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.