Open newslist 8

Things I’d like to include:

Phil Lapsley’s book Exploding the Phone and some observations about telecoms billing records and the police that arise.

David Wood’s book Smartphones and Beyond about how the future was right here and then it…wasn’t. (“right here” includes Macclesfield and Bury St. Edmunds.)

Circling back to Scottish and other devolution. Is full fiscal devolution actually a good idea? Also, reviewing my forecast (that Labour has an effective veto, and therefore it will go down to the wire, but the Tories would be better off agreeing).

Retrieving anything from here. I still have some #Savileweek content in reserve even though I couldn’t hack the whole week.

I could do more about Hack Attack, too.


Update: Oh yes. Response to William Langewiesche’s AF447 piece.

er, spark plug. thingy. germans. ha ha.

Michael Hofmann reviews Martin Amis and it’s a stinker. This is the bit that stuck out for me. It will look pedantic but there’s a lot that can be recovered from this paragraph.

I walked on for another ten minutes; then I turned and looked. The Buna-Werke – the size of a city. Like Magnetigorsk (a city called Sparkplug) in the USSR. It was due to become the largest and most advanced factory in Europe. When the whole operation came on line, said Burckl, it would need more electricity than Berlin.

There might be something to be said about the role of industry and technology in the Holocaust, although plenty has been. There might be something to be said about the fascination, hatred, cooperation, similarities, and differences between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, although plenty has been. There might be something to be said about German imagination of the two vast Fordist industrial superpowers, although quite a bit but maybe not enough has been. And clearly Amis wants to say it.

But he doesn’t want to say it enough to look Magnitogorsk up in Wikipedia and find out that the vast iron and steelworks city the Soviets built with the help of consultants from all over the world, like John Scott and Ernst May, is named for the immense magnetic mountain where the iron ore comes from. That is of course why they built it there. (A magnetic mountain; not a bad title, eh?)

Further, he doesn’t know or doesn’t care that a magneto is not a spark plug. A magneto is a device that produces electricity from rotational motion; a spark plug uses that electricity to light off the fuel-air mixture in the cylinder head. Evidently he only got the idea because if you spell the place correctly, as he didn’t in the final copy, it sort of looks like it might be Magneto City, not Magneticville or even just Magnetite, a good name for a mining town out west (or east). It only looks like that if you don’t care that it’s Russian and that’s a language that isn’t English.

But this is his shtick. Lionel Asbo; hur hur funny name. John Self; hur hur funny name. 21 virgins; hur hur funny the word is a bit like raisins in foreign. Apparently this time out he’s discovered German. It’s what he does, smart as in smart arse, never as in smart bomb. He aims for seriousness, over-pitches because he won’t put in the effort, and pulls out of the pratfall by sniggering at foreigners, broadly defined. He’s the Boris Johnson of literature. Like Johnson, somehow he fits into London in ways it would deny.

Also, it would be remiss not to point out that his chancer/liaison officer antihero of ambiguous and prolific sexuality and stereotypical cultivation sounds remarkably like yer man from Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillants, as does his relationship with his aunt, and indeed with his boss.

no access

So I was recommended this blog post. Don’t bother – this is better.


It’s a pity there’s no video, at least that I’ve found, because of course the banner is part of an integrated performance from the Red Faction, the Middlesbrough FC ultras. But to get a sense, try this.

OK? Now we’re oriented, that blog post. I’m sure they mean well, but really, terministic? Did we really need doxosophers? What on earth is a polygraph – a lie-detector? – and how does it get to be polymorphous? Apparently the “marginalised” can be found being “spatially marginalised” and the word “spatial” is used in every other sentence, but there are no rockets. I can actually read German faster than I could read this piece. And just look at the title! Even the choice of typeface is hostile, anti-access, and overdesigned, the absolute opposite of Orwell’s idea of plain style.

The point they want to make is basically the same as the Middlesbrough fans did. Now there’s a shorter for you. Actually, I kid, it’s a bit more than that.

Their point is that identifying places and individual people with the idea of poverty is a good way to stereotype the poor. Broken people live in broken Britain and that’s why they’re broken. Once you’ve done this, the poverty’s not an economic problem any more – it’s because there’s something wrong with the people. Politicians like this because it means the answer is less money, but more control. Something like Benefits Street provides the stereotype. It gets recycled by people like Christian Guy at Iain Duncan Smith’s thinktank, who have one foot in politics and one outside, and who add their solutions to it. Then the politicians pick it up and use those solutions on you. The way we describe things or people changes what we do with them, and that’s why it’s worth protesting this stuff.

All clear so far? Well, it took them 3,600 words to say that. In case you’re wondering, Christian Guy is both a doxosopher and apparently a polymorphous polygraph, your house is spatial, and TV is terministic. Personally, I prefer wanktanks, like thinktanks but entirely fake.

But the depressing thing here is that this post is a perfect example of the ideas the people who wrote it use to study society. The jargon I’ve been taking the piss about is borrowed from the works of Pierre Bourdieu, French sociologist and philosopher. Among much else, he thought that the language we use to talk about stuff was politically important in itself, and of course he was right.

Put it like this: If you want to read that blog post, you’re expected to know how a doxosopher might end up being terministic. You’re also expected to realise that the polygraph isn’t a lie-detector and perhaps to appreciate that calling someone a polymorphous polygraph might sound good in French. And because all these words were invented on a Latin basis, it might even help to have some classics. You’re also expected to appreciate the funny typeface in the headline, rather than just wish it was something more legible.

He argued that this was a kind of capital, like the economic sort: cultural capital. People without it, or without the right kind of it, are denied access to parts of society. Up to a point, it can be a substitute for the economic kind, but it’s never a complete substitute. If you have enough of it, you can get access to the rich and the powerful and to some of the things they do, but you won’t be one of them unless you get rich. In the opposite sense, vulgar rich people with no culture are common enough to be a cliché – but they’re still rich unless they lose all their money.

To his great credit, Bourdieu applied this to the academic world where he spent his whole life, pointing out that different specialities and professions tended to invent their own weird languages in order to keep other people out. Because each speciality gets to pick who comes in, it gets a sliver of power and status. However, because this basically comes from the power to exclude people without the right kind of capital, it also restricts the effects of whatever the academics might learn.

If you’re likely to be affected by Universal Credit or the bedroom tax, you probably won’t read that blog post, or if you do you might not get past those bloody doxosophers. This is precisely what Bourdieu would have predicted. But I doubt he would have been at all pleased.

The one with Rupert Murdoch, Lord Nicholls, and the cocaine

So Brooks Newmark, Tory dickpic exponent. As Harlan Ellison didn’t title, I have no mouth but I can’t stop laughing. Or rather, I can’t stop laughing but I have a serious point I need to make. Obviously this was really awful journalism, in fact, hardly journalism at all in any meaningful sense. For a start there’s the entrapment. There’s also the frankly creepy impersonation of some random woman in Sweden. It’s very hard to defend even though…and then the laughter kicks in. But it is very hard to defend.

Which reminded me of something. Reading Nick Davies’ Hack Attack, it struck me that if cocaine was to write its memoirs, the chapter on News International would probably be left out in the end because cocaine would be too ashamed to publish it. And it would be a great pity, because it might have been the best bit.

It’s not just that the NOTW and Sun newsrooms were incredibly cokey, nor even, according to Davies, that Wapping had a recognised dealer on the staff, even if it’s telling that they managed to have a staff drug dealer while also having an editor who specialised in their contacts with gangsters and another who specialised in their contacts with cops, and the whole culture of the place seems like one long pit-stained gak-sweat. Brash, overfamiliar, and also brittle. Also, reading Stick It Up Your Punter after Hack Attack, it’s very noticeable how many people there are repeatedly described as “energetic” and “supremely confident”, but also subject to dramatic mood swings and waves of paranoia.

It’s that the paper’s routine functioning, the process of production, depended in an important way on the stuff. And I don’t even mean this in that so many of them couldn’t get going in the morning without a quick one up the hooter. No. I’m actually thinking of the Reynolds defence of qualified privilege for public interest. This is a classic case in English media law, resulting from a lawsuit brought by the Irish politician Albert Reynolds against the Times and the Times‘s appeal to the Lords. The key point is that in some cases, a journalist can defend themselves from a libel suit if they can show that publishing the story in question served a legitimate public interest.

What constitutes a public interest is a good question, and one that changes over time. It is not the same thing as what interests the public, something newspaper editors tend to get wrong. The guideline is points one and two in Lord Nicholls’ judgment, although it’s worth noting that point one (seriousness) is actually an argument against qualified privilege. The Defamation Act 2013, which supersedes Reynolds vs. Times Newspapers, reduces this to a test that the defendant “reasonably believe” that publication is in the public interest.

But the obvious example of something that is in the public interest to publish, and stays that way, is lawbreaking of some sort. That some celebrity is sleeping with the wrong person might once have been obviously in the public interest, but it has got less so over the years, and one day it will no longer be so. Cocaine is illegal, though. This is why so many of their stories involved it, and why so many of their reporters spent so much time partaking of it with their subjects, encouraging their subjects to buy it, and indeed sometimes supplying it.

This was rather perfect; it may be illegal, but it is not all that illegal, especially not in practice, so police involvement would be fairly unlikely even if the reporter was covered in the stuff from head to toe. And of course their links with the Met helped. However, it is illegal enough to bat away threats of litigation with some confidence.

The budget and the bogus hairdressers

Chris Dillow has a nice chart, plotting the government deficit out-turn against a forecast based on its historic relationship with unemployment, swinging off John Maynard Keynes’ remark that if you look after unemployment the budget will look after itself.


As he says, the interesting bit is what happens after January 2012. Unemployment dropped sharply, but the budget didn’t come in anywhere near as much as you might expect, although it did improve a bit. A gap has opened up. Chris thinks this is a story about productivity.

I half-agree; it’s also a story about the policy-driven shift from unemployment, mitigated by Jobseekers’ Allowance, to underemployment mitigated by Working Tax Credit, aka the bogus hairdresser phenomenon (see here, here, and here). There has been some improvement in the economy, but much of the reduction of unemployment is accounted for by people declaring self-employment with nugatory hours, plus various other fiddles on the Government’s side, like not counting Work Programme attendees or persons under sanction as unemployment. They aren’t earning-out of the tax credit regime, and they aren’t paying income tax, so the budget doesn’t improve.

It’s trivially true that if you aren’t getting any hours, your productivity is zero. Importantly, though, efforts to improve productivity as such won’t help this problem at all, because low productivity is an effect rather than a cause. It’s an effect of policy, but it’s also an effect of the weakness of the labour market, because if the bogus hairdressers were in work they wouldn’t have to find ways to get Iain Duncan Smith off their backs.

How tight the labour market really is may be the most important question in British politics at the moment. Hence Duncan Weldon:

Balls has decided not to offer any new capital investment funded by central government borrowing. In this view, GDP growth is up, and therefore growth should bring down the deficit, and there is no case for fiscal expansion. If there is going to be more public spending there should be more taxation. This shouldn’t be a reason to harrumph off in the corner, though. Resolution did this rather nice chart of the parties’ fiscal plans.


As you can see, before anything else, just going slower is a big, big improvement on Osborne’s plans. Pushing the deadline out to 2019 and finding another £10bn of revenue or savings would allow for a 2% real-terms annual increase for the departments, while the Tory plan requires a 7% annual cut for the departments even with an additional £12bn taken out of social security. And we’re not even discussing Cameron’s giveaway yet, which takes the total cuts in the pipeline to £33bn. Labour would be fools not to run on the Tories’ £33bn cuts bombshell and to repeat the number every five minutes; personally I’m going to bore everyone to tears with it from here to May.

The problem, though, is Chris’s chart; although GDP growth is up and measured unemployment is down, the budget still sucks. And, you know, one in ten young people despair, because they’ve been stuck in the queue since 2007. As the EEF economics blog says, it sucks on the revenue side because income tax revenues are poor, because incomes, i.e. wages are poor. That is, to say the least, not what you’d expect in a tightening labour market.

It might, however, be what you’d expect in a market that is still pretty close to a high-unemployment equilibrium, but one that expresses the insufficiency of effective demand via underemployment rather than unemployment. If we were, that would explain why it is so difficult to reduce the deficit and why wages are so poor, and also why productivity is so poor, via Verdoorn’s law, where productivity gains usually happen when industry is operating at capacity. This is the crucial issue, and I suspect it’s roughly what is happening in France. The risk is that we end up running to stand still, deficit reduction keeps failing because wages and productivity are too low, and the statistics get progressively worse as the low-trust society becomes entrenched.

The good news is that there are some options for Labour investment to go with the absence of more Tory cuts. The public bank plans have evolved, and now foresee National Savings & Investments as its main depositor, which could give it enough welly for quite a substantial capital programme, and you know where I think it should go.

A charts post

Some links, with combined themes of data visualisation and rage.

This is from the Economist but don’t let that put you off. I still hear people saying “well, you say the Euro is awful, but what about bedroom tax eh eh?” This is pure whataboutery. The enormity of the disaster is pointed up by the 10th and 90th percentile bars.

That said I suspect the UK would look worse if they didn’t include the recovery in 2009-2010 in there. Also, the IFS estimates of the impact of austerity usually have a curve with a great big bend just before you get to the poorest 10 per cent.

Similarly, here’s the latest version of the Eurozone vs. US comparison. Euro fail:


I think I’ve said this before, but one of Obama’s greatest achievements has been stalling the austeritarians, with the classic device of setting up a commission to think the unthinkable. American lefties have been promising that he’ll implement a plan to gut social security or whatever realsoonnow since inauguration in 2009 and in some cases pre-inauguration, but here we are deep into the second term, and the issue has slid way down the agenda. Despite going to the wall with government shutdowns and all kinds of drama, neither the teabaggers nor the very serious people have managed to deliver a pukka federal austerity budget, and the chart makes the distinction very, very obvious. Given how powerful the institutional forces for austerity economics evidently are, this is a little masterpiece of delaying tactics. I guess he really is a Fabian.

And this is probably the best chart as such I’ve seen for a while, from here. The blue is what respondents think the ratio between CEO pay and workers’ pay should be; the red is what they think it is; the grey is the actual value.


It’s from the Harvard Business Review, but I notice they had the goodness not to actually title it “Yippee!!!”

And here’s a map of local authorities in England by percentage declaring an English identity:

The obvious point is that English == rural and eastern, with some twists. (East Lancs, for example, seems to change from valley to valley.) On an opt-in basis, basically no big city would go for an English parliament. (Leeds and Bradford are diluted by including their dales hinterlands in the metropolitan districts – you can get pretty woodsy and technically be in Bradford.) Nigel Farage would have to pick between Hull, Sunderland, and Torquay for his capital.

I’d like to see a chloropleth version of this with population scaling, and I’ve got the data in Fusion Tables so I may yet have a crack at some more maps. Also, it validates the finding from my Monarchist Map that Purbeck is weird, although I’ve been there and to be honest it wasn’t hard to spot. Before you ask, Ken Clarke’s constituency, which was the only big concentration of Jubilee parties north of London, stands out for its relatively low Englishness. I presume they’re like me, BRITISH, DAMMIT.

#burybadnews extra: the impact has been cancelled

Bonus extra #burybadnews at the Care Quality Commission:

The impact of the economic downturn on the quality of health and social care has been cancelled.

Well, there’s some good news! Wait. The CQC has cancelled its study into the impact of the economic downturn, not the impact itself.

Thanks to Tony Bovaird on twitter.

Also, I counted up the stories by department and here are the results.

Screenshot from 2014-09-21 17:37:29

Who knew Jeremy Hunt or rather his SPAD Sue Beeby was such a devious bastard? That’s right; everybody. Also, on this measure Alex Salmond’s Scotgov and Eric Pickles’ DCLG are equally slimy, which is kind of my point.


Thort: I was quite sarcastic about lefties who were convinced a Yes would trigger all sorts of good stuff across the UK, but the No, or rather the preceding yes-scare, does seem to have shaken a few things loose.

Another thort: West Lothian question, Matt Turner answer.

The West Yorkshire answer is “Bugger off!” but it seems to have been revised.

Speaking of West Yorkshire answers, here’s an idea. This is basically the Day It Rained Ponies for political obsessives, so let’s make the most of it. What about devolution on-demand? Say the Tories insist on EVEL as a sop. The problem here is that you might not want to live in Greater Wokingham. But part of a deal might be providing for, say, Southampton and Portsmouth, or Bristol, to opt out of Thatcherstan and opt in to home rule. Ponies!