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October 21, 2009

Neuilly, son pere

Nicolas Sarkozy is developing a taste for nepotism. Having already helped his son Jean into political and other positions, he seems now to have abandoned all shame. He's attempting to give the 23-year-old control of La Defense. Roughly equivalent to Canary Wharf (albeit with less of that entertaining halo of occult conspiracy theories), it's worth many billions of dollars. The job of running it is no sinecure, and I can't see much excuse for giving it to the Dauphin like htis.

October 16, 2009

Some bits and pieces

Philip Pullman writing on Athensius Kircher (in the form of a book review) is a treat, lightly linking him to the post-pomo cultural melange, and the return of magic:

Kircher lived on the cusp between the magical world of the Middle Ages and the rational and scientific world of modernity - as perhaps we do again today, except that we're going in the other direction. His half-sceptical, half-credulous cast of mind is very much to our current taste.


The Wall Street Journal keeps most of its content behind a paywall, so I mostly ignore it. To its credit, though, it is one of the few institutions whose idea of Europe gives near-equal attention to Central and Eastern Europe. This blog is one part of that.


In a (month-old) interview with Gerry Adams, Johann Hari situates the Troubles within a trans-Atlantic context:

Over the next few years, Catholics in Northern Ireland - stirred by the black civil rights movement in the US, and the dream of Martin Luther King - started to peacefully organise to demand equality.... "There was a sense of naiveté, of innocence almost, a feeling that the demands we were making were so reasonable that all we had to do was kick up a row and the establishment would give in," he says. But the civil rights marches were met with extraordinary ferocity. Protestant mobs attacked the demonstrators, and then the RUC swooped in to smash them up.

Following this line, the divergent outcomes for the two movements become a case study of the snowball effect of political choices. Also of the distortions of hindsight, which tends to elide the violent parts of the US civil rights movement, and the peaceful elements of Irish republicanism.

October 15, 2009

Economics, bound

I'm intrigued by Daniel Davies' suggestion that what the recession shows that economists should steer clear of talking about anything other than the economy itself. In the era of Freakonomics they "abandoned the study of production, consumption and exchange", in favour of "awful amateur-hour sociology".

In spirit, although perhaps not explicitly, this runs counter to one of the other big currents of economic punditry I've lately been bombarded with. Parts of the French media, Esprit and RiLi for instance, have been pushing behavioural economics as the solution to all that ails economics. In this view, economics failed by concentrating too much on rational behaviour -- they couldn't see the bubble-inflating irrationality driving companies and traders, so they failed to predict the inevitable collapse.

It's theoretically possible to have both these views -- to argue that economics should take lessons from sociology and elsewhere in order to understand the markets, but avoid themselves dabbling in social problems. In practice, though, won't the blending of sociology and economics always cut both ways?

October 14, 2009

Greek elections

I'm yet to find a decent analysis of the Greek election a week ago, which gave the centre-left Pasok Party their largest victory ever.

Since my knowledge of Greek politics is limited to a vague awareness of last winter's riots, I'm stuck with not-particularly-informative media pundits. For starters, it seems nobody even has any idea why the election happened. The ruling ND party could have continued for another couple of years, but instead called elections that everybody expected them to lose. Why?

Was it because Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis wanted out, on a personal level? (Many of his ministers didn't want the election). Is there some impending disaster that he'd rather see blamed on the opposition? Or just that the recession will be painful, and it's easier to dump that on Pasok?

The other question is why the centre-left won, when across the rest of europe they're simultaneously disintegrating. As far as I can see the answers have little connection to Europe, or even to the dubious virtues of Pasok. The only international element is the economic collapse. Beyond that, it's all Greek: the corruption, the unpopularity of Karamanlis, anger over December's protests. Or something completely different, for all I know.

[normally when I write about something I know nothing about, I find myself learning a little in the process. Not this time]

October 13, 2009

Trafigura: more questions about the Guardian gag

It's great that the Streisand Effect has kicked in over the Guardian parliament gag order, that #Trafigura is the top trending topic on Twitter, etc.

But I've still not seen much decent analysis of the situation. Yes, we've figured out the question. Yes, we've got the idea that the target is the words "Minton Report" in the question -- this is the report, commissioned by Trafigura, which told them the likely effects of the waste they had dumped in Abidjan ("possible consequences are...loss of consciousness and death"). But there are plenty of questions I've not seen even touched on:

  • [On what legal basis](http://ohuiginn.net/mt/2009/10/trafigura_secrets_and_lies.html) were Carter Ruck able to gag the Guardian?
  • Why no word from the rest of the British media? Are they really afraid to even mention the order against the Guardian?
  • Why hasn't anybody used this legal wheeze before? Are the circumstances rare enough that it hasn't been previously applicable? Or is it just that Carter Ruck have come up with a new legal approach?
  • What did Trafigura hope to achieve? I would have thought their reputation is now mud, whatever they do, and the main question is whether they can dodge legal proceedings? Do they really expect to bury the Minton Report, to the extent that nobody will bring it up in court?

Trafigura: secrets and lies

Still on Trafigura, blindly trying to figure out how Carter Ruck managed to ban the Guardian from reporting a question in Parliament.

The situation should be pretty clear: libel doesn't apply to parliament, or to media reporting of parliament. Under the 1996 Defamation Act, 'A fair and accurate report of proceedings in public of a legislature anywhere in the world.' is exempt from libel claims, provided:

  1. The publication is not malicious
  2. The newspaper provides a right to reply
  3. The information is in the public interest

There are some theoretical loopholes there, but it's hard to see how Trafigura could squeeze through them.

More likely, there was some other grounds to prevent publication. This might involve claiming that the issue is sub judice (already being considered in court), perhaps because Trafigura is embroiled in a related court case in the Netherlands.

Trafigura have long been cracking down on anybody mentioning the Minton Report. As they wrote to Norwegian journalists:

Your questions of today do also reveal the fact that you are in possession of a draft, preliminary expert opinion produced by Minton Treharne & Davies Ltd, and that you appear to be ready to disclose information from this report. Trafigura looks very serious upon this, as disclosing any information from this report would be a clear breach of confidentiality and privilege. The report is clearly privileged and confidential and was obtained unlawfully by whoever is responsible for it coming into your possession. Please be aware that on Friday of last week, our clients sought and obtained an injunction in relation to this document and information contained in it against the Guardian newspaper and Persons Unknown, pending a further hearing. For your attention we have attached hereto a copy of the Court Order.

But that wouldn't explain why the Guardian can't even explain how they are being prevented from publishing:

The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented - for the first time in memory - from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.

On that, I have no idea. Anybody with ideas, or links to ideas, I'd love to hear about them.

October 12, 2009

Trafigura and libel ridiculousness

The Trafigura affair really is an embarrassement to British law. Company dumps toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, causes perhaps 10 deaths and a lot more illness and injury. Uses libel law to batter down journalists trying to report it. Newsnight and the Guardian get at least some of the news out. Then, today, things get really bad:

Today's published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found. The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented - for the first time in memory - from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.

The question involved is pretty sure to be this one:

N Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.

October 11, 2009

Spain news part 2: the blogs

The Bad Rash seems like one of the better English blogs in Barcelona. Most posts have some meat to them, and it's nice when a blogger shares your political/cultural prejudices. He also has links to plenty of other expat blogs in his sidebar.

Of these, From Barcelona concentrates on culture and expat life. Drink Barcelona is a bar guide, unsurprisingly. Catalonia Blog and South of Watford cover politics. This blog mixes Spanish and Scottish politics; this one concentrates mainly on Catalan nationalism.

Of the international networks, Metblogs and Gridskipper are absent, but Unlike and Spotted by Locals make up for that.

October 10, 2009

News in Spain

This is a notes-to-myself entry, in which I try to figure out the best online sources for Spanish news in English. There doesn't seem to be much, which I guess is useful encouragement to learn Spanish

  • Guardian
  • New York Times
  • Google News
  • Of sources aimed at expats, Typically Spanish seems to be the only one with any content at all. Euro Weekly News is low-volume and looks like repackaged wire copy.
  • Barcelona: Barcelona Reporter has the most news (not much). Barcelona Metropolitan is an entertainment/lifestyle magazine; Barcelona Connect is mainly classifieds.

October 9, 2009

Deja Vu

The connection between psychology and society is the kind of topic that gets batted endlessly around among pundits, but never makes a dent in practical politics. Currently, it's in the form of a "greed is stressful" meme, whether in Oliver James' Affluenza and Alain de Botton's Status Anxiety.

That shape doesn't much interest me, perhaps because I'm not directly affected by it. I prefer the brute statistical case made by The Spirit Level, a recent book on "why more equal societies almost do better". This takes the prevalence of mental illness as the key figure (see the radical psychiatrists shudder), and plots it against income inequality: r = 0.73; the book is oddly lacking in statistical details

It all seems horribly deracinated, considering how much attention has been given to similar topics over the decades. We had Lacan and then Guattari in France, treating madness as a rational response to society, and schizophrenia as the model for deconstructing it. Or Marcuse in America, or Laing in Britain, an army of radical psychiatrists, anti-psychiatrists, critical psychiatrists, patients' movements....There's plenty worth abandoning from each approach, but surely there's some scope for cherry-picking?

[PS: out of Paris. Have my mind back. More frequent posts likely, hopefully at least some more coherent than this jumble]