Monday, 24 September 2012

Far out on the ice...

   Far out on the ice lay a dark pile of rubbish waiting for the ice to break up, a monument to Mama and Papa's complete inability ever to get rid of possessions. How remarkable, Anna thought. The ice will go, and eerything will sink, just go straight down and disappear. It's bold; it's almost shameless. I have to tell Sylvia. Later it occurred to her that maybe it wouldn't sink, not all of it. Maybe it would float to another shore and someone would find it and wonder where it came from and why. In any event it was not even the least bit Anna's fault.

Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver, chapter 12

Sunday, 23 September 2012

John Cage

John Cage and cat

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

An unfortunate necessity

"The modern architectural drawing is interesting, the photograph is magnificent, the building is an unfortunate but necessary stage between the two."
Harry Goodhart-Rendel, architect, 1887-1959

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Winter of discontent

In our winter of woes, with both the globalised economy and the Arctic ice cap collapsing, it is nice to be able to identify some green shoots, like the sadly maligned Norman Lamont, even if not a full glorious summer. The then Mr (now Lord, proving one can rise above anything) Lamont's Monday was a Black enough backdrop to make any white fragment of bindweed root appear to herald a glorious harvest, but at least it gave rise to the parthenogenesis of the sainted George Soros, whose mortal remains are unlikely to be found beneath any car park and whose canonisation proves one can rise through anything, though large quantities of money definitely aid ascent.

George Soros, fingering something
There is, however, strong suspicion that the mortal remains of King Richard III may have been uncovered beneath a car park (modern equivalent of a stable?) in Leicester. One of our MPs has called for him to be given a state funeral if it is indeed he, as an arrow in the back, 'severe trauma' to the skull, and a curved spine suggest it may be. DNA testing will of course prove things in the modern way. The legitimate male line of the Plantagenets was extinguished in 1500 with the execution of Edward Earl of Warwick, but fortunately there is a 55-year old Canadian furniture-maker, Michael Ibsen, to act as a kind of modern Perkin Warbeck (executed at the same time as Warwick).

Norman Lamont as Laurence Olivier, Sunday evening
Never mind the brouhaha about whether, at her eventual demise, Lady Thatcher should be accorded such an honour, the combined reignition of the Wars of the Roses and the Plantagenet-Tudor battles will put that well in the historical shade.

Our modern Hanoverians, latter-day beneficiaries of a Revolution Glorious in so distinctively British a style (though even in Plantagenet times the rising middle class was proving troublesome), can smile serenely above these superseded historical rivalries, but there has yet to be a statement from the palace.

Those troubled that, in our straightened times, we cannot afford such carnivals can be reassured that, according to the MP, the cost of the state funeral will be offset by the expected increase in tourism.

For all those disappointed by the failure of London 2012 to generate a economic philip to their businesses, this will be the compensation, the true legacy, and for our political masters that much sought-after and elusive kickstart to the economy.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The truth shall make you free

The quotation comes from St John's gospel and the evangelist was reporting Jesus talking of the truth about god the father:

Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed;
And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
John 8;31-32

Yet it has become almost a secular motto for our age and, I suspect, comes to many minds as 'Knowledge shall set you free', prescriptive or revealed versions of the truth being now less popular.

Does it set us free? Free from what?

Free from superstition, would often be the first answer, showing how far the quotation has been turned against itself. Superstition after all is commonly held as almost the opposite of knowledge, as the adherence to unreasoned and unchallenged belief that prescribes behaviour and inhibits choice: something that 'stands over' knowledge.

Free from fear, would often be added next; fear of transgressing, fear of retribution (real or imagined), fear of the unknown. Yet it seems, in our time, that what we fear is coming to be more often the known than the unknown - those 'known knowns' almost crowding out the 'known unknowns'. And so we may reflect that in the history of human society a cultural, or  authoritarian, restriction on the seeking of knowledge has been the norm rather than the exception, including of course, and conspicuously, western European Christian society, against which the thread of individualism and enquiry in our culture has struggled so long and, eventually, so successfully.

Some would claim that our culture of the pursuit of knowledge is itself only a rebranding of a prescriptive and excluding form of experience and that cultural limits on the range of knowledge that is acceptable are not just the norm but humanly and socially inevitable. Yet in its more disinterested expression it must have been, in some ways, good for the soul; it may have set us free from many forms of stupidity and corruption; it has undoubtedly generated an unprecedented growth in material well-being and in technical capability and thereby overwhelmed other societies, from the far east and the Pacific to south America, which were based on a more settled concept of the world; but whether, ultimately, it is sustainable, comfortable or even tolerable is another matter.

So perhaps what sets one free is the truth, a core from which one's life can grow,even, perhaps,a belief, and the truth is not the same for everyone. Some truths are probably better than others, although one cannot say which is 'best', as if one could choose the best buy in some global supermarket of verities.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Limits to growth

Our pressing problem is how to escape recession and restore growth. Our prime minister and chancellor have some wheezes, such as the temporary relaxation of planning rules on house extensions, but there may be problems ahead if they are too successful.
—Earth surface temperature given steady 2.3% energy growth, assuming some source other than sunlight is employed to provide our energy needs and that its use transpires on the surface of the planet. Even a dream source like fusion makes for unbearable conditions in a few hundred years if growth continues. Note that the vertical scale is logarithmic.


J P Morgan's chief economist, Michael Feroli in a note to clients has suggested that the anticipated launch of Apple's iPhone 5 could lead to sales that could increase US economic growth by between 0.25 and 0.5 percent. "Calculated using the so-called 'retail control method', sales of iPhone 5 could boost annualized GDP growth by $3.2bn, or $12.8bn at an annual rate", thus offsetting "the downside risk to our Q4 GDP growth projection, which remains 2%".

The comment of another US economic analyst was "God help us."

The iPhone 5 is expected to retail at about $600.

Manufacturing costs are thought to be about $200,

Maybe it will save the Chinese economy as well.

iPhone prelapse: the beginnings of growth

Debt, Japanese style

Properly directed, the national debt becomes the spending money of the people. It stimulates demand, stimulating productivity. To keep the system stable and sustainable, the money just needs to come from the nation’s own government and its own people, and needs to return to the government and people.

Other views of the Japanese government's management of its economy, and of its suport of its insolvent banks, are possible.

Sad and possibly unrelated news.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Old news

What was revealed in the audit was startling: $16,000,000,000,00.00 had been secretly given out to US banks and corporations and foreign banks everywhere from South Korea to Scotland. From the period between December 2007 and June 2010, the Federal Reserve had secretly bailed out many of the world’s banks, corporations, and governments. The Federal Reserve likes to refer to these secret bailouts as an all-inclusive loan program, but virtually none of the money has been returned and it was loaned out at 0% interest. Why the Federal Reserve had never been public about this or even informed the United States Congress about the $16 trillion dollar bailout is obvious — the American public would have been outraged to find out that the Federal Reserve bailed out foreign banks while Americans were struggling to find jobs.

  •Citigroup: $2.5 trillion ($2,500,000,000,000) •Morgan Stanley: $2.04 trillion ($2,040,000,000,000)
•Merrill Lynch: $1.949 trillion ($1,949,000,000,000)
•Bank of America: $1.344 trillion ($1,344,000,000,000)
•Barclays PLC (United Kingdom): $868 billion ($868,000,000,000)
•Bear Sterns: $853 billion ($853,000,000,000)
•Goldman Sachs: $814 billion ($814,000,000,000)
•Royal Bank of Scotland (UK): $541 billion ($541,000,000,000)
•JP Morgan Chase: $391 billion ($391,000,000,000)
•Deutsche Bank (Germany): $354 billion ($354,000,000,000)
•UBS (Switzerland): $287 billion ($287,000,000,000)
•Credit Suisse (Switzerland): $262 billion ($262,000,000,000)
•Lehman Brothers: $183 billion ($183,000,000,000)
•Bank of Scotland (United Kingdom): $181 billion ($181,000,000,000)
•BNP Paribas (France): $175 billion ($175,000,000,000),and many many more including banks in Belgium of all places.

Monday, 10 September 2012

No to ID or no to iphone?

Not long ago there was great turmoil here about government proposals to issue what would effectively become a compulsory identity card linked to an extensive database of personal information. After much dispute, between the notions of state encroachment on personal autonomy and privacy, and blandishments of increased social efficiency and 'if you've nothing to hide you've nothing to fear', the political classes (to whom it appealed across the waning party political spectrum) backed off.

Now it seems, if we have a little patience, Apple will do it for us, as the iphone knows where we are, what we want, how we pay and goodness knows what else besides. Fingerprint technology is about to make it all 'secure' - secure against outsiders doing bad things to us and secure against us doing what we are not meant to do. Glitz it up - that's the message to politicians. Just another piece of out-sourcing (Apple, the greatest corporation in human history since the Holy Roman Empire and twice as holy, is probably better at that than governments).

As politicians increasingly throw in the towel (or their lot) with big corporations (which, of course, have everything to hide and nothing to fear, except from their fellows, and 52 per cent of which according to that tendentious source of conspiracy theory nonsense, the World Bank, conceal the full extent of their income from governments) - and note David Cameron's quiet introduction of ex-investment bankers into government ranks in his recent reshuffle (no wonder he doesn't want to 'reform' the house of lords, that handy back-door - revolving or not - for government recruitment - Lord Green is still lying low in his ermine) ... where was I?

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Green energy

Never-never, or Never, never, never

Never Never Land or the Never-Never is said to have originated in the Australian Outback, unspecific parts of which were so named because they were a place which, depending on your outlook, you would never want to go to, or never want to leave. Apparently the phrase is still in such use in parts of Queensland and the Northern Territory.

It was J M Barrie who introduced the phrase into popular English usage. In Peter Pan Never Land was where the babies went who fell out their prams and were not rescued, and where they joined the lost boys (presumably little girls did not fall out of their prams in Edwardian times). So it was a place to which 'normal' people could never go, and from which it's inhabitants could normally never escape, and where they could never progress through mortality like the rest of us. (The Edwardian fear of mortality and its varying expression in the grandiloquent and the fey is a theme for other reflections.)

Yet 'never never' gained its strongest and most characteristic place in the popular English imagination when 'the never never' became the common term for hire-purchase, an early form of credit that enabled one to acquire goods and pay for them in regular stages. Of course it was not 'never' that one actually finished paying for them, but, so strong was then the residual popular sense that actually enjoying or using something before one had paid for it was the road to ruin, that it acquired a strongly morally disapproving overtone.

How far have we travelled from there, and to what place has it brought us, when credit is now so universal and interwoven into all our economies, personal, national and international? The acerbic commentator might say that even the prudent amongst us usually have little idea of exactly when the funds for their purchases actually leave their possession, and the feckless neither know nor care whether they ever were or ever will be in it - but in that they have been shown, quite literally, to be no different from those who have charge of our largest and most venerable banks, whose pretence to the ownership of funds is so large and so false that no-one dare challenge it.

'Never, never, never!' was the famously obdurate declaration of Ian Paisley senior that Ulster would never accept the Republic of Ireland's having a role in the constitutional affairs of Northern Ireland, something that was shortly to come about and which many would have regarded as historically inevitable. Indeed, so historically inevitable was it that the lion and the lamb were shortly to lie down together when he and Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness were elected First Minister and deputy First Minister respectively to the Northern Irish Assembly, created by the Belfast Agreement, on 8 May 2007. They apparently got on so well that they became known as 'the chuckle brothers'. Of course Sinn Féin and Martin McGuinness did not actually represent the interests of the Irish Republic, but in earlier days Paisley would not have made such nice distinctions.

I do not wish to suggest Paisley has been without his merits and abilities or that he did not mellow with age; he was created a life peer in Gordon Brown's dissolution honours list in June 2010 (someone else whom we may expect to mellow with age, unlike Tony Blair - 'age shall not weary him'); in February this year Paisley was admitted to hospital with a serious heart condition from which he was later reported to be recovering.

Paisley no doubt intended a bastardised echo of Winston Churchill's celebrated 'We shall never surrender.' How masterly, or how natural, is Churchill's falling cadence with the word 'never', making it not something to be asserted but quietly acknowledged; how contrasting with Paisley's stridency; and how wide a gulf does it reveal between the culture of Churchill and that of Paisley. 

So for us now, in our present polical-economic woes, is it never-never land, or never, never, never? Perhaps both.

We are indeed in never-never land in every sense. Our debts can never be repaid. Our economy is in a state of perpetual immaturity. Our past elysium, that brief post world-war-two interlude when there seemed to be a miraculous combination of steady material improvement and a recognition by those in power that there was a debt to be repaid to the ordinary citizens of the nation who had saved Europe from catastrophe, is well and truly lost.

There is no way forward except through reform, not the kind of 'reform' that Tony Blair and David Cameron like to talk about - masking their partisan political preferences in the language of historical inevitability and public benefaction in a false echo of the great Victorian Reform Acts - but something in the full, literal meaning of the word.

Yet for those who effectively control political, economic and financial power it is 'We say never, never, never!' and they say it with less grace, if less street-volume, than Ian Paisley. Never is there to be the necessary rebalancing of the financial obligations in the economy; never are financial pretences to be acknowledged; and never is the tide of the increasing accummulation of wealth amongst an extremely small minority of the population to be reversed or even halted. Yet theirs is the 'never' of Paisley as they increasingly lay waste the economy on which they depend both for the aquisition of their wealth and for some form in which it can be expressed and have value. And ours is the 'never' of J M Barrie, a land of the lost.

'Nothing shall come of Nothing. Think again.'

Big it up

The combined group would be the world's largest producer of zinc, control just under a third of the coal used for power stations and trade wheat, sugar and oil in more than 40 countries around the world, putting it at the centre of the global trade in vital commodities.

Is this a good idea? Tony Blair thinks so. And so does pretty much everyone involved, provided the terms are right for them, about which some metaphorical blood is likely to be spilt. Money talks, but not always in a single language. Our ex-Prime Minister is perhaps more fluent among the state-backed investment money of the Qataris and the quasi-state money of large American banks (especially as J P Morgan pays him about $2 million a year for his advice and influence), where the revolving door between senior corporate and senior government posts is never stationary. Perhaps the hard-core accents of Glencore and Xstrata are just a little different.