Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Shocking, but predictable

"Poll firm predicts shock losses for Theresa May’s Tories at general election"
If YouGov has correctly predicted a shocking thing, this would be a predictably unpredictable result. If they're wrong, it would be unpredictably predictable.

You could spend time thinking about what the polls mean but, if you have any coherent political preferences, this information will probably do nothing to change the way you vote. So you might as well fill your mental bandwidth with something less pointless, like learning how to create a vintage teapot cake and decorate a sugar teacup. A sugar teacup would be about as robust as many recent polls and, at the end of the process, there would be a fighting chance of cake, rather than a high probability of crushing despair.

In fact, I'm sorry I even mentioned it...

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Twee for two

Newport Pagnell resident shocks friends with this one weirdly specific trick:

"Vintage Teapot" Cake Decoration Workshop
17th June - 10am - 4.30pm
This 1 day workshop will enable you to create a vintage teapot cake and decorate a sugar teacup.
You will learn how to:
  • Sculpt cake to achieve a 3 D effect
  • Cover and smooth fondant
  • Design your colour scheme
  • Use molds
  • Hand paint sugar fondant
Just £89 per person
Places are limited to just 8 per class
Spotted on a town noticeboard, in a town which currently supports a population of about 15,000 people and two cake decorating shops.

Not that I've got anything against novelty cakes, as such, but context is everything. Mastering the skill needed to come up with this sort of whimsical creation would be perfectly fine if you did it only once, for a very special event, or to impress the Great British Bake Off judges, but paying to reproduce it in a ninety-quid-a-pop cake-decoration-by-numbers workshop? Really? Is it just me, or is that a bit bonkers?

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Fossil watch

Time is running out...

What’s more, the [fossil fuel] industry sits on a mountain of debt that can never be repaid, will never be repaid, and it’s poised between two bad pricing decisions — keep prices low, which will accelerate the industry bankruptcies caused by those debts (which will also bankrupt some banks); or raise prices higher, making the fossil fuel industry’s debt service more sustainable in the short term while driving an even faster transition to renewables in the long term.
So what is the endgame for those who are heavily invested in the fossil fuels biz? Hope and work for higher prices now and fill your boots while you can, or try to keep prices low and hope it buys you more time by reducing the incentive to develop and improve the altenatives?

I have no idea, although I'd guess that any fossil fuel interests based here in the UK would prefer the short-term "grab what you can and to hell with tomorrow" approach so typical of the British way of doing things. This mindset has been disastrous in the past - the UK treated North Sea oil as a one-off bonanza, rather than thinking of the future and sensibly diverting some of the profits from this finite resource into a sovereign wealth fund like Norway, or Saudi Arabia.

If I'm right, and UK fossil fuel interests get what they wish for, it would mean more pain and fuel poverty in the short term, although maybe a brighter future further down the line, as alternatives get taken up more quickly than they otherwise would have been.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Brendan O'Neill's hypocritical virtue-signalling

The Manchester bombing was a pointless piece of cruel stupidity. At least it brought out the best in many people, though, from offers of emergency accommodation, free taxi rides and bottled water for shaken people unable to get home, to help finding missing loved ones and so many (perhaps misguided but well-meaning) people rushing to donate blood that centres are having to turn them away. Good on those people for doing their best to do something helpful.

And shame on those members of the commentariat with column inches to fill who decided to make it all about themselves. I'm looking at you, Brendan O'Neill. You could have had the decency to keep your big hypocritical trap shut, but after a career built on scolding others for empty "virtue signalling"*, you just couldn't resist lecturing them on how much more virtuously angry you are than everybody else.

Brendan, there are people today who will be feeling far more devastated and angrier than you could even imagine, and with good reason. Don't insult them by comparing your urge to churn out yet another repetitive piece of look-at-me contrarian instapunditry to something important happening to real people in the real world.

If you had any shame we'd never hear from you again.

*Brendan also makes the waggy finger here and here and here and here and here.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Hoggart's Law versus public relations bullshit

The public relations industry exists to take away your informed consent by messing with your head and crowding out useful information with spurious noise, for the exclusive benefit of the rich and powerful (who are the only people who can afford to pay for this shit). So, definitely evil.

It wouldn't be much of a consolation, but the evil PR business would be slightly less insulting to the rest of us if the diabolical people being paid to mess with our heads were worthy opponents, with subtle, piercing intellects, weaving complex, finely-crafted webs of spin and misdirection so beautiful that we'd be forced to admire the sheer craftsmanship of the people pulling our strings.

But, apparently, they're not. They're as dumb as a bag of hammers. Don't take my word for it. Just look at the blog of a public relations professional. `

Richard Bailey, of prstudies dot com, has been thinking about how to identify the best PR blogs being entered for something called the #bestPRblogs contest. His thoughts, such as they are, occupy the space taken up by this blog post.

Let's put the pronouncements of a PR professional through a bullshit filter. The filter I'm using today is Hoggart's Law™, which states that "If the opposite of a statement is plainly absurd, it was not worth making in the first place."

Richard,  who appears to have a Phd in the bleeding obvious, titles his blog post "In praise of excellence" (as opposed to "In praise of mediocrity").

Let's examine an expert's suggestions for writing an excellent PR blog:
  • "Have a blog" (because not having a blog can negatively impact your chances of winning a prize for having an excellent blog. Who knew? Do go on...)
  • "Be selected for my pick of the week roundup" ("One of the guys judging this contest wants you to impress him, so you can safely ignore him for ever.")
  • "Be consistent" ("Be wildly inconsistent")
  • "Be brilliant" ("Be stupid")
  • "Brilliant writing counts"" ("Write any old rubbish, nobody cares")
  • Quality content has value" (see the opposite of "Brilliant writing counts", above). 
I don't know about his students, but Richard certainly deserves a prize. For nature conservation. So long as we have an ecosystem which supports vast herds of bovine PR professionals like him, the duck-billed platitude is safe from extinction.

Image credit.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

"You might also want to try..."

Today's unintentionally funny suggestion comes from webopedia's attempt to define organic SEO. After defining the term, the entry gives examples of organic SEO techniques. I love the way that the very last technique listed is "writing content relevant for human readers."

I suppose you could try doing that if you were really desperate, but it'll never catch on.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Cultural recycling

"Why every American graduation plays the same song"[sic] was the title of this video I just came across. Never having been to an American graduation, I wondered which "song" (or rather "tune") it was. I guessed Brahms' Academic Festival Overture (or at least the tune of Gaudeamus Igitur, the rousing student drinking song that Brahms recycled at the end of his piece). Alternatively, I know from my wife, who organises degree ceremonies, that Charpentier's Te Deum and Purcell's Trumpet Tune often get an airing on these occasions, too.

Anyway, I clicked play and discovered that Americans celebrate their academic successes to the tune of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March Number 1 - the "Land of Hope and Glory" tune. For a Brit who associates the piece with the union jack-waving crowds at the last night of the Proms, this just felt weird.

Which it maybe shouldn't have done considering that, in the USA, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture is a standard feature of July the 4th celebrations and most Americans apparently think Tchaikovsky's tune has something to do with America's inconclusive 1812 war with the British. We Brits are used to cultural appropriation happening to other cultures - heaven knows, Britain did enough of it back in the high noon of its Imperial pomp, so it's about time we got our heads around the idea that it can happen to us, too.

Personally, I'm quite happy with the discovery - I'm better disposed towards the piece, now that I know that lots of people associate it with a celebration of hard work and intellectual curiosity, not just a strain of jingoist Imperial nostalgia that's embarrassing at best and delusionally destructive at worst. Here's the vid:

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Breaking news: Trump assasinated

According to the entertaining cartoonist who inexplicably morphed into the parody geekbro and red-pillish men's rights activist still known as Scott Adams, we're witnessing "The Slow-Motion Assassination of President Trump", no less.

After all, as Scott has repeatedly pointed out, Trump is a master wizard, who's playing 10-dimensional chess, or whatever, while the rest of us clueless muggles don't even realise the game's started. Obviously, the only way such an omnitalented ├╝bermensch could fail is because his enemies have ganged up on him in a massive, sustained conspiracy. It's like JFK, except with bullets made of the purest fake news...

Up to a very limited point, I agree with Scott. There is probably less to the Russia thing than meets the eye. Trump's a careless blabbermouth and a security nightmare with an embarrassing man-crush on hunky Tsar Vladimir, but I'm not running with the outlandish idea thet he's some kind of Hollywood-style Manchurian Candidate.

But as for the character "assassination" idea, well, Mr President, you're no Jack Kennedy. If you want a historical parallel, Al Capone would be closer. Not because of Trump's alleged ties with The Mob, but because what got Capone in the end wasn't the stuff he was notorious for (being a gangster and killing people), but something far more mundane (tax evasion).

Likewise, Trump is notorious for a number of failings which are no secret to anybody. These include a short attention span, an incredible degree of ignorance, a lack of interest in remedying that ignorance, or learning the most basic facts he needs to do his job, an apparent inability to distinguish whether the stuff that comes out of his mouth is true, false, or even coherent, an admitted preference for living inside his own privileged filter bubble, a streak of petty cruelty, a desire to humiliate others and self-parodic levels of vanity. Don't just take my word for it - this interview transcript from The Economist gives chapter and verse on the evasiveness, the blustering ineptitude, the desire to escape from inconvenient facts and the epic vanity. As for the vindictive spite of the man, you shouldn't even need to google it unless you've been living under a rock, or on Mars, for the last couple of years.

Most of this stuff has been obvious for as long as people have been aware of Donald Trump. But, instead, what's damaging him is a less dramatic failing - inattention, combined with an underdeveloped theory of mind which mean that his attempts to explain the probably explicable end up sounding shifty and evasive. By the look of things, this is a guy who hasn't quite grasped the fact that a plain "I didn't do it" sounds more convincing than "I didn't do it, nobody saw me do it, there's no way you can prove anything." But he seemingly can't help himself - every time somebody comes up with something circumstantial, but a bit dodgy-sounding, he manages to make it sound even worse - if he doesn't learn that less is more, and soon, he'll end up tripping over his own bizarrely over-long tie and falling flat on his big orange face.

And then, who knows? President Elizabeth Warren, according to Scott Adams, who clearly thinks that this would be a bad thing because, you know, the oppressive matriarchy, feminazis, whatever. However, by the end of his post, Scott goes back to his happy place and concludes with the consoling idea that President Warren, too, will only last a couple of years now that any president can be brought down by fake news and conspiracy theories. It would probably be useless to point out that Trump himself was only too happy to run with a ridiculous  conspiracy theory which was far less plausible than the Russia thing. Remind me, what was it called again?
"You're fired!"
Big Bertha? I'm sure it was something like that ... hang on, I've got it now:
"The FAKE NEWS media is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!"
Big birther. Turns out that if you sow the wind, you might just end up reaping the whirlwind. Who knew?

Speaking of irony, has anybody else noted the striking similarities between Trump and one of the characters in Adams's Dilbert cartoons, the pointy-haired boss? An entitled bully with weird hair, promoted way above his abilities who is way more clueless and ignorant than the people below him in the hierarchy. All these years I thought that Scott intended the pointy-haired boss to be a figure of fun, never realising that he was really a how-to manual for aspiring presidents. Whatever next? Steve Bannon as Catbert?

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

"The pseudo-journalistic medium"

Breitbart, as described in Steffen Dobbert's interview with Nigel Farage for Zeit Online:
He was one of the first politicians to visit Trump after the election. Also to [visit his] electoral campaign manager and former head of the pseudo-journalistic medium Breitbart,* Stephen Bannon.
Interesting to see how the UK's answer to Pepe the Frog loses it under determined questioning, leaving his minders to shut down the interview. If only the UK media had been this tough on his fact-free assertions, evasions and bluster before the referendum.

*Update - although, in defence of Brietbart's pseudo-journalists, they do have a certain dogged tenacity.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

A Nixon in China moment

The shorthand is “Nixon goes to China,” meaning a moment in which a leader reverses his past positions to do something that is shocking but beneficial.

Richard Nixon is hardly a role model, overall; he was a devious president who encouraged illegal actions by his subordinates. But he was a clever strategist — never more so than in the opening to China that culminated in his February 1972 visit to Beijing...

...Nixon arguably was the only U.S. politician who could have gotten away with such a bold move. He had the right-wing credentials, as an anti-communist and advocate of Taiwan.
 David Ignatius, Washington Post 

In a similar way, Flip Chart Rick believes that Theresa May is counting on her right-wing credentials to sprinkle some of that fairy dust we call "credibility" onto previously derided Labour policies. He thinks we may be seeing:
...a shift away from free market ideology as Theresa May promises more interventionist policies, such as a cap on energy prices, a crackdown on companies who underfund pension schemes, investment in new council houses and the “greatest extension of rights and protections for employees by any Conservative government in history.”
Interesting, if true, although others doubt whether any such Damascene conversion has really happened ("Red Theresa my arse").

Whether or not you think the advertised policy shift is sincere, or even real, it's an interesting reminder that what's deemed politically possible often depends on who's doing or saying something, rather than the actual merits of what's being done or said. Which isn't, in my opinion, a good thing, although if the subsequent career of Richard Milhous Nixon did nothing to dent people's blind faith in the mystical power of "credibility", then I'm afraid nothing will.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Manifesto promises of note

Whatever the outcome of the 2017 General Election, the prospects for the UK look grimmer than at any time in (my) living memory and the chance that any plausible outcome will do anything to mitigate the looming crisis looks slim. But vote anyway - even voting tactically for the least worst option in support of what seems like a lost cause is less silly than abstaining and trying to smash the system by staying in bed, Russell Brand-style.

In the meanwhile, if you're desperate for a bit of light relief (and I know I am), here are a few entertaining policy positions from elections past:
  • Free access to swimming pools for everyone and free towels.
From the party platform of Iceland's Best Party (the publicly-subsidised swimming bit might well be feasible in a place the size of Iceland - it was the free towels for all pledge that made me smile).
  • Free bananas for all schoolchildren.
As promised by H'Angus the Monkey, the former football club mascot who became the first directly elected mayor of Hartlepool.
  • Free dung.
  • The abolition of money, replacing it with chocolate fish or with sand.
  • Votes for trees.
  • Replacing the Royal New Zealand Armoured Corps with mounted knights.
  • Fixing accountants in concrete and using them as traffic barriers.*
  • Limiting the speed of light to 100 km/h.
  • Setting up a Frivolous Fraud Office to investigate any fraud deemed too silly for the Serious Fraud Office.
All promised by New Zealand's McGillicuddy Serious Party, which also promised, Epimenides-style, to break its own promises. The party entered a goat in a local Waiheke Island election, but their attempt to have a hedgehog stand for Parliament was unsuccessful.**
  • Repealing the law of gravity.
  • Building one nuclear power plant per household, including monthly distributions of lead underwear - indoor lighting to be provided by radioactive citizens.
  • Providing higher education by building taller schools.
  • Putting the national debt on Visa.***
  • Donating a free rhinoceros to every aspiring artist in Canada.
  • Rather than patriate the Canadian constitution by bringing it to Canada, as proposed by Pierre Trudeau, bring Great Britain home and make it Canada's eleventh province.****
The Rhinoceros Party of Canada.

Taken from the "politics and government" section of Wikipedia's trove of unusual articles (as defined and chosen by Wikipedia contributors).

*A policy which the McGillicuddy Serious Party claims to have stolen from the UK's Official Monster Raving Loony Party.

**The goat and hedgehog had less successful policical careers than Duke, a Pyrenean mountain dog who won the election for the ceremonial mayorship of Cormorant Township, Minnesota in 2014. Twelve votes were cast. Duke was re-elected in August 2016, for his third consecutive term. Since Cormorant has mayoral elections annually, he will be up for re-election again in 2017.

***Way too mainstream - this one makes just as much sense as trying to grow your way out of an economic downturn with austerity.

****Ditto - the Canada option is the nearest thing I've  yet seen to a workable post-Brexit plan although , admittedly, there hasn't been much competition.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Insecurity services

As somebody said recently, "The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough." Especially on your allies' critical infrastructure, it has emerged:
The hacking tool [used in the ransomware attacks on the UK's National Health Service] had been developed by the National Security Agency (NSA), America’s powerful military intelligence unit. The NSA had developed its ‘Eternal Blue’ hacking weapon to gain access to computers used by terrorists and enemy states. 
Looney Tunes Home Secretary, Elmer Fudd, reassured journalists  that no terrorists, paedophiles or cyber criminals have been compromised by the attack, before gwabbing a gun to get the wascally wabbit wesponsible.

Friday, 12 May 2017

The truthiness is out there

More on why repeating any message over and over seems to give it added truthiness, this time from somebody who's actually looked at some research and made a video. I now have a name for the process - "cognitive ease":
Although "ease" doesn't quite describe my state of mind when I've just heard the same mindless political/advertising slogan being repeated for the thousandth bloody time.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

"It's news, Jim, but not as we know it..."

"Flat earthers may have a point - they're just 4000000000 years out of date" 
...said the clickbaity headline in Google News.

"What sort of maniac is making this claim?", I wondered to myself as I clicked through and brought up this Metro headline:
Earth ‘was once flat and covered almost entirely in salt water’
Earth 4.4 billion years ago was flat and almost entirely covered in water with just a few small islands, new research suggests.
It's only by reading past the headline that you discover that we're talking "flat" in the sense of "not having mountains", rather than Discworld flat.

Never mind fake news, this is fake fake news. And the worst of it is, they got me with it (and I pride myself on not clicking obvious clickbait).

Metro's caps locked tag line, by the way, is "NEWS... BUT NOT AS YOU KNOW IT"

Monday, 8 May 2017

As sure as night follows day

We're going to see a lot of relentlessly repeated sound-bites between now and the general election date. The people responsible don't just do it to annoy (although it surely will), but because they think it will change your mind more effectively than rational argument:
Here's how a typical experiment on how the effect works: participants rate how true trivia items are, things like "A prune is a dried plum". Sometimes these items are true (like that one), but sometimes participants see a parallel version which isn't true (something like "A date is a dried plum").

After a break – of minutes or even weeks – the participants do the procedure again, but this time some of the items they rate are new, and some they saw before in the first phase. The key finding is that people tend to rate items they've seen before as more likely to be true, regardless of whether they are true or not, and seemingly for the sole reason that they are more familiar.
"How liars create the illusion of truth", Tom Stafford BBC Future.

I don't know why repetition works so well on the human mind, but I have a theory. Since we first evolved, humans have had to deal with two types of things - things which are new and novel and things which are unchanging, or predictable. If somthing's new and novel, you need to give it your full attention ("Is it prey I can eat, or a predator, come to eat me?"). 

If something's unchanging, or predictable, it goes to the back of your mind and becomes part of the landscape. If something happens with predictable regularity you make a working assumption that "that's just how the world is, I don't need to spend time worrying about it", saving your attention for that unpredictable thing rustling the bushes that you might eat, or get eaten by.

That, I think, may be why repeated messages are so powerful. Your mind classifies them as part of the background, an inevitable part of life, like night following day. And anything that's part of the background, you assume is safe, inevitable, nonthreatening. For most of human history and prehistory, people didn't waste time worrying that the sun might not rise in the morning (except, maybe, the Aztecs who liked to sacrifice a few prisoners to their sun deity Huitzilopochtli, just to be on the safe side).

If something's as predictably repetitive as the rising and setting of the sun, maybe it's hard to dismiss it as untrue and easier to accept it as inevitable, even though the rational part of your mind knows it's just a bunch of words, selected by biased, fallible humans.

Which makes repetition a powerful weapon in the hands of a manipulator. And one that you can't easily disarm just by becoming aware of the manipulation, thanks to the white bear problem - you can't decide to not think about a white bear (or a propaganda message), except by thinking about it.


Piers Morgan knows what he's talking about

A bold claim, I know, but there is photographic proof:
"We need to be better, as a world, than idolising these cretinous individuals"
Piers Morgan, earlier this month.
According to Piers, the world needs to grow up and get over the world's second-biggest celebrity arse. Before you dismiss Piers' opinion as spiteful abuse from an unpopular celebrity hanger-on, we must remember that the world's biggest celebrity arse has given Piers his very own a pet name*, so Piers counts as something of a world authority on celebrity arses.

*"Champ, sit! Sit! Good dog!"

The customer is always right ...

... but citizens aren't just customers:
In the 1970s terrorists sometimes set off more than a thousand bombs a year in the USA. Of course that annoyed people. But they didn't fall into mass hysteria and beg the government to do whatever it took to make them feel safe again. They would have felt too silly.

A democracy requires a measure of such political stoicism among its citizens. That is, an ideal of self-command and self-awareness by which we discriminate those things that are under our control; those things that are within our government's rightful control; and those things that we cannot control at all and should not seek to.
Thomas R Wells

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Life in the heroically stupid UK

I miss living in a country where even people in authority just occasionally had a sense of proportion, pragamatism and even humour. But nowadays, the very model of a modern British citizen is apparently the aggressively paranoid, mirthless jobsworth and "only obeying orders", no matter how ridiculous, is the the mark of a true British hero:
The chief constable of Sussex Police has labelled his staff “everyday heroes” for using the UK's Terrorism Act to arrest a photographer taking pictures of Hove Town Hall.
Such mindless obedience to arbitrary authority has no place in a sane society, but it is vital to governing an inmate-run  madhouse where only a bizarre form of circular doublethink can make sense of the ruling ideology:
What is very much still relevant is that the same hermetically-sealed, evidence-proof and argument-proof logic now drives government policy... Each time reality demolishes one of their claims (the most ubiquitous, perhaps, and the most absurd, certainly, being that German car makers would ensure a good deal in double quick time) the Brexiters do not acknowledge that they were wrong, but move on to a harder position. So, first, we can somehow be in the single market but with no strings attached. That’s proved wrong. So it will be a trade deal. Now that that is looking increasingly difficult they move to saying that no deal would be perfectly fine. And, in any case, it’s all the EU’s fault and ‘just goes to prove’ that we are right to leave. There’s no way out of this kind of thinking. It is completely circular and unfalsifiable.

There is no imaginable event that could shake it. Suppose the UK gets a great deal? It proves we were right to leave! Suppose we don’t? It proves we were right to leave!
Terrifying stupidity is the new normal.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Les trois cents sans gloire

If you think it seems a long time since the egalitarian high noon of Les Trente Glorieuses, at least be thankful that there are people still alive who remember when things were getting better for most people in Europe and the rest of the West. According to this post at Metafilter, when workers' wages collapsed in the mid 1500s, real wages didn't recover for another three centuries. Other interpretations of the facts exist but it is, at the very least, good to see the welfare of the average person being considered as the stuff of of history, as opposed to the history-as-lists-of-monarchs approach still being kept on life support by the David Starkeys othis world:
For about two centuries after the Black Death, workers in Europe had it good, medievally speaking. The medieval calendar was filled with festivals and feast days; dragons and church ales, carnivals and food fights, and an extra day off every week of the year. In bad years, it took only a few hundred hours of work to pay for the grain needed to feed a family; in good years, closer to a hundred hours. Then, in less than 50 years starting in the mid-1500s - and as quickly as the 10 years from 1540 to 1550 in at least one area - everything changed, almost everywhere in Europe.

Workers' real wages dropped dramatically. Now, a bad year for wheat prices meant that a few thousand hours of work per year were needed to afford a family's grain - which meant death by starvation of the poorest and weakest. The range of prices flipped: What was a bad year for workers in the 1400s - having to work a few hundred hours a year to pay for grain - now seemed a great year, a bumper crop. And it stayed this way. Workers' real wages did not rise back to late medieval levels until the late 1800s, over 300 years and an Industrial Revolution later.

Feasts and festivals for the poor fell out of fashion. "By the same statute, women singing round summer-trees, or maypoles, are ordered to be taken, handled, and put upon the ducking-stone." Gone was the inclusiveness of earlier Carnivals.

But not everyone suffered. In relation to the income of the rich, prices for servants and luxury goods dropped. Because of Engel's Law (no, not that Engel), high wheat prices had a small impact on the budgets of the rich. Cheaper servants made them considerably better off, and the engine of elite fashion became a whirlwind.

A massive increase in silver mining, first (beautifully illustrated) in Central Europe and later (horrifically) in South America, is blamed for the rise in (nominal) prices. The drop in (real) wages is blamed variously on population increases, the Little Ice Age, and the transmutation of silver into almost unparalleled violence, directed downward in service of social transformation.

(An explanatory note on the graph in the "10 years" link: The white dots and background are for 1400-1600. The text suggests that 12 quintals of grain would be needed to feed a family for a year, and the numbers on the left side of the graph - cut off in the scan, unfortunately - are in tens of hours needed to afford 1 quintal. The numbers are, from the top down, 50, 40, 30, 20, 10, 5, 0, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and I'd be glad for anyone to correct my interpretation of the 0,9,8,7... numbers as 1.0, 0.9, 0.8, etc. Thus the top of the graph represents 50x10x12=6000 hours of a labourer's work needed to feed a family; a devastating famine. The "everything changed" and "not everyone suffered" links go more deeply into the numbers behind the drop in real wages for workers across most of Europe, and what people spent money on besides grain.).
Reproduced in full because I think this stuff matters more than Henry VIII's love life.

Tiggywinkles wildlife morgue

It's very much a consolation prize, given that Ukip's collapse is propping up the Tories and that its one weird idea has succeeded in infecting the rest of the UK's zombified body politic, but the plotters behind the Puce Putsch are now political roadkill. The happy event has been officially confirmed by the nation's only remaining news source of record:
UKIP has been flattened in the local elections like a hedgehog under a convoy of HGVs, it has been confirmed.

The party, which has no discernible reason to exist after Theresa May discovered she agreed with them all along, now has no MPs, no councillors and is drying out on the hard shoulder while being pecked by crows.

Political analyst Susan Traherne said: “We could accurately sum up UKIP’s night with the single word ‘splat!’, but why not savour this? 
thought something like this was on the cards, although I got some of the timing wrong - I thought Arron Banks would just carry on destabilising the party, wait for it to fall apart, then re-rat back to the Tories, rather than blathering on about creating Ukip 2.0, then boasting that he was totally going to stand as a Ukip candidate, before almost immediately bottling out.

But, whatever, it looks like they're finished and good riddance. Sadly, the godawful mess they've left behind won't spontaneouly self-destruct so quickly.

Towels have feelings too

It says so here, it must be true:
Luxury towels with Feelings of their Own"
I'm not fully convinced that I need a towel with its own emotional needs, let alone one which only exists once every hundred years, but what do I know about marketing? 

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Oh, the humanity!

Overwrought headline of the week:
No iPhone user can even imagine dealing with what Android users have to tolerate 
Quick, for the love of God, somebody release a charity single!

...and, behold, it was very 2.0.

Neera was a born disruptor, ready to take things and make them 2.0. 
One of my favourite finalists from this year's Lyttle Lytton Contest to find the worst opening line to a novel. The older The Bulwer‐Lytton Fiction Contest does the same thing, but the Lyttle Lytton limits entries to opening lines of 200 characters or fewer. When it comes to entertainingly dreadful prose, I think less is more.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Good Queen Tess

There's something very regal about Theresa May these days. Regal in the specific sense of resembling the only UK monarch in my living memory, Elizabeth II. Years ago, I linked to an acute pen portrait of Our Dear Queen from a sadly now-inactive blog. Some of the parallels with our famously sphinx-like Prime Minister are striking:
Of course the monarchy can survive, or even flourish, when the monarch does a reasonable job, which in Elizabeth II's case has meant keeping her head down and never saying anything remotely interesting...she understands (unlike her eldest son) that a constitutional monarch is better seen than heard, and that the role consists in being rather than doing.

The present Queen may well be the most boring monarch in British history... She has been for sixty years a vacuum at the heart of the state. Anti-monarchists, like atheists, need something to get their teeth into. Just as it's easier to oppose Michele Bachmann's God than Giles Fraser's, it's easier to oppose a despot or a crowned fruitcake than Queen Elizabeth II... Where public affairs are concerned, the weight of inertia is typically huge. It certainly is in the case of the monarchy (or the NHS, or the BBC). Boring is good, or at least safe from too much scrutiny.
Heresy Corner

Just compare the branding of Elizabeth II* and Theresa May. Both: 
  • Are cited by admirers as living symbols of national stability and unity.
  • Are archetypes of a certain brisk, "no-nonsense" anti-intellectual sensibility.
  • Occupy a central role in the UK establishment.
  • Are devoutly Anglican.
  • Are adept at cutting any meaningful information out of their public pronouncements and replacing it with anodyne feel-good generalities.
  • Have survived and prospered by mastering a bland inscrutability onto which their followers can project whatever values they hold dear and which doesn't generate any hostages to fortune that enemies might exploit.
  • Have their public speeches and appearances meticulously vetted and pre-planned, in order to project an image of effortless control and to eliminate the danger of embarrassing spontaneity.
Of course, Elizabeth II fell into her role thanks to a genetic lottery. The ambitious grammar school girl had to try harder, aided by the office politician's talent for giving nothing away and ruthlessly positioning herself to fill any vacancy that might come along. Once she'd bagged the Prime Minister's job, most people assumed that she'd risen as far as it was possible to rise in the UK, but I'm not so sure.

With the old Queen retreating into the shadows, as the advancing years erode her stamina, I think the vicar's daughter from Eastbourne has spotted another vacancy - for what the Heresiarch called "the vacuum at the heart of the state." Theresa May is fast usurping the ageing monarch as the hole at the centre of our national doughnut, becoming a very British iteration of the current authoritarian fad for personality cult-based centralised leadership.

Unfortunately for the rest of the UK, the skill set for a symbolic head of state doesn't transfer readily to the leader of a government facing some of the most complex, taxing and intractable executive decisions the nation has faced since Elizabeth II was a young slip of a thing. As Good Queen Tess recently discovered, the level of content-free small talk that politely lubricates a state banquet just won't cut it when your dinner date is the president of the European Commission, here to talk about the substantial issues that could make or break the nation's economic future for a generation.


*Update  - just as I was writing this, Theresa May decided to spring another surprise on us and start channelling Violet Elizabeth Bott, instead of Elizabeth II. How threatening to scream and scream and scream until she's sick will work out as a negotiating ploy remains to be seen, but in view of these occasional tantrums, I'm going to have to qualify my assessment of Good Queen Tess as merely boring. It looks as if the May administation, like war, will consist of "long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror."