Cui bono?

honor hominesque honesti floreant

Month: October, 2012

Universities and clothing

(Distributed early because of that report; Stonehenge elbowed aside by Australia)    1) The report   2) political clothing      Next distribution pencilled for 10-11-12

A report on Australian universities is just out from one of those outfits that seem to think if you can’t measure something by money then it doesn’t really come into the category of serious issues.  The report’s author gave interviews on television.

  The upshot was to tell the universities they are going to find money tight.  (Which they knew already.)  The way things stand they are going to be unviable unless they change.  Now if those loose remarks are talking about a risk of bankruptcy, yes, they, or they and others, will have to do something about their finances (the only aspect of universities on which Ernst and Young are particularly qualified to speak) but that by no means entails that they must go in for drastic upheavals in other ways as envisaged by the report.  The remarks made in interviews suggested little awareness of gaps in reasoning.  ‘Universities will need to reinvent themselves for the digital era.’  ‘If you want basic knowledge you can get that off the internet so universities – what happens on campus has to change.”  That proposition has the intellectual rigour of ‘If you want food you can get that from the supermarkets so what happens in restaurants has to change’.  It implies a swashbuckling ignorance, if not wilful misunderstanding, of what goes on in universities.  Universities detest the notion that students can perform satisfactorily by looking up the answer to some problem or clicking on a few sites on the internet.  There was a warning that universities should be ‘much more integrated with industry’.  Ah, now we can see where Newton made his mistake!  If he’d got properly integrated with industry instead of messing around with prisms and calculus and notions about gravity he could probably have invented the internal combustion engine and the aeroplane and made far more money (and got the world’s transport routes clogged with traffic and pollution centuries earlier, but never mind that – it’s all good thrusting economic development).  We can’t have forty universities all doing the same sort of thing in the same sort of way?  So how is it that without difficulty we can find forty football clubs all doing the same sort of thing in the same sort of way?  And the most basic inspection will show that there is hugely more diversity, in many dimensions, in universities than in the football.  Australia has some excellent universities, doing what excellent universities do well, to the benefit of those who go to them and everyone else as well.  What happens in universities, and happens best in the good ones, and what should happen, is that students learn to think; yes, think.  Not remember.

   The most important point is that you start with the data, and then go on from there; and the sort of thinking that is needed, not only in mundane profit-earning terms but more importantly in terms of the mental development of the people that open-minded countries want (and totalitarian countries hate), is the ability that can take account of the huge complexity of real-life situations, and the subtle variations in this or that of the many factors involved, and the always new balance between those factors even in situations that casual observers would say have often happened before; then to sort out some of the enormous number of possibilities about what might come next or what conclusions might be drawn, in different ways for different people and institutions and systems that might be affected.  In other words to come up with ideas and solutions that are not in any rule book.

   How, incidentally, can people get better at that sort of thinking?  The supremely gifted may get a long way by means of their own unaided experience. (The ‘University of life’ and other catchphrases ad nauseam.)  But for nearly everyone it’s far better to get help from someone further up the road.  Watch how he or she handles a tricky issue, and see the different ways that questioning gets you further into the heart of the matter.  The sort of thinking needed can be developed in most university subjects from palaeography to particle physics.  (Perhaps I should concede that there may be a few which actually do trade in cut-and-dried ready-cooked answers to set questions but we don’t need to go here into which those subjects might be).  Learning to think, in this sense, can undoubtedly benefit from use of a computer – for providing data – but you still need a human at both ends, since however much information they give very few websites on a given topic go far towards explaining the relationships between the bits of information which a guide or teacher who knows about that topic can handle with ease, and that is one of the most important aspects of the business.  One particularly valuable part of the process is watching how the guide reacts to an unexpected question.  Even the most interactive websites don’t do unexpected questioning.  For the same reason it’s best if the learning side is a small group, precisely so that they can put up a diverse range of views and arguments.  (Big groups work less well for obvious reasons.)   On the other hand, it is not necessary for this to happen in a university.   By no means all individual experts, guides, advisors – call them what you will – are charlatans.  Perhaps surprisingly some intelligent military training around the world, at higher levels at least, operates in the same way.  One should be open-minded.  As Paracelsus wrote, 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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“I got the idea from the Olympic opening ceremony,” says Gillian Senega, 33.  “I  watched all those teams walking round the track, and I thought ‘Why the hell should teams all have to wear the same kind of clothes?’  Next thing, I had a picture in my mind of Nazi brownshirts marching in Berlin in the 1930s.”  Gillian is head of a team bringing together independent researchers and scientists with NITS (the National Institute for Technological Sociology) on a project studying relationships between appearance and political allegiance.  “One thing led to another and we got this project set up in record time.  No trouble about funding.  Political groups of every shape, hue and degree of sanity were falling over themselves to contribute, desperate to find anything that might help them get their people in at the next election – or at the earliest practicable date in the case of the French Federation for the Posthumous Cloning of General de Gaulle.”

  “So you’re going to investigate things like which colour has the best impact on voters in each country, like the red shirts and yellow shirts fighting each other in Thailand?” I asked.

  “No.  Of course, there’s enough there to deal with.  There’ve been shirts of every colour under the sun, only excepting infra-red and ultra-violet – so far.  Even no colour at all, with the descamisados in Argentina.  But that’s all in the Encyclopédie vestimentaire politique along with all the stuff about political socks (can be fatal in Central America) and political trousers and so on.  It’s an odd thing, by the way, you get Union Jack underpants worn for political reasons but exactly opposite political reasons by British right-wing parties and by fierce Britainophobes in the Middle East.  But anyway I got interested in the relation between political beliefs and the bodies inside the clothes.”

  “You’re talking about racism based on colour?”

   “No again.  But only because that’s already studied to bits.  A bigger factor every day, exactly as election winners always say it wasn’t, in their campaign.  But there are other things.  Sometimes obvious, like in Turkey nobody with a beard will be voting for the Cumhuriyet Halk Partısı.  But did you know that in India, the average waist size of those voting for the Congress Party is more than 8% larger than the national average?  And it’s claimed that 92% of voters in Paraguay over 1m75 in height will vote for the Colorados.”

  “So your team is going to put together an encyclopaedia of physiological politics?”

  “Not exactly. You see, I moved on again.  I thought to myself, all those men in 1930s Berlin, 95% of them were maybe marching along in their brown shirts because they were Nazis, or their family told them they were, but maybe 5% had thought they looked good in a smart brown shirt and that had ended up with them being in there with the Nazis.  You see, when you find some bit of a voter’s appearance is strongly linked with some political belief, it doesn’t have to be the belief leads to the appearance, could be the other way round.”

  “So where do you go from here?”

  “Well, we’re going to do practical experiments on good-sized numbers of voters to see if changing their actual body changes their political beliefs.  An easy one we’ll do is get a lot of men to grow beards (my partner is one of them, by the way) and find out if after that their political allegiance has changed.  Another one, we’ll get a group to agree to lose weight – at least 30% – and see how that changes their voting preferences.   If we can we’ll get a similar group to put on weight, though we might have to pay them for that.  The contrast could be very informing.  Maybe we could get a group of men to shave their heads and go bald.  There’s plenty more we could try.  For instance, it’s obvious we’d be doing follow-up studies on sex-change cases.”

   “If you want to see whether appearance affects political views instead of the other way round, wouldn’t it be easier if you went back to the clothing?”

  “First off, we think a change in bodily appearance – like, a change in the real ‘you’ – could easily work differently from the clothes.   In fact we hope it does, because, second,  the clothing experiment’s been done all over the world, and the answer is ‘yes’.”

   “What do you mean?”

  “Well all over the world, young men, mostly pretty ordinary young men, get  signed into a police force.  Then they have to wear a special uniform which is well associated with – I won’t say exactly ‘political’ – but with attitudes about the sort of things which a lot of  politics is about, and about the way to behave to people.  Are you telling me they don’t nearly all pick up those same attitudes, whatever they start with?  And I’m not just talking about taser-happy cops in Oz and Britain and America, either.”

   “H’m.  I see what you mean.”

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honor honestique floreant

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Spoons in the east, beetles underfoot

(1) Editorial note   (2) tasers   (3)   muzak in the wallpaper  (4) self-contradiction in the EU  (5) capitalist competition in reality  (6) footnote

 

The Editor writes:  The next distribution which we hope to make is pencilled in for 30 OctoberPlease note that this time there will be no earlier supplementary distributions.  In the first part of the intervening period we shall be conducting our annual ceremony of respect and honour for Rupert Murdoch.  We should like to speak highly of his private life and of the doubtless many and ingenious methods by which the enterprises he has fostered pursue their noble goal of disseminating to the world news that the world should be told, but shall forbear; these are matters of which we have no privileged knowledge and we hesitate to repeat mere hearsay, no matter how warmly it glows.  However the steadfast loyalty of this cosmopolitan magnate to his determination to lead the world’s foremost publishing and media group has been obvious to all.  How can we not see that his companies have set cultural standards for the nations of the earth, providing their populations with a new understanding of what counts as fitting behaviour and social mores, and seeking to offer ever more attractive visions of human life to those who would view them.  Who will deny that those who have been touched by the influence of his enterprises even at second, third, or fourth hand are moved to greater love for their fellow human beings and an almost irresistible desire to do whatever they can to promote peace between nations, and equal and fair dealing between all?

  Thereafter, those of us in this office will each be spending two weeks in rather different fashion, undergoing a renewal experience (despite mockery from certain critics in more sedentary – or sedimentary – sections of the media; they know who they are).  Our goal is to place ourselves in a framework different from our life in Guernsey in as many ways as possible, socially, geographically, meteorologically, philosophically, and even gastronomically.  For instance, I am to be zipped into the costume of a giant panda and sent out to entertain the crowds in an American theme park by dancing and singing nursery rhymes in time to recorded music operated by a switch in my backside.  Manos has just returned from London depressed, after learning that the official who finally agreed to allow him an interview to discuss his innovative proposal for velcro strips on future banknotes ¹, was the deputy to the director of the Bank’s car pool, and his encouraging reaction may therefore count for little.  Nevertheless, and even though this is his first year with us, Manos will be the assisant cook on a trawler taking mentally disturbed children on three-day trips in the Bay of Biscay.  (The Chief Psychiatrist of the institution where the children are held believes that the combination of fear and seasickness is a splendid method for producing a recovery of normal behaviour patterns.)  Our hope in these ventures is that we shall acquire a deeper understanding of others and their ways, and return with a far less simplified grasp of our own situation and presuppositions (which by no means excludes the notion of condemning ignorant and self-indulgent critics). 

  Jeremy alone will not take part having kindly agreed to feed the guard dog, since we were unable to find any alternative solution to that problem, meanwhile taking online a course of (very expensive) Californian psychotherapy intended to cure what the counsellor who recommended the course described as his ‘guilty, unnatural and self-destructive lust’ for olives (one of a number of remarkable cures offered by this estimable consultancy).  (Personally I think it is just another example of the trouble one can get into through trawling the internet.)

   We wish our readers well until 30 October, when we hope to be able to give news of a controversial new theory about Stonehenge.

¹ [see distribution 15 September]

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taser mysteries  from 10-10-2012

Legal proceedings are under way in Sydney into the death last March of a Brazilian student aged 23.   He was reported to police as having been involved in an armed robbery.  In fact he was unarmed, and it turned out that he had taken two packets of biscuits without paying for them.  A policeman who tasered him, twice, using the weapon directly on his skin, denied hearing him cry out ‘Help’ and ‘What did I do?even though at that time the victim was lying on the ground handcuffed and apparently virtually naked.  The weapon was used against him in bursts of between five and fourteen seconds.  It was stated that he had taken a dose of a hallucinogen and was in what was described as a psychotic state; reports did not clarify whether he had realised that those who had attacked him and thrown him to the ground, initially six although in all there were eleven around him as he died, were policemen.

Legal mystery: the proceedings are described as an inquest to discover how he died.

Social order mystery: what are the prospects for the mentally ill, or indeed the merely eccentric, who go out at night in Sydney?

Educational development mystery: what are the current prospects for universities trying to attract students from overseas?

Continuing mysteries: when will we get an answer to the question put in the second item in the distribution of 5 June?  And if none is forthcoming, why?

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Deviathon, the well-known multinational conglomerate based in Madagascar and tax havens throughout the world has triumphed again.  Its new ‘musepaper’, muzak-impregnated wallpaper, claimed to be superior to anything else on the market, is intended to entertain and soothe the housewife as she moves around her house through the day.  It comes in two ranges.  One has mostly abstract designs, and it is the colour and colour combinations in these which control the easy-listening muzak that emerges whenever the sensors register the approach of an occupant of the room.  The ‘superpremium’ wallpaper of this type is especially suitable for those with a creative itch, since the muzak is not pre-recorded but will be made up of different tones resembling the sounds that can be produced by electronic synthesisers which indeed they are, so that pitch, quality, and volume can be varied according to the speed and position of the human, or indeed animal, movements in its neighbourhood.  The brochure foresees hours of fun as you teach your pet to wave its paws and move this way and that so as to produce weird new versions of popular television theme tunes.  The other range of musepaper includes photographs of your favourite performers set in a variety of tasteful striped and floral designs.  A close approach to e.g. the late, great Nate Butley will start a shortened rendition of one out of his five greatest hits.  Most of the performers featured will of course be in the current charts, since the firm is counting on built-in obsolescence in the muzak and pop industries.  This, they anticipate, could reduce the use-span of the average roll of wall-paper from its presentday eight to twelve years down to less than six months, with a corresponding dramatic increase in profits.

  Asked if there were any plans to produce a range with pictures of classical composers so that a close approach would elicit a few favourite bars of some symphony or concerto, the spokeswoman responded ‘What is a concerto?’ and when this matter was cleared up, answered simply ‘No’.

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Readers’ letters

  Madam, Can any of your readers find a rational explanation of what looks like a piece of self-contradiction?  In February 2008 Kosovo declared its independence from the rest of Serbia.  This event was apparently favoured by the benevolence (towards the Albanians of Kosovo) of a strange combination of the European Union and Nato, but we pass over this unusual feature, as also the allegations about questionable aspects of the Kosovan government.  Although a considerable number of nations still do not recognise the validity of the declaration (which seems to be in contradiction of the UN charter), there is no doubt that the core administration of the European Union does accept it, apparently on the basis that it was a change of national boundaries made necessary in order better to match the ethnic pattern of the populations in the region.

  Since then there has been a consistent and very strong demand from the overwhelmingly Serbian population of the three northernmost municipalities of Kosovo, that their territory should be restored to Serbia and detached from the rest of the traditional Kosovo.  The European Union’s administration resists this firmly, apparently on the basis that national boundaries should not be changed even if in order better to match the ethnic pattern of the populations in the region.

  It is not easy to explain such an inconsistency; it could not possibly be on the basis that one particular ethnic group, here the Serbs, has simply been classified as ‘the wrong sort’.  Such ideas would not exist at any rational level of politics in the modern world.  Would they?

Lobelia Helgasdottir

from Luddites Gazette

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Economic shorts

  The assertion, that while state enterprises in a nationalised sector inevitably lead to inefficiency, competition between private companies will lead to improved operation and a better deal for customers, does not sit comfortably with this news just out of the U.K.

  Gas supply to households in Britain was technically privatised in the 1980s but remained a regulated monopoly until 1996.  Now a number of private firms compete.  All of them have decided to raise the price to consumers in the coming year by between six and nine percent.  The current rate of inflation on the other hand is 2.5%.  The biggest supplier is British Gas, affiliated to Centrica.  Centrica made a profit of £1.45 billion in the first six months of this year; £345 million of that was attributed to supplying gas to domestic households.  Incidentally, fears have been expressed that deaths among the elderly poor are likely to result from the price increases.

  It may also interest some to know that according to media report a Mr Laidlaw, the boss of Centrica  had a total ‘compensation’ package (pay + extras) last year of £4.1 million plus an entitlement to shares in 2014 anticipated to be worth £5 million, provided that company profits show a satisfying increase.  It is not thought, however, that prospects for an increase will be damaged severely by the increase in price to consumers.

from Luddites Gazette

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sour observation

some might describe the views of well-paid economists that ‘increasing wealth of a country’ = ‘increasingly satisfactory situation of its population’ as two fallacies folded into one economists’ superstition: that what is true for an ensemble is true for all its members, while ‘increasing wealth’ = ‘increasingly satisfying condition’

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honor honestique floreant

Socialism, Caesar et al

Several readers have complained that we have not been giving Luddites Gazette a fair crack of the whip.  So this distribution comes entirely from that journal

1) Socialist leader syndrome   2) Caesar and the Rubicon   3) clothing rights?   4) surveillance      next date on schedule: 15-10-2012

Was there some malevolent bug circulating at one of the conferences of European socialists in the past year or two, some infectious agent inducing a general weakness of the will (not to say character) or derangements of normal behaviour?  The socialist parties of Europe do not seem to have been having much good fortune lately with their leaders.  Partly of course that is their own fault because one and all they elect their leaders, and the wisdom of their electorates must be doubtful.  It remains a deep mystery of current European politics that the French were offered Hollande to vote for rather than the intelligent competence of Martine Aubry as a way of ousting the preceding incumbent.  This journal can claim no public credit for its private doubts about Hollande before his election, but within a week of his victory we gave our plain opinion that he was not up to the job – poor chap; one should not expect a man fitted to manage the stores in an army camp to direct the nation’s war effort with mastery if he is suddenly handed the baton of the commander-in-chief.  Recent polls indicate clearly that the French electorate is rapidly coming to share our view.  In England the coalition lurches in disarray from policy error to U-turn to project apparently designed to annoy the voters.  A glorious opportunity for the opposition; and it is true that the pollsters believe they have something of a lead over the government.  But there is a ball and chain attached to those left legs in the shape of their leader.  (One fifth of the popularity rating of his party, and likened in the media, however unfairly, to Mr Bean or the cartoon hero Wallace.)  Further to the east, we have Victor Ponta.  It is true that we should not count his party as having a socialist tendency simply because of its name.  The outstanding example of how that can mislead the innocent was the English Labour Party under Antony Blair.  (Not yet properly departed from the scene, by the way, the latter can still be seen, a political zombie in the shadowy outer circles of European politics, doubtless hoping to be brought back to life as president of Europe.)  Nevertheless the political party which Ponta leads is proclaimed to be a party of social democrats.  One of the more interesting episodes in Romanian politics recently took place when his party organised a referendum with a view to ousting the country’s President, Basescu, from office ahead of time.  They failed to get what they were after (and two of the ministers involved in arranging it were sacked) and Ponta has also been having a turbulent time in other ways lately; there have been sharp exchanges with Brussels (which evidently lack the power to leave him trembling).  One curiosity was his statement in an interview, reported in El País, 28 June, that he would ‘certainly resign’ if the accusations of plagiarism in his academic career were confirmed.  On 30 June the council for academic awards confirmed the accusations of plagiarism and recommended the withdrawal of his doctorate; he refused to resign.  Of course he is far from the only politician who has had trouble connecting his remarks with reality.  In the past couple of decades it seems to have all but become a part of the job description. ¹ Just the other day vice-presidential candidate Ryan achieved a spectacular gap in his account of his own athletic ability [cf the distribution 22-9-2012]; perhaps we should wonder if ‘terminological inexactitude’, as Churchill put it, is seen as a political virtue – a capacity to break free from constraints imposed by facts.  One might hope that either politicians would have enough competence to avoid such ‘mis-speaking’ or their public would turn on them furiously and force them from office.

  But to return to the socialist malaise; now in Germany Peer Steinbruck has moved to the centre of the socialist stage and there are muttered questions in the audience.  How much of a socialist is he?  Is he what his party needs?  Do we trust him?

¹ highly recommended:

P.Oborne   The rise of political lying   The Free Press   2005

M.Dobbs   The rise of political fact-checking   a report issued by the New America Foundation under a Creative Commons licence on the internet   2012

from Luddites Gazette

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Our classical editor reports

  A newly discovered manuscript of Pompeius Trogus has thrown a dramatic new light on one of the crucial events of Roman history.  In describing the end of the Roman republic he relates that Julius Caesar was sitting in his tent on the evening of 13 January 49 b.p.e. composing the speech in which he was to tell his army to stand down since he was going into retirement from public life in obedience to the instruction of the Senate.  Then aides came in with a prisoner, the leader of the group that had been guiding the army on its march back from Gaul.  They asked what should be done with him, as a group of soldiers who happened to be natives of this region and were puzzled by the unfamiliar and difficult route he was taking had forced him to confess that he was lost, and had been simply leading the army southwards by relying on guesswork and the sun.  It then transpired that Caesar was many miles further south than he had supposed, and the decisive frontier, the Rubicon, was already three days’ march behind him.

from Luddites Gazette

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Opinion (anonymity requested)

To take a properly unpopular view, let us consider a major road in a mid-sized city (which it would be invidious to specify as being in Italy, as well as bringing unwelcome recriminations; so I shall not).  There is a supermarket on one side of the road, and opposite stands a bus station.  Shoppers have the unambiguous right to cross the road between the two.  There is a drawback.  A little under two hundred metres or so in each direction there is a fairly sharp bend; while drivers keeping to the speed limit will not reach the crossing point after rounding the bend until people on foot have had ample time to reach the other side without hurrying, there are unfortunately not a few reckless drivers who so flagrantly break the limit that they scream past while walkers are still on the roadway. (The police service is badly understaffed.)   It goes without saying that such drivers are both breaking the law and showing contempt for proper standards of human behaviour.  The risks from their disgraceful actions are appalling and regrettably new arrivals at the bus station do not always get a warning.  Few locals decide to make their undoubted right the sole factor in their decision on how to act, specifically how to cross.  They use the pedestrian bridge.

  Now consider feminists who insist on their right to walk where they like wearing (or to a certain extent not wearing – and absolutely no moral judgment is being made) the clothes they choose, without risk of sexual assault.  Let it be said that they have an unquestionable right to do so.  Let it also be said in the plainest terms that all forms of sexual assault are disgraceful, and in cases where the assault is on a woman it will be distressing in a way which men cannot genuinely comprehend.  It would still be wise to accept a parallelism with the (not necessarily Italian) highway, and to take factors – no matter how deplorable – other than their rights into account in deciding on their actions.

from Luddites Gazette

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from Readers’ letters (nb this letter has been abridged)

Madam,

Is there any truth in the rumour that a certain government in the European Union has awarded a secret contract to a company said to have close links to the Chinese government?  The goal is said to be to enable its security ministry, also known as the Home Office, to trawl the internet discovering which of its citizens never play online computer games, never connect to YouTube, and appear to be members of no contact groups or social networks, on the grounds that such individuals are abnormally non-conformist and should be investigated to see if there is any sign of links to terrorist activities.  An official with responsibility for security recently spoke publicly of being worried about ‘a grey border area between mere eccentricity and dangerous anti-social activities’.

Our editor replies: You may not need, at this stage, to sell up and emigrate.  Officials at many levels in most governments are scheming in this sort of way most of the time, but it seldom results in any great acceleration of the onward goosestep of authoritarianism beyond the speed produced by piecemeal advances at ‘jobsworth’ level, which seem to be an inbuilt feature of human society.  In fact encroachment by tyranny looks like an inescapable development, seldom if ever rewound to any significant extent except by foreign conquest or by major natural disaster.

  As it happens, however, we received your letter only two days before the announcement in Britain of a new plan intended to make access to certain welfare allowances and government services (including activities, such as driving or watching television, which are ruled to be illegal until you pay the government a fee for a licence to do them) available online.  This is another way of saying that the intention is to reduce access to those allowances and services for those who do not or cannot apply online.  My guess –  my confident prediction – is that those who ‘choose’ to apply in person will be required to report between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays, with all relevant paper documentation (originals only, no photocopies), to a centralised government ‘service’ site in southwest Cornwall, to be operational by 2015.

  My personal assistant has just informed me that the Citizens Advice non-governmental organisation has reported (to the British Parliament) an estimate that fourteen million people in that country, including many with physical or mental disabilities or low education or language difficulties, lack the capacity to make effective use of the internet.  Are these people just to be thrown overboard by those who can take advantage of the electronic advances, to allow the ship of state management to add a tenth of a knot in its race to the future (or bankruptcy)?

from Luddites Gazette

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Thought for the day

Honesty has wings, but lives in a cage in the king’s palace

                          Balyani proverb

from Luddites Gazette

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honor honestique floreant