Monday, November 28, 2011

In trouble

Funny how the idea of paying more for longer to get less hasn't been the most successful of sales pitches. But you know it is failing badly when things like this happen:
A head teacher praised by David Cameron in June for not closing her school during industrial action says she will strike for the first time in her life.
Hat tip to John

Friday, November 25, 2011

The season's over

So what better way to review it than by using Lego (er, are you quite sure about that?).

Thursday, November 24, 2011


According to this report, The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority is taking in hand (oo er missus) the dreadful, subversive crime of sending sexy texts. It is intending to filter out rude words and phrases such as "monkey crotch" and "flogging the dolphin". I know I am getting old, but am I missing something here? Do you know anyone who has used these terms to inflame the desire of someone they fancy?

They have also banned the phrase "athlete's foot". The erotic possibilities of a crusty fungus between the toes have been lost to me up until now. All explanations will be gratefully (perhaps) received.

Thanks to Steve

Monday, November 21, 2011

The customer is always ...

Customers review the gripping A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates.

Thanks to John

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A night at the opera

No, not this:

It was this one instead:

Both are magic in their own ways, but they aren't quite the same.

On Friday night I saw Northern Opera's production of Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades (or Pique Dame) at The Lowry in Salford. It is a dark tale of obsession and passion, where love brings nothing but torment for the lovers. From the moment the curtain goes up, showing Herman on stage alone, the ominous overture fades and we see a condemned man. At each turn of the plot he is offered a choice to back down and choose happiness, yet every time he obeys the instinct of a gambler and risks all to gain all. Death wins.

It was a decent enough production with some strong performances and did justice to such a powerful melodrama.  But the highlight for me was the youth of the audience. There were plenty of grey hairs there (such as mine), but also younger people and a couple of school trips in the near full-house. So the best moment for me was walking out of the theatre, feeling breathless from the emotion of the experience, and seeing a scruffy young lad of about thirteen or fourteen, his eyes shining, turn round to his mates and say in a thick Salford accent, "That was OK that was. Especially at the end where he dies". High culture (to use that dreadful phrase), is only elitist in that the elite confine it to themselves. Beauty is impervious to class.

Friday, November 18, 2011


Two classics on one day from the pages of The Dictators' Friend, sometimes known as the Guardian comments pages.

First up, Mehdi Hasan finds it oh so reasonable that with everyone being really nasty to Iran (I wonder why that is), it is no wonder that they want nuclear weapons. Well who wouldn't? Not that there is any evidence of them actually trying to get them, perish the thought. Of course, he doesn't mention that the nature of the regime might just give a few causes for concern. The classic is when he writes, without even a hint of irony,
On Tuesday, around 1,000 Iranian students formed a human chain around the uranium conversion facility in Isfahan, chanting "Death to America" and "Death to Israel". 
Hmm ... if I were American or Israeli I think I would be feeling a bit queasy about that and conceivably I might think that it is rather a good idea to stop Iran acquiring the means of actually delivering that death.

Another who is feeling got at is that reasonable chap Mr Assad. Those bullies in the Arab League have turned on him, but at least he has got Jonathan Steele to stick up for him by telling them to desist and to proffer mediation instead of condemnation and isolation.  Of course he is duly critical of Syria:

The Assad regime has made mistake after mistake. Stunned by the first protests this spring, it turned too quickly to force. 

Erm, "too quickly"? Does that mean that it would have been OK if they waited a bit before shooting thousands of people?  And of course it was a "mistake", not a crime.

Whatever you think the right response should be and even if you think that the current policy is wrong, it is perfectly possible to to argue the case without throwing your moral compass in the bin and turning a blind eye to murder. The question is how we deal with repression, tyranny and vile ideologies, not how we minimise their crimes.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Crime without punishment

Misha Glenny puts up a defence of Papandreou from a different angle and hints that his downfall may have had something to with the actions of a corrupt Greek oligarchy that "have mobilised hysterical media outlets which they own in order to denounce and undermine Mr Papandreou at every opportunity, aware he is the least pliable among Greece’s political elite".

His description of an elite that has dodged taxation, salted big money abroad and hovers ready to pick up bargains in the sale of assets, in part enforced by the results of their own corruption, gives another reason why the Channel 4 programme, Go Greek for a Week, was so misjudged. Glenny is simply pointing out that the actions of bus drivers might be a tad less important than those of the super-rich.

Glenny is coruscating about the EU's toleration of corruption, but now that seems to be matched by an intolerance of democracy. Governments headed by unelected bankers, including members of the far right, seem all the rage. Heather Stewart is not impressed:
Of course, the fig leaf is that Berlusconi's Yale-trained successor, Mario Monti, will lead a "technocratic" government that will implement drastic spending cuts and necessary structural reforms to nurse the economy back to health. Exactly the same story is being told about ex-central banker Lucas Papademos in Greece. But there are two major flaws in this argument. First, there's no such thing as a harmless, neutral technocrat; and second, the plan they are toting won't work.
She uses a new report from Research on Money and Finance to, yet again, reiterate the points that seem lost on policy makers.
Greece has offered up the scalps of 30,000 civil servants, raised taxes, cut public sector salaries and put a cornucopia of state assets up for sale. The result? A cumulative 10% decline in output through 2010 and 2011, and an unemployment rate of 18.4%. Greece's debt-to-GDP ratio has actually risen, not fallen, since the "rescue" package was implemented, and forecasts from the commission show debt hitting a Japanese-style 198% of GDP by 2013. On its own terms, the programme has been self-defeating.
And still they persist. Careless about democracy, blind to evidence and turning their backs on evident corruption, they carry on regardless in a self-congratulatory way until the next inevitable failure. As to the consequences, the only thing that is sure is that the oligarchs will not be the ones suffering.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

History lessons

One piece of commentary on the Euro crisis is getting rather tiresome. The obsession of the German Bundesbank with fiscal constraint is constantly being put down to the memory of the hyper-inflation of 1923, which we are then swiftly told led to the rise of Hitler.

This is bad history. Not only is the economic position of Germany today completely different from the Germany that emerged from defeat in the First World War, making the analogy ridiculous, but it was not the inflation crisis that lead to Hitler's accession to power ten years after it ended. Hitler came to power at the peak of an unemployment crisis, precipitated by a deflationary global recession, exacerbated by the very orthodox policies that are being imposed throughout the Eurozone.

I dislike the use of historical analogies as a substitute for proper analysis. But if you are going to use them, please pick the right one.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011


I expected to be irritated by Channel 4's Go Greek for a Week. I wasn't disappointed. Actually, there were a few fleeting moments of decent analysis from good commentators, but they were buried in the cliché and stereotyping of the rest. The programme became an attempt to use some of the more dismal tricks of reality TV to lay the blame for the whole of the Greek budgetary crisis on malpractice, rather than trade imbalances, exchange rate inflexibility and austerity programmes (OK, not quite as easy as to dramatise with a hairdresser and bus driver, I'll give them that. Though I seem to remember Robert Tressell doing it rather well with house painters). I also grimaced at the way good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon honesty was compared to the cunning, underhand practices of those pesky Mediterranean types.  But the most egregious part was the statistical trick they played.

You would have thought that if you wanted to compare the earnings of a bus driver in Greece with a bus driver in the UK you would, er, compare the earnings of a bus driver in Greece with a bus driver in the UK. No. That's not the way they did it. Instead, they took the bonuses and allowances of a Greek bus driver and calculated them as a percentage of the Greek average wage. They then worked out what that percentage would amount to if it was calculated against UK average earnings (they are higher than Greek ones). They then took that amount in cash, handed it to our bus driver and said to him that was the extra weekly earnings he would get under the Greek system. At no stage did they say what the respective figures for average earnings are, nor did they say what the Greek bus driver's basic salary was before the additions. Ben Goldacre would be having fits.

There was no need for this distortion, Greeks themselves are as critical of the abuses mentioned. But you came away with the impression of Greeks living a life of idle luxury; lazy, over-paid and dishonest as well as being the main cause of the economic crisis.  Needless to say it hasn't gone down well in Greece itself and so they have made a version of their own:

Hat Tip KTG

Friday, November 04, 2011

Greece is the word

And it is on everyone's lips at the moment. I got the conclusion to my last post on the crisis spectacularly wrong, so here are three links to articles that are worth reading, though they may be no more reliable.

First up is a post on Naked Capitalism, not one of my regular sources, by investment analysts Marshall Auerback and Rob Parenteau. It takes on the conventional wisdom about Greece with gusto:
Historically, Greeks have been very good at constructing myths. The rest of the world? Not so great, if the current burst of commentary on the country is anything to go by. Reading the press, one gets the impression of a bunch of lazy Mediterranean scroungers, enjoying one of the highest standards of living in Europe while making the frugal Germans pick up the tab. This is a nonsensical propaganda.
And, after an assault on 'faith-based economics' and 'Fiscal Austerians', they make a clear point about economic union:
What is most remarkable to us is that the largest net exporter, Germany, does not appear to recognize that its insistence on fiscal austerity for all of its neighbors will cook its own golden egg-laying goose. If Germany wants to run a perpetual current account surplus in order to pursue their Asian-like mercantilist, export-led growth strategy, then some other nation, or group of nations must be prepared to run current account deficits ad infinitum. Which means issuing liabilities ad infinitum to the current account surplus nation in order for the current account deficit nations to spend more than they earn on tradeable goods and services. What this means is that default is inevitable unless there is a policy or price mechanism that encourages the current account surplus nation to reinvest the reserves they earn in foreign trade back into productive, income generating capital equipment in the trade deficit nations. This much is elementary international economics, but somehow it completely eludes Berlin.
The German Chancellor and her Finance Minister like to say that no real economic union is possible if one party to the union (Greece) works shorter hours and takes longer holidays than another (Germany). What she should say is that no real economic union is possible if the governing plutocrats of ALL nations ... consistently evade their fair share of the cost of that party’s own state expenditure, expecting the union either to pay the bill itself, or to force the bottom 90% to pay it. And there is no real economic union (or any hope of a future political union) if current account surpluses are not properly and sustainably recycled into the trade deficit nations. It would be as absurd as Texas perpetually insisting on running trade surpluses with the other 49 American states. 
Then, from the other wing of the political spectrum, Anthony Barnett defends Papandreou and his attempt to hold a referendum (well someone has to I suppose) in Open Democracy. He was shocked by the vitriolic language used about the referendum plan and the tactics used to undermine it:
According to the BBC, after "Mr Papandreou told reporters in Cannes his referendum would in effect be a vote on whether Greece should remain in the euro...  the European Commission said if Greece left the European single currency, it would have to leave the European Union as well: "The treaty doesn't foresee an exit from the eurozone without exiting the EU," spokeswoman Karolina Kottova told a briefing in Brussels.
Since when was it that you could be in the EU like Denmark or the UK and not in the Euro but that if you left the Euro you would have to exit the EU as well? This was heavy duty blackmail.
Finally, The Economist makes an astute point:
Mr Papandreou has created an almighty mess, but he is better cast as the messenger than the villain. He was not to blame for the summit’s shortcomings.
 It too is critical of austerity,
The euro zone’s emphasis on austerity rather than structural reforms has aggravated Greece’s political woes. Instead it should favour medium-term fiscal consolidation. The creditor nations could boost domestic demand, to provide a bigger market for debtors’ exports. Most of all, they should dispel the threat of contagion by putting the ECB’s balance-sheet behind the debt of solvent governments, like Italy and Spain. Throughout this crisis, creditors—particularly Germany—have worried about being too soft on the euro zone’s weaklings, for fear that they would go slow on reform. Mr Papandreou has shown that they also need to worry about being too austere.
 Auerback and Parenteau use far less measured tones:
Myth-making at the expense of the Greeks does not serve anybody’s interests, as there will be a cascade of defaults everywhere, and a Soviet style collapse in incomes, hardly an enticing prospect for the global economy. Not an attractive ending, but this is the kind of outcome which the troika’s self-serving, immoral and cruel policies could lead to before long. The Greeks, and the vast majority of Europe’s citizens, can surely do better than this. The existing policy path is literally bankrupt and bankrupting, and this game of chicken cannot go on for much longer.
"Self-serving, immoral and cruel"? "Bankrupt and bankrupting"? These words from a hedge fund manager and an investment analyst, the heart and soul of the market that must be appeased through blood sacrifice? If ever there was a sign of something seriously wrong, this is it.

What will happen is anyone's guess, but if you want a better illustration of Andrew Rawnsley's comment about the Occupy protests, "The protesters shun formal leaders and hierarchies – and I also don't see why they should be criticised for this at a time when conventional leaders and hierarchies have been so conspicuously useless", then I would like to see one.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Not anonymous

I wasn't expecting the non-controversy of the Shakespeare authorship question to impinge on me, but I have been researching the life of an English individualist anarchist, Henry Seymour, with my friend Dan (who does nearly all the work). The final phase of Seymour's active life was spent as the editor of Baconiana, a publication of the Francis Bacon Society, predominantly devoted to proving that Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare. So we have to deal with it and discuss it in whatever we end up writing.

At least it is fashionable now that Hollywood has joined the fray with the new film Anonymous, rehashing another theory, first proposed by J. Thomas Looney (really), that it was the Earl of Oxford who wrote the plays, despite him dying before some were written. A minor point like that does little to dissuade determined advocates and I suppose that the one thing going for Seymour and his ilk is that Francis Bacon was actually alive at the time. Though that is about all, mind you.

The definitive debunking of the anti-Stratfordians, as they have become known, is James Shapiro's Contested Will, but for a good condensed read here is a splendid despairing review by Stephen Marche in the New York Times. It is full of great lines like, "The movie is certainly overflowing with those superactorly British actors who tend to make you feel that you should be enjoying their performances even when you’re not." And this one, "Let me assure everybody that Shakespeare professors are absolutely incapable of operating a conspiracy of any size whatsoever. They can’t agree on who gets which parking spot. That’s what they spend most of their time intriguing about." And Marche goes into battle for more than Shakespeare.
Counternarratives have an inevitable appeal: wouldn’t it be cool if there were yetis? If the United States Army were keeping extraterrestrial remains in the Nevada desert? If aliens with powers beyond our imagination built the pyramids? If Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare but actually this, like, lord who had to keep his identity secret? 

You don’t have to be a truther or a birther to enjoy a conspiracy theory. We all, at one point or another, indulge fantasies that make the world seem more dangerous, more glamorous and, simultaneously, much more simple than it actually is. But then most of us grow up. Or put down the bong. Or read a book by somebody who is familiar with both proper historical methodology and the facts. 
This attraction to the outlandish is relatively harmless when confined to the outer reaches of the Internet or self-reinforcing societies. The real damage occurs when it begins to enter the mainstream, as Marche makes abundantly clear.
We hear politicians opine on their theories about climate change and evolution as a way of displaying how little they know. When Rick Perry compared climate-change skeptics like himself to Galileo in a Republican debate, I dearly wished that the next question had been “Can you explain Galileo’s theory of falling bodies?” Of all the candidates with their various rejections of the scientific establishment, how many could name the fundamental laws of thermodynamics that students learn in high school? Healthy skepticism about elites has devolved into an absence of basic literacy. 

... Along with a right-wing antielitism, an unthinking left-wing open-mindedness and relativism have also given lunatic ideas soil to grow in. Our politeness has actually led us to believe that everybody deserves a say. The problem is that not everybody does deserve a say. Just because an opinion exists does not mean that the opinion is worthy of respect. Some people deserve to be marginalized and excluded.
What is remarkable is the resilience of these fantasies. For example, October hasn't been a good month for the legion of obsessive climate change sceptics. It saw the publication of the report of Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project (BEST). There was no shock at all in the findings, they confirmed the accuracy of the temperature data showing the increasing warming of the planet, including the much abused "hockey stick", that climate scientists have been producing for decades. What was missing from the TV reports in this country is the most important point of all. The study had been set up by a scientist, though not a climatologist, who brought some expertise and respectability to global warming denial, Richard Muller. He was a climate change sceptic. And he has proved to be a good scientist. When faced with the evidence he changed his mind.

As for the die-hards, one of them made a big mistake. Anthony Watts came out with this widely reported statement about BEST when it started. "I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong". Well it did and did he? Don't be silly, of course not.* That isn't what happens. People hold fast to their ideas and try and rationalise away the reality. And it will be the same with anti-Stratfordians and all the other advocates of crazy, convoluted, if superficially attractive ideas. What may be consoling or even just fun is still wrong if it is actually, well, wrong. But once there is a congruence between conspiracy thinking, economic interests and political power, what passes as harmless idiocy can become very dangerous indeed. And that, simply, is why truth matters. And Shakespeare's authorship matters too, especially to people like me who believe that talent, even genius, is not the sole preserve of the upper classes.

*For a full account see here and there is a neat video here.
The Marche review is via here

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Changing times

Sarkozy and Merkel are not overjoyed, the markets are panicking, the Greek reaction is uncertain, but the decision of Papandreou to put the bailout plan to a referendum is the first real challenge to the assumptions of the European policy-making elite arising from somewhere other than the streets. Amongst the prognostications of doom, Larry Elliott stands out as a voice of optimism, though not about austerity.
There is not the remotest possibility of austerity working, because the impact of such savage cuts is to depress the economy, increasing the deficit rather than cutting it, adding to pressure for still further austerity.
It is certainly risky, but suddenly, from being the supplicant subject to the control of the Troika, Greece has remembered the old adage about debt.  If you owe the bank a hundred thousand pounds you have a problem; if you owe the bank a hundred million pounds, the bank has a problem.

Larry Elliott again:
Greece is now a bigger problem for Europe than Europe is for Greece. The short-term outlook for Greece is going to be bad inside or outside the single currency, but the balance of risks is different for the other 16 members of monetary union. For them, the calculation is simple: would it be better to cut the Greeks some slack in order to prevent a disorderly default creating a domino effect across the eurozone? Or should they take a tough line, threatening to cut off all support in the event of a no vote? That is what is known as a no-brainer.
... All this is pretty obvious. What is perhaps less obvious is that Greece now has immense power as a result of its predicament. It has the rest of the world by the short and curlies.
 Is this the moment that reality finally forces a change of policy?


In answer to my question, no.