Cui bono?

honor hominesque honesti floreant

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.

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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?

Delayed News

Motto of the month (and up to you whether you speculate on why it was chosen): When fire is blazing throughout a building, throwing a glass of water on the flames is not help but self-advertisement

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If this issue arrived very nearly on time that is thanks to extraordinary efforts by its Editor (myself).

I had to make a 900 kilometre off-island journey to get an elderly distant cousin released from mental hospital.  She recently moved to the Auvergne in order, she said, to ‘get away from Brexit’, with plenty  of financial resources arranged by her nieces and nephews in Kent, but with wholly inadequate training for the bureaucratic warfare that awaits would-be settlers in that ‘Pays d’égalité et fraternité’ (© every French government), and with only dim memories of the schoolroom French which once allowed her to borrow a pen from her uncle, but certainly could not now enable her to explain why she had been carrying a large gleaming kitchen knife whenever she left the cottage, and which she had flourished from within when refusing admission to all callers.  However I discovered that things had actually proceeded without widespread civil unrest for the first week or so until the day when the Foreign Ministries of the western world had run their combined campaign about the massive threats posed by Russian hacking and black ops.  It transpired that, confused by her new and quite different style of living, isolated by her monoglossia, and terrified by her wild interpretations of what had so far appeared on the screen of a secondhand television set installed for her by a well-intentioned neighbour, she concluded that Russian tanks would soon be visible on the northern skyline with heavily armed ‘hackers’ swarming along behind them.  Her notion of ‘hacker’ seemed to be based on confused stories about the atrocities in the war in Sierra Leone, where one of her relatives had served in the pacifying forces.

             Until taken away by a team of strong men, and women, in white coats she had, she told me, barricaded all windows and doors each night and slept under the bed; I could not make out whether this was with a view to escaping the notice of Russian burglars, or on the grounds that if she was already in situ she would have a better chance of resisting any other body attempting to manoeuvre itself into that space during the hours of darkness.  It took a day to extract Aunty from the protecting institution, two days to restore her to approximate normality at home, and another three or four walking around the village, literally holding her hand, and explaining to those we met that she was not only not dangerous but in need of assistance herself, before we had her on an even keel.  But from there, the interactions with the villagers could not be faulted.  It took the rest of my stay, however, to explain to Aunty why there may be a certain measure of truth in what the television told us about Russian activities but this still did not need to bring any immediate major change in our sleeping arrangements.  I put it to her that the situation is much like the ‘phoney war’ in the first few months of World War II which she remembers fondly as a paradise of sunny days and the excitement of going to school for the first time.  I explained to her that there had in fact been a lot of nastiness going on but that it had been far away from ordinary people living in southern Hampshire in England.  Of course ‘our’side (she belongs to the branches of the family tree who lived so long in England that they went native) had been busy behind the scenes getting the ships and the men and the aeroplanes ready for the real war against Mr Hitler.  She was not so easily soothed as I had hoped, and came back at first with such questions as why so many ‘important people’ (by which I suppose she meant Stoltenberg and Trump and the likes of Gavin Williamson and Dominic Raab)  were so worried about what Mr Putin was up to.  It needed much persuasion from me, ably supported by the village schoolmaster who by great good fortune was an obsessive with annotation of back numbers of LeMonde Diplomatique as his personal raison d’être, before Aunty accepted  that it wasn’t only the Russians who were hacking into ‘our’ networks and that in fact everyone is at it everywhere all the time (including big business, not just governments) even if for some reason ‘our’ media cover that aspect less fully (about 98% less).  But the clincher was when I pointed out that it was most definitely the duty of our own intelligence services to find out all they can about what the other side might be up to, and if they needed to do that by hacking, or cheating or stealing documents, or installing hidden cameras in places where they might be useful, then more power to their elbows, in order to protect all the good citizens on our own side.  Fortunately, her attention seemed focussed on that word ‘hacking’, as with many others of her generation, and I didn’t have to go into the altogether darker issues of black ops.  Eventually she agreed that what we call gathering information the Russians would call espionage, and what we call espionage they would call gathering information.  Everyone who has the competence and can afford the equipment is at it all the time.  Even the Finns reported without any drama a few months ago that they had been at it for ten years; spying on Russia, to be specific.  As all thinking autocrats know, if you’re going to keep a population in reasonably disciplined order it is essential to run a proper ‘us and them’ approach in dealing with foreign countries and other blocs.  Of course it was a slow business talking Aunty down to a sensible sanity level.  Two days before I left, as we watched the sun go down – sunsets shouldn’t be watched by people with troubles on or in their minds – she came out with “But if all those important people decided to give us all warnings about what those Russians are up to, doesn’t that mean there really is something going on, something bad, I mean?”   Pointing out the interesting co-incidence between the running of the campaign and the approach of the American mid-term elections coupled with the threat of an imminent collapse of Theresa’s rule didn’t really cut the mustard, however relevant it might actually be.  But the loyal support of the schoolmaster and the engaging of his granddaughter as a temporary and charming home help, together with the continuing complete absence of Russians in the neighbourhood, just carried us through, and I scrambled onto the old stomach-churner back to this precious isle two days ago.

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Milling

A few weeks ago I was sorting through a pile of old British coinage.  Lady W, our generous patron in darkest Dorsetshire, sends money at irregular intervals to support our magnificent (her word)  but almost entirely useless struggle to make this world a better place.  The amounts would be scorned by any London journalist (except those into their sixth or seventh period as an unpaid intern) but they are large enough that the irregularity doesn’t matter.  Long time readers will not be surprised that irregularity also applies to the form of her contributions.  Usually there is a basic cheque which is bulked out by spare change she has found lying around in her mansion, items of personal jewellery which have lost her favour (once there was a niello ring valued by a mainland jeweller at 1200 euros) or gifts in kind (e.g a bottle of wine, or an old horse cloth, but notably once including a kid goat, which came in totally illegally to Anse des Geôliers up north on a Saturday night).  This latest instalment brought a sockful of old British coins.  I noticed that some had a smooth circumference, while others had been given a milled edge; that is, a succession of tiny ridges, at right angles to the face of the coin lying flat, proceeding right round the coins, thus making them easier to grasp securely.  Those familiar with the ancestral practices of the British will not be surprised if I report that it was the coins of higher value which got the more careful treatment.  The half-crown for example (one eighth of a pound, and therefore handsome pocket money for a teenager in the 1960s) (but approximately worthless in terms of today’s purchasing power, and definitely worthless after 29th March 2019) has an easily distinguished milling.  The low value coins could of course be left unmilled since it was only the lower orders of society whose members would go scrabbling in dark corners for a dropped penny or farthing.  There is an interesting contrast with the attitude of for instance Singapore where the government takes great care that citizens who behave as it believes all Singaporeans should will receive in return helpful and thoughtful administration, extending into the details of daily life.  Thus even the tiny Singaporean ten cent coin has a milled edge.  Across the world there seems no general agreement as to when the better grasp provided by milling is needed and where it is unnecessary.  Normal for the tops of plastic milk bottles, yet not standardly incorporated on the nightsticks of American police, I am unreliably informed. (Perhaps there is an opening here for an enterprising young bureaucrat to establish UCMASA, a Universal Conference on Milling and Associated Security Aids, with himself, or herself, as both inaugural Chairman and CEO on a ‘compensation package’ of millions – unless of course it’s already been done somewhere.)  As it happens I was witness myself to the need for properly applied microsecurity techniques ten days ago.  An Australian tourist down at the harbour had buttonholed me to expound the wonders of his new ‘smartphone’.  (I clearly need to work harder on looking like a tramp when I go out for an evening stroll in the tourist season.)  If I understood him correctly, the thing was a marvel, able to tell the time in Timbuktu at the top of its screen while simultaneously conjuring airy spirits from the vasty deep in the lower half, and it was certainly a rather beautiful object, a slim smoothly gleaming rectangle of glass and black plastic with gracefully rounded corners.  As he seized the chance to photograph a fishing boat that had just come into view, the smartphone seized the chance to escape his grasp, shooting up out of his hand in what turned into an appropriately beautiful swallow dive into the murky waters off the jetty.  My Aussie friend took it hard.  I, naturally, took it as the moment to clear off for some pressing appointment or other which I had just remembered.  But I heard later that he reckoned he would have to pay 15,000 Aussie dollars to get a replacement.  And it was all made much worse by the fact that the would-be amphibian phone was itself a replacement for one snatched out of his hands as he consulted it in Tottenham Court Road looking for the shortest route to Trafalgar Square.  Why ever is there no milling on such high-tech instruments?

Next posting scheduled for 16-11-2018.  Perhaps.

 

 

 

Late news

Not late as in ‘no longer with us’, nor as in ‘what Trump tweeted yesterday’.  Simple good old-fashioned – no, sorry! – standard modern unpunctual news.  Why?  Is this a betrayal of the journal’s standards?  No –  straightforward honourable explanation in the first item in the new posting, guaranteed to appear at the earliest possible opportunity.

It’s worse than you think

From John Stuart Mill to the end of civilisation

A month or so ago, you had the posting with the heading ‘Ain’t whatya mean, hit’s the way thatya mean it’ (if you were on the general circulation list.  My apologies to friends, who did not receive it with the headline.  That’s what comes of being on the privileged list.)  The heading apparently puzzled some younger readers.  To make things a little clearer, it is an adaptation of the words which went with a jazz classic.  These, when put into standard English, were actually, ‘It isn’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it’, an excellent piece of advice to bear in mind when you next want to give your opinion on e.g. the release of all your personal data to the astonished and amused mockery of the cyberpublic.  (Don’t resort to threats and torrents of incoherent rage – or at least not where there are witnesses or spy cameras.  Simply say ‘We seem to have had some difficulties with this programme’.  Make sure they hear that final –me; it adds greatly to your air of authority, if you have one.  If you accompany the words with any kind of theatrical ‘business’ that you see as appropriate to your own situation and physical prowess, that is up to you.  This journal will ruthlessly deny any responsibility in the matter.)  For some reason, in the original jazz rendering the words ‘whatya’ and ‘it’s tha’ and ‘thatya’ were often pronounced ‘hotya’, ‘hitstha’ and ‘hatya’ which in some inscrutable way was felt to enhance the jazz quality of the observation.  Ah so long ago!  Are you really better off with rap and grime?

            Be that as it may, that posting pointed out that only those unfortunates burdened with an excessive incredulity deficit will take the words uttered by a national leader (or for that matter a senior member of any nation’s oligocracy, such as the Tory party in Great Britain) to have meaning in the ordinary way, as used in giving information.  Those words have istead what might be better called incantatory meaning, not so very different from the chants of some mediaeval self-proclaimed miracle workers.  They lay out a vision of future developments which will please the audience (whether that is a future without immigrants or with free hash for all or –  to venture into surrealism – with a properly funded national health service) and through some design flaw in the human creature audiences tend to believe that the speaker or some unknown agency at his command is going to provide those desirables.   For example, a ministerial speech in the House of Commons shortly after the infamous Grenfell Tower disaster reassured those listening that all survivors would be given proper and permanent replacement accommodation within three months.  This was an agreeable thing to hear (or at least one of the least disagreeable comments emerging from official quarters). Sighs of relief all round the Conservative benches and in the headlines of most of the press and even in the less clued-up members of the ‘Something really needs to be done’ movement (69% of the population).  The belief that something really would be done has faded for most of the population into an assumption that something was done, even now when reality has demonstrated the brutal falsehood of the words.  (For an encore, play the Windrush Saga, still running in some outlying areas.)

        Does the speaker himself (usually male) share the belief ?  Astonishingly, some of those most seriously deranged do, and this does not only apply to those on the western shores of the Atlantic, detached as nearly all of them are from most of the world’s realities.  But the sincerity quotient of a human utterance has no reliable relation to its validity.  And matters are made even worse by a different design fault that is quite wrongly regarded as a minor problem, when it is recognised at all.  This is the tendency to adjust willingness to believe according to the confidence of the speaker (in effect, listening to the man – this word reflects statistics –  with the loudest voice.)

            Whenever a major problem arises it will almost always involve a variety of factors, suggesting reactions in various different ways, many of them having drawbacks as well helpful options.  This means that people who study the issues thoroughly will realise that even if some particular way forward offers the best prospects, there will be a price to pay.  It is then built into human behavioural patterns that whether aware of it or not they will deliver their verdict with less red-blooded conviction than those who have simply seen one easily visible factor which points clearly in one direction, and who ignore or do not even see the problems which come with it, while they bay for everyone to follow their lead.  Obeying the voice of the loudest is not just a quick way to get a bad result at a political meeting or the sort of disagreement settled with a few cuts and bruises outside a football stadium.  In 1914 the streets of Berlin were packed with crowds calling for war against Britain, even as tens of thousands filled the centre of London, calling for war against Germany.  Is government according to the views of the majority really the right, reasonable, and proper way to organise a nation?  (No.)  It is the high road to quarrels between nations.  And no-deal Brexits, by the way.  And, if your luck is out, to war.  With that in mind, just take a look across the current products of the British media.

            Yet even if mistakes, and dishonesty and self-deception may be enough to guarantee the species a much shorter run than its present occupants imagine, there is still another factor, which should perhaps be more worrying than all the rest.  Not long ago I happened to find a report written by a fine journalist, Norman Webster, in the Globe and Mail (fine paper) reporting on an interview on the 14th November 1981 with Ronald Reagan who, at the time and for eight years thereafter was President of the United States.  For once, the journalist avoided the normal approach, that is tidying  up the remarks of the interviewee to make them easy to understand for the masses and to take out anything that might shock sensitive listeners (or sensitive proprietors of the media channel).  He gave the words actually used by Reagan in response to two issues.  The first was whether a nuclear war involving Russia and the US could be (safely?) limited to European territory.  Here are Reagan’s words: “I don’t honestly know.  I think again, until some place…all over the world this is being research going on, to try and find the defensive weapon.  There never has been a weapon that someone hasn’t come up with a defence.  But it could …and the only defence is, well, you shoot yours and we’ll shoot ours.”  And the second (when pressed to say whether a nuclear exchange might be limited to a particular battlefield area): “Well, I would – if they realised that we – again, if – if we led them back to that stalemate only because that our retaliatory power, our seconds, or our strike at them after their first strike, would be so destructive that they couldn’t afford it, that would hold them off.”

            It wasn’t until after Reagan left office that those who knew dared to talk publicly about the mental state of the highest commander of the most powerful nation on the planet.

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NB1 Although published as long ago as 2005 The Rise of Political Lying by Peter Oborne is still an asset to a British consumer’s bookshelf.  ISBN 0-7432-7560-8

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NB2  Material from ammophila.org (prefixed by either www. or cui bono) may be used, but not for commercial purposes; it should meet standard conditions of fair handling, and full acknowledgment should be made

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Speaking to my sister by moonlight

Beauty and its beholders  

A political note

Solution (from an occasional series)                             

What is right?

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This North Atlantic island slum, consisting mainly of a row of rain-soaked wooden shacks with one or two storm-battered overambitious would-be villas along the ridge above the harbour, and a congeries of small shops, concrete storehouses and parking lots for all manner of marine gear down around the quays, is to my mind one of the finest spots on earth to live.  Not as well set up with all the inconveniences of modern life as modern homo negotians would like, or indeed insists on, which is undoubtedly part of its attraction.  We are not yet equipped with e-communications reliable enough to be worth using, which at least gives some protection against e-malfeasance.  It is certainly one of the few remaining redoubts in the northern hemisphere not minutely documented and analysed for potential profit – ha! profit?! – by the dark forces of the net.  But there are times when one can welcome some contacts with the outside world.  Yesterday Kevin brought a delightful surprise, along with the rainwater pouring off his anorak and over the notes I had spread out across the floor in preparation for my plea to the senators to have this office granted diplomatic immunity.  It is the first letter in a long time from Isabelita.  For those who have only recently come across this journal, Isabelita of the many talents was for more than a year the effective directrix of the office when it included five irascible journalists (or similar), even though nominally she was just an assistant.  Any remaining traces of order and organisation are owed to her.   Still in remarkably good form to judge from the picture she included, even if it is sexist to say so.  No longer competes internationally, but apparently twice a week leads parties of old age pensioners down to La Playa de los Frailes for two or three hours of beach volleyball.  Ecuadorian academic life’s gain has been the rest of the world’s loss.

            However, it may be that even in plucky little Ecuador the path to ruin may be surveyed to see how it may be opened up.  The mountainous regions of the country are still richly covered with the original forests, not yet seriously damaged by ‘development’, and the forested mountains are inhabited by one of the most splendid arrays of strikingly coloured birds of any country on the planet.  One reaction is to call for this region to be preserved as a wonderful example of a natural environment such as has already been despoiled in many other regions.  Another reaction to such a landscape in many countries has been to ‘monetise’ it, negotiating with the government, or whoever controls a territory de facto, with a view to extracting all extractable resources, mineral, arboreal, or hydrological.  (It has, after centuries, become somewhat harder to exploit human resources, though if you consider the actual conditions of the poor of this earth living in ‘third world’ countries, you will find it easy to doubt that claim.)  There is also a third reaction which in America might well be called ‘monetisation-lite’.  When the attractions of a landscape are undeniable, this can lead to well-fed businessmen staying in expensive hotels in the nearest capital city where they can be heard muttering to one another phrases such as ‘touristic potential’, ‘ecological experience’ and ‘high season occupancy’, and to prove it there are former fishing villages that have irremediably lost their virtue all along the coasts of Spain, and in the islands of Greece and Thailand and the Pacific.  Nobody can know the motive or combination of motives which may have brought forth ideas for one or more chains of pylons allowing passengers to travel along the magnificent Sierra and view the landscape.  I have nothing against pylons in themselves; if you forget the chocolate box associations and conventional attitudes most pylons are without doubt  more graceful than the average castle.  (Would it help if the pylons were built with pre-installed ivy and maybe miniature watchtowers at the summit?)  But why might one want to erect pylons on those mountains?  It may well be a simple unadulterated desire to let foreigners see the beauty of the country, perhaps at cost price only, perhaps even free?  But, however pure the intention, future events remain unpredictable events.  Whoever would have thought that Cameron’s kindly efforts to free the Libyan shore of the Mediterranean from tyranny would lead to the horrors of the past three years?  Let  a destination get some reputation as an interesting or beautiful or famous place to visit (fame alone can be enough of a magnet, with or without historical accuracy – cf many of the alleged ancient battle sites in assorted countries, which now look like perfectly ordinary countryside – and then a trickle of visitors can become a stream, justifying ‘tourist facilities’ which soon let the stream become a torrent, which is followed by the destination featuring temptingly in countless websites selling holidays and travel, and finally local citizens are effectively driven out of their own homes for half the year.  Just ask the inhabitants of Barcelona, or gaze in dismay at the monstrous arks impudently dwarfing the incomparable buildings of Venice which one of them will one day, statistics and cruise ships being what they are, destroy.

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In this world of ‘us’ and ‘them’ (a.k.a. tribalism; so that’s what the development of civilised politics has brought us to) Theresa must be thanking her lucky stars, little red stars it seems, that once again as she faced yet another near insurmountable hurdle in keeping her finger-tip hold on 10 Downing Street the Russians came galloping onto the scene to save her bacon.  You might almost think Putin was trying to make sure she stays in office, and if you think that then be cautious; you don’t know what you might catch yourself thinking next.  Monty, our esteemed contact in London, once a bold buccaneer of free speech, is increasingly cautious about saying anything to anybody about any topic but he has given me permission to pass on this observation, that nobody should believe that story about the senior UK ministers being posted to various destinations in Europe over the summer in order to cajole the locals into agreeing to her Chequers plan – a political hologram if ever there was one –  and figs to the Irish.  Those ministers were sent round Europe to keep them out of London and apart, so that they couldn’t gather together and stage a coup against her.

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Another of our solutions to longstanding problems

Society may be ready to recognise that it pays a shocking price in terms of accidents for the right to own and drive private cars.  And then there is the air pollution, and the costs to the nation of importing oil, and the massive contribution to climate change.  Some would add the corrosive effects on social cohesion (deliberately stimulated by some of the manufacturers.)  Far less obtrusive but perhaps much more pervasive is another factor often left out of account partly because it is exceedingly difficult to pin down the details of its profile and partly because it has somehow infiltrated society in such a way as to leave the poor harassed citizen assuming it is an inevitable part of modern life.  I am of course referring to stress.  Difficult to pin down it may be, but there will be few readers who do not feel they have more of it than they want.  There will often be dispute as to how far any particular accident or ailment or failure results from stress but few will doubt that stress can be an important and baleful factor in all those situations.  And few will doubt that the acquisition, ownership, maintenance, and use of private cars in their millions has a prime place in the roster of causes.  You don’t need to read this journal to be told that.  What you need is to be offered a remedy, and this journal has one.  It is so obvious that it may have been proposed already elsewhere, but if so the news hasn’t reached this office, and there’s certainly no harm in putting it on view here.  The key is to ban the simple ownership of private cars.  It will be replaced by a system where one buys a car licensed to be on public roads only on a specified day of the week with fierce penalties for any owner whose car breaks that rule.  Thus as Nigel Smith-Farquharson sees his neighbour Jamila Cottesloe walking to the station on Monday morning, does he toot derisively and congratulate himself  on buying a Monday car?  Possibly, but far more likely not, because he knows well that she has a Tuesday car and has always been willing to give him the ride needed.  (In fact the two, from wary beginnings based purely on practicality, have become co-operating friends.  Both help run the same food bank at weekends.)  Naturally there is a special higher-priced category of car to be bought which can be used on both Saturdays and Sundays (but definitely not covering late trips home early Monday morning.  The change of day at midnight and the penalty for cheating will yield impressive improvements in the road safety record).  Identification of cheating drivers will be easy because the license plates for different days of the week will have different colours and shapes.  Needless to say there will be a new richly satisfying income stream for whichever department receives it.  Misers and curmudgeons who cannot work out suitable agreements with other travellers will cycle or walk, with consequent benefit to their physical condition and saving of costs to the health service.  A small proportion of the well-heeled may buy enough cars for the whole week (to the applause of car manufacturers) but overall the effects on air quality, climate change, and so on will all tend to be positive, while congestion and stress with all its ill effects will be vastly reduced

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If you did not enjoy that item you may also dislike this:

Presumably certain officials in the  militant/extremist wing of the British Home Office are temporarily keeping their heads below the parapet until the public’s current awareness of injustices perpetrated against the weak, the unimportant and the poor slips back below the headlines and allows them to consider what to do next.  No doubt some will be ruminating on the fact that same-sex marriage is now a fait accompli, and will have noticed that the arguments for accepting solemnly and legally attested relationships between partners of the same sex – consent, adulthood, no objections from previous partners, and so on – would appear to be available for campaigns in favour of polygamy (and polyandry).  Also for interspecies marriage.  (And I leave it to you whether you feel there are any other situations that might be considered relevant.)

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The next regular posting is scheduled for 16 October

Ain’t whatya mean, hit’s the way thatya mean it

Saying what you mean

Among those who have won the Nobel Peace Prize there are some remarkable characters (remarkable in some cases for their status as winners of a Nobel Peace Prize).  I seem to remember it was the highly remarkable international fixer Henry Kissinger who gave what is actually one of the very best pieces of advice to bellicose national leaders playing ‘dare’ against powerful opponents (with millions of powerless citizens as the potential collateral damage): ‘Declare victory and lead the troops back home’.  (Bellicosity often goes with poor judgement.)  It must have been a slightly less military version of the same policy that allowed so much jubilation in July when Greece was officially declared to be a good and successful pupil in the EU’s Institution for Developing Economic Policies and congratulated on getting a Pass mark which allows her once again to enter a bank without a prior appointment and without any accompanying  financial ‘minders’.  The jubilation was in Brussels, notice, not in Athens. Greece is now equipped with a debt equal to 178% of her GDP.  (Let’s emphasise that: not 78%, but one hundred and seventy-eight percent.)  It is estimated that servicing this debt ‘going forward’ in the cant phrase (though ‘going backward’ might be more appropriate) will take 3½% of her annual GDP.  Prospects for economic growth to help with financial recovery?  There are minor disagreements about the projected figures, but for 2019 onwards they vary between 1% and 2·4%.  Opinion is that the debt will not be paid off before 2050 or even 2070, and that further tranches of ‘aid’ (actually arriving as interest-demanding loans) will be needed in the meantime.  Pensions and other state support for those who really need it have been severely cut (reduction of pensions having for instance been an explicit demand of the IMF) and suicide rates have risen.  Unemployment is officially just below 20% of the population.   10% of the population have left since the mess really got going.  So everything hunky-dory?  In EUspeak, maybe so.  (By the way, why should poor Papandreou who was honest enough to tell the EU about bad things having been done bear the blame; another case of ‘whistle-blower beware’?)

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Meaning what you say  Trump has been blaming China for the disappointing failure so far of  ‘denuclearisation’ in Korea to turn up as previously expected.  It is not surprising that human beings seem to have a predisposition to believe what other humans (or bots) (or perhaps aliens disguised as human beings) tell them.  This predisposition obviously had powerful value in evolutionary terms.  If you are a primitive humanoid wending your way through the mountains and the leader of your group pauses, points to a cave ahead and to the right and grunts ‘Sabre-toothed tiger’ (or hominid noises to that effect), it could be very advantageous to believe her.  Of course, like so many good things, this valuable strategy can be carried too far.   For instance the grunting leader may take advantage of your hasty retreat back down the path dropping the load you were carrying to steal and eat the tarsier forearm you had been intending to keep as a treat for yourself when you finally reached the head of the pass.  For several million other instances of how words can actually convey things other than true reports you could cast an eye on what is available today on social media.  But the fault really lies with the person who makes the quite unjustified assumption that what gets said must be true in the dictionary+grammar sense, a belief which could be a terrible constraint on effective action and continuance in public office.  It should be immediately obvious that what a national leader says has meaning in the official sense; that is, it means what the national leader wants the audience to believe, not – oh goodness! – most certainly not what the unskilled audience would take the words to mean.  At present, around the world thousands of journalists a little too busy to be decently investigative are passing on the news that the denuclearisation of North Korea so triumphantly foretold by Donald Trump not very many tweets ago is actually proceeding rather less apace than the Donald’s tweets  had led many naïve listeners, viewers and readers  to suppose; so far unskilled audiences have no reason to get confused.  But many of the journos are adding to that, usually without comment of their own, the White House view that this was not the Donald’s fault for getting things wrong but China’s fault for not pushing hard enough in the desired direction, and leaving the nuclear capacities of North Korea to flourish.  This does reflect the Donald’s words, but how did he mean them?  This is one case where outsiders can quite easily form an opinion on which sort of meaning is involved.  A simple way to decide is to look at a map, and ponder whether any state is likely to be dragging its feet on a high profile programme aimed at scaling back the nuclear activities of a frighteningly  unpredictable nation, which is also just 700 km of easy rocket flight away from its own capital city.  (And here a glance at any old school atlas lying in shreds in  the cat’s basket may be relevant.)

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Truth and other matters

In most countries the race to ‘get ahead’ and ‘stay ahead’ has enthusiastic supporters cheering from the grandstands (where the tickets – when they’re not freebies from well-connected friends – are the most expensive and so the average per capita wealth quotient is highest.  In other words, applause for inequality of wealth is loudest among those who do well out of it.)  It is said that at some of the most exciting venues such as  Hong Kong or the Singaporean stock exchange the testosterone quotient in the air can reach levels classified by the admittedly left-wing group GASP (General Agreement on Standards for Pollutants) as liable to induce slight or moderate insanity.  Many of those who feel they are far enough ahead to snatch a quick look back at the struggling hordes behind them will of course argue that the urge to achieve (as they will put it) has been one of the most important factors bringing humanity onward and upward from messing about learning how to knock stones together to the astounding capacity to hold in one hand a moving picture of what a friend ten thousand miles away was eating for dinner last night, and when the sequence is finished to play it all through again just by tapping the picture twice, much as a baboon might tap a sleeping cat just to see it move.  Of course the changes in the human life style have not concerned technology only.  Social organisation has certainly retained its original base structure, the quarrelsome family group, but over the centuries and millennia has developed – sometimes by design sometimes by failure to notice what was going on – an astounding proliferation of structures.  Sizes range from the pair as in marriage, or even the unit, as with the hermit although by definition hermitry hardly qualifies as a social structure, to the millions  as with current migrations from Africa to Europe  Types range from the rigidly organised as with the Byzantine 1  bureaucracy to the Huns invading western Europe in the fifth century (or when Russian and British football supporters meet).  Aims may be benevolent and clearly defined (e.g. the Red Cross) or purely ceremonial (the British House of Lords comes to mind) or loose and variable as with most modern opportunist political parties where the possibility of power decides the policies, not the other way round.  Comparable diversity is found along a host of other axes.  But the important point may be that the speed with which changes arrive has been accelerating rapidly.  It is amazing how many institutions have changed in just a decade or two from doing things in the founder’s/grandfather’s way because that’s how he did it (more respectably a.k.a. `if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’) to a situation which looks dangerously close to administration for the sake of administration (to mention only its most acceptable face).  Nowadays somewhere in almost any institution there will be someone, maybe lurking with co-conspirators in an underground labyrinth of unlabelled offices, maybe pontificating from the chair of the board of directors, trying to engineer a change in the way they do things.  There may have been a genuine if mistaken belief that breaking up practices which had evolved naturally to meet the real situations encountered in whatever activity is involved would save money (unlikely) or time (very unlikely); (of course it may get the breaker-up a reputation as a go-getting ‘achiever’.)  But just try an empirical approach.  Read up about some of the recent collapses in British industry and business.  A lot of it is down to a bizarre willingness to trust in the words of those who boldly assert  they know how to plan some activity even when there is no evidence they have any personal competence in actually doing it.  A mathematician who is a whizz with equations about ballistics is not the obvious first choice for your next trapeze acrobat.  In a society where paper certificates matter more than practical competence, self-confidence however unjustified, has apparently become the trump card.  Without for a moment saying that things were run perfectly, one suspects they went rather better (making due allowance for resources available at the time) when doctors – and matrons – ran the health service, railwaymen ran railways, soldiers ran the army (the number in the British army is now far below the number of civil servants and members of quangos doing business for the Ministry of Defence), forwards and fullbacks ran football clubs, broadcasters ran broadcasting, teachers ran education, librarians ran libraries, and rock bands wrote their own music.  But bring in the administrators/professionals who ‘know how the business should be run’ (because they have certificates proclaiming them Masters in Administration of Education/Broadcasting/etc from Cooney Lane University of Management Expertise) arriiving with their questionnaires, mission statements, surveys, restructuring outlines, rationalisations, resource allocation priorities, project planning groups, quotas, quota table reports, performance assessments, not to mention their managers’ car park and clubhouse where the children’s library/music room/wooden leg store/rifle range used to be, and actual achievement nosedives (even though success recorded on the charts appears to soar), morale of those who really do the work accelerates downwards, and whoever is supposed to be on the receiving end gets a rotten service (with for instance the man sent out to the Middle East to fight ‘for his country’ having to buy his own equipment).  Get worried.   An alternative to the usual scripts for the end of civilisation is sketching itself in, with the jungle of interconnecting (but not necessarily intercommunicating) bureaucracies spread across the world threatening to demand ever more of the world’s resources for their support.

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1 One demented detail: at one period of Byzantium those present were required to chant ‘Hail Caesar’ 27 times when the current emperor entered the Senate


§ next posting pencilled for 16 September

Dreams from a dark knight

Paranormal.  Something far from this journal’s usual ambit, for the record. 

Donald Trump appears to have the rare gift of knowing instantly, without any need to investigate, whether a statement put into the public domain is true or not.  Generally I would be quite sceptical (not to say cynical) about most claims of paranormal powers or experiences and suspect that a very high proportion of those which are not mischievous fabrications or simple-minded lies can actually result from normal interactions with an environment.  It is different, though, when the experience belongs to someone known and trusted such as (in the set of cases I am about to mention) oneself.  I should say at once that they are not exciting in themselves.  It was a series that began when I was eleven and seems to have definitely ended when I was thirty-seven.  There were only about a dozen of them altogether.  They all involved another person whom I knew but not once anyone to whom I had any special relationship, and simply concerned knowing a number that they were going to say before they said it.  At that point the sort of person who likes to assume that others are easily fooled breaks in and says “Ah, but what’s really happening is that you have already heard the number uttered but part of your brain which tidies things up and declares them settled has not yet finished business.”  (I will come to that issue in a moment anyway but would add that I seemed in those days to have an above average capacity for observing sequences of events – e.g. traffic manoeuvres, wording of complex phrases – with fairly high accuracy.)  There are four points to mention.  First, I definitely have no special arithmetic gifts.  Second, the sensation was different in kind from other situations where one expects somebody to say something and cannot help guessing what it will be.  Third, there were no ‘false positives’.  I never had that sensation of ‘flatly’ knowing (as if already read in print), when the number then emerged ‘wrong’.  I tried a few times, when I could see that numbers were to be mentioned, to persuade myself that I had the same ‘flat knowing’ sensation before the other party uttered the number but did not succeed.  Fourth, the last time it happened I was on the phone to a friend who told me that someone she knew had come into possession of a painting by Dufy, famous French artist, and had been able to sell it – and at this point the feeling of knowing kicked in but I also remembered the “Ah, what’s really happening” guys and so I cut short what she was saying, and said I would tell her what the selling price was, which without question happened when she had not yet reached any figure.   At that time Dufy was one of the biggest names in the art market, and work by him could reasonably have gone, depending on what it was, for anything from as little as about £500 (it was in the UK) to easily a hundred times that or more.  I told her ‘£1,800’ and she confirmed that this was the figure.  Since that time, no more such experiences.

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‘Heads I win.  Tails…’?

Regrettably our island’s cultural and commercial links handicap it with a close relationship to the dis-United Kingdom. Even with relatively enlightened individuals topics of British relevance float unappealingly  on the surface of the conversational barrel.  So once again whether we want to or not we are hearing about the wonderful benefits (to Britain) of sticking two fingers up to the EU.  Some of us politely pretend to be 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?  So where might Britain find the dosh to keep the bonuses flowing (never mind keeping the homeless and destitute alive)?  Admittedly, there are some resources Britain could fall back on, and probably will.  Fracking, for instance, even in the leafy suburbs of Tory constituencies.  But the biggest resource is the national territory, and a prudent sequence of responsible decisions (if such a thing could somehow be devised) about sales of conveniently detachable pieces of the country could keep the wolf from the door for a decade or two.  Margaret Thatcher (I am not inventing this) suggested precisely such a policy to Brazil when that country hit trouble while she was prime minister in Britain.  And of course it has sometimes been put into practice, for instance when the Americans bought Alaska from the Russians for $7million in 1867.  (A wonderful bargain, probably less than $1billion even in today’s terms.)   Britain has many convenient sites to offer and, what is more, valid legal title to most of them, unlike the Russians in Alaska.  An excellent first choice to test the market would be Lundy.  Its relative poverty in resources would surely be outweighed by its wonderful location, ideal for many purposes both commercial and military.  One can envisage Chinese investors, for instance, seeing it as a superb site for an entrepôt and for further activities in both Europe and North America.  (Perhaps skilful negotiators (see again below) could engineer a bidding battle between some of the more wealthy Asian economies?)  Next would come the Scilly Isles which would need a different sort of sales pitch stressing their obvious touristic potential, only partly exploited at present but clearly capable of vast and profitable returns once numerous restrictions imposed by current British law have been abolished.  (One thinks back to the period when the Cuban government reportedly declared it a patriotic duty of young Cuban ladies to help foreign tourists find their visits to the island enjoyable, a strategy now increasingly popular with  governments around the world.)   Once the Scillies have been disposed of the Isle of Wight would be next, a major step forward and one that could make a very substantial contribution to national finances when sold.  Its case is somewhat different since the size of the population might make it necessary to take the interests of the inhabitants into account.  However, unofficial Home Office advice is that difficulties can almost certainly be quashed by arranging that inhabitants will lose British nationality after the sale unless they co-operate with the necessary government decisions.  Curiously, beyond these options England is surprisingly ill equipped in the matter of islands.  (The Farne islands can be ignored for climatic and locational reasons.)  The real prize will of course be  an orderly sale, over the decades, of the islands of Scotland, scenically outstanding and liable to appeal to rich Americans and others with hazy notions that a great-great-grandmother with the surname Macalister counts as a close personal link to the windswept crag on which she kept her pigs in the 1790s.  The profits from these boggy goldmines could not merely shoulder much of the national budget, but allow for judicious tax cuts to the deserving classes.  These might be somewhat controversial, but the government is confident that legal experts will prove the proceeds from sales should go to Westminster.  What, though, of the Isle of Man, Jersey and  Guernsey, reputedly homes of legendary wealth?  They alas are off-limits.  No sales will be conducted there.  It is not just that the house of Windsor has means, little known but ruthlessly effective, to ensure that even the most tentative suggestion of intrusion on areas where the royal prerogative holds sway will never be made twice.  Even at the next level down those who wield the power to forbid it would never allow any serious interference to the material benefits that Westminster derives from its links to the enormous wealth in those territories.

            It has to be admitted, however, that most other revenue streams post-Brexit would be trivial in comparison  if not actually counterproductive.  Thus an optimist in the Home Office suggested that a reform of the visa arrangements could ensure that all tourists applying to visit the country but rejected on the grounds that they might be clandestine immigrants would be allowed to enter, so that they can spend money to the benefit of the economy, on condition that they agree to wear an electronic tag for the duration of their stay (not to exceed 14 days) while additional income could be extracted by requiring payment for an exit visa at the airport when they leave.   For a probably more successful example, there has been some interest expressed in Hollywood, provided withdrawal from Europe does go ahead,  in making a series of disaster movies showing how the British snatched defeat from the jaws of agreement (though others argue that the ‘horror’ genre might offer a more convincing scenario).  But the most promising of these minor contributions could be provided by the thousands of experts, advisors, consultants, and negotiators with the superb skills they have been honing in Brussels and elsewhere the past couple of years.  ‘Some of these fellows could persuade each other that the Earth orbits the sun in just 24 hours’ as one commentator put it.  It is likely that London will offer them substantial inducements to join ‘red, white and blue’ teams touring the world offering British expertise in dealing with situations needing careful preparation of proposals to leave all stakeholders convinced that their interests have been safeguarded and outlining all possible lines of future development while taking care not to formulate these in terms which could undesirably restrict freedom of action of those who could stand to benefit.  And so on.  Thus the development of French nuclear power generation at Hinkley Point has been held up as an example of what British negotiating expertise can achieve faced with complex problems; it is true that the contract (signed in 2006, with a view to the facility being ‘in service’ by 2012) foresees the UK paying for the electricity at a rate more than double the rate now expected to be charged by other producers in the 2020s (when on present estimates production may start), but this results from factors that could not have been foreseen (such as the new engineering problems reported in March of this year expected to delay completion by a further year and adding another 400 million to the construction costs).  In any case extensive evidence of the British talent for successful negotiation is amply provided by the numerous private finance initiatives now scattered across the British economic landscape like sinkholes in mined-out country.

However this little note began by wondering who would benefit when Britain, with or without part of Ireland, finally waves farewell to Europe, and one of the most conspicuous candidates must surely be Liam Fox, the minister who has been tirelessly circling the globe trying to find trading opportunities for Britain, ever since the die was cast.  Forty countries is it, that have told him they may be interested?  What the tangible outcomes will be, who can foretell?  But if a lively well-connected minister with all that experience and all those brilliant contacts does not end his days as a billionaire  then the world’s capitalist trading system is not even trying.

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For the third time since the beginning of last year the Anglophone Word has dropped more than 10% on the IIE (International Integrity Exchange) in a week, with effects that now risk serious damage to related domains, such as politics, trade, moral values and literary production.  Analysts believe there is now urgent need of a fresh international agreement to give the Anglophone Word a new start with a lower target exchange value against all other competitors.

 

A couple of notes from London

One of my rare trips off the island, partly due to dealing with  a problem faced by Berthold (not included in the extract from his e-mail given in this posting)

Next regular posting scheduled for 16th August

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Memo to Donald J.Trump You said trade wars are easy to win?  Trade wars happen when regular trading breaks down.  Now, on any time span past a month or two, which out of regulation and capitalism would you back to win?  No, I did not mean which would you prefer to win.  (Please forward this memo to Brussels.  I never liked them any more than you.  Regards, V.P.)

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E-mail despatch from Berthold Featherstonehaugh-Cheems in London

            My apologies to you for this gap between reports.  The whole university is thrashing about in the throes of various emotions induced by Brexism, ranging from contemptuous fury (quite a lot of that, though directed at wildly different targets) to white-faced taps on the door of the Health Counsellor (a high proportion of the staff with non-British passports) and on to guffaws of incredulous laughter in the penthouse.  The main factor causing chaos in the emotional equilibria was the news that 10 Downing Street is to take over the campaign for telling the EU how they must organise things so as to give the UK a nice smooth departure.  However inept the Tory general staff have shown themselves to be over the past few months (admittedly, nearly all of them facing heavy barrages of friendly fire from others in the cabinet), it would take either a self-confidence verging on psychological disorder or a strangely blinkered mind to believe that May could be a better negotiator.  Plainly Theresa thinks she could be a better negotiator.  Perhaps dazzled, or dazed, by her own handling of the cabinet these past few months?  It is hard not to suspect that the trouble arises from an unfortunate choice of role model in her early adolescence; but you will not want me to ponder here how Thatcher herself came to be the frightful termagant who poured pesticide by the gallon on the sickly shoots of fair play in modern British society, indirectly making a bigger contribution to ‘Leave’ winning the referendum than Analytica did.  (But picking up samples of Daily Mail chit-chat while lurking under the counter of a middle England grocery store possibly had something to do with her repellent adult persona)  (Incidentally, the blokes on that group here doing facial diagnosis to assess mood, character, likely political stance and so on, officially to ‘enhance the effectiveness of British industry by improving interview techniques’, really of course to decide who gets let into the country, who gets refused promotion and put on employment blacklists and all that sort of stuff, have been having some fun using their techniques on old newsreels of prominent figures of the past.  Strictly unofficially one of them told me they did Thatcher and she came out with a seriously low score for intelligence, and an even lower one for trustworthiness.)  Theresa still sees Thatcher as a strong leader because she never changed her policies, and Theresa takes that as her best chance of hanging on for a month or two more.  Besides, it means that she never has to change course to deal with the ever changing circumstances; all she has to do is get an underling to rewrite the latest redraft of ‘our consistent policy’ to make it even more vague, ambiguous and opaque.  She certainly benefits from that terrible flaw in the human design whereby the mass of people are easily convinced by what looks like self-confidence, however misguided, even when anyone with eyes to see and the intelligence of a gnat can see the resulting actions will lead into the jaws of catastrophe.  Somewhere about here the name Adolf Hitler gets tossed into the conversation (at which point it would be advisable to stand well back.)  I may be wrong of course.  Maybe Theresa really is supremely self-confident and sure that she is much cleverer than the EU negotiators and can win by wrapping up her proposals in indeterminate verbiage that avoids making any specific commitments that she might get held to later.  “The government expects this commitment to end by October 2020”.  ‘Expects’? !   Does she really think the EU people are so dim they won’t notice?  So inefficient that they’ll forget that she signed up to that deal on the Irish border last December that stopped the negotiations collapsing then and there?  Who knows?  Perhaps foreigners really can be that disorganised, if ‘disorganised’ is the right word.  After all the Americans have just announced that the US will never tolerate any attempts by foreigners to influence American democratic processes, somehow overlooking their own scores of attempts to interfere often with great vigour in other countries’ electoral processes from the Italian De Gasperi government in 1945 onward, not to mention the 40+ countries on which they have dropped unrequested bombs in the past half century.

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Late news.  Constitutional experts in the United Kingdom are considering whether Mr Antony Blair should be held guilty of contempt of Parliament, having once more suggested that after the next election the British Parliament might be willing to accept him again as prime minister

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Today’s birthdays

Paul McCartney (172)

Cumberland (Senior royal corgi of the United Kingdom)  13½

Second post-Brexit UK government (– 19 months)

Third post-Brexit UK government (– 26 months)

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MMQQ9

Next regular posting scheduled 16-8-2018

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The Editor writes   Many years ago when I was teaching at the University of Toronto a nice young woman came into my office and remarked that she was prepared to do anything to get an ‘A’ on the course I was teaching as this would help her to get enrolled in medical school.  Fortunately, I think, for all concerned (including perhaps future patients) no plan of action linked to her remark ever emerged.  But this was merely an atypical example of experiences which on the whole left me with a quite genuine respect for the thoroughness and determination with which the inhabitants of that particular academic community pursue their goals and enquiries.  Another reached me not long ago.  All too often teams that get their university or institute into the news media  (winning a free ‘Community Outreach’ mug – normally sold in the campus shop at €5-90 – from their V-C) get their reports placed on inside pages headed ‘Science’ or ‘Technology’ and giving in 100 obscure words such sharply chiselled facts as ‘Link between hair loss and number of friends among men over 60’ or ‘Cats prefer Beethoven’.   The recently arrived report summarised the outcome for operations performed during a period of eight years by more than three thousand surgeons, with conditions of operation scrupulously matched, all performed at the same hospital.  The death rate for patients following surgery was low, but interestingly 12% lower when performed by a female surgeon than with a male doctor operating.  (With current standards of literacy and political spinning being what they are ‘spokespeople’ for ministries of health are requested not to put this as ‘after a woman has operated the patient may be 12% less dead.’)  Some have taken this as proof that women are better surgeons than men.  The Toronto team went on, as proper investigators should and as far too few do, to speculate on why this might be.  Here, though, if the report as filtered through popular journalism was exact (which is highly questionable – journalism is journalism after all) the team took the higher female excellence level as a given premiss.  This may be justified but, starting from a situation where the surgeons are exactly equally competent,  male surgeons (almost certainly on average more senior) may try to insist on taking more prestigious cases, or in some instances – see again the first sentence of this piece – may actively try to give more straightforward cases to female colleagues.  (Factors like that may also weigh when acknowledging that women doctors are less often struck off.)  It is quite reasonable to accept women’s superiority in surgery; there is plenty of evidence for instance that women are better at observation of small details; but for the sake of future patients, there should be full investigation with no more risk of influence from assumptions based on gender and occupation and unchecked tradition than there is in recruitment to coalmining or plinths in Trafalgar Square (or the presidency of the United States?)  For goodness’ sake doesn’t modern technology bring us at last to a better prospect of taking individual people as they individually are, not as representatives of a group – or a quota.

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We are reviving a series we used to run, solving problems of society free of charge

Easy solution (1)  Received from a reader: ‘A report I have seen says that the polls show about 84%of the population, who have no ready-made way to fill in the gaps when they are not using social media (for example pauses between dreams when asleep) are asking for more sport on television.  But about the same proportion find that sport on television interferes with their surfing on the billows of social media, and so they are asking for a ban on sport on television, if possible supported by a detox programme for addicts.  How can this be, and who is right?’

            When questions like this are thrown in our direction we feel (‘we’ includes Simon at present as his computer has developed stress symptoms surpassing his own and even those on my foul object, and he’s been round here most evenings blubbing about not seeing Louise) we feel, as I was saying, irritation verging on fury, principally because of the disgusting lack of clarity in the formulation of the issue, and the absence of any indication about the kind of response expected.  ‘How can this be?’ you ask.  Unaided by any clarification on your part, Max D, I neither can, nor wish to, come to any conclusion about what you may be trying ask.  I do fear, though, that with the flabby naiveté typical of so many in your country you thought that the results of an opinion poll exploring support for contradictory views should add up to 100%.  Great heavens man (or boy, or whatever you are), this was a poll of social attitudes and therefore has no obligation to produce results that make any sense in any way at all, and equally little likelihood of doing so.  Normal intelligent adults consider in any case that the notion of exploring social attitudes by making enquiries of unsophisticated members of the public is itself a senseless enterprise.  Enough said!   As for your ‘Who is right?’ I must point out that an answer would depend on many things, evidently far more than you realise, but in particular on a clear notion of what counts as ‘sport’.   Until a decade or so ago, most of us here at the time naturally assumed that ‘sport’ meant ‘sport’, for instance, fencing, riding to hounds, amateur boxing, rowing, polo and all the rest of the familiar gallimaufry.  Increasing amounts of evidence arrive, however, suggesting that there has been a mysterious change in the population’s attitudes, with many now attaching ludicrous proportions of interest to such activities as football and ‘golf’.  The former was indeed once a sport but has bizarrely metamorphosed into a strange ugly twin of what nowadays is called the ‘entertainment industry’.  Following a suggestion of Simon’s I went to a local bar to view what was said to be a programme with ‘all the news about sport’[sic] .  It consisted of, first, interviews with middle-aged men sitting behind desks uttering a puzzling mixture of platitudes, meaningless slogans, implausible predictions and comments about various financial matters, with occasional 2-second-long glimpses of men leaping around on a grass field.  There followed a series of ‘clips’ of men dressed in ordinary clothes strolling  through some unnaturally smooth countryside, and playing with little white balls as they went, evidently trying to knock them into holes in the grass, while crowds of apparently normal people watched and applauded.  Of this I could and can make no sense, but in your own case, Max, given your weak grasp on how to attempt enquiries aimed at greater understanding, I recommend that you abandon the attempt and maintain your subscription to the Daily Telegraph.

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Trump and captivity  (Regrettably this is not a report on the appalling treatment of children and their mothers and fathers at the American frontier, on the orders of the American president.  We do not have enough detailed information to give it even half the treatment it deserves.)  Trump declared Germany a captive of Russia, on the grounds that the country was buying 50% of its energy needs from Russia.  Three points: (1) what matters is not how much a country depends on foreign sources for its needs, but how far it depends on sources that are not easily replaceable.  (2) The figure is wrong; gas from Russia represents about one fifth of German energy needs.  (3) By Trump’s own metric there appears a considerable possibility that he is himself captive, in respect of political resources, on the tiny layer of ultra-wealthy Ameican business.  (Fn) Is it not still true that unlike previous American presidents he has not allowed public view of his tax returns?

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Easy solution (2) (This solution provided by Berthold via electronic messaging.)  The problem is global warming, now accepted as real by more than 40% even among those with a Trump quotient of 8 or more on the ЯFN4U scale.  Some have realised that it brings a serious threat to the life prospects of large numbers already born as well as to the viability of coastal cities all round the world.  The most important factor in the whole business (after political inertia and rampant short-termism of human administrations of course) is methane.  Curiously carbon dioxide seems to have grabbed the lion’s share of the headlines (having cut a special deal with Murdoch perhaps?) but methane is much the more deadly menace for two reasons.  Volume for volume it is not just more effective at producing the warming; it is thirty times more effective.  The second factor is that in the northern parts of the planet there are vast areas where gigantic deposits of methane lie in the soil.  Until recently they were largely ignored and regarded as locked out of geophysical calculations, being frozen hard.  However, as climatic warming proceeds it will release the southern fringes of the methane deposits which will then join all the other factors contributing to global warming, which will therefore proceed at a slightly faster rate, thus releasing more of the methane from the southern margins of the deposits, thereby accelerating… and so on.  For quite a long time it was claimed that kangaroos could rescue the planet.  It was said that emissions from the tooth-free end of animals (not excluding human beings) contributed somewhere between 14% and 18% to the effect of climatic warming, but that the contributions of different species were extraordinarily different by factors as large as 1 to 180, and, promisingly, a kangaroo’s annual production of the stuff was 1/600th of what emerged from a milch cow.  So all could be more or less hunky-dory.  All the human race needed to do to slow global warming down dramatically was to farm kangaroos instead of cows?  Actually that last figure of 1/600th turned out to be nonsense.  However the middle part was in fact soundly based – (11  relatively harmless pigs) x methane  =  approx. (1 atmospherically devastating cow) x methane .  And the first part is agreed to be in the right range.  (Australian annual air pollution via animals’ digestive tracts slightly exceeeds pollution via backsides of vehicles.)  So on condition we abolish the cow, a surly animal whatever animal ethologists would have you believe (and anyway homo sapiens  has shown itself easily capable of wiping out species, in some cases without even noticing) there ought to be some hope that oncoming catastrophe (‘D Day’ for ‘Disaster Day’?) will hold off for a few decades.  Or more exactly there would be some hope of respite (Editor: make damned sure any millennials reading pronounce it right – [réss pit not ri-spite]) – if, of course, the planet was inhabited by an intelligent species.

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