May 2009

Ritchie Downey Holmes?

I like Robert Downey, Jr. I think he’s a genuinely fine actor though admittedly it’s been difficult to discern that amidst the CGI and explosions of recent movies.

I adore Sherlock Holmes. For all the flaws, they are ripping yarns and feature a truly engaging protagonist.

And although everything he’s done since has been mind-numbingly awful, I quite enjoyed Guy Ritchie’s first two feature films.

But I had real doubts that anything good could come from combining the three. If the trailer is anything to go by (and it may not be), I was sadly right about that.

Witness Sherlock Holmes as Action Hero and Ladies’ Man. Ouch indeed.

Tip o’ the hat to Chicken Yoghurt.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Media » Video, Opinion

May 2009

Where's Scully when you need her?

Via email from Gyrus

One of the newest energy lobbyists claims he has the answer to climate change: spaceships.

The government has in its possession “extraterrestrial vehicles,” lobbyist Stephen Bassett said. As in flying saucers.

Imagine the power source, he said, behind a 30-foot wide saucer that weighs the same as a tractor-trailer yet hurtles through galaxies at 20,000 miles per hour.

“What is the energy system operating that craft?” Bassett said. “They’re not burning kerosene.”

He added, “It eliminates oil. It eliminates coal. If it’s as good as we think it is, it transforms everything.”

Bassett certainly makes more sense than David Bellamy, for instance. So let’s not discount him entirely. Sadly though, he’s being overly-optimistic if he thinks E.T. will help prevent Climate Change. After all, the space-aliens have been manipulating human culture for thousands of years now precisely in order to create a civilisation that would pump vast quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Once it’s enough like their home planet, they’ll start Phase 2. And yes, that is a cookbook.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

May 2009

Movie annual

Almost a year ago, I succumbed to one of those little blog memes that involves listing a bunch of your favourite stuff. In that case it was choosing an album for each year of your life. Silly but diverting, and a bit of fun. Albeit a geekish kind of fun. And prone to throwing up some bizarre mind-benders. Strangeways, Here We Come or Sign ‘O’ The Times…? The very idea of trying to compare those two albums! So when all’s said and done, you go for the one that reminds you of that summer in Greece. And you slip a different Smiths album in somewhere else.

Anyhoo, an email arrived recently from Mahalia. It appears to have taken a year for someone to make the radical imaginative leap of substituting the word “album” with “movie”.

Read the rest of this entry »

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May 2009

Happy birthday, Mr. Eno

Some birthdays this week. My sister, the lovely Citizen S, the reverend Jim Jones, Andrew Eldritch, Dante Alighieri, Tim Roth, Thomas Gainsborough and both Paul Thompson and Brian Eno of Roxy Music. Happy birthday one and all! (with the possible exception of Jim Jones).

The first track from one of my favourite albums of all time.
Not your standard “video posted to a blog”, mind.

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May 2009

Oh. And another thing…

A couple of follow-ups regarding the farrago of sordid pilfering that is the British MP expenses scandal.

Firstly, it’s well worth pointing out that this kind of corruption isn’t unique to Britain. And you don’t need to look to West Africa or Southeast Asia for other examples. Here in Ireland, it’s not much more than a year since our Taoiseach (that’s Prime Minister to you, Johnny Foreigner) had to step down thanks to his own series of “accountancy mishaps”. Who could have imagined, when the Mahon Tribunal started to investigate petty corruption in local politics, that Bertie Ahern himself would come unstuck?

Secret bank accounts and 50 grand cash “donations” that end up as “loans” to Bertie’s mother-in-law. All presented against the backdrop of his strangely selective memory. And the strangely selective memory of everyone around him. He was absolutely certain he hadn’t accepted 50 thousand pounds sterling in cash from a group of businessmen in Manchester. Until it became clear that he had. Then, suddenly, he recalls the money — but it was a private loan between friends to help him out of a bit of a bad patch financially. If a friend of mine loaned me £50k, I like to think I’d have the good grace to remember it.

More than that, Bertie provided us with our very own “Hazel Blears and the 13 grand cheque” moment during his final days in power. At the very same time he was explaining to the nurses that their demands for a 10% pay increase were unrealistic, he was awarding himself a 14% increase. When a journalist wondered if it wouldn’t be a nice gesture of solidarity for him to forego his additional €38,000 (that’s a pay hike higher than the average national wage) he dismissed the idea as “tokenism”.

When the political classes can dash off cheques for £13k despite not really believing they owe the money in the first place, or can imply that 38 grand is a token sum of money, it might be a hint — and I’m just speculating here — but it might be hint that something is wrong. That far from the public becoming disengaged from politics, that politicians have become disengaged from the public.

Which, when you’re looking at the world from behind a moat, is always going to be a danger.

[Personal note: I paid significant amounts of tax into the British treasury during the 15 years I was based there. I’m not just some foreign agitator commenting from afar… I’m also wondering where Oliver Letwin gets off spending my money on his goddamn tennis court]

Rob makes a good counterpoint over at his place. Isn’t this all a bit of a distraction, he wonders in paraphrase, from the rather more important point that the gap between the richest and poorest in Britain has increased significantly of late? Even during the economic good times, “the real incomes of the poorest 10% of the population fell and those of the wealthiest 10% rose”. Isn’t “puppy-killer” Letwin’s two thousand quid tennis court repair, or Straw’s claim for unpaid taxes, kind of trivial next to that revelation? And shouldn’t we, the media and — gasp! — even the politicians be concentrating on that?

It’s a fair point well made. But I wonder if it really gets to the heart of the issue? Isn’t it just possible that a political class so willing to enrich themselves at the expense of the public might be part of that wider problem? David Cameron is leader of the opposition. He’s a very wealthy man from a very privileged background. His constituency is an hour from London by train… he lives just outside Oxford. So why does he even need “a second home” in London? One that he’s claimed over £80 thousand of public money to help pay for?

Yes, we know it’s “within the rules”. I’m not saying it’s not. But when you set your own rules of conduct, then pretty much everything you do is within the rules, right? Like a mafia boss insisting the murder he committed shouldn’t be punished because it was carried out according to the rules laid down by the Cosa Nostra code.

Cameron claims to believe that the public sector is wasteful. I can only assume he’s basing his opinion on a glance at his own finances. Within the rules or not, if the man had any sort of commitment to his own political beliefs — any kind of personal integrity — then he would have taken a look at that second-home allowance of his a long time ago. He’d have wondered if maybe the taxpayer wouldn’t be better served by him taking the train in from Oxford instead?

In some (rather more transparent) democracies, the state commissions a block of small but functional apartments for MPs to use while parliament is in session. The state maintains the place and the MPs live there rent-free. The politicians are allowed — of course — to buy their own place. Even start their own little property portfolio should they wish. But, like the rest of us, they have to dip into their own pocket for that.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

May 2009

Tax evaders, benefit cheats, British MPs

And the question is: “Name three types of people who regularly steal public money?”

It’s been a quite extraordinary few weeks in British politics. A seemingly endless series of stories has emerged revealing how British MPs have been ruthlessly and systematically exploiting the expenses system in order to syphon public money into their own pockets. Some appear to have spent as much time fiddling their expenses as they have representing their constituents… buying and renovating properties with public money and then selling them on and pocketing the (tax-free) profit. A practice so common they had a name for it… “flipping” they called it.

Completing the phrase with “… the finger at the proles” would hardly be an unfair characterisation of what was going on.

Oliver Letwin: multi-millionaire, director of N.M. Rothschild & Sons, puppy-killer, conservative MP and one of the key architects of the tory plans to slash public service spending when they come into power. Claimed over £2,000 of public money to fix a leaky pipe under his tennis court. You’d really think one of the perks of being a millionaire merchant banker would be that you didn’t have to get your hands grubby nicking money from the till? Wouldn’t you? Still, I guess he can close a hospital ward once he gets into power… he’ll save a lot more than the two grand his tennis court works bill cost the taxpayer. In Letwin’s world, that’s value for money.

One can only assume that Rothschild don’t have quite so liberal an expenses system. Strange, huh? Or maybe they do, but his first instinct was to raid the national treasury rather than his corporation. Either way it’s revealing.

It must make all those firemen, nurses and teachers so angry… they have to pay for repairs to their tennis courts out of their own pockets. And heaven forbid the chandeliers need cleaning!

Jack Straw: textbook example of the corrupting effect of power, from dedicated socialist to viciously reactionary supporter of Blairism, new labour MP and current Minister for Justice. While we rightly hold Letwin in contempt for his sordid pilfering, we can at least assume that there really was a tennis court and a leaking pipe. Jack Straw, on the other hand, claimed £1,500 for Council Tax he never paid. Seriously folks, isn’t that just outright theft? Why are we pussy-footing around this? And how come MPs can claim their taxes back on expenses anyhow? Who decided on that rule? Oh yeah… that’s right…

It’s interesting how many MPs have paid back the dodgiest of their expenses since discovering this was all going to become public. All the while maintaining they’ve done nothing wrong in the first place and they don’t actually have to pay them back, but they will all the same and they would have paid them back even if they weren’t going to be made public, honest. When Jack Straw was home secretary back in 2000 he introduced a series of tough new measures to “crack down on benefit cheats”. I don’t hear him calling for the Serious Fraud Office to get involved in this little bit of nest-lining. When questioned about this fifteen hundred quid he apparently responded; “Accountancy does not appear to be my strongest suit.” I wonder how that defence would work for the average “benefit cheat”.

He once wanted to be Chancellor of the Exchequer you know?

Douglas Hogg: 3rd Viscount Hailsham, voted “Least Likely to Ever Be Known As A Man of The People” at Eton (a great honour for him), lives on a country estate in a castle* called Kettleburgh Hall, believes the public should cover the bills. And what bills they are!

It’s worth mentioning that Hogg denies ever having claimed over two grand to have the moat around Kettleburgh Hall cleaned. You read that right. All the same, it appears on an expense claim which was paid, and he quickly “paid it back” once he learned this would all become public knowledge. But he never claimed it, see?

No. Neither do I.

He also denies that the public is paying for at least one full-time member of staff at Kettleburgh Hall, or that the taxpayer is being generous enough to cover the cost of keeping his grand piano in tune. But they appear on his expenses claim… and he’s paid them back now. They live in a different world, don’t they?

Elliot Morley: First to be suspended. I say “first” with a certain note of hope and expectation. Ex-minister under Blair, strongly in favour of the Iraq War, nuclear stuff (submarines, power stations) and tougher ‘anti-terrorism’ measures. Nice to animals though. Mind you, his respect for living creatures doesn’t seem to stretch quite so far as those who pay his wages; British people.

Of the Jack Straw school of expense fiddling (claim for stuff you’ve never even paid for). But in Morley’s case, he was claiming mortgage payments on expenses for 18 months after the mortgage had ended. That’s £16,000 over a year and a half. You’d think he might have noticed something? I know they get paid alot, and clearly they find it difficult to keep track of all that money, but wouldn’t he have noticed an extra £900 per month just appearing in his account? No?

Well, “sloppy accounting”, says Morley. Shades of Jack Straw once again. It’s lucky these guys don’t have to deal with large sums of money as part of their job or anything. Anyway, Morley has apologised and he’s paid back the sixteen grand. Good to know he still had it lying around.

Andrew Mackay: First tory resignation of the scandal — will he be the last? Let’s hope not. Was a parliamentary aide to tory leader, David Cameron, now just a backbench MP. Still got access to those expenses forms, then. Turns out he was claiming for mortgage payments on two separate properties. Uh-huh, that’s right, the taxpayer was buying this guy two houses. Just to remind ourselves, he was taking home an MPs salary of £63,291. And that’s the minimum… I assume he got a bump for being Cameron’s aide, and whatever else he brings in on the side. But at a minimum he’s earning close to three times the national average wage.

Yet he’s still spending his time working out how to get the public to buy him two houses on expenses. Other than MPs, who else could be discovered surreptitiously funnelling their employers money into their own bank-accounts and not get fired? And not get arrested?

Mackay had to know that claiming a “second home allowance” on two homes not only managed to contravene the most lax set of expenses rules ever devised (impressive in a way), but was just wrong. From any moral or ethical standpoint you choose. How can he possibly remain an MP? Why the hell isn’t he being questioned by police?

Benefit cheats and embezzelers don’t generally get to escape criminal sanction by saying “sorry I’ll pay it back” when caught.

Shahid Malik: biggest claimant of all, junior justice minister, tax-dodger, landlord, safe to say not a traditional socialist. We could talk about the fact that this guy claimed more than any other MP in 2007 and racked up an astonishing £66,827 in “second home allowances” over three years (all the while renting out his “first home”). We could talk about the publicly-funded home-cinema system (apparently those stingy taxpayers would only cover half the £2,500 cost). But what caught my eye was the £65 he got the public to cough up for his court summons for non-payment of council tax.

Incredible when you think about it. Jack Straw, Minister for Justice, claiming back taxes he never paid. On expenses. Meanwhile a junior minister in his department is not only failing to pay his taxes but is getting the public to cough up for the penalties. Justice is blind. And a bad accountant to boot.

He’s agreed to pay back the £65 though. No word yet on the £1,250 for the home cinema system.

Hazel Blears: delusions of being Britain’s second female Prime Minister, objectively the most irritating woman on the planet (which makes her objectively the second most irritating person… Jay Leno just pipping her to first place), recently appeared to diss the Prime Minister by scornfully writing “YouTube if you want to. But it’s no substitute for knocking on doors or setting up a stall in the town centre”. Given that the British Prime Minister and Barack Obama are the only two politicians who’ve been in the media recently for their use of YouTube, Blears seems to be suggesting that the best use of the British PM and US president’s time is setting up a stalls in Scunthorpe or Bakersfield?

And maybe it is. Anything that reduces the number of times I see Gordon Brown’s face on my screen can’t be entirely bad, after all.

But for the first time in her entire political career — perhaps her entire life — Hazel has felt the prod of conscience. In a bewildering recent interview with George Monbiot, Blears came across as having absolutely no self-awareness whatsoever. None at all. It was a little unsettling.

And that utter lack of self-awareness was evident again when — upon hearing that her expenses might become public knowledge — she decided to wave around a personal cheque for the pesky £13,332 of capital gains tax she’d avoided by “flipping” her second home just before selling it for a healthy profit. Not that she’d done anything wrong, you understand? It was all legal and above board. But she’s paying back anyway. Now that we all know about it. And here’s the cheque to prove it.

As has been pointed out, that £13k represents “nearly three years of the state pension”. But Blears saw fit to wave it around on TV and discuss it as though it were something trivial.

That’s why I’ve taken this personal decision to send this cheque which is the amount that would have been paid had it been liable. Which it wasn’t. But so what?— Hazel “Loadsamoney” Blears

Salt of the earth, she ain’t. Thirteen grand? But so what, indeed.

David Cameron: Leader of the tory party, voted “Least Likely to be Held to Account for Minor Criminal Offences Because of How Upper Class He Is” at Eton. And again at Oxford. Deserves a slap, quite frankly.

The glorious leader of Her Majesty’s oppostion has claimed £82,450 over five years. On top of his salary. And on top of being really really rich already.

I realise this is naive of me, but wouldn’t you imagine that when very wealthy people enter public service they might consider using that wealth to minimise their cost to the taxpayer? It’d demonstrate… I don’t know… principles or something? I know, I know. Naive.

Still, he’s paying back £680 of the eighty-two thousand. Not that he’s done anything wrong. Not that he didn’t deserve every single penny of that £680. He bloody well did, you know! But he’s giving the British taxpayer a discount on his services.

Now that they’ve found out how much he’s charging.

* I’m not 100% sure of the technical definition but in my book, if it’s got a moat then it’s a castle.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

May 2009

Financial crisis as symptom

Regular readers will know by now that I have some pretty definite views about the nature of capitalism and the society we have built from it. Views that are still quite a bit outside the mainstream (although it probably bears mentioning that the mainstream has begun its long, inexorable drift in my direction).

A few months ago I had a couple of meetings with an advisor / strategist for a very large financial institution. The credit crunch had just kicked off and mass panic was ensuing. At least, on the news it was. I myself never once saw anyone actively freaking out… not even the financial institution guy, and he was exactly the sort of person who was supposed to be screaming “Sell! Sell! For the love of God, Sell!” down the phone at some poor bugger in the midst of a heart-attack.

But instead he was taking leisurely lunches-slash-dinner-and-drinks with people like me in expensive Dublin restaurants. All in the interests of “canvassing alternative opinions”. Specifically, he was interested in my take on resource depletion / peak oil and what role — if any — it was playing in the current economic downturn.

I told him I had two responses. The first was that there was little or no link between the two. Simple, straight-forward and in the world of five-year futures and seven-year long-terms, undoubtedly true. Don’t get me wrong, there’s speculation to be done on the role that high oil prices may have played in accelerating the collapse, or upon the negative influence that continuing high prices will undoubtedly have upon the various infrastructure projects that governments have proposed as economic bail-outs. But the fact remains that this particular financial kerfuffle would be happening even if peak oil were not underway at this very moment (as I believe it is).

My second response was, I told him, a good deal more abstract. And it demanded a certain effort on his part. He’d read my thesis though, so was no stranger to the kind of effort I was talking about.

This more abstract response involved viewing the global financial system as one part of a wider ecology of systems. Of recognising economics as the imperfect model of reality that it is. And of getting his head around strange notions like the idea that phenomena as disparate as cancer, psychosis and unsustainability might actually be manifestations of a common tendency within complex systems. That they are, in a sense, the same phenomena. A disease of The Complex System, so to speak. And you can only begin to see this, and realise its significance, when you start viewing the world in terms of the network of interconnecting complex systems — the ecology of mind — that it is.

Pretty much the moment you’ve got your perception atuned to the ecology of mind idea, it becomes staggeringly obvious that the current financial collapse is properly viewed as a symptom of this systemic unsustainability / collective psychosis. It’s “an episode”. A dramatic one no doubt, and maybe it’s even the one that’ll deal the knock-out blow… the one where we whack our collective head against the metaphorical sink on that final plunge to the floor. But if it’s not, then it’s still a symptom of the sickness that will eventually kill western civilisation. The world of five-year futures and seven-year long-terms ignores that fact at its peril.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

May 2009


In which I lament, though acknowledge, the need for some level of authoritarianism.

For the past couple of years, a property developer has been applying to build a waste incinerator within sight of my home. Needless to say, I gave generously to the campaign against the Energy Recovery Facility (euphemism is required if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them, as someone once observed). I didn’t get actively involved in the campaign however. For two specific reasons. Firstly, I was quite busy with other stuff. Secondly, I was confident that the planning application would be turned down. Which is not to say that the campaign didn’t need funding (planning applications need to be actively challenged, and even if your challenge is likely to be a success, it still requires time, effort and resources).

And as far as I could make out, that success was pretty much guaranteed. There wasn’t a single local councillor in favour of the plan, and every one of the local TDs and senators openly opposed it. As everyone knows, land rights and planning are at the very heart of local politics in Ireland. But with memories of the Mahon tribunal still fresh (it’s still technically in session, I believe), it’d be a complete fool who’d pass brown envelopes around a controversial project like this. And with bribery not an option just now, the decision had to be made on the merits of the project. As such, it was never going to pass. You could prove that on an etch-a-sketch, as the man said.

Firstly the location was absurd. Genuinely off-the-wall, could-only-possibly-have-been-considered-for-financial-reasons, absurd. The plan was to build the thing on top of one of the highest hills in the Rathcoole area. Rathcoole is right on the southwest edge of Dublin city. For a significant chunk of the year, the prevailing wind in Ireland comes from the southwest. Seriously, that one fact alone should tell you all you need to know about the project.

And there’s so much more. The road that would feed the incinerator is already one of the most congested commuter routes in the country. There’s a project underway to bring Dublin’s light rail system further out this direction specifically to reduce the amount of traffic on that road. You just won’t find anyone on the local planning board who’ll vote in favour of more traffic on the N7. Not without the aid of an extra-large brown envelope.

But on top of all that, it turns out the developer is an out-of-town consortium. And this is commuter belt. Prime land from a development standpoint. Luxury golf hotels and expensive residential developments. Property values are high, but dropping like everywhere else, and existing developers — those with large plots of land in the area and long-standing relationships with local politicians — don’t want to see those values drop further thanks to the presence of an incinerator.

So for those three reasons, it realistically stood no chance. But interestingly, all three of those objections are rooted, to varying degrees, in NIMBYism.

Not In My Back Yard (ism)

My own objection to the incinerator, in contrast, was based on a fourth reason; one that applies to all waste incinerators whatever their location. So even if positioned in what’s demonstrated to be the best location for such a facility, even if the local infrastructure can take the pressure and local property values positively soar as a result… even then, I think generating electricity from burning waste is a staggeringly bad idea.

In fact, it’s difficult for me to get across just how bad an idea I think it is without straying perilously close to caricature. To not merely create an industry that generates profit from burning waste, but suggest we rely upon that industry to provide basic services, is utterly psychotic. I can think of other words for it, but that’s the least rude. It is, just like any decision to build new nuclear power stations is, a statement to the effect that we are incapable or unwilling to act rationally in pursuit of a sustainable society and have decided, instead, to be active participants in a spectacular collapse.

By and large we are not aware that’s the statement we’re making, of course. A big bunch of unconscious processes, dontchaknow.

All the same, in the case of the Rathcoole incinerator, it is a happy coincidence that the objections of the local population were in accord with the Greater Good (if, as I’ve come to do, we define the “Greater Good” as those actions and decisions that promote a transition towards sustainability involving the least possible suffering). But what if they weren’t? What happens when the objections of the local population become obstacles towards that Greater Good? Do we accept that people have the right to continue acting unsustainably even if that behaviour dooms us all to the same fate? Do we allow the psychotic to thrash about, damaging himself and everyone around him? Or do we accept the need for restraint? And do we accept that need even when the psychotic is ourself?

Clearly we do accept that need. We just haven’t learnt to identify western consumerism as the huge episode of self-harm that it is.

In defence of NIMBYism, Merrick has this to say…

NIMBYism, like preaching to the converted, is an underrated activity.

To decry NIMBYs is absurd. We all have more concern for the things that affect our personal lives, we all care more about the things we see every day.

A friend of mine was campaigning against some nonsense from his council and knocked on doors in his street. One person said ‘you know your problem, you think you can change the world’.

My friend replied, ‘how big’s your world? Our street is a pretty big part of it. We can change that. If everyone did the same, then in the bigger sense we would change the world, too’.

I appreciate the point being made. It’s the essence of all direct action politics in fact. But the central problem remains… this is only a valid strategy if we assume that the local concerns of individuals aren’t in contradiction with the needs of society as a whole. When everyone objects to an incinerator being built on their (metaphorical) street, then no incinerators get built and we can chalk one up for NIMBYism. But when nobody wants their view obstructed by wind farms… or nobody wants to abandon the luxury of their private car…

What then? I don’t accept that the demands of the masses; whether expressed democratically through the ballot box, or economically through their choice of soap powder; should be considered an adequate guide for our collective action. Especially when those demands can be shown to be reckless and destructive. A hundred years ago we had, in a sense, the luxury of basing our decisions upon ideological concerns. Our desires and demands could shape our behaviour because our environment could absorb anything we had the power to do. That’s just not the case any more. Thanks to technology and population growth, we have bumped up against the limits.

And because of this, it simply doesn’t matter what we want to do anymore. Our options have been curtailed, but we don’t quite appreciate this yet. Environmental limits will impose certain courses of action upon us. And these limits cannot be shifted by voting, nor by the most well-organised direct action campaign. We have reached the point where there are definite right and wrong ways to act, assuming our goal is anything remotely like the “Greater Good” I defined earlier.

Just as it is absurd to “decry NIMBYism” as a general principle (and it is absurd; I never suggested that, Merrick), so it’s absurd to assume it will always be a force pushing in the right direction. And when it pushes us further towards the brink…?

… well … as I said earlier… “in which I lament, though acknowledge, the need for some level of authoritarianism”.

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