Jun 302012

I think, in some senses, I’ve mentioned this before – but today, in the light of all the recent news about how criminal in some quarters big banking would appear to have become, I feel for some reason it’s time to mention it again.

We’ve had a lot of grief from both New Labour and our present cohort of Coalition politicians on the dependency culture which supposedly makes us weak and spineless.  I did point out a while ago that (the bold is mine today):

[…] Let it first be understood I am entirely on the side of those who would remove through democratic means all vestiges of this Coalition government.  It would, however, be remiss of me not to argue – as I have already mentioned above – that some potential good is being lost to the blunt battlecries of our current crop of politicians.

They demonise benefit fraud; they look to remove disability and incapacity allowances; they blame the unemployed for not finding jobs when jobs are not to be found.  And yet, if given a different slant, all these ideas could be grounded in positivity.  For example: benefits are good as amelioration strategies for short-term distress but should not create a social environment of dependence as has often happened.  Supportive alternatives (and the word here is “supportive”) should kick in as soon as they can with the objective of ensuring people remain as proactive and independent as possible.

And what about blaming the unemployed for not being able to find those non-existent jobs?  It’s the wrong tactic all round.  We should be encouraging – not rhetorically but practically – as many people as possible to want to strike out into an economy of the proactive.

Business should not be a fearful beast but something people find absolutely fascinating.

Of course, in a very great sense, big business encourages its participants, customers and employees to be as dependent on its services as possible.  They’re not looking in the least to create independent – that is to say, disloyal – subjects who pick and choose as the fancy takes them in an unpredictable and dangerously freedom-loving way; or who might either switch brands or even set up their own competing ones.  The very dependency culture which people like Iain Duncan Smith criticise in the public sector and Welfare State mindsets is – quite paradoxically – promoted aggressively and actively in that private one I describe above.

Working as an employee for a large corporation is to be cocooned in an environment where every few months little rewards come along to make you give up on the idea of spreading your wings; of leaving your safe and secure little role; of moving out of that comfort zone.  Buying as an end-user from a large corporation is to be cocooned in an environment where spreading similar wings to other providers is either dangerous or uncool; either risky or unwise; a choice the advertising messages pumped out daily encourage you to believe can’t exist.

Big business is as (perhaps corruptingly) effective at deliberately creating a dependency culture as the public sector and the Welfare State could ever be accused of.

With the single proviso that the Welfare State doesn’t seem to do it intentionally, whilst big business most definitely does.

And so to my main question – and the reason behind this post: big business – or at least banking big business (which is where my experience of such organisations lies) – is a web of dependent relationships.  Now I’m not saying this is necessarily bad – for myself, as an employee, and at a particular moment in my life, it actually proved very positive.  But if we can see in the private sector positives to be taken from such a set of relationships, why do we argue that in the public sector and the Welfare State the same cannot apply?

Why is it good to be dependent in the private sector but not in the public?

Why is dependency only to be contemplated as permissible by those who run transnational organisations?

And what does this mean for the morality of those who create such empires; their behaviours and attitudes; and, indeed, the wider ability of society to generate the entrepreneurial spirit that creates new economies?

Jun 292012

This tweet makes me wonder:

So. Focus on Ireland. Here in Dublin I can open thepiratebay.se. Brings it home what’s happened in the UK.

Meanwhile, a piece I did recently on a parody of British media coverage of the Queen’s Jubilee – as well as another on NHS reporting and possible super-injunctions – did rather make me think whether unflagged and unofficial online censorship wasn’t already becoming pretty widespread.  Perhaps it is indeed time to invent an error code which tells us when something has been removed from online access through government edict.  Alternatively, you might want to:

  1. Sign this change.org petition from Jimmy Wales.  It’s a deserving example of worldwide activism.  Click to find out more.
  2. Be amazed at this story of online incompetence from a government which claims to want to protect us from our wilder selves.
  3. Consider whether it’s time to give up on defending this Internet – and invent a new one instead.

Number 3?  Think about it.  Our rights to hassle-free communication appear little by little to be disappearing and degrading through the – perhaps – legitimate instincts of copyright owners everywhere.  They produce content; they deserve a living; we cannot, I accept, survive on bread and water alone.

Even bread and water has its price.

I am a little puzzled, of course, by some of the things that are happening: for example, whilst image sharing on the open web seems to have its own copyright Gestapo operating at full tilt, no one seems to care that a fundamental element of Facebook – maybe what most occupies us these days – is the sharing of copyrighted images.  That it happens within a walled garden where advertiser activities and rights are heavily controlled and foregrounded may possibly, of course, be playing a part in the collusion we seem to be getting from owners and sellers of such content.  But, at the very least, it doesn’t seem intellectually coherent to allow copyright infringement within Zuckerberg’s four blue walls – and pursue it so obsessively without.

Not that anyone could ever accuse the more extreme edge of the copyright lobby of intellectual coherence.

But I do begin to think that perhaps it’s time we regrouped our forces.  Louise Mensch’s Menshn.com website – whose lamentable hierarchy I lambasted here – does, on reflection, have one thing going for it: the desire to create a new space with new rules.  Her rules are typical Tory top-down agenda-setting control-freakism – but she is right in one sense: the worldwide web which we are now getting is becoming rather unfit for purpose.

In much the same way as our political parties, elected representatives, banking fraternity – and corporate makers and shakers in general …

Perhaps it’s not only time to give up on this Internet; perhaps it’s also time we gave up on our whole civilisation.  Time, with the best tools we have to hand, to invent a new one.  A new one not based on the philosophies of a Magna Carta world – a world which millionaire leaders are corrupting and dismantling faster than anyone would’ve predicted.

No.  A new one based on the philosophies of a rational, thoughtful, cooperating, collegiate and conversational network of equals.

Of sophisticated individuals who are far cleverer than society – with its strict hierarchies – currently allows for.

A revolution of the virtual.

A brand new Internet for a brand new and uncorrupted age.

Jun 292012

This is Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, on the subject of UK banks:

“It is time to do something about the banking system”, the governor said. “Many people in the banking industry are hard-working and feel badly let down by some of their colleagues and leaders.

“It goes to the culture and the structure of banks – the excessive compensation, the shoddy treatment of customers, the deceitful manipulation of a key interest rate, and today news of yet another mis-selling scandal.”

King remarks on the “shoddy treatment of customers” – but in saying that really doesn’t tell the whole story.  Like many corporations of a similar size, banks are actually examples of the most customer-focussed organisations in the world.  Whilst the Guardian summarises the last two days’ events thus …

Barclays was on Wednesday fined a record £290m for attempting to manipulate crucial interest rates known as the London interbank offered rate (Libor) and the Euro interbank offered rate (Euribor) between 2005 and 2009. On Friday the bank was among four banks implicated in interest swap misselling to small businesses.

… and, by so doing, probably leads the vast majority of the population to shake its head in total moral disbelief, I’m inclined to believe the most important lesson is that all these cases are clear examples of managerialism run absolutely riot:

However, you read it, the crisis shows that managerialism – the idea that some people have the capacity to control large organizations for the better – is wrong. Managerialism is an ideology justifying big pay for bosses, not an empirical truth.

About four years ago I wrote these lines on the subject of a text on total quality management in banking, whilst still working for a bank in a most humble capacity myself:

If only top-level managers read things like this and understood them. (Or maybe they do and I just never can understand where they’re coming from – never appreciate their nuances) […]

The nuances I mention, of course, I realise now, were that managerialist ideology which was used to justify big pay for bosses.  It’s just that at the time I was still naive enough to believe people at all levels in a hierarchy operated with the very same levels of goodwill – when this obviously isn’t the case.  To underline what I mean: Mervyn King is absolutely right to say that many people in the banking industry are “hard-working and feel badly let down by some of their colleagues and leaders”.  But he is wrong to say that the banks treat customers shoddily.

Or, at least, he is wrong to imply that all customers are treated shoddily.

Managerialism would indicate the internal customers such as executive directors and their immediate reports – as well as to a degree (though perhaps less and less these days) the shareholders too – are treated absolutely perfectly: their bonus and pension schemes; their travel and accommodation perks; their communication tools; their training opportunities; their rights to be rewarded whatever the results … all this and more shows that for some banking customers, banks are, as I already suggested, organisations which know quite a lot about focussing on their needs.

It’s not that they don’t know how to do it, is it?  It’s that they choose very carefully which customers they should please.

This quote from my piece from 2008 describes perfectly what I had seen happen in my place of work.  Taken from a text by a man called Ronald A Frick, and setting out the struggle it can be to implement total quality management in the context of banking, the following paragraph describes the car crash which – in hindsight – has clearly taken place since then:

A common mistake most companies make is to rely on packaged programs or solutions. High-pressure, short-term, purchased solutions normally fail in the long run. In this approach, there is a flurry of activity in which the employer asks, or begs, employees for money-saving ideas. As soon as the month is over, the employees re-enter never-never land, where their ideas are never, never solicited. Total quality management can affect organizational change and customer-driven service; however, it requires commitment on everyone’s part at every level and a well laid-out strategy and plan to implement the process.*

If you want to know why I find the idea of working for corporations so resistible, it’s because my almost seven-year-long experience of doing so involved supporting the implementation of packaged programmes and solutions; drumming up enthusiasm for brainstorming sessions to generate money-saving ideas; seeing such ideas put on the back-burner by an unconvinced middle management; ignoring external customer complaints; watching money being wasted on a scale the public sector could only dream of; and, in the end, discovering sadly and dispiritingly that the most important customer in the corporation I worked for was the one who earned the fifty percent bonuses.

I believe in total quality management one hundred percent – where everyone, every minute of the day, in a company or organisation is both a customer and supplier of equal importance.  But the very moment you get a hierarchy of customers and suppliers – when some become more important than others – is exactly the moment when you allow a director or manager to justify an inefficiency, an injustice or, finally, an illegality.

Perhaps more regulation isn’t the way forward; perhaps packaged programmes and high-pressure, short-term, purchased solutions aren’t either.  Perhaps, as a series of communities, a society and a civilisation, we need to recover our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.  To think about the other.  To understand that everyone everywhere is a customer deserving of our attention.

That we are all essentially equal.

That we are all, indeed, in it together.


*The full text can now be found behind a paywall here, though in 2008 when I first studied and quoted from it was still available on the open web.

Jun 282012

I’m wondering this evening, as European ministers and politicians various meet somewhere abroad to agree once more that they do not agree about the euro – and, especially, that they do not agree on how to make it just that little bit more palatable to the markets – whether the markets have any right to determine the future of anything.

The news about Barclays, for example, just gets worse and worse.  Whilst in the US, the Justice Department agreed not to prosecute individuals at Barclays when it slapped on its hefty fines (more here with what appears to be original documentation in .pdf format), this evening I discover, as I watch Nick Robinson on the BBC, that there is actually no specific British law at the UK end of things under which the interbank rate-fixing scam could end up being prosecuted.  It is apparently hoped in police circles – and presumably in the rest of the country – that general anti-fraud legislation could be used instead.  If, that is, the FSA or the police don’t decide to go down the route of the US Justice Department’s unhappy let-off.

I’m afraid on that issue, words are beginning to fail me.  There is only a certain number of expletives one can toss in the general direction of computer and TV screens.  That maximum number, at least for me, was reached this morning.

Meanwhile, on a slightly separate matter, Norman argues that because universities are populated by Marxist researchers doing their level best to undermine capitalist society, it’s not fair to describe such institutions as “unabashed instruments of capital”.  In the light of the Barclays scandal – and what I presume to be the heavy involvement of similar banking institutions in the administration of the latterday student loans system – and whilst there might have been a time I might have been more sympathetic to the position he holds, I don’t think it’s fair to deny the assertion any more.  It seems pretty evident now that ever since New Labour introduced tuition fees and extended the requirement to take on student loans, universities have been working hand-in-glove with corrupt organisations to fleece and – whether intentionally or not – socially engineer our youth so that they become accustomed to the idea of acquiring an indebted state for what is often an educationally poor provision of learning resources.  As the NUS have recently suggested:

Liam Burns, the president of the National Union of Students, is calling for university lecturers to be forced to acquire teaching qualifications to ensure that students paying tuition fees are getting the most out of their degrees.

With three-year courses now costing up to £27,000 in fees, Burns says universities should recognise that they need to improve the standards of teaching in seminars and lectures, including those delivered by postgraduate students, who are increasingly used as a cheap alternative to professional academics by cash-starved institutions.

So there we have it.  On the one hand, a complex price-fixing scam in the banking sector for which no relevant law exists in order to prosecute; on the other, an absence of recognised qualifications for services provided by the universities on the back of a tripling of tuition fees generated to make even more money for both themselves and the Barclays of this world.

As well as serving to prepare their future clients for that slippery slope down to an onerously unending – and long ago socially accepted – indebtedness.

You remember when they used to talk about the military-industrial complex?  You know the sort of thing:

Military–industrial complex, or Military–industrial-congressional complex[1], is a concept commonly used to refer to policy and monetary relationships between legislators, national armed forces, and the defense industrial base that supports them. These relationships include political contributions, political approval for defense spending, lobbying to support bureaucracies, and oversight of the industry. It is a type of iron triangle.

Well how about we start talking about the banking-industrial complex?  I really think it’s time we did, you know.

And time we had a Leveson-style inquiry to lay it bare.

This is not just a few rogue traders; a few rotten apples; a few corked bottles of champagne.  People have committed individual crimes against society – but the biggest crime committed is systematically against the very concept of the free market.

Our trust in the free market is becoming non-existent – and quite rightly so.

And it’s the banking-industrial complex, and all those who have their snouts in the troughs they fabricate, and here I include the universities and educational institutions which expand on the back of debilitating financial misery, which is finally destroying – where Communism and socialism failed to – any vestiges of confidence in the system it supposedly supported all these years.

“Unabashed instruments of capital”?  The phrase is spot-on.  Instruments of capital – not instruments of the free market.  And their reach and their tentacles and their sad ability to corrupt everyone and everything they touch is what is destroying a civilisation which – in hindsight – only ever achieved a superficiality of apparently radical and thoughtful education.

Jun 282012

As per reports this morning, it looks like other banksalongside Barclays – may have been involved in the alleged interbank interest rate-fixing scam.  Two questions, then, for the banking fraternity this morning.  First, prompted by a friend’s observation on Facebook:

Where banks are partially or mostly owned by the taxpayer, and where they are eventually found to have also been involved in the scam, will the taxpayer as effective shareholder end up footing the bill for any fines which might be applied?

And second, from a tweet of my own this morning:

If #banks have been manipulating interest rates, does that mean we should all get refunds on mortgages & loans for having overpaid?

I think these two scenarios and questions need exploring and answering.  What do you think?

Jun 282012

This is me, a couple of days ago:

The final stage leads to death – or, in football, to that late goal which is bound to come after so many waves of debilitating attacks:

And (the bold is today’s):

And so we see how tiki-taka is so fundamentally informed by Spanish bullfighting.  Just as passes, beauty and honour – aesthetics and process, in fact – are as important in the latter as the result itself, so passes, beauty and honour form fundamental elements of the former.  It’s not only what you do in Spanish national football, it’s also how.

The ball as a bull; the footballer as bullfighter.

Meanwhile, this is Fabregas, yesterday (again, the bold is today’s):

“We had to make history,” he said.

“I had a funny feeling about the penalties and I was thinking about them this afternoon.

“They told me initially to take the second one but I said ‘no, give me the fifth’ as I had this premonition.

“When I stepped up to take the penalty I said to the ball that we had to make history and it shouldn’t let me down.

“I talked to the ball four years ago [when he scored the winning penalty against Italy] and it didn’t let me down.”

What is this, if not an anthropomorphism of  the ball?  An anthropomorphism which mirrors the relationship a bullfighter has with the bull: the brave bull, the noble bull, the bull of certain caste …

Believe me now?

Jun 272012

Bob Diamond, the top boss at Barclays, has this to say on the circumstances that led to a £290 million fine being slapped on the bank for apparently manipulating – in contravention of its own rules and to its own benefit – interbank interest rates over a sustained period of time (the bold is mine):

“The events which gave rise to today’s resolutions relate to past actions which fell well short of the standards to which Barclays aspires in the conduct of its business. When we identified those issues, we took prompt action to fix them and co-operated extensively and proactively with the authorities,” Diamond said.

“Nothing is more important to me than having a strong culture at Barclays; I am sorry that some people acted in a manner not consistent with our culture and values.”

The Guardian report which lays out these pretty repulsive facts starts out by telling us (again, the bold is mine):

The £59.5m fine from the Financial Services Authority is the largest penalty ever levied by the City regulator, which found that Barclays contravened its rules for a number of years and involved “a significant number of employees”.

Both these passages lead me to wonder if my previous piece on prejudice in politics isn’t being replicated in other areas of life.  And perhaps when I said “prejudice”, I should have really said “values”.  And when I say values, perhaps I should make the distinction between overt and covert values.  For when Mr Diamond says “Nothing is more important to me than having a strong culture at Barclays […]” and we learn that what happened took place over “a number of years and involved a ‘significant number of employees'”, what then do we have if not an organisation with two separate sets of cultures?  The overt one, the one supposedly promoted by HR and communications departments various, the one – in fact – which Mr Diamond argues did not prevail; and the covert one, the one many people operated under for many years, the one which concentrated great wealth in the already deep pockets of its shareholders and managerial class – and which, presumably, went undetected by absolutely everyone at the top.

And so it is that I am minded to come back to politics.  When politicians, think tanks, supporters and tacticians all slaver on about the importance of values in political action, are they actually following the same line Barclays Bank apparently followed?  Overt values for the working classes and covert values for those who wish to get to power on the back of the former’s votes.

And if such a circumstance wasn’t sufficiently bad in itself, when they talk about values as if they were an intellectual breath of fresh air – and when they refuse to recognise the existence of any equivalent cousins of a covert nature – are they actually talking not about a distinct concept of political weight but, rather, about rank-and-file prejudices very similar to the most primitive which any of us out here are inclined to hold?

Just dressed up in fancy language …

In short, are political values nothing more nor less than tiresomely cobbled-together belief systems – as lacking in scientific rigour or, indeed, any basis in real and useful evidence as any mumbo jumbo we might be required to stumble across?

And if so, what does that mean for our most beloved political parties?  Mine, for example – which, in Tony Blair’s massive reign, was rebuilt through the clever sleight-of-hand that was this game of remaining true to our values – even as we arguably changed our political colours.

All of which leads to me to want to add one final thought, before we shut up shop for tonight: if Labour has been a party of mumbo jumbo, it’s not the only political party which has played what is clearly a long-standing game of overt values versus covert values; nor the only one which has been selling the idea that values are far more resilient and acceptable than prejudices.

They are all, in fact, I would suggest, to a greater or lesser degree, tempted by this euphemism that the word “values” has become ; and, just as similarly, tempted to create a two-tier relationship – as per the Barclays example we started out with today – between the values they aspire to in public and the values they practise when at work behind the scenes.

Business and politics were never so mirroring as today.  When it could be so good, it turns out so foul.

What have we done to our societies?

Really, what have we allowed to take place under our stupid noses?

Jun 272012

Chris concludes his post today in the following damning and depressing way:

[…] Miliband says, correctly, that Labour became “disconnected from the concerns of working people.” This is not just a political problem but an individual one for those of use who jumped through the Govean hoops of “rigour”: we become socially isolated, geeks, weirdos and nerds. Academic success has big drawbacks.

It could, then, be that the costs of rigour outweigh the benefits.

If I understand the implications correctly of his conclusion, academia and politics simply don’t mix.  Academia is for a world where evidence is valued.  But the problem politics has with such an approach – quite at the margin of whether we should trust our current leaders and give them the benefit of the doubt in what they do – is that most ordinary people don’t seem to value evidence at all.  In much the same way, in fact, as most political actors in charge – who don’t seem to either these days.

I’ve recently had occasion to criticise politicians for being medieval (more on the greasy-pole theorem here), but Chris’s piece today makes me wonder if I’m being unfair.  What if politicians are right to use prejudice to move the mountains of voters?  What if nations cannot be usefully moved in any other way?  What if we are condemned to a society and civilisation where “the concerns of working people” unhappily equal attitudes constructed on the sands of prejudice instead of solid opinions based on the realities of careful study?

If – as members of political movements, as promoters of evidence-based social and mainstream media and as thoughtful people in general – we are foolishly swimming against an ultimately unstoppable tide, perhaps it is time we admitted that voters are on the whole not scientists, researchers nor PhD students – and prejudice-based politicians who intuitively press our buttons know far more about the business of politics than we, in our white plastic towers of iPads and connected gadgets various, will ever know.

It’s a saddening thought though, isn’t it?  A saddening thought.


Further reading: a couple of websites which have come my way recently and which attempt to inject evidence and objective information into the hackneyed debates of politics.  First, Political Innovation‘s new project Who Funds You?: a sharp attempt to make absolutely clear which political and business ideologues are funding which allegedly – and in some cases superficially – even-handed think tanks.  Second, a new blog from Andrew which looks at how an overarching superstructure of attitudes, behaviours and hows might inform any British government, whatever the political inclination.

Jun 252012

David Cameron is – above all – an adman.  And to understand his approach to politics, you need understand nothing more than the hard sell.  Wiktionary defines it thus:

hard sell (plural hard sells)

  1. sales technique of pressuring the potential buyer to agree to a purchase.
  2. A sales transaction which is challenging for the sales person to make; any act or object of persuasion which is challenging.

Cameron’s most recent wicked wheeze is to argue that people under the age of 25 should have all housing benefit removed.  No mention of the fact that he himself owns several houses, that he inherited millions from his parents and was about as privileged as anyone can ever hope (or perhaps, these days, fear) to be.

Or, indeed, the fact that he, as a Witney MP, chose to claim mortgage interest on his MP’s second home allowance over a five year period:

The following day – Monday 11 May – Cameron’s expenses were published by the Telegraph. These showed that he had claimed a total of £82,450 on his second home allowance over five years. He agreed to pay back £680 he had claimed for repairs to his constituency home, including the cost of clearing wisteria.

Nicely dressed-up example of housing benefit, that; sounds so much better as “second home allowance” …

So where is Mr Cameron taking us then?  How can we predict what will be his next evil step?  Let’s go back to the concept of the hard sell – especially that part of the definition which runs: “[…] any act or object of persuasion which is challenging.”  For a man forged in adman land, clearly a case of the more challenging, the better.

If mates of his are going to be caught with their barely legal and entirely immoral fingers in tax-avoidance paradise, let’s trash a famous comedian beforehand – and bask in the reflected glow of his abject apology.  If close associates are to be discovered attempting to sell places at the highest tables in official dining-rooms, let’s balls-up – very postprandial-like – all the most unpopular measures of a Budget which no one (given the economic circumstances) can ever have cared two hoots about anyway.  And if HMRC unions claim that more than £120 billion in tax is lost annually through tax avoidance and evasion, it’s high time that the Coalition begins to float ideas that serve – instead – to pursue, victimise, and criminalise the poorest in society.

The more outrageous the circumstance, the easier it can be turned on its head.

Today, Mr Cameron has become a criminal of sorts.

Satire is dead – and the final blow was administered by an adman.

Jun 242012

I’ve been thinking about this for a while.  Those who criticise the characteristically Spanish style of passing football will accept that:

Tiki-taka is associated with flair, creativity, and touch,[16] […]

but will also argue that:

[it] can also be taken to a “slow, directionless extreme” that sacrifices effectiveness for aesthetics.[14]

Yet whilst “exciting” is what football aficionados always used to expect from their beautiful game, it’s the word “fascinating” which is more often than not used about Spanish – and FC Barcelona – matches.  There is a cat-and-mouse feel as opposing teams – characteristically turned into victims by the gameplay employed – are drawn quite against their better judgement out of their good intentions and pre-game strategies by the patient and wise spatial intelligence of those who – one day – decided to play to their strengths:

Raphael Honigstein describes the tiki-taka played by the Spanish national team at the 2010 FIFA World Cup as “a radical style that only evolved over the course of four years,” arising from Spain’s decision in 2006 that “they weren’t physical and tough enough to outmuscle opponents, so instead wanted to concentrate on monopolising the ball.”[11]

Necessity is the mother of invention.  And what an invention.  I’ve argued before on these pages that tiki-taka reminds me so very much of video-console football games, as the players progress in precise diagonals across the field of play:

Barcelona, at their best, are a wonder to behold.  All those triangular passes which draw the opposition forwards – and aim to leave gaping spaces into which they can then dart …

Cat and mouse football.

Just like playing a game of Playstation football, in fact.

Now if you never have, I suggest you do so sharpish – and you’ll see exactly what I mean.  The system of passing – the glory, for example, of taking so many corners away from the goal and via short balls to retain possession – suits entirely the pixels of virtual gaming.  Watching Barcelona’s “carousel” in action is to watch the virtual realities of videogames translated into the offline practice of multimillion-pound soccer.

There’s a PhD to be written about this: how the virtual world impacts the real world and changes entirely the way we do things.

Barcelona, then, is the first virtual football team made real.

But I wonder if I was entirely right to attribute some of Spanish football’s grace and favour to the videogame generation.  Perhaps there is an older cat-and-mouse tradition – just as theatrical too – which Spanish footballing culture has subliminally, quite unconsciously, drawn on.

Set aside how you feel about the subject of bullfighting.  Accept that for many Spaniards – and certainly whilst I was living there – it was more culture than sport (the newspapers always defined it as the former); more a narrative on the subject of life than a bloody and gratuitous waste of a noble animal’s existence.  Accepting, then, that such was the case, let’s have a look at its structure:

The modern corrida is highly ritualized, with three distinct parts or tercios, the start of each of which is announced by a trumpet sound.

There is a sense, therefore, in its three acts which lead up to inevitable death, of overlording process and yet – at the same time – room for flashes of true brilliance and real individuality.  In the first part, then:

[…] the matador observes how the bull charges as capes are thrust by the banderilleros. He also notes vision problems, unusual head movements, or if the bull favors a part of the ring called a querencia, or territory. A bull trying to reach its querencia is often more dangerous than a bull that is attacking the cape directly. The initial attack by the matador is called suerte de capote (“act of the cape”), and there are a number of fundamental “lances” or passes that matadors make; the most common being the verónica.

Next, two picadores enter the arena, each armed with a lance or vara. The picadores are mounted on large heavily padded and blindfolded horses. The bull is encouraged to attack the horse which is protected by its padding and appears to treat the attack with stoic patience. The picador stabs a mound of muscle (morrillo) on the bull’s neck leading to the animal’s first loss of blood. This loss of blood further weakens the bull and makes him ready for the next stage. Padded protection for the horses was mandated relatively recently in history and up to the 1930s the horses were gored and killed by the bull in the ring.

As the picador stabs the top of the bull with the lance, the bull charges and attempts to lift the picador’s horse with its neck muscles. This causes further weakening of the neck. If the picador does his job well, the bull will hold its head and horns lower during the following stages of the fight. This makes him slightly less dangerous while enabling the matador to perform the passes of modern bullfighting.

This stage is a mandatory step in the corrida, and regulations require that the plaza judge ensures a certain number of hits are made before it is completed. In some rings a torero may request more or fewer hits in order to correct any perceived defects.

As we can see from the above, the objective is to simultaneously weaken and bewilder the enemy as well as test for any strengths it may – even so – continue to demonstrate.  The cat-and-mouse instincts of Spanish and Barcelona football clearly find their parallels in the above.

The second stage sees a further weakening of the opposition as:

[…] the three banderilleros each attempt to plant two barbed sticks (banderillas, literally “little flags” as they are decorated with paper in the local colors) in the bull’s shoulders. These further weaken the enormous ridges of neck and shoulder muscle (which set fighting bulls apart from ordinary cattle) through loss of blood, while also frequently spurring the bull into making more ferocious charges. By this point the bull has lost a significant amount of blood and is exhausted. The matador then enters with his cape and sword, tiring the bull further with several runs at the cape.

The process of wearing down the physical and mental capacity of the enemy is not only relentless and unremitting but also highly proceduralised.  Whilst toreros earn their followings and are famously different one from another, none of them ever steps outside the scripted boundaries of any of these stages.

The final stage leads to death – or, in football, to that late goal which is bound to come after so many waves of debilitating attacks:

[…] the matador re-enters the ring alone with a small red cape or muleta in one hand and a sword in the other. This cape is stretched with a wooden dowel and, in right-handed passes, the sword as well.

Having dedicated the bull to an individual or the whole audience, the matador uses his cape to attract the bull in a series of passes, both demonstrating his control over it and risking his life by getting especially close to it. The red colour of the cape is a matter of tradition, as bulls are actually color blind: they attack moving objects (the real reason that a red colored cape is used is that any blood stains on it will be less noticeable). There are a number of distinct styles of passes, each with its own name. The fundamental pass with the muleta is the “natural”, traditionally meaning a left-handed pass with the muleta without the aid of the sword to prop it up.

The faena (“job”) is the entire performance with the muleta, which is usually broken down into a series of “tandas” or “series”. A typical tanda might consist of three to five basic passes and then a finishing touch, or “remate”, such as a “pase de pecho”, or “pase de desprecio”. Spectacular passes are celebrated by the audience with shouts of “¡ole!“. The faena ends with a final series of passes in which the matador with a muleta attempts to manoeuvre the bull into a position to stab it between the shoulder blades and through the aorta or heart. The entire part of the bullfight with the muleta is called el tercio de muerte (“third of death”) suerte de muleta (“act of muleta”).

And so we see how tiki-taka is so fundamentally informed by Spanish bullfighting.  Just as passes, beauty and honour – aesthetics and process, in fact – are as important in the latter as the result itself, so passes, beauty and honour form fundamental elements of the former.  It’s not only what you do in Spanish national football, it’s also how.

The ball as a bull; the footballer as bullfighter.

Simple and obvious when you come to think about it.  Impossible, that is, for it to be any other way.

Jun 232012

I was unhappy about a previous Turing e-petition aimed at achieving an official pardon from the government.  I argued that Turing had done nothing which deserved a pardon; if anything, it was Turing’s estate which should reserve the right to decide whether to pardon the government.

So it was I refused to sign that petition.  But today, on the hundredth anniversary of Turing’s birth, and via the always precise Jack of Kent, comes another e-petition couched in the following terms:

Put Alan Turing on the next £10 note
Responsible department: Her Majesty’s Treasury

Alan Turing is a national hero. His contribution to computer science, and hence to the life of the nation and the world, is incalculable. The ripple-effect of his theories on modern life continues to grow, and may never stop.

The current Bank of England £10 notes are Series E, but Series F notes are already in circulation for some denominations. We therefore call upon the Treasury to request the Bank of England to consider depicting Alan Turing when Series F £10 banknotes are designed.

I’ve already signed this e-petition; I sincerely hope you can find yourself able to do the same.

Turing was a bastion against fascist attitudes and behaviours, both during and after the war.

He deserves our appreciation – as well as our never-ending affection.

Jun 222012

I only applied to one university in 1980.  I only applied for one course of study.  I couldn’t see myself lasting out any other of the offerings at the time.  I made a mistake filling out my application form and missed out General Studies.  I was made an offer at Warwick University to study Film and Literature on the basis of the results I was expected to get in the other three subjects I studied at A-level – one of which was, unusually, the challenging subject of Mathematics.

My Mathematics teacher was off for ten weeks with a stroke that year.  He refused to take early retirement; the school neglected to contract a replacement.  My grasp of Maths had never been very good; I clearly should’ve taken English Literature, but parental pressure took me down the scientific route.  The omens were therefore not very good.

And so it was that I was offered a place at Warwick University to study Film and Literature on the basis of A-levels in Engineering Science, Economics and Mathematics.

If I remember rightly, there were around twenty places on offer and perhaps a hundred or two applicants.

There weren’t too many film studies courses around at the time in the UK.

In the end, I failed my Maths A-level – I got another O-level instead – but Warwick very kindly let me in because of my General Studies, where I achieved an A grade.  I wasn’t a brilliant student; I had problems with my study methods.  But I did get a 2(i) at the end of it.

It was 1983.

Margaret Thatcher was holding sway quite despite her disastrous economic policies.  Unemployment was rife.

I wanted to be a writer.

I spent three years living with my parents, writing stories and sending them off.  And getting them returned, often by return of post.  I used a real typewriter at the time; later an Amstrad computer with a WordStar clone.  But the rejections didn’t stop taking place.

By the time I was twenty-four, I felt pretty unhappy.  Then I met a Spanish woman at a birthday party – in Salford, of all places.  She invited me over to Spain in the summer of 1987, after a year of having exchanged letters.  This was way before email was available for the majority of the population.  Perhaps way before email was available for anyone.

In Spain I found myself at home.  I added value to Spanish society.  I was a university-educated English speaker who quickly learnt how to popularly teach the English language to the Spanish.  This would never have been possible in my own country.

Wherever on earth that might have been for an Oxford-born half-Croatian with a sixteenth part Spanish Jew, an atheist English father and a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic-practising anti-Communist mother.

I added value precisely because I crossed those frontiers.  I already added value (just wasn’t aware I did) before I went to Spain – precisely because of the mix of cultures I represented.

I escaped Thatcher’s Britain because in such an environment I believed I was worthless.  I felt that what I represented wasn’t needed by the cost-reducing instincts of a Darwinian capitalism in full pursuit of that deep-pocket-enriching bottom line.

But the Spanish – far more clearly – did need me.

For twelve years.

Then my boss – a man I considered a dear friend and even a kind of partner (perhaps that was my mistake) – broke certain understandings into painful and destructive shards.  I lost a lot more of my family’s money than I had a right to.  Finally, I lost my mind in an awful crisis of confidence.  This has affected me ever since as I struggle and battle to regain the right to become a businessperson again.

Business – good business – involves crossing those frontiers I mentioned above.  Cultural rub, cultural dissonance – these are terms that I have used on these pages before to describe the manifestly creative aspects of promoting difference; of promoting our respect for such difference; of promoting its power and ability to devise new futures.

There is nothing more exciting than to find oneself a fish out of water – yet able, somehow, to survive.  That change which takes place – and which takes one aback – as sea creatures morph into amphibious beings suddenly able to engineer brand new ways of living.

So after that crisis of confidence – which, in a sense, was my fault entirely; my fault as I failed to properly understand the ins and outs of a culture still foreign to me – I retreated back to the country I was born in.  It was a messy retreat for which I felt a great deal of guilt during a long time afterwards.  Indirectly, if that is at all the right adverb in the context of the verb which comes next, I wrenched my wife and three children out of their home environment – and forced them to study and work as migrants in a country I had never, myself, known how to completely call my own.

For that was the funniest thing: I, also, felt myself a migrant.  A migrant as I returned to my “own” country; a migrant as foreign as they felt.

Blair’s Britain, its five-a-day exhortations, its ASBOs, its LEA letters threatening us with fines if we allowed the children to stay off school … all this did most definitely not seem the green and pleasant land of my childhood, of my Ladybird books, of my graded readers, of my primary education.  Milkmen still existed; but not for long.  I think even two postal deliveries still existed; but, if they did, not for long.  School milk had long disappeared; meanwhile, Microsoft and Dell ruled the education establishments in their shiny and salesperson-driven realities.

The open source software I had stumbled across in Spain was a century – and a world – away from the country I should surely have felt formed a close and intimate part of me.

Even as I didn’t.

So how can one feel a migrant in one’s country of birth?  How is this possible?  Are some of us natural migrants?  Do some of us belong naturally to all countries and none?

What is this strange feeling I have of being a migrant wherever I go?

And will I ever, now, manage to fit in?

Or will I forever be condemned to a state of foolishly square peg in that deceptively round hole – that round hole which belongs to men and women who only believe in people who believe in fitting in?


So it was that I studied Film and Literature; taught English for twelve years to the Spanish; had a crisis of confidence; studied to be a publisher; had a second, far worse, crisis of confidence; and then found myself working for seven dispiriting and soulless years in a back-office operation in a bank (even as I rightly fought to make up to my family the mistakes I had committed a decade before).

And where am I now?  What am I now?  A migrant in the country I was born in.  A man who can call Spain his adopted home; Croatia his distant love; and England his resilient oppressor.  England an oppressor?  It both drove me mad during the Iraq War and then, via the NHS, put me back together.  It both educated my three Spanish children and taught them the value of their rather more perfectly formed identities.  It both gave work back to my wife and taught me I was capable of going so far as to damage my body on humble data-inputting production lines – out of love for a family I treasured above everything else.

It also showed me how cruel and ingrained the class system still is in this country – this country which proclaims itself a bastion of opportunity.

Oh yes.  I understand what it is to be an immigrant.  Because, from the day I was born, I never belonged anywhere.

Even as I knew, in my heart and soul, I had the right to belong everywhere.

Jun 222012

Ed Miliband speaks on the subject of immigration.  You can find his speech here in full at politics.co.uk.

Sadly, it seems that Miliband is falling once more into the trap of defining a mere indicator of our ills – a political litmus test if you like – as being the very cause of all our troubles.

In reality, immigration isn’t the issue at all: the issue is that politicians of his stratospheric level cannot decide, in the midst of economic doom, whether they believe in expanding or steady-state economies.  If, in their heart of hearts, they really believed in the former – that never-ending growth was the solution to our problems – then immigration would never be seen as anything but a positive tool to resolve our problems of low birthrate, skills gaps, a population which is getting older and so forth.

Unfortunately, it would seem that – in their heart of hearts – they can’t quite summon up the intellectual courage to admit either to themselves or their woefully kept-in-the-dark voters that an expanding economy, with all the rapacious economic activity which goes along with it, is simply no longer feasible in a world of clearly finite resources.

Yet they continue to act in other areas of policy-making as if it – that is to say, an open-ended and expansionary society – truly were an option sensible people could continue to promote.

Of course, Mr Miliband, the problem isn’t that immigration is putting an impossible strain on our economies.  The problem is that for the past fifty years your political class has created and sustained policy structures which support the idea of expanding economies and all their implications – and then spent the last four years in utter denial when the gravy train has completely gone off the rails.

Sort out what you want to make of our economies before you fiddle around with irrelevancies such as nationalities and borders.  For what’s absolutely clear is that if you want to talk of borders, far more important than influxes of people is the free and destructive movement of capital at the whim of global investors.

When politicians mention immigration, it’s generally because they don’t want to mention something else.

And that something else is the cruelties of an all-imposing capital: a capital which makes poor workforces servants and sufferers of cleverly eternal money – instead of clever money servants of the perishable goods that are ordinary people.

Jun 212012

If Twitter can be believed, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t, especially as the author of this particular tweet appears to work for the BBC, David Cameron has just chosen to use the adjective “egregious” to describe Jimmy Carr’s unhappy foray into tax-avoidance land.  The tweet in question runs as follows:

PM on why its ok to criticise Jimmy Carr but not Gary Barlow:”I made an exception yesteday…it was a particularly egregious example”

A particularly egregious example, you say?  Really?

Let’s see.

To my surprise, and perhaps Mr Cameron’s too, even Wiktionary has the following to say about its usage:

Usage notes
The negative meaning arose in the late 16th century, probably originating in sarcasm. Before that, it meant outstanding in a good way. Webster also gives “distinguished” as an archaic form, and notes that its present form often has an unpleasant connotation (e.g., “an egregious error”). It generally precedes such epithets as “rogue,” “rascal,” “ass,” “blunderer” – but may also be used for a compliment, or even on its own: “Sir, you are egregious.”

So can we safely assume that Mr Cameron is an egalitarian man of our century – and really meant to say that Jimmy Carr’s wizard wheeze was a particularly poor example of tax avoidance which … well … should be avoided by us all?  Or, alternatively, are we to understand that our dear Prime Minister is a bit of an Etonian throwback to the 16th century (lords, nobles, serfs and servants … one rule for the poor, another for the rich) – and actually meant to say that Carr’s was a rather admirable example to follow?

Oh dear.

I think we should be told, don’t you?  I really do think we should be told.


A video to finish – something Peter drew my attention to this morning.

As well as giving us an overview of the comedic case referred to above, it also explains how one of the industries which most supports a proper observance of copyright law – the music industry – is also allegedly participating in schemes which could be interpreted as hardly dissimilar to those already mentioned.

I’m really not sure how easy it’s going to be to generate sympathy for such music-makers’ positions on intellectual property, especially if the latter reality is confirmed to be true – but there you go … who am I to say?


Jun 212012

Some thoughts first from Louis on the experience of private prisons in the US:

[…] Privatizing social works and services is a generally bad idea and in prisons, as with medical care and education, all the more fraught. Private prisons exist by housing prisoners, meaning that the more the local juridical system produces them, the better the locality where the private prison is located (employment, taxes). It goes further. Prison labour is cheap and not unionized. These, alas, are not idle connections.

Then, also via Louis, and from the New York Times recently, a report on how privatised halfway houses are allowing a stream of criminals to escape from their privatised care:

After decades of tough criminal justice policies, states have been grappling with crowded prisons that are straining budgets. In response to those pressures, New Jersey has become a leader in a national movement to save money by diverting inmates to a new kind of privately run halfway house.

The report goes on to say:

Yet with little oversight, the state’s halfway houses have mutated into a shadow corrections network, where drugs, gang activity and violence, including sexual assaults, often go unchecked, according to a 10-month investigation by The New York Times.

With a final damning conclusion:

Since 2005, roughly 5,100 inmates have escaped from the state’s privately run halfway houses […].

Finally, we go to the Guardian, where the head of G4S is reported to be pushing the following line on police privatisation:

[…] “For most members of the public what they will see is the same or better policing and they really don’t care who is running the fleet, the payroll or the firearms licensing – they don’t really care,” he said.

He is also quoted as saying:

Taylor-Smith said core policing would remain a public-sector preserve but added: “We have been long-term optimistic about the police and short-to-medium-term pessimistic about the police for many years. Our view was, look, we would never try to take away core policing functions from the police but for a number of years it has been absolutely clear as day to us – and to others – that the configuration of the police in the UK is just simply not as effective and as efficient as it could be.”

Meanwhile, the contracts that are apparently being tendered for could:

result in private companies taking responsibility for duties ranging from investigating crimes to transporting suspects and managing intelligence.

So what exactly is this definition of core policing?  How does it not include investigating crimes, transporting suspects or managing intelligence?  As the Guardian report goes on  to underline:

In the £1.5bn deal being discussed by West Midlands and Surrey police, the list of policing activities up for grabs includes investigating crimes, detaining suspects, developing cases, responding to and investigating incidents, supporting victims and witnesses, managing high-risk individuals, managing intelligence, managing engagement with the public, as well as more traditional back-office functions such as managing forensics, providing legal services, managing the vehicle fleet, finance and human resources.

What the hell, after all that lot, is left for the public servant to carry out?


A final thought to be going away with: this much vaunted procedure whereby private companies supposedly square the circles of efficiency, the pursuit of shareholder gain and the ethos of public service – the latter also mentioned quite aggressively, as well as questionably, by the head of G4S in his declamations to the Guardian – is little short of a return to Soviet-style socialism for the rich.  Once the contracts have been duly tendered for, the competitive choice of the real end-user – that is to say, the taxpayer who foots the bill that ends up in the pockets of private shareholders – is limited, by virtue of the very structure of the tender, to one private company instead of one public body.

So where the devil is the difference in that?  Except, of course, that private shareholders who already own deep pockets get to deepen them even further on the backs of the livelihoods and tax pounds of ordinary citizens.  Which, in the case of public services and civil servants, didn’t happen all that often.

And with the additional dangers of a hands-off relationship between state and privatising industry which, to paraphrase Louis’s words and the conclusions of the New York Times, can only lead to a degradation of the service provided.

I tell you what.  Here’s a bright idea which would convince me there was really something in this.  How about if prisoners and criminals were able to choose between a range of corrective institutions as one would choose between a range of MP3 players?

If we truly believe in the virtues of private business over public administration, surely we need that daily vote that a consumer-driven market involves.  Without such incessant consumer input, we’re simply back to the bad old days of monopoly and pretty easy dosh.  Long-term exclusive contracts which tie a direct customer – the state – into a deal they can rarely wriggle out of when expectations, if ever set, are inevitably unmet.

Daylight robbery, in fact.

Interestingly enough.

Jun 202012

You don’t often get too much fun on this blog – perhaps one of its many and diverse failings.  So here’s something to leaven your day – and, hopefully, bring a smile to your face.

Apparently (and I jest not), the MP Louise Mensch and the ex-Labour Party member Luke Bozier have decided to set up a website called menshn.com – with the aim of improving on the functionality of Twitter.

I thought this was such a good idea that last night I decided to set up my own version.  You should be able to find this now at attenshn.com. And if – at the time of writing – the domain hasn’t reached your part of the world, attenshn.wordpress.com should definitely do you.

Have fun!