Thursday, February 26, 2009

On the Middle East

Possibly no one has ever bothered to make this observation before.

But did no one ever think to tell the founders of Islamic Jihad that their name was a tautology? Couldn't they have made a bit more of an effort? Brand awareness and all that.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

If you must go to work tomorrow, if I were you I really wouldn't bother

Those of you who have noted the frequency with which I update this blog have probably deduced that I am not a whole-hearted admirer of hard work. So you can imagine my delight at reading about a survey that suggested long hours are bad for you.

(An important caveat at this point: the media seems to have contracted a serious dose of survey-ities. Any bit of scientific research, no matter how small or tentative, will get reported as if it were some great definitive truth. You know the sort of thing: Sausages give you cancer, Facebook will kill you, Reading Daily Mail-type journalism reduces your IQ etc. So by responding to this, I'm guilty of something I deplore. Still, this isn't Bad Science, you know.)

However, this study raised more questions than it answered. The thought that, since the sample group consisted of British civil servants, it is possible that they were actually spending several hours a week sitting around doing nothing in the hope of impressing their bosses, and that this might have contributed to the decline in their mental skills, can be dismissed as unkind and unworthy. Probably.

However, there is a possible paradox here. A willingness to work long hours is one of the main attributes needed to gain positions of power and influence. It's a good indicator of being a good arselicker and that - allied to a talent for backstabbing - is a surefire route to the top.

Actual ability comes a poor third. And therein lies the problem. Is it not possible that the type of person who is willing to work long hours has, in fact, less mental capacity than those who would rather go home (or to the pub, or the theatre, or wherever) as soon as they've got their work out of the way? Could we even go so far as to infer that the type of person likely to gain a position which "requires"working long hours is, in fact, the sort of person who should not be given that sort of position? (A look at Britain's politicians, bankers, financial regulators, managers etc might suggest that.*)

The alternative thought – that anyone who attains a position of importance loses the abilities that got them there because of the compulsion to work long hours – is not less depressing.

Of course, this is all complicated by the fact that idleness is not in itself a guarantee of ability. George W Bush was not the hardest-working of US presidents, for instance. Then again, Gordon Brown appears to regard relaxation as a sign of weakness. Neither will, one imagines, be making any list of Great Leaders in the next couple of millennia.

Clearly, more research is needed. I am more than willing to offer myself as a guinea pig: offer me a well-paid, influential job and I am happy to take long lunch breaks, slope off home early and generally skive whenever possible. We'll see if I am any worse than most of the people in positions of power and responsibility.

* I, of course, except any of the hard-working, dedicated and talented people who may employ me from this generalisation.

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Sarah Palin, I have always done you an injustice

There are others.

And this guy is pretty well-educated.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Timing is everything

World Finance magazine's January/February edition awards its coveted man of the year award to... Sir Allen Stanford.

World Finance’s 2008 Man of the Year award was bestowed upon Sir Allen Stanford as he clearly stood out when, two years ago, he began cautioning those in the financial services industry that an impending global economic storm was brewing. His ability to lead the Stanford Financial organisation through this current turbulent environment unscathed and his commitment to philanthropic causes in the cities around the world where Stanford conducts business were the deciding factors in selecting him as this year’s award recipient.

Up to a point, at any rate. As the editor explains:

In the light of the accusations made against Sir Allen Stanford by the SEC we have received a significant response regarding the following article and the associated award which was decided upon in the fall of 2008. When we took the decision we felt we had to discount unproven accusations from various sources that were in the news at that time. We determined that if those speculations had come to nothing it would have been an error to count them in our decision. It was a calculated editorial risk.

If the accusations prove to be substantiated, then, with the benefit of hindsight, it will have been the wrong decision - though either way it now stands as a record of the two faces of the financial industry in what was a horrible year for global markets.

We could of course have removed the article but have taken the decision instead to keep the unedited original text of the article on the site in order to document the company message and as a gauge of opinion at the time... However, the article should be read in light of recent events, and not taken as a continued endorsement of Stanford Financial Group.

If it seems too good to be true...

Well, yes.

(Thanks, Portfolio)

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Culchies' lessons in cosmopolitanism

They seek him here.
They seek him there.
Those gardaí seek him everywhere.
Is he in Navan?
Is he in Clonmel?
That damned elusive pimpernel.

If you have not yet read about the traffic cops' search for Prawo Jazdy all across Ireland, do so. It is quiet [sic] embarrassing.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Turn on, tune in, drop out... and now, please, bugger off

If you're going to San Francisco, be sure not to go to Haight Ashbury: place is overrun by people wanting to relive the hippy era, those who never left it and a whole bunch of people looking to make money off these silly sods.

Well done, then to Ross Mirkarimi, a local politician, who is trying to cut down on the number of shops selling useless tat and stuff that could, possibly, be used to smoke dope. It's not that he has some puritanical objection to drug use, but he does make the not unreasonable point that it would be good to have a few shops selling useful stuff like groceries in the area instead.

Not all the locals agree, however. One said:

"I think there are too few heads shops in the city," he said. "I like hippies. We need more."

Contemplate that quote for a moment; cherish it and then revere it for the perfect wrongness of it. Could there be a more lucid and poised way of expressing something that is so profoundly, unquenchably the antithesis of what is correct? The sentence would work perfectly, too, were you to substitute the world 'hippies' for 'lawyers' (both being parasitic, annoying and prone to dressing in silly clothes) too.

Lawyers and hippies, after all, are possibly the only two groups about whom it is not possible to be too uncomplimentary.

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Trollied Tuesday: When All Else Fails, Turn to Drink

Shoichi Nakagawa Japan's finance minister, was forced to resign for this performance. To be honest, many of his less overtly incoherent counterparts hardly inspire more confidence.

Mr Nakagawa, who was sticking today with his excuse that a combination of jetlag and cough mixture got the better of him, said that he would stay on in the Cabinet until parliament gave the green light to a supplementary budget aimed at steering Japan out of the sharpest recessionary plunge in its history.

A number of politicians have come forward today with annecdotal evidence of Mr Nakagawa's odd behaviour – he has, for example, been spotted bumping into the doorframes along the corridors of power. (Times report)

That seems about as good a response as any in the face of the current financial crisis. Let's be honest, things have become so awful that it scarcely matters whether or not the world's economy is in the hands of financial geniuses, hapless fools or deluded megalomaniacs: a surfeit of the latter has left a mess of such stinking, colossal proportions that there's nothing anyone can do. Except pour another drink, obviously.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

And did those sweet

Since it's Valentine's Day (oh, I only just noticed) here is the best poem ever about love. I wouldn't stick it on a card, mind.

The Clod and the Pebble.
William Blake

"Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell's despair."

So sung a little Clod of Clay,
Trodden with the cattle's feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

"Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another's loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven's despite."

NB: one small and relatively unimportant point, but it interests me – interesting capitalisation.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Horses and shit

Three things united only by an equine theme.

1. White Horse bigger than Nelson's Column planned for Kent. That it appears to be act of almost unspeakable ghastliness scarcely needs to be said: the aesthetic of the porcelain figurines favoured by menopausal, sentimental women plonked into Kent on a gargantuan scale in the vain hope of impressing foreigners arriving on the Eurostar. What's wrong with a bigger Nelson's Column to welcome them anyway?

One can live with the prospect that the French will have an excuse for another 100 years of so of sneering at the vulgarity and poor taste of Les Rosbifs. One can accept that it's a damnable waste of money; even that the people building it struggle with the proper distinction between small and far away (thereby completely undoing the Renaissance development of perspective).

What's really so bad is the justification for it: it will impress people. Art doesn't work like that, the imagination and the sense of beauty doesn't: people are impressed by that which grabs them, not by that which sets out to bludgeon them into submission.

2. Government drug adviser "sparks tabloid fury" by pointing out that more people die from riding horses than from taking ecstasy. Does anyone dispute his figures? They have not. Do some people get upset by suggesting drugs might not kill them? They do. Should we care about that? Well, no.

That the government is packed with pusillanimous panderers to puritanism is not news. When said drug adviser suggests that, since ecstasy is less lethal than horse riding, it might be a waste of time to impose punitive sanctions on ecstasy use it's a waste of time, and gets ignored for fear of what the Daily Mail might say, again it's not news. (Nor is the boundless contempt one feels at this form of governance).

What is worth noting is that no one has asked the important question. Is horse riding more fun than taking ecstasy? It's pointless trying to weigh up whether either activity is worth the risk without this sort of information.

3. Now for the good good news: Tony McCoy's 3,000th winner. In a world with justice this achievement, with all it entails, would get the recognition it deserves. Ah well.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Trollied Tuesday: the Stiff Upper Lip

Pub regulars drink through floods.

That's the spirit. (Actually the Stiff Upper Lip wouldn't be a bad old name for a pub).

See also Johnny White's in New Orleans.


Monday, February 09, 2009

Kids: not as bright as adults

A not very difficult moral dilemma from the BBC. Would you let a child saw through a plank he's standing on? Well, of course you would; the talking heads in the article point out that it's a way kids learn not to do silly things. But it overlooks another important question: what is the purpose of kids if we can't a laugh at their expense from time to time? By not thinking about the children all the time we might teach them about their monumental insignificance in the overall scheme of things.

Lets have more of this: Children Admit to Being Little Shits.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

EDW: Un zest de Citroën

It was the car that seduced celebrities, saved a president and symbolised the rebirth of aspiration in a country battered by war and economic gloom. Now, more than 50 years after its pointed nose and power steering were introduced to the world, the Citroën DS is hitting the road once more. (Courtesy of the Guardian)

Quite. I'm planning to buy a car in the next couple of months or so (what with VAT being cut for the time being and everyone being broke). Maybe I should hang on for these to hit the market.

I imagine they'll be unreliable, over-priced and a let down: still…


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Trollied Tuesday: In Case of Emergency

Britain may be led by hopeless incompetents, things may grind to halt with the advent of snow,the media might go over the top but the people still know what to do in the face of adversity.

Predictions of the cold snap last week prompted customers to stock up on warm clothing, while supermarkets said they were prepared for big runs on soups, pies, curries, whisky, brandy, thermos flasks, de-icers and scrapers.

Frankly you could throw it all out, even the brandy (though why would you want to do that?): whisky is the key for survival. Consider the example of Joe Galliot of Somerset, who survived two days trapped under a sofa with only a bottle of Scotch to sustain him.

"I took a sip of [the whisky] and thought, well this isn't too bad."

That's what whisky is designed to do. It's an Irish invention, of course, and I'll yield to no one in my admiration of proper whiskeys, but the Scotch version (spelled without an 'e') is what you need when things are getting really tough. As the Economist observed recently, sales of single malts are booming amidst the worst economic downturn for 60 years.

Perhaps its something about the harshness of winters in Scotland that gives it this extra edge, but whisky brings the warmth, the light the sense of purpose needed to survive bitter weather, dearth and darkness. It is the Highlander's consolation for dispossession, defeat, exile and death.

I have no intention of turning this into a whisky bores' parade in which the relative merits of Islays or Speysides, or the various glens are discussed; it's like arguing about the sort of woman you prefer. Preferences are one thing (if pushed, I should go for the peaty vitality of Laphroaig), but ultimately all types are good, as Don Giovanni realised.

In Strathisla seicento e quaranta;
In Glen Scotia duecento e trentuna;
Cento in
Talisker, in Scapa novantuna;
Ma in
Caol Ila son già mille e tre.

D'ogni forma, d'ogni età will do you should the worst happen and the lights go out and power supplies go off. (You won't be able to cook anyway, unless you are the sort of person who keeps a parafin stove). A good blended whisky will see you fine; but a fine malt will see you through everything bar the apocalypse. Even then, I'd keep a flask handy.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

Snow in London, not many dead

The capital is truly a lady in her white veil: capricious, cruel and a damned all-round nuisance, but what beauty, what pleasure besides.

The only possible response to that is an amused, half-charmed insouciance. So it was that my misfortune at having to get into central London at an ungodly hour was redeemed by the certain knowledge that I could not travel there by the direct route, and must instead start the morning with a pleasant stroll through the silent and snowbound streets of Cricklewood, Kilburn and West Hampstead, enjoying the sparkle and the cheerfulness of most passersby. Far preferable to standing sullenly for hours on a platform hoping in vain for some sort of train. You're going to be late; why not just enjoy that fact and mark it with a leisurely passage through the capital with a clear conscience? To experience the delights of flânerie on a journey into work - in the morning - is a rare delight.

Admittedly the joy was short-lived owing to the fact that I actually had to do some work on reaching my destination, peaceful as SW1 was with its sense of ordinary life being suspended in the icy air.

No, it isn't a very good picture. Too bad.

It did make me wonder about how many of the estimated six million or so British workers who did not make it/were asked not to go into work did not feel sufficiently motivated by a love of their job or find sufficient self worth in said job to fight their way through the snow. (There is also a nagging question about how important many of these jobs are; are they part of an economic structure built on the flimsiest foundations?). Let's leave that for another time.

I rather hope that the complete shut down of London's buses and near total paralysis of the transport system was, in part, due to the fact that a number of lowly drudges deciding to enjoy this sense of normal life being frozen. Being part of a nation that is surly and workshy is no cause for embarrassment; being utterly incapable of doing the simplest tasks is.

Some more pictures, better than mine, many not taken on a camera phone in the half light.

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over London... His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

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