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Jan 2013

Just checking in

Hey folks. Just a quick post to let you know that I’ve not become fed up with blogging so soon into the new year. It’s just the fact that almost as soon as I pledged to post more frequently, I suddenly secured a work contract that has me snowed under. Which is a good thing from my perspective, even if it does mean I’m neglecting you, dear reader. Not to worry though, it’s a relatively short-term contract, so I’ll be back before too long. In the meantime I’ll try to add some short posts. Mostly links to interesting stuff elsewhere, I suspect.

Today, for example, my article on WB Yeats has come round again over at On This Deity (the relentless march of time keeps the calendar spinning). If you’ve not read it before, you can check it out now.

Meanwhile, both here in Ireland and across the sea in Britain, the hyping of shale gas continues apace. “Shale gas could be worth billions!” says a man with a vested interest in over-estimating the worth of shale gas. Let’s not mince words, the exploitation of shale gas could end up being one of the most environmentally damaging processes seen on these islands since the clear-cutting of the old forests between 2500 and 500BC. And the notion that it’s a case of “shale gas or coal” is just a nonsense. Yes, renewable energy systems may be slightly more expensive from a financial standpoint, but measuring environmental degradation in terms of an arbitrary monetary system is literally psychotic. As Kurt Vonnegut pointed out, “we could have saved it, but we were too damned cheap.”

A quick “congratulations” to Novak Djokovic, world number one tennis player and the first man to win three Australian Open championships in a row in the professional era. Sorry British / Scottish pals, but Djokovic thoroughly deserved his victory and there’s no shame in coming second to such an incredible player. Now, let’s look forward to the French Open.

Finally I’ll leave you with a video. It’s been uploaded by SWP Ireland (but don’t let that put you off). Feel free to watch the whole thing on YouTube, but it’s the short speech by Vincent Browne (Ireland’s sanest political commentator) which starts about 18 and a half minutes in that I’m linking to. Most of it will be familiar to those of you who have read Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, but it’s a worthwhile listen all the same.

“Common sense” in the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.- Albert Einstein

Have a good day y’all.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Media » Video, Opinion

Jan 2013

The best we can do?

I didn’t hear the statement first hand, but I’m reliably informed that last Thursday on BBC Radio 4 a Tory MP (Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire) lamented the pitiful remuneration that he and his colleagues receive for the sterling work they’re doing to further impoverish Britain. By choosing a life of public service, he claims that MPs risk “foregoing Christmas presents for their children”. The basic salary for a member of the UK parliament is £65,738 (almost €80k). They also – as we now know in some detail – have a pretty generous expense account should that £65k prove insufficient. And their pension package is second-to-none.

Andrew Bridgen

Andrew “the poor are too rich
and the rich too poor” Bridgen MP

Now, let’s analyse that statement. The average salary in the UK is a little under £30k (approx €35k). Most of the people drawing that salary don’t have an expense account, generous or otherwise. And almost none of them have a pension plan that comes anywhere close to that of an MP. This leads us to one of three conclusions…

  1. The vast majority of people in the UK don’t get Christmas presents for their children (thank god for Santa, eh Mr. Bridgen?)
  2. The children of MPs either require or deserve more expensive gifts than the children of the plebs.
  3. Andrew Bridgen MP, and those other MPs for whom he is speaking, are terrible at managing their money and/or have more important things to spend 65 grand on than their children.

Alternatively, I suppose he could just be lying.

Of course, when taken out of context, Bridgen’s statement seems to paint him as an over-privileged, out-of-touch tosser of the first order. However, when placed into the proper context things look somewhat different. Because you see, his statement came the same week as his party carried out a singularly vicious attack on the living standards of the poorest Britons. In that context Bridgen’s statement no longer paints him as an out-of-touch tosser. In that context, his statement paints him as an evil bastard.

Oh, and don’t for a moment think he’s alone in this. Though other MPs might have the intelligence (and/or instinct for self-preservation) to refrain from making such offensive and crass statements in the national media; in private a large majority of them seem to concur with Bridgen. The majority of sitting MPs, when guaranteed anonymity, suggest that they deserve a pay-rise of more than 30%. Once again, let’s not forget this is against a backdrop of the majority of them voting for a cut (in real terms) of the income of those at the very bottom of society.

Those poor MPs

At the same time as Bridgen is whining about the terrible sacrifice he’s making by earning more than twice the national average (plus expenses), a magazine has published a list of British MPs earnings from the Gulf region. Gordon Brown pocketed a tidy quarter million dollars from his four speeches in the region in 2012. David Miliband fared less well with his paltry $230k. And the list goes on. These are sitting MPs remember… this is what they’re picking up despite the pesky distractions of public service.

There are people – and I’m sure Andrew Bridgen MP is one of them – who point to this as evidence that MPs are underpaid (“look how much we could be making…!”). But the notion that David Miliband would be getting paid $100k to give a speech in the Emirates if he wasn’t a prominent British MP is beyond absurd. Also, my mischievous side would like to point out to Bridgen that if he was any good at being an MP he’d probably be getting paid lots to give speeches in Kuwait along with the rest of them. Then his kids could have that diamond-encrusted Playstation they so clearly deserve. Turns out though, Bridgen just isn’t good enough to merit such “performance-related bonuses”. Which I guess means that as well as being an evil bastard and an over-privileged, out-of-touch tosser, he also happens to be bloody terrible at his job.

But of course that’s just the mischief in me. In reality I don’t think any MP should be earning a small fortune by making themselves available to wealthy vested-interests. Not only is £65k and a generous expense-account more than enough to live on; it’s also more than enough to ensure your kids have a good Christmas. Damn near everyone else manages on less.

There are generally two responses to this line of criticism (a line of criticism, let us not forget, that these people invite upon themselves when they start whinging on the radio about how difficult their life is). The first is that we need to pay the best salaries to ensure we get the best people. The second is that the whole subject is something of a distraction given how small the total expenditure on MP salaries is compared with the national budget. Let us conclusively examine and address both responses…

And by the way, let’s not kid ourselves that this is a British thing. It’s just as relevant here in Ireland (where, astonishingly, TDs get paid more than their British counterparts yet are just as eager to impose massive cuts on the income of the poor – all the while complaining about how “difficult” the decision to further impoverish the already impoverished is for them. For them.)

But we need The Best

This argument is also frequently used to defend the massive bonuses of bankers. And it’s really quite simple. The job of an MP/TD is extremely important. Therefore we need to make sure that the best people for the job will be attracted to it. We do this by incentivising them with large salaries. Otherwise these “best of the best” would find high paying jobs in the private sector and the nation would be in a far worse state.

The stream of colourful expletives that rises unbidden to my lips whenever I hear this argument would be enough to make even the most worldly of you blush, dear reader. It’s an argument that not only contains a basic (and blatant) fallacy, but is also at its core utterly misanthropic.

Firstly let’s deal with the misanthropy. Anyone who believes that “the best people” are currently sitting in the House of Commons in London, or The Dáil here in Dublin, must utterly loathe humanity. Because their opinion of the rest of us must be so incredibly low. Seriously, Andrew Bridgen MP… one of the best and brightest in Britain? I’d wager that were he enclosed with a handful of slightly slow chimpanzees, he’d struggle to emerge as one of the best and brightest in that room.

Yes, I know the idea is not to attract “the best people” but rather “the best people for the job”. But even that’s utter nonsense. Given the ungodly mess that these people are consistently making of running their countries, the argument becomes “the absolute best that humanity can achieve is a society that lurches from one crisis of mismanagement to the next”. I know there are plenty of people out there who possess such a relentlessly negative view of the human race that such a statement makes sense to them. I just think they’re wrong. I think we could do better if we had better people making the decisions. No, I’m not suggesting utopia is within our grasp – but I’m pretty sure we could manage a society where substantially less people were killed in wars, driven into poverty and oppressed by the powerful. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it’d be better than the unholy mess created by the Andrew Bridgens (or Eamon Gilmores) of this world.

At the moment Ireland’s unemployment rate is hovering around the 15% mark (it’s probably a fair bit higher than that, what with all the Job-bridge internships and Back-to-Work training schemes artificially suppressing the numbers). Our parliament – The Dáil – consists of 166 members, known as TDs. Now, having collected my winnings from my Andrew Bridgens / slow chimpanzees wager, let me place it all on another bet… given moderate resources, I wager I could find from within that 15% of the population who are currently unemployed, 166 people who would do a much better job at being a TD than the current crop. On top of that, I could find 166 of them who would be willing to do that job for half the salary.

That’s not hyperbole. No, I don’t personally know 166 unemployed people who would meet those criteria but I know enough people to understand that the vast majority of those who currently sit in The Dáil are not even “above average” at what they’re doing, let alone “the best”. And I know enough to know that the 400,000+ unemployed people in this country includes plenty of genuinely excellent ones.

Because – and this is where the fallacy in the statement “we need to attract the best by offering huge salaries” is revealed – the people who succeed in politics are not the best people to run a country. No, they are just the most manipulative, self-serving, hyper-ambitious, back-stabbing bastards willing to negotiate the appalling party political system. The best people to run a country would have a combination of skills and characteristics that included a genuine acceptance of the occasional need for self-sacrifice in pursuit of the common good, a broad compassion for their fellow men and women, excellent management and administration skills, an analytical mind capable of grasping and weighing up the potential consequences of any decision, the ability to communicate their ideas to a wide audience, a willingness to consider seriously alternative viewpoints and change their position where the evidence demands, and finally a thorough understanding of the history of political philosophy (allowing them to understand the difference between fashionable ideology and the long-term needs of a society). Yes, that’s a pretty lofty job specification, but it’s a pretty lofty job. And yes, those people do exist. Just not within the modern political system.

Fat Cats

It wasn’t perfect, but despite initial misgivings, everyone eventually agreed that firing the politicians and
putting a “different bunch of fat cats” in charge had resulted in the country being better run

What’s remarkable is that the modern party political system actively excludes people with many of those qualities. So don’t tell me that we have the best people for the job sitting in our houses of parliament. Hell, pick 166 random people from the register of unemployed and you’d probably get a marginal improvement. Add a half-decent selection process and you’d do even better. And no, I’m not arguing for a particular electoral system / selection process here – just railing against the nonsense of the “we need the best” argument when used to defend a system that excludes them.

If huge salaries attracted “the best people for the job” we would not have had a massive collapse in the banking sector. OK? So let’s put that ridiculous argument to bed once and for all.

It’s just a distraction

This is the other argument. It emerged most recently in the political expenses scandals. Given the billions lost in the financial crisis (by the best people for the job) and the debt crisis it has revealed, getting in a tizz about a few million euro in political salaries and expenses is silly, and it distracts us from more important issues.

Here’s the thing though. I happen to think that the type of people we have running our affairs is extremely relevant when it comes to these kinds of crises and the strategies we might use to solve them. If we have people motivated by personal greed, rampant ambition and a hunger for power… people who are willing to fiddle their expenses and cheat the public out of money they have no right to… people more interested in scoring petty party political points and making the other guy look “wrong” than they are in solving problems and making themselves “right”… people who go on the radio and insist that earning more than twice the national average is not enough to provide for their children, while simultaneously trying to reduce that national average… if we have those people in power then we’re basically screwed. Permanently.

It’s not a distraction to point that out. It’s not a distraction to point out that we need better people, and more than that, we need people who are willing to set aside personal greed for the greater good. If you don’t think there are 166 people in Ireland capable of that, then fair enough. But I think you’re wrong. I think we can do better. Because I think we are better.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2013

The two ‘David B’s

This week, quite rightly, the media has been buzzing with news of the return of David Bowie. His first new material in a decade was released, quite unexpectedly, on Tuesday; his 66th birthday. The song – Where Are We Now? – is a lovely, melancholy meditation on lost youth. Filled with references to Berlin, where Bowie himself spent several years in the 1970s, it was produced by Tony Visconti who – along with Bowie and Brian Eno – formed the Holy Trinity responsible for the three late-70s albums that (in my personal opinion) represent the pinnacle of Bowie’s creative output. I know that sounds like I’m saying he “peaked” with “Heroes”, Low and Lodger and then went into decline. But that’s not how I see it. Yes, there was something of a trough in the 1980s, but 1.Outside in the mid-90s saw him once again climb creative heights rarely visited by others and of the four 90s / early noughties albums that followed, only Hours was less than brilliant (both Earthling and Heathen are grossly underrated and Reality has some stonking songs on it though you might argue there’s some filler there too).

The new single is to be followed by an album in March (called The Next Day) which I am eagerly anticipating. And while well-publicised health problems suggest he may not tour the new songs, we can still hope against hope. Right? As well as the inevitable cooing from die-hard fans (of which I am one and for which I make no apology) there have been other responses. Thanks to the internet, you can read the views of the cynics and the compulsive denigrators just as easily as the views of the die-hard fans. Which is fine. If people genuinely don’t like Bowie, or genuinely find the new song lacking in some way then they are just as entitled to express that opinion as people like myself who are excited about it. Mind you, a lot of the criticism I’ve encountered smacks somewhat of deliberate contrarianism. It comes from the same sort of people who tell you The Beatles never wrote a good tune, Citizen Kane is overrated and insist they don’t understand the phrase “best thing since sliced bread” because frankly sliced bread is shit.

And you know what, those folk are also just as entitled to express their opinion. I find it a little sad that people actively seek the sensation of jadedness – something I seem to spend a whole lot of time battling – but I don’t have to live their lives so let them at it… I’m not looking for repressive legislation on the matter.

Anyway, here’s the new single (along with the odd video). If you’ve not already heard it, I hope you like it as much as I do. I found myself humming it after just one listen and yet I’d still describe it as “a grower” because I’m enjoying it more and more with each new hearing.

The other David B

In my personal musical universe there’s probably only one other person who rivals David Bowie for the top spot (luckily my musical universe is polytheistic in nature, so they don’t need to fight it out). And that’s David Byrne. Like Bowie, David Byrne’s finest hour was quite a while ago – and perhaps not at all coincidentally – also involved Brian Eno. I’m speaking of course about Remain In Light, the greatest album ever recorded.

Also like Bowie, however, that didn’t represent a “peak” from which there was only a long decline ahead. No, like Bowie’s Low, Remain In Light was simply the tallest tree in a forest of redwoods. His career since Talking Heads has been generally overlooked by the mainstream (with the occasional exception… his Oscar for The Last Emperor soundtrack being one such exception) but is no less because of it. So when I read a review of last year’s Love This Giant (a collaboration with St. Vincent) that described the album as “a return to form” I was genuinely mystified. You can’t return to something you never left, and Byrne has been “on form” pretty much since 1977. Whether it was his work with Talking Heads, his solo stuff, his collaborations (with Eno, Fat Boy Slim, St. Vincent and others) or his many books, films and installations; Byrne has consistently brought joy, light, wonder and a great rhythm section to my life.

Love This Giant is another wonderful record. The heavy use of “heavy brass” gives it quite a distinctive sound, setting it apart from most of his other work (excluding, of course, his album of brass band compositions – Music For The Knee Plays). In fact it contains a song (I Should Watch TV) that rocketed straight into my top 10 Byrne tracks and which I listen to regularly. How pleasing, therefore, that it appears on the short live concert by Byrne and St. Vincent that’s just been released by NPR. I recommend the entire gig as it showcases a genuinely wonderful album while throwing in a couple of older tracks. But if you’ve only got a few minutes, then skip ahead to 24:40 and listen to the glorious I Should Watch TV.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Media » Video, Reviews » Music reviews

Jan 2013

Irish newspapers demand ridicule

Thanks to a tax-regime designed to encourage international investment (some would suggest “exploitation” as a more appropriate word), Ireland has successfully positioned itself as one of the world’s leading locations for high-tech and new media corporations. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter (and many others) have located their European or non-US headquarters in Ireland. The nation has derived some economic benefit from this, primarily with the provision of several thousand well-paid jobs, but less than might be imagined (thanks to that aforementioned policy of low corporate taxation).

Nonetheless, despite the emergence of Ireland as a major internet hub, there are large sections of society who have yet to fully enter the digital age. Most notably of course, our political establishment, but also certain commercial organisations that should really know better (I don’t expect our political establishment to know better because – quite frankly – I don’t have an awful lot of faith in the intellectual ability of most who inhabit it).

Fine Gael: Searching for the Off switchThis ignorance of things digital within the political sphere was wonderfully illustrated on a recent news report on RTÉ news. It concerned the government announcement of an investigation into the abuse of social media (online bullying – or “trolling” as it was mistakenly called). This follows at least three recent suicides in Ireland which have been linked – either directly or indirectly – to online bullying. While those affected by these tragic deaths have my deepest sympathies, I was extremely uneasy when a member of the government appeared on the news to suggest a possible crackdown on online bullying by dictating how social media should be used in Ireland. His announcement that he would personally chair the committee which would recommend new “social media legislation” was accompanied by some stock footage of him at his computer. There he sat, staring at this thing on his desk as though it were an unexploded bomb, tentatively prodding the keyboard with a single finger. And I thought, so this is the guy the Irish government have chosen to set policy in the area of new media… no wonder the place is a fecking disaster area.

But then a few days ago, it emerged that the Irish government is positively ahead of the times when compared to the Irish newspaper industry (sorry for the bad pun, but it was impossible to resist).

All Your Links Are Belong To Us

Simon McGarr is a Dublin-based solicitor. His clients include Women’s Aid, a registered charity dealing with the issue of domestic violence against women. National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI) is an organisation which represents pretty much every newspaper in the country (national and regional). Recently, Women’s Aid was mentioned favourably in several newspaper articles (both online and in print). And as you would expect, they posted links to those online articles on their website. As you probably wouldn’t expect, however, they then received a demand from NNI that they pay a fee for each link to a newspaper website. Read Simon McGarr’s blogpost on this issue.

Now, you might think it perfectly reasonable that NNI should protect the right of their members to assert copyright over whatever content they publish. And you’d be correct. Everything I write on this blog is “copyright me (followed by dates)”. Though, as I mention on the About Me page, I’m generally more than happy to be cited in part (or even in full) so long as the citation is credited. Indeed, this is how online discourse tends to work and you’ll find this blog littered with extracts from newspaper articles, blogs and books along with a credit (and a link to the original source if it’s on the web). I know Irish copyright law doesn’t have an explicit “fair use” clause, but frankly I consider “fair use” to be an intellectual principle that transcends national laws and which – were we to lose it – would have an actively damaging effect on society as a whole (as well as pretty much bringing academia to an end).

All the same, I can just about accept the argument that permission should be sought prior to quoting someone else’s work. The argument is wrong, let me point out, and I won’t be bound by it unless you can demonstrate why it’s right… but nor will I think you’re completely insane if you attempt to forward it. However, that’s not the position of the NNI. No, their position is somewhat different. And it is completely insane.

The NNI is asserting that hyperlinks are themselves covered by copyright. That is; if I simply link to an article online without prior permission (like this) I have breached the copyright of the site being linked to (in this case The Irish Times). The NNI suggests that I now owe The Irish Times €300 (their cost for between 1 and 5 links). Although I have linked to more than five Irish Times articles during the lifetime of this blog, so I actually owe quite a bit more (€1,350 for between 26 and 50 links). And that’s an annual fee, let me point out, for a licence to link to those articles.

The Daily NewsNow, the NNI very graciously inform us that they are prepared to waive this licence fee if the links are “for personal use”. But that doesn’t alter their claim that they are legally entitled to such payment, and doesn’t prevent them from withdrawing the waiver on a whim should they choose to do so. They are effectively saying to bloggers and users of other social media platforms that they may, at their discretion and on a date of their choosing, take legal action to recoup money from anyone who has ever linked to one of their articles.

Foot shooting and rampant extortion

Not only is this patently absurd, not only does it completely violate the spirit of the web, but it displays a quite stunning self-destructive tendency. Most online newspapers generate income from advertising. Therefore, it is entirely in their interest to maximise traffic to their site. If a website is republishing entire articles, then I understand the NNI and individual newspapers may lose traffic and as a result lose money. So it is understandable that they should seek to prevent this happening. However, by asserting that the simple act of linking to a newspaper article potentially places a person under threat of future legal action, they provide a massive disincentive to link to them. Given that those links are generating traffic, and therefore revenue, for newspapers; the NNI appears to be insisting that the online community act to reduce the revenue of their members, under threat of legal action and/or a hefty fee.

And no, their claim that they voluntarily waive the fee for personal websites is not as reassuring as they clearly think, as it still suggests that some future change in policy could land bloggers in their debt. Part of me wants to remove all links to Irish newspapers from this blog and begin actively campaigning that other bloggers and users of social media do the same. Get a big enough snowball rolling and I suspect the online community could significantly reduce traffic to newspaper websites. However, such a link boycott would also mean engaging the NNI on their own terms rather than dismissing their claim as the absurd nonsense it actually represents.

Personally I can’t exactly afford a protracted court case, but I would love the NNI to demand payment from this blog for the many links I have made to Irish newspapers. Because – as I pointed out at the start of this article – they clearly don’t have a robust understanding of how the web works. If they did, they would realise their position – if taken seriously – effectively means that the majority of, if not all, Irish newspapers are engaged in extortion.

“How so?” you ask. Well, it’s pretty simple really. Like almost every online newspaper on the planet, Irish newspapers place social media buttons on each of their articles. They actively invite you to click these buttons. However, not a single one of them includes a legal disclaimer to the effect that clicking on these buttons creates a copyright-protected link for which the reader may be charged a substantial fee. Even if that fee is waived, the NNI is insisting that a person clicking the “Facebook Like” button on an article in the Irish Times has placed themselves in debt to the newspaper and it is only the discretion of the NNI that prevents this debt being recouped.

I’m no lawyer, and perhaps “extortion” is not the correct legal term, but I’m pretty certain that tricking someone into debt by inviting them to perform an action without first telling them it incurs a charge, is probably illegal (yes, even in Ireland, where we seem to have made a national sport out of tricking the populace into paying large amounts of money to private corporations).

It seems to me that the NNI really hasn’t the faintest idea what it’s doing and is running the risk of damaging the very industry it seeks to protect. It is providing us with a significant incentive to stop linking to Irish newspapers – actively driving down traffic and revenue for their members – while at the same time is stating a legal position which appears to place their own members very much on the wrong side of the law.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2013

Happy New Year

Happy New Year!It’s early January and I’m back at my blog. As with years past, I have resolved to resurrect this place and write semi-regularly. I suspect – as with years past – the result will be a flurry of activity lasting anywhere between three and six months. By the time summer comes around, I will have noted the fact that my words are being read by about 50 people, all of whom are either friends or fellow-travellers… people who, by and large, agree with much that I say. As a result, I will conclude that this blog is essentially redundant; having little or no real effect on the world (confirming to my friends that I still believe what I’ve believed for the past decade and a half doesn’t count).

I’ll then write a few caustic articles savaging the political system and individual politicians with intemperate language. I’ll call the general populace a bunch of fools for continuing to engage with a political system that is corrupt and clearly holds them in open contempt. I’ll lament a mythical golden age where people were prepared to challenge the status quo and radical ideas weren’t automatically dismissed as crazy.

Finally I’ll lapse into frustrated silence punctuated only rarely by an occasional rant when the world does something even more absurd than usual. So yes, there you have it. Enjoy it while it lasts, dear reader. And have a very happy new year. Seriously, do.

10 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion