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: