Thursday, 23 July 2015

How I learned to stop worrying and love the Euro

If the Euro is, as per Mark Blyth, 'a financial doomsday device', then who's the crazed fanatic planning Armageddon from the War Room bunker?
In reality [the Eurogroup's] direction is very much steered by German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Schäuble is a Dr Strangelove of sorts: as talented and single-minded as the German recruit in Kubrick’s classic, yet with one crucial difference: he does not make you laugh.
But he does have the same single-minded, insane, relentless logic:
President Merkin Muffley: How is it possible for this thing to be triggered automatically and at the same time impossible to untrigger?
Dr. Strangelove: Mr. President, it is not only possible, it is essential. That is the whole idea of this machine, you know. Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy... the FEAR to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision-making process which rules out human meddling, the Doomsday machine is terrifying and simple to understand... and completely credible and convincing.

Are you thinking what we're thinking?

You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss:
Back in 2005 Michael Howard launched a truly horrible poster campaign asking ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ with a series of ‘homely truths’...
...It was a series of posters, billboards, and TV commercials with messages like “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration” and “How would you feel if a bloke on early release attacked your daughter?” and focused on issues like dirty hospitals, landgrabs by “gypsies” and restraints on police behaviour. They contaminated the public space.
Bella Caledonia

Not the sort of campaigning you'd want to emulate. Or maybe it is - stripped of the scapegoating and dog-whistle bigotry, I could see Lynton Crosby's slogan being successfully recycled by the 'out of touch' Labour left. Because, in the alternative reality* outside the Westminster bubble, a lot of people are, apparently, thinking what they're thinking.

Some of the Corbynite policies that the people polled seem to favour might be less realistic than others (a nuke-free world would be nice, but I can't see the folks in Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Islamabad and Pyonyang scrapping their missiles, just because the UK Labour Party asks them nicely), but things like rent controls, lower tuition fees and a 75% top rate of tax sound more reasonable than some of the borderline insane stuff already in the political 'mainstream.'

*Called 'reality.'

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Who ya gonna call?

Following the release of shocking footage of children being groomed and radicalised by home-grown extremists, Something Must Be Done.

But by whom? Who knew that British Values were under threat, but said nothing for so many years?  Maybe we should call the de-radicalisation police. But clearly some insufficiently-vigilant individual in a local authority, or NHS trust, or school, or one of the other newly-appointed auxiliary arms of the intelligence services has already been responsible for failing to alert the authorities about this migrant family's insufficient enthusiasm for British Values and their attempts to spread a poisonous, radical ideology which had taken hold in their country of origin. Do we need to get the troubled families programme on the case? 

The Prime Minister has reacted quickly, warning of the threat posed by members of the royal community who had been "Quietly Condoning" the Nazi state.
David Cameron has told the Royal Family to "play its part" in helping tackle "one of the biggest threats our world has faced".

In language described by Palace officials as "unhelpful", the Prime Minister suggested that some royals have been "quietly condoning" anti-democratic ideology.

Mr Cameron said there has been "finger-pointing" at the security services – while it is families of fascist recruits and their communities who need to be more proactive in combating the extremist narrative.

"I am clear that one of the reasons is that there are people who hold some of these views who don't go as far as advocating violence, but do buy into some of these prejudices giving the extreme Nazi narrative weight and telling fellow royals 'you are part of this'".

The former Prince of Wales / King / Duke of Windsor was unavailable for comment.
Or is it just that the Sun has a Godwin meter which goes up to eleven?

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Self-evident truths

I hold this truth to be self-evident, that Donald Trump is an unelectable oaf* who can do nothing for the party he wants to lead except turn it into a laughing stock. And I'm not alone. The more his opponents see of Trump, the more gleeful they become.

Trump's not the only leadership candidate some people are dismissing as a joke who can only hurt the party he's standing for. Some on the British right seem to believe that it is just as self-evident that if the Labour Party elects Jeremy Corbyn, or gives any of his ideas the time of day, the party will  inevitably become an unelectable joke, so they're urging rightists to back Corbyn in order to sabotage Labour's election chances for the foreseeable future.

To me and people who share my point of view Corbyn may not be 'leadership material' (whatever that would look like), but, unlike Trump, we don't see his pronouncements as mere aggressive, incoherent self-promoting bluster:
If Jeremy Corbyn is pulling ahead now, it is largely because the other candidates have had so little to say. Yes, of course we have to win elections, because the people we represent cannot afford the luxury of oppositionism. But we need values, a clarity of vision and an understanding that you do not win by aping the political framing set out by your opponents. It’s argued that Corbyn as leader would lose the next election – but, in all honesty, has anything we have heard from the other candidates suggested that they can bring back those millions of voters who have deserted Labour, either for UKIP or abstention, since the high-water mark of 2001? 
In other words he's giving his party a sense of direction (and not, as in Trump's case a direction that will lead them over the edge of a cliff).

Three considerations spring to mind:
  1. As far as I'm concerned, Corbyn makes some reasonable points - there are plenty of economists who'd agree with him that austerity and deficit fetishism were bad ideas which haven't worked. It also seems reasonable of him to point out that it doesn't look like a winning strategy to copy the policies of your opponents, only with a bit less conviction, especially when their policies are built on such shaky foundations.
  2. Although he does (in my opinion) make a reasonable case, it might be that, rational or not, his arguments lie so far outwith the prevailing Overton Window that Labour's best strategy is to go Tory-lite, bide its time and maybe hope to sneak through a few vaguely progressive bits of legislation, should the Conservatives make enough mistakes, or have enough bad luck ('events, my dear boy, events') to give their opponents the opportunity to govern. But a weak, me-too opposition that's permanently on the back foot is precisely what the Conservatives would like most, isn't it? Which brings me to my third consideration:
  3. The Telegraph seems to believe that it is a self-evident truth that Corbyn (or a Labour Party which accepts his views) is unelectable. But do they sincerely believe that? Maybe they're just spinning the idea that 'of course' adopting any political programme that deviates from the orthodoxy of the last few years must be a suicidal mistake and smearing the only person promoting those ideas as the loser the Conservative would really like to be up against. It wouldn't surprise me to find out that what people of a Telegraph frame of mind would really like is an opposition that has conceded the battle of ideas to the Tories and lacks the confidence to challenge the staus quo either in opposition or government.
Do the right really see Corbyn's candidacy as a Trump-style joke, or are they just pretending, in order to make mischief? I don't know for sure, but I suspect that they fear his relatively coherent ideas rather more than American liberals fear whatever assortment of semi-digested nuggets Donald Trump's next bulimic brain dump will heave up.

Mind you, maybe we shouldn't always dismiss the threat of the actual joker in the pack. After all, we already have our own self-promoting, incoherent, xenophobic bombastic, Tronald Dump equivalent in Britain and his unexpected appeal looks like a real problem (and not just for the right, as some people, including me, once complacently predicted).

*Bonus trivia factoid - I've only just found out why the word 'oaf' is used to describe a foolish person:
Oaf. A variant of the old English ælf ('elf'). A foolish lout or dolt is so called from the notion that an idiot is a CHANGELING, a child left by the fairies in place of a stolen one.

Changeling. A peevish, sickly child. The notion used to be that the fairies took a healthy child and left in its place one of their starveling elves which never thrived. The word literally means 'changed person'.
From Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

I'm guessing that J R R Tolkien, as a professor of Anglo-Saxon, must have been aware of this, although in his fiction, the noble, beautiful, immortal elves hardly fit the picture of elves as clodhopping oafs. Maybe he just opted to ignore this piece of folklore when creating his mythos, or perhaps he reasoned that elves are some kind of appalling eugenicist master race, banishing any less-than-perfect child to be raised by the human untermenschen, leaving an eleven society composed only of healthy stock. Maybe somebody who got further than the first few chapters of The Hobbit and knows more about Middle Earth that merely having seen a couple of the film adaptations might know a bit more.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust

Yesterday, I pretended, for rhetorical purposes, that the New Horizons probe had a passenger on its voyage to Pluto and beyond. I was making a point about a delusional lack of any sense of proportion or empathy centred around a petty, vindictive power struggle that's causing pointless misery on our planet to no purpose that I can see, other than to save face for people who have the power to change course away from an ever-deepening human-engineered catastrophe, but seemingly lack the will or wit to do so.

Looking up from the gutter and back at the stars, New Horizons really does have a passenger - although he's no longer among the living. The probe carries an aluminium capsule, no longer than a typical USB memory stick, bearing the following inscription:
Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system’s ‘third zone.’ Adelle and Muron’s boy, Patricia’s husband, Annette and Alden’s father, astronomer, teacher, punster, and friend: Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997).
Not only ('only??') a fantastic scientific and technical achievement, then, but the most awesome resting place in all of human history. Ever.

Humans have devised some impressive - and sometimes appalling - ways to honour their dead, at least those deemed by their society to merit special recognition. Ancient rulers buried among piles of glittering possessions and the bodies of servants and spouses sacrificed to signal the deceased's power and authority, sky burial on the towers of silence, being set adrift on a burning longboat, the tombs of generals, thronged with winged victories, angels intended to watch over a tomb stolen by a monarch, monuments to tyrants, built by slaves, the inscription on Sir Christopher Wren's tomb, which asks the reader who seeks his memorial to 'look around you' at the awe-inspiring cathedral he designed, the Taj Mahal, the pyramids...

But nobody, until now, could say of a real, once-living human being, 'we placed him among the stars.' Quite literally.

It's what the ancients did with mythic heroes, legendary queens and - bizarrely - with the hair of a real queen. It's only according to an extravagantly poetic legend that the golden locks of Queen Berenice II, (daughter of Magas of Cyrene and Queen Apama II, wife of King Ptolemy III Euergetes, third ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt), were placed among the stars by the goddess Aphrodite. But the remains of Clyde Tombaugh, from Streator, Illinois, are really on their way to the stars, where they'll still be drifting more than five billion or so years hence, when nothing's left of the pyramids but dust, being blown around the charred remains of Earth, if any winds still blow there.

You'd have to be already dead inside for that thought not to send a little shiver down your spine.

We are stardust. Now, for the first time in human history a human is returning , not only to dust, but also to the stars.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Athens, the view from Pluto

I'd always assumed that the New Horizons probe, currently whizzing through the outer darkness past the newly embiggened* former ninth planet, was travelling alone. But it's starting to look as if the little probe has picked up a hitchhiker, in the shape of Gideon Rachman, whose bizarre op-ed piece in the FT surely can't have been written by anybody currently living on this planet, or anywhere else within a few billion kilometers of it:
Europe woke up on Monday to a lot of headlines about the humiliation of Greece, the triumph of an all-powerful Germany and the subversion of democracy in Europe.

What nonsense. If anybody has capitulated, it is Germany. The German government has just agreed, in principle, to another multibillion-euro bailout of Greece — the third so far. In return, it has received promises of economic reform from a Greek government that makes it clear that it profoundly disagrees with everything that it has just agreed to. The Syriza government will clearly do all it can to thwart the deal it has just signed. If that is a German victory, I would hate to see a defeat.
From Gideon's unique perspective, which is apparently somewhere in the outer Solar System, it looks as if millions of carefree, happy Greeks are even now caught up in an explosion of dancing in the streets and on the taverna tables, to celebrate cutting a deal which - as far as I can see - gives no hint of relief from, or restructuring of, their crushing, unpayable mountain of debt, promises yet more punitive austerity, with no end in sight, formalises privatisation by the diktat of the occupying powers, along with the indefinite suspension of any hope of fiscal sovereignty, or effective democracy. That, I would suggest, looks considerably more like a defeat, than Rachman's alleged German capitulation.

I'm sure Gideon is right in thinking that The Syriza government will do all it can escape from the deal it signed with a loaded gun pressed to its head. But it was negotiating from a position of weakness from the start and has now been further hog-tied by a bunch of hard-faced control freaks, determined not to give a centimetre and, if possible, to break Syriza in the process, so 'all it can' looks as close to 'nothing' as makes no difference.

For the record, this is what a debtor with real power looks like:
Extension of credit was the most risky activity of all, and in the 1340s the Bardi and other leading banks discovered this to their sorrow. Both firms made the mistake of lending vast sums to King Edward III of England during the 1330s as he prepared for the conflict with France that became the Hundred Years’ War. The bankers soon realized that they had extended too much credit, but since they had already lent so much, they felt compelled to lend more, lest they lose what they had already lent. They also continued lending because they needed royal licenses for the export of medieval England’s great international product, wool, and lending to the king was the price they had to pay for permission to export. By 1343, when it became obvious that Edward was not going to score a speedy victory, the king repudiated his debts to the unpopular foreign bankers.

The amounts lost were enormous: 900,000 gold florins owed to the Bardi and 600,000 to the Peruzzi, none of it ever repaid. Both firms, and also several other Italian banks, were ruined; and since they also held money on deposit from wealthy individuals throughout Italy, their collapse spread financial loss far beyond their membership. The Peruzzi bank went into bankruptcy in 1343; the Bardi struggled on for three more years but were also liquidated.** 
As somebody put it earlier this year, the Syriza leaders are 'not King Edward III of England and cannot refuse to reimburse lenders. Greece cannot bankrupt lenders, imprison or assassinate (blackmail) them' (from an article written long before Varoufakis resigned).

*OK, not by very much, but every little helps, as they say.

**This is history so there is, of course, a more nuanced, revisionist version of the story. But the simple fact remains that Edward clearly won and his creditors lost.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Lightbulb moment

In which, thanks to the wonderful efficiency savings wrought by the privatisation of our utilities, Britain's heroic hard-working families have to put in a few extra unpaid hours' work, just to avoid having their pockets efficiently picked by the invisible hand:
Today the cause of that bafflement was the story about the "Big Six" Energy companies, and how we consumers aren't shopping around enough to find the best deals, and how the companies aren't encouraging us enough to do that...

...Part of me thinks, what a waste of human hours it is for us all to be surfing the web to find a better offer for basic services. Another part of me thinks that in another world (one I used to know), it was the long standing loyal customers that got the best deals, not those coming in for a quick entry offer for 'new boys'.

Another part of me wonders why on earth basic services are not just one tariff for all, under state control. Why on earth have a price competition for turning on the lights?
Mary Beard

Saturday, 11 July 2015

You're gonna need a bigger planet

According to Wikipedia 'The London Interbank Offered Rate is the average interest rate estimated by leading banks in London that the average leading bank would be charged if borrowing from other banks', which already sounds pretty dull. And as we know, 'Dullness is a huge fitness factor for bad stuff'. Here's Bill Black's creditable attempt to use the sheer mind-boggling scale of the LIBOR-rigging scandal to pull it out from the from the sheltering obscurity of dullness [my bold]:
...the LIBOR bid rigging cartel was the largest cartel in history, manipulating the prices of an estimated $300+ trillion in assets. That is a figure considerably larger than the world’s combined GDP

The world is not enough, apparently.

And thanks to lax regulation, enabled by friends in high places, it looks as if the people who enabled corruption on this almost incomprehensible scale will probably get away with it, maybe at the minor cost of pinning the blame on a few relatively junior employees and throwing them to the wolves (or, since we're in the UK, to a pack of toothless regulatory chihuahuas):
The sad truth is that as pathetic as the DOJ has been in this sphere, UK bankers know that the SFO is even more farcical. Hayes’ “revealed preference” in desperately seeking to avoid prosecution in the U.S. is a powerful demonstration of one of the reasons that the City of London “won” the regulatory and prosecutorial “race to the bottom” in finance and made the City the financial cesspool of the world. The SFO’s refusal to prosecute any of the City’s elite bankers and its creation of the fable of the innocent senior UBS managers deceived by the wily “Rain Man” are further proofs of why an external review of the SFO concluded that it had, de facto, largely decriminalized elite financial crimes. As weak as it already was, one of the Tories early acts was to slash the SFO’s funding to ensure that it would not prosecute the party’s corrupt banking patrons who are the party’s leading contributors.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

The lost poets of utility

In pre-literate Greece, the hidden purpose of poetry was to teach by entertaining; if it failed to entertain, it could not teach.

Evidence for this, Havelock argues, comes from later opinions. Aristophanes in Frogs called the master poets of old 'the poets of utility'.
From John Man's uneven but thought-provoking history of the alphabet, Alpha Beta .

The ways in which people can spread information have multiplied since the days of the Homeric bards. Instead of a single medium, the human voice, people can now use paper, printing, recording, telephony, broadcasting and the the Internet to spread information from one mind to many. Thanks to standing on the shoulders of giants, we live in a golden age of communication.

Or we should do. There's a problem. Not with the vast proliferation of media, but with the message. If the aim of communication is to spread useful knowledge, you'll succeed best if your communication is clear, vivid and memorable. Or, to use John Man's word, entertaining. In other words, almost entirely unlike this:
Among the most spirit-sapping indignities of office life is the relentless battering of workers' ears by the strangled vocabulary of management-speak. It might even seem to some innocent souls as though all you need to do to acquire a high-level job is to learn its stultifying jargon. Bureaucratese is a maddeningly viral kind of Unspeak engineered to deflect blame, complicate simple ideas, obscure problems, and perpetuate power relations.
The key phrase here is 'power relations' - being impenetrably dull is only a bug if you're genuinely trying to communicate with other people as equals. If you're trying to keep useful knowledge and power from the designated hoi polloi, it's a feature (see The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the pronouncements of the various Eurocrats and IMF wonks presiding over the Eurozone disaster, the house styles of most big, hierarchical organisations and so on ... and on and on and on).

The irony is that most people see a concern for style, clarity and searching for the memorable, even poetic phrase as an arty-farty, airy-fairy elite concern, whilst accepting dull, prosaic management-ese as the default mode of communication for the serious, practical, utilitarian business of real life.

As far as I can see, management-ese is the ultimate form of elitist (non) communication, a set of inscrutable hieroglyphs used by the high priests of the Cult of Management and their acolytes to exclude, bamboozle and intimidate the uninitiated.

For most other people, this style of communication is hopelessly inefficient and irrelevant - it doesn't entertain, so it's a terrible way to teach anything worth knowing. It's not just ugly, it's also the precise opposite of being utilitarian.

Or, as somebody who hasn't been retrofitted with the default management droid's tin ear for language might say, it's neither use nor ornament.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

I, for one, welcome our incredibly boring new overlords

 The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men and women  to be uninterested, according to Corey Doctorow:.
The reason TTIP and TPP are steamrolling on is that, like all the most dangerous evils in the world, they are profoundly boring. It is virtually impossible to get anyone out there interested in them, and so there's virtually no discussion of them, even though they will affect every bit of your life and your kids' lives, in ways large and small, ranging from whether the water in your tap comes out literally on fire to whether you're entitled to compensation when your employer's negligence maims you for life.

Dullness is a huge fitness factor for bad stuff.
Regardless of how accurate or otherwise all those stories of people lighting their water taps post-fracking are, I reckon the guy has a point about the stealth attributes of evil in a grey business suit.

Speaking of dullness, the short range forecast round these parts is for light to non-existent blogging due to other stuff I need to be getting on with, but it also feels like time for a natural break - time to stick my head outside the filter bubble for a while and maybe come back later with something a bit different.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Full spectrum response

[The prime minister] said IS posed "an existential threat" to the West, and its members in Iraq and Syria were plotting "terrible attacks" on British soil.

Mr Cameron - who chaired another meeting of the Cobra emergency committee on Monday morning - said the UK must have a "full-spectrum response" to the IS threat - including continuing with air strikes.

Two things:
  1.  The threat is not existential. The Tunisia attack was horrible - horrible in the same way as another recent attack by a frustrated, gun-wielding young man against the designated scapegoats of his peculiar ideology - but, contrary to what you might read in the Daily Mail, the armies of the Caliph aren't currently massed at Calais, poised to hit our beaches, roll over our armed forces and impose hand-chopping Sharia on everyone in these islands, from the Scilly Isles to Stromness.
  2. A 'full spectrum response' might imply a well thought out, methodical, rational, attempt to quantify every aspect of the threat and calmly implement an evidence-based, proportionate reaction to every element of the problem. Experience suggests that 'full spectrum response' will probably translate as 'throwing any random shit we can think of at the problem in the hope that some of it will stick', a view reinforced by the desperate attempt to imply that the case for ever-more intrusive mass surveillance of the British public has somehow been made by the indoctrination of a Tunisian citizen in Libya.
If you want to know what the 'random shit' version of a full spectrum response looks like in more detail, consider the reaction of the American religious right to the recent US Supreme Court ruling on equal marriage:
Conservative Christianity promises full spectrum response to gay spectrum threat
  1. Again there's hype about an alleged existential threat, this time to religious freedom. This time, not only is the physical threat exaggerated, but it's actually non-existent (unless I missed some news bulletins about equal marriage fanatics mowing conservative Christians down with automatic weapons). Extending the rights of one group to marry doesn't threaten the rights of people with different beliefs to marry, believe or worship as they've always done in any way at all.*
  2. The stuff being thrown at the not-really-existential threat is jaw-droppingly random (I'm using the modern, colloquial sense of 'random' as in 'totally off the wall and uncoordinated'). Two ... er ... random examples:
First, there's the guy who insists that a few unconnected Bible passages quoted out of context constitute a clear and specific prophecy that the USA will shortly be punished for its tolerance of same-sex marriage by being destroyed by Vladimir Putin's irreproachably homophobic Russia.

Second, there's our old friend Steve Kellmeyer at The Fifth Column, with his own unique variation on the slippery slope argument. I've already seen plenty of equal marriage opponents asserting that permitting gay marriage is just the same as allowing people to marry their parents, siblings, multiple partners, or pet animals, but this is the first time I've actually seen anybody come up with the idea that if, as a society, we tolerate gay marriage, we might just as well tolerate rape.

Yep, same-sex marriage, rape, morally equivalent, apparently. Interestingly, somebody in the comments raises the obvious point that, these days, all marriage is (or should be) consensual, whereas rape, by definition, is not. Kellmeyer's response is also interesting:
Monkeys tear each other apart and eat each other, but that doesn't make cannibalism acceptable. Just because we consent to something, that doesn't make it acceptable, or good, or something that thereby becomes impossible to question. 
And there was me thinking that one of the moral problems with cannibalism, or eating another sentient being, might involve lack of consent on the part of the party being torn apart and eaten.

In short, the religious right seem to be throwing every sort of bizarre argument, from every place on the spectrum, at the enemy in the hope that something will hit home and ending up with something like a textbook example of Poe's Law ('without a clear indicator of the author's intent, parodies of extremism are indistinguishable from sincere expressions of extremism').

Of course, for somebody of my generation, a proper full Spectrum response would involve an indestructible puppet man with a campy red hat and and the voice of Cary Grant:

Off the wall, I know, but it makes at least as much sense as any of the other full spectrum responses I've been seeing lately.

*Self-inflicted threats, like the hilarious Australian couple who vowed they'd divorce out of sheer spite, if their country ever allowed people of the same gender to marry one another, don't count.