Saturday, 31 December 2016

America Cannot Continue Like This ...


I was cleaning up my Blog www.readingthisbook.com
and found this essay from 2012. Seems like I should have seen
Trump coming ... Apologies for the formatting which I cannot fix




Monday, 15 October 2012


Essay: America Cannot Continue Like This

I haven't reviewed any books recently - I have been giving up on books half way through and therefore -  under the terms of this Blog - cannot review them. This is true of Joseph E. Stiglitz's The Price of Inequality (Allen Lane 2012). I kept comparing it unfavourably with Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone - a book which Stiglitz does not mention.


The problem with Stiglitz's book is not its argument - which relates only to America - but in a decision to consign all the evidence to the footnotes. There are 290 pages of text and over 100 pages of footnote citations and discussions. This leaves the text uncluttered, but - unfortunately - dumbed-down and repetitive. I gave up.



But this is not at all to deny that growing inequality in America, combined with the weakness of the political system,  is a problem for us all and could become a pressing problem.  America surely cannot for long escape its own Arab Spring. Its rent-seeking (Stiglitz) or, as I would put it, extractive elites (the 1% who own and rule and don't pay taxes) have no intention of conceding any ground - indeed, they are still pushing for even more favourable treatment. And their grip over the media, the political process and the legislature has disillusioned citizens where it has not simply disenfranchised them. That is a recipe for civil disorder not orderly political renewal.



Wilkinson and Pickett's book contains many graphs correlating different kinds of Inequality with different social and economic measures. On most of those charts, the USA is an outrider - it has more Inequality and it has worse performance on measures of employment, health, security - you name it. It is never anywhere near the average. Some of those outrider figures surface in Stiglitz's book. We may in a sense already know it, but it is still shocking to read - for example - that "roughly one in three black men will spend time in prison in his lifetime" (page 70). That's a Gulag-like statistic and no society which achieves that outcome can be other than dysfunctional.



Here in Europe, serious newspapers and their serious readers looked at the Republican primaries with jaw-dropping disbelief. How do these nutters get to be front-runner Presidential wannabes? And when Romney finally emerged as candidate, the sigh of relief was quickly replaced by the fervent conviction that No Way, No Way do we want this man to become US President. That would be true across the political spectrum. Even the Conservative Party guardians of Britain's "Special Relationship" with the US pray each night for an Obama victory.



To tell the truth, they pray because they are scared. We are all just a bit scared and become a bit more scared every time some strange Congressman holds forth on Abortion or Evolution or Rape. These guys are Fundamentalists and they are Dangerous, make no mistake.



Whether they are scared in China, I do not know. But in China they are watching America carefully. It is only Chinese money which prevents America's financial implosion. If you think Greece has got problems, look at America's federal budget or its trade balance.



And back of it all, we know that America's war industry is lobbying for another War - and Romney knows that, if elected, he will have to give them one. It makes money and it makes jobs. That the War will be lost, just like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, is of absolutely no concern.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

What Goes Up Must Come Down - On Public Monuments

In our country, we no longer allow the erection of monuments or memorials to anyone. Our history – which I do not need to rehearse, I am sure – eventually left our parks and pavements cluttered with masonry in which only the pigeons took an interest. A rather short period of reflection on our inheritance produced three conclusions to which we were, albeit reluctantly, obliged to assent:

1.      With very, very few exceptions – some said no exceptions –our monuments and memorials had no “artistic merit”. Even though many had originally cost a great deal of money – much of it raised by Public Subscription – the erections which resulted could all be classified as hack jobs, things towards which you would not address a second glance – or, if you did, only because you were struck by the ugliness.

2.      With equally few exceptions, no one could volunteer any spontaneous information about the subjects of the monuments and memorials. It seems that immortality is a very short lived thing. On closer inspection of the detail, it seemed as if had been a perk of the job to have a monument erected to you if you had once been a king, queen, prime minister, admiral, general, and occasionally scientist or poet. Apart from the queens, they all appeared to have been men though given the motives which existed in the past to pretend you were a man, some of the men may not have been. That is by the by.

3.      When we could put a name to the face and a bit of information to the name, we shortly discovered that we did not have a high opinion of at least half of those who had been monumentalised. Some had committed unspeakable crimes, others speakable ones. Some had said things about their fellow human beings which were not very nice, and some had clearly not been very nice people full stop. The Public had subscribed to some very odd causes.

So rather than repeat the mistakes of the past, we decided to put a stop to it. It would protect our parks and pavements from further depredations. But they were still rather crowded and in places – like the capital – ridiculously so. Some people said we should remove some of the erections. But which ones? Those which had the least artistic merit? Those about which even the most enthusiastic pub quizzer could not spontaneously generate an iota of information? Or perhaps we should focus on those which memorialised people whose conduct had been so distasteful that they really should never have got a statue in the first place?

After some debate, this is what we decided. All would come down but there would be a popular vote in which electors could write-in the names of up to ten monuments they thought should be left undisturbed. They would not be prompted by a list but when the votes were counted, the ten most popular monuments would be preserved. A reasonable percentage, it was felt. It is in this way that Nelson’s Column still stands. A lot of people have their doubts about Nelson, but they do like his Column.

It was proposed that we should look at street names in the same way. They didn’t clutter things up like the statues, but very few of them on inspection had anything to commend them. They were, for the most part, entirely and unremittingly unimaginative, which some argued was actually a merit. Where they mentioned names, it was very rare for anything to be known about the person they memorialised, though it was discovered that the majority were landowners who sold their land for property development but kept their name on the resulting streets. Finally, there were some baddies among those whose names we did recognise.

There are a lot of streets in our country and no one really had the enthusiasm to reform their names. A committee was set up as a way of putting the issue out to grass. Eventually, it reported. It had only one recommendation. Someone had pointed out that in the whole country, there was not a single Revolution Street. The committee recommended that there should be one but that it was unnecessary and undesirable to specify which Revolution – let people imagine it as they wished.

And that is why you can now walk up Revolution Street towards Nelson’s Column.

Closed and Open Borders - Lord Lucan and Anis Amri

No one's borders were open in 1974 but Lord Lucan  was able to kill his children's nanny and get clean away. It helps to be posh, it's true, but still he was never found in the United Kingdom and in 1974 there was no channel tunnel.

In 2016, Europe's (but not the UK's) borders are open and Anis Amri got from Berlin to Milan before he was stopped and shot. Would it have been better if the borders were closed?

I don't think so. Consider that the UK does not have a single police force, just lots of local constabularies - some of them incompetent and, as official reports frequently also tell us, corrupt. Commit a crime in Cumbria and flee to Cornwall and you are moving from the territory of one police force to the territory of another. So should the borders be sealed as you move from one constabulary area to another?

In July 2005,  Mohammad Sidique Khan was able to travel by train from Leeds to London and blow himself up on the London Underground. He and his friends killed 52 people in their attack. Does that mean you shouldn't be able to travel by train from Leeds to London without being stopped at whatever is declared the border between North and South?

Europe's open borders are a huge political achievement. They enormously improve business productivity - lorries travel faster  - and they make holidaymaking and even simple day trips more pleasant. Just compare driving from France to Germany with driving from England to France (and back).

Those who want to close the borders don't tell you one important thing: they assume that they themselves will use the VIP channel, likely in coming years to become a lucrative business. Buy shares now and profit from discrimination against the ordinary traveller who of course is now likely to vote for more sheep pens like they have already at Calais. British holidaymakers assume that it is only natural to wait and wait before they are allowed back into their own country.




Thursday, 22 December 2016

King's College London and Dr George Carey

Few people like to be hurried and few like to be disapproved of. I guess those are thoughts you might find in a handbook of Nudge theory. There are gentler ways of getting people to go in the right direction than hectoring them.

I think hectoring may be an element in the rise of what we now call Populisms – political movements generally led by demagogues and targetting those less educated, less affluent and, generally, older and set in their ways. Insofar as the Politically Correct have hectored these people, Populism gives them a chance to talk back – though not necessarily in their own voices.

Some things you can change very quickly and people will go along with the change, even if they find it hard. Other things you can change quickly if you just have to change the rules,  but it takes time for people to come onside with the change. Instead of hectoring people, pointing fingers at them, ostracising them, it might be a better strategy to wait a bit and give people a chance.

I am no fan of marriage – I tried it once and I don’t intend to repeat it and I don’t think I have ever recommended it to anyone. When my children decided to marry, they decided of their own accord. They weren’t prompted or nagged or bribed.

When gay marriage arrived a few years ago, I had no objections but also no enthusiasm.  I was simply disappointed to realise that lots of gay people wanted to get in on an institution which I think of as conservative and a cement for conservatism. But if people want to sign up to marriage, well, that’s their own affair and I’ll congratulate when they announce their plans. I felt a bit more enthusiasm for heterosexual couples who wanted to be able to enter into civil partnerships, the alternative to marriage originally offered to gay people. Civil partnerships sound better to me than marriage.

Since marriage in its heterosexual variant had been around for an awfully long time and is deeply woven into the beliefs and practices of religious organisations, I did not expect that gay marriage would be instantly accepted and by everyone. The broadly secular majority didn’t mind but the fairly large non-secular minority did mind, sometimes a lot.

The sensible thing would be to give these people time to come on board. Since they were mostly elderly, they might well die before that point arrived. That’s often the way in which changes get embedded. You have to wait for people to die off.

I read today that King’s College, London has taken off the walls a portrait of Dr George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, because of his past, public opposition to gay marriage. Well, I don’t like the Church of England one bit but I was not delighted by this news. It seems to be the sort of thing fundamentalists do – people who can’t live with the Bamyan statues or Palmyra or, in this case, a reminder that not everyone is on the same side on every issue. Dr Carey probably believes in many things I don’t believe  in and which the decision makers at King’s College don’t believe in. But why did they pick gay marriage as a reason to take his portrait down? Would they have done if he was in favour of hanging or fox hunting or Brexit or castration of sex offenders or the rehabilitation of Stalin or prohibition of alcohol or simply because he believes in a state-approved and state-funded version of God (now there is a reason, I am tempted to say)?


One of the problems with fundamentalists is that they are insecure. But you don’t overcome that by ostracising those you disagree with. You strengthen your position by becoming more confident about it and that probably means, more relaxed about it. Dr Carey is going to die anyway and with him beliefs you disagree with. Why not leave it at that – though, true,  I wouldn’t mind if you chose to blow a raspberry each time you pass his photograph. I would be indulgent towards that; he was an Archbishop of a state church, after all. 

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

When, why and how Profiling Is Legitimate

Profiling has a bad name but a worse name than it deserves. Think through the following example if you need convincing.

A truck is driven into a crowded Christmas market in Berlin. A dozen people die and many more are injured, some very seriously. The original driver of the truck is found shot dead on the passenger seat. The person who drove the truck into the crowd flees the scene.

For a number of reasons, including the similarities to an incident in Nice on Bastille Day this year, it is a reasonable first assumption that this is some kind of terrorist attack. The fact that the driver runs off is worrying. First, because the person is probably armed - there is a body with gunshot wounds in the truck - and could use the gun again. Second, because if it is a terrorist attack under the flag of some Islamic cause, then the driver should really have died in the attack - that's the rule - unless he or she is going to make a further attack and probably in the near future in which they may seek to die. If this is a non-Islamic attack, the same reasoning applies: the driver may intend to kill again.

The police therefore are under enormous pressure. They have lots of resources but the clock is against them. Ideally, some kind of trail will lead them directly to the perpetrator of the attacks but it may not. They quickly decided that their first arrest was of the wrong person. Now they have a Tunisian identity card which may or may not be a false lead supplied to throw them off the scent. Maybe CCTV will show up something.Maybe forensics will find some fingerprints or DNA ...

The police would simply be failing in their duty of public protection if they waited for a definite lead. They have no choice but to profile.

Profile One: The driver will be male . I would bet heavily on that. Wouldn't you? The driver may have a female accomplice - a wife, for example - but the driver will be male. That Profile immediately lifts suspicion from 50% of the population. Why try to dodge that fact?

Profile Two: The driver will be over the age of 16 (probably over the age of 18) and that may have something to do with the  logistics of getting hold of guns, hijacking trucks, driving them into crowds. At the other end, the driver will be under the age of forty. Terror attacks of any kind are very rarely mounted by men older than that. This Profile removes suspicion from another 25% of the population, roughly speaking.

So we are down to 25% of the population as potential suspects as a result of profiling. Now it begins to get difficult.

Profile Three: Will the driver be someone born in Germany or born elsewhere? This is tricky. Recent terrorist attacks in Belgium and France have involved both men locally born and men born abroad. So it would be unwise to profile by place of birth.

Profile Four: A Christmas market is an unlikely - in fact, implausible - target for a right-wing nationalist /neoNazi, white terrorist unless as a provocation. But as a provocation there is a risk it will backfire, and if it is a provocation, some effort would surely have been made to point the finger at refugees, immigrants, Muslims - whatever - as the perpetrators. The Tunisian identity card could be such an attempt to create a false trail. It's therefore not possible to rule out a right-wing attack. However ...

Profile Five: Most recent terrorist attacks in mainland Europe using improvised means and aiming at random deaths have been carried out by non-white individuals born in predominantly Muslim countries or brought up in broadly Muslim cultures. It would be irresponsible not to profile for a young, male, non-white, Muslim background. He could be German by birth but, if not, he could come from anywhere and could be a recent arrival in Germany or not. We are now down to maybe 10% of the population and that's still a hopelessly large number. That is one of the limitations of profiling as opposed to forensic policing.

How you get the 10% down to 1%, I don't know, but the most obvious next move is to profile who has been in Berlin for at least a week or so or who has accomplices who have been in Berlin for longer than that. Some preliminary research probably had to be done - where to find a truck to hijack, what route to follow to the market, what obstacles (if any) there were to getting into the market. It's possible that the driver has now left Berlin and it's possible he had a home base in another place to which he has returned. And so on.

Whatever the truth,  I hope the Berlin police can profile down to 1% and even more I hope they get a lead from CCTV, fingerprints, DNA and so on.

Added later on 21 December: The Tunisian identity card is being treated by the police as a genuine lead because it links to someone already known to the immigration and security services. He is male, in the age group 18 - 40, is non-white and - if he is indeed Tunisian - comes from a predominantly Muslim cultural background.






Friday, 16 December 2016

Out of the Mouths of Macedonian Babes

Explaining why it would be harder to make lots of money from promoting Fake News in Germany, a Macedonian teenager explained to the Financial Times:
 “Germans take their politics more seriously.It’s not about entertainment for them.”
And on the ethics of Fake News, here's another quotation from the Financial Times story:
 “If I make €100,000 this year, I’ll pay €10,000 in taxes — that will pay for two of my teachers’ salaries for a whole year,” said one teenager, in an interview given while he skipped history class. “So, I feel like I’m giving something back.”


Source: Financial Times, 16 December 2016

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

How To Hack Your Way Into Top Secret Emails - the Fancy Bear Way

Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear are code names for two incredibly sophisticated, secret and above all RUSSIAN spying organisations. They may try to hack their way into your gmail account. You need to protect yourself so BE AWARE of how they operate.

First, they send you an email (which cyberspying experts call a "phishing email") telling you that there has been an attempt at unauthorised access to your gmail account and advising that you re-set your Password.

Second, you reply, re-setting your Password.

Third, they login to your gmail account, copy all your mails and PUBLISH them

Er, that's it.

It worked against the Democratic National Committee so it may work against you or CIA Headquarters or FBI headquarters ....

Monday, 12 December 2016

Getting Out More

Once or twice a year - traditionally at New Year - I make some kind of review of my life and try to introduce some kind of change, even if only a temporary one and even if only a small one.I think it helps if you try to look at your life from outside. Even statistics can help.

There are 365 days in the year and so there are 8760 hours in the year. Aware of the fact that I now spend more time literally at home, in my flat, I tried to work out just how much time. In the past, I reckoned to spend maybe 30 nights a year away from home, mostly for work, but that figure has now dropped to 20 or even less. Then I thought about my daily routine if I am at home. If I am well and unless the weather is really horrible, I will go out every day. But sometimes this is only for a short period - a brisk morning walk over and done with in 30 or 40 minutes and then later a stroll to the local shops which might take the same amount of time. Even allowing for day trips and evening outings, the statistics still end up telling me that I spend about 85% of all those 8760 hours physically inside my flat. That's a lot to do with working from home, but also to do with age and temperament. I am sure I should get out more, but ...

It's a good job I really like the flat - modern, top floor, quiet, private, sunny with a tiny bit of a sea view. But if I am spending so much time at home, then maybe the New Year's Resolution should be to re-decorate and re-carpet. Or to improve the desk lamps and table lamps which I work under and which are actually pretty useless. The bed and the bedclothes are very satisfactory and that's relevant to a very big chunk of my time - I sleep more now, as much as nine hours, and if you compute from that it comes out that I spend about 35% of all those 8760 hours in my own bed - I exclude the  beds I sleep in on those 20 nights away. How many of us convert that sort of figure into a luxurious bed? It's surely justified, even if my 35% drops to your 25%.

Of course, I see it as rather a privilege that I spend so much time at home. Suppose I lived in Brighton and commuted to work in London.My home to office journey is unlikely to be less than 90 minutes and more likely 120 minutes, so three to four hours of commute each day, five days a week, forty six weeks of the year for a full-time worker with a decent holiday package. Take the lowest figure of 3 hours per day, then that amounts to 8% of 8760 hours. Take the 4 hour figure, and it amounts to over 10%.  Who would want to spend 10% of their life commuting on crowded trains which are often late and cancelled, pushing up the percentage figure even higher. If you take out sleeping time, those 8 and 10% figures convert to 12% and 15% percent. Life is too short to want to spend 15% of your waking hours getting to a train station,getting on a crowded train, getting off and getting to the office. In any other country except the United Kingdom, figures like those would be a scandal and governments would be busy building high speed train lines and building homes closer to places of work.

If I spend 10% of my total time reading, then that is 876 hours per year. If it takes eight to ten hours to read a book, then I should be able to read a couple of books each week, every week of the year. That's probably what I achieve nowadays and some of them get reviewed at www.readingthisbook.com .

Applied to your own life, it seems that even simple statistics can yield interesting insights




Thursday, 8 December 2016

Why the Labour Party is Finished

No one needs it.

If you are in favour of Brexit, you have got the National Conservatives and you simply don't need this disorganised party which is tagging along behind with no clear idea about why it is tagging along. If you are against Brexit, the Labour Party is just another enemy and you have to fall back on the Christian Liberal Democrats and, if you are lucky enough, the Scottish National Party.

Results so far. In Sleaford Labour finishes fourth after the Conservatives, the Trump Party, the Liberal Democrats. In Richmond, trailing behind the Christian Liberal Democrats and the National Conservatives. Nobody needs Labour.

It really is an extraordinary and appalling mess and I don't think we are going to get out of it. The decade 2008 - 2018 has already been described as a lost decade. I cannot see how 2018 - 2028 will be any different. I expect more food banks, more trains that do not run, more homelessness, an even bigger income and wealth gap, more crime and the National Conservatives still in power. I'll probably be dead by the end of that second wasted decade, but so too will half of those who voted to destroy the future for their children and grandchildren.

Over to you, Owen Jones. And do bear in mind that the United Kingdom is at its biggest crossroads since 1939 and where it might be thought that there was a premium on informed and decisive leadership.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Government Wants To Move Europe Farther Away From The UK

A leaked document prepared for Mrs May's Junta shows that the government is looking for ways to move Europe farther away from the United Kingdom. "It's just too damn close", said one government insider, "You can virtually drive there - and that means they can drive here".

The front-runner option being considered is the closure of the Channel Tunnel. Since that would leave open the possibility of it being re-opened at some future date, those pressing for a "Hard" distancing from Europe want to see the Tunnel flooded. But since that might simply put pressure on the Channel ports at Dover and Folkestone, the Hard faction is pressing for those to be closed too.

"We simply do not need all these cars and lorries going back and forth and giving people the idea that Europe is our next door neighbour. We forget who our friends are. We should be selling to Australia and buying from them too. Everything we buy from Europe - butter, apples, wine, tinned pears, corned beef .... - well, we could buy it from Australia. And it would give our ships some proper voyages to make, not all this to-ing and fro-ing across the Channel. More manly, don't you think?"

Critics think that these measures alone will not be enough. People will still think nothing of flying to Europe. But not if they are faced with sky-high taxes on their flights. Taxes can create psychological distance and so can visas. People will think twice about a weekend in Paris if it costs more than a weekend in Florida - and especially when they realise that people in Florida speak English (or Spanish, as Mr Trump has reminded us). Those in favour of a "Soft" distancing from Europe think that taxes and visas are a better strategy to move Europe out of sight and out of mind. "People will simply forget about Amsterdam when it costs £1000 to get there and takes three days".

A Junta source replied to a request for Comment saying, "All Options are on the table or, indeed, under the table which is why we are right now looking for an extra table which of course won't now be coming from IKEA"