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Archive for October, 2011

Stuffed toys from a child’s own drawing

This is the most beautiful idea for a business that I’ve seen in a while: Child’s Own Studio. The toymaker’s blog is fun reading. How cool is it to be figuring out ways to turn a child’s cute little drawing into a real stuffed toy? Must be very satisfying.

Thanks to Hacker News for the link. A nice moment of zen to start the day.

Fox News

Insert your own joke here – I won’t be the first to think this, but doesn’t the neocon news network’s name suddenly have a self-parodying flavour courtesy of Dr Fox’s resignation?

Schrödinger’s Fox


Schrödinger’s Fox

n.

1. A curious beast whose guilt does not exist until it is observed by a vindictive media.

The Contrary Dictionary

Thanks to @the_twiterati’s #liamfoxapology for the idea.

I also like this one from Sarah Chalmers: ”I regret that certain aspects of my not getting up in time allow the media to portray me as running late.”

Quantum Locking. Say what?

At some point, I shall go off and find out what “quantum locking” is. But for a while, I’m quite enjoying the way this YouTube clip absolutely boggles my mind. It has to be CGI. Doesn’t it?

Remember the politician’s lifecycle

It looks like there will be two main conclusions from GO’D's report on Liam Fox:

  1. He broke the ministerial code
  2. He did not gain financially from the arrangement

With respect to the first – it will be good to have this made clear, and this is the hard evidence that makes a nonsense of the protestations from the Tory right that he was an “outstanding” Defence Secretary.

With respect to the second – remember the politician’s lifecycle. Particularly the famous revolving door between government and industry. Liam Fox has only been in government since May last year, and any profits from his role as Defence Secretary would not have been expected for some time yet. Perhaps not until he was no longer enjoying the Cabinet lifestyle.

In other words, it simply is not possible to tell whether Dr Fox expected to do well for himself out of his Cabinet position. We can only speculate. As evidence of his character, we have the fact that he has been quite willing to break the ministerial code consistently, frequently and over a long period. After strenuously denying any wrongdoing and blaming his critics’ motives. After several instances of leaking against his own Conservative colleagues.

The point here isn’t to actually speculate. It’s just to say there’s no reason anyone can be expected to believe the praise of his supporters is based in anything like cold hard fact.

A song for Dr Fox

As yet more revelations come out about Dr Fox’s friend, this song springs to mind:

The importance of close scrutiny

One of Dr Liam Fox’s main defences for treating his office like a business opportunity for friends is that he doubts the motives of those criticising him. You would have thought their name (“The Opposition”, “journalists”) would tip him off that nobody expects (or needs, frankly) their motives to be pure as the driven snow.

It is the job of the opposition and the press to take a close look at ministerial misdeeds. A degree of opportunism, schedenfraude or outright trouble-making is how the system works. It’s called “being human”. Money is not the only incentive that keeps things moving.

(This is not to endorse tabloid techniques of making a story. But to argue questions shouldn’t even be asked unless the questioner is pure of heart is ridiculous.)

Besides, transparency is a important part of liberalism. It is an important constraint on power.

Conservatives really don’t like anyone taking a close look at what they get up to, even in their public lives. Turning to the US as an example of where politicians like Fox would take us if they could, Paul Krugman writes an excellent article in Panic Of The Plutocrats in the New York Times. He describes the hysterical reaction to the Occupy Wall Street protests, and the cosy arrangements the 1% have made for themselves:

This special treatment can’t bear close scrutiny — and therefore, as they see it, there must be no close scrutiny. Anyone who points out the obvious, no matter how calmly and moderately, must be demonized and driven from the stage. In fact, the more reasonable and moderate a critic sounds, the more urgently he or she must be demonized, hence the frantic sliming of Elizabeth Warren.

I’ve enjoyed many of Warren’s public utterances since she first started pushing for consumer-friendly consumer finance a few years back. I hope she gets elected; she is the kind of politician I’d like to have more of here if we were to import Americans.

She has two core messages I think (although presumably a full Senate race will require a broader platform over time):

  1. Financial products need to be safe like any other products. Contractual traps in the small print and dangerously high interest rates are as harmful to families as poorly manufactured toys from China.
  2. If you want to start a business and make a lot of money – good for you. But don’t think the infrastructure and public services that make those riches possible come for free. No-one gets rich on their own.
These are principles that stand up to close scrutiny, whether economic, legal or moral. They are values that align nicely with Liberal Democrat values, too. I wonder how Conservatives will fare after they’ve been under the modern day microscope for another few years.

Eurosceptics: they’d be funny if it weren’t so serious

It drives British Eurosceptics mad that many in Washington tend to sigh at their warnings of the perils of European integration, instead tending to take the view that if the Lilliputians across the Atlantic care to form themselves into a single delegation, that might make them slightly less time-consuming and pathetic.

The Economist isn’t given to rabble rousing against their closest ideological bedfellows, the Conservatives. So this opinion piece in the Bagehot column is an enjoyable read. If Liam Fox stays in his role, it’s going to be straight back to the early 90s for Tory sleaze. Which would be an interesting choice, given that they’re currently reliving Thatcher’s 80s cuts, too.

Setting all the politics aside, a Cabinet Secretary should have good judgement and a desire to be truthful. Dr Fox appears to have neither. It is no great achievement to sort out procurement if you do so in a manner that is amenable to one’s close personal friends. The motive becomes rather suspect, doesn’t it?

The paid-in-advance symbolism of Labour Youth

As I mentally shut down last night, here’s what was the most interesting thing about the previous week: Labour Youth seem very comfortable with being well funded. They had good stuff at Reading University Freshers’ Fayre when I nipped down to help for an hour or so.

I’m no fan of poverty porn. You shouldn’t have to play down one’s wealth by being deliberately being shoddy or what have you. It always seems a bit odd to me that celebs have shoppers finding second hand stuff for them. If you’ve got parents who can afford expensive gear for you, well done to them, and I hope you do something amazing with it.

Even so, it seemed a bit out of place at a Freshers’ Fayre. In the middle of a tent where students were largely making do with their home made stand decorations, presumably spending their budgets on more interesting things, the Labour Youth stand was dressed with all the accoutrements of a commercial trade show.

A few things stood out to me at the Fayre. First was how young all the students looked; clearly I am entering the grumpy old man stage of life (although at least I didn’t get offered, as one colleague did, a teacher’s discount on pizza).

Then, it was the comparison of stand contents between Lib Dem and Labour. Our main foodstuff giveaway was home baked goods from a local councillor; theirs were cupcakes with a fantastic looking rose of icing on top – clearly commercially sourced. We had balloons and leaflets; they had trade show banner stands. Our literature was just leaflets; theirs included a slideshow on a top-of-the-line laptop, a MacBook Air.

In other words, there was money on show – things bought rather than produced. It just had a kind of Tory lobbyist feel to it. Bizarre.

Admittedly, I am writing this very post on a MacBook Air. Then again, I bought it in my mid thirties. When I went to uni, I didn’t know anyone my age who could have afforded that kind of gear. I don’t mean a laptop (which weren’t even an option for most professionals back then) but spending a few months’ rent extra on the fancy version of whatever kind of equipment you care to mention. That’s extravagant to me.

(And I went to private school! Although if I’d gone to Oxbridge like the good little boy I was supposed to be, I’m sure I’d have met more than a few kids with a bit of spare cash.)

When all is said and done, this is only symbolism, not substance. You could argue that it’s entirely right to put on a professional front, which presumably was the goal. But it felt very, very odd to me. If instead it had been the Tories who had dressed up their stand like that, I’d have been chatting away to the Labour guys and slagging off the flash-with-the-cash stylings of young conservatives.

As it was, well, I just felt the kind of discomfort I remember back as a kid. I learnt during the Thatcher years to be suspicious of the intentions of people who like “stuff”. There has never been any appeal to the whole succeed-for-the-sake-of-success thing that runs through our education system (or at least in private and “aspirational” schools – there often seems to be an equally depressing “obey for the sake of a quiet life” thing going on everywhere). The Labour Youth stand had a kind of by-the-numbers, route-to-success feel to it.

Symbolism should matter, especially to students. The symbolism of all the pricey options chosen for the Labour Youth stand just seemed off-key. Was it sign up, and people will give you access to expensive gear? That they are the party of high income youth? That they want kids with rich parents to feel comfortable signing up? That teenagers fresh out of school should be thinking about where their career loyalties lie?

Whatever it was, it wasn’t, “We are the party that fights for the people”. Which is what I always thought the deep and admirable purpose of Labour was supposed to be.

When Physics and Ghostbusters collide

This comment on Comment is Free tickles my fancy, corny though the film reference may be. This particular Bill Murray is a physicist at CERN:

For almost 20 years, Bill Murray has been hunting the Higgs boson, the elusive subatomic particle that is thought to give mass to the basic building blocks of nature.

Every day is the same as the last.