e-commerce sites, "Customers who bought this item also bought the last UKIP manifesto."

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

UKIP - now working with Angelic Beings of Light

I could have thought of plenty of phrases to describe Ukip, but 'a bunch of hippies' wasn't one which immediately sprang to mind - until now:
Ms Tucker, who is county treasurer for Ukip, describes herself as an "angelic reiki master, soul midwife and shaman" and says she works with the Archangel Michael. She is based at the Angelic Guidance and Healing Centre in Glastonbury.

Mr Tucker, a prominent Ukip member, runs master level angelic reiki workshops.
Steven Morris in The Graun

Andy McSmith in the Indy has more details:
On their website, Colleen Tucker describes herself as an “Angelic Reiki Master Teacher, Shaman and Soul Midwife” and one of a group of practitioners who work alongside “Angels, Ascended Masters and Galactic Beings” on healing and expansion of consciousness. “About six years ago, Archangel Michael made himself known to me, and I’ve been working with him and the Angelic Realms since then,” she claims. 
The local Ukip branch chairman, an old skool Kipper by the name of Graham Livings, is not amused. 'I was a founder member of Ukip down here but what happens when a party grows you get infiltration into the membership. The Glastonbury occult crowd have moved in.' he complains, 'They are oddballs putting on these weekend retreats where they guarantee the angels will be present, and the public can be very wary of that sort of thing.'

I'm not quite as surprised as Mr Livings to find that Ukip turns out to be full of oddballs, although I must admit that I didn't expect them to be oddballs with crystals and joss sticks.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Militant atheism - obvious and trivial?

Another day, another desperate attempt to discredit "ignorant" atheists for allegedly mowing down straw men without understanding the depth and subtlety of Actually Existing Beliefs. I guess this stuff might be convincing to the subset of believers who are ignorant of - or in denial about - the history and evolution of their own belief systems, but to call this sort of lazy ad hominem an "argument" is an insult to brawling drunks everywhere.

Really, apologists, is this the best you've got? Even I can do better than that. A better argument against "militant" atheism might start with the observation that most of the bees in secular bonnets are either obvious or trivial.

Criticising the minority of religious bigots and fanatics who do or say deplorable things in the name of religion falls into the "obvious" category. Religiously-inspired misogyny and homophobia, fragging innocents in "martyrdom operations," female genital mutilation, know-nothing Young Earth Creationism, killing apostates and infidels are all either cruel, or stupid, or both. O rly? Let me run that past you one more time. Things that are obviously dumb or bad are ... dumb or bad. No shit, Sherlock.

As for questioning the supernatural beliefs of the benign or harmless religious majority, isn't that a trivial pursuit? So what if people hold supernatural beliefs that seem unconvincing, confused, evidence-lite, or self-contradictory, so long as they behave like good, reasonable citizens? Does anybody give a hoot if I think they're objective deists, rather than consistent adherents of whatever belief system they claim to follow?

After all, none of us are completely rational beings, free from cognitive bias, so maybe secularists ought to turn their urge to question everything towards testing their own beliefs, rather than lecturing believers about the stupidity of their God delusion.

I don't entirely buy this argument, but it's way more convincing than simply accusing non-believers of "ignorance," when there's reason to believe that, on average, atheists and agnostics who have consciously rejected religion tend to know more about the subject than most believers.

Sure, it's better to be right than wrong, but in a utilitarian sense you can have irrational, poorly-thought through notions on abstruse subjects like theology or cosmology, but still be great at your day job, be a friend in need and generally be a high-functioning, useful member of society. Is a non-believer with a well-thought-out critique of religion like a train-spotter who can identify every piece of rolling stock on the rail network - unnecessarily well-informed about obscure things that most people can function perfectly well without knowing?

The reason I don't entirely buy this argument is precisely because we aren't completely rational beings and are vulnerable to bad arguments driving out good ones. And a lot of religious-style thinking appears to rest on bad arguments - never mind plausibility or evidence, if you believe something deeply enough, and can get enough people to repeat it often enough, your message will become the de facto truth.

Take the Nicene Creed. Is it plausible or reasonable to assent to the claim that that this guy, Jesus Christ, was born from the mystical union of a virgin* and a supernatural being, rose from the dead and was the son of the supernatural being who created the entire universe? Not particularly, and these "facts" shouldn't seem any more objectively likely no matter how many times they are repeated. And yet, if an assertion is repeated loudly and often enough...
... when a particular narrative is repeated often enough, two things happen. First, it becomes dominant, and alternative versions of the truth are suppressed. We have actually seen this very clearly with opposition to the cuts. Once it became clear that the bulk of the media had tuned into the idea that cuts to public services were necessary ..., dissenting voices became paranoid that they may be perceived as shrill or irrational, and so adopted this narrative of necessity and moved on to the next battle ....
Second, and possibly more important, the teller of the tale begins to believe it as the only and definitive version of the truth. It evolves into unshakeable dogma.
Alex Andreou in The Graun

My beef with religion isn't over the abstruse question of whether or not some supernatural being or realm might possibly exist, but the basis on which I'm expected to believe in facts. So far as I can see, religion propagates its version of the truth by the same repetitive, untrustworthy methods as political propaganda, public relations and advertising:
REPETITION, REPETITION, REPETITION.... [insert name of political party] leaders, taking their cues from a pollster's strategy memo, began trying to characterize the [insert measure] as a [insert disparaging description]. It's obvious the argument was a lie. It was equally obvious the [insert name of political party] didn't care... ...
...Which, in a nutshell, is why our political discourse can be so mind-numbing -- [insert name of political party] believe they have an incentive to lie with impunity.
In their most twisted form, these arguments become sub-rational and seek to directly appeal to irrational or unconscious perceptions and attitudes. This is called "priming". Using carefully crafted language, political actors are able to present their irrational claims as if they are actually rational. This type of argument seeks to break old associations and create new ones; attacks weakened or twisted versions of the opposing side's argument; or even simply makes up "facts" and establishes them in the discourse. This last effect is magnified by the way the mass media tends to echo itself: what one columnist paraphrases on Monday is reported by others as fact on Tuesday and quotation on Wednesday. In this way, "facts" can arise out of nothing more than repetition.
Repetition is an important part of advertising. Repetition is an important part of advertising. Why? Because, it is through repetition that you establish your credibility, establish brand familiarity, become the first thought when a need for your type of product or service arises, etc.
It probably doesn't matter whether such techniques affect your metaphysics - God will happily carry on not existing / existing no matter what you happen to think, or how you come to your conclusions, but when this style of believing reaches out to affect our decision-making in what we can all pretty much agree is the real world, it's clear how it can obscure the truth and leave us vulnerable to manipulation. Given that we are prone to irrationality and cognitive biases, we need all the help we can get to know what's really going on and become less blinkered. Substituting the propagation of faith (AKA Propaganda) for evidence-based argument doesn't exactly count as helping.

*Interestingly, the reference to Jesus coming 'down from heaven' and being 'incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary' was absent from the original creed adopted at the Council of Nicaea in 325, but was added at the First Council of Constantinople in 381. Make of that what you will.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Sluggish, bloated, uncomfortable?

UK house prices between 1975 and 2006 adjusted for inflation.
David Boyle's description of the UK economy as 'Constipated with [household] debt' appealed to me, because it sounded like a particularly apt description of a nation stuffed with an accumulated blockage of personal debt so huge that clearing it out is going to be a very painful and extremely messy process:
Creating debt is the way that banks create most of our money in circulation.  It is controversial, archaic and definitely not fit for purpose.  In fact, 60 per cent of the money in circulation started life as mortgages.

It is a sobering thought that, without the house price boom, we would have so little money that life would grind slowly to a halt.
Although I'd quibble with 'controversial' when the default description of rising property values is a "healthy" market, and house prices that aren't heading skywards like a homesick angel are usually described as either "flat" or "stagnating."

Boyle hints that he may go on to blog about proposals for reform, but you have to be pessimistic about the prospects for rational reform of a feeding frenzy driven by the sort of conceited, unteachable numpties who imagine that buying a house that's gone up in value by more or less the same ridiculous amount as all the other equivalent properties on the market is a sign of genius which confers unlimited bragging rights:
Another signal of an overheating property market is the drone of the dinner party bores who fail to realise that they are talking not about a smart investment that has done well for them, but about their homes - and that therefore they would have to pay the same premium to live somewhere else comparable.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Rocket man

New adventures in radical chic from Lib Dem MP David Ward, who asks himself a question:

then goes on to lecture the rest of us on taking sides:
Personally, I think it's a lot more complicated than that (although no less tragic, whichever way you apportion blame). What caught my attention wasn't David Ward's opinion about Gaza, but his opinion of himself. In his own head, he's the kind of guy who chooses sides and rushes to the barricades, the sort of kick-ass dude you don't mess with unless you want a rocket up your ass - think Rambo in a keffiyeh.

Which all sounds a bit incongruous, coming from a Lib Dem MP. I'm not entirely sure that I take kindly to lectures about having to take sides from a member of a party that campaigned for office on a platform of abolishing tuition fees, then collaborated with the party that proceeded to increase them massively (David Ward voted strongly in favour). And helped the Tories push through the bedroom tax, then decided it might be a bad idea when they realised that they were shortly to be held and account at an election (Ward sort of made up his mind which side he was on, then bravely voted a mixture of "for" and "against" when the bedroom tax was debated).

Ward, the fearless anti-authoritarian rebel was just about tough and principled enough to vote against clauses 5 and 6 of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill, but when it came to the final vote, like the majority of his colleagues from all parties, he meekly capitulated and voted for the DRIP. His name did not appear anywhere on the list of 51 MPs still possessed of a backbone.

Taking sides and making a stand in a country that's at peace, where the worst the other side in Parliament can do to you is quash your political ambitions, takes a lot less steel than taking sides in an armed conflict where making the wrong decision can result in your own death, or the death of your loved ones, or of innocent bystanders. Personally, I don't think that a Lib Dem MP who isn't even prepared to put his own career on the line by standing up to a bunch of smooth-faced ex-public schoolboys and securocrats would have the guts to choose which side he was on if he was ever in real danger, let alone fire a rocket at heavily-armed opponents.

Never mind hypothetical direct action in the Middle East, David Ward. The big question is - if you were a a Lib Dem MP - which you apparently are, by the way - would you dare to stand up to David Cameron (don't be scared of him, if you do say 'no', he can't order a drone strike or send tanks into your constituency)? Can you say 'Ich bin ein liberal' whilst propping up a regressive Tory government? Your party must make up its mind - which side is it on?

Now put that toy rocket launcher down and let's see a bit of backbone closer to home.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Anglican Babylon

The Babylonians were remarkable observers and documentalists of human illness and behavior. However, their knowledge of anatomy was limited and superficial. Some diseases were thought to have a physical basis, such as worms, snake bites and trauma. Much else was the result of evil forces that required driving out… many, perhaps most diseases required the attention of a priest or exorcist, known as an asipu, to drive out evil demons or spirits.
Neurology and psychiatry in Babylon Edward H Reynolds and James V Kinnier Wilson, via Nerurosceptic.

It's easy for sceptics to dismiss such three thousand year old heathen superstitions  as mere "failed science", but today's deeply held beliefs represent an altogether different and more sophisticated order of metaphysics, don't they? Take the Church of England - moderate, tolerant, theologically sophisticated, inclusive and definitely not at all superstitious:
Deliverance Ministry seeks to make real to those who feel possessed, oppressed or afraid, the overcoming of evil by our Saviour Jesus Christ, so that his living presence may bring peace.

The Christian Deliverance Study Group is used by the Bishops of the Church of England to help with training for Advisers in Deliverance Ministry in each Diocese. It does not provide ministry directly to those who are troubled by paranormal experiences.
From The Christian Deliverance Study Group's website. Among the handy resources on the site is a tab entitled 'What's troubling you?,' from which you can navigate a drop-down menu and select from 'Poltergeists,' 'Ghosts and Haunting,' 'Abuse,'* or 'Curses,' depending on the nature of your supernatural affliction.

The priestly org chart looks a bit different these days and Jesus has ousted Tammuz as the most popular brand of life-death-rebirth deity, but tweak these minor details and the central content of the The Christian Deliverance Study Group website wouldn't look out of place incised in cuneiform script on a bronze-age clay tablet.

From where I'm standing, the difference in status between a defunct religion that nobody believes in any more and one that still has "relevance" and living adherents** looks precisely as arbitrary as the status ranking of superstition and religion, as summed up by Deborah Hyde:
You can get a degree in theology, but you can't get a degree in repelling vampires. There's undoubtedly a pervasive sense, even now, that religion is a superior class of metaphysics...
... So personally, I've always thought the difference between religion and superstition was not so much degrees of nonsense, but politics.

*Which would be quite a reasonable thing to investigate, were it not for the implied "Satanic" prefix that becomes apparent when you click the 'Abuse' link:
The activities of some groups may involve hypnotism, drugs, psychological pressure, blackmail or other inducements which undermine your free will. Satanic groups, new religious movements and cults are commonly accused of such abuse. At its most extreme this may include paedophilia, depraved sexual rituals and sacrifice. Evidence of such activity is extremely hard to prove.
**Although the C of E doesn't look that many generations away from itself being one with Nineveh and Tyre.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

King Cossack

Cossack Brigade, 1909

Astrakhan hats, swords, riding boots, long flowing coats decorated with epaulets and sashes, topped off with an impressive sprinkling of military decorations and flamboyant facial hair. Pretty much standard kit for the Czar's paramilitary heavies in Imperial Russia. From Doctor Zhivago to Fiddler on the Roof to the thuggish antics of Putin's boot boys, you think cossack and you think Russia.

Except that the doomed royal house that these particular guys served wasn't the Romanovs, but the Qajar dynasty of the Sublime State of Persia:
Loyal, disciplined, and well trained, the most effective government unit was the 8,000-man Persian Cossack Brigade. Created in 1879 and commanded by Russian officers until the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, after which its command passed into Iranian hands, the brigade represented the core of the new Iranian armed forces.
I hadn't heard of the Persian Cossack Brigade until the other day when I came across a reference to Reza Shah Pahlavi, (born Reza Khan), founder of the Pahlavi dynasty and father of the last Shah of Iran, having been a former cossack, which sounded a bit weird to me. After looking it up, I discovered that the cossack thing dates back to the days of the Great Game, when the Russian and British Empires were trying to incorporate the unabsorbed bits of the Middle East into their respective spheres of influence. As per Wikipedia:
At the time of the Persian Cossack Brigade's formation the Shah’s royal cavalry was described as having no training or discipline. The Qajar state at this point was very weak, lacking any professional military forces. In wars against the British the royal cavalry had been defeated, and had even seen much difficulties against Turcoman nomads. The Tsar Alexander II approved Russian military advisors travelling to Persia to fulfill the Shah’s request. The brigade was then formed in 1879 by Lieutenant-Colonel Domantovich, a Russian officer.
So, although the Shah's cossacks sound as archaic as the Varangian Guard or the Mamelukes, they belong firmly to the age of modern nation states interacting with weak or failing states - a form of power projection that's not so very different from a contemporary Great Power trying to create and beef up an Afghan National Army around a cadre of US/NATO military advisers. And the Persian Brigade of Cossacks were, in that qualified sense, the nucleus of an actual army. Despite conforming to Central Casting's idea of what well-dressed cossacks should look like, they weren't "real" cossacks:
In spite of its name the Brigade was never a genuine Cossack force. Neither did it have the status of a guard unit. Late nineteenth century photographs show that Russian style uniforms were worn, in contrast to the indigenous dress of other Persian forces at the time. The rank and file of the Brigade were always Caucasian Muhajir and Persian but until 1917 its commanders were Russian officers who were also employed in the Russian army, such as Vladimir Liakhov.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, the British took over the Cossack Brigade, got rid of its Russian officers and installed British and Persian ones.* This is where Reza Khan comes in, as the the Cossack Brigade's last commanding officer and the only Persian commander in its history.

With the end of the First World War, the British Empire found itself in a new round of the Great Game, this time contending with the Red Army to draw Persia into its sphere of influence. The Qajar dynasty lost effective control of the country to the Soviets, until the Great Bear's grip was ironically broken by Reza Khan and his newly Anglicised/Persicised cossacks, who rode into Tehran and pulled off a coup d'├ętat in 1921 (turns out that unanticipated blowback from training up uncontrollable paramilitary proxy forces isn't such a new problem after all). This is where things also got a bit more Mameluke-like, with an elite military force seizing power.

By 1925 Khan had become powerful enough to push the parliament into deposing and exiling the last Qajar Shah, and to get himself proclaimed the new Shah of Persia (the name was officially changed to Iran in 1935).

Everything went swimmingly, from the British point of view, until 1941 when the British and their new Soviet allies, fearful that the oil-rich, officially neutral, Imperial State of Iran might side with, or capitulate to, the Axis, invaded and deposed Reza Shah Pahlavi, the former cossack, in favour of his 21 year old Westernised, Swiss boarding school-educated, son, the ill-fated Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

*Shortly after the Brits had set up their own proxy force, the South Persia Rifles, commanded by the splendidly-named Brigadier-General Percy Molesworth-Sykes.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Semi-disposable self-assembly schools

One last piece of Gove-kicking, then I'll be done:
...we looked to social democratic Sweden for reform. Fifteen years ago the Swedes decided to challenge declining standards by breaking the bureaucratic stranglehold over educational provision and welcome private providers into the state system.
Former education secretary (boy, did I enjoy writing that 'former') Michael Gove, writing in the Indy in 2008

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that these reforms were a long way from delivering an Ikea-style Swedish success story:
After Sweden's students tumbled in the latest Pisa rankings, a new review suggests that due to a rigorous schedule of testing elsewhere, the students were too tired to care.
The Teacher and Learning International Survey (TALIS) asked teachers in OECD countries about their views on their jobs.
Sweden landed at the very bottom when it came to rating a career in teaching. Only France and Slovakia had worse results. Only one in twenty Swedish teachers thinks that their profession is appreciated in Sweden.
The average for OECD nations was 31 percent, and the highs were found in Malaysia and Sweden's neighbour Finland, where 59 percent of respondents said their job was highly valued.
The majority of Swedish high-school students can't work out simple sums, researchers have warned after grading a math skill test taken by 1,500 pupils in Sweden. They were stumped that teachers had not raised the alarm.
Some people have suggested that people who don't like Michael Gove's reforms are suffering from an irrational 'Goveophobia.' Personally, I don't think I'm being irrational in rejecting his obsession with competition and rankings, especially when Sweden, his model for a competition and ranking-obsessed system seems to be losing the international "competition" for educational excellence and to be tumbling down the international rankings that he values so highly.

Whereas neighbouring Finland, a country that's doing more or less the opposite of everything Michael Gove would like to see in education, has fared consistently better* (Finland has a publicly funded, comprehensive school system with no league tables, no artificial market and phony "choice", no constant testing and streaming, no grammar schools or academies, almost no private schools and the kids are taught by teachers who must have a master’s degree and who belong to strong trade unions). Perhaps the happy Finns could be even more "competitive" if they adopted the Chinese 9-hour-test-drill-and-kill-suicide model, so I suppose it's a small mercy that Gove got all starry-eyed about Sweden rather than China. Let's just hope that his successor, Nicky Morgan, hasn't been taking her educational inspiration from The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

*It may have dropped a few PISA points, from its position at the very top of the table in recent years, but Finland still seems to be doing way better than Sweden.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The evil that men do

So, farewell then, Michael Gove, education secretary and master of paradox. But it's way too early to hang up the bunting, with his undead legacy still blindly rampaging round the nation's schools:
...Gove's unhealthy idea that you don't need to be trained in how children learn in order to teach. It assumes that anyone with a vast pile of money must know best, about anything. Gove is was almost as pathetically starry-eyed about the ultra-rich as Tony Blair.

And what happens when the millionaires' schools fail? When there's no longer any local organisation to pick up the pieces, then the education secretary, Gove Morgan, must do it. Schools haven't been privatised; they've been nationalised, with Gove Morgan as the ultimate court of appeal and provider of most of the money for schools in every corner of the country...
The Graun

Yep, that's your academies 'driving success through autonomy.' Autonomous from oversight, autonomous from responsibility, yet still firmly clamped to the State's teats and sucking away like a bunch of starving piglets. A fittingly paradoxical legacy from a man dedicated to the idea of imposing autonomy from the centre.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Humpty Dumpty Origins - The Fall

I know what thou thinkest, punk. Thou thinkest "doth he have any shot left?" Now to tell thee the truth I forgot myself in all this excitement. But being this is a 42-pounder Royal Cannon, the most puissant piece of ordnance in the realm and will blow thine horse clean in half, thou must ask thyself a question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, dost thou, punk?
As any fool/movie executive knows, every iconic fantasy character must have a dark, gritty origin story. What goes for Batman, The Man of Steel and characters from the the X-Men franchise, also applies to that troubled product of violence and bloodshed, Humpty Dumpty.

The Humpty back story goes something like this. The original Humpty Dumpty was no wholesome egg, but a big, scary cannon, set up on Colchester's town wall by a Royalist garrison during the English Civil War, to outgun and intimidate the besieging Parliamentarians. The wall below Humpty Dumpty was damaged by Parliamentary artillery, resulting in Humpty Dumpty's great fall. All the King's horses and and all the King's men couldn't get Humpty back into action, leaving the Royalists as naked as Dirty Harry with no Magnum, whereupon the Parliamentary punks proceeded to kick their Royal asses.

I came across this interesting fact in The Offspring's latest school reading book (Project X: Strong Defences: Under Attack!), which just shows how much things have changed since I were a lad.

In my day, you'd learn a few historical facts in school, or from a Ladybird book, ('Pausing only to gallantly threw his cloak over a muddy puddle, thus saving Queen Elizabeth's fine clothes from the dirt, Sir Walter Raleigh journeyed Westward Ho! and brought potatoes and tobacco back to England'), which would then have lain dormant at the back of your head for thirty or forty years, until one day you'd happen to tune in to BBC 2, or Dave, and up would pop Stephen Fry to smugly announce how totally wrong everything you thought you'd learned as a child was.*

In these networked times, the lifespan of an interesting fact can often be reduced to the time it takes to google it. Wikipedia doesn't give a more convincing origin story, but it does put the Humpty Dumpty-as-Civil-War-cannon theory into context.

Short version - nobody really knows what Humpty Dumpty means.

Slightly longer version - there's no contemporary evidence for the cannon story, which became popular after being published on the Colchester tourist board's web site in 1996, but is not much better evidenced than rival theories claiming that Humpty was really King Richard III, or a drink of brandy boiled with ale, or a "tortoise" siege engine, used in a different English Civil War siege. Or maybe Humpty was always just a made-up character in a nonsense verse and any resemblance to real persons, or things, living, dead, or inanimate, is purely coincidental.

Elsewhere, there are suggestions that the cannon story predates the Colchester Tourist Board's web site by over 180 years, but that's still more than 160 years short of being a contemporary source. In the absence of any contemporary accounts, others have suggested, just as plausibly, that Humpty Dumpty might have been a satire about King Charles I and his fall from power, but I'm still happy to go with the simplest explanation, that 'Given the actual evidence at hand, it is far more likely that Humpty Dumpty was not intended to be a story, but rather just a riddle posed to children for their amusement'.

*Bonus QI-certified Walter Raleigh factoid - The wife of Sir Walter Raleigh kept his severed head in a red velvet bag for 30 years.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

One way glass

The Washington blog recently argued that mass surveillance is neither particularly new, nor particularly effective (at least in achieving its ostensible aims):
And top security experts – including the highest-level government officials and the top university experts – say that mass surveillance actually increases terrorism and hurts security. And they say that our government failed to stop the Boston bombing because they were too busy spying on millions of innocent Americans instead of focusing on actual bad guys. 
Others argue that enforced transparency just keeps us safe. This may be true up to a (very small) point but two things worry me.

First, the disturbingly disproportionate amount of effort devoted to mass surveillance trawling expeditions that dredge up what look, in the light of day, to be industrial quantities of trivial factoids. Stefan Wolle, the curator for Berlin’s East German Museum was eventually able to take a look at what the Stasi had on him. On the face of it, they needn't have bothered:
When the wall fell, I wanted to see what the Stasi had on me, on the world I knew ... A large part of what I found was nothing more than office gossip, the sort of thing people used to say around the water cooler about affairs and gripes, the sort of things that people today put in emails or texts to each other...

...The lesson, is that when a wide net is cast, almost all of what is caught is worthless. This was the case with the Stasi. This will certainly be the case with the NSA.
As reported by Matthew Schofield in McClatchy DC. Worthless, that is, except to the sort of control freak who might be interested in the water cooler world of office politics as a barometer of loyalty and dissent among subordinates and as a tool for manipulating them.

Second, the glass is only transparent in one direction. When it comes to powerful individuals and institutions, we see through a glass, darkly. 114 files documenting containing serious allegations are handed over to the authorities and nothing more is heard until almost twenty years after the alligator's death when the files are found to be missing.  Now that might have been a clerical error, but given what we know about the track record of those in power when it comes to destroying or hiding potentially embarrassing documents, I'm not filled with confidence.

Good job we have a free and fearless press to keep 'em on their toes. Except it turns out that the press have been involved in their own mass surveillance operation, with similarly unimpressive results. They can pay private detectives, bribe bent coppers, hack the phones of dead schoolgirls, so you'd have thought that no wrongdoer would have been safe from the Murdoch hacks' spy net. And yet the flamboyant Jimmy Savile managed to safely fly under the radar of the celebrity and paedo-obsessed News of The Screws from 1955 to 2009, whilst another prime target, Rolf Harris managed to start abusing in 1968 and still have his reputation outlive that of the Screws. And shouldn't the current alleged Westminster paedophile scandal have been grist to the Screws' intelligence-gathering mill? You'd have thought that they'd long since have either gathered enough intel for an All The President's Men scoop, or to have been able to exonerate a few public figures and name and shame those trying to libel them.

But like the spooks, they're too often letting the big fish get away while scooping up the sort of gossip and trivia that's more or less useless for keeping people safe, but rather useful for manipulating them. Likewise, the police were seemingly looking the other way, whilst conscientiously videoing every hippy who turns up at an environmental demo and going undercover to bed the female ones, like low-rent James Bonds infiltrating a harmless vegan version of SPECTRE. 'Do you expect me to talk?' 'No, Mr Bond. I expect you to eat tofu.'

With all this alleged scrutiny and transparency you'd think we'd see more of the big, important stuff coming. Yet the sort of thing the watchers are supposed to be watching for always seems to come as a bit of a surprise. End of the Cold War? Nope, didn't see that one coming. 9/11? Sorry, we were looking the other way. 7/7 bombings? Well, we just weren't expecting them to be British blokes. Arab Spring? Er... Yet it's keeping us safe from threats like this which forms the justification for what otherwise looks like out-of-control corporate psychopathy:
According to Dr. Hare, corporate psychopaths are glib, superficially charming, have a grandiose sense of self-worth, are pathological liars, conning, manipulative, lack remorse, are emotionally shallow, callous, lack empathy, and fail to take responsibility for their actions. He believes that criminal and anti-social definitions of psychopathy are inappropriate for corporate psychopaths so a revised definition should be used to detect them.

All psychopaths thrive off of the feelings of power and control they get from dominating their victims, but corporate psychopaths victimize people in primarily psychological ways. They seek out leadership positions because money, power, status and control are what make them tick...

...It is not difficult for these psychopaths to rise to very high levels in corporations, particularly in today’s uncertain and constantly changing corporate climates...
Characteristics of Corporate Psychopaths and Their Corporations - Summary by J. Scarlet

I'm becoming less and less convinced by the sort of manipulative people in leadership positions who come out with a stream of glib, plausible justifications for this sort of one-way openness (because national security/defamation/commercial confidentiality/won't somebody please think of the children/too big to fail/oops, we lost the files/we'll have to wait until the official inquiry has published whitewashed its findings, or Hell freezes over, whichever comes sooner/whatever). Personally, I think the cult of leadership and the sort of people it attracts has a lot to do with these sort of double standards and abuses of power.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Any colour you like, so long as it's black

Since contagion from our sick financial system caused a global pandemic, people have been looking for a cure. A lot of hopes were pinned on an alleged wonder drug called Austerity. Thanks to a series of controversial trials, in which millions of human guinea pigs were forcibly injected with massive doses of Austerity (Zuckerberg, Sandberg, when it comes to carrying out unethical experiments on unwilling patients, you're just a pair of big squeamish wimps compared to the Euro Troika), we do have some data on how well this panacea works:
It was nearly four years ago that the Greek government negotiated its agreement with the IMF for a harsh austerity programme that was ostensibly designed to resolve its budget problems. Many economists, when we saw the plan, knew immediately that Greece was beginning a long journey into darkness that would last for many years. This was not because the Greek government had lived beyond its means or lied about its fiscal deficit. These things could have been corrected without going through six or more years of recession. It was because of the "solution" itself...

...The IMF is the subordinate partner in the "troika" (including the European Central Bank and the European commission) that has been calling the shots for the Greek economy these past four years, but it is the one in charge of putting numbers on the page. It repeatedly projected economic recoveries for 2011, 2012, and 2013 that did not materialise.

Now the IMF is projecting economic growth for 2014. But this time they are probably, finally, going to be right. It is vitally important that we understand why.

Last month the Greek parliament approved a stimulus programme...

...This stimulus will likely make the difference between growth and another year of recession. Most of the financing comes from EU grants, so it does not add to Greece's debt.
In other words, the Greek economy is going to grow this year because of a significant policy reversal. The austerity, or fiscal tightening, is basically coming to an end.

Why is this so important? Because the people who designed or supported the policy of the last four years will, when the Greek economy begins to recover, claim that the "austerity worked". But even the IMF's own analysis of the Greek economy refutes this claim.
Mark Weisbrot, writing in the Graun, earlier this year. The effects of full-strength Austerity look far worse than a placebo. Closer to home, the dosage has been lower and the results less clear cut, with some attributing 3 percentage points lost from GDP to austerian policies and others attributing our dead cat bounce of a recovery to the fact that the austerians were actually too frit to subject experimental subjects to a significant dose of the alleged wonder drug:
The bottom line is that there has been a lot less austerity than we might have been led to believe, and austerity is unlikely to have been responsible for the first signs of recovery we see now. Arguably the fact that government spending was not cut as aggressively as some would have liked has actually allowed the recovery to begin.
It looks as if full-strength Austerity is a toxic cocktail that nearly kills the patient and the efficacy of lower doses is still the subject of a lively debate, although worrying side-effects have been recorded. There's room for nuance and interpretation of the results, but the treatment, remains controversial, to say the least.

Except that somewhere along the line, all the important people agreed that, never mind the drug trials, Austerity pills are perfectly safe and, so long as the patients think they're doing them good then, general practitioners should be handing them out like Smarties, or antibiotics:
For better or worse, the anti-austerity argument was lost back in 2010. Since late 2013 a majority of people have also told pollsters that austerity is actually good for the economy: 42 per cent now say cuts are good for the economy while 37 per cent say they are bad...
...There is no longer a mainstream anti-austerity narrative. The Tories and the Lib Dems are making cuts, Labour are going to make cuts and no one who isn’t is going to get anywhere near power anytime soon. As far as the media is concerned the debate is over.
James Bloodworth, writing for Left Foot Forward ("Evidence-based political blogging").

In other words, come election day, you could either do a Russell Brand, stay at home and end up being given more of the same, or you could go to the polls and vote for more of the same (who says there's no choice when today's consumers can choose their austerity in either blue, red or yellow?).

For better or worse, this sort of 'realism' looks like a good way of losing the anti-apathy argument and leaving the political stage clear for distracting pseudo events like Cammo the Clown taking a tumble over a banana skin, falling flat on his face, then picking himself up with the words 'I meant to do that!'