Libya – Beginning Of The Start

Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi (in Dimashq, Syr...
On the positive side, at least we won't be seeing much more of the world's most failed moustache

Sorry for the absence yesterday. I was helping an 11-year-old jailbreak an iPhone. It seems they still have children here in the future.

And I was also waiting for the full-time result from Libya. It isn’t over of course, in the sense that innocent people haven’t finished dying yet, but the end of the Gaddafi regime does seem inevitable now.

How will we know it’s truly gone? Simple. That’ll be when the rebels start fighting each other. What unites them all, apart from the conviction that Gaddafi could be defeated? Not a lot. Democracy? No one really fights for the opportunity to lose an election.

They’ve already managed to assassinate their own military leader in what was, even in the most charitable view, a factional revenge attack. So that doesn’t exactly bode well.

And even if the Gaddafis are out out of the picture, some of the forces nominally fighting for them will probably be happy to continue the war of their own behalf, and will seek common cause with factions within the rebellion. So in all likelihood we’re now moving from a two-sided war to a multi-polar conflict.

Celebration seems a little premature.

China, The Vatican, And Ireland

Pope Benedictus XVI at a private audience (Jan...
I'll Get You For This, Kenny

This is priceless. Our Taoiseach‘s recent outburst against the Vatican has been taken up by the official Chinese media – which is not really a different thing from the Chinese government – in support of its campaign against the Catholic Church.

What campaign? Well basically, the government think they should appoint Catholic priests, rather than the Catholic hierarchy. Much as they have an ‘official’ Dalai Lama, etc. Ain’t that an interesting idea?

Wow, I really don’t know which way to jump on this one. Much as I think the Vatican should basically not do anything anywhere at all, a state-appointed priesthood is an extraordinarily totalitarian idea.

Well OK, the English invented it. But that was back when England was really very totalitarian. It’s as opposite to the separation of church and state as is possible. On the other hand, I think it would be great if Catholics in Ireland cut ties with Rome.

It’s a power struggle between two quite different yet equally objectionable powers – when I think about, probably the two most powerful absolutist regimes on Earth. And now Enda Kenny is caught in the middle.

Maybe I’ll just get some popcorn and enjoy this one.

The TV Is Watching Back

So a company in San Francisco has come out with a TV that watches you. Via a built-in Internet connection it reports on what you’re viewing and returns Web content that relates to the programme you’re trying to watch, and – for all I know – vice versa.

I should sue.

Western Civilization

That’s from a webcomic I did – in 2003.

My idea was actually a more advanced version of what San Francisco company Flingo is offering. They don’t have a camera built in so that you can participate in the televisual experience. Their offering just monitors your viewing to provide you with information about the programmes you’re looking at, and to provide you with better-targeted advertising. Imagine – targeted advertising! Where’s my wallet?

At least my dystopia rewarded you for being observed:

Western Civilization 2

The strip was called Doubt.It, basically because I’d just bought this web domain and I wanted to use it, but it saw print under its “real” name, Western Civilization. I liked that comic, even if trying to do it every day made for some really crappy drawing.

It’s ages now since I’ve done any comic, when I think about it. Maybe one day.

Democracy Is Over

OECD member states (as of 2006)
Organisation of Economically Crippled Democracies

So those young anarchist protesters ten years ago were right, globalisation did bring devastation and exploitation. Not to the Third World though. It actually turned out to be quite a treat for a lot of people there. In Europe and the US however, it has led pretty much directly to the collapse of democracy.

Globalisation has de-privileged the ordinary people of the West. And by the ordinary people, I mean anyone whose income derives from work rather than from ownership. Increasingly they find that they are in competition for employment not with the people of their own countries, or even with those of other Western countries, but all possible people.

In particular of course, people who aren’t the descendants of generations who fought for better working conditions, better wages, and democracy. Bluntly put, the work conditions and democratic freedoms enjoyed in the West were created when wealthy people needed a great deal of skilled and unskilled labour.

Conditions for the poorest improved suddenly and drastically at only two times during Western history. The first was after the Black Death. That decimated the peasant labourers, but it meant that afterwards there was a shortage of them. They could reject the previous conditions of their employment, which were more or less slavery, and start bargaining.

The second time was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the Industrial Revolution created renewed demand for labour. Conditions in factories were of course horrific at the start when the supply of poor people exceeded the demand, but that turned around and labour was able to organise and gain much safer conditions and better wages. Ultimately, it gained political representation and universal suffrage.

Easing up conditions of trade with the rest of the world has completely undermined the position of the workforce – right up to the most skilled. Yet at the same time it has created new opportunities for business. With plunging labour costs, profitability has generally soared. But the tax base of most Western countries is not the wealth of business owners. To say the least, these are the people who can afford not to be taxed. They can afford the accountants. They can afford the lawmakers. So the tax base is collapsing. The countries of the West are simply running out of money, one after another.

But what can we do? It seems too late to introduce protectionism. The only option is to extract more money from the people who profited by exporting jobs – the corporations, and in particular the super-rich personally. But all the major political parties clearly do not dare to, they are helpless in the face of wealth.

Welcome back to serfdom.

Apple Versus Samsung Galaxy Tab – Update

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and 8.9 Review
OK, here

A quick update to the story about Apple blocking sales of the rival Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 throughout the EU. In good news for people who want to get their hands on this device, the ruling by the German court has been clarified. Confusion arose because Samsung has a German subsidiary, and the court had the jurisdiction to prevent this company selling the Tab 10.1 throughout the EU. However the court is not competent to ban the South Korean parent company from selling it in any other European country.

Glad to sort that one out.

I still prefer the iPad 2 as a device, but this probably is the best direct rival it’s seen so far and I hope the courts eventually do decide that it’s fair competition. Though I suppose it goes without saying that my favourite of all the available tablet devices is something else again. And no, not the one you’re probably thinking. More on this soon!

Leaving Us Confused

Histogram of sepal widths for Iris versicolor ...
This distribution of people who nod as if they know what graphs like this actually mean

Today is the day that bad decisions are made.

For it is the day that the results of the School Leaving Certificate Examination (the “Leaving”) come out. Today the students make bad decisions by getting drunk while still mostly underage. And politicians, by making promises.

Ten percent of students failed maths at ordinary level. In a knowledge-based economy that is simply not good enough, etc. Something must be done. Teachers must be fired, students must be fired, schools should be closed, opened or set fire to. Lessons must be made harder, exams easier, students must work more and take more time to rest. Draw your own headless chickens.

But… Isn’t the whole point of exams that some people fail them?

I don’t really think that ninety percent is so terrible a pass rate for an exam that, you know, is actually testing something. And not merely basic numeracy; the Leaving Cert ordinary-level paper is essentially a qualification to enter university, as almost all courses require it. So are we really in trouble if only ninety per cent of the population qualify for third level education? Less than sixty percent actually avail of it.

Could it be that the reason the public panic over standards in mathematics is that they don’t understand some basic mathematics? Because if they don’t… Wait.

Wake Up, America

The Statue of Liberty front shot
"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to be tired, to be poor, and to huddle."

Discussing the social frustrations that led to the riots in the UK, an American friend suggested that the situation was probably exacerbated by the British class system, which he characterised as “You’re born in your class, and you’re stuck there”. While not denying that the USA had its class system too, he thought that they at least had the illusion of social mobility.

Indeed. I don’t think the vast majority of Americans appreciate just how much that is an illusion now.

You have to differentiate between social class as culture and social class in the sense of income group. Traditional class, with all its funny accents and different tastes in wallpaper, may still be a major part of the British cultural tapestry, but just as in America, what really matters is how much money you have. And the really important thing, the thing the American Dream is based on, is your ability to change that. In both countries, social mobility is mostly about being significantly better off than your parents.

But surely it is more difficult to move up the scale in the UK, with all its prejudice about accents and schools and forks, than it is in the US where self-advancement is a core cultural value?

Prepare yourself for a shock.

2005 – Source, Other, better known Source.

In 2005, social mobility in Britain was as good as, or better than, in America. And that was after a period of decline.

In good news for team USA, it has edged back ahead of the UK in the last few years. Possibly because the UK also adopted neo-liberal low tax economics? But comparing social mobility in Britain and America is like comparing fuel economy in fires. The sad truth is, if you want the American dream these days, you need to go to northern Europe or Canada.

Strength of link between an individual’s and their parents’ earnings, 2010 – Source

Oh and where does Ireland fit on this scale, you may ask, if you’re in Ireland? Well it’s hard to compare because of our far smaller and less developed economy, but as the top diagram shows, income inequality tends to go hand-in-hand with lack of social mobility.

Income inequality in Ireland? Don’t ask. It ain’t pretty.

Merry-Go-Roundup

Week 100 - Photoshop Contest Party
Image by oddsock via Flickr

Let’s start the week with a recap of the last one – a momentary break from the nausea helps one better appreciate the carousel, I find.

All hell broke loose in England, with the young indulging in a strange mixture of wanton violence and want-one theft. The more repulsive commentators, in Ireland especially it seemed, were keen to blame it on the feminist-socialist conspiracy to raise children without fathers, completely unconscious it seemed of the fact that this made them sound disturbingly like Anders Breivik. Those who wanted to blame black people had to make do in the end with blaming white people who just talk like black people.

The British government reacted in many ways at once, most of them useless, but the one that got my attention was when David Cameron began a sentence “Free flow of information can be used for good, but…” betraying the fact that he is not at heart a democrat. This view was supported by no one, except of course China.

On a related note, surprise hit of the week was an article on the decline of the meme. What I’d thought of as a throwaway remark was later bandied about Twitter as “Chapman’s Law”: If you hear about an internet meme via any medium except the Internet, it is already over.

I also discovered that I can say what I like about gay Presidents and right-wing politicians, but if I really want to get an argument going here, the thing I need to do is criticise Apple.

Back home then, and off our coasts new dives were being made on the wreck of the Lusitania. What seemed like the last nail was knocked into David Norris’s Presidential campaign when it was revealed that, in an unguarded moment in 1975, he admitted that his adolescent fantasies had been homosexual in nature. This was taken up by some in the press to mean that he represented a paedophile threat to himself.

Attention switched to veteran TV personality Gay Byrne, and he was even approached with an offer of support by the once-great Fianna Fáil party, who until now have only lost one Presidential election in the whole history of the State. But fortunately everyone suddenly realised that this was a completely mad idea.

And at home home, my mother received a call from a phone scammer. My rage was not a nice thing to behold, but the lesson I took away was that if I stayed calm when talking to the scammer next time, I’d be able to scare even more shit out of them.

Still closer to home, I was bitten by a mosquito and had a bad allergic reaction. Having tried about everything available in the pharmacy and found it wanting, if not utterly useless, I discovered an instant, effective cure: Water.

I hasten to point out that that doesn’t make it homoeopathy.

President Of Popular Opinion

Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne speaking at a publ...
It's not even plugged in. He can only talk into microphones now.

Well that was a bullet dodged. Gay Byrne for President. Wow.

Some background here for the overseas reader – in Ireland we elect a President to do nothing. Unlike the American President who is head of both, the Irish President is head of State but not of the Executive. In other words they don’t make decisions at all, they are quite literally there just to look pretty. Well, look stately I suppose. They are meant to be a figurehead for the country, standing above the tooth-and-claw world of politics. Like royalty, but without having to pay for their whole extended family. The Constitution requires them to agree with government policies and never say anything controversial.

Someone thought that this was a job for Gay Byrne?

Gay Byrne was for decades the biggest figure in the Irish media. He hosted both the most popular daily radio show and – by far – the most popular weekly TV chat show. All live. Since his retirement it’s taken at least three other presenters to cover for him. He is is a well-loved, avuncular figure with a twinkly eye who embodies some of the best aspects of Ireland. Some. He can also be irascible and strongly opinionated. I invite British readers to imagine a Terry Wogan with… moods.

As soon as people have calmed down a bit they’ll realise the idea was as mad as a yoghurt with spanners in it. What were the chances of Gay Byrne getting through a seven-year Presidential term without telling the government where to get off?

Zero. There was no chance of that happening. Thank God he turned the nomination down. He would have made Hugo Chavez look diffident.

Tip Of The Week

Ochlerotatus notoscriptus, Tasmania, Australia
You Little Bastard

An insect bit me last night. You should have seen it, it was about four feet long. OK, four inches long. Well half an inch. But those are the worst. Just a little biting fly, but I actually felt it. I assume this means that by fly standards it had huge fangs. The reaction seems to bear that out: A swelling the size of an egg.

F*** I hope it’s not an egg.

I’m always reluctant to take antihistamines. I know the immune system is a learning entity, almost an animal in itself, and I worry – perhaps unreasonably – that drugs may interfere with learning. What if they’re like its cigarettes, calming it down for now only to leave it more irritable after? Nevertheless I took one (Piriton). I knew this bite was going to be a bad’un.

I also managed to dig out the insect bite cream (Anthisan; I know this is beginning to sound like product placement, but I want to be precise about what did – and didn’t – work), which seems to have been finding new pockets of my bag to hide in ever since the walk in Clare. Then I flooded the house with fly spray (Raid…). That little bastard was not going to get me while I was sleeping, I didn’t want to wake up looking like bubble wrap.

Due perhaps to side effects of the first-generation antihistamine I slept soundly, waking at one in the afternoon in a state of mild panic. As a way to stimulate myself into action I’d set a very unfinished version of the last blog post to be published automatically at 1:30. (If you look at the URL you can see the article was originally titled “I’m Asleep”.) So if it sounds like it was written in a rush, you know why.

Written in a rush, by a man suffering intense irritation all down one arm. While I was asleep the itching had kicked into insane-making gear. Though the swelling was only in the slashy part of the wrist – annoyingly in the way, should I feel like ending it all – the itching spread upwards to my elbow, sideways around until it met itself at the back, and outwards for several inches. You know that feeling? It was like the air around my forearm was itchy.

I had to visit the pharmacy later anyway, so I asked for some ideas. The only thing they had that I hadn’t tried though was Eurax, the anti-itch cream. This proved… absolutely ineffective. Nothing was working, and I was now in no-scratch hell. There was only one thing to do. Something I should have tried a lot sooner.

I think I learned this years ago, when I had an attack of orf. Orf is a virus you can only get from a sheep bite. It’s a long story. Even if I leave out the acid trip, it’s still a long story.

A sink full of water as hot as I could bear it. Immersed entire forearm, kept it there a while. Then ran cold water over the effected area. I did that just once. It’s been a couple of hours. The itching hasn’t returned. I recommend this method.