The musings of Mr Monkeysized

Don’t win: they’ll only hate you for it by monkeysized
July 28, 2011, 12:15
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Over on the godforsaken eastern edge of London, £9 billion is being sunk into something like three weeks of sports. Yesterday was #1yeartogo, so presumably today’s hashtag will be #364daystogo, although this may not be trending just yet.

Beyond the Olympics, millions more are being sunk into gold taps, white Bentleys and the waxing of blonde ladies, as England gears up for the start of yet another football season (do these guys ever consider taking a year’s break?).

What is at the core of all of this? Well, sporting glory of course. This was pointed out in the Olympic interview that I listened to on the Today Programme (along with the observation that if we’d wanted to regenerate eastern London, spending £9 billion on a stadium that nobody wants was a funny way to go about it).

Glory is what sport is about.

No it’s not – we are, after all, magnificently malignant overdeveloped apes. We like glory for our own teams, and misery for others. I might put a Middlesbrough top on and stride down the High Street, but non-Boro supporters will either be utterly nonplussed or think that I am a twit. If Boro beat their team (unlikely) then they will actually resent me for it.

This is even worse for supporters of the big teams. Manchester United? Does anybody honestly think you’re anything other than a glory-hunting monkey? Chelsea? Unpleasant when unsuccessful; positively hated now. Arsenal? Arrogant bastard. Barcelona? And you come from where? Stop being a cock.

This is why a crack team of scientists and sociologists, put to work by Bismarck in the 1880s, came up with the concept of schadenfreude – to glory in the misfortune of others.

Without schadenfreude sport is almost meaningless. It’s like watching two company-sponsored teams from provincial Japan slug it out in the J-League. It simply doesn’t matter unless somebody can convince me to care about one team – and this means then wishing ill on the other. I need a narrative to get hold of; I need allegiances; I need the pleasure of one-upmanship.

Here in Britain the talk is not just of the venues (it’s amazing how you can come in under-budget if you keep raising that budget (apparently the bid submission did not include provision for VAT or inflation)) but of medal hauls.

This is plainly wrong.

The real aim for ‘Team GB’ should be to put on a show while hiding the financial pain, hope that nobody gets exploded by terrorists, and let others win. The Chinese for instance – they seem to care dearly about building a large stock of gold medals that merely make them as resented as the Americans. Let them. We ought to save our own efforts for a handful of plucky losers, preferably in big events (who honestly notices the small bore rifle event unless they win it?), with perhaps one or two deeply attractive and charismatic successes. We should vet the contestants until we get one of these freakish athletes that carries off the looks and personality bit with the aplomb of David Beckham, and cross our fingers.

This is the real essence of sporting soft power.




Little people are to blame by monkeysized
July 7, 2011, 08:58
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By this I don’t mean small people – if I did I’d be on the verge of being in trouble, as would half of my near-circus-dwarf sized family. And that’s before my wife and I have any kids – I’m aiming for scrum half sized, rather than anything more weighty.

I do mean the little people. Us. The public. Or, at least, some of us.

The News of the World phone hacking scandal really is a scandal now. For a long while it seemed to be a curious bug bear of the Guardian, perhaps linked to their obsession with Rupert Murdoch and the position of Andy Coulson at the right hand of David Cameron. Now it is a scandal.

What has not been mentioned – to my knowledge – is the guilt of those who buy the News of the World, the audience for their disgusting prurience. They are the beast that was being fed. They are the ones who want shots of celebrities who are drunk, showing their knickers or having naughty fun snorting coke off the buttocks of a ladyboy.

They don’t just buy NOTW. They buy celebrity magazines that cover each level of the social scale from royalty to pieces of turd floating around Portsmouth harbour, and even lower, to the detritus thrown up (briefly) by reality television. There is a big beast out there to feed, and that – in whatever disgusting way they were doing it – was what was happening at the NOTW. It didn’t go bad suddenly.

The same can be said of the economic troubles that have afflicted Greece, Europe and beyond.

The credit crunch? Ah, that’ll be the banks then. Nothing to do with the consumer binge by witless members of the public who ramped their spending up beyond their incomes so that they could feed their consumer habit with ever-larger flatscreen televisions. And the expectation of feeding off a property bubble that was stretched to glistening point.

And in the streets of Athens, what about those entrenched interests who didn’t pay taxes, who hoped for a public service job that would see them have long siestas and early retirement, who had a government-sanctioned rake-off from their protected industries as pharmacists, doctors, journalists and truck drivers?

It’s funny how the people that are always to blame are the ones that we want to blame.

Choice editing, and please come down off that very high horse that you’re sat on by monkeysized
July 1, 2011, 14:50
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The routinely diverting, occasionally excellent and sometimes infantile Boing Boing website alerted my attention towards a growing trend in perfidious news reporting – bizarre causal conjunctions.

They pointed out that the infamous Daily Mail had linked the tragic death of a poor school girl to the fact that she was sat in a park because her teachers had the temerity (and unprofessionalism) to be out on strike:








Cue outrage. But then, yesterday, I came across something not too dissimilar on The Guardian:

Recession makes educated women in rich countries postpone having babies

In other words, all of those trends that suggested numerous reasons why educated women are postponing having babies have been trumped by the recession, and the political uncertainty that – of course – is linked to the narrative of the government cuts preventing the economy from a vigorous bounce back.

The Daily Mail is a particularly successful mid-market tabloid with a populist bent that appeals to a core demographic that might not be too much fun to share a slice of battenburg cake with. The Guardian is a less successful broadsheet that edges into populism when feeding the prejudices of the leftie-liberal readership, particularly now that more and more articles seem to be written by slightly naive 24 year olds fresh from university politics.

The next time somebody complains about Fox News, ask them what they watch, listen to and read. It’s evident that an enormous amount of online choice-editing goes on through the complex algorithms at the heart of web 2.0, but it’s also clear that an enormous amount of choice-editing is done by you, you normal monkeysized folk out there. Some of it is conscious, some unconscious. But it’s all best consumed after you’ve kindly climbed down from that very high horse that you are currently sat on.

Art subtitled by monkeysized
June 28, 2011, 11:17
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Tell it like it is, girl. Tell it like it is.

Update: Crazed utopian schemes for the betterment of humanity latest by monkeysized
June 24, 2011, 12:32
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A couple of days ago a tiny electrical shiver went through my body, as I read the latest installment of The Orwell Prize – an online blog that releases the diary of George Orwell, entry by entry, 70 years to the day after each was written.

The entry date was 22nd June 1941. Operation Barbarossa and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union – perhaps, in scale and ambition, the most extraordinary military venture in history (I was disappointed to find that this place up in Glasgow wasn’t a bizarre take on the themed restaurant line, with ‘Army Group Centre Nachos’ (great for sharing), ‘Ribs with Vernichtungskrieg sticky sauce’ and maybe some ‘Venison with Kessel Reduction’).

This clash between two utopianist totalitarian states/systems was the signal event in the Second World War, and arguably the 20th Century. Speaking as an Englishman, thinking back to this ghastly adventure reinforces my utter distaste for utopian schemes that set out to design humanity for a greater good that is not necessarily in keeping with the monkeysized ways and contradictions of real humans.

This, if you haven’t already realised, brings me neatly onto the European Union. I am – let me make this very clear – a supporter of the EU. It brought peace to a fractured continent, and its common market allowed Europe to punch its considerable weight on some aspects of the world stage. These are good things that any amount of squabbling or dysfunction cannot negate.

However, you may have noticed that there are several problems with this little project, centred upon the euro, and the sovereign debt crisis that has threatened the financial viability of several members.

I will leave aside a more detailed analysis of what has gone wrong and where, for the sake of making one clear and overwhelming point.

The European project has become something bigger than itself – a form of utopian scheme (however well-intentioned, although this is itself up for debate) where the triumph of The Project trumps not only obstacles and arguments, but monkeysized human nature itself.

The euro was conceived as part of the wider integration project, despite the obvious point that currency union tends to rely rather heavily on political union, and that a Frankfurt-based interest rate (among other things) might not necessarily be the healthiest step forward for other economies on the fringe of the currency union area. All it needed was something of a crisis to bring these tensions out.

Well, we’ve certainly got that crisis, and what it shows is not that pretty. The euro has evidently done some good, but also harm: in the south the low interest rates seem to have funded a spending boom; in Ireland and Spain, they funded unsustainable and massive property booms. The euro magnified inequalities in productivity and competitiveness (that the politicians failed to implement through their irresponsible failure to reform or take the Lisbon Agenda seriously) and this led to many of the imbalances within the eurozone that were then exposed by the wider financial crisis and the increasing evidence that Germany is no longer an uncomplaining engine but a ‘normal’ country that through its sheer power harms the others when pursuing its interests.

The big trouble is that this has not led to a rush to fix things, but to push other agendas – whether local and political, or wider and ideological. For many, they follow the reasoning that currency union needs political union, and call for more Europe, more union. This ignores the simple fact that the political union that they call for is near impossible – and the massive emerging (Westphalian?) gaps between the EU’s states are ample evidence of this.

Utopian empires are projects that never succeed. The tragedy here is that many with their hands on the levers of power are treating this crisis as evidence that their utopia needs a bigger gulag, stricter 5 year plans and drabber dungarees. They are ignoring the evidence – like the Soviet party member trying to get hold of a decent washing machine – that what they have in front of them is evidence that it doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work because people cannot be designed like systems on a scrap of paper. The fact that they are overgrown monkeys, in different political systems built over time by communities of overgrown monkeys, means that they cannot be slotted into whatever Utopian system happens to sound good (and by definition many of these do sound good).

The EU is failing because it is utopian and no longer pragmatic; it is failing because Europeans are monkeysized.

War against the robots latest – trusted news source by monkeysized
June 22, 2011, 20:18
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Dear readers,

More tremors that suggest a war against the robots might be on the distant horizon. This, from a noted new source that is certainly worthy of the odd Pulitzer Prize:

Putting a price on nature by monkeysized

The government’s new environment white paper does something that I would argue is at the root of dealing with pesky issues concerning nature – it puts a price on it. Here’s Caroline Spelman:

“This will create a radical shift on how we view our natural assets by incorporating the natural environment into economic planning and ensuring there are opportunities for businesses that are good for nature and good for a strong green economy. In the past we have undervalued what our natural environment gives us.”

The trouble with nature – as I almost expect myself to argue – is that it is hard for us to get our heads around because we are weak and feeble humans. Our blue-riband method for allocating resources most efficiently – the free market – often spits out little nasties called externalities, which mean costs and benefits that are not included in the market transaction itself. Pollution to those downstream of a factory that uses mercury, for instance, or the little smile on the angelic face of a cherub-faced child, the moment he sees his first herd of Highland Cattle that he hasn’t paid for himself.

Governments then struggle to deal with what is usually lumped into something called Public Goods. This includes obvious externalities such as defence, which is bloody hard to organise through markets (despite the valient attempt of those involved in such notable and efficient organisations as Executive Outcomes).

Nature, meanwhile, falls through a number of gaps, and – alas – often falls prey to strange cult-like organisations staffed by the naive, wide-eyed and well-intentioned, such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. Their argument – often given by hairy armpitted female undergraduates as they munch on e-coli infected bean sprouts – is that Mother Nature should simply be respected and cherished and loved. Obviously their programmes are slightly more sophisticated than that (and many followers do shave their armpits), but I haven’t got time to go into them in depth just yet. Their unflinching undergraduate approach to this leaves very little left over in the margin to settle those key debates over how salvation actually happens in this complicated little world of ours. Who pays what? Who gives what up? Who decides?

It’s back to the market, but with a little bit of extra information. After all, who can quarrel with making a market more efficient, and finding a way to make the price affect real balances of cost and benefit? This is one of the key ideas behind the carbon tax, and carbon trading.

If the environment white paper succeeds in putting a valid price on nature, this is surely to the benefit of us all. We need to account for pollination, tree windbreaks, fields of poppies and cow slips, the ability of land to soak up rainfall to prevent flooding, and the wee beastie superhighways that we call hedgerows. I listened to an interview with Caroline Spelman last week, and I must say she sounded relatively convincing. But my real worry, of course, is that finding a mechanism for doing the pricing comes back to the fallibility of humans once again. And when those humans are politicians, bureaucrats and environmentalists, I worry even more.



The credit crisis explained by monkeysized
May 10, 2011, 09:47
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The credit crisis was caused by credit being substituted for wages, fuelled by the supply of highly-marketed consumer goods and the weakness of little humans. Yes, the banks contributed. But ultimately the credit crunch was monkeysized.

German soldier in a skirt with a cat on his helmet by monkeysized
March 23, 2011, 15:33
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Sometimes I don’t write – I just sit back and admire.

If you follow this link you’ll find a young boy smoking next to a rooster. A skeleton riding a bike. A little girl being chased by penguins. A panda failing to be a goalkeeper. Midgets. Go-go dancers in gas masks. A german soldier in a dress with a cat on his helmut.

Yezhov and Black Books by monkeysized
March 18, 2011, 18:16
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Nikolai Yezhov was apparently quite the man at parties, and a hit with the ladies, despite being something of a dwarf. He was also a homicidal maniac, and rose quickly through the ranks in the early Soviet Union until he became head of the NKVD.

The story of Yezhov tells us a lot about the mentality behind Stalin’s Great Terror, and that’s why I listened to the author of a book about him being interviewed on the New Books Network.

What I hadn’t expected was an insight into the processes that underpinned Stalinism – in particular the admiration for and rewarding of competence and hard work. There were, it seems, more good jobs than good people (although putting somebody hard working and competent in charge of the NKVD surely only exacerbated this…).

Yezhov was also favoured because he wasn’t one of the self important Old Bolsheviks, sporting a large retinue of fawning admirers, and therefore also a potential threat. He was loyal – until drink and a loose tongue led to his downfall (and consequently that of every member of his family other than an adopted daughter who now lives in Magadan).

Why does this matter? Well I’m coming to the end of Vassily Grossman’s mammoth Tolstoyan novel, Life and Fate, which deals with the period shortly after the Great Terror. The vast range of characters work their way through life (and well over 800 pages) before the German 6th Army surrenders in Stalingrad. The ghosts of the Stalinist system haunt the book – the memories of 1937, the constant threat of denunciation, and the ever present fear of the knock at the door. In memory of Bernard Black from Black Books, the book has everything short of a lens grinder from Omsk.

(Beware of spoiler…) Towards the end of the book, a fanatical Old Bolshevik finds himself in the Lubyanka, with all of his fancy theorising about Marxism, and his impecable record in The Party and At The Front, torn up and tortured away. A nuclear physicist who is a bit of a shit as well as something short of a pukka communist gets away with his misdemeanors thanks to an intervention from the Big Man himself. NB I still have a few dozen pages to go and this might all be baloney…

Again, why does this matter? For me it’s a reminder that behind every piece of history, common sense and practical measures count for a lot. Namby Pamby theorising and the deification of the self important gits at the top of most systems actually counts for far less.

Again, Why Does This Matter?

Mainly because it allows me to mention Stalin’s Great Terror and Black Books in one blog post. That’s enough reason for me, and I hope it is for you too.