Phantom MEP expenses

May 29th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Back last year, the Telegraph thought the Phantom MEPs would be on to a cushy number:

the European Parliament has decided to give the MEPs only “observer” status from next year.
The deal will mean they can draw full salaries and allowances at an annual cost of over £6 million without any legislative duties to carry out.
The 18 MEPs, from 12 EU countries, including Britain’s West Midlands region, will be paid more than £76,000 a year, with staff and office allowances worth £210,000.

[That is, I was under the impression that the Phanton MEPs weren’t being paid. As usual, there’s a strong possibility that I’m just totally wrong]

Nina Power

May 26th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

One of many, many things I love about Zero Books is their continual willingness, even eagerness, to call out the cultural and intellectual conservatism of the time. Take the blurb to Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman:

That the height of supposed female emancipation coincides so perfectly with consumerism is a miserable index of a politically desolate time. Much contemporary feminism, particularly in its American formulation, doesn’t seem too concerned about this coincidence. This short book is partly an attack on the apparent abdication of any systematic political thought on the part of today’s positive, up-beat feminists. It suggests alternative ways of thinking about transformations in work, sexuality and culture that, while seemingly far-fetched in the current ideological climate, may provide more serious material for future feminism.

Have just ordered the book (and narrowly restrained myself from simultaneously ordering Militant Dysphoria); massively excited to see if it’s as good as Capitalist Realism.

latest from k-punk

May 24th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

k-punk on top form

“Azzellini and Ressler’s daring hypothesis is that Latin America is not some atavism, a residual space yet to be subsumed into global capital, but the vanguard – the first area of the world to adopt neoliberalism and the first to seriously propose an alternative to it.”

I’m not sure I’d count this as daring, quite; the collective ability of Latin American populations to see through, around and beyond capitalism is a wonder to behold.


it is important at this point to stress the aesthetic dimension of capitalist realism, its echoes of socialist realism’s disdain for abstraction and montage, and its similar preference for the homely, the populist, the familiar: that which pushes already-existing emotional triggers.

This is in superficial conflict with the usual understanding of neophilia capitalism in general, and within the culture industry in particular. But at a deeper level, I suspect it really is true; much surface change, but nothing fundamental.

Labour party more lost than ever

May 24th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

John Harris tears into the right-swinging idiocy of the Labour leadership candidates:

“After so many years of ever tightening welfare entitlements, and with the City elite seemingly as untouchable as ever, to focus any argument about distributional justice on welfare claimants is borderline obscene.”

Somebody at Crooked Timber adds:

Roy Hattersley quite rightly observed that Labour used to appeal to (or reflect) the best instincts of working people: New Labour appeals to their worst. but that’s a direct consequence of their rightwing economics: not that they have to go with horrid social politics (often they don’t) but if you’re making your pitch to working people and you’re not appealing to their better instincts, which are going to be egalitarian, you’re going to have to appeal to their resentments instead.

And another; I’d be interested to know if there’s any hard data to back this one up:

It’s a generalisation, but there are a lot of working class people who would be reluctant to move even 20-30 miles away from their home for a job – their support networks and roots are in a particular place and they want to remain there if at all possible. They thus have no personal benefit from the possibility of being able to go and work in Portugal or Germany. It is predominantly the middle classes, with a culture of moving away from their community for education or work, who can take advantage of this kind of labour mobility.

And one final comment:

Clinton and Obama. Blair and Schoeder. Why do the left parties of the developed world keep selecting leaders and platforms that betray the economic positions that have always been the most characteristic concern of the left? It seems to be happening in different contexts. Is there a unified field theory of why Labour cannot seem to get to the Left of Brown

I don’t quite believe it’s just the left. Sarkozy constantly outflanks the PS on the left, although he mixes it up with plenty of right-wing populism. IMO it’s less about the leaders (all leaders batter the fringes of their parties, as electoral necessity), but the weakness of the wider left. There was no serious resistance to Blair.

May 22nd, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Quiet saturday, slowly working in a mostly-empty office, catching up after a week of Doing Stuff every evening. No great loss in missing a weekend; we still have no summer, only weather than entices you to the park and then dumps rain on you.

Now settled in yet another new room, the 6th this year. Room-hopping has been fun (if intermittently terrifying), but this time I might manage to stay put for a few months. I’m no longer quite so full of optimism and indecisiveness, and I seem again to be acquiring more possessions (i.e. books). Besides this latest home is a good one. It’s full of stereotypically-chatty Latin Americans, giving me a much-needed shove towards properly learning Spanish. Plus the big sitting room, with a constant stream of visitors, makes it feel like I’m living out some Ibsen drama.

The office has meanwhile sprouted a workshop. This month they’ve mostly been getting excited by making plastic out of cornflour. It’s great fun, in a nostalgia-for-primary-school way — even for me, with my instinctive discomfort at anything playfully creative.

Also exciting atm: Henry Miller. Nabokov. MIA. Edmund White. Cinnamon in coffee.

The Big Fat Spiders of Political Paranoia � Exit Zero

May 19th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Harold Wilson: ““I see myself as a big fat spider in the corner of the room. Sometimes I speak when I’m asleep. You should both listen. Occasionally when we meet, I might tell you to go to the Charing Cross Road and kick a blind man standing on the corner. That blind man may tell you something, lead you somewhere.””

Over-excited Clegg

May 19th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Nick Clegg is now promising “the most significant programme of empowerment… since the great enfranchisement of the 19th century. The biggest shake-up of our democracy since 1832, when the Great Reform Act redrew the boundaries of British democracy.

er…you don’t think there might have been a few important bits of empowerment since then, Nick? Like, votes for women? Or, for that matter, votes for non-rich men? Or education and healthcare; IMO the opportunity to be literate and not dead is reasonably empowering. I’m all for libel reform and regulation of CCTV, but they’re hardly comparable to universal suffrage.

May 18th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Cowardice, national and personal, allows me to present articles like this only if they’re safely enclosed in ironic bubble-wrap. Can’t think of any, so do it yourselves:

work hard, stay awake, fail well, hang with smart people, shed bullshit, say “maybe,” focus on action, and always always commit yourself to a bracing daily mixture of all the courage, honesty, and information you need to do something awesome


May 18th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

This is a great NY Times article, very much in the tradition of bringing in whichever outside expert knows plenty about the subject, and (presumably) giving them very thorough editing for language and comprehensibility.

The subject is aelf-tracking, automatically gathering data about your health, mood, daily activities, storing it in a form which allows you later to analyze it and unpick the interactions between aspects of your daily life:

A hundred years ago, a bold researcher fascinated by the riddle of human personality might have grabbed onto new psychoanalytic concepts like repression and the unconscious. These ideas were invented by people who loved language. Even as therapeutic concepts of the self spread widely in simplified, easily accessible form, they retained something of the prolix, literary humanism of their inventors. From the languor of the analyst’s couch to the chatty inquisitiveness of a self-help questionnaire, the dominant forms of self-exploration assume that the road to knowledge lies through words. Trackers are exploring an alternate route. Instead of interrogating their inner worlds through talking and writing, they are using numbers. They are constructing a quantified self.

The project most interesting to me was one of the simplest, the moodscape mood-tracking system. And even there, it’s less for the interface itself than for the list of mood elements, which I may well incorporate into a spreadsheet and skip the online elements entirely.

Equality for economists

May 16th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

It’s a sad reflection on the state of our politics that nobody is mentioning how useful redistribution of wealth/income would be from a purely economic perspective, in stimulating increased spending &c. AG touches on it here. but there’s doubtless much better information elsewhere.

male-female-diff.PNG (PNG Image, 303×673 pixels) – Scaled (86%)

May 16th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Within the EU, Britain has the second-largest income difference between men and women. Things are worse only in Italy:
male-female-diff.PNG (PNG Image, 303×673 pixels) – Scaled (86%)

AG on the burqa

May 16th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

AG on the burqa:

“Will a surveillance team stake out the Gare du Nord or the Sunday market at Cergy? Will Eric Besson and Brice Hortefeux accompany the flics as they lay hands on the offending ‘agent of Islamism?’ Will she be taken for a garde �vue and, in the name of equality of women and public security, be stripped of her robes and headgear, searched, photographed, and displayed on the evening news? Will she be hauled into court and required to appear with face uncovered before her ermine-clad judges? Will she then express gratitude to the state for emancipating her from her oppressive culture?”

Hunter S Thompson

May 16th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

My attitude to Hunter S Thompson is that of the owner of an overindulged rottweiler, calling him a harmless softie while barely restraining the beast. For sure, much of the HST mythos is true: doubtless he was a drug-addled psychotic bastard who you wouldn’t want to turn your back on. Posterity may have literally turned him into a cartoon — both Transmetropolitan‘s Spider Jerusalem and Doonesbury‘s Duke are based on him — but there was plenty of crazy lingering there from the get-go. Beneath it all, though, there’s a touching melange of disbaused idealism and a surprising affection for those working less dramatically from within the system.

Even Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is, Duke keeps telling us, a search for the American Dream. The intrepid heroes purgatory their torsos, strain themselves to the point of breaking, and through this mortification uncover the nature of their world. The apparent nihilism is the aftermath of broken dreams, the realisation that the chnage which had appeared to be beginning in California in the 60s had come to a juddering halt:

[in the mid-Sixties] there was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda….You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high—water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

This sense of disappointed idealism, and the quest to regain it, appears much more strongly in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. his report from George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. He’s striking in his affection for the young staffes and volunteers fighting for McGovern from within the system, even when their positions are far more centrist and pragmatic than anything Thompson would himself countenance.

oh, just shut up about Aristotle already

May 15th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Final post on the Scholastics — and this one will be short, because doing it properly would require enough research to lose myself in a library for a week. I’m very big on the defensibility of reasoning by analogy, in partial (prob. exaggerated, tbh) opposition to a Popperian understanding of science by development of hypotheses in a vacuum. The scholastic idea of analogy is a very limited and specific one, intertwined with the theology of man created in the image of god, and they’re sceptical of metaphor in general.

Again there’s an ancient Indian parallel to be drawn here, and again I’m too wooly-minded to make the case. But here is an article giving the basics of Nyaya ogic, and the classic example is easy enough to follow:

There is fire on a hill (called Pratijna, required to be proved)
Because there is smoke there (called Hetu, reason)
Wherever there is fire, there is smoke (called Udaharana, i.e. example)
There is smoke on the hill (called Upanaya, reaffirmation)
Therefore there is fire on the hill (called Nigamana, conclusion)

In brief: analogy good, mmkay?
And so to bed

Robot theology

May 15th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

While I’m on the subject of scholastics (I’ve just been listening to a lecture on the subject): had Ken Macleod been so minded, he could have found plenty o material in medieval theology to justify robot religion — perhaps starting with ideas of grace. In Aristotle’s conception, Grace is a form within the soul. That means it’s a shape, a pattern. The material in which it is embedded is irrelevant, just as a pot is a pot whether wooden or ceramic. Grace in silico would not be inferior to Grace in vivo**: robots would be as capable as humans of faith, hope and love.

* bear in mind, this entire concept remains somewhat new and alien to me; I’m almost certainly butchering some carefully-considered principle. In all honesty, I don’t much care.

** Doubtless you could concoct other arguments for robot inferiority, perhaps arguing that they weren’t created directly by good, and so are merely a shadow of a shadow of his Goodness. After all, Christians have plenty of experience justifying racism; justifying discrimination against machines would be an order of magnitude easier.

Science Envy

May 15th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

“Science envy” and “math envy” are perennial problems across huge swathes of the academic world. Mathematics and the hard sciences are seen as having achieved great leaps forward in understanding the world, and thus become objects for emulation whether applicable or not. Greek symbols start to fill up journal pages. It doesn’t matter if they demonstrate the argument more rigorously, they just need to look impressively sciency. Economics is currently the most seriously-afflicted discipline, although the other social sciences are rapidly succumbing as massive datasets become available online.

This is nothing new. As their name suggests, the social sciences have been built up by wave after wave of this imitation throughout the 20th century. Or even further back. The scholastic theology of medieval Christianity was largely a centuries-long case of ‘logic envy’. Theologians discovered Aristotelian logic in the 12th century, and proceeded to apply it to the bible in mind-numbing detail.

The indian case is even more interesting. Here the discipline to be emulated was grammar, then far more advanced than any other branch of knowledge (and pretty damn impressive even in a modern context). Grammatical terminology and forms of argument cross over into most other disciplines.

Book: The Night Sessions

May 15th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Ken MacLeod, The Night Sessions. Near-future Scotland, recovering from a post-9/11 replay of the Wars of Religion. Churches are allowed to exist only on a private level, with the state studiously ignoring their existence. So when Detective Adam Ferguson begins to investigate the murder of his priest, his attention — and his superiors’ — is on the political and bureaucratic consequences almost as much as on the rapidly-escalating series of killings.

MacLeod’s science fiction is, among much else, a vehicle for satire on the preset. Here it’s most entertaining when confined to small details: Creationist theme parks, for example, or gangster-ridden “Capitalism with Russian Characteristics”. His broader swipes on religion mostly fall flat. Towards the end there is a particularly ludicrous conversion as a True Believer is confronted with the contradictions of the bible* — a shaky plot device on the biblical literalism which a certain kind of atheist shares with only the most extreme of protestant sects.

The science fiction elements are largely window-dressing, with the exception of the robots. Macleod’s robots are superior not only in strength and intelligence, but in their ability to understand human emotion. They unnerve people, even though they are no longer given humanoid form to avoid this very problem. Police robots are loyal and devoted sidekicks to their masters, and the strength of this bond is one of the assumptions driving the plot. And, finally, there’s the question of whether robots could be affected by religion.

These are all interesting questions, but the pace of the book prevents MacLeod exploring them. The Night Sessions is fundamentally a thriller and a police procedural, and theories of robotic personhood have to take a back-seat to that.

* ETA: later, it occurs to me that the nature of this is partly a comment on the human/robot comparison. The human is defeated in the same way robots are according to B-movie cliche: show them a contradiction, and wait for them to blow a fuse. Meanwhile the robots, emotionally advanced far beyond human level, have no trouble on this point.

Book: Generation X

May 15th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Douglas Coupland, Generation X. An often uncomfortable book to read, because it’s a good one. Simultaneous identification with, loathing for and jealousy of the characters doesn’t make for a pleasant reading experience.

Like all his books, it’s set in an all-too-real world. The cast are young Americans, raised on marketing and branded aspiration, with every possible gestrue of rejection, independence or individuality already anticipated and commodified by the marketing industry. The plot developments are incidental; the action is in the stories and fantasies of the Generation Xers, mostly of where they find love and beauty within small moments of their lives:

“inspired by my meetings of the Alcoholics Anonymous organization, I instigated a policy of storytelling in my own life, a policy of “bedtime stories,” which Dag, Claire and I share among ourselves. It’s simple: we come up with stories and we tell them to each other. The only rule is that we’re not allowed to interrupt, just like in AA, and at the end we’re not allowed to criticize. This noncritical atmosphere works for us because the three of us are so tight assed about revealing our emotions. A clause like this was the only way we could feel secure with each other.”

Coupland’s happy-ever-after endpoint, here as elsewhere, is for this circle of friends to find a shared language, a common aesthetic in their savviness and semi-rejection of the world, and so an ability to share their perfect moments. The problem is that they aren’t really “tight assed about revealing [their] emotions”. Once the storytelling device clicks into place, they’re all able to talk in the style that is Coupland’s trademark, cannily picking apart the brands and marketed aspirations from which they’ve built their inner lives. The emotional fluency isn’t developed over the book; it’s present from the start, as plot device.

Not only is the endpoint present from the start, it’s also deeply unsatisfying in itself. We can’t leave any mark on the world, he seems to be saying, so should content ourselves with occasional brief moments of beauty and communication. This is both accurate, and sufficient reason to fling yourself off the nearest cliff.

Books on Italy

May 15th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Currently reading Tobias Jones’ The Dark Heart of Italy. So naturally I glance online to see what others have made of it. Equally naturally, I find they’re strongly suggesting I find better books on Italian politics. Noting their suggestions, in preparation for the next time my thoughts take a turn bootward:

Paul Ginsborg, Italy and Its Discontents, a history of Italy 1980-2001 (following an earlier book covering the period to 1980):

the 1980s were years of “cynicism, opportunism and fear” – the conditions in which corruption could flourish, and from which Berlusconi would benefit.

Much of the blame lies with the Communist Party. Rather than serve as gatekeeper, filtering Autonomy’s contributions, the party co-operated in the suppression of groups to its left. The result was a weakened political system, the left avid for respectability while the right operated without constraints. If the Italian left is to regain the initiative, it will need to open itself again to influences like those of the autonomists.

. CT comment:

I’d recommend anyone interested in post-war Italy to read Ginsborg; his previous book on Italy from Liberation to the 1980s is also excellent, and his short book on Berlusconi is good. Ginsborg’s weak spot is that he doesn’t devote much attention to the conspiratorial side of politics. In that respect David Lane’s book on Berlusconi (the book of the Economist feature) is surprisingly good – he turns over quite a few stones. Philip Willan’s The Puppetmasters is the conspiracist account of post-war Italian politics in English; God only knows how accurate it is, but it’s extremely suggestive. The Dark Heart of Italy… meh. I enjoyed it (Tobias Jones writes well), but it’s a bit Orientalist. [links added]


May 15th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

It’s a truism (and true) that exising globalisation fails by being limited to capital (and perhaps ideas), with labour excluded by law, and land land excluded by definition. Hence No Borders takes pride of place in the alterglobalisation movement, both logically and practically.
Perhaps this desired expansion of globalisation across the factors of production will lead to the development of other havens analogous to tax havens. A return, if you like, to safe havens as pirate islands, refuges for the stateless and hte outlawed.
Or, as with Iceland, we could have ‘free speech havens’, outposts where data can be sent and stored, and can sally forth to break through the restrictions of established nations. The ideal espoused by Cryptonomicon and Sealand, finally brought to fruition.

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