Monday, 31 December 2012

The beginning of the End of Time

So, we've reached the last day of 2012, thanks to this year's millenarian prophecy failing to happen. Just like last year's. And all the ones before that. But don't worry if you missed 2012's apocalypse - there's never long to wait before the next one comes along:
The beginning of the End of Time and the appearance (arrival or advent) of the Imam Mahdi (Mehdi), most likely, will be in 2013 (1434 Hijri )


Jesus Christ's return (or coming down) to Earth from Heaven, most likely, will be in 2022 (1444 Hijri ), in-sha-Allah.
From The End Times 2013 - 2022 : As decoded by numerical analysis of the Quran, Hadith, Arabic Words, and Historical Events.

You've got to admire these people's persistence, if nothing else. I wonder if their failure to be downhearted has something to do with the continuing popularity of history's most influential failed millenarian prophet?
Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.
Matthew 16:28
But I tell you of a truth, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God.
Luke 9:27
And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.
Mark 9:1

The demonstrable failure of the Kingdom of God to arrive, as predicted, some time in the mid-1st Century AD, doesn't seem to have done the boy from Nazareth's reputation any harm. As subsequent failed prophets have found to their advantage, there are always plenty of people keen to re-interpret the obvious failure of a testable prediction as something more conveniently 'spiritual.'

The Circle of Derp

And what personality type makes the best religious leader? Imam Ajmal Masroor, Rabbi Laura janner Klausner and Bishop Robert Paterson take the abridged Myers Briggs personality test to see if they have what it takes to be a good religious leader. 

 BBC Radio 4's Sunday programme, 30th December 2012

Tune in later, when we try to find out whether phrenology can identify the most promising candidates from a class of trainee wizards and then, in the immortal words of Scaryduck, 'the Circle of Derp will be complete, and we might as well start burning witches again.'

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Unnatural disasters

Imagine you were a property developer or builder and got the green light to build a housing estate in a flood plain. If you found enough mugs to buy flood-prone houses at a price that made you a profit, you'd have walked away, laughing all the way to the bank.

It would be easy to foresee downsides for other people, though. The ones living on the floodplain estates would be at high risk of getting flooded out, putting lives and property at risk, and they'd get hit in the pocket with higher insurance premiums. People living in formerly safe properties nearby might start to find themselves flooded out, too, because you'd built on ground that used to absorb floodwater. The taxpayer might get it in the shorts, because the Environment Agency had to spend more on flood defences. And so on.

A flood is the sort of thing we used to call an Act of God. An event that's often unpredictable, a disaster for which nobody's really to blame. On the other hand, building houses in an area that's at risk of flooding (there's a subtle clue in the word "floodplain"), is a matter of human judgement.

These musings were prompted by the conjunction of what they're starting to call the wettest year on record and Cathy O’Neil's thoughts on the ideology of the financial crisis at Mathbabe.

The details of why we're in the economic mess we're in are complex and best left to those with a sounder understanding of economics and complex financial transactions than I'll ever have. But there's an important point that even ignoramuses like me can grasp.

Listen to many news reports and most politicians and you might come away with the impression that the financial crisis was some sort of natural catastrophe, like a flood.The economy is presented as a complex system, like the weather, beyond human control and only to be imperfectly understood by experts. We can't control the weather, we just have to put up with it and hope for the best.

But you don't have to understand weather or climate in any detail to understand that some low-lying areas tend to flood. And you don't have to be well-read in economic theory to understand that the individuals who profit from selling houses in a floodplain might take a different view of risk from the families who end up getting flooded out.

If you made a conscious effort to ignore who has the contacts and the power to dictate what gets built and where, you might choose to blame the people who buy houses in floodplains and say that the developers and builders are only meeting their demands. But which ever way you slice it, human judgement is part of the process. They system is partly complex and unpredicable but it's also partly shaped by people with competing interests and unequal access to the levers of power. It's not just the climate, it's also how people choose to deal with it.

Likewise, people created the conditions that triggered the financial crisis through rational self-interest (and to hell with the consequences for everybody else). There's no law of nature that means things can't be done differently.  Economic reality is yesterday’s political choice.


Saturday, 22 December 2012

Faster than a speeding bullet

The US far right is prepared to do absolutely anything to save the nation's kids from gun-toting maniacs. Well, anything short of actually making it less convenient for maniacs to get hold of assault rifles, (because interfering with the ready availability of deadly weapons would obviously strike at the heart of the United States' well-regulated Militias, freedom's sole bastion* against the pillaging Canadian hordes, waiting to roll in from the north, treacherous Mexicans plots to avenge the Alamo, or Hollywood-villain-accented Brits returning to torch the White House again).

Fortunately Americans can be spared the horrors of gun control, so long as they can just train their kids to respond to the rampages of assault rifle-toting lunatics by ... er ... running about as if they were playing dodgeball. Because a mass of six and seven-year-olds running about in random directions would be almost invulnerable to modern firearms. Yeah, right.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with this cunning plan. First, running about at high speed, with random changes of direction is what children of this age do, anyway. As any parent who has had to negotiate a busy primary school playground at dropping-off time could confirm, this doesn't make children invulnerable. To be practically certain of mowing one or more of the little tykes down, a pedestrian would just have to walk briskly in a straight line, without looking where he or she was going. A killer's bullet, travelling in a straight line, would almost inevitably intercept one of the mass of rapidly moving small bodies in much the same way. The probability of hitting a child would be even greater if the killer managed to get inside and the milling mass of kids was contained within the school buildings.

Second, it might be worth taking a moment to think about what the police officers, whose poor marksmanship Kellmeyer cites, were doing when they failed to hit their targets. The majority of cops doing the shooting were presumably confronting potentially violent, probably armed, adults. You don't have to be an expert to realise that those cops' aim must have been compromised by considerations of self-preservation and public safety (it must be harder to get a clean shot when you're trying to avoid your target shooting back, and trying not shoot colleagues and innocent bystanders). If you're a nutcase, with the advantage of surprise and probably beyond rational ideas of self-preservation, intent on mowing down as many unarmed kids as possible, such handicaps don't apply.

I guess this sort of ill-thought-through bullshit is the sort of thing you'd expect from the sort of woolly-headed conservatives who babble on about the Second Amendment without specifying whether the "militia" they have in mind are the official - and presumably 'well-regulated'-  federal Army National Guard, Air National Guard and state military reserves, or just the one of those unofficial, unregulated Patriot movement / survivalist / millenarian / Branch Davidians-style "militias" dedicated to dressing up in camo and waving guns about - in other words precisely the sort of people any sane observer could identify as part of the problem, not the solution.

*Apart, that is, for the USA's famously puny regular armed forces.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012


I'm no fan of Facebook, but I'm also astounded by the naivety of some of its critics. Yes, Mark Zuckerberg doesn't care about you personally and he wants to monetise your data. But how did it escape your notice that we live in a largely capitalist society where most enterprises exist to make money? When Zuck offered you this shiny new free toy, did the well-known expression ' there's no such thing as a free lunch' not cross your mind for even a second? Were you outraged when this completely free thing didn't stay exactly the way you wanted it?

A free social network that's not looking for a way to make money out of you does not have to exist just because it would super nice if it did.

As you've probably worked out, if you've read this far, I wasn't burdened with particularly high or unrealistic expectations when I opened a Facebook account some four or five years ago. I dipped in cautiously, being careful not to give any personal data that wasn't strictly necessary (and to make sure that there were deliberate inaccuracies in every piece of data I did cough up, apart from my name, and to hell with the terms and conditions).

As it happened, it wasn't really my sort of thing. I like to concentrate on one thing at a time, so I found trying to follow a constantly-updated mass of different, unrelated, bite-sized status updates, conversations and posts to be unsatisfying and slightly draining. Also it didn't do great things for my social life - if I wanted to do stuff with the people I already knew, it was practically as easy to just pick up the phone or send an e-mail.

As for meeting up with long lost friends - well, if I was (quite rightly) reluctant to share my date of birth, address and other personal information with every passing stranger on the Internet, then how were they going to find me, as opposed to some random stranger with the same, fairly common, name?

So my Facebook account ticked along with a handful of friends (i.e. people I actually know in real life as opposed to Facebook-only "Friends"). It wasn't that much use to me, but I kept it going in out of a vague feeling of not wanting to be left out of something. It hadn't cost me anything and I felt I'd protected myself from data farts by withholding data, lying about the data I did supply and taking the time to lock down those deliberately un-user-friendly privacy options.

Not a great triumph, but I felt smug in comparison to those poor addicts who'd been seduced into spending most of their free time obsessively checking status updates from virtual friends they'd never met and doing mindlessly repetitive slave labour on FarmVille.

Well, it turns out I'd set my expectations low, but not quite low enough. I hadn't anticipated Timeline, a system that takes control of what's shared (and when) away from users and blurts out past posts, status updates, etc, at random in order to help you to 'share your story.' I wanted to retain control of what I posted and when, so I thought, 'I'll just spend a few minutes deleting all my past posts, so they don't pop up when I don't want them to.'

This wasn't that crucial for me. I don't think there's anything I've ever posted that would land me in jail, or in the divorce courts, or get me sacked (as I'm currently self - although rather under - employed, good luck with that last one). But I still like to be the one who chooses what I communicate and when, so the thought of some bot spewing out some random thing I'd said three years ago annoyed and unsettled me.

Unfortunately, Facebook didn't offer users who were being Timelined the option of hiding or deleting all past posts in one easy hit. No, I had to go through every damn post for four or five years and delete it individually. No more looking down on FarmVille's dumb hicks, now I'd found myself spending hours on "TimeVille", the even-more monotonous game where you delete one Facebook post after another and another and another and another until you dream of being let out to watch some paint dry.

But I did it. Then wondered why I'd bothered. I'd not found Facebook enthralling to start with, but the post-Timeline version was positively annoying. But not quite as annoying as the reflection that I'd thought myself too sceptical and level-headed to get suckered into wasting much time on it, but I'd been wrong.

So I've posted my last status update, telling my friends on Facebook that I'm still friends with them in the non-Facebook sense, but that I've run out of patience with Facebook and then I 'deleted' my account. I'd prefer them to actually delete my data, but I know they won't. Good job it's nearly all lies (especially the bits about having been born in Madagascar some time around 1905, a CV that includes previous employment as a clown at Blackpool Tower Circus, an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and a current job as the Commandant of the Papal Swiss Guard, despite my place of residence being given as Svalbard and my made-up work telephone number having the international dialling code for Tuvalu).

In the end, you can't beat Facebook. However much you try to keep it in its place it will grind you down, by steady attrition, in the end. As Popehat eloquently puts it:
Am I smart enough to figure out how to navigate Facebook's privacy settings, even in their current much more complicated state, and maximize the privacy Facebook is willing to give my profile and updates? Sure. But increasingly doing so feels like a job, or like an unpleasant but mandatory household task like balancing the checkbook. More than that, it feels like a job that's also [a] contest with Facebook and its designers, in which they — motivated by a desire to make money off of my data, and by a futurist anti-privacy philosophical agenda — seek to slip changes past me, outwit me, and wear me down. Could I keep track of the steady steam of privacy setting changes and carefully analyze each one? Yes. But I'm sick of doing so.
If you're thinking of kicking the Facebook habit yourself, spend a few minutes reading the rest of Popehat's post - it's just one of several billion uses for your time that would be way more productive than a session on FarmVille.

Monday, 17 December 2012

The British Tea Party?

UKIP definitely aren’t going to supplant them [the Conservatives] as the major party of the right, but they could definitely steal enough votes from them to make it very difficult for them to get a majority in Parliament.

The real sting in the tail, though, is that this could only really ever happen under First Past the Post. If we had a different electoral system – like, say, the Alternative Vote which the Tories worked so hard to (successfully) block – there’d be much less danger of this happening. So it’s possible that the Tories’ rejection of AV could end up destroying their chances of keeping hold of power. Wouldn’t that be beautifully ironic?
The Third Estate

It's going to take more than ditching its crummy pound shop logo to propel the provisional wing of the Mail Online comments section from headlines like 'Could Ukip finally win a seat?' to control of a sizable block of parliamentary seats in a mere couple of years or so.  It seems realistic to suppose that they might damage the Conservatives by appealing to the more reactionary elements of their fan base, without gaining anything like enough seats to supplant the Lib Dems as junior coalition partners.

Maybe we're witnessing the birth of the British Tea Party - UKIP as a social conservative lobby, determined to confound the plans of the hated "liberal elite", holding the major right-wing party to ransom. For all their economic extremism, David Cameron's Tory party does have at least an element of social liberalism. At present, I'm sure there are plenty of senior Tories who genuinely don't have a problem with anybody being female, or black, or gay, or disabled* - so long as they don't commit the unforgivable sin of being poor.

But could the fear of being deserted by Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells change all that? It might turn the Tories from a party that specialises in being nasty to poor people back into the good old fashioned general-purpose nasty party.

Which could be a very bad thing, if there are enough frightened, embittered people out there to vote for a party fuelled by spite and scapegoats, or a very good thing if their extremism and failure to move with the times condemns them to Mitt Romney-style electoral oblivion.

*They've at least moved on from 'some of my best friends are' [insert disadvantaged group here]' to 'I am [insert name of disadvantaged group here].' If that's not progress, then I'm the Duchess of Cambridge.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Latest casualties in the American Civil War

The Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in context.

The USA has been involved in a ground war in Afghanistan since 2001. At the time of writing, over a decade of war has cost just over 2,000 US lives.

Back in the US of A, over 9,000 people are murdered with guns every year.

 A lot of those murders will have been committed with illegally held guns, but it seems unlikely that the death toll on the home front is unrelated to the fact that the USA leads the world in civilian gun ownership, with 88.8 guns per 100 people. It doesn't take a great stretch of the imagination to conclude that having all those guns in the system is a risk in itself, regardless of what proportion of perpetrators got access to part of this arsenal illegally, as opposed to having a licence.

In short, The National Rifle Association is probably a greater threat to ordinary Americans* than the Taliban ever was.

*And Mexicans, if you factor in the narco-funded American guns flooding south of the border to arm Mexico's drug gangs.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Studio Schools - the unreported scandal

Almost any business can set up a studio school by paying a voluntary subscription of just £8,000 to the government. In return, the government builds and maintains a school, but the power to run the school remains firmly in the hands of private sponsors. National Express, GlaxoSmithKline, Sony, Ikea, Disney, Michelin, Virgin Media and Hilton Hotels are just some of the corporate players who have bought into the scheme.

So what is in it for these investors? First, they hope that graduates of studio schools will work for them in the future – the taxpayer is paying to train their future employees. Second, pupils must spend up to 40 per cent of their school lives working for these companies. Predictably, these sponsor firms only pay the minimum wage – and that’s only for their over-16 students.

Under-16s, meanwhile, must work at least four hours a week for local sponsors unpaid. It is perhaps ironic that a system that is supposed to teach children what it is like to work in the real world does not pay them to do a job. Moreover, the introduction of cheap child labour into the workplace is likely to drive down wages for adult workers doing similar jobs. 
Red Pepper

Why isn't this scandal the subject of a Panorama special? Why isn't that vile pipsqueak, Gove, being grilled to an inch of his life by Paxman and Humphrys? Is it because the BBC's become too cowed, after being slapped down by successive governments, to ask challenging questions? Or is it just that we've absorbed so much propaganda and self-loathing that we no longer believe that our children merit a decent all-round education, or that their work deserves to be paid for? For a government that claims to stand shoulder to shoulder with 'strivers', this lot seem very keen on schemes that should only appeal to people with the most miserably low expecatations.

Borrowed clothes

Fashion is merely a form of ugliness so unbearable that we are compelled to alter it every six months.
 Oscar Wilde

I have the feeling that a lot of people who borrow Oscar Wilde's wit too freely are educated but not quite as clever as they'd like other people to think they are. Still, I like this quote and I'll make an exception in the case of Roy Bainton, who used Wilde's words back in 2010 to preface a splendid rant on the subject of fashion, for the last post on his now-dormant blog Over the Hill:*
In any case, they might argue, fashion is for everyone. Yet that’s the view from their side of the gulf. It’s the gulf of reality, the gulf between the rich and the poor which continues to expand, thanks to lack-lustre, materialistic politicians who have long since lost any decent convictions or a desire to improve the world, and will persist in their political inertia no matter who wins an election. The world of fashion, populated as it is by vacuous prima donnas, self-serving celebrity air-heads and over-pruning martinets, exists solely to sell to and entertain their own rapacious, gormless celebrity class. Whilst they continue to indulge in their mutual, design-inspired onanism in their elite, hermetically-sealed magazine feature world, the rest of us will continue to keep out the cold courtesy of Tesco and Primark, with many of us grabbing a suitable bargain from Oxfam, Help The Aged or the Heart Foundation charity shops. If there is some kind of heaven, and the departed generation before mine are looking down, then only the rapture brought about by their death could relieve the vision of despair they might witness down here on 21st century earth.

If my ranting here seems a severe observation, consider the Blair family. In her autobiography, Cherie Blair makes the staggering claim that she remains ‘a socialist’. This is a woman with a £3.6 million house, whose husband, elevated to his world status by the old Labour Party and the contributions of thousands of hard working union members, has taken on a six-figure deal to promote Louis Vuitton handbags. The deal appears to have had its genesis on board the luxury yacht of another paragon of compassion, the rock star Bono. 
Read the whole thing here.

I'm with Roy nearly all the way on this one. Fashion seems to distill some of the worst elements of our society: the epic wastefulness of planned obsolescence, the conspicuous consumption of stuff we don't need in order to impress people who aren't worth impressing, the herd mentality and a vapid obsession with style and presentation. The only thing that gives me pause for thought is the feminist critique that holds there's something misogynistic in holding fashion in low esteem. The argument is that, on average, women are more interested in fashion than men and that fashion is therefore perceived as more 'trivial' than more male-dominated industries.

I don't quite buy this idea - there's as much needless conspicuous consumption of things that are generally considered boys' toys, from Rolex watches to high-end Beemers. An obsession with status symbols and being part of the in-group is prevalent -and, in my view, equally unattractive - in both sexes. Criticism of the fashion biz only becomes sexist when it's used as a cover for dismissing women and only women, as empty-headed bimbos who never think about anything except hair and shoes. There are women that shallow, but there seem to be just as many empty-headed himbos whose life seems to revolve around the possession of an office swivel chair with arms (thus asserting superiority over the losers who haven't graduated to such dizzy heights of middle managerdom), a plasma TV the size of a billiard table, or some ridiculously expensive item of branded clothing.

*Roy's current on-line home is at

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Lucifer Our Lord

Out of the mouths of fruitcakes and loonies

You have the charisma of a damp rag, and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk. And the question that I want to ask, [...] that we're all going to ask, is "Who are you ?". I'd never heard of you. Nobody in Europe had ever heard of you. I would like to ask you, President, who voted for you, and what mechanism...oh, I know democracy isn't popular with you lot, and what mechanism the people of Europe have to remove you ? Is this European democracy ? Well, I sense, I sense though that you are competent and capable and dangerous, and I have no doubt in your intention, to be the quiet assassin of European democracy, and of the European nation states. You appear to have a loathing for the very concept of the existence of nation states - perhaps that's because you come from Belgium, which is pretty much a non-country. But since you took over, we've seen Greece reduced to nothing more than a protectorate. Sir, you have no legitimacy in this job at all, and I can say with confidence that I speak on behalf of the majority of British people in saying: we don't know you, we don't want you, and the sooner you're put out to grass, the better.
The rising star of the Britain's new political Third Force, Nigel Farage there, laying into Herman Van Rompuy (crazy name, crazy guy)* with the wit and charm for which Nige is so justly famous. I’m rather torn by his most famous sound-bite. On the one hand, Farage comes across as a thoroughly nasty piece of work – a single-issue obsessive, a pied piper for cranks and small-minded xenophobes, a sneering ex-stockbroker with a snobbish disdain for the very idea of a ‘low-grade bank clerk’, a man who values presentation over substance (even if Van Rompuy did have 'the charisma of a damp rag', it would be the least important question at issue) and an arrogant little jingoist, bursting with contempt for a small nation which he dismisses as ‘pretty much a made-up country.’

On the other hand it’s impossible to ignore the Eurozone catastrophe and the hijacking of former democracies by EU officials who nobody voted for. You don’t have to be a kipper to question the authority of these unelected satraps who seem happy to sacrifice the futures of millions of their fellow citizens rather than face the embarrassment of having to rethink an obviously flawed project.

European democracy is important. Our political class is in a sorry state, when it’s left to the leader of a single-issue pipsqueak party of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, who are still waiting to elect their first MP to come up with Britain’s most quotable sound-bite on the subject.

Just in case you’re left with the thought that, underneath all the bluster, Nige might be a decent bloke, I’ll leave you with a selection of quotes from an interview given by the man himself to Robert Chalmers in The Independent early in 2012:
I think that the policies Margaret Thatcher brought in – while they did bring a huge amount of misery to people in the north of England – were necessary to turn Britain into a modern global economy.
It became necessary to destroy the north of England to save it. Nice.
I hate this myth that Blair started in 2004, to defend the open border, suggesting that [Eastern Europeans] work hard, implying that people here are useless …
… inflation isn't our biggest worry at the moment. Youth unemployment is."
OK, so youth unemployment is our biggest worry, but the mass unemployment resulting from Thatcher’s Harrowing of the North was ‘necessary.’ And you hate the idea that East European immigrants might be snaffling jobs by coming over here and working hard (or even worse, pulling the wool over employers’ eyes by pretending to work hard, when they can’t really be working hard because if they were, that would obviously mean that British people are useless).

Let's pull the threads of your thinking together, Nige. The free market global economy is just spiffy and any poor sods who end up on the scrap heap are just the regrettable, but inevitable casualties, of modernisation. The free market global economy is simultaneously terrible because it leads to sneaky foreigners coming over here, stealing our jobs by pretending to work hard. Consistency's not really your strong point, is it? But never mind, the dog-whistle's coming through loud and clear.
"What precisely did you love about the City?"
"It was competitive. It was quite brutal. It was tough but very exciting."

His first brush with death occurred that night in Orpington, returning from the City at a period when, according to his first book, "I was handling millions and drinking more or less continuously." He was run over after stopping off at an Indian restaurant, where he had been arguing against the Anglo-Irish Agreement while drinking Jameson's.
Just the kind of politician we need in to re-balance the economy in the wake of a global crash caused by the dominance of an out-of-control finance sector. At least he drinks a half-way decent brand of whiskey. I'm guessing that, in his own head, Nige is a latter-day Churchill, fighting them on the beaches, with an iron constitution fuelled by the finest booze known to humanity. More recent precedents might be less promising, if you happen to be the rising leader of a third party with an unfortunate taste for the hard stuff.
Well, I was a keen golfer. Part of  the golf-club set. So of course I had a bloody blazer. I have a blazer. I have several.
The prosecution rests its case.

*If Herman's ever caught out in the slightest sexual misdemeanour, the British tabloids will have their headlines ready to roll before you can say 'Rompuy-pumpy.'

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Lie detectors, as seen on Jeremy Kyle and in real life

I'm no fan of the Jeremy Kyle show, but I was doing some work at a guy's house the other day while this everyday story of dysfunctional folk was playing loudly on the TV in the next room.

The overheard episode included, among other tales of cruel and unusual relationships, a couple being quizzed over alleged extra-marital exploits. A supposedly errant partner had agreed to submit to a lie detector test, with the results to be confirmed on TV, in front of a rapt studio audience and spouse. My first thought (after, 'where the hell do they get these people?' and 'this sounds as phony as those old wrestling matches between people with names like Big Daddy* and Giant Haystacks') was, 'does anybody, even on reality TV, still believe in lie detectors - I thought they'd been exposed as bunkum years ago?'

Then I went back to what I was doing and forgot all about it. Until I came across an interesting blog post on the subject of lie detectors. Apparently the older "Voice Stress Analysis" system for detecting stress that might be associated with lying was thoroughly debunked some time ago. A system involving "Layered Voice Analysis" has been punted more recently, but doesn't sound much more impressive:
To sum up, then, the scientific evidence say that system doesn’t work and that it is, in fact, incapable of generating any kind of meaningful information about the unconscious emotional or cognitive content of speech without reporting to retrofitting the statistical noise it generates to known or desired outcomes.
I've no idea what "lie detector" system they were using on the Jeremy Kyle Show, but it probably doesn't matter, as there's probably no such thing as a working "lie detector" and I wouldn't be surprised if the confrontations on the show are as fake as staged wrestling matches anyway.

Well, you wouldn't expect much from the Jeremy Kyle show, which is just a piece of light entertainment (in the same, delightful tradition as bear baiting and ducking witches). You might expect a little more from local authorities, trialling ways to combat benefit fraud, but you'd be wrong. Despite the lack of any compelling evidence that it works, Southwark Council are using a "Layered Voice Analysis" system in an attempt to identify benefit fraudsters. Read the full story of how council leaders and other people who should know better (namely insurance company bosses) fell for the lie detector scam here.

There are a couple of interesting twists to the story. First, although "Layered Voice Analysis" itself sounds practically useless, it is used in conjunction with well-structured interview scripts which have been used, with some success, in the criminal justice system for years. Why not just junk the lie-detector mumbo-jumbo and stick to the proven method of using well-prepared interview scripts? If you follow the money, everything becomes clear:
Of the two core components of the Voice Risk Analysis system used in the DWP trials, the only one that has any scientific validity is the scripted interviews – there is a solid body of published research on the psychology of, in particular, witness interviews in criminal justice settings, on which the scripted questions used in Voice Risk Analysis are based but, in purely commercial terms, this scripting has very little value attached to it. All the relevant research is already readily accessible in papers published in scientific journal, so much so that any competitor looking for a way into this particular market could easily develop their own scripting from first principles at not much more than the cost of hiring a halfway decent psychologist to do the work.

Only when the scripting is tied into Nemesysco’s patented software system is there any commercial value, or advantage, in this system because the chain of licensing deals, from Nemesysco to Digilog UK and on to Capita means that only Capita has access to both the software and scripting and so, as long as Capita can sell local authorities the idea that the system might actually work, it has an advantage over its competitors when bidding for contracts and an opportunity to try and recoup some of the £6.5 million is laid out in 2004 when acquiring the rights to what is, in reality, a complete and utter steaming pile of worthless pseudoscientific bullcrap.
Second, the phrase "lie detector" has apparently become so discredited that even the people trying to flog lie detection systems don't like to use it:
A spokesman for Capita said they preferred not to describe it as a lie detector test, insisting it uses the voice checking together with "behavioural analysis by trained operators." 
I guess the preferred phrase, 'voice checking together with behavioural analysis by trained operators,' had too many big words to use on the Jeremy Kyle show.

The conjunction of daytime telly's regular freak show and Southwark Council's uncritical willingness to adopt an unproven but science-y-sounding method for weeding out benefit cheats makes me wonder whether the unknown genius on the council who pushed for this system to be adopted was inspired by sensational tales of low-life scallies being exposed by Jeremy's all-seeing lie detector. Maybe  that person responsible was gullible enough to believe that they were watching reality (as opposed to reality television, which is something completely different). Or maybe he or she was sufficiently Machiavellian to decide that it didn't matter whether any of it was true, so long as the audience kept applauding. Which is a dangerous insight for anyone in a position of power to have.

*According to a source cited in the relevant Wikipedia entry, Margaret Thatcher was 'said to be a fan' of Big 'I am serious and don't call me Shirley (Crabtree)' Daddy. Make of that what you will.

(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction

The scene is a tangled bank, some time between 1848 (when Cecil Frances Alexander's hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful was first published in Hymns for Little Children) and the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859.
Enter a BELIEVER and an UNBELIEVER, deep in conversation, as they contemplate endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful:
Do you not see the Creator's handiwork all around? See the irises, the dragonflies and the kingfisher. As Mrs. Alexander so charmingly puts it , 'He made their glowing colours, He made their tiny wings.' Truly, the Lord God must have made them all!
I beg to differ.
How, then, do you explain the wonderful artifice and intricacy we observe in even the humblest creature?
I confess that, although I find your explanation fantastical, I do not know. It is a mystery.
I offer an explanation, but you can say nothing.  I have the better of this argument, I fancy.
Although unbelief predates Darwin by many centuries, I've always been impressed by Richard Dawkins' argument (in The Blind Watchmaker) that it must have been very hard to be an intellectually satisfied atheist before Darwin. 'God did it' might not be a wholly satisfying explanation for apparent design and complexity in nature, but it must have sounded a lot more plausible when the best nonbelievers could come back with was 'I don't believe that God made complex things, but I've got no idea why they exist.'

A century and a half later, the boot's on the other foot. Unbelievers have an explanation that's far more robust, plausible and rigourously tested than the theistic 'the thing that made the things for which there is no known maker and that causes and directs the events we can't otherwise explain and doesn't need to have been made, made them all.'

More thoughtful and intelligent believers are now the ones on the back foot. Instead of challenging unbelievers with anything as compelling as the analogy of the watch from Paley's Natural Theology,* they're now reduced to arguing that, although they can't provide an intellectually satisfying argument for the existence of God, God's existence is just not the sort of thing you can conclusively disprove.

Scriptural literalists and creationists who'd like to challenge unbelievers more forcibly are hampered by being completely, and demonstrably, wrong.

The best lack all conviction:
I can't prove it. I don't know that any of it is true. I don't know if there's a God. (And neither do you, and neither does Professor Dawkins, and neither does anybody. It isn't the kind of thing you can know. It isn't a knowable item.)
...while the worst Are full of passionate intensity

*If you're looking for a better argument for the existence of God than 'well you can't conclusively prove He doesn't exist,' I suppose there's still the argument from fine tuning, but it sounds like clutching at straws to me.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Cruel and unusual

From the annals of improbable animal-based weaponry comes more evidence of Man's inhumanity to Man (and to just about every other sentient being you can imagine). In this case, here are your 16th century forerunners of the bat bomb, the anti-tank dog and the weaponized dolphin.

Image from peacay's photostream, published under this Creative Commons license.


Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Carneymania hits Westminster

Over-reaction of the week:
George Osborne announced a new governor of the Bank [of England] ... Andrea Leadsom, a Tory, was so excited about the appointment that, she declared: "I could jump up and down! But I won't!" 
 From a parliamentary sketch by Simon Hoggart.

It's not just the hyperventilating Member for South Northamptonshire who needs to calm down and take a cold shower. I've no reason to question Mark Carney's competence or suitability for the job, but there's a worrying assumption behind all the cross-party adulation.  Carney was the governor of the Bank of Canada and the 2008 global financial crisis happened on his watch. Canada weathered the crisis pretty well. Therefore we need a boss like that in charge of the Bank of England.

Fair enough, if Mark Carney was the sole proximate cause of Canada's good fortune. But it sounds to me as if the main reason Canada came through in good shape was because Canada was in a better place to start with:
Experts here note that Canadian banks are more tightly regulated, more liquid and less highly leveraged. Instead of being highflying investment banks, they tend to operate in a more traditional manner, with large numbers of loyal depositors and a more solid base of capital.

"I think the regulatory framework in Canada is a little more stringent," [Michael] Gregory [chief economist at BMO Nesbitt Burns] said, "and Canadian banks are a little more conservative in terms of lending." The World Economic Forum this month rated Canada's banks as the world's soundest, ahead of banks in Sweden and Luxembourg.
Keith B. Richburg, writing in the Washington Post.

 Mark Carney may have done the right things as governor of the central bank, but the killer fact that leaps out is that he had the huge advantage of working in a country that wasn't being systematically brought to its knees by the recklessness of its own rogue financial institutions.

Maybe what we should be taking from Canada isn't a superstar boss, but a lesson in re-balancing the economy from an economy that doesn't seem to have been that unbalanced in the first place. I find all this hero-worship worrying on two levels. Firstly, the idea that any organisation can be turned around by the quick fix of getting the right calibre of leader behind the executive desk takes the focus away from tackling underlying, systemic problems. A competent leader might help, but don't look to the leader to save us all (or to the ejection of a leader who's perceived to have failed as some short-cut to salvation).

Secondly, the ideology of leadership superstars is rather problematic in itself. At best, it reinforces inequality, by misattributing moral virtue to power  - might is right, whilst the poor and voiceless are the authors of their own misfortune. At worst, it leads to a mindless, fascistic faith in strong leaders, which is the last thing we need at a time when people's economic insecurity and resentment is already being channelled into support for anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner parties (even if Britain's version of xenophobic rage wears Ukip's "mainstream", "respectable"* vanilla face). Back to Simon Hoggart's sketch:
But the key moment revolved round Michael Fabricant, the former disc jockey who has, without anyone noticing, become vice-chairman of the Conservative party. In this role he has just produced a report suggesting that the Tories cut a deal with Ukip.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Casino capitalism

Spotted in a Newport Pagnell pub recently:

It's a terrible quality photo, taken in poor light with cheap phone camera, but just in case you can't quite make the words out, the fruit machine is called 'Banker's Bonus'. I am not authorised to give specific financial advice, so cannot recommend using this fruit machine as an investment vehicle for maximising the return on the contents your back pocket.

If I was in the financial advice biz, though, I'd probably recommend this fruit machine as a safer bet than buying shares in the Royal Bank of Scotland or Lloyds, at least now I've read this post which is well worth a few minutes of your time, especially for its account of how the Spaniards, desperate to privatise their own failed, bailed-out bank, Bankia, flogged it piecemeal to the public by misrepresenting the basket-case organisation as 'solid, healthy and with a vast capacity for generating resources.' The unfortunate punters quickly saw their shares in this 'solid, healthy' bank shed 70% of their value. Standard and Poor's cut Bankia's credit rating to 'junk' earlier this year. Hence the suggestion of that out own government might seek to offload its own toxic waste on the suckers active citizens of our glorious share-owning democracy:

So there is the answer for the UK government. My guess is the government will either try to sell shares in RBS and Lloyds directly to the public, or in the case of RBS buy the rest of the bank first, nationalizing it, and then sell. Nationalizing it first would allow the government to split off the worst parts of RBS’s debts, leaving them on the public’s purse forever, and then privatize the ‘new, clean’ RBS. This way the  public would buy the bank twice (that is what privatizing is – you buy shares in something you already own) AND leave the tax payers to pay off all the bank’s worst losses as well. Of course it won’t sound like that when they come to advertize it. Much like Mr Rato’s Bankia didn’t sound bad.

Don't say you haven't been warned.

Apart from interesting speculation on what might happen, there are some relevant points about the mess we're already in, which undermines Boris Johnson's fatuous quip about  Head Boy Cameron being 'a broom that is cleaning up the mess left by the Labour government':
— the bulk of UK debts is ‘lending’ from the banks. We borrowed it but the loans were made by, OFFERED by,  and remain at the banks. Sure we have a role. We have to pay. But if we can’t, then bye bye banks. No matter how you spin it the debts were created by and are at the banks.  Back to the report.
  • By comparison, UK government debt was relatively low and stable as a share of GDP from 1987 to 2007 and, despite rising sharply due to the recession, was still less than a sixth of total private sector debt in 2009. (My emphasis)
Another problem for the official line. Where is the mention of the out of control public spending and greedy nurses?!!! Apparently it was all less than a sixth of private debts. The long and the short of the PwC report is that the huge rise in UK debt has been due to increases in debts owed by,
… households, private companies and financial institutions rather than increasing public debt, which only started to rise materially during the recent recession.  (My emphasis)

Mind you, as the bankers' most enthusiastic cheerleader, you can see why BoJo would be keen to find someone else to blame.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Dedicated followers of fashion

We have some explaining to do, we have as a result of yesterday undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility in our society.
Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, on the importance of holding on to your credibility. As Chris Dillow argued recently, when an influential public figure uses the "C-word" to describe a person or thing, "credible" is usually code for some sloppy concept like "uncontroversial", or "ideologically acceptable", rather than a testable declaration that the person or thing is believable or convincing in some measurable way.

Sadly , "credibility" lends overtones of rigour, seriousness and gravitas to to some pretty banal value-judgements. In most cases, ideological acceptability just boils down to fashion, which leads me to today's modest proposal. The next time you hear some Very Important Person or current affairs guru pontificating about the credibility, (or otherwise), of some person, idea or institution, just mentally substitute the word "fashionable" for "credible." For example:
  • Joanne Bloggs is suddenly beginning to look like a fashionable leader in waiting.
  • The status quo is no longer a fashionable alternative.
  • The government has made progress in identifying a fashionable package of measures to address [insert issue here].
  • There is no fashionable alternative to [fashionable policy x].
  • No fashionable politician still believes that we can solve this problem by [insert unfashionable solution here].

Rowan Williams was talking about the specific issue of gender equality, which involves a value-judgement that's a long way from from banal and I'm not suggesting that the issue itself is in any way trivial. In fact, I'd say that treating people equally is way more important than the piffling side issue of how credible fashionable the Church of England looks. The nearly-ex-Archbishop did, however, came dangerously close to using the word "credibility" in a more meaningful sense, as noted by that credible publication of record, The Daily Mash:
Religion still main threat to Church's credibility
Because if you're not a believer, religion is, literally, incredible. There's a huge gulf between me and people with widely differing political beliefs and values, but there's almost always some common ground. I might not believe that your proposed solution to problem x would be effective, fair, or moral, but at least we both agree that problem x is a real thing. Even is one of us thinks that problem x isn't really a problem at all, we still both know that x is a thing.

Believers and unbelievers have no such common ground, being in fundamental disagreement about the very existence of the thing they're arguing about, hence the - sometimes bad-tempered - mutual incomprehension. Francis Spufford, batting for the believers, tried to bridge the gulf recently but, as I've written on several occasions, my incomprehension remains intact. To give a flavour of how far apart we are just imagine how surreal Spufford's observation about the existence or otherwise of God, would sound, paraphrased as a political point:
I don't know that any of it is true. I don't know if there's a Bank of England. (And neither do you, and neither does the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and neither does anybody. It isn't the kind of thing you can know. It isn't a knowable item.) 
I'm no expert in anything very much, so maybe it's just me being a bit thick, but how you can have a credible* discussion or opinion about an entity whose existence isn't merely unknown, but unknowable remains an impenetrable mystery to me.

And, finally, here's your inevitable musical bonus:

*in the dictionary sense


Update - see also: 'Church now less credible than concept of omnipotent superbeing, says Rowan Williams'.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The end of a very private era

The last typewriter to be made in a factory in Britain has rolled off a production line in North Wales - 183 years after the first typewriter was patented.

The electric CM-1000, built by Brother, was until recently shipped to America, where some legal firms prefer not to use computer hard drives.

I hadn't previously known how IT-phobic some US law firms could be, but once lawyers had grasped the potentially damaging information that could be unearthed from an electronic data trail, I suppose they were bound to get jittery.

Erik R. Guenther outlines some of the potential pitfalls, giving the example of a draft proposal for a financial settlement, sent as an attachment in a format like .doc. Nothing wrong with that - unless an earlier version of the same document contained an offer to settle at a much lower amount, in which case the recipient - if more IT savvy - might retrieve and track the changes to the document and conclude that his or her opponent was probably willing to settle for a far lower figure than the one ostensibly being sought. In such cases, Guenther suggests that lawyers who haven't completely abjured the computer should make friends with .pdf files.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Narcissus unbound

I just caught up with an episode of All In The Mind, on BBC iPlayer, which included an interesting interview with Jean M. Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before.  Here's a taste of what Twenge's got to say about narcissism from a piece she wrote for HuffPo:
We strive to raise our children's self-esteem in the belief that confidence leads to success, but often err on the side of too much self-focus as we favor competition over consideration. Ironically, self-esteem is unrelated to success, and narcissism leads to eventual failure -- so our obsession with supreme self-confidence doesn't even benefit individuals. And it harms others: though it's commonly believed that aggression arises out of low self-esteem, the most aggressive people are those high in both self-esteem and narcissism, most likely because they lack empathy. In our rush to teach self-love, we have forgotten that it's both harder, and more valuable, to love others just as much.

Of course, parents didn't just make this stuff up. As W. Keith Campbell and I argue in The Narcissism Epidemic, extreme self-centeredness has seeped into every aspect of our culture, from routine plastic surgery to reality TV to the massive debt that allows us to look better off than we actually are. According to a slick website, February 13, 2010 is "Madly in Love with Me" day.* To celebrate, people are encouraged to write a song about how great they are. Having a basic sense of self-esteem doesn't routinely compromise empathy, but once self-esteem bloats into narcissism, other people's needs become irrelevant. If you love yourself too much, you won't have much love left for anyone else.

Modern life also undermines human empathy through our increasingly lonely lives. My colleagues and I recently published a series of experiments showing that people who felt rejected or lonely were significantly less likely to help others.
That sounds plausible to me, although a health warning is in order. Just as true believers in astrology are predisposed to accept 'vague and general personality descriptions as uniquely applicable to themselves without realising that the same description could be applied to just about anyone' (the Forer effect) you've got to beware of confirmation bias when a description of something as potentially fuzzy and slippery as personality types sounds uniquely applicable to what you already think's going on in something as complex and diverse as society.

So take this with a pinch of salt to taste, but I was quite interested by how neatly the characteristics Twenge describes seem to map on to the dominant ideology of recent times. I'm wary of even talking about this in generational terms (for the last few milllennia wrinklies have been warning about "young people today" as the vectors of a coming moral apocalypse, yet the expected end of the world has always reliably failed to arrive). If this is an actual thing, it's located in culture, power relations and ideology, rather than the defective moral fibre of the rising generation.

Aleksandr Zinovyev once coined the sarcastic term "Homo Sovieticus" to describe the "ideal" collectivised, passive, brainwashed, indifferent Soviet citizen. Twenge's description of our plucky little narcissists sounds like a satirical description of an "ideal" Narcissist Citizen, a fully-functioning Mini-Me, adapted to the dominant prejudices and ideology of managerialist capitalism. Some of Mini-Me's vices are the precise opposite of those attributed to Homo Sovieticus, others are similar, but both sets of traits help the possessor conform to the dysfunctional ideology of the times. In the case of the narcissist, these adaptive traits include:
  • Inflated self-confidence (often unwarranted). All members of Mini-Me community just know that, like the children of Lake Wobegon, they are all above average, a useful (but risky) trait in a winner-takes-all society that values a narrow, but intense, focus on short-term rewards over the conscientious long-term effort needed to achieve anything more sustainable. This sense of superiority leads to the next trait:
  • A lack of empathy, an indifference to anybody else who is of no direct use to Mini-Me. As the people who can help you are most likely the most powerful and successful, Mini-Me will socialise (or at least network with) his or her peers and superiors and dismiss anyone less influential as an annoying distraction. This is good news for those at the top, to whom the Mini-Me will defer and pay court, whilst directing any anger and frustration downwards towards the the powerless and less fortunate, who always get the blame for being unforgivably below average.
  • Relentless competitiveness, Sometimes competitiveness works, sometimes cooperation works. For managerialist ideologues extreme competitiveness wins every time - not because it's always the best way of getting the job done, but because there's no better way of stopping your underlings from bothering you than keeping them at each others' throats 24/7. Stops 'em ganging up, joining unions, or displaying other inconvenient forms of solidarity. This competitive urge is also useful for managerialists who'd like to maintain a well-defined pecking order by watching their underlings jump through humiliating hoops, like the confidently clueless baby tycoons on The Apprentice.
  • A sense of entitlement - the Mini-Me community is where we find one of he most profitable of all demographics - consumers who'll buy more stuff just 'because you're worth it'. And if you have to get into debt to buy it, there's a whole industry out there, living and thriving on people's over-confident willingness to embrace debt in order to live the dream, from the primary stage of credit cards for the aspirational, to loan sharks for the penultimate stage of financial desperation, (I'm normally all for motherhood, apple pie n'stuff, and totally against the physical abuse of senior citizens, but I'll make an exception for those whimsical oldsters from the Wonga ad, who I can't see without wanting to batter their smug, plastic faces into a squishy pulp).
  • The sense of entitlement joins forces with the narcissists' relentless self-focus to make them the ideal demographic for charlatans peddling self-help and get-rich-quick publications and courses posited on the claim that happiness, power and riches are just round the corner if you can only be persuaded to be just that little bit more truly, madly, deeply in love with yourself.
  • Lack of political engagement - how can politics be interesting, if it's not, in the words of that other famous slogan, 'all about you'?
Like Homo Sovieticus and Angry Libertarian, I think the conformist Mini-Me is a usefully compliant tool for an elite which ultimately depends on people prepared to unquestioningly buy into a set of self-destructive values that don't challenge the status quo. They're the little people who keep the wheels turning - at least until the wheels come off.

*Did their February 14 turn into "Desperately Disappointed Day", I wonder?

Monday, 12 November 2012

The hallowed tradition of paedophile rape in marriage

The subject of paedophilia is depressingly topical, along with the Prime Minister coining that unfortunate phrase about a 'gay witch hunt' (for all that I can't stand Cameron, I don't believe that he's homophobic, so I can only put the implied - and unwarranted - linkage between being gay and being a child abuser down to thoughtlessness rather than malice). Which brings me, in a roundabout way, back to the Archbishop of Canterbury elect.

Despite aligning with more liberal elements on the subject of women bishops, Justin Welby opposes gay marriage, although he has, apparently, 'promised to reassess his own traditional line on the issue “prayerfully and carefully” and pointedly emphasised his support for civil partnerships.'

Well, Archbishop elect, here's something for you to reassess, when you're defending the traditional understanding of marriage:
We’re also happy with the many, many changes that history has brought to our meaning of marriage (anyone for the legal rape of a 12 year old, given by her father to a thirty-year old? – thought not).
Jourdemayne, the Witch of Eye there, with a bit of historical perspective. Her whole post's well worth your time, but here are the points I've taken away as relevant to the gay marriage debate.

One aspect of marriage that's demonstrably changed over time is that it was once thought OK for young girls to be married well below our current age of consent (especially in the case of dynastic aristocratic and royal marriages). Although these marriages weren't necessarily always consummated straight away, we have specific historical examples of child brides giving birth in what we'd now call childhood.

Another change in our understanding of marriage is that we now take it for granted that women own their own bodies and that non-consensual sex, in or out of marriage, is rape. Back to Jourdemayne: most places, marriage meant that a man could force his spouse to have sex with him. Rape within marriage was a contradiction-in-terms. The phrase “irrevocable consent” was often used in this context (it has other legal applications too).

Famously, Sir Matthew Hale pronounced in 1736 that a “husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract”. 
She wasn't exaggerating with that 'legal rape of a 12 year' old line.

One of the fundamental objections to gay marriage, remember, is an appeal to tradition. Gay marriage would, it's claimed, be such a fundamental break with our traditional understanding of marriage that it would destroy an institution that has been unchanged for centuries. Given that modern marriage is already a world away from the institution that once sanctified what we'd now define as paedophile rape, the idea that we're dealing with some sort of pristine, unchanging institution is pretty close to being total hogwash.

Of course, in the Church of England, such evidence-based arguments have to defer to the sensibilities of faith and prayerful introspection, hence the lag between the acceptance of gay people as full and equal citizens in much of wider society and their faltering acceptance within a church that still seeks to accommodate and respect discrimination when it happens to be faith-based discrimination.

Francis Spufford recently wondered out loud how secularists  can be so committed to their 'hobby' that:
Some of them even contrive to feel oppressed by the Church of England, which is not easy to do. It must take a deft delicacy at operating on a tiny scale, like fitting a whole model railway layout into an attaché case.
If you're a believer in equal marriage, that's not quite such a difficult trick as Francis affects to believe. Believers in gender equality might also find the trick easier than he might imagine, although with Justin Welby backing women bishops, maybe the Church of England  is only a generation or so behind wider society on that particular measure.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Degrees of nonsense

... reading about vampires just isn't as respectable as reading about Jesus and Mohamed ... You can get a degree in theology, but you can't get a degree in repelling vampires. There's undoubtedly a pervasive sense, even now, that religion is a superior class of metaphysics. Throwing salt over your shoulder when you've spilt it is for people who wear their dressing gowns while watching ITV before midday, while attending mass is for the kind of people who possess ties and toothbrushes.

The anthropologist Pascal Boyer once wrote 'Some Fang' (a type of people in Africa) 'say that witches have an extra animal-like internal organ that flies away at night and ruins other people's crops or poisons their food.' It's said that these witches sometimes assemble for huge banquets where they devour their victims and plan future attacks. Many will tell you that a friend of a friend actually saw witches flying over a village at night, sitting on a banana leaf and throwing magical darts at various unsuspecting victims.

Well, he continues, 'I was mentioning these, and other such, exotica over dinner in a Cambridge college when one of our guests, a prominent Catholic theologian, turned to me and said "This is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult, too. You have to explain how people can believe in such nonsense."'

So personally, I've always thought the difference between religion and superstition was not so much degrees of nonsense, but politics.

From a talk by Deborah Hyde, AKA Jourdemayne, who also shares her knowledge of of dark matters here and here.

Classicist 1, Angry Libertarian 0

Here's more anecdotal evidence supporting China Mieville's thesis that 'Libertarianism is not a ruling-class theory'. Here, in his own words, is how an outraged libertarian does shopping:
When I'm at the Wal-mart or grocery story I typically pay with my debit card. On the pad it comes up, "EBT, Debit, Credit, Cash." I make it a point to say loudly to the check-out clerk, "EBT, what is that for?" She inevitably says, "it's government assistance." I respond, "Oh, you mean welfare? Great. I work for a living. I'm paying for my food with my own hard-earned dollars. And other people get their food for free." And I look around with disgust, making sure others in line have heard me.

I am going to step this up. I am going to do far more of this in my life. It's going to be my personal crusade. I hope other libertarians and conservatives will eventually join me.
Enjoy the complete rant here (via here and here). As historian Mary Beard pointed out recently, some people have always wanted to define poverty as a moral failing:
But his [Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus'] view of the behaviour of the underclass is the kind of fantasy that the rich have had about the poor ever since.

My guess is that Ammianus had never actually set foot in an ordinary Roman bar and had never thought about the sheer illogicality of what he was claiming - if these guys really were desperately poor, how on earth could they afford to drink all night?

... The 19th Century notoriously had its "deserving" and "undeserving poor". Our own equivalent of the "deserving poor" is "hard-working families".

Politicians of all parties are forever parroting this pious phrase on television or radio. It's almost as if they've been told to never say the simple word "families" without its knee-jerk accompanying adjective.

Maybe I'm peculiarly counter-suggestible. But whenever I hear them at it, I feel a great well of support coming over me for the feckless and lazy, or - for heaven's sake - for the singletons who don't have families. Are you any less worthy of our political time and care just because you haven't got kids?

... But - OK, at the risk of sounding a bit pious myself - there's also a niggling question of human progress. It would be nice to think that we had actually "come on a bit" since the time of Ammianus more than 1,500 years ago.
Read the rest of her point of view here. You can see how it would be in the self-interest of aristocrats, tycoons and other folk who've done very nicely, thank you, from an unequal society to tell stories about how being rich and powerful is a just reward for simply being better than ordinary folk (whether the alleged proximate cause is good breeding, being favoured by the gods, the great chain of being, piety, the protestant work ethic, better genes, or hard-headed economics, depends on whatever post hoc rationalisiation is in fashion at the time).

Angry libertarians, like the furious individual I started with, aren't actually members of the elite. They shop in Wal-Mart, for crying out loud. Instead of swaying thought leaders and politicians by their entrepreneurial example and the rational power of their arguments, they're reduced to raving in impotent fury at baffled check-out staff when things don't go their way. These folk aren't the One Percent - not even close. Although they like to think of themselves as a breed apart, they're much like the rest of us - largely at the mercy of economic forces beyond their control, insecure, struggling through as best they can.

The difference is the people they identify with - not with their peers, but with the rich and powerful, with their convenient version of events in which there's nothing questionable or contingent about the amazing good fortune they enjoy, because inequality is the inevitable result of their own virtues and the vices of the common people. Libertarians seem to be merely a byproduct of the overclass doing what they do - dividing and ruling. They are the elite's expendable Fifth Column among the rest of us.

Before Obama got re-elected I was a bit 'lesser of two evils, meh', but it's been joyous to see how his victory seems to have triggered mental breakdown-force waves of cognitive dissonance in the Fifth Column of Tea Partiers, birthers, talk radio and Fox News fans and the rest of the elite's useful idiots. This apparent collapse in their morale has to be good news for the demonised victims of their pent-up rage. It's bad enough listening to tedious moralising from members of the overclass, but an organised campaign of abuse from people who are a whisker away from being in the same boat is something the down on their luck could do without.

Speaking of Fifth Columns, if you fancy doing a bit of shopping yourself, one of my own personal favourite Internet loons, Steve Kellmeyer (he of the blog that actually calls itself The Fifth Column), is having a fire sale:
Given events, I have decided to put CultureWarNotes dot com up for sale. Anyone interested in purchasing that domain, please contact me at stevekellmeyer at gmail dot com.
If you want to try before you buy, why not give Notes on the Culture Wars a visit, while stocks last? More wingnuts than a DIY superstore, more paranoid than a Black Sabbath tribute band, (at least under its current, deranged, management). It's nice to think, as Mary Beard put it, that we might actually "come on a bit" from this stuff, now the Fifth Columnists have had a bit of the stuffing knocked out of them.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

More modern styles

Although educated at Eton and Cambridge and even a member of a Pall Mall club, he [the new Archbishop of Canterbury, former oil executive, Justin Welby] is seen as far from an establishment figure.

Theologically, he is unashamedly part of the evangelical tradition, upholding a more traditional and conservative interpretation of the Bible than some in the Church of England.

But he is also a strong advocate of more modern styles of worship. 
According to the Torygraph. I love that 'he is seen as far from an establishment figure' (by whom, exactly?) Let's recap Welby's biography:

The new Archbishop is the son of Gavin Welby and Jane Welby (née Portal). Gavin Welby was a businessman in the drinks trade who, after rumoured involvement with bootlegging in prohibition-era America, became the New York import manager for National Distillers Products Corporation, one of America’s biggest distributors of alcoholic drinks, after the trade went legit. Apparently, Welby senior moved in the same circles as the Kennedy clan and was credited, (if that's the right word) with having introduced John F Kennedy to his first mistress, Swedish aristocrat Gunilla von Post, weeks before JFK’s marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier. This information is taken from an article on the In County Durham site, which goes on to say:
Gavin became one of New York’s most prominent party-givers and was linked in the gossip columns to Pat Kennedy, JFK’s sister. 
I believe that the In County Durham article originated in the Daily Mail, so it should be taken with the usual massive pinch of salt, but Gavin Welby does get a direct name check in JFK's letters, so we can be reasonably sure that, on this occasion, it's not just the Mail making sensational stuff up.  Justin Welby's mum also gets a mention in a 1955 letter from Jack Kennedy, viz:
Did you see in the paper that our friend – the cold, frozen Mr. Gavin Welby – got married to Mr. Churchill’s secy. 
Yes, Justin Welby's mum was Winston Churchill's secretary. She was divorced from Justin's father in 1958, when Justin was just two and later went on to marry Charles Cutherbert Powell Williams, Baron Williams of Elvel, becoming Lady Williams of Elvel.

As for the young Justin himself, the BBC gives a bite-sized précis of his pre-clergy career path:
Bishop Welby, who was educated at Eton and Trinity College Cambridge, spent 11 years as an oil executive and became group treasurer for FTSE 100 oil exploration group Enterprise Oil Plc prior to the biggest career decision of his life.
After Welby heeded the inner voice calling him to the priesthood in the late 1980s, the Telegraph described his rise through the clerical ranks as 'meteoric' (meteors, of course, fall rather than rising, but I suppose that avoiding stale metaphors and sticking to facts aren't top priorities when you're a Religious Affairs Editor). After resigning from Enterprise Oil in 1987, Welby entered training for the priesthood and was made a deacon in 1992. He became a rector in 1995, a canon in 2002, the Dean of Liverpool in 2007 and the Bishop of Durham, with a seat in the House of Lords, in 2011.

So that's Justin "far from an establishment figure" Welby. Dad was a successful businessman and New York socialite who was chums with continental aristocrats and the Kennedy clan. Mum was secretary to Winston Churchill and went on to marry a baron and acquire a title. Educated at Eton and Trinity College Cambridge, Justin went on to become an oil executive and group treasurer for a FTSE 100 oil company. After finding God, this well-connected chap, who occasionally likes to relax at his Pall Mall club (don't we all?), just happened to rise quickly through the ranks of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, bag a seat in the House of Lords and become head of the Established Church (guys, it's called the Established Church for a reason - there's a subtle clue in the name).

Of course he's not an establishment figure! How could he be, when he's 'a strong advocate of more modern styles of worship?'

Stubborn, deeply-ingrained inequality and privilege? Hard-to-shift social immobility? A quick spray and polish with Happy-Clappy Anglicanism and you'll immediately spot the difference. Unsightly class divisions become almost invisible. It's like magic!


For ye have the poor always with you; but that's got nothing to the rich keeping all the best stuff for themselves, obviously.

Rejoice, for the twits are back in charge!

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Conspiracies against the laity

I get e-mail from some web marketing outfit:

I help companies push negative reports about their businesses down the Google rankings, replacing them with positive ones.

Or some companies just want their best testimonials to rank highly on Google.

Is this something that you might be interested in?

Yours sincerely,

This disarmingly straight-to-the-point sales pitch to potential clients is a refreshing change from the disingenuous boilerplate issued by the marketing/advertising/public relations industry for public consumption ('with marketing, businesses attempt to inform consumers about the existence of a product or a company, and its benefits','Advertisers seek only to ensure that consumers make informed choices','The public relations industry also has prevented consumer injury and illness, raised awareness of products that have improved our quality of life, advanced worthwhile causes...').

Far from simply informing consumers when somebody's come up with a better mousetrap, the bullshit industry is also in the business of burying bad news and sexing up the faintest glimmer of positivity. It does trade in facts, but facts heavily adulterated by distortion and misinformation.

Adam Smith thought that 'People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices'. George Bernard Shaw boiled this down to 'All professions are conspiracies against the laity.' Although true in part, that's a bit unfair to most trades and professions. After all, people need some form of quality assurance - you wouldn't want to unknowingly buy an unroadworthy car, have your wiring done by an untrained electrician, or be treated by a doctor who flunked medical exams. Most trades and professions can make a case that at least some of the costs they impose and some of barriers they erect to outsiders are justified by the need for reasonable standards. Training and regulation cost money and practitioners are entitled to a fair reward for their skills, or for the quality of their product.

It's harder to mount such a defence when you're talking about a trade that purports to inform the public, but routinely confuses, manipulates and misinforms. Sharp practice in itself is nothing new. People have known for centuries that buyers need to beware. But in the modern world, marketing, adverting and PR have become separate professions, turning bullshit from a mere adjunct to the real business of providing a good or service into a full-time specialisation. A specialisation that looks a lot like a real conspiracy against the laity.

I'm not chiefly worried about this in terms of the continuing arms race between buyers and sellers. Buyers have always had to beware and probably always will. Fact of life. Deal with it. What does worry me is the political arms race between the mercenary bullshit industry, pay rolled by the rich and powerful, and voters.

Thomas Jefferson thought that 'wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government' [my italics]. To modern ears, the tone reeks of patrician condescension, but the central point - that democracy requires not only a choice between alternatives, but an informed choice - is spot on. Hiring in the bullshit noise machine to drown out the still, small voice of reality and create a biddable culture built on paranoia, a distrust of critical thought and a tolerance of lying is the precise opposite of giving people information and choice.

Talk about subversives threatening the democratic process and the image that would probably come to mind would be of tiny bands of militants, radicals or extremists planning direct action in a bedsit somewhere. It seems to me that most of these groups are small fry compared to the well-funded, well-connected professional bullshitters, hired in the hope of subverting the one person, one vote system and delivering a one dollar, one vote outcome to the highest bidder.