Cui bono?

honor hominesque honesti floreant

Why bother with facts when you can have a slogan?

There are a few basic points about Brexit, which it seems many in the population haven’t noticed, or haven’t understood, or which perhaps they have simply not exposed themselves to.

Seventeen million or so voted ‘leave’ in the referendum.  Fourteen million or so voted ‘remain’.  Both these figures are substantially under 50% OF THE ELECTORATE.  So it is flatly untrue to say that ‘the British people’ voted to leave.  By far the biggest tranche of the population was made up of those who, for whatever reasons, did not support either of those two simplistic choices.

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A gasp – exhaustion or disbelief?

(Department of the bleeding obvious, as the saying all too often goes)  Win or lose that final vote, May will now have played all the cards in her hand (though why the nation let her get all this way without several competent adults sitting beside her is a mystery.)  Thus the EU has a whip hand in further dealings, if any, and can impose any conditions it might want, e.g. insisting on a long delay during which the recalcitrant UK parliament can be replaced by general election, producing a new House of Commons, mandated, and perhaps less obstructive.

honor honestis

Cui bono res publicae?

I have already got my fingers of both hands covered in ink from the ribbon on the typewriter, and to be honest am thoroughly off-piste with this interruption of my well deserved sabbatical.  Some of those whom I had considered friends, until now, have been harassing me with their proposed solution to the Brexit chaos (to be known in the history books of the future as Cameron’s Catastrophe.)  They apparently believe it is urgently necessary to get the signature of every member of the writing classes in all European territories with any kind of constitutional link to the British monarchy (and that apparently has flushed out some very rum customers in eastern Europe not to mention three Atlantic islands some 180 miles west of Lisbon, which geographers had believed sunk during a volcanic eruption a century or more ago) on a petition pleading for a ‘non-controversial’ referendum on whether to have a new referendum with a more intelligent gamut of options – forget the whole business, sell the country as a going (?) concern to its inhabitants (somebody evidently remembers the Trustee Savings Bank farce/scandal !), put the whole country up for auction with the highest bidder then doing what the hell he likes with it, declaring war on America hoping they will treat the nation the same way they treated Germany after WWII (Churchill turned that option down in 1949 on the grounds that Britain might win) and half a dozen others.

   Lunatics!  This journal has, I believe, the only realistic solution, not that anyone is going to pay attention, but here it is in a dozen lines.  A delegation of a dozen or so citizens from the cloud-capped peaks of the British realm must attend upon the Queen, and respectfully show her the necessity of taking up immediately her inherited rights, delivering a bill of attainder upon every member of the House of Commons (with perhaps the exception of that stout fellow, Bercow).  The Serjeant-at-arms will then expeditiously arrange for every last one to be taken down the river under military escort, and installed under lock and key in the Tower of London.  If they question their situation they will find the Serjeant-at-arms to be a ‘negotiator’ very unlike the current prime minister.  Thereafter the governance of the nation to be in the hands of Her Majesty and such advisers as she shall see fit to choose.  She has for decades given more evidence of a capacity for taking good advice, for sound judgment exercised with moderation, and for avoiding foolish or disastrous entanglements than can be claimed for a very high proportion of those who in that time have presumed that bigotry and buffoonery, lying, xenophobia and careerism did not bar them from trying to take a share in influencing the administration of the nation.  And see the reults of their activities!

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Pulling the typewriter out of the old army kitbag in which it is stored (in case the roof leaks when there is a rainstorm) I found another text which seems unfamiliar, but highly relevant today, when capitalism appears proud that it has just propelled the world’s largest economy up to a pinnacle of $22 trillion of debt.  And just in case that was not a large enough investment the president of that nation has sent the government machine a request for the largest military budget ever recorded (in that country, though there may well be larger figures in some Hollywood movies.  Perhaps time, as they say in the movies, to feel very afraid.)  I append herewith.

            One does not hear much talk about the trickle-down theory of wealth these days but the assumptions behind it still seem to be holding up well.  The idea, roughly speaking, is that if you get a stratum of serious wealth in any given area then its members will, to put it crudely, spend their money in diverse ways thus spreading wealth through the community.  They will buy goods, engage services, and start businesses.  They will buy cars and pianos, employ butlers and drivers, and establish media companies.  Then the shopkeepers and the butlers and drivers and the editors will have more money than they ever had before, and in their turn they will spend more on the things they want, need and like.  And so on all the way down the economic slope.  As in all the most comforting fairy tales, it leaves everyone better off.  Therefore we should always fight for rich people and rich companies to have the lowest possible taxes, to help the whole wonderful process to work (and it is said some governments even hand out free grants under the name of privatisations to promising candidates to make sure they have enough wealth to keep things going).  But all this is rather abstract stuff.  Let’s try to envisage a practical example.  Let’s take a large group of bankers fleeing their native country somewhere in Asia perhaps, to save their lives and wealth after a leftish government has somehow got elected.  They decide to settle together on the pleasant island of Arbyesse in the Bay of Bolivia, which up to now has maintained a moderate prosperity on the basis of fishing, tourism, and the manufacture  and sale of artefacts attributed to the first bronze age settlers.  The first thing that happens is that they buy the finest houses on the market for their families, equip them with the most modern computer systems, and furnish them with exquisite period furniture bought after whirlwind shopping expeditions to Paris and Hongkong.   You will notice at once that the latter two forms of expenditure do nothing for the local economy, but for now let us pass over that point.  After that they set up a new bank employing some dozens of local staff, some formerly unemployed but most of them attracted by the higher pay from their previous jobs in various local businesses.  The bankers also establish firms dealing in financial investment and advice, facilitating of course dealings with their own previous contacts in other countries.  The purchases continue, notably including two private yachts but also a number of expensive cars (which naturally have to be bought from overseas firms).    They are careful to adopt a low profile in local life though some do offer support for one respectable local party, obviously well-favoured by the population since it wins the next three elections in a row.  Investors and friends of the bankers overseas see Arbyesse as a stable, investible target and pile in.  Hotels are built and infrastructure projects take shape.  So the economy after a few years achieves substantial growth.  Local construction companies (in which the bankers have invested heavily) have done well, as has the airport (foreign-owned).  There is a new ‘Omnimercato supermart’ with 60,000 different kinds of items, on the site of the old vegetable market, which still exists but has moved to a convenient site near the lagoon south of the capital.  Shopkeepers, and owners of other small businesses like the smith who turned his hand to making ornamental ironwork drive respectable cars.  But one night a young trainee accountant, cycling home after a celebratory dinner with some friends in El treinta de julio, a beachside café, noticed several down-and-outs sleeping in doorways, something he had never seen as a child.  He thought about it when he got home, and these thoughts led him by chance to realising that though he seemed to be earning quite reasonable pay, somehow he and his wife still could not afford to buy a number of desirable additions to their home, and had to be very careful with their monthly expenses.  She commented that it was much the same for most of her friends, while her aunt, though married to the man who had successfully turned his small taberna into an upmarket wine-bar specialising in imported wines, was always ready to deplore the drain on her purse when she went to the Omnimercato, and to denounce her husband who insisted they must save one more year for the bathroom suite she had set her heart on.  The accountant, Federigo, became curious and he found it quite easy to get information, sometimes in detail, about the assets of other inhabitants.  It seemed that typical members of the uppermost straturm had assets that would compare quite favourably with those of wealthy individuals in advanced countries.  The next level, senior managers in the construction companies for example, were also quite well off.  But as one went down the scale it seemed that the level of wealth diminished, not just individually but when all citizens of that level of the economy were added together.  He also tried to find comparative data on incomes.  This was harder since the tax authorities were rather more conscious of confidentiality than the private branches of the wealth system.  Nonetheless it seemed that a similar variation existed there.  The most striking thing was that in both cases it appeared that the figure dropped to zero before one reached the lowest band of the population.

            Perhaps foolishly, he started talking about his findings in company.  He was frankly puzzled as to why the ‘ever more vibrantly pulsing economy’ (to quote from the Trombón del Amanecer) pulsed so feebly in its lower depths.  Most who heard him did not share this reaction; they simply regarded it as a natural aspect of human existence.  However, he was finally offered the reason, at a gathering over a few beers one evening with some friends as the rain lashed down on the same beach-side café, the night before he was arrested.  Once again he plaintively voiced his puzzlement and once again saw the same resentful but apathetic impotence.  As often, one of them muttered about ‘all this money around.  Not much filtering down to us.  The only thing that filters down to us is higher prices’.  This time, however, the amiable Irish beachcomber in the corner, a regular customer over many years but one who rarely spoke, added an unexpected coda.  “It’s just what you should expect, you know.  The economists don’t like to talk about it much, but it is an economic law.  ‘Prices rise to meet the money available to pay them’ .”

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 I use the term in its old-fashioned sense, of providing useful and valued service in return for some kind of financial benefit; no link whatever to the term ‘compensation package’

Inconvenient data

Even though the Editor is supposed to be enjoying a well earned respite* some offences against straight dealing are so blatant that it would be a dereliction of public duty to skate lightly past them, gazing in the opposite direction.  One of the main trumpet calls of those calling for Britain to escape the clutches of Europe was that the dramatic change would at long last free the nation’s champions of free enterprise (or at least those with the means to do so, i.e. not any in the bottom 40% of the population) to boldly roam the planet, setting up profitable trade deals with the leaders of business in other nations.  The number of such trade deals actually in sight now, two years after Brexit became official, is believed very low (somewhere around zero).  More reliably attested data, however, comes in the opposite direction  This note is written on the first day of February 2019, the day that the trade deal between the nations of the EU and Japan comes into operation,  This deal, one of the very largest in history, covers, it is calculated, 28% of the GDP of the whole world.

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* [NB in this note that word is pronounced correctly i.e. as ress-pit not, for goodness’ sake, ri-spite

Beggaring belief – and the country

In most decades in modern times and in most civilised parliamentary parties a government that is defeated on its most important policy or its most important legislative project accepts the fact, resigns and opens the way to fresh elections or new leadership.  To see Theresa May continuing to arrogate to herself the management of the relationships between the UK and the EU is a grotesque misuse of procedural possibilities and a constitutional outrage.  She puts the red ribbon of infamy on the whole by describing her manoeuvres as ‘giving effect to the will of the people’.

Smoke signals from over the horizon

 

(Non-)Event of the year

(Please note: all necessary preparations for the historic political event scheduled for the spring of this year, a major turning point in the nation’s story, have had to be postponed until 2020, or possibly 2021, or at least the earliest feasible date thereafter, as a result of the need for careful and fully effective implementation of the prerequisite agreed national policies, when these have been  discovered.)

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Economic comment of the year (excerpt) (Cassandra, 17 August)

…fascinated by the claims that even the most ramshackle hulk can surf the crests and troughs of the world economy in effortless style provided it is manned by a crew with the buccaneering imperial spirit described so misleadingly by Percy Westerman in his books for impressionable boys back in the 1920s and 1930s.  (Poor bloody Scots, though, likely to end up tethered three to a bench in the dark underdeck if any attempt is actually made to launch the vessel.)  So who are going to be the recipients of all the wondrous bounty apparently  promised to Theresa when she sped across the ocean to hold hands with Donald Trump back in 2017, and, more important, what horn of plenty is going to disgorge the boodle?  Some will have noticed that when Jean-Claude Juncker, representing a trade bloc not hugely impressive politically but somewhat bigger than the US went over to talk sanctions with the Donald he came away with a far from unsatisfactory outcome – roughly, keeping things as they are.  What chances of that kind of semi-success when a lone economy, a mere fraction of that size, turns up at the back door of the White House, urgently needing a trade deal to stop the slide in the pound?  Begging it from a man who boasts of driving hard deals, and who by the way has his own re-election as a first  priority?

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Progress in technology

One extraordinary recent item of news was the report that accounts of a shooting in a hospital in Chicago helpfully reached viewers and readers complete with buttons provided for instant reactions, specifically labelled ‘so sad’, ‘heartbreaking’ and ‘I hope everyone is alright’.  Perhaps the report was a malicious fabrication (malicious in the view it implied about the people supposed to have been ‘consuming’ the reports) but there is no need to overegg that pudding here, since I’m confident that any fully normal human being can effortlessly think of half a dozen adjectives with added expletives to describe such a practice (if it did indeed take place).   To take just one dismaying aspect of the report, i.e. the idea that people could welcome a chance to move on to another issue as fast as possible past an expression of sympathy for people caught in a disaster or tragedy, there is unfortunately evidence to support the idea that a ‘need’ for speed trumps (le mot juste) human feeling, as well as effective comprehension, common sense, and (probably in nearly all cases) benefit in practice.  According to data recently reported on French television: in 2004 average attention span of  those scientifically tested was 3 minutes; in 2012, 1 minute and 12 seconds; in 2018 (as millennials started to move into adult life), 45 seconds.

   Further exciting innovations can doubtless be devised.  If the outcomes of such ‘assistance’ are recorded in enough detail, broadcasters can build up data banks recording the buttons typically favoured by ‘consumers’ according to the type of tragedy involved and the social and personal data of their readerships and viewerships, and publish for instance that ‘our data analytics based on previous scoring in news reports identify with 95% probability that 56% of readers (and 81% of viewers in personal care occupations) will have felt deeply moved by the attack on this woman’.  This will save the busy viewer at home from having to click on any buttons at all, or indeed feeling the need to engage in any thought process whatever.

   (Possibly relevant: the very well documented decline in average i.q. in virtually all ‘developed’ countries over the past 30 years.)

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Progress in modern reasoning

Few today will have heard of the cooking pot theory of reasoning adumbrated by Josiah Underhill in his Dispositions of the Human Sense of 1658.  Underhill held that human reasoning can be likened to the physical events affecting vegetables simmering in a pot of stew.  The stew, approximately comparable to the ether in the Newtonian physics which was soon to sweep poor Underhill’s musings into oblivion, was taken to be the medium within which objects of thought  (approximately equivalent to ‘ideas’ in ordinary parlance – today they would be called ots) drift, in motions which are in principle unpredictable.  Unless some outside force, such as a wooden ladle wielded by an observer, interferes, contact between two pieces of vegetable matter in the stew is likely to be a random factor, but the different modes of contact between different kinds of vegetable would correspond, he proposed, to different kinds of thought – statements, questions, contradictions, inferences, and so on, and of course the higher the temperature of the stew, the greater the number of interactions.

   Curiously, some recent work in human error research bears an uncanny resemblance to views that might have seemed well judged to Underhill.  A team from the news institute attached to the Foundation for Adding to Knowledge and Education, based somewhere near Mar-a-lago in deepest Florida, currently claims to have discovered proof of the existence of what one of them has termed ‘black-hole thought’.  The institute is  already developing a well funded programme to exploit their discovery ‘for the benefit of all right-thinking citizens of this great country of ours’.  Their view is that black-hole thought may develop when psychological matter, however defined, forms an accretion around any of a wide variety of what, for want of a more suitable term, may be called ideas.  In the first stage of the process, a nuance or minor idea comes to be assumed as present when some other idea is used, even if there is no natural or necessary link between them.  For instance, in Britain in the present era, the notion of train is often associated with the notions of ‘delay’, and ‘chaos’.  But this level concerns only relatively superficial matters belonging to the lexicon of a language.  A different state of affairs is involved when two ideas are taken to be necessarily connected, as when it was taken for granted in many countries until quite recently that a television ‘presenter’ would certainly be a person with a ‘caucasian’ complexion.  In cases like that, if enough mental interaction was induced – if in Underhill’s terms the temperature of the surrounding stew was raised sufficiently – it would usually be possible for the accreted element to become detached from its host .  But this is still not the phenomenon for which the term ‘black-hole thought’ is appropriate.  That is reached when people believe they are no longer dealing with matters of linguistic usage, but with aspects and elements in the world they see around them.  They feel that what they observe has no need to be treated as a combination of parts which can be separated mentally, using language as the tool of analysis, but is instead a unitary element available for direct inspection – a Ding an sich in fact.  This attitude – ‘it is what it is and there’s nothing to argue about’ appears to be especially favoured when dealing with views on social and political issues, even when a truly independent observer might well feel able to distinguish different aspects in what is observed, and consider that treating such data as unanalysable wholes requires heroic feats of self-deception.or misinterpretation.  Inevitably disputes arise.  The observer who believes he or she is dealing with an unanalysable whole will regard any remark or observation whatever about it as amounting to recognition and therefore as confirmation of its existence.  In practice and especially in politics, when a view becomes widely or vehemently promulgated, any evidence in the vicinity, whether confirming or refuting will tend to be received by its proponents as supportive, irrespective of whether it would be confirming or refuting in the eyes of truly independent observers.  New input to a view is in effect trapped and thereby added to the volume of support for it, as far as supporters are concerned.  Some would probably like to cite Marxist economic theory as a fine instance.  A notable current example is the view that to understand the world around you it is necessary to be connected to the internet.

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footnote

That admirable policy of trying to return cultural treasures to their original and rightful owners is causing increasing irritation to governments around the globe.  It was reported last week that the Welsh assembly is to demand that the bluestones used in the construction of Stonehenge should be returned as part of their national heritage

 

 

May b-

I am going to stick to my sabbatical with no less determination and sincerity than Theresa May doubtless felt when she signed the agreement in December 2017 – remember? –  which seemed at the time to be binding and which aimed at dealing well and clearly with the Irish border question among other issues.  But I don’t see why my own holiday should get in the way of expressions of opinion which arrive when someone else does the work.  Last night there was a bit of clatter just as I started to listen to ‘Folk songs of western Mongolia’ (Some amazing ‘double throat’ tracks on that, you should try them.)  When I investigated I found someone had lobbed a brick up to the balcony, with this rather odd message wrapped round it, which I have translated into English, omitting expletives and smoothing out some of the coarser expressions, and this is how it goes:

(a) May made her Brussels trip, aiming at a change in the wording of that ‘deal’.

(b) Either this change of wording would change the legal basis of the deal, or it would not.

(c) If it was going to change the legal basis, then either she realised that, or she didn’t.

(e) If she didn’t, it doesn’t say much for her ability to grasp political realities, but

(f) if she did realise it, then either she thought she could put something devious past the EU side (who had sung out long and loud that they won’t change the legal basis of the deal), thus treating the collective brains of 27 European governments as significantly less clever than herself, which looks like a spectacularly insulting tactic unless it comes off, which looks remarkably unlikely,

or

(g) she was aiming at getting the EU to agree in darkened rooms to a change of wording which would look like a change of the legal basis, so she could then sell it to her Tory party supporters, and assorted others, who might not notice that in reality it isn’t ; with that, if she succeeded, she might be closer to a realistic goal but – would you buy it?

Turning off

 

(Editorial note: the first two paragraphs following were originally drafted 28 November; and nb in particular the second paragraph here)

This office is always glad to renew its contacts with the good Baron Philipp (or, as he is known to obsessive busybodies in several tax head offices around the globe) ‘that ******* Baron ****Philipp’.  A man of considerable (and useful) learning, but also with a large capacity for human sympathy, as shown in some of his contributions to this journal over the years.  He knows my own preference to receive communications by private mail, and I was not surprised last week to find a large tin alleging it contained maple syrup had appeared overnight in the back yard of the shack, which actually held a handwritten letter which looked at first like bad news, since it reported that he and his wife (the elegant Somali artist) were dissolving the legal aspects of their marriage.  It turned out, though, that they were arranging a consensual divorce to deal with the hassles imposed by bureaucracy.  Practically inevitable since he still has to circle the globe four or more times a year, like it or not, for another seven years, to avoid paying 94% tax on the huge fortune left to him by his metallurgical great-uncle, while she repeatedly finds she is blocked from turning up as scheduled at exhibitions of her own work, or else gets summarily deported by frontier police whose default assumption is that as a Somali, and brown-skinned at that, her visa is probably forged and she is likely to be a dangerous terrorist.   (Not much career risk to the officials if they get it wrong).  The letter simply assured ‘all friends’ that there were no planned changes in relationships and activities, and that both of them would continue to take an active part in both their shared and their separate interests.

            However, there was a second note in the tin which really seized my attention thanks to a throw-away remark in it, that I should be entitled to a sabbatical respite from the labour of turning out the journal.  I suddenly realised the man was right.  In fact a sabbatical is already long overdue since I have been hammering away at the typewriter, when I couldn’t find anyone else to share the work, for not six but  eight years now, with only the generous contributions from Lady W to encourage me to keep going.  So this present sentence before your eyes is not part of the free end-of-the-month supplement which has somehow sidled its way into becoming a fixed feature in the past year or so.  And this sentence is an official announcement that publication of the journal is suspended until further notice (said notice to be posted on this website if things are done according to our pretty useless – and not legally binding – charter).  Provisionally until mid January (and after all, these days nobody reads anything in December except to decipher the signature on greetings cards, or the amount specified in a festive cheque), but that’s very provisional.  According to the custom for sabbaticals I should be allowed a year off if I can make reasonable use of it.  Kevin has suggested a sponsored dog-walk from Alexandria to the Aswan High Dam, insisting that this would certainly give a change of climate and temperature from the icy squalls here on the island, and anyway, he says, Egyptians are as crazy about dogs as any elderly retirée in Tunbridge Wells, so they would almost certainly offer hospitality and even free overnight accommodation to any westerner seen walking a King Charles spaniel along the roadside.  It is hard to guess with Kevin whether he is passing on some garbled piece of misunderstood reportage or is being deliberately insulting.

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(30-11-2018)  Cleaning operations over the past two days have turned up a hibernating hedgehog or something very like it, up in the loft where I keep the computer, and countless scraps of paper as well as some photographs, several of which will perhaps be used for blackmail if I can find out  the current addresses of the subjects, Strictly honourable blackmail of course, for deserving causes.  Also a cardboard box containing some forgotten suggestions for publishable (?) items.  Archaeological examination of the stratum in which it was found and the state of the biscuits also included suggest it may have been deposited at the time of Berthold’s last visit to the island some months ago.  But a mystery: the notes were mostly  scribbled in pencil, but whose handwriting?  Certainly not mine, and I’m sure it’s not Berthold’s spidery attempt at a 1930s Dryad hand.  Two of the pieces quite ingenious, and amusing, but definitely libellous.  Herewith a couple of excerpts, including the only pencilled one still passably legible.

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(1) (In pencil)  General rule on inventions and discoveries: most accounts simply wrong.  E.g. Who invented radar?  Not easy!  Correct answer depends on which country you are in when you ask the question.  E.g. if in US then ‘Americans’, in Germany, then ‘Germans’, if Britain, then ‘GB’.  In Russia probably Russkis – in fact believe that is the claim.  ‘politically correct’ doesn’t come into it; these answers are; ‘patriotically correct’)   Brits claim radar discovered, by them, about mid 1930s.  If accurate account required, try ‘Germany’.  Could detect plane more than 20 km away by 1935, and ship (big target after all) 50 years before that.  (How come Brits beat Luftwaffe 1940?)  But British ‘discovery’ less simple than mere link to nationality – Brits say radar invented by Robert Watson-Watt, great figure in lead-up to successful defence of realm in 1940s.  This the socially correct version.  Actually, junior official Arnold Wilkins suggested use of radio waves to enable British detection of  presence of enemy; told to go and make necessary calculations, did so successfully, and was then the man who got stuck in back of jeep or similar to go out and do field trials.  Did so successsfully.  Radar taken seriously thereafter.  Then committee set up, headed by big cheese Robert Watson Watt, to discover radar.  (W-W becomes Sir Robert Watson-Watt discoverer of radar 1942.)

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(2)  (This already typed up)

In some ill-defined way the returning of cultural treasures from one country to another seems to have become a recognised part of decorous political minuets which well behaved nations are learning how to dance.  The practice can bring a pleasantly warm glow to those making the return (please avoid the word ‘sanctimonious’ here) especially since there is no need to feel much discomfort in the region of the national wallet, and even more especially since there need be no discomfort at all on the personal level, but instead the chance of a free trip to an interesting foreign country.  However there seems to have been less organised planning for a proper international framework than you’d need for buying a Burmese bus ticket. (I speak from experience.)

   To start with, if we are talking about an object, then it seems to be necessary to ask where it was made.  Sometimes the answer will be easy, sometimes difficult, and sometimes  impossible.  But even if you know the precise GPS co-ordinates of a site, that is no guarantee of an easy answer since there is no guarantee of satisfactory agreement over who had and has the legal or moral rights to the site, and when.  There is a whole zareba of disputes waiting to break out in Africa over rights to ancient treasures as a result of colonial boundaries being arbitrarily imposed on pre-existing nations and cultures.  That distinction between nation and culture is going to cause problems, and certainly not only in Africa.  In Italy should treasures that have travelled be kept in their natal city state, or should all returns lead to Rome?   Suppose a fine golden torque is discovered in Antrim;  who has the better claim to keep it (and perhaps melt it down to ‘offset costs of maintaining legal systems governing administration and handling of archaeological artefacts’ as it may be charmlessly put)?  Who should it be deivered to?  Belfast, Dublin or London, or the descendants of the Tuatha Dé Danann if DNA analysis can identify them (in which case I would like a share)?  There is anyway also the issue of whether credit should go to the place where a work of art is actually produced or to the region which developed the culture and techniques from which it emerged, even if that is elsewhere.  (The apparently increasing tendency to aim at actual or de facto genocide in order to solve domestic political difficulties presages more such issues in future decades – if any).  Other kinds of disputes are waiting to bubble to the surface when you take into account the fact that many transfers have been between willing buyer and willing seller (transactions often made smoother by failing to ask if the latter had valid title, as allegedly with many sales of the Empire State Building to tourists in the 1930s and 1940s in New York)  And as if things were not already complex enough we now see the UN trying to distract attention from its complete failure (understandable) to get the world’s nations to attempt some sort of approach to semi-rational political co-operation) with its lists of intangible treasures encompassing such masterpieces of human cultural development as a unique way of preparing ham for human consumption, or Morris dancing, and being reportedly about to add to the list such achievements as Kazakh horse festivals, and Korean Folk Wrestling (perhaps akin to travel on the British railway network?)  Yet more scope for ill-will between tight-fisted holders and outraged ‘owners’.  All that to be sorted out before asking whether very many treasures might be far better off if not returned, as, of course, many of those currently in possession maintain.  A broad vista of ever more disputes over ever more intangible treasures opens out before the world of culture.

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(3) Definition  Statistics is a scientific technique which is often  used, e.g. by economists, to delimit the likely outcomes of  given combinations of factors.  For instance it is the technique which allows scientists to say that it is very unlikely that you will one day find yourself stark naked before a packed Trafalgar Square giving traffic signals to the pigeons,  but that if you and current conditions hold good long enough, one day it will happen.

(4) It is always sad to see someone who has invested a great deal of hard labour in some venture get himself tied into knots and produce something that at best is a superior grade of rubbish.  Nascitur ridiculus mus as the Romans used to say.  The syndrome can afflict even those regarded as having a high level of expertise.  Take for instance the French, a nation which makes a song and dance about its political maturity and its collective grasp of the way that a modern state should be governed.  Then run through the presidents they have saddled themselves with over the past few decades.  Chirac (elected in the final round with Le Pen as his opponent (with the campaign echoing shouts of ‘vote for the crook to keep out the racist) somewhat like Trump getting elected, under the bizarre American system, because he was not Clinton the representative of the 1%.  Then they threw away by far their best option: Aubry not selected to be the socialist champion in the final round, because she was a woman.  (Remember the slogan is not ‘Liberté, Egalité, Sororité, and not likely to be in the next half century.  Hollande next  because he was not Sarkozy.  Macron after that because he was not a politician.  (His poll rating six months after election already down 30%.

(Editor’s note: Macron’s poll rating 30-11-2018 down to 25%; widespread riots in the streets, and return to traditional police brutality – on camera.)

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honestis honor

 

 

Betaquestions: who is asking, and why?

 

Editorial note.  May I point out yet again that the rules of this journal explicitly state that readers should not assume authors actually hold the views expressed in what they write.

In the previous posting my ploy (more or less forced on me by the continued absence of an intern) of replacing useful information and carefully considered opinions and helpful solutions by questions, and thus leaving it up to readers to do the work (rather as with systems of online banking) turned out in practice to be remarkably helpful, to me, and I now see why so many other editors resort to picking up chunks of verbiage from the news tapes, or the free feeds provided by the simple-hearted goodness of advertisers attempting to promote the prosperity of outfits which believe they see further profits cavorting around the margins of their activities and that advertisements are the way to catch them.  Therefore this ploy on my part continues herewith, even if there is a certain amount of the usual stuff lower down.

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  (1) Will the World Underwater Hockey Championships (yes, they do exist) charge a team from  Kiribati a fee for participation?  (If you are unable to answer this question, give up (often the best policy in so many modern contests where all the other competitors are probably doped to the eyeballs) and try question (1b): Why was question (1) asked in the first place?)

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  (2) To the relief, probably, of many on both sides (and in this context and after this amount of time many may feel it doesn’t matter much which side is counted as ‘us’ and which is considered ‘them’) the Skrepal case seems to have been shifted to the upper archive room downstairs, probably somewhere in the filing cabinets labelled ‘not before 2050 (n)’.  If awards were handed out at annual conventions of espionage agents Bellingcat would surely be in the running for one of the main prizes at the next award ceremony, with a performance allegedly described as ‘sparkling’ even by some neutral observers.   It is true that there are still a number of matters not yet clarified.  After all,  speculation would lose its interest if everything could be tidied up and set out in the display shelves in the exhibition room for tourists.  Why did the young lady claim to work for Pepsico in Moscow, when it seemed the firm had not heard of her?  Does she still?  Indeed where is she now?  Is Yevgeny once again indulging his fondness for travel, and if so where does he get the money?  If the other side was responsible for the chemical attack in Salisbury why did they need to go and investigate the OPCW?  Who was the chap claiming to be a former very senior scientist, now retired, on the other side’s chemical weapons programme, who allegedly volunteered to spill the beans to some western journalists (strangely surveillance-free), and who for the sake of secrecy chose to be found wandering lonely, and conspicuous, along a sandy coast (though apparently the secrecy did not matter once he was talking to them face to camera in full definition through the car window?   Why did the other side make the second trip to Salisbury, almost looking as if they were trying to draw attention to their presence?  One theory going the rounds is that  they were deliberately trying to keep the Russian threat present to the minds of the journalists of the Mail and the British media in general, in order to shore up May’s position, since they thought she would be more effective in bringing disorder and confusion to the British government’s position than anyone else in politics.  I was able to get a question about that to my former colleague and occasional correspondent, Montgomery Skew, but he said he has no special insight into the issue, and he wondered anyway why the Russians would feel a need to mount any operations of their own into fomenting confusion in British politics.

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 (3) It is common for humans to try to assess the intelligence of other species, adopting a variety of tests. (It has been claimed that the New Caledonian crow scores particularly well by comparison with other species; however, according to information passed to this journal the sampling in those experiments may have been seriously biassed in their favour, since it consisted of crows attached to the university in Oxford.)  But does any reader have information about the outcome of attempts to use the techniques employed with monkeys in the reverse direction, to assess the intelligence of human beings?  (And if so, which human beings?)  (And what were the results?)

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 (4) Can you think of a better way to stifle intellectual progress in a given field than to assemble an encyclopaedia of what is known and understood in that field, choosing of course the most eminent authorities in the field, with their status decided according to the number of citations of their work, backed up if it is felt necessary by similar scrutiny of the standing of those making the citations?  All the more credit therefore to Paracelsus who understood much better 500 years ago: ‘The universities do not teach all things, so a doctor must seek out old wives, gypsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers, and such outlaws and take lessons from them.

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Editorial news

Readers will be familiar with the numerous difficulties faced by the editorial staff (currently myself) with putting together and publishing these reports.  One of the major problems has been our reliance on electronic means of communication, partly because of the unreliability of the electricity system here although from my personal point of view that is almost an advantage since it normally excuses me the need to try to make sense of the incomprehensible, i.e. our office computer, and its ‘system’ and, worst of all, the associated ‘help’ manual.  But now there is good news from, of all places, Berthold’s branch of the university in London where they have devised a new and ingenious way to achieve communication –  genetically modified carrier pigeons, controlled in flight by signals sent to an ultra-lightweight aerodynamically efficient bird-helmet.  This is the result of a joint project between the engineering department and the zoologists.  All the sender of a message has to do is to get a secretary to type out the message in the usual way, get it scanned and miniaturised, and then hand it over to the ‘bird operator’ on duty telling him where the message is to be sent which no longer depends on such constraining factors as addresses.  At the other end any competent ornithologist can soon extract the message from the ring on the bird’s leg and then all he or she needs  is a magnifying glass.   Just ten hours from London to La Sarrasine or the reverse!  And currently it’s all free as it’s working on a trial basis.  A new journalistic era beckons.

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Thought of the fortnight (seen on an English-regstered car in Bangkok)   Give a man an electronic megaphone.  Then be surprised when he signs up to the globalisation of ignorance

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Late news (extract from a letter received this day 16-11-2018 from Montgomery Skew)

By chance I ran into Berthold this morning.  Poor chap is very down in the mouth, feels things are lining up against him (‘just when things had started to go well’ – a comment which I understand includes his fairly amicable break-up with Louella.) .  He believes he has been experiencing a loss of mental acuity recently, which he is putting down to the great amount of time he has to spend in close contact with students.  Whether the loss is real or not I have no way of knowing, but he cited a couple of instances which to me sounded pretty normal for a forty-something politician manqué.  Apparently he made quite a mess of things when he was invited to act as moderator at an inter-school debate on ‘Who is our guide to the future, Darwin or Gresham?’, the idea of the organiser being that with Darwin,  proponent of the survival of the fittest, things get better, whereas Gresham’s observation about bad money driving out good  (a general principle which can effortlessly be exported to other spheres – for instance politics, road surface construction, and government funded health care – and arguably a central pillar of modern capitalism as it operates in practice, whatever the theorists in their comfortably appointed cells may assert) sees things as overall tending to go to the bad.  Predictably the debate got muddled with confusions about the difference between change and the results of change, and between causes and effects, and with other equally predictable distinctions heavily trampled on.  So equally predictably Berthold couldn’t restrain himself  (whoever had chosen him for this job?)   Egged on by his suspicions about diminishing brain power he set about demonstrating his intellectual superiority to these schoolchildren and started scoring points of his own, some on behalf of views with no easily discernible link to the issue under debate at all, and most against any of the teenagers who seemed to him to be advancing rightwing views.  It all ended in uproar and a polite letter from the school principal asking for £25 to replace two chairs beyond repair.  All that however, was of lesser importance than the collapse, just a couple of days ago, of his university’s scheme for using bionic pigeons to transmit messages outside conventional channels of transmission.  Apparently he was there by coincidence when a meeting of the pigeon group was interrupted by the arrival of a very senior officer who identified himself not by name but by his official position, in the cloud-capped peaks, and announced that the bionic pigeon programme was officially being closed immediately, with the whole department now covered by the official secrets act whether they had signed it or not, while those who had taken part in devising the programme were being transferred at two days notice to Camberley where in future they would be working as members of the Ministry of Defence.  The very senior officer was at some pains to assure them that these measures in no way implied criticism of their activities.  To paraphrase: ‘Quite the opposite; we discovered that in a world where for instance an enemy can read a message among ten million being transmitted inside a locked building you have come up with a means of conveying information such that with fairly minor modifications it may be possible to conceal the fact that any transmission at all has taken place.  Best possible form of secrecy.  We want to see if it can be made detection-free, and if so, to use it for our own purposes’.  Poor Berthold; collapse of his dream, already half sketched out, of using the bionic pigeons to rove the world from his swivel chair in the administration block, gathering reams upon reams of interesting and important and up-to-date information at rock-bottom cost, and hoisting himself into the position of world-famous pundit, in a decade or so to see his career turned into a block-buster film.

Questions

(The Editor ruminates on the decline of print media)  I’m a reasonable sort of fellow, all things considered.  ‘All things considered’  even includes the continued absence of an intern.  These days when nine out of ten of the old news media are either out of business, or clinging on by writing illiterate clickbait or ‘human interest’ stuff (probably invented by a Californian computer programme), I don’t hope for properly established colleagues.  (But the continuing absence of Manos, inventive, energetic, and Greek though he was and probably still is, must count as a major plus on the balance sheet.)  But when I semaphored this morning down to the weather ship that I was ready to send over another posting of the journal, if Violette could spare the launch for a few hours, a sudden feeling of frustration swept over me.  Here I have been offering news, predictions and solutions over the years, to the world at large, at no fee.  In return there is a motley flow of insults – usually based on wildly inaccurate guesses about my personal characteristics, habits  and principles and about what I ‘really mean’ when I have posted something – together with implausible stories about the noble character of the correspondents, equally implausible pleas for money based on ‘our old friendship’ (i.e having been in the audience when I gave a speech in some benighted hangout, today entirely wiped from my memory), and – a small trickle in the mighty flow – the odd note of  thanks and sometimes the very much more odd original observation (but don’t worry – none have been reported to libel lawyers or the Jockey Club).   Also over the past three years, two gifts, unless they also were intended as insults, one being a pocket English dictionary, and the other a ticket to a long vanished rock festival.  Even if I and my sane readers are part of a tiny minority trying to stir the giant anthill of the English-speaking (or English-mangling) world into a renewed production of helpful ideas, any project of getting useful results by simply laying observable facts before an educated audience becomes closer to a deranged delusion every day.  So today I am turning things round, and putting questions to my readers instead of answers and comments and warnings.

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  1. Why do golf courses have eighteen holes (apart from those produced by moles and incompetent beginners)? To be taken seriously a game or pastime must involve a certain amount of skill.  In the case of golf the skill consists partly in successfully striking a small ball from a starting point called the tee,  if necessary many times, until it falls into a hole maybe 100 or 200 metres away, but more importantly in choosing the path over the intervening terrain which will enable the ‘golfer’ to do this with the least possible number of strokes.  There is absolutely no reason why this should require 18 different stretches of terrain (unless we believe legends about contests among the eighteen tribes of Pictdom).  Most of eighteen such parcels of land wherever located could either be used for a better purpose by more people, or simply left in a natural state until some more meaningful use is discovered.   In the latter case (and probably both) the demand on the local water supply would be enormously lower, and the price of water supply to local residents would drop.  Three holes would be quite sufficient to allow the ‘golfers’ to show any skill they possess, provided that the ingenuity of the landscape experts is up to choosing six different ways to approach each hole, starting from six different tees, aided if necessary, by whatever ancillary landscaping seems desirable or amusing.

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  1. The United Nations issues statistics as if they were free licences to draw on money freely provided by an organisation with money in truckloads. (Come to think of it… – but  no, let’s not follow that line right now.)  One natural result is that ‘rankings’ of the world’s nations are available for all manner of characteristics, from ‘Legislation against the use of telepathy by female students in  examinations’ to ‘Percentage of the population registered as professional fire-eaters’.  Much of this has no genuine significance for the daily life of the average human or humanoid, yet the instinct to try to be ‘ahead of the rest’ and especially the bureaucratic instinct to discover some activity in which ‘we’ can ‘lead the world’ combine to produce mountainous  activity and efforts, however fatuous, to try to hoist ‘our’ nation to the top of some list or other.  Can the UN be asked to compile an annual ranking of nations based on the truthfulness of average citizens, or, perhaps better, of average members of their legislative assembly?  (Any halfway competent psychology department should be able to rustle up a few relevant parameters and appropriate questionnaires over their morning coffee.)

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  1. If you haven’t been keeping up with the news lately, Vladimir Putin is Russian, and that by itself is enough to ensure he is classified as one of ‘them’. (This would still hold good even if his Russian-speaking family had long been settled in what since 1954 has been officially  Ukrainian territory.)   Alexei Navalny is also Russian, but leads political opposition to Putin.  He has repeatedly led actions of protest against Putin, and has been sentenced to prison a number of times, so according to OPA (Official Political Algebra, a calculus of great generality and extraordinary simple-mindedness) he scores ‘good’ with European governments (even if there remains  some uncertainty as to whether he is actually ‘one of us’).  However the terms in prison, or house arrest, have been quite remarkably short in the circumstances, 20 or 30 days, and not even served in full in all cases.  Also the film clips with Navalny awaiting trial or being released from custody show him looking very bullish and confident, certainly not being harassed by the policemen around him, nor apparently battered or suffering long-term injury (or dead) as seems to be normal for protesters throughout the Middle East.  Much the same goes for shots of him being arrested during a protest declared illegal – handled vigorously, certainly, but by no means brutally unless the camera is lying.  And people keep turning up to his protests.  This is puzzling.  Is he a special case?  Is there actually now some element of de facto tolerance of street protest in Russia?  Or is Navalny actually part of a government plan to give the appearance of a country where protests are not strictly allowed perhaps, but not met with ruthless repression?   (And if the latter should that be taken as a step in the right direction, or as a dangerous manipulation of attitudes to  human rights?)

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  1. How will the world deal with climate change? An easy question.  It won’t.  Just think for a moment.  The necessary changes will be repeatedly spelt out to governments, individually and at major conferences in very agreeable resorts in regions reliably reported as safe from droughts or floods or epidemics of tropical diseases spreading into previously temperate parts of the world.  Faced with demands for corresponding actions, governments will then point out that as they operate within a framework of electoral democracy these matters cannot be rushed; there will be important constitutional implications to consider, and in any case it would be improper for them to proceed in matters of such importance without getting clear consent from the electorate as a whole, i.e. at the first practicable point after the next election, or, should it prove unavoidable, in a special referendum properly organised and arranged at some suitable date.  Some modifications to the proposals will have to be made in any case  since otherwise a number of major programmes already under way for the benefit of the population as a whole would be hopelessly disrupted, making the situation actually more serious in the long term.  Meanwhile the government has already been drawing up plans to face the many challenges, and must of course  stress that it is not acting in its own sectional interests but for the sake of the future of the nation as a whole, since the benefits of the programmes envisaged will not ‘kick in’ until the present generation of political actors will have long retired from office.

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  1. Some of my early years were spent in the UK. At that time an expression still very often heard was “It’s a free country” (referring, in case younger readers may doubt it, to Britain). The confident background assumption to daily life was that the citizenry were free to do any of a great range of things from crossing the road to gathering wild mushrooms, and to swimming, at their own risk, around the craft in a small commercial harbour, without the police or any officious jobsworth interfering  As a lad I gambolled freely around the stones of Stonehenge including on the day of the school outing organised by Mr Snelling when one of the boys from Lower 5A or 5B or C – not Richard Atkinson our host, though he was intensely interested – found the outline of a dagger or sword on one of the stones, an image which may have been waiting there unnoticed for thousands of years.  Nor was it only the careless young who took this freedom from constraint for granted.  My mother was rather proud of the stiff hip which was a consequence of attempting to take a quick route down from the Parthenon where she had been casually, and freely, strolling round admiring the view.  Today, however, just a few decades later, the confident background assumption (held by those – ‘the authorised personnel’ – who have the right (or duty – oh yes, duty) to tell others what they may or, more often, may not do) is that it, whatever ‘it’ may be, is illegal unless explicitly permitted under the law, or relevant bye-laws, or Home Office guidance on implementation (whatever that means).  Nowadays, if you want to visit Stonehenge, basically you can’t, though on presentation of a suitable sum of money you may be allowed in at a ‘safe’ distance from the stones (though woe betide you if your behaviour does not fit the rules of decorum drawn up and written down by the corps of licensed petty bureaucrats or their officially appointed agents.).  Much the same for the Parthenon and other sites across all Europe.  Why this repellent change in just a decade or two?  The answer is of course embedded in the last few lines.  How very much more efficient government will become when the fundamental principle is established that almost anything you might want to do is forbidden, but you can get a ticket or a licence to do it if you simply present the prescribed amount of money to the prescribed representative of the state.

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  1. How do you, as a thoughtful civilised commentator on the effects of technology, feel about the fact – it undoubtedly is a fact – that if mobile phones had been invented in, say, 1650, there would never have been the floods of magnificent music that swept across the world in the next three centuries?