Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Christmas reading

Here are some more or less depressing pieces for passing the long Yuletide evenings.

1. Jersey might be going bust. (That's Jersey in the Channel Islands.)

2. All is not well for Christians in China, from a 'cross removal campaign' to the 'five entries and five transformations' and beyond.

3. Afghanistan has some bad stories too. There was "a US counterterrorist operation in January 2002. US Central Command in Tampa, Florida ... sent in a Special Forces team by helicopter; the commander, Master Sergeant Anthony Pryor, was attacked by an unknown assailant, broke his neck as they fought and then killed him with his pistol; he used his weapon to shoot further adversaries, seized prisoners, and flew out again, like a Hollywood hero.

As Gopal explains, however, the American team did not attack al-Qaeda or even the Taliban. They attacked the offices of two district governors, both of whom were opponents of the Taliban. They shot the guards, handcuffed one district governor in his bed and executed him, scooped up twenty-six prisoners, sent in AC-130 gunships to blow up most of what remained, and left a calling card behind in the wreckage saying “Have a nice day. From Damage, Inc.” Weeks later, having tortured the prisoners, they released them with apologies. It turned out in this case, as in hundreds of others, that an Afghan “ally” had falsely informed the US that his rivals were Taliban in order to have them eliminated. In Gopal’s words:

The toll…: twenty-one pro-American leaders and their employees dead, twenty-six taken prisoner, and a few who could not be accounted for. Not one member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda was among the victims. Instead, in a single thirty-minute stretch the United States had managed to eradicate both of Khas Uruzgan’s potential governments, the core of any future anti-Taliban leadership—stalwarts who had outlasted the Russian invasion, the civil war, and the Taliban years but would not survive their own allies.

Gopal then finds the interview that the US Special Forces commander gave a year and a half later in which he celebrated the derring-do, and recorded that seven of his team were awarded bronze stars, and that he himself received a silver star for gallantry."

4. What about some beautiful inter-species friendships to cheer you up after all that depressing stuff? ""Predator and prey animals are already set up to know how to read each other,” said Donna Haraway, the author of When Species Meet. “Predators read prey animals incredible well, because it’s how they get dinner. And prey animals read predators very well, because it’s how they avoid becoming dinner.”" Nonetheless, there's an ""80-85 percent chance” that Amur will end up eating his new friend",

5. Still, at least we don't live in 1177 B.C., the year civilisation collapsed.

6. Even thinking about libraries can turn the mood sombre: "We are intrinsically nostalgic animals for whom mourning is a form of recognition. Our preferred genre is the elegy." So says Alberto Manguel in the TLS.

And on that uplifting note, I wish you a very merry Christmas.

In praise of Scrooge

From Tim Harford, no misanthrope, here: "Dickens’s story is viewed as a journey of redemption; I am not so sure."

The Texas Law Hawk

You can find him here (and I recommend that you do).

Thursday, 17 December 2015


This is the most original contribution I have seen to the debate about America and guns.

I'm going to rephrase it this way. America is the policeman of the world. But what sort of person is a policeman? A gentle, cuddly kind of guy who shies away from guns and spends all his free time making artisan soda bread? No, he's the a rough and tumble, can-do kind of guy who doesn't mind using guns on his time off too. And that's America in a nutshell. A decent hegemon in a violent world is going to have a citizenry who has a comfort level with weapons and a capacity for sympathy righteous violence, and we shouldn't be surprised if that extends to the domestic sphere. The upshot is that you can consistently want America to be de-gunned at home and a non-interventionist wimp abroad, but query whether you can pick and choose between those two outcomes.

As I say, it's an interesting story. But it's a specifically American story. If you look at Switzerland, Israel, Iceland, Canada, China, the UK, Australia and so on then you get a number of different mixes of guns at home and intervention abroad tendencies. Cowen may be onto something about the culture that supports foreign interventionism in the US, but he's making a culture-specific rather than a more general point.

For the foreigners among us, the question is perhaps a bit easier: are we happy to allow Americans to carry on being a bit mad about the relative dangers of guns, Kinder Eggs and unpasteurised cheeses, so long as we get to free-ride on them keeping them the peace?

Friday, 11 December 2015

Block Donald J Trump from UK entry until ISIS is defeated (but not by using airstrikes), unless he is bringing cannabis, replacing Jeremy Hunt or David Cameron, or seeking asylum

That's my draft for the petition that would get the most votes from the UK public, based on the fact that the top UK Parliamentary petitions today are as follows (check for updates here):

My second choice is "No airstrikes on Donald J Trump". 

Third choice: "No UK entry to anyone at all, ever, including Donald J Trump".

These top petitions also raise a lot of questions. Why is The Donald's middle initial in there, but Hunt and Cameron go without? Why does Hunt get the full "Right Hon" politeness but Cameron doesn't? Do people only want the debate about Hunt or do they want a 'no' vote? Do you think the larger number of people signing up to the "no military action in response to the Paris attacks" petition compared with the "no UK airstrikes" one is simply because lots of people are happy enough with airstrikes so long as they are not in response to the Paris attacks (in the same way that more people are happy to keep immigrants out only as a pro tem measure than forever)? How many people have signed more than one of these? How many have signed all of them?

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Light links

Not quite Christmassy, but a little end-of-termy.

1. How Pixar screwed up cartoon cars for a generation of kids. Good point, well made.

2. A few of those maths-problems-that-break-the-internet all in one place. The one about coins is not hard at all.

3. Is this a circle? Your answer correlates with your political beliefs. (It works on me, anyway.)

4. Malcolm Gladwell on how to cure cancer. It's quite tricky and relies on being a brilliant maverick. Or a rule-bound automaton. More Gladwellian than end of termian.

5. Chatting to North Koreans. More interesting than end of termian.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

A split in Labour?

What is to be done? Here is Iain Martin, here is the Economist and here is Steve Richards in the Independent each talking about a split-off, moderate Labour Party. Iain Martin is discussing the Tories' internal travails (they have Corbyn to thank for the fact that a sex-and-suicide scandal is largely being ignored), while the others are discussing Corbyn directly, but they overlap on this point.

This is the Economist: "In any logical political system, the answer would be for the Labour Party to split. It is increasingly two parties: a moderate, instrumental one and a hard-left, expressive one. They could exist much more happily, perhaps even more harmoniously, were they organisationally separate." Richards agrees: "for both sides a split is neater than the current nightmare. Corbyn could lead his movement for change without having to spend 90 per cent of his time managing an insurrectionary parliamentary party that is opposed to the movement and the change. Despairing Labour MPs would be liberated from their torment by starting afresh."

And what about the prospects for such a spin-off? This is Martin: "The Conservative leadership won a stunning victory in May. But the Tory “brand” for want of a better term, has deep residual problems and is only ever five minutes away from a sleaze-related disaster. Voters – several million of them – made a practical binary choice when faced with the prospect of Ed Miliband as Prime Minister. That does not mean they love the Tories. Good grief, no. The Tory party remains remote. If a breakaway moderate Labour party ever got going, and the economy malfunctioned, the voters would switch quicker than you can say Major Dan Jarvis ...".

Imagine Farage gone and Cameron gone - this imaginary Jarvis-led party would be very attractive to a lot of people, especially if the main alternative was an Osborne, May or Johnson-led Conservative Party. (On a slightly different but related note, here is an interesting piece by Janan Ganesh in the FT suggesting that if Britain sees itself as being at way -  if politics is about big issues, and not just Major-Blair-Cameron economic tweaking - then the appetite for heavyweights or statesmen as leaders could grow.) The problem, as always, is how to get from here to there.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Cheering news about Britain

British people are pretty honest (look at page 9). Moreover, we're not bad at financial literacy, and there is no male bias in our financial literacy either.