Sunday, 30 November 2014

Bad mood music

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

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

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

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

Friday, 28 November 2014

Arrested development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Distract and survive

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

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

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

Monday, 24 November 2014

From the Committee of Public Safety

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 21 November 2014


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Old leaves turning

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

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

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Little big news?

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

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

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

You're the cream in my coffee

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

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

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

Nat King Cole was unavailable for comment:


Sunday, 16 November 2014

Irrefutable proof that flip phones are the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Thank heavens for Mary Poppins!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The long drop

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

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

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Anti-Migrant Protection Rampart

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Goodbye to Berlin

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Who ya gonna call?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*my snark

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

Monday, 3 November 2014

My first public relations campaign

Interesting factoid from the "what the papers say" slot on the radio news this morning. According to the Mail, the scouting movement no longer requires its leaders to know how to tie knots, although it has introduced a slew of new activity badges, including one for public relations. Despite appearing in the Mail, this fact turns out to be true, as a visit to the Scout Association's own web site confirms:
Find out about local media outlets (for example: radio, TV, newspapers and online opportunities). Make contact with your local media development manager to consider coverage of a positive news story or feature connected with local Scouting.
There's something depressingly zeitgeisty about the demotion of an actual skill in favour of teaching kids to manipulate other people's perceptions.  Not that I'd like to see the public relations badge scrapped - its very existence creates a teachable moment. Just turn it round and give the badge to kids who have learnt that public relations (puffery, in Oldspeak) exists and that, with good information hygiene, it's possible to separate it from useful information and discard it.

This would be a lot closer to the socially responsible ethos the Scout Association aspires to than just giving youngsters a badge for producing yet more promotional bullshit in a world that's already drowning in it.

The good news is that a few people are actively encouraging young people to think more critically about public relations. Even better, the seeds of doubt are already there in our popular culture. I always thought that The Matrix was ridiculously hyped, at least as a film for post-adolescent audiences, but as an age-appropriate parable about whose reality you're living in, I hope it's prompting a few healthy doubts in those youngsters no longer engaged in learning to tie knots.

Fragmentation device

And I think what’s frightening is the way not only the public has been fragmented, but the way that these fragments are manipulated to be turned one against the other. So, for instance, corporate capitalism strips workers of benefits and job protection, pensions, medical plans, and then very skillfully uses that diminished fragment to turn against public sector workers, such as teachers, who still have those benefits. So the question doesn’t become, why doesn’t everyone have those benefits; the question becomes, to that fragment which is being manipulated by forces of propaganda and public relations, you don’t have it, and therefore they shouldn’t have it. 
Chris Hedges on divide and rule, a technique that's as old as the hills. But it is worth reading the whole piece here, for a flavour of how insidiously dangerous this technique is in a modern world where big data allied with market segmentation can help propagandists slice and dice the general public more finely than ever before, until nothing's left but a multitude of puny, competing particular publics.

Unity is strength and must be undermined at all costs...

Sunday, 2 November 2014


I've already been a bit disillusioned by the blog of Scott Adams, the guy behind the classic Dilbert 'toons, but his latest entries make me think Scott's lost the plot. The 'unique and controversial point of view' in question concerns his reaction to a hidden camera video of a woman walking around New York City and being hassled by various 'obnoxious cat-calling men', as featured in the New York Post.
I assume the makers of the video intend me to watch it and conclude "Sexism is out of control! Women can't even walk the streets unmolested! Something must be done!"

Here's my actual reaction: "MOVE SOMEWHERE BETTER, YOU IDIOT!"

Do you want to know why my life is good today? It's because I once lived in a place with no opportunity and many disadvantages but I cleverly fixed that problem by moving somewhere else. And so I reiterate.

MOVE!!! JUST [expletive deleted] MOVE!!!

Okay, I know, your family lives in New York City and your job is there and....JUST [expletive deleted] MOVE!!! MOVE!!! STOP MAKING IT MY PROBLEM!!!
The Dilbert blog 'Feedback for Feminists'

Whoa! Step away from the caps lock, Scott. Now let's all take some deep breaths and try to think about this rationally:

'I once lived in a place with no opportunity and many disadvantages but I cleverly fixed that problem by moving somewhere else.' That is clever Scott, well done you. But your problem, and how you solved it, is not what the film is about.

If somebody grows up in a place with zero opportunities, it makes sense to move somewhere else. But this woman is living in New York and, as Scott admits, 'Okay, I know, your family lives in New York City and your job is there', so the problem isn't lack of opportunities. It's people showing a basic lack of basic respect and civility to another person who is simply going about her business in a public place.

Moving to another place could be a rational way to solve this, different, problem, but it might not be the best solution. If everybody who lived in an area being dragged down by anti-social behaviour just ran away, then you'd be surrendering the place to the minority of noisy jerks and allowing them to dominate the public space, to the detriment of everybody else. Sometimes it pays to take a stand, shame the offenders, engage in activism, rally support and try to reclaim the place for the majority of people who are just minding their own business and trying to get through the day. A public-spirited attempt to make things better for everybody is not necessarily the mark of an idiot.

You could even say that the idiot is the person who just moves, as opposed to getting involved and trying to change things in the city, at least in the original sense of the word, ('idiot is derived from the Greek idiotes, which originally referred to a person who did not participate in the political or public life of the polis, or Greek city-state--in other words, someone who lived an individual life, unconcerned with larger affairs').

But in Scott's world, if you don't just move away when somebody harasses you, you must be some kind of idiot, or loser (he uses this playground bully's jibe to hammer home his point in a follow-up post, titled 'Loser choices').

There's also a bit of over-reaction going on when it comes to how the video's edited:
My first reaction is that editing ten hours down to two minutes is so overtly manipulative of the viewer that I had a bad reaction to it. I understand why they had to edit; no one watches ten hour videos. But while the video clearly states it is edited, the human brain still processes it as if it is in real time. My emotional reaction to the video is a reaction to a woman being harassed every five seconds, and that is not what happened.
Well, the finished video consists of the edited highlights and there's certainly a point of view, but it any more manipulative than, say, a TV news report? A murder, or a horrific multiple car crash on a major route will be reported with long shots of police tape round the incident scene, or the twisted wreckage,or  emergency vehicles with lights flashing, the whole shebang. Is this 'overtly manipulative?' Surely, for the sake of balance, there should be equal, or more time devoted to stock footage of people going safely about their business near the murder scene, not being found murdered, or of traffic flowing safely down the road, with no accidents, deaths or injuries, which is what happens for the vast majority of the time.

Of course that never happens, because the news is about newsworthy events - the vast majority of people who have an uneventful day not being murdered or killed on the road aren't news, and the unfortunate few who meet such a dramatic end, are. Likewise, a woman having an uneventful walk doesn't add up to a film (well maybe, an ambient art house one). The fact that she's being harassed, on average, about once every five minutes over a ten hour period is the dramatic, surprising thing and it would be perverse to expect the film maker to pad out a two minute video about women being harassed on the streets with footage of nothing much happening.

This isn't to say that focusing on violence, conflict and dramatic, upsetting events isn't a problem with the media we consume in general terms - a constant diet of 'newsworthy' disaster and conflict probably does lead to fear, anxiety and cognitive bias among consumers who must feel that the world is a far scarier place than it really is. But that's a problem with every edited highlight of a dramatic, newsworthy event, not necessarily a particular problem with this particular video.

Then, after telling women to stop being idiots, stand on their own two feet and stop making it his problem, Scott suddenly turns all concerned liberal:
1. The video is unintentionally racist as hell, and that doesn't help feminism...
 ... 5. The harassment was mostly in the form of powerless men hurling compliments at a woman that probably has a better job and more education than nearly all of the men in the video. Remind me again who the victims are?
A couple of things.

First, if you're going to get shouty, self-righteous and condescending with one disadvantaged group, at least get consistently shouty, self-righteous and condescending with everyone ('GET AN EDUCATION YOU IDIOT! OR A BETTER JOB! OR JUST MOVE!!! STOP MAKING IT MY PROBLEM!!!'). Otherwise it looks as if you're exclusively concerned about the rights of victims with one particular set of gonads.

Second - OK, many of the harassers were black. Maybe this just reflects what happened, rather than being the result of bias. There might be reasons for this which have nothing to do with racism on the part of the film maker. Scott, probably rightly, assumes that many of the harassers were poor, undereducated and generally socially disadvantaged, compared with the recipient of their unwanted attentions.Given that racial discrimination exists, it might well be that a greater proportion of black men fit that profile, due to lack of opportunity.

That is a problem, and a serious one, but it's a separate problem. And - and this is important- there's no reason to believe that solving one problem (harassment of women) precludes solving the others (racial discrimination, or more general inequality of access to resources and opportunity). This is not a zero sum game, except in the minds of people who want to play one disadvantaged group off against another.

Then there's this:
But in 2014, sexism is not so much the "can't vote" type of problem it once was. It's more of the "Someone is making me uncomfortable" or "I think my gender played a role in a decision" or "I can't tell if this is a business meeting or a date" sort of thing.
Not a smart remark from a man who doesn't want to be seen as sexist, but already has something like this to explain away:
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. 
But don't take it personally, because 'ol Scott's probably just joshin' (but if he is, he ain't sayin'):
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. 
Can we just cut to the chase and say 'cop out?' Because Scott knows how to do ironic and funny - he's done it enough times in his cartoons. And this isn't funny (at least not funny ha ha - it is funny peculiar, as in 'please stop, you're starting to creep me out'). This isn't comedy or irony. You don't need a fancy pants disclaimer to say what it is. It's trolling.
  • posting outrageous messages to bait people to answer - check
  • purposely provoking people and pulling them into flaming arguments -check
  • assuming the persona of a genuine sceptic with no hidden agenda -check
  • divisive and argumentative with need-to-be-right attitude - check
...if it looks like a duck troll and quacks like a duck troll... (I've read several versions of The Three Billy Goats Gruff and nowhere does it actually say that trolls don't quack).

And it's trolling of a particularly insidious kind, given the subject matter. Scott's main point, remember, is that if women don't like being in a place where they're being harassed and belittled, they should just go somewhere else. Which is possible, if unreasonable, if that place is New York. But when guys start trolling uppity women on the Internet, what are they supposed to do? Get off the Internet?

What happened to you Scott? You're a talented guy with a successful career - why behave like a real loser, a frustrated Internet troll who can only validate his sad existence by sneers, insults and put downs? I think you could do better than this.