Cui bono?

honor hominesque honesti floreant

Month: October, 2015

Peace and prosperity for all (in Europe)?

Sephelia Orinaca is with us from for one month for ‘work experience’ (that is, to be truthful, as an unpaid intern). [And I am very glad for the sake of peaceful conduct of business in the office that Louise has taken firm quasi-maternal action against young Simon’s obviously self-interested attempts to help Sephelia with washing of the tea-cups and disposal of the bottles. Herewith her first effort.]

News Update

compiled by Sephelia Orinaca

The Middle East:

            The United States has re-considered its position on the possible involvement of Iran in talks to end the civil war in Syria. Hitherto they had ruled out Iranian attendance at any negotiations on the grounds that Iran has sent troops to fight on behalf of Bashar Assad and, as a party to the conflict, cannot logically be allowed to take part in talks to end it (the long established diplomatic principle known as unconditional insanity). Moreover Iran has a history of more than three millennia of close contacts with the Mesopotamian region and therefore must be excluded given the risk that the Iranians may have an advantage in urging their views on the basis of great experience and detailed knowledge of the region that is not available to countries that have only been closely involved since they began their invasions in 1990.

            The possibility has also been raised of American direct action on the ground against IS, but this may face opposition from certain quarters in the House of Representatives who are contending that such military action should be put out to tender so as not to deprive investors of the opportunity to take part in the nation’s defense. One member is said to be denouncing the ‘requirement for the troops to fight barefoot’, to avoid a breach of the solemn commitment ‘no boots on the ground’.

            It should be added that Iran denies having sent troops to fight in Syria, admitting only that they have assigned some hundreds of advisors to the Syrian army. It is not clear at what figure ‘advisors’ turn into soldiers. It is generally accepted that during the Vietnam war the US forces reached a figure of 45,000 while still being advisors rather than combatants

Afghanistan

            It is reported that the latest air raid by the Nato force in the campaign to restore order and establish democratic human rights in Afghanistan in the face of the violence mounted by rebel extremists has successfully destroyed an enemy headquarters masquerading as a hospital, from which the rebel forces had repeatedly launched unprovoked attacks on aircraft passing on meteorological reconnaissance missions.

Stronger ties between the UK and Saudi Arabia

            Following a meeting of foreign ministers, Britain and Saudi Arabia issued a joint statement praising the ‘excellent relations’ between their two countries, united by their strong moral values and their respect for constitutionality and the benefits of royal leadership. They looked forward to improving ties notably with the signing of a contract for the sale of £1.8bn worth of handcuffs and leg-shackles, to be manufactured by the joint public-private initiative All-embracing Security plc launched by the Home Office in January 2014.  The British minister acknowledged Saudi Arabia’s place at the cutting edge of research into new medical techniques while the Saudi minister welcomed the British government move to ban all psychoactive substances notwithstanding the loss of revenue from brewing companies.

Syria

            A spokesman disclaimed any knowledge of the attack yesterday afternoon which devastated a market in a provincial city midway between Hama and Homs with a series of bombing raids resulting in many deaths and injuries. Local inhabitants denied that any militants had been in the area and showed photographs, taken with smartphones, of bomb craters and damaged buildings and bodies lying in the street. The spokesman denied that government forces had been in action yesterday and speculated that the attack might have been orchestrated by those members of the local population hostile to the government. It is not known whether  the local merchants have an airforce.

Linguistic footnote

‘Combatants’ [sic] should be pronounced correctly, with the stress on the first syllable.

Sephelia Orinaca (Deputy Assistant to the Editor)

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Editor’s note

This morning I received, apparently by express pigeon since it turned up unexplained on the first floor balcony, a brief but interesting missive from my highly valued friend in Brussels. It contained from him only a pencilled note thrust inside a news release from the Secretariat for Approved Communications. The latter was one of their F-grade publications as distributed to ordinary citizens of the EU (therefore not remotely resembling the luxury glossy volumes complete with advertisements for expensive high-end branded products and property investments with pull-out soft porn supplements that they leave on the bedside tables when hosting conferences for ‘European Deciders’ and ‘Young Leaders of Tomorrow’ or whoever it may be, in favoured Mediterranean coastal resorts.) This object closely resembled the sort of smudged photocopied British local election leaflet inflicted on voters in the ancient days before spin-doctoring really took off. Just three sides of vapid bilingual (French and German, of course) EU-speak inside, and then another five of adverts for themselves and their world view – everything from ‘an evening discussing the principled basis of subsidiarity with Martin Schulz’ to a picture of a pregnant lady in a tartan chador on the back cover and the words ‘Could she be a terrorist? How to guard yourself against suicide bombers’ But all that’s irrelevant. The important thing was N’s brief news item in his note, which I quote verbatim: ‘Apparently Commission preparing to discover document proving cricket was originated by late 16th century Osmanlis. Appallingly misjudged belief it will produce favourable view of EU and encourage votes for continuing membership in upcoming British referendum’

Entanglement and entanglements

A first!  We have today a contribution from the Doc (though I’m sure he won’t mind me letting you know that I helped him with the first part)

Work very recently reported in the public media is said to strongly support the claims that particles can be so ‘entangled’ by ruthless physicists, not excluding those based in Delft, that in some sense they cannot break free from the embrace. What you do to one of them will be experienced by the other, as a physical event parallel on a nanoscale to what is occasionally claimed to happen with emotional events affecting human twins, although in a very indistinct way, and almost never under scientifically validated conditions. (I regret to say I am rather less sceptical about such claims than I should be, scientifically, having had a dozen or so experiences of a very peculiar type of telepathy between the ages of 11 and 38.)

If the implications of the report are validated by repetition and confirmed by experiments of a different type, this will make some people happy, those for instance who are in the running to receive fat research grants for work on quantum computers. Others will find the result distasteful, inconvenient, and scientifically abominable or at least ‘spooky’. ‘Spooky’ was in fact Einstein’s own verdict on the possibility of entanglement, a.k.a. ‘action at a distance’.

Actually, there is one way in which such a result can be regarded as unamazing. All that is necessary is to assume an extra dimension. We can give a rough and ready indication of the sort of simplifying complication this produces in the following way. Take two maps of exactly the same region. Take an empty fish tank and turn it on its side. Place one map on the top, and the other underneath, aligned with the greatest possible care with respect to the surrounding frame of reference (the room), to ensure that Botten’s Pike, a hill top, on the upper map is exactly above Botten’s Pike on the map below; similarly for Codger’s Ford close to Botten’s Pike to the west and Skinny Beck close on the east; just by co-incidence they form an equilateral triangle. You have now changed the two-dimensional map into one of three dimensions. If you take a laser pointer and aim it perfectly vertically down on to Botten’s Pike on the top map its beam will also strike Botten’s Pike on the lower one. Likewise for Codger’s Ford and Skinny Beck. These are unusual laser beams remaining attached to their origins and points of impingement indefinitely. It will also turn out that they are flexible.

Sixty or seventy years later a government committee will give itself the task of rearranging the landscape of this region in the interests of greater economic efficiency. They will not bother about the map on top because it is easier to rest their papers on the table on which the former fish tank rests. They also will not bother about the laser beams considering them ‘insubstantial’ and ‘preferring to keep our feet on the ground’. They will cut up the lower map into hundreds of pieces and rearrange them to make a more rational and cost-efficient landscape. For instance Codger’s Ford is now actually at the same point as Botten’s Pike ‘because the water flow will be less up there and so it will be easier for the cattle to ford the river.’   Skinny Beck will have been moved far away, out of the region entirely. The committee will have this new form of the landscape recorded and registered as the official landscape of the region. Only one or two oldest inhabitants will annoy the younger generation by remarks like ‘Sitting up here on t’Pike always makes me think of watching cattle crossing the ford or dipping in Skinny Beck.’

Avoiding inconvenient precision, in the interests of an uncertain parallelism, let us merely observe the patterns of changes which have accumulated in recent years in many activities that need to run properly to keep a community in good order. In each field they have quite rapidly built up into complex surface layers suggesting a vast array of meta-activities to be organised (and paid for) in hitherto unsuspected ways, whereas hidden behind them in each case there are relatively simple basic needs – for learning, for travelling, for giving and receiving, for communicating – that are not really vastly different from the form they had half a century and more ago. The prolificity of the superficial business that is supposed to deal with these needs is in fact now in each case a major obstacle to these needs being dealt with satisfactorily. (Nothing of this, however, stops certain members of the community from doing very well out of the surface business.)

It is astonishing how quickly how many institutions and organisations have changed from doing things in a well-established traditional way, because experience showed that it worked, to a situation which looks dangerously close to administration for the sake of administration (and from a different viewpoint, for the sake of a profligate salary). Somewhere buried in the bowels of whichever institution it is there may have been a genuine if mistaken belief that breaking up practices which had evolved naturally to meet the situations encountered would save money. But much of it is down to a tidal wave of inexplicable trust in `planning’ and a spurious ‘professionalism’ as against experience and eyeball contact with the job which has washed over the whole country in the last few years. Without for a moment saying that they ran perfectly one suspects things went rather better (making due allowance for resources available at the time) when doctors ran the health service, broadcasters ran broadcasting, teachers ran education, librarians ran libraries, phone calls reached assistants not call centres, and, even, rock bands wrote the music they wanted to play. But bring in the administrators and ‘professionals’ who know how the business should be run (because they have a Master’s in Administration of Education, or Broadcasting, or… from Northwest Bullshire Business University). They know how to keep their own job, and other people off balance with questionnaires, graphs, mission statements, surveys, restructuring, rationalisations, resource allocation priorities, project planning groups, quotas, quota table reports, performance assessments, not to mention their managers’ car park where the children’s library/music room/wooden leg store used to be. The result? Imagination vanishes, achievement nosedives (though of course graphs show recorded success soaring), staff morale ceases to exist, and whoever is supposed to be on the receiving end gets a rotten service (and the rock ‘n roll sounds like muzak).   We also find 120,000 civil servants in the Ministry of Defence, with the number of actual soldiers down to 82,000 (and falling). As for the transport system – just try using it.

Add in the cronyism and computers, and one begins to see an alternative to the usual scripts for the end of civilisation sketching itself lightly in, with the world noticing, too late, that the jungle of interconnecting (but not necessarily intercommunicating) bureaucracies that has spread across the world demands most of the world’s resources for its support. Yet unravelling them would itself require an extra layer of bureaucracy; the last stone on top of the tower that makes the whole thing collapse.

Campaign promises: the truth

Editor’s note: I don’t know what has been getting into Monty Skew lately.  It may be hard to keep a good man down, but it’s no easier doing the same to Mr Skew when he’s in such an excited state.  I confess it’s easier to give him his head, though I’m going to ask him to make sure he has a cold shower before he comes in, mornings.  Isabelita (with us again!) supports that move.

Monty Skew, political correspondent writes

            There has been a lot of twaddle talked lately about an evil said to be among us, namely the gap between what politicians say on the stump, and what they do when they have stuck the photo of their wife and kids on the ministerial desk (and the black lace undies for their mistress in the ministerial briefcase). This is a profound misunderstanding. The trouble with electoral democracy – quite apart from any particular troubles with particular (alleged) democracies – is the exact opposite to the failing normally attributed to it. The usual claim is that democracy leads inexorably to demagoguery, with ever cheaper politicians making ever more expensive promises to do what the electorate wants, in order to get into office.  And these promises in turn will lead inevitably to the economic ruin of the country.

            Pausing for thought here and taking a quick glance round some of the more adjacent supposed democracies I must concede that the point has a certain specious charm. But the deterioration in today’s politician (I put it down to the weakness in the ozone layer myself,the cosmic radiation having caused degeneration of their political backbone) is starting to turn an amusing ceremonial nicety – like the contorted wording that almost, but not quite, admits that the presidential candidate has experimented with forbidden chemicals – into a thoroughly inconvenient constitutional straitjacket. . The fact is that there is a structural requirement in representative democracy that politicians should lie in order to gain office. Among the very few to have recognised this in public is the late, but still admirable, Huey Long, Governor of Lousiana; when a deputation of citizens came in high indignation to ask why he was breaking his election promises he looked them straight in the eye and said, “I lied.” And this is how it should be.  Yet today, with the honourable, indeed laudable, exception of M.Juncker, this evident truth is suppressed.  The People are told that they are the sovereign authorities of a country, that the system is there to do their will; it is in this belief that they vote in elections, and yet it is perfectly obvious that when a government comes to power it will not do the will of The People. If its policies accurately reflected those of The People there would be no need to elect it in the first place – there is no need to elect a government to know that we are against murder and for the freedom to import grapefruit. The organisation of the details can be left in the hands of the civil service and the police and the judiciary, and the proof of this is that they are running things anyway. Therefore election of a government only ceases to be a hollow enterprise when the government is to introduce policies other than those favoured by The People. It is equally obvious that if the politicians openly stated in their campaigns that they were not going to act in accordance with the will of The People then they would not get elected; after all this would be contrary to the fundamental principle of democracy. Actually it is already accepted that this necessary gap between theory (technically known here as `morality’) and practice exists in the case of many non-contentious issues. Every member of the public wants lower taxes for example, and longer drinking hours; every government restricts the latter and raises taxes. We all react with an indulgent smile when the campaigning politician denies that such policies will be put in place if he or she wins a majority.

            Now it may be urged that I am talking nonsense; such generally agreed issues are the rarity, and the aim of democracy is to enable The People to choose between competing alternatives each of which is supported by a section of the populace. It is certainly true that elections consist of an amalgam largely composed of such issues, but this does not change the situation one whit. The truth deficit is required here every bit as much. It is immediately evident that a politician who told the truth on every issue would place herself or himself at an insurmountable disadvantage vis-à-vis the politician who steadfastly maintains a falsehood wherever it will bring out the votes. And since it would be a disgraceful abuse of the electoral process for a candidate to take part intending to lose, and thus to make useless the votes of her supporters, it follows at once that it is the duty of campaigning politicians to lie.

            All very straightforward, really.  As for the economic ruin of the country, that is irrelevant, since it is going to come to pass in any case.

From far away on the ocean to the moose pits of Sweden

Our political correspondent (Monty Skew) writes

            Curious isn’t it, to see America rebuking China for developing facilities on islands in the South China Seas. The more usual charge levelled against other countries is that their policies are restraining development, or, to put it another way, failing to make it easy for foreign companies to establish branches in those countries and set about extracting pleasing returns from the local populations. But that is not the most piquant aspect of the matter. For China, despite long-standing though vague claims to most of the islands, has not moved in on any where other nation states have already been active, and that is an interesting contrast with other cases where island-grabbing has been alleged by the disrespectful. For example, in 1973 the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean was grabbed from those who lived there, and the entire population was expelled much against their will. Of course, it has to be admitted that the forced emigration was done with the consent of the governing power. However, the governing power was the United Kingdom, not the population living on the islands, though why the British undertook this relatively merciful measure (after all, other powers disposing of unwanted populations have not infrequently simply massacred them) is puzzling, since they made no use of the islands themselves but provided their use to America who established a large base on Diego Garcia, which is still there; those who survive of the dispossessed population still actively want to return to their home but cannot. (You see, it is not only in the Middle East that populations driven out have this hankering to return to where their ancestors lived for centuries. Perhaps in this present case a British prime minister might take the initiative again, this time suggesting a homeland for the Chagos islanders in some other part of the world such as eastern Africa; or indeed in Melanesia, since the Australian government seems to have had some success, by their own standards, with propelling people discovered on the high seas onto Nauru without gaining their consent, and despite the conditions for them in Nauru being so lamentable that journalists are barred.)

            As it happens Chagos is not the only instance where island issues can be a bit tricky. In 1983 America was also involved, in fact the actual invading power, which took over control of the small island of Grenada, on the grounds that its airport was a threat to the security of the United States. Others suggest that the aim of the invasion was simply to bring the policies of the island into line with the democratic views of Washington. By co-incidence the governing power, standing in theory over the local government was, there too, the United Kingdom, in fact standing at such a distance that it only learned about the invasion from the American media. By a remarkable feat of prescience the British administrator was able to draft an appeal for foreign intervention before the event although he apparently only realised that he had done so some time after the invasion had begun. In this case, there was no attempt to clear the island of its population, who numbered after all some 90,000, and only a few dozen local inhabitants became insurgents or collateral damage through taking part in the resistance to the invasion (though the some of the latter were, perhaps surprisingly, in a hospital). World reaction was very unfavourable although the US successfully vetoed a critical motion in the Security Council.

          One might have hoped the sensible conclusion would be ‘leave foreign islands alone unless they constitute a serious and imminent danger’ (such as might hazard the life of a western prime minister within 45 minutes). Now in this context it should be mentioned that a limit of 12 miles is internationally recognised as the standard extent from the coast of territorial waters; the coast has to be land known to be claimed by a continuing sovereign power (and in case of dispute this will be generally settled, short of war, by demonstration of occupation and control). The coast cannot be an uninhabited reef or rock to which no claim has been made.

            The Chinese have vague but long-standing claims to many of the uninhabited islands in what is generally known as the South China sea, as have several other states in the region, and the Philippines for instance have installed small numbers of settlers in moderately well paid discomfort on remote islands to give weight to their claims. Washington knows that there are claims from all these sources and recognises that fact by stating that no overt support is extended to any particular claim. Yet it appears that the US plans to ostentatiously and imminently send armed forces through ‘international waters’ deliberately passing within 12 miles of islands which were not ‘built’ but only extended, by China, (and the validity of extending land area by reclamation from the sea is understood and accepted from Amsterdam to Singapore) and which were claimed and are occupied by China. This obviously couldn’t just be a case of trying to show which fellow has the biggest muscles. But whatever could the motive be?

            There is a way we might be able to find out. Let’s get the UN to ‘defuse the issue’ by asking America to put in claims of her own to some of these islets since she is so interested in the region, and to send biologists, meteorologists, oceanographers, as well as any of her more unconventional citizens who might be persuaded or actually wish to go, to occupy them as a local population (probably with a great many more modern conveniences than the Philippine settlers on their far-flung settlements.) Someone could suggest pouring enough concrete to make an airstrip to allow liberty flights to Manila, or perhaps Angel City. The response to that request should clarify matters greatly.

Karela Hangshaw our geophysical expert (and flower arranger)

Simple Simon in almost every day recently, sometimes with that beefy adopted mother of his. A bit of a nuisance, but I haven’t the heart to ask him to leave when he comes on his own. I can’t say that he means well, because meaning is an activity he doesn’t handle in the same way as most other people – neitherwise, that is, re what you say to him, and what he utters himself. I don’t at all say he’s stupid; he just tends to have differently shaped thoughts from those of other people. For instance this morning he was badgering me to set up an article about ‘Sweden’s poor moose pit farmers’. Got quite excited. When I’d deciphered his verbal and manual gesticulations it seemed these fellows are up against a group of wealthy hunters and have only some mathematical theory to defend themselves, and at first I was sympathetic. Few groups of wealthy hunters are known for their help for the poor and needy – more interested in showing off their latest offensively high-powered equipment, though I do have a certain respect for those who go out into the forests at night armed only with a knife or a stout stick and look for bears willing to argue with them. As for Simon’s bunch it turned out they were figments of his misunderstanding; he’d read a headline in the Gaurdian online last week which ran ‘Sweden’s multiplying moose pit farmers against powerful hunting lobby’.

Hunting for economic success

Monty Skew, our political correspondent reports

The Chancellor is said to be in buoyant mood. Friends returning from Africa have told him of an unconventional natural resource which, they suggest, might be exploited with great benefit in the UK. In certain countries there, hunting is subjected to legal restrictions so as to soothe the sensibilities of western governments which are happy to pour in aid to maintain the life-styles which the recipient countries’ rulers consider necessary to maintain economic growth. However, by purchase of a special licence hunters, who are mostly wealthy foreign tourists, can buy the right to stalk and kill up to three animals, in designated areas. Sums needed for the purchase of a licence depend on the species concerned, and certain complexities, and can be very large indeed. Hunters must use the services of special agencies which arrange to provide drivers and guides as well as hiring staff from local populations to provide all luxuries needed for a high-end safari with appropriate celebratory photographs on its successful completion. ‘Animal rights’ groups may protest but actually there is no cruelty involved because skilled guides and their local assistants can ensure that the prey will be found in a suitable area and condition, and gun experts can enable even a rank beginner to make a kill with his first shot. Indeed the business is actually in the long-term interest of the animals themselves, both as individuals, since it saves them from a painful and lingering death through disease or as a result of encounters with other animals, and as a species since such carefully controlled culling prevents overpopulation and maintains the condition of the habitat.

The Chancellor is said to be keen to adopt a similar programme in Britain. Tourists would be allowed to buy a licence from a government agency and could then book a hunting tour with a company that would provide them with a government-trained guide, and a high-powered rifle, would designate the area and time span within which they may fulfil the quota they are entitled to, and provide all necessary gear and information, together with visual recognition aids (photographs) which would allow them to identify suitable prey (citizens over the age of 60 and in receipt of government benefits.) As with the African schemes, not only would the prey enjoy a quick and easy exit, the local area would benefit from the lower population density and demand on local services, and the state as a whole would benefit greatly from the licence fees and the accompanying boost to tourism.

It is proposed that a group should be formed to explore the possibilities, based on the Ministry of Culture, which is responsible for sport, but to be chaired by Ian Duncan Smith. Predictably, even though nothing definite has yet been decided upon, various groups are voicing protests, ranging from human rights campaigners to noise abatement groups and life insurance companies.

Vibrant presences in the darkness

It seems we are gradually getting most of the earlier team together unfortunately. At least Manos is still in gaol, though to be fair he has always been good to have around when he was not working, which was most of the time.  Our former editor, still on the run (commercially speaking, and almost certainly from a police point of view too) has sent a wheedling e-mail but he will be sent back from the airport if he does arrive as I got one of my senior friends in we-all-know-where to doctor his file and have him marked as ‘economic migrant, probable anarchist’.  I also arranged purchase through a dark site on the web of a remotely controlled steel mantrap to be installed at the first hint of anyone trying to bring that terrifying dog back.  Can’t keep them all out, though.  This morning who came in but Simple Simon, for the first time in his life looking organised.  All definitely not his own work.  He was with a large French woman, whom, it appeared, he had adopted as his mother, although at probably about 30 she must be younger than him.  She didn’t say much, but I got the impression she’s a woman many an SAS man would prefer not to go into the jungle with.  She insisted with great force that we posted something Simon had allegedly run up ‘for my friend Nadine who has had an argument with little Nicky’ and I somehow found myself agreeing.  Ecce scriptum:

Côté politiquement correct, des mots pèsent beaucoup plus lourds que des actes, hélas.  Mais refléchissez-y bien.  Nadine, que fera-t-elle face a un réfugié crasseux, poli, vêtu en haillons, talentueux, musulman, honnête?  N’en doutez pas! Avec toute la force de sa belle âme française elle lui apportera tout le secours dont il a besoin!

They have just left, after drinking the entire assorted holdings of the office wine cellar (a cardboard box, labelled ‘this side up’ on all six surfaces).  Now perhaps the editor can get on with the posting. 

The Natural Body for Profit, a consultancy specialising in ‘gestural and kinesic aspects of corporate branding’ (surprisingly they have not yet heard from the Vice Squad, probably too busy with Operation Yew Tree) have turned out the final report on their multi-million pound three-year contract with the BBC. They state that ‘a vibrant presence in the gestural consciousness of the modern media-aware public is vital for the maintenance and development of corporation profitability’, and as the ‘vanguard’ of a wholesale ‘rebirth’ they have devised a ‘BBC salute’ for use on all social occasions.  This is to be adopted by supporters of the BBC (compulsory for employees and anyone applying for free-lance work) which will replace the handshake and will ‘permit and indeed encourage the mutual recognition of membership in a privileged cultural elite, thus enhancing further the global image leadership of the corporation’. The salute, which ‘must be accompanied by a broad smile’ and if practicable by the words ‘good to see you again’, will be a hand cupped behind the right ear.

Small pearls of truth amid the pig swill

We have still not finished cleaning out the office.  Among other things we have found some pre-war Nazi marks.  These turned up when a friend of Manos, who had come in to help, went over to the window to admire the view of the lady weightlifter who lives in one of the flats opposite.  His foot went through the floorboards, not very surprising given that that was where the water used to come in when it was raining.  There was a leather attache case down there, or rather its remains since it had been largely eaten away by some species of arthropod.  Curiously it bore the Mad Doc’s initials, but that must surely be co-incidence.  Its remains cradled a copy of Aristotle’s Poetics, pages irremediably stuck together, two silver teaspoons with London crowned leopard hallmark, a signed photograph of Butch White of Hampshire, some lewd magazines, the aforementioned currency, five pots of an unidentifiable sticky brown mixture, and the following letter, or copy.  (We checked our suspicions and found it must have been sent to the Economist, in 2008.)  The letter was printed but the last line was in pencil, in what I must admit did look very much like the Mad Doc’s hand.

Sir,
There were all too many contentious points in your editorial ‘Barbarians at the vault’ (17th May) so may I just pose you one question?  What important difference divides your assertion, ‘Financiers are rightly rewarded for taking risks, which by their nature cannot be entirely managed away or anticipated’, and ‘Gamblers are rightly rewarded for placing bets, which by their nature cannot be guaranteed to win’?  My answer would be that gamblers on the whole are using their own money, and my conclusion would be that the banking system needs reform not of regulation but of personal standards.

Bastards never published, should have had a haircut before that photo I put in

The old order passeth, or perhaps not

(Clearing out the office is proceeding like a tortoise on sedatives as we find not only items which could be useful evidence for profitable blackmail, were we to follow the suggestions our former editor made in a call to us from his travel agency (‘Special rates for refugees’) in Bratislava, but all manner of documents and scraps, some  interesting, some simply baffling.  This, for example, was part of a handwritten letter lacking both earlier and later pages)

Where you may well be wrong, my old friend, is first in assuming that bureaucracy needs literacy, and second in not taking account of the continuity in human societies, irrespective of changes of régime and even revolutions of independence. Look at the confections consumed with such avidity by the Greeks; don’t say it in front of them, but these were all introduced to them by the Turks. It is simply unfair to blame poor patient Ivan for a racial addiction to bureaucracy, which after all prevails with equal vigour in Romania. Have you forgotten that the whole region up to the Danube was long ruled by emperors in Byzantium, legendary home of bureaucracy, while their influence plainly extended wider still?  Do you find it so difficult to picture a mediaeval peasant having to stand before an agent of his headman, reporting, as he is obliged to do, his harvest for the year, not later than the autumn equinox, knowing that failure to give a full account, before two witnesses of sound hearing, would lead him straight to the stocks; or obsequiously presenting the skins required, in triplicate, as the fee for a licence, in the shape of a curiously carved stick, entitling him to hunt the pine martens which actually swarm in great numbers in his part of the swamp, and agreeing that loss of the stick will result in a penalty of fifteen strokes of the knout or a fine not exceeding two goats?

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Manos is in gaol again, for suspected espionage this time, but we are confident the Doc can get him out   I think he intends to plead an all too plausible combination of drunkenness and pathological naivete.  Actually Manos insists indignantly that naivete had nothing to do with it.  He had sent to Chatham House, USI, Jane’s, and other relevant organisations asking if they held any lists ranking nations for the inefficiency of their military forces – average figures for collateral damage per sortie, number per annum of own forces killed by friendly fire, number of wedding parties hit, percentage of own military hardware now in enemy hands, and so on, but he had sent all the enquiries on postcards, scrawled in his own execrable hand.  He said this was quite deliberate, since, he argues, ill-intentioned observers would be busy observing all the usual hi-tech channels of communication and would no more check postcards than watch for pigeons filing suspect flight plans.  (Wasn’t it Chesterton who said the best way to hide something was to put it in plain view in a public place?)

Human progress

Speaking at a press conference, General Attila said that the alleged instances of so-called rape and pillage, if they had indeed occurred, could only be the work of a few isolated individuals. They were wholly contrary to the behaviour and code of ethics of the Hunnish horseman. Part of the problem was that ill-intentioned survivors of the incidents were clearly spreading malicious rumours with the sole aim of undermining the morale and security of his horde, and it was also true that many people failed to make the distinction between on the one hand pillagers, who were no better than common criminals, and on the other plunderers who performed a valuable social service by removing assets from those who had illegally acquired them and putting them back into general circulation. Of course in any horde there were bound to be a few rotten apples, and three enquiries were already under way to investigate the true facts of the matter. If it should be found after a thorough investigation that any of those under his command had overstepped the internationally understood bounds of acceptable barbarity they would be brought before a court of the Hun people. In the meantime it was clear that the great majority of inhabitants of the region warmly welcomed the arrival of the Hunnish horde and he was determined to continue his mission of bringing freedom to the peoples of Europe and to promote the development of free trade in slaves and other goods.

Getting parliamentarians into the right shape

One of the little comfits that the collective British psyche likes to suck on from time to time is to be told that Britain has the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy. There are one or two reasons why one should not swallow this sweetmeat whole; for instance, truth is not one of its ingredients – both the Isle of Man and Iceland have older independent parliaments (insofar as any political entity other than a current top nation can be said to be independent.) Another problem is the strange aftertaste, which is a belief that Britain has the world’s best system of government. Now the capacity to believe one thing while standing in front of its diametrical opposite is one of the more bizarre human traits that nature may not have foreseen when she allowed the first denizen of the deep to flop out onto the pre-Cambrian mudflats. But there it is, along with things like honesty, greed, self-sacrifice and the ability to forget inconvenient promises. If you want evidence just consider – is there a dog owner in existence who will agree that his animal has fleas? Nevertheless the conflict on this occasion between belief and reality is acute enough that it has, occasionally, penetrated the pontifical skin of the pundits. It has even been remarked that the adversarial arrangement (our side against your side) is a bad thing.

In fact the British lower house (the upper house is essentially a figment of the imagination of the last three prime ministers), along with all others like it, is a two-headed monster where, no matter how many ideas the media and a well-intentioned public try to force into one head, all that is produced is hot air issuing from the other. A government declares that Monday follows Sunday; thereupon the opposition proves incontrovertibly that Sunday follows Monday and always has, and that any attempt to upset this arrangement would endanger the vital economic growth of the nation, so marvellously accomplished under the present administration despite the obstructionism of those on the other side.

The very odd thing is that the pundits who feel this kind of parliament is a bit short on rationality generally assume it is one of only three possible arrangements. The belief is perhaps hereditary since fifty or sixty years ago, British administrators could be observed around the world using all means at their disposal to have the system adopted by various countries not in a position to resist, with in most cases unfortunate or even tragic results.

One of the other constitutional options is to abolish the adversarial system by getting rid of the adversary, in other words to install a dictatorship in which case the way that a parliament – if any – is conducted becomes immaterial. But the trouble with this approach to making the trains run on time is that they tend to run over human rights strapped to the rails not far up the line. The other popular solution is to replace the two-sided asylum by a semicircular chamber as they have done in France with seating arranged according to where the members see themselves in the political spectrum. The idea here is that members appreciate that political differences do not necessarily mean barking hostility and a stark contrast between right and wrong, because they sit next to others who hold basically similar views but disagree on details. And there is no visible yawning pit at any point beyond which an inhabitant is clearly too alien to be ‘one of us’, and must therefore be enemy. Laudable as the motives may be, the fact that there are still relatively fixed positions, and relatively large distances which stay the same from day to day, still allows mutual loathing to simmer merrily.

The semicircular chamber is certainly heading in the right direction. What is wrong with it is the seating fixed according to political beliefs, and it is really quite easy to overcome this. One rather attractive idea would be to group members by the geographical area which they represent, irrespective of party allegiance. Or we could simply place them in an alphabetical order. We could even arrange them in the same way as platoons in the army, tallest on the right shortest on the left. This might lead to grumbles from the tallest men since in the nature of things they would tend to get less opportunity to socialise with the opposite sex, but then tall men have built-in advantages in this respect anyway. But the idea which I like best is the one which follows what you do with children at some birthday parties: a number is pinned on each guest as they come in and that gives them their seat when the bunfighting begins. This way the parliamentarians would get a different seat each day. Sooner or later they would be almost bound to meet most of the other members and spend part of a day with them; the immediate result could hardly be other than that each one would come to see their neighbour for the day as a human being. They would then be so taken up with observing his or her pleasant or less pleasant personal habits – gossip, or cleaning their ears with a pencil, or sharing garlic sausages from their briefcase, breaking wind, and so on – that there would not be enough time to explore the neighbour’s identity as a personification of one of the more repellent forms of political wickedness.   They would be revealed as human beings. The disadvantage of this system is that it might lend itself to manipulation; the more cunning among the politicians might lurk around the entrance so that they either accompany or avoid some particular fellow member. This could be overcome by linking entrance numbers to seat numbers on a random basis, easy enough with a small computer and appropriate software.

But if we are really looking for ways to improve the parliamentary system, perhaps it may seem a bit superficial merely to allocate seats in the chamber by lottery. An idea which must naturally occur to many of us, and I dare say even more would agree, is `Wouldn’t it be better to go the whole hog and choose the members by lottery in the first place?’