Friday, 28 March 2014

"In Our Time" versus the Wikis

There was a disappointing edition of the usually interesting In Our Time programme on the radio yesterday. It was an astonishingly uncritical assessment of Max Weber, the guy responsible for the "Protestant work ethic" meme. I didn't object to the experts being Weber fans and I wouldn't expect the arguments against the thesis of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism to be given "equal time" in some display of faux balance. But the counter-arguments are so compelling and straightforward that I'd have expected them to be presented better, however briefly. Between them,Wikipedia and RationalWiki do a better job:
Many scholars, however, have disagreed with specific claims Weber makes in his historical analysis. For example, the economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism did not begin with the Industrial Revolution but in 14th century Italy. In Milan, Venice and Florence the small city-state governments led to the development of the earliest forms of capitalism. In the 16th century Antwerp was a commercial centre of Europe. Also, the predominantly Calvinist country of Scotland did not enjoy the same economic growth as the Netherlands, England and New England. It has been pointed out that the Netherlands, which had a Calvinist majority, industrialised much later in the 19th century than predominantly Catholic Belgium, which was one of the centres of the Industrial Revolution on the European mainland.

Sascha O. Becker and Ludger Wossman present an alternative hypothesis: That Protestantism per se did not help to bring about the rise of capitalism, but that it was a by-product of the Protestants' encouragement of lay people to read the Bible, which led to a higher demand for printing presses, and ultimately, higher literacy rates that enabled commerce to grow.
If this was just academics arguing about the history of ideas, I'd let it go but, as the RationalWiki summary points out, Weber is unwitting godfather to one of the most pernicious misrepresentations in modern politics:
In economic terms, the concept is not very accurate in the 21st century. One of the largest fallacies of the European debt crisis is that the lazy Greeks supposedly work less than Germans; research says the opposite. 
Rational Wiki's quick summary of the (rhetorically solved, but seriously far from over) Eurozone periphery crisis is well worth reading as a brief antidote to the misleading political rhetoric that usually makes its way into news reports. As an added bonus, the footnotes to the entry cite a hilarious list of "OMG, x is The Next Greece!" articles:
  • Republicans: Obama's Budget Proposal Will Put America On 'A Roadmap To Greece'
  • The Huffington Post Puerto Rico is America’s Greece
  • Reuters 'America's Greece' California dreams of raising taxes
  • CBC Philadelphia Is the Next Greece 
  • Niall Ferguson: The Next Greece? It's The US! 
  • Tories warn Ont. could become the 'Greece of Canada'
  • CTV Is Quebec the next Greece? 
  • NZ, the next Greece? 
  • Croatia - the Next Greece 
  • Is Hungary the Next Greece?
  • Wall Street Journal Is Japan the Next Greece? 
  • Is China the New Greece? 
Makes you wonder whether, if Max Weber was around today, he'd call the Protestant Work Ethic a 'killer app', Niall Ferguson style.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

I get junk mail

Images in this post have been removed at the request of a third party - full details below.* As the purpose of the images was to illustrate points made in this post, the images have been replaced by a description of the deleted material, in italics, so that readers still have some idea of what I was talking about.

Junk mailers routinely plaster their bulk mailshots with loads of red ink, bold type and words like "important", "urgent" and "priority" in a desperate attempt grab your attention. I've just had a European election leaflet from that party with the pound shop logo, which looks like some sort of template from Junk Mail for Dummies.
First deleted image Masthead of the Ukip election leaflet mentioned above. Approximately two thirds of the masthead taken up by the words "Ukip news." with the standard yellow on puce pound sign logo. The right third is taken up by a bright red box emblazoned with the following message in white type:
"Important information.
Do not discard.
Please share with friends and family when you have finished reading."
The content lives down to the cheesy huckster aesthetic, with the usual bed-wetting scare-headline about migrants splashed over the front page. There are a couple of smaller headlines about the kippers' second least favourite thing after migrants, the European Union.

If you were being really uncritical, you could almost say that the kippers have something approaching a point about the Europe Union, which is increasingly looking like an elite project with a massive democratic deficit, captured by the same out-of-control financial institutions that crashed the global economy, a project that's currently destroying its own poorest member states with that "doomsday machine called the Euro"© Mark Blyth.

On current performance, it should be super easy for the kippers to make an anti-EU headline from some truly evil or inept scheme that the Persian-cat-stroking super-villains in the European Commission are currently planning to impose on their subject populations.

But what do they pick? The Commission's proposals for a Financial Transaction Tax - one of those rare indications that the Euro-elite aren't completely on board with the project to enable too-big-to-fail trans-national financial institutions to carry on growing and looting the continent entirely unhindered. A reminder that, just occasionally, the Commission tries stick up for the little people, rather than simply offering them up as sacrificial victims on the altar of the Vampire Squid, or whatever other monstrous, Cthulhu-like financial deity happens to be roaring loudest for innocent blood.

And it's also a reminder of the gulf between reality and those UKIP boasts about being the party that takes on vested interests and sticks up for the little guy:
Second deleted image Short (two paragraph) article from the election leaflet, written by a Ukip activist by the name of Lucy Bostick. The article is titled "City under EU attack." In it, Ms Bostick is described as a City professional and is quoted saying that a proposed EU financial transaction tax would force the UK to act as a tax collector for other member states, "decimating" the City of London. I captioned the image with the comment  "Ukip's Lucy Bostick says 'decimating the City' like it was a bad thing."
It may not be a panacea, the wheelers and dealers would certainly find loopholes and there might be unintended consequences, but as a measure intended to divert a small portion of the financial elite's loot into the common wealth of nations, for the benefit of ordinary people, a Financial Transaction Tax is at least one of the most well-intentioned ideas to have come out of the Commission in recent years.

It's not surprising that a party headed by a former City commodities broker who wasn't even able to set up his own offshore tax-avoiding trust fund properly would be against anything that threatened the narrow interests of the City of London and it's even less surprising that, when faced with an open goal like finding something meaty to criticise the European Commission for, his team missed by a mile.

There are times when you can safely judge a book (or leaflet) by its cover.


* Reason for amendment:
Lucy Bostick, the Ukip activist quoted in the election leaflet above, contacted me in December 2015, via the comments section of my blog, with the following message:
I can't see a means of contacting you so I'm posting here. I'd like to ask you to remove or edit an old post in which you have included me. Please could you contact me so I can send you full details of my request? Many thanks 
The comment was attached to a recent, totally unrelated post, but after a short search I realised she was referring to to this post, made over a year and a half ago.

The assertion that "I can't see a means of contacting you" is one of those statements which immediately disproves itself - Ms Bostick did contact me, via the comments section of my blog and I responded to her comment, asking for the full details of her request.

At the time of writing I have heard no more, so have taken a look at this blog post to work out for myself what Ms Bostick is objecting to.Having re-read my post, I can comment as follows:
  1. So far as I can see, Ms Bostick has no possible grounds for objecting to anything I have written. I have merely drawn attention to her publicly stated opinion that a proposed EU financial transaction tax would decimate the City of London and indicated that I'm not impressed by this argument.
  2. As Ms Bostick has no reasonable grounds for objecting to what I've written, I'm assuming, (in the absence of any clarification from her) that the only tenable objection she might have must relate to my illustrating this blog post with a couple of short snippets scanned from a Ukip election leaflet, presumably on the grounds of copyright and image rights (the article by Ms Bostick had her photograph at the top). Although reproducing and commenting on party political publicity material is common practice (see here for a well-known  example from a few years ago), I have deleted any images from Ukip's unsolicited electioneering pamphlet, so that there can now be no possibility of any reasonable person finding any grounds for demanding further edits.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Frogs' porn

I went to an stupendous orgy last weekend, a massive non-holds-barred free-for-all of wet, writhing bodies. In fact, I was only there to watch:

Yes, it was our dear old friend, Rana temporaria, greeting the spring with a traditional batrachian frenzy of mating activity. May your spawn be fruitful and prosper, little ones.

Your word for the day is amplexus.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The uneven march of progress

Bob Seidensticker is annoyed with theists who give unhelpfully convoluted philosophical answers to empirical questions and concludes that nonscientific philosophy doesn't get anybody very far:
Alvin Plantinga argued that philosophy is relevant at the frontier of science when he said that philosophy is just thinking hard about something. By that definition, Werner Heisenberg (a physicist) was doing philosophy when he came up with his uncertainty principle, Kurt Gödel (a mathematician) was doing philosophy when he discovered his incompleteness theorems, and Alan Turing (a computer scientist) was doing philosophy when he developed the Turing Test. Maybe string theory or ideas on the multiverse are philosophy.

A broad definition of philosophy doesn’t bother me, but note that all these “philosophers” were first scientists or mathematicians. That’s why they were able to make their contributions. While a scientist can put on a philosopher’s hat and do great work, the reverse is not true...

...Lots of sites have Top Ten lists of scientific discoveries for 2013 ... We found new clues that Mars was once habitable, the Voyager 1 spacecraft left the solar system, DNA was sequenced from [a] 700,000 year old animal and 100,000 year old human remains, a meteor exploded over Russia, new gene therapies were found, life was found in a pristine Antarctic lake, and Jupiter’s Ganymede was mapped.

I couldn’t find a list of the Top Ten philosophical breakthroughs for 2013.
Cross Examined

This is a narrow point about scientifically unqualified 'philosophers putting on an imaginary lab coat and playing scientist like a child plays house.' Specifically, he objects to religious apologists muddying scientific enquiries about, say, the origin of the universe, with 'Complicated philosophical arguments' that 'simply try to paper over the glaring fact that evidence for God is negligible and that we have no justification for belief', (he calls these 'caltrop arguments').

But his criticism also opens up a far wider question. Is science the only field in which humans are making anything that we could sensibly call progress? In a very narrow sense, the answer could be 'no' - if you were to define technology as a separate discipline from science, you could also point to clear evidence of technological progress. But if by "science", you mean all the empirical disciplines of science, mathematics and technology, then there seems to be a case to be answered.

The positive side of  Seidensticker's case seems unarguable. Look at two examples of how far science and technology have come in one generation. In 1990, no astronomer in human history had ever observed a planet orbiting another star. In 1992 the first extrasolar planet (orbiting  a pulsar) was discovered. In 1995 the first planet orbiting an ordinary star (other than the sun) was discovered. Today, astronomers know of more than a thousand confirmed exoplanets, with many candidate observations awaiting confirmation and new observations taking place all the time.

Back to early '90s technology on planet earth - 'By Christmas 1990, Berners-Lee had built all the tools necessary for a working Web: the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) 0.9, the HyperText Markup Language (HTML), the first Web browser (named WorldWideWeb, which was also a Web editor), the first HTTP server software (later known as CERN httpd), the first web server (, and the first Web pages that described the project itself.' It's obvious, even to a total non-expert, that there has been rather a lot of progress on the WWW front since then.

The apparent lack of noticeable progress in fields outside science and technology also seems to support the negative side of Seidensticker's thesis.

Starting with philosophy, never mind 'the the Top Ten philosophical breakthroughs for 2013', how many lay people could name a single philosophical breakthrough that's happened since the creation of the very first Web server, circa 1990? For that matter, how many philosophical breakthroughs of the last century could your averagely well informed non-expert name?

Science and technology can boast many well-known successes: Watson and Crick announcing the structure of DNA, the start of TV broadcasting, the discovery of penicillin and the introduction of antibiotics, the jet engine, insulin, nylon, the discovery of how our universe came into being, the Hubble space telescope, the Large Hadron Collider, the moon landings, the birth of the electronic computer and many more. People understand terms like "splitting the atom" and "rocket science" as metaphors for tasks that require intelligence, hard thinking and expertise. I'm not claiming that acceptance into the general lexicon necessarily validates a breakthrough (we still use 'mesmerise' and a lot of jargon from Freudian analysis in general speech, although Anton Mesmer was more of a charismatic stage magician than a scientist and Freud's theories were unscientific and, generally, plain wrong). But it's still an impressive list.

What have you got, philosophy? Not a lot. Two explanations come to mind:
  1. Philosphers' minds are so highly trained that the average person in the street is too stupid to understand the brain-bogglingly clever breakthroughs they've made.
  2. They just haven't made many/any.
I tend towards explanation 2. on the grounds that the general public are aware of some of the most intellectually difficult problems that the human mind has ever wrestled with. People like David Attenborough and Brian Cox pop up regularly on prime-time telly, explaining really hard stuff like evolution and the origin of the whole damn universe. If philosophy had such an exciting story of discovery to tell, where's the philosophical equivalent of Brian Cox, getting all enthusiastic, awe-struck and wistful about the amazing things philosophers have discovered in the the last few years in that new blockbuster series, Wonders of Philosophy? Alain de Botton, lovely man though he is, doesn't quite cut it in the astonishing discoveries stakes.

And how about progress in the arts? The arts certainly have a higher public profile than philosophy - who hasn't heard of Picasso, Andy Worhol, George Gershwin, Georgia O'Keeffe, The Beatles, Lady Gaga, Orson Welles, J K Rowling, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee or Brian Eno? But how far has art itself "progressed"? Here's the blurb for an exhibition of Ice Age art:
Discover masterpieces from the last Ice Age drawn from across Europe in this groundbreaking show. Created by artists with modern minds like our own, this is a unique opportunity to see the world's oldest known sculptures, drawings and portraits.

These exceptional pieces will be presented alongside modern works by Henry Moore, Mondrian and Matisse, illustrating the fundamental human desire to communicate and make art as a way of understanding ourselves and our place in the world.

Ice Age art was created between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago and many of the pieces are made of mammoth ivory and reindeer antler. They show skilful, practised artists experimenting with perspectives, scale, volumes, light and movement, as well as seeking knowledge through imagination, abstraction and illusion.

One of the most beautiful pieces in the exhibition is a 23,000-year-old sculpture of an abstract figure from Lespugue, France. Picasso was fascinated with this figure and it influenced his 1930s sculptural works.

Although an astonishing amount of time divides us from these Ice Age artists, such evocative pieces show that creativity and expression have remained remarkably similar across thousands of years.
Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind, The British Museum, 2013.

There are great artists now and there were great artists in prehistory. It's by no means clear that the work of modern visual artists is 'better' in any meaningful way than that of their paleolithic ancestors. You might argue that humans have developed many different techniques and forms of art in the intervening millennia, both in the visual arts and in other domains of artistic expression. But stop to think about what has changed. While 'creativity and expression have remained remarkably similar across thousands of years', science and technology haven't, and advances in these empirical disciplines often seem to have been the drivers of artistic progress. For example:
  • abstract geometrical decoration in Islamic art - although originally inspired by a perceived religious prohibition of idolatry, these new forms were enabled by mathematical knowledge
  • the move towards abstraction and conceptualism in Twentieth Century Western art, driven at least in part by the widespread availability of the camera, which usurped the unique ability of the representative artist to create a convincing facsimile of nature
  • and while we're on the subject of photography, it's an art form that wouldn't exist without the technology coming first
  • ditto cinematography and video games (if you think the latter comes under the ambit of "art" - if not, why not?)
  • humans have had music and musicians since the stone age - what they lacked back then wasn't artistry, but the people who later invented fiddles, guitars, harpsichords, pianos, pipe organs, trombones, sitars, saxophones, synthesisers and musical notation
  • and talking of notation, information technology started with accounting symbols pressed into wet clay, which eventually developed into written language, the medium that transformed the oral storytelling tradition into the various forms of the thing we now call literature
And so on. In short, perhaps the "progress" part of "artistic progress" is down to science and technology, rather than to humans' native artistic drives and talents, which may have existed, virtually unchanged, since the stone age.

So, maybe "science", in its broadest sense is demonstrably progressing, while philosophy and the arts aren't. Is the human race making measurable progress in any field other than the empirical disciplines? I can think of one field where there seems to have been a measurable degree of progress - politics and society:
People sometimes do not realize how total has been the normative triumph of some of the ideas typically associated with democracy, even if one thinks that democracy itself has not succeeded quite as spectacularly. Take, for instance, the norm that rulers of states should be selected through some process that involves voting by all adults in society (I’m being deliberately vague here) rather than, say, inheriting their position by succeeding their fathers. In 1788 there were only a couple of countries in the world that could even claim to publicly recognize something remotely like this norm. Most people could not vote, and voting was not generally recognized as something that needed to happen before rulers could rule; rulers could and did claim to have authority to rule on other grounds. Norms of hereditary selection structured the symbolic universe in which political competition took place, and defined its ultimate boundaries for most people (at least those who lived in state spaces). Yet by 2008 there were only four or five countries in the world that did not publicly acknowledge universal voting rights. 
Even acknowledging the existence of other, less encouraging, developments, that's pretty impressive. We can actually pick out a few identifiable markers of progress (assuming that what "progressives" think of as progress is progress): the ending of apartheid in south Africa and of racial segregation in the southern sates of the USA, the reversal of a lot of anti-gay legal discrimination across most of the developed world a continuation in the general decline in levels of violence identified by Steven Pinker (OK, this one is contested, but as one critic put it, Pinker's vocal critics, like John Gray have provided 'reasons to doubt Pinker’s explanation of the decline of violence is correct, however he has not provided reasons to doubt that violence is declining'),

And this progress seems to have some public recognition - people who couldn't name a contemporary philosopher would recognise the names of Nelson Mandela, Emmeline Pankhurst, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, or Peter Tatchell.

Is this another separate domain of human progress, or is it also driven, in a more subtle way, by the relentless march of science and technology?

I'm not sure that there's always a direct link between scientific progress and social progress, but people have proposed all such links. For example, the idea that slave societies don't develop technology because they've already got slaves to do the work. I've heard it argued that the ancient Greeks, who invented the steam engine and astronomical computer could have had their own industrial revolution if only they hadn't been so addicted to enslaving people. A steampunk late classical world would make a good backdrop to an alt-history SF novel (I'm certain it already has, although I've not read one), but this thesis rather glosses over the coercive aspects of the actual Industrial Revolution, (the use of enclosure and eviction to destroy the self-sufficiency of the lower orders to create a class of biddable proletarian wage-slaves, dependent on selling their labour).

You could, more plausibly point to the defeat of the inefficient slave states of the American South by the industrialised North in the Civil War.

But then again, Nazi Germany wasn't known for its tolerance or liberalism, yet it had an atomic weapons programme, pioneered radar, jet engines and rocket propulsion - indeed the man responsible for designing slave-labour-built vengeance weapons for Hitler went on to head the team that put humans on the moon, while his Soviet rival in the space race, Sergei Korolev, was no product of a tolerant, enlightened society, but a former inmate of Stalin's gulags, only reprieved because his talents were needed for the war effort.

There's even the Orson Welles' "cuckoo clock" argument that, far from going hand in hand with technical progress, political progress - peace, justice, equity and so on - actually retards it:
You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
The Third Man

Does social and political progress exist as a thing apart from scientific and technical progress? Ultimately it's hard to measure things like justice and an equitable distribution of power, so I wouldn't say this is a sure thing. But I like to think so.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Tony Benn, on giving enterprise a bad name

...despite the fact we have been told we are an entrepreneurial society, this is a country today that has an utter contempt for skill. You talk to people who dig coal, run trains, doctors, nurses, dentists, tool-makers – nobody in Britain is interested in them! The whole of the so-called entrepreneurial society has focused on the City news we get in every bulletin, telling us what has happened to the Pound Sterling, to three points of decimals, against a basket of European currencies. Skill is what built this country’s strength, and it is treated with contempt!
The late Tony Benn. These lines were rebroadcast on BBC Radio 4's Today programme after his death was announced this morning. He may have had a point.

In the light of Benn's words, consider Simon Jack's interview with 'itinerant CEO' Tim Parker, currently head honcho at luggage company Samsonite, for the  Today Programme's "Friday Boss" slot. The telling phrase here is 'I'm not an expert in anything particularly. I'm a general businessman, so I rely on a good team of people', which makes me suspect that the 'good team of [skilled] people' below him have more to to do with the success of the company than the highly-paid chief executive (that 'good team' probably includes the poor sods at the coalface, not just the ones in the management's top team, the only staff collectively name-checked by Tim Parker):
SJ: You've worked at some very different groups. You've worked at Clarks for a while, I think you worked at Pathé, is that right?
TP: I own the Pathé archive,
SJ: You own the Pathé Archive?
TP: That's my, sort of, hobby.
SJ: Oh I see, OK
TP: Ha ha ha ... I ran the AA, I ran Quickfit for a time, Kenwood, the appliance company, so yes, you're absolutely right, I've been in lots of different businesses.
SJ: OK, are you the kind of hired gun CEO, the gun-slinging CEO, who comes into a business when its sort of broken and fires a bunch of people and fixes it and what's your .. what kind of chief executive are you?
TP: No, it's true, most of the jobs that I have done have been essentially turnaround jobs, but I think there's a bit of a cliché around what a turnaround CEO is. A lot of the perception is that you're all about cost cutting and I would say, having done, I dunno, six or seven turnarounds, that only about 20% of what you do is really reorganisation cost-cutting. The key part of a turnaround is to create conditions for growth, so the measure of success, to me, is when I look at companies that I have left. Are they in good shape today and have I laid the foundations for growth? And that is really the measure of a good turnaround, it's not a one year change, it;s a five year programme and, you know...
SJ: And what, typically, is job number one, or two, what do you typically have to do, to get right?
TP: Well, in any large organisation, success comes from the team at the top, so if you don't have the right team at the top, it's going to be very, very tough. I'm not an expert in anything particularly. I'm a general businessman, so I rely on a good team of people who are very close to the specifics of a business to take the decisions, so if I get a good team in place, that's a good start. The second is you have to look at ways in which you can spend money more intelligently, and often companies are not spending money intelligently, often they do have probably too many people in certain areas, often they have businesses that aren't making a contribution and you have to, sort of, grab hold of that very quickly. But the key is to use some of the savings that you make to re-invest back into product development, back into marketing, back into things that will gain market share for the...
SJ: Tim Parker there, 'not an expert in anything in particular', in his own words, but chief executive of luggage manufacturer Samsonite.
Tim asks 'when I look at companies that I have left. Are they in good shape today and have I laid the foundations for growth?' How, for example, is the Automobile Association doing, after a sprinkling of 'intinerant CEO' fairy dust?
In September 2004, a company backed by the Permira Funds and funds advised by CVC Capital Partners acquired the AA from Centrica plc. The transaction was valued at approximately €2.7 billion.Sir Trevor Chinn and Tim Parker were appointed as Chairman and CEO respectively on completion of the transaction.
Acromas Holdings, the merged AA and Saga group, has become the latest ­private equity-owned business to abandon plans to float on the stock market this year, reflecting a new militancy among institutions refusing to back businesses with huge debts.
The Guardian, February 2010

 The Sunday Telegraph can reveal that Acromas – the private equity-backed company which owns the AA – has appointed accountants Ernst & Young to explore the potential for a £5bn sale of the roadside assistance company ...
...When it comes, however, the likely split will mark the end of the five-year marriage of the AA and Saga, brought together in one of the most iconic highly leveraged deals of the pre-crisis era.
The Telegraph, September 2012
Unions and MPs have rounded on the owners of the AA's holding company, Acromas, which also houses Saga financial products, for paying tax of 2.7% on profits since its creation in 2007.
The Guardian November 2012
GMB, the union for AA staff, has called has called on Steve Dewey, the AA’s Director of Roadside Operations, to apologise for comments made in the most recent edition of the Company’s audio newsletter for roadside patrol staff.
In the interview Dewey states that he doesn’t “worry to much about morale” and goes on to imply that the fact that Patrols are “still here” means that the Company does not have a problem in this area....
...In a recent survey of GMB members working for the AA over 79% of respondents stated that they felt the company undervalued them as employees.
GMB Southern Region, November 2013
Private equity investors raise funds beyond share markets to invest in a business large or small. This is exactly what happened to the AA; it was bought and de-listed from the stock exchange and run as a private business...
...We established that private equity investors often break implicit contracts with the workforce, for example at the AA long established redundancy terms and working time arrangements were reneged on. In addition to this new owners often seek to change the terms of a final salary pension scheme and suspend payments into the scheme...
...These investors are largely unregulated by the government and the actions described here are all lawful and are part of the way these investors improve the performance of so-called ‘underperforming firms’. What this really means is taking a firm and changing the way stakeholders such as customers and employees are treated. 
GMB, February 2014

It's a rather toxic form of re-investing in the business, where a  CEO, who wasn't a an expert in anything, got parachuted in to grab hold of a massive pile of loot on the back of a highly-leveraged deal (i.e. saddling the company with massive debts), leaving the majority of skilled staff who do the actual work, feeling undervalued, demoralised, with worse terms and conditions. Which is why I tend towards Tony Benn's argument that post-Thatcherite, greed-is-good-style "entrepreneurship" is giving genuine skill and enterprise a bad name.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

I'm a wobbly jelly, you're a pink blancmange

I'm a sherry trifle, you're a chocolate sponge
The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, circa 1968
If I'm a mop then you are a broom, a broom that is cleaning up the mess left by the Labour government and a fantastic job you are doing.

And I thank you and I congratulate you and your colleagues George Osborne, the dustpan, Michael Gove, the J Cloth, William Hague, the sponge. 
The BoJo Dave Doo Dah Band, getting wacky in October 2013

Hey, Boris, I think you missed at bit. Look at this great big spill over here:
And this [the regulatory failure that caused the global financial crisis of 2008] was a matter, first, of dogma - they [Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke] are just horrifically opposed to anything regulatory, but it is also the international competition in laxity. The race to the bottom between the United States and the United Kingdom, the City of London in particular, and the City of London won that race to the bottom. But it meant that all regulation in the West was completely degraded in this stupid competition to see who could have the weakest regulation...

...What do we need to do, what can we do, in all of this? We need to change the perverse incentive structures that produce these recurrent epidemics of accounting control fraud that are driving our crises. So we have to first get rid of the systemically dangerous institutions. These are the so-called "too big to fail" institutions. We need to shrink them to the point, within the next five years, that they no longer pose a systemic risk. Right now, they are ticking time bombs that will cause a global crisis as soon as the next one fails. Not if, when.

Second thing we need to do is completely reform modern executive professional compensation, which is what they used to suborn the appraisers, remember they were pressuring the appraisers through the compensation system, trying to produce what we call a Gresham's Dynamic, in which bad ethics drives good ethics out of the marketplace, and they largely succeeded, which is how the fraud became endemic.

And the third thing that we need to do, is to deal with what we call the three "Ds"; deregulation, de-supervision and the de facto decriminalisation.

Because we can make all three of these changes and if we do so, we can dramatically reduce how often we have a crisis and how severe these crises are.
Bill Black, helpfully pointing out the huge mess left by BoJo's chums in the City and suggesting where he and his chums could usefully put their mop, broom, dustpan, J Cloth, sponge or other hilarious metaphor to work, should they be remotely interested in doing a proper cleaning job.

Sorry for sounding like a stuck record, but if the Tories and their junior coalition partners insist on endlessly banging on about the mess they inherited, somebody needs to keep banging on about who actually created the mess and asking why they consistently keep opposing measures to clear up the mess and actively promoting that giant messy play area known as The City of London. It's almost as if their declared interest in clearing up and preventing future spillages is all hot air and, worse than that, the precise opposite of the truth:
 ...if what got us all this debt in the first place was a "too big to fail" banking system that was bailed out at taxpayer expense, you would expect the government to make sure that we don't "simply try and rebuild the same type of economy we had before the crash", as the prime minister put it in his speech. But of course, quite the opposite has happened. The government has deliberately stoked another London-centred housing bubble just in time for re-election using a right to buy scheme that basically gives anyone that qualifies their own personal Fannie and Freddie mortgage guarantee. Meanwhile, British banks are bigger than ever and are expected to grow bigger still.
Mark Blyth in The Guardian

When the cleaning contract goes out to tender in 2015, we need a better team of sanitation operatives, because this lot are useless. Let's just hope we don't have a major spill before then.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Tonight, we're gonna party like it's 2008

With apologies for the poor scansion and the repetition, but why hasn't this been headline news? Is the elephant in the room some kind of advanced stealth elephant? Just asking:
  • ...The UK's staggering debt-to-GDP ratio [nearly 1000% Of GDP] is largely due to the size of its financial sector
  • All financial sector debt is, to some extent, potentially government debt, since all governments end up having to rescue their financial sectors in the event of a crisis [my emphasis].
Business Insider, December 2011
...government and household debt is dwarfed by the liabilities of the banking sector, which have reached a stunning 427 per cent of GDP. British banks are also massively exposed to the eurozone crisis, far more than most Continental ones. Add these three components together, and Britain’s liabilities are the largest in the EU’
Dominic Raab, quoted in The Spectator's Coffee House blog, May 2013
It is not for the Bank of England to decide how big the financial sector should be. Our job is to ensure that it is safe ... The Bank of England’s task is to ensure that the UK can host a large and expanding financial sector in a way that promotes financial stability…
Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, October 2013
Herein lies the rub, and the non-sequitur: bigger cannot mean more stable, for the simple reason that the assets of the financial sector are, in large measure, the debts of the real economy to the banks. The bigger the assets of the financial sector, the higher the debts of the real economy have to be. Ultimately, even with near-zero interest rates, servicing this debt is likely to prove impossible to large segments of the economy, leading to a financial crisis.
Steve Keen, commenting on Mark Carney's speech, earlier this month


Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Hutton Buscel, mon amour

You learn some interesting things from obituaries. For instance, I never knew that the late film director Alain Resnais, was a friend of that chronicler of bourgeois desperation, Alan Ayckbourn, or that he'd made a film, based on an Ayckbourn play, set in North Yorkshire. Called Aimer, boire et chanter (Love, drink and sing), it sounds like a reet treat for fans of quirky cross-cultural hybrids, at least according to this description by Emma Wilson:
There is an identical preface at the start of each film where actor Peter Hudson introduces us to the setting, a fictional village, Hutton Buscel 'dans le Yorkshire'. Resnais's image of Yorkshire is deliberately stylised. French is spoken in Resnais's Yorkshire. This effect is enhanced where each scene is demarcated by a brightly coloured drawing by the artist Floc'h; indeed, as Philip Strick comments, 'its inhabitants all appear to be strikingly overdressed French immigrants engaged in a subtly Anglophobic charade.'
It may have lacked a strikingly overdressed French immigrant population and have been stylised out of all recognition for its film debut, but I can confirm that, far from being fictional, Hutton Buscel is a very real place,* about fifteen miles from where I grew up.

* Afterthought - come to think of it, a lot of the stuff on the Parish Council website is straight out of a wistful comedy of bourgeois manners (although slightly more Alan Bennett than Alan Ayckbourn). Viz:
  • Cllr Carruthers had purchased replacement bulbs to plant.
  • The Community Service had brought the tete a tete bulbs to Hutton Buscel.
  • The Emergency Plan Working group had had an initial meeting, another is to follow at the end of January.
  • There had been no reply in regards to the status of the bridle way.
  • Cllr Carruthers reported that 3 residents had died in the war and that 24 had served. The Vicar intends to hold a joint Wykeham and Hutton Buscel memorial service. An update is to follow.
  • Cllr Barnett is to investigate grant funding to clean the war memorial...

Cllr Jeffels had previously offered to plant a tree, however this was declined by Council. A new suggestion of a stone trough to be placed on Vicars Walk (which Cllr Jeffels would maintain) was passed by all present.

RESOLVED: That Cllr Jeffels is to place a stone trough on Vicars Walk at his discretion, and maintain said trough for as long as is reasonably practical...

  • Paving stones at Vicars walk.
  • Report on wooden gate site visit findings.
  • Solution to loose Guinea Fowl in the area.
Can Hutton Buscel survive the menace of loose Guinea Fowl in the area?  Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of The Minutes of Hutton Buscel Parish Council...

Le Yorkshire, c'est charmant, n'est pas?

Little apples and big barrels

According to Owen Jones 'The Met's problem isn't bad apples, it's the whole barrel. Abolish it.' Which kind of sums up why hard political problems are hard and usually don't get fixed, at least for a long time. The easy thing to do is to say that heads must roll, that somebody must find the guilty individuals and remove them. A change of personnel at the top, combined with a limited, exemplary, purge of the junior ranks, would be a relatively quick, easy way to show that Something Has Been Done.

Dismantling a dysfunctional structure and rebuilding it as a better organisation with more effective oversight, fewer perverse incentives and fewer opportunities to be corrupt, or to cover up serious wrongdoing, in the face of inertia and vested interests is hard and slow, which is why it's seldom done.

Take the Bank of England. A new broom was appointed to sweep away the old order, amid lots of hope, hype and hyperventilation, but the underlying mess he inherited keeps on bubbling to the surface and there's little evidence that the new boss has spotted the elephant in the room (not to mention the 100 metre tall fire-breathing, radioactive lizard). The shiny new apple atop the Old Barrel of Threadneedle Street is living proof of a good crisis wasted.

Fundamental change - of embedded ideologies and power structures, rather than of mere personnel (however senior) - is hard work and when I look at the scale of some of society's most intractable problems, I've some sympathy for politicians, overwhelmed by the scale of the task, who decide that a quick fix is better than starting a long, hard, thankless task that won't pay dividends this side of an election.

I'm less sympathetic towards politicians who have completely given up, or are quite happy with the failing status quo, thank you very much, and seem to be trying to stoke voters' grievances and exaggerate the importance of comparatively minor, manageable issues in what looks like a deliberate attempt to distract them from the big, important things that are going on.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Pussy riot, Iranian style

This thing here is the flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It's your standard green-white-red horizontal tricolour, with the words 'God is Great' added, in Kufic script, to the edges of the colour bands (just in case the aggressive piety implicit in the words "Islamic Republic" was too subtle for you). But what's going on with that weird  symbol in the middle? Glad you asked:
Designed by Hamid Nadimi, and officially approved by Parliament and the Leader Grand-Ayatollah Khomeini on 9 May 1980, this Emblem is a highly stylized composite of various Islamic elements: a geometrically symmetric form of the word Allah ("God") and overlapping parts of the phrase lā ʾilāha ʾillà l-Lāh, ("There is no deity but God"), forming a monogram in the form of a tulip it consists of four crescents and a line. The four crescents read from right to left the first crescent is the letter aleph, the second crescent is the first laam; the vertical line is the second laam, and the third and fourth crescents together form the heh. Above the central stroke is a tashdid (a diacritical mark indicating gemination) resembling "W". The tulip shape of the emblem as a whole memorializes those who have died for Iran and symbolizes the values of patriotism and self-sacrifice, building on a legend that red tulips grow from the shed blood of martyrs.
Not only is all that symbolism about blood and self-sacrifice bang on the money, given the brutal human rights abuses for which this crackpot theocracy is famous, but the suggestive design of nested crescents around a vertical central stroke has also prompted some irreverently creative re-imagining. Here's Iranian-born secularist and human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie, explaining how she incorporated the flag of the Islamic Republic into her recent nude protest for International Womens' Day (some images may be considered NSFW, although to my mind a woman's standard reproductive equipment is infinitely less offensive than the banner of an oppressive, fanatical, blood-spattered tyranny):
I didn’t want to just hold the Islamic regime of Iran’s flag so I cut out the Allah in the centre of the flag and let it show my vagina instead. Much better, don’t you think?
Congratulations, Hamid Nadimi. You are personally responsible for the most gynaecologically memorable piece of design since the front end of the Ford Edsel. Everyone can now remember the flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran as 'that one with the lady bits on it.' You must be so proud.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

As if by magic dozens of truncheons appeared and they mercilessly thrashed him

There's nothing remotely funny about the sleazy world of secret police, smears and systemic corruption that's finally coming to light after the Stephen Lawrence case.

But, then again, you'd need a heart of stone not to laugh at the fate of the deep state's most notorious unmasked secret policeman and agent provocateur, Mark Kennedy, set upon whilst simply minding his own business, (which consisted of lying, spying and assuming the false identity of an environmental activist named Mark Stone):
When protesters watched horrified as the man they knew as Mark Stone was beaten up by five police officers, they would not have guessed what was actually going on. For the truth was that the police were beating up one of their own, putting him in hospital with a broken finger, a prolapsed disc and a big cut across his head. Stone was really Mark Kennedy, an undercover police officer in the middle of a seven-year covert mission to infiltrate and disrupt the environmental movement...

...According to his account, he rushed to protect a protester who was being hit on her legs with a baton by police.

"They kicked and beat me. They had batons and pummelled my head. One officer repeatedly stamped on my back," he told the Guardian last year. He complained that he "experienced a lot of unjust policing" and was at times "appalled at being a police officer".

Ironically, the police were there only because he had secretly tipped them off about the protesters' plans – just one of the numerous occasions he fed his handlers intelligence about the activists. 
The Guardian

Beneath the intimidation, bluster, lies and corruption, authoritarianism almost always has something ineptly comic at its core, like Vladimir Putin with his shirt off. The surreal absurdity of the agent provocateur is a particularly deep mine of black humour:
With a geranium behind each ear and his face painted with gay cabalistic symbols, six foot eight seventeen stone police sergeant Geoff Bull looked jolly convincing as he sweated and grunted through a vigorous twist routine at the Frug À Go-Go bierkeller. His hot serge trousers flapped wildly over his enormous plastic sandals as he jumped and jumped and gyrated towards a long-haired man. 'Uh, excuse me, man, I have reason to believe you can turn me on.'

He leered suggestively.

As if by magic dozens of truncheons appeared and they mercilessly thrashed him.

Poor Geoff, what a turnout for the books.
Rhinocratic Oaths - The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band

Comedy and seriousness are not mutually exclusive categories and there are, of course, serious issues behind this sinister farce:
...the big questions are who and why. Who invented our counter democratic secret police? Why were they given free rein to conduct illegal activity? Why was such a long operation above the law? Its higher purpose should be named.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Where the customer is always stupid

I just got a piece of bog-standard on line pharmacy spam, touting a Canadian Pharmacy site that boasts the usual selection of allegedly 100% genuine medications for sexual dysfunction, along with antibiotics, painkillers, cholesterol-busting statins, anti-depressants and so on. I must admit that I did pause for just a moment before deleting the thing, to admire the sheer ironic chutzpah of the subject line:
Shopping for medications don’t be stupid and don’t buy fake medicine! Visit our pharmacy!
It's a snappy line and it would be pretty accurate, too, if it just lost the two "don't"s. Talk about figuring out how to convey your value proposition to your buyer persona in just one short sentence. Maybe the Russian fraudster responsible for the Canadian Pharmacy scam should echo Google's injunction not to be evil and add a "Don't Be Stupid" brand motto to the fake ADA / FDA seals of approval on his boondoggle's websites.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Send in the clowns

The Clown class gunboat was a class of twelve gunboats ordered by the Royal Navy in January 1856 for use in the Crimean War, although by the time they were completed, later that year, the Crimean War was over and some of these gunboats were sent to the Far East and took part in the Second Opium War

Unfortunately for Wee Willy Hague (bless his little cotton socks), the days when Britannia could overawe the unruly hordes of Crim Tartary with a few gunboats are long gone. These days we just have to rely on the charge of the lightweight brigade.

Correction and clarification

As I mentioned yesterday, A Very Important Statesman™ has spoken out on The Crisis of the Century™:
 "The world cannot just allow this to happen. The world cannot just say it is OK, in effect, to violate the sovereignty of another nation in this way."
Mr Hague rejected claims the US and EU were powerless to act, saying they had a range of options at their disposal if Russian forces did not return to their naval bases in Crimea and honour the terms of an agreement with Ukraine allowing them to station forces there.
Britain will, naturally, be taking a leading role in tackling The Crisis of the Century™. Here's some breaking news, clarifying exactly what Britain's planning to do about it:
Britain is drawing up plans to ensure that any EU action against Russia over Ukraine will exempt the City of London, according to a secret government document photographed in Downing Street...
...The document said Britain should:
• "Not support, for now, trade sanctions … or close London's financial centre to Russians."
A timely reminder that:
  • Far from "punching above its weight" as it loves to say, the British government is more or less all mouth and no trousers.
  • The autonomous enclave of the City of London is far more concerned with enriching itself by skimming off the dodgy money acquired by Russian oligarchs and other high-rolling swindlers than with the welfare of most ordinary British people who can't even afford to live in the capital any more. It no more exists for our benefit than Russia's Black Sea Fleet exists in Crimea because it's needed to defend plucky little Ukraine. Nobody should be remotely surprised that the strategic purposes of these two autonomous enclaves are almost entirely at variance with the interests of the nation states within which they exist.


Update - believe nothing until it has been officially denied.

Update #2 - 'US and Europe on brink of passive-aggressive letter to Putin', reports The Daily Mash.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Official crisis versus "what crisis?"

According to A Very Important Statesman™, the unpleasantness in Ukraine is Europe's biggest crisis this century, which strikes me as a bit premature, given that the crisis that the finance industry and the Euro-technocrats inflicted on the Euro periphery isn't played out yet.

Memo to the foreign secretary:

The world can just say it is OK, in effect, to violate the sovereignty of another nation. Here's how the "Troika", consisting of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission, routinely intervenes to bring its own "near abroad" back into line, as summed up by Derk Jan Eppink, a Belgian Member of the European Parliament:
The Troika acts like a governor and visits its colonies in the south of Europe and tells them what to do.
Ukrainians seem to hope that the European Union will be a potential saviour of a small, poor nation and a guarantor of its independence.

Good. Luck. With. That.

Putin's a bully and a jerk, but that isn't exactly news. Neither, apparently, is the continuing crisis on our own doorstep.