Friday, February 26, 2016

Am I mad or is the world insane? - 2 (Believers)

If the internet is good for one thing, it is by acting as a sewer into which the world's nutters can pour out their paranoid fantasies. And if it keeps them off the streets then jolly good. If you want proof, consider the near-illiterate comments posted by people on websites that stream live pictures from the International Space Station. They are uninterested in the views of Earth or the wonders of space engineering. To a man (and they are pretty well all men, or at least male, judging by their names) they obsess about aliens, UFOs, the evil conspiracy perpertrated by NASA and how they alone know the grisly truth about the threats facing us, apart from the world governments who are hushing everything up, but our gallant defenders, scanning every little imperfection on the camera images, every strange reflection, every transient pixel, can see the ghastly aliens buzzing about our skies.

Everything is proof of the invaders from beyond.  If there is a light, it must be an alien spacecraft. If there is nothing but blackness then a) it proves that NASA is erasing the images of the aliens and b) the absence of the sun proves that NASA is doctoring the images. The facts that the light pouring back into space from the Earth will drown out everything apart from the moon and sun, and that pointing the cameras at the sun would under-expose everything else to the point of invisibility, are sidestepped by the brilliant tactic not discussing them

Why don't these people buy a telescope and look for themselves? Or would they invoke some conspiracy involving the telescope manufacturers whose lenses will blank out any aliens? Perhaps the aliens are too small to be seen from down here. In which they will not be seen from up there either unless they come very close to the ISS.

And it is an International station by the way. Not owned by NASA. Built by the Russians and crewed by astronauts from many countries. Yet all, apparently, part of the conspiracy.

There are a similar bunch of certifiable loonies over at the Flat Earth society. They insist that the world is a sort of saucer surrounded by huge ice walls. Yet they could so easily prove themselves right by hiring an aircraft and flying off to see the edge of the world. They do not so. I wonder why?

I guess I have answered my own question. It's the world. The world is insane. It produces people who believe anything other than things they could verify for themselves. You can't engage them in debate because they alone know the truth and all evidence to the contrary is manufactured by a conspiracy. So I won't return to this subject.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Am I mad or is the world insane? ("Why not buy" suggestions)

I went to the website of a well known high street retailer, (who I will not embarass by naming, let's just say it starts with 'T'. And rhymes with Fresco) seeking to buy a small bookcase. I found something suitable and placed an order. Let me repeat this for the sake of clarity: I bought a bookcase.

The website acknowledged my order for a bookcase and then displayed on the screen a recommendation for something I might wish to buy, based, in their words, on my selection. My selection, let me remind you, was a bookcase. [OK, we get the picture: Ed]

The item actually recommended for me, based on my order of ... well, you know what it was ... was a CD entitled If I can dream: Elvis Presley with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Let us leave aside the fact that Mr. Presley never performed with this orchestra (he never even bothered to perform in the UK) for this hot waxing consists of a mix of old recordings of him singing and some more recent ones of them playing the accompaniment, or so I gather from the description since I have not bothered to listen to it. Why on earth anyone would concoct such a musical abortion is beyond even my fervid imagination.

What is really boggling my mind is how these two items, the ordinary piece of furniture, and the utterly pointless remix, go together in such a way that having bought one, the algorithms used by the retailer should suggest the other. Perhaps the fact that there is an 'E' in both descriptions? Did the King, as I am told some of his adherents describe him, own a really important bookcase that fans are keen to emulate? Anyway, here are some more sensible ideas:
  • Some paint or varnish to brighten up the shelves
  • Some books to place decoratively upon them
  • A late Victorian-style carriage clock
  • A vase or other ornament
  • A book entitled "50 cheap books to buy and put on your newly acquired bookcase so as to impress your friends"
This latter would surely rank highly in any computer-based scoring system seeking to build upon my consumer preferences.  But no, I was offered none of these products. Instead I was directed to a recording by a popular artist not one of whose works subsides in my collection, who failed utterly to impress me when he was alive and I was young and impressionable during the height of his success in the late 1950s and 1960s, and whose musical style is as remote from the stuff I listen to as to make comparisons pointless.

Or is it me? The next time I buy a sofa must I also get The Sex Pistols Greatest Hits performed by the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain? Does a tin of beans qualify me for Bach B Minor Mass with special guest stars Madonna, Adele, Rihanna, Dido and Lady Gaga? Should I be going "Yes, yes, I want to buy a table lamp, now rush me my 50 popular football chants by Coldplay and the massed bands of the RAF? Oh well, at least I can stack them all on my new bookcase.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The EU Referendum 2 - Boris votes for Boris

After an "agonising decision", my MP Boris Johnson has opted for the UK to leave the EU. Did it really hinge on an exhausting examination of the terms of the weekend deal? Or a cynical political calculation which goes like this.

1) Johnson placed himself to replace Cameron if the Tories had failed to win the 2015 general election.
2) Cameron's unexpected victory wrong-footed all of his rivals and his announcement that he would stand down before the next election shut them up pro tem.
3) Cameron's mate George Osborne is the obvious replacement, the man who can undertake to carry on Cameron's policies.
4) So Johnson's hopes of becoming leader of the party and next PM rest on Cameron & Osborne getting a severe setback.
5) Such a setback can only now be if they commit to a Yes result in the referendum (which I assume they will) and the nation votes No.
6) Ergo, Johnson has to be seen as effectively heading the No vote, although given the various parties already committed to that cause, he is unlikely to be the titular leader of any of them.
7) If Cameron wins the referendum then Johnson has not lost much; he will have got a lot of exposure and he can continue to place himself as the alternative to Cameron/Osborne when the time comes. If he loses then Boris can put himself forward as the voice of the people, or something similar.

So I suspect the "agonising" was about whether the above line of reasoning was valid. Because if Boris was really convinced that the UK should not be in the EU he could have made that known a long time ago.

It's a shame that such a charismatic political figure should have opted for a very short-term political judgement on a matter that will be of great importance to the country, and to Europe, for maybe the next thirty years. In my opinion he should have made the long term judgement and for such a scholar of classical history, the lessons from two thousand years of splintered and fractious European nation-states ought to have been learned.

The EU Referendum 1 - Vote Yes for positive reasons

Somewhat to my surprise, Mr. Cameron secured a deal at the EU summit on Friday, gaining the total support of all the member states. Now he has to sell it to the country. There will be a referendum at the end of June, not on the question of whether the deal is acceptable or should be renegotiated, but whether Britain should continue its membership of the EU.

I suppose I will have to examine the arguments as they become clearer in the coming months but for now, let me state my position. I am not interested in whether I am a bit better off or a bit worse off in the EU. I am not interested in whether the "sovereignty" of the UK government is enhanced or diminished by membership. What am I chiefly concerned with is the long term future of this country. I believe that our prosperity and security require a prosperous and secure Europe, especially the countries on the fringes that are currently under the greatest pressure from the economic slowdown and the refugee crisis. In addition there is a real threat of the revival of the Russian empire which may destabilise the Baltic bloc and other bordering countries, and we can expect no particular favours from the other world economic superpowers.

Britain is a vital part of the EU and the EU is a vital contributory factor to our future. It's a no-brainer. I want our government to be at the heart of the European project, standing up for sensible and tolerant policies, opposing extremism and excessive bureaucracy. I don't think a European super-state is feasible right now (but it might be if constructed on genuinely democratic lines with the full consent of everyone) and I am suspicious of "ever-closer union" and glad the UK is exempt from it. Whatever happens in the EU the British voice can be and should be heard loud and clear.

To exit the EU now would force Britain, which does most of its trade with the rest of the EU) to conform to the economic policies made in Brussels but without a say in them. It would gladden those hostile to liberal democracies, be they in the Kremlin, the Middle East or further afield. And it would lead directly to the smashing up of the UK as the Scots would seize their chance for another referendum on independence.

There has never been a world project like the EU, in which many independent nations opt for a single trading bloc (and most for a shared currency), with a tier of political institutions that override their own. It has delivered peace and stability across much of Europe for over 50 years. It is in our interests that it succeeds and the best way we can make sure that it does is to be part of it.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Living with irrationality

The following was a letter published in The Guardian this morning and I felt I had to quote it because it so closely matches my own views.
Markets are “unnerved”, “market confidence is fast deteriorating”, “market expectations [or should that read speculations?] are not met”, all of which adds up to “global markets being haunted by fear”. Where is the “rationality” in all of this, ie rational people making rational and informed decisions, which presumably is the mantra that underlies the principle and justification of “free market economy”?
Wolfgang Wittwer

Humans are conscious animals. This means we are capable of exercising reason and acting on information and cool judgement. It also means we make gut responses often based on our perceptions of what others are doing or what we think they are doing or what we think they are likely to do. It is this last bit that is crucial for getting a handle on market gyrations. This morning, for example, the FTSE 100 index has dropped some 2.5% since last night, a huge fall but following persistent weakness since the start of the new year. One year ago it was around 7000, now it is hovering at 5500. How can a rational market work in this way? Obviously it cannot. Either everyone got it wrong a year ago or they are all getting it wrong now. The current downswing may prove self-fulfilling in that it creates a climate of uncertainty that causes investment spending to fall and precipitates an economic depression. Or it may be seen, in a few months time, as a foolish over-reaction, as the industrial economy picks up under the stimulus of lower energy prices.

We cannot predict the future with sufficient accuracy and therefore all financial investments take the form of a risk based on a mixture of judgement and instinct. But judgement in this case is also heavily dependent on instinct because the future will hinge on whatever everybody else does and we can only guess at what that may be.

When people, and often they are politicians with little experience in economics, talk about the efficiency of markets and the need for market-based solutions, they betray a frightening ignorance about the way that humans think and act.

I shall probably return to this theme.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Those awful advertising slogans - no 9. Johnny Walker

Here's a truly weird, almost creepy one. An elaborate double-page spread in the "colour supplement" in my weekend paper. A large block of text accompanies a full page picture of a young woman in a bathing suit holding a surfboard. We are told she is of  humble origins in Brazil but is now a professional surfer and is really jolly pleased about it.

Perched discreetly at the foot of one page is the word from our sponsor. Here we learn that the surfer is "a Johnny Walker ambassador because she embraces the philosophy that joy takes you further in life". The strapline appears to be "Walk with joy".

The creepy aspect of this slogan is its similarity to the Nazi slogan "Strength through joy" but whether today's adman is sufficiently well educated to know that, I cannot tell. I can excuse them the "Walk" bit because Johnny Walker's advertising has used that word for ages. However this is not the main point. Why should I think better of them because they are associated with a young lady from a distant country?

Let us begin by considering the central issue raised by the gushing copy about the terrible hardships endured by someone who spends her time paddling about in the warm South American seas.  Does the young lady drink the product? If so, she's keeping very quiet about it. Not one mention of her taking the quick gulp from her hip flask before she tackles a big one off the Amazon. Nothing about her habit of chucking the empties over her balcony at 3am. We are told that she has been able to buy a car with the proceeds of her profession but not whether she takes the odd hearty swig whilst hurtling around the motorways of Rio. Does she take it with ice? Soda? She doesn't ruin it by putting cola in, does she?  In fact, although she is supposed to be an ambassador, there is not a single mention of the whisky, or any of the alcoholic or other products made by the Distillers company. Indeed, her demanding lifestyle probably militates against the taking of whisky - perhaps the odd half glass of beer on a hot day or a drop of rum in the evening might be more likely in any case.

None of this appears to matter though. She is an ambassador (not a mere second secretary or commercial attache, no, it's straight into the top flight of diplomatic ranks for our girl) because she is a bit on the cheerful side. That's all it takes. She does something she likes, and good for her, so that qualifies her for  - well, I don't know what she gets out it. Presumably a healthy fee for having her picture splashed over the advert - she is a professional after all. Perhaps a couple of crates of the hard stuff delivered to her door in an unmarked van once a month.

What else does an ambassador for whisky do? Really, she should be haunting the fashionable bars of Ipanema and Copacabana, putting her arms round her drinking buddies and insisting "você é meu melhor companheiro que você é "1, and then ordering large ones all round. Or putting on elaborate parties where, after the butler has brought round the mounds of chocolates wrapped in silver foil she can further spoil her guests by a liberal distribution of snifters and a merry, nay, joyful, shout of "Há muito mais de onde isso veio"2.

In any case, if a spot of joyfulness is the only qualification to attain this clearly desirable status (I'm assuming that, as an ambassador, you get a decent expense allowance, a reasonable flat in the heart of the diplomatic quarter and luncheon vouchers)  then, listen Messrs. Distillers, I'm your man. I can put on a beaming, gap-toothed smile with the best of them. I'm doing something I dearly love [actually, mentioning you enjoy taking the piss out of admen might not be the most intelligent thing to put in writing: Ed]and unlike your Brazilian surfer chum, I am partial to the occasional drop of the "Scottish product". So here's the deal. I'll be your high commissioner to beautiful Ruislip, you drop round a few botts. in a plain brown bag and everyone wins. I'd certainly be walking with joy, I know that.

1.  "You're my best mate you are". 
2. "There's more where that came from"
Thanks Google Translate

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Iowa caucuses - a guide to some of the less well known candidates

There are loads of presidential hopefuls running in the caucuses and understandably readers of these columns may be confused about them. We need waste no time in analysing their politics because one and all they affirm they wish to "make America great" and "get America moving"  and to "bring hope" and similar banalities. Instead we shall waste time by introducing the most obscure candidates with the time-honoured device of playing around with their names. For reasons beyond my control, they are all standing for the Republican party.

  • Jim Gilmore - presumably no relation to the well-known guitarist with a certain popular beat combo I have referenced once or twice in these columns. His achievement of 12 votes out of some 190,000 cast must surely be a great source of pride to his fond parents, if nobody else.
  • Rick Santorum - actually this is a village in Hereford. The name, similar to both Buckland Monachorum (Devon) and Rickmansworth (Herts) means something like 'the haystack near the health centre' and refers to the days when infirm peasants, once their medical insurance had run out, would be accomodated in a suitable bale of straw.
  • Chris Christie - Mr. Christie senior was a man of few words and even smaller imagination. Completely stumped to find a name for his son he had got as far as filling in his surname on the birth registration form and then thought 'yeah, that'll do'.
  • Mike Huckabee - A traditional practice amongst East Coast apiarists, the competition to see who can throw a bee the furthest is little known today. In Yiddish the word 'huck' means to hit or throw and the Jewish emigrants to the US in the early 19c were keen to adopt the local customs. One might hear a man dressed in fur hat and long black coat observe despairingly to his wife "Oy, Golde, I gave that bee such a huck and he went nowhere". Whether Mike is aware of his rich cultural heritage is hard to say.
  • Carly Fiorina - Originally a folk duo from northern Spain, Carl y Fiorina scored nul points in the 2008 Eurovision song contest with "Boom za za diddle means I love you", split up, reformed and finally merged into one
  • Rand Paul. Forever finding that officials were crossing out any forms he had filled in, where he had put surname "Paul" and firstname "Rand" on the grounds that he had made a mistake, and in any case faced by deep scepticism that "Rand" is a name, rather than a currency, Mr. Paul dropped out of the running as soon as the results were in. 

Portents of Doom

Whilst the terms of a possible new deal between the UK and the EU are being scrutinised and the people of the Americas begin planning defences against the Zika virus, some of us have been forced to focus on a story that grips to the very marrow.  I shall not go into details for fear of unncessarily distressing some of my more sensitive followers but let this sinister panel, clipped from today's BBC website, tell its own, blood-curdling, story.

Oh, my jammy dodgers and ginger nuts, my custard creams and rich teas, my garibaldies and bourbons of long ago. Washed away in the rising waters and lost to us, abandoned on the flood and drifting helplessly into the gathering murk of a winter's night, never to be dunked again. We hear their pitiful cries of distress but can do nothing. We must be strong to bear this, e'en as we have born disaster of yore. Who can forget the terrible months of the Branston pickle shortage? Whatever happened to the dark chocolate Penguin? Have the faith, my people. Surely the biscuits will come back to us over the foaming deep, one day, one wonderful day of hope in the glorious future.

Whether floods can actually spark anything is a fascinating question into which, I fear, I do not have the time or patience adequately to explore. [Technically no, unless a live electrical appliance is in contact with the water and there is some other apparatus in which a spark might be induced. Or something. But even then it would be the appliance doing the sparking not the floods. OK? Ed.]