Wednesday, 28 January 2015

I love the smell of cauliflower in the morning

Oddity of the day: the napalm bursts from Apocalypse Now, recreated with a cauliflower and a light bulb. Why? Apparently Radu Zaciu was first inspired to start photographing illuminated fruit and veg because the German slang term for a light bulb is “glühbirne” (“glow pear").

It's been a good month for this sort of thing, what with Theaster Gates winning the Artes Mundi Prize for his installation, A Complicated Relationship Between Heaven And Earth, or When We Believe, which featured, among other things, a stuffed goat riding a tricycle round a circular track. Why? 'The installation contemplates how objects have been used as signifiers of power - and perhaps re-opens them, to be real instruments of accessing belief.'

No, me neither. At least I understood the light bulb thing.

Mind you, Theaster's probably wise to pitch his tricycling goat as some kind of Profound Artistic Insight Into Serious Stuff. If he didn't, the goats might think that humans were just taking the piss and, as we learnt last year, goats are not to be mocked with impunity.

But, never mind the artybollocks, Theaster does sound like a pretty good bloke who, as well as entertaining the rest of us with his eccentric art, generously chose to share his £40,000 prize money with his fellow nominees, so I'd be genuinely sad to see him set upon by a platoon of enraged goats.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Perma-crisis versus cheap shirts

This short paragraph puts some valuable context around the news headlines, which are usually framed in the language of funding crises and the spiralling cost of things like health care, education and social care:
A wage that would buy the labor embodied in a shirt 200 years ago will buy enough labor to make 100 shirts today. However, the number of hours it takes to teach calculus, play a symphony, or palpate a swollen gland has remained largely constant over that period. That means that the cost of health care and education will rise whenever the cost of manufacturing falls -- not because health care is getting more expensive, but because everything else is getting cheaper.
Cory Doctorow

It also opens up lots of questions around automation and productivity, de-skilling, autonomy and power.

The stories in the mainstream news are ones of of scarcity, lack of productivity, insecurity and permanent crisis.

But maybe the real story is of  lots of people, in lots of places, producing ever more for less, in which case the question isn't how societies can overcome scarcity by austerity, an ever-more "flexible" labour market and even leaner production, but why the abundance that's already come from an ever-more productive society is spread so unevenly.
But it was clear that an all-round increase in wealth threatened the destruction - indeed, in some sense was the destruction- of a hierarchical society ... For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty ... would sooner or later realise that the privileged minority had no function and they would sweep it away.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Boob selfie

Earlier this week Alex Spence, who glories in the job title of "media editor" at Britain's ever-authoritative newspaper of record, had a scoop about one of its less aspirational sister publications:
The Sun will no longer feature topless models on page 3 after quietly dropping one of the most controversial traditions in British journalism.

The Times understands that Friday’s edition of the paper was the last that will carry an image of a glamour model with bare breasts on that page, ending a convention that began in 1970, shortly after Rupert Murdoch bought the newspaper and turned it into Britain’s bestselling daily tabloid. 
(Full text behind the Cheap-At-Any-Price Great Paywall of Murdoch)

You'd expect a media editor, who's presumably quite high up the journalistic food chain, to know what's going on in the media* (especially in the media group that pays his salary - by the way, top marks for the grovelling reference to your boss making the Sun into 'Britain’s bestselling daily tabloid', Alex). But, if you expected that, you'd have been quickly disappointed:
The Sun has published a picture of a topless woman on Page Three and mocked media outlets that said the long-running feature had been dropped.

On Tuesday, the Sun's sister paper the Times said the tabloid would no longer feature Page Three girls - but one appears in the Sun's latest edition. 

Several possibilities spring to mind:
  • Alex Spence didn't have a bloody clue what he was talking about, but never mind, they'll still keep paying him to churn out this drivel because he knows how to suck up to the boss.
  • The people at the Sun were spreading disinformation in an attempt to troll the rest of the media/blogosphere/Twittersphere into prematurely crowing about/analysing the Death of Page 3, before blasting 'em with both barrels and shouting "gotcha!" In their attempt to keep the prank on a top-secret need-to-know basis they didn't let the people at the Times in on the joke, leaving Alex Spence with egg all over his brown-nosed face.
  • The people at the Sun were spreading disinformation, as above, but Alex Spence was in on the joke and deliberately lied, in order to help his colleagues to troll the rest of us.
I don't know what you'd call these various sorts of tomfoolery, but the word "journalism" doesn't really apply to any of the possible explanations. It's more like noise, and self-referential noise at that.

It's almost as if some highly-paid journalists have given up any notion of reporting facts about things that have actually happened in the real world and are now tasked with dragging eyeballs back from the Inyourface24/7book bubble of drippy inspirational quotes and marginally amusing cat pictures, to the even less relevant bubble of journalists talking about journalists talking about tits, or something equally clickbaity.

All they have to do now is "start a conversation" on Twitter and the self-absorbed circle of  derp will be complete. May I suggest the hashtag #WeAreARightPairOfCharlies to Alex Spence and the unknown troll at the Sun who came up with this *hilarious* prank?

If you're desperate to signal your status as Serious Person with inside knowledge of breaking stories denied to the plebs outside the Great Paywall of Murdoch, you're welcome to give creepy Uncle Rupert a few of your hard-earned pounds so that he can save them towards getting himself buried alongside his private jet, or whatever the hell it is that the stupidly rich do with all the money they've made from a lifetime of being complete and utter shits to everybody else.

But if you just want to know what's going on, you might as well save your money, stop clogging up your mind with this sort of self-referential crud and be no worse off. Come to think of it, I'd have been better off not having heard about any of this in the first place. It's not as if I didn't already know about the sump of pathological narcissism festering away in the Murdochbunker.

Maybe - if that's not too self-referential - I should start listening to my own advice.

*Although a quick glance at Spence's recent output, which seems to consist largely of Murdoch-friendly BBC-bashing opinion pieces, suggests that he's become more of a self-interested purveyor of in-house informercials than a journalist. Not that the BBC are always innocent of similar levels of self-important self-obsession, as witnessed by the endless hagiographic retrospectives about how everybody loved their past output. These occasionally descended into dark, unintended hilarity, as when the BBC celebrated the life and times of its former golden boy Sir Jimmy Savile with its 'affectionate tribute' (for some reason 'This programme is currently unavailable on iPlayer'). And no - I'm more than half a century old and never, in all my born puff, have I ever heard anybody - except a BBC presenter - affectionately refer to the BBC as "Auntie."

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The private banking sector has been secured

There was an interesting exchange between Artur Fischer, of the Berlin Stock Exchange, and Greek economist Elena Panartis on the Today programme this morning. John Humphrys asked how Germany might react to a Greek default or exit:
Artur Fischer: ... The consequence would not be as bad as it used to be because, in the meantime we have secured our banking system, there wouldn't be any chain effect. I would say three quarters of the Greek debt is now held by government agencies, not any more by private banks. The private banking sector has been secured, so there wouldn't be any effects on the European economy.

Elena Panartis: So the bailout was for the banks. That's exactly what Syriza said...
...Well, it sounds like they were prepared to see us go AFTER they had paid their bills in their private banks.

So there you have it. Profits privatised, losses nationalised, the little guy gets screwed again, the new standard operating procedure for the big banks.

While it's still up on the Today website, you can hear the whole interview here (it starts about 51 minutes into the programme).

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The glorious loyalty oaf's Crusade

David Cameron has said it was right for Eric Pickles to write a letter to Muslim leaders in which he asked them to “explain and demonstrate how faith in Islam can be part of British identity”...
 ....“Everyone needs to help with dealing with this problem of radicalisation and anyone frankly reading this letter and who has a problem with it, I think really has a problem. I think it is the most reasonable, sensible, moderate letter that Eric could possibly have written."
Quite so. Freedom of speech was so the week-before-last. This week, no reasonable person could possibly object to true patriots being required to prove their loyalty by signing all the loyalty oaths they're damn well told to sign. Get with the program:
They're taking over everything,' he declared rebelliously. 'Well, you fellows can stand around and let them if you want to, but I'm not going to. I'm going to do something about it. From now on I'm going to make every son of a bitch who comes to my intelligence tent sign a loyalty oath...'

...Almost overnight the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was in full flower, and Captain Black was enraptured to discover himself spearheading it. He had really hit on something. All the enlisted men and officers on combat duty had to sign a loyalty oath to get their map cases from the intelligence tent, a second loyalty oath to receive their flak suits and parachutes from the parachute tent, a third loyalty oath for Lieutenant Balkington, the motor vehicle officer, to be allowed to ride from the squadron to the airfield in one of the trucks... To Captain Black, every officer who supported his Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was a competitor, and he planned and plotted twenty-four hours a day to keep one step ahead. He would stand second to none in his devotion to country. When other officers had followed his urging and introduced loyalty oaths of their own, he went them one better by making every son of a bitch who came to his intelligence tent sign two loyalty oaths, then three, then four; then he introduced the pledge of allegiance, and after that 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' one chorus, two choruses, three choruses, four choruses.

Each time Captain Black forged ahead of his competitors, he swung upon them scornfully for their failure to follow his example. Each time they followed his example, he retreated with concern and racked his brain for some new stratagem that would enable him to turn upon them scornfully again.

...When they voiced objection, Captain Black replied that people who were loyal would not mind signing all the loyalty oaths they had to. To anyone who questioned the effectiveness of the loyalty oaths, he replied that people who really did owe allegiance to their country would be proud to pledge it as often as he forced them to. And to anyone who questioned the morality, he replied that 'The Star-Spangled Banner' was the greatest piece of music ever composed. The more loyalty oaths a person signed, the more loyal he was; to Captain Black it was as simple as that, and he had Corporal Kolodny sign hundreds with his name each day so that he could always prove he was more loyal than anyone else.
'The important thing is to keep them pledging,' he explained to his cohorts. 'It doesn't matter whether they mean it or not. That's why they make little kids pledge allegiance even before they know what "pledge" and "allegiance" mean.' 
Catch-22, chapter 11

Devil's brood, Devil's dictionary

I learnt about an intriguing piece of trivia from a radio panel game the other week. Apparently, Henry III signed a law decreeing the death penalty for anyone found killing, wounding or maiming fairies.

One of the few things I knew about Henry III was his reputation for immense piety which, at first glance, sits rather oddly with this rather heathen-sounding belief in fairy folk. But then again, maybe the pious are more susceptible to tales of the supernatural from outside their formal belief systems as well as inside them. King James I/VI was almost as famous for his credulous fascination with witchcraft as he was for the eponymous Bible he commissioned and it's now mainly obsessive Christians who literally believe in the spiritual threats posed by ouija boards, "Satanic" rock n' pop, energy drinks, Harry Potter and yoga.

Alternatively, could Henry's legendary piety have been a cover for a supernatural skeleton in the family cupboard?
According to Gerald of Wales, the counts of Anjou were descendants of the devil. In some distant time a count of Anjou married a beautiful, mysterious woman named Melusine. Many years later, after realising that his wife never attended mass, he forced her to remain in church during the eucharist. As she could not bear the holy ceremony she flew screaming out of the window, revealing her demonic origin. Notorious for their violent disputes - often among themselves - the legend was an explanation for this 'unnatural' behaviour. The story also inspired Alfred Duggan to call his - not particularly good - book about Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II and their offspring Devil's Brood.

Superstitious nonsense, of course, but I was briefly fascinated by the possibility that the Henry might have believed in his faery/diabolical ancestry. Weird, but not completely unbelievable for a medieval monarch, schooled to accept weird shit like the Divine Right of Kings, and even closer to plausibility when you consider that Japanese Emperors have claimed descent from the sun goddess Amaterasu right up to modern times.

Just when I was getting to enjoy this Game of Thrones-style mashup of Plantagenet history and supernatural fantasy, some doubts began to creep in. According to Melanie J Firth:
Did you also know that there is actually an ancient law stating that it was a capital offence to kill a faery? King Henry III passed this law in 1153. It stated that even just causing injury to a faery was punishable by the death penalty. 
... Just for the record, Henry’s law above has never been repealed.
In a country archaic enough to possess a House of Lords, with seating for the Lords Spiritual on the bench of bishops, it's almost possible to believe that you could still be tried for GBH to Tinkerbell. Sadly, Henry III would have had some difficulty in passing such a law in 1153, given that he wasn't born until 1207. A bit more light Googling of this suspiciously-dated statute failed to pin it down, then revealed that this "fact" was propagated because the radio researchers didn't recognise a joke, rather like those journalists who occasionally get caught out recycling unchecked headlines from The Onion as real news:
On occasion I'll find an interesting fact on my nerd calendar, "Jeff Kacirk's Forgotten English", and Wednesday, June 19th was just such a day. The entry on that date discussed statutes for odd crimes in England, the weirdest being the "one signed by Henry III specifying death for maiming a fairy". I got all excited and wondered why they didn't include the statute number or a date, at least. A little investigation only frustrated my attempts. Was it such an archaic law that no one had heard about it? Where could I find more information?

Twitter. Obviously. But don't get your hopes up, people because THE CALENDAR IS A LIIIIIIIIIIIIIE. According to @WolfeSelma (who I think might be my common law Twitter-wife), the story about Henry III was just a joke written by Ambrose Bierce, an American satirist, in his 1906 book Devil's Dictionary--and the calendar had tried to pass this off as fact. That makes me so angry that if I ever meet Jeff Kacirk, I'm going to throw boiling coffee at him. I'll scald out the calumnies.

Bierce's entry for "Fairy" comically defines the mythical creature and then says: "In the time of Henry III, of England, a law was made which prescribed the death penalty for "Kyllynge, wowndynge, or mamynge" ["killing, wounding, or maiming" in pseudo-Middle English] a fairy, and it was universally respected".

So much for expecting properly checked facts from The Unbelievable Truth. It's back to More or Less for me...

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Unpaid producers and paid slackers

Where there is no tension between supply and demand, there can be no market and no capital accumulation. What peer producers are doing, for now mostly producing intangible entities such as knowledge, software and design, is to create an abundance of easily reproduced information and actionable knowledge.
...wrote Michel Bauwens, back in 2012. He wrote an optimistic follow-up, in which he proposed the Occupy Wall Street movement as a model for a new economic paradigm that would replace the old, broken one:
Occupy Wall Street set up working groups to find solutions to their physical needs. The economy was considered as a provisioning system (as explained in Marvin Brown's wonderful book, Civilising the Economy), and it was the "citizens", organised in these working groups, who decided which provisioning system was appropriate given their ethical values.
We're still waiting for that new paradigm and, if the success of Occupy is supposed to be the prototype, we might be in for disappointment, or at the least, a very long wait. Meanwhile, the old-fashioned "real" economy, where capital "efficiently" extracts the maximum surplus value from the employment of labour, blunders on in all its gloriously dysfunctional absurdity, as Roland Paulsen of Lund University in Sweden has been finding out:
Paulsen focused on the most extreme shirkers. He interviewed 43 Swedish workers who claimed to spend less than half of their work hours actually working. He tracked down these hardcore non-performers through friends of friends, web ads and the Swedish website, where people share slacking stories and tips. Most were white-collar workers, but a construction worker, a security guard and several house cleaners also participated. Paulsen's interviews were designed to answer two basic questions: How do you get away with this? and Why do you do it?

....Paulsen concludes that rampant slacking isn't hurting capitalism all that much. Nor is he convinced that slacking off at work is an effective form of psychological resistance, given that many subjects saw their idleness as involuntary or unenjoyable.

In the end, the most Paulsen can say about empty labor is that it underscores the absurdities of an economy where people are paid for their time rather than their output. Huge numbers of people are working significantly fewer hours than they're getting paid for, and the system grinds on just the same.

This is the shoddy reward that workers get for dramatically increased productivity: The work of an 8-hour day now fits comfortably into a 6-hour day. Corporate profits are skyrocketing, but the average worker is still obliged to sit around for 8 hours, on call for the boss. So, who's stealing time from whom?
In these times

Bauwens' new paradigm thingy may look like wishful thinking, but so does the idea that current way of carrying on is a good use of anybody's time. 

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Cut the crap

At last, a silver lining to the dark cloud of permanent austerity hanging over the UK and the rest of Europe:
Twenty years ago the government backed a major expansion of the CCTV network - now funds are being cut and cameras shut off...
...The UK has one of the largest CCTV networks in the world. But as cash-strapped councils look for cost-saving measures, the effectiveness of public CCTV is under scrutiny.

For once, they're thinking about cutting back on a white elephant that's grown out of all proprtion, rather than just on services that make people's lives better:
Britain has an out-of-control surveillance culture that is doing little to improve public safety but has made our cities the most watched in the world. Figures suggest that Britain is home to 20% of the world’s population of CCTV cameras, despite being home to just 1% of the world’s population. One study suggested the average Londoner is caught on camera more than 300 times every day [although, even in the most heavily-monitored parts of the capital, CCTV records can turn out be mysteriously patchy at the most inconvenient moments].
Big Brother Watch

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Nous sommes Charlie, et Salman, et Johnny Fartpants

There have been some interesting reactions to l'affaire Charlie (as well as plenty of boringly predictable ones). If I'm reading him right, David Timoney reckons that it's no big deal, free speech-wise, on the grounds that Charlie Hebdo didn't have anything big or clever to say and was just a low-circulation comic with fart gags; more Viz than Voltaire.

In contrast, The Plump cites a leftist Frenchman by the name of Oliver Tonneau, who insists that Charlie Hebdo was campaigning about serious subjects from a progressive viewpoint that warrants solidarity, not sneering, from fellow leftists:
It might be worth knowing that the main target of Charlie Hebdo was the Front National and the Le Pen family. Next came crooks of all sorts, including bosses and politicians (incidentally, one of the victims of the shooting was an economist who ran a weekly column on the disasters caused by austerity policies in Greece). Finally, Charlie Hebdo was an opponent of all forms of organized religions, in the old-school anarchist sense: Ni Dieu, ni maître! They ridiculed the pope, orthodox Jews and Muslims in equal measure and with the same biting tone. They took ferocious stances against the bombings of Gaza. Even if their sense of humour was apparently inacceptable to English minds, please take my word for it: it fell well within the French tradition of satire – and after all was only intended for a French audience. It is only by reading or seeing it out of context that some cartoons appear as racist or islamophobic. Charlie Hebdo also continuously denounced the pledge of minorities and campaigned relentlessly for all illegal immigrants to be given permanent right of stay. I hope this helps you understand that if you belong to the radical left, you have lost precious friends and allies.

If Tonneu's description is anywhere close to being accurate, (and he's not the only anti-racist lefty who is out and proud to be Charlie), Charlie Hebdo sounds as if it might truly deserve the "I'm Spartacus" treatment it's been getting from its supporters.

But even if Tonneau's dead wrong and Charlie Hebdo is nothing but a gang of overgrown schoolkids making *hilarious* rude noises to annoy the grown-ups, solidarity is still in order. Censorship by murder was insane enough when people were threatening Salman Rushdie, but if you think that was mad, what about Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells rocking up in ninja fancy dress, ready to assassinate Johnny Fartpants unless the authorities agree to Ban This Sick Filth Right Now? If you think somebody's being  juvenile or unfunny, you just mock or ignore them. If you feel the need to ban or shoot them, you have seriously lost the plot.

Alternatively, if the magazine really does shout out on behalf of minorities, take the piss out of the extreme right, prick authoritarian pomposity and ridicule mindless dogma, as Tonneau claims it does, then it would be a pretty sick joke to see it abandoned by the left and opportunistically embraced by nitwits like the Front National and TV "experts" who can't tell the difference between the West Midlands and Riyadh.

You could say, as Chris Dillow and Kate Belgrave have, that it's hypocritical to stand up for free speech in this area, when the powerful have already effectively closed down free speech on so many issues that matter and when so many knee-jerk authoritarians have hopped on to the "je suis Charlie" bandwagon. 

True enough, but two wrongs don't make a right. If other vested interests have already more or less succeeded in enforcing their arbitrary authority, I don't imagine that capitulating to the whims of yet another set of self-appointed censors will do anything to reduce our sense of learned helplessness in the face of unreasonable demands.

There's a more specific form of hypocrisy going on here, from the French authorities who have appropriated  Charlie's uncompromisingly secular rhetoric, whilst continuing to support such bastions of sectarian privilege as state-supported Catholic Schools. The hypocrisy isn't lost on the people behind Chalie Hebdo, as today's editorial makes clear: 'We thank from the bottom of our heart all those individuals and organisations who are sincerely and profoundly Charlie… We pour shit on all the others who don’t give a f*** about us in any case.' and neither is the irony of an unsolicited endorsement from the God Squad ('What made us laugh the most was that the bells of Notre Dame rang in our honour.'). It'd be good to see Charlie's natural allies outnumbering such incongruous bandwagon-jumpers.

Friday, 9 January 2015

I agree with Nick

The horrific attack in France this week was an attempt to close down our societies, to close down minds, and to close down free expression. It was an assault not just on journalists and cartoonists but on the values of free speech, public dispute and openness which those professions embody. It was an attack on the very heart of an open, liberal society.

Sadly, attacks like these can lead governments, sometimes with the best of intentions, to introduce measures in the name of public safety that undermine the very freedoms we cherish, and which our enemies despise...

...But all governments are capable of trampling on free speech, which is why in 2013 my party forced the repeal of Section 5 of the Public Order Act which criminalised the use of “insulting words” that cause “alarm or distress.” Section 5 was used to arrest demonstrators in Trafalgar Square for wearing T-shirts depicting the Danish cartoons, and to prosecute someone who described scientology as a “dangerous cult.”
Blimey! Nick "Disappointment" Clegg actually uses his platforms in the Torygraph and on LBC radio to makes a good point rather well.

OK, it's wrapped up in some sort of weird, Blairite, content-free wibble ('The way we describe the world is changing. The old labels - East and West; Left and Right; market and state – are increasingly irrelevant in a fluid, globalised world'). As the young people say, what does that even mean?

But, after mentally editing out the meaningless filler, I completely agree with his main point.

Bullies who answer dissent with intimidation rather than argument don't deserve a hearing, whether those bullies are angry sectarians shutting people up with Kalashnikovs or politicians trying to outlaw dissent.
There's altogether too much harping on respect and banning these days. If you can't respect something, you should ban it. If it's not banned, you should respect it. Bullshit. (David Mitchell)

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Who governs Britain?

I didn't mean my list of comparisons between this coming election year and 1974, the year of two elections, to be comprehensive, but I should mention one point I missed, which I think is 2015's in-room pachyderm.

'Who governs Britain?', asked Ted Heath, hoping that the answer would be the government in Westminster, rather than the unions who were then holding his feet to the fire.

'Who governs Britain?' should still be a live issue this time round, too, although the challenge to elected governments comes from a very different direction - even any Sleeping Beauties who might have managed to doze through the post-Thatcher de-unionisation and financialization of Britain should have woken up and smelled the Gold Blend some time around 2008. 

Unions, which used to represent (however imperfectly) large numbers of ordinary working people, don't now have the heft to push governments around. The still-to-big-to-fail, still-above-the-law financial institutions, busily snatching massive slabs of cake for the mollycoddled 1% and leaving the rest of us to squabble over the crumbs, do. 

We've got a sitting prime minister who's failed to 'grip' this issue and his Number Two, who's guilty of lobbying the rest of Europe for yet more sucking up to the pampered vested interests that hold elected governments to ransom. We have an opposition hamstrung by a jet-setting back-seat driver, who wants a return to some weirdly-defined "centre ground" where everybody's  intensely relaxed about millionaire ex-pols leveraging their brand capital to lobby dictators on behalf of bankers.  And a cross-party consensus that the only sensible thing to do is to heap a bit more or less austerity on the backs of the poor and middling sort of people, then pin the blame for any pain on foreigners, or some other conveniently powerless group of scapegoats, whilst ignoring the places where all the money went.

The question of who's really in charge should be even bigger than it was in 1974, come this May.

But it probably won't be, since the City, via its well-paid flunkies, is probably spending a lot of its considerable stock of influence keeping this question off the electoral agenda.

Nah - on second thoughts, that's crazy talk...

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Not another seventies tribute act

The history book on the shelf,
Is always repeating itself.
From Abba's Waterloo, of course (the UK's Number One hit single for two weeks from the end of April 1974).

The predictions of a too-close-to-call election in 2015 leads one blogger to speculate that we might end up with a re-run of 1974, in the form of a hung parliament and two elections. I don't know about that, but it got me thinking about 1974 as a point of comparison with today.

We may be in for another narrow margin and, who knows, maybe two elections if another coalition isn't stitched up pronto but in most other respects, 2015 Britain doesn't seem to have the makings of a 1974 tribute act.

Sorry, Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid, but the history book on the shelf just isn't repeating itself. The environment for voters (and the government they elect) has changed, mostly out of all recognition, although one issue, migration, (which I don't think is that big an issue, although most voters apparently disagree with me) still seems to get people inexplicably steamed up to about the same degree.

A few almost-random comparisons:

Then, 17.2% (a 34-year high), now 1% (a 12-year low).*

 National debt/GDP ratio
 Then, under 50% (and falling), now  predicted to peak at 81.1%. Try shrinking that with inflation running at 1%...

 Then, 3.7%,**  now 6.1%**
Real wages growth
Was  +2.9% on average throughout the 1970s and 80s, is predicted to be +2.5% (after six years of falling wages).

 The percentage of income taken by the 1% of top earners was about 7% then. It's 13% now.

Price of oil
It was four times more expensive in 1974 than before the previous year's oil crisis. It is
less than half as expensive in 2015 as it was at the start of 2014.

Balance of Payments

  • Around 1974, about 260,000 houses were being built (approximately 170,000 by the private sector, 80,000 by local authorities and the remainder by housing associations). 
  • These days, it's more like 110,000 for a larger population (80,000 by private enterprise, 30,000 by housing associations and approximately zilch by local authorities). The (slightly vague) figures are from the graph on this page 
Union membership

Around 12 million employees in the UK were union members in the mid '70s. It's more like 6.5 million these days. 

Fear and loathing of migrants and minorities
Looks like it's still too soon to tune in to programmes like It Was Alright in the 1970s and smugly congratulate ourselves on how much more tolerant and enlightened we've all become.

Bigotry aside, the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

*Year-on-year figure from November 2014

**ILO Unemployment rate: UK: All: Aged 16-64 - 2015 figure is actually from September 2014, but seems in line with forecasts for the coming year

***Inflation adjustment is only to 2009, but good enough for the ball park...

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The Christmas truce, witches, alien invasions and bloody Ukip...

...although not necessarily in that order.
German journalist Sigrun Rottman told the BBC that Pegida protesters were mixed but that the marches did include right-wing and racist groups.

She said it was important to note that Dresden, compared to other German cities, had very few immigrants, and even fewer Muslim residents.

This anticorrelation between the fear of migrants and the actual level of migration in an area shouldn't come as a surprise to us in Britain, where Ukip is doing best in areas with the fewest migrants.

Come to think of it, it shouldn't come as a surprise to people in either Britain or Germany, given the recent widespread commemorations of the the 1914 Christmas truce on the Western Front.

No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy and neither does any plan to demonise the designated bad guys, if 'contact' extends to include singing carols together, exchanging gifts and having the odd football game with people who aren't really that different from you and your mates.

Nigel Farage is said to enjoy battlefield tours of the Western Front ('he reserves his greatest enthusiasm for touring World War I battlefields, with a group of close friends who call themselves "Farage's Foragers"') and I'm guessing he must have been especially inspired by the no-nonsense way the respective generals were quick to crack down on such unseemly fraternisation with the enemy and to ensure that there would be no repeat of the Christmas 1914 truce to interfere with the serious job of forging iron morale and esprit de corps through shared hatred of a distant, faceless, subhuman enemy.

If people are most xenophobic where migrants are fewest, then it's pointless trying to appease Ukip and Europe's other anti-immigrant parties with ever-tougher border controls. The fact that a particular designated "threat" is tiny to the point of being almost non-existent doesn't necessarily stop those with a vested interest in "saving" the rest of us - witness the masterly way the security services have managed to maintain and possibly increase their influence on decision makers, not to mention their intrusive surveillance of populations, despite the shrinkage of the national security threat from a superpower confrontation where one wrong move could have resulted in global nuclear annihilation, to controlling a loose group of discontents who pose approximately the same level of existential threat to UK society as angry bees.

It's not the first time in history we've seen this sort of crazy political homoeopathy, with the potency of hatred increasing in inverse proportion to the actual numbers of those being hated:
Since there were few Jews in Spain before 1936 there was hardly a “Jewish problem.” However, Spanish anti-Semitism without Jews was not about real Jews but was an abstract construction of a perceived international threat. 
And what about the witch crazes of the early modern period? The shaking up of a complacent establishment by a self-appointed Witchfinder General, unafraid of confronting the witch threat with tough measures, such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation, probably helped to address people's genuine concerns about being attacked by old women with non-existent supernatural powers. But even when the fear of witches was at its highest, the number of genuine witches was precisely zero.

The idea of confronting such an entirely non-existent threat made me think of an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" sort of scenario. There was an old episode of The Outer Limits in which a group of idealistic scientists decided to save squabbling humanity from destroying itself by staging a fake alien invasion of Earth, in an effort to unite the peoples of the world against a perceived, common enemy. My bright idea for the day is to declare war on that wretched hive of scum and villainy, Gliese 832 c, whose inhabitants keep on coming over here, stealing our jobs and benefits. It makes at least as much sense as some other political programmes that many important people seem to take quite seriously and can count on the backing of at least one well-known economist, so I reckon this plan has legs ... or maybe tentacles ...

Monday, 5 January 2015

If irritation occurs, discontinue use

Here's some actual company information from the labelling on an actual product (specifically "My Coconut Island" bath and shower gel, from the "treaclemoon" brand):
We like to create products that you will love to use [the market for bubble bath that customers will hate to use is thought to be rather limited] ... scrumptious smells, fabulous textures and a "look" that will sit with pride in your bathroom. It's a special little team who make treaclemoon happen... take Charles Henry Nelson, our rather random garden gnome whom we consult about all elements of creative and design... His lilac and yellow knitted socks are unusual but necessary... and there's Matilda Fizzbucket our bubbly chemist who has a cat with turquoise whiskers an of course me, Dunc and Sarah.
Cue cries of 'What a bunch of quirky funsters!' and 'Where can I buy their stuff?'

People who bought this item also bought an animal print onesie, many chocolates, a box set of Miranda episodes, hilarious novelty slippers and the largest bottle of Bailey's known to humanity.

At the other end of the insultingly stereotypical gendered branding spectrum sits the tag line for Alpecin Caffeine Shampoo ("German engineering for your hair"), because Real Men don't buy hair care products, unless they're cunningly disguised as something the Top Gear team might take for a test drive. In real life, the dead protein filaments that grow out of your head have very little in common with a German car and trying to combine the two is usually a mistake.

On the whole, I'd say that there are probably enough irritating real people in the world already, without manufacturing irritating artificial personalities for brands, too, but maybe that's just me.