Thursday, 29 December 2016

Intentional buffoonery

This, from 2005, might explain a few things about our current political landscape:
...we argue here that in an age of escalating global resource war and in the face of an omnipresent corporate entertainment industry, we are now witnessing a subtle, intentional and seemingly permanent transition to the politics of distraction. Celebrities become politicians, and politicians aspire to become celebrities as voters are relegated to the role of fans. All the while, power is ever more concentrated in the hands of a few who stage manage pseudo-events from behind the scenes.

Without independent access to information about what occurs behind the scenes, the public is ever more marginalized and diverted from effective engagement as citizens. In the most powerful democracy on Earth, with non-stop media coverage of political celebrities, national politics have become a sideshow where clowns and buffoons strut and bellow across a movable stage to divert the public’s attention from what is really shaping their lives and determining the future fate of the planet. This shift to a permanent politics of distraction deserves deliberate scrutiny if we hope to move beyond it...
From From Sidekick to Sideshow -- Celebrity, Entertainment and the Politics of Distraction: Why Americans Are “Sleepwalking Toward the End of the Earth”, by Timothy C. Weiskel, published in the American Behavioral Scientist, Volume 49, Number 3.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas...

Where the treetops glisten and children listen.
To hear sleigh bells tank tracks in the snow
Because there's something oddly Christmassy about a parade of wartime Soviet tanks, crewed by cartoon Japanese schoolgirls, singing songs from The Great Patriotic War in what I'm told is hilariously Japanese-accented Russian. Just a more dieselpunky version of sleigh rides and carols, really:
Girls und Panzer has apparently been around for some while, but I still can't quite get my head round its sheer mind-bending weirdness, which makes it as appropriate a way to round off this screwed-up year as John Oliver's highly NSFW, but understandable, response.

Amyway, however you choose to celebrate the solstitial holiday, have a happy one and a preposterous New Year.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

" have the tone of a frenzied man and you boast of it..."

To or against those who obstinately persist in what they have determined

When some persons have heard these words, that a man ought to be constant, and that the will is naturally free and not subject to compulsion, but that all other things are subject to hindrance, to slavery, and are in the power of others, they suppose that they ought without deviation to abide by everything which they have determined. But in the first place that which has been determined ought to be sound. I require tone in the body, but such as exists in a healthy body, in an athletic body; but if it is plain to me that you have the tone of a frenzied man and you boast of it, I shall say to you, "Man, seek the physician": this is not tone, but atony.
Epictetus the stoic - Discourses, Book 2, Chapter 15

Monday, 19 December 2016

Another British value

I've got three specific reasons to think that Sajid Javid's plan to make public office holders swear an oath to "British values" is nothing more than the impressively noisy clang an ambitious politician can make by hitting hollow rhetoric hard enough:
  1. "Values": Most people are broadly in favour of things like democracy, equality and freedom of speech, so long as they're so broadly defined as to be meaningless. But few people believe in absolute free speech and there are plenty of meaningful differences between people about where the limits of free speech lie (hate speech against different groups, blasphemy, how broadly or narrowly defamation laws should be drawn, etc). The same goes for equality (how much economic equality do we want to build into our society and how much do we want to leave to unregulated competition and what about affirmative action versus non-intervention when it comes to gender and disability and racial discrimination?) and democracy (does a referendum result trump parliamentary democracy, if we are now taking decisions of national importance by referendum, should we be institutionalising some form of direct democracy, or if we're still a parliamentary democracy, wouldn't proportional representation be more democratic than the system we have, how exactly is out bloated, unelected House of Lords compatible with democracy, etc?).
  2. "British": there are plenty of other countries where democracy, equality and freedom of speech are held in high esteem. It's even possible that some in some other countries, people might enjoy more of these things than we do in the UK* (I know it's hard to believe that we don't self-evidently live in the most democratic, equal and free-speaking country in the entire world, but even this extraordinarily counter-intuitive proposition might actually turn out to be true).
  3. "Oath": When your job depends on paying lip-service to a set of values, it's not that hard to lie about your true beliefs. I once worked for a large company that had an - arguably vague and platitudinous, but well-meaning - equality and anti-discrimination policy. Everybody was supposed to do a bit of computer-based training to demonstrate diversity awareness and everybody duly passed the module. Thanks to the WikiLeaks dump of the British National Party's membership list, I know for a fact that one of the people who achieved a pass in diversity awareness was actually a member of the aforementioned fascist organisation. Belonging to an extremist party which actively loathed the very ideas of  diversity and equality was not, it seemed, any barrier to completing an official anti-bigotry module to a perfectly acceptable standard.
So mostly it's just nonsense. You could, I suppose, point to some values which are, if not exclusively British (sorry, rest of the UK), at least things that the British are supposed to have more of than most other people. For me, pragmatism is the first one which springs to mind. Continentals are supposed to have have universal, all-inclusive, overarching schemes, from the philosophical (Hegel's concept of a Weltgeist or "world spirit", or Nietzsche's "will to power"), to the legal, (the completionist legal codes of Justinian and Napoleon), to the pseudo-scientific (Freud's make-it-up-as-you-go-along universal explanation of all human psychology as the working out of an incestuous sexual psychodrama), to the administrative (France's Grand Projects, a term identified with François Mitterrand, but continuing a tradition that goes back to Versailles and Haussmann's remodelling of Paris).

The British, by contrast are supposed to muddle through, to make do and mend. Supposedly, examples abound. The piecemeal evolution of the Common Law, the almost accidental adoption and evolution of an established church founded on no higher principle than the desire of one monarch to remarry and sire a male heir, the unplanned, incrementally developed map of London, as opposed to the visionary remaking of Paris, the bit by bit accretion of our not-written-down-in-any-one-place constitution, the unplanned compromises of the UK's constitutional monarchy (OK, the UK shares this feature/bug this with a few other countries, but Britain, in particular, has spent an awful long time perfecting the art of the royal fudge  - which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like an item from Prince Charles's Duchy Originals range of high-class comestibles).

It is, in short, the British way is to try things and see whether they work in the real world. If so, the Brits go with it, without worrying too deeply about whether they fit into some grandiose, all-encompassing ideology, vision or scheme. If not, we stop doing it and try something else. That's not quite such a universal, impressive-sounding value to claim as democracy, equality and free speech, but being pragmatic is still a reasonably good thing to be known for and you could, arguably, claim that the Brits have more of a right to lay claim to the virtue of pragmatism than many other countries.

But if we can make a slightly more convincing case for pragmatism as a specifically British sort of value, our presumably pro-British values government isn't displaying very much of that quality (I'm making the assumption that Sajid wasn't going completely off-piste with his suggestion, which seems in tune with the generally nationalist tone of the rhetoric coming from the May administration).

A lot of the the other stuff coming out of government at the moment sounds less like a pragmatic plan, based on a sober assessment of the situation, than a grandiose fantasy based on pure wish-fulfilling delusion, undiluted by reality. These, from the parodic Twitter hashtag #brexitopportunity (h/t Tom Pride), are satire, but the attitude sounds dangerously close to the sort of delusional mind-dumps that have been plopping out of the Department for Exiting the European Union's bunker lately:
"Tesco sell more to me than they buy from me, so if they want my custom they'll accept MY terms or they'll be sorry!"

"Stopped sending my kids to school. I'm going to negotiate with individual teachers to make sure I get the very best deal"

"I’ve sacked the police. I’m going to negotiate with individual criminals to leave me alone. They want a small fee."

"Decided to bin Apple Music and negotiate individual music deals with all my favourite artists"
Maybe the very people who are keenest to wrap themselves in the flag are the same ones who paradoxically display that most un-British failing, a massive pragmatism deficit.

Or maybe, Britain just isn't the pragmatic place of our flattering self-image - after all, as I'm well aware, my examples of pragmatism are all anecdotal, unquantifiable and generally not particularly rigorous. Maybe counter-examples exist.

Alternatively, maybe Britain used to be a pragmatic place but it isn't any more. After all, the idea of a national character isn't a fixed thing. Before 1997, Britons were thought to display a stiff upper lip and be emotionally reserved. Then Princess Diana died and massive outpourings of public emotion were, apparently, the British way.

Go back far enough, though, and it turns out the national stereotype of emotional reserve, which supposedly died in 1997, was once itself a new and unusual facet of the national character. At an earlier point, in the 18th Century, when the cultivation of sensibility was seen as a high-status social skill, bewigged and powdered gentlefolk competed with one another to see who could display the most effusive outbursts of tearful emotion on any suitably affecting occasion (the lower orders were, then as now, expected to just suck it up, being thought too brutish and insensible to feeling to emote to the same refined degree as their betters).

I'm guessing that the transition from emotionality being celebrated to the cult of the British stiff upper lip started some time around 1811, when Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility made a heroine of the sensible, pragmatic, emotionally restrained Elinor Dashwood and gently mocked the more emotionally self-indulgent sensibilities of her sensitive sister, Marianne.

Or maybe pragmatism, or emotionalism, or a love of democracy, or free speech, or equality are all complicated, changeable things, too nuanced to be reduced to the cretinous oversimplification of a jingoistic oath, asserting exclusive national ownership of particular human values?

*I'm assuming that Sajid intended to include the Northern Irish part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in his Great British Values Loyalty Oath Crusade, but "UK values" presumably just didn't trip of the tongue quite as readily as "British values." I'm convinced that Her Majesty's Government totally sees Northern Ireland as an integral, valued, part of the United Kingdom family and definitely not some sort of poor relation, or afterthought. Honest.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

"He died a much richer man than you'll ever be..."

Time, I think, for a festive addition to the growing subgenre of filmography which I'll call The Donald - A Warning from [Movie] History. Through the workaday parts of the year we've seen auguries of the coming of The Orange One in Citizen Kane, Back to the Future II and Goldfinger, among others.  But at this special time of celebration and goodwill, perhaps some Americans will wake up on Christmas morning and realise that they've slipped into the alternative timeline from that all-American seasonal favourite It's A Wonderful Life - the one where kindly, public-spirited George Baily was never born and the whole town has become the plaything of Mr Potter, the greedy, bullying, mean-spirited businessman and his rich cronies.

You'd have hoped that most people of voting age would have understood the film's not-exactly-subtle message about what constitutes a wonderful life by now:
But apparently not. Welcome to Trumpsville, USA.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

The left-right divide

I found out a couple of moderately interesting things about left and right recently. One thing was to do with literal physical orientation and the other thing was about an anecdotally extreme position on the left-right political spectrum.

Literal right and left first. I'd never actually thought about the origins of the words "starboard" and "port" for the different sides of a vessel, but, as this short video shows, they're quite interesting (spoiler - "starboard" is way older than "port"):
So there you go. I must admit that I've always been slightly irritated by such exclusive bits of jargon - for example, when electricians insist on calling an electric light a "lamp." How does that convey any more information than calling it a "light" like everybody else? It doesn't, as far as I can see. I sort of feel the same way about "port" and "starboard", but I know I shouldn't, because the nautical terms do actually add some useful extra information - you know that you're talking about left or right relative to the vessel, not to yourself, or to the person you're speaking to.

What I should really be irritated with is the English language, for lacking such a useful distinction in everyday speech and relegating it to the specific jargon of sailors and aviators, or motorists (nearside and offside), or actors (stage right and stage left). You don't have to be a sailor, petrolhead* or thespian to feel a need for equivalent terms to banish all those entirely avoidable everyday linguistic misunderstandings ("Where is it?", "It's over there, on the left", "Where? I can't see it!", "Sorry, I meant on my left."). If we could all agree to use port and starboard, or equivalent clarifying terms, as well as the words right and left (which could then be reserved exclusively for right and left from the speaker's perspective), such silly microirritations could become things of the past.

On to the political right and left, now.  For as long as I can remember, lefties and liberals have jokily referred to people they considered very right wing as "to the right of Genghis Khan." The phrase started to sound a bit silly by the mid/late 90s, and right up to the last year or so, not only because it had become very hackneyed by then, but because traditional conservative, authoritarian right-wingery was seemingly being superseded by a culturally cosmopolitan right, which had no problem with women, minorities, or people with non-traditional lifestyles (at least with the ones who didn't commit the unforgivable sin of being scroungers skivers moochers poor), but still wanted to privatise and monetise everything in sight.

Now authoritarian cultural conservatism is back with a vengeance, but it turns out that Genghis Khan might not be its most appropriate avatar:
It was in an earlier best-selling volume that Weatherford persuasively argued that the 25-year blitzkrieg mounted by Genghis and his cavalries — who, in “the most extensive war in world history” beginning in 1206, swept mercilessly and unstoppably over the Altai Mountains to their west and the Gobi Desert to their south — brought civilization, fairness, meritocracy and avuncular kindliness to legions of undeserving satrapies across Eurasia. Those who believed Genghis to be a tyrant of monstrous heartlessness have thus lately come to think otherwise: Weatherford’s writings present us revisionist history on a grand scale, but one as scrupulously well researched (with ample endnotes) as such an intellectual overhaul needs to be.

Now, with “Genghis Khan and the Quest for God” he has taken his thesis still further, arguing with equal fervor and conviction that the Khan, though godless himself, favored total religious freedom for his subjugated millions. While his empire encompassed “Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Confucians, Zoroastrians, Manichaeans, Hindus, Jews, Christians and animists of different types” (Weatherford’s passions for lists can sometimes seem like stylistic overkill), he was eager that all should “live together in a cohesive society under one government.” No walls to be built, no immigration bans, no spiritual examinations.
Simon Winchester in the New York Times, via.

I haven't read Weatherford, and the usual massive health warnings about applying anachronistic** modern political labels to historical figures apply, but I now have to at least consider the possibility that, by the standards of the time, Genghis was a pretty chill dude and not just an intolerant precursor of Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells with an axe and a fur hat.

With so many extreme right wingers crawling out of the woodwork, it's high time we replaced Genghis Khan comparisons with something a bit fresher, anyway.

*Just had to change "petrolhead" back from "Petrograd" as (un)helpfully amended by my tablet's autocomplete.

** As anachronistic, say, as Winchester's use of the word "satrapies" to describe provinces which existed over half a millennium after the fall of the last Sassanid.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Anodyne death from the skies

It's political correctness gone mad ... apparently:

New British flying robot killer death machines renamed 'Protector' 

'Reaper' and 'Predator' were too aggressive...apparently

The Ministry of Defence has tried to re-brand its latest batch of airborne death machines as “Protector” drones rather than their actual trade name of Reaper.
grumbled Gareth Corfield at The Register recently.

This comes as no great surprise to me, as the Brits have got previous when it comes to making America's winged weapons of war sound a whole lot less cool and frightening. Back in the Second World War, the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm acquired a load of relatively fast and modern American planes to supplement the slow and antiquated British designs its carrier squadrons had been using at the outbreak of the war. These new planes included the Grumman F4F fighter, which the Americans called the "Wildcat" and the Grumman TBF torpedo bomber, known in America as the "Avenger."

The British authorities decided that these names were good enough for our American cousins but not quite classy enough for us, so they renamed the Wildcat in British service the "Martlet." What's a Martlet?
 Image credit

A martlet in English heraldry is a heraldic charge depicting a stylized bird similar to a house martin or swallow, with stylised feet. It should be distinguished from the merlette of French heraldry, which is a duck-like bird with a swan-neck and chopped-off beak and legs.
Great name - if you spent your childhood years nerdily obsessing over The Observer's Book of Heraldry. For almost everybody else, ridiculously obscure and a bit rubbish. Still, I guess that a few of the officer class might have got it, given that the Royal Navy boasted some senior officers of startlingly impressive aristocratic pedigree, including Lord Mountbatten (born "His Serene Highness Prince Louis of Battenberg") and that scion of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark.

Maybe people who were born a "serene highness", or had a family name that was longer than the average commoner's postal address, lived in a world where knowing your heraldic devices was a day to day life skill, like being able to wire a plug. Perhaps the person who came up with the name "Martlet" was just used to hob-nobbing with nobs like this?

To be fair, although "Wildcat" was a far better name, it wasn't a very good fit with the appearance of the F4F, a tubby machine which looked more like an overfed domestic moggie than a rangy, untamed predator:
Bagpuss takes to the skies!*

OK, it looked slightly less like an aeroplane from a Rupert Bear cartoon than its stubby radial-engined near-contemporaries, the Boeing P-26 and Polikarpov I-16, but not much.

Still, appearances can be deceptive - the legendary Eric "Winkle" Brown (who went on to fly more different types of aircraft than anybody else ever has, or probably ever will), flew the innocuous-looking Wildcat/Martlet in combat and thought pretty highly of it (Michael Gove may think that people are "tired" of listening to experts, but I still have this perverse, old-fashioned preference for listening to the opinions of people who might actually know what they're talking about, rather than the noisily uninformed wibblings of virtually fact-free political rent-a-gobs).

As for the aggressive-sounding Avenger, the British decided for ... reasons, to rename it the "Tarpon", after a big fish that most British people had probably never heard of (although the name would have meant something to, say, Florida game fishers). Bonus points for choosing a name that sounds almost like "tampon." I'm not entirely sure whether the unintentional schoolboy humour is anachronistic - Tampax, apparently, first hit the US market in the early 1930s and whether tampons were a thing in 1940s Britain, I don't know, although if I had to guess, I'd imagine that the supply of innovative feminine hygiene products was low to non-existent in a U-boat blockaded country where stocks of everything were low to non-existent.

Later in the war, in a tacit admission that their naming abilities had been pretty woeful, the relevant British authorities relented and retrospectively decided to use the original American names for the Royal Navy's Lend-Lease Wildcats and Avengers. By the time the RN were adding the late-war US Corsair and Hellcat aircraft to Fleet Air Arm squadrons, nobody even thought about mucking around with the planes' names any more.

So, considering the British authorities' previous attempts at re-naming American kit, they could have done a lot worse than "Protector."

I'm not even sure that "Protector" even marks some sort of new low in the art of military euphemism. When the RAF got its hands on some American B-24 heavy bombers during the Second World War and wanted to name the big beasts, the name it came up with was "Liberator." Even in that undeniably just war, it's stretching credulity to imagine that the recipients of a stick of high-explosive bombs from a Liberator's capacious bomb bay would have looked around the smoking ruins and considered themselves liberated, any more than the survivors of a wedding party accidentally blown to hell by a Protector's Brimstone missile would feel themselves protected, but there you go.

*Updated - original Wildcat / Martlet image (nicked from Wikipedia article), replaced by relevant illustrations from British Air Forces, a wartime picture supplement / collectable, published by The Illustrated London News.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The King and I

I still don't know for sure whether Thailand's erratic new King, Maha Vajiralongkorn, is a genuine kook, or just a sufficiently advanced troll.

What I do know for sure is that it's risky to even ask the question, as Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, the first person to be arrested for lèse-majesté under the new monarch, has recently discovered. So we won't be spending 2017's big family holiday on the beaches of Phuket (a cynic would point out that we couldn't afford it anyway, but it's way cooler to say that we can't go because my subversive comments about the head of state put me in danger of arrest).

Those of us who live in countries which still enjoy free speech can joke about it now, but for Mr Boonpattararaksa and many other Thais, life under a thin-skinned authoritarian elite is no joke.

With the USA's erratic new president threatening his critics with financially crippling lawfare, street-level authoritarian buffoons agitating to criminalise dissent and massively intrusive surveillance networks tirelessly watching us all for signs of subversion and deviancy, those of us in the formerly free(ish) world may soon find that the joke's on us. If authoritarianism becomes the new normal, the question of whether our masters are kooks or trolls will have become academic - whichever it is, you won't be able to say it out loud, at least if you know what's good for you.

Monday, 5 December 2016

The unelected

A lot of politicians and commentators seem to be very cross about the idea that people who have never been elected might have some say in important decisions about the nation's future. I'm a bit depressed to see the independent judiciary being attacked for simply doing its job, (interpreting and enforcing the existing law), but at least it's slightly cheering to know that there are people out there who, though confused, are seemingly so passionate about democracy.

Unfortunately this passion for the will of the people seems to be a bit selective in some cases. This, for example, is what Jacob Rees-Mogg was thinking in November:
North East Somerset MP Jacob Rees-Mogg believes adding nearly 1,000 Brexit-supporting peers in the House of Lords would speed up the negotiation process between the UK and the European Union.

Mr Rees-Mogg, who backed the Brexit campaign ahead of June's referendum, also believes Article 50 would be voted out of Parliament...

...Speaking to the Daily Mail Mr Rees-Mogg, whose constituency includes areas such as Bathampton and Keynsham said: "I think most MPs accept the will of the people and will vote for Article 50.

"If that turns out to be wrong, it's definitely a matter of confidence and there would have to be a general election.

"If the Lords was obstructive we would just have to create 1,000 peers."
Jacob's modest proposal would leave us with a parliament made up of 650 people who were elected* and around 1,820 unelected peers. Because making sure that the people we voted for are outnumbered more than two to one by unelected, titled, appointees is what taking back control from an unaccountable elite looks like, apparently.

*or 600, if the people who want to slim down the elected chamber get their way.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Mission statement of the day

The world leader of professional syrup
This would be perfect if it belonged to one of the advertising agencies responsible for 2016's slew of heartwarming Christmas TV ads. In the real world, though, I spotted it on the back of an old bottle of sirop de cassis, that posh version of Ribena you can glug into white wine to make kir.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Fashion, gender and interior lighting

I've been slightly obsessed with Lindybeige's YouTube channel lately. Here he is, talking about why cloaks are really quite good:
Sadly, like the man said, you can no longer wear this simple, but very useful, garment which has been a standard item in most peoples' wardrobes, in most societies, for most of human history, in public, because people will think you're some kind of nutter.

Or can you? I think that the answer is probably "no" if you're a guy, but I wonder whether this might be a practical* fashion trend for the ladies. After all, plenty of women already wear various types of wraps, shawls, pashminas and ponchos without having their sanity questioned and a cloak is only a wrap's bigger, heavier, cousin.

It would even out the gender imbalance for women to be able to wear something practical that men can't, for a change. At the moment, when it comes to day to day comfort and practicality, we guys have a far easier time than women. To pick just one example, think about shoes.

Smart or casual, it's easy to find a presentable pair of men's shoes that you can comfortably walk as far as you need to in. For style-conscious women, the choice mostly seems to be between wearing something smart or something you can walk about in pain-free (choose only one of the above). Even when women choose something that any reasonable person would consider smart, like a formal flat, or court, shoe, there are still people who think it's OK to pressure them into wearing something painful and impractical instead, because reasons.

Moving on from things that people used in the past because they were practical, here's another Lindybeige vid, about things that people didn't use in the past, because they were totally impractical - blazing torches (as a form of interior lighting):
So, forget Hollywood, the castles and banqueting halls of Ye Olden Tymes weren't lit by blazing torches in brackets. Another medieval trope bites the dust.

I could mention this to my son, whose Minecraft creations are mainly lit with the ubiquitous torches which compete with a fictional substance, glowstone, as the primary source of interior and exterior lighting in Minecraft World. But I won't. Minecraft, you see, just like the Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, but unlike history, is allowed to take such liberties, because it isn't real.

That should be an obvious point, but in this idiotic year, when "post-truth" has entered both the dictionary and the mainstream, actually pointing out the difference between things that literally exist in the real world and things that are totally made-up fantasies feels like a revolutionary, probably subversive, act.

*OK, I realise that a heavy woollen cloak, though it might keep you warm and dry, is also absorbent and will get heavy and smell like a wet dog after being rained on (as well as steaming up any room, public transport compartment, or vehicle you might enter after being out in a heavy downpour). But this is 2016 and clothing manufacturers have access to a wider range of fabrics and water-repellant coatings than ever before in human history, so this isn't necessarily a deal-breaker.

Friday, 18 November 2016


Fraser Nelson thinks that our government has a Brexit strategy. This isn't necessarily a good thing.

If, he's wrong, we're screwed. If he's right, we're probably screwed, too, because he thinks that the cunning plan at the heart of the most crucial economic decision for generations is a version of the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). I'm really not kidding:
There is another way to handle these talks. Richard Nixon called it the Madman theory, where you let your opponent think you’re crazy enough to act destructively....

...Mrs May’s best Brexit strategy may lie in her presenting herself as someone who is unafraid of a fight, doesn’t really mind who she upsets – and is, above all, capable of doing anything. 
The full think piece is here (Telegraph subscription required).

What's wrong with this picture? Two things:

First, if your entire negotiating strategy depends on bluff, intimidation and picking fights, it's really important that your opponents think that you are stronger than they are, or they'll call your bluff and give you a good kicking.

In this particular fight, there are 27 of them, versus one of us.

Over half of our exports go to the 27 countries we've decided to pick a fight with. They only export 6.6% of their stuff to us. They know this. But the British government's plan* is, apparently, to hope that the rest of Europe just hasn't noticed that we're bringing a custard pie to a knife fight.

Second, two can play at that game. We can try to convince them that we're a bunch of dangerous lunatics by making Boris Johnson our chief diplomat, but look who we're up against. The man who put the "mad" into Mutually Assured Destruction, Doctor Strangelove Schäuble. The man who was prepared to destroy Greece, just to remind it who's boss. If Mrs May stands up in an EU meeting and starts banging the desk with one of her kitten heels, like a huffy Khrushchev, would you really bet folding money that Doctor S will blink first? I wouldn't.

The upside of all this is that I really don't have time to worry about Trump - I'm way too busy being terrified of how insane British politicians seem to be, assuming that their plans are anything like as crazy as their fans in the media seem to imagine.

*If this is the plan, and not just a piece of Torygraph columnist fanfic, where Theresa May is the stern dominatrix

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Golden words he will pour in your ear...

...but his lies can't disguise what you fear...
Respectable movie buffs say that Citizen Kane predicted Trump. But if old action movies are your guilty pleasure, we've got you covered, too. Look no further than the villain of the third (and best, IMO) movie in the James Bond franchise, the eponymous Auric Goldfinger:

Watching the Trump generation of post-truth authoritarian nationalists gleefully kerb-stomp what's left of liberal democracy won't be pretty, but the sound track will be awesome:

Monday, 14 November 2016

About the golden door...

The prospectus sounds great:
Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
But, huddled masses, please note:

  1. That golden door opens onto a crooked billionaire 's penthouse and is strictly off limit to bums like you.
  2. Only kidding about the storied pomp - we're totally cool with that stuff.
  3. Just in case you start getting any ideas, the golden door is guarded by these two characters and they ain't letting nobody in:
Now go back where you came from, losers, we got a wall to build.

Image credit for the image worth crediting.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

And some, I assume, are good people

Well, the Trumpocalypse didn't seem that likely back in September 2015, at least to me:
But if we want a meaningful measure of what a great wizard Oink Balloon is, we should define some goals beforehand. Here are three simple metrics to assess the success of Oink Balloon's alleged wizardry. In order of increasing improbability, 1. Oink Balloon becomes the Republican presidential candidate, 2. Oink Balloon is elected President, 3. Oink Balloon persuades the Mexican government to erect, at its own expense, a wall, chicken wire fence, or whatever, to stop its own citizens from trying to enter the Land of the Free and the Home of the Slightly Deranged (as it will be known, in the unlikely event that condition 2. is ever met). If Oink Balloon achieves any one of these, I'll concede that there's something here that requires explanation.
At least we're not short of explanations - there are almost too many. I'm mostly happy to go with the unoriginal theory that Trump happens when people realise they've been Fukuyama'd.

That's to say that Trumpism was an equal and opposite reaction to the self-congratulatory elite consensus that America had arrived at the End of History and discovered the best of all possible worlds, a proposition that probably didn't impress folk who hadn't seen a real wage rise in a generation and a half and were working harder, with less job security for their pittances, (assuming they were lucky enough to have a job, or the two or three jobs it takes many to make ends meet). In short, the left behind gave politics as usual a massive middle finger.

But that can't be the whole story. After all, it was Scott Adams who spent this election cycle telling us all that the tangerine huckster was a great and powerful wizard and Scott's had a very successful career, definitely not finding himself left behind (except by members of the reality-based community - he may have called the election, but Scott's Trump eulogies have had all the self-justifying craziness of The Donald's own 3am tweets). Scott, I think, falls partly into the entitled, mens' rights activist subset of Trump fandom, although there's a deeper level of psychological identification going on here, between a seriously needy guy, desperate to force the world to acknowledge his unique genius, and the alpha narcissist himself:
Finally the endless, orgiastically affirming victories (“The Master Persuader filter continues to predict with spooky accuracy”). Every time Trump wins, Adams wins, too—Trump is the giant crushing his rivals one by one; Adams is the genius who saw that he would do it.
Political correctness also played a part. Not the phony political correctness complained about by the various reactionary bigots who feel that they can't be truly free unless they're bullying and demeaning women/racial minorities/LGBT people/the disabled.

What I'm talking about is the actually existing form of political correctness in mainstream politics and the media, which defines what are - and aren't - "legitimate concerns." It is, apparently, "legitimate" to be concerned that foreigners are coming for your job, your job security, your services, your access to housing, or your culture. Your concerns, however, stop being legitimate as soon as you mention who's actually been hogging most of the pie in our increasingly unequal societies, while the rest of us have been scrabbling for crumbs - the super rich, the offshoring corporations and high net worth individuals who get to dodge paying tax, the bailed-out bankers, landlords, other rent-creamers and the rest. Start being concerned about what they've been up to and your concerns are delegitimised as whinging, or "the politics of envy."

Trump may have been spouting his toxic bigotry loud and proud, but it was the cynical mainstream press and politicos who handed him a loud hailer by framing such scapegoating as "legitimate concerns," just as they've done here in Brexit Britain.

The Trump/Brexit parallels are obvious and worrying but, before the polls, some people comforted themselves with the idea that America might not fall for the same bullshit, because it was a different place. Myself included - I re-posted the YouTube footage of Samantha Bee's horrified post-Brexit show, in which Samantha warned that it could happen in America but probably wouldn't, for two reasons that seemed plausible to me at the time:

  1. Because America is more racially diverse than Britain, the blacks and Hispanics would come out strongly against Trump's open racism (which, in the end, they did, but not by enough to defeat the white Trumpists).
  2. Because America, unlike Britain, has "a butt-ton of evangelical Christians" who couldn't possibly support anybody so horrifically incompatible with such core Christian values as humility and loving your neighbour as yourself.

OK, this second one seemed a bit counter-intuitive to me at first, given political Christians' past record of prioritising the preservation of America's traditional social norms over any of the sandal-wearing Nazarene's more hippyish notions about peace and love. But Samantha illustrated her point with a clip of a Southern Baptist preacher deftly brushing off a "ban the Muslims" bigot with the perfectly reasonable point that Christians should extend to others the same religious tolerance that they expect to enjoy themselves.

So I put aside my preconceptions and assumed that there really were a butt-ton of evangelicals who were way too nice to vote Trump, maybe socialised by the "religious, not spiritual" aspects of the church as family. I've got in-laws who've gone to an evangelical church for years and, though I don't share their beliefs, I know from first-hand experience that they're kind, generous, socially responsible people who have never shown the slightest hint of bigotry and put most of us to shame by any reasonable measure of good citizenship.

Sadly, the plural of anecdote is not data and when it came to the crunch, it seems as if over 80% of self-identified white evangelicals listened to every horrific word that proceeded out of the mouth of Trump and cried "Amen!" And some (around 16%), I assume, are good people.

Having failed to prophesy the coming of the Tangerine Antichrist, maybe I should quit while I'm behind here but, for what it's worth, here's my prediction about the remaining metric of Trump success. The useless wall may, or may not, get built now, but I'm still prepared to stick my neck out and say that Mexico won't be paying for it, at least in any sense of the word "paying" that a reasonable person would understand. That doesn't preclude the possibility that Trump will impose some wholly unrelated cost on Mexico - a Tequila tariff, or something - then turn round and boast "Look, I made them pay, just like I said I would!"

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Rinse, repeat

Here’s my “take home” point: if you repeat this fantasy, these predictions often enough, if you repeat it in front of powerful investors, university administrators, politicians, journalists, then the fantasy becomes factualized. (Not factual. Not true. But “truthy,” to borrow from Stephen Colbert’s notion of “truthiness.”) So you repeat the fantasy in order to direct and to control the future. Because this is key: the fantasy then becomes the basis for decision-making...

... “The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” computer scientist Alan Kay once famously said. I’d wager that the easiest way is just to make stuff up and issue a press release. I mean, really. You don’t even need the pretense of a methodology. Nobody is going to remember what you predicted.
Audrey Watters

Monday, 7 November 2016

Sublime, improbable Martian engineering

 *Spoiler alert- if you've not already read H G Wells's The War of the Worlds, do so immediately, or read on at your own peril...*

I've just been re-reading the first alien invasion novel, H G Wells's The War of the Worlds, and I can see again why it created a genre all of its own and why it immediately grabbed me as a child. Mainly because it's such a cracking yarn - the alien visitation starts off as an intriguing curiosity, but escalates to being, ominous, threatening, awe-inspiring and terrifying at an unstoppable pace that mirrors the relentless advance of Well's iconic Martian tripods, seen here in  one of the novel's big reveals:
And this Thing I saw! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder. A flash, and it came out vividly, heeling over one way with two feet in the air, to vanish and reappear almost instantly as it seemed, with the next flash, a hundred yards nearer. Can you imagine a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground? That was the impression those instant flashes gave. But instead of a milking stool imagine it a great body of machinery on a tripod stand... Seen nearer, the Thing was incredibly strange, for it was no mere insensate machine driving on its way. Machine it was, with a ringing metallic pace, and long, flexible, glittering tentacles (one of which gripped a young pine tree) swinging and rattling about its strange body. It picked its road as it went striding along, and the brazen hood that surmounted it moved to and fro with the inevitable suggestion of a head looking about.
That's a fantastic piece of writing and there are lots more like it. The book also has its expository digressions, where the action stops and Wells explains things rather than just showing you awesome stuff, but these aren't too long (at least by the standards of the time when Wells was writing) and by this stage he's already created enough momentum to keep you gripped and reading on. Compare and contrast with that other piece of proto-sci-fi, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which also starts with strange, ominous events, building up to an exciting reveal and some great set pieces, but is so weighted down with the ballast of endless pages of over-long explanation that Verne almost sinks the cracking yarn he created.*

If the The War of the Worlds looks forward to every alien invasion yarn that followed, it also looks back to an aesthetic trope that's probably been around for ever, but was largely formalised in the Eighteenth Century and peaked with early Nineteenth Century Romanticism - the sublime. That's the idea that humans don't just appreciate things which are beautiful in an ordered, harmonious way, but also dig stuff that's wild, inhuman in scale and frankly terrifying - as the Tate Britain put it, in the blurb to an exhibition dedicated to "Art and the Sublime":
The best-known theory published in Britain is Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). Burke’s definition of the sublime focuses on such terms as darkness, obscurity, privation, vastness, magnificence, loudness and suddenness, and that our reaction is defined by a kind of pleasurable terror.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the sublime was associated in particular with the immensity or turbulence of Nature and human responses to it. Consequently, in Western art, ‘sublime’ landscapes and seascapes, especially those from the Romantic period, often represent towering mountain ranges, deep chasms, violent storms and seas, volcanic eruptions or avalanches which, if actually experienced, would be life threatening.
Compare Wells's description of the towering Martian tripod with William Wordsworth describing his youthful memory of stealing a boat and rowing out onto Ullswater at night, in The Prelude. As young Wordsworth looks back guiltily at a peak overlooking the lake, the huge, shadowy, inhuman form seems, by an unsettling trick of perspective, to be pursuing his boat:
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon's bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me...
Wordsworth's looming peak only looked threatening, but extreme fans of the sublime had access to far more hardcore material than that. Wells's Martians may have wreaked terrible destruction on the South East of England, but even they would have had a hard time competing with acts of God. The Almighty's awesome destructive capacity was given the sublime treatment by popular Nineteenth Century painter John Martin, in a series of massive, full-frontal disaster porn canvasses like The Great Day of His Wrath:
It's the end of the World as we know it (and I feel fine).
Sublimely terrifying and imaginative though Well's Martian tripods are, it's probably best not to think too hard about how they work. According to Wells's description, the unearthly three-legged machines move like "a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground" and elsewhere he writes of their swiftness and "rolling" motion, which is vivid enough.

But if the whole machine is whirling around to pivot from one leg to the next, surely the Martian pilot within is also being whirled around, unable to stay facing the machine's direction of travel (or any other fixed direction) and getting horribly dizzy, (assuming that the Martian vestibular system can suffer from dizziness).

Maybe the tripod legs whirl around, but the cowl housing the Martian pilot doesn't. But that would imply that controlling part of the machine is mounted on some sort of axle or pivot, which, according to Wells, isn't the way the Martians, with their biomimetic technology, do things:
And of their appliances, perhaps nothing is more wonderful to a man than the curious fact that what is the dominant feature of almost all human devices in mechanism is absent--the wheel is absent; among all the things they brought to earth there is no trace or suggestion of their use of wheels. One would have at least expected it in locomotion...

 ...And not only did the Martians either not know of (which is incredible), or abstain from, the wheel, but in their apparatus singularly little use is made of the fixed pivot or relatively fixed pivot, with circular motions thereabout confined to one plane. Almost all the joints of the machinery present a complicated system of sliding parts moving over small but beautifully curved friction bearings. And while upon this matter of detail, it is remarkable that the long leverages of their machines are in most cases actuated by a sort of sham musculature of the disks in an elastic sheath; these disks become polarised and drawn closely and powerfully together when traversed by a current of electricity. In this way the curious parallelism to animal motions, which was so striking and disturbing to the human beholder, was attained.
Of course, this might just be one of the singularly rare occasions when the Martians did make use of the fixed pivot, but it definitely goes against the Martians' overriding design ethos. Or maybe the cowl isn't on a pivot, just hyper-mobile, like an owl's head:
But this would present difficulties of its own - if the tripod rolled around in only one direction, the head would eventually have to snap back round, even if it could stay pointing in one direction for a while. If the tripod alternated its direction of roll, a hyper-mobile head would work, but the change from whirling in one direction to another would would be inefficient, robbing the machine of momentum, just as it was getting onto a roll.

Movie versions of the novel have struggled (or not tried) to reproduce the motion of the Martian tripods, as described by Wells. In the 1953 film adaptation, the special effects people decided that they just wouldn't be able to create a convincing walking tripod and opted to redesign the Martian fighting machines as floating manta ray-shaped craft, topped with a heat ray on a flexible mounting that looked like a striking cobra. In a nod to the original novel, the film's hero scientist explains that the seemingly unsupported Martian craft are actually held up in mid air and moved by means of three invisible "electromagnetic legs."

With the advent of CGI, a later generation of special effects wizards were finally able to produce a plausible-looking version of the Wellsian tripods for Steven Spielberg's 2005 film adaptation - sort of. In some ways the CGI works well and the tripod machines have some of the Wellsian details right. For example, the limbs are flexible, just as Wells described, looking more like a supple living thing than a stiff, jointed mechanism

But the motion is distinctly un-Wellsian - Spielberg's tripods don't whirl forwards with an unstoppable rolling gait, but pick their three-legged way through the ruins like a dog with an injured paw, or a human walking with one good leg, a plaster cast and a crutch. I don't think this really catches the essence of Wells's vision, where the tripods signified two things. First, alienness - no creature on our planet has evolved to walk on three legs. Second, implacable swiftness - it's clear from the original novel that the Martian machines move fast and efficiently on their three legs, bearing down like express trains on the puny humans in their path, pursuing and outflanking them with ease.

To date, nobody (AFAIK) has been able to represent, or reproduce the sort of tripod locomotion Wells described so vividly. Whether this is a failure of imagination, technical skill, or just a reflection of the fact that it's impossible to translate Wells's vision into actual engineering, I don't know (although the fact that terrestrial biology has taken millions of years not to come up with a working three-legged creature might point to three legs just being an inefficient number for a walker).

An impossible form of locomotion, or just one nobody's figured out yet? You decide.

*To be fair, I've only read it in translation and it probably sounds better in French, but the endless pauses in the action when Verne just stops everything to list species of fish, or whatever, must be just as boring in any language.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

What we got by lying, we'll defend with violence

But believe you me, if the people in this country think that they're going to be cheated or they're going to be betrayed then we will see political anger – the likes of which none of us in our lifetimes have ever witnessed in this country...

...I'm going to say to everybody watching this who was on the Brexit side - let's try and get even, let's have peaceful protests and let's make sure in any form of election we don't support people who want to overturn this process.
Nigel Farage, reminding us all that, never mind Trump, for us in Britain the nightmare of political intimidation has already started.

Presumably, the leader of the Brexit Brownshirts will whine that he used the word "peaceful" when denying responsibility for the actions of the next angry thug who takes his inflammatory rhetoric about "betrayal" and getting even seriously. To hell with him.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Betteridge's all-you-can-eat buffet

For the benefit of James Landale and other hacks / editors who never got the memo about not writing headlines in the form of a question, here are a few more gratuitous breaches of Betteridge's law, as committed by the New Zealand Herald* and patiently curated by Giovanni Tiso.

Just stop doing it.

* Not that I have any particular beef with NZ journalism in general, given that the kiwi press achieved a respectable 5th place in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, while British hacks could only manage a lacklustre 38th place.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Prime Minister threatens to "strangle Foreign Secretary like a dog"...

... is what I call a headline. But handed this juiciest of sound bites on a silver platter, the BBC's James Landale boringly opted to title his think piece, inspired by the Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year Awards,  "Can Theresa May resist temptation to mock Boris?" (the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind "no" - see Betteridge's law of headlines).

Purists might object to my abuse of scare quotes around an indirect quotation, but I reckon my paraphrase is about as accurate a reflection of the substance of Mrs May's hearty banter as the stuff you'd see in most headlines:
But it was what Mrs May said about Boris Johnson that struck me most. Picking up on his reference to Lady Heseltine's aggressive Alsatian, the prime minister looked directly at her foreign secretary - I was directly in the eye line - and said: "Boris, the dog was put down... (pause)... when its master decided it wasn't needed any more."
Touching though it is to see a shared love of canine asphyxiation bringing the Europhile Lord Heseltine and Mad Mrs Brexit together in perfect harmony, I thought there was something far more revealing in Landale's piece.
"Theresa May should not back Boris Johnson. He'll cheat on her like a dog & she should choke him like a dog"

No, not even the bit where The Boris (another politician who knows words and has the best words) predicted that Brexit would be a "titanic success" (presumably with a Celine Dion ballad of its very own). No, this:
Now every government has a court jester and Boris Johnson will never be able to escape that title. But his role in this government is crucial. He is there to convince the international community that Britain is not turning its back on the world post Brexit, that Britain has a positive role to play in global affairs.

And to do that he needs to be taken seriously. Many foreign politicians and diplomats that I speak to tell me they are pleasantly surprised when they meet the foreign secretary for the first time. 

They talk of the man behind the caricature - the cultured, over-educated intellectual who often speaks a bit of their language and who can be thoughtful when he is not gripped by banter.

The problem is that many others - who have not met the foreign secretary in person - often still see him as a kind of upmarket Nigel Farage, a Eurosceptic clown with clout. 
If you thought that The Boris was just a racist assclown, talking incontinent drivel, you'd be wrong. It's actually much worse than that. The Boris is apparently a grown-up man, capable of tying his own shoelaces, passing the port in the correct direction and swapping amusing anecdotes and quotes from Virgil with foreign ambassadors over trays of canapés, Ferrero Rocher, or whatever the hell it is they graze on at fancy diplomatic soirées. The Boris is only pretending to be a racist assclown, talking incontinent drivel, because he thinks this will win him the support of the common people, who he clearly views as easily-distracted bigots with short attention spans.

I suppose we should be grateful for gossipy, privately-educated establishment journalists like James Landale for twitching back the curtain and giving the rest of us a tantalising little glimpse of the sheer contempt in which our cynical, manipulative "betters" hold plebs like us.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

The expendables

If you believe what Arron Banks says, the insurance tycoon and Tory-turned-Ukip donor has almost run out of patience with the 'kippers. He says he's unhappy with the poor quality of their current leadership contenders, who apparently don't live up to the high standards of freaking lunacy demonstrated by his preferred candidate, Raheem Kassam, alumnus of Brietbart's School of Bullshit and Wingnuttery.

If you still believe the word of a Brexiteer, you may also be interested in corresponding with an entirely trustworthy Nigerian gentleman, currently in possession of a large fortune, which he's only too happy to entrust to your safe keeping, just as soon as you've given him your bank account details.

Personally, I don't believe a word of it. I think it's got less to do with the calibre of the leadership candidates than with the fact that Ukip has outlived its usefulness. The referendum's over. The next election will probably be in 2020.* If (God help us) Brexit happens, it's the Conservatives who will deliver it, not a squabbling bunch of punch-drunk fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists with one MP to their name.

Ukip were useful so long as there were voters to be hoodwinked and and an "anti-establishment" bandwagon to be ridden. But now it's not about voters any more. It's about legal red tape and the urgent need to bypass Parliamentary scrutiny and how much public money will be needed to bribe the bankers and the motor manufacturers and any other group of firms we can't afford to lose, to stay where they would have stayed anyway, if we'd taken the simple precaution of not expressing our frustrations through an irreversible act of eye-wateringly painful self-harm.

If Brexit was the pet project you bought, then I'm pretty sure you'd want to give your support to the people in government who can make it happen, which is why I think Banks is probably just going to be the first of the ex-Tory backers who created Ukip to give up on them, now that the Conservatives have become suffiently Ukip-like to do Brexit.

I suspected that something like this was about to happen, but I still might be proved wrong - in fact, I hope I am wrong. As somebody who never voted for Brexit, I'd far rather see Banks, Sykes, Wheeler and the other moneybags behind Brexit waste their money by throwing it at a flaky, divided fringe party, rather than propping up the finances of a government with the power to make the looming catastrophe actually happen.

*I don't believe that Theresa May is in any hurry to go to the country, despite the opposition's current problems - even Mrs "Brexit means Brexit" knows that some seriously unpopular unintended consequence of Brexit might pop up at any moment, which is why she's so keen to trigger Article 50 before too many people turn against the thing she's declared it her sacred duty to deliver.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Appeal to authority

I'm hoping that UK-based cold callers will be deterred by a change in the law, making company directors personally liable for fines of up to half a million pounds for breaching the regulations intended to stop people being pestered with unwanted sales calls. Sadly, I expect that the pests will soon rise to the challenge of getting round the new rules.

Having said that, I'll probably never again come across another telesales racket more perfect than the people who cold called the unwary, promising to help them get rid of cold calls (for a fee). What the folk who made cold calls selling a cold call blocking service were doing was skimming a fee off unwary punters who didn't realise that there was a free service out there (in this case, the Telephone Preference Service).

Less paradoxical forms of this type of skimming are available. Somebody might, for example, ring you, suggesting that you might be paying too much Council Tax, due to your home having been placed in the wrong Council Tax band, and offering to check this, potentially SAVING YOU £££££!

The right thing to say at this point is that you can check your own band "in 10 minutes, at no cost" and appeal directly to your local Valuation Office Agency (VOA) if you think that your banding is wrong. If your appeal is rejected, but you still think your banding is incorrect, you can take your appeal further, to the appropriate tribunal.

It's all there on the relevant site, which is pretty clear and understandable (government websites get a lot of criticism - sometimes with good reason - but this particular one tells you what you need to know and I can't see much to moan about).

The wrong thing to do is to express any interest in the cold caller's service.

The wrongest thing to do is to give the cold caller your credit/bank card details. Not unless you want to receive a letter like this:

"Dear [your name here]

Claimers UK processed your payment of £65 for the administration fee but unfortunately  this transaction had been charged back by your bank informing us that you haven't authorised or participated in this transaction.
All our sales lines are recorded and we have evidence of you verbally agreeing to this transaction there for [sic] you are bound by the terms and conditions.

Shore claims have completed and finished [sic - how do "completed" and "finished" not mean the same thing?] your checks in regard to getting your council tax lowered.
But have not been paid for the work that has been carried out.

Please look up terms and conditions 2.4 on your policy paper work that was sent to you.

To arrange payment of this account please call us on 08448009426 or alternatively send in a cheque of [sic] the full amount of £65 to:
Claimers UK LTD, 7 Dukes Court, Bognor Road, Chichester, West Sussex, PO19 8FX.

If payment is not received by [insert deadline] we may recommend to Shore claims ltd that they commence legal  proceedings to recover the full outstanding balance. These actions may incur additional costs for which you may be held liable. 
Please do not underestimate the seriousness of this matter.

Yours sincerely,

[illegible scribble]

Account Manager
Claimers UK Ltd"

Devon and Cornwall Police issued a statement earlier in the year, warning people against such scams (specifically naming Claimers UK Ltd), and asking for individuals to report any offences to Action Fraud by calling 0300 1232040, or visiting

I'm guessing that the people behind this operation are hoping that the person prospect who picks up the phone is elderly, trusting and not very confident about, or interested in, this newfangled Internet and therefore unlikely to discover, within a couple of clicks, that you can investigate this for yourself for free and go directly to the relevant authority to appeal, if you think there's a problem with your banding. In this case an appeal to (your local) authority isn't a logical fallacy - so long as you do the appealing yourself and don't outsource the process to some cold-calling skimmer.

Not that people from the generations that are used to finding stuff out with an Internet search should be too smug, as the skimmers are lurking on the Net, too. Up until quite recently, people who were in a hurry to renew their passports might have inadvertently clicked on a site with the same look and feel as the official passport renewal site, which actually belonged to a private company which skimmed off an admin fee for processing your passport request and forwarding it on to the correct authorities. It looks as if they've cracked down on that particular trick recently (when I googled "passport renewal" just now, the official site came up as the first search result - in the past, operators of lookalike sites have used SEO jiggery-pokery to make their sites appear above the official one in the search results), but it still pays to be wary.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Any sufficiently advanced troll...

So the coronation of the eccentric playboy who also happens to be Thailand's Crown Prince has been delayed, presumably to buy time for an extreme image makeover. After all, you can't have a loopy head of state who's prone to confer senior military rank on a favourite pet. Or can you?

The case of Foo Foo, the part-time Air Vice Marshal and full-time miniature poodle, inevitably brings to mind Caligula's* plan to make his horse, Incitatus, a consul. So is Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn as mad as Caligula? Well, maybe, but perhaps Caligula himself wasn't mad (at least when he did the horse thing). The simple reading of the horse story is that Caligula's desire to award a prestigious rank to his favourite horse was straightforward proof of the Emperor's raving lunacy. But there's also a more nuanced reading - that Caligula was deliberately making a ludicrous gesture for satirical purposes. In this reading, Incitatus' proposed consulship was just a memorable way of saying " Those consuls are useless - my horse could do a better job."

It wouldn't be the only time people have spotted method in the apparent madness of elite figures. King Canute, the apparently foolish monarch who apocryphally tried to forbid the tide from coming in, is, in the more nuanced version, the wise ruler, who used the the tides' failure to obey him as a practical demonstration of the limits of human power and a rebuke to the flatterers at court who treated him as some kind of superhuman being.

Go back as far as Solomon and the "wise ruler" reading is accepted without question - of course he wasn't serious about having that baby cut in half - that's why they call it the wisdom of Solomon, dummy!

So was Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn's pet promotion prank evidence, not of insanity, but of wisdom or, at least, of advanced trolling? I'm not convinced, but I do think I'm seeing a variation on Poe's Law here. Poe's Law, you'll remember, is the Internet maxim asserting that certain extreme views (Poe had Creationism, in particular, in mind) are so extreme that it's impossible to parody them in such a way that someone won't mistake the parody for the genuine article, or vice versa.**

In much the same way, a tiny minority people live lives of such extreme privilege that it's almost impossible to tell whether their bizarre acts of self-indulgence are the result of deliberate irony, or just the predictable lack of self-awareness that goes with being able to act out their every whim (see also Sir Benjamin, the beaver-bashing baronet).

* With due apologies to Mary Beard who's been patiently and fruitlessly trying to remind us all that, to the Romans, he would have been known by his proper name, Gaius (Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) not his childhood nickname "Caligula" ("little boots").

**Or, in Alan Morgan's pithier version, "Any sufficiently advanced troll is indistinguishable from a genuine kook."

Friday, 14 October 2016

Air Chief Marshal Foo Foo

King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand died yesterday and 2016, a year that's already set several records for global weirdness, might get more bizarre still. Meet the heir to the throne of Thailand, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn:
Ralph Boyce, the former head of the US embassy in Bangkok, wrote an extraordinary account of a dinner with Thailand’s Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and the prince’s dog, Foo Foo, which held the rank of Air Chief Marshal.

Mr Boyce described the dinner in a valedictory dispatch in November, 2007, when he “paid a farewell call” on the 58-year-old Crown Prince. The prince’s consort, Princess Srirasmi, “confirmed that the Crown Prince’s miniature poodle, Foo Foo, currently holds the rank of Air Chief Marshal”, wrote the ambassador.

“Foo Foo was present at the event, dressed in formal evening attire complete with paw mitts, and at one point during the band’s second number, he jumped up on to the head table and began lapping from the guests’ water glasses, including my own.

“The Air Chief Marshal’s antics drew the full attention of the 600-plus audience members, and remains the talk of the town to this day.”

Under Thai law, criticism of the royal family is forbidden, but the Crown Prince was at the centre of a scandal in 2009 when an Australian TV channel obtained a video of a lavish birthday party he had thrown for Foo Foo, during which Princess Srirasmi, 39, sat topless.
Gordon Rayner, writing in The Telegraph

There's speculation that the Thai game of thrones may be rigged in the hope of bypassing Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and fishing somebody who isn't functionally insane out the royal gene pool.
Air Chief Marshal Foo Foo, I presume?*

*Image © 20th Century Fox - I'm just going to mumble "fair use" and hope nobody notices...

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

The most right-wing man in Britain

Beaver sightings! At Woodlands Castle. Wanted dead or alive. £1,000 reward! For crimes against trees. Beavers have been cutting down our trees!
So reads a sign erected by landowner Sir Benjamin Slade on his land around Woodlands Castle, Somerset. A beaver expert, who examined the damaged trees, begged to differ, telling the BBC that "Beavers produce distinctive scalloped chips when they gnaw trees and there weren't any ... It looks as if it has been done by humans with an axe."

The needle of my Great British Eccentric detector was flickering by this point, so I googled the beaver-bashing baronet and, boy, was I not disappointed. Sir Benjamin was, I discovered, either:
  1. The living embodiment of that comic monstrosity Sir Henry, eponymous antihero of the surreal monologue / film Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, or
  2. an upper-class performance artist who has turned his whole life into a Vivian Stanshall tribute act
Here's Sir Henry Benjamin sitting at the bar in his main property, a stately home, near Taunton, holding forth to interviewer Robert Chalmers on the general beastliness of foreigners. Chalmers doesn't record whether the baronet was wearing hairy tweed and waving an overflowing balloon of brandy for emphasis, but that's how the interview looks in my head:
"Russians?" Sir Benjamin Slade pauses, seeking the adjective best suited to the compatriots of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. "Dishonest."

"Chinese?" I venture. "They're impossible."

"Brazilians?" "Sex, football and dancing. That's all they do."


"Boring. The Romans described them as boastful. They're at your feet or at your throat."

Sir Benjamin embarked on this guide to global culture after recalling how he once defaced an atlas before presenting it to his godson. "It was this wonderful children's book, showing all the countries of the world and saying lovely things about each. I took this atlas and wrote on every country, all about the people. It is quite horrific, this stuff I wrote, and which the godson read. One of my friends said: 'Do not let anyone see it. Or you will go to prison.'"
Just drop whatever you're doing and read the rest of Chalmers' interview. It's hilarious.

Surprisingly, Sir Benjamin has a blog. Unsurprisingly, he was an enthusiastic supporter of Vote Leave Beaver.
"Yes, I can see it's been defaced by Bolsheviks, but what the Devil d'you think you're wearing, man? This isn't a ruddy carnival, you know. Quick, pass me my pistol, see if I can't wing the blighter. Bloody country's going to the dogs..."