Newsnotes 2013 02

Notes On The News

by Gwydion M Williams

Black Swans and Triple-Dip Misery

Jobs and Market Infallibility

Panglossian Capitalism

Another Referendum Over Europe?

Opium and Unhappy People

“Soldier Blue” and the Drones

Muddle in Mali

Hunger and Hobbits [The Hunger Games]

Good Food or Good Money

Global Warming and Jurassic Politics


Black Swans and Triple-Dip Misery

Cameron and Osborne show the same determination as their mentor Margaret Thatcher. “The lads are not for turning”, one might say. This pays off if you’re following a workable policy, one capable of achieving right-wing goals. Not so good if you are actually wrong and are wrecking your own economy.

So what does Cameron actually believe? How does he justify extreme austerity, as Britain experiences another three-monthly shrinkage and seems to be heading for a triple-dip recession?

“We can look to the future with realism and optimism. Realism, because you can’t cure problems, that were decades in the making, overnight. There are no quick fixes and I wouldn’t claim otherwise. But we can be optimistic too because we are making tangible progress. We are doing what’s right for our country and what’s best for our children’s future. And nothing could be more important than that.” [A]

By saying “problems that were decades in the making”, he’s saying that the Keynesian era was a vast deviation from capitalist wisdom. Labour should tackle him on it – except that a lot of them also have a vague notion of those years as a corporatist monstrosity. Trotskyism was useless at achieving its stated ends, but brilliant at undermining the reputation of rival forms of socialism. They must have thought if they could undermine the reputations of both functional Moderate Socialism and functional Leninism (Stalinism), everyone would flock to their banner. Banners, rather, since there were three main squabbling sects in the high days of the late 1960s and now there are rather more. Naturally none of the Trotskyists got anywhere, but the New Right were the beneficiaries. And seem unable to accept it when their world starts to fall apart.

During the relatively good years from the 1980s to 2008, it was believed that major crises were over. They did actually spend their way out of previous recessions, notably the almost-forgotten crisis of 1987, which might have delayed or even prevented the Soviet collapse of 1989-91 if the Tories hadn’t ignored New Right wisdom. But that was near the end of Thatcher’s reign, and there were plenty of senior Tories who had a more pragmatic view. Now the party is dominated by deep beliefs and half-arsed theories. People who have grown up with Thatcherism, in as far as they have grown up at all.

There is a fault in reality: please do not adjust your mind. This was a hippy slogan, and the New Right have been the only efficient political force to have emerged in the ‘Coolheart’ era that hippy values helped produce. They’ve been able to get away with damaging the successful Keynesian system much more than people thought was possible. Mass unemployment has been tolerated and so far has not produced a crime wave. The flow of wealth to the very rich has been tolerated because lots more people can imagine themselves rich than was possible when Britain had rigid class barriers that most people could not hope to cross. Even a crisis that was blatantly caused by financial speculation has been successfully blamed on other causes. But they are up against a basic truth – Keynesianism allowed some form of capitalism to continue when it might have perished. An economic system that has been “improved” by restoring the values of 50 or 100 years ago is going to work much worse.

For the New Right, capitalism and markets are always the optimum. Crises can be plausible explained by Black Swan Theory:

“The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that is a surprise (to the observer), has a major effect, and after the fact is often inappropriately rationalized with the benefit of hindsight.

“The theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to explain:

“1.The disproportionate role of high-profile, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance, and technology

“2.The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to the very nature of small probabilities)

“3.The psychological biases that make people individually and collectively blind to uncertainty and unaware of the massive role of the rare event in historical affairs.”[B]

The 2008 crash was utterly predictable from almost any viewpoint except that of Transcendental Market Economics. Specific events defied the odds quoted by “experts” who’d used a statistical model known as the Bell Curve or Normal Distribution. But, as some people noted during the crash, this is just one of many possibilities found in nature. Just as plausible are the “Heavy-tailed distributions” and “Fat-Tailed distributions”, where extremes are much less improbable.[C]

Mr Taleb comes from a family of wealthy Lebanese Christians, and now lives in the USA. I’ve read his book, and among other things he fails to see why Lebanon as constituted out of Greater Syria when France wound up its colonial empire was almost certain to crash. His famous idea is good psychology: real-world black swans look like a satanic version of the slightly-alarming swans we know and admire in Europe. (You can’t easily imagine a fairy tale about an ugly undersized cygnet that has a happy ending when it discovers it has grown up as an entirely normal duck.[D]) With their red eyes and beaks, black swans look wrong.

Tchaikovsky used swan myths and imagery beautifully in Swan Lake, and it was cleverly re-mixed in recent film called Black Swan. Tchaikovsky was good at adapting and modernising myths: there is probably an opening for a book called Economics for Sugar-Plumb Fairies. But that doesn’t mean that it is real.

Black swans in the real world are no more an oddity than white swans, just less familiar to people in Britain and the USA. They are found mostly in Australia and are close cousins of the Mute Swan, the brilliant white species that Europeans are familiar with. They are slightly more aggressive than the Mute Swan, one of the few birds that dares to take on intrusive humans. But it’s not a vast difference and their presentation as evil creatures is pure myth, a myth with overtones of racism. [E]

So should the crisis of 2008 be blamed on an inexplicable flock of Black Swans that came in and shat on ‘Rational Economics’?

When a sect predicts the end of the world and it fails to happen – things like the recent pseudo-Mayan ‘End of the World’[F] – it might seem like a “Black Swan” to them. To anyone else is it an obvious outcome. Likewise another Great Crash was to be expected when markets were de-regulating, removing by stages all of the safeguards that had been put in place after the original 1929 Great Crash.

Britain was making a modest recovery from the chaos of the banking crisis, when Osborne took over as chancellor in May 2010. Growth or shrinkage is measured on a quarterly (three-monthly) basis: Britain had had four quarters of modest growth in the last days of Brown’s Labour government. It had one more as Osborne began to put his stamp on the economy in the third quarter of 2010. Since then it has been five quarters of shrinkage compared to four of growth. [G] And one of the good quarters is largely credited to the enormous spending on the London Olympics, state expenditure that boosted the status of Britain’s rulers and so was approved of by most Tory Libertarians.

If the first quarter of 2013 is another three month period of shrinkage, then it is officially a triple-dip recession. Even if it doesn’t, the whole flat-lining of the economy since Cameron and Osborne took over suggests that the current crisis might qualify as a depression rather than a mere recession.[H] Previous times we spent our way out of the crisis: this is now classed as Original Sin. So Britain – and also the rest of Europe and the USA – looks likely to locked into economic flat-lining for some time to some.

Someone should use Parliamentary question time to ask Cameron if he believes the right-wing argument that the New Deal in the USA actually delayed a recovery from the Great Depression. His actions make perfect sense if he believes this. But if he does, you should next ask him why it was that Western economies acting on the “delusion” that the New Deal had worked were able to produce the Golden Quarter Century of steady growth and high employment that we saw from 1950 to 1975.


Jobs and Market Infallibility

According to David Cameron’s New Year message, “We inherited a welfare system that was frankly out of shape, that paid people not to work. So we made some big changes, and this New Year almost half a million more people are in work than last New Year. That is real progress…

“When people say we’ve got to stop our welfare reforms because somehow it is cruel to expect people to work, we are saying no. Getting people into good jobs is absolutely vital, not just for them, but for all of us. And when there is a fight on our hands to change our schools, we are ready and willing to have it because having a world-class education is the only way our children are going to get on in this world.” [I]

That’s the standard Tory view, post-Thatcher. The unemployed cannot have been failed by Market Mechanisms, which are always correct if allowed to run freely. It must be down to welfare, and down to moral failings by the unemployed. Shirkers.

Suppose one in ten of the unemployed are shirkers? There are still no jobs for the remaining nine. And this simple logic would still apply if it were more than one in ten, though I doubt it is more. People who lose hope of a job will adapt to joblessness, but if the jobs were there, most workers would be willing.

Willing implies a reasonable job. Low-quality ill-paid jobs like supermarket shelf stackers get dozens of applicants for every vacancy. People do refuse unfamiliar badly-paid insecure jobs, stuff like seasonal crop-picking which then may go to immigrants who don’t plan to stay anyway. There are also not many jobs like that – and a lot of the East European immigrants are in skilled and desirable jobs, getting them because they are better trained than British workers. The whole disdain for ordinary work that began with Thatcher has included a continual cutting of the sort of expensive apprenticeships and other training that used to produce good workers. That did do so in East European under Late Leninism, but Britain has favoured the wheeler-dealers and has encouraged a disdain for the traditional skills of the skilled working class.


Panglossian Capitalism

Recovery has faltered since 2010. New Labour were willing to follow common-sense and spend their way out of the crisis, a method that had worked before and did seem to be working again. But because there was general economic pain, the voters voted them out. Instead we got the current Coalition, dominated by Tories raised on pure Thatcherism. And supported by a Liberal-Democratic party dominated by Orange Book economics, a failed old party returning to bad old ideas like a dog returning to its vomit.

The basic belief is that the amount of cash received is assumed to be identical with the amount of real wealth created by the recipient of the cash. Cash obtained without gross illegality is seen as a measure of social worth and a benefit to the rest of the society. That’s the current orthodoxy, a revival of 19th century beliefs.

You might also call it “Immaculate Capitalism”, an imaginary system fathered by Adam Smith, who may well have been a virgin.[J] With certainty, Smith ignored the social context of actual Industrial Capitalism as it was in Britain in his lifetime. What actually existed was a growing state and a protectionist trading system. Also the growth of a middle class that was not just any old middle class of the sort that the New Right believe will bring wonders. What 18th century Britain had was a specific middle class that was highly unusual in terms of world history, a class that was enterprising and radical but also had strong ethical beliefs.

Adam Smith grew up in a family of moderate Protestants, but seems to have stopped believing while at Oxford University. Thereafter he seems to have seen Christianity as an obstacle to a better world, though he was much less open about it than his friend David Hume. If he ever wrote down what he actually believed, it must have perished in the general destruction of his notes and unfinished works that he had requested in his will.

If the Roman Empire had opted for Buddhism rather than Christianity when its original paganism lost its credibility, then it would have had a creed that leads its more thoughtful believers to doubt the reality of the world. Buddhism and also Hinduism can happily co-exist with science, while doubting its importance. They successfully stifled the growth of science in China, Japan and Hindu civilisation.

Christianity and Islam both had coherent religious views about a world whose reality was not in doubt, even if humans might fail to fully understand it. Science found itself at odds with religion just by being true to itself: it had to challenge the traditional understanding of the universe as new facts emerge. A conflict had to happen, and science lost the fight within Islam and within parts of Catholic Europe, with the condemnation of Galileo being the most important single event. In other parts of Catholic Europe, science was able to flourish. Also within most of Protestant Europe, resulting in the dramatic break-through of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, and its easy spread to societies with very similar values.

Scientists were mostly believers in the 17th century and mostly lost belief from the 18th century onwards. You still got a few – Faraday, Eddington – but not many.

By contrast, most business people were conventionally religious, sometimes highly devout. Those that weren’t strove for respectability, outward conformity to the dominant values. Adam Smith’s model of impersonal cash relationships was really not much like the real world of commerce.

This odd system worked fine for a time, in part because a lot of Protestants had fallen into what could be called the Mammonist Heresy, the notion that earthly rewards were a sign of Divine Approval. This is flatly against what Jesus taught and what the various churches had traditionally believed. Roman Catholicism mostly suppressed it, which may be why the Industrial Revolution happened in Protestant England rather than in countries that were economically more advanced but partly or wholly Catholic.

Believers in the Mammonist Heresy still valued respectability, which limited the more destructive possibilities of capitalism. Adam Smith despised their beliefs, but he supported their right to do as they please and accept no more social obligations than they felt like accepting. So he became popular, until the 1930s saw the whole machine self-destructing in the Great Slump.

What bounced back from the confusion of the 1970s was something very different from traditional capitalism. Respectability was no longer much of a force. The new system claimed to be a Meritocracy, but would be better called a Grabocracy. The old system had had wheeler dealers as oil in the machine: now they became the main force. A banking “industry” based much more on gambling than on useful banking services has become a major part of the British economy.

And it doesn’t really work. Greed can make the most comfortable circumstances seem intolerable. People have more goods but less happiness.

The problem is, left-wing critics share the Coolheart view of the New Right, there is probably no such thing as morality, just personal taste, and the state is mostly bad news. This allows plausible ethical arguments against socialism: sharing from good will is fine, but becomes bad if the state enforces it. Of course no one would say this about an inclination not to steal and an inclination not to commit rape or murder. Individuals ought to have such feelings, but a significant minority lack them, and rather more will make an exception to satisfy some strong private desire. So we have state enforcement for things that are broadly seen as moral, and that should including sharing.

Rich people would ideally like a state that took care just of their safety, army and police and law courts, leaving most services to be paid for, but with a ‘poor law’ to pick up the completely helpless. Failing that, they’d like a flat rate. Or tricks that allow the rich to pay a smaller proportion of their income than the working mainstream.

As I said, this rests on a belief that money acquired is identical to money earned or wealth created. Rather, this is always true except where untrue, with the difference managing to coincide with the analyst’s prejudices. (This avoids awkward possibilities like needing to identify drugs barons as wealth creators.) But this ignore the role of society in making their wealth possible. And the great oddities in where the wealth ends up.

If you got people to draw up a list of the hundred most important people in developing computing and the internet, you’d find that some got gigantic wealth, some modest wealth and some very little. Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web (not to be confused with the Internet, which was invented by US researchers working for the military). He got very little for it, while billionaires like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg invented nothing new but were simply the first to make a popular product based on ideas that were already in circulation.

It’s even more dramatic in culture and literature. I don’t suppose that anyone would rate J K Rowling as a better writer than J R R Tolkien (though not everyone would rate either of them very highly). But it’s an undeniable fact that Rowling has made a lot more money in her own lifetime than Tolkien ever did. She’s currently the twelfth richest woman in the United Kingdom, and while the Tolkien brand is undoubtedly much more valuable than Harry Potter, his heirs haven’t seen much of it. Rights were sold early and for sums that now seem insignificant.

The usefulness of each individual’s work is often not reflected in their immediate market value. The 200th anniversary of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice is now being celebrated, but it needed a cash guarantee from one of her brothers to get Sense and Sensibility printed as her first published work. She was a modest success in her own lifetime but grew gradually in stature over the decades.

In the current economic crisis, the rich are like fish campaigning to be liberated from water, unaware that it is a condition of their own existence. They’ve damaged the Keynesian system too far even to serve their own selfish interests. The West is floundering while some of the developing countries advance, with China very much in the lead.


Another Referendum Over Europe?

The world is increasingly a single economic organism. But a World State is currently off the agenda: the Soviet Union was trying to the very end to grow into one, but the burden was too great. The rival Empires that dominated the globe at the start of the 20th century used nationalism to subvert rival empires, and were then amazed to find that this nationalism was contagious. Khrushchev made a mess of handling this tricky situation: he did not try to integrate the Soviet Union and its East European conquests into a single super-state (which was Stalin’s intention), but he also did not let them indulge their nationalism and follow their own ‘road to socialism’.

The USA’s half-arsed attempt to create a New World Order in which the USA could bully and invade everyone else is visibly falling apart. What we’re getting, slowly and imperfectly, is an evolution of regional blocks of like-minded countries that pool some aspects of sovereignty while keeping others separate. The European Union has been much the best of these.

Thatcher and Blair tried to disrupt ‘Social Europe’, seeking a Europe that would let the market dominate and downplay social concerns and workers rights. For a time this worked, especially with the expansion into the former Soviet hegemony offering a New Europe that would share these values. But then came the banking crisis of 2008, which caused a lot of pain for New Europe and a general loss of enthusiasm for Panglossian Capitalism. The development of the European Union became problematic for Cameron, who then showed his usual far-sightedness by taking a hard line and turning a difficulty into a disaster.

The start of 2013 saw the collapse of one of the last pillars of “New Europe”. Czech President Vaclav Klaus, a Eurosceptic sometimes called the “Margaret Thatcher of Central Europe”, came to the end of his second term and had to be replaced. Both the main candidates to replace him supported European integration.[K] The last of “New Europe” vanished into the dustbin of history.

The winner by a small margin was been Milos Zeman, a maverick social democrat who was a member of the Czechoslovak Communist party from 1968-70, the era of the Prague Spring. He got 24% in the first round, while the 3rd and 4th candidates with just over 16% each were an independent who was a member of the Communist Party till 1990, and the official candidate of the Social Democrats. It looks like the Czechs are returning to their left-wing roots, throwing off the distortions caused by the 1968 invasion.

Meantime the Tory Right is bitterly upset at what most people would see as the predictable results of their own actions. They prefer to blame the European Union, thinking that they could still flourish without it. Or that they are so important that they could dictate better terms as outsiders than insiders.

Cameron must have figured that he’s not very likely to get re-elected in 2015. And if he could get back with a second Coalition, the Liberal-Democrats would be bound to forbid another referendum as part of the deal.

But shouldn’t the people have the right to choose? I’d say no. Rather, people should be able to choose where they want to go, but trust the professional politicians to know the best means to get there. Only a dwindling minority are opposed to the general idea of a European Union. A “no” vote would draw on a general resentment at the current economic pain. The same vague discontent that led to Brown being replaced by Cameron, who has supplied a lot more pain and keeps telling us it is good for us.

There are lots of people who voted Liberal-Democrat in 2010 who will never vote for them again. The same might be true for a referendum that took us out of the European Union, but it would be rather too late by then.

If it does come to a referendum, then the leaders of Continental Europe should take a very simple line: out is out. If Britain isn’t part of the team, then it becomes a competitor, overlapping with the rest of Europe in almost all its products.


Opium and Unhappy People

Advocates of a drugs free-for-all tend not to look at the nearest thing approach to it that we’ve yet seen. China from the from Opium War (1839-42) to the Communist victory in 1949 had no functional controls on opium or other illicit drugs, and naturally the place fell apart. Naturally it needed a tough regime to clean up the society and get it moving again.

Drugs may have been one reason why Traditional Japan was able to modernise and Traditional China was not. Opium had seeped slowly into China, getting a grip long before anyone saw a need to change the basics of their way of life. Japan had very little trade with the West before being forcibly opened up by the US fleet, so they were able to keep out opium.

Here, we have another round of ‘Top People’ telling us we should allow a drugs free-for-all, on the grounds that the “war on drugs” has failed. This time it’s George Soros, asserting that “prohibition has failed”.[L] To which I’d answer, the “War on Drugs” has been mostly on drug dealers and on the poor. Long ago I saw a suggestion that it should be treated as an infection, making it the responsibility of people with clubs to keep them drug-free, just as restaurants have to prevent infections in their kitchens.

Free supply to users would also be a good idea, but at clinics where the addict can “shoot up” or whatever, but never has possession of the actual drugs. It was addicts selling on their drugs that was used as an excuse to end Britain’s one-time policy of safe supply, which was imperfect but worked better than the present mess. When addicts can get their drugs easily, the illicit market vanishes. (And I’d leave heroin users free to destroy themselves with the ‘real thing’ rather than preserving them as a heroin market by trying to compulsorily wean them onto methadone: better to protect the wider society that to waste effort helping people who can’t or won’t help themselves.)

Anti-drugs propaganda needs to be smarter. Mentioning the dangers failed to work: drug abuse arises from the natural teenage inclination to take risks and try new things. If it were up to me I would play on that. Maybe Be A Devil, Live In Hell. Show young persons being daring and then show them destroyed by what they took. This could be a series featuring real photos offered by repentant users, or with permission of the parents of dead users. Plus some with actors, and show which in the small print. Maybe organise a contest and ask them to guess. Play on teenage weaknesses, which are part of human nature and probably necessary, but in need of control.

I notice also that there is lots of drug abuse among Soros’s sort of people, the financial speculators who treat big risks as routine. Quite possible he himself is “clean”, most people think better without chemical supplements. But drug abuse has been part of the Coolheart culture that he has risen with. He’d not want to destroy it. I do.

I’ve seen arguments that alcohol does more harm. It has more users, of course it does more harm, but not more harm per user. Most alcohol users are not abusers and suffer no harm. You have to seriously abuse alcohol before you do yourself harm, physical or mental. Some of the other stuff is lethal to people who’d see themselves as light users and maybe just on “soft drugs”.

It goes back to the way we liberated ourselves from traditional Christian morality in the 1960s and 1970s. Modern Soft-Liberalism means well and has kindly intentions. It has indeed helped people who needed it, and in the UK (but not the USA) it has successfully broken traditional Christian morality. But it also allowed teenagers to become a “marketing opportunity” and neglected the normal social process of shaping them as adequate adults. All human societies have this, and letting it decay benefits no one.

This was the first and least successful phase of Coolheart mentality. The New Right arose as a reaction, but a shallow and foolish reaction by second-rate thinkers, backed by a business community that was seriously ignorant or ill-informed outside of its own little areas. (Few business people are competent outside their own particular niche in the area of business.)

The New Right cannot be accused of kindly intentions. They have mostly helped people who didn’t need it, the privileged rich. But as I detailed earlier, it may have hit its limits.

The teenage rebels of the 1960s grew up in a caring society and rebelled against it. Under this pressure, the society has cared less about later teenage generations, feeding them whatever they wanted to keep them quiet. And producing much less interesting and creative individuals, it really has not worked.


“Soldier Blue” and the Drones

Drones and the people they kill are in the news a lot nowadays. And most of what is said is foolish.

Myself, I’d adapt what the US gun lobby say, “Drones don’t kill people, people kill people.” (Though it is also true that someone who runs amuck with a knife can be controlled by ordinary citizens, unlike a gunman. There was a case a few months after the Dunblane massacre, and a couple of determined schoolteachers were able to thwart the man.)

Considering drones, the great advantage of weapons fired by remotely-controlled aircraft is that the technology makes it utterly simple for supervisors and courts of inquiry to see exactly what the drone operator saw. They can easily determine if the violence was justified. Someone who shoots without enough justification can be sacked or even prosecuted, with the solid evidence all there.

So why are so many kids being killed by drone strikes? Why does it go on happening after so many protests.

It’s not just immoral, it is also rather stupid. Allies get disgusted and neutrals join the enemy.

Imagine that some powerful aliens turned up and said that they were going to help us poor ineffective humans by ridding us of violent criminals. If their law-enforcement drones gunned down some notorious gangsters, the modern equivalents of the Kray Twins or Al Capone, most people would be less than outraged and might well be pleased. But it would be another matter if non-criminal associates were killed, especially women and children.

That, broadly, is what the US military are doing to Muslim populations that they need to win over. Why can’t they see it?

Sadly, massacre has been a standard mode for the USA to wage war against non-white populations. The 1970s film “Soldier Blue” was based on a real incident, the 1864 Sand Creek massacre of a village mostly of women, children and mature men. The Wikipedia entry refers to it as a “friendly village”, but actually it was non-combatants from tribes that were resisting the US take-over of their hunting grounds. The men of the of Colorado Territory militia who did the massacre undoubtedly knew that this was part of an enemy society, and one which had freely killed settler women and children given the chance. It was a village mostly of women and children, because the young men were the active enemy and much harder to find.

Modern liberalism protests at the nastiness involved in building the modern world, but fails to offer an alternative. The expanding USA had plenty of land, it could have left some to the tribes. It might also have had less trouble with tribes on Reservations if it had used government officials as intermediaries, as happened in Canada. Actually the land was too tempting to leave to primitive hunters, and privatising supply to Reservations helped balance the budget, even if it led to cheating and the occasional uprising.

Attacking the enemy’s non-combatants works if you are out to break the whole society, a the expanding USA was. It was successfully done with the Native Americans, with a process of extermination carrying on in California till quite recently, ending with the tragic story of Ishi, believed to have been the last Native American not caught.[M]

Similar methods of massacre and terror were used in the Philippine–American War, (1899–1902), which happened after the USA chose to rule the Philippines after taking it from the Spanish, along with Cuba. The Filipinos organised their own Republic but were not allowed to run it. And the USA basically won, retaining possession for several decades and re-making it according to US values, which the Filipinos retain now that they are free to chose something else. But the methods used were horrific, and it badly needs a film to be made about it. It’s the sort of thing the Chinese should be funding. [N]

That’s US tradition, and it extended as far as the bombing of Nazi-occupied Europe with ordinary people intentionally targeted, most notably at Dresden but also many other places. Also the use of terror-bombing and then the new atomic weapons against Japan, when Japan would probably have surrendered on terms similar to the way they were actually treated. And it was a return to massacre in Vietnam: there is a new book called in Kill Anything that Moves that is said to detail the process. Everyone in the protest movement during the war knew that massacres were routine, but it seems reminders are necessary. And it may turn out that the drone war has its own version of the infamous Body Count in Vietnam.

In Middle-Eastern wars, things are not the same because the people being massacred are not isolated tribalists. They are tribalists with strong and ancient links to a world-wide community of more than a billion Muslims, who take an interest in such things. And can see that the USA looks for a “quick fix” and does not really care.


Muddle in Mali

During the hostage crisis in Algeria, I didn’t see anyone mention that Algeria is the last of the Arab secular regimes standing unchallenged. Or that its rulers must know that the West is out to get them as soon as an opportunity occurs. It wasn’t hugely surprising that they chose a very tough reaction, one which got some Westerners killed who might otherwise have been saved.

Algeria also had its own Civil War, fought from 1991 to 2002 and costing tens of thousands of lives, after the government cancelled elections that were likely to bring to power an Islamist party. They did this with US support: the USA was rather smarter in those days.

Our old-faced Foreign Secretary William Hague is correct in saying that such operations need time to plan. But they can be planned and then put on hold until something changes. It would be an absurd coincidence if French intervention in Mali hadn’t made a difference. I’d check the ethnic origins of whatever local security there is, for the French action looks decidedly anti-Tuareg, as was the overthrow of Gaddafi. They must notice a general failure to look after their interests, which is why there are Tuareg secessionists in North Mali, as well as Islamists.

In Mali, it happened after an army coup. Another coup after electoral politics had failed. Mali has tried multi-party elections, with the significant parties including the following:

Alliance for Democracy in Mali, Union for the Republic and Democracy, Patriotic Movement for Renewal, National Congress for Democratic Initiative, Union for Democracy and Development, Movement for the Independence, Renaissance, and Integration of Africa, Party for Solidarity and Progress, Alternation Bloc for Renewal, Integration, and African Cooperation, Bloc for Democracy and African Integration, Citizens’ Party for Revival, National Rally for Democracy, Sudanese Union – African Democratic Rally, Front for Democracy and the Republic, Rally for Mali, Party for National Rebirth, African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence. [O]

Lovely names and useless politics. One-party states have worked much better, where they were allowed by the West.


Hunger and Hobbits [The Hunger Games]

I watched the DVD of The Hunger Games with small expectations. I’d feared it would be another Twilight, which I gave up on after the first quarter. Teenagers set to kill each other in a modern-day arena didn’t sound promising, but this was a much better film than I expected.

What’s notable is how the heroine shows sympathy all along. You also see the hideous smugness and lack of sympathy of most of the elite, with their intensely artificial garments and make-up. The main exception is the former Champion from District 12, who is presumably drunk most of the time because he’s haunted by memories of what he had to do to win.

What’s also interesting is that the public turn out to prefer a sympathetic individual to the usual callous-for-a-good-cause individual of most “action films”.

This also applied to Lord of the Rings. One of Jackson’s innovations was to have Gandalf visibly upset at Frodo having to carry on bearing the ring after being wounded bringing it to Rivendell. If you liked it you’ll like the film of The Hobbit, part 1 of which should be turning up on DVD and television quite soon.

Don’t be put off by film critics saying ‘too long’ or complaining about three films emerging from an average-sized book. Film critics are usually attached to a newspaper or television channel and are expected to review every film that comes along. Long films that are not the sort of films they’d watch for pleasure offend them, naturally. But mostly they don’t bother to put themselves the position of those who do like that sort of film. And want it told at proper length.

The three films of Lord of the Rings were each longer than three hours, yet they left out many interesting things that were in the book. Tom Bombadil, for instance, also the romance of Faramir and Eowyn. This last is seen (briefly) in the Extended Editions of the third film. Many DVDs include “Deleted Scenes”: Jackson took the trouble to produce versions where it all runs smoothly and you see what it might have been had it been six films rather than three. You get an extra 30 minutes of good cinema in film 1, 44 minutes for film 2 and 51 minutes for film 3. If you liked the films you should rent the Extended Editions and see things like Samwise’s concern for a dead enemy and the actual death of the corrupted wizard Sarauman.

For The Hobbit, it was mostly the story as told, up to the first rescue by eagles. We’ve not yet had a proper view of the dragon Smaug, who will obviously dominate the next film. We do have some extras about the White Council and the enterprise against Sauron in his first stronghold of Dol Guldur, which Tolkien probably introduced into The Hobbit to give a good reason for Gandalf abandoning the dwarves before they cross Mirkwood. I’d expect the campaign against Dol Guldur to dominate the third Hobbit film, for it to include Bilbo and for it to happen after the Battle of the Five Armies.

Jackson has already made changes to the back-story that includes Dol Guldur, and will probably make more. He might have the wizard Radagast get killed there, since he’s not included in Jackson’s film of later events, unlike the book. And since he’s dropped in a mention of the two Blue Wizards, never actually included except as background in Tolkien’s stories, they too may turn up.

[The actual development of the Hobbit Trilogy was rather different, of course.]


Good Food or Good Money

When the horse-in-beefburger scandal broke and Irish food factories were blamed. I had visions of Irish pet horses going “into the West” as it became too expensive to feed them, and being slipped into the food chain. I even got the idea for a parody,: “When Irish horse is mooing / Oh an Irish eye might weep”. tune of When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.

But it seems it wasn’t like that. Irish food factories were using imported meat supplement from Poland, and horsemeat has also turned up in Spain.[P] A global web, and the British contribution has been to undermine regulation and control as much as possible

Globally, over-eating is now a bigger problem than hunger. Fast food is mildly addictive, and intended to be so. The food industry is concerned with money rather than food as such, or the general social values. And throughout Europe, we’ve seen the undermining of a national cultures that had a strong tradition of good healthy food.

Were maybe lucky with Mad Cow Disease, which was less serious than once feared. But some people must have seen it as a green light for more deregulation. More Panglossian Capitalism.

There’s actually nothing wrong with horse meat, and I’d be ready to eat it if offered. But people should have the choice, not be herded into passive consumption of whatever is convenient to produce on a global scale.


Global Warming and Jurassic Politics

Every single year of the 21st century has been way outside the averages for the 20th century. This, more than the record excess heat in Australia and the USA, should be the lesson of 2012.

Right-wingers – and also some left-wingers – tend to assume that the world they are familiar with is “the natural order”. Science suggest that most “natural orders” are brief pauses in a dynamic system. The coming changes to the climate won’t go outside the range of extremes the Earth has already been through, but they will go way beyond what human civilisation has experienced over the last 10,000 years. It looks to have been a period of unusual stability, and we have helped end it before its time.

Pushed by greenhouse gasses, the weather patterns have changed, probably for ever. Weather events that are rare are becoming common. Weather events are happening that have not been seen during the time we’ve been keeping accurate records.

One disbeliever up until his death in 2008 was Michael Crichton. He even struck a low blow against climate concern with a novel called State of Fear, which has climate change revealed as spurious science intentionally faked up by scientists for the benefit of mysterious “elites”. (Which must have helped the real elites avoid awkward demands to find more money to cope with a developing problem.)

Michael Crichton was a good story-teller with no sense of reality. This is particularly true in his best and most famous work, Jurassic Park. We are supposed to believe that a vast and highly marketable breakthrough is kept utterly secret, with the deliberate raising of dangerous carnivores rather than safe creatures that could be sold for millions as exotic pets. John Hammond is supposed to be a business genius, yet he does this for no clear reason, pursuing the curious goal of a theme park when it isn’t needed. Theme Parks are jazzed-up Amusement Parks that need to offer something different: live dinosaurs would sell themselves. Worse, business-genius Hammond puts himself at the mercy of a single computer programmer who has an unreliable character and a debt problem. Real business people are vastly more thorough and cautious, having back-ups for everything of importance.

Such nonsense is common to the New Right view, which Michael Crichton broadly shared. They devoutly believe that people can be totally stupid about their areas of immediate concern, while they themselves are wise about areas where they in fact know nothing. Among other nonsense, Jurassic Park has frogs used to fill in gaps in dinosaur DNA. Nothing on four legs has less in common with a dinosaur than a frog, which is a specialised offshoot of a group of amphibians that split from other four-legged creatures long before there were such things as dinosaurs or mammals.

Surprisingly, dinosaurs and mammals became distinct groups of creatures at much the same time, during the Triassic, the era before the Jurassic. In free competition the dinosaurs won out, until a vast meteor strike wiped them out. Mammals were inferior competitors, despite their greater potential.



[A] []

[B] [] as at 27 Jan 2013

[C] A lot of this was in New Scientist magazine, and I have quoted it in previous Newsnotes.

[D] It might be worth a try, written by someone with a knack of entertaining children. Free to anyone, but please acknowledge the source.

[E] []

[F] The end of a genuine Mayan calendar cycle, but with no evidence the Mayans thought it anything to worry about.

[G] []

[H] []

[I] []

[J] I’m not in fact one of those who treats religion as foolishness or a joke, though I will use religions phrases to make jokes against suitable targets. In this case, The Immaculate Conception would be acceptable if I saw a Church that actually behaved like a body with an authentic link to the creator of the universe. I could accept it, along with the Virgin Birth and Resurrection and other stuff. A creator of the universe could definitely do such things, but would not then be so neglectful of Thatself’s representatives on Earth. I’m inclined to atheism because no religion has actually lived up to its promises.

As for Adam Smith being a virgin, that’s speculative, but he remained single even when he had the wealth and fame to select an excellent wife if he’d wanted one.

[K] []

[L] []

[M] Theodora Kroeber; Ishi in two worlds : a biography of the last wild Indian in North America. This is the mother of SF writer Ursula Le Guin, who has sort-of dealt with the issue in some of her fiction, but seems unwilling to tackle it directly.

[N] According to the IMDb, there are two films, The Real Glory (1939), and Amigo (2010). From the IMDb descriptions, the first is a whitewash of the US role, while the second seems extremely weak.

[O] I got these from the Wiki, which tends to list such things.

[P] []

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