Friday, 27 February 2015

Wolf Hall, office politics and a new world order

David Timoney's assessment of the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall is spot-on in places:
Portraits of Thomas Cromwell show a bruiser in the mould of Ed Balls. Though leaner, Ben Miles was closer to this, with a loose-limbed gait and accent that suggested both the commoner and the soldier. In contrast, Mark Rylance was too feline, though the screenplay made the most of this in scenes where he quietly watches events, sometimes concealed or paused on the threshold, acting furiously with just his eyes. The moments when he threatened violence were unconvincing.
I'm also on board with his thoughts about the lack of a bigger picture:
The sense of profound historical change, such as the social ramifications of the dissolution of the monasteries or the economic and geopolitical pivot from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, is entirely absent from the confined world of the court. History is reduced to the conservative notion of inter-generational debt: Cromwell's filial-like loyalty to Wolsey and his paternal concern for Gregory are contrasted favourably with the dynastic instrumentalism of the aristocracy.
There were plenty of of things going on during the transition from late medieval to early modern period that were a lot more novel, exciting and interesting than yet more iterations of the centuries-old story of royal reproduction, dynastic bickering and jostling for favour at court.

Our view of the Iberian Peninsular and the Ottoman Empire is coloured by our national story, in which the rise of English and British power around the globe is routinely contrasted with the decline and fall of old, enfeebled empires in these parts of the world. But in the 16th Century, the newly unified Spain was a rising power and the Iberian Peninsula was at the heart of an unprecedented wave of systematic exploration, discovery, trade, colonisation and (often ruthless) exploitation of hitherto unknown lands. At the end of the previous century, a mere two years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue, in a document of breathtaking ambition (and arrogance), the monarchs of Spain and Portugal agreed to carve up the entire non-Christian world between themselves.

As for the Ottomans, this wave of expansion in the west was, at least in part, driven by Ottoman success in the east. The completion of the Reconquista, along with the mariner's astrolabe, the carrack, the caravel and the nau gave the Iberians the some of the means and opportunity to complete voyages of discovery. Much of the motive had come from Ottoman domination of trade routes to the east, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and the search for alternative routes to the Indes. The Ottoman Empire itself wouldn't reach its greatest extent until the 1680s, so we need to lose our hindsight view, coloured by a much later history of decline and the "sick man of Europe" jibe. Like all political careers, all Empires and other power structures end in failure, but, given the brief span of human lives, any that manage to endure for more than a couple of centuries or so must be counted as successful in their own terms.

Then there's a marriage far happier and more fruitful than any of Henry VIII 's dynastic couplings; movable type printing wedded to an alphabetic script. Timoney's right to warn against the ahistorical conflation of this development with the much later appearance of widespread literacy at all levels of society, but it's still a biggie - vernacular Bibles and prayer books, grammars, books of mathematics, philosophy, statecraft and what we'd now call science, all circulating among the educated classes. And, more to the point, printed accounts of newly-explored lands to tempt merchants and would-be adventurers.

"Arabic" numerals were known in the Europe in previous centuries, but their use was spreading by this time - there is evidence of them becoming more widespread even in England from their appearance on 15th century monuments.

By this stage, cannons and portable firearms which had started off in China had made their way to Europe, via the Muslim world, and would eventually displace those medieval icons, the castle and the armoured knight. 

Of course, for most ordinary people busy working the land, or being servants, it was the same old same old, but the well-off and the movers and shakers were no longer living in Ecclesiastes World where 'The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.'

In contrast, the repetitive squabbles over dynastic politics, currying favour with the power brokers and succession crises which feature so largely in Wolf Hall could have been set in almost any any Medieval court (in reality or fantasy).

This sort of highly personal jockeying for power is really just office politics writ large, and this depressingly timeless familiarity may account for a lot of Wolf Hall's appeal. You'd have hoped that the despotic power relations of 16th Century would be unrecognisable to somebody in a modern workplace in a democratic, liberal society, but Nick Cohen's line 'Every time you go into your workplace, you leave a democracy and enter a dictatorship', often seems pretty darn close to the truth. At least the boss can only cut off your income, not your head.

I guess if you are (depending on your point of view) lucky, or unlucky enough to work in the executive suite of one of the big banks, things must be even more like a historical palace drama, with the heads of unfortunate underlings and whistle-blowers (figuratively) rolling, while the rapacious kingmakers and courtiers get on with the serious business of conspicuous competitive consumption, back-stabbing, deceit and looting.

But where would you start, if you wanted to make a BBC-friendly historical drama that focused on the profound, interesting and new things that were happening in the 16th century world? Maybe the big picture stuff would be best left to a documentary, but if I had to pitch an idea for a historical drama that focused on the unique and exciting changes that separated the medieval from the modern, I'd leave the court of Henry VIII and move forward to the mid to late 16th century. By then, England, like Iberia, was to ready explore strange new lands, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no one had gone before (no one, that is, except for the peoples who'd been living in the strange new lands for the last sixteen thousand-odd years but who, as heathens, obviously didn't count).

For a BBC costume a drama combining a well-known period and least one historical character with wide name-recognition, focused on everything that was new and exciting in the early modern period, I'd go to the court of Queen Elizabeth in the age of discovery. Main characters? That well-known swashbuckler Francis Drake and the extraordinary polymath John Dee, rumoured to be the 'intellectual force' behind Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe.*

Dee studied 'geography, astronomy, astrology, optics, navigation, nautical engineering, scripture, mathematics, law, medicine, cryptography', tried to communicate with angels, (leading, bizarrely,. to a spot of wife-swapping with his research assistant), was the 007 before Sean Connery and, as a cheerleader for imperialism, was awarded the rights to 'all newly discovered land north of the 50th Parallel, which would have given him Canada—had Drake gone any further north than Oregon.'

Forget fascinating stillness and  meaningful looks, this could be full-on, over-the-top, borderline insane Ken Russell territory. Naysayers might call it too nerdcore for prime time, but I'd call it an unbridled romp through a larger-than-life age with bit parts for Walter Raleigh, Queen Bess, that well-known patron of the dark arts and part-Time Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II and Will Shakespeare, for extra brand recognition. Pass the popcorn.

*Not having read Jason Louv's book (yet), I've no idea how convincing this claim is, but it would make for a great story.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Afraid of the dark?

A solar eclipse in March could plunge the country into darkness as the sky is covered and energy supplies are put at risk.

The eclipse will block out nearly 90 per cent of the sunlight in parts of Europe – with some of Scotland seeing 94 per cent coverage. And the electricity supplies might not be able to take up the strain, since so much of Europe’s power supply now relies on solar energy.
Screams the Independent. Because Northern Europe has always enjoyed a plentiful supply of reliable, uninterrupted sunshine, so its power networks will obviously collapse on March the 20th due to the unprecedented challenge of a couple of hours of slightly-lower-than-average sunlight and a terrifying two minutes or so of near-twilight (it's not even a total eclipse over most of Europe - you'd have to be in the Faroes or Svalbard to experience a total eclipse, weather permitting).

Spend the time you have left stocking up on candles, canned goods and firearms, or prepare to die.

Amid the general apocalyptic panic and tinfoil hattery, I must admit to being a bit disappointed with the headline contributed by the Daily Mail:
Solar eclipse could see 84% of sunlight blocked out over London. 
Really, people, is that the best you can do? Sunlight, as any fule kno, stimulates the production of vitamin D, which can help protect against cancer, so I was hoping for something more creative, like this:
Solar eclipse could trigger cancer epidemic
as part of the Mail's ongoing project to divide everything in the universe into things that cause cancer and things that prevent it. Have they stopped trying, or what?


Update - since I took that screenshot. I see that those lovely people at the Telegraph have used some of the space saved by not reporting wrongdoing at HSBC to add to the nonsensical scare headlines:
Solar eclipse to disrupt power supplies 

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Gossip and golden eggs

In 1821, John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, Whig Member of Parliament and heir to a huge mining fortune, added the nickname "King Jog'' to his other titles, after after commenting airily that 'a man might jog along comfortably enough on £40,000 a year' (it's hard to give an exact equivalent in today's money, but we'd certainly be talking about at least a million or two). I first came across King Jog when he got a brief mention in T H White's gossipy history of the period from the late eighteenth century to the Regency, The Age of Scandal.

White loved such gossip in high places, but also had this to say about its purveyors:
Their literature was one of personalities. Great thoughts on large political or moral issues were absent, leaving only the trivialities of life and the anecdotes about character which are the bane of serious historians. 
In this sense, the Jack Straw / Malcolm Rifkind scandal belongs in the gossip columns rather than on the front pages. The venality, complacency, self-importance and boundless sense of entitlement might make ordinary people angry with the individuals concerned, but does getting angry help, or do we lose sight of the bigger picture when the red mist descends? Malcolm Rifkind's self-justification, for example, might make many hard-up voters very cross indeed:
I think also if you’re trying to attract people of a business or professional background to serve in the House of Commons and if they’re not ministers it is quite unrealistic to believe they will go through their parliamentary career being able to simply accept a salary of £60,000. 
But, as Michael Greenwell points out in one of the most thoughtful reflections I've seen on the affair, it's not Rifkind's infuriatingly complacent assumption that of course he, personally, must be worth more a lot more than some insulting pittance like sixty grand a year that's the problem.

The larger political issue is that we live in a society where representative democracy takes a back seat to the notion that wealth, and anything else of value, is exclusively created by an elite class of gifted managers, the magic geese who lay the golden eggs on which we talentless moochers in the 99% rely. These geese must be fattened, pampered, petted and cosseted, lest they waddle off and take their god-like talents elsewhere, leaving the rest of us to starve as a result of our own indolent stupidity. If only we had more of these wonderful geese sitting in parliament, instead of ordinary, mediocre folk, we'd all be living in a rich, happy, magical kingdom.

Ironically, even Dan Hodges of the Telegraph, the paper that set up the sting, has completely internalised the belief system behind cash for access:
...they should earn that because they are worth it. Jack Straw will regret till the day he dies admitting on national television he charges £5000 a day for his commercial activities. But that’s what he can command, so like it or not, that’s what he’s worth...
...Forget the vacuous argument we need “more ordinary people in politics”. What we need are more extraordinary people in politics.
In short, he shares the ideology that underpins Straw and Rifkind's desperate self-justifications. But it's only a belief system and not a very convincing one, at that. Even Forbes, the parish magazine for the plutocracy, has noticed that faith that all we need is more highly-paid supermangers isn't very firmly founded in actual evidence:
They [Michael Cooper of the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business and two other researchers] also looked at pay and company performance in three-year periods over a relatively long time span, from 1994-2013, and compared what are known as firms’ “abnormal” performance, meaning a company’s revenues and profits as compared with like companies in their fields. They were startled to find that the more CEOs got paid, the worse their companies did.

Another counter-intuitive conclusion: The negative effect was most pronounced in the 150 firms with the highest-paid CEOs. The finding is especially surprising given the widespread notion that it’s worth it to pay a premium to superstar CEO... 
Forget the vacuous argument that we need “more golden-egg-laying geese in politics.” What Fairyland really needs right now is for more people to notice the non-existence of that new Savile Row business suit the Emperor just bought.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Disarming fanatics, one platitude at a time

The Flying Rodent does some good polemic and, more often than not, the guy has a good point to make. But, as you'd expect, I'm not totally on board with his takedown of this article:
I'll say this for Cameron and Obama - they at least have the savvy to spot that a militia full of murderers that attracts members by claiming to represent real Islam would probably be delighted if the US and UK to declared that yes, IS is properly Islamic and shit.
I guess that this must be the sort of "savvy" pioneered by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, the brainchild of that guy whose visionary interfaith talkathon has demonstrably brought so much peace and understanding to the contemporary Middle East. Sarcasm aside, I haven't noticed any peace dividend being paid out in return for politicians' investment of thousands of reflexive platitudes about respect for great religions and the reprehensible impiety of those whose supposed religious devotion manifests itself an a distressingly antisocial manner.

It's almost as if the politicians' intended audience was actually intelligent enough to realise that they might just be saying these sort of things because it's diplomatic to say them, rather than because they actually believe* any of the stuff that happens to come out of their mouths. I suspect that for your average, non-violent Muslim in the street, this sort of rhetoric is about as compelling as the " hard-working families" blather pols trot out when they want the rest of us to believe they respect us.

And the idea of Islamic State leaders and sympathisers being swayed by non-Muslim politicians parroting the obligatory "great religion" sound-bite is about as likely as Tory politicians being swayed by the Church of England's 'moral vision' thing, when True Believers in the Free Market (peace be upon it) already know that it is only 'easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God', if the rich man in question lacks the foresight to deposit his wealth with HSBC's High-Net-Worth, Tax-Efficient Camel-Through-The-Eye-Of-A-Needle savings vehicle, including complimentary travel insurance and a free in-branch Toblerone.

Maybe, rather than prattling on about "fundamental and deep respect" for people's sincere devotion to religion/England flags/other stuff that they clearly couldn't give a monkey's about but feel it's politic to defer to, politicians should just stick to talking about the stuff they really care about. Like what they actually got into politics to improve and how, specifically, they propose to actually go about doing it. And shut up about whether or not certain actions or attitudes fall within or outside the ambit of a belief system they don't actually share.

Some may think that such facile insta-respect is "savvy", but there are better words. Like "insincere", "patronising", "manipulative" and "ineffective." Stick to what you know and substitute substitute silence for half-truths and platitudes about stuff you neither know nor care about and, who knows, you might even start to sound more like an honest broker whose word can be trusted than a flattering chancer saying what he or she thinks the audience wants to hear.

*Although the Reverend Blair himself added a further level of deception to the twaddle - he didn't just peddle such platitudes, but managed to convince himself they were true.

Friday, 20 February 2015

I am Master of this College, What I don't know isn't knowledge

'"No religion is responsible for terrorism — people are responsible for violence and terrorism," Obama told delegates at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.'

One of the enviable privileges that religion still enjoys is the default assumption by public figures that all religion is good religion. Although those behind Islamic State (there's a clue in the name), are deadly serious about Sharia, praying five times a day, destroying antiquities that might be considered idolatrous, or which might hint at the religious diversity that used to exist within the borders of their self-declared Caliphate and cite the authority of the Quran or hadiths to justify their every action, we're supposed to believe that they're not really religious at all.

It's a neat rhetorical trick - all religion must be good, because any examples of bad religion are immediately re-defined as not-religion or not "true" religion. I suspect that if politicians were able to successfully pull off this trick for their own profession, their standing would be a lot higher. Politics would become a high and noble calling, because broken election promises, being economical with the truth, smears, demagogues appealing to prejudice and hate, corruption, gerrymandering, misleading spin, careerism and all the other things people love to hate about politics would simply be redefined as not-politics.

Amazingly, President Obama manages to pack even more wrongness into this short passage with the idea that individual people are the problem, rather than the ideology they follow, which is dangerously close to the mindset of the people he's trying to counter, who hold that religion itself is perfect and unquestionable and reserve their head-chopping "justice" for the weak, flawed, sinful people who fail to live up to its unimprovable dictates.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Fearful symmetry

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, according to Mister Newton. Although, it turns out that some reactions aren't quite as opposite as you might expect:
As the world gleefully awaited the release of Fifty Shades of Grey, Evangelical Christians were awaiting ... well, it would be inaccurate to call Old Fashioned the Christian version of the film, but it's definitely meant to be the Christian response...
...Fans of Fifty Shades might see echoes of that book in this basic plot summary. In both stories, a man with unconventional notions of romance and sex woos a woman, getting her to at least consider his viewpoint. Except in Fifty Shades, this involves lots of sex, and in Old Fashioned, this involves, well, no sex at all.
Brandon Ambrosino in Vox explores how the Evangelicals' cinematic response to this season's BDSM blockbuster ended up being an awkward mirror-image of everything it stands against, with celibacy and spanking respectively cast as revolutionary acts challenging the permissive/vanilla mainstream.  As any parent will tell you, you need to pick your battles and it often turns out that tactically ignoring some challenges is far a better option than launching an unwinnable counter-attack.

In this case, action and reaction aren't even close to being equal, either:
Since its February 6 release, Old Fashioned has brought in about $258,000. On its opening Friday alone, Fifty Shades pulled in over $30 million, making it the fourth highest opening night box office of any R-rated film ever, according to Box Office Mojo.
Fortunately, Isaac Newton was never a film critic.

Friday, 13 February 2015

3 shades of vanilla and kink

Are HSBC, the Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, the regulators and the prosecutors all naughty organisations, or just misunderstood? Very, very, naughty according to Bill Black, who thinks that the things that they and the super-rich were getting up to in private were considerably naughtier than anything in Fifty Shades of Grey. Or maybe, to use Lord Fink's phrase, HSBC was just helping jet-setters to act out the the sort of harmless 'vanilla' games we'd all like to play, given the chance. Admit it, you know you want to.

I'm broad-minded enough to allow that there are three possible explanations which fit the facts, ranging from the plain vanilla to the very naughty indeed:
  1. The controlling minds at HSBC, the HMRC and et al. were reasonably competent and honest people who wanted to play by the rules, but  found themselves in charge of, or investigating, an organisation that's too big and complex for any human, however talented, to control effectively.
  2. The people in charge were fools, who should have known what was going on, but didn't.
  3. The people in charge were crooks, or bent officials turning a blind eye, who knowingly created, or tolerated, a 'massive criminal enterprise.'
It doesn't really matter which of the above is true, because the solution is the same in all three cases:
  1. Break up the big banks and reverse deregulation because, however diligent, intelligent and honest the people in charge at the banks, tax authorities and regulators are, these organisations are clearly too big to control without  breaking them down into manageable chunks and because allowing a broad scope for financial innovation has had the unintended consequence of exposing naive junior bankers to more temptation than any fallible human could be expected to resist.
  2. Break up the big banks and reverse deregulation because the highly respected senior tax officials and regulators and the bank CEOs who were ostensibly 'paid like Croesus because they are financial geniuses and managerial wizards' have all turned out to be idiots, so the size of whichever organisation they are supposed to head, or investigate, needs to be reduced until the bosses' responsibilities have shrunk to their level of their incompetence (I call this the reverse Peter Principle).
  3. Break up the big banks and reverse deregulation because banks like HSBC are 'massive criminal enterprises' which suck billions out of the productive economy to line their own pockets and those of a few dodgy plutocrats and have made themselves above the law by a combination of political bribery and regulatory capture.
The financial sector was out of control in 2008 and it nearly broke the whole damn country. It claimed to have reformed but, now that the financial sector has its very own Edward Snowden, it must be obvious to even the most obtuse outsider that it's as uncontrolled as ever.

Never mind, there's an election coming up, so we can always vote for change - or has any party with a snowball's chance in Hell of forming a government already been securely bound and gagged by the grey City suits, knowing it will be mercilessly punished the moment it fails to submit to their every whim? Is being able to vote for an Elizabeth Warren figure who's not locked into some kind of abusive, codependent relationship with Big Finance (and actually has the heft to sort this mess out) as much of an unrealistic fantasy as anything in the pages of E L James?

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Tomb raider

Did you know that Nelson is buried in Cardinal Wolsey's tomb? Despite Wolf Hall-inspired Tudor documentaries being all over the telly like a rash and me having visited St Paul's Cathedral within the last year or so, I'd managed to remain ignorant of this strange piece of trivia until it cropped up on a radio quiz show the other day.

Apparently, after Wolsey's fall from favour and death, the notoriously grabby Henry VIII took a fancy to the unfinished black stone* sarcophagus intended for the prelate's body and decided that he'd be like to buried in it himself, when his time came.

Not content with the base and bronze angels originally designed for Wolsey, Henry planned to pimp his ride to the Pearly Gates by modding his filched resting place with such kingly bling as bronze candlesticks, marble pillars and statues of himself, but his grand design was still unfinished when he died, so he ended up being buried beneath an engraved slab in  in Windsor Castle's St George's Chapel, next to Jane Seymour.

The plan was still to transfer the royal remains to Henry's dream tomb once it was finished but, somehow, nobody ever quite got round to finishing it.

During the Civil War, with the unfinished monument still in bits, the metalwork was sold off by Parliamentary forces to raise funds for garrisoning Windsor. The black sarcophagus stayed at Windsor until somebody had the bright idea of moving it to St Paul's, as a fitting resting place for the nation's greatest naval hero.

So it was that in 1806, two and three quarter centuries after Wolsey's death, in a cathedral that itself postdates his demise by more than a century and a half, His Eminence's tomb became the final resting place, not of a prince of the Church, but of a brandy-pickled, one-armed sailor and was finally topped off with a viscount's coronet in place of a cardinal's biretta.

Mostly just an unexpected historical curiosity, but it's also a small reminder that that messy, contingent history, like evolution, isn't the straightforward working out of a purposeful teleological narrative and that current use doesn't necessarily explain historical origin.

*Some sources say the sarcophagus is black marble, although I'm not entirely sure that real marble comes in black (I do know that other black rocks are colloquially called black marble). Others say it's made out of touchstone.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Swiss comedy gold

One inevitable stage in the endlessly repeating cycle of banking scandals is the ritual assertion that, although past "mistakes" were made, the miscreant bank or toothless/complicit regulator has now changed and the same thing could never happen again (almost always because the bankers have since moved on to some new and equally outrageous swindle, although they don't generally say that last bit). Rinse, repeat.

So kudos to an anonymous commentator at The Register for this masterly take-down of the boilerplate assurance that HSBC's private Swiss bank has now moved on and put its dodgy past behind it:
HSBC: 'In the past, the Swiss private banking industry operated very differently to the way it does today.'

Anon: 'They no longer have a box on the deposit slip for "Gold Teeth"?'
It's also worth reading the whole article, just to hammer home the obvious point that this problem will never go away, so long as the relevant authorities not only fail to prosecute crooked bankers, but also add insult to injury by using the full weight of the law to persecute whistleblowers like Hervé Falciani who reveal the banksters' crimes.

And what goes for the bankers goes for the tax cheats who use their services. Back at home, the former head of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, Dave Hartnett, (who subsequently moved on to a £1.25 million-a-year consultancy job for HSBC, before becoming trade minister), defended HMRC's decision not to prosecute the people who'd been hiding their loot from the tax authorities in HSBC's Swiss vaults:
 ...Yet at HMRC it was decided that prominent British individuals found to be cheating on their taxes would not be prosecuted, a process which would have led to them being named and the facts coming out.
Hartnett has defended the secret tax repayment deals. "There was never an intention to deliberately use taxpayer confidentiality to hide the identity of HSBC clients." Lin Homer, the overall head of HMRC, also defended this non-prosecution approach before the UK's public accounts committee in 2012, as a cheaper source of revenue. "The important thing is to get the money in," she said. 
Nobody at HMRC seems to have considered the obvious consideration that if you think you're likely to get away with it or, at worst, might have to come to a discreet arrangement with the Revenue, there's little disincentive to cheat. If you see the authorities going after your peers, who end up in jail, you might be a lot less inclined to dodge your taxes in the first place.

A quick glance at the divergent career paths of Hervé Falciani (on the run after exposing the crimes of the rich and powerful) and Dave Hartnett (passing effortlessly through the revolving door from his high-profile job as head of the Revenue, to a six-figure salaried post in banking, to the heart of government, after helping to cover up the crimes of the rich and powerful)* shows you why some people might get the unfortunate impression that we're the global subjects of a corrupt trans-national plutocracy, where the powerful do as they please and the little people get screwed, as opposed to citizens of mature democracies where everybody is equally subject to the rule of law.

* Update - not only did the HMRC fail to prosecute the tax cheats, but it apparently failed to pass on information about HSBC's malpractice to the financial services regulator.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Justice unaffordable, calculate accountants

There's been an interesting development in the long and shameful story of the Chagos islanders, those inhabitants of a British overseas territory who were forcibly expelled from their home islands by the British authorities in the late 1960s/early '70s and have been prevented from returning home ever since. According to the Graun:
...there is a real possibility that the survivors and their children will finally be allowed to go home...

The key to whether their hopes are realised resides in a feasibility report ... due to be published within days. An interim report confirmed re-homing them on Diego Garcia was viable. The final report is expected to reach the same conclusion. The government will outline how it intends to proceed in March.
Good news. There is a snag, though. The report suggests that allowing the Chagossians to return to Diego Garcia would cost at least £64m, spread over three years, raising the 'fear that the figure may be seized upon by a government determined to slash its deficit as an excuse for kicking the issue into the long grass again.'

And who produced the costing which will, in all probability, be seized on as another excuse for not righting the wrong done to the Chagossians? None other than that well-known provider of audit, tax, and advisory services, KPMG. Yes, that KPMG:
In 2005 one of the giant ‘Big Four’ international accountancy firms, KPMG, admitted criminal tax fraud and agreed to pay $456 million in penalties. Between 1996 and 2003 it sold transactions that created $12 billion in sham losses and cost the US Treasury $2.5 billion in unpaid tax. BLIPS – ‘bond-linked issue premium structures’ – were bought by 186 wealthy individuals and generated some $5 billion in tax losses. FLIP and OPIS, two other financial instruments, involved no-risk investment swaps through the Cayman Islands, a well-known tax haven. KPMG was not alone. The ‘alphabet soup’ of tax dodges was closely related to the ‘financial instruments’ that created the ‘credit crunch’ in August 2007.
So, a firm that's intensely relaxed about massaging figures on behalf of whoever happens to be paying for its services, whether it's wealthy tax avoiders or the providers of lucrative government contracts, just happens to have found another convenient excuse for those in power not to do the right thing by the wronged and powerless.

But let's just assume, for the sake of argument, that it really would cost over £64 million to do the right thing. I still wonder whether the precedent of what Britain did to the Chagos Islands opens up another possibility. If the UK government has the power to deport the entire population of one of its overseas territories and send every single man, woman and child into exile for 45-odd years, maybe for ever, why can't it decide, in the national interest, to shut down the tax havens operating in some of the other ones?

The revenue wouldn't necessarily get its hands on all the money hiding in places like the Caymans, but recovering even a fraction of the money lost to the Exchequer would make this £64 million stumbling block look like small change. But, government contracts aside, I guess that tax haven-dependent organisations like KPMG also like to stay close to government to make sure that nothing like that ever happens.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

I, I, I, I, I like you very much

 One of the best passages from Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities comes when bond-trading Master of the Universe, Sherman McCoy, tries and utterly fails to explain the complex and abstract things he does for a living to his own young daughter. Humiliated, he tries to salvage some status by mocking his his wife, Judy's, interior design job as useless and frivolous, involving nothing more than feathering her spoiled, affluent clients' nests with designer pouffes and chintz. Judy's defence anticipates the wider post-global-financial-crash realisation that much of what the financial sector does is so far removed from real life as to be socially useless:
Well, at least you're able to point to something you've done, something tangible, something clear cut...
Even if it's for people who are shallow and vain, it's something real, something describable, something contributing to simple human satisfaction, no matter how meretricious and temporary, something you can at least explain to your children. I mean at Pierce & Pierce, what on earth do you tell each other you do every day?
Are the social media giants now marching down the same road of opaque, complex abstraction that the financial sector has been treading for years? Heaven knows, I'm no expert, but when I keep hearing stories about businesses and politicians 'buying Facebook likes', it sure sounds like the inner workings of another weird bubble that's become wholly disconnected from the real world.

As it's been explained to me, the legitimate way to pay for likes is to buy them from Facebook. Facebook then promotes your page, people notice and like it until it attains the x amounts of likes you've paid for. The resulting testimonials can hardly claim to be unsolicited but, hey, nobody's forcing anybody to click the "like" button. What happens if, despite having your page pushed into millions of faces, the requisite number of users fail to like it, I don't know. I guess you get (some of?) your money back.

There's also an unofficial, illegitimate market for likes, where you pay a third party company which pays other people to like its clients' pages, or directly employs a clickfarm full of people in a whose job is to like their employers' clients' pages, or uses bots to like clients' pages.

Apparently, even the "legitimate" paid-for likes appear to generate a lot of fake likes that seem to come from bots, clickfarms or at the very least, a source that doesn't seem likely to be engaged with the content being liked.

Why would an uninterested third party or its bots like pages where the client was paying Facebook itself for "legitimate" likes? Have they found some abstruse way of monetising this process? I have no idea, although others have theories.

This also embeds huge a disincentive for real Facebook users, who want to use the network to connect with friends and family, to like anything, since the more things you like, the more you clog up your newsfeed with irrelevant noise.

As corporate clients and politicians pour money into buying likes that might not even turn out to be from real human beings, is social media, like banking, turning into an obscure, financial-services-style money-go-round of bizarre transactions that nobody really understands?

Will the bubble pop when enough people realise they've paid for worthless likes? At least a global social media crash wouldn't take the rest of the economy down the way the bankers' crash did, although the buyers and sellers of likes must find it almost as hard as the financial Masters of the Universe to explain what they're doing to their kids.

Friday, 6 February 2015

'Engage warp drive!' 'Aye, Captain!'

When a thought lord (or “thought captain”) such as myself helps a brand trend, blogs tend to “warp” to contain the thoughts (“brand milk”) that I have made them drink (“consumerate”). Please do not suggest making “brand milkshakes.” Not only is this immensely dangerous, this is actually illegal.
Ye vain devotees of the sales funnel who, in your pride, imagine that your puny grasp of jargon sets you aside from the unenlightened and marks you out as members the elect, behold the glory of the mighty thought-lord, Ed Zitron, and know that, compared to his awesomeness, you are but lowly neophytes in the Temple of Bullshit. Look on his works, ye mighty, and despair!


Funnel vision

Milton Keynes Chamber of Commerce has told me me that it is proud to present a series of FREE business seminars at the Milton Keynes Novotel and has kindly invited me to come along. I can tell you're already impressed and maybe just a little jealous.

Anyhow, I took a look at the blub for the first seminar, being hosted by a 'lead generation, automated telephone marketing and telephone coaching' company that goes by the name of Lenahan Ltd. 'Lead generation is the life blood of any business without a steady flow of potential customers entering in to the sales funnel the business will not only stop growing it will stagnate [sic]', it says here.

Excuse me, did you really type the words 'sales funnel?' With a straight face?

Is your sales funnel a bit like the social media engagement funnel? Or more like the horizontal process funnel? Can I 'Multiple My Income By 2x, Even 3x Times With My Own Highly Profitable Lead Generating Cash-Sucking Sales Funnel!? [sic]' Or just relentlessly jam it into anything that smells like money? Do tell.

It's very nice of the Chamber to ask me along, but this does sound like the sort of seminar that's less likely to answer punters' questions than to generate a bunch of new ones, like 'Why can't a firm of marketing and communications professionals punctuate?' and  'Why do business people speak like idiots?'

I could rock up at the Novotel, just for the craic, but I reckon that actually listening to these people in the flesh would make me involuntarily spray the complimentary coffee out of my nose and, as any fule kno, the rapid outflow of caffeinated beverages exiting from the customer-facing nasal funnels can lead to a catastrophic stagnation of lead generation and to the diversion of cash-flow in the direction of a large dry cleaning bill.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

All quiet on the Punic front

Amid the rolling Great War centenary commemorations, almost everybody seems to have forgotten that today marks  the 30th anniversary of the end of the Third Punic War. Well, sort of...

According to the Wikipedia entry for February the 5th, on this day in 1985 'Ugo Vetere, then the mayor of Rome, and Chedli Klibi, then the mayor of Carthage meet in Tunis to sign a treaty of friendship officially ending the Third Punic War which lasted 2,131 years.'

Publication of the official inquiry into the Third Punic War is expected in due course. Asked whether anyone was taking an "unreasonable" amount of time to make their response to his draft findings, Maximus Procrastinatus stated: 'As of today, I have no reason to think that anyone is seeking to spin out time.' Key figures in the decision to go to war, including Cato the Elder, have rejected claims they are holding up the process and say they want the report released as soon as possible.

Trivia bonus - the Third Punic War also features in Wikipedia's list of wars extended by diplomatic irregularity, from which I learn that World War One never really ended, as Costa Rica is still technically at war with the German Empire.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

War on three fronts

Apparently, The War On Drugs and the War On Terror worked out so spiffingly that the Tories are up for yet another war. 'Coasting schools will be taken over by the government as part of an “an all-out war on mediocrity”' enthuses the Torygraph.

Well, I suppose that controversially declaring yourself to be Against Bad Things is marginally less idiotic than Michael Gove's logic-defying project to make all children above average

At this rate, the stupid party might one day move towards something approaching sentience, although not fast enough to get there before going extinct.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Tuition fee blues

Leading universities have criticised plans being considered by Labour to cut tuition fees as "implausible".

The party is yet to unveil its policy but Ed Miliband has said he wants to reduce the cap from £9,000 to £6,000.

So how did the rest of Europe manage to pull off Mission Implausible?
From National Student Fee and Support Systems in European Higher Education (Eurydice – Facts and Figures)
As the only ones in Europe in the dark blue €5,000+ fee band, what do English students get that their European peers are missing out on?

A gold-plated education that leaves everyone else's offerings in the dust? Well, England certainly has the two most highly-ranked elite universities, but Edinburgh (no fees) also does well in the number four slot and England hasn't exactly pushed the rest of Europe out of the Top 100.

Dramatically higher levels of participation in higher education? I'm not convinced.

What do they get (apart from one day older and deeper in debt?).

As Dorothy Bishop wrote recently:
This issue forces questions about what the point of a state-funded university is. Is it to educate our citizens, or to sell education to those who will pay the most, so as to make as much money as possible?