Sunday 21 December 2008

At least we know when we're ill

Posting's been right down here, hasn't it? Sorry about that. There are a variety of reasons: Christmas is about the only time I actually have a social life; this new trend of job interviewers asking you to prepare a "short" presentation is a complete, and unwarranted, time-thief; lastly, I've been ill.

It's worth being clear about the last part. This was no seasonal cold; I was genuinely, sweatingly, shiveringly, ill. That the onset of symptoms started on the way back from my team Christmas party, leading the next morning to the least convincing sickness phonecall in the history of employment is merely emblematic of the wretched, cough-racked misery that I've been dragging my sorry carcass through. Because on day two I had been called back for a second interview half way across town; there can be no better preparation for an hour's Sounding Clever And Being Impressive than hawking up 50cl of coagulated mucus at Vauxhall tube. I staggered back from what was doubtless an inspiring performance just in time to spend the next 36 hours shivering in 4 layers of clothing and drinking my own weight in vitamin-bearing fluid.

In other words, as my female colleagues and pretty much every woman I know took delight in informing me, I had man-flu. It is, apparently, all but impossible for men to actually get sick; anything short of Ebola gets a knowing roll of the eyes, a patient sigh and a healthy dose of patronising skepticism. You can get a signed affidavit from a battery of doctors for all the good it will do you; the first suggestion that, being ill, you've decided not to do some otherwise simple task (go to work, take the recycling to the skip, scale Mt Kilimanjaro) and you become just one more of a long line of whingeing males, eager to give in to their illness where a woman would soldier on, hopped-up on decongestant and coughing up her own spleen.

Well, enough. It may be little enough compared to centuries of social, financial and political dominance, but I'm done with it. Women's position as the arbiters of what is and is not illness, suffering or pain is based (as far as I can tell) on the all but unimaginable rigours of pregnancy and childbirth. (That and leg-waxing.) Not any more. From now on, I'm calling BS on the whole "agony of childbirth" thing. I bet it's really a doddle. Moreover, I'm going to take the wholly unsupported position that men would cope much better. "Tchah," I will say, when next confronted by another claim that men don't know what pain really is, "tchah. Sounds like it was just woman-birth."

I can't see this plan going wrong at all.

Wednesday 10 December 2008

Holiday Cheer

Owing to a MacGuffin in the space-time continuum, I've recently come into possession of some alternative drafts of "A Christmas Carol", as written by a number of different authors. In the interests of literary scholarship, I'm presenting a number here:


SCROOGE: I think you'll find - when all these festivities are over and done - I think you'll find yourself one smiling pauper. You see, right now, Bob, you've got a position. And painful as it may be, positions don't last for ever. Now that's a hard wretched fact of life, but it's a fact of life your posterior is going to have to get realistic about. This business is filled to the brim with unrealistic wretches who thought they'd be home on Christmas Day. If you mean they got fired, they did. If you mean they got time off, they didn't.

On the day itself, you might feel a slight glow. That's Christmas, humbugging you. Humbug Christmas! Much good Christmas ever did to any man. Overcome that nonsense, and a year from now, when your crippled son is dying piteously, you're gonna say, "Ebeneezer Scrooge was right"

MARLEY: I got no problem with that

SCROOGE: On Christmas Day, your posterior is in the office.


SCROOGE: Say it!

MARLEY: On Christmas Day, my posterior is in the office
Chuck Palahniuk

Marley becomes my business partner, and after that, Marley's rattling chains in my face and saying, the common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance and deliverance, were, all, my business.

His ghostly chains piled on the floor, Marley says, "You will be haunted by three spirits"
I look about me for my own chains. You forge your own chain in life, link by link, yard by yard. You do it every day, the way you treat the people you pass by.

You treat people wrong and the chain will imprison your immortal soul. I know this because Jacob Marley knows this.

"Three spirits will visit you over the next three nights" says Marley. "You can't rebuild yourself until you truly hit bottom."

I am Ebeneezer's frightened anticipation.


It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a wretched miser in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a haunting.


I'm sure there must be more out there...

Friday 5 December 2008

Stalinism run riot

So, if you're keeping score at home, Damian Green's rock solid position on the moral high ground has two foundations:

1) Parliamentary Privilege - to search his office is to tear down the very fabric of democracy, you big bullies.
2) You gotta have a warrant - can't search the sacrosanct Houses of Parliament without a warrant, approved by the DPP and blessed by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Pity about this then:

Parliamentary privilege “does not embrace and protect the activities of individuals, whether members or non-members, simply because they take place within the precincts of Parliament.

and also this:

Section 8 (1) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act as amended permits a Justice of the Peace to issue a warrant authorising a constable to enter and search premises where satisfied on application by a constable that there are reasonable grounds for believing:


c) That entry to the premises will not be granted unless a warrant is produced.

So if you think you'll get consent, you don't need a warrant. Why did the police think they'd get consent? Because they asked for it the day before:

On Wednesday 26th November 2008 police officer led by the Senior Investigating Officer attended the Palace of Westminster to speak to the Serjeant at Arms...The officers explained the nature of the investigation and the purpose of the search and were satisfied that the Serjeant at Arms understood that police had no power to search in the absence of a warrant and therefore could only do so with her written consent or that of the Speaker. ... The Serjeant at Arms indicated that she would give her consent at the appropriate time...

On the 27th November 2008 officers attended the Palace of Westminster where they again saw the Serjeant at Arms and written consent to search was provided in two forms; namely a signature on a standard police search form 101 and in a letter provided by the Serjeant at Arms. It is understood that the Serjeant at Arms had obtained legal advice in the interim.

It's just like those Stasi pigs to follow the legal requirements. Just thugs in uniform, if you ask me.

(Yes, yes - it's technically possible that the police have published an entirely fictitious account of the crucial events. Wouldn't that be bold.)

Thursday 4 December 2008

Is there an eye-surgeon in the house?

The Daily Mail reports on the latest pearls of wisdom from the Council of Mortgage Lenders. (The incredulous bolding is mine.)

In an explosive speech, director general Michael Coogan said that the 11.7 million with a mortgage are being forced to cope with a 'dysfunctional' market.

In a reference to the struggle of millions of homeowners to get a loan, he said: 'We have, in effect, returned to mortgage rationing.'

He also said the Government's £37 billion banking bailout was not enough to stop the crisis.

He accused the Government, the Bank of England the Financial Services Authority of making 'piecemeal, self-interested decisions'.

The Mail, somehow, does not go on to report the shout of laughter, followed by shocked silence, followed by murderous howls of frustrated rage with which the audience greeted this masterpiece of two-faced chutzpah, nor on the great fortune with which Mr Coogan escaped from the baying mob with his life.

Monday 1 December 2008

Fools rush in

There's a lot of good comment about the whole Green affair, particularly here, but for me the most trenchant was made by Tom Freeman.

I’d like to comment at some length on the propriety of the arrest of Damian Green, based on my detailed knowledge of the information the police acted on, what they found during their searches, the questions they asked him, the answers he gave, and the precise nature of his relationship with the civil servant in question. Alas, I have no such detailed knowledge

Nobody knows enough about this to say anything very sensible. It may be that the police have good evidence that Green was soliciting and rewarding leaks; in which case isn't it good that they were able to investigate a potentially very serious breach of the law? Or it may be that they had no such evidence; in which case this exactly as disgraceful as any other unwarranted* arrest/search. Ignorant of this fairly fundamental point, the media and MPs have settled instead for trivia, to wit:

1) Why hasn't the Home Secretary apologised?
For what? Personally ordering her jackbooted thugs to make Green's daughter cry? I suspect she didn't give that order. There's a difference between "sorry for" and "sorry that"; until we know that Jacqui Smith actually told the police a) to arrest Green or b) to be a bit mean to him when they did, then what need is their for her to apologise. Here's the gold standard of "heavy-handed" arrests - the Forest Gate raid that not only ended with counter-terrorism police questioning two innocent men for well over nine hours, but also involved one them being shot. No Home Secretary apologised for that - the police did. Because, you know, they're the ones who did it.

2) How could this happen to one of us?
The sense of oxen being gored is palpable. Check out Dennis MacShane's temperate use of language:

"MPs, yes they are protected under privilege when they speak in the House of Commons, but there is a broader constitutional privilege that says they can meet anyone, talk about anything, discuss their political passions, they can hold files, and the police, the agents of the state, do not storm in there and start breaking in or going into offices and taking away confidential files that all our constituents think will be treated confidentially."

I'd like to see some evidence of this "broader constitutional privilege". To read MacShane, you'd think MPs could have a stack of dead hookers in their office and remain beyond legal reproach. Here's a crazy notion: if, as an MP, you break the law you don't get to run inside your office and shut the door while the police come to a screeching halt outside the Palace of Westminster. This isn't the Dukes of Hazzard, for Christ's sake.

3) The pigs totally called him a paedo
Oh, sweet Jesus. Yes, the verb "grooming" does have one meaning relating to child abuse. Context, however is all. Despite all my calls to dog-grooming businesses, for example, I am still to find one that will even begin to help me realise my long-standing borzoi/shitsu threesome fantasy. Similarly, while you might be alarmed to hear a policeman ask if you've been involved in grooming, the immediate use of the phrase "26-year-old" should offer a glimmer of insight that you're not in fact being fitted up as politic's answer to Gary Glitter.

There's a point where righteous outrage begins to look a little like desparate shit-flinging; distraction rather than defence. When your position rests on the fundamental principles of democracy, why stoop to this petty, meaningless crap?

*I kill me.

Thursday 27 November 2008

Thanks for nothing

Because Americans do the whole turkey thing a month early, I get to share this little pre-Christmas appetiser with you.

First the context: in a ceremony the full grotesquerie of which will shortly become apparent, Presidents and, evidently, State Governors "pardon" one lucky fowl in the days before Thanksgiving. You can see Palin twinkle her way through this ritual, and a subsequent interview, here.

But that is just prologue. The real meat to this story lies in this film of the same interview, which follows the bold artistic technique of keeping the real story in the background, allowing the apparent central character to witter on while the unexpurgated reality of the situation is presented in all its unvarnished glory.

Vegetarians*, fervent supporters of animal rights, people with any degree of empathy or anyone whose proximate work colleagues fall into any of the foregoing groups should on no account play this video.

*Darling, this means you.

Cost of everything

Of all the PR tropes that make "churnalism" such an easy option for hacks, one above all gets my goat. The meaningless survey is almost boilerplate; the "scientific formula" that defines sexy armpits is admittedly ludicrous; nothing could be a greater insult to our collective sense of worth than the dread phrase "X costs British business £N Million every year".

The reduction of every human deed, word or thought to its tendentious and notional effect on some mythical bottom line has become so commonplace that the sheer horror of the notion seems to be overlooked. I still cling, futile and ill-founded though it be, to the notion that I have some innate value to the world above and beyond my ability to maintain an acceptable level of profit for shareholders. It may yet prove that my role on this wretched, ailing planet is neither measured nor defined by the hours I spend at work; that the span of my life has not, in fact, been allotted wholesale to the need for economic growth.

And yet it seems that no issue, from office politics to airport waiting time, can be adequately or sensibly discussed without recourse to some abstruse and flawed calculus, the assumptions of which are offensive (that my time belongs wholly to my employer); simplistic to the extreme (that every minute has equal value); and utterly unrealistic (that ceasing to do X necessarily means I will start doing Y). But even if this arithmetic actually meant anything, there is something borderline sociopathic about arguing, for example, that the reason to not keep workers in "cramped, dismal conditions" is because it costs money. (PDF). How about treating your workers like human beings simply because you're not a complete shit?

This trend has now reached what I can only hope is its nadir. Baroness Scotland has put a cost on domestic violence: £2.7 bn. Well, in that case, we should probably do something about it. Up till now, I was on the fence about domestic abuse. I mean sure, it's "bad" and so forth, but is it really economical to do anything? What exactly is my motivation here? What's the return on my hard-earned tax? I mean, yes, if we could, say, reduce wife-battering by 50% by spending a chunk of cash there'd be fewer bruised, battered women living in a permanent state of fear - but what's that worth?

Well, now we presumably know. We should spend up to £2.7bn fighting domestic abuse. Any women (or men) whom that doesn't help should understand that it's not that we don't care - it's just not economical.

(To be fair to Baroness Scotland - maybe she's right to make her case this way. Maybe the best or only way to persuade government and business that it might be worthwhile to stop domestic violence is to frame it as a profit and loss argument. In which case, it might be time to go a bit Tyler Durden.)

Friday 21 November 2008

Feynman science

Unbelievably, there appears to be some debate over the wisdom of cloning mammoths from recovered DNA. Wisdom doesn't come into it. The question to ask is not, "Is that really wise, sir?". The question is, "would this, or would it not, be totally awesome"? Less of the John Le Mesurier, more of the Bill and Ted.

I mean, dammit, the things will pay for themselves. Even assuming that I don't get to use one to commute to work (totally awesome), just imagine the money you can make from thrill-seeking big-game hunters. Never mind the mighty hippo - this is real game. More so if you rock it old school and take it down using only stone axes and spiked pits. I can imagine no finer achievement for 21st century science than to clone an extinct species, and then kill it.

Plus, has anyone run the numbers on the efficiency of farming megafauna? OK, more food and water per head, but if you can kit out a big enough abattoir your processing costs per carcass should plummet, surely. And there's a hell of a lot of meat on those things.

But of course, the practicalities are missing the point. "Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it" We should do this because we can. We should do it to show just how much we can do. Extinct species made to live again. And people say science doesn't have all the answers? If you don't want "let's go mammoth riding" to be the answer, then you are asking the wrong question.

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Courage of your convictions

Apparently, some scofflaw has leaked a full BNP membership list. The Register links to a "patriotic" blog where there is some consternation, running the gamut from panic:

Anonymous said...
I've just had a call, I'm on it to. I want my fucking member money back, like has been mentioned here, I could lose my fucking job. I'm bloody angry. acronym-ridden paranoia:

Anonymous said...
OMG have you seen what has been written by LUAF? What if they give the list to ANTIFA? ANTIFA have just teamed up with BETA TAGAR! The Tagarines would petrol bomb us in our homes.

Anonymous said...
I can't believe you chaps are so surprised or worried! - The BNP "management" is an obvious target for infiltration by: HM Govt, Mossad/CIA French and German intelligence services and "Far left" groups - probably others.

I think this is my personal favourite:

Anonymous said...
Why the fuck are you showing comments that are clearly sent in from the great unwashed,who gives a fuck if they have a list or not. I'm proud to be a member.

But of course there is a real human cost here:

Anonymous said...

People on here who have not seen the list but "don't give a fuck" clearly have not the seen the names of 2 Scottish Premier footballers, half a dozen teachers, close to 100 serving soldiers and Prison officers, people who could be in real fucking trouble.

While some people clearly do not mind who knows about them, I don't fancy being a screw at some prison where some coon or reds can get worked up to have a go at some one.

Remember: Two wrongs don't make a right, even if sometimes it really, really, really feels like they would.

UPDATE: The full list can be found here. Searching for "police" reveals an astonishing number of ex-counter-terrorist officers. Or self-aggrandizing fantasists. It's difficult to say.

Modern studies

Good news! Or at least, a silver lining. Remember that forthcoming recession? Turns out it's going to offer one bonus - it'll stiffen up the moral fibre of the nation and divert us from the endless, meaningless consumption that rules our wretched, grubby lives. So says the head of Cheltenham Ladies College:

"Sometimes, surrounded by media reports on Botox and bingeing, it's easy to feel we lead in a moral vacuum, garden in a gale. But we must go on gardening!
Am I alone in finding the economic downturn somehow bracing? Perhaps it will spell the end of the conspicuous and ultimately unfulfilling materialism of the me, me, me society. Let's hope so."

Yes, there's nothing like a bracing round of job-loss and home-repossession to make you focus on the important things in life. Just like in the war - sure they were bombing us and we were all half-starving, but it gave us character. Apart from the looters, obviously.

Incidentally, these "media reports on Botox and bingeing" - anyone want to have a guess at which newspaper Miss Tuck reads? Three guesses, first two don't count.

Monday 17 November 2008

Beating the MSM at their own game

One of the amusing aftershocks of the US election was the post-mortem twitching of the Republican party - specifically, the immediate scapegoating of Sarah Palin. This culminated in a series of revelations about her supposed ignorance: she didn't know Africa was a continent, not a country; she couldn't name the countries of NAFTA. This was seized upon not only by right-wingers with a grudge but, naturally, by victorious liberals looking for some easy gloating. And boy did they.

Want to guess the problem with this? It didn't actually, you know, happen. As the NY Times tells us, it was all an elaborate hoax. The apparent source, Martin Eisenstadt of the Harding Insitute for Freedom and Democracy doesn't, in the mundane sense of the word, exist. As he hotly denies here.

Following Nick Davies' description of the practice of "churnalism", it should be no surprise that several major news outlets fell for this in the rush to be first with a story. But there was a theory bandied around at one stage that blogs were better than that. Less invested in being first, less tied to the professionals, more intelligent, more sceptical. It's a good theory.

Monday 10 November 2008

Taking pride in your work

Paul Dacre has graciously shared some thoughts on modern journalism with the Society of Editors. While there are no surprises, it's a bit of an eye-opener nonetheless. There are edited highlights here, and a full version in PDF here.

There are some gems in the edited highlights, right enough: not only do we learn that adulterers' wives are just as morally culpable as adulterers, and that wearing a military-style uniform is tantamount to being a Nazi, but also that Dacre really does think it's his job to tell us how we can and can't have sex*. But buried in the meandering self-aggrandizing autobiographical notes with which Dacre started the full speech, we find as pithy and honest an account of "respectable" tabloid morality as we could ever hope to:

At university, I edited the student newspaper. I’m afraid I took a product that looked like the then Times on Prozac and turned it into a raucous version of Cudlipp’s Mirror complete, I shudder to admit, with Page 3 girl students whom I dubbed “Leeds Lovelies”.

We mounted an undercover investigation, complete with photographers, into seemingly respectable pubs that were putting on strip shows. Family entertainment it wasn’t. The Yorkshire Post which engraved the blocks for our pictures – remember those Neanderthal days – refused to process the photographs on the grounds they were obscene. With preposterous pomposity, I accused the Post’s Editor of abusing freedom of the press. He wouldn’t budge so we got the blocks made elsewhere and ran a front page story about censorship by the Post and a student paper that couldn’t be gagged.

And, of course, we sold the pictures to the News of the World for a vast sum and dined out on the proceeds for months to come.

Do you think that, on reading that back to himself, he thought, "Good Lord, I've been a tawdry smut-peddling hypocrite for my entire wasted, wretched, miserable life?" I'm betting not. But at least he's come clean. (Yes, yes: probably a first.) Ben Goldacre jokes about the Mail's ongoing project to classify all known objects into causes of, or cures for, cancer. They've got a similar programme with regard to sexuality, only the categories are A: Just a bit of fun and B: Ban this filth. Don't be fooled though: you can still enjoy category B. You just have to maintain that veneer of superior disgust throughout.

*So, the bad news is that military-style orgies are out. The good news, though, is that corsets are AOK. So that's uniforms - no; whalebone - yes. Do bear that in mind, you filthy beasts.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

The real Barack Obama

Newsweek reveals campaign secrets:

The debates unnerved both candidates. When he was preparing for them during the Democratic primaries, Obama was recorded saying, "I don't consider this to be a good format for me, which makes me more cautious. I often find myself trapped by the questions and thinking to myself, 'You know, this is a stupid question, but let me … answer it.' So when Brian Williams is asking me about what's a personal thing that you've done [that's green], and I say, you know, 'Well, I planted a bunch of trees.' And he says, 'I'm talking about personal.' What I'm thinking in my head is, 'Well, the truth is, Brian, we can't solve global warming because I f---ing changed light bulbs in my house. It's because of something collective'."

Now he's President and can say this stuff, can we get John Humphries to interview him? Please?

Tuesday 4 November 2008

Politics makes people do crazy things

Obama was raised by his maternal grandmother. He's often told how she made sacrifices to give him the best chance in life. It's fair to say that particular gamble paid off. And it's heartbreaking, therefore, that she died yesterday. She won't see her grandson become America's first black President.

Most people see that as a human tragedy. There are others who see further, however, to the real truth: Obama killed her. Either for the sympathy vote, or because of some far more elaborate scheme to do with his birth-certificate.

When you find yourself speculating that a Presidential candidate flew thousands of miles in the middle of campaigning - with a Secret Service team - in order to kill his 85 year-old cancer-ridden grandmother,you may begin to wonder whether you are, in fact, the sophisticated poltical thinker you believe yourself to be.

Monday 3 November 2008

Crystal Balls

I might otherwise have felt some small urge to lay down a prescient Presidential prediction, but that need has been more or less obviated by Nate Silver at Given that he's run every single poll ever through a massive simulator to create 10,000 different electoral-vote scenarios, suggesting that I could make a better guess would be almost as ignorant as it would be egotistical. Plus, of course, the Hamilton factor.

So here's my prediction: a lot of people are going to be disappointed when Obama starts enacting the policies he has, not the policies they wish he had.

But we shouldn't underestimate the unprecedented nature of this campaign: the rich white war hero is the underdog and the born-in-poverty, mixed-race, community-organiser is the clear favourite. So much so, that he got the Nazis on his side:

Rocky Suhayda
Who: Chairman, American Nazi Party
Likes: Hitler, white people
Dislikes: Jews, immigrants, multinational corporations
Career highlights: Being widely quoted bemoaning in the fact that so few Aryan-Americans had the cojones of the 9/11 hijackers: "If we were one-tenth as serious, we might start getting somewhere."

"White people are faced with either a negro or a total nutter who happens to have a pale face. Personally I’d prefer the negro. National Socialists are not mindless haters. ... we have a black man, who loves his own kind, belongs to a Black-Nationalist religion, is married to a black women--when usually negroes who have 'made it' immediately land a white spouse as a kind of prize--that’s the kind of negro that I can respect.

Obama-Biden 08 - reaching all the way across the aisle.

Wednesday 29 October 2008

True understanding is given only to the few

Marcel Berlins thinks that 16-year-olds shouldn't get the vote because they are too ignorant of the world.

Ignorance is a terrible thing, of course. An ignorant man cannot be trusted to exercise good judgement on political issues. Not through any great personal flaw, but simply because, being unfamiliar with the true facts of the matter, he may misapprehend the issues involved and base his judgement on false premises. For example, such a man might fall into the error of thinking that we give the people power because they've got a track record of making good decisions. Complete nonsense. We give the people power because that that is where power belongs - in the hands of the governed. No-one ever fought for the vote because they thought they and their ilk were uniquely gifted to lead the country. They fought for representation. They fought to have a say in the political process that ruled their lives. We don't believe in democracy because it gives good results: we believe in it because it's right.

Only connect

Band, John Band. By a bizarre coincidence, it's a name shared by a London based market analyst I used to work with, and a London based market analyst who blogs at Banditry. What are the odds of that?

It has genuinely taken me a few months to work that one out. On the other hand, I've never met this man before in my life.

Tuesday 28 October 2008

We are the change we've been waiting for

Changing my blog template is just my way of supporting Obama.

The lessons of history

Remember the creationist who nearly discovered the sun? Here we have a libertarian stumbling upon tyranny.

Via the Devil's Kitchen, this short piece by the Nameless Libertarian* on the difference between fictional dystopias and the creeping, insidisous reality offers a number of keen insights. But skip over the paragraph explaining that Pol Pot was really a victim of society and treasure instead this explanation of where Orwell, Bradbury et al. go too far:

As I’ve already mentioned, the reality of the slide towards totalitarianism is far less exciting, or obvious as it is presented in fiction. Don’t imagine that there will be terrible war before the state takes complete control; they won’t need to do that. And they are not going to utter clear statements of intent, like burning books.

I for one can't think of a single real world example of a nascent totalitarian regime using the spectacle of book-burning to advertise its intent. Nor indeed, of one which seized power in the middle of some kind of world war. Honestly, where do these hacks get their ideas?

*well, would you want your friends to know?

You can't knock a good mark

Shocking news from across the pond: US banks in receipt of their portion of the $700, 000, 000, 000 bailout may not put it to the good uses intended:

First, the $700 billion rescue for the economy was about buying devalued mortgage-backed securities from tottering banks to unclog frozen credit markets. Then it was about using $250 billion of it to buy stakes in banks. The idea was that banks would use the money to start making loans again.But reports surfaced that bankers might instead use the money to buy other banks, pay dividends, give employees a raise and executives a bonus, or just sit on it.

Those crazy bankers! Who could have predicted that they'd act irresponsibly with someone else's money? Among other people, David W Maurer, Professer Emeritus of Linguistics at the University of Lousiville and author of "The Big Con". From his chapter on "The Mark", here's what he has to say about bankers:

Bankers, executors in charge of estates, trustees and guardians of trust funds sometimes succumb with surprising alacrity...Bankers, if they can be played at all, can be counted on to plunge heavily, for they can dip into bank funds with a view to reimbursing the bank once they have taken their profit.

Several instances of that ironical spectacle, one mark roping another, are reported by a mob operating in Florida. When a mark who is brought in expresses a desire to talk the matter over with his banker, he is (under certain circumstances) encouraged to do so. Sometimes the banker comes back with him, both of them well heeled for the play.

If you read Chris at Stumbling and Mumbling (and if you don't, you should) you might recognise some support for his low regard for the boss class here:

"Most marks come from the upper strata of society, which in America means they have made, married or inherited money. Because of this, they acquire status which in time they come to attribute to some inherent superiority, especially as regards matters of sound judgement in finance and investment. Friends and associates, themselves social climbers and sycophants, help to maintain this illusion of superiority. Eventually, the mark comes to regard himself as a person of vision and even genius...[he] easily forgets the part which luck and chicanery have played in his financial rise; he accepts his mantle of respectability without question; he naively attributes his success to sound business judgement."

Maurer's interest was the language of con-men*, but in the course of his studies he became so fascinated by the grift, and the insights it offered into human nature, that he wrote the definitive book. (Some scenes in The Sting, for example, are lifted pretty much intact.) The book was, of course, published in 1940 and is based on the golden age of the big con - c.1914-29. But we've all come a long way since then.

*"The best way to cool a heavy baby off is the cackle-bladder. Just plug the roper and watch the mark light a rag."

Sunday 26 October 2008

Oh, be reasonable

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903) "Maxims for Revolutionists"
Irish dramatist & socialist (1856 - 1950)

What's the best way to make change happen? GBS (as he once asked to me to call him) suggests unswerving commitment to principle. No compromise, no accommodation, no surrender. Don't stop pushing just because people make concessions - never rest till you have made the world fit you. You have to admit, it sounds good - strong, stark, principled, resolute. Frankly, however, it seems like a lot of work.

More to the point, unless you've actually got some slim grasp on at least one lever of something resembling power, it's a recipe for principled ineffectuality (qv Liberal Democrats). Consider this take on a campaign to license strip-clubs:

... for me the campaign simply doesn't go far enough... feminists should instead be campaigning to have these places shut down...It's a harder campaign to fight undoubtedly, but it's the right one nonetheless.

Now that's a strongly principled stand, against which merely getting stricter licensing looks pretty wishy-washy. Dammit, if you're against strip-clubs, how can you even contemplate arguing for a position which ultimately leaves them in business? For one good (and acknowledged) reason: this campaign has a good chance of working - banning them is a non-starter. Cath Elliott can rant about the nimbyism and betrayal inherent in Object's compromise approach, but they are actually going to make a difference in the world and she is not.

On the other hand, consider our new atheist buses. "There is probably no God: now stop worrying and enjoy your life." Here's a compromise: the original wording, according to this interview with Richard Dawkins, was "There is almost certainly no God". But it was felt that this would "infuriate believers, and put off potentially sympathetic agnostics". "Infuriate believers"? Does the Meat and Livestock Commision worry how to placate the vegetarian community? Are army recruitment ads tailored to avoid upsetting pacifists? The whole point of the advert is to be a bold and refreshing statement of the unorthodox: compromise does not become it. (The second half of the slogan is equally inane: all that apparently follows from this paradigm-shattering probability is the opportunity to have a bit of a laugh. You had your chance to make your case, Dawkins, and you blew it.)

So is compromise a good thing? When it comes to laying out your case, no. You've got to let people know what you stand for. When it comes to getting things done, if you have to work with people who (shock horror) have different perspectives than yours then it's better to be the Sun than the North Wind.

Wednesday 22 October 2008

Fair and Balanced

I put a caveat in an earlier post to the effect that the straight-talking McCain supporters on a video were not a representative sample.

Boy, am I glad I did.

I am not a racist

... but I do have a slight preference for Jews.

It's true! I took a test and everything.

Alternatively, it just takes a while to warm up my button-pushing skills.

Thursday 16 October 2008

The trickiest part of tiger riding is the dismount

Should it be big news that political rhetoric still has power? In the days of mass media, we're all cynics now. Show us a politician, we'll show you someone to doubt and mistrust. Certainly, we're unlikely to lose our heads to them, or be inspired to give voice ourselves.

Both sides in the US seem to be bent on disproving this common-sense view. Obama-mania has been well documented, and even this far into the election the man's star power doesn't seem to be slacking. But McCain too has the power to move crowds. Unfortunately, he's moving them the wrong way. The McCain-Palin rhetoric has all been about Obama recently: "this man pals about with terrorists"; "Who is the real Barack Obama?"; "he doesn't look at America the way you and I look at America". Those are the words - but people listen to the music. The following images have all been either created, published or distributed by official Republican party groups, caught up in the rhetoric. Such defences as have been offered are quoted below:

"I'm aware of the content," MacGlashan told the newspaper. "Some people find it offensive, others do not. I cannot comment on how people interpret things."

By Tuesday night the graphics had been removed. "These types of innuendos have absolutely no place in this election," Barajas said. "This isn't a thing we want out there."

We asked Virginia spokesperson Gerry Scimeca whether the likeness to Obama was in fact the Illinois Senator, and he said he couldn't immediately say. Asked to defend the mailer, he said: "It's about the fact that the world is evil," he said, referring to the multiple bad actors that populate the planet. "Choosing a president is about standing up to them."

The group's president, Diane Fedele, said she plans to send an apology letter to her members and to apologize at the club's meeting next week. She said she simply wanted to deride a comment Obama made over the summer about how as an African-American he "doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills."

None of this can be laid at McCain's door, of course. He's even found himself telling his audience that Obama is a decent family man, and not an "Arab". But the "who is he/can we trust him" rhetoric strikes a chord; someone gins up a funny email or two, stupid rumours get forwarded unquestioningly; suddenly "everyone knows" certain things about Obama, and crowd confirm each other's biases. It's only when these things break out of the echo chamber that people catch themselves doing something they'd never, ever have thought themselves capable of doing. At the lowest level, with crowd support, it gets pretty ugly. The following video comes with three caveats:

2) He who controls the edit, controls the message
3) We don't have a comparison video of Dems

Nevertheless, the ignorance is just a little scary:

Step 1: Check your facts

The late Let's Be Sensible used to run a series of posts on "Rhetorical Questions Whose Answers Do Not Support Your Argument". Occasionally, I try to run a series of Right Next Time Awards. Tonight, I'm happy to combine the two with this moment of genius from last night's US Presidential Debate.

McCain clearly believes, as he asks the question*, that he's about to debag Obama live on TV. Watch his face when Obama gives the one answer he really wasn't prepared for.

A Republican fact-checker has just become another unemployment statistic.

*which, yes, isn't actually rhetorical in a technical or indeed accurate sense but which was being asked to achieve a rhetorical effect, OK?

Monday 13 October 2008

More financial news

Over to Tom.

Coming up, we hope to have an interview with one of the so-called "long-buyers". These shadowy figures try to make money in the market by buying shares and holding on to them until they go "up" in value - at which point they "sell" them for "profit". Some accuse them of making money from a calamity - they say they're just doing business. More details to follow.

Friday 10 October 2008

Wisdom of the crowd

Despite this week's co-ordinated international action - and tendering of billions of pounds worth of financial support - markets plummeted today in a wave of panic selling. We sent a team to ask why:

[Cut to LSE, where our reporters have just made their entrance]

Right Next Time News Team: Hello? Excuse me? Would any one like to talk to us about...
RNT: Guys? Hello? We just need to talk to you for a min...
MRoT: AARRGGGH! No time, no time, no time. Can't talk, can't think. Must sell. Selling good. Sell! SELL!
RNT: Well, this is a waste of bloody time. Did anyone bring the taser? I think I can take down that genius by the coke machine. Let's see...
Unwitting Target: SELL! SELL! SEdzdzdzdzdzturgh.
RNT: OK, not the one I was aiming for, but never mind. Drag him back over here.
RNT: Shut up. What are you doing?
UT: Selling!
RNT: Why?
UT: The market's collapsing!
RNT: How do you know?
UT: Everyone's selling!
RNT: Why?
UT: Everyone's selling!
RNT: Why? No, don't say it, I still have the taser. Listen. We're giving you a ton of cash, we're keeping at-risk banks solvent, we're taking the rotten debt off your hands and we're cutting interest rates internationally. And you're still merrily ripping the guts out of the economy. What in the name of all that is holy do you misbegotten swine want?
UT: To sell! DZDZDDZZDZZDZDZZTTTTTauugh, not cool man! Not cool!
RNT: Answer the question, wretch.
UT: Everyone's frightened, OK? The markets used to do so well for us, and now we're all afraid in case they fall off a cliff. So we're doing the smart thing.
RNT: The smart thing?
UT: Yeah, the smart thing.
RNT: Sprinting blindly towards the cliff en masse?
UT: Well, yeah. You've got to look at the big picture.
RNT: Which is...?
UT: If some other sucker falls faster, I'll still get my bonus. DZDZDZDZDZDZDTTTAugh, Jesus, is that my hair? Can I smell my own hair? Hey, c'mon man! I answered the question!
RNT: You answered...poorly. How can we make you stop this insanity? Bearing in mind I'm not made of tasers.
UT: You need to make us feel good.
RNT: About yourselves? Look, psychotherapy's come a long way, but there are limits.
UT: About the market, man. You need to make us believe it will be alright. You need to make us want to buy.
RNT: OK - what makes you want to buy?
UT: The market goes up.
RNT: So why does that happen?
UT: Everyone's buying!
RNT: Why?
UT: Everyone's buying!
RNT: You do know I've been keeping this thing on half-power, right? What does the government need to do to make you and your filthy ilk feel like NOT kicking off a global depression?
UT: It needs to... it needs to hold us, OK? It needs to hold us, and stroke us, and tell us everything's going to be all right, just like it used to be. Otherwise the markets will keep falling, and falling, and I'll lose my bonus, and my wife will leave me and I'll have to move out of Surrey and the economy will collapse and the Icelanders will revert to Viking pillage and we'll have to live underground and eat corpses and the plague will spread and the zombies will rise again. Zombies! Zombies will eat your brains!
RNT: OK, someone tell me we brought a mains adaptor for this thing.

Thursday 9 October 2008

There's no "I" in "crisis"

Opposition generally seems pretty easy. There's three basic messages to get across, no matter what the issue or the government response. To wit:
  • Bollocks!
  • That's our policy, you know
  • If we'd had power four years ago, we'd have avoided this whole mess.
It gets harder when there's a real crisis, and you need to back the government. The risk (and opinion poll movements would suggest it's a real one) is that by agreeing with everything they say and do, you make the incumbents look less like the clowns you portray them as and more like competent, reliable statesmen to whom the nation should turn in times of trouble. Not the best message for an Opposition to send.

So what's to be done? One option, which seems to have found favour, is to rework message two above: after you've been told/agreed what the government response will be, go out and announce it as your preferred solution to the problem. This makes you look good, especially as the tedious business of hammering out the details creates a window in which you appear as a visionary and the government as ditherers.

Another option is to publicly agitate for action you know can never be taken. The Tories pushed both Brown and Darling quite hard on the question of bonuses yesterday - asking for guarantees that officers of failing banks would get none at all. This sounds good (why should we reward failure???) especially as all the government would say is that remuneration would be an issue. Seems a bit mealy-mouthed, doesn't it?

Of course, the bail-out package isn't mandatory. The government's making the money available, it's not making forced purchases. It's up to the banks to volunteer for it. Now there are a lot of good reasons for them to do so, in terms of staying in business, and you can argue pretty convincingly that they should do it regardless of their personal bonus. But, given the past 6 months, we can make some pretty good guesses about how personal incentives affect bankers' decision making processes. So maybe the time to make decisions about "rewarding failure" is after they've signed up to government ownership, and not before. Holding out the carrot of "some kind of bonus, maybe" will get a solution faster than a guarantee of "no bonus" - because then the incentive is to risk some other solution.

The question is, do Cameron and Osborne know this? I suspect they know exactly what the government is prepared to say on bonuses, and have found an easy way to make themselves look good. Now that's responding to crisis.

Wednesday 8 October 2008


Say what you will about the British attitude to politics - apathetic, cynical, superficial, yadda-yadda - we have, at the very least, not yet so utterly confused it with the entertainment industry that we produce merchandise for it:

The charge is occasionally levelled against "the West" that it is commercialised, shallow and sex-obsessed. This is, of course, utter nonsense.

Reading between the typos

From the Guardian's (where else's?) liveblog of Gordon Brown's "bailout" press conference (9:40am):

'Brown says he is also insisting that he will be satisfied about "executive
renumeration"...he's insisting that "renumeration ... is on the
agenda". '

Is "renumeration" new management speak for "reducing headcount"? Or something more sinisterly Orwellian? Someone had better do a quick census on banks' CEOs, before this "renumbering" process kicks off.

Wednesday 1 October 2008

Just get back in the box

Advertisers have launched a new recruiting wheeze: the Diagonal Thinking test. Why diagonal? As you doubtless worked out, because it test both Linear and Lateral thinking. Clever, huh?

I'm not cut out to be in advertising, I fear. At least, not if this blurb is anything to go by:
Linear thinking question
Should all British householders be fined for failing to recycle at least 70% of their household waste?

Questions like this measure your ability to judge whether an argument is a good or poor one in relation to the question presented. A good one would be important and related to the question, while a bad one would be if it is of minor importance or related only to trivial aspects of the question. For example, a poor argument might be "No - fining schemes usually backfire as people often rebel against them. It should be up to each individual household to decide on the amount of waste they wish to recycle." In contrast, a good argument might be: "Yes - this would encourage the average British citizen to think more about their recycling habits."
I'm such a loser. I thought that arguments about whether or not it would work might be considered "good" while bald assumptions of the conclusion would be bad. Thinking inside that box again.

Yet another Life/Art spat

I've never really got the hang of Firefox add-ons. I think it's great that I can completely customise my web-browsing experience, but customise to what? Right now, I can open pretty much any page on the web and read it - how much better can a browser really get?

That said, there's a lot to be said for this: YouTube Comment Snob. It filters out YouTube comments based on profanity, excess punctuation, bad spelling, all caps, no caps and various other offences. It's an open question as to whether that will leave anything at all.

Near-simultaneously, xkcd gives us this:

Saturday 27 September 2008

Why I will never be a political columnist

One of the interesting historical tit-bits I picked up in Turkey was the Ottoman institution of "The Cage".

This was their system for assuring a smooth handover of power in the event of the sultan's death. Traditionally, the scheme had been for one of the dead man's sons to slaughter all his brothers, thus removing any fear of rebellion or usurpation. However, the drawbacks to his scheme eventually became apparent, and a different system was put in place. Now, the new sultan's brothers were merely imprisoned in the harem. There, they would have no choice to devote their time to debauchery, palace intrigue and the cultivation of various interesting personality defects. They were given no outlet to the outside world whatsoever; most emerged from this (often lengthy) incarceration as paranoid, ignorant despots addicted to the exercise of power but with no useful grasp on the world they were expected to exercise it in.

When I read this tale of rulers who'd spent decades in their own little fiefdoms before emerging to make an utter ruin of their new kingdom, it immediately struck me that the parallels with Britain's current approach to political succession were superficial, contrived and hopelessly jejune. So bang goes that career.

And this species often nests in phone trees...

Off sick yesterday. Watching daytime TV while feeling slow and dopey - which is cause, which is effect? In any case, as I was struggling to follow the cut and thrust of debate on The Wright Stuff, I was presented with a challenge to my agility, compassion, wit and initiative. On an ordinary day, this would be bad enough. With a nasal passage several millibars above tolerance, I rated it very unlikely that I would win the day.

Nevertheless, having spent about half-an-hour engaging myself in a "Did you hear that?" "What?" "That?" "Shh" conversation, I finally pulled down the loft ladder and hauled my mucousy, red-eyed head over the parapet, fully expecting to to be attacked by a rabid squirrel. The aerial assault that greeted me had the advantage of surprise therefore, and I damn near plummeted to a comedy broken leg there and then. Luckily my nerves of steel and cobra-like reflexes* allowed to wedge my hand between the ladder and the trapdoor frame. Stoically uttering a light scream, I was able to focus on the invader: a starling which had been inquisitive and agile enough to get in to my loft, but too damn stupid to get out the way it came in. Instead it was opting to fly up to the translucent roof tiles the previous owners had installed in the loft, (quite possibly as a way of tormenting trapped birds) smack its head off them and retreat to the far corner, whence it would restart the whole process.

Sure, it was funny for a while, but even the most sophisticated gags pall with repetition. So I set myself to rescue the wretched beast, driven partly by compassion and partly by a desire not to have a rotting corpse in my loft. Stupid though the creature undoubtedly was, this was not an easy task. My first strategy, to put an old blanket of the "window" and thus encourage the little bugger to find a different exit, achieved nothing (other than to liberate an approximate quarter-pound of dust from the blanket and directly into my already overloaded nasal passages.) In retrospect, the wheezing, gasping, snorting fit that I threw at that point could only have confused and terrifed the bird even more.

It was now that I called the experts, or at least the RSPCA. Like all major organisations who provide contact numbers, they require you to refine your query through a phone-tree:

If you are calling about a bird, press one...
If you are calling about a pigeon, press one. If you are calling about a duck, press two. For raptors or other large birds, press three...

I gave up around this point. Although I pity the guy confronting a trapped and angry buzzard: "If you have thick gloves, press one. If the talons are lacerating your face, press two."

As of this morning, there is no apparent bird in the loft. The bird seed and water I left up appear to be untouched. Even better, the squirrel poison I keep permanently up there also appears to be untouched. A cursory examination suggests that if it did cark it overnight, it had the malice and effrontery to do so in a dark and unreachable corner, the better for rotting to pieces in. Alternatively, it is even now flying around in the sunshine. You may never know, so if you'll forgive the Lady and the Tiger bit, you can choose for yourself. I however, have the shadow of corruption tainting my home.

It's a bit like Edgar Allen Poe, but not.

*Were you there? No. So cobra-like reflexes it is.

Friday 26 September 2008

It's the economy, stupid

Two big things going on in the US right now. One, Financial Armageddon. Two, the never-ending quest to pick the next LOTFW™. But from the right perspective, of course, they're one and the same.

Via Freemania, John McCain has taken the "historic step" of suspending his own campaign in order to go to Washington and sort this whole mess out. Moreover, he invited Obama to do the same.

From a "politics as running the country" perspective, this has potential. Whoever gets elected will have to deal with this mess, so it's as well that they should get some input now. The simple symbolism of making a deal a priority might well be a kick up the arse for heel-draggers.

From a "politics as getting elected" perspective, it probably looked even better. McCain was down in the polls again, and there was some suggestion that voters trusted Obama more on the economy. (Naturally enough, given that McCain has publically said that he doesn't understand economics.) Suspending his campaign demonstrates, one can only suppose, his willingness to put country ahead of party, his leadership skills, and his commitment to a better, stronger America. Also, as chance would have it, the proposed suspension of his campaign would entail the cancellation/postponement of his first debate with Obama - an event generally held to play to the Democrat's strength, not McCain's.

But it's a gamble. And for it to pay off, you need to make sure you tick a couple of boxes:

1) If you're going to showcase yourself as the one man who can save the negotiations, make sure there's not a deal on the table before you get there.

2) If you're going to showcase yourself as the one man who can save the negotiations, make sure there's still a deal on the table after you get there.

3) If you're campaign talking point is that you're pro-regulation, don't propose cutting regulation.

4) If you announce you're dropping a scheduled TV appearance to rush back to Washington, do actually rush back to Washington, rather than going to the studio next door. (Skip to 6:38)

5) If you're going to get a debate cancelled, make sure your opponent won't go ahead without you.

UPDATE: Having said that he wouldn't debate unless there was a deal, McCain has now announced he'll be at the debate. There's no deal.

Tuesday 23 September 2008

Trying to be helpful

Two quotes, from different stories in the Guardian:

"Immediately after Miliband sat down, Brown's aides were expressing
satisfaction, judging that the threat to the PM had receded."

"as the "Heseltine" story broke late on Monday night, some Brownites were
keen to brief journalists about it, apparently in the hope of presenting
Miliband as disloyal"

At the risk of criticising some of the finest political minds of our time, would it not be a good idea, if you wished to minimise somebody as a threat, not to keep discussing the threat they pose with journalists? Might it detract, just a little, from your "moving beyond in-fighting" message if you keep on in-fighting?

Sunday 21 September 2008

What'd I miss?

Turkey's great. 10% historical tourism, 15% kebabs, 75% lying by the pool reading. For hours. It's a beguiling lifestyle. So beguiling, in fact, that you can remain almost completely unaware of the unfolding horror of Total Financial Meltdown. By the time I'd picked up some BBC World news and "read" BA's free Daily Mail on the return flight, I was braced for using souvenir backgammon counters and shiny bits of glass to barter for a taxi to my home. Or, indeed, as a means of buying a new one. Imagine my surprise to find paper money an acceptable means of settling debts.

(The Mail was clearly chagrined that the collapse of western capitalism couldn't be laid at the door of swarthy TB-ridden immigrants, as long-expected, but was actually caused by respectable well-off types. So much so that when it ran it's interview with one of the "financial vultures" who had put house-prices so much at risk, it's tone veered radically between Puritan disgust and fawning obsequy: "They argue they simply have a knack of identifying the weak. And then feasting on them...Cawkwell runs his business from a desk at his £1million home in Kensington, West London. He and his wife Anne have two daughters.His successful trades fund a love of fine Burgundy wines...")

In other news, it seemed that there had been major upheavals in the Labour Party: why, when I left only two weeks ago, it seemed that Brown was losing the confidence of senior party members, and would have to prove himself in the September conference. Truly, a week is a long time in politics.

Friday 5 September 2008

Answers on a postcard...

I'm off on holiday for two weeks. Turkey, since you ask. Normally intermittent service will resume some time around Sept. 20th.

In the meantime...

There's a bit of a discussion going on about the role of culture/personality in elections. Do we vote based on principles, ideas, policies, evidence? Or are we, in fact, more swayed by character, personality and charisma? Do we, at bottom, want someone "just like us" in charge? (After all, we all know we'd do a great job of making the right decisions.) Do these things matter more if we believe ourselves or even our "way of life" to be under attack? If we want to promote a certain ideology, or even culture (say, rational liberalism) do we do it best by attacking our opponent's culture (say, small town Christian conservatism) or by reaching out to the middle ground? Is reaching for the middle ground just a long-winded way of surrendering the argument?

Questions, questions. We'll get an answer in November. Compare the personality-based attacks on Obama here with Obama's attack on McCain's. One shows respect, the other goes for the throat. Which will work?

Thursday 4 September 2008

He started it...

Following Tom... McCain's new VP pick has been subjected to a barrage of questioning over her policies, her family, her religious values and her qualifications.

Ha! I'll bet Palin didn't anticipate such a thorough interrogation.

Tuesday 2 September 2008

Floes over

Those crazed left-wing hippy "scientists" pushing the global warming hoax are at it again: they've snuck out in the dead of night with a few cans of de-icer and loosened up the Arctic circle. This is good news: a lot of previously inaccessible valuable energy resources are now laid bare. What better incentive for the the UK, Germany, Sweden, Canada, the US and Russia to put aside their petty differences and share in nature's bounty kick the shit out of the Danes.

It's not the winning, it's the never forgetting

Shuggy is bang on the money here, in a diatribe on the England's somewhat nostalgic approach to footballing glory.
The reason we don't want you to win is because we know if you do, you'll never shut the fuck up about it. World Cup 1966? That was the year I was fucking born, ok? And I ain't no spring chicken. Yet you're still going on about it? Shut the fuck up, why don't you?
By contrast, I think we all know should our sacrifices to the dark lord finally be answered and Scotland win the World Cup, we would maintain a dignified silence. Particularly when talking to an Englishman.

Thursday 28 August 2008

But who'll speak up for the wealthy?

Another day, another Tory policy speech. Last time round, if you remember, it was Michael Gove explaining how the best way to help the disadvantaged was to bribe the middle class. Same theme, new topic: this week it's health.
So, my purpose today is to describe how we intend to improve the nation's health, and in doing so, also to improve the health of the poorest, fastest[...]
Excellent. How, exactly?
with more support for families bringing baby home for the first time1, through encouraging marriage2, to parental choice and incentives for more good schools3...
1: Free nannies for all, whether they can already afford them or not!
2: £20/week to get hitched - tax the single to pay dual-income kid-free couples!
3: Need a little help going private?

That distant roar you're hearing is the sound of the Tories being cheered to the rafters in Govan.

Wednesday 27 August 2008

Seeing is believing

Norm has a pop here at people, particularly those of a scientific bent, who can't accept the evidence of their own eyes. It's an important point. While a certain amount of curiousity about the world is charming, and perhaps even useful, it can too easily lead people to waste their time in fruitless speculation. Some things clearly speak for themselves: the sun self-evidently goes round the earth; light necessarily moves through a luminiferous aether; ill-health is unquestionably a result of imbalance among the four humours.

To even question whether what appears to be the case actually is the case can only ever be an exercise in futility.

Tuesday 26 August 2008

Getting those boots on

Apologies for the slow going. I've been back up north, inspecting my new niece. (Pink. Sleepy. Poor conversationalist.)

The good news is that, as ever, other people have been blogging better than I do. Tom Freeman has a good piece on the data massaging behind Osborne's unfair Britain, and as a bonus links to a good piece on Michael Gove's claims about inequality in education.

Hopi Sen also has a good piece about Osborne stats, which are now being bandied about as fact. More interestingly, he's also had a crack at video blogging (vlogging?). I say interestingly, because as good as Hopi's and Tom's work is (and it's far better than I could hope to do), theirs are lights shining under particularly heavy bushels. As Hopi says, 5 million people watch cats talk on YouTube. Osborne's "900,000 in severe poverty" echoes across the media. If it takes 4 paragraphs and half-a-dozen links to refute a headline, you won't refute it.

Here's John McCain

Wednesday 20 August 2008

Right Next Time - Nomination

If you haven't been keeping up with cryptozoology, you may have missed last week's big news: they found Bigfoot! Or at least, his corpse.

I know what you're thinking: what more proof could we need? That's because you're not a professional. The boys at Searching for Bigfoot Inc. know what they're talking about, and set out to investigate at any cost:

On July 9th, 2008, Matthew Whitton and Ricky Dyer placed a video on Youtube making the claim they had recovered the body of a Bigfoot body....

On or about August 12th, 2008, Matthew Whitton and Ricky Dyer requested an undisclosed sum of money as an advance, expected from the marketing and promotion, and as a good faith gesture of the contract.

On August 14th, 2008, after signing a transfer receipt for the amount money requested and counting said money, Matthew Whitton and Ricky Dyer led the Searching for Bigfoot Team to a location and turned over a freezer with something appearing large, hairy, and frozen in ice....

Within the next hour of thaw, a break appeared up near the feet area. As the team and I began examining this area near the feet, I observed the foot which looked unnatural, reached in and confirmed it was a rubber foot.

At that point we immediately contacted Tom Biscardi [CEO of Searching for Bigfoot] and advised him of the situation and he began to take action on his end. Later that day, Tom Biscardi informed us that both Matthew Whitton and Ricky Dyer admitted it was a costume. They reportedly agreed to sign a promissory note and admission of what they had done, and set a meeting in their hotel room in California for 8AM on August 17th, 2008.

On August 17th, 2008 Tom Biscardi went to the hotel where Dyer and Whitton were staying and found that they had left. At this time action is being instigated against the perpetrators of this fraud.

Searching for a Clue Bigfoot are hereby nominated for a Right Next Time award for Clear Thinking for the following achievements :

  1. Believing in Bigfoot.
  2. Paying "an undisclosed sum" for a frozen gorilla costume.
  3. Arranging a meeting with their fraudsters to ask for the money back.
  4. Scheduling this meeting for three days after they discovered the fraud, in a hotel in a different state.
  5. Still believing in Bigfoot.
UPDATE: Brilliantly, I've contrived to make a minor error in a post about other people's stupidity - although the "corpse" was "discovered" in Georgia, both it and the hoaxers were in California by the time the shocking truth was exposed.

Nuts to you

Tom Freeman and Shuggy have more to say on the Tories' new found loathing for lad's mags, and middle-class attitudes to "vice" generally.

"As so often happens when the Tories talk about social ills, there’s a subtext of class.Nuts and Zoo mainly get working-class readers, GQ middle-class ones. Are we worried only about the moral and social corruption of the former?"

"Sex. When the proles do it or flaunt it it is a sign of collapsing civilisation. When the quality strip off and get down and dirty it is raffish, playful, taboo-busting, daring and ever so sexy."

Monday 18 August 2008

For better, for worse

Cassillis has an interesting piece on party loyalty and the value of independent voters here, following Daniel Finkelstein's claim that UK voters as a whole (almost) always vote for the best party. Given this, asks Cassillis, why do we have such a low opinion of people who are actually willing to, you know, vote for the best party? The psephological cliché "[Consituency] would elect a donkey if it were wearing a [red/blue] rosette" is usually uttered with an amused acceptance which tends to gloss over the fact that representation by actual livestock is regarded as a sub-optimal outcome in almost any well-consitituted electoral process. Any electorate so heedless of its own interests needs to be disenfranchised for its own protection, if not summarily committed.

So why do people vote for a party they consider second-best? The obvious answers (stupidity/tribalism/habit/complacency) are both dull and depressing, so let's try and find some more:
1a) Finger in the dyke: My party deserves to lose, but it looks like getting whitewashed. So I'll vote for it to keep it alive.

1b) Balancing act: Contrariwise, I rate the other lot, but not as much as everyone else clearly does. Ideally, I'd like to see them with a majority of <30, so I'll keep my vote against them as a counterweight.

2) Look to the future: My local MP/candidate is part of a group of [young reformers/hard-core traditionalists] who will [breathe new life into this moribund party/get us back to our roots]- so I'll vote to support them, even though I can't stand the leadership right now.

3) Positive re-inforcement: My party's position sucks, but not as much as it did four years ago when I did vote against them. They're going in the right direction, and I need to encourage that.

4) I think the other lot will be better for the country overall, but I'm a strong supporter/opponent of [single issue policy] and so I cannot in good conscience vote for them.

5) General principles: the leadership may currently be a shower of nincompoops, incompetents and backstabbers, but the party stands for a basic political philosophy I want to support.

These positions are not without their flaws: I'm not trying to suggest that loyalism is necessarily virtuous. But voting is a terribly unsophisticated process: we start, ideally, by developing our own nuanced position on everything from fiscal policy to health provision, foreign interventionism to environmental regulation; then we compare competing parties' policies to find the best - or least worst - match; then we reduce this to all or nothing support for one party's bundle of policies. No telling from the X on the ballot whether we're whole-heartedly behind our candidate or favouring them only on balance. No doubt, however, how much of our support they will claim when elected.

Consequently, it's probably no surprise that people are reluctant to switch votes, or try to make their vote the beating butterfly's wing amidst the noise. A fool's errand, given the sheer volume of votes and our inability to predict them accurately. But conversely, it's because we don't just vote for the party we think best that we get nuanced electoral results: massive majorities only happen when once-loyal voters finally break. It's good that there are independent voters who lean narrowly left or right; but it's also good that big political shifts demand the sceptical and reluctant assent of more entrenched voters.

Thursday 14 August 2008

Who is this God person anyway?

As if to refute her own thesis, Julie Burchill is given space in the Guardian to witness about a loving God.

The vital thing, apparently, is that faith "encourages one to transcend the self". Let's see how that spiritual journey has informed Julie's writing:

  • Uses of I/me/my/mine: 48

  • Uses of God/Lord/Jesus/Christ: 4

  • Uses of church/faith/prayer/pray/love: 6
Or in graphical format:

Rhetorical Questions Whose Answer...

Picking up the baton from Tom at the late Let's Be Sensible, here's a Rhetorical Question Whose Answer Isn't What The Author Wanted, from Naomi Alderman's piece on hijab-wearing athletes:

Q. What could be more anti-feminist than telling women that they don't really know what they think?

A: Telling them they won't be safe if they don't wear what you tell them to, and that in any case they don't have choice.

Not an RQ, but equally dumb, is this headline on sustainable tuna fishing:

Never mind the dolphins – what about the turtles and sharks?

As the article itself goes on to say, the single biggest sustainability issue caused by aggressive tuna fishing isn't carnage among sharks, or turtles, or even dolphins. The problem with tuna fishing is that it's killing all the tuna.

Wednesday 13 August 2008

Realpolitik in inaction

Had I been quicker, I would have read Tom's post pointing out the perils awaiting bloggers who comment on the difficult, complex and hitherto obscure situation in Georgia, particularly in light of the fact they know hee-haw about it. But I wasn't and I didn't, so in for a penny...

The problem for the West, as per the last post, is that Russia seems to be in a position to act with impunity, and is working hard at maintaining that advantage. So how to respond?

One answer, of course, that we don't. From a realpolitik view, as summed up by Simon Jenkins, Russia and the West are just as bad as each other: we invade sovereign countries, encourage separatist movements, seek control of energy resources, use power and influence to expand our power and influence. Moreover, it's our efforts at controlling Russia that brought us to this pass: we encourage and support democratic, pro-Western movements in Russia's backyard, we offer military support to countries Russia would prefer weak and intimidated, we expand NATO to hem Russia in. In consequence, Russia feels isolated and besieged, and responds aggressively.

Much better not to interfere. Give Russia space, let it play power politics with its neighbours and aim for cordial, arms-length relations. If it means that a few fledgling democracies fail, a handful of tanks roll through the occasional village or city, it's still better than a new Cold War. Frankly, it's a beguiling proposition. It is difficult to see how we would oppose Russia in a battle of wills, the cost of failure is pretty high, so why beat our heads against a brick wall? Maybe we can't save the whole damn world.

Another view comes from Michael Williams, also in the Guardian: our failure was that we didn't push hard enough. By this view, it was the decision not to fast-track NATO membership that led to all this: Georgia was left exposed, and Russia took advantage. But this was not a joint decision: expansion was supported by the US, but also by former Warsaw Pact countries and the Baltic states. They view NATO as vital in defending the interests of Russia's one-time allies or Soviet republics - the only guarantee of sovereignty. Opposition came from Germany and France, who knew very well that South Ossetia was a flashpoint, and didn't want to be dragged into war by a belligerent Saakashvilli. Given that Saakashvilli's belligerent approach did give Russia the excuse it was waiting for, it's a diffcult counterfactual to argue. Maybe French troops would now be obliged to fight Russians; maybe NATO leadership would have reined Saakashvilli in while telling the Russians to think twice.

In any case, it seems clear that a strategy of supporting pro-Western states will only work if the support is serious - or, in other words, costly. Building up our allies so that they take risks counting on our support only to leave them begging for help on CNN doesn't get anyone anywhere. Naturally, that makes us reluctant to make any commitments. But it's worth remembering that one key point: many of Russia's neighbours are turning towards democracy, asking to be our allies, and telling us they want our help in becoming fully autonomous rather than satellites of their more powerful neighbour. It may be difficult to achieve - it may be impossible in all cases - but it's a much better starting point for a foreign policy than realpolitik's "I'm alright, Jack".

PS There's an assumption running through this post, and through almost everything I've read on this. It's the assumption that to be pro-West is to be anti-Russian; that the West and Russia are necessarily opposed. Granted, it's an assumption that's clearly operative in Moscow, but it could stand re-examination from this side too.

Energy = Power

It's hard to keep up with developments in Georgia - previous attempts at producing a post have all been overtaken by events.

At the time of writing, the latest news is that Russia has dictated terms to the Georgians (full withdrawal from disputed regions, renunciation of use of force) in return for cessation of hostilities. According to Georgia, and the Guardian's correspondent on the ground, Russian tanks are going through Gori on their way back to the border, possibly targetting military infrastructure. (Further update: Georgian villages are being burned and looted)

Whatever the details, it's pretty clear that Russia has come out on top. Not only has it secured the safety of its newly-minted citizenry in South Ossetia, it's also a) broken and humiliated Georgia, b) sent a clear message to other neighbours and c) established pretty clearly how little it regards the protestations of the West.

The last point is pretty clear. America condemned the Russians strongly; the EU sent Sarkozy to broker a truce; former Warsaw Pact countries sent delegations to Georgia in support. But so what?

The US doesn't have a lot of levers. Political negotations concerning membership of the WTO or access to NATO may offer some incentives; further expansion of NATO or missile-shield installations in Eastern Europe could act as a stick. But Russia is currently flush with petro-dollars and unimpressed with earlier NATO co-operation; meanwhile, we now know how Russia reacts to percieved hemming-in of its territory.

The EU is closer to Russia, but that doesn't translate into influence. This spreadsheet breaks down trade between the EU and Russia, and it's difficult to see what sanctions are available. Russia provides 28% of the EU's energy imports. We've already seen Russia blackmail the Ukraine and the EU by turning off the tap; no reason to believe they wouldn't do it again. Against that, we export cars, machinery and direct investment - all of which are available from elsewhere. Gas is a lot less fungible.

What's really alarming is that Russia knows full well how powerful it's control of the EU's gas is. This article from the Asian Times explains what Russia is going to cement its advantage: buying up the world's gas:

Gazprom, Russia's energy leviathan, signed two major agreements in Ashgabat on Friday outlining a new scheme for purchase of Turkmen gas. [...] In essence, the two agreements ensure that Russia will keep control over Turkmen gas exports [...] The agreements with Turkmenistan further consolidate Russia's control of Central Asia's gas exports. Gazprom recently offered to buy all of Azerbaijan's gas at European prices.

From all appearance, Gazprom, which was headed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for eight years from 2000 to May 2008, has taken an audacious initiative. It could only have happened thanks to a strategic decision taken at the highest level in the Kremlin.[...] Curiously, the agreements reached in Ashgabat on Friday are unlikely to enable Gazprom to make revenue from reselling Turkmen gas. Quite possibly, Gazprom may now have to concede similar terms to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the two other major gas producing countries in Central Asia. In other words, plain money-making was not the motivation for Gazprom. The Kremlin has a grand strategy.

The overall implications of these Russian moves are very serious for the US and EU campaign to get the Nabucco gas pipeline project going. Nabucco, which would run from Turkey to Austria via Bulgaria, Rumania and Hungary, was hoping to tap Turkmen gas by linking Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan via a pipeline across the Caspian Sea that would be connected to the pipeline networks through the Caucasus to Turkey already existing, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. But with access denied to Turkmen gas, Nabucco's viability becomes doubtful. And, without Nabucco, the entire US strategy of reducing Europe's dependence on Russian energy supplies makes no sense.

Now would be a really good time for cold-fusion to start working.

UPDATE: Playing around with this map gives a really good idea of why Russia is so keen that Georgia keep in line: pipelines and a buffer zone.

Tuesday 5 August 2008

Going Nuts

The previous post went on a bit. (If you want a snappier list of good reasons to suspect Gove's true intentions, read Chris at S&M here). Sadly, there wasn't room to address Gove's second train of thought, if you'll forgive the expression, on protecting the family.

(Yes, the family. The strongest, most vital social unit known to man, set fair to be the salvation of our nation's ills yet also an institution all but overwhelmed by hostile liberal forces, able to survive only through tax-breaks, free nannies and the strong protecting hand of government.)

Anyhow, families are under threat (again!) this time from weekly lad's mags.

That's why I believe we need to ask tough questions about the instant-hit hedonism celebrated by the modern men's magazines targeted at younger males. Titles such as Nuts and Zoo paint a picture of women as permanently, lasciviously, uncomplicatedly available. The images they use and project reinforce a very narrow conception of beauty and a shallow approach towards women. They celebrate thrill-seeking and instant gratification without ever allowing any thought of responsibility towards others, or commitment, to intrude.
This is just bizarre. Young men fantasising about no-strings-attached sex with oiled-up bimbos? Truly, these are strange and troubling times indeed. Gove doesn't give us any actual evidence that Nuts and Zoo readers are more likely to a) become fathers or b) do their women wrong. Nor does he suggest that he'll actually do anything about it. "Asking tough questions" is easy: can we expect a Tory government to ban or censor lad's mags? Maybe each photospread should be accompanied by a couple of paragraphs on how the model is a real person who deserves the reader's respect. Will we perhaps see a new boob-tax on pictures of naked women, with money ring-fenced to support* single mothers?

Of course not - this isn't anything to do with policy. The key paragraphs in the speech came earlier:
I think that the right was wrong to get hung up on homosexuality. I think we
indulged prejudice in the 80s and missed the point. It's not gay men who are abusing women and abandoning children – it's straight men. And the demand for civil partnerships, proper inheritance rights and equality in adoption rights from gay couples is not a rejection of commitment but a desire to see commitment celebrated and publicly embraced. It is right and moral. I also think the right was wrong in its rhetoric about single mothers. We need to recognise that it's those fathers who've abandoned their responsibilities, not mothers left holding the baby, who should be challenged about their behaviour.

Gove has just "detoxified" the Tories by announcing they're now officially OK with single mothers and gays - he's got to give the troops something they can blame for the hideous, savage mess they want to believe the country's in. And maybe feckless seed-scattering 21-year olds deserve it. But I don't think he's thought this through. If pictures of naked women are warping the moral fabric of the nation's youth, surely he's missed a trick. Nuts and Zoo have a weekly circulation of 0.5 million: why on earth isn't Gove attacking the multi-million circulation, politically influential, Murdoch-owned Sun?

*Yes, yes: and uplift