Thursday, 31 January 2013

We're putting the 'great' back into Great Britain...

... then taking it out again. I'm worried that this cunning plan might already have been mocked to death. Which is a pity, because a "stay at home, we're rubbish" advertising campaign would give the people already living here a much-needed good laugh.

If they really wanted to keep the Transylvanian hordes away, the bigot whisperers should base their campaign on this Daily Mash parody of the British Citizenship test. If you thought that satire was obsolete, just remember that Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer are still making new episodes of the bizarrely popular Location, Location, Location, instead of being hunted down like dogs by the people who've finally realised the irreparable damage that unrestrained property speculation has done to the British economy and British TV schedules, then think again.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Second Amendment rights and responsibilities

A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
In an alternate universe, where legislators and supporters of the US gun lobby took the Second Amendment to the US Constitution seriously (as opposed to cherry picking the right to wave big guns around, without taking on the responsibility of joining a properly regulated citizen army / gendarmerie), this is how you'd expect the modern United States to look:
Gun politics in the United States are unique in the Americas. The USA does not have a standing army, instead opting for a people's militia for its national defense. The vast majority of citizens between the ages of 20 and 30 are conscripted into the militia and undergo military training, including weapons training. The personal weapons of the militia are kept at home as part of the military obligations; the United States thus has the highest gun ownership rate in the world.
Back in the real world, the security of 21st Century US citizens is overwhemingly looked after by professionals, working at state and federal levels.* So here's a question for die-hard Second Amendment fans. If you like it so much, why don't you go live in Switzerland?**

The irrelevance of the Second Amendment to the security of the actually existing USA and its constituent states, and the inconsistency of its most passionate defenders, are things that bug me as much as the Second Amendment's murky origins as a guarantor of a state's freedom that was also used to suppress the most basic freedoms of much of the population.

*i.e. the regular armed forces and local police departments, along with security-related organisations like the CIA, FBI, NSA, TSA, FDA and all those other other TLAs.  Sure, the USA has a National Guard, but plenty of other countries maintain reserve forces without having anything like the Second Amendment.

** A possible answer to that one is that the sort of people who can't even express their pro-gun arguments coherently in one language would never survive in a polyglot society, even one that looked like a gun-lovers' Utopia.

Hat tip


Update: The phrase 'The vast majority of men between the ages of 20 and 30', as cut 'n pasted from the original Wikipedia article, has been amended to 'The vast majority of citizens between the ages of 20 and 30' to avoid any unintentional sexism.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Smug reblog from a Facebook quitter

If it’d be awkward if it was put on a screen in Times Square, don’t put it on Facebook. Oh, and check your privacy settings again.
People who live in glass houses should consider moving to somewhere a bit more private. Do you really want to stay under constant scrutiny when there's no jailer keeping you locked in the panopticon?


Tuesday, 22 January 2013

My kingdom for a horse! Mmmm ... tasty!

TV chef Clarissa Dickson Wright thinks that the recent outcry over horseflesh in supermarket burgers has less to do with the public feeling cheated out of their advertised ration of mechanically-recovered cow parts than it does with our ancient cultural taboo against eating poor Neddy.

I used to think that the our national aversion to hippophagy might have had something to do with the Normans. After all, William the Bastard's spawn and their cronies in the Norman nobility appropriated huge tracts of England as "royal forests", their own private hunting grounds, and felt so strongly about keeping the plebs out that penalties for poaching included the blinding or castration. If these were the sanctions for filching the odd bit of game, imagine the strop our horse-loving overlords would have got into if hungry Anglo Saxons had dared to butcher one of their beloved destriers or hunting steeds for the pot.

Then I googled it, and found that most authorities seem to think that the taboo had more to do with religious, rather than aristocratic, disapproval. Specifically, Pope Gregory III was apparently keen to stamp out pagan horse-eating rituals among the Germans.

According to Clarissa Dickson Wright, though, the taboo started with an ecclesiastical ban, but not a papal one:
I do think I know why we’re alone in Europe by not eating horse, though. It’s all down to King Alfred. When he was trying to build up his cavalry squadron, he brought in horses from Spain, which were stockier than our own. But the English, much to his annoyance, kept eating them – in those days, horse meat was eaten in large quantities. So he commanded the Archbishop of Canterbury to anathematise the eating of horse. Essentially, if you ate it, you were going to hell. 
So there you have it - a specifically English (Wessex-ish?) ban, enacted by the Primate of All England, at the behest of the Monarch least likely to win Celebrity Great British Bake Off. This raises two possibilities; either:
 a) CDW is citing some apocryphal tale, like the one about King Alfred burning the cakes, or

 b) A lot of the things I thought I knew about the Dark Ages are wrong.
As every well-informed schoolchild knows, in 1066 the Normans had cavalry, but the English fought on foot and William triumphed at Hastings after the English shield-wall broke. Nothing there about King Harold fielding cavalry of any sort. If King Alfred had really introduced a squadron of mounted warriors help see off the Vikings, the idea must have failed to catch on, given the notable lack of cavalry in England a couple of centuries later.

And where did he obtain his bloodstock? In Alfred's time, the larger part of the Iberian peninsula consisted of the Islamic Emirate of Córdoba. I'm guessing that a Christian monarch didn't get Arabian steeds from a Muslim realm engaged in sporadic border warfare with Christendom, as represented by the fracturing Carolingian Empire and the Kingdom of Asturias. Christian Asturias, however, did have mounted warriors of its own by Alfred's time:
At the start of the 9th century Visigothic armies were mostly composed of infantry. They had not yet adopted the Moorish jinete style of fighting. Their cavalry was a small cadre of knights. After the reconquest had moved into the plains south of the Douro River they would begin to have town militias, mostly spearmen and archers, but also including mounted sections of caballeros villanos. It was the caballeros villanos who fought in the Jinete style of the Moors. Asturias continued to have a cadre of armored knights.
If being at war with Viking raiders was enough to cement some sort of alliance with Alfred, the Kingdom of Asturias might have ticked that particular box:
By the mid 9th century the Viking attacked on the coastal Kingdom of Asturias in northwest of Spain. During the reign of Alfonso III Vikings were stifling the already weak threads of sea communications that tied Galicia to the rest of Europe. Raiding continued for the next two centuries. 
CDW's tale's sounding improbable, but possible, so far. But what about the ecclesiastical aspect?

There were two Archbishops of Canterbury during Alfred's reign, Æthelred and Plegmund. According to CDW's own A History of English Food it was Æthelred who came up with the horesemeat ban. But I've not been able to find any other source for her story of an Archbishop ordering the gentis Anglorum to abstain from their unchristian taste for  horsemeat, or any reference to Alfred's army including cavalry.

It's an intriguing story, but from what I've seen so far, I'd trust TV historian Michael Wood to do the history of the Dark Ages and TV chef Clariss Dickson Wright to tell me how to make a rabbit pie, but not vice versa.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Deadly diseases - gotta catch 'em all

Modern parents live in a constant state of asymmetric warfare with the well-resourced, resourceful people who make money from punting tat to kids. We missed the height of the Pokémon ("gotta catch 'em all") craze, but are now fighting a losing battle with Michael Acton Smith, the evil genius who spawned Moshi Monsters.

On line-time spent in the world of Moshi Monsters isn't currently our problem - we've (accidentally, but conveniently) forgotten the password we created when we created The Boy's account in a moment of weakness. It's the real-world incarnation of the characters as collectible/collectable plastic figurines that we're struggling with. According to the definitive publication of record (Moshi Monsters - The Official Collectable Figures Guide, bought with £6.50 worth of Christmas money, but treasured by its owner far above rubies), there are 'over 950 characters!' Nine hundred and bloody fifty.

Having previously experienced the pester power potential unleashed when the owners of the Thomas the Tank Engine franchise decided to multiply the number of branded characters to include a host of additional trains and ancillary vehicles which made only the briefest of appearances in the stories, but immediately became must-have items for every avid junior Thomas fan, we are not amused. That particular fad has long since run its course, but we're still trying to dispose of engine-shedloads of obscure and now unwanted rolling stock on Ebay.

Marketeers, busy moulding the next generation of consumers - don't you just love 'em? Still, at least all Michael Acton Smith has discovered is a way of indirectly parting parents from relatively small increments of disposable income. If he was in the junk food biz, he'd be adding the injuries of premature mortality and avoidable morbidity to the insult of pester power. If ... no, when Moshi Monster-branded fizzy drinks, sugar laden-cereals and salt, saturated fat and poly phosphate-rich mechanically-recovered meat products appear in the supermarkets, I hope Acton Smith loses some sleep over these abominations.

Mind you, if you think any of this is new, or worse than what used to happen, take a look at this collectible item, and think again:
This is what my dad was collecting when he wasn't much older than my son is now. It's Denis Compton from his Player's Cigarettes 1938 collection of trading cards depicting famous cricketers of the day (I still have the complete collection, lovingly stuck into their album - he did catch 'em all). It wasn't just cricketers. Courtesy of Imperial Tobacco (owners of Player's Cigarettes), he also collected and swapped cards depicting 'Hints on Association Football', 'Cycling 1839-1939', speedway riders and railway engines (already popular before the Reverend Awdry unleashed the first of a host of anthropomorphic engines on the world), along with various other themed collections issued by the other big tobacco companies.

Memories of a more innocent, wholesome time when the manufacturers of  'the deadliest artefact in the history of human civilisation' a product that 'killed about 100 million people in the 20th Century' issued trading cards to small children to promote their brands. Hard to believe in an age when cigarette packets are plastered with graphic health warning images and hidden from the impressionable sight of children.

How many people died as an indirect result of learning to "like" cigarette brands as small children? This spring, all being well, I'll be fifty. Dad died of a heart attack before reaching his half century. Whether this was wholly or partly due to growing up in a society where heavily-marketed tobacco products were familiar childhood friends, I'll never know. He was a fairly moderate smoker, fond of a pipe, or occasionally one of those rank little Hamlet cigars (presumably, like Bill Clinton, he didn't inhale - and no bloody wonder, they smelled vile) but he'd more or less given up tobacco in ciggie form before he died, so the jury's out in his case.

By the time I was growing up, I think they must have stopped directly tempting kids with tobacco-related collectibles - at least I don't remember cigarette cards as such. There were still trading cards, of course, but as I recall, they were mostly associated with less questionable products like Brooke Bond or Ty-Phoo tea. Kids hadn't completely kicked the cigarette card habit, though. Although I don't remember actual cigarette cards, I do remember sweet shops still stocking "sweet cigarettes" -sugary white cylinders with a red tip, packaged up like a a pack of real ciggies and generally featuring cigarette card-style trading cards. I also remember coming across chocolate versions, made from the sort of low-grade, tasteless, gritty chocolate generally used for cheap chocolate Christmas novelties.

I didn't collect many cards from sweet cigarette packets - the few surviving collections of aeroplane, dinosaur and space travel trading cards I still have, were issued by tea companies. I do remember collecting a few of these bizarre early '70s "Krazy Kreatures From Outer Space" cards, issued by the Primrose Confectionery Company of Slough (I'm pretty sure they were issued with sweet cigarettes, which Primrose did manufacture, although my old memories aren't 100% reliable and there's an outside chance that they actually came with bubble gum packs):
I never caught 'em all, possibly due to what I thought was subtle parental disapproval (of the subject matter rather than the fact that they came with packets of unwholesome things like sweet cigarettes and/or bubblegum). As an aspirational lower-middle class family there always seemed to be an unspoken pressure steering me in the direction of solid, educational Ladybird / Blue Peter / Look and Learn-style material, as opposed to frivolous stuff like The Beano, Dandy and psychedelic pictures of space monsters painted, no doubt, by drug-crazed hippies. As a thoroughly square kid with swotty aspirations, I capitulated to this perceived pressure without resistance, (although not without a guilty yearning for the wackier world(s) of Krazy Kreatures From Outer Space). If you want to indulge this particular guilty pleasure, there are higher-res reproductions of the Krazy Kreatures on the Monster Brains blog (some of them are very strange) and a reproduction of one the "Astronaut's Guides" from the back of the cards on this Gerry Anderson fan site.

I don't know when sweet cigarettes became less common, but judging from the Space 1999-branded packets, they must have been going up to the end of the 1970s, when Dad's heart finally gave out, possibly due to thirty-odd years of ingesting low levels of tobacco products.

According to Mr Wikipedia, sweet cigarettes have been around since the early 1900s. For all I know, they may have had as little to do with the tobacco industry as liquorice bootlaces have to do with the makers of real shoelaces, but given Big Tobacco's relentless pursuit of every marketing opportunity on earth, I suspect some collusion somewhere down the line. Whether or not they were part of Big Tobacco's conspiracy to recruit new smokers, it's highly likely that they were a bad thing. I say 'were' - they apparently still exist, albeit marketed under the disingenuously innocent-sounding name of "candy sticks".

For whatever reason, sweet ciggies weren't my gateway drug to the real thing and their only legacy to date has been rather too many fillings (I didn't even particularly like them, but having bought the damn things for the trading cards, you had to eat them, obviously). Mind you, maybe my fillings have less to do with sweet consumption than the perverse incentives that used to be given to NHS dentists, whose remuneration used to be directly related to the number of treatments they gave. The temptation to do a bit of not-entirely-necessary drilling to top up the holiday fund must have been huge.

There's no big message to take away from all of this except, perhaps, that marketing is powerful stuff and it will beat up public heath and steal its lunch money, given half a chance. You don't have to be a historian familar with the 1860 Food Adulteration Act to see the harm done by laissez-faire - it's there in living memory. Also, any politician who pops up and bleats about the virtues of "self-regulation" for Big Tobacco, or the the processed food and drinks industry is clearly the lobbyists' bitch, rather than the citizens' friend.

And finally, maybe Moshi Monsters aren't that bad, after all (at least until they get drafted to push junk food to kids). Especially this one:
A child's toy in the form of a masonic/Illuminati/dollar bill-style pyramid, complete with all-seeing eye? And it glows in the dark! Never mind The Boy, that's so cool that I want one. If anybody's wondering what to get me for my 50th birthday, I'll happily settle for a Moshi Monsters Series 1 Halloween Glow In The Dark - Cleo Ultra Rare Orange Moshling Figure. A happy birthday and a novus ordo seclorum to me!

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Voting for dummies

Renee Slater was taken to court over the name Helena Torry being put forward to stand in the May [city council] election.

She was charged under the Representation of the People Act 1983 and went on trial at Aberdeen Sheriff Court this week.

A sheriff ruled there was no case to answer after two days of evidence.

Deputy returning officer Crawford Langley had told the court he had taken nomination papers from the accused an hour before the close of nominations.

Ms Slater was charged with adding a candidate she knew was, in fact, a mannequin.

Speaking after the trial, Mr Langley said he believed the prosecution failed on a technicality.

Mr Langley was subsequently prosecuted for misconduct in public office, wasting the court's time and a gross sense of humour failure (not really, I just wished that lot). The provision of joke electoral candidates is, of course, a useful social service, allowing frustrated people to let off steam without actually doing something really anti-social, like voting for UKIP.

Things have gone badly downhill since the glory days of H'Angus the Monkey.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Takers and makers

Yes, politicians, we've heard the slogans about ‘strivers’ versus ‘skivers.' It's been done to death now, so please move on to less boring distinctions, because it's not fooling anybody with more than two brain cells to rub together. If you really must reduce society to a T-shirt slogan, there are plenty of more telling contrasts. Such as "takers" (like our cabinet of millionaires and their chums in the City) and "makers" (the rest of us):
 We have become, in the United States, and increasingly all over the world, a society with only two classes: Those who own, and those who owe.  

The owners (or “Takers”) own vast wealth, and loan it out at interest to everybody from students to governments.  They’re continually receiving that interest back in ways that are either tax-free or taxed at very low levels.  (Here in the US we call it “capital gains,” “Interest,” “dividends,” and “carried interest.”  While a working person will pay as much as 39% in federal income taxes, the federal income tax to the Mitt Romneys, Paris Hiltons, and Lloyd Blankfeins of the world is now capped at 20%.  As Leona Helmsley famously said, “Only little people pay taxes.”)

The owe-ers - the indebted - find themselves trapped on a lifelong treadmill paying interest and fees to the Takers.  The owe-ers are also mostly the workers, the people who make things (from manufactured goods to hamburgers), and so are rightly called the “Makers.” 
Thom Hartmann

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Love it or leave it

If you like it so much, why don't you go live in Russia, you goddam commie tax exile?


Update - this story just got even better:
The Russian region of Mordovia has invited French actor Gerard Depardieu to set up home there, hours after he received his Russian passport.

Governor Vladimir Volkov said he could choose an apartment or a place to build a house, Interfax news agency reported.

Mordovia is best known for its Stalin-era gulag prison camps.

Mr Depardieu has taken Russian citizenship after the French government criticised his decision to move abroad to avoid higher taxes.

The BBC's Daniel Sandford, in Moscow, says even today harsh prisons are Mordovia's principal employer.
One of the convicted members of the punk band Pussy Riot - Nadezhda Tolokonnikova - is serving her sentence there.

What are the chances of the tax-dodger Deapardieu dropping in on Tolokonnikova to show a bit of artistic solidarity? Having stabbed Marianne in the back and slapped Putin on the back, the answer is probably as close to zero as makes no difference.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

The seeds of growth

Colin Tudge believes that with low-intensity, labour-intensive mixed farming, as opposed to today's input-heavy, non-resilient monocultures, 'everyone who is ever liable to be born could be well fed, forever, not simply on basic provender but to the highest standards of nutrition and gastronomy.' Right or wrong, he comes up with some thought-provoking background:
Worst of all, though—at least in the immediate term—cut-price monocultural farming puts people out of work. That is what it is designed to do. Countries with the fewest farmers are deemed to be the most “advanced”. Britain and the US are the world’s brand leaders, with about one per cent of their workforce full time on the land. Both eke out their rural workforce with immigrant labour of conveniently dubious legal status who can be seriously underpaid—but we don’t talk about that, and in any case that’s the market, and the market must rule. In the US, there are more people in jail than fulltime on the land. In both countries, prisons are a major growth industry.
We're already enjoying the benefits of a totally sustainable economy driven by the needs of innovative debt farmers, so why not celebrate this diversification into convict farming? After all, crime - like massive levels of inequality and crippling levels of personal debt - can't be a bad thing, so long as it provides a reliable income stream for our wealth creators. Who says crime doesn't pay?

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

A million, million people are happy, bright and gay!

[Michael Buerk] expressed dismay and disdain at the state of Britain in general. It was, he said, a society becoming more divided with each passing year; a lonelier and more unequal society where social mobility "hasn't just seized up" but in 2012 had actually gone "into reverse".

More people were financially squeezed, while "senior executives pay soars and, even at the top of public service organisation such as the BBC, fortunes are flung at failures"...

A third of the House of Commons went to public schools. So did nine out of 10 judges and one in three medical students.

"The arts, low and high, are dominated by them. The BBC is a private-school old boys' and girls' association. They edit most newspapers, even the Leftish Daily Mirror and the Guardian", he wrote...

The truth was that the summer was an illusion. "We are not a united kingdom, we are not 'all in this together'". 
Splendidly curmudgeonly stuff. I'm not quite sure about Buerk's idea for curing for the nation's post-Jubilympic hangover, though:
Turning to 2013, Buerk said it was "not just seasonally appropriate but wonderfully paradoxical" that "redemption" from the pervasive gloom would come in the form of a royal baby.

"What the Olympics was to 2012, the royal heir… will be to 2013,' he wrote. "Maybe the BBC will even get its title right".
Full rant in The Guardian

Buerk despairs of living in a sclerotic, hierarchical society, where a child's life chances depend less on her or his talents and capacity for hard work than on being born to the right parents. It would be a great antidote, he thinks, to focus our attention on celebrating of the birth of a Very Important Person whose relative importance is entirely due to an accident of parentage. Hmmm... Because, as any fule kno, big events like a royal baby, the Jubilee or the Olympics are far more important to your inner well-being that anything you might do for yourself.

I know I'm in danger of being labelled a whinging killjoy here. To show that I'm not opposed to widespread jollity on principle, I'll close with the joyful celebration of a VIP nativity from the Bonzos:

Add that to your playlist if you find yourself having a bad heir day. And a royal babytastic 2013 to you all.