Cui bono?

honor hominesque honesti floreant

Month: October, 2018

Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delayed News

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

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

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

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

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Milling

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

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

 

 

 

Late news

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

It’s worse than you think

From John Stuart Mill to the end of civilisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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