Cui bono?

honor hominesque honesti floreant

Month: September, 2018

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

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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