Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A hundred flowers

From ChinaSMACK:


We Must Sternly Repress Counter-Revolutionaries (1951)

前三十年毛把中国弄成了人间地狱,后三十年拔乱返正,逐步走上正轨和理性!
The first 30 years turned China into hell on earth, the later 30 years has brought order to disorder, and now we are gradually getting on the right track with reason/rationality!

这里让评论吗,好害怕
Is commenting allowed here, I’m so scared.

查水表
"Here to check your water meter." ("Often used in responses to posts or comments that may be considered subversive or “inharmonious” by the government, suggesting that the police or authorities will be coming to the original poster’s home to arrest them under the guise of “checking their water meter”.)"

Ha, ha. And yet...



"Careers for linguists at GCHQ"
 
From The Guardian, 21 October 2014
 

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The rise of Homo bureaucraticus

...and the evolution of the precautionary principle.

The rise of the precautionary principle since 1900
source


The precautionary principle is a defining characteristic of Homo bureaucraticus, a gender-neutral offshoot of Homo sapiens. Along with its symbiotic partner the expert, a species of hominid parrot, Homo bureaucraticus is now common all over the northern hemisphere.

The traditional definition of the precautionary principle is as a post hoc justification of actions and policies already decided, but it works even better as one of the keys to rise of Homo bureaucraticus.

Most of us are acutely sensitive to personal, family and tribal risk. It’s an ingrained feature of our survival antennae, part of our animal nature. Homo bureaucraticus takes this a step further. If it sees a risk, any risk, then bureaucraticus instructs an expert to slap a precautionary principle on it – the favoured one being avoid and blame.

Bankers go a step further and engineer negative risks for themselves and their cronies – ie other bankers, but that's another story.

Risk wasn’t always so amenable to manipulation though. Before Stonehenge was built, when even the most upmarket kitchen utensils were made of flint, risk was a far more serious business than it is today. Although...

What was the risk of not building Stonehenge? Is Homo bureaucraticus an older species than we have hitherto supposed? It’s an open question.

Anyway, among many other disadvantages our technical civilisation has made risk rather less risky. We may get away with stupidities but Homo bureaucraticus always gets away with stupidities. Much like banking in fact, only with bureaucraticus the risk is parked on voters...

Nope on reflection it’s not much like banking, it’s exactly like banking.

Even so the system copes. It may sag a little but on the whole it seems to cope. Not that we’d ever know if it couldn’t cope. Not until afterwards when bureaucraticus claims it’s all our fault for electing idiots. Which admittedly is something we do rather often.

So without the lure of a very substantial gain Homo bureaucraticus isn’t prepared to take risks under any but the most compelling circumstances. If it ain’t worth it don’t do it – that’s the bureaucraticus mantra.

Doing isn’t the whole story though because doing includes thinking and saying and telling. In other words bureaucraticus doesn’t take risks with language either, not even with that covert language trickling through its head as it reads the report it told an expert how to write.

So it is no surprise that the rise of the precautionary principle has seen a parallel and very energetic promotion of risk-free language. Political correctness we call it. As usual the risk of not speaking plainly is bound to fall on the peasants – not on bureaucraticus.

Ironically it could turn out to be a risky business not taking risks. 

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Energy Policy: Large-scale Unintended Consequences

Wherever you look, 21st century energy policy has been hatched by people who know far less than they need to about the subject in hand.

It's sometimes necessary to diagree with the 'experts'.  Prior to liberalisation of the energy markets, the experts - all wedded to the extremely comfortable monopoly model - declared with absolute certainty that gas and electricity were inevitably and essentially matters for monopolies to control.  Not really commodities at all: something magical and different.  Competition ?  Trading ?  No, these were simply impossible.  Trust us.  We are as efficient as it is possible to be. (© Denis Rooke, 1985)

On that, the experts were utterly wrong.

But that doesn't give a licence to greenish, or green-appeasing politicians and civil servants, to announce that electricity grids can be run on windfarms and wishful thinking for zero CO2 emissions, when people who genuinely know better can prove otherwise.  Sadly this is not enough to stop them giving it a try, armed with vast amounts of our money.  But it ain't gonna work: and the harder they try, the more bizarre will be the unintended consequences.  To list a few that had already made themselves apparent a year or so back:
  • Germany, which has gone further and faster than any country (and, some would say, with the least planning) has seen record levels of expenditure on renewables, record high power prices to residential customers, and, yes, rising CO2 emissions
  • ... and, yes, rising CO2 emissions in the UK also
  • ... and around 50% of 'renewable' energy in the EU coming, not from the antiseptic, sunlit windfarms / solar farms / hydro plants of the brochures, but filthy biofuels, whose only claim to reducing CO2 emissions comes from the fact that they are deemed to do so, irrespective of the truth (which is that in most cases they don't)
And now we have the UK 'capacity market' in the electricity sector, being introduced this year to rectify the problem that in an era when no-one moves without a subsidy, no-one seems willing to build unsubsidised power plants to relace the coal stations that are closing with each passing year.  I may write on the technicalities of this 'market' another time, but for now we need simply to look at the recently published details of who are bidding into the auction process for being awarded 3-year or even 15-year wads of 'capacity payments' (i.e. standing charge contracts) for the 'new capacity' they promise to bring onto the UK grid.  

A fair chunk (by volume) of the bids are made by would-be developers of new CCGTs (large gas turbines in their most efficient configuration).  This is what the government hoped for.  But new CCGTs are costly, and unlikely to win at auction, because even more capacity is on offer from other sources, e.g. bids from companies offering to put old, mothballed CCGTs back into service (again, anticipated and welcomed by DECC).

Then come the unintended consequences.
  • one of the largest 'new build' CCGTs is in fact two-thirds already built, and starts up next year anyway, whether it gets a capacity contract or not!  (The capacity payments don't start until 2018)
  • a large chunk of the bids comes from owners of existing coal plants, offering 'new capacity' by way of eking out extended and better performance from their ageing kit
  • the biggest bidder is bloody EDF, hands out again, pretending that its long-announced life-extension projects for its existing UK nukes are also 'new capacity'.  Again, these are money-for-old-rope projects that will go ahead anyway

Needless to say, this is not what DECC or the greens initially expected from the capacity market, though the logic of it had begun to dawn on them over the summer.  The howls of outrage greeting the coal projects in particular are hilarious to hear.  Anyone could have told them: it's always cheaper to refurbish existing capacity than build new plant.


Looking back at several years' worth of energy postings, I find I have invoked reductio ad absurdum several times: and it is time to roll out this venerable tool of formal logic once again.  The absurdities are there for all to see.   The logicians' answer is that the original assumptions must be wrong.  That's the correct conclusion, and one we urgently need DECC to draw.

Nick Drew

This post first appeared on the Capitalists@Work blog 


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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Plug ugly

(Japan Times)
 
"Created by Paul McCarthy, an American artist, as part of his exhibition Chocolate Factory, the installation is officially described as a Christmas tree. Social media wags, however, have suggested that it looks more like something rude (ask your mother)," says Ellen E Jones in the Independent on Sunday.
 
1. I don't know why it is your mother you'd have to ask. If Ms Jones can't tell the difference between a dildo and a butt plug she may not be as sophisticated as she pretends.
 
2. It's not a commentator's jest: the resemblance to the latter is entirely intended by the artist. Here he is in Le Monde:
 
"As the bright green plastic canvas "tree" is completing its installation beside the Vendôme column (the most phallic monument in Paris), we interviewed the artist, who specialises in disturbing and provocative works, about the nature of his piece.
 
""It all started with a joke: Originally, I thought that an anal plug had a shape similar to the sculptures of Brancusi. Afterwards, I realized that it looked like a Christmas tree. But it is an abstract work. People can be offended if they wish in relating to the plug, but for me it is more of an abstraction.""
 
Not entirely surprising, then that he got punched in the face and that the guy ropes were cut, so that the "artwork" had to be deflated. He had indeed "disturbed and provoked".
 
(Japan Times)

How much longer will we have to endure cheap stunts justified by highfalutin' nonsense and boosted by a louche and jaded commercial commentariat? Is there really no distinction between art and a smoking-room joke?


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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Simon Harris on Catalonian independence

(Pic source: RT News)
Readers of George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” (1938) will remember the author’s strength of feeling for the cause and for his fellows. Catalonia is that kind of place, even now, for there are a number of English people living there who see themselves simply as Catalans born abroad. In the wake of last month’s rallies, expatriates met to discuss the implications of secession from Spain.
 
(Pic via Brett Hetherington)

One of the participants was Simon Harris, who gives an account of the issues and feelings of Catalans in this email interview:

Please describe the October 1 expats meeting, and the fears and hope of attendees.

The October 1 meeting was held at the Antiga Fabrica Moritz and a couple of hundred foreign-born Catalan citizens attended (We don't really like “expat”. It certainly doesn't tally with my experience in Barcelona and smacks of people talking English and drinking G&T on the Costas. We live here and get on with our lives much like the locals despite having been born elsewhere.)
 
The four people on the panel talked of a more prosperous future with a greater degree of social justice.  

The main concern is a possible frontier effect causing a decrease in trade with Spain. But I believe the confrontational style of central government exaggerates this. 47% of Catalan exports go to Spain. Many of the commercial relationships go back decades and are often with multinationals so it’s actually quite difficult to tell where things have been produced. Even the boycott on Catalan cava of a few years ago didn't last long (the alternative was French champagne that doesn't taste the same and costs three times as much). Ultimately, consumers care about quality and value for money so after a period of instability the trade relations will settle at a slightly lower level but at the same time, Catalonia will find new foreign markets. (The area of the economy that will be worst affected is the Catalan banks, La Caixa and Sabadell. Once you've changed your account you don't go back.) 

Our other concern is the general lack of debate. This is partly a cultural problem but also because since the referendum isn't allowed, there's been no real campaigning on either side. People who are active, such as most of those who attended the meeting) tend to be pro-vote and pro-independence. 

What are the arguments for Catalonian independence? 

Firstly, cultural-historical: like Scotland, Catalonia used to be a separate country and was gradually taken over by its neighbour. It still has a strong sense of its identity, which is why the Spanish government has always tried to suppress Catalan language and culture. Catalan was illegal after 1714 under Felipe V and you could be arrested for speaking it under Franco. As recently as 2012, education minister José Ignacio Wert said that he wanted to 'españolizar' Catalan schoolchildren and has since introduce a new education law called the LOMCE which attempts to do so. Although the language of education is Catalan, all Catalan kids are bilingual and in PISA tests (independent EU university tests) Catalan schoolchildren always score above the national average in Castilian Spanish! So the LOMCE is a repressive rather than an educational measure. 

There are also economic arguments. To start with, Catalonia pays far more in taxes than it gets back in investment from Madrid. Yet central government obstructs development in our region and is prepared to accept national disadvantage in order to keep us down. For example, the European Corridor Freight Line which would run from Algeciras, Malaga, Cartagena, Valencia and Barcelona into northern Europe is constantly blocked because it doesn't go through Madrid. Even though it would benefit the whole country, it would benefit Barcelona/Catalonia most. 

Look also at access to airports. Madrid Airport's Terminal 4 has metro, train and new roads - and they plan to spend €16 billion on an AVE (high speed train) connection serving a handful of passengers a day. Meanwhile, connections to Barcelona airport's T1 terminal need improving and Iberia Airlines have just cancelled intercontinental flights from Barcelona. It’s mad. 

The fact that everything in Spain is run by national agencies disincentivises efficiency. For example the hugely profitable Port of Barcelona subsidises the unprofitable ports and hasn't money left to reinvest in its own infrastructure. And so on. 

How has the movement started and grown, and what is the degree of general support? 

Things came to a head when Catalonia's new Statute of Autonomy, which had been watered down and passed by Spanish Parliament and voted on in referendum with 75% in favour in Catalonia, was declared unconstitutional by the national Constitutional Court in July 2010. 

The first demonstration under the slogan 'We are a nation. We decide' took to the streets with more than a million people in Barcelona. Just prior to this informal ballots on independence were organised in villages and towns and the 'Barcelona Decides' ballot took place in the early summer of 2011 with a festive atmosphere and a massive vote in favour. 

The extreme right-wing Partido Popular (they say they're conservatives but the party was founded by former Franco ministers and current leaders have ties with the fascist Falange party) came to power in Spain in the autumn of 2011 and tension increased. In 2012 on La Diada, the Catalan National Day (September 11th) more than 1.5 million took to the streets of Barcelona under the slogan 'Catalonia, New European State' and for the first time independence for Catalonia became a majority opinion. 

The 2013 Diada demonstration was the “Catalan Way” in which 1.5 million people joined hands from Catalonia's southern border to its northern border with France, and in this year's “V” 1.8 million people created a human mosaic in Barcelona. Both events were perfectly organised and there has been no violence of any kind. 

Current support for independence stands at roughly 50% in favour with 25% against and 25% undecided. These figures vary by 5% in either direction, depending on the poll. 

What is the attitude of the Spanish Government, the EU and supranational bodies? 

The Spanish government has refused to negotiate on the main issues.  

A few days after the 2012 Diada, Catalan President Artur Mas met with Spanish President Mariano Rajoy to discuss changes to tax policy. Catalonia currently pays €16 billion in taxes (net of inward investment) to central government; this is 8% of Catalan GDP, making it the most highly-taxed region in Europe. Rajoy refused to discuss the issue. 

The other complaint involves language and education. Under the Education Minister’s LOMCE plan to 'hispanicize' Catalan children, it will be possible for students to go through their whole school career without learning any Catalan. The Spanish Constitutional Court also obliges the Catalan government to pay for private education exclusively in the Spanish language to any parent that asks for it. Yet even in the atmosphere of tension only 40 families in a population of 7.5 million have requested this. Why? Because the Catalan education system is very good as it is and guarantees a high level of integration. 

In Autonomic elections in November 2012, 4 parties included a pledge to hold a referendum in their manifestoes, so now 86 members out of a Catalan parliament of 135 deputies are committed to this. The Catalan government presented a proposal to hold a referendum on November 9 in the Spanish congress, which was voted against by all the major Spanish parties and defeated.  

The Catalan parliament then drew up a law of 'Non Referenderary Consultation' (a non-binding question to find out how many people are in favour of independence and also allow debate from both sides); the Constitutional Court decided that too was unconstitutional and threatened to suspend for life any civil servant who engaged in any sort of organisational activity. 

As a result last Tuesday (14 October), President Mas announced a 'participative' vote would take place without using the census (voters will register using their ID card on voting day), volunteers rather than civil servants would be involved in the organisation and polling stations would be restricted to facilities owned by the Catalan government. 

The Partido Popular government in Madrid is considering taking it before the Constitutional Court as I write [15 October]. It should be noted that many see the Constitutional Court as biased in favour of the Spanish government: some of the judges are former Partido Popular activists and only gave up membership after being elected. 

The attitude of the EU and other supranational bodies is that it is an internal Spanish issue. 

Could you comment further on the November 9 “consultation”? 

Because the consultation is organised by the 'Yes' camp it is unlikely that many Noes will bother to vote, but if as expected 2 million Catalans vote 'Yes' this will be a very strong message to the world. Either way the Spanish government lose. If they ban even this watered-down consultation, they'll look like fascists. If they let it go ahead, the world will see a festive peaceful Catalan society make a powerful democratic statement. 

What are the movement’s chances of success, and what processes would be involved in legal and economic separation? Would Catalonia choose to remain in the Eurozone? 

I think there are high chances of success. Although the participative vote on November 9 isn’t a referendum, the message will be clear if there is a massive turnout. This will be a prelude to 'plebiscitary' elections in which pro-independence parties form a single candidacy with the promise that if they win, independence will be unilaterally declared the following day. 

The Catalan Commission for National Transition has been meeting for the last couple of years and has produced 18 reports on different aspects of the future state of Catalonia. They published a 1,000-page white paper 10 days ago so many things have been considered. 

As there won't be agreement with Spain there will be difficulties, principally in setting up a Treasury and collecting taxes and Social Security. 

Obviously, international recognition will be crucial but if everything is done in a clear and transparent democratic process there shouldn't be too many problems, apart from anything else because Catalonia has a large economy with international exports and is home to multinationals. 

How would you view Catalonia’s economic and social prospects afterwards? 

Obviously, there would be an unstable period before internal infrastructures are in place and international recognition comes. If we can get through that I'm highly optimistic. 

Catalonia has a strong economy centred on its vibrant capital Barcelona. Catalans are creative, gregarious and above all peace-loving. As the demonstration of only 38,000 people in favour of staying in Spain showed last weekend, the strength of feeling in the anti-independence camp, whilst it exists, is not as bitter as Spanish politicians would like us to believe. 

Originally from Nottingham in England, Simon Harris arrived in pre-Olympic Barcelona in 1988 and immediately fell in love with the language, culture and history. He has now lived half his life in Catalonia, where he first earned his living as a musician and then as a teacher of English at the British Council and Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and translator of Catalan and Spanish. He published his first book 'Going Native in Catalonia' in 2007 and since 2011 has run the tourism website Barcelonas.com. Simon is an active campaigner for Catalan independence. Find out more on Simon’s blog - http://independence.barcelonas.com

Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris will be published by 4Cats Books in early November. Buy from:

4Cats Books
Carrer Mallorca, 299
Pral 2a
08037 Barcelona
books@barcelonas.com

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France - the supposed hell where we'd love to live

The Daily Mail flashes its richman fangs at strike-hit France - such an awful place, eh? That would explain why the late Sir Stuart Bell MP spent more time there than in the UK, I expect.

Time for some stats:

WHO, 2013 - from Wikipedia
 
World Bank, 2011-2013 (via Wikipedia)

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_income_equality
 
World Bank, 2009-2013

World Bank, 2009-2013
 
Total public and private debt owed to non-residents
Source: Wikipedia

Perhaps that's why, less than five years ago (and, like the temperature of the oceans, things don't change that fast), the Daily Mail was reporting this:

Daily Mail, 7 January 2010

As Slog-blogger John Ward - now based in France - is fond of saying, IABATO - which as he is also a Hellenophile, may be derived from the Greek expression "ιαβατω!" ("I smell bullsh*t!").


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Friday, October 17, 2014

Knowing

Suppose many orthodox social and political narratives are either completely false or far more inaccurate than we have hitherto supposed. It’s not much of a supposition, but I’m thinking of narratives based on old-fashioned generalisations about human behaviour.

From similar causes have arisen those notions which are called universal or general, such as man, dog, horse, etc. I mean so many images arise in the human body, e.g., so many images of men are formed at the same time, that they overcome the power of imagining, not altogether indeed, but to such an extent that the mind cannot imagine the small differences between individuals (eg colour, size etc.) and their fixed number, and only that in which all agree in so far as the body is affected by them is distinctly imagined.
Baruch Spinoza - Ethics (Boyle translation)

We are all familiar with the weaknesses of what Spinoza called universal or general notions. As he says, they are substitutes for a level of individual detail we cannot possibly attain. We have to use generalisations, clambering around their many pitfalls as best we can.

Yet modern search engines and databases have already acquired a level of individual detail about many aspects of our lives and habits. They have moved on from the ancient and intractable situation where the mind cannot imagine the small differences between individuals.

So Spinoza's point is being made obsolete by technology, by huge modern databases which are not constrained by our ancient need to generalise. Not surprisingly their information is valuable enough to be sold to third parties. With safeguards it is said, but who believes that?

So generalisations are no longer necessary for those with deep pockets. We know it of course, but how do we deal with it?

How might we acquire such information ourselves without a government’s ability to twist arms? The short answer is that we can’t. The information isn’t likely to appear in books either because there is too much of it and the financial return would be inadequate. Neither is it likely to appear in academic literature for the same reasons.

So for global corporations and presumably governments, Spinoza’s problem is rapidly becoming outdated. The big hitters don’t need his universal or general notions. They have at their fingertips a colossally detailed corpus of information about human behaviour which lies well beyond the reach of most ordinary folk.

What do they know that we don’t?

How to manipulate our behaviour in order to ensure bovine social and political attitudes? Almost certainly, so the only political answer is smarter voting.

Oh oh – not smarter voting again. Rats.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

White collar robots

My working life was almost entirely spent in environmental science. Over almost forty years I saw it change from a piecemeal, locally-based effort to a full-blown global bureaucracy with the UN at the top. It became process-driven.

Apart from an ambitious few who knowingly go with the flow, most capable scientists don’t cope well with bureaucracy. Their working ethic tends to be based on two assumptions.

The truth will out.
People are essentially ethical.

Unfortunately the truth isn’t that powerful and process-driven people are not known for an unequivocal reliance on ethical standards. As a result most scientists do not compete well with the implacable nature of process-driven bureaucracies. By the time I left, the good scientists had mostly departed and process worship was setting every agenda.

Even so I had an interesting time and probably learned more about human nature and the nature of institutions than I then realised. I now look back on it as a time of profound social change which eventually became obvious, but had been rather less obvious only a few decades earlier.

One reason why the left/right political dichotomy no longer works is that both sides of the political divide are process-driven. They also seem increasingly willing to merge their processes. The traditional left always loved process with its tendency to centralise every decision and its endless mistrust of the uncontrolled.

Today even our local electrician is enmeshed in process - trained, certified tested and certified again. The butcher the baker and even the candlestick maker too no doubt. Maybe the latter will make a comeback after a few more years of process-driven energy policies.

So political right dances hand in hand with political left because government and global business are nothing if not process-driven. We are entering a process-driven world where most young people probably have no prospect whatever of avoiding process-driven employment.

Everything they do will fall into one of two categories.

It will be part of a documented process – or
It will be forbidden.

The vast majority will have no outlet for their modest talents because there will be no tick box for modest talent. Process rules. White collar robots are the future.

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Ebola and liberty

Ron Paul argues that the solution to containing diseases like Ebola is to allow foreign countries to grow their economies so that they can afford modern medical facilities.

On the face of it that makes sense, as does so much of he says. But it does link to another issue: what is free trade, and what should it be?

Twenty years ago, billionaire Sir James Goldsmith warned that the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade would destabilise society by undermining the labour forces of developed economies. This is exactly what has happened, and it also has the potential to unsettle the countries to whom the work has been outsourced or "offshored". I had previously produced a jokey graphic to illustrate the disruptive effects of what I might call "free trade without brakes or steering":

from Broad Oak Magazine, 18 June 2012

The order-givers have, in effect, used the Chinese like coolies and are quite prepared to switch to other countries (such as Vietnam) to keep down labour costs; and to "re-onshore" business to the USA when robots can do the work instead.

I don't at all include Ron Paul in this picture, but it does seem to me that if we are to have peaceful evolution on world trade then we need more than GATT, TPP and TTIP, which are (as far as I understand) simply battering-rams for accumulated capital to force its way into markets irrespective of the human costs there and at home.


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