Friday, 27 May 2016

That's crazy talk!

The headline writers at the Mail simply can't contain their disbelief:
"Cameron FINALLY admits migration running at 333,000 a year is 'disappointing' - but blames the figure on strength of our economy!"

Now they've pointed it out, I realise that only some kind of lunatic would claim that people might want to migrate to a particular country because of its strong economy.

As any fule kno, migrants overwhelmingly prefer the chance to move somewhere where the economy's in total meltdown and where there are zero opportunities, which is why the only people currently migrating to the UK are those poor souls who couldn't persuade Somalia, South Sudan, or Yemen to let them in.

There's your voice of common sense, right there...

Robots to win race to the bottom?

Is the end of the labour market's race to the bottom in sight? At the moment it's a global fact of life - corporations get their manufacturing (and sometimes call centre work, data entry and programming) done wherever local wages are cheapest. And if the cheapest country does well and local wages go up, well there's always an even poorer country somewhere to move operations to, and so on, until, one day in the future, we'll finally reach the bedrock of the very poorest country with the requisite skills and infrastructure becoming the workshop / call centre of the world.

But some recent headlines suggested to me that we might not see many more iterations of this process. Adidas is opening a new factory where shoes will be made, not by low-wage people in Asia, but by high-tech robots in Germany. If robots can make trainers more cost-effectively than people in the Global South, that's a lot of potential work that won't be going to the lowest bidder. And if they have a robo-cobbler next year, what might happen to the global garment trade, if a viable robo-tailor comes along the year after that?

In other news, McDonald's has denied that it has any plans to replace people currently doing minimum-wage McJobs with robots. This one looks less like a serious suggestion than the usual corporate sob story about how being obliged to pay the very lowest earners a little extra might force put-upon bosses to do something terrible.

But although it may be an empty threat this time around, you can see how an environment where cooking has been replaced by the production-line assembly and heating of standardised food product elements could be very robot-friendly. Just as they might delete the competitive advantage of low-wage economies globally, robots might also terminate the employability of many minimum-wage humans locally.

Not all, of course - some low-paid jobs, like being a cleaner, or helping in an old peoples' home senior living community, or in a children's daycare nursery require too much human interaction, or mobility in different environments, to be robotised any time soon. But there are plenty of low-paid jobs, in such robo-friendly environments Amazon's warehouses fulfilment centres, which will probably offer more opportunities for the sort of machines that can work tirelessly in controlled, largely predictable environments than for underpaid humans.

And if this does come to pass? Well, I guess we're looking at big changes from business as usual. The changes might be Utopian - redistribution of wealth globally and in-country, Universal Basic Incomes, Keynes's 15 hour working week and so forth. Or they might be dystopian - the sci-fi libertarians' nightmarish vision of a society divided between a few fabulously wealthy technocratic capital owners living in climate-controlled domes, being waited on by their robo-butlers (when they're not off cruising the Solar System in their gold-plated space yachts), versus an obsolete underclass, which has degenerated into a workless, hopeless, brutish unnecessariat, milling menacingly outside the gilded elite's gated compounds.

Given the low levels of political clout the have-nots can deploy, maybe our best hope for avoiding the dystopian outcome is if the robots come for the high-status jobs first. Influential people may see the displacement of a fast-food employee by a McBot as something regrettable happening to an undeserving nobody they don't know or care about, but when robo-lawyer starts terminating a few high-status jobs, done by Nice People Like Us, then the movers and shakers might discover that we are all in this together and that Something Must Be Done.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

I'll have what she's having

Most mornings, I like a cup of coffee. Even a cup of generic instant makes the world seem a bit brighter and brings things into focus. It's a modest improvement, but welcome. But if I really want the day to go with a swing, maybe I should trade up to real coffee, specifically the stuff being advertised here (after all, why would you not trust an advert as a reliable source of information?):
If you want a bit of pep in your cup, this is clearly the stuff to buy. The weird thing about this advert wasn't that it's full of foreigners being amusingly strange, but how familiar it all looked. The advertisement may be Lebanese but, to me, the kitsch, the costumes, the scenery, the look and feel seem quintessentially British. How so? Because all you need to do is change the soundtrack and the whole thing is pure pantomime - your local theatre does Aladdin. Never mind the coffee, lady - he's behind you!

Well, I'm impressed enough to consider changing my morning brew - or at the very least, donning a fez to add a bit more pizazz to my morning coffee ritual.


Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The Anglican Rapid Rebuttal Unit

According to an article in the Graun, a study has concluded that "People of no religion outnumber Christians in England and Wales." So far, so unsurprising.

What was quite interesting was this prompt response from one of the Church of England's Spin Doctors of Divinity:
A spokesperson for the Church of England said: “The increase in those identifying as ‘no faith’ reflects a growing plurality in society rather than any increase in secularism or humanism. We do not have an increasingly secular society as much as a more agnostic one."
Like the Labour Party's pre-election Rapid Rebuttal Unit, the C of E's PR people were eager to get their response out there. The problem in this case, it seems to me, was the content, not the rapidity.

The conclusion of the study was clear and quite simple to grasp - overall, Christianity is declining in England and Wales and levels of unbelief are going up. But the Church of England's response was obscure and confusing. The difference between a secular society and an agnostic one might be clear to the person who prepared the C of E's response, but it isn't clear to me and I don't suppose it is to most people. For all practical purposes, these two types of society sound pretty much interchangeable. This is how the National Secular Society defines secularism:
Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.
As for agnosticism, well, it comes in all sorts of flavours, agnostic atheism, agnostic theism, total agnosticism and, my personal favourite, ignosticism. The one thing all of these outlooks have in common is an emphasis on uncertainty and a rejection of one-size-fits-all dogma. So it's hard to imagine an "agnostic society" that wouldn't necessarily be a secular one, in favour of stuff like freedom of thought and against ideas like privileging one belief system above all others (see "secularism" above).

Or was the Anglican spokesperson saying that the individual unbelievers who've apparently tipped the balance against Christianity are mostly agnostics, rather than atheists?  If so, did she or he have any figures, or other evidence, to support this belief? Or did it just feel like there had to be some way to argue that the unwelcome thing that looked as if it was increasing wasn't really increasing?

It looks to me as if the C of E spokesperson knew that the evidence for growing secularisation was unanswerable and was just trying to muddy the waters by creating a distracting distinction without a difference.

If only Labour's original Rapid Rebuttal Unit had the excuse that they were struggling to make a weak case against overwhelming evidence. Speaking as a broadly sympathetic non-party member, I'm astonished at the sheer brass neck of the Labour old guard, carping on about how Corbyn isn't getting a message out to the voters.

I seem to remember that when these people were in positions of power through five years of Con-Dem coalition, they had a Rapid Rebuttal Unit on tap and they had a strong, easy to understand, overwhelmingly-evidenced case to make. Namely, that the Global Financial Crisis was caused by the failure of those financial institutions which were in all the headlines when the government stepped in to bail them out on our behalf, while the Conservative counter-claim that everything was Gordon Brown's fault for overpaying nurses and librarians and that Lehman Brothers, RBS and the rest were just innocent bystanders, was obvious hogwash.

But despite their self-proclaimed political savvy, they failed to make anything of that case until the closing weeks of the election campaign, by which time the Conservatives' ridiculous hogwash had gone unchallenged for so long that it had assumed the status of a fact that most people believe in, despite the lack of evidence. That was bad enough, but you could taste the defeat when you listened to them literally begging to be forgiven for the original sin of overspending .

It's easy to mock the Anglicans' feeble attempt at rapid rebuttal, but at least it was rapid, if confused. It's harder to forgive the negligence of people with a far stronger case to make, who should have known better, but left their rebuttal far too late and made almost as big a hash of it. If the Labour old guard had made their case better, believers in the doctrine of austerity might be dwindling even more rapidly than the Anglicans.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Minister rubbishes "moon not made of green cheese" claim

Is this the daftest pro-Brexit headline the Telegraph has ever published?
EU referendum: Tory minister rubbishes Cameron's claim that Turkey 'won't ever' be allowed to join the EU
Existing EU member states have a veto over the accession of new member states. That's a verifiable fact, not a claim. A fact you can check by spending about ten seconds on the Internet:
The unanimity principle still exists for Accession Treaties, Treaty amendments, appointments to the Commission, changes to the Community's revenue-raising power and the resolution of certain disputes with the European Parliament.
It's not even just some theoretical power that nobody uses.  Cyprus has used its veto on accessions. Just like Croatia. And Bulgaria. The United Kingdom government could do the same if it wanted to.

And don't start with the "But he said never" thing. Sure, rules can change, but does anybody in their right minds believe that, in a Europe stuffed to bursting with hysterical nationalist politicians, frantically competing to beef up border controls and keep the scary foreigners out, that any government, or alliance of governments, is going to throw away existing accession veto powers?

All sorts of stuff might happen one day in the future. One day in the future, we might all be more concerned with problems like the Dutch refugee crisis that happened around the same time everybody finally realised that rising sea levels were an actual thing, or voting rights for sentient AIs, or the fact that society as we knew it collapsed into dysfunctional heap of bitterness and embarrassment, shortly after everybody started doing their social networking via telepathy-enabled brain chips. But, fortunately, these scenarios aren't happening any time soon and are irrelevant to your vote next month, as is a hypothetical fantasy EU where the member states are about to give away their right to veto accessions.

Guns will make us strong, butter will only make us fat.

An avid social media user, his Instagram account shows the father-of-four -- who has admitted to occasionally carrying a Glock gun in public -- at a shooting range with his children.

"I just love to shoot," he declared in a recent interview, adding that he understood the rising trend of gun owners in Austria "given the current uncertainties".
From a profile of Norbert Hofer, the far-right candidate for the Austrian presidency. You'd think that the Austrian people would have taken one look at an Austrian-born race-baiting far-rightist with a two syllable surname starting with an "H" and remembered that the last candidate for high office who fitted that profile didn't turn out very well. But they apparently haven't made the connection, or don't care, even when Herr Hofer himself whacks them around the head with the clue stick ("As recently as 2013, Mr Hofer attended party gatherings wearing a blue cornflower on his lapel, a symbol used by the Nazis").*

All it takes for the  people of Austria to take a punt on a Nazi is, apparently, bit of image management ("He appears very modest and is very smart in front of the public, but he is rationalising the same far right-wing German nationalist discourse as Strache"). As our own dear Prime Minister, no stranger to the Dark Arts of Public Relations, would advise, "Put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem."

Meanwhile, in other news:
A gunman has opened fire at a concert in the western Austrian town of Nenzing, killing two people before shooting himself dead, police say.

Eleven other people were reported injured as the man appeared to fire randomly at about 03:00 local time (01:00 GMT).

The man, 27, had earlier reportedly argued with a woman in a car park.

He went to his car to get the gun and shot at a crowd of about 150 at the concert, hosted by a motorcycle club.

Maybe if they won't take the hint about electing Nazis, the Austrians might like to reconsider the wisdom of electing a gun nut? Or are they so mesmerised by the advertising that they'll go for the "Buy a Nazi and get a free gun nut" offer anyway?
"Wenn ich Kultur höre...entsichere ich meinen Browning!" ("Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’...I release the safety on my Browning!").
Hanns Johst, playwright and Nazi SS officer (often misquoted as writing something like “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun.” and usually misattributed to either Goebbels or Göring).

*"In 1933, the Nazis and the Greater German People's Party formed a joint working-group, and eventually merged. During the period while the Nazi Party and its symbols were banned in Austria, from 1933 to 1938, Austrian Nazis resumed the earlier pan-Germanist tradition of wearing a blue cornflower in their buttonhole."

Sunday, 15 May 2016

The pro-business case for Hitler and the Black Death

The most bizarre thing about The Boris telling everybody that Britain should leave the EU because Hitler was that his wasn't the most bizarre argument the Brexiteers have come up with (although what is it with ex-mayors of London and Hitler? Is there something strange in the water at City Hall?).

No, Peter Hargreaves, a stockbroker who funded Leave.EU to the tune of £3.2m, set the gold standard for bonkers when he said that:
...a vote to leave would create uncertainty in the UK.

But he argued that was what the country needed, saying it "would be the biggest stimulus to get our butts in gear that we have ever had".

"It will be like Dunkirk again," he said. "We will get out there and we will be become incredibly successful because we will be insecure again. And insecurity is fantastic."
By Hargreaves's logic, Hitler was a good thing because he engineered the creative destruction that pushed the British expeditionary forces into the seas off Dunkirk and so created the national insecurity that made Britain great again.

These people have really taken the "never waste a good crisis" idea and run with it. I wonder how long it's going to be before one of them comes out as pro-global pandemic, given the widespread historical view that the Black Death gave medieval society the biggest stimulus to get its butt in gear that it had ever had?
European economy and society changed drastically following the Black Death. Because so many people had died, there was a huge labor shortage. This contributed to the end of the feudal system, since serfs could often leave their manors and make a better living in cities. In addition to better work opportunities, survivors of the plague had a surplus of material goods. Many of the dead had left behind entire estates and other belongings. These goods were available through inheritance and looting. At this time, the pawnshop business, made famous by the Medici family, became extremely successful. Through these factors, Europe experienced an overall rise in its standard of living.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Shell company

Most of us can think of local amenities that we don't have, but would like to see. Where I live, we've got most of our day-to-day needs covered within a short distance, but there's always room for improvement. I'd be happy to see a bookshop on our high street. My wife would be happier with our local gym if it had a steam room. I'm sure others have their own wanted lists.

The good news is that a new amenity is coming to town. And it's certainly going to be unique:
The £2.5million complex which is to open next year along Sherington Road, Newport Pagnell, will include the world's first fully operational vintage Shell petrol station, a vintage drive-thru diner, 1950s coffee bar, classic car show rooms, period retailing and office space.

Mr Pacey, who actually lives in the town, said: "Newport Pagnell has 200 years of motoring history, from Salmon Coachmakers to Aston Martin.

"This will be a unique selling point for the town which like other market towns has suffered from the internet and shopping centres, but I believe as the first vintage Shell garage in the world it will be a great visitor attraction."
Of course, some things are unique for a very good reason and I'm not entirely convinced that there is a massive pent-up demand from people whose idea of a good time is shopping and working in a faux 1950s version of Newport Pagnell Services.

In fact, as the whole idea sounds like a satire on the consumer society dreamt up by J G Ballard after going to bed on a cheese toastie, I hope there isn't. But maybe I'm just not aspirational enough, lifestyle-wise.

Mind you, the " period retailing" idea does sound intriguing - will the retail experience feature an extensive range of ladies' sanitary products, or will goods be strictly rationed, authentic 1950s style? I can hardly wait to find out.

I may have to wait, though - if memory serves, this guy's last venture in town was a now-closed shop on the High Street called "The Magic of Motoring" or something like that. It sold high-priced vintage and pretend-vintage Shell-branded memorabilia, or would have done, as it never seemed to be open. In the end, we decided that the permanently-closed shop must have been a front for some elaborate tax fiddle, or money laundering operation.

Legal note - we thought this as a joke. As far as I know, no organisation associated with actual tax avoidance and money laundering has had a presence on Newport Pagnell High Street since HSBC closed its local branch earlier this year. And the "Shell company" in the post title has everything to do with the oil company referenced by Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot and nothing at all to do with Mossack Fonseca. Glad we cleared that up.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Punching below our weight

According to the stories told by successive UK governments, our nation "punches above its weight" in the in the boxing ring of international diplomacy. Apparently, nobody has told the British Virgin Islands (population just over 30,000):
Key UK overseas territories led by the British Virgin Islands are still resisting David Cameron’s calls to make fresh concessions on ending tax secrecy at the prime minister’s anti-corruption conference in London on Thursday.
In this case, the UK really could pack quite a punch, if its leader really wanted it to. But when enough important people have stakes in tax havens, punches tend to be pulled.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Foxy gentleman hosts dinner party

In Beatrix Potter's classic childrens' story, the naive Jemima Puddle-duck was befriended by an elegantly-dressed gentleman with sandy whiskers, who kindly agreed to provide her with a safe place to hatch her eggs. Jemima laid nine eggs in her benefactor's house and "The foxy gentleman admired them immensely." Then, the fox invited the duck to dinner - what could possibly go wrong?
"I intend to give you a treat." [said the foxy gentleman] "Let us have a dinner-party all to ourselves!

"May I ask you to bring up some herbs from the farm-garden to make a savoury omlette? Sage and thyme, and mint and two onions, and some parsley. I will provide lard for the stuff - lard for the omlette," said the hospitable gentleman with the sandy whiskers.

Jemima Puddle-duck was a simpleton: not even the mention of sage and onions made her suspicious.

She went round the farm-garden, nibbling off snippets of all the different sorts of herb that are used for stuffing roast duck.
Next week, another well-dressed, hospitable gentleman will be playing the host. "Prime Minister David Cameron has said he wants to put tackling corruption at the "top of the international agenda" ahead of a London summit on the issue."

Presumably he's counting on the rest of us having the duck-sized brains needed to trust a man whose family fortune has been squirrelled away in an offshore tax haven, whose party is largely funded by City firms which operate by hiding their own wealth in tax havens and advising their well-heeled clients how to do the same and whose country lies at the epicentre of a multi-trillion dollar globe-spanning tax avoidance scam. As a helpful article entitled "The world's 15 biggest tax havens" puts it :
Aaaaand the real #1?
Clue: It’s not Switzerland.

If the UK and its satellite secrecy jurisdictions were counted together, it would be number one on this list by an absolute mile. So while you might hear politicians in London crying foul about how other countries are acting as tax havens, the lion’s share of them sit under the British Crown. 
Or, to use another poultry-based analogy, Mr Fox is hosting a summit on how to make hen houses more secure. For every Jemima Puddle-duck must have a well turned-out, plausible-looking benefactor.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Pilot project

Apparently there are a few people out there who still believe that the ideal candidate to rule a nuclear-armed nation would be a grotesquely overgrown spoiled baby who refuses to engage with the complex and troubling outside world except through the medium of tantrums.

Now might be a good time to point out that North Korea already tried that, so you didn't have to.

Pull yourself together, America.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Death, where is thy sting?

It's later than you think. In the regrettably sexist, but still magnificent, words of the Book of Common Prayer:
MAN, that is born of a woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.
But is time really short? What if, as Bob Berman and Robert Lanza argue, all those fleeting moments are, in fact, eternal?
Of course, as you’re reading this, you’re experiencing a ‘now’. But consider: from your great-grandmother’s perspective, your nows exist in her future and her great-grandmother’s nows exist in her past. The words ‘past’ and ‘future’ are just ideas relative to each individual observer.

So what happened to your great-grandmother after she died? To start with – since time doesn’t exist – there is no ‘after death’, except the death of her physical body in your now. Since everything is just nows, there is no absolute space/time matrix for her energy to dissipate – it’s simply impossible for her to have ‘gone’ anywhere.

Think of it like one of those old phonographs. The information on the record is turned into a three-dimensional reality that we can experience a moment at a time. All the other information on the record exists as potential. Any causal history leading up to the ‘now’ being experienced can be thought of as the ‘past’ (ie, the songs that played before wherever the needle is), and any events that follow occur in the ‘future’; these parallel nows are said to be in superposition. Likewise, the before-death state, including your current life with its memories, goes back into superposition, into the part of the record that represents just information.

In short, death does not actually exist. 
It's a startling theory - or rather it would be to anybody who's never read Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five:
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is "So it goes." 
That was science fiction, not science, and there are plenty of physicists who'd argue with Berman and Lanza's view of the nature of time and reality, but it's an interesting idea. Even if it is true, I wouldn't necessarily go along with Berman and Lanza's cheery assertion that their view of time and mortality is less troubling than the idea of past time just disappearing and oblivion being real:
...let’s recap the scientific view of death: essentially, you drop dead and that’s the end of everything. This is the view favoured by intellectuals who pride themselves on being stoic and realistic enough to avoid cowardly refuge in Karl Marx’s spiritual ‘opium’ – the belief in an afterlife. This modern view is not a cheerful one. 
But the fact that moments are eternal might be irrelevant if it's only the ordering of events by the passage of time that makes us conscious that anything's happening at all. The moments might be eternal, but our consciousness might only exist in time, leaving us as unaware of the "eternal" moments of our lives as if we'd been snuffed out. And even if events are permanent in some way that makes a difference to us, it might still take a lot of stoicism to face the fact that every moment of our lives is eternal - the worst moment of your life as much as the best, and every point in between. Eternal joy and eternal suffering.

When it comes down to the most fundamental level of reality, nobody (yet) knows what's true. And, since there's no particular reason to expect the Universe to be constructed in accordance with our fondest wishes, that might be just as well. But, whatever the truth, reality is whatever it is, so you might as well roll with it. Or, to quote another Sci Fi classic "Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so" and, more importantly, "DON'T PANIC!"