Saturday, 16 December 2017

Brevity is the soul of sh!t

When loathsome teen-bothering sex pest Roy Moore lost the Alabama Senate race, some twit inevitably came up with a conspiracy theory about the election being stolen. The theory's a twin-pack of malicious bigotry, suggesting that a Jew paid to get black voters illegally bussed in from out of state.

John Rogers duly came up with a forensic demolition of the fantasy logistics behind the alleged conspiracy in this withering tweetstorm.

Great response, but the numbers depress me - it took the twit responsible only one tweet to get the stupid out there and it took 15 tweets to address the sheer volume of idiocy contained in one sub-140 character outburst. At odds like that, mere facts are going to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of short, snappy slanders being generated quicker than they can ever be refuted.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

The sincerest form of flattery

Here’s an idea: let’s abolish the wheel. Let’s escape the tyranny of the circular device, and spend the money saved on axles, spokes and hubs on — oh, I don’t know — the National Health Service (NHS). Let’s take back control of rotation! But wait a minute. This can’t be done overnight. We shall still need some means of transporting ourselves and our goods until we have formally renounced the wheel, but before we have agreed on a new device. There’ll probably need to be an “implementation period” in which we remain “aligned” with the existing circular format.

Then, when we’ve finally got rid of the old system — let freedom ring! — we’ll need a new, bespoke mechanism. What we’ll want is our own round component that rolls around an axis; an independently designed disc that turns reliably to enable easy movement. Something that gyrates smoothly along the ground. I wonder what we should call it.
Matthew d’Ancona, in a piece titled "Theresa May’s new Brexit campaign is a mirage", published in the Gulf Times, where they presumably know a thing or two about mirages.

What seems to be going on is a reversed version of the branding exercise that a certain discount supermarket does when it wants to make its cheaper own-brand products look as close as possible to their popular branded equivalents, without actually crossing the line into outright counterfeiting:
Alcafé Gold Roast is a work of fiction. Any similarity to other brands of coffee, instant or gold, is purely coincidental.
But where the discount retailer wants its own products to look just like their almost-identical equivalents, the Brexit Delivery Team want their product to look completely unlike the thing they're desperately trying to duplicate in excruciating detail:
Government: "We are proud to announce an innovative new form of circular component, intended to rotate on an axle bearing."

Every Reman and Leave voter who's still awake: "It's a wheel, isn't it?"

Government: "No, it's totally not a wheel. Our old wheel was blue, with yellow stars on it. This is an entirely novel type of component - look, it's red, white and blue!"
Still, at least the government has found an excellent way to unite the whole country - simultaneously patronise and disappoint everybody who voted to leave the EU and everybody who voted to stay. Anyway, good luck trying to get your novel innovation past the patent office, guys.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Bordering on the sane

I woke up very depressed this morning, to a dreary chorus of crowing from the UK press about "progress" towards delivering the suicide pact between the lunatic fringe of the Conservative Party and the DUP.

But, in a world where creative ambiguity means that things like detailed planning and comprehensive risk assessments can simultaneously exist in excruciating detail and not exist at all, language doesn't always mean what you think it means. So it was with some relief that I turned to the Irish press, where Fintan O'Toole has been thinking about what the Irish border deal actually means. If he's right, the latest agreement may be good news for traitors, saboteurs and enemies of the people everywhere:
"This saga has taken many strange turns, but this is the strangest of all: after one of the most fraught fortnights in the recent history of Anglo-Irish relations, Ireland has just done Britain a favour of historic dimensions. It has saved it from the madness of a hard Brexit. There is a great irony here: the problem that the Brexiteers most relentlessly ignored has come to determine the entire shape of their project. By standing firm against their attempts to bully, cajole and blame it, Ireland has shifted Brexit towards a soft outcome. It is now far more likely that Britain will stay in the customs union and the single market. It is also more likely that Brexit will not in fact happen.

Essentially what this extraordinary deal does is to reverse engineer Brexit as a whole from one single component - the need to avoid a hard Irish border. It follows the Sherlock Holmes principle: eliminate the impossible and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the solution. The Irish Government, by taking a firm stance and retaining the rock solid support of the rest of the EU, made the hard border the defining impossibility. Working back from that, the Brexit project now has to embrace what seemed, even last Monday, highly improbable: the necessity, at a minimum, for the entire UK to mirror the rules of the customs union and the single market after it leaves the EU. And this in turn raises the biggest question of all: if the UK is going to mirror the customs union and the single market, why go to the considerable bother of leaving the EU in the first place?"
It is indeed hard to see how the UK can be outside the customs union and the single market (in any more than name) and enjoy a "free flowing" border with an EU member state, so I'm rather cheered up by Fintan's analysis. A second look at the UK press makes me feel even more optimistic. Apparently Nigel Farage* really hates this deal, which is also a pretty good indication that events are moving in a slightly less insane direction.

I'm not one of those people who use the faintest smidge of Irish ancestry to go big on the whole St Patrick's Day thing. But, going back a century and a half or so, a sizable chunk of my DNA can be traced back to County Mayo, so I hereby pledge that, if Ireland proves to be the final straw that breaks the Brexit camel's back, you can count on me never to ignore another St Paddy's Day.


*Seriously, why is anybody still listening to the ex-leader of a fringe single-issue party which once reached the dizzy political heights of having one, solitary, MP (who they had to poach from another party and who subsequently deserted them)? Is it because the empty suit who's currently supposed to be leading Ukip has risen without trace?
What does Henry think about this deal? Nobody cares. Poor Henry.

Mad scheme gets green light

This is not good news.
"When politics becomes the whims and mad schemes of a small minority that only listen to themselves, unmodified by the normal checks and balances of a functioning democracy, it should be treated by the non-partisan media for what it is, not normalised as just more of the same...

...Those who brought us Brexit and backed or tolerated Trump have to be disgraced as the harbingers of disaster. Their control of the Republican and Conservative parties must end."
Open Democracy

Thursday, 7 December 2017

If David Davis has been telling the truth all along, it's time to panic

As Arthur C Clarke said about intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe, two frightening scenarios exist:
"Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying."
After David Davis's appearance before the Brexit select committee yesterday, I think that the search for intelligent life in the Department for Exiting the European Union yields a similarly terrifying pair of binary options:
1. David Davis is telling the truth now, when he says that the impact studies and analysis don't exist, but he was lying in the past when he said they existed in "excruciating detail"

2. David Davis is lying now, when he says that the impact studies and analysis don't exist, but he was telling the truth in the past when he said they did.

1. is terrifying because it means that the UK is taking the most significant peacetime decision in its history with virtually no planning or risk assessment. 2. is terrifying because the risk assessments exist, but Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union is pretending they don't, presumably because their conclusions are too frightening to share with the public.

Unfortunately for fans of neat correspondences, and for people who think that surely by now we must have reached rock bottom, a third possibility exists:
3. David Davis is telling the truth now, when he says that the impact studies and analysis don't exist and he was also telling the truth in the past when he said they did.
3. could be true if DExEU did analyse the probable impact, but the results were so horrific that they subsequently destroyed their work and ordered everybody who knew of its existence never to speak of it again. In that case, Davis could then have been technically telling the truth all along, with implications that are even more terrifying than scenarios 1. and 2.

Logically, there's a fourth possibility, that Davis was lying in the past and is lying now, but this one doesn't really make much sense to me. DExEU could have failed to do its homework when Davis was confidently assuring everybody that it was all well in hand, then cobbled something together at the last minute, but if that's true and the work exists, why stand before the committee and pretend that his department hasn't done it? Unless, or course, the conclusions of the department's  last-minute impact studies and analysis were as terrifying as 2., or as utterly horrific as 3.

Whatever the right answer, just be grateful that you're not David Davis. Or, as Monty Python sang:
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere out in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth!

Monday, 4 December 2017

Virtue-signalling? Seriously?

"Hypocrisy" said François de La Rochefoucauld "is a tribute vice pays to virtue." Nobody talks about virtue much these days, except for a few media types who never tire of scolding others for the modern sin of "virtue-signalling."

When somebody  complains about virtue-signalling, the odds are quite high that the complainer hasn't got anything very interesting to say, but has simply found a more impressive-sounding way to call somebody else a prig. As David Shariatmadari pointed out last year, the phrase might have a technical, social sciencey sound, but it doesn't amount to much more than saying "I bet you didn't really mean that good thing you just said":
1. Bill is saying something right-on
2. Virtue-signalling is when you say something right-on just to sound good
3. Therefore Bill is virtue-signalling

But 3. is not justified by 1. and 2. You can argue for something that happens to make you look virtuous because you genuinely think it is the best solution. That’s the case, for example, with most religious beliefs. Do we really think the pope is just virtue-signalling?
According to David Shariatmadari, the phrase was first popularised by the Spectator's James Bartholomew in April 2015, so if it ever had any specific meaning, (apart from being a longer, more pretentious way to call somebody a prig), it should have meant something back then.

And maybe it did. In 2015, just before the Brexit-Trump inflecton point, the economic and political elite was still trying to justify its hegemony with token gestures towards equality and diversity,  rather than just appealing to the post-2016 values of zero-sum nationalism and authoritarian xenophobia. In that specific historical context, the idea of empty "virtue-signalling" by an elite that wanted to look inclusive, while jealously guarding its exclusivity did actually make some sense, as this article suggests:
At the core of this ethos were ideals of “diversity,” women’s “empowerment,” and LGBTQ rights; post-racialism, multiculturalism, and environmentalism. These ideals were interpreted in a specific, limited way that was fully compatible with the Goldman Sachsification of the U.S. economy. Protecting the environment meant carbon trading. Promoting home ownership meant subprime loans bundled together and resold as mortgage-backed securities. Equality meant meritocracy.

The reduction of equality to meritocracy was especially fateful. The progressive-neoliberal program for a just status order did not aim to abolish social hierarchy but to “diversify” it, “empowering” “talented” women, people of color, and sexual minorities to rise to the top. And that ideal was inherently class specific: geared to ensuring that “deserving” individuals from “underrepresented groups” could attain positions and pay on a par with the straight white men of their own class. The feminist variant is telling but, sadly, not unique. Focused on “leaning in” and “cracking the glass ceiling,” its principal beneficiaries could only be those already in possession of the requisite social, cultural, and economic capital. Everyone else would be stuck in the basement.
If you'd said that David Cameron was "virtue-signalling", back in 2006, when he had himself photographed cycling to work (while his briefcase was being chauffeured to work in the car behind), you'd have actually made a specific point about token gestures.

But that progressive neoliberal moment is over. When Donald Trump wanted to distract attention from the fact that his much-vaunted tax reforms were going to do squat for the folk on Main Street, while handing him and his billionaire buddies tax breaks on their private jets, he didn't have himself photographed cycling to work, or hugging a husky.

Instead, he retweeted some hateful nonsense being circulated by a bunch of neo-Nazis, so his base were too delighted, and everybody else too horrified, to notice what was really going on.

Apparently, vice no longer sees why it needs to pay virtue anything.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Donald Trump - full of empathy and free of guilt?

Thanks mainly to the Twit in Chief, the topic of hate speech is trending again. There's a widely-accepted theory to explain what's going on with people who use demeaning, insulting language:
"If we’re experiencing guilt about our treatment of some person, or group, or class, and having trouble reconciling that guilt with our notion of ourselves as good people, our brains are extremely adept at resolving the situation by othering the people we feel that we’ve wronged. If we dehumanise someone, and distance our empathy with them, then we won’t have to feel bad about the shabby way we’ve treated them."
So we inoculate ourselves against our instinctive empathy with language that disables our better instincts towards others. This may be true in a lot of cases, but it doesn't quite ring true for a lot of Trump's own outbursts. The mindset behind a lot of Trump's own tweets seems closer to the one characterised in a recent article by Paul Bloom:
"At some European soccer games, fans make monkey noises at African players and throw bananas at them. Describing Africans as monkeys is a common racist trope, and might seem like yet another example of dehumanization. But plainly these fans don’t really think the players are monkeys; the whole point of their behavior is to disorient and humiliate. To believe that such taunts are effective is to assume that their targets would be ashamed to be thought of that way—which implies that, at some level, you think of them as people after all."
This so captures the essence of Trump that you could bottle it. His instinct to go for the emotional jugular, to goad and humiliate others, seems to be the flip side of his own limitless appetite for status, respect and adulation.

As far as I can see, Trump hasn't turned off his sense of empathy. He acts as if he believes that other people are like him and share his overwhelming neediness and desire to be respected and loved. He also seems to view social relations as a zero-sum game - there's only a limited amount of respect and love out there, so the best way to get some is to take it away from somebody else. So he uses his instinctive empathy, his innate feeling for the things that would most hurt him (loss of status, mockery, belittling), and turns them against his targets.

This isn't the behaviour of somebody who needs to overcome feelings of guilt about treating others in a shabby way. It's the behaviour of somebody who feels no guilt about inflicting distress. I suspect that acting badly doesn't make him feel ashamed - only losing status can do that.

If he was just one bad apple, however influential, this wouldn't be a problem. But, of course, he's not. Most of us share some Trump's desires for love, respect and status, although not in such grotesquely hypertrophied forms - he wouldn't keep on trying to humiliate people if it didn't sting.

And Trump fits into the structures and mechanisms of humiliation that we've created. His own T.V. show, The Apprentice was both the perfect vehicle for Trump and the perfect example of an engineered environment made for the perpetuation of Trumpist values. It's an arena where desperate supplicants compete for the patronage of the highest-status individual in the room, who acts as judge, jury and executioner.

Social media was sold to us as the opposite - an anti-hierarchical space which would democratise speech and give everyone a voice, but many aspects of it seem to have replicated the values of The Apprentice's war of all against all - the endless competition for followers and reach, the new opportunities it gives to the powerful and shameless to shame and silence the less powerful.

This sort of thing can only happen where inequalities of power enables bullies - if the person doing this doesn't wield power, you can walk away, or decide not to care. Maybe this partly explains the current fashion for rediscovering Stoic virtues* and the idea that, if we can't take up arms against the slings and arrows of outrageously powerful buffoons, we can at least suffer them with dignified equanimity. It might be worth a shot, as we endure the depressing wait for the day when the Trumps of this world finally overreach themselves and bring their gilded age of toxic inequality and status-obsession to an end.

*Is Stoicism the new mindfulness?

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Furious celeb SLAMS Hull's Christmas trees as ISLAMIST PROPAGANDA

Any insufficient display of enthusiasm for things Christmas-related is usually cited, by members of the alt-right, as evidence for a mythical "war on Christmas" allegedly being waged by an improbable alliance of hard-line secularists and Islam's most inflexible God-botherers. The people behind this odd victim narrative have to get quite creative to come up with anything that looks like evidence for this apostate/heathenish plot (the zombie legend of Winterval, or subversive symbolism hiding on Starbucks coffee cups, among other outlandish claims), because of the overwhelming evidence that most people in the UK routinely celebrate Christmas without any fear of persecution.

Still, at least this means that if you do do something Christmassy, these silly people will get off your case, right? That must be what Hull City Council thought when they came up with the bright idea of decorating the anti-terror bollards around the city's Queen Victoria Square with Christmas trees. As a make-over, I think it works pretty well, but the local authority hadn't reckoned with the now-too-toxic-even-for-the-Daily Mail former reality star, Katie Hopkins, who tweeted, bizarrely:

"Do not use OUR symbols of hope to cover up for THEIR hate. Deport jihadi bastards."
Her (hastily-deleted) Twitter outburst is a useful way of reminding everybody else that there's obviously no pleasing these people, so there's absolutely no point in trying to appease, or reason, with them. Fortunately, now she's lost her soapbox at the Mail, it should be easier than ever to do the right thing and completely ignore Katie Hopkins and her incoherently ignorant opinions.

Monday, 27 November 2017

"We're going to build a wall and Ireland is going to pay."

Just when you thought that nobody could possibly out-stupid the Brexiteering eejits in the May government, Labour's Kate Hoey says "Hold my Guinness" and goes full Trump.

"Greed is good" revisited

"The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind."
Gordon Gekko was a Hollywood caricature of villainy, so obviously he was wrong, wrong, wrong. Or was he? Maybe there are worse things than greed, at least for certain values of greed.
I'm starting to wonder whether Gordon Gekko had a point, after reading this, by Andrew Rawnsley:
"The cowardly, the desperadoes and the unscrupulous will take the national conversation in darker directions. If they can no longer plausibly promise to make people better off, some pursuers of power will seek to create dividing lines around identity and nationality. That ugly trend is already manifest at home and abroad."
Rawnsley just gave an example of someting worse than a greed-driven political economy; one driven by spite.

If you vote for politicians because they're credibly promising to make you and your family better off, isn't that greedy? You could say that, but it's still better than voting for some bullying motormouth who can't make you any better off, but has a plan to punish the designated scapegoats.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

What took him so long?

Crypto-fascist strongman stiffs his allies, cuts deal with fellow crypto-fascist strongman.

With a sort of tragic inevitabilty,  the only good thing to come out of the Syrian tragedy is being strangled at birth.

Remember this flag. It's what hope used to look like.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Conservative home and away

Daniel Hannan raised a few eyebrows this week when he used a Consevative Home article to vent about his fellow Brexiteer, Arron Banks. According to Hannan, it was the official campaign, Vote Leave, wot won it. In contrast, Hannan called the Arron Banks-funded Leave.EU campaign a "hapless and hopeless" "wrecking operation" which did nothing to help the Leavers win, but only functioned "as a vehicle to promote himself [Arron Banks] and Nigel Farage."

There's a perfectly rational reason for Hannan's attack. The media are delving into where Banks got the money that propped up Ukip and, along with the Electoral Commission, are looking at allegations  that officially separate pro-Brexit campaign groups illicitly colluded to share money and resources in order to breach campaign funding limits. The main reason for the article is to distance Hannan and his fellow Vote Leave Tory Brexiteers from the dodgy-looking geezers of Ukip and Leave.EU.
"There have been technical investigations into both Leave and Remain on compliance issues. But it’s Banks who is attracting the most fevered speculation about where his money came from. No proof of wrongdoing has been found, but the lurid nature of the accusation is being used to suggest that Leave won improperly.

To repeat, Banks’s outfit was not Vote Leave, or even an ally of Vote Leave...

...As far as the Electoral Commission’s investigation goes, Banks is as entitled as anyone else to the presumption of innocence. Being a boastful, belligerent man-child doesn’t make you a Russian agent."
In other words:
"You can't prove he did anything (we hope), but even if you find out that he did do something, he's got nothing to do with us. Move along, nothing to see here." 
So far, so Mandy Rice-Davis.

But the string of insults about the "hapless and hopeless" campaigning of the "boastful, belligerent man-child" reminds us that this is deeply personal, too. It's also the latest round in a long and bitter feud of easily-bruised egos taking place in the exclusive bubble inhabited by millionaire political donors and the politicians who court them. It's been going on at least since Banks stopped giving money to the Conservatives and started funding Ukip, but really came to a head when William Hague said that he'd "never heard" of the former Tory donor, causing Banks to increase his donation to Ukip from £100,00 to £1 million out of spite, or wounded self-importance.  For the careerists in the Conservative family, the political is personal.

It's a bit like watching members of a highly dysfunctional family plotting and squabbling over which one of them is going to inherit the family house. Only they're all so intent on making sure that no other sibling gets the house that none have noticed that the house itself is on fire. From the perspective of an observer on the other side of the pond, the flames engulfing the family mansion are only too obvious:
"The world recently commemorated the centennial of the Russian Revolution, which resulted from the flagrant incompetence of that country’s ruling class in confronting a moment of overwhelming national crisis. The barricades are not yet out in the streets of modern-day London, but a certain sense of déjà vu is appropriate. At the least, we are likely witnessing the slow-motion suicide of the Conservative Party, and, conceivably, of British conservatism more broadly defined.

In the British case, the crisis involves the nation’s referendum vote in June 2016 to withdraw from the European Union. Opinions may differ about the virtues of Brexit as an idea—I opposed it—but once it was decided, most everyone agreed that the process of extraction had to be implemented with great care and single-minded dedication. The actual response of the Conservative government has been deplorable to the point of unforgivable—inept, slipshod, insouciant, and ignorant of even the basic realities of law and process."
Philip Jenkins, writing for The American Conservative, was just getting into his stride there. Just wait until he gets down to the nitty-gritty of the "victory" Vote Leave and Leave.EU are both claiming credit for:
"After the referendum, Theresa May emerged as prime minister with a firm commitment to the principle “Brexit means Brexit.” Accordingly, she chose leading Brexit campaigners for key positions, including Boris Johnson as foreign secretary and David Davis as head of the new department in charge of exiting the European Union (DExEU) and chief negotiator of withdrawal. Liam Fox carries responsibility for international trade, which includes negotiating new agreements outside the old EU framework.

Painfully early, it became apparent that none of this Gang of Four had a clue of what they talking about in relation to Europe, nor did they understand the basic principles by which the EU worked. It is not so much that they approached the key issues wrongly—they did not even perceive them as issues. Throughout the referendum campaign, Brexiteers had trivialized the question of future relationships with the EU, suggesting that these would easily be decided in high-level summits within weeks rather than years. There was therefore not the slightest need to prepare detailed negotiating principles. As Johnson explicitly stated, the new British relationship with Europe would be exactly what it was at present, although omitting some of the features he found unpalatable, such as unrestricted EU immigration.

When Britain invoked Article 50, no government figure grasped the implications. Until quite recently, Johnson and Davis mocked the notion that Britain might have to pay a penny for the divorce bill. (The British government is now admitting a liability of some tens of billions, a sum that will definitely increase.) When the reborn Irish Question finally surfaced in their minds, Davis presented a vision of an invisible border made possible by as-yet undeveloped high technology, a prospect that has been commonly derided as magical thinking. Oh, and remember those vast new trading empires outside Europe, with all those lucrative deals being signed almost immediately? There’s no sign of any movement in that direction."
Come to think of it, my analogy of a dysfunctional family squabbling over the inheritance was altogether too kind. Vote Leave and Leave.EU arguing about who won the referendum are more like a pair of arsonists both wanting all the credit for burning down the house. "It would never have happened without me!", boasts box of matches guy. "But he was hapless and hopeless!" counters can of paraffin guy, "I was the one who did all the heavy lifting!" While all around, law-abiding folk shake their heads and wonder how anybody can be so thoughtlessly delinquent as to claim credit for replacing a perfectly good house with a useless pile of blackened, smouldering timbers.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Post-truth for dummies

A fish rots from the head down, so they say. First, our most high-profile, charismatic politicians find that they can get away with gaslighting their critics, by flat out denying the reality of whatever they've been criticised for. Now the big fish have got away with it, the minnows are trying the same trick.

This is what happened. A bunch of MPs voted against transferring the EU protocol on animal sentience into UK law. Some people didn't like it. Instead of addressing the issues, certain MPs have decided that if our most famous post-truthians can get away with gaslighting, they'll have a go. There are two forms of gaslighting being tried out here, respectively named after their most famous proponents:

1. The Johnson
"I have been misconstrued" ("How could you be stupid enough to believe that I said the thing I clearly just said, or did the thing I obviously just did. It's probably not your fault though - not everybody can be as clever as me.") . Here's Zac Goldsmith, doing a Johnson:

2.The Trump
"FAKE NEWS" ("Somebody just disagreed with me? That's not even a real thing, it's FAKE NEWS, believe me.") Here's Rachel Maclean's Trump tribute tweet:

Zac, Rachel, if you're listening, you might think that pretending that you've been misconstrued, or fallen victim to fake news, makes you look big, or clever. It doesn't. What does it make you look like, I wonder?

Thank you Sue, you took the words right out of my mouth.

Top tip: "Shameful bastard" shouldn't be an aspirational role model.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

"To insanity and beyond!"

'I don’t believe in science.' Man who thinks Earth is flat plans to launch self on a rocket

...“I don’t believe in science,” said Hughes, whose main sponsor for the rocket is Research Flat Earth. “I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the certain size of rocket nozzles, and thrust. But that’s not science, that’s just a formula. There’s no difference between science and science fiction.”
USA Today

A proud day for the USA, but a bittersweet one for the UK's own delusional space programme, which was cancelled when interstellar colony ship enthusiast Aidan Powlesland failed to get himself elected as Ukip leader, robbing us of the chance to be the first nation to fire members of its unrealty-based community beyond the reach of Earth's gravity and experts, while probably winning us a bonus Darwin Award, too.

From the annals of questionable research

"Countries where people tend to value autonomy and harmony the most tend to drink more alcohol, our latest study shows. And countries where people are more likely to value hierarchy, security and obedience, tend to drink less alcohol."
Really? I guess it's time to pour myself a large vodka and drink a toast to Mother Russia, avatar of that famously harmonious society where everybody's too busy enjoying their world-beating levels of personal autonomy to get uptight about heavy stuff like hierarchy, security and obedience:
"Alcohol consumption in Russia stays among the highest in the world. According to the WHO in a 2011 report, annual per capita consumption was about 15.76 litres, fourth highest volume in Europe."
It's not too hard to guess where this study went wrong, just from skimming the article about it. This, for example, looks like a clue:
"We found that countries with populations that valued autonomy and harmony, such as France and Germany, tended to have higher average levels of alcohol consumption. However, countries such as Iran and Senegal, where people hold more traditional values dear, such as hierarchy and being part of a collective, drank less alcohol."
So people in rich countries like France and Germany are drinking more than people in theocracies where alcohol is banned, and/or poor countries where many people couldn't afford to drink as much, even if they wanted to? This doesn't exactly convince me that where a nation sits on the liberal/authoritarian spectrum is likely to be the most useful predictor of how much booze the people there are drinking.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

I'm not saying it's aliens...

... because I really don't believe it is. But there is a tiny "I want to believe" voice in the back of my head, saying:
"Is this interstellar asteroid really ten times longer than it is wide? If so, are any of the other half million or so known natural asteroids so freakishly long and thin? Because if there are no known examples from a population that size of any other natural object being that shape..."
I'm sure there's a perfectly reasonable explanation. Maybe at least one other asteriod that skinny has already been observed and I just don't know about it. Or perhaps 'Oumuamua isn't really that shape at all, but has bright and dark areas that account for the variation in brightness as it spins.

That's what I get for reading Rendezvous with Rama at an impressionable age. I have to keep reminding myself that this is almost certainly a naturally occurring Big Dumb Object.

Update - according to Monica Grady, who ought to know, sometimes a cigar-shaped object is just a cigar-shaped object.

Gosh, is he terrified?

“Gosh I’m terrified.”
Millionare Ukip donor Arron Banks's sarcastic tweet from the 1st of November, when the Electoral Commission opened an investigation into whether he'd breached campaign finance rules during the Brexit referendum.
"Unless you set out in the next 21 days the source of these allegations and why you find them credible, we intend to seek a judicial review of the decision to investigate our campaign and the political reasons why."
Millionare Ukip donor Arron Banks, on the 20th of November, sounding considerably more rattled - and less cocky - as the ongoing investigations into his murky activities start hotting up.

Is he starting to worry that the Electoral Commission might belatedly start doing its job?

Monday, 20 November 2017

"Goodbye, Mr Bond"

After Steve Mnuchin and his wife posed with a sheet of newly printed money for that photo, a few people commented that the couple looked like Bond villains. Was the multimillionaire former banker and hedgie embarrassed?  Of course not:
“I guess I should take that as a compliment that I look like a villain in a great, successful James Bond movie,” the treasury secretary told Fox News on Sunday.
Two things:

1. Who said anything about all Bond films being "great" or "successful"? Clearly, somebody's never seen Octopussy.

2. Talking of "successful", even the dimmest movie goer should have worked out by now that the salient feature of Bond villains is their total lack of success. Ever since Dr No in 1962, Bond villains have been reliably failing to realise their fiendish plots and coming to sticky ends, generally a few minutes before or after 007 destroys their life's work in a series of massive explosions.

Ernst Stavro Blofeld is the closest thing to not-a-complete-failure in the Bond-villain-verse, having at least survived several defeats. In his eight film incarnations to date, he has, however, lost comprehensively to Bond on at least seven occasions.

If you were being insanely generous, you could could call the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, when Blofeld manages to assassinate Bond's new wife, a score draw. But, as Bond has just comprehensively destroyed Blofeld's world domination plan, along with his supervillain base, this looks less like a draw to me and more like some sore loser knocking over the Scrabble table in a fit of pique.

I guess that when you've worked in a Wall Street that crashed the global economy, then for a guy who couldn't successfully make a profit out of the suckers queueing up to lose their money at casinos, your idea of a "successful" role model must be a little bit odd.

Friday, 17 November 2017

"One regular black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking, nauseous puddle-water to go, please."

Wake up and smell the coffee? No thanks, mine's a beer...
Certainly our Countrymens pallates are become as Fantastical as their Brains; how ellse is't possible they should Apostatize from the good old primitve way of Ale-drinking, to run a whoring after such variety of distructive Foreign Liquors, to trifle away their time, scald their Chops, and spend their Money, all for a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking, nauseous Puddle-water: Yet (as all Witches have their Charms) so this ugly Turskish Enchantress by certain Invisible Wyres attracts both Rich and Poor; so that those that have scarece Twopence to buy their Children Bread, must spend a penny each evening in this Insipid Stuff: Nor can we send one of our Husbands to Call a Midwife, or borrow a Glister-pipe, but he must stay an hour by the way drinking his two Dishes, and two Pipes. 
From The Womens Petition Against Coffee (1674)

A "glister pipe" was apparently a tube used for administering enemas.* If you think that millennials oversharing on the Internet is a problem, just consider that sharing photos of your smashed avacado on Instagram, although seemingly pointless, is at least a more hygienic form of networking than swapping enema pipes with your besties.

Talking of oversharing, The Womens Petition wasn't just a complaint about spouses frittering away the family money at the coffee shop, then coming back wired and super late. The anonymous pamphleteer was also worried that this suspicious foreign beverage was sapping husbandly libidos and wasn't shy about describing the supposed effects of:
...the Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE, which Riffling Nature of her Choicest Treasures, and Drying up the Radical Moisture, has so Eunucht our Husbands, and Cripple our more kind Gallants, that they are become as Impotent as Age, and as unfruitful as those Desarts whence that unhappy Berry is said to be brought.

For the continual flipping of this pitiful drink is enough to bewitch Men of two and twenty, and tie up the Codpiece-points without a Charm. It renders them that use it as Lean as Famine, as Rivvel'd as Envy, or an old meager Hagg over-ridden by an Incubus. They come from it with nothing moist but their snotty Noses, nothing stiffe but their Joints, nor standing but their Ears: They pretend 'twill keep them Waking, but we find by scurvy Experience, they sleep quietly enough after it. A Betrothed Queen might trust her self a bed with one of them, without the nice Caution of a sword between them: nor can call all the Art we use revive them from this Lethargy, so unfit they are for Action, that like young Train-band-men when called upon Duty, their Ammunition is wanting; peradventure they Present, but cannot give Fire, or at least do but flash in the Pan, instead of doing executions.
Whether this Seventeenth Century tweetstorm actually  persuaded any of London's coffee shop hipsters to kick their caffeine habit, I don’t know, but someone was eventually bound to question the dubious assertion that potency was best achieved by abstaining from coffee and having a few jars of ale, instead.

Nobody knows the true identity of the Restoration Twitter egg behind The Womens Petition. The author presented as female, but some people think it was written by an angrily anonymous male troll. Me, I think it was probably written by a hacked-off brewer, (most likely a bloke, as this was well after the medieval heyday of the alewife).

There's some interesting background on The Womens Petition, along with the full text of the pamphlet, here.

*and also for the Seventeenth Century wellness fad of blowing tobacco smoke up a patient's bottom.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Inspirational spiritual quote of the day #3

*goes to mass and eats Jesus, who the church has replaced with a small piece of bread*

As far as I know, Greggs' Advent calendars will still be going on sale in selected Greggs’ shops across the UK from Monday November 20. Available, while stocks last, at a price of £24 (RRP).



Whataboutery for dummies




the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue.
This is how a real expert does it:
"Okay, what about the alt-left that came charging at [indiscernible] – excuse me – what about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?

... What about this? What about the fact that they came charging – they came charging with clubs in their hands swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do...

...As far as I’m concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day. Wait a minute, I'm not finished. I'm not finished, fake news. That was a horrible day...

...I will tell you something. I watched those very closely, much more closely than you people watched it. And you had, you had a group on one side that was bad. And you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I'll say it right now. You had a group – you had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent."
A masterclass in mendacious obfuscation from one of the most practised bullshitters in the business. Often imitated, seldom equalled.

To show how it shouldn't be done, here's a bumbling amateur trying the same trick:
Brendan Cox, the husband of murdered Labour MP Jo Cox ... accused the 53-year-old MEP [Nigel Farage] of stoking tensions over a terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas market. Mr Farage had appeared to blame the attack on Angela Merkel, leading Mr Cox to claim he was "blaming politicians for the actions of extremists".

In response, Mr Farage said: "Yes, well of course he would know more about extremists than me, Mr Cox. He backs organisations like Hope Not Hate, who masquerade as being lovely and peaceful, but actually pursue violent and undemocratic means.”
These two things look the same, but there's an important difference. Donald Trump was able to get away with muddying the waters with a libellous smear, by libelling something vague and nebulous called the "alt-left", which can't sue him because it doesn't exist.

Donald Trump's #1 superfan made the elementary mistake of libelling the anti-fascists at HOPE Not Hate who, unfortunately for Farage, do exist and, thanks to 16,000 supporters who crowdfunded their legal costs, could sue him for the slur. Farage has now been forced to withdraw his claim that the group employed "violent and undemocratic means", while still trying to weasel his way out of admitting his climb-down.

Poor Nigel. He really hasn't got the hang of this libel business, has he? Sad.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Weirdly, not a Daily Mash headline

" Estate agent says London's millennials should stop buying sandwiches, holidays and splashing cash on nights out in order to afford a house"
Top trolling from some gleefully callous sociopath at estate agents Strutt and Parker. Bonus points for mocking the victims of the Great British Housing Rip-Off with a virtuoso display of finger-wagging condescension.

I'm sure that millennials will just love being on the receiving end of an improving sermon from the bloodsucking  cheerleaders of the UK's dismally unproductive rentier economy:
According to the Resolution Foundation, homeowners born in the 1940s and 1950s gained an unearned windfall of £80,000 between 1993 and 2014 alone. In the early 2000s, house price growth was so great that 17% of working-age adults earned more from their house than from their job...

...As house prices have continued to increase and the gap between house prices and earnings has grown larger, the cost of homeownership has become increasingly prohibitive. Whereas in the mid-1990s low and middle income households could afford a first time buyer deposit after saving for around 3 years, today it takes the same households 20 years to save for a deposit. Many have increasingly found themselves with little choice but to rent privately. For those stuck in the private rental market, the proportion of income spent on housing costs has risen from around 10% in 1980 to 36% today. Unlike homeowners, there is no asset wealth to draw on to fund new cars or holidays.
Laurie Macfarlane

Monday, 13 November 2017

You won't believe what he looks like now!

Prince Philip looks far more cheerful now he's retired.

John Redwood sells out - tells investors "Don't invest in UK."

This is what Brexiteer John Redwood says in public:
'We'll be fine!' John Redwood issues fiery riposte to Brexit 'no-deal' doom-mongers
This is his private advice to anybody thinking of investing in the UK:
Redwood’s advice to investors is to flee the UK before the credit crunch bites:
I sold out of the general share ETFs in the UK after their great performance for the year from early July 2016 when I saw the last Budget and heard the BoE’s credit warnings. The money could be better put to work in places where the authorities are allowing credit to expand a bit, to permit faster growth.
Sounds sensible, doesn’t it?

No. It is an absolute disgrace for this man to give such advice.

You see, the Rt. Hon. John Redwood MP – to give him his full title – is a lawmaker. He is an elected member of the House of Commons. And not just any lawmaker. He is a senior member of the Conservative Party, which is currently in government and making a total hash of the Brexit negotiations. He is also a former Cabinet Minister and a member of the Privy Council.

This senior lawmaker is advising investors to stop investing in his country.
Frances Coppola

Words fail me.

Update - although words apparently don't fail John Redwood. He actually said this:
"'All they ever do is run the UK down' Tory SLAMS Labour attempts to release Brexit pappers [sic]"
What a piece of work.

Blue planet in crisis

Doubts around Theresa May’s leadership trigger sharp falls in Sterling: sea turtles "concerned."

Probably just another headline/image pairing mismatch by Google News's algorithm, although I wouldn't be entirely surprised to hear that even marine reptiles in the far-off Pacific are shaking their scaly heads in disbelief at the sheer magnitude of the British government's omnishambolic implosion.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Inspirational spiritual quote of the day #2

“Calling the bishops spineless nerds and sycophantic half-wits is not going to encourage them to adopt your point of view.”
Benedictine monk, Dom Mark Patrick Hederman, OSB, former Abbot of Glenstal Abbey, County Limerick, addressing the annual meeting of the Association of Catholic Priests.

"And if I ever catch you using that sort of language, I'll kick your sorry arse into the middle of next week, Crilly", added Bishop Brennan...

#1 here

Kanga falls into heffalump trap; Tigger worried

We now know which bedtime stories Nanny reads in the Rees-Mogg household. After Priti Patel blundered into the enormous trap she'd dug for herself, Jacob Rees-Mogg decided that it was too soon to rule out the idea that dastardly Remainer saboteurs had, in fact, secretly dug the trap thamselves, as part of a cunning false flag operation. To frustrate their knavish tricks, Jacob insisted that Priti's replacement should be "somebody who has accepted that Brexit is happening and will support it properly and won't be a frightful Eeyore."

It's a memorable phrase* although I'm not sure that the adventures of a Bear of Very Little Brain are really that relevant to the current situation. There is, however, a story involving a Fox of Very Little Brain which might give you a more accurate summary of where we are right now. It's called Dave, Boz and Lee’s Global Adventure. You really should ask Nanny to read it to you some time, Jacob.

*And politer than most of the things Remainers routinely get called - I'll happily settle for "frightful Eeyore", if the alternatives are "remoaner", "remainiac", "traitor", "saboteur", or "enemy of the people." If I need to dress up next Halloween, I'll probably go for a "frightful Eeyore" cozzie - it sounds a way easier look for an average-looking guy to carry off than "sexy vampire."

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Adaptive homeostasis

Back in 2012, I was confident that people would eventually grow tired of "Facebook ... (which will probably go into unlamented terminal decline as the intrusive, stalker-ish changes required to effectively monitor, control and monetise its users become annoying enough to make many of them abandon Facebook and adopt The Next Big Thing, whatever that turns out to be)."

How wrong I was. Facebook is still there. The creeping intrusiveness has accelerated. But instead of getting angry, or even mildly annoyed, people are calmly adapting to an environment where the most outrageous privacy violations are treated as something perfectly normal:
Behind the Facebook profile you’ve built for yourself is another one, a shadow profile, built from the inboxes and smartphones of other Facebook users. Contact information you’ve never given the network gets associated with your account, making it easier for Facebook to more completely map your social connections...

...having acknowledged that people in your address book may not necessarily want to be connected to you, Facebook will then do exactly what it warned you not to do. If you agree to share your contacts, every piece of contact data you possess will go to Facebook, and the network will then use it to try to search for connections between everyone you know, no matter how slightly—and you won’t see it happen.
Kashmir Hill

Still not creepy enough for ya? Then check this out:
Facebook has a new strategy for combating revenge porn: It wants to see your nudes first, before an abuser has the chance to spread them.

As part of a new feature the social network is testing in Australia, users are being asked to upload explicit photos of themselves before they send them to anyone else, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

This is how the new feature works. First, you upload an explicit image of yourself to Facebook Messenger (you can do so by starting a conversation with yourself). Then, you flag it as a "non-consensual intimate image" for Facebook.
Louise Matsakis

Is it already too late to point out that absolutely none of this is remotely O.K?

Feckless right-wing whingers having problems - it must be somebody else's fault

"Our institutions are collapsing and the hard Left is celebrating"* wails Philip Johnston in the Telegraph.
"The pillars of British society seem to be in a perpetual state of crisis, and, with Jeremy Corbyn waiting to pounce, things could get much worse 

"It’s the humbug I find hard to stomach, the unmistakable stench of hypocrisy whenever a financial “scandal” breaks. The air has been full of it since the production of the so-called Paradise Papers revealed to the world what it already knew: rich people avail themselves of legitimate tax vehicles offshore to limit their liabilities." 
Nurse, come quickly, I think he's having a funny turn!

I'm sorry to mock the afflicted. I'd sympathise, I really would, if only the collapse wasn't entirely the fault of the Right who, in case you missed it, have been running things in the UK since 2010.

The "hard Left" didn't force those offshoring super-rich human and corporate persons to behave as if taxes were an optional extra, to be paid only by people too poor and unimportant to afford a swanky accountant. The hard Left didn't agitate for the totally unnecessary Brexit referendum, with all the chaos that followed. The hard Left didn't go full stream ahead with the austerity and migrant-baiting that got people so riled up that they voted for Brexit as a massive nihilistic "screw you." The hard Left aren't responsible for the gaffe-prone buffoon in the Foreign Office who's busy alienating the rest of the world and screwing up everything he touches, at the very moment when the punch drunk UK needs all the friends it can get.

Your pompous right-wing establishment has fallen flat on its face in full view of its political enemies. I don't think bellowing at your opponents to stop laughing and show some respect is going to work.

There's a saying you might not have come across, Phil - "If you break it, you own it." It means that you take responsibility for your own actions. Those of us not privileged enough to be insulated from the consequences of our actions have to live by it every day, so stop appealing for the sympathy vote.

*This is one of the Telegraph's "premium" articles, so you need to pay, or at least sign up to their free trial, to read the whole thing. I really wouldn't bother.

Rocketman, the retrofuturist

"North Korea's Military Is Straight Out of A Sci-Fi Movie", screamed the clickbaity headline...

... right next to a picture of a 1950s-vintage MiG-15.

I guess the sci-fi movie they had in mind was Back to the Future.

The untouchables

"I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters."
Donald Trump, January 2016.

"I could stand in the middle of Westminster and shoot somebody and Theresa wouldn't sack me."
Boris Johnson, now.

In fact, I just made that second quote up. But I'll bet that's what he's thinking, as he watches the rogue minister who isn't a white male old Etonian being summoned back to the headmistress's office to be given a stern dressing down, before probably being expelled.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Correction: men not losing their sh!t over Manpoo

I'm happy to find out that I was wrong about the idiotic marketing of "Manpoo", (shampoo for men). Although cited in Daily Dot articles from last year, Manpoo has apparently failed to become a Thing.

The creation of the original Manpoo product ("Manpoo New Man Revolution", no less), was funded by a very silly Kickstarter campaign:
"Pledge $100 or more Four bottles of Manpoo (Two Firm Handshakes and two Going Commandos) AND our incredibly comfortable tri-blend NMR t-shirt! Plus a sticker and hand written, manly, thank you letter."

Since then, a quick Google search confirms that the concept of "Manpoo" has failed to take the world by storm. There's nothing to suggest that the term's becoming either hip or generic. Urban Dictionary does have an entry for "manpoo" that predates the New Man Revolution product, although it also has a couple of alternative definitions which have nothing to do with hair care.

But otherwise, most of the few results come from New Man Revolution's own web site/Twitter account, plus a couple of desperate-sounding "reviews" (infomercials?) on sites called Neuromath and reviewopedia assuring readers that Manpoo New Man Revolution is totally not a scam (it hadn't occurred to me that it was, but now you've mentioned it, it would be rude of me not to at least consider the possibility...).

But so far, it looks as if most of the men who've seen Manpoo's ridiculous marketing have been "Meh." This gives me deep joy, after a year or so when so many other ridiculous things have gone mainstream. Well done, guys, you've partly restored my faith in my own gender. Now just knock it off with the "tactical" nonsense (which, sadly, is a Thing, as another swift Google search will confirm).

Monday, 6 November 2017

Respect my manly Manpoo, losers!

Where some retailers are actively trying to liberate childrens' products from the arbitrary pigeonholes of the pink and blue aisles, certain worried grown men are desperately trying to put themselves back into their safe, stereotypical boxes:
We’ve covered many of them on Are Men OK?—laundry detergent, hair ties, novellas, soap, coffee, shampoo (aka Manpoo)—all marketed under the idea that men need their own versions of everyday goods and services...

...Manpoo and “tactical” soap aren’t just about bringing a range of aesthetic options to the marketplace; they’re designed specifically for a group of men who revel in masculinity—men who are convinced alternatives to these products are not for them...

...Evan Hafer, founder of Black Rifle Coffee, similarly started his company after feeling like there wasn’t a coffee brand for men like him. After serving in the Special Forces and working for the CIA, Hafer wanted to fulfill his dream of working with coffee, but found that he didn’t fit in at most cafes. “If I were in Portland or Seattle or anywhere else, I’d feel completely out of place. I can’t go to these coffee shops and talk about libertarian issues or pro-gun issues,” he told the Daily Dot...

...With their products, these companies are giving men permission to both accept their most masculine traits and re-label their “more feminine” ones as masculine. It’s OK, says the tactical lip balm, wanting soft lips is actually a manly thing.

Because the other option would be enjoying a trait or a product that’s traditionally feminine, and for many, unfortunately, that’s still unacceptable. It would strip them of their identity—an identity that has rarely been threatened since the dawn of Western civilization.
Interesting to see that it's (some) men who are actively doing this to themselves. When it comes to the pink and blue aisles, these are created by adults and kids just take what they're given. Grown-ups have a certain amount of agency and seem to be complicit in their own self-stereotyping.

There are, apparently,  men who think that slapping the word "tactical" onto their personal grooming products will turn them into some kind of special forces action hero, men who think that a hair product marketed as "Manpoo" sounds empowering, rather than just incredibly stupid.

It's not just adult males who get sucked into such cartoonish stereotypes. Just take a look at a typical selection of "funny" greetings cards aimed at women and you'd get the impression that the average grown woman is a featherbrained shopaholic who lives only to feed her prosecco and chocolate habit.

Are these female stereotypes perpetuated mainly by male ideas of what women should want, or are these clichés as deeply integrated into some womens' own self-image as one-dimensional hyper-masculinity is into the identities of tactical Manpoo consumers?

Whatever your gender, I reckon that "rounded human being" is a far better look than "targeted, segmented consumer."

Thursday, 2 November 2017

I'm not saying it's aliens...

"ALIENS COULD BE JUST LIKE US—DARWIN'S THEORY OF EVOLUTION MEANS E.T. WOULD BE HUMAN-LIKE", according to the Newsweek headline. "What would aliens look like? More similar to us than people realise, scientists suggest", is the Independent's headline offering.  "Now, scientists are suggesting that ... if other intelligent species are indeed lurking in the depths of space, they might look a whole lot like us", claims another journalist.

Klingons and Romulans and Vulcans, oh my! Except, when you see what the scientists' speculations/educated guesses actually were, you begin to wonder whether the folks at Newsweek, the Indy and BGR even bothered to read what the boffins wrote:
Aliens may not have two legs, or any legs at all, but their structure, from an evolutionary standpoint, will be much more familiar than we might have thought. By familiar, I don’t mean superficially familiar. They may look, on the surface, wildly different from anything on Earth. But they will be similar on a more fundamental level: their bodies will be constructed in the same way (formerly free-living parts within formerly free-living parts), and they will have undergone a similar evolutionary history (independent organisms cooperating to form new, higher level organisms).
The piece is helpfully illustrated with pictures of imagined aliens which look, respectively, like some kind of tentacled polyp surmounted by a tiny umbrella and a giant mutant tardigrade.

Some journalists* could do better (even the hacks at the Sun got as far as looking at the pictures before writing their article, so it's not as if I'm setting the bar unreasonably high here, folks).

*Even the UFO-believers-style aliens at the top of the article in The Conversation look several times more human than anything the article is actually suggesting.


 Update - while it's easy to sum up what these scientists weren't claiming (that aliens will look anything like  humans or, for that matter, like anything else on earth), it's harder to make out what specific claim they were making. You only need to read the title of P. Z. Myers' post on the subject ("We can predict that aliens exist, if aliens exist") to tell that at least one biologist is completely unimpressed by the alleged specificity of these "predictions" about alien biology.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Flirtations, inappropriate and appropriate

[Michael Fallon] apologised earlier this week over an incident 15 years ago in which he made unwanted advances to the journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer, repeatedly placing his hand on her knee, although Hartley-Brewer herself insisted that, “no one was remotely upset or distressed” by it.

But friends of Fallon suggested there may have been similar such incidents more recently, saying, “he would absolutely concede that some of the flirtation has been inappropriate”.
The resignation of Michael Fallon, as reported in the Guardian.

Naturally, Michael Fallon hasn't apologised for his longstanding flirtation with a terrorist-supporting regime run by misogynistic war criminals and serial human rights abusers. Friends and arms manufacturers have described this relationship as "entirely appropriate",  adding that "nobody could be remotely upset or distressed” by his Saudi flirtation,  with the possible exception of the regime's numerous victims, many of whom are now dead, anyway.

United Nations chief Antonio Guterres is coming under increasing pressure to tackle the collateral damage caused by Fallon's inappropriateness by urgently deploying a UN peacekeeping mission to Julia Hartley-Brewer's left knee.

The spoiled brat of Brexit tweets

The U.K. Electoral Commission said Wednesday it had opened an investigation into whether millionaire U.K. Independence Party donor Aaron Banks breached campaign finance rules during the 2016 Brexit referendum.

In a statement issued by the commission, investigators said they would try to determine whether Better for the Country Limited, a company that lists Banks as a director was “the true source of donations” made to Leave campaigners in its name, “or if it was acting as an agent.” It will also examine whether Banks, who was also Leave.EU chairman, was the “true source of loans reported by a referendum campaigner in his name.”

In response to the investigation, Banks tweeted: “Gosh I’m terrified.”

Three possible explanations for Banks' bravado occur to me - take your pick:

1. The self-proclaimed "bad boy of Brexit" is really a good boy and totally innocent of any wrongdoing (don't laugh, that one's just hypothetical).

2. He's guilty, but he's got a well-founded confidence that people can break the electoral rules pretty much with impunity.

3. He's guilty but he's got a well-founded confidence that people like him, who belong to an entitled elite, are routinely indulged and allowed to get away with a lifetime of the sort of rule-breaking that would ruin the lives of less privileged miscreants:
At 13 he was sent to a “third-rate” boarding school, Crookham Court in Berkshire ... getting expelled for an “accumulation of offences” that included selling lead filched from the roofs of school buildings. He accepts that his expulsion was entirely justified. It would have happened much earlier, he says, except that the struggling institution needed his fees...
With an education like that, why wouldn't he think he can get away with anything?

Predators, scavengers and parasites

So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite 'em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.
Swift! thou shouldst be living at this hour.

The most interesting thing about the Spreadsheet of Shame isn't the identities of the various alleged gropers, harassers and adulterers (it's easy enough to find an unredacted copy if you really care). What's worth your attention is the wider ecology, the food chain which supports both the alleged sex pests and the people who compiled the spreadsheet. Like the mis-selling of payment protection insurance, the whole situation is best seen as a system for turning a bug (people being mis-sold a useless product) into a feature (the profits made by the "Have you been mis-sold PPI?" industry). In this case, the bug is sexual misbehaviour and the feature is the ability of a party machine to discipline and control party members.

Appropriately enough, people who use their power and influence to sexually coerce others get called "sexual predators", which is as good a label as any for their place in the food chain. You can pick your own label for the folk who use the predators' misbehaviour for their own advantage. Possibly "scavengers", although I think "parasites" works better, because parasites can weaken their hosts, control their behaviour, or  kill them (I don't think that party bosses literally kill politicians, but I'm sure they've occasionally killed political careers by leaking the damaging details they have on the personal lives of uncooperative MPs).

I do wonder whether there's much of a moral difference between the list-keeping parasites and the predators. For example, if we assume that terms like "inappropriate", or "handy" extend to include activities that the law would define as sexual assault, then who's worse, the assailant, or the person who knows all about the assault, but lets the assailant continue getting away with it, so long as they remain politically cooperative? Tough call.

Although I don't think this sort of thing technically counts as blackmail, it looks pretty damn close. As I understand it, to prove blackmail you need to establish four things. The blackmailer must:
1. demand something from the victim (in this case, political cooperation)
2. use menaces (legally, "menaces" can include physical threats, but could simply be threats to expose secrets)
3. make an unwarranted demand (coercing somebody into voting for something they don't believe to be right sounds unwarranted to me)
4. intend "to make a gain for himself or another or have intent to cause a loss to another."
When it comes to the last test of making a gain, or causing a loss, it's my understanding that the law only covers the gain and loss of money or other property,  not the gain of something more intangible like political control or power (source). So I don't think this is legally blackmail, but three out of four ain't bad and it's certainly morally dubious. If the suspected activities are abusive or coercive, the list-makers should be going to the police, in order to protect actual and potential victims. If the compromising activities were legal, consensual, but just very embarrassing, then applying pressure might not be illegal but it seems like a coercive abuse of power.

The sexual misbehaviour of MPs doesn't concern me much, unless it tips over into coercion and assault, (in which case, throw the book at 'em), but it's a bit of a joke to imagine that I live in a representative democracy when the misbehaviours and quirks of our elected representatives are weaponised to bully them out of voting according their conscience and judgement. Even the suspicion that this is going on degrades our politics - actual liars and crooks can feel at home and flourish in a low-trust environment where people suspect that any of their representatives might be acting under the influence of coercion (and also "not technically" bribery - don't forget those promises of future promotion and peerages for the more obedient boys and girls).

If only it was as quick and easy to pull the plug on this real house of cards as it was on its fictional counterpart.