Friday, 29 April 2016

Financial genius vindicates Thatcher

"Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country" said Margaret Thatcher at the beginning of her prime ministerial career. Only she won't be, because the two things are completely different:
Take, for example, the idea that the government's finances are like a household budget. This is obviously wrong. "When I find money is tight, I just print some more". You can't because you don't have a currency-issuing central bank in your living room.
And that was that myth apparently busted, until a bloke called Allan Peter Smith unexpectedly proved Maggie right by issuing a currency from his living room. Peter Of England, as Mr Smith prefers to call himself, has a completely legitimate business, the Stoke-onTrent-based WeRe Bank, which proves that you can just print your own currency, and run your finances like a country.

The enterprising and public-spirited Mr Smith must have sworn only to use his currency-issuing powers for good, because he's selflessly offering you lucky punters the chance to get out of debt by exchanging just fifty five of your British pounds (plus set-up fee, membership fee and a promissory note to pay WeRe Bank £155,000) for a book of cheques promising to pay your creditors in the currency known as Re ("The PlanetReServe© Currency of Choice for all free and sovereign beings budded* on this planet, payable for work at Re12 per hour – ReTime = Exchangeable for food, goods and services anywhere, anytime and by anyone!").

What could possibly go wrong? After all, Mr Smith has provided a clear and totally plausible explanation of how his currency-issuing business works:
WeRe Bank has infinite energy supply based on access to the Universal Supply of Energy [USE]

WeRe Bank will accept a promissory note from you to help you begin to understand the simplicity of a system of monetary exchange whereby you can trade energy (your own freely and independently given) for goods and services. In effect all that WeRe bank does is allow you to become your OWN BANKER in return for a membership fee to ReMovement. It is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY THAT YOU JOIN WITH US TO DO IT, though you may ask: “Well, why don’t I just do it then myself?”

The reason you MUST JOIN through us is that on your own, you will be scooped up and destroyed by the forces reigned against you – after all STRENGTH IS UNITY AND UNITY IS STRENGTH.
So there you have it. The national finances are like a household budget, if the householder happens to be a bloke from Stoke who can issue a completely real currency that you can totally use to pay off your mortgage, car loan, credit card, bank loan, etc.

There will always be carping sceptics who insist that visionaries like Allan Peter Smith are "obviously wrong", but such people are going to look very foolish when confronted by the evidence of millions of satisfied customers who've all successfully paid off their debts using the PlanetReServe© (the Currency of Choice for all free and sovereign beings budded on this planet).
"How would you like to pay? PlanetReServe©? That'll do nicely..."

*I was born, rather than budded, myself, but you have to admire the inclusivity of a currency designed to meet the financial needs of sentient polyps.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Inefficient journalism

You have to ask yourself whether Dan Roberts is working harder, not smarter here. It would surely be far quicker to knock out an article on the consistent, coherent bits of Trump's foreign policy thoughts (or thoughts about anything, for that matter). A couple of sentences, tops. Then Dan could knock off early and enjoy a coffee, while the rest of us would be spared most of the orange-faced buffoon's ramblings.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

No, I did not know that

Did you know that the Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning racehorse Gay Donald enjoyed liquorice allsorts and sardine sandwiches?

A lot of Wikipedia's "Did you know..." factoids are pretty underwhelming, but I thought they found a pretty special one for today.

Monday, 25 April 2016

None the wiser

 I don't understand what these people are playing at:
Ukip leader Nigel Farage has urged the Leave campaign to focus on immigration rather than economics and trade. "If we debate economics and trade, we can go round in circles for weeks and the public will be none the wiser," he said.

It comes after a "shaky" week for the Out campaign, says The Guardian.
The Week

The specific bit I don't understand is this. They want people to vote to get out of the EU. So we can assume that they've already got the votes of the True Believers who are going to vote leave in the bag - where else are those people going to go?

Then Outers have a few days when they make fools of themselves and the country with borderline racist comments about the President of the USA and suggestions that Dominic Raab (AKA "Who?") knows more about how US trade policy is likely to pan out then the actual President of the USA.

You'd think, wouldn't you, that after such a shaky week, full of ridiculous drivel that could only be swallowed by the truest, most fanatical, most uncritical of True Believers, while frightening off the undecided, that they might decide to focus on the sort of issues that would attract floating voters, widening their appeal, rather than on a narrow core-vote anti-immigrant strategy, which seems like the last thing they need right now?

But there's no mention of the sort of issues that might possibly win over a wider coalition of people with doubts about the EU. They could, for instance, have mentioned the catastrophically mismanaged Eurozone (we're not in, but it hardly gives you confidence in EU institutions), the democratic deficit, the shameful pandering to the increasingly despotic Turkish president and TTIP. But, no, it's the same old narrow appeal to the Ukip / Tory Eurosceptic base.

It's almost as if they don't want to win. Which is fine by me.

The late fearful massacres

Syria, eh? If only they'd listened to T E Lawrence and Sykes–Picot had never happened, we wouldn't be seeing all these headlines about sectarian strife and massacres. Would we?
Published in 1861...

Turns out it's a bit more complicated than that.
In this period, the Sublime Porte's firmans (decrees) of 1839 and, more decisively, of 1856 — equalizing the status of Muslim and non-Muslim subjects — produced a
"dramatic alienation of Muslims from Christians. The former resented the implied loss of superiority and recurrently assaulted and massacred Christian communities — in Aleppo in 1850, in Nablus in 1856, and in Damascus and Lebanon in 1860."

Interesting to to see that, even before the current set of badly-drawn lines on the map, most people in the region were already being presented with the the same terrible binary option - rule by despots, versus toxic identity politics.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Combine harvester of the fields of death

For some reason, my most popular post earlier this year was  "Men with silly hats in tiny tanks." Either people really like pictures of tanks, or they really like silly LOLpics. To find out which, I'm going to post a non-silly tank pic and see how many people click. If many, I'll know you're here for the charismatic megafauna of the battlefield (© Charlie Stoss). If few, more LOLs needed.
A Sherman Crab flail tank in front of burning buildings in Arnhem, 14 April 1945. Made by: No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit. © Imperial War Museum (BU 3515).
The M4 Sherman hasn't got a very impressive reputation, but it was produced in impressive numbers (more Shermans rolled off US production lines than the total number of tanks manufactured by the British and Germans combined in the whole of the Second World War). And you have to admit that the mine-clearing variant, implacably beating a path through minefields and barbed wire entanglements with heavy chains on a rotating drum, looked pretty impressive in a strangely medieval way.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Good ruminations

Beyond the reflection that I must be getting old, because the majority of the famous people I've heard of now seem to be dead, Prince's death did prompt another rumination - this time about about a trait shared by a subset of our recently-deceased high achievers:
[Publicist Martin] Keller said Prince was a “severe introvert” who grew from barely getting words out early in his career to becoming more articulate and media-friendly as he got older...
...[Long-time north Minneapolis resident Robin] Crockett had known Prince since she was 10. She and others often huddled in the home’s basement to watch him practice. “He’d sit without his guitar plugged in,” she said. “Just him and his guitar.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune

This, just after we'd adjusted to the death of Victoria Wood who, famously, had an isolated childhood, largely spent in one of the many rooms of the house her eccentric mother had partitioned up with sheets of reclaimed plywood, alone, save for a telly, a piano and an active imagination.

And as for Bowie, who more or less kicked off Death's bumper 2016 talent harvest, here's the man in his own words:
As an adolescent, I was painfully shy, withdrawn. I didn’t really have the nerve to sing my songs onstage and nobody else was doing them. I decided to do them in disguise so that I didn’t have to actually go through the humiliation of going onstage and being myself. I continued designing characters with their own complete personalities and environments. I put them into interviews with me! Rather than be me — which must be incredibly boring to anyone — I’d take Ziggy in, or Aladdin Sane or The Thin White Duke. It was a very strange thing to do.
All three had an element of introversion written through them like a stick of rock and I'm guessing that several more of 2016's honoured dead shared something of this trait (the famously reclusive Harper Lee sounds like a dead cert), although not all of them (it's difficult to imagine the thrill-seeking Lemmy sitting on the introvert end of the spectrum, although even he seems to have had an comparatively isolated childhood with plenty of room for solitary rumination).

But whether or not the young Lemmy spent a lot of time ruminating, a lot of highly talented introverts certainly did. That's worth remembering, because there's a tendency to only see the bad side of rumination. For a lot of mental health professionals and counsellors, rumination is A Bad Thing, a pathology to be eliminated, so that people can mindfully live in the moment, free from useless anxiety and unprofitable introspection.

And they do have something of a point. There are obvious forms of rumination we'd be better off without. In ascending order of seriousness:
  • all those times you've over-thought a problem and can't see a solution, but then the answer pops into your head once you've stopped worrying about it
  • endlessly fretting over the things that have gone wrong in your life until you've thought yourself into a state of exhausted depression or self-pity
  • being so focused on a solitary train of thought that you ignore any reality checkpoints you might pass and end up in an insane world of David Icke-style monomania
  • the obsessive ruminations of the stalker, fixated on the object of his or her obsession
  • the stereotypical murderer who shocked neighbours insist "kept himself to himself" while presumably ruminating over the dark fantasies, or real or imagined slights and insults which would eventually bubble over in some act of horrific violence.
But we need some balance here. Insane murderers are, thankfully, rare. On the opposite end of the rumination spectrum there are exceptionally talented people - also rare - who ruminate more than average and come up with great ideas. The width of the spectrum is enormous, encompassing everything from the grim and  frightening ruminations of the serial killer, to Victoria Wood ruminating on which was the funniest type of biscuit to name-check in her sketch, song, or stand-up routine and all points in between. And I'm willing to bet that, beyond the high-profile world of showbiz, the world's most talented scientists, engineers, medics and other high-end problem-solvers do more than their fair share of rumination.

There's pathological rumination, but there's also inspired rumination, creative rumination, analytical rumination, imaginative rumination, playful rumination and sheer genius rumination. It's context-dependent, not necessarily always a good or a bad thing, but I get the impression that it's generally frowned on these days, by people who only see the pathological end of the spectrum, an overgeneralisation which leads to people coming out with crazy talk like "You think too much", as if this was a perfectly reasonable thing to say, when it's really like saying "You breathe too much",* or, for Descartes fans, "You exist too much."

It can be a bad thing to be too obsessed with celebrities, but in this case, looking at at the habits of exceptionally talented people can provide a useful counter-narrative to the fashionable idea that all rumination is a menace which should be stamped out.

Apart from anything else, rumination, can be fun - Socrates thought that the unexamined life wasn't worth living and I'm with the ugly old bugger on that one. But, then, I'm a bit of an introvert, so I would say that, wouldn't I?

*I guess you can hyperventilate but, in general, breathing isn't something you want to stop doing any sooner than you can possibly help it.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Blame Widdecome

Because ... well, why wouldn't you ...  I'm posting a valedictory Victoria Wood vid, like every other right-thinking person on the Internet. I've not chosen this one because it's one of her best - far from it. She was much, much better with pieces that combined her flawless ear for language with that very specific brand of deadpan northern bathos that she could do like almost nobody else (except for Alan Bennett; both of them created wonderful worlds where people naturally spoke in phrases like "the penultimate macaroon" or "This was in the middle of a wedding, so she's spitting tuna vol-au-vents at me").

No, the main reason I plumped for this one is that you can't write a song with a chorus that starts "Ann Widdecome" without reminding people (at least ones like me) of the "Blame Canada" song from the old South Park movie - the bizarre mental pairing of these two completely different comedy worlds just me made me smile.

Long lives the Queen

Claire Bates, writing for the BBC, has posed a question:
The Queen is celebrating her 90th birthday this week yet there are few signs that she is slowing down. Last year alone she carried out 306 engagements in the UK and 35 abroad. What does the Queen's good health tell us about longevity?
The answer, she says, is that the queen's longevity is down to a rather boring combination of good luck and being sensible: having good genes, avoiding bad habits, sensible eating and enjoying a happy marriage (yes, to Prince Philip - I guess there's no accounting for taste).

Which is all very good, as far as it goes, but it does seem to miss one blindingly obvious probability. Namely, that the old girl's grimly hanging on to breath in the single-minded hope that her eccentric, loose-lipped son never gets the chance to inherit the family firm for long enough to run it into the ground.*

Sadly it's not the kind of thing she can admit to in an interview. Sadly, because if she did, it'd be the best royal interview ever ("If that goddam hippie thinks he's man enough to take my sceptre, he can come right here and pry it from my cold, dead hands.  I'd like to see him try." snarled the Queen, as she oiled her shotgun, pausing only to spit defiantly into a priceless Ming vase). Eat you heart out, Diana.

After all, there's nothing like having a definite purpose in life to keep you getting up in the morning.

*A hope apparently shared by her loyal subjects at the BBC, who obsequiously treat William as if he, rather than his unfashionable and slightly odd father, was next in line to the throne. When Charles III finally ascends the throne, they might as well present him with a ceremonial caretaker's mop, just to drive the point home.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Academy schools - unfit for purpose

In 2000, David Blunkett rolled out a new idea - Academy Schools. These were supposed to improve the lifetime chances of children in poorly-performing schools by replacing such schools with better Academy schools, so that all those pupils would receive a better education. Here's how the new initiative was reported at the time:
The academies will usually replace failing or under-achieving schools and their sponsors will be expected to have plans to improve the education of all the pupils displaced by the change....

...There will be no single blueprint for the academies, but the aim will be "to improve pupil performance and break the cycle of low expectations".
By 2016, the project has experienced more mission creep than the US military in the Vietnam War, with the current government committing itself to converting all schools - good, bad and indifferent - into academies for reasons which are supposedly pressing, but which nobody has yet clearly, or convincingly, explained.

Although the full scope and purpose of the Academies' expanded mission is unclear, we can safely assume that it still includes the thing academies were created to do - turn around failing schools.

Now something that calls itself "The Centre for High Performance"  (a  collaboration  between senior faculties at the Universities of Oxford and Kingston) has come up with some very helpful guidance on how to successfully accomplish the core mission of Academies, with a report entitled "How to turn around a failing school." The report suggests eight action points. Some of these consist of pointing out the bleeding obvious (apparently, failing schools could try to "Improve teaching capability" - no shit, Sherlock).

But the seriously interesting piece of advice is point four, which reads:
4. Student quality - exclude poor quality students, improve admissions and acquire a local primary school
To recap - an initiative which was introduced to help students stuck in failing schools, by replacing poor schools with better ones, now apparently exists to help poor schools improve their performance by excluding the sort of students the system was created to help in the first place. A system which was set up to promote inclusion is now supposed to operate by excluding pupils.

I said that this guidance is really helpful and I mean it. It is an extremely helpful piece of evidence for anybody arguing that the Academy schools project has not only failed in its own terms, but is doing the precise opposite of what it was set up to do and has turned into a bureaucratic nightmare straight out of Kafka, a vast, unaccountable machine, relentlessly grinding on in pursuit of its own obscure purposes, systematically chewing up and spitting out the unfortunate people it was ostensibly set up to serve.

As the person running the machine, it's Nicky Morgan's responsibility to hit the big red "stop" button when it starts malfunctioning this badly. Instead, she's yanking on the lever that makes it go faster. Negligence on this scale ought to be a resigning matter.


Image credit

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Back to basics

So John Whittingdale dated a dominatrix and a porn star and organised some parliamentary "research" trips to lap dancing clubs? As scandals go, it's not exactly the Panama Papers - what the guy got up to between the sheets is surely more of a "private matter" than a Prime Minister, whose family stuck its wealth in an tax-avoiding offshore trust, lobbying to block regulation of tax-avoiding offshore trusts.

But although it's not important, the Whittingdale Affair is at least entertaining. Anyone with a long enough memory to remember how John Major's "back to basics" campaign was brought down by the sexual antics of his ministers, has just got to love the fact that John Whittingdale is a member of the Cornerstone Group, a collection of Conservative MPs who have chosen to dedicate themselves to "traditional values."

The Cornerstone Group has chosen itself a motto - "faith, flag and family" - which sounds horribly like something out of Franco-era Spain, so I reckon that if we're looking at a return to the Nineties with a spot of Back-To-Basics hanky-panky and tabloid mockery, it really couldn't happen to a more deserving bunch of people:

Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Eurovision heresy

According to one of the most famous opening sentences in English literature, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." And I reckon L P Hartley pretty much nailed it with that line. Our personal memories of times past and of our own former selves are limited, imperfect, distorted versions of what we actually thought, knew and felt in the past. And if hindsight rewrites even our own experiences, imagine how heavily it edits the thoughts and motivations of others in the historical past.

It's almost impossible, for example, to get into the minds of the people who argued so bitterly and passionately over the theological disputes that divided the early Church. There were heated debates about whether Jesus was wholly human, wholly divine, or a bit of both. Those who subscribed to the "bit of both" hypothesis argued endlessly about whether the divine bit and the human bit were separate, or all mixed up together, or whether the human bit or the divine bit was dominant, or whether the two bits lived together in perfect harmony. And you probably wouldn't have wanted to get those guys started on the nature of the Holy Spirit, or indeed on how any member of the Trinity related to the other two bits, or even whether there was such a thing as a Trinity.

There were epic spats, like the famous one between Arius who believed, not unreasonably, that God the Father must have existed before His son, Jesus, and Athanasius who argued that Father and Son had both been around for, like, ever. Eventually Athanasius's formula became the official version and Arianism a heresy (although a popular one with the Goths, back when Goths were fearsome conquering barbarians rather than pale, misunderstood teens with black eyeliner). Such spats escalated from name-calling and shunning to the eventual killing of heretics in the name of Very Serious Theological Differences, which almost nobody cares about any more.

Modern non-believers obviously don't care about the exact nature of a man's relationship with a supernatural being (or, as some heretics seem to have believed, supernatural beings) they don't believe in. Ditto people of different faiths, who don't accept the underlying premise that Jesus was - in whatever sense - the son of God. Ditto most modern Christians, for whom these questions are now settled and who are perfectly happy to just repeat the formula of the Nicene Creed at the appropriate point in the service, rather than pausing half way though to wonder what the "begotten, not made" bit even means.

Now that the battle to define Christianity has been won, a few theologians and historians take an academic interest, but that's about it - the differences that once brought furious mobs out onto the street, sparked outraged denunciations and even provoked people to kill the theologically unsound are just curious footnotes in the history of ideas. A few people know about this stuff, but nobody cares any more.

If you want to get a hint of the passions that these debates once stirred, you have to leave discussion of Christ's personhood and the nature of the Holy Ghost behind and be controversial about something people still actually care about. To get a taste of how early Christians felt about heretics, well, think about how British fans of Eurovision and the late Sir Terry Wogan, along with the British media and Twitter, all feel about Christer Björkman right now:
The producer of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest has accused the UK of not taking the annual event seriously enough – and even going so far as to blame Sir Terry Wogan for the public’s attitude.

Christer Bjorkman launched the astonishing attack while attending a lecture in London, telling iNews that the nation should stop making fun of the contest and try harder, if they ever wanted to win again.
Sir Terry Wogan’s gentle humour, loved by millions of television viewers and radio listeners, was not to the liking of the executive responsible for the Eurovision song contest.

Christer Bjorkman, the producer of the programme which has been a fixture on television screens for decades, said the show’s credibility was ruined by Sir Terry, who died in January, aged 77.

Sir Terry, who hosted the broadcast for 28 years, refused to take the show sufficiently seriously for Mr Bjorkman’s tastes.
BBC defend Sir Terry Wogan for his 'unique sense sense of humour' after Eurovision attack

The BBC have swooped to defend Sir Terry Wogan after Eurovision boss Christer Bjorkman hit out at the late star, claiming his sarcasm had tarnished the competition.
British veterans from the international song contest leapt to the late presenter’s defence and said Swedish producer Christer Bjorkman should get a sense of humour
The Mirror

To know what anathema and excommunication feel like in the 21st Century, just admit to being unamused by the British sense of humour* and by Sir Terry's genial banter, or to enjoying the Eurovision Song Contest in an unironic way.

We may not give a stuff about the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son, but woe to anyone who dares to question our national self-image as a unique island of subversive hilarity just off a continent of stereotypically humourless, rule-bound foreigners. To judge by all the pompous lectures Mr Björkman is being given about the urgent need to get a sense of humour, I think he just hit a nerve, threatened our complacent sense of our own identity and essential rightness and questioned the idea that there is only one way for right-thinking people to look at things.

There's no Inquisition for such modern heretics - just the self-stimulating vortex of trial by tabloid and Twitterstorm - but, just like their forbears in late antiquity, they're still reviled for outraging the propriety of received opinion.

*As personified by an Irishman - matters of faith and identity have little in common with logic and consistency.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

A proud Remainian (or Canadian)

On balance, I'm for staying in Europe's imperfect union. It's not great but it is, I think, the least worst option on many counts. For example:

No, leaving the EU wouldn't give the UK an extra £350m a week to spend on the NHS.

It would, however, make the following people very happy:
Michael Gove (co-convener Vote Leave) – in 2009 called for the dismantling of the NHS.

Matthew Elliott (chief executive Vote Leave) – is the founder of the Taxpayers Alliance – which has long argued for the break-up of the NHS and private competition in healthcare.

Philip Davies (Better Off Out Campaign) – once blocked plans to reverse private sector involvement in the NHS by talking out (or filibustering) a private member’s bill...

...Dominic Raab (campaign committee member Vote Leave) – as recently as last month advocated privatising the NHS.
Tom Pride

But if we absolutely have to do the Brexit thing, please can we then vote to become a province of Canada? I'm just asking, because how could you not be proud of a Prime Minister like this?
Trudeau was attending a press conference at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario to announce $50m in science funding. A reporter jokingly asked him to explain quantum computing before shifting the question to counterterrorism, but the Canuck PM was having none of it.

"OK, quite simply, normal computers work by..." Trudeau started before the room erupted. "No, no, don't interrupt me, when you walk out of here you will know more, well no, some of you will know far less about quantum computing," he said.

"Normal computers work, either there's power going through a wire or not. It's one or a zero. They're binary systems," the premier explained.

"A quantum state can be much more complex than that because, as we know, things can be both particle and wave at the same time, and the uncertainty around quantum states allows us to encode more information into a much smaller computer."

As explanations go, it's a pretty good one. Trudeau is a self-confessed geek and a trained teacher and it's hard to fault his explanation of what is a very complex area of computing.

If only American politicians displayed the same knowledge.
The Register

If only. And while you're at it, just try to imagine an expensively-educated underachiever like Cameron, or - God help us - that self-styled clever cornflake, Boris, trying to bluster a way round that question. Makes you weep.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

The mother of parliaments, 2016

In Britain, in 2016, seven people are standing in an election, all contesting a seat in Britain's upper house of parliament.

Only three people are allowed to vote in this election: the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, the Earl of Glasgow and Lord Addington.

I think we need some context here:

  • Yes, this is 2016, not 1816.
  • Yes, we boast about living in a parliamentary democracy.
  • The vacant post is for a Liberal Democrat hereditary peer. 

As for what any of this has to do with "democracy" - or the "Democrat" bit of the party's name - your guess is as good as mine. My own best guess is that the people involved are just very easily satisfied and are absolutely fine that a demos of two earls plus a lord adds up to democracy. Or maybe three voters sounds like a lot to the post-Cleggocalypse Lib Dems.

Fortunately, I'm sure there are plenty of experts in our (unwritten) constitution who'll be able to explain how this is sort of thing makes perfect sense and why voters shouldn't worry their little heads about such details.


Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Steampunk versus the 1970s

Here's an interesting answer to the question "Why steampunk?":
Then there was Steampunk, surely the most peculiar of countercultural trends, a kind of ungainly Victorian futurism full of steam-powered computers and airships, top-hatted cyborgs, floating cities powered by Tesla coils, and an endless variety of technologies that had never actually emerged. I remember attending some academic conference on the subject and asking myself, “Okay, I get the steam part, that’s obvious, but . . . what exactly does this have to do with punk?” And then it dawned on me. No Future! The Victorian era was the last time when most people in this country genuinely believed in a technologically-driven future that was going to lead to a world not only more prosperous and equal, but actually more fun and exciting than their own. Then, of course, came the Great War, and we discovered what the twentieth century was really going to be like, with its monotonous alternation of terror and boredom in the trenches. Was not Steampunk a way of saying, can’t we just go back, write off the entire last century as a bad dream, and start over?
I don't agree that "The Victorian era was the last time when most people in this country genuinely believed in a technologically-driven future that was going to lead to a world not only more prosperous and equal, but actually more fun and exciting than their own." I grew up in the slipstream of Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology", having thrilled at the moon landings, Concorde, Thunderbirds and Star Trek, in a land that was less unequal than it had been in my parents' youth and which seemed to be continuing on the same egalitarian trajectory:
The fact that so many children had space hoppers, ludicrous as it may seem, is testament to the fact that even working-class families now had a solid disposable income and could afford toys for their younger members.

Even Star Wars, which first went on general release in Britain in early 1978, would never have become such a phenomenon had not so many children had the pocket money for all those Palitoy figures.

The truth is that behind all those terrible economic and political headlines, most ordinary families in 1970s Britain were better off than ever.
Dominic Sandbrook

OK, there were flies in the ointment, like the the looming threat of nuclear apocalypse, sexism, racism, homophobia and the ubiquity of child molesters on prime-time TV (not that we had a clue at the time). But there was still the feeling that, if we didn't blow ourselves up, things would keep on getting better for everybody.

So maybe we could just go back, write off the last forty years as a bad dream (at least the political economy bit) and start over? Or maybe it's something about 1970s aesthetics* which stops us reimagining the '70s as a liberated time, ripe with ideas of hope and change and only allows that decade to return in the creepy guise of Scarfolk, or the latest interpretation of a Ballardian dystopia. 

I suppose that, in the end, it doesn't really matter if dreams of a different world involve cheesecloth, flares and Concorde, or top hats, paddle steamers and airships, so long as we can continue to imagine different worlds. So here, to feed your daydreaming imagination, are some real, but steampunky, machines from the age that set H G Wells and Jules Verne a-dreaming:
1852 Giffard steam-powered dirigible.
1886 Nordenfelt-class  steam submarine Abdül Hamid, of the Ottoman navy.
De Dion, Bouton & Trépardoux steam tractor, 1894.
Brunel's leviathan, the Great Eastern.
Crampton locomotive, Folkstone , at the Great Exhibition, 1851.
The Imperial Russian Navy monitor, Novgorod, launched in 1873.
Steam shovel helping to dig the Western Pacific Railroad, 1906.
All images courtesy of Wikipedia (public domain), except for the monitor Novgorod, which came from an eBay listing of a print.

*Afterthought - maybe times within the living memory of many inhabit a historical Uncanny Valley, where the similarities seem unsettling, while the Age of Steam with its crinolines and steamers is sufficiently other to free the imagination. Or maybe it's just the normal boring old propaganda that paints the world before Thatcher-Reagan as a dysfunctional hellhole.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

One way to solve a Panama crisis

The U.S. Army turned to psychological warfare, blaring rock music at "deafening levels," gunning the engines of armored vehicles against the Nunciature's fence, and setting fire to a neighboring field and bulldozing it to create a "helicopter landing zone." Reportedly the song "I Fought The Law" by The Clash was played repeatedly...
I'm not recommending parking the onshore world's tanks on Mossack Fonseca's immaculately-tended lawn, then turning the amps up to 11, you understand. Just saying that an army of shifty lawyers and tax consultants wouldn't last ten minutes against a few squaddies armed with the expensive kit we paid for with our taxes and, unlike most recent military interventions, this one would pay for itself many times over, instead of losing billions. You could, for instance, call it an international anti-piracy operation or something.

I think this is this what think tanks call "starting a conversation."

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Makeup routines of the rich and famous

Over in the Graun's fashion section, there's an article entitled:
Over the rainbow – your colour corrector problems resolved
Thanks to Instagram, this much maligned makeup routine is back. Here’s how you nail it.
This sort of thing would usually be wasted on me. But once you see the potential results of a makeup regime malfunction, you realise how important this stuff can be:
What one famous celebrity would look like without makeup. The results will totally shock you.
Emergency room - we need fake tan, orange, lots of it, now!

Making plans for Nigel

What could be more embarrassing for a party leader than hosting a major summit to discuss offshore tax havens when everybody knows that your own family fortunes have been stashed away in an offshore tax haven?

Probably nothing, but being a party leader who tried to stash some of the family cash in an offshore tax haven, but apparently failed to make any money with this cunning plan, must come a close second. Poor Nigel Farage - not just another out-of-touch member of the Westminster elite, although not for want of trying.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Spanking some BOTs

Post-Panama Papers, people seem to be waking up to the novel idea that the British government might conceivably be able to exert some influence over what goes on in British Overseas Territories, rather than shrugging and muttering "Nothing to do with us, guv":
Corbyn argued that the government should tell administrations in places like the Cayman Islands and British Virgin Islands: “Hang on, you are a government of a British dependent territory, a crown territory, you must obey UK tax law, you must not become a harbour for tax avoidance and tax evasion.”
So sez Jez.

I'd just like to take the opportunity of reminding anybody who cares* that I was into this before it was cool:
I still wonder whether the precedent of what Britain did to the Chagos Islands opens up another possibility. If the UK government has the power to deport the entire population of one of its overseas territories and send every single man, woman and child into exile for 45-odd years, maybe for ever, why can't it decide, in the national interest, to shut down the tax havens operating in some of the other ones?
Me, last February**. Good to have you on board, Jez.

*i.e. nobody, probably.

** Well, linked back to last Feb - I started wondering why HM govt couldn't do anything about this back in 2013.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Banana monarchy

We may no longer be a world-beating steel producer but, by jingo, modern Britain can show Johnny Foreigner a thing or to about running a global tax-dodging and money laundering industry:
Looking at the documents leaked from Mossack Fonseca and one thing is clear: Britain's network is once again at the core. More than half of the companies listed in the documents are registered in the UK or its Overseas Territories, and Hong Kong plays a huge role.

Of course, this shouldn't be surprising. Britain has for a while now been thought to be the global capital for money laundering. And it's no shock that nothing has been done about it. In 2010, two years after they crashed the global economy, the City paid for more than half of the Conservative party's election campaign, helping (along with the aforementioned Lord Ashcroft) them limp over the line, with a Lib Dem shaped crutch. Though, of course, Labour did little to regulate in the previous 13 years.

If we want to understand modern Britain, first we need to realise that our primary economic function in the world is probably our network of tax havens. After all, around $21tn is estimated to sit in offshore accounts, of which Britain's territories are said to make up by far the biggest part. Our own GDP is only around $3tn.

Yep, we're still the top banana at something. Makes you proud to be British.


Sunday, 3 April 2016

Obedient little soldiers

An interesting perspective on the history of education from Matt Ridley:
The economic historian Stephen Davies dates the modern form of the school to 1806, the year when Napoleon defeated Prussia. Stung by its humiliation, the Prussian state took the advice of its leading intellectual, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and devised a programme of compulsory and rigorous education, the purpose of which was to produce obedient soldiers who would not run away in battle. It was these Prussian schools that introduced many of the features we now take for granted. There was teaching by year group rather than ability, which made sense if the aim was to produce military recruits rather than rounded citizens. There was formal pedagogy, in which children sat at rows of desks in front of standing teachers, rather than, say, walking around together in the ancient Greek fashion. There was the set school day, punctuated by the ringing of bells. There was a predetermined syllabus, rather than open ended learning. There was the habit of doing several subjects a day, rather than sticking to one subject.
I can see how you might want to retain some of this stuff - especially in the early years, there's a lot to be said for a predetermined syllabus. You'd think, though, by 2016, everybody would at least be on board with the idea that schools should be in the business of turning out rounded citizens, not obedient cannon fodder, although I'm by no means convinced that we've got rid of the people who see education as a species of drill, rather than the way we pass thinking skills on to the next generation.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Creating a sense of grievance

According to an anonymous Ukip politician, some strands of the party aren't actually that fussed about its stated aim of getting Britain out of the EU - "They're not particularly interested in winning the referendum and they'd rather replicate the SNP scenario which is lose the primary objective of the party but create such a sense of grievance you win in the polls and do rather well."

Take these sort of off-the-record anonymous revelations with more than a pinch of salt, of course, but the idea of Ukip as a mechanism for stoking and mobilising a generalised sense of grievance doesn't sound at all far fetched to me.