27 March 2008

Heathrow Terminal 5 gets off to a great start

Could almost have guessed that this would happen, but it's still amusing. Thank god I don't fly any more than I have to (which is almost never. Those poor bastards. Our poor planet.

Olympics: boycott, or better...

Been out of action on the blog again for a week - apologies. I took a week off work this week and have been trying to keep away from dirty old politics and look round a few galleries and stuff.

But it's been hard to keep away from two stories - firstly the 'debate' over the embryo bill (if one can call it that, as it seems to boil down to a few reactionary Catholic clergy against the rest of us, who use our brains to think through an issue rather than relying on a Stalinist diktat from the Vatican) on the other); and secondly the debate over whether to boycott the Olympics - which is a little more nuanced.

Many, many people are now calling for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics in protest at human rights violations by the Chinese government, most obviously in Tibet. I'm sympathetic - certainly if the US felt justified in boycotting Moscow in 1980 then there's just as much reason, if not more, to boycott in this case.

Having said that, there may be a way to express protest which is even more effective than a boycott. I don't know if the Great Britain kit design for the athletes competing in the games has yet been finalised, but if it were possible to include on the vests, in as large letters as possible, "FREE TIBET NOW" (in Chinese and English), this would be an effective way of getting the message across while continuing to compete. If every country attending the games included the "FREE TIBET NOW" slogan on their kits, in Chinese and their own language, this would send a big signal to the Chinese government regarding just what we think of the Tibet occupation. They would then have a choice of (a) cancelling the games to avoid the Tibet publicity - which would totally backfire; (b) arresting all competitors from other countries and continuing the games with Chinese competitors only; or (c) continuing the games and giving free publicity to the Tibetan cause. Either way, it would be a big statement. So how about it? Oh, sorry, I forgot, London is hosting the Olympics in 2012 and so we need to avoid pissing off other regimes, no matter what a bunch of bastards they are, so that they won't impose a reciprocal boycott and damage 'our' games. Silly me...

20 March 2008

FSA: a pointless (and maybe counterproductive) search

The FSA is investigating whether false rumours are being deliberately spread to undermine the value of shares. They are pointing the finger at "short sellers" - people who sell stocks they don't have (using derivatives based on the stock's current share price) and then buy when the price goes down. Apparently these people are behaving irresponsibly, or unpatriotically, or something like that. (By following the maxim "buy low, sell high", which I thought the whole financial system was based on... but never mind).

This was sparked by the big fall in the price of HBOS (Halifax/Bank of Scotland) shares last week after rumours that the bank was in trouble. But, given that Bear Stearns was insisting it was in fine financial fettle until about 24 hours before it collapsed and had to be bailed out by the US Federal Reserve, can anybody blame financial traders for believing negative rumours? Might it not be more rational to believe bad news about banks than good news in the current climate?

How on earth are the FSA going to identify the people starting the rumours, anyway? Everyone will just say they were going on information they heard elsewhere and the whole thing will go round in a circle. So, short of fining all market participants, there doesn't look like much the FSA can do. Their statement looks like complete hot air to me, and if anything, is likely to spook the markets even more. In the current climate, if someone in authority tells you everything is all right, it almost definitely isn't. As soon as another UK bank gets into Northern Rock - style difficulties - which will probably happen soon - the FSA's stance will be blown right out of the water. Better to say "we are in uncharted waters, and caveat emptor" (or indeed caveat vendor) as far as financial transactions go". But they would prefer to bullshit people... so be it.

Anyone who is buying and selling in the current climate (rather than holding on for a reversion to normal market conditions, which will surely come at some point, even if a few years down the line - and if it doesn't it probably means the whole system has collapsed, in which case why the hell are you still bothering with stocks and shares when we've got a new society to construct - GET OUT ON THE STREETS!!!) is a moron in any case, and deserves what they get. (Or someone who has been very badly financially advised, in which case... SUE.)

17 March 2008

Systemic collapse?

Obviously, the Bear Stearns collapse and fallout is the main headline at the moment. Some reporters are going a bit over the top perhaps... Bear Stearns was a large US investment banks but not the largest. If it had been Citibank or J P Morgan going under then that would have been worthy of some of the hyperbole which has been thrust in the markets' direction over the weekend. And the FTSE 100 is 217 points down in trading today; well, that's not tiny, but neither is it earth-shattering. It's been up and down like a yo-yo recently anyway.

No, at the moment the real news is the unease and suspense gripping the markets; no-one knows how big this credit crunch really is. Certainly the Federal Reserve is behaving like it's very big indeed; cutting interest rates every week, injecting billions and billions of dollars of liquidity into the market. It would be very interesting for someone to do an analysis of who benefits most from these market interventions. Is it encouraging even more reckless speculation? Is the Fed throwing good money after bad? Certainly J P Morgan, who acquired Bear Stearns for about $2, seem to be laughing all the way to the bank. The joys of being just a little more solvent than one's competitors are becoming more and more evident in the current economic situation - to those that hath, more shall be given.

The nagging worry is that the interventions are just delaying the inevitable - a systemic collapse with most of the financial institutions in the US going to the wall, not just one or two. If that happens then it may end up making the early 80s recession look pretty shallow. On the other hand Bear Stearns could be the bottom of the barrel. No-one knows for sure. Fun, innit?

11 March 2008

Turning Britain into a Boy Scout fascist state

When I read this I thought April Fools' Day might have come a few weeks early:

School leavers are to be "urged" to swear an oath of allegiance to the queen.

This would turn Britain into nothing more than a glorified boy scout troop. Why don't we get people to go round wearing silly uniforms all the time with little badges on them while we're at it? (Of course, at school, we already do. But how long before someone from this moronic government suggests it for adults?)

I do not recognise the queen as a legitimate head of state for the UK as she has never been elected. As far as I am concerned, technically we live in a dictatorship. Who actually won the Falklands conflict? Because the people running this country (those of them that are visible, at least) look more and more like General Galtieri every day.

We are on the march towards tinpot fascism in the UK, and I urge every one of you to take a stand against it. Don't vote for anybody - of any party - who endorses citizenship tests and that kind of malarkey. Better still, stand as an independent so that you can point out the f***ing great wave of B.S. heading right towards us. (I am managing the campaign of a possible candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon - I'll tell you more as details become available. (i.e. when I can convince the guy to actually stand!)

Signing off - FOR NOW.

10 March 2008

Democrats: getting ready for a major league "stitch-up"

I'm using the excuse that Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the Wyoming Primary to file another report on the interminable struggle for the Democratic nomination. And it really is interminable, as the projections for the remaining 12 states now show that it is very unlikely that Obama will reach 2025 delegates based on elected delegates alone; which means that the 800 unelected 'super-delegates' - party officials - will be decisive.

Current projections show a split of around 60%-40% in super-delegates between Clinton and Obama but that's largely irrelevant when the Democratic convention comes around in August because they don't have to vote any particular way - they are guns for hire, perhaps literally. It is entirely possible that Clinton could somehow swing a majority of super-delegates around, even though she is very unlikely to have more of the elected delegate vote than Obama by then.

My worry isn't so much that this would be "unfair" - it's not immediately obvious that 100% election by caucus or primary (some of which involve independent voters who may be Republican sympathisers!) is the best way to choose a candidate, and an electoral college between party officials and voters (which is what they effectively have at the moment) might make more sense. It's more that, if there is such a deal and Clinton gets the nomination, a lot of Obama supporters are going to be so pissed off that they're not going to bother to turn out and vote in the presidential election in November. The same might happen in reverse with Clinton supporters if Obama wins the nomination, but I think that's less likely because he could at least claim he has the weight of "popular opinion on his side.

This struggle is dragging on and on - largely because Obama's support softened badly in Texas and Ohio when he ran into a wave of negative publicity about the corruption rap for his friend Tony Rezko, and he didn't handle it very well as far as the footage from the press conference I saw on Channel 4 news suggested. Of course the footage could have been edited to make it look like just about anything, but you can be damn sure that a successful Democratic candidate will have to be able to deal with the media onslaught and scandals both real and manufactured just to survive. Bill Clinton went from strength to strength largely because he was able to do that; Jimmy Carter got blown away after one term largely because he couldn't. The real danger is that Obama ends up suffering the same fate as Carter, rather than being able to combine the sense of resuscitating the corpse of political hope that both Carter and JFK embodied with the political balls of the Clintons. Both Bill and Hillary are real sluggers, as is Dubya Bush, and any successful president needs some of that. You can't biuild yourself up by cultivating a sense of hope in people and then fall apart when the going gets tough. That's the route to landslide defeat and condemning the Democrats to another generation of impotence (once again, look at Carter in 1980).

So, extra rations of bile and roughage for Obama over these next couple of months and he ought to be able to get through this. But if he looks too weedy or flaky then it's gonna be Hillary Clinton for the nomination. Should be interesting.

Somewhere, John McCain is rubbing his hands at the prospect of 5 more months of Democratic infighting. But as the poll ratings of both Democratic contenders against him in the election have risen since all this started, maybe the joke's on him...

04 March 2008

...and so does the Daily Telegraph

More absolute bollox on school choice lotteries from the Telegraph - 'children have lost out', apparently, because in the most popular schools, less kids got their first choice of school than last year, before the lottery system had been introduced in any local education authorities.

But that statistic is meaningless because it's entirely dependent on how many children applied for the school in each year! For example, if a school has 100 places per year, and last year 150 kids applied for a place, but this year 200 kids applied, then last year a third of the applicants would have been disappointed, whereas this year half of them were. But that's nothing to do with the lottery system - it's to do with the number of kids applying. And if a lottery system encourages parents who wouldn't have tried to get their kids into the best schools under the previous system to give the lottery a shot - what's wrong with that? Surely it's what the scheme is designed to do.

They'll be running a headline next saying 'National Lottery - the ticket-holders lose out'...

03 March 2008

School choice lotteries: Dave misuses the English language

Well, today was the day when thousands of kids in England found out which school they were going to. An increasing number of local authorities are moving towards lotteries as a way of allocating school places after the government's new Admissions Code banned some (although not all) of the practices that schools had previously used to discriminate between applicants (interviews, questionnaires, etc.)

Dave Cameron thinks that the lottery system is 'unfair and inequitable' and pledges that the Tories will scrap it if they get elected.

Well, Dave, I've got news for you: the lottery might be many things, but by definition it can't be 'unfair' or 'inequitable'. (Assuming, of course, that it's not rigged.) In fact, it's the only fair system if schools are oversubscribed, unless we expand all the oversubscribed schools so that they can take all the extra pupils. (Which maybe we should do...)

What Dave means of course is that it's unfair because middle-class parents can't 'play the system' like they used to. And where will we be if the middle classes can't stitch up social outcomes? Egalitarian society? It doesn't bear thinking about. Never mind, there's always the private sector for the really well-off...

The lottery system is not perfect. For one thing, it's optional - not all local authorities have introduced it. For another, there are still forms of selection allowed under the new Admissions Code - e.g. by parental faith (in faith schools). So a kid could get into a school just because his or her parents happen to be religious nutters (or even, sensible religious people) - or, as this article by Times columnist Alice Miles from last year points out, because their parents are hypocrites who pretend to be religious just to get them into the school. Also, grammar schools are allowed to select by ability, and private schools according to any old criteria. So, plenty of reform still needed, but we can certainly do without the likes of Dave Cameron and Micky Gove denying the fundamentals of the English language. Jog on...