Friday, 31 January 2014

I get (ironic) e-mail

Here's one weird new marketing trick you've probably never heard of (delivered, ironically, through the amazing new medium of bulk e-mail):
E-MAIL - the first communication medium of the 21st century!
Gain customer loyalty - Prospect new markets - Expand your brand - Increase sales via e-mail!
Goodness me, whatever will they think of next? The 21st Century sounds way more exciting than wherever the hell I've been for the last fourteen years. Count me in! Where do I sign?

Sadly, just when I'm all fired up, another bulk e-mailer comes along to point out the fatal flaw in the otherwise excellent plan of spraying bulk e-mails in every direction:
Hi, my name is Alec.
I didn’t want to cold call your business as we all find that annoying...
Good point. I can see how that might happen.
...but I was hoping it would be possible to arrange a quick chat? I suspect you receive many generic emails offering business services, meaning I need to stand out. 
Sorry, Alec, you lost me at 'we all find that annoying'.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Look at the size of that thing!

'That thing' being Deutsche Bank's exposure to derivative risk (compared, in this graph, to another big thing, namely the gross domestic product of Germany):
'That thing' looks terrifyingly huge, especially to the blogger from whose post I lifted this graph:
So imagine you are a large bank with huge derivatives business much of which covers bets in your equally large Foreign Exchange business. Essentially that boat in which you are hoping you can ‘net out’ about 70 Trillion dollar’s worth of derivatives positions is now being bounced about by several large storms...
...derivatives are, as Warren Buffett said, very dangerous. Deutsche is sitting on the world’s biggest pile of them and J P Morgan the second biggest pile. And right now global events are making those risks sweat... ...We are , I think, circling around another Morgan Stanley moment.
The post is, by the writer's own admission, 'circumstantial and speculative' (if the speculation is correct, the story will be coming to a newspaper front page near you some time soon). Even if it's dead wrong this time, it makes you wonder why everyone's so obsessed with deficit fetishism (in the case of the US and UK, the deficit was around 6% of GDP at the back end of last year). The entire UK national debt is under 90% of GDP.

According to the graph, the derivatives exposure of one German bank is somewhere North of 2,000% of the country's entire GDP. Is everybody absolutely sure that a big chunk of that exposure won't ever go pear-shaped some time and that event can't cause either, a) a global banking collapse, or b) national governments to be hit for yet more economy-busting multi-trillion dollar bailouts?

If not, why is deficit reduction apparently priority numero uno across the - admittedly narrow - mainstream political spectrum and complacency about too big to fail seemingly becoming the new normal?

You don't need to be a conspiracy theorist to be very afraid of something that big, given what a mere cock-up might do:

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

To infinity and beyond, via Milton Keynes

So this guy in Milton Keynes has a project to turn the spaceships from the Sci-Fi paperback covers of my youth into impressively detailed models, an artform guaranteed to bring joy to members of generation Thunderbirds. His first model is based on Colin Hay's artwork for a James Blish novel, Star Dwellers.

Colin Hay's style of illustration irresistibly calls to mind the insanely detailed, brightly-coloured craft created by that giant of Sci-Fi book cover art, Chris Foss, so a lot of us would be delighted to see Foss's designs getting the Grant Louden treatment, too (come to think of it, Chris Foss also did the original illustrations for The Joy of Sex, so ... no, let's not go there).

And apparently, Chris Foss is up for it, although he might have reason be wary about artworks "inspired by Chris Foss", given what happened when one Glenn Brown, A Serious Artist, made a bigger hyper realist reinterpretation copy of a Foss original and declared the copy to be 'serious art', (it must be 'serious art' because it's been made by A Serious Artist, who must be A Serious Artist, because he says he's A Serious Artist...). The hyper realist reinterpretation copy sold for £3.1 million at Christie's.

Grayson Perry said 'In art, seriousness is the most important currency' and, at an exchange rate of £3.1 million for one great big knock-off with added artybollocks, I wouldn't argue. I hope Grant Louden, who seems to have Chris Foss and the other artists who've inspired him fully on board, makes a decent fraction of that sort of money, although I expect he's not quite Serious enough.

Images © Colin Hay and Grant Louden, I guess, (unless you're A Serious Artist).


Tuesday, 28 January 2014

All the bigotry you love, but without all the Jews

In The Spanish Holocaust, Paul Preston's harrowing account of the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War and the ideologies that spawned them, there's an interesting account of how, in the run-up to the Civil War, the right-wing Spanish press fabricated a "Jewish problem" in Spain, based on dodgy anecdotes from far-right groups and made-up stuff from The Protocol of the Elders of Zion. The contemporary Jewish population of Spain was tiny, as it had been ever since Ferdinand and Isabella expelled Spain's Jews in 1492. However, as, Preston comments, 'Spanish "anti-Semitism without Jews" was not about real Jews but was an abstract construction of a perceived international threat'.

This stuff happened a lifetime ago, but the abstract construction of threats sounds disturbingly contemporary. The lunatic fringe's attempts to rehabilitate specifically anti-Semitic tropes, (like Jewish conspiracy theories and the Fascist salute or "quenelle" as the post-makeover variant's called), are obvious, but uninteresting examples.

A far more interesting parallel is the the continued existence of mainstream, well-funded Public Relations machines within respectable political parties, the media and think tanks, routinely tasked with re-framing the political agenda by the selective deployment of resentful bigotry. First, identify a small, unpopular and powerless group of people. Next, dig for every speck of dirt you can find about the scapegoat du jour, inflate your molehill of dirt into a perceived mountain and shamelessly make stuff up. Point to the smear you've concocted, than shout "look over here!" very loudly over and over and over again.

The tactical aim is to engage news consumers' insecurities and resentments into a virtually fact-free, but emotionally tasty narrative, crafted to push the people's rational-thought-suppressing hot buttons, whilst uniting the faithful against a common enemy. Delivery is achieved by giving your simple message the same level of exposure and repetition you'd give to an ad campaign for fat-free yogurt, only repurposed to shift the news agenda towards exaggerated and made-up panics about immigrants, terrorists, or a "scrounging" underclass.

The strateigic aim is, presumably, to direct attention and blame away from a ruthless, corrupt establishment, busy rolling back past progress towards a more just and equitable society, grabbing power, and stuffing money from the poor back into the already-bulging pockets of the very rich, whilst giving angry fellow-travellers a safe outlet for their seething resentment.

In proper Marxist style, this process happened the first time as tragedy and and it's coming back again as something approaching farce. The scale of the brutal, starvation-level poverty and the large-scale extreme violence involved in the Spanish conflict is almost unimaginable in even the most austerity-blitzed parts of Europe today. But the broad pattern of reaction is being repeated in subtler ways - a power grab by a ruthless overclass, recovering lost ground (this time, by using sheer economic clout and lawfare rather than exemplary violence), with cover provided by the soft power of agenda-setting PR.

In the 1930s, it was virtually fact-free anti-Semitic rants derived from conspiracy-minded White Russian exile groups, priests obsessed with the imaginary influence of secret societies and journals like Acción Española feeding the zeal of the conspirators and the hysteria of the right-wing press. Today, the farcical version is delivered by policy wonks and think tanks like Migration Watch, churning out a relentless diet of half-truths and downright lies, calibrated to appeal to people's worst instincts, parroted (with added inaccuracies and exaggerations) by churnalists on rags like the Daily Mail.  The propagandists' job of "starting a conversation" is complete once the manufactured "debate" is dutifully reported by the BBC and other relatively unbiased media sources.

To give the Devil his due, the disinformers were and are reasonably clever in selecting their targets. First you've got to find some genuine resentment and prejudice, the irritating grain of sand needed to seed your pearl of prejudice. As any bully will tell you, it helps to pick a victim who's weaker than you are, preferably one without too many friends, especially beefy ones who might thump you back. The clever PR trick is to attack a mouse, but convince the public you're fighting a rogue elephant. Slander a victim who can't fight back then you can pick and choose how the fight progresses - you can present your scapegoat as a scary existential threat when you want to use fear to keep the public on side, or give it a good kicking to demonstrate your own "toughness", should you need an achievement to trumpet.

It reminds me of the old story about the woman who boards a train, and finds herself sitting opposite a man reading a newspaper. Every time he finishes a page, he tears it from the paper, rolls it into a ball and throws it out of the train window. Puzzled, the woman asks the reason for this odd behaviour.

‘To keep the elephants away,’ the man replies.

‘But there are no elephants here,’ the woman says.

‘See!’ says the guy, ‘It works.’

It's funny* when it's just some oddball on a train doing it, rather less so when half the news agenda seems to consist of an endless, farcical debate about the best way to repel imaginary elephants.

*for a given value of "funny"


Friday, 24 January 2014

Comment is Judenfrei

For the president of an oil-rich, human rights-poor theocracy in search of a public relations re-launch, an invitation to hang out with world leaders, plutocrats and Bono at Davos is like a Gok Wan image makeover for tyrants. Jeffrey Goldberg was unimpressed by the emperor's new clothes:
In the course of the latest iteration of their charm offensive, [the Iranian regime have] made some inadvertently hilarious statements. My favorite might be this tweet yesterday that came from Rouhani’s account (which is apparently managed by aides): “Terrorism will come back to haunt those who sponsor it.If a govt thinks it can topple another govt by supporting terrorists, it's 100% wrong.”

This is from the president of a country that sits on the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, and that supplies skilled terrorists, financing and arms to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has turned Syria into hell itself. Iran also funds and supplies a Lebanese militia, Hezbollah, that murders its political rivals and is responsible for terrorist acts around the globe...

Another candidate for most galling statement made by an Iranian leader comes from Rouhani’s Twitter account last week: “Our relationship w/ the world is based on Iranian nation’s interests. In #Geneva agreement world powers surrendered to Iranian nation’s will.” This tweet was deleted by unknown hands -- it was probably seen as a bit too pushy (or a bit too close to the truth) by the Iranian foreign ministry.

Rouhani managed to be both impudent and on-message today in his address at Davos, where he announced “that one of the theoretical and practical priorities of my government is constructive engagement with the world.” By “world,” of course, he did not mean Israel, a member-state of the United Nations that Iran is seeking to annihilate. And he didn't seem to be referring to Iran’s many Arab neighbors, which the Iranian government has been seeking to destabilize and undermine for three decades.
Non-racists might disagree with Jeffrey Goldberg on several more or less reasonable grounds.You might, for example, argue that when dealing with a hideous regime, it's better to make concessions to the arguably less evil bastards, in the hope that they'll displace the completely evil bastards, rather than disengaging and giving the completely evil bastards no incentive to be less evil.

You could argue that the West's already perfectly happy to do business with vile, oil-rich regimes, like Iran's regional rival, Saudi Arabia, so boycotting Iran is a bit hypocritical. You might think that diplomacy, even with bastards, is better than the sort of confrontaion that leads to bombs being dropped on the innocent. You could argue that West inadvertently created the monstrous Iranian regime, by toppling Mosaddegh and installing a tyrant whose excesses triggered the Iranian revolution, so, like Dr. Frankenstein the policy wonks have a duty to make the best of their hideous creation, rather than rejecting it so completely that it goes off on a murderous, despairing rampage.

You could say that Jeffrey Goldberg's views are discredited by his previous hawkish support for a policy that resulted in the USA failing to catch a terrorist who attacked America, in favour of attacking a country which had nothing to do with the attack, on the basis of intelligence that always looked flaky and subsequently proved to be false.

Those are some of the ways a reasonable person might disagree. Quite a few of the comments on Goldberg's piece took a rather different tack. The first comment, (since deleted) was something along the lines of 'how dare you publish this vomit', which gives you some idea of the tone, but the real doozy hasn't been deleted at the time of writing:
Judges routinely recuse themselves from cases with less than obvious conflict of interest. Ethnic Jewish columnists should consider recusal when it comes to issues such as the Iranian Nuclear Agreement. No one outside the born again Bible thumpers in the U. S. take your comments seriously. Mr. Goldberg is nothing more than an apologist for the reactionaries currently in power in the Israeli government. The Israelis are no longer even pretending there will be a two party state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian issue and most of the world realizes it. I don't believe there is much more traction left in invoking history in the form of the regrettable Holocaust tragedy. Enough is enough. The Israelis and their apologists want to keep the U. S. in conflict with the Muslim word forever and, hopefully, bogged down in a war somewhere in a Muslim country. Ironically, virtually no one who professes to be Jewish serves in the current U. S. military. 
Yes, you read it right, this doofus (who apparently goes by the name of G Gibson), wants to racially profile journalists who write comment pieces, in order to weed out any Jews who might want to comment on the Middle East. Screenshot at the end of this post, in case this comment eventually gets deleted and, like me, you couldn't quite believe your eyes. Bonus fail points for mentioning that the Holocaust was 'regrettable', as if saying that somehow makes you look like less of a bigot. In the annals of 'I'm not racist, but...' the stupid is right up there with the Quenelle, that pitiful, half-cocked version of Dr Strangelove's poorly-repressed sieg heil salute, currently popular with anti-Semitic morons everywhere.

Unbelievably depressing.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Hydro-dynamic action plan

The Mash does it better, again.

In this case, G4S bullshit bingo + water cannon = comedy gold.

We are not worthy.


Update - although even the Mash would find it hard to top the sacasm in this opening sentence:
Those reliable people at G4S continue to deliver their accustomed Olympian standards of efficiency in the profitable-incarceration boondoggle. 
Well done, that man.

Laissez faire with added moral fibre

Behavioural economics is nothing but Victorian morality passed down, through figures like Edgeworth, to the modern age. What is laughed at in the works of the Victorian moralists is codified into foreboding and difficult to understand terminology in behavioural economics. But it is all the same thing. It is a program that seeks to domesticate mankind and destroy what the vast majority of people hold dear.

And what is the great irony of this program? Namely, that it will be rejected by the marketplace. Where the behaviourists’ ideas may find practitioners in the more authoritarian halls of government the marketplace will continue to sell dreams of breaking boundaries, pushing extremities and engaging in short-term pleasures.
Philip Pilkington. The only thing I'd disagree with is the idea that people are still laughing at the works of Victorian moralists. That may have been true in the 1960s and '70s, when we thought we'd finally said goodbye and good riddance to the workhouse morality of the "undeserving poor", but nobody's laughing now. Specific words like "improvident" may have fallen out of fashion, but the self-satisfied, paternalistic finger-wagging tone adopted by our political and journalistic thought leaders echoes some of the most complacent platitudes ever to come down from a Victorian pulpit, or the self-serving blather of some Nineteenth century mill owner setting the world to rights over brandy and cigars.

Looking back, it seems that the dominant  ideology that replaced the post-war consensus was always an uneasy mixture of market fundamentalism and moralising, although the moralising has had to adapt to survive. It started off with the socially conservative Moral Majority and Margaret Thatcher's "Victorian values" but, at least in this country, some aspects have been mugged by reality and have had to be adjusted.

For example, we do still laugh at Victorian sexual attitudes, so measures like Section 28 are no longer part of the programme and nobody today is likely to repeat the own goal of John Major's "Back to Basics" campaign, derailed, in large part, by the sexual incontinence of his own ministers. To be fair, the re-launch was intended to be about more than sexual morality, but it's a fact of life that the press aren't necessarily fair and if you think they gave Major a monstering, that's nothing to the one they'd have given him, had his affair with Edwina Currie (link NSFW, or for anywhere else, really) come to light while he was in office.

So today's moralisers pick their way more carefully and pick on the targets it's still safe to bully, the poor, organised labour, (now safely neutered by the effect of several recessions and anti-union legislation) and suspect outsiders (the Victorians had fits of the vapours over the morals of pogrom-fleeing Jews  and imagined depravity in Chinese opium dens;* we've got "bogus" asylum seekers and Romanian immigrants to get all hot and bothered about).

And when they're not loudly condemning from their media pulpits, they've got the Nudge Unit and useful idiots like Jamie Oliver on tap, because we can always trust in the Invisible Hand, but we can't trust the lower orders who, like children or savages, don't know what's good for them and are prone to waste their pittance on dog food and tattoos, instead of the wholesome lentil and polenta diet preached by their betters.

In the USA, the moralising part of the project seems to have hit some turbulence, due to its capture by Tea Party extremists determined, Canute-like, to turn back the tide of social change, rather than selectively adapting to it, but there's still enough pontificating about on both sides of the Atlantic to induce head-splitting cognitive dissonance. We're supposed to be thrifty, responsible and industrious in an economy which is fuelled by aspiration, debt and the advertising-primed gratification of whims and to believe in the market in an age of massive subsidies to the finance sector and the outsourcing-led ballooning of corporations which grow fat on government contracts. A conflict which Pilkington sees as a bug, although it may also be a feature of the noise machine.

*A moral panic which, given that Britain fought wars in order to profit from selling opium to the Chinese, elevated Victorian hypocrisy to an art form.

Monday, 20 January 2014

David Silvester and the problem of evil

David Silvester, the (now ex-)UKIP councillor has inadvertently added to the gaiety of the nation with his idiosyncratic notion that same-sex marriage causes flooding (much ensuing hilarity in the Twittersphere and the Mash). Silvester's insecurity-driven need to establish his own status by identifying and attacking an out group is a necessary, but not sufficient explanation for his outburst.

As Tom Holland mentioned on the radio this morning, theology filled in the gaps. If the existence of a deity who is all-powerful and all-wise, but who also refrains from preventing disaster and suffering is central to your world view, then you have to carry out some mental gymnastics to reconcile his goodness and all-powerfulness with the various disasters afflicting the world. One way to reconcile God's loving omnipotence with his apparent indifference is to conclude that, since God can do no wrong, anybody who falls victim to an Act of God must clearly have deserved it.

Which at least has a sort of internal logic although, as Holland pointed out, Silvester failed to explain why God chose to smite Cornwall with His watery wrath, but spare Old Compton Street.

This poses something of a problem for the majority of nicer, saner theists out there. The Silvesters of this world can at least point to a simple, understandable explanation for life's apparent random unfairness. If you're nicer and more sophisticated, but still hold on to the when-good-deities-do-bad-things model of existence, you're forced into more convoluted mutterings about God moving in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform, which is all well and good, but doesn't provide a narrative which is much simpler, or more satisfying than the non-believer's assumption of an indifferent universe where shit just happens.

I'm more than happy to be living in a time when Silvester's simple-but-wrong explanations are on the lunatic fringe, rather than in the mainstream, but I suspect that it's that loss of that explanatory certainty and simplicity that's partly behind the continuing decline in religious belief in this country.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Cleansing the streets

Turkish police have used tear gas and water cannon to disperse hundreds of protesters in Istanbul and Ankara.

The demonstrations were over a proposed government law to increase controls on internet usage. The controversial bill will give the government the authority to keep records of all user activities for up to two years.

One of the main barriers to Turkey's accession to the European Union is a failure to protect fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and assembly.*

Here in Britain, we've already got the Great Firewall of Cameron, mass surveillance and the slow throttling of our rights of assembly and protest. Unlike the Erdogan government, the British authorities can't just take one look at people exercising our cherished right to protest freely subversive troublemakers and decide to wash them off the streets with high-pressure water cannon - yet.

I'm imagining the gargoyle above with a shaggy mop of unkempt blond hair and seeing Boris Johnson's intended monument to posterity.

*Not that the EU seems to be taking those fundamental rights very seriously, when they can be suspended at a whim in order to spare EU officials from having to witness the catastrophic consequences of their own policies.

Image from Gordon Marino's Flikr stream


Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Hoggart's Law

Almost every line reflects the law of the ridiculous reverse, which states that if the opposite of a statement is plainly absurd, it was not worth making in the first place.

"An economy where people who work hard are properly rewarded", or in the least gracious alternative, "an economy crafted to benefit lazy skivers who would rather watch Jeremy Kyle than turn an honest hand".

"Reduce the burden of excessive regulation" or "tie up business with yet more red tape".

"A fairer society that rewards people who work hard" or alternatively "an unjust society that rewards bent bankers and speculators". Oh, hold on, that's what we've got. So perhaps there really is a policy change there.
The late Simon Hoggart on the state opening of parliament, 2013. Lots of people posted their "best of" quotes when he died, just over a week ago. I'm late, because so much of his best stuff was so intensely topical that it's bound to date and I've only just come up with* something that also speaks to posterity. Others have mocked specific examples of the law of the ridiculous reverse, but Simon Hoggart deserves kudos for identifying it as a general principle.

The 'law of the ridiculous reverse' is a great mental filter for sifting out distracting, content-free mom-and-apple-pie platitudes. Ruthlessly redact this rubbish and any remaining residue of actual fact and information** might be worth thinking about. It deserves a snappier title, though. Call it "Hoggart's Law" and it merits memehood as surely as Poe's law, Godwin's law, or Hanlon's razor.

The sort of inanities covered by Hoggart's law deserve to die in fire. If they don't, all those hard working families will be condemned to spend the rest of eternity pushing the politicians' rhetorical boulder uphill. Isn't it about time they had a rest?

*h/t Radio 4's Word of Mouth

**How about a memorial prize for the first person who can find a speech, press release or mission statement so completely devoid of substance that no meaningful information remains, once every statement that falls foul of Hoggart's Law has been deleted? If somebody could stump up some decent prize money, that should concentrate a few minds.

Higher bankers' salaries? Fine by me.

The Treasury had already launched a separate legal challenge arguing against the EU's right to set any limits on banking bonuses at all, saying that such intervention could lead to an increase in base pay and undermine financial stability.
How is this a problem? Why would anybody see a move to a form of remuneration that no longer encourages a few individuals to take insane risks that will seriously damage everybody except the risk takers as a bug, rather than a feature? Why are politicians and the commentariat queueing up to lecture the National Health Service* about Goodhart's law and the downside of target cultures, but not the banks?

Could it have anything to do with power, influence and self-interest?

Banker's pay - it's not about the politics of envy. It's about the collateral damage to the rest of us, stupid.

*These things do apply to the NHS, too, but it wasn't the NHS that blew up the economy.

Update ... one last, exasperating, thing. Controlling bankers' bonuses could 'undermine stability?!?!' Because the existing system of incentives has been such a major contributor to the stability of the economy that we shouldn't even think about reforming it, obviously... 

Droning on

Augustine's Law no. 16 states that defence budgets grow linearly but the unit cost of a new military aircraft grows exponentially, therfore:
In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one tactical aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3½ days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.
Because I wibbled that cost and capability problems might get the F-35 do-anything combat aircraft project downgraded or cancelled which, in turn, might lead to air forces deploying a lot more drones a lot more quickly, in the certain knowledge that someone out there would have said some of it more wittly, with citations and a graph.

Others aren't convinced, although the scepticism seems to be directed towards the sort of high-end drones that might supplant something like an F-35, as opposed to the less capable types already operating in areas where local air defences are weak to nonexistent (or have been told to look the other way), a distinction missing from a lot of media drone punditry.

Graph created by Autopilot under this Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Party like it's 1697

An Afghan citizen has been granted asylum in the UK for religious reasons - because he is an atheist... Lawyers ... said the man's return to Afghanistan could result in a death sentence under Sharia law as an apostate - someone who has abandoned their religious faith - unless he remained discreet about his atheist beliefs. 

Which must have embarrassed those politicians and officials who'd have preferred to show off how tough* they are by rubber stamping the word "bogus" on the poor man's forehead, before abandoning him to the mercy of the first idiot fanatic who fancies killing an infidel. Not to mention anyone claiming that the Yanks and Brits are getting out of Afghanistan because their nation-building mission has been successfully accomplished, rather than because they're cutting their losses.

According to the Islamic calendar, the current year is 1435AH, which translates to 2014 AD in the Gregorian calendar. At least it does in most countries where religion has been tamed into something reasonably civilised, if woolly-minded. In Afghanistan and six other states, the equivalent calendar's only got up to 1697.**

*Not that there's anything very big, clever, or special about that sort of "toughness" - we have all strength enough to support the misfortunes of others, as somebody once said. Update - it looks as if some officials may also have been disappointed to miss out on the incentives of shopping vouchers and bonus holiday entitlements, which are apparently being dished out to encourage staff to get refugees sent back to places where human rights abusers can conveniently torment, torture, or kill them.

**Actually, worse than 1697. They had Thomas Aikenhead killed for blasphemy, whereas there are still seven countries where you don't even have to blaspheme - just being an unbeliever makes you guilty and worthy of death.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Crystal balls

Or why the Large Hadron Collider is a colossal waste of time and money, Part 2. Because, using just a small piece of shiny rock, those boffins at CERN could have discovered everything worth knowing about our Multiverse and found out what happened before the Big Bang:
Crystal Cap Amethyst assists in exploring the multitude forms that life encompasses, not just the physical and material reality. It connects you to the immensity of life and attunes you to the most profound guidance. Crystal Cap Amethyst takes you into civilzations not as firmly corporeal as present one. You connect to Lemuria and live beyond the stars in other galaxies and universes, bringing back the wisdom and skills you garnered there. The stone conveys you to the start of our present universe and beyond to experience what went before.
With more New Age wibble than you can shake a dowsing rod at, The Crystal Bible 3, by Judy Hall, (an authority on 'spiritual development ... crystal healing, karmic astrology and past life therapy' no less) retails at £13.99 although, if you were to take its cosmological, archaeological and therapeutic claims seriously, its true price would be far above rubies (which are, apparently, most effective when embedded in a matrix of granite - 'The powerful lifeforece of Ruby or Garnet is magnified and focused by its granite matrix. It assists the transport of Qi around the body, energizing every cell. Excellent for repairing a broken heart, physically or psychologically').

My son has a copy of The Crystal Bible 3, a well-meaning present from somebody who knew that he was interested in rocks, minerals and gems, but failed to notice that TCB3 has less to do with mineralogy and geology then with such esoterica as 'karmic incrustations', 'high vibration energy', 'etheric blueprints' and out of body experiences.

Fortunately there are still plenty of books containing Actual Facts about rocks, minerals and gemstones (how they are formed, what they are made of, where they are found, the Mohs scale and so on). Rocks and Minerals, by Dan Green is especially good at summarising this stuff in a format likely to appeal to a seven-year-old. It's also way cheaper than TCB3, at a very reasonable £6.99:

Sunday, 12 January 2014


Ukippers, Migration Watch, the mainstream media and mainstream politicians all agree that Something Must Be Done about immigration. Not because it is a big issue ('The beneficial effect in the UK was small but measurable') but because people believe it's a big issue and it would be rude and unfeeling to question people's deeply-held beliefs due to some trivial detail like a lack of evidence.

Now that the hegemony of the reality-based community is finally starting to crumble I, for one, welcome our new touchy-feely overlords. But let us not, in our joy at the ascendancy of enlightened respect for all beliefs, forget those less fortunate people around the world whose strongly-held beliefs are still not being respected. According to a recent poll, 36% of Americans believe in UFOs (with 35% disbelieving and 29% sitting on the fence). Unbelievably, the Obama administration has taken no action whatsoever to recognise and reflect public concerns about the Serious Issue of alien visitation.

I urge you all to remember that the majority of American citizens who give a damn about the issue, sincerely believe that The Truth Is Out There and to demand that their evidence-free beliefs should be allowed to inform the national conversation and to drive the administration's future policy decisions. At the very least, Fox News should launch an in-depth investigation into the way the liberal media has ignored the issue. Perhaps they could borrow one of our leading public service broadcasters to look into the shocking conspiracy of silence.

Friday, 10 January 2014

When in a hole, stop digging

As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his ... For him, it’s all about getting out.
wrote former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, like all of this was a bad thing. I'm with Mustang Bobby who recognises a refreshing piece of sound judgement when he sees it:
Yeah, and…? It wasn’t Mr. Obama’s war, the strategies weren’t working, Karzai has proven to be a world-class jerk, and getting the hell out of there was the plan all along. President Bush, the guy who invaded it in the first place, had set up a timeline for withdrawal, and President Obama had campaigned on it. 

After more than twelve years of intervention by world's most powerful military, al-Qaeda is gone, but the Taliban manged to survive, fight the US, NATO and the Afghan government to a stalemate in 2010 and they still remain in control of some areas, including Helmand.

President Karzai, seeing the writing on the wall, has been trying to tempt the Taliban into peace negotiations ever since, but they're still confident enough to play hard ball - 'The Afghan Taliban have a principled stance that they do not recognise the government in Kabul and the constitution' said an adviser to the Pakistani Prime Minister, who's recently been trying to broker peace talks.

The initial mission, to get al-Qaeda out of the country, was quietly accomplished in 2008 (well, more or less)* while we were all being distracted by the spectacle of the global financial system imploding, but not before it had been superseded by an extended mission (nation building). Nation building ran out of steam in 2010 and no longer looks achievable, even to the optimists who ignored the discouraging example of every previous foreign intervention in Afghanistan.

Under the circumstances, there's no option that doesn't look horrible, but getting out at least looks better than the sunk cost option - sending more people out to die, not because there is any plausible prospect of winning, but because it would be an insult to the dead and bereaved to give up now.

I'm happy that there are leaders prepared to question the proposition that sending yet more people to die is always the best way to honour those who have already fallen.

I'm reminded of the culture wars being fought over the upcoming Great War commemorations, with Michael Gove desperate to convince people that the First World War, despite its squalid origins in dynastic and imperial rivalries, myriad unintended consequences, strategic blunders, terrible waste of life and failure to secure a sustainable and lasting peace wasn't 'a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.'

Although the Afghan war was almost entirely unlike the Great War in terms of origins, war aims, scale and consequences, the accusation that it was 'a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite' fits rather well, from the initial nurturing of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, by the USA, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as pawns in their Cold War/regional Great Game, via the bizarre decision to go off and start a war of choice with Iraq at the precise moment when American forces had their hands full trying to get rid of al-Qaeda and Bin Laden in Afghanistan, to the hubristic self-confidence of a new elite, who'd decided that 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality', when a brief examination of the British Empire's  intervention in Afghanistan should have alerted them to the fact that even empires sometimes get mugged by reality.

In terms of warfare, I'm rather glad to be living in 2014, when politicians are keen to get out of grinding wars of attrition, rather than 1914, when politicians and generals seemed determined to carry on to the last drop of somebody else's blood.

If only our current rulers were as keen to to change course when it comes to disastrous adventures in political economy which, for many, are getting to look like the continuation of warfare by other means:
When you have a quarter of the population unemployed... people are starving. We have food lines in Athens. We haven't seen things like that since the forties, since the time of the [German] occupation.
From 2012, but the underlying reality of German and French banks who filled their boots with "risky" high-yielding Greek debt being bailed out until Greece is bled dry continues, despite the all the Eurozone recovery hype.

* A success qualified by the massive own goal of getting them into a country where they didn't previously exist (Iraq).

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Blood and soil versus treasure

Actually, do you know what, I'd rather we weren't slightly richer and I'd rather we had communities that felt more united and I'd rather have a situation where young, unemployed British people had a realistic chance of getting a job ... So, yes, I do think the social side of this matters more than pure market economics.
Froggy Farage, the Kermit of the 19th hole, proving that not all right-wingers are market fundamentalists. I can't see such views going down very well with the CBI.

I'd happily raise a glass to Froggy's communitarian spirit if it wasn't for a suspicion, bordering on certainty, that Ukip-friendly communities would be the sort of stifling, creepily tight-knit places where strangers would soon feel really uncomfortable, probably with good reason (remember the pub called The Slaughtered Lamb from An American Werewolf in London?).

To the example and terror of others is manifest, that you are guilty airt and pairt of horrid blasphemy, railling against and cursing our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and impugneing and denying the truth of the holy Scriptures, and the quarrelling and argueing against the being of God and against his providence in making and governing the world, which being found by the verdict of an Assize, you ought to be punished by death, and the confiscation of your moveables, to the example and terror of others to committ the lyke in tyme coming.
From the indictment against Thomas Aikenhead who, on the eighth of January 1697, became the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy.

Public prosecutions for blasphemy continued in Britain until 1922, when John William Gott was the last person in Britain to be sent to prison for behaviour considered likely to annoy a supenatural being.

The common-law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were finally abolished in England and Wales under the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. It's been so long since a successful prosecution for blasphemy in Scotland that some legal commentators believe it's no longer a crime north of the border, either. Blasphemy and blasphemous libel are still offences under the common law of Northern Ireland.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Management euphemism of the day

In a radio interview this morning, a spokesperson for security company G4S, described a serious disturbance at HM Prison Oakwood, in which a number of prisoners apparently refused to be locked-down, as 'an incident of concerted indiscipline.'

Why use two or three syllables ('riot/near riot') when ten will do?

Friday, 3 January 2014

BBC Today not criticised for 'pro-establishment tosh' chosen by top banker

With no apologies at all to the Torygraph
The BBC has escaped criticism for allowing Radio Four’s flagship Today programme, to run a series of uncritical items defending bank bonuses and the rightist managerialist ideology of "leadership" described as a 'pro-establishment tosh.'

Astroturfers failed to flood Twitter, the social media website, with complaints about the selection of contributors for the special edition of radio programme, which was “guest edited” by Antony Jenkins, the banker curently in charge of Barclays. 

Among them were Old Etonian former oil company executive and Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, Justin Urquhart-Stewart, the fund manager, Helena Morrisey, chief executive of Newton Investment Management and Larry Kantor, head of research at Barclays.

Archbishop Welby, in a self-congratulatory rant about the importance of leadership, claimed that there were strong similarities between leadership of a bank and of the Church of England, without any balancing response. The Archbishop and Mr Jenkins agreed, with no apparent irony, that they shared views on 'where banks need to go'.

MPs from left and right led the apathetic response. John Whittingdale, chairman of the House of Commons’ Culture, Media and Sport committee, couldn't be arsed to ask why Jenkins had been allowed to edit the programme, which is normally known for its high-brow political content.

He didn't say: 'Why did the BBC consider that Antony Jenkins is equipped to edit the Today programme, even on guest basis? He is not someone who has any knowledge, or involvement or experience, of the world outside the socially useless financial services bubble, or of ordinary peoples' lives. Let’s have "Sir" Fred Goodwin edit the Today programme, or whoever.'

Mr Whittingdale, whose committee oversees the BBC whenever somebody important feels slighted, overlooked the question of whether the BBC had breached its own rules on being impartial on the airwaves. He did not say: 'The impression you do get is that there are far more smug bastards allowed onto the airwaves from the right than from the left.'

David Gauke, a Treasury minister, failed to mention that the programme was a 'brilliant parody of Today Programme this morning. Subtle mocking of unrelenting right-wing condescension and pro-establishment toadying'.

Nick Robinson, the BBC’s own political editor who is tipped as a future presenter of the programme, didn't write: “Bankers are always thought-provoking but was Jenkins really suggesting banks could be magically transformed from amoral, reckless, predatory organisations, representing a systemic risk to entire economies and elected governments, into trusted institutions within five to ten years, by light-touch "cultural transformation" as opposed to tighter regulation? Surely, John, those are what we call opinions not facts?”

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Transylvanian vampire apocalypse with complimentary cappuccino

Be very afraid. 2014, the year of the Undead is upon us.

On a dark and stormy night wet Wednesday a mysterious stranger an ordinary bloke from Transylvania, intent on coming over here to assault sleeping virgins in their beds and suck the blood of mortals wash cars for eight quid an hour, arrived in Whitby Luton airport on board a ghostly schooner freighted with boxes of mouldering grave  dirt, a dead man lashed to the wheel Boeing 737, springing ashore in the form of a spectral dog to disappear into the inky shadows below the Gothic ruins waiting by the baggage carousel to retrieve his sports bag, before running amok in a frenzy of blood-lust stopping for an unexpected refreshment break in Costa coffee with the legions of the damned a couple of members of a Home Affairs Select Committee.


How much less scary do our horror stories need to get before those snivelling cry-babies from Migration Watch and right-wing press finally stop wetting themselves over nothing?

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Y 2.0

My only hope for the future is that somebody has come up with, or will come up with, a closure for trunk-style underpants as elegant and efficient as the Y-front closure. I've never previously spent much time thinking about the design of underpants, but next time I go shopping for some, I'll be on the look out to see whether anybody has efficiently closed this gap in the market and produced a male undergarment fit for the 21st Century. 
Me, February 2010

The dark night of moderately inconvenient button-closure trunks is over.* Behold the keyhole fly:
Modelled by some bloke from whichever modelling agency M and S are using, because you really wouldn't thank me for a selfie.

*It probably has been for some time but, as I don't buy new underwear that often, it's new to me.