Thursday, 30 April 2015

It became necessary to destroy the United Kingdom to save it

At least I think that's what Rupert Murdoch is trying to tell us...
If you want a more bizarre attempt at political propaganda, you'd have to go back very long time:
...there have been times when this has been taken to the slightly wacky extreme, and the Loch Ness Monster has been utilised for political propaganda.

It hasn’t happened often, but when it has, it’s certainly interesting…

The first instance occurred in 1940, when Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, wrote an article in Hamburger Illustrierte arguing that Nessie was a mere invention to bring in the tourists.

He further argued that a country that believed in such drivel were stupid and couldn’t possibly win the war. It does seem a little offbeat, but given Goebbels was meant to be a master propagandist, and the fact that the Nazis were known to dabble in Forteana and the occult, it probably made some sort of sense at the time.

Things got a little wackier a year later with a report in Mussolini’s newspaper Popolo D’Italia claiming that Nessie had been killed by an Italian bomber during a bombing raid on the UK – apparently the Italian pilot saw Nessie’s dead body. The story was also picked up by Australian newspaper, The World’s News on 22 November 1941, which reported it in a tongue in cheek fashion. It pointed out that Nessie had since been seen alive and well, according to The Daily Mail
The Spooky Isles 

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The centre cannot hold

According to the Liberal Democrats, only the Liberal Democrats can save us from mere anarchy being loosed upon the world:
The Conservatives want to lurch dangerously to the right with a plan to cut £50bn more than the Liberal Democrats, while Labour want to lurch to the left and borrow £70bn more than the Liberal Democrats.
This statement has a vaguely reasonable look and feel, but can you see what's wrong with this picture?

To me, it sounds like content-free waffle. I'll explain why, using Lego:
Not to scale - for illustrative purposes only.

So there's your Lego snapshot of the left-right spectrum at two elections, about thirty years either side of the mid-Thatcher period, with the three main parties* represented by appropriately-coloured blocks. In 1966, you've got Labour on the left, the Liberals in the middle and the Conservatives on the right. In 2015, the relative situation is much the same, at least according to the Liberal Democrat's 'clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right' narrative.

The Lib Dems might be right about being in the centre, but where is the centre? Well, as far as the big political parties are concerned, it was generally further to the left** back in the '60s than it is now, which is why the 2015 blocks are all in the same position, relative to one another, but have shifted to the right as a group.

Even if the Lib Dems are, as they claim, slap bang in the centre of the contemporary party political spectrum, the wavelengths included in that spectrum have shifted markedly towards the blue end during my lifetime. The shift is so marked that Ed Miliband's "left-lurching" Labour Party is broadly to the right of that terrifying radical firebrand, Harold Macmillan:
Next time you hear some right wing apologist mouthing off about Neo-Labour being "loony leftists", you should remind them about Harold Macmillan (Tory Prime Minister of the UK between 1957 and 1963). Macmillan was one of the most popular Conservative Prime Ministers of the Twentieth Century, a One Nation Tory and a supporter of the Keynesian inspired Post War Consensus who famously told the British people that they had "never had it so good" as Britain was booming under an economic system based on a mixture of regulated capitalism, state ownership of vital infrastructure and an equitable distribution of the nation's new found prosperity. If the orthodox defenders of the neoliberal status quo insist on characterising Neo-Labour as "loony leftists" then their own SuperMac must have been some kind of "deranged trotskyite ultra-leftist yahoo". 
Maybe I should even have put the blue block for 1966 one block to the left of the red one for 2015. But you get the general picture.

"The centre" isn't a fixed place, but is defined by the range of orthodox political opinions at any given time. But there's no guarantee that one age's political orthodoxy is actually correct. Before 2008, there was a party political consensus that light-touch regulation of  the wealth-creating wizards in the financial services industry was a risk-free way of making everybody happy (and rich) ever after. After 2008, members of the reality-based community had to recalibrate any such opinions.

And the range of policies on offer from the political parties doesn't necesarily reflect the range of views among the population. There's evidence that, in some areas, public opinion is to the left of the big three parties. For example most people seem to want to see the railways back in state ownership. Occasionally, the public are to the right of the Westminster consensus - public support for the death penalty is dropping, but polling evidence suggests that there are still more supporters than opponents, even though reintroducing the death penalty is pretty much off the agenda of the main political parties.

As "the centre" is neither a fixed place, nor a place where the majority of people agree that they want to be, why do the Lib Dems imagine that anybody will be swayed by a meaningless promise to position the party at the dead centre of wherever they imagine the current Overton Window lies?

The message that they seem to be trying to trying to transmit is 'We're not irresponsible extremists.' The one I'm receiving is 'Please don't rock the boat and stop us hanging on to a bit of power.'***

In their attempt to warn us that the worst are full of passionate intensity,**** they've reminded us that the best***** lack all conviction.

* Technically "successor party" in the case of the Liberals/Lib Dems.

** In terms of political economy. Other axes are available...

*** For a given value of 'power.'

**** Or an unconvincing impression of 'passionate intensity.' I believe the phrase is 'pumped', Dave, not 'pumped up', which sounds more like being inflated with hot air (although that would explain your unaturally smooth, plump face). LOL.

***** If the Lib Dems are the best, which is one humongous, super-sized "if" with a large portion of fries.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Thomas the Tank Engine meets Doctor Strangelove

Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks. 
General "Buck" Turgidson, from Doctor Strangelove, conceding that an all-out nuclear war might involve a 'modest and acceptable' level of civilian casualties. But, hey, every dark cloud has a silver lining. The survivors might be subsisting in a scorched, radioactive wasteland, but we'd still have steam trains and who doesn't love steam trains?

Yes, steam trains. During the Cold War, several countries, including the Soviet Union and Sweden apparently kept a Strategic Steam Reserve (SSR), to be used in the event of a catastrophic war or overwhelming natural disaster disabling electrified railways and cutting off the oil supplies needed to run diesel trains.

There were even rumours that Britain kept its own secret SSR, although this seems to have been an urban legend, based on the wishful thinking of a few steam enthusiasts who wanted to believe in a secret cache of pristine steam locos just waiting to be discovered. A myth, but a strangely resonant one.

Here's Roy Bainton writing about our imaginative modern myths of what lies beneath, including those 'mighty iron beasts, waiting there in the subterranean darkness' to emerge in their country's hour of need, like King Arthur* from under his hill:
The aftermath of the 1963 Beeching Report, which decimated Britain’s rail network, coincided with the dark days of the Cold War and the growing paranoia around the possibility of nuclear Armageddon. As a long-serving steam locomotive driver, the hapless Sheffield railwayman was among many who were designated the sad task of seeing their faithful engines, which were to be replaced by diesel units, off onto their final trip to the breaker’s yards at Barry Island in South Wales. He’d already heard strange stories of footplate crews being sent home early from work only to return to find ‘their’ engine had vanished during the night. Then, one night in 1967, he’d been approached by ‘a man from the MoD’ and was asked, along with a selected few other drivers, to become part of a special crew taking selected locomotives on a journey not to the scrap yard, but to a secret location, where they would be mothballed for future use. However, every driver, fireman or Fat Controller employed in this scheme was required to sign the Official Secrets Act and never reveal the whereabouts of their slumbering Thomas Tank Engines. Urban Myth - or Conspiracy nuttery?

The facts are thin on the ground, but there were selective records kept of all locomotives decommissioned and scrapped. Members of the train spotting fraternity are noted for their meticulous thoroughness, and those with a keen eye soon spotted the absence in the records of approximately 70 engines. It is known that at one time the Royal Engineers ran courses for the Sappers in steam loco driving . With the closure of the Longmoor Military Railway in 1969, which ran 70 miles between Liss and Bordon in Hampshire, the MoD lost its own in-house training facility. All this could be cited as circumstantial evidence, although it doesn’t prove locos were ‘spirited away’. However, if they have been hidden, then their location remains the Holy Grail for romantically-minded rail fans.

This secret fleet of locos, claimed by train aficionados to be Stanier 8 and 9F models, most of which were only 10 years old, with an expected service life of between 50 and 100 years were to be kept in reserve in the event of a nuclear attack. The USSR had already done this, as had Sweden and some other Eastern European countries. It became known as the SSR (Strategic Steam Reserve). Railway fans of a more quixotic bent saw these fine machines in the role of a mechanical King Arthur, ready and waiting to answer the call in the hour of Britain’s need. Being organically propelled vehicles, and, at the time, the UK having huge coal stocks, they offered the prospect of some kind of transportation in an apocalyptic Mad Max landscape where everything electrical had been trashed due to the immense electromagnetic radiation given off by a nuclear blast.
* Sadly, the King Arthur Class locomotives don't seem to figure in the legend of Britain's Strateigic Steam Reserve...

Friday, 24 April 2015

Should be taken with a handful of salt

So that too-big-to-fail criminal enterprise and byword for corporate irresponsibility, HSBC, has thrown its toys out of the pram. Guess which newspaper paper is practically falling over itself in its rush to wrap the big crybaby in a big fluffy comfort blanket and stuff a consoling dummy into its squalling gob? Yes, it's the fearlessly independent and utterly unbiased Telegraph:

'If Labour wins, HSBC exit could be first of many
'HSBC, Britain's biggest bank, has announced that it may leave the UK following several increases in the bank levy and post-crisis regulatory changes,' wails obedient Telegraph hack Szu Ping Chan.

There, there, never mind:
Any initiative to increase regulation on banks is usually met with an uproar from banks that they will be forced to move their headquarters abroad with catastrophic effects on tax take and business. That politicians and regulators routinely appear to be held hostage to implied threats to leave is testament to the unbalanced information available as to the contribution of the banking sector. But are the threats themselves even credible?

Calculations by the Independent Commission on Banking show that the threats may in fact be empty. More than 50% of taxes from banking come from activities that would be ‘hard to impossible’ to carry out from abroad, such as retail and high street banking to UK customers. Another 27%-36% of the financial service tax contribution comes from “sticky” activities meaning that they could theoretically be moved abroad but only with considerable inconvenience. The activities that could easily be moved abroad only contribute 5% of all financial services tax contributions. Unless the level of regulation is extremely punitive, the banks are likely to find that leaving the UK does not make good business sense. In addition, it is highly likely that, with the emergence of new economic centres on other continents, a significant proportion of “unsticky” activities will relocate anyway. In short, threats that banks would leave the UK if regulations and reforms go ‘too far too fast’ should be taken with a handful of salt.
Banking Vs Democracy

And that's making the huge assumtion that it's good for Britain to to carry on hosting such a dangerously top-heavy financial sector:
But critics of the banks' sheer size - and there are a few of those around, including the governor of the Bank of England and the chairman of the FSA - will be concerned that British banks will remain dangerously large relative to the size of the economy and the financial resources of the British state.
It is worth reminding you that three banks - HSBC, RBS and Barclays - each have gross loans and investments equivalent to annual British economic output, GDP, or more...

...To put that into context, British banks in aggregate are well over six times bigger than American banks, relative to the size of their respective economies.
Robert Peston

Thursday, 23 April 2015

'As a generation we have turned a corner'

Women becoming nuns hits 25-year high
BBC headline 

A Church source explained  that England and Wales experienced a remarkable nun boom last year, triggered by women being drawn to the religious life because of a 'gap in the market for meaning in our culture ...  the fact that more women are becoming nuns than there has been [sic] in the past 25 years shows that as a generation we have turned a corner.' When I looked, this was the 8th most popular story on the BBC news website:
So, exactly how many women became nuns in England and Wales in this extraordinary year?

45. Up from a low of seven (in 2004).

Does an unconventional lifestyle choice by 45 people out of a population of 56,000,000+ constitute a demographic trend that warrants a national news headline and a soundbite from an official source explaining how 'as a generation we have turned a corner?'

Maybe, as a generation, we have turned a corner - but not in the direction suggested by the Church spokesperson. In 2001, working with some rather larger numbers, the census for England and Wales asked the question "What is your religion?" 14.81% said "none." When they asked the same question in 2011 around a quarter (25.1%) said "none." This might not represent an actual loss of 5 million religious adherents in a decade - other surveys are available - but the general trend looks clear and, this time, the magnitude of the numbers isn't so ridiculously microscopic that they disappear at the scale of national populations.

Now it's true that the Catholics haven't experienced quite the same level of catastrophic decline as the Anglicans, but doing better than the Anglicans isn't setting the bar very high, considering that:
  1. The Catholics are starting from a lower base (8.9% of the population, as opposed to 19.9% for the C of E, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey 2009, which was for the whole of the UK, not just England and Wales).
  2. Several denominations, including the Catholics, have benefited from recent demographic changes, like the arrival of more Polish Catholics in the UK, according to research by people like Peter Brierley who surveyed nearly 300 Christian denominations in the UK in 2013.
  3. The stark decline in ordinations to the priesthood has been somewhat offset by the poaching of former conservative Anglican priests via the The Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.
But, for all the qualifications, the long-term trends look bleak, as this snapshot from before the advent of Polish migrants and the Ordinariate shows:
The figures for marriages and baptisms are not simply alarming, but disastrous. In 1944 there were 30,946 marriages, by 1964 the figure had risen to 45,592-----but by 1999 it had plunged to 13,814, well under half the figure for 1944. The figures for baptisms for the same years are 71,604 (1944), 137,673 (1964), and 63,158 (1999)...

... Apart from marriages and baptisms, Mass attendance is the most accurate guide to the vitality of the Catholic community. The figure has plunged from 2,114,219 in 1966 to 1,041,728 in 1999 and is still falling at a rate of about 32,000 a year.

In 1944, 178 priests were ordained; in 1964, 230; and in 1999 only 43-----and in the same year 121 priests died. 
Michael Davies' book Liturgical Time Bombs, as quoted on the Latin Mass Chairman's blog.

It makes you wonder why the Catholic Church would want to overplay 45 people deciding to join religious orders as a significant 'generational' shift.

  • they're fully aware that the actual numbers are less than a drop in the ocean, but they're desperate for anything that might look like a positive headline
  • their spokesman was Father Dougal McGuire, who's still having a few conceptual difficulties with the relative sizes of big things and small things...:

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The obsolescence of satire, continued

First, Deutsche Bank issued an apocalyptic warning about voters putting the economy at risk. Now those lovely people at Goldman Sachs want you to know that they, too, are worried in case you take foolish risks with the economy. Seriously, you couldn't make this stuff up.

Well, that's the first two horsemen out of the traps. As far as I remember, the third horseman of the Apocalypse rode a black horse - maybe we'll next get our next lecture on responsible behaviour straight from the horse's mouth of that Libor-rigging, tax-evasion promoting, mis-selling old nag that was only saved from the knackers yard with a £20.5bn injection of public money?
What is it David Cameron keeps on saying about not taking any lectures from the people who created the mess in the first place?

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Katie Hopkins, film critic

I love the smell of bullshit in the morning...
Today in entertainment news, I can exclusively reveal the appointment of celebrity pundit Katie Hopkins as the Sun's newest film critic. Here's the acclaimed columnist at work on her review of Apocalypse Med, an ultraviolent action movie which doesn't literally exist in our world but is graphically real inside Katie's head:
Suddenly she began writing in sheer panic, only imperfectly aware of what she was setting down. Her small but childish handwriting straggled up and down the page, shedding first its capital letters and finally even its full stops:

April 4th 21st, 1984 2015. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank. then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it. there was a middle-aged woman might have been a jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms. little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself, all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him. then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood. then there was a wonderful shot of a child's arm going up up up right up into the air a helicopter with a camera in its nose must have followed it up and there was a lot of applause from the party seats but a woman down in the prole part of the house suddenly started kicking up a fuss and shouting they didnt oughter of showed it not in front of kids they didnt it aint right not in front of kids it aint until the police turned her turned her out i dont suppose anything happened to her nobody cares what the proles say typical prole reaction they never

Katie stopped writing, partly because she was suffering from cramp. She did not know what had made her pour out this stream of rubbish... 
In other news, sources close to Katie Hopkins have confirmed that, as well as writing reviews of imaginary movies, Katie will be continuing with her regular opinion pieces for the Sun, now to be published under the exciting new title The Two Minutes Hate.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Control button

Have you ever pressed the button on a pedestrian crossing and doubted whether the button really affects the timing of the traffic lights? Thanks to Chris Baraniuk writing for BBC - Future I now know that - at least sometimes - it doesn't. Placebo buttons (AKA idiot buttons) are apparently a thing, at pedestrian crossings, or on London Underground trains, where pressing the button to open the carriage doors doesn't affect when the automatic doors will actually open, or in offices where employees can assuage their feelings of powerlessness by pressing a fake button which purports to adjust the thermostat controlling the workspace air con.

But don't worry, folks, the little white lies are only for your own good:
“Feeling you have control over your world is a desirable state,” she [psychologist Ellen Langer] explains. When it comes to those deceptive traffic light buttons, Langer says there could be a whole host of reasons why the placebo effect might be counted as a good thing. “Doing something is better than doing nothing, so people believe,” she says. “And when you go to press the button your attention is on the activity at hand. If I’m just standing at the corner I may not even see the light change, or I might only catch the last part of the change, in which case I could put myself in danger.”

...The truth is that technology has long been deceiving us. Sometimes this is ethically questionable, but in other cases the user benefits from a sense of control and reassurance that the system is working as it should. 
Which sounds plausible ... kind of ... but it does make you wonder about the sort of power relations going on here - the users of the system are conned into thinking they're some kind of engaged stakeholders when in reality they have as much control as lab rats in a Skinner box.

It's also a worrying sign of how cheaply acquiescence can be bought (or, more accurately, how easily it can be stolen). But at least it provides us with a new metaphor for these days of management and nudge. Where the Roman elite talked about "bread and circuses" as shorthand for the real crumbs they had to throw the plebs to keep them from rioting, we've got "idiot button" to describe the trigger for those fake feelings of autonomy and agency which keep the Not Very Important People in their place (also see "engagement", "choice"and "consultation").

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Chaos theory

I'm Mark Lancaster, standing for the party that's headed Britain's coalition government for the past five years, and I approve this message.
The party election leaflet from our local Conservative MP recycles two of David Cameron's riskier election soundbites, 'Competence and a clear plan' versus a 'Coalition of chaos'. Probably not the best choice of words to big up the record of the biggest party in Britain's first coalition government since 1945.

It's not the only weird bit of Conservative electioneering that's been going on lately - there was that odd blip when the attacks on Ed Miliband decohered from consistent jibes about him being a spineless, ineffectual dweeb to the paradoxical hypothesis of Schrödinger's Ed, a being who exists in a state of helpless, invertebrate dorkishness whilst simultaneously being a ruthlessly efficient political assassin and major babe magnet. I guess neither version is real until an observer opens the ballot box.

John Lanchester detected a Cunning Plan behind the apparent electioneering chaos. His theory was that the strange change of taunts from "Ed the loser" to "Ed the unstoppable Terminator sexbot" was a calculated piece of positional warfare, intended to secure the Conservative right flank. Lanchester's theory was that the Conservative election machine deliberately talked Ed Miliband up as a credible threat, in order to to traumatise the lost children of the Conservative family in their adoptive Ukip home. The plan was supposedly to frighten the little mites into believing that a vote for cuddly Uncle Nigel would let Ed the scary wardrobe monster into their bedrooms and make them all come running back home to mummy:
The idea was to get Kippers imagining Ed in front of that very same Downing Street backdrop, launching a new initiative to open the country’s borders to HIV-positive transsexual terrorist Roma benefit scroungers. This might have had the side effect of making Ed a more imaginable prime minister for some centrist voters – I think it probably did, a little bit – but those aren’t the voters the Tories are after. They want the Kippers to think that a vote for Nigel is a vote for Ed, and that Ed is their worst nightmare. 
All part of a plan so cunning you could stick a tail on it and call it a weasel? Or just an unsightly tuft of random stubble in need of a quick shave with Hanlon's Razor ('Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.')? You decide.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Horseman of the Apocalypse warns of coming Apocalypse

'A Labour government propped up by the SNP will raise taxes, ease austerity and oversee a rise in interest rates, one of the World's biggest investment banks has warned.' Which bank would that be? Er ... Deutsche Bank. Yes, that Deutsche Bank:
At the start of this week [wrote Stefan Steinberg in August 2009], German-based Deutsche Bank announced a huge increase in its profits. The bank reported a net profit of €1.1 billion in the second quarter of this year, nearly doubling its earnings over the same period last year (€645 million).

 Less than a year after the eruption of a financial crisis that has devastated economies across the globe and wiped out an estimated 40 percent of the world’s wealth, a number of major banks and investment houses are posting record profits and setting aside sharply higher—in some cases, record—sums for salaries and bonuses to their employees.

In 2008, Deutsche Bank recorded the biggest losses in its history—€3.9 billion ($5.5 billion). How is this turn-around to be explained?

... A recent article in Der Spiegel magazine entitled “The Return of Greed—Banks Reopen Global Casino” provides some insight. The article cites a former leading financier, who declares, “A few years ago, the investment banks got rich on their customers’ money. When that resource became too small, they fell back on their shareholders’ money. Now they've got hold of the biggest pool the world can offer: taxpayers’ money.”

The article quotes the head of German operations of an international investment bank, who declares, “The taxpayer is paying for the chips at the casino. It doesn't get any better.”
To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, satire has become obsolete now that Deutsche Bank is warning politicians not to endanger the economy. Yes, they really did quote that Deutsche Bank as if it was some sort of risk-management oracle:
Deutsche Bank, the largest bank of Europe, darling of the German government and, Lehman style, “Chief Executive Officer Josef Ackermann, who has called proposals to limit bank size “misguided,” will leave behind a balance sheet about 40 percent larger than in 2006, and more than 80 percent as big as Germany’s economy, when he steps down in May. The firm is the second-most leveraged and third-least capitalized of Europe’s 10 largest banks”. 
I guess that's what you get when you decide that being a paper of record is less profitable than writing infomercials for banksters.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Return match

The headline, as displayed in my newsreader today, doesn't mention whether the weapons he's looking for are the "of mass destruction" kind...

Smashing icons

Icons - religious pictures and statues - had been multiplying in the east to the point where they rivalled the idols of polytheism. Shamed by the comparison with iconophobic and monotheistic Islam, [Byzantine Emperor] Leo [III] ordered their wholesale destruction. Iconodule (pro-icon) priests appealed to the Pope, and he responded by taking all images under his protection.
The origins of iconoclasm, as summarised in The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History by Colin McEvedy.

Well, that was back in the Dark Ages. These days, for most people, an "icon" is just a functional little graphic, part of a user interface / symbolic system that helps people navigate a computer, a piece of text, or a public space. That's what I thought, anyway. Looking at the news, though, I'm starting to think that there's still way too much Dark Ages-style icon veneration about.

In the news today, the Labour Party published its election manifesto with a pledge to keep spending in check and cut the deficit. Despite the fact that plenty of well-informed people pointed out that cutting the deficit isn't necessarily a top priority in the real world and, taken too far, may do harm to the real economy:
I said recently that there wouldn’t be another financial crisis until we had entirely forgotten about the last one. But it seems that politicians have already forgotten about it. The 2008 crisis was not caused by foreigners refusing to fund government deficits. It was caused by foreigners refusing to fund excessive private sector debt – debt that politicians now wish to increase in order to “fix the public finances”.
It shouldn't be very hard to understand that "fixing" the deficit isn't the same thing as  "fixing" the economy and that controlling the size of the deficit is just one consideration among many:
No government will be able to eliminate the deficit without cutting public service spending or raising taxes. Either taxes go up, or government borrowing continues into the next decade, or some public services disappear. To pretend otherwise is still as much the politics of La La Land as it was last year.
But ritual displays of deficit concern don't seem to be about anything real. Invoking the deficit looks more like a medieval act of public homage to a symbolic icon, rather than part of a rational discussion about managing one aspect of an actual economy. An aura of economic competence, like an aura of sanctity, can apparently be attained by ostentatious reverence towards the correct symbol.

In other news, 'Patients may be required to show their passports at hospitals under new Government guidelines to tackle health tourism.' There are good reasons to believe that "heath tourism" isn't a problem, or at least not a very pressing one:
Actual 'deliberate' health tourism was estimated by Prederi to cost between £20 and £100million - at most, 0.1% of the £100billion a year it costs to run the NHS. As Jonathan Portes of the Institute of Economic Research has said, the extent of deliberate health tourism has been "hugely overstated" and is in fact a "very small part of NHS expenditure". 
But, never mind the inconvenience to patients or the pointless extra administration for hospital workers, it's sending out a powerful message. The guidelines are an icon, a symbol, demonstrating that the people in charge are standing up for Hard-Working British Families and standing up against Shifty Foreign Freeloaders, coming over here, taking our hospital beds (even if they're not really). We like to think we're more rational than people in the Dark Ages, but the way our society venerates symbols that make us feel better, whilst dismissing evidence that might help us to make better decisions makes me wonder.

So I'm all for a bit of disrespect for icons. A bit of iconoclasm, even. But, hang on, there's some literal iconoclasm going on in the world today and the people doing it don't look all that rational, either.

To avoid any suggestion that I might approve of the superstitious bunch of noddies currently dynamiting world heritage sites in Iraq, I'd better make two things clear:
  1. I'm in favour of abandoning uncritical respect for symbols, especially ones which mislead people rather than helping us to think clearly. If the map looks nothing like the territory, burn it and get a better map. But that's just a metaphor. Don't go around smashing stuff up. Seriously.
  2. Unlike the iconophobes of Islamic State, I'm for not taking icons too seriously and I think the world would be a better place if we all cared more about what's real than about "sending out messages" that have little, if anything, to do with reality. The more superstitious among the jihadis presumably take idolatry very seriously and fear the spiritual threat that "idols" represent - otherwise, why waste so much time energy, dynamite and heavy construction equipment trashing them? Like ultra-devout Christians who fear the satanic nature of Halloween, they take symbols - even the ones they hate - way too seriously. The more strategic thinkers may have more instrumentalist agendas, but these probably aren't anything to be proud of, either - the main possibilities that spring to mind are promoting group bonding through venting rage on outgroups and their symbols and destroying all traces of other belief systems until There Is No Alternative to the ingroup's own narrow ideology.
Apart from anything else, if you get too carried away with symbols, you end up looking like an idiot. Sometimes an idiot who's so powerful that it makes no difference what the little people think of you, but an idiot, nonetheless. Think of the mighty Xerxes punishing the sea after a storm broke his bridge ('The bridging of the Hellespont is thus ... characterized as a conscious sin of subjugating the elements, when Xerxes ordered his men to whip the sea and have shackles sunk down in it after the storm had destroyed an initial bridge').

Or Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, AKA Caligula, waging a symbolic battle whilst ducking a real conquest:
And when he reached the ocean, as if he were going to conduct a campaign in Britain, and had drawn up all the soldiers on the beach, he embarked on a trireme, and then, after putting out a little from the land, sailed back again. Next he took his seat on a lofty platform and gave the soldiers the signal as if for battle, bidding the trumpeters urge them on; then of a sudden he ordered them to gather up the shells. Having secured these spoils (for he needed booty, of course, for his triumphal procession), he became greatly elated, as if he had enslaved the very ocean; and he gave his soldiers many presents. The shells he took back to Rome for the purpose of exhibiting the booty to the people there as well. The senate knew not how it could remain indifferent to these doings, since it learned that he was in an exalted frame of mind, nor yet again how it could praise him. For, if anybody bestows great praise of the extraordinary honours for some trivial exploit or none at all, he is suspected of making a hissing and a mockery of the affair. Nevertheless, when Gaius entered the city, he came very near destroying the whole senate because it had not voted him divine honours. He assembled the populace, however, and showered quantities of silver and gold upon them from a lofty station, and many perished in their efforts to grab it; for, as some say, he had mixed small pieces of iron in with the coins. 
That's the kind of nonsense you get when important people are too busy venerating symbols to give the reality-based community a look in.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Sign of the times

Here's a handy content guide, recently spotted on the back cover of an actual book for grown-ups. Published by Harper Collins. Author's name redacted out of pity.

I wouldn't recommend this guide as a helpful aid to choosing your general reading matter, although some of the party election leaflets starting to come through the nation's letterboxes might benefit from a few clarifying icons. I can certainly think of a few past party election leaflets which would have been improved by a bit more content information:
  • Policy description for illustration purposes only. Actual policies may vary.
  • Warning: Choking hazard
  • May contain nuts.
Party names redacted out of pity.

Update - it did belatedly occur to me that there was a slight problem with my plan, namely the lack of widely-recognised icons for the sort of content I had in mind. But it's probably not insurmountable - after all, somebody's already come up with a neat little graphic for "Policy description for illustration purposes only. Actual policies may vary."
© Nick Clegg.
And those with nut allergies should recognise this one and be warned:

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Inflated job titles of late Byzantium

One more random takeaway from Sir Steven Runciman's The Fall of Constantinople 1453. By the eve of Constantinople's fall, the Byzantines had lost anything you could reasonably call an Empire, were forced to compromise their religious beliefs in return for alliances that turned out to be worthless and had seen large parts of the old imperial capital become depopulated and fall into disrepair and decay.

But they did manage to hang on to one thing right up to the bitter end. The job titles near the top of the Byzantine org chart were as impressive as ever.

The reality might have been dire, but a domain which could boast a Megadux, a Stratopedarch, a Grand Logothete and a Protostrator still sounded pretty damn magnificent.

I'm particularly fond of Megadux, probably because it sounds like "megaducks" which, in turn, sounds like something to do with the question of whether you'd choose to fight one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses (the plural "megaducks" sounds like an even scarier option, depending on how narrowly you define the concept of "giant ducks").
First among megaducks (image credit)

Friday, 10 April 2015

In the magical land of Oz

Here's a bit of optimism from a Lib Dem blogger (tautology alert: you probably have to be an optimist to be a Lib Dem these days):
Every 40 years, with some accuracy, there is a major shift in economic thinking in practice in the UK.  The next one is due in 2020 or thereabouts.  The outlines are already clear: it will sweep away the brittle, basically destructive power of finance.  It will reshape the economic landscape so that ordinary life can be affordable again, and can stay so.  It will end the growing chasm between the tiny elite and everyone else.

The big question is how.  It won't happen until all sides agree broadly about how it can be achieved, and I have some ideas myself, and then - when the crisis hits - the political parties are able to shift relatively seamlessly to the new dispensation.  History suggests these shifts happen, in the end, quite fast (1979/80, 1940, 1908/09, 1868, 1831 and so on, and so on).

One political party needs to hammer out the basic outlines of the post-Thatcher/Reagan economics in practice.  It is the historic destiny of the Lib Dems, it seems to me, that they should play this role. 
I've no problem with the destination - it sounds like a wonderful place and I want to believe. It's just that imagining Nick Clegg as the brave little girl in ruby slippers who's going to lead us all along the yellow brick road to this magical land requires more suspension of disbelief than I can muster right now.

Panic-O-Meter goes up to eleven

If nothing else, the election campaign has thrown up a handy new metric for measuring just how rattled a political party has become. Namely:
Tory Hypocrisy: hitting out at Labour over SNP when they went into coalition with Trident-opposed Lib Dems in 2010. 
When even Nigel "OMG the sky's falling, it's raining Romanians!!!!" Farage's tweeted response to an electioneering sound-bite sounds more measured, proportionate and reasonable than the original sound-bite, you know that somebody's lost the plot.

The Fall of the Eurozone Periphery, 2009

The future was not to be easy for the Greeks. They were given the promise of peace and justice and opportunities for enrichment. But they were second-class citizens. Bondage brings demoralisation; and the Greeks could not escape from its effects. Moreover, they depended ultimately on the good-will of their suzerain.
From The Fall of Constantinople 1453 by Sir Steven Runciman.

Monday, 6 April 2015

New vehicle rumours confirmed by Daily Telegraph motoring correspondent

Spotted in Dan Hodges' opinion piece on page 16 of today's Telegraph: 'The PM must flesh out his party's manifesto to stop the Milibandwagon gaining momentum.'

The 'Milibandwagon?' I seem to remember that, according to recent Telegraph headlines, there's no such vehicle. Miliband, they told us, flopped in the leaders' debate, is despised by 'business leaders' and rejected by his own party and (allegedly) by his potential ally, Nicola Sturgeon.

Either Dan doesn't believe the headlines in the paper he writes for, or the whole crew of the Good Ship Telegraph are more nervous than the front-page bluster tries to suggest.