Friday, December 30, 2011

On Kindles

Ooh, finally caved-in and got one. Aren't they good? But first impression is they won't replace books and for a reason that is stronger than with the whole music download thing. A CD box might be aesthetically-pleasing and have a wee booklet in it with lots of information that someone might want to read - but they can never be as gorgeous as a book, can they?

Anyway, downloaded a whole lot of classic books, either for free or pennies. So excited I had to share. You know the sort of things I'm talking about - the books people claim are the best they've ever read when asked on one of Norm's profiles. "Oh, well it has to be Ulysses by James Joyce." Aye, right. ;-)


The trouble with Ed

Some good people have been defending Ed Miliband of late. This isn't something I feel able to do. When Ed Miliband was elected leader, I thought, "Oh no - here we go again..." Another leader who can't win elections yet regardless of how dismal a performance they put in, we'll get calls to 'pull together' and stop sniping.

Whether these carry any weight with party members, I couldn't say but as a mere supporter, I don't feel obliged to pay any attention*. There's too many problems with Ed, all of which combine to make him unelectable. Most of them fall into two categories:

1) No-one's listening to what he has to say. In fairness, part of this has to do with the intrinsic difficulty in framing a distinct and coherent message in these present circumstances. If the government says they are taking the steps necessary to avoid the economy going Greek-shaped, how are people to judge whether this or the Ed Balls analysis is correct?

But the most important problem is one people seldom mention. So seldom, I wonder if this is because if they do so, they would be concerned that this would signal a superficial interest in politics that has to do with personalities rather than policies? I don't know but I'll put the problem in the most basic way I can and you can accuse me of being superficial if you wish. It doesn't matter what Ed Miliband's policies are because he's never going to be Prime Minister. And the reason he is never going to be Prime Minister is because he reminds people of Wallace from Wallace and Gromit.

Or someone else... Point is, I don't understand why people put so much energy into pretending this sort of thing doesn't matter. FDR was in a wheelchair, Ike was bald. One of the ironies of today is that while we're all so much more PC nowadays, I think everyone knows the USA will never have another President who is either in a wheelchair or bald in an age of instant mass-media. Britain isn't so different. One of my mother's postwar anecdotes was that while she could remember what he looked like from newsreel at the cinema, she could never recall hearing Atlee speak.

These days have gone. Miliband isn't in a wheelchair and he has lots of hair - we know what he sounds like so we also know he doesn't talk like a Prime Minister, he doesn't walk like a Prime Minister and he sure as hell doesn't look like a Prime Minister.

Saying it should be about policy and 'the ishoos', as Tony Benn used to say is just empty moralising. I dare say it should be but it just isn't. The question is, what are people who come out with this line seriously intending to do about it? Because the pretending it doesn't matter strategy isn't working.

2) Does Miliband have anything to say anyway? It's a genuine question because I don't listen to what Miliband has to say about anything after he said this, which is actually the only thing I can recall him saying that stuck in my mind:
"While out campaigning during the local elections, not for the first time, I met someone who had been on incapacity benefit for a decade.

He hadn’t been able to work since he was injured doing his job.

It was a real injury, and he was obviously a good man who cared for his children.

But I was convinced that there were other jobs he could do.

And that it’s just not right for the country to be supporting him not to work, when other families on his street are working all hours just to get by."
He was convinced. I thought, why is he convinced? Because he had knowledge of vacancies going in this poor bugger's area? Tesco specifically looking for people with dodgy backs who hadn't worked for the best part of a decade perhaps? And if he knew of actual vacancies, did he get any of his staff to do anything to help get this man one of these jobs he knows about? Of course he didn't - because he had no knowledge. It was only the sort of thing someone who's never had to do any heavy-lifting in his life would say. Pious catch-phrases without any practical help. So I stopped listening and joined the ranks of those who never started.

*If you're thinking this status disqualifies me from having an opinion, you might want to question an election procedure that gave me a vote by virtue of being a member of a trades union...

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Cameron and the King James Bible

One of the aspects of his speech that I haven't seen commented on was his praise for the poetry of the King James version:
"One of my favourites is the line "For now we see through a glass, darkly.

It is a brilliant summation of the profound sense that there is more to life, that we are imperfect, that we get things wrong, that we should strive to see beyond our own perspective.

The key word is darkly - profoundly loaded, with many shades of meaning.
I feel the power is lost in some more literal translations.

The New International Version says: "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror"

The Good News Bible: "What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror"

They feel not just a bit less special but dry and cold, and don't quite have the same magic and meaning."
Hmmm, here's a passage from James in the KJV:
"Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.

Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten.

Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days.

Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth."
And here's the same in the NIV:
"Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.

Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes.

Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.

Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. "
I dunno. Which translation d'ya think best conveys the point that Cameron is missing when he goes on about "values and morals we should actively stand up and defend."?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Scottish school league tables 2011

They haven't changed that much - so I don't have much to add to what I said last year.

Couple of things about the publication of data though. I agree with the criticisms people make of league tables and their tendency to produce perverse incentives to narrow the curriculum - but not publishing them hasn't helped.

For one thing, some people seem to have got the impression that school exam results aren't published at all. They are - just not in a, well, league table format. You can find quite detailed information here if you can be bothered searching through schools individually - but most people can't so rely on the press to do it for them. Problem here is that this is even cruder than the tables the government used to publish.

For example, the Scotsman data linked above has two key indicators, one of which is the proportion of the roll who get 5 or more Standard Grades at General level. My old PT used say rather unkindly that if you were a sentient being, you should be able to get a pass at General 4. It's a bit harsh. Pupils may have difficulty at this level for a number of reasons. However, given that it is normal for students to take eight Standard Grades and that it indeed the case that getting five of them at General level is no great academic feat, all this statistic does is identify those who are doing really quite badly. Whereas the other statistic - those passing Highers - has to do with those staying on and then doing really rather well.*

In other words, while league tables are crude measures, I'm not sure it's an entirely good idea for the Scottish Government to leave it to the media to make them even more so.

*Just occurred to me people might not know what I'm on about here. The legal school-leaving age in Scotland is still 16.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Reformation and witchcraft

When Princess Anne (of Denmark) was popping over to Scotland to meet her husband to be, James VI of Scotland, she was forced by bad weather to stop off in Norway. The cause of the storm? Well, witchcraft obviously - which is why James VI personally presided over a witchcraft trial in 1590.

This is the dark side of the 'elimination of magic' which Max Weber rightly identified as a defining feature of protestantism; in the early modern period of European history, the elimination of magic was accompanied by the physical obliteration of those who were believed to practice magic. It won't surprise many people to learn that the Edinburgh University survey estimates that about 84% of these 'witches' were women.

It is for this reason, amongst others, that those who call for a Reformation in Islam should be careful what they wish for. They've had a Reformation and while it is a controversial point, I'd argue that this is part of the problem.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

That Europe thing

I had a much longer and even more boring post in the pipeline but I realised I'd lost the plot when I found myself writing a sentence about how difficult it was to disaggregate the contribution the EU had made to the expansion of world and European trade since 1945 from the general reduction in world tariffs.

Instead, I'll restrict myself to a few observations. The original post was asking whether a too vivid memory of history wasn't something of a problem in the European debate and to what extent this contributes to the hyperbole that we see when it comes to the EU?

The misnamed 'Eurosceptics', for example, rather give the impression that the outcome of the Second World War is in some way undecided, hence the ludicrous comparison of a pre-veto wielding Prime Minister to Neville Chamberlain, made in a popular tabloid newspaper that I won't link to.

But the ghosts of history haunt the Germans, the French and the east Europeans too - all of whom respond to the past in a way that prefers containment, rather than 'splendid isolation', as a way of burying a European past characterised by conflict interrupted by economic depression.

For the Germans it is the Weimar hyper-inflation that keep them awake at night. This is the only conclusion one can draw from their reluctance to allow the ECB to carry the debt of Eurozone members. It's understandable, but I think it was Chris Dillow who said, in his day job, that there's not a lot of point in taking steps to preserve the value of a currency if it means that the currency ceases to exist.

As a number of people have pointed out, it was not hyper-inflation but rather deflation and unemployment that provided the economic backdrop for the capture of the German state by the Nazis. But here the ghosts of the Great Depression are being evoked in an inappropriate way. It is the crudest form of reductionism to attribute the rise of fascism to this. Moreover, there are reasons to think that while one could argue some of the mistakes of the thirties are being repeated, rather more lessons have been learned than one would gather from reading some of the more apocalyptic commentary. These are as follows:

1) The Great Depression was characterised by both fiscal and monetary tightening. No-one thinks we have the latter now - but also the former has been more relaxed than it was during the thirties.

2) The 'outlawing Keynesianism' aspect of the proposed and misnamed 'fiscal union' isn't good in my view but there's two reasons to think it might not be as bad as supposed: a) We've been here before: it looks pretty much like son of Stability Pact to me - and if it's anything like that the European powers will simply ignore it if they deem this to be necessary, b) It might pave the way for the ECB to step up to the plate and issue Euro-bonds. I agree this looks unlikely just now but on the other hand, one shouldn't underestimate the political capital invested in the Euro project (see 'historical ghosts' above).

3) The American economy appears to be growing at a surprising rate. No student of the interwar period would underestimate the role that American contraction played in those circumstances. Nor their response to it, which brings me to the final point...

4) Protectionism: as far as one can gather, there has been no tendency for this to be seen as a solution or even a damage-limitation exercise in the way it was in the interwar period.

This last point should underline the importance of the survival of the Euro. For what's the alternative? For the Greeks to say, "Ok, we'll pay our debts - in drachma, if that's ok with you?" And then what? A Europe of competitive devaluations, which is protection by another name but with the same consequences. It is for this reason that while I was never a fan, I hope the Euro survives. On the UK stance, one is inclined to say that if Cameron is sincere in his professed belief that its survival is in our interests, he has a rather eccentric way of showing it.

Finally, on a parochial point, if David Cameron has an interest in the survival of the Treaty of Union, the same verdict applies. The SNP's 'independence in Europe' was looking a little threadbare in the wake of the Euro crisis. His behaviour in Europe has given it a new lease of life.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Jeremy Clarkson, technology and freedom

First they came for the apologists for terrorism. I did not speak up because I was not an apologist for terrorism. Then they came for disagreeable cretins with an internet connection - and I did not speak up because while I have an internet connection, I flattered myself that I did not belong in that category. But now they're coming for people who make shit jokes in poor taste, I have to confess I'm feeling distinctly edgy...

As Padraig Reidy says, this is just Clarkson being Clarkson - his point being, would anyone have even cared in a pre-Twitter, pre-YouTube age? His is an interesting take which asks whether democratic access to the means of communication might have inadvertently shrunk our liberty by creating instant publicity for outrageous behaviour that would have in a time of slower and more primitive communication be confined to a smaller audience?

There is something in this. There's two effects of technology that are bound to make anyone of a liberal disposition uneasy. One is that by removing the boundaries of bad behaviour, it also removes the more limited context in which such behaviour might have been more appropriately dealt with. For instance, the racist tram woman would and should have been barred from using the service on which she has demonstrated she is unable to behave.

Beyond this, perhaps a minor punishment for being drunk and disorderly or for breech of the peace. But the extensive publicity has created a climate in which this kind of limited action might be deemed insufficient, which brings me to this: extensive publicity for misdemeanors makes it increasingly likely that individual cases are more often to be treated as examples. "This is exactly the sort of thing we've been talking about and we must send a message here." Beware those who think the function of the law is to send messages. You'll be uncomfortable with this if you're uneasy as I am about the symbolic nature of punishment that is intrinsic to utilitarian theories of criminal justice.

But all of the above lends too much weight to the role of technology here. We have to make a clear division between detection and punishment and insist that what makes many of us really uncomfortable is the frankly draconian sentences being dished out for simply being a loud-mouthed fuckwit these days. Imagine a world where absolutely everyone who parked in the chevrons outside a primary school got a ticket. Police state? Only people like Jeremy Clarkson would argue this. The rest of us, I imagine, would think, "You don't want a forty quid fine? Well don't park there then!" Ok, I should speak for myself... But arrest and possible jail-time every time someone says something stupid and offensive? Maybe this should be a liberal rule of thumb: imagine a situation where there's a hundred per cent detection for a given crime. If the force of the law that is meted out in this thought experiment looks too draconian, then the law as it stands probably is.
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