Monday, 31 December 2012

Culture and anarchy

Jean Nouvel's Philharmonie de Paris
Jean Nouvel's Philharmonie de Paris, though currently running at twice its projected budget, has been judged too far advanced to cancel or modify by the new government of Francois Hollande, which is casting a crtitical eye over the previous government's grands projets.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Public space

The Shard

"Renzo Piano's creation, the tallest building in western Europe, finally opens its 69th-floor viewing platform to the public – at £25 a ticket. What does that buy you? Digital telescopes, jokey panels sending up famous London dwellers (George Orwell installing CCTV cameras, Karl Marx and Margaret Thatcher on a tandem), and of course views stretching for 40 miles."

We have learnt a thing or two in the past several decades. Owen Luder's now demolished, much reviled, and featured in Get Carter Gateshead Trinity Square carpark included a restaurant on the top - which was never used, because of technical problems and a lack of commercial interest.

The good ship Venus

It's a yacht - for the late Steve jobs, by Philippe Starck, building costs (and design fee) almost one third under budget. "Yacht: a light piratical vessel; a light fast sailing ship esp. for the conveyance of royal or other important persons; later a vessel usu. light and comparatively small, for cruising."

When the market picks up... 2

Birmingham Central Library
"A minority of people [support the library] but it's very easy for them to make comments when they carry no responsibility for the economic viability of the area." Clive Dutton, Birmingham City Director of Planning and Regeneration.

Wher I live in West Dorset the chief officer of the local planning authority is jnown as the Director of Environment: planning it seems is a Cinderella for those charged with responsibility for its execution.

"I have never been very certain as to the value of tangible links with the past. They are often more sentimental than valuable... As to Birmingham's buildings, there is little of real worth in our architecture. Its replacement should be an improvement... As for future generations, I think they will be better occuppied in applying their thoughts and energies to forging ahead, rather than looking backwards." Herbert Manzoni, Birmingham City Engineer, responsible for the reconstruction (regeneration?) of the city in the 1960s.

The new library, by Mecanoo, on a separate site

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Was that it?

So the world did not end.

Or perhaps it did. Not with a bang but a whimper, as T S Eliot, now almost proverbially, said, now almost a century ago.

The computer connects more slowly; the teapot dribbles; the fire gutters in the grate; the milk sours; the car's battery barely turns over the engine; dawn comes late.

Jon : How will it be, this end of which you have spoken, Brother Enim?

Omnes: Yes, how will it be?

Peter : Well, it will be, as 'twere a mighty rending in the sky, you see, and the mountains shall sink, you see, and the valleys shall rise, you see, and great shall be the tumult thereof.

Jon : Will the veil of the temple be rent in twain?

Peter : The veil of the temple will be rent in twain about two minutes before we see the sign of the manifest flying beast-head in the sky.

Alan : And will there be a mighty wind, Brother Enim?

Peter : Certainly there will be a mighty wind, if the word of God is anything to go by...

Dudley : And will this wind be so mighty as to lay low the mountains of the earth?

Peter : No - it will not be quite as mighty as that - that is why we have come up on the mountain, you stupid nit - to be safe from it. Up here on the mountain we shall be safe - safe as houses.

Alan : And what will happen to the houses?

Peter : Well, naturally, the houses will be swept away and the tents of the ungodly with them, and they will all be consuméd by the power of the heavens and on earth - and serve them right!

Alan : And shall we be consumed?

Peter : Con..sum..éd? No, we shall not be consuméd - we shall be up on the mountain here, you see, while millions burn, having a bit of a giggle.

Jon : When will it be, this end of which you have spoken?

Omnes : Aye, when will it be - when will it be?

Peter : In about thirty seconds time, according to the ancient pyramidic scrolls... and my Ingersoll watch.

Jon : Shall we compose ourselves, then?

Peter : Good plan, Brother Pithy. Prepare for the End of the World! Fifteen seconds...

Alan : Have we got the tinned food?

Dudley : Yes.

Peter : Ten seconds...

Jon : And the tin-opener?

Dudley : Yes.

Peter : Five - four - three - two - one - Zero!

Omnes : (Chanting) Now is the end - Perish The World!

A pause

Peter : It was GMT, wasn't it?

Jon : Yes.

Peter : Well, it's not quite the conflagration I'd been banking on. Never mind, lads, same time tomorrow... we must get a winner one day.

Guys with guns

I know nothing about guns, have never touched, let alone fired, one, and never had any desire to. Yet it strikes me, at first sight, as odd that even in a society like the US, for all its history, there are so many guns in private hands - apparently there approaching an average of one for every man, woman, child and old age pensioner. No doubt quite a few people don't possess one - and quite a few people possess several, or even many. No doubt quite a few guns are never fired. No doubt many gun owners, whatever their abstract fears and feelings about their rights, never in practice find themselves threatened by burglars or bears or the storm troopers of oppressive government.

The array, number and variety of guns available to the consumer seems to be vast and the sophistication of some weapons beyond any actual need. It seems to me that they may be a little like smart phones, in that they are things that people actually like to handle, almost compulsively, even if at the time they have no particular need to do anything with them. There is a satisfaction in touching, in running through the features and capabilities of the object, in having the latest version. The more features it has, or could have, the more satisfying it is. The naming of parts. So many guns.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Corrections and clarifications - maybe

no individual - certainly not those in any senior position - is held to serious account in a way that discomforts them

Today it is reported that two former employees of UBS have been charged in the US over Libor manipulation.

The tool bar death of the universe

I am in a position to reveal that the Mayans were right, though not in the way they thought, and that the universe will end tomorrow. It comes about as computer users find they have installed so much additional hardware and and so many programs that the accompanying new toolbars have totally obscured their screens and all they can do is to connect to Facebook and check the weather in multiple ways.

When the market picks up...

Preston bus station

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The mark of the idiot

UBS corrupt payments exposed as bank pays £940m to settle Libor claims
...on 18 September 2008 a trader explained to a broker: "If you keep 6s [ie, the six-month Japanese yen Libor rate] unchanged today ... I will fucking do one humongous deal with you ... Like a 50,000 buck deal, whatever ... I need you to keep it as low as possible ... if you do that .... I'll pay you, you know, 50,000 dollars, 100,000 dollars... whatever you want ... I'm a man of my word."

It becomes tedious to highlight reports such as these, it becomes the mark of the idiot who has no place under this amazing panoply of corruption, greed and veniality, where the perpetrators apparently feel no necessity to hide their doings, where they subborn the very language of the ethics they betray, where no individual - certainly not those in any senior position - is held to serious account in a way that discomforts them, where corporations may be 'fined' but are beyond the criminal law, where men of substance and leaders of nations can hardly be unaware of what lies beneath their feet and into which the latter comfortably descend on their retirement from public office.

Two nations

“Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.”
“You speak of — ” said Egremont, hesitantly. “ THE RICH AND THE POOR.”

Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil (1845)

Disraeli in 1878 by Cornelius Jabez Hughes

Disraeli's novel was set in the then present day. Published in 1845, the same year as Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, it's action takes place in the years 1837-44. The words quoted, and that phrase 'two nations', and the consequent notion of 'one-nation' politics that has resounded, one way or another in the Tory party and English politics since, right down to Ed Miliband's recent speech, were put in the mouth of Walter Gerard, father of Sybil and a working-class radical, but there is no doubt that they carry, to a large extent, the author's endorsement.

Disraeli, First Earl of Beaconsfield, was the British Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1850s and 60s, leader of the Conservative Opposition in the late 60s and early 703, and Prime Minister in 1868 and from 1874 to 1880. His policial career yoyo-ed with that of William Gladstone, leader of the Liberal Party. Queen Victoria much preferred Disraeli to the dourer moralist, Gladstone.

It is a long time since a British Prime-Minister to be wrote serious literary novels (or, perhaps, even read them: Harold Macmillan said he liked to 'take a little Trollope to bed' with him), but it is difficult to imagine any modern politician, even one sincerely convinced, uttering such social commentary so vividly. Ed Milliband certainly did not meet Disraeli's standard.

Disraeli was hardly the modern idea of a social paragon. As a young man he engaged in financial speculation was was ruined in his early 20s by the collapse of a South American mining bubble. he in fact returned to literature to try, with limited success, to recoup his financial fortunes (but was rather more than the Jeffery Archer of his times, on several considerations). Financial embarrasment plagued him until his marriage to a rich widow, twelve years older than he, in 1839. Though initially based on expediency, the marriage grew to be deeply affectionate. In earlier years, before he entered parliament, his dubious relations with woment, in the words of his biographer, Lord Blake, contributed to "the understandable aura of distrust which hung around his name for so many years".

Disraeli's social consciousness, though vivid and real, did not mean that, at the time of the great Reform Acts of the nineteenth century (how the word 'reform' has by comparison become debased to petty political partisanship in our own time), he was liberal in his political view or deviated from an idea of society in which justice and harmony were established by mutual respect and fulfilment of obligations between the classes rather than by equality.

Disraeli was of Jewish origin, but his parents were non-observant and he was baptisted in the Christian religion at the age of twelve and remained a practising Anglican throughout his life. Nevertheless, his obvious Jewishness hampered, though clearly did not thwart, his political career. It is difficult to imagine in our supposedly more inclusive and enlightened age someone so obviously Jewish, almost architypically so in appearance, becoming leader of one of our main political parties and Prime Minister.

An emperor in the hand is worth two peasants in the bush

"Enlighteners hoped for a benevolent despot who would take their advice and enforce enlightened policies from above. Voltaire placed such hopes in Frederick the Great, Diderot in Catherine the Great. It must be said that Joseph II had little interest in the philosophes. Although he met many of them, including Buffon, d'Alembert, Grimm and Turgot in Paris in 1777, it was well known that on his return journey through Switzerland he passed the gates of Ferney without calling on Voltaire, even though the latter was expecting him, had arranged a diner party in his honour, and placed peasants in the trees to provide an ovation. It may well be that in general Enlighteners' hopes of obtaining the prince's ear and influencing policy were more or less fantastic."

Ritchie Robertson, 'Freemasons vs Jesuits: Conspiract theories in Enlightenment Germany', Times Literary Supplement, 12 October 2012

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Furniture apocalypse

Final luxury
It seems cutting edge furniture design is not going to survive the end of the world, to judge from this picture of the interior of a 'luxury' survival bunker now selling like hot cakes from California to New York, as people brush down their dubious interpretations of the Mayan calendar.

Hot cakes are not going to do too well either, as the bunker is reported to have a mini fridge and microwave but 'little other space for food preparation' and only a small dining area. Presumably there won't be much time (or need?) for eating once the world ends. But the lucky survivors will still be able to watch their favourite tv programmes.

It's just sour grapes on my part.

The onion strikes back

Is the onion the only organism that is skin through and through? Skin deep, as one might say.

Time was when peeling an onion was a struggle with several hard thick, tough inedible layers, which  elaborated their defence by being part inedible and part edible as one penetrated lower.

'Modern' onions (mostly it seems grown in Egypt - has unrest there provided yet another opportunity for commodity traders?) have clearly been bred (the edict must have gone out from the minarets of Tesco and Sainsbury) to have just one thin, distinct, disposable outer skin. But the process has gone too far and the skin is so thin it is difficult to detach from the next layer down except by tedious scraping.

Soak the rich

Our deputy prime minister and leader of the fast fading Liberal Democrat party, anxious to differentiate himself from his coalition government partner the Conservative party, proposes that universal benefits for old people should be means tested.

It is impossible, he says, to justify giving free bus passes to multimillionaires. I am sure the common man will cheer when all the multimillionaires are turned of the Number 39 and that the Treasury coffers and bus company receipts will boom prodigiously.

With political debate of this quality from our leaders we need not fear. No doubt Mr Clegg would say he is just using a colourful expression to catch the voters' attention, but the effect is to embed a proposal in the political agenda, from which it then becomes difficult to remove it, without consideration of its actual practicality or specific effects, a tactic increasingly favoured by government politicians when proposing ideas with little public endorsement that require them to take what they are fond of describing, in a self-congratulatory way, as 'difficult decisions', by which they mean decisions likely to be unpopular, although usually with people who would not have voted for them anyway.

Monday, 17 December 2012

UK gun control

The British Bill of Rights of 1689 restored the 'ancient right' to bear arms to Protestants that had been removed from them by the Catholic monarch, James II. The bill made that right "suitable to their condition and degree, and such as are allowed by law". It would perhaps in modern times be difficult to determine what kind of arms was suitable to any particular person’s ‘condition or degree’. I do not believe the question in practice arises since the common law right to bear arms (of any sort – even knife blades over three inches in length may not be carried in public now without reasonable cause) has always been subject to restriction by statute law, which has accumulated considerably. There were several acts in the 19th century that limited it, mainly aimed at, but not solely applicable to, Highlanders, vagrants and poachers: it must have been thought that their ‘condition or degree’ was not entirely self-evident in this matter. More widely applicable restrictive legislation was passed in 1903, 1920 and 1937. Those acts did not have criminals solely in mind. The 1968 act was a general codifying act that introduced further restrictions. Further legislation was introduced after horrific shooting incidents here, at Hungerford in 1988 and Dunblane in 1997. The result was to make this country one of the most restrictive of the right to bear firearms of any in the world and there was more legislation in 2006.

So strict is the legislation that the government had to allow special dispensation for the sports shooting events of the 2002 Commonwealth Games and the 2012 Olympic Games. It is actually illegal for sports pistol shooters to train in the UK.

All this must sound strange to many transatlantic ears, but there is remarkably little pressure here even from shooters and their organisations for significant relaxation of the law, and general public opinion apparently favours even greater control. The general US refusal to countenance legal restrictions on firearms is a topic of some fascination, and incomprehension, on this side of the Atlantic, even though we here have, in principle, a similar 'constitutional' right to 'bear arms' of our own.
Fully and semi-automatic weapons (often the focus of debate in other countries) are completely banned in the UK. No firearm can be bought or owned without being specifically licensed on a firearms certificate, for which the police must be satisfied in each case that the owner has good reason to possess that particular firearm and that he or she will not create a public danger. Shotguns are less strictly controlled and are quite commonly founf ein rrual communities but they must be capable of holding no more than three cartridges. Self defence is no longer regarded as a possible good reason for owning a firearm. Virtually no-one would dream of arguing that an individual's need to protect themselves from an over-mighty state could be regarded as good reason - either in general or, certainly, in particular. Ironically it could, I think, be argued that, although the meaning of the second amendment is disputed in the US, historically the British right to bear arms is theoretically more of a right counterbalancing state power, but that is certainly not an active issue in the UK.

The use and possession of firearms by criminals nevertheless remains a public concern, but, whether or not it is because of this legal framework, the UK has one of the lowest gun homicide rates in the world: in relation to population it is almost 43 times less than in the USA and 3 times less than in Germany. Most police are also unarmed and shooting fatalities of the police are also extremely rare: there were 3 in the ten years from 2000/01. However, armed police are becoming a more common sight, especially in locations thought to be vulnerable to terrorism - to the distress of some sections of society. So far surveys of rank and file police officers have found a majority opinion opposed to their routine arming with guns.
There have been a few cases of police shooting people either unnecessarily or entirely mistakenly, and they have attracted considerable public concern. One such case where the police appear to have been over-zealous or precipitate in shooting a criminal suspect has been the subject of inquiry that concluded in the past few days that the man was killed unlawfully. Such a case is not unprecedented but prosecutions, or even disciplinary sanctions, of indiividual officers seldom, if ever ensue. Such incidents, as wen a few years ago an innocent man was shot and killed by police as he left a public house because they assumed the wrapped-up table leg he was carrying was a firearm, provoke significant public concern, possibly fuelled by an apprehension that UK policing may be headed in an unwelcome 'American' direction.

Facts on the ground

According to at least one UK newspaper, president Obama in Newtown issued the "strongest call for change in gun policy of any political leader in a generation", but he did so without once uttering the words 'gun' or 'control'. A representative of one US gun-owners' group interviewed on BBC radio opined that legal restrictions on gun availability were not only unneccessary (with the expected idea that it is people not guns that kill people) but completely impracticable - impracticable not just because largely unfettered gun ownership is widely held to be a constitutional right, but simply because there are too many millions of guns (almost as many guns in private ownership as the population of the country) and gun owners for restrictions to be implemented. What is needed, he said, is better mental health treatment.

So guns join the growing mountain of facts on the ground, whether on the arid soil of the middle east or in the verdant pastures of the financial industry: Things which oppress the rights or enjoyment of others but which, whatever their merits or demerits, are beyond the community's judgement or remedy.

There is, I think, a growing tendency for people not to bother to defend what are said to be injusticies but simply to say they exist and are not going to be changed - and so there is no point in discussing them. It is the mentality of that ugly internet injunction to 'get over it'. It is a tendency also, it seems to me, extending to future rather as well as existing situations: we can do it and so we shall. It is something which, as a blatantly explicit rationale, we have been, in western societies at least, unaccustomed to in post-war years,

Sunday, 16 December 2012

The long arm of the law 4

Orgreave, Yorkshire, 1984

Mick Antoniw, Assembly Member for Pontypridd, is also pushing for an inquiry, noting that in relation to Orgreave: "No action was taken against the police in respect of fabrication of evidence or the attempt to pervert the course of justice."

Vera Baird, police and crime commissioner for the Northumbria area, said her experience as a barrister during the strike suggested that potentially there were hundreds of cases where police might have perverted the course of justice. She herself dealt with two or three cases a week during the strike, many involving "invented allegations, copied notebooks and allegations from officers that weren't even at the scene".

Baird, solicitor-general during the last Labour government, who represented a number of miners at Orgreave who were acquitted after police tampered with evidence, said: "It was scandalous. There were an awful lot of cases."

"At Orgreave in 1984, police officers on horseback and on foot were filmed beating picketing miners with truncheons, but South Yorkshire police claimed the miners had attacked them first, and prosecuted 95 men for riot and unlawful assembly, which carried potential life sentences. All 95 were acquitted after the prosecution case collapsed following revelations in court that police officers’ statements had been dictated to them in order to establish evidence of a riot, and one officer’s signature on a statement had been forged."

Friday, 14 December 2012

Forgive and remember

Professor Stephen Hawkin and ten other eminent personages, many I expect replete with honours themslves, urge the government formally to pardon (I suppose formally it would be done in the name of the Queen) the late Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician, Second World War code-breaker, and 'father of the modern computer', who was convicted of 'gross indecency' (code for practising homosexuality) a few years after the end of the war, suffered hormone therapy intended to 'correct' his sexuality and committed suicide.

Much as one finds Turing's treatment and suffering appalling, much as one recognises his brilliance and service to his country and fellow citizens, much as one recognises that, ahd he been living now, he would have received official honours and perhaps private wealth, rather than prosecution and forcible medical treatment, one wonders. Would this new measure be a symbol or an exception? Is it intended that all who were in the past properly, according to the laws and procedures of the time, convicted for things that are no longer offences or generally even regarded as morally reprehensible should be pardoned? Perhaps such an act of parliament could be framed, but I doubt there would be much public or political interest in it. Lord Grade, who drated the letter to the Daily Telegraph, has suggested a more general extension, but only apparently to those convicted of homosexual offences. Yet it is the individual on whom the focus now rests. Is this, if it succeeds, intended to be a measure in lieu, to be a symbol of such general pardon? Or is such treatment to be a posthumous honour extended only to deceased unfortunates who clear some hurdle of fame, celebrity or achievement? 

We have a surfeit of honours already and their credit is not improved by elaboration. (Recently one or two have even had to be vomitted up in a fit of public indigestion.) Why should the repute, the peace or the honour of the late Alan Turing depend upon state recognition? A few years ago our then prime minister, Gordon Brown, said he was 'proud' to extend a personal 'apology' to Turing - apologies (at least for misdeeds sufficiently remote in the past) being more in political vogue than pardons. It seems to me there may have been a little moral confusion there - should one not rather than being proud to offer the apology (for what others did) confess to shame for having to say it? I suppose pride and shame are actually inseparable and the failure to recognise it is what is wrong with our 'honours system'.

Does anybody doubt that the state did much in the past (not to mention the present) of which any honourable person would now be ashamed?

Thursday, 13 December 2012

The long arm of the law 3

Ministers have agree to pay more than £2m to the family of a prominent Libyan dissident abducted with the help of MI6 and secretly flown to Tripoli where he was tortured by the security police of the former dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

The Saadi family had accepted a settlement of £2.23m, the high court heard on Thursday. The government paid the sum by way of compensation and without admitting any liability.

Evidence of the UK's role in the operation – believed to be the only case where an entire family was subjected to "extraordinary rendition" – came to light after Gaddafi's fall in 2011.

CIA correspondence with Libyan intelligence, found in the spy chief Moussa Koussa's office in Tripoli by Human Rights Watch, states: "We are … aware that your service had been co-operating with the British to effect [Saadi's] removal to Tripoli … the Hong Kong government may be able to co-ordinate with you to render [Saadi] and his family into your custody."

The operation was arranged in 2004 at the time of Tony Blair's "deal in the desert" with Gaddafi, after which UK intelligence services helped track down and hand over his opponents.

Another Libyan victim was Abdel Hakim Belhaj, who was rendered alongside his pregnant wife. A letter from the MI6 head of counter-terrorism Sir Mark Allen to Koussa, also found in Tripoli, said: "I congratulate you on the safe arrival of [Belhaj]. This was the least we could do for you and for Libya. I know I did not pay for the air cargo [but] the intelligence [on him] was British."

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The long arm of the law 2

David Cameron has apologised to the family of the murdered Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane and agreed that there was state collusion between police officers and soldiers and his loyalist killers...

One of the security force whistleblowers in the Finucane case, the ex-military intelligence officer Ian Hurst, who belonged to a secretive army unit running agents inside the UDA, said there was little chance of either police or military handlers or their loyalist informers facing the courts. He has faced charges of breaching the Official Secrets Act for leaking information about the role of army intelligence in running agents within the UDA who committed crimes including the targeting of Finucane.

The long arm of the law

It's official: big banks are beyond the law:

The department spared HSBC a criminal prosecution only because it considered the bank too big to prosecute. Listing a catalogue of mistakes by HSBC over almost a decade, the DoJ admitted that "collateral consequences" were a factor in its decision not to pursue criminal charges. Those consequences, it said, could have included a ban on doing business in the US, resulting in huge job losses.

Corporations are 'regulated'; private citizens are prosecuted; senior executive are (once in a while) deprived of their honours (but not their pensions).

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Who needs a haircut?

More Slough now

We seem to have a Government here full of junior ministers (and some senior) who specialise in bright wheezes. the latest comes from one Nick Boles, scion of privilege, comfort and rural preservation, who has announced, "All we need to do is build on another 2-3% of land and we'll have solved a housing problem."

His intervention arouses both horror and approval from different sections of society. The applauding commercial interests look over their shoulders to the comforting (to their ambitions rather than their actual sales expectations) existence of large numbers of people who cannot find afford to buy a house.

There seems to be an assumption that planning is largely responsible for what gets built, in the sense of it being the author of development. That is surely not so. It acts as a constraint on commercial and individual development proposals. It tries to determine where they do or do not get built and (to some extent) what form they take and what they look like but it doesn't draw up development proposals itself. It was only introduced when the country came to have so much built development and so much of it was detrimental that it could no longer be regarded as a sponge large enough to soak up all the damage.

Of course much of what we now value in towns and country was built without any planning controls, but one can hardly deny that an awful lot that we deplore was as well. Those thinking of just turning back the clock should look at rural development in Texas, where there are no planning controls outside city territory. I have seen it. It does not enhance the landscape; it is not durable; it does not benefit the poor or people of modest means - and exactly as Andrew Motion points out it is a common good lost for ever for the benefit of the relatively priviliged (despite the fact that the building is not going to last long).

The reasons why housing is unaffordable are a complex mix of economic, commercial, social and cultural factors. The idea that the problem is simply that the 'planners' will not allow development is mistaken and the government suggestion that all we need to do is allow X million more houses to be built by commercial developers (with a diminishing requirement for a few 'affordable' houses to be included). - anywhere, anyhow - will benefit commercial developers, landowners, wealthy would-be residents of the countryside, before it does anything to help low-income people who cannot afford to build a house.

I think planning at local authority level is often muddle headed, verbose and intellectually and politically corrupt. Not totally so, but it desperately needs qualitative improvement. The idea that the solution is to throw it out the window makes me weep. Leave it to commercial interests - they will fix it - like they've fixed everything else around us. Yes, a few enterprising individuals might get to self-build their individual houses somewhere which might be valuable contributions to the built environment, but at what cost to the rest of society? We have multiple social problems.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Do I really have to go there?

Local Hero

“Do I really have to go there? I’m more of a Telex man. I can fix the deals in an afternoon over the phone.”

The multitudinous seas incarnadine

Algal bloom, Sydney

Friday, 23 November 2012

Thursday, 22 November 2012

The Circumlocution Office

Not an estate agent
'The Circumlocution Department,' said Mr Barnacle, is not responsible for any gentleman's assumptions.'

'May I inquire how I can obtain official information as to the real state of the case?'

'It is competent,' said Mr Barnacle, 'to any member of the - Public,' mentioning that obscure body with reluctance, as his natural enemy, 'to memorialise the Circumlocution Department. such formalities as are required to be observed in so doing, may be known on application to the proper branch of that department.'

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit

The Circumlocution Office is still extant.

John Vine, the chief inspector of immigration, said UKBA [United Kingdom Border Agency]'s programme to deal with 147,000 outstanding asylum "legacy cases" – submitted before March 2007 – was far from resolved. The asylum seekers concerned have been left in limbo for an average of seven years.

The operation to deal with them was so inefficient and poorly managed that last winter more than 150 boxes of mail, including correspondence from applicants, lawyers and MPs, lay unopened in a room in Liverpool. At its peak, there was a backlog of more than 100,000 items of post, including 14,800 unopened recorded delivery letters and 13,600 unopened first and second class letters containing crucial information and documents about cases.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Natural globalisation

The orthodox view is still, especially in hard times, that economic growth is a Good Thing, indeed an essential thing. See what misery it produces when it slips into negative territory by only a few percentage points. And it's not just for our own comfort; it's needed in poorer countries on distant shores to 'lift people out of poverty' (and much else besides).

Cultural globalization follows economic globalisation inevitably and there are still plenty of commentators to make a case for that. Cultural interaction has always led to cultural vibrancy and creativity has it not? Just think of Shakespeare's time, and indeed of the whole English language. But perhaps we are reaching the endpoint where there is nothing left to stir into the soup.

Then follows linguistic globalisation - but we're not so happy about the growing extinction of minority languages. There is little talk of social globalisation - perhaps the increasingly dramatic polarisation of poverty and wealth will preserve us from that.

What of natural globalisation, as manifested most topically in ash die-back here - or Dutch elm disease, or sudden oak death, or the threat to the Scots pine? Globalisation is the other side of the coin of extinctions. Man is the great globalising species. It will be us and the slugs.

In my adult lifetime

50 lost each hour
A new report produced by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the British Trust for Ornithology, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Birdlife International and other organisations including government agencies estimates that the number of nesting birds in the UK has declined from 310 million in 1866 to 160 million today. That's one pair a minute, or one for every adult human in England and Wales over the whole period. The decline is especially marked in farmland birds, whose population is less than half what it was in 1970.

To anyone of my generation who walks in the country or by the sea this report will be a sad confirmation of personal observation. Rockpools no longer teem with life, beaches are no longer littered with empty shells, the stubble fields are no longer covered with lapwings. All gone. Never mind: we have more slugs than we used to, and we hear there is more oil in the ground than we thought.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

East and West: the twain meet

The conventional wisdom seems to be that China needs to keep its economy growing at more than 7 per cent a year to prevent the resentments and frustrations of its population from boiling over into civil unrest against corruption and autocracy - and to drag along the rest of a recession-hit world (forget about global imbalances just as long as there's money somewhere).
China has problems, we all agree.

It is less often said which part of the Chinese population is likely to bring down the house of cards. Will it be the hard pressed FoxConn worker or the frustrated wheeler-dealer with the illegal helicopters hidden in his warehouse? Because China has telescoped a few centuries of western European social and economic development into a few decades (leaving out the political bit) it is difficult to tell. Which is tragedy and which is farce? In this country the middle class commercial interests got their legitimate place in the scheme of government long before industrialisation and urbanisation transformed the make-up of society and so some sections of it could work for the great social reforms of the nineteenth century that stabilised society as the economy expanded and urbanised dramatically. Not so in China, whose breakneck speed of expansion the west is ever keen to stoke up with incendary industrial and financial devices, whilst below offering a low murmur of distress at the destruction of historic culture and at the impending environmental collapse.

Meanwhile, in the west, as economic growth sinks in more and more countries into negative figures, the question is again how can popular civil unrest and violence be avoided. We have democracy (which at times we tell ourselves it is patronising to assume the Chinese people want - they just want to be able to keep on making mobile phones for us, don't they, like we just want to be able to keep on buying them?), but increasingly, as governments fail to respond to popular discontents and as they accept the impositions of unelected international bodies, democracy is perceived as a sham and an excuse for the accelerating transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.

So where lies the path to the sunlit uplands for us? A leading official of the Chinese sovereign wealth fund knows. Ironic? Perhaps not: the Chinese sovereign wealth fund needs markets like almost no-one else. China, which has been buying in Greece,  plans to bury the West in a different way to that which Mr Kruschev threatened: not in a pile of thermo-nuclear rubble, but in a growing mountain of largely plastic consumer goods, durable only in their powdered detritus in the world's oceans. According to Mr Jin, Europe needs to moderate the pace of austerity - if that is not too bizarre a concept. Austerity must continue; it just needs to be a little less severe, and to go on for longer. For ever, preferably, getting rid of those fibre-sapping and unaffordable social welfare and employment protection provisions. In other words, Europe needs to be more like China. We need 'to work a little harder and work a little longer'. Nothing too frightening, you understand. A touch on the tiller here, a touch on the tiller there. We're all, east and west, in this together: we can go on for ever. The Great Helmsman returns! But is it Mao or Ted Heath?

Meanwhile Foxconn, which, although all one tends to hear about are its vast factories in mainland China, is of course based in Taiwan, that elder child of the marriage of East and West, actually knows what the weather is like in the streets. It is finding that Chinese labour costs are growing too high for servicing the declining real-terms disposable incomes of the West (I expect someone has told Mr Jin) and is busily buying up vast tracts of land in Brazil and planning to open factories in the USA - in places like Detroit. Perhaps the Chinese sovereign wealth fund can invest in them. Yet of course American labour costs are also too high to service the diminishing purchasing power of American consumers - a problem for which Foxconn's answer is said to be making the factories purely automated. Is there still a problem there? Where is the money?

Welcome to Detroit

The message on the street

We are big

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Social media

The Israeli Defence Force has a Twitter account. I'm not sure whether or not it has a Facebook page. 

Is this the tip of the iceberg? It now seems obligatory for every faceless organisation or eminent personage to Tweet in a way that was once the province of the unknown individual who could string 140 characters together.

Yet the courts know differently of course and famously people have been proscecuted for facetious threats to public security on Twitter and, most recently, detained for posting pictures of burning Remembrance poppies on Facebook. It is not an offence to offend, but grossly to offend is. But that clearly is not a rubric under which Defence Forces, of whatever nation, might come undone. I am not sure whether it was the UK that led the way in the particular change in nomenclature when in 1964 it merges the old War Office into the new Ministry of Defence.

As Twitter itself puts it, "Follow your friends, experts, favorite celebrities, and breaking news."

A bigger bomb. a longer fuse

"So basically they are making the bomb bigger but have succeeded in lengthening the fuse."

One last point – a general one but an important one. Whoever buys the risk from the banks, no matter what claims are made for how separate they are from the banks and how much this removes the risk from the banks, ask yourself where these other people got the money to buy the risk from? The fact is 98% of all the money in the world is credit backed bank created money. No one is insuring bank risk or buying risky assets with sovereign backed money. They are buying it with credit backed money – credit that at some point was created by and loaned from a bank. Somewhere back along the chain a bank counts that loan as an asset and has a risk attached to it. That one simple fact means that it doesn’t really matter who ‘buys’ a bank’s risk. Ultimately it is still tied to a bank and the banking system. The risk never ever goes away until the loan it is part of is paid down. The risk from the bad loans that are still crippling our banking and financial system have not been removed or dealt with in any way other than to move them from the regulatory spot light to a darker corner where they can fester un-noticed. They will not be dealt with until the loans are paid down or written off. The losses must be cleared from the system and will be – by bankruptcy or bail outs. In the mean time all this insurance is, at best, moving the mines around the mine field.

For the full article see here.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Computer modelling

Many of us believe that computer modelling is the master of complexity, enabling understanding and forecasting that cannot be achieved in any other way.

"Until now these changes in ice drift were only speculated upon using computer models," said Paul Holland at the British Antarctic Survey. "Our study of direct satellite observations shows the complexity of climate change.

See here.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

The end of the ash?

Native English ash trees could be facing a similar fate to the elm. Ash dieback (chalara fraxinea), an airborne fungal disease which is fatal to the tree and has caused the death of most ashes in some continental countries, has now been identified for the first time in the wild here. It was found in plant nursery saplings at the beginning of the year but has now been found in native woodland in a Site of Special Scientific Interest in East Anglia owned by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and another site in Suffolk owned by the Woodland Trust. The only effective remedial action is removing the trees, followed by burning or deep burial. The disease is so classified that the Forestry Commission has the power to issue a Statutory Plant Health Notice requiring the owner of the site to take action but as yet this has not been done, I imagine because effective action is seen as impracticable.

Although the disease was first discovered in nurseries in this country at the beginning of this year, given that it was found in several nurseries widely spread geographically, that the progress, and severe consequences, of it on the continent must have been known about for years (it is thought to have been a problem in Poland for the past twenty years), and the fact that ash tress naturally regenerate prolifically and grow like weeds in England, it is difficult to understand why the import of saplings was not banned long ago. The government is only now consulting on such a measure that could be introduced next month, but it appears almost certain to be too late. The natural regeneration of ash tress and their commonness in woodland and hedgerows makes the spread of the disease more likely, and with the onset of winter it will probably spread unnoticed by its clearest symptom, the withering and death of the leaves.

Yet we are told we have a government of countrymen. Elm, ash, oak ...

The ash is not only a valued and conspicuous (in many parts a dominant) feature of our landscape, it is a valuable timber tree - and the mainstay of green woodworking.

See also the report here.

Death and taxes?

Now, it seems, it's just death, at least for international corporations.

We have to remember that the tax base for a company is always based on the profits it reports. And the reported profit in each and every case is that of each individual company within a group, and not for the group as a whole. There is no such thing (at present) as group tax accounting. Whilst it's not quite true we ignore groups for tax we do start from an assumption that they don't exist and then tweak the system to allow for them. Accounting, on the other hand, fundamentally works the other way round: the group accounts are more important than the individual accounts.

See here.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

What shall we spend it on?

Public expenditure as proportion of GDP

Monday, 22 October 2012

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Where next for the banking 'crisis'?

China's shadow banking sector has become a potential source of systemic financial risk over the next few years. Particularly worrisome is the quality and transparency of WMPs. Many assets underlying the products are dependent on some empty real estate property or long-term infrastructure, and are sometimes even linked to high-risk projects, which may find it impossible to generate sufficient cash flow to meet repayment obligations.

Moreover, many WMPs are not even linked to any specific asset, rather, just to a pool of assets, whose cash inflows may often not match the timing of scheduled WMP repayments.

China's shadow banking is contributing to a growing liquidity risk in the financial markets. Most WMPs carry tenures of less than a year, with many being as short as weeks or even days. Thus in some cases short-term financing has been invested in long-term projects, and in such situations there is a possibility of a liquidity crisis being triggered if the markets were to be abruptly squeezed.

In fact, when faced with a liquidity problem, a simple way to avoid the problem could be through using new issuance of WMPs to repay maturing products. To some extent, this is fundamentally a Ponzi scheme. Under certain conditions, the music may stop when investors lose confidence and reduce their buying or withdraw from WMPs. The rollover of a large share of WMPs could weigh heavily on formal banks' reputations, because many investors firmly believe that banks won't close down and they can always get their money back.

The article quoted is written by Mr Gang and appeared in China Daily, a state controlled publication and the country's largest English language paper. The financial activity that concern Mr Gang would of course show up in the statistics as part of China's current economic growth.

I am indebted to Golem XIV for this reference and more comment on the article and the situation in China can be found on his blog.


In our country and others in the west citizens worry that the perpetrators of white collar crime and financial fraud are almost never prosecuted.

In China they do things differently.

China is believed to execute about 4,000 people a year, according to human rights organization Dui Hua. And a number of those executed are white collar criminals.

Everyone from CEO's of mining companies, small business owners, and political figures have been given a death sentence after being found guilty of fraud, corruption, or illegal fund raising.

Recently netizens have protested the death sentence and got a few overturned. China's legal system is widely criticized because those with political clout are said to get off with lighter sentences.

What follows are some of the most notorious cases in which white collar criminals were given a death sentence or were executed. In some cases, the guilty were given a two-year reprieve i.e. if they committed no more crimes for two years and were on their best behavior their sentence would be amended to life in prison.

Note: Figures on the death penalty are a state secret. The number of executions have declined since 2007 because of a reform that required death penalties to be reviewed by the Supreme People's Court (SPC).

Read more:   Quoted from   If one opens the link to individual cases one is struck by how many of the cases concern either private individuals in seemingly relatively low-key positions fraudently raising tens of millions of dollars or regional government officials acting corruptly.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Silicon informality

Larry Page
 Just look at those creases. Not many lights in Africa.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Work in progress

Some readers of this blog might think the design and making of furniture occupies none of my time. Just to set the record straight, I am about to post on New Work some images of my current project for an extending dining table and ten chairs.

Somewhere to go

Monday, 15 October 2012


Britain may have won the war but the peace was disconcertingly grim. The late 1940s were 'The Age of Austerity', a drab time when a range of wartime controls and restrictions were still in place: for example, bread was newly rationed in 1946 and clothes were a strict utility; the government had incurred enormous liabilities to pay for the war and the country had to 'Export od Die'. By 1947 the spirit of wartime unity had faded away and life was not much fun for anyone. The year began with the worst weather Britain could remember , and coal ran out; by the summer there was a severe balance of payments crisis and emergency measures were taken; and in August the Raj came to an end and a nation that had formerly ruled over an Empire finally had to accept that its decline had begun.

Yet despite the restrictions and crises (the economist Keynes talked about a 'financial Dunkirk') the Labour Government was seeking to build its 'New Jerusalem': in a few short months it had laid the foundations for the Welfare State, set up the National Health Service and brought coal, electricity, gas and railways into public ownership. But the essential background to the stories in Minnie's Room is that it was the middle classes that were enormously and disproportionately hit by the huge burden of Income Tax necessary to accomplish these changes. In 1935 it had been 4s 6d in the pound i.e. 22.5%; during the war it rose to 10s i.e. 50%; but then, in 1945, it was kept at 9s in the pound - far, far higher than ever before in peacetime. The country was dependent on the middle classes paying taxes at almost wartime rates; but as a result they suffered a dramatic change in their standard of living that was widely and deeply resented.

Publisher's introduction to Minnie's Room: the peacetime stories of Mollie Panter-Downes, Persephone Books, 2008

Thursday, 11 October 2012

New deal; old deal

Having over the past few years poured hundreds of billions of pounds into 'the economy' only to find it disappear, mostly, into the unfathomable maw of the glabalised banks, our government has decided that a little more direct stimulus is in order.

Suspending planning regulations so that hosueholders can, in some cases, cover almost the whole of their back gardens with house extensions without seeking permission might not quite get us back to prosperity, and so a little investment in 'infrastructure' is now in order. That's roads of course, and so we dust off the old plans for roads that decades ago we judged socially, economically and above all environmentally undesirable. That's the way to face up to the new international challenges our prime minister has just been telling us about at the Conservative party conference - sink or swim, do or die.

For the Confederation of British Industry this is the brave new world, that has such middle eastern and asian investors in it. They will finance these new old roads so that the cash hoards we have left them with by buying their oil and manufactured products will finance the building of our roads which we will then pay them to use. Another turn of the wheel. According to the CBI our road system is the last unprivatised utility or public service left in the UK. Presumably they think the National Health Service has gone already - the police on its way? Move along there, there's nothing to see.

The CBI's green and pleasant land

Existing cash resources 2

But don't give them the taxes.

The British arm paid its 90 UK-based staff an average of £275,000 each in 2011 while contributing just £195,890 to the Treasury's coffers, according to the firm's latest accounts filed at Companies House.

The website also reported UK revenues of £20.4m, a fraction of the £175m that media analysts estimate the firm made in the UK in 2011.

Furthermore, Facebook UK's latest figures show that the company charged £15.4m to its 2011 accounts – which can be used to reduce future tax bills – as a cost of awarding its UK staff share options. Murphy said: "That appears to be £15.4m to reward £20.4m in sales. That makes no sense. The options must, of course, be based on the value of sales recorded in Ireland but the UK is bearing the cost of the tax relief on paying these options.

Existing cash resources

Monday, 8 October 2012

The real enemy

How could the Turks appreciate the reaction in western Europe to their destruction of the first contingent of philhellenes at the battle of Peta in Epirus (1822), or to the massacre of Chios, immortalised by Delacroix? The names os Byron and Shelley, Goethe, Schiller and Victor Hugo meant nothing to the Sultan, but these were his real enemies. He was left to depend on Metternich and Castlereagh - an unequal match, as history was to show.
C.M. Woodhouse, Modern Greece: A Short History, chapter 5

Delacroix: Scenes from the Massacre at Chios

It is difficult to know where to begin with the contrasts with current times. The idea of a modern figure from 'high' literature or art commanding or even reflecting public opinion in political matters, let alone influencing the fate of nations (or would be nations) can scarcely be contemplated. Where is the modern Goethe or Byron or Delacroix? The idea of such a figure existing at all in our present culture seems remote. It is now almost three-quarters of a century since Picasso painted his picture in response to the bombing of Guernica. 

Maybe I've missed something, but now it seems to be campaigning (and possibly fund raising) by such as Bob Geldof or Bono. Yet their efforts seem more executive or political than imaginative. A few decade after Delacroix's Chios the novels of Charles Dickens anatomised the social, political and economic ills of his day, interweaving them with his imaginative and emotional energy. No-one now writing or painting or whatever seems able to perform the same much needed service for our own times.

(The Sultan might be held to have got his own back - eventually. A copy of the Delacroix was hung in the Byzantine museum in Chios in 2002 but was removed late in that year as gesture of raprochement towards the Turks. The Greek press protested. Guernica's location of course followed a different course.)