Sunday, 31 March 2013

Easter Day

Christ is risen!

The new pope wants to make the Roman Catholic church poor; the archbishop of Cyprus wants to mortgage the Orthodox church's possessions to save his nation; the British Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Churches and the Church of Scotland want the British government to be more charitable to the poor.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

War of the golden bunnies

Lindt, manufacturers of those golden foil-wrapped chocolate Easter bunnies you see everywhere in the supermarkets, have just lost a thirteen year battle to prevent rival German chocolate manufacturer Confiserie Riegelein from selling something similar (as the latter say they have been doing for the past half century).

Lindt did, however, win an earlier case against an Austrian manufacturer Hauswirth's similar bunny.

It looks to me more as if you might be expecting Lindt's rivals to be fighting it out.

Lindt has had mixed success in its efforts to trademark the actual three-dimensional bunny but has been doggedly pursuing a legal cull of other golden chocolate bunnies through the courts. One of its justifications is that it spends millions on promoting the golden bunny and so deserves all the rewards to itself - never mind how long other lesser firms have been making and selling similar products.

The interests of the customers don't seem to figure much in the legal wrangles. It is not a matter of passing off - where customer protection would be the prime motive. It is not even about intellectual property or design or copyright, which would expire in the public interest after a fixed term. It is about trademarks, which are forever. Trademarks used to be signs and labels, that were applied to a product. So anyone could produce and sell yeast extract but they could not put the Marmite label on it, or a label that looked like Marmite's. Now the whole three-dimensional object can, sometimes, be registered as a trademark. It's fortunate that was not possible when someone invented the wheel, or the barrel, or the sheep.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Keep calm

One hundred and eighty G4S staff are being sent to Greek Cypriot bank branches to 'ensure calm' when they reopen.

Monday, 18 March 2013

An extract from the Chancellor's budget speech

"Is this recovery which I see before me,
The handle towards my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but
A recovery of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going,
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o' th' other senses,
Or else worth all the rest."  

And the reason is: 

 "There is in fact good reason for this. The budget is forecast in detail for two years and then from year three on moves onto a generic forecasting model that uses long term underlying growth assumptions. So the first two years are always problematic but because of the realistic assumptions used. Thereafter though the long term underlying growth trend in the UK is used and not the pattern of behaviour we now know to exist. That always means that from year three on the budget always says things will get better and so, five years out, we’re always in balance, according to Osborne."  

With acknowledgements to Macbeth and Richard Murphy.

A short history of UK GDP

"Business policy has become political policy; and business values have become social values. We need to reverse this!"

With acknowledgements to Jayarava.

Yesterday in Cyprus

There are suggestions that the Cypriot government may try to meet public outrage by reducing the 'savings tax' on small depositors and increasing it on large - whom the powers that be like to characterise as Russian money launderers, glossing over the fact that any such that exist do so courtesy of the laxity of the banks and their regulators.

The Rock
But things are caught between a rock and a hardplace. Any such concession to the 'little people' on whom governments depend for votes wil transfer the burden more to international investors, on whom governments depend for loans.

The Hard Place

Lifting out of poverty

According to press reports, a new index reveals that world poverty is shrinking rapidly and that in twenty years' time the poor may no longer be with us:

"Some of the poorest people in the world are becoming significantly less poor, according to a groundbreaking academic study which has taken a new approach to measuring deprivation. The report, by Oxford University's poverty and human development initiative, predicts that countries among the most impoverished in the world could see acute poverty eradicated within 20 years if they continue at present rates."

Yet the definition and measurement of poverty are complex and contested matters, as a commentator indicates:

"OHPI and Martin Ravallion are both right and wrong in my opinion. A single measure of consumption, as used by the World Bank’s under $1.25/day indicators, does not give a true picture of poverty, and so efforts to assess other dimensions of poverty are important. But OHPI’s approach is far too limited (including for the reasons Ravallion describes). Participatory research demonstrates that poor people are extremely concerned about vulnerability to shocks, violence, discrimination, isolation and other negatives – none of which are revealed in the OPHI work. Poverty must also be seen as relative; having much less income that your peers is a factor too (as even Adam Smith recognized). Hence the MPI statistics are all-too-often counter-intuitive. It just isn’t credible that South Africa and the Palestinian Territories are virtually free of poverty; that Ethiopia has much worse poverty than Central African Republic, Burundi and Sierra Leone; that Nicaragua is poorer than Ghana, Philippines, Uzbekistan or Bolivia; or that the former Soviet Union countries are all relatively free of poverty. If indicators don’t tally with the reality as seen with ones own eyes they aren’t credible. OPHI’s papers on Bhutan, for example, make no reference to the marginalization and poverty of the “Nepalis” (those of Madheshi Nepal origin who have lived for generations in Bhutan but who are mostly denied opportunity and citizenship).

"On the other hand, Ravallion’s confidence in income statistics, and the Living Standards Measurement Surveys (LSMS) on which they are based, is misplaced. This approach has methodological flaws, is subject to serious survey errors, produces data that change little in the face of shocks that clearly have a profound impact on the poor, conceal the prevalence of poverty in wealthy countries and produces results that are often unrealistic. For example, tracking the prevailing rates of malnutrition with LSMS poverty data suggests that in about 5 years time the former will overtake the latter – i.e. there will be millions of people who go to bed hungry, even though they aren’t poor."

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Lydgate and Bulstrode

There is, I read, a 'George Eliot Hospital Trust' in Nuneaton that wishes, under the new National Health Service 'reforms', to tender for a 'strategic partner' in order to secure its future.

I wonder whether they have read Eliot's Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life where an idealistic medical man also found the need to tender for a strategic partner. it did not end happily.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

"Aspiration nation"

"The global race is not just about GDP. It's about saying to the mum who's worried about her children's future, 'We are building a country where there is a future, so your kids won't have to get on a plane to get on in life, they can make it right here in Britain.' It's what this party's always been about – aspiration." David Cameron

Under Margaret Thatcher, the unemployed were urged, indirectly, by Norman Tebbit to get on their bikes (not a plane), as his father had done. Nevertheless, Tebbit knew about planes as well as bikes, and unemployment: ex RAF, ex British Overseas Airways Coproration pilot, and ex official of that aggressively self-interested trade union for the well paid, the British Airline Pilots' Association, he became, as a politician in Margaret Thatcher's government, the scourge of the trade unions.

Former Prime Minster Harold Macmillan, who came out of a different drawer, remarked, of Tebbit, "Heard a chap on the radio this morning talking with a cockney accent. They tell me he is one of Her Majesty's ministers". What he would have thought of today's lot is a puzzling question but one not beyond all conjecture.

It is reported that David Cameron intends in a forthcoming speech to hail three "great Conservatives" – Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher – for putting in place ladders that help people improve their lives. Macmillan's ladder was to build homes; Thatcher's, not as one might think to sell them (the council houses) off at a large discount and prohibit councils from building new ones, but to "fire up enterprise so people could start their own businesses". Depends which way you look at it I suppose. I'm with the sunflower, or Sir Thomas Browne.

The mildew and the flame

"It is ourselves who abolish — ourselves who consume: we are the mildew, and the flame.”

Habemus Papem!

After bicycling royalty, we now have a tram travelling pope, Well, he was a tram travelling, appartment dwelling, self cooking cardinal, but I presume he will not be allowed as pope to get on the trams very often. What next? Bankers on... what? Rickshaws probably - a Japanese invention of the mid-nineteenth century that replaced palanquins. Such is progress: the rich adopt the wheel after millenia. the catholic church had problems here as well. The third Council of Braga in the late seventh century AD ruled that bishops carrying the relics of martyrs in procession should get out of their litters and walk, relieving the white clad deacon bearers from their burdens.

A litter, I think, originally meant a bed, which formerly was likely to be made of cast down straw, and so the word came to be applied both to the human-borne conveyance and to the light trash we drop around us.

It was of course the democratic Americans who put the wheels on the sedan, and the engine, thus turning it into an auto mobile. The sedan now was democratic not just in that it was no longer carried by human bearers, but in that it consisted of a single compartment, including the driver, who was no longer a servant stuck out in front, outside the cab containing the passengers, but had come in from the cold.

There probably aren't any trams in Vatican City anyway, just as there are no cash machines. However white the pope's garments, his temporal state does not gain admittance to the European Union's 'white list' of those that comply fully with international standards aginst money laundering and tax abuse.

There is much discussion in the public news media as to what is the true character of the new pope, the man who regularly visited the poor in the Argentinian slums, and the man who resisted the conflation of religious and economic activism in liberation theology and, apparently, was not entirely comfortable with his Jesuit order. There is the uncomfortable question of whether or not he abandonned to their fate two Jesuit priests who were tortured by the Argentinian authorities forty years ago. I imagine it is entirely possible that he both vigorously tried to save them and that his previous stern attitude contributed to their peril.

Clearly he is both a man of authority and a man of the people, and perhaps no more able to solve that conundrum than any other.

Estela de la Cuadra, whose mother co-founded the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo activist group during the Argentinian dictatorship to search for missing family members, when asked if she felt Francis had lived up to his reputation as a common, humble man, replied: "Yes, he has an arrogant humility." No doubt that is a spiritual condition with which the Catholic church has often struggled.

Friday, 15 March 2013


British scientists have finally succeeded in their long quest to genetically engineer a hen that lays eggs with flexible shells, thus eliminating that scourge of the kitchen, the rupturing of the yolk sack as it passes over the jagged edge of the broken shell on its way into the frying pan.

Commercial interest is considerable and the new organism has been patented in the name of a well-known fast-food chain.

The success has been achieved by implanting a crocodile gene into a Rhode Island Red and a Buff Orpington. There are said to be 'no adverse safety implications'.

The development has the very considerable side benefit of making available that much sought-after commodity, hens' teeth.

The Buff Henodile: it is hoped to be able to miniaturize it soon


The whole trend of innovation now in mobile electronics technology seems to be to integrate the thing into our bodily functions. Move your head, or even your eye, and it does something, believing you to have instructed it. Speak a few particular words and it's off again, assuming, like your most boring friend, that you just must be speaking to it. The logical extension is just to implant the thing in our heads, like that man from the BT research lab did all those years ago. How far we have advanced from those early cumbersome back-packs that the pioneers of electronic extension of our thoughts and perceptions so bravely shouldered for the future benefit of humanity. (Unfortunately, according to my link, the future seems to have run out in 2009.)

The future - gloves included
The man from Google, and perhaps others, think this is the way forward and that it is less 'emasculating' than having the thing at arm's length.

The present - always more scarey
Yet perhaps I am wrong about the future logical extension: there is clearly an appeal in the demonstrable gadget, in fiddling with things (it is well known that part of the appeal of smoking is being able to do something with one's hand all the time) and showing them off to others. Put it in the brain and all the person is left with is having to demonstrate by what they do, rather than what they have, that they are smarter than the next person. How unsatisfying is that? It would be taking us right back to the days of differential and unalterable innate human intelligence amongst individuals. Anyway, what about the yearly upgrades? Just keep your head up and don't move your eyes.

East and West

Just the job
Can the sartorially open-necked dynamism of our elecronics whizzes save us from the onslaught from the East, where they are so easy in their skins that they feel no need to discard their suits? We shall bury you, as someone else once said. This time it looks a bit more threatening. At least that isn't an iPhone he's holding in his left hand at a slightly lower altitude.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The deaths of others

Julius Stwertka (Concertmaster, Violin I)

Julius Stwertka was 66 years old when Nazi Germany carried out its infamous Anschluss with Austria in March 1938. A distinguished musician, recruited by Gustav Mahler, he was violinst and then Konzertmeister with the Philharmonic, and is pictured in a black and white photo from 1935 sitting in the pit next to Wilhelm Furtwängler. The Anschluss unleashed 250 new anti-Semitic laws and a wave of anti-Jewish violence. Stwertka and his wife Rosa were deported to the Jewish ghetto in Theresienstadt. He survived for just a few weeks, dying in December 1942. His wife was sent to Auschwitz in 1944. Her date of death is unknown.

Armin Tyroler Armin Tyroler (Oboe II)

Armin Tyroler was one of the Philharmonic's most celebrated musicians. A teacher, professor of music, and a campaigner for better conditions for his less fortunate colleagues, Tyroler was honoured by the city of Vienna in 1933. In his acceptance speech he argued that musicians could only be artists if they were freed from hardship. He called Vienna his "adored city" and said he wanted it to be a "city of songs, a city of happiness". In 1940 Tyroler and his second wife Rudolfine were forced to move home, then in 1942 sent - together with the Stwertkas - to Theresienstadt. In the ghetto Tyroler founded a Jewish cultural organisation and took part in a concert. On October 28, 1944, he and his wife were deported to Auschwitz. He was gassed two days later. His wife's date of death is unknown.

Monday, 11 March 2013

The gods of chaos

In summary, the Pentagon's best minds have dared to venture where most United Nations, World Bank or Department of State types fear to go: down the road that logically follows from the abolition of urban reform. As in the past, this is a 'street without joy', and, indeed, the unemployed teenage fighters of the 'Mahdi Army' in Baghdad's Sadr City - one of the world's largest slums - taunt American occupiers with the promise that their main boulevard is 'Vietnam Street'. But the war planners don't blench. With coldblooded lucidity, they now assert that the 'feral, failed cities' of the Third World - especially their slum outskirts - will be the distinctive battlespace of the twenty-first century. Pentagon doctrine is being reshaped accordingly to support a low-intensity world war of unlimited duration against criminalized segments of the urban poor. This is the true 'clash of civilizations'.

MOUT [Military Operations on Urban Terrain] doctrine - according to Stephen Graham, who has written extensively on the geography of urban warfare, is thus the highest stage of Orientalism, the culmination of a long history of defining the West by opposition to a hallucinatory Eastern Other. According to Stephen Graham, this dichotomizing ideology - now raised to 'moral absolutism' by the Bush administration - 'works by separating the 'civilized world' - the 'homeland' cities which must be 'defended' - from the 'dark forces', the 'axis of evil' and the 'terrorist nests' of Islamic cities, which are alleged to sustain the 'evildoers' which threaten the health, prosperity and democracy of the whole of the 'free world'.'

This delusionary dialectic of securitized versus demonic urban places, in turn, dictates a sinister and unceasing duet: Night after night, hornetlike helicopter gunships stalk enigmatic enemies in the narrow streets of the slum districts, pouring hellfire into shanties or fleeing cars. Every morning the slums reply with suicide bombers and eloquent  explosions. If the empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on their side.

Concluding paragraphs of the 'Epilogue' of Mike Davis's Planet of Slums (2006): 'The astonishing facts hit like anvil blows ... a heartbreaking book.' Financial Times

Friday, 1 March 2013

Drone on

The public talks of 'drones' but the military prefer to call them 'unmanned aerial vehicles'. We should realise that military procurers and supplers in the developed world have in mind a much wider range of drones and that the comprehensively automated and unmanned battlefield is in their sights.

It may require a little, involuntary, help from the insect world:

In 2006 the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) asked America's scientists to submit "innovative proposals to develop technology to create insect-cyborgs" .

We are clearly doomed.

Darpa's call essentially launched a grand science fair, one designed to encourage innovation and tap into the competitive spirit of scientists around the country. The pamphlet outlined one specific application for the robo-bugs –outfitted with chemical sensors, they could be used to detect traces of explosives in remote buildings or caves – and it's easy to imagine other possible tasks for such cyborgs. Insect drones kitted out with video cameras could reveal whether a building is occupied and whether those inside are civilians or enemy combatants, while those with microphones could record sensitive conversations, becoming bugs that literally bugged you.

Maharbiz bristles at the most sinister suggestions, at the media coverage that suggests his beetles are the product of, as he puts it, "some evil government conspiracy". His beetles haven't been sent out into the field yet – they still need some refinement before they're ready for deployment – but if and when they are, Maharbiz says he expects his bugs to be used abroad, in routine military operations, but not to track US citizens. (Of course, some people may find that "equally reprehensible", he acknowledges.)

It is not only insects that are being recruited in the march of progress.

They began by opening up a rat's skull and implanting steel wires in its brain. The wires ran from the brain out through a large hole in the skull, and into a backpack harnessed to the rodent. ("Backpack" seems to be a favourite euphemism among the cyborg-animal crowd.) This rat pack, as it were, contained a suite of electronics, including a microprocessor and a receiver capable of picking up distant signals. Chapin or one of his colleagues could sit 500m away from the rat and use a laptop to transmit a message to the receiver, which relayed the signal to the microprocessor, which sent an electric charge down the wires and into the rat's brain.

During training, the SUNY scientists used an unconventional system of reinforcement. When the rat turned in the correct direction, the researchers used a third wire to send an electrical pulse into what's known as the medial forebrain bundle (MFB), a region of the brain involved in processing pleasure. Studies in humans and other animals have shown that direct activation of the MFB just plain feels good.

Elsewhere researchers are comandeering rat brains in a different way:

Scientists have connected the brains of a pair of animals and allowed them to share sensory information in a major step towards what the researchers call the world's first "organic computer".

Remarkably, the communication between the rats was two-way. If the receiving rat failed at the task, the first rat was not rewarded with a drink, and appeared to change its behaviour to make the task easier for its partner.

"This tells us that we could create a workable network of animal brains distributed in many different locations."  

We need not fear that the ethical implications are left unexamined:

Anders Sandberg, who studies the ethics of neurotechnologies at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, said the work was "very important" in helping to understand how brains encode information.

But the implications of the technology and its potential future uses are far broader, said Sandberg. "The main reason we are running the planet is that we are amazingly good at communicating and coordinating. Without that, although we are very smart animals, we would not dominate the planet."

"I don't think there's any risk of supersmart rats from this," he added. "There's a big difference between sharing sensory information and being able to plan. I'm not worried about an imminent invasion of 'rat multiborgs'."

So that's alright: no risk to the 'Future of Humanity' or that we might cease to be 'running the planet'. Indeed, soon we could all be doing it:

Though scientists will continue to build their cyborg animals, Maharbiz says he fully expects that "kids will be able to hack these things, like they wrote code in the Commodore 64 days". We are heading towards a world in which anyone with a little time, money and imagination can commandeer an animal's brain.


On the way out
The decline of wild bees and other pollinators may be an even more alarming threat to crop yields than the loss of honeybees, a worldwide study suggests, revealing the irreplaceable contribution of wild insects to global food production.

A second new study published in Science on Thursday showed more than half the wild bee species were lost in the 20th century in the US.

Meanwhile scientists are working on robotic bees, which as well as 'autonomously pollinating a field of crops' will have added advantages such as 'military surveillance' and 'traffic monitoring'.   Who needs bees?

On the way in