Monday, November 24, 2008

Odds and sods

Just found out what a 'chugger' is - it's those earnest people wearing nylon jackets with the name of their charity on them who give you the hard sell when you're popping into Boots, trying to make you feel guilty about dolphins or something. Apparently they're not only annoying, they are evil grasping bastards who aren't doing it out of the goodness of their heart at all:
"The charity watchdog Intelligent Giving, which conducted the mystery shopper survey, said almost all chuggers may be breaking the law and many are breaking the fundraising profession's own code of conduct. It is calling on the public to boycott them and force them off the streets."
Intelligent Giving are trying to protect people who are obviously much nicer than I am, I take it - but it seems a bit harsh nonetheless. Is 'chugger' behaviour really that much different from these irritating people who have stalls in the goddam supermarket who try to sell you conservatories, or double-glazing, or try to get you to switch your electricity supplier? I don't understand people who are intimidated by salesmen. Why don't they just tell them to piss off? Or if you find this too confrontational, you should use my technique when confronted with some spiv in a bad suit trying to flog you stuff: regardless of what it is, tell them you've already got it. It's pretty straightforward and never fails. I mean what are they going to come back with when you tell them you've just had a new kitchen put in last week? "Um, would you like another one?" They never do in my experience.

In other news, a teacher has been found guilty of incompetence by the GTC in Scotland. If she's struck off, it'll be the first. She must have been really, really, really shit. Personally I'd like to know who assesses the GTC's competence. All they do is verify we're qualified to teach the subjects we actually teach (how hard is it to gather photocopies of our degrees?) and then for the rest of our careers they expropriate a sum from our wages every so often so that they can produce some really boring but very glossy newsletter that is mailed to our houses quarterly. Or is it monthly? I don't care.

On this theme, Miss Snuffleupagus discusses the whole "good teachers" thing and how to get them. I have misgivings about the anti-union, pro-management author of this blog but on this occasion she's pretty close to being spot on, dismissing the strange but distressingly popular notion that it's our job to entertain the little blighters. Listen, you can't make trigonometry more entertaining than pornography and alco-pops - and if you think otherwise, then you're mental.

On the teaching theme, my colleague at the Academy told me a story that made me laugh. Think film sequels to catch the flavour of this. He went for an interview at a Catholic school in Lanarkshire - co-incidentally the first school I ever taught in. He's of the Roman persuasion himself but he found the following question a bit weird.

Interviewer: "So what did you think of Vatican II?"

My colleague was rather nonplussed. To his credit he didn't waffle but quipped, "I thought it was a lot better than Vatican I."

He said the interviewer went ape-shit.

He is now teaching amongst the heathen.

Finally, is this a blogging first? Normblog, to my knowledge, has always only been text and has never had either photos or videos embedded in the posts. But today it has. I didn't have time to read the post but from the photos I'm assuming it's about parts of London that should be carpet-bombed as a matter of aesthetic principle?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

On the faithful, the cynical and the sceptical...

Responses to the election of Barack Obama.

The fact that George Bush is still the President of the United States hasn't stopped most political pundits and bloggers delivering their verdicts.

First the cynical, of which John Pilger is fairly representative:
"He says he wants to build up US military power; and he threatens to ignite a new war in Pakistan, killing yet more brown-skinned people."
Regular readers of Pilger's work will know he's strongly opposed to killing brown-skinned people - unless, of course, it's other brown-skinned people doing the killing. In these circumstances, he is often 'reluctantly' in favour. It's what we might have expected from someone who had so little positive to say about Nelson Mandela's role in the transition from apartheid - something he alludes to in the article linked above.

Beyond this, what more can one say? Pilger is the political equivalent of the Jehovah's Witness earnestly awaiting the apocalypse and to keep himself pure for that day, he makes sure he has no truck with the Methodists or the Baptists or the Episcopalians. But the parousia is delayed, leaving him and his ilk forlorn and embittered, preaching to an ever-shrinking choir of like-minded souls. Not insane, as some have dismissed him - just preaching a gospel that is too narrow to do justice to the human condition.

Having said this, I don't find much I can identify with in what the faithful are preaching. I don't find that those who are claiming that Obama will heal the world are exactly giving me much to hang my faith on. Don't get me wrong - Obama's victory, first over Clinton, then McCain was cool. Obama's cool. Everyone agrees. I don't know anyone who doesn't. I read that some people dissent but I don't really believe they exist. I certainly haven't met one. Goddamit all, even George Bush thinks Obama is cool. But when even that old curmudgeon Howard Jacobson starts getting dewy-eyed and imagines coolness necessarily translates into political substance, I start to get worried:
"His mind shines through him. We might be singing the virtues of democracy right now, but his are refined, educated looks. They are not available to everybody. An Ivy League university won't guarantee you a demeanour like Obama's – Bush went to Yale, don't forget – but you'd be hard-pressed to bear yourself that way without the assured enlightenment that education confers."
I had to laugh at this. My father was an academic - I grew up surrounded with the educated. Can Howard Jacobson really have lived this long without noticing the way the average academic shambles their way through life? Generally occupying some spot on the autistic spectrum, they can barely dress themselves - and doing practical shit like cooking or operating electric appliances usually presents something of a challenge. To this day, I don't understand how or why my father was allowed to have a driving license. Obama's deportment is a function of privilege - not just education. Nah - can we have a dose of (healthy, I trust) scepticism please? I'll give it a go. Here's a few reasons to be sceptical.

1) It should be taught in the kindergarten of American politics that Congress, in relation to the executive branch of government, is the hands-down winner of the most powerful legislature in the world competition. Yet this simple observation seems to have escaped the "Obama will wipe every tear away from their eyes" fraternity in the MSM. This is not to say that we don't get the 'coat-tails' authority that a President can have in Congress, which brings me to my second point...

2) Gene links to a piece in the New Yorker, which he feels puts Obama's victory 'in historical context'. It's a long piece. I searched for historical context but lo - I found none. Take this, for example:
"That November, Roosevelt defeated President Herbert Hoover in a landslide. His election ended an age of conservative Republican rule, created a Democratic coalition that endured for the next four decades, and fundamentally changed the American idea of the relationship between citizen and state."
It is, as I said, a long piece - but frankly I think we can stop right there and take account of this: in the electoral college, Obama's victory looks like a landslide but in terms of his share of the popular vote it certainly wasn't. Consider the circumstances. We had the most unpopular President since Nixon involved in two controversial wars, presiding over an economic meltdown against the background of the fastest fiscal deterioration in US economic history. His potential Republican successor was 72 - he ran a car crash of a campaign against a candidate that simply oozes charisma and 'coolness' - yet the best they could manage was a 6% lead in the popular vote? To describe this as some kind of epoch-making 'seismic shift' is dangerously complacent, as well as fundamentally inaccurate.

3) The 'change' candidate, despite not having taken office yet, is already showing signs of being the continuity candidate - if his appointments thus far are anything to go by. He clearly holds to the LBJ philosophy that it's better to have your enemies in the tent pissing out than the other way around - hence the number of Clinton-era personnel floating around his 'transition team' already. It might be a smart move but it strikes me as rather risky - the most risky being the all but certain appointment of Hillary as his Secretary of State. You don't have to share Christopher Hitchens' hostility to - some would say obsession with - the Clintons to agree with him when he said that whatever this represents, it isn't the 'change' people thought they were voting for.

4) Will he be the new FDR? Let's hope he isn't so conservative. There are two things that have, despite the evidence, cemented FDR's reputation. One was the perception that he was 'doing something' - never mind if what he actually did was particularly effective. The other is war. It was mobilisation of resources required for re-armament that rescued the US economy - who knows what would have happened without this? What we do know is that prior to this, unemployment remained stubbornly high - and that part of the reason for this was that fiscal policy was actually being tightened in the couple of years before the shift to the war economy. We can only hope Obama learns the right lessons. One thing FDR was right about was trade - opposing Hoover's adherence to the Smoot-Hawley tariff. Protectionism is a tempting policy in times of recession - especially when governments pursue policies of fiscal expansion because there's always the impulse to avoid a situation where tax-payers' dollars will bleed out into exports. But the dangers of trying to run a closed economy are greater. This at least I think FDR understood - let's hope Obama does too. And let's hope his friends that will make up the majority in Congress do too - because hitherto the evidence that they do hasn't exactly been unequivocal - to say no more than that.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The sociology of the weather

I've often thought economic and social historians, when trying to uncover the forces that shape human history, have rather neglected one or two factors that I reckon have been hugely significant in the shaping the fate of peoples, in the moulding of national characters.

One of these is the weather. If you live somewhere like Scotland, you have plenty of anecdotal evidence that this has a huge impact on people's behaviour and the feeling in your bones bears witness to this - but there's precious little in the way of quantitative research done on this subject. Or if there has been, I haven't been made aware of it - and I haven't been made aware of it because if it exists, it isn't very popular.

I reckon there's a couple of possible reasons for this. One is that people don't like the determinism of such an idea. This requires a couple of qualifications. People don't object to determinism as such if they believe History is on their side and these determining forces will one day emancipate and vindicate them. This is the case with unreconstructed Marxists, for example - also those ultra-Hayekians who hold the unfettered free-market as the last great untried utopia. It's determinism without redemption that people recoil against. I've heard it argued that this is what people don't like about Max Weber: he offered only diagnosis and no cure - Calvinism without salvation.

Added to this is the banality of it: a friend of mine argues that people don't like to think their lives can be shaped by something so mundane. Why has Scotland exported so much of its population for so long - even to the present day? There are a number of plausible economic, social and political reasons suggested for this but in all the literature I've ever read on this subject, I don't recall anyone taking the "because it's fucking freezing" hypothesis anything like as seriously as they should - which brings me to this:
"The Shetland Islands have the best quality of life in Scotland, a study has shown.

Residents tend to have higher-than-average earnings, a greater chance of being employed and better health, according to the research. The area also benefits from the best education results and has a low rate of house-breaking.

The Bank of Scotland data assesses the quality of life in regions across the UK by examining a range of factors which include housing, environment and education."
These "quality of life" assessments tend to re-enforce my preference for more traditional economics. The study also cited lower than average house prices as an attractive feature of the Shetlands - but the reason house prices are lower is because there is less demand for Shetland housing. Since we can rule out low wages, unemployment, and crap education as variables here, I'd have thought the Bank of Scotland might have given more serious thought to including things like horizontal rain, low temperatures, high winds and minimal sunlight as factors when drawing up their quality of life index. But these are the sort of people who regularly come up with Canada as the best place on the face of the planet to live in. Yeah, right - the second biggest country in the world has only 33 million people living in it? Yet another case of the failure to apply the "fucking freezing" hypothesis, I reckon.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Carnival of Schadenfruede

No links necessary; if you read blogs at all, you can't have failed to have noticed how everyone's enjoying the leaking of the BNP membership list. The BNP's response has been beyond parody, as the cartoon captures rather well.

But also hugely enjoyable has been the less dramatic discomfort inflicted on the Conservatives in England and the SNP in Scotland in the wake of the credit crunch. This is a bit rushed and I'll return to this topic in more detail later - just a couple of thoughts for now...

You might wonder why Gordon Brown's popularity has recovered, given that as Chancellor for ten years, he might be thought of as being a teensy-weensy bit responsible for everything that has happened. I'm thinking at least part of the answer is fairly straightforward. Opposition parties wheel out a number of alternative policies and make various criticisms of the incumbents but underpinning them all is usually one basic message: they present themselves as an alternative by saying, in effect, that this wouldn't be happening if we'd been in power.

The reasons why neither the Conservatives nor the SNP can say this with any degree of conviction should be fairly obvious. The number of people willing to believe the opposition narrative is shrinking simply because the opposition narrative is literally unbelievable.

I've particularly enjoyed Alex Salmond's discomfort. The SNP are the quintessential one message party. It is the same message preached by nationalists everywhere - that all the trouble in the world could be avoided if only we were independent. Does anyone believe this anymore - even in the SNP?

We don't have to take on board the cruder rhetoric coming out of the Scottish Labour party to demonstrate this - we only have to follow through the logic of what Salmond himself says. For example, when he says that being part of a larger economic unit does not insulate countries from the banking crisis, he is perfectly correct. But does he not understand that people will also see that being part of a smaller unit simply does not do for a country what he and his party have been claiming for it? Perhaps he thinks we're stupid? I hope so because it's this kind of lazy arrogance - part of Salmond's DNA, I would argue - that will be his undoing.

Then there's the Cameroons. Another essentially one message party - make the state smaller - confronted with a dwindling audience. And no wonder. It goes without saying that they cannot with any credibility claim the present crisis wouldn't have happened under their stewardship. But their response has been a disaster too. I think this is behind their present woes. It's not so much that Gordon Brown has played a blinder - it's that the Conservatives have lost confidence in their central message. Or perhaps they're simply confused. I would have thought the line they should take in the present difficulties would be obvious: support fiscal expansion through tax cuts in an effort to stave off deflation, then argue that spending should be cut in the future in order to pay for it. That would make tax-cuts 'permanent', would it not? Instead we get some drivel about National Insurance holidays for employers as an incentive to retain or recruit further workers.

The tax-cutting party has failed to advocate tax-cuts at exactly the time when they would be appropriate. The depth and scope of their failure is impressive, I'm thinking. No wonder their poll lead has dropped to only three points. Long may it continue. It should, and for good reason. Consider exactly how crap the Tories have been here. We face the prospect of a sharp economic contraction under Brown's stewardship. Furthermore, it is by no means certain that any measures the government has taken or plans to take will actually do much to avert recession or even avoid outright deflation. One of the things that concerns me about the new enthusiasm for 'Keynesianism' is that I don't think many people realise that economic history does not tend to support the thesis that recession can be avoided simply by pulling a few fiscal and monetary levers. But economic history does have plenty of cases where matters have been made worse by either pulling the levers the wrong way and/or opting to do nothing at all. This is the position the Tories find themselves in, I think.

The Tories are often said to have lost their reputation for economic competence when the pound fell out of the ERM. Labour benefited, despite the fact that they had advocated exactly the same policy. Part of the benefit of being in opposition, the conventional wisdom would hold because people notice the failings of the government more acutely than the opposition. That this benefit has failed to materialise for the Tories in the present circumstances is testimony, not so much to how well the government has handled this, but just how badly Cameron and his new model Tories have conducted themselves.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

People losing their damn minds #25

I can't be alone in thinking evolution has taken a weird turn on one or two occasions? Colosseum TV brings us news that "celebrities" - i.e. those people in our society who are celebrated - are competing with each other in a new way. The winner is whoever shows themselves most willing to eat weird shit. For this sort of highbrow analysis of the human condition one naturally turns to the highbrow journal that is the Torygraph:
The final dish was a blind course, both celebrities had to pick from a "whatever's on the stick" or "whatever's in the tub".

Swash chose the stick and was presented with parts of a crocodile's genitalia. McLean followed suit, then finished off with a kangaroo testicle, winning the trial.

The victorious model was later collared by fellow contestant, television presenter Esther Rantzen, back in the camp, who told her: "I want to know about this crocodile ball bag."

McLean replied: "It's so bad, it was so tough. I asked (Ant and Dec) whether the (crocodile) ball bag was full of semen and it is so I swallowed crocodile semen... I asked if I could get pregnant."
We have to be careful not to conflate things here - there's being merely stupid, and then there's losing your damn mind. This case illustrates the distinction rather well, I feel. Thinking that eating a crocodile's ball bag might make you pregnant is the former. But if you think this is a possibility, yet you go ahead - presumably calculating that the potential benefit of being more famous outweighs the risk of giving birth to baby crocodiles, I think we can and must say that you have strayed quite decisively into the damn mind losing territory.

Nicola McLean: I'd have a caption competition were it not for the fact that I suspect there's probably too many of you out there whose minds work like mine.

Monday, November 17, 2008

On legal moralism

Lady Warnock's piece in the Observer today was, I thought, extraordinary. This is not because she advocates legal moralism - we've become used to this, especially recently. Rather it's the ambition she has for it:
"Kingsley Amis once said, truly: 'Nice things are nicer than nasty things.' On this hangs all morality. It is because we know that some things are intolerable, and other things are admirable, that we can talk confidently about violations of human rights, or of a better society. It is only because we have this knowledge that we can teach small children to put themselves in other people's shoes, to sympathise with those who are unfairly treated, or who are suffering, and so, in turn, they can avoid treating others unfairly or doing harm. Because we have this knowledge, we can teach children the elements of morality."
She then goes on to imagine that the state can and should all but eliminate prostitution and drug abuse. To argue otherwise is, as the above selection indicates, to surrender to moral relativism:
"Most actions that are criminal offences are also morally wrong; and when morality and law begin to diverge, society is in trouble."
One would hope all criminal offences are morally wrong - because if not, why would they be criminal offences? But the converse does not hold - the idea that something is immoral, ergo it should be illegal. The law should set a floor for human behaviour, not a ceiling. This has nothing to do with moral relativism - it's just a recognition that for liberty to endure, a distinction can and must be made between what is a crime and what is a sin. To go beyond this is to go beyond even traditional authoritarian conservatism and enter the proto-totalitarian world of Calvin's Geneva.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Not dead...

Just resting. Working in a place I shall refer to only as "the Academy". Like Paris, Glasgow has large public housing estates on its periphery; desolate places of high unemployment and low expectations.

There, it goes without saying, the similarity between Glasgow and Paris ends.

Anyway, the Academy serves one of these areas.

We do "setting and streaming" at the Academy. On balance I'm kinda in favour of this - although it does have some problems. The most significant as far as I'm concerned is that it is actually impossible to "set" according to ability. Sets are made - can only be made - according to performance; it isn't a mechanism that can distinguish easily between those who perform badly because they are unable to do otherwise and those who are unwilling to do otherwise.

So you end up with sets that follow this general pattern:

1) Slightly mental.

2) Fairly mental.

3) Completely mental.

4) Too mental.

The justice in a situation where the not very intelligent have to put up with the really fucking annoying isn't always obvious to me, to say no more than that. It's a microcosm of the wider "debate" about more macro strategies such as selection according to ability or the use of vouchers. They are escape hatches; mechanisms to avoid group 4. Understandable - but education is compulsory and group 4 have to be taught somewhere and by someone. Those who advocate grand schemes for educational reform would merit more serious attention if they even pretended to be interested in these. But they don't - because they're not.

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