Tuesday, July 21, 2015

True to our Values

OK, who do we back in the Middle East conflicts? I mean, we’ve got to back SOMEONE, haven’t we? We have to remain true to our values, don't we? 

This year is the 50th anniversary of little-discussed, but classic example of these values, when the US backed the genocide of about a million “Communist” villagers by the Indonesian military, with the CIA supplying lists of names to the perpetrators. The genocide was celebrated by many over here, and by Time Magazine as “the West’s best news for years in Asia.” 10 years later we went one better, supplying not only political backing but also 90% of the military equipment Suharto needed to massacre another 100-200,000, this time in East Timor.  And it wasn’t just a Cold War anomaly, because Western support for that regime continued well after 1990, into the Clinton years.

Don’t expect our choice of who to back in the Middle East to be influenced by such petty considerations as the potential genocide of those who live there.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

FIFA? What about Britain?

So we're all delighted that FIFA appears to finally be getting its come-uppance for long-established corruption. Now what about Britain? The above book convincingly demonstrates that the country of my upbringing has, over the last 30 years or so, become ruled by an oligarchy of sickening corruption, an unaccountable network of people who wield massive power and reap sickengly huge profits at the taxpayer's expense. Case after case of multi-billion dollar  thievery from those running  the state-corporate nexus is documented and referenced.   Now, unlike the author, I am no socialist, and do not yearn for the 'good old days' when the unions held the country to ransom. But privatization only works when real and fair competition brings efficiency up and prices down. In Britain, time after time, enormous monopolistic government contracts have been awarded to  companies who simply  raise prices to cream off profits with no investment. Those doing the awarding get their rewards in the revolving door system. 
And the hypocrisy of what's said and done is incessant:

Here's one of my favorites:

Tony Blair, Chicago speech of 1999: "We cannot turn our backs on the violation of human rights within other countries....."

Tony Blair, 2011 onwards: Paid  more than $13M  for advising the dictator of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev (who massacres strikers, bans and attacks by arson any press criticizing him, tortures and kills the opposition etc etc) on how to present his country to the world in a positive light.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Fireflies Beware!

Photinus pyralis.
My favorite time of the year in East Tennessee is June, around dusk, when the male   Photinus pyralis  fireflies execute their J-shaped flight motifs, flashing on the upswing. Females, near the ground, respond  a couple of seconds later.  [Marvellous chemistry that, as somehow the breaking of a chemical bond is transformed into an electronically excited state]. But there is much intrigue, back-stabbing and derring-do going on among the fireflies in my back yard. Photinus beware! The evil femme fatale, Photuris, lurks! The female of this species mimics the flashes of Photinus females, attracting the eager male Photinus. To their doom! Once a male is close enough, the stronger Photuris female pounces on him and devours  him. 
She gets a good meal containing chemicals that protect her from Phidippus jumping spiders. Ok, then, say the male Photinus : we'll approach and land, but cautiously, quite a way away, and we'll very slowly crawl towards her, signaling. The problem with that, though, is that it gives time for one of the other Photinus males to get to her first. 

Sissies! Throw yourselves at her, guys! You may get eaten but it'll all be over quickly and you only live for two weeks, anyway.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Find that Missing Matter !!!

So the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN is about to start looking for "dark matter"; that is, apparently, the 85% of the matter in the universe that exists but is, err,  NOWHERE TO BE SEEN. I think that is a very good idea indeed. Moreover, I know 85% is about the right figure because that is about the percentage of the things I have owned that have, over the years, mysteriously disappeared.

So I have sent an e-mail to the LHC guys, asking them to please locate  that pair of spectacles that inexplicably went missing on a flight from Bangalore to Hyderabad a few years ago. I mean, I looked in the seat pocket and under the chair and everywhere, and there they were -  just GONE! After that I am asking the LHC wizards if they could kindly return  the about 20 sweat shirts that have mysteriously disappeared in various trains, buses and restaurants. Then, finally,  there's that lamb chop that was on the dinner plate last week that vanished into thin air when I had to pop out to  answer the phone. I would be so grateful to get it back intact. Grady (our lemon beagle) did happen to be in the room at the time but insists he had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Silent Order of Carthusian Cash

The bucolic view from the summit of Charmant Som in the Chartreuse, to which Didier, Fabienne and I hiked up early this morning. In the red square, nestled in the head of a valley,  is the Grand Chartreuse (Carthusian) Monastery. The monks in there are vowed to silence, "a way of attaining internal solitude" according to Father Dom Benoit. He is one of only two people who know the recipe of Green Chartreuse, that the monks distill, the "elixir of eternal life" that "cures all ills". Accompanying the reclusive monastic silence, then,  is a booze production machine working at full tilt: Chartreuse Diffusion SA; 2013 turnover - 13M Euros. The Carthusian motto is "stat crux dum volvitur orbis", or "the Cross is steady while the world turns". Hopefully, this spinning refers to astrophysical insight rather than  pastoral overindulgence. Chartreuse Verte is supposedly made of 130 herbs. I wonder whether anyone has done any high resolution mass spec on it?

Monday, May 25, 2015

Why do we do it?

As some readers know, I am a supporter of Norwich City, the football team from where I was born and grew up. Today was a momentous day for City, as they gained promotion back into the English Premier League by beating Middlesbrough 2-0 in the packed National Stadium at Wembley. The match was worth about 200 million dollars to the winner, the richest single game in all of football.

 I actually think we have a better team than when we were  in the Prem last year and so one can look forward to next season with some anticipation. As long as Liverpool don't re-hire Suarez we'll be OK (he scored 11 goals against us in 5 games).

But it was hard to enjoy the playoff final today, and most serious sports fans know what I mean. You see, it was just too important,  with too much riding on it. The result really mattered, and when that's the case it's difficult to relax enough to actually derive the slightest pleasure from viewing. Of course, the opposite; being miserable and depressed when they lose a big game; comes easy to the serious fan. Crazy. You wonder why we do it.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Inheriting Merit

As someone from the sceptr'd isle that has suffered over millennia from the divine right of kings, I have a keen aversion to inherited privilege. Escaping that and jumping to the world's great maelstrom of equal opportunity seems as good a reason as any to move to the USA. Except that, according to a recent article in the Economist, the Great American Classless Meritocracy appears to be an illusion.

The USA is still a meritocracy. Indeed, income is tied more than ever to qualifications. But it's an hereditary meritocracy: the children of the rich and powerful become better qualified.  And while parental educational level has always been the best predictor for child success, now money is having an increasing influence. Several factors have led to this. Strangely, American public schools are funded according to the wealth of their catchment area. Also, expensive tuition fees have made parental wealth increasingly important in gaining access to college. Compounding that is favoritism in colleges selecting children of alumni and the non-meritocratic effects of affirmative action, which disfavors poor Caucasians and Asians.

What to do about it? Well, maybe I detect a weakness. Apparently, most of the recent increases in college tuition fees have gone to the country club elements: plush dorms, parking garages, climbing walls, student services etc, and not to  improving the quality of the education itself. Therefore, it makes sense for poorer students to seek colleges without these amenities;  where the costs are solely in providing an education. They'll then be competitive in what counts most for their futures: their qualifications. Anyone know a four-year college like this? That's a strategy for challenging the hereditary meritocracy.