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Blitzed: the Third Reich as a society on drugs

So my copy of Norman Ohler’s splendidly-titled Blitzed showed up. This could have been a really disappointing book – in the acknowledgments, Ohler mentions a Berlin DJ friend who told him Nazis took masses of drugs, and I can well imagine going from that beginning to lurid Hitler Channel kitsch. But Ohler has achieved so much more, and the mass of archival references in the back shows us how and why. Although this is quite a short book, it does something genuinely interesting and difficult, a new view on the Third Reich. Also, as well as the superb title, Shaun Whiteside has produced a really excellent translation of a text heavy with Nazi and bureaucratic jargon, street slang, and pharmaceutical technicalities.

Pervitin: getting cranked up from below

Where to begin? Perhaps we could kick off with the so-called discovery of fatigue back in the nineteenth century, as scientists and especially the military began to explore the limits of human performance. Obviously, there was a limit. Nutrition was involved; physical training could push the limit out further. And fascinatingly, the limit was closely linked up, in complicated ways, with the emotional and psychological forces of motivation, leadership, and unit-cohesion. Some people took this all the way to believing that the soul, the supernatural, or previously unknown physics was at work. Otto Ranke, a German physiologist, was running the German army’s medical research at the outbreak of war and specifically working on these problems.

If Nazism was anything, it was a doctrine that claimed Germany could overcome the limits of its purely material resources through the combination of new technology, inspired leadership, and ideological motivation through hatred. It was necessary to do more, push higher, go faster, succeed through will, outdo the other guy in working towards the leader. As the brilliance of Adolf Hitler and of German military commanders would inspire soldiers to triumph on the battlefield, the brilliance of great scientists and entrepreneurs wouid lead Germany to the economic triumph that was also required to win. Ohler’s first case study speaks directly to this.

The one branch of science that was most identified with Nazism was chemistry. Fischer-Tröpsch coal-to-liquids technology would provide the petrol to fuel the blitzkrieg; further advances in polymerisation would use F-T feedstocks to provide synthetic rubber and plastics. IG Farben’s money funded the party, and the party served IG Farben. We all know where this is going. But what about chemistry directed towards Germans, rather than the enemy?

Temmler-Werke of Johannisthal, Berlin didn’t invent methamphetamine – they pinched it from the Japanese – but they did do what industrial chemists mostly do all day. They scaled up the production process, nailed down consistent purity, and packaged it as conveniently shelf-stable and orally administered tablets. Pervitin was born. Then Temmler’s marketers did what pharma marketers mostly do all day; they corrupted the medical profession, lavishing entertainment, advertising, and copious free samples on every GP in Germany. Very soon you could get it in any chemist’s shop, and Germans took it in epic quantities. By mid-1941, Temmler was manufacturing 30 million “units” a month; it’s not clear whether a unit was one tablet, or a pack of 30, so it’s possible they were producing enough to give every German a couple of tabs a day.

Nazi policy on drugs was contradictory in a way that reflects Nazism. In one direction, they were very punitive – Ohler’s endnotes mention the terrifying case of a dentist accused of sampling the superbly pure Merck liquid cocaine he had access to, who was ordered to undergo compulsory detox and was gassed under Aktion T-4 the very next day – but they also conceptualised drugs as foreign, degenerate, possibly Jewish substances associated with dodgy Weimar characters. Meth, as an innovative and pharmaceutically pure product of Germany’s great chemical industries, didn’t fit into this worldview at all. And it didn’t help that it seemed to speak to Nazi aims and methods; everyone who was desperately competing for power, pushing production targets, choking down their doubts, or marching frantically across the heaths found it supremely useful and then, of course, indispensable. It fit with a society built on hyper-motivation.

In this way, Nazi Germany got cranked up on speed from below. Ohler shows a string of letters Heinrich Böll wrote home from the army during the Phoney War, asking his parents to send more Pervitin urgently because it kept him from sleeping on watch.

This brings us back to Otto Ranke. As the German army worked through a complex set of wargames to evaluate the official plan for the invasion of France versus the minority report created by Erich von Manstein, known as Operation SICHELSCHNITT, a key variable became obvious. When it took the German side less than five days to get to the River Meuse, they usually won; when they didn’t, the Allies usually did. If SICHELSCHNITT was to be implemented, nobody could afford to sleep, and Dr Ranke had just what they needed, 31 million Pervitin pills. Later, after Dunkirk, as the campaign entered its second phase of operations against Paris and the French reserve armies, Ranke made his own tour of the front distributing his own kind of resupply from a sack in his car. Where Colonel Hentsch of the General Staff had toured the Marne in 1914 spreading doubt and despondency, Staff Surgeon Ranke toured the front spreading synthetic certainty. Ohler makes a decent case that the Western campaign of 1940 was won through chemical warfare, with the unusual feature that the chemical was administered to friendly forces rather than the enemy.

(That said, Ohler’s military history is shaky on Dunkirk, where he uncritically relates the myth of the decisive halt order.)

The Wehrmacht was well satisfied, if increasingly twitchy; they ordered as much Pervitin again for each army group invading Russia.

Eukodal: Shooting up at the top

Ohler now switches focus. If the Pervitin experience got Germany high from below, what impact did drugs have on the men at the top? We’ve seen that, in an important sense, Nazism aimed to be like a drug itself; testimonies from the time are full of references to the “intoxication” of the great rallies and the leader’s speeches. And of course leadership is a drug. The motivational effects evoked by emotion are, in the end, biochemical. Nazi slang reflected this; as the war went on and got worse, the term for being cheered up by an interview with Hitler was a Betonspritze, a shot of concrete.

The relationship between dictator and subject can be seen as a drug relationship in more than one ways. For a start, there is the direct effect of the leader on the led. This also works the other way around, though. Ohler points out that Hitler’s own drug abuse began when he radically reduced his public speaking; denied the swing from stage-fright to performance high as a drug, he turned to other drugs. And how; his daily pharmacopeia included, during the winter of 1944, pervitin, barbiturates, intravenous oxycodone, cocaine, and testosterone all at once.

Addictiveness seems to have been an important and under-discussed feature of the tyrant’s personality – when he first received Eukodal, he was begging for more and drug-seeking by the end of the day, and Ohler quotes him rhapsodising to his ear, nose, and throat specialist about “that wonderful cocaine”. Perhaps that was why he was so keen on prohibition and lecturing those around about their health – was he aware of this trait and projecting? On one occasion, Hitler’s doctor miscalculated the dose and only gave him half his usual fix. Hitler was hysterical. The doctor gave him more. Hitler was delighted and pathetically grateful. Ohler glosses his meltdown in the bunker as, in part, withdrawal from opiates after the supply broke down. Certainly, he exhibited all the classic symptoms of opiate addiction, notably constipation. He also had several typical problems related to steroid use.

Morell: The dictator, his dealer, and occupied Europe

His doctor, Theodor Morell, had been best known as a sort of Dr Robert figure who served Weimar celebrity by keeping his prescribing pad open and his mouth shut, two services for which he was well paid. Ohler makes the fascinating point that, because Morell rarely gave Hitler the same shot twice, Hitler was unable to feel dependent on any particular molecule, but rather became addicted to his doctor. Looking at Morell and his bag of pills and potions, the only bag ever allowed into Hitler’s presence without search, we see much more about the Third Reich. Morell was getting hooked on Hitler. The dictator took up all his time; he was terrified of the Gestapo, and only one man could protect him from them; he couldn’t resist the financial possibilities being Hitler’s doctor gave him.

Morell managed to arrogate an aryanised drug factory in Czechoslovakia to himself and followed this up by claiming dibs on all the glands from the Ukraine’s slaughterhouses for his hormone preparations, escalating to the minister or even Hitler every time the military tried to grab back his rolling stock. Ohler quotes dozens of letters and telegrams of Morell’s badgering various officials for the glands. He had to have the glands. In a sense, he had become a vampire – sucking the blood out of the Ukraine and injecting it into the Nazi elite to keep them young. He even got a carve-out from the drug-approval regulations so that he would be allowed to sell anything he used successfully in his practice at the leader’s headquarters.

Like Morell, the German bourgeoisie didn’t like what it was getting into but couldn’t resist the opportunities, and the servitude it entered into was all the more servile for being the comfortable kind.

The closed system

A thought: every political party contains what Karl Popper would call a closed system of knowledge, rather as Lloyd George said each man has a House of Lords in his own head. This system incorporates the symbols of its identity and the tropes of its internal culture. The party also, however, must needs contain an open system of knowledge, in order to work with the institutions of the state and strategise against the opposition. If you want to achieve anything you must have one foot in both.

Today, all the parties seem to have been taken over by the closed system. So you have Kelvin Hopkins suggesting that perhaps Labour should make a priority of abolishing private health insurance, you have Liam Fox plotting to escape the EU’s ban on trade with China that only exists in his head. In Scotland, of course, it’s different – the closed system took over the country, not just a party.

I’m not sure where to go with this insight, but it doesn’t look like they’re trying to learn anything, does it?

I know, let’s put the Work Programme in charge of Brexit

So here’s the disgraced Liam Fox being all rah-rah about globalisation and free trade. You’d think in that case he’d be pretty keen on:

A single market without barriers—visible or invisible—giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous people.

Bigger than Japan. Bigger than the United States. On your doorstep. And with the Channel Tunnel to give you direct access to it.

It’s not a dream. It’s not a vision. It’s not some bureaucrat’s plan. It’s for real

People often talk about the distinction between Keynesianism and Keynes, but check out the radical fracture between Thatcher and Thatcherites. Anyway, it’s blindingly obvious that Liam Fox, especially, is negotiating with the EU in his head. We’re looking at people with a very different mental model of reality to nearly anyone else, thrashing around in Boydian incoherence as they come up against it.

So, given that there is no shortage of civil servants who have spent decades managing the UK’s involvement in the European Union, who’s briefing them? Let’s have a look.

The all-new Department for International Trade basically consists of the UK Trade & Investment directorate, carved out of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, plus some pieces from the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (i.e. BIS, DTI as was). That sounds like a good start. After all, UKTI has been assessed as being the best such agency in the developed world, which does rather raise the question as to why we’re fiddling with it and how anyone thinks the government somehow doesn’t do trade.

Its top officials are listed on its web page and profiled here by Civil Service World.

The boss, Sir Martin Donnelly, is the former BIS permanent secretary, was the FCO’s director of Europe and Globalisation, and before that, the deputy head of the Cabinet Office European Affairs Secretariat. I doubt it’s him who doesn’t know the difference between the customs union and the single market. Catherine Raines was the UKTI CEO, and before that ran AstraZeneca’s respiratory drugs supply chain among other things. John Alty is a career BIS official and the director of the Intellectual Property Office. Emma Squire was Sajid Javid’s private secretary at BIS, and before that, among other things, she ran the Treasury’s energy policy desk, the BIS nuclear desk, and the multilateral trade negotiating team.

I really doubt it’s any of these people. Not only is he evidently competent, Donnelly is actually doing two jobs, as he’s still got BEIS to run. Also, the ex-FCO people are technically on loan and the two departments are still arguing about whether they transfer over or not. Obviously, the FCO has vastly greater institutional heft in that fight. (Important CSW piece here. Interestingly, all snark aside, David Davis’ team seems quite a bit less flaky.)

Information about the new government’s SPADs is thin on the ground – neither CSW nor any of the PR firms has issued a full list like this one yet. DeSmogBlog names Fox’s press secretary David Goss, a Tory press officer. But that sounds a little bit meh.

What about this guy? Paul McComb rejoices in the title of Managing Director of Strategy UKTI and Transition Programme Director, and appears to have absolutely no relevant experience whatsoever. Better, he joins from the DWP, where he was Iain Duncan Smith’s principal private secretary and Deputy Director of Welfare Policy. Can it be…the guy who brought you Universal Credit? His LinkedIn page is here.

And that’s when I found something interesting.

Fascinatingly, a Paul McComb born in November 1967 appears in the register of companies as a director of Health and Employment Partnerships Ltd, private limited company 09431037. Astonishingly, H&EP Ltd. is actually up to date with its filings. It is classified under “Other business support services”, and it is worth pointing out here that it is not repeat not a charity or nonprofit of any kind. It is a plain-vanilla commercial company.

Is that the right McComb? The civil servant did his first university degree (Open, BSc Computer Science) in 1990. November ’67 guy would be 23 that year, which sounds a plausible age to take finals.

So what the balls is a health and employment partnership? The idea seems to be that ill people who are out of work have two problems, and dealing with them both might be sensible. But the combination of indifference, judgementalism, and relentless boosterism that characterised IDS’s – or shall we say Paul McComb’s – DWP can be counted on to take a reasonable idea and make it hellish. It doesn’t even take the length of this short blogpost to get from there to embedding Work Programme badgering into GP surgeries. So why do you think you’re anxious GET A JOB and JOB depressed OR WE’LL DOCK YOUR BENNIES then DON’T SWEAR WE HAVE A BEHAVIOUR POLICY WELL YOU SHOULD HAVE GOT THE LETTER?

And, it turns out, McComb and friends saw themselves implementing this on the other side of the table.

Social Finance has developed a new platform to co-commission health and employment services in partnership with a range of potential commissioning partners. HEP is a wholly-owned social purpose company whose mission is to work with commissioners, providers, and social investors to roll out best practice and innovative approaches to improving the wellbeing of people with health issues, through supporting them into employment.

“Social purpose company”; I like that. You might think that meant it was a company limited by guarantee not for profit. As we saw earlier, it isn’t. There’s more detail of what they were planning in this presentation; the whole idea was bound up with another wizard wheeze, social impact bonds. There’s a pilot project in Islington, funded out of Islington’s budget, which drew an angry demo – interestingly, another H&EP Ltd director is a top Islington Council official.

Is this really appropriate? It seems that people commissioning from this entity, with your money, are also directors of this entity and potentially beneficiaries of it.

Beyond that, I think this is really worrying. DWP was both the most ideologically warped department under the last government, and the least administratively effective. While McComb is settling into the DIT offices, aka a cupboard in the Foreign Office, the new minister, Damien Green, is in the process of shutting down IDS’s comedy crusades.

If there is one thing Britain’s trading relationships post-referendum don’t need, it’s the culture of Iain Duncan Smith’s DWP.

A clear statement about migration

I wrote this for Politico Europe, but they weren’t interested after much editing about. Apparently there were too many charts.

A clear statement about migration, says Theresa May of the vote for Brexit. The last thing you’ll find in the data is clarity. Or migration.

There has been a wealth of efforts to understand Brexit through data. But the most telling statistic in most of them is the R^2 value, the measure of how well a regression line fits the data. The higher the R^2, the more of the spread in your data you’ve managed to explain. Famously, although there is a faint correlation between some measures of migration and the vote, the R^2 value is pathetic – the data set is nothing but outliers.

It gets worse. Some analysts tried to save migration as an explanation by looking at the change in foreign-born population, rather than its level. This chart from The Economist is the classic statement. Perhaps the voters were shocked and bewildered by the speed of change, rather than its content, or something like that. Or maybe it’s a soft racist argument like Jacques Chirac’s Le bruit et l’odeur speech.


The problem is, again, the R^2 – without a very few extreme outliers, mostly very conservative small towns in the Fens with significant numbers of migrant farm workers, there wouldn’t be any effect at all, as Jo Mitchell points out here. You’ll notice they didn’t quote an R^2.

It gets still worse, though. Those outliers are dramatic, but they disappear when we control for the size of their population (from here). Small populations exaggerate all percentage changes; they show extremely high rates of immigration precisely because they have so few immigrants, and even if they voted Leave by a big margin, they had little impact on the contest because they have so few voters. We can deal with this by plotting votes rather than percentages – I’ve plotted the net Leave lead, i.e. Leave minus Remain, giving us each local authority’s contribution to the overall result.


As you can see, the Fenland outliers have vanished and so has the correlation. It makes sense; nobody ever won a general election in South Holland and the Deepings, a constituency that has been Conservative since 1922. Instead, a clutch of populous, Leave-leaning but contested, urban but not metropolitan districts emerge as the key battlegrounds. Dudley, for example, contributed 61,666 net Leave votes.

Let’s try something else. One argument – classically put by Daniel Davies in Vox – is that the problem is migration, but it’s internal migration. Post-industrial northern towns and the run-down seaside are emptying out as the young seek opportunity in the big city. It’s an elegant argument, with all the more emotional force because both Dan and I did just that ourselves. Unfortunately, the data doesn’t stand it up.


In fact, it’s the other way round, the correlation is quite strong, and the R^2 is at least less bad. This seems baffling; London is actually more populous now than it’s ever been, and deeply Remainy. Also, Cornwall is hardly the land of opportunity. The explanation may be age structure – young people flock into the big cities, retirees go the other way – but we’re already trying to save our hypothesis by fitting stories to an unconvincing data set. It needs a lot of nuance.

What about total population growth? Sorry, but that’s even less helpful.


We could try some other approach. The Right is convinced it’s all about immigration. The Left is convinced it was a massive protest vote about austerity. This is hard to test because there is no official data on total government spending by locality. Without it, we’d have to build our own private hell of cost-allocation problems. The Centre for Cities managed to create a snapshot for 2013-2014, but austerity is all about change in the fiscal stance. Also, a Keynesian would object that the allocation of the government deficit is what counts, so we’d need tax revenue data as well. And, anyway, it doesn’t tell us much.


There is, however, data for spending by local governments. A large fraction of the UK austerity programme consists of cuts to the Department for Communities and Local Government’s financing to town councils, so this ought to be a useful proxy for total spending.

We don’t find much correlation with the level of spending. But we do with the change from 2012-2016. Austerity, defined as the reduction in local government spending power, predicts about 20% of the variation in the net vote for Leave.


Another variable that does seem to have some predictive power is pay. The short-term change in median gross weekly earnings doesn’t seem to matter, but their level does, quite strongly. In fact, it’s better than austerity as a predictor; it’s the best one I found, with R^2 of 0.23. I ran the same analysis, using the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings data set, for the 25th, 75th, and 90th percentiles of earners, but I didn’t find anything interesting.


So, it looks like the immigration story is a bust. The internal migration one might be saved with a lot more nuance, and you know what they say about nuance? And a pretty direct leftwing story about austerity and poverty seems to work better than anything else. Until you actually look at poverty itself. The standard measure of poverty in Britain is the government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation, which sums up a gaggle of social evils as a handy score.

This is interesting because the IMD tells us what happened after the welfare state did its thing – it’s a measure of poverty and inequality after redistribution, while the ASHE is a measure of income as determined by the market, before taxes and transfer payments. And the IMD doesn’t seem to show any correlation at all.


Now this is interesting. A major economic and political orthodoxy throughout the world since the late 1980s has been that economic change, however jarring, is basically healthy because the winners can compensate the losers through the tax and transfer system. This doctrine was the source of legitimacy for the whole free-trade agenda – NAFTA in the States, Single Market completion and the Eurozone in Europe. And now it’s breaking down. Transfers don’t buy legitimacy, and maybe they never did.

For the UK, there’s an important and difficult problem here. The UK doesn’t do regional policy well, but redistribution of income between regions does happen to a very significant extent. Leaving aside the rows about the Barnett formula and Scottish oil, let’s just remember that 30% of all taxes paid in the UK are paid by Londoners, who make up 13% of the population. How much more are you going to ask them for?

Part of the problem is that redistribution must be done, but it must also be seen to be done, like justice. The UK, very unusually among federations, doesn’t really have an explicit political process to determine how government spending is divvied up. There’s no equivalent of a Länderfinanzausgleich. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising nobody thinks they have any control over it.

This also suggests another way economic unions fail. It’s a commonplace that the Eurozone is troubled because it lacks both a big discretionary budget and full labour mobility, unlike the United States or Germany. Therefore, bits of it can end up with an inappropriate real exchange rate and high unemployment for an indefinite period of time. But the UK doesn’t have any language barriers, and it does have a big federal budget. You could say the same for the US. However, bits of it still seem to end up stuck in a low-income equilibrium for decades.

Perhaps that internal migration hypothesis deserves another look? Perhaps, without explicit and forceful regional policy, some places just empty out? And does that remind anyone of Donald Trump?

A Brexit charts tip

Picking up on a tip from Jo Mitchell’s excellent post here, I replotted the data in the previous post using the Leave lead in votes, rather than percentage terms. This is, of course, appropriate because referendums aren’t counted in terms of parliamentary constituencies. Also, this means that tiny outlier constituencies – looking at you, South Holland and the Deepings – aren’t overrepresented relative to places like, well, Birmingham.

A couple of interesting things result. For a start, the R^2 value doubles to a whole 0.21! I win at data! Secondly, putting the Fenland outliers back in their box tells us something interesting and important, which is that austerity-battered northern and midland cities contributed hundreds of thousands of net Leave votes. Not only was winning in Boston, Lincolnshire probably impossible, it couldn’t possibly have helped in the light of relative failure in the West Midlands. There are lots of people in Birmingham. Labour’s Midlands problem is a thing.

Screenshot from 2016-07-28 22:39:52

Pulling London out of this doesn’t help much. R^2 nudges up by a hair. It further confirms, though, that you should stop obsessing about tiny places that voted weirdly, and worry about big ones that voted kind of normally but for the wrong side.

Screenshot from 2016-07-28 22:52:48

In that way, the Breferendum was far more like a parliamentary election than it seemed. Where it was decided, austerity does actually seem to have mattered quite a bit.

Something cheerful to take your mind off it

I spent Wobbly Weekend 2: The Wobbling, in part, going through the effects of a deceased relative. I guess it was the right weekend for it; it wasn’t going to depress me any more. Anyway, we found this envelope of briefing documents, dated 1963 at the earliest. A reminder, I think, that things could be a lot worse, although God knows how today’s political elite would have coped with the Cold War.

Peggy vs the Bomb

Context is here.

I didn’t know that the WRVS, at the time joined at the hip to the then Civil Defence system, set out to brief three million women, i.e. 20% or the titular one in five of the female population, with the standard Glasstone Effects of Nuclear Weapons spiel and basic advice (some of it not so basic) on protection against flash, blast, fire, and fallout.

But they did, and the strategy they pursued was pretty interesting – startlingly similar to a classic Alinskyite community-organising campaign, getting opinion leaders, serial volunteers, and people respected in the community (and my Auntie Peggy was all three if she was anything) to take the training course and then spread the message horizontally through their social networks. You wonder what the In campaign might have looked like if we’d adopted that strategy.

Also, I rather like the serif typography – very different to Calvert & Kinnear’s Transport/Rail Alphabet work, although the two are contemporaries. Obviously you wouldn’t expect women to go without serifs, not even in the event of nuclear war!

Leave: the biggest 419 e-mail ever

What worries me about the referendum is the trust. Every poll I can think of shows people on the Leave side claiming they trust no-one.

At the same time, Nigel Farage says smoking is just the best for your health and the official Vote Leave campaign issues maps suggesting Iraq and Syria are candidates for accession to the European Union, talks about the finances of the EU without counting the rebate Margaret Thatcher secured, and suggests we all need to be more like Albania.

I can see it – drive my cigarette boat over the Adriatic in a 500 horsepower blitz of seawash, slash some clown who lacked respect and toss his carcass in the harbour, dance like a wild peasant youth with a dark beauty – but I’m not seeing Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith keeping up.

There’s a reason why they come out with so much bullshit. There’s also a reason why they come out with so many outright lies. A couple of years back, people at Microsoft’s research lab were trying to work out why spam is so obvious. We’ve all wondered how anyone believes the Nigerian prince and his money are on the other end of the wire, or why anyone bothers trying to sell us drugs that are free on the NHS. The Microsoft researchers realised something important.

Even a leopard needs to sleep. Predators only have so many hours in the day, so they have to pick the prey that gives them the best chance of a feed. Spammers are looking for suckers, but you can’t pick those by looking at their e-mail address. The more time you waste on someone who’ll get wise, the less money you’re making and the more likely you are to get shopped to the police.

What you can do, though, is scare off all the other people. If you make your scam so excessive, so shameless, an outrageous camp striptease of a scam…well, you don’t need to worry about picking your marks any more, because the only people you’re talking to are the ones who weren’t paying attention. All the others have gone. It’s a kind of negative marketing – the point isn’t to get people in, it’s to put them off.

That’s where all this bullshit is coming from. The Leave campaign is the most fully realised exercise in negative marketing yet. The whole point is to show that they’re going to lie flat out to your face. It has to be obvious. They think you’re an idiot, a sucker, a bag of money on legs. You should see it as an insult to your intelligence.

In case you’ve wondered, there’s a reason why every Remain campaign message seems to come from people who define themselves by something they do, from scientists and trade unionists to midwives and skateboarders. We want you to think about what you do best, and act with the generosity of confidence. They want you baffled and scared by what you believe is your own mediocrity. Nothing else could put such a bunch of dullards in charge.

Let’s not be the country where 50% plus 1 vote chooses the Angus Steakhouse option.

Software is not a painting.

Two exhibitions on Saturday: Calder at the Tate and Big Bang Data at Somerset House.

There was something I didn’t like about both. Calder’s curators are apparently convinced that none of the motorised works can be allowed to run in case something terrible happens. Weirdly, they don’t draw the matching conclusion and weld the mobiles solid to stop them moving. But that’s a proper artwork and the other is a mere engineering artefact.

If it was, though, preservation by operation is exactly what would be advised. The National Museum of Computing folk will be more than delighted to fire up a 1940s computer and demonstrate it. People preserve whole, flying De Havilland Mosquitos by operation. Surely we could look after a hobbyist electric motor and some simple belt drives. But instead, a lot of them are hung against a wall as if they were paintings, so you can’t even reason about how they would move if they were allowed to.

Over at Big Bang Data, there’s a related problem. A lot of the projects on view are pretty crap if you can’t interact with them. A lot of the ones you can interact with are broken, or just agonisingly slow. The issue here is that the kind of data visualisation projects they want to treat as artworks just aren’t. They are tools, or games, or journalistic projects. As tools or indeed as games, they are closer to dance than painting; what happens, happens afresh at every performance. In this case, it is the user who interprets the original work. How are you meant to exhibit a tool for deliberative budgeting developed by Podemos’ geek wing without demonstrating it?

This means, however, that it damn well better work. Instead, a lot of them were very clearly taken to the point of a demo and some screenshots, and no further. They ended up, therefore, nailed to a gallery wall, and neither optimised to the point of being acceptable as tools or games, or taken up and used to pursue a story as journalism.

I wonder if there is a question of grant-making here. If the funder pays out when something like a painting is delivered, that’s what they will get, and the artist will already be working on the next pitch a while before the demo is finished or rather “finished”.

Finally, in a show full of teenagers gagging for Snowden, what was the app that drew the most attention and engagement? FixMyStreet, operational for nine years so far, attributed to the late style works of the Master of Cambridge, Chris Lightfoot, and his students Anna Powell Smith and Matthew Somerville. People clustered around it with real enthusiasm.

#ischanging: the KEEP CALM of the future 2010s revival

Has anyone else noticed all the signs of change? Of course, it’s terrible. None of us is getting any younger.

That isn’t quite what I mean, though. I mean signs, signage, graphic design in the public realm. There are a hell of a lot around that say something like X – it could be benefits, refuse collection, Tate Modern – “is changing”. Bam. Full stop, an end stop heavy enough to bury any possible conversation. #ischanging pisses me off. I have the impression they appeared around 2011-2012, and I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think they will be a visual icon of the Cameron years, rather like KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON is for the Second World War.

So, these are signs. What is signified? Nothing much; after all they never say how it is changing, or what about it is changing, or why it is changing, or why I should care, or what I should do?

You could compare the platonic ideal of a public information campaign, the British government’s AIDS ads. That told you that you should be scared, why you should care, that some people were especially endangered but everyone was affected, and what you should do about it. It was complete in itself, fully utilising both the reach and the richness of television.

On the other hand, #ischanging doesn’t tell you why you should care, what is changing, or what you should do about it. It’s just visual noise, getting in the way. In that sense, it’s very close to the terrorist alert levels of the Bush years, or indeed the UK one that’s always on Black Special. You are asked to be vaguely anxious, but you aren’t informed of anything, and there are no actions-on the alert that need doing.


KEEP CALM, of course, was meant to do the opposite; inspire confidence in a context where everyone knew damn well what they should be doing and wouldn’t need telling they needed to care. Interestingly, it was also explicitly a message from the Government, issued nationally in the same format. #ischanging drips out from a thousand councils and quangos, vastly diverse in design, united in the refusal of responsibility.

Why do they do this? Well, there’s such a thing as a performative speech act. The public authorities that put up #ischanging signs usually have a legal duty to inform the public, and sometimes also to consult us. Once they go up, the duty to inform is discharged although no information has actually been communicated. The sign is a placeholder for actual content. This is handy when the changes are so complicated they defy summary, so controversial any actual discussion would get out of hand, or just so damn depressing because if something #ischanging you bet #ischanging for the worse.

And once you’ve had your chance to realise it means you and you’ve got to burrow into some awful pile of PDFs, well, it’s your fault isn’t it? You were informed and it’s your responsibility. Tough.

Paxman is Ziggy Stardust.

This BBC interview between Jeremy Paxman and David Bowie has gone viral, and with good reason. Partly this is because Bowie’s remarks about the Internet were prophetic and funny. But it is also fascinating for what it shows us about Paxman.

It is only too obvious that Paxman knew nothing, literally nothing, of what he was saying. Everything he says is comically wrong, and in the same silly-clever soft reactionary way that betrays he hadn’t thought about it much. At best, he had memorised some talking points – Bowie: reinvention, the Internet: just another delivery mechanism, or tiresome kids spraffing off – at worst he just responded to keywords. In fact, there is a moment in the video where he seems to falter and glances downwards, as if he was referring to a crib sheet. He has nothing constructive to offer, and nothing destructive that wasn’t glib cliché even in 2000.

Of course, this doesn’t mean for a moment that he is going to drop the Manningham-Buller Bullying-Manner act. What this shows us is that the Paxman persona has about as much to do with reality as Ziggy Stardust. His confidence isn’t drawn from mastery of his brief, but rather, from out of his backside. It is a style trope, a performance of scepticism, rationality, and authority rather than the real things. We are seeing a confrontation, or better, a collaboration between two great performers, rather in the way that rodeo judges give points to both the bull and the rider.

But the authentic fake here is Paxman. Bowie’s remarks during the interview about the way the Internet would transform the nature of celebrity and the relationship between the audience and the artist were of course right, but his manner is even more so. He is very obviously fascinated by the project, irrationally certain it was going to work, and willing to burn money by the sack. Paxman is a television personality, Bowie has become a geek, over-enthusiastic, obsessive, hyper-informed.

And of course this is the future we’re swimming in. Nothing gets across better than hyper-engagement and obsessive enthusiasm, for good or ill. Cool detachment is out, has been for a decade. Of course you can always fake this, but then authenticity is always a style trope. Who better to make the point?