Archive for the ‘Why the world doesn't work’ Category

The argument against billionaires

Tuesday, February 12th, 2019
Photo: Filip Czech

Photo: Filip Czech

In mathematics, infinity is considered an abomination. If a mathematician gets the result of infinity she will nearly always assume that the result is wrong and that there is an error somewhere in her calculations.

In my opinion, economics should cultivate a similar aversion to extreme numbers for society to function in an orderly fashion.

I recently expressed an opinion on social media that billionaires shouldn’t be allowed to exist in society. Someone asked me why not? Here’s why.

A billion pounds is a lot of money. It is so much money that an individual would find it impossible to spend even a fraction of it in any meaningful way (we can explore the definition of ‘meaningful’ elsewhere). The choices left are to do nothing with the money or to spend it in a meaningless way (hey, how many luxury yachts can you sail in at any one time?) neither of which does much good.

The favourite neoliberalist argument is that anyone should be allowed to acquire as much money as they possibly can without limit. This argument relies on extreme capitalism – winner takes all. However, this position also requires belief in the reverse process – loser gives back everything and this clearly doesn’t happen in our society. The financial crash of 2008 demonstrated this. In that period, many private banks should have failed but they were given public funds to keep them in business. A government intervened for the good of the majority (a collapse of the economy was bad for everyone it reasoned). So if the government is there to limit the failures of financial institutions why doesn’t it also limit the successes of them? You can’t have private profits and socialized losses unless the system is dysfunctional.

They ‘earned’ it.

No entrepreneur made their fortune all by themselves. They didn’t build the roads that transported the goods; they didn’t educate the workforce that allowed logistics; they didn’t even make their own clothes that they went to work in. Society is a shared system. Individual members cooperate to make it work. The idea that one person had an original idea and single-handedly transformed that idea into a best-selling product is nonsense: chances are, their own education was provided to them for free. Thus, every successful person owes something to the society they belong to.

Say a billionaire wants to acquire yet more money (needless to say, at this level money is merely a numbers game for egomaniacs) and the easiest way for them to do that is to exploit oil fields in the Amazon rain forests, say. With their limitless resources they could pollute the environment with little cost to themselves to maximize their profits. And because they live elsewhere, they don’t need to care about the pollution. And even when their exploitation becomes so extreme that the earth is uninhabitable, they have enough funds to research the possibility of them blasting off in a rocket to Mars to escape the chaos. Is this acceptable?

Okay, I’m being facetious here (but only ever so slightly), the point I’m making is, money equals power. Say a billionaire wanted his own personal army – is that okay? If not, why? Then say they wanted nuclear weapons for their army – who or what is going to stop him? If countries come together to oppose the move then clearly they consider it unacceptable. Why? What’s the difference between a billionaire and a government? Would it have anything to do with perceived restraints on government decisions?

So let’s say the world gets its first trillionaire (remember, our system is winner takes all so we could end up with one person owning everything). That’s more money than the entire GDP of many countries. One person controlling this amount of money is essentially the equivalent of being a Roman emperor – unlimited power with no brake on anti-social behaviour. Ethics is the first thing to be abandoned in this scenario. How can that be good for a society?

It is incumbent on all governments to look after all the people that it governs. That means sharing the wealth to some extent. How hard would it be to devise a robust tax regime that was progressive with a cut-off point that reached a maximum tax rate of 100%? If an entrepreneur was genuinely concerned about ‘helping the world to connect and share’ then once they had reached a personal wealth of several hundred million (or whatever threshold was deemed acceptable) then they wouldn’t mind working for ‘nothing’ would they?

Even if a billionaire wasn’t an egotistical psychopath, and instead was a perfectly reasonable, responsible human being, they wouldn’t need to see homeless people in the richest cities in the world to remind them that society is unfair and needs balance. Remember, money has enormous economic power. Imagine Bill Gates pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into a charity based in an underdeveloped country. Imagine how that sudden influx of money is going to distort the delicate market structure in that economy. Even with good intentions, a billionaire making unilateral decisions can cause mayhem.

What is MSM?

Saturday, February 25th, 2017
Hulme Crescents

Original Tweet by Neil Claxton

On social media, MSM is usually short for Mainstream Media and refers to national TV news programmes like the Ten o’clock news and ‘red tops’ – tabloid newspapers available throughout the country.

Some journalists refuse to acknowledge this term as they think it too vague and simple as a concept to serve any purpose. Some even deny that ‘mainstream news’ exists at all. They consider its use pejorative.

If anyone is guilty of simplifying concepts and using pejorative language, it is journalists. If anyone is guilty of being biased and manipulative, it is journalists. They are now being hoist by their own petard and they are outraged that someone else has the temerity to use such devices.

Take, for example, this story from today’s Guardian website*. Several questions need to be asked:

  1. Why is this a story?

  2. Who decided it was a story?

  3. Whose interests does it serve?

  4. Why was this photograph chosen to illustrate it?

  5. What is ISIS?

The only reason I took note of the story was because Martin Bryant, a journalist who knows Manchester, commented on his personal Twitter account that the building in the photograph no longer exists and that the area is a lot more pleasant today.

If this was lazy journalism by The Guardian (we don’t have the staff to do a proper picture search on the internet) it could be partly forgiven but this is not lazy journalism, this is a deliberate attempt to mould the story into a particular shape. The journalist was working the raw material of the story—like a sculptor working on a lump of clay—into an effigy of some kind.

The journalist however is working under the guidance of his or her mentor, the editor, who likes works to conform to certain aesthetic standards, ones that invariably are to the liking of their ultimate patron – the owner of the media outlet. The editor might even have told the journalist to create this effigy from somewhere because the media outlet had some interest to serve.

Some journalists might genuinely believe that they are working without supervision from their boss but as Peter Oborne found out when he tried to write critically about HSBC this is an illusion.

So what is ISIS? How is this different to using MSM?

The slightest research into the situation in Syria reveals a complexity of factions and forces that goes way beyond the patience of MSM consumers. ISIS is a meaningless term in reality but it’s useful in giving a bit of detail to a similarly meaningless term – ‘enemy’.

Donald Trump is a useful Geiger counter for highlighting what is dysfunctional in society. His contempt for the media is a sure sign that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way it operates and that he can exploit it for his own gain.

Of course there are some journalists who are hard working and conscientious but they are like the ‘hard-working taxpayers’ mentioned in so many Tory missives; they don’t really figure in the grand scheme of things and can be safely discounted.

* they have since changed the photograph

Planned obsolescence

Friday, November 11th, 2016


This is the on/off switch from our electric kettle. When we bought the kettle I could immediately see that the plastic switch was so inadequate for the job that it must have been deliberately designed that way to limit the life of the device.

Sure enough it lasted for about eighteen months which seems to be the industry standard for any small electrical good these days.

I’m now supposed to throw the kettle away and buy a new one so that the relentless process of consumerism can continue.

Can we follow the example of Trump and call it like it is? Why don’t manufacturers honestly admit their strategy of planned obsolescence and insert a chip into a device to stop it working after a certain period of time so we can actually plan for the obsolescence? The date of the failure can even be printed on the packet when we buy it from new.

We could also set up specific recycling depots in our redundant high street shops for the non-functioning devices so a certain amount of sustainability can be built into the insane consumerist model.

The future of creativity: machine code

Friday, June 3rd, 2016


I was at my local lending library looking for a book to read when I spotted a Wilbur Smith hardback on the shelf. Wilbur Smith had written River God, a book I literally couldn’t put down it was so compelling. He’d also written some other novels that I found quite easy to put down (literally and metaphorically) so it’s a bit of a lottery when he publishes something new.

I plucked the tome from the shelf and looked at the cover, it depicted the usual themes of his books—historical Africa or Egypt and bloody adventure—but something odd caught my eye; the author’s name was not alone, in smaller writing it said ‘with Giles Kristian’. What could this possibly mean?

I took it to the desk and quizzed the immaculately dressed, white-haired, bespectacled lady that was the librarian.

“Can you clear this up for me please, who is the author here?”

Without hesitation she explained the mechanics; Wilbur Smith comes up with the idea and Giles Kristian then does the grunt work of writing the book (she actually used the phrase ‘grunt work’ which amused me more than it should have done).

“So it’s kinda ghost written?” I said.

“Yes” she said “but the co-author is usually well known for writing in a similar style.”

“So it’s like Damien Hirst coming up with an idea of say, a flayed baby in a bath of formaldehyde or something and then saying to one of his hundreds of assistants ‘here, you make this into reality”.

“Yes” she said, “that’s pretty much how it works.”

I was astonished. Not because of the discovery of ghostwriters or artists’ assistants—I already knew of their existence—but because of what it presaged.

Ghostwriters are usually employed to supplement the missing talent of the celebrity, namely, the ability to write. But here, a perfectly capable writer is employing another perfectly capable writer to do the heavy lifting. Wilbur Smith is so prolific and so popular that he has become a brand that is easily recognised and easily emulated.

Presumably, the faithful readers of his books aren’t too bothered about this development so long as their metaphorical Corn Flakes continue to taste exactly how they liked them in the past no matter who is the new owner manufacturing them.

Now lets jump into the future a hundred years. Wilbur Smith is dead and so is Giles Kristian but new Wilbur Smith books continue to appear every year, regular as clockwork. You might think that dozens of authors are employed to maintain this booming franchise but you’d be wrong.

A sophisticated algorithm writes all the books. The preferred language, styling, plot twists and characters that appear in all the previous Wilbur Smith books are analysed by the algorithm and a clever refinement in the programming allows it to devise new story lines with similar characters but with enough differentiation about them to sufficiently fool a human brain into thinking ‘this is novel’ (pun intended).

This is the future: creativity done by a machine. I’m not sure whether I should be excited or depressed. Can I be both?

Footnote: A year or so ago I did a caricaturing gig in Leicestershire at a private birthday party. The house turned out to be a mansion and my small talk with the guests during my sketching revealed that it was the party of a successful author. Nearly everyone at the party was a published author or creative artist of some kind. When I came to draw the birthday boy himself he told me a little about his glittering past and that he had recently been working with Wilbur Smith.

Why I’m suspicious of unthinking support.

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

There are no absolute truths and everything lies on a continuum.

The expression of grief for the victims of the Paris attack is not being criticized here: many people in Europe will have visited Paris and thus have a personal connection with the scene of the atrocity. Anyone who has experienced personal grief knows that it is uncontrollable and rational thought is futile during this time.

However, there were many people who simply heard the news and had no personal connection with the people killed but wanted to show their compassion for the fate of these people. How could they demonstrate this compassion?

But first I want you to imagine an industrial accident like Bhopal. The scale of human suffering is unimaginable and the rest of the world should and would demonstrate their compassion for the victims if it had happened today.

In the aftermath of Bhopal, the guilty party—Union Carbide—did everything they could to cover up their negligence and evade prosecution. I know this because the media did a thorough job in investigating the accident. As Union Carbide had little control over the media, the investigations were prosecuted with little restraint. Incidentally, despite all the evidence of guilt and a warrant put out for his arrest, the CEO of the company, Warren Anderson, never faced trial.

Now imagine if that devastation had been caused by a terrorist attack, the immediate response would be a call for retribution to punish the perpetrators—not ask ‘why did this happen?’ And imagine if the people behind the cause of the attack were a Western government sponsored rebel group that had gone out of control. The last thing that this Western government wants is a media asking such questions as ‘how did this happen?’ In this scenario, the government largely controls the media or its representatives through vested business interests etc., so the government can influence the line of inquiry or deflect any real questions about the causes under the banner of patriotic solidarity or whatever.

So let’s return to last Friday’s Paris atrocity. How can people demonstrate their compassion?

This is where it gets murky for me.

In steps a large-scale social media organization (that has been shown to be in cahoots with government intelligence services) helpfully offering symbols to an unsuspecting public as a way to show their compassion and support for a country. The symbol they use is a national flag. ISIS themselves always fly a flag when they can at their atrocities in an attempt to encourage new recruits. Flags are dangerous symbols that reduce any situation to ‘you’re either with us or against us’.

So the social media campaign harnesses the compassion of the populace with a loaded symbol of separated humanity (country borders are arbitrary fictions). At this vulnerable time, cold reason is the last thing that people are considering. Mob psychology rules. The mob is not immediately asking ‘how did this happen? Why did this happen? Whose fault is it? Shouldn’t we be prosecuting the instigators of this situation?’

The authorities know this. They’ve been here many, many times before.

So what we have is a mass outbreak of compassion that is easily manipulated by those who have the least compassion for humanity, for their own ends.

And what are these ends? More war, of course. Wars are always fought over territory and influence. As I write, the British government is clamouring to bomb Syria under the pretext of doing something about the situation. There seems to be zero questions from the media about how any bombing will help the situation in Syria and not simply make it worse.

If Syria were the scene of an industrial accident, it would have been identified as an appallingly run operation, breaching every single health and safety regulation in the book and whose operators were guilty of culpable homicide. ISIS is the poisonous gas cloud streaming from this factory.

But it’s not, so the abuses continue and the truly guilty parties walk free.

Ding Dong! Democracy is dead!

Saturday, April 13th, 2013


I’m told over a million people marched through London demonstrating against the Iraq war. The war went ahead. The peoples’ voice was ignored.

In the same way, a song has been chosen by a certain group of people in Britain to express their opinion about the death of a former Prime Minister. What these people want to do is to buy as many copies of this song (but the profits go where?) as it takes to force it into a position on a national music chart. By doing so, the BBC will be obliged to play it. This will be a huge joke on the part of the song buyers and a huge embarrassment on the part of the establishment. The important point to stress here is that the BBC will be forced to play the song.

Except they won’t. This is the lie of democracy. In exactly the same way that the Greek people were denied their right to democracy and vote against austerity measures, the people of Britain are being denied freedom of expression because those in power have arbitrarily decided against it.

Again, the important word here is arbitrarily; just as the rule of law has to be applied across the board for it to work, any set of rules has to be respected by all parties otherwise the game is rigged.

And the game is rigged. Just look at the banking frauds. The law is not being applied evenly, in fact, not at all, in the banking sector. It even allows former banking chiefs to judge themselves and impose their own punishment (if they choose to). But even this is not enough for some bankers, they want to change the law retrospectively so that there is absolutely no chance of them being brought to account.

If the ruling regime can make the rules up as they go along then democracy is a sham and it is impossible for the ruled to ever exert their will.

Robbin’ ‘Hoods – stealing from the poor, giving to the rich.

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

Anyone who has bank savings in this country is currently losing money. The interest rates paid on savings can barely keep up with inflation and with public services being cut all the time because of the government having to bail out the banks, those savings will become more important than ever in the bleak future. And the miserly interest rates offered by the banks have to be begged for by the customers every year. If you don’t pay your respects to the mighty barons of the land at least once every year and go cap in hand to them they cut your interest rate to virtually zero.

It was on such a servile visit to a bank that I was subject to yet more scorn and derision. Not content with having me waste my time every year by forcing me to visit their church of money, they then decide to take advantage of the situation by attempting to blackmail me, emotionally at least.

The foot soldier from the bank (I know he’s just doing what he’s told) explained to me the scheme they had attached to their savings accounts. At the end of each year when the interest is calculated I could elect to round down the figure to the nearest pound and whatever pence is left would go to some charity that I had to choose from some list that they had… I had stopped listening to this outrageous nonsense as I tried to comprehend what this prison guard was trying to get me to sign.

This was a bank. Through such models as fractional reserve banking, only an idiot could fail to make money with a bank. Through their position of privilege and power the banks got too cocky and lost their depositors money thereby requiring the taxpayer to foot the bill. They have since caused job losses, house repossessions and cuts to public services for the most needy in our society. As a reward for such despicable work, they continue to award themselves huge bonuses and maintain that they are the best people to do the job. These people are scum. To then pretend that they have ‘charitable’ inclinations is a lie that beggars belief. Note also, that the charitable scheme required the depositor to make the donation (yet again) whilst the bank contributed nothing (nay, the bank clearly thought it profited from positive PR it thought it was spinning).

Slightly shell shocked and in a tone of voice that suggested I had been tortured for hours but still clung to a vision of reality that made some sense, I declined his heretical document of moral turpitude.

It was only afterwards when I reflected on the sheer hypocrisy of the idea that I became aware of its boldness…

“If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed”. Adolf Hitler.

What have we become?

Networking problem

Monday, June 25th, 2012

Equipment used:
HP Photosmart 7510 (wireless print)
Apple TV (3rd generation)
iPad 3

Intention: to wirelessly mirror the iPad screen on a TV and to wirelessly print files created on the iPad.

The equipment was set up and tested on a home broadband network which was password protected. It all worked perfectly.

At the exhibition venue, the equipment was tested before the event. Their wireless network required a browser to open a splash page which then asked for a username and password. The Apple TV found the network but didn’t ask for a username or password. Similarly, the printer found the network but didn’t ask for a username or password. The iPad found the network and did enter a username and password through a browser. However, none of the equipment could see each other and no amount of configuration helped.

The next morning the equipment was tested again as per the night before and this time, for whatever reason, they could all see each other. For a period of about an hour the wireless connection held. Then I wandered about fifteen to twenty metres away from the Apple TV and printer. When I tried to print a file from the iPad the button was greyed out and I discovered that I had lost all connection with the other two pieces of equipment. No further connection could be established wirelessly no matter what was tried (including attaching an ethernet cable from the network to the Apple TV).

When I returned home all the equipment worked perfectly again using the home wi-fi network.

Explanations given;
1. The printer and Apple TV need static IP addresses.
2. An ethernet cable should be supplied to the stand which then plugs into our own wireless router. The iPad, Apple TV and printer are then connected to that routers network (this would avoid issues involving several routers creating one large network in a venue).
3. Faulty equipment. Forums reveal that Apple TV (3rd generation) is completely unreliable and that the Photosmart 7510 model of printer is equally unreliable for its wi-fi connection.
4. Wi-fi is too complex to guarantee any sort of success in varying situations.

Any confirmation of the above explanations welcome!

The thin edge of technology

Friday, June 15th, 2012

It’s a shocking revelation to discover just how thin our atmosphere is when compared to other distances but because we are immersed in it constantly, we take it for granted and intuitively imagine that its influence extends well beyond  the reality.

It’s the same with technology. Because we use technology every day we unconsciously perceive it as all powerful, indispensable, unquestionable. However, the truth reveals the incredibly thin edge of technology.

Here is an example. I was an early adopter of satnav technology. I was an early adopter because of my needs; physically finding unknown addresses throughout the country. The new technology, with its amazing background of satellites and triangulation, allowed me to find an address without much research. The biggest benefit however was when I was stuck in a traffic jam—a few taps on the screen and an alternative route was immediately planned. I could leave the traffic jam and easily negotiate roads around it. In the atmosphere analogy, I was breathing whilst everyone else in the traffic jam was struggling for breath.

Then the inevitable happened, as technology becomes cheap enough and reliable enough, more and more people use it. Today, satnav is everywhere—phones, tablets, stand alone devices… If I get caught in a traffic jam now, I can guarantee that any alternative route planned will be duplicated across thousands of other satnavs in similar cars caught in the same jam and the congestion will merely get spread across a larger area. Any advantage I had as an early adopter is gone and we’re all back to the position before we started.

Similarly, if a government develops the ultimate weapon, for a short time, it has to be respected and obeyed. Once other governments develop their own ultimate weapons, a stalemate is achieved and no one dares use their ultimate weapon. As a result, older technologies have to be employed such as tanks and artillery. The progress is backwards, not forwards.

So the benefits of technology are conferred to the few and are short lived.

I accept that it could be argued that the original benefit of satnavs is still there: finding an address with ease. But my point is that we become accustomed to that ease and we default to an automatic assumption about how life is lived. The car and the satnav are no longer amazing achievements in human ingenuity, they’re simply a means of getting to work and back. Imagine not having any shoes. Sure, it would be tough adjusting to the absence of that particular technology but we managed for millions of years without them and we can do so again.

There is a myth about technology that I’m only just beginning to deconstruct.

Will someone please think of the children…

Friday, February 3rd, 2012


Recently, my daughter brought home a slip of paper given to her by the primary school that she attends. It was a ticket for a charity fund raising scheme at the school. On the top of the ticket was embazened a full colour logo of the ’sponsor’ of the event. This was a huge American doughnut company that can’t even spell correctly. The ticket invited parents to pre-order a doughnut for their child and on a certain date, on school premises, the children would buy and then eat the doughnut. That was it. That was the charity scheme.

The last time I looked at the school’s letterhead, it had a healthy schools logo on it. What does that logo actually mean? Is the school required to do anything to earn this symbol?

As everyone knows, doughnuts are full of fat and sugar, that’s why they taste nice. But fat and sugar are everywhere in processed foods which is why we have an obesity problem and presumably, why a healthy schools initiative was implemented in the first place. To promote such a junk food in a primary school flies in the face of all the government’s health education efforts. What is going on?

But it gets worse. The doughnuts are intended to be sold to the children at below the retail price to make them more attractive. If the event is intended to collect money for charity (the ticket didn’t say which charity they would be supporting, but I’m guessing it won’t be Diabetes UK) then that means that the suppliers of the doughnuts must be practically giving them away. Why would a company do such a thing? Well, it might have something to do with gaining access to impressionable young minds and being able to brand into them their full colour logo as well as addicting their bodies to their fat and sugar products.

When I looked at the doughnut makers website, under a banner headline of ‘Everyone Wins’ they explained their fundraising schemes. I was horrified to discover that they actively facilitate these fund raising charity promotions in schools and are fully tooled up to ‘help out’ on a national basis. Why is this allowed to happen? Why is nobody up in arms about it and putting a stop to it?

Presumably, this means that ANY company that has the financial muscle to heavily discount some of its products, can have access to primary schools if their deal is tempting enough for anyone associated with the school—children or parents. This, dear reader, is the thin edge of the wedge.

How long before burger companies have stalls in schools at lunchtimes? How long before pharmaceutical companies realise it might be good business for them to get children to take home specially prepared flyers promoting their drugs to the parents; “Unruly child? Can’t sleep? Try our new Comatose Tablets for your ADHD little ones and Cloud9 anti depressants for yourself. Go on, treat yourself—it’s for charity!”

How long before an entire school is sponsored by a multinational like Dow Chemicals? Presumably, all that the school has to do is tag on a charity angle and any insidious implications of the relationship are rendered null and void.

But it’s just a doughnut, it’s only a bit of a treat, isn’t it?

No, it is not. I say again, it is the thin edge of a wedge. The hacking of celebrities ‘phones was just a bit of harmless gossip at first which sold newspapers. It is only when a murdered schoolgirl’s phone is hacked that the full thickness of the wedge is revealed as it is hammered painfully into our consciousness.

This practice needs to be stopped immediately before it becomes embedded into our schools. The multinationals already have an inordinate amount of influence over our lives. How much more influence do we want to give them?

Addendum: A follow up piece to this post has been written by Dan Ladds which is a must-read.