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Thursday, 28 July 2011

Review: Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Delete

This is an academic book (Princeton University Press) but it is simply written and methodically organised. It belongs to the emerging genre of books which reflect on the implications of digital technology / media for our lives.

The author (I will abbreviate him to V.M-S) is principally concerned with the fact that we can now store truly enormous quantities of information very cheaply, that we can retrieve it almost effortlessly using extraordinarily powerful technologies, and that we can potentially share it or access it globally. There is really no incentive to forget, lose or shred information; unless we do something about it, it can and will sit there forever.

V. M-S thinks we should do something about it. Historically, human lives can go on and societies remain viable because we can and do forget: literally, we forget because our minds can't remember everything and, metaphorically, we forget because information held in traditional ways degrades: even our cherished manuscripts succumb to "the gnawing criticism of the mice" (Marx). At both individual and social levels, forgetting is closely connected to forgiving - and moving on.

Forgetting used to be our "default" setting, says V. M-S, but that is changing: our default is now to remember - and to put ourselves in a position where others can remember for us, often with no more effort than typing a few words into Google. In a number of ways, we risk being unable to move on from, escape from our past.

V. M-S argues that we can and should reverse the trend but without giving up on the benefits which the digital revolution has brought us. In his chapter Five, he reviews half a dozen strategies for taming the negative consequences of our new World Memory, our digital Panopticon, among them - most obviously - the strengthening of privacy laws.

But in chapter Six, he advances his own favoured solution, beautifully simple but potentially enormously powerful. He argues that digital information should have an Expiry Date, after which it is deleted or - less drastically - shifted into long-term storage so that (for example) it no longer comes up on routine Google searches.

In some cases, individuals should specify an expiry date: for example, imagine having to tag the emails you have sent with a date at which they are automatically deleted.

In other cases, the Expiry date could be contractually agreed - when, for example, I agree to a seller's proposal that my personal data be held for not longer than six months after our business transaction.

Finally, the state might legislate in important cases.

Creating software to manage this would be easy and, in fact, has been done.

This simple strategy is intuitively appealing: one of people's worries about the Internet has been precisely that everything is there for ever and that there is little or nothing they can do about it. It also has in-built flexibility - different expiry dates can apply to different categories of information. And if I am convinced that my manuscripts should not be shredded, I could tag them to be kept alive "forever".

I would have welcomed more examples than V. M-S gives in what is a rather sparely written book. And I think that there is a much more overtly political story to be written than the one he has given us. Since he is now Oxford's Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation, that may be on some future agenda.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Going to the Dogs: Alexander McQueen's Will meets Tullett Prebon

All the papers report that Alexander McQueen left his money to the dogs: £100 000 to Battersea Cats' and Dogs' Home, £100 000 to the Blue Cross sick animal centre, and £50 000 in trust for the lifetime care of his own pet dogs.

In a Will worth £16 million, it's not a lot, just rather sad. Why didn't he leave it to George Osborne?

Very few people now leave money to the State, voluntarily that is, though they used to. A Report out today indicates that we badly need them to.

Officially, public debt stands at around £900 billion or over 60% of GDP. But lots of things are kept "off balance sheet". In a report for the brokers Tullett Prebon, Project Armageddon, Tim Morgan factors them in:

Add the final costs of bank bail outs, of unfunded future public sector pension commitments and of payoffs under Blair-Brown private Finance contracts and the debt figure rises four times to £3.6 trillion representing £135 000 per household. [I am using The Daily Telegraph's reporting]

It seems inevitable that at some point, like when they die, the present generation (the Baby Boomers - people like me) should be asked to pay and, failing that, made to pay.

Only yesterday, I took comfort in the £200 000 equity in my flat, the mortgage down to a few thousand. This morning I have to subtract £135 000 from that - the burden of public debt per household. Of course, if you shared out that figure proportionately rather than simply dividing by households, it would be less. For Sir Fred Goodwin it would be more.

However unpalatable to the Tory faithful, Chancellor George Osborne is going to have to look hard at inheritance tax. I make one suggestion.

At present, there is an exemption limit and above that the State takes a percentage of the value of an Estate at death. I would modify that to a variable percentage. Just as the State imposes supertaxes on alcohol and tobacco in its attempts to discourage them or make their users pay for the social costs of their habits, so it should tax legacies it deems noxious at a higher rate than those it deems benign. Ninety five percent on legacies to cats' and dogs' homes

UK Growth in the Second Quarter 2011; Prediction for Growth in the Third Quarter 2011

At the end of April, the Office of National Statistics issued its calculation of UK growth in the first quarter of 2011. At that point on this Blog (27 April) I offered my prediction for the second (April - June) quarter: growth no better than 0.5% but no worse than minus 0.5%, in other words, flatlining. Today, the ONS has published the result for the quarter: growth of 0.2%

So I got it right. Go to my 27 April Blog to read the reasoning.

Now I have to try to repeat the success. What will happen in the third quarter, July to September?

Again, I think we will see flatlining: growth or contraction hovering around the zero mark. We are going into the holiday period when people stop working (again) and leave the country (again). True, tourists come in the other direction to boost the service sector and, true, against the €uro the pound is weak making the UK an attractive destination for Europeans. But not for Americans, because the dollar is weak and likely to get weaker even if the US debt crisis is temporarily resolved.

Money is moving into Switzerland rather than into the UK. UK manufacturing doesn't look very healthy, with Bombardier looking fatally ill.

And so on. You could say that my previous prediction was an easy one: I gave myself a one percent range. So this time, I'll make it tighter: the third quarter will show growth no greater than 0.3% and no worse than minus 0.3%. If I had to plump for a single figure rather than a range I would plump for minus 0.1%.

Results posted here end of October.

RESULTS, 1 November 2011: WRONG. The official figures released today show growth at 0.5%, better than the second quarter

Monday, 25 July 2011

Public Libraries: are we being sentimental?

Public libraries figured quite largely in my life until I went to University in 1965.

I borrowed books from Dartford Public Library into my teens, a mix of cheap pleasures ( Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner) and the self - improving (Hemingway, Ibsen, Steinbeck, Strindberg), not only borrowed but read. But I also bought books: there was a W H Smith by the bus stop in Bromley where I queued after school and from about the age of 14 (1961) I bought Penguins. Yevtushenko's Poems must have been one of the first ("Over Babi Yar there are no memorials...") but more often books on politics and economics and Penguin Specials.

Later, in 1964, preparing for my Oxford Scholarship exams, I read my own copy of Marx's Capital (well, the first volume) in the reference library cum reading room in Erith Public Library. I also recall struggling with some archaic Maths textbook which was on an Oxford reading list which probably hadn't changed since the War.

My mother was depressed and I needed to get out of the house if I was to be able to concentrate. In vacations, when I was not working, I went to the Public Library for the same reason.

So I ought to be in favour of public libraries. To be honest, I'm indifferent. They seem obsolete. I live within two hundred meters of a public library which was Saved From Closure a few years ago thanks to a campaign led by Christopher Hawtree, now one of Brighton's Green councillors. New Labour wanted to sell off the fine Victorian building. They thought it would make a spendid restaurant or night club.

I never go into this Library. I buy the books I want to read and, since I no longer have a University affiliation, I use the Internet as a research tool: for this purpose, the Internet is terrific.

I think children should have access to good libraries, but they could have that in school. If we closed public libraries but passed on some of their funding, there is no reason why school libraries should not be open on Saturdays too.

Everyone who is capable of using a public library should also be capable of using a computer. If older people do need help getting used to computers, which is debateable anyway, then adult education can provide cheap or free classes.

I like Internet cafes and think it's a pity that they are disappearing because everyone now has a computer of their own which they can take into the nearest coffee shop. Maybe my Public Library could be turned into a Municipal Coffee Shop and Internet cafe. The only problem might be the quality of the Municipal Coffee; they would use UHT milk.

For those who like reading romantic fiction and such like, there are the charity shops offering a large range at pennies rather than pounds.

As for the scholarship boys seeking refuge from their homes, I don't know what they do now. If they are still in the reading rooms of public libraries,then I might change my mind.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Review: Cables from Kabul by Sherard Cowper-Coles

The disarming first 24 of 26 chapters offer us, quite unselfconsciously, "Ruritania comes to Kabul". The last two chapters, quite another genre, provide a lucid, decisive critique of Western policy in Afghanistan, as it has been since 2001 and as it is now.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles was Her Britannic Majesty's Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2007 to 2010, the sort of job you can only get if you have studied Classics [Greats] at Oxford ("my best subject had been Roman military history" p.4 ). When you get to your Embassy, you imagine yourself "the headmaster of a run-down but generally happy and successful prep school..." (p.16) and you organise charity balls ( pp.95 -96 ) and sponsored beard-growing (pp 133-34). Your staff like competitions and the winning entry to name the Embassy bar is "The Inn Fidel". You do the rounds (endlessly) of the Afghan government and the other embassies, exchanging modest gifts, and you find time for visitors such as "Hilary, Lady Weir, out to see what the Brooke Trust (which she chaired) should be doing to help the working animals of Afghanistan" (p. 170).

Back home, the Foreign Office's Estates department tells you there is a budget of over £100 million to build you a new Embassy "in the poorest country in Asia" (p. 101)

You just happen to have a Close Protection Team of eight men with eight sub machine guns (facing page 154) and just happen to spend the time left over from the social whirl accompanying VIPs to the front line: in 2007, 27% of UK helicopter movements in southern Afghanistan were for the transport of VIPs (p. 178).

VIPs went to Helmand to observe the troops clearing out the Taliban as the first stage in the "Clear, Hold and Build" strategy. The second two stages are hopefully coming soon but the first stage is problematic, the Taliban now being mostly those locals who don't want the Infidel in their country. (Hence, chapters 25 & 26 of the book)

Cowper-Coles is clearly an able, very hard-working and brave man. He does his dangerous job knowing that he may suffer from the same congenital heart weakness which has recently claimed the life of his brother.

He is a splendid diplomat: his book has a good word to say about almost every character it mentions and where he can find no good word, he is usually silent. A damning comment about Prime Minister Gordon Brown's short-term opportunism over Afghanistan (just like over everything else) is as bad as it gets (pp. 119 - 120).

I don't think it comes naturally to him to write the final two chapters of the book.

The problems begin at the beginning. After 9 / 11 (coming up for ten years ago), George W Bush was not going to give the Taliban regime very long to meet his demand to hand over Osama Bin-Laden and his men. Cowper-Coles suggests that given a bit more time, they may have done so, if only on the grounds that Bin Laden and Co were foreigners who had abused Afghan hospitality.

So Bush went in and where Bush went, Tony Blair inevitably followed. Overthrowing the cruel and stupid Taliban regime was hardly difficult or controversial - it is worth recalling that at the time only three countries in the world still gave the regime diplomatic recognition (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates).

But as later in Iraq, the West now had the problem of finding a replacement government. Unfortunately, the most plausible leader, Ahmed Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance, was assassinated by the Taliban just before 9/11. Karzai was a second-best, though with the advantage of coming from the majority Pashtun community and himself an observant Muslim, No Smoking, No Drinking, his wife kept in Purdah.

The new government was very reluctant to actually do anything. Cowper-Coles repeats several times that the problem with Karzai was that he spent too much time meeting and greeting and not enough time governing.

But you should set beside that the throw-away statistic that President Karzai has a Presidential Protective Service not of eight but eight hundred (p. 149 ). He can't really go anywhere or do very much without them.

That will remain the case until there is some kind of national reconciliation - what Labour's Douglas Alexander was suggesting when he formulated "Engage, Stabilise and Develop" as an alternative to "Clear, Hold and Build" (p. 173 -74). And "Engage" means "Talk to the Taliban" - something which the Bush regime would not really contemplate.

"Talking to the Taliban" is as shocking as the advice the Soviet Union gave to Dr Najibullah who they installed as Afghan leader when they quit in 1989, "forget Communism, abandon socialism, embrace Islam and work with the tribes" (p. 56)

In addition, there is the whole question of Afghanistan's relations with its neighbours. It has borders with (clockwise) Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, India and Pakistan. All have different interests but not necessarily nefarious, since they do not generally want refugees, violence or drugs: "the export of Afghan narcotics has done especial damage to Iran. Between 1979 and 2003, some 3,700 Iranian border guards and other officials are said to have lost their lives combating the traffickers" (pp 74-75).

That's about ten times the number of UK military casualties in our ten year engagement. (On this subject, Cowper-Coles allows the social reality to intrude: "A high proportion of the dead soldiers came from the poorer parts of the United Kingdom, and from broken homes ..." (p. 172))

But the neighbours have not been successfully engaged - the Bush regime wasn't in to that sort of thing and the legacy remains to be overcome.

These points and many others are developed, carefully and clearly, in the final two chapters of the book. Start there and then, if you can stomach it, read about Ruritania. I warn you that you will discover that at one point the British taxpayer flew Karzai to Britain in a chartered jet, basically so that he could go Scottish hill-walking with Prince Charles. They both like walking and they got on famously.

Sherard Cowper-Coles was previously our Man in Saudi Arabia and in Israel. Born in 1955, he has now prematurely left the Foreign Service. He is not a liberal or a radical; he has gone to work for BAE which sells military hardware to unpleasant regimes.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Aaron Swartz and JSTOR

Aaron Swartz, a 24 year old Harvard fellow, has been indicted in the USA for downloading 4.8 million files from JSTOR, the principal portal to old academic journal articles. The allegation is that he intended to make the downloaded articles available for free through file-sharing websites. Basically, he is accused of intellectual property theft.

He was able to do the actual download without difficulty because academic institutions pay lump sum fees to JSTOR so that their own students and academics when possessed of the necessary password can download for free; people like me, with no academic affiliation, have to pay to get into JSTOR.

In pre-digital times, academics wrote articles in publicly-funded working time and sent them off to (mostly) privately-owned journals which published them. The journals were sold at high prices to university libraries and at slightly less high prices to any individual foolish enough to subscribe.

When you had an article published in an academic journal, you would be sent 25 or 50 off-prints of your own article which you could distribute to your friends and people you wanted to impress. You did not get paid and you had usually signed away the copyright to the journal owners - for "administrative convenience" they used to tell you: we can deal with requests to reprint your work without having to trouble you.

As a result, academics often did not know when their work was reprinted in anthologies and so on. This was not without inefficiency: recently, I noticed a 1980 article of mine re-cycled in a very expensive library-targetted anthology on Advertising, published by Berg. The article was a first shot at a theory within an on-going project; a much better version was published a few years later. Had anyone contacted me, I could have pointed this out, but that's not how it's done.

In Europe, a relatively small number of firms were in the journal-publishing business - Springer Verlag, de Gruyter, Pergamon, Elsevier, Basil Blackwell are names which I remember - and over time, most of them have been absorbed into conglomerates. Publicly - funded university presses also used to publish journals, but most of them failed financially. The whole system was fairly opaque and very few people were curious.

The advent of digital media provided an opportunity to re-cycle all this old academic work sitting in dusty journals and that is what JSTOR does, for a fee.

My sympathies are with Aaron Swartz. Since so much public money went in to the production of these academic articles and since the journal publishers made their money first-time round with no expectation of a second chance (the Internet had not been invented), I would like to see this work made available for free to anyone, anywhere, with administrative costs met either by registration fees (rather than pay-per-view) or invisibly by governments or the university sector.

Such an arrangement would be valuable especially in poor countries where university budgets are limited and students cash-strapped.

Postscript added 13 January 2013: Still under indictment for the JSTOR download, Aaron Swartz committed suicide in New York on 11 January 2013. He was 26.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Vatican: What Enda Kenny Should Really Do

In the Republic of Ireland, they are so sick of the Vatican that some MPs are calling for the expulsion of the Papal Nuncio ( the Pope sends a Nuncio to every country to interfere).

Yesterday, in the Dail, the Prime Minister (Taoiseach), Enda Kenny, used a whole string of adjectives to condemn the Vatican's obstruction of child sex abuse investigations. "Narcissism" was perhaps the most astonishing.

No red carpet for the Pope in Dublin,then.

The modern Vatican is the creation of Mussolini. In the 1930s, he detached the Vatican from Italy and gave it the status of an independent statelet, thus placing it beyond the reach of Italian criminal and civil jurisdiction - and everyone else's jurisdiction besides. That was just what the Pope wanted. (For a serious read on the subject, try Hubert Wolf's Pope and Devil)

Over the past 80 years, the Vatican has used the Lateran Treaty to build a nasty little enclave where church bureaucrats do exactly as they please, knowing that no laws can touch them in their cloisters or their bogus "Ambassadors" abroad, the Nuncios.

It's time to deal with this rogue state. Enda Kenny should call on Italy to repudiate Mussolini's Lateran treaty. Italy should re-incorporate the Vatican into its own republic, subject to its criminal and civil laws. The Vatican is a Church, not a state, and churches are not above the law.

If the Vatican resists, Italy should send in the tanks.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Our Manufacturing Base: Boston, Lincs - home of illegal vodka

The London metropolitan elite may currently be resigning in order to fight for their pay-offs and pensions, but outside London life is getting grimmer.

Five Lithuanian men have died in an explosion at an illegal vodka distillery on a Lincolnshire industrial estate - Broadfield in Boston.

It's tragic in all kinds of way. The Fens have always been pretty grim - cold, windswept and low paid. It's one of the reasons why East European migrant workers have ended up there - and in such low paid jobs that vodka at an even lower price than it already is in Tesco is attractive. The attraction provided an income for at least six distillery workers, five of them now dead and one critically injured.

No doubt there are other Fenland distilleries. It's what passes for an industrial base.

Around the country, agriculture and fishing depend on low paid migrant and illegal workers - remember the Chinese cockle pickers whose lives were sensitively depicted in the film Ghosts?

It's the same with seasonal industries like Christmas decoration and gift manufacture. The factory may be in Scotland but the workers are flown in from Estonia.

Everyone knows that construction depends on migrant workers from Eastern Europe, though many of them are better paid.

Meanwhile, sections of the historic "local" population have fortified themselves into Can't Work, Won't Work ghettoes. Thanks to Benefits, they can afford Tesco's vodka and the illegal drugs manufactured in another sector of our manufacturing economy.

It's grim, it will get grimmer, and one should think about it a bit however exciting it may be to watch the mighty fall on their swords.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

What is a criminal organisation: News International and the Vatican compared

The question I have been thinking about is this, When is an organisation a criminal organisation?

We don't have that much difficulty deciding whether some individual has committed a criminal act, though what act may sometimes be unclear. In English law, if I pay someone to murder you, then both I and my agent can be charged with murder. Juries are not always comfortable with this: they think that murder involves person-to-person contact. They would be happier convicting the person who procured the murder of X with "procuring the murder of X" not with murdering X.

But organisations present a different order of problem. My initial thinking goes like this:

A criminal organisation is one where there are centrally-defined objectives combined with a shared belief that "the end justifies the means" (even if those words are not used). The objectives may be various, but usually the accumulation of wealth or the maximisation of power and influence.

In a culture where it is believed that the end justifies the means it does not follow that officials of the organisation are always commiting criminal acts (as they would be if they belonged to a criminal gang), but only that they commit them when they will advance the central objectives in a significant way or - and this is perhaps more frequent- neutralise a threat. The perception that the acts are wrong is over-ridden or obscured by attraction to the clear institutional advantages of wrong doing. (Perhaps this connects to the idea of "cultures of impunity")

In the case of the modern (post-Lateran Treaty) Vatican, there is a long history of criminal wrong doing - some of it enabled by the Lateran treaty which granted state-like attributes to the Church and put it beyond the reach of Italian civil and criminal law.

For example, at the end of World War Two, Vatican officials operating in Rome knowingly assisted Nazi war criminals (including BIG criminals) to escape to Latin America with false identities. Part of the reasoning was the hope that they would beef up anti-communist forces in a part of the world which the Vatican regarded as a legitimate backyard for the exercise of its power and influence. In other words, the end justified the means.

In some cases, war criminals were helped simply because a particular Vatican official(for example, Bishop Hudal ) preferred the values of the defeated Nazis to those of the victorious Allies and sought to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat as fantasised in the Nazis own "Operation Werewolf". This is a rather different case to the previously described one. It is simply amoral partisanship.

(This is not all water under the bridge. By way of thought experiment, consider that the present Pope was a member of the Hitler Youth. Would it have been possible for him to rise through the ranks had he instead been a Young Communist?)

Again, on a continuing basis, the Vatican along with Catholic churches world-wide conspired for decades to prevent, wherever possible, cases of sexual and physical abuse of children by its officials (its priests and nuns) going to court in criminal prosecutions and civil law cases. The organisation felt that the publicity of court cases would undermine its credibility - hence its objectives - and so, for example, it pressured victims to let their silence be bought or else it simply pressured them or sought to discredit them. This involved criminal wrong-doing throughout the organisation, up to and including the Vatican. The larger objective of advancing the causes of the One True Church led officials to ignore questions of right and wrong.

Indeed, I get the sense from the narratives I have read that the culture of the orgnisation was so strong that in many cases it never even occurred to officials that they should maybe think in terms of right and wrong, who had been wronged and what was needed to redress that wrong.

Along these lines, you could develop a case that the Vatican is a criminal organisation and that its status as a state-like entity outside the law has facilitated and reinforced the inherent tendencies of an authoritarian objectives-driven organisation.

News International is a different story. It is about what you will do for money and why. We still don't know if it was the pressure to deliver results (newspaper circulation, profits) or a perverse professional pride in scooping everyone else or both which led it down into the darkness which is today the focus of the media spotlight. But at some point the "fit and proper" test requires that you have some notion of what makes an organisation criminal rather than simply an organisation which housed individual criminals. Part of it must be to do with cultures (institutional cultures) which put employees, officials, operatives into the frame of mind where they think the end justifies the means.

I realise that these few paragraphs are really a sketch for a whole book.


Further thoughts:

(1) The CIA - at least in the 1950s and 1960s - fits into my account of what makes an organisation a criminal organisation. See Alex von Tunzelmann's Red Heat for copious examples.
(2) It has always been a problem for Utilitarian ("Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number") thinking to show how it does not simply licence wrong-doing if the overall effect is to increase aggregate happiness. One solution is to suggest that Rules which in a single instance of their application will reduce utility nonetheless have a general tendency to raise overall utility.
(3) Rule Utilitarianism, as just outlined, suggests to me the following line of thinking: organisations tend to be criminal when there are not enough Rules interposed between the overarching objectives and individual conduct to protect the organisation from drifting into criminality. Rules remind officials that each case has to be played "by the book" and not "by the overriding objective".
Rules also act as bulkheads, helping the whole organisation to withstand rule - breaches in one of its parts.

And Postscript, 20 July: Speaking in the Irish Parliament on the Cloyne Report into clerical sex-abuse in Cork, Prime Minister Enda Kenny attacked the elitism, dysfunction, disconnection and narcissism of the Vatican. Thought I would add that just in case you thought "criminal organisation" was name-calling.

Terry Eagleton and the New College of the Humanities: a trope too far?

Back in June, in The Guardian, Terry Eagleton had a go at A.C.Grayling's New College of the Humanities. One of Eagleton's main rhetorical moves is to liken Grayling and his chums to a bunch of surgeons in the public health service downing scalpels to set up a lucrative private practice. In the popular UK consciousness, in case you are unaware, that is a clunking stereotype for Greedy and Unprincipled.

Three thoughts occur to me.

First, when I looked at the NCH website, many or most of Grayling's chums appear to be professors who have reached the age of 65 or 67 and who, as a result, have been pushed out of their chairs - like Eagleton himself when he reached 65 (Wikipedia). They just want to go on working and if their public employers will no longer have them, at the salaries they have come to expect, they will go private. No great harm there and possibly some good.

Second, it's nearly always going to be self-serving and implausible to liken yourself to a surgeon who saves lives. Most of us don't save lives; literary critics don't. In consequence, most of us have fewer and easier moral dilemmas than the person who has dedicated themselves to the scalpel. Our lives are almost certainly less meritorious - and public as opposed to private service does not automatically push us up the moral scale.

Third, most public sector surgeons also have private practices. They don't have to quit to do this. Likewise, though they generally don't realise it, successsful UK academics in public institutions also have a private practice which yields a private income additional to their salary but largely enabled by their public employment.

It works like this. As a university teacher, and according to how good you are, you are allowed time away from teaching to do research, publicly funded at your regular rate. When I was a full-time university teacher, I had about a third of my working time available for research.

If you publish your research in an academic journal, traditionally you gain no financial benefit - publisher takes all (it's a lucrative scam). But if you publish a book, you take the royalties. For most academics, these will be derisory. For a successful academic like Terry Eagleton they will be substantial. And you keep them.

This private income flow enabled by public employment does not have to be declared in the public domain and I have never seen an academic CV or website on which Royalty income is declared.

I am sure the very idea sounds tasteless and mainly because the private gain is based on public expenditure. Unlike the public surgeon who moonlights in a private practice, the academic does not even have to work extra hours, just use their allocated research time to become an effective researcher or (like Eagleton) popular writer.

Moral? There's usually a hole somewhere in a bit of worn-out rhetoric.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

A Good Week to Bury Bad News: the Hacking Crisis and the Rest of the News

It may be worth it in the end, though to be honest I would rather have people reading The Sun than The Daily Express .

But the demise of The Daily Express will come about anyway; as its elderly (or prematurely aged) readers keel over no new ones are likely to replace them. One has only to look at the front page headlines - most of them are just comical and anyone with half a brain left can see that.

But in the short term, the BBC, the rest of the non-News International press and politicians of all parties temporarily united by overlapping interests are going to focus on NI to the exclusion of news stories which ought to top Hackgate.

The European Union can't struggle free from the public debt crises of its weaker members and today we have Italy under attack - unsurprisingly given Prime Minister Berlusconi's public attempts to undermine the budget proposals of Finance Minister Tremonti. Things are so bad that the pound has strengthened slightly against the €uro despite the likelihood that the worst predictions for the second (April - June) quarter of 2011(including my own on this Blog for 27 April) are likely to be fulfilled.

Northern Ireland again presents itself to the world as a no-go council estate where no sane outsider would venture. Anyone living in England must feel more in common with citizens of the Republic of Ireland than people in the North: they have been to Dublin, they have listened to the bands, they have flown Ryanair. Why do we cling to this troublesome statelet?

Pakistan hardly bears to be thought about, NATO is bogged down in Libya, Syria is unstable, you wouldn't want to travel by plane or boat in Russia .... And somewhere a bomb is about to go off.

Postscript 21 July: Buckingham Palace has broken its silence to announce that Prince Andrew is stepping fown from his role as Trade Envoy ... Nicely timed. There has been silence on the issue since March

Sunday, 10 July 2011

On Holding and Being Held

Children have all the time in the world. Adults are often impatient to "move on". This is one way in which they are mis-matched.

A child in distress, whether from physical injury or emotional upset, needs to be held. Sometimes the parent takes the initiative and embraces the child, sometimes the child clings to the parent.

Distress in a child is often overwhelming, exacerbated by the child's awareness that they have lost it. Lost self-control, self-possession.

It may take a child a long time to calm down and a good-enough parent will allow the child to feel that they are there for as long as it takes. It simply doesn't work to tell the child to pull itself together. The child knows it should and knows it can't. That's a large part of the distress.

It used to be standard in children's homes for staff simply to hold on tight to children in distress, acting out - throwing things, attacking people. I don't know if staff are still allowed to do that; I hope so.

Adults also need to be held and holding is one of the things lovers do for each other.

There are symbolic forms of holding. R.D.Laing somewhere gives an account of an analysis in which his patient / client sat silently. Laing responded in kind but got bored and tried to "move on". He began to think about other things; probably he began to fidget. The patient responded by saying, "Don't leave me". I doubt Laing was that surprised; nor would anyone be surprised who had read John Bowlby or D.W. Winnicott.

Children will let go when they have recovered. Made to let go too soon and they will cling. Rebuffed, they will eventually lose the capacity to be held and to hold.

Politicians, bankers and other important people are always telling us we should "move on". I do hope they don't say that to their children.


Added 24 July 2018: For an expansion of these themes, see the chapter "Never Mind. E.Weber Love You Always" in my book Prose Improvements (degree zero 2017), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Not Being Funny, But Is This a Good Way to Sell Newspapers?

News International is closing The News of the World, just like that.

The final issue will probably outsell all previous issues, thus compensating for the loss of advertising. The new "We never hack your phone" Sun on Sunday will start by outselling the old News of the World and may continue to do so.

Two up to News International. What's a few arrests between friends?

It is understandable that London-based journalists and other newspaper proprietors see an opportunity to weaken the hold of News International over UK media and UK politics - not forgetting the Metropolitan Police: much more interesting than the phone hacking are the activities of Andy Hayman and John Yates (* see Postscript).

Peter Oborne in today's Daily Telegraph has the best illustration of the political grip: he reports Tony Blair phoning Prime Minister Gordon Brown to urge him to shut up Tom Watson, the MP who was sounding off about phone hacking way back in the dark days of the Brown regime. Put that alongside The Times giving front page to Tony Blair on Libya (so that he could exonerate himself) at a time when every other paper was giving front page to Libya (see my Blog for 28 February 2011 ) and you begin to see how it all works.

It would surely be an illusion to suppose that the onslaught on News International is driven by a desire to raise the moral standards of journalism. It might incidentally do so, but the real drive is to sell your newspapers not theirs.

As for the politicians, they face a dilemma. If they think that News International's wings can be permanently clipped, then they have a motive to join in the onslaught. But if they are unsure of the eventual outcome, they have to be more cautious.

None of them is going to speak over the heads of the media and say to the electorate, "Trouble is, Rupert Murdoch decides what you will think of me. Worse, James Murdoch is lined up to take over that role".

I can't remember when I last read the News of the Screws, let alone bought one. It is one of those things that one just doesn't do, though surely I must have done it at least once - there was surely a spectacular scandal it uncovered and to my delight. But unfortunately I forget which one. There are so many.


Postscript, Sunday 10 July: There is an extraordinary long interview with John Yates in today's Sunday Telegraph. He fesses up to having made a complete hash of things and says he isn't going to resign. I think he understands how things work.

Monday 18 July: Got that one wrong. Faced with the prospect of being suspended by the Metropolitan Police Authority, John Yates has today resigned.

The Pavement Paradox: why you will always trip over

This is the puzzle: everyone uses pavements but most pavements are badly maintained. How come?

I think about this question here in Green-controlled Brighton and Hove and that gives me an idea for a general answer to my problem.

A bare majority of "citizens" vote in British general elections and only a minority in local elections. You can win in local elections by getting just a few of your on-hand special interest groups to turn out for you. Here in Brighton and Hove, the Greens know they need the votes of more than a few boutique owners in the Laines. So they go after the public sector worker vote (probably the biggest single special interest group), the LGBT vote (a big one), the cyclists (an utterly determined group), and so on.

Pavement users are just not a special interest group and promising better pavements just isn't going to motivate a non-voter to go and vote (I'm a non-voter and it wouldn't motivate me) nor is it going to switch a Tory or a Labour vote.

In consequence, because there are no votes in pavements, there is no money for pavements. In Brighton and Hove you only have to look down to see that.

There has been one curious exception to the rule which suggest that my thinking is along the right lines. A few years ago, a lot of money (half a million, if I recall correctly) was spent putting some very nice pavements around Hove's Palmeira Square. They looked good and still do. Why? My understanding was that the then Labour nearly-controlled council was trying to keep the Lib Dems on side, to give them a majority over the Tories. And Palmeira Square was Lib Dem territory. You see? You need a special interest to get good pavements.

Added 24 July 2018: For an expansion of this Blog post, see the chapter "Macadamised" in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Stewart Dakers and the Over 60s

The Guardian today has Stewart Dakers arguing that the elderly should expect to contribute to the costs of their care, one way or another. Lots of venomous posts in response from the "I've paid my taxes now give me them back" brigade.

We fail to think clearly about what is involved in getting older and we allow the elderly to think very unclearly about it: we indulge far too many of their fantasies

Getting older - past 60 - means that there is an ever-increasing chance that your luck will run out. For example, whilst most breast cancer campaigning offers images of younger women afflicted, in reality the risks of developing breast cancer increase with age. The same is true for most cancers - and for most illnesses which affect physical mobility and mental capacity.

Older people respond to their sense that things may go badly wrong in various ways.

Some just keep going, changing none of their habits until forced by circumstances. This group includes the people who carry on working, given the chance.

Some carry on much as normal but make adjustments to lifestyle and contingency plans, discussed with their children if they have them.

Others batten down the hatches. They stop spending, they hoard, they lie. There are lots of older people who present an image of poverty when, in fact, they are both asset rich (houses) and cash rich. When they need it, they hold out their hands for free care, whether provided by their children or the state.

Often enough, the beneficiaries of this meanness are the cats' and dogs' homes left a pretty penny in the Will.

Governments need to be as robust in the way they address their older citizens as they are when addressing the young. New Labour - Gordon Brown especially - was hopelessly sentimental about the elderly. That has been disastrous. At worst, it means that those over 60 have inflated ideas about what they are Entitled to and why - they believe that they have a Human Right to a Free Bus Pass, than which you cannot get much more absurd and pathetic.

Governments need to listen to dissenting voices among the older age group, people like Stewart Dakers.

Monday, 4 July 2011

I'm still thinking about Greece and I don't think it's the fault of the €uro

The more you think about it, Greece is a textbook case of mindless sub-prime lending by non-Greek banks, biggest among them it seems, BNP Paribas - which is why President Sarkozy is so agitated .

Surely, at some point, the big banks involved in buying Greek bonds must have thought to themselves: Gee, these guys are borrowing an awful lot of money from us. Look at their debt to GNP ratio! How the hell are they gonna pay it all back? It's not as if they are building factories or gas pipelines with the money...

So just as with sub-prime mortgage lending, no one seems to have done any kind of basic risk assessment. True, the rating agencies were also slow on the uptake. So how come that also happened. What were the guys at S & P's and Moody's and all the others doing when they kept on awarding AAA status to Greece's junk bonds?

The more I think, the less it seems that the €uro has got anything to do with this. It's about the Greek government, egged on by Greek voters, spending a lot more than it could afford and all of it on things which would not generate future income.

So if it is not about the €uro then the €uro will withstand a Greek default or Greece's exit from the €urozone. Greece is probably too stupid for the €urozone, that's all.

This may also help explain why the Great She God Pound Sterling remains so obstinately Down against the €uro. What have we got to offer that the €urozone hasn't? Not much, it seems. Mr Cameron is as desperate for Tourists to come to the UK as Mr Papandreou to get them to Athens. Neither country has much else to sell. The UK is definitely too stupid for the €urozone.

The important point in this Blog is the prediction about the €uro. Greece can go up in flames and there will be very little effect on the €uro. It's much stronger than it's weakest link.

Caring for the Elderly - a thankless task?

They don't want to pay for care, though many of them can afford to. They don't like the way they are cared for. And they made their Wills years ago, leaving shed loads to the Donkey Sanctuary. Meanwhile, their money is rotting in low interest accounts.

First element of a sensible Government strategy: tax legacies to Donkey Sanctuaries and all the other "Animal Welfare" scams at 95%. We need less Animal Welfare not this exponentially burgeoning population of donkeys bred to be welfared.

Second element: offer inducements to elderly people to downsize when they are rattling around alone in large, unsuitable houses. No stamp duty if they purchase a flat in a Warden-assisted block. Reduced inheritance tax if they pass the equity they realise from the house sale to children or grandchildren while they are still alive.

Third, stop encouraging old people to think they can live as long as they like, as stupidly and stubbornly as they like, and still unconditionally expect Someone Else to foot the bills. Remind people as they are getting old that it is time to grow up!

This month I plan to be 64. If I continue in reasonably good health, physical and mental, I don't mind living until 84 which, according to the statistics, seems about par for the course. Otherwise I am not so sure. I am not convinced I want to become one of the elderly frail and far from convinced that I want to go lower down the scale of independence than "Warden assisted". I don't want to be a burden on my children and I would rather they got their money sooner rather than later.

So I find myself torn. On the one hand, I try to do my Exercises - thirty minutes brisk walking several times a week if I can't excuse myself out of it. I even manage three or four - maybe sometimes all five - of my Five a Day. On the other hand, there is a bit of me which thinks it would be better to go out with a massive coronary, so why don't I just tuck into the food and guzzle the wine which I like and fuck the five a day?

There is no Merit in living to a ripe old age, though it is often suggested that there is: very old people are often asked to what they attribute their longevity and they never answer "Luck" or "Genetic inheritance". Instead, they claim credit. Usually they Abstained from something, but I don't see much point to life if you are always Abstaining from it.

There is a very tricky issue for older people to navigate concerning their medical care. There is a balance to be struck between taking advantage of what modern medicine can offer to improve the quality of your life and, on the other hand, taking the medicine just to prolong life itself whatever the quality or lack of it.

I have met older people who have refused radical treatments for determined cancers and I understand their thinking. They will accept palliative care - no one wants to be in pain - but drastic intervention just to be kept alive a bit longer doesn't have any appeal to them.

None of these thoughts really helps with misfortune and a great deal of Old Age is about just that. It's quite possible that I do my Exercises, eat my Five a Day, have my blood pressure monitored, downsize to sensible accommodation - and still by some quirk of fate, suffer - let's say - a nasty stroke. It's then that I will want to be cared for. And I will want it done properly.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

The Royal Family abhors a vacuum - and the Labour Party has provided one

Back in the 1950s, the BBC used to lead off the evening News with a deferential report on what the Queen had been doing that day even if the world was in chaos.

Recently, I have been struck by the fact that The Times now runs a front page Royal story every day. This is obviously a policy. But why?

The Royal Family - the Firm - never misses a trick to entrench its position - or re-entrench it after a set-back (Charles as heir to the throne, Death of Diana, Prince Harry's antics, Prince Edward's antics, Prince Andrew's antics ....)

Mr Cameron is very much on their side (he has been very obliging with Days Orff for flag waving this year and next) but the big asset at present is the disappearance of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. They don't make the front page every day. How could they? They don't know what they are opposed to, if anything, or why. They are not photogenic or telegenic.

So into the vacuum The Firm has stepped. And they are working hard at it. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have been despatched to Canada to whittle down the strength of sentiment for a Republic. Australia next. Some good work done by the Boss in the Republic of Ireland, and so on.

Of course, all this work is not disinterested. They expect a reward - and it seems they are going to get it. In place of the "Civil List" they are now going to take a percentage of the income from the Crown Estates. Guess when they handed over the Crown Estates to the state? Back in 1760.

You could look at this way. They have succeeded in putting the clock back 250 years. Not bad for one Royal Wedding and a publicity campaign in The Times.


PS. I forgot. There is someone else trying to fill the vacuum created by the absence of a political opposition to the ConLib coalition: Boris Johnson, Mayor of London. He has a very good case to be regarded as Leader of the Opposition: London's eight million people basically pay for the rest of the UK.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Brighton & Hove: a good case for "localism"

This is really a memo to the Green Party which now controls the city council here in Brighton & Hove (that's one city of 250,000 people and the only Green controlled one in the UK), but I'll sketch in a bit of background first.

For most of its history, Brighton has been a weekend city. It's the seaside resort nearest to London and, traditionally, was the place to which London workers headed on their days off. See Graham Greene, Brighton Rock for an introduction.

It's still a place for day trippers and still the kind of seedy place Greene described.

But it's now also a city for young people (two universities and two hundred language schools) and gay people and it's more than ever a weekend city, a party town with a vast "club scene". The economy is driven by the sale of food and drink and drugs. Ice creams, Brighton Rock and scary rides on the Pier add a topping and there are, of course, hotels or student flop houses where you can sleep it all off.

Public holidays are days on which, if it's sunny, every one who works in the service sector is needed behind the bar and the counter, on stage or providing Security at the door. These are the busiest days.

The streets are always greasy with the residues of a million cheap take aways, the police are kept busy at weekends with the effects of alcohol, and the Accident and Emergency department is much engaged pumping out drink and drug filled stomachs.

Remarkably, public services seem always to have been organised on the usual lines, following national contracts. Public sector workers are Monday to Friday people. Saturdays and Sundays are overtime days.

There is an overwhelming case for local contracts here to reflect the nature of the city. We don't need Monday to Friday workers; we need Wednesday to Sunday workers - if there have to be overtime days, then they should be Mondays and Tuesdays. Better, all public services should employ staff on a rota with Mondays and Tuesdays as days of reduced activity but not shut down.

The Town Hall, the GP surgeries, the STD clinics, emergency services including support workers, refuse collection, libraries and museums ....

If "localism" doesn't mean something like this, then it doesn't mean anything.