Quotulatiousness

October 29, 2014

Charles Stross – Communist and post-communist Britain, history that didn’t happen

Filed under: Britain, History, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:25

Charles Stross wanders in a Britain of today in a world where Stalin won World War 2, taking all of western Europe into the control of the Soviet Union in the early 1940s:

Here’s a brief thought-experiment for you: imagine what the UK would look like today if the outcome of the second world war had taken a left turn early in 1940, and the whole of western Europe somehow ended up under Soviet control by 1946. (No nuclear weapons or gas attacks need apply: this speculation is about outcomes, not processes — so discussion of precisely how the British People’s Democratic Republic comes about is left as an exercise for the reader (and is not to be explored in comments)).

Let us further postulate that Stalinism passes with its creator, much as happened in our own experience of history: that the Soviet empire eventually undergoes the same fiscal crisis and collapse (alternative discussion of the same process by a former Soviet minister — you can forget the urban legend that Ronald Reagan did it) much as we remember, except possibly somewhat later — as late as the early 21st century, perhaps.

What interests me, in view of recent revelations about police spying and the extent of the British surveillance state is: How would the practice of internal suppression of dissent and state surveillance have differed in a post-Soviet Britain from what we appear to be living with right now?

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”: as we have no way of knowing when the regime of the British Democratic People’s Republic fell, or what level of technology was available to them, purely technical aspects of the Communist surveillance state of the British Isles must be excluded.

However, we know the general shape of the ideological envelope within which Warsaw Pact regimes operated (or were allowed to operate, before the Kremlin jerked their choke-chain), and so we can speculate as to the structure and objectives of the British regime under Actually Existing Socialism.

Singing the praises of the FN FAL

Filed under: Britain, Cancon, Military, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 07:13

Paul Huard looks at the brief moment that the United States was poised to adopt the same rifle as almost everyone else in NATO:

FN C1 A1 as used by the Canadian Armed Forces throughout the Cold War (via South Manitoba Rifles)

FN C1 A1 as used by the Canadian Armed Forces throughout the Cold War (via South Manitoba Rifles)

With the formation of the new NATO alliance in 1949, generals and civilian planners both talked of the necessity to standardize equipment, weapons and supplies.

“The laudable aim was one that had been much in the minds of many forward-looking military thinkers for a long time,” writes David Westwood, author of Rifles: An Illustrated History of their Impact. “For experience had shown that the United States and Britain often fought side by side, and commonality would be to the benefit of all including soldiers in the field.”

One thing was certain. The British were impressed with the FAL. They deemed the superior firearm to competitors because it was easy to maintain, field strip and clean. It reassembled without special tools and it was a select-fire weapon — but it fired the lighter round.

The “gravel belly” U.S. generals would accept nothing but a .30-caliber weapon, insisting on the superiority of a prototype called the T25, a forerunner of the M14 that was nothing more than a glorified Garand.

Soon, there was a “Battle of the Bullets” that went as high as the White House and 10 Downing Street. Pres. Harry Truman and Prime Minister Winston Churchill even held a mini-summit, where rumor has it they struck a quid pro quo — the U.S. would adopt the FAL as its main battle rifle if Britain backed NATO adopting the 7.62 x 51-millimeter round.

NATO adopted the round. However, the U.S. reneged, developed the M14 — which fired the NATO 7.62-millimeter cartridge — and adopted it as the American military’s main rifle. In the end, it didn’t matter to FN because NATO countries, including Britain, began snapping up the FAL chambered for the NATO round.

Many consider that combination of weapon and cartridge the quintessential pairing of battle-rifle and bullet during the 20th century — the FAL went into production in 1953 and FN continued to produce the rifle until 1988. The M-14 fell by the wayside as the main U.S. battle rifle within a few years, replaced by the M-16.

“Regardless of the political activity that went on before its adoption, the 7.62 x 51-millimeter NATO turned out to be an excellent, powerful military cartridge,” writes Robert Cashner, author of The FN FAL Battle Rifle. “With millions of FALs manufactured and internationally distributed, the rifle played a large part in making the 7.62 x 51-millimeter NATO the success that it was.”

October 28, 2014

Facebook‘s UK tax picture

Filed under: Britain, Business, Economics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:17

Tim Worstall explains why it’s not a scandal that Facebook doesn’t pay more taxes in the UK:

In fact, it’s actually rather a good idea that Facebook isn’t paying UK corporation tax. For the standard economic finding (also known as optimal taxation theory) is that we shouldn’t be taxing corporations at all. Thus, as a matter of public policy we should be abolishing this tax: and also perhaps applauding those companies that take it upon themselves to do what the politicians seem not to have the courage to do, make sure that corporations aren’t paying tax.

That isn’t how most of the press sees it, of course

[...]

That’s an extremely bad piece of reporting actually, for of course Facebook UK did not have advertising revenue of £371 million last year: Facebook Ireland had advertising revenue of that amount from customers in the UK that year. And that’s something rather different: that revenue will be taxed under whatever system Ireland has in place to tax it. And this is the way that the European Union system of corporate taxation is supposed to work. Any company, based in any one of the 28 member countries, can sell entirely without hindrance into all other 27 countries. And the profits from their doing so will be taxed wherever the brass plate announcing the HQ of that company is within the EU. This really is how it was deliberately designed, how it was deliberately set up: it is public policy that it should be this way.

We could also note a few more things here. The UK company itself made a loss and that loss was because they made substantial grants of restricted stock units to the employees. And under the UK system those RSU grants are taxed as income, in full, at the moment of their being granted. Which will mean, given those average wages, at 45% or so. And we should all be able to realise that a 45% tax rate is rather higher than the 24% corporation tax rate. The total tax rate on the series of transactions is thus very much higher than if Facebook has kept its employees as paupers and just kept the profits for themselves. Further, those complaining about the tax bill tend to be those from the left side of the political aisle: which is also where we find those who insist that workers should be earning the full amount of their value to the company which is what seems to be happening here.

October 27, 2014

Beware the stoner sheep!

Filed under: Britain, Humour, Law — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 07:21

In The Register, news you can use!

A flock of sheep that are about to meet their maker at the abattoir got high on cannabis plants worth £4,000, after the drugs were ditched in a Surrey field.

“My sheep weren’t quite on their backs with legs in the air but they probably had the munchies,” farm shop manager Nellie Budd told local rag the Surrey Mirror.

“They haven’t had any other side effects but I’ll tell you about the meat next week.”

The stash of marijuana plants, which were each roughly three foot tall, were dumped at the edge of Fanny’s Farm in Markedge Lane, the paper reported. Budd’s shop was just 200 yards from where the drugs were fly-tipped, apparently.

Police told Budd that the cannabis had a street value of about £4,000.

The invention of the suit

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:02

A.A. Gill had an unplanned meeting with British Labour Party leader, but the article isn’t about the politician himself, it’s about his suit:

Suits are malevolent magicians’ sleeves for socialists, full of patrician loops and tricks, small, embroidered, cryptic messages of deference and privilege. They are ever the uniform of the enemy. They are also the greatest British invention ever. That’s not hyperbole or jingotastic boasting. It’s the plain, double-breasted truth. Nothing else that comes from this pathetically stunted island has had anything like the universal acceptance, reach or influence of the suit.

Look at it as if you’d never seen one before. Nothing about it makes sense. It’s not practical; it’s not particularly comfortable; it doesn’t work; it’s not decorative; and it doesn’t make us look good, rather like the establishment it represents. And, like most things in this place, it arrived through a series of accidents, mistakes, misinterpretations, good intentions, conventions and slovenliness, all of it growing out of radicalism.

The suit is the polite taming, the socialising, the neutering, of riding and military kit. Those pointless buttons on the cuff were moved from lateral to vertical. You used to be able to fold the end of your sleeve over and forward and button it like a mitten, for riding in the cold. Incidentally, the buttons on the cuff should correspond to the number of buttons on the front, not for any practical reason, but just because that’s what they should do. The vents at the back are made for sitting on a horse. The slanting pockets are for easy access when mounted. The suit that we wear was, in essence, invented by Beau Brummell – an obsessive, highly strung, socially insecure, thin-skinned aesthete, snob and genius. And, of course, an Etonian. He wanted to simplify the extraordinarily otiose decorative court dress to give men an elegant line. When the bailiffs finally broke into his rooms, they found only a simple deal table with a note that said, archly, “Starch is everything.” Beau escaped to France, where people said he looked like an Englishman and he died in an asylum.

We have to thank the members of the Romantic movement for the sober colours of suits. It was their love of the Gothic that put us in grey and black but the suit stuck. It said something and it meant something to men around the world; it said and meant so much that they would discard their local dress, the costumes of millennia, their culture and their link to their ancestors, to dress up like English insurance brokers. There is not a corner of the world where the suit is not the default clobber of power, authority, knowledge, judgement, trust and, most importantly, continuity. The curtained changing rooms of Savile Row welcome the naked knees of the most despotic and murderous, immoral and venal dictators and kleptocrats, who are turned out looking benignly conservative, their sins carefully and expertly hidden, like the little hangman’s loops under their lapels.

October 25, 2014

Destroying the “too big to fail” meme

Filed under: Britain, Economics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:09

In the Telegraph, Allister Heath makes a case for the looming end to the economically disastrous notion that certain entities are “too big to fail”:

Bank bail-outs have been a cultural catastrophe for those of us who support free markets, low taxes and enterprise. During the 1980s and 1990s, much of the British public came to accept and even embrace capitalism, in return for a simple deal: profits and losses would both have to be privatised. Clever entrepreneurs, savvy traders or brilliant footballers would be encouraged to make money; but companies and investors that placed the wrong bets would be allowed to fail, with no pity.

Not only did this trigger an explosion in prosperity, it also helped shift the British mindset towards a much more pro-enterprise position. The rules of the game felt fair: risk and reward went hand in hand. The government would serve as an umpire, not a supporter of vested interests.

But the crisis of 2007-09 put an end to this implicit bargain, at least in the eyes of vast swathes of the public. They saw large institutions bailed out at great public expense, and with substantial amounts of taxpayer money put at risk. It started to look as if — when it came to the banking industry at least — risk had been socialised while profits remained private. To many members of the public, it was a case of heads you win and tails we lose. Profits were retained by a small elite, while losses were spread much more broadly — or so it felt.

Needless to say, the reality was more complex. Shareholders of bailed-out banks often lost everything. But bondholders were rescued, institutions survived, staff contracts were not ripped up and the process of creative destruction was severely derailed. And while big beasts were kept afloat, many smaller firms went bust and many ordinary folk lost their jobs. This is one reason — together with an incorrect narrative of the causes of the crisis which wrongly absolves governments and central banks — for increased support for punitive tax and government meddling in prices and wages.

So why did governments turn their back on capitalism and suddenly refuse to let market forces do their work? The uncontrolled failure of a major financial institution has a much broader, system-wide impact than the uncontrolled failure of a hair salon. Under traditional bankruptcy law, however, both would be treated in the same way, which simply makes no sense. One needs a different approach to tackle the failure of major banks or insurers — a proper Plan B. With the right institutions in place, there need not be such a thing as “too big to fail”. With the correct planning and tools, even the largest of financial firms can be dismantled sensibly without wiping out millions of depositors and triggering another Great Depression.

October 23, 2014

The risks of writing near-future SF stories

Filed under: Britain, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

Charles Stross tells a sad tale of woe about his “Laundry” series of SF/Occult novels:

There’s some kind of bizarre curse hanging over my Laundry Files series. Or maybe it’s a deeper underlying problem with writing fiction set in the very near future (or past): I’m not sure which. All I’m sure is that that for the past decade, reality has been out to get me: and I’m fed up.

My first intimation came a long time ago — in 2001. I’d just finished writing The Atrocity Archive and it was being edited for serial publication in issues 7-9 of the Scottish SF magazine Spectrum SF (which folded a couple of issues later, in 2003). It was late September, and I found myself reading a terse email from the editor, Paul Fraser: “Charlie, about your story — do you think you can possibly find some new bad guys for Chapter 4? Because you’ve just been overtaken by current events …”

In Chapter 4 of The Atrocity Archive Bob learns from Angleton who the middle eastern bad guys who kidnapped Mo, intending to use her sacrifice to open a gateway to somewhere bad, really were … and when I originally wrote the story, in 1999-2000, they were a relatively obscure bunch of anti-American zealots who’d blown up the USS Stark and an embassy in Africa. I know this may boggle the imagination of younger or more forgetful readers, but Al Quaida and Osama bin Laden had not at that time hijacked any airliners, much less etched themselves into the pages of world history: they were not, at that time, the Emmanuel Goldstein of the New World Order.

October 21, 2014

A legal warning shot for Manga fans in England

Filed under: Britain, Law, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:14

A man in Middlesbrough has been convicted of possessing illegal images of children … in his Manga collection. That is, cartoon drawings in the Japanese style called Manga. Gareth Lightfoot reports on the case for the Gazette:

A jobless animation fan has made legal history as he was convicted of having illegal pictures of cartoon children.

Robul Hoque, 39, is believed to be the first in the UK hauled before court over his collection of Japanese Manga or Anime-style images alone.

He admitted 10 counts of possessing prohibited images of children at Teesside Crown Court.

His barrister Richard Bennett said: “These are not what would be termed as paedophilic images. These are cartoons.”

And Mr Bennett revealed that such banned images were freely available on legitimate sites.

He said: “This case should serve as a warning to every Manga and Anime fan to be careful. It seems there are many thousands of people in this country, if they are less then careful, who may find themselves in that position too.”

Police found the images when they seized Hoque’s computer from his home on June 13, 2012, said prosecutor Harry Hadfield. He said officers found 288 still and 99 moving images, but none were of real people.

They were classified as prohibited images as they depicted young girls, some in school uniforms, some exposing themselves or taking part in sexual activity.

For obvious reasons, the newspaper article does not show any examples of the images in question, but Rob Beschizza warns you not to read his post at BoingBoing if you’re in England, as it does show an image that may or may not have been part of the investigation.

October 19, 2014

Sex-toy-shaped installation deflated by Paris vandal (or someone with good taste)

Filed under: Europe, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 12:49

In the Telegraph, David Chazan tells the tale of the now-deflated artwork:

Vandals deflated a blow-up art installation in an exclusive Paris square on Saturday after outraged conservative groups said it resembled a “giant sex toy”.

The 79-foot-high inflatable green exhibit was called “Tree” because it looked vaguely like a Christmas tree, but the American artist, Paul McCarthy, told Le Monde newspaper that it was inspired by a sex toy known as an anal plug and was meant “as a joke”.

However, conservative politicians and many Parisians failed to appreciate the humour and called for the removal of the “offensive” installation after it was erected in Place Vendôme on Thursday.

Hours later, McCarthy, 69, was slapped in the face by a passer-by who screamed: “You’re not French and this has no place in the square”. The artist was dazed and shocked, but unhurt. “Does this sort of thing happen often in Paris?” he asked as his assailant fled before he could be apprehended.

In the early hours of Saturday, vandals climbed a metal fence around the exhibit, cut the power supply to a pump that kept it filled with air, and severed one of the straps that held it upright, police said.

By the morning, it was a shapeless green mess. McCarthy said he did not want it to be repaired or re-erected.

October 17, 2014

Interesting discovery about the recent Anglo-Saxon gold find

Filed under: Britain, History, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 13:56

As far back as the seventh century, they had metallurgical tricks to make poor quality gold jewellery look far better:

Scientists, examining Britain’s greatest Anglo-Saxon gold treasure collection, have discovered that it isn’t quite as golden as they thought.

Tests on the famous Staffordshire Anglo-Saxon treasure, a vast gold and silver hoard found by a metal detectorist five years ago, have now revealed that the 7th century Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths used sophisticated techniques to make 12-18 karat gold look like 21-23 karat material.

Scientific research, carried out over the past two years on behalf of Birmingham City and Stoke-on-Trent City councils, which jointly own the hoard, has revealed that the Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths had discovered an ingenious way of, metallurgically, dressing mutton up as a lamb. It appears that they deliberately used a weak acid solution – almost certainly ferric chloride – to remove silver and other non-gold impurities from the top few microns of the surfaces of gold artefacts, thus increasing the surfaces’ percentage gold content and therefore improving its appearance. This piece of Anglo-Saxon high tech deception turned the surfaces of relatively low karat, slightly greenish pale yellow gold/silver alloys into high karat, rich deep yellow, apparently high purity gold.

Archaeologists had never previously realised that Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths had developed such technology.

“We had no idea they were doing it,” said Dr Eleanor Blakelock, a leading British archaeometalurgist who carried out the tests on the Staffordshire hoard gold.

H/T to David Stamper for the link.

Germany’s arms procurement plight

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Europe, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:22

Peter Dörrie explains the German government’s current embarrassment due to the revelations about the desperate straits of all German military branches. The combination of delivery delays, cost overruns, technical faults, and low equipment availability mean that Germany could not come to the aid of NATO allies in a crisis:

The German armed forces have come clean. They’ve admitted they’re incapable of managing arms procurement — and have systematically neglected the hardware that’s already in service.

Military procurement and management in Germany have been under heightened scrutiny ever since Berlin’s attempt to buy an European version of America’s Global Hawk drone ended in miserable failure in mid-2013.

In late September, the German military sent an explosive report to parliament, confessing that half of the armed forces’ heavy equipment is unserviceable and can’t deploy in a crisis.

The German navy, for example, possesses 15 Sea King helicopters, but 12 of them are grounded. The situation is similar with respect to the naval Sea Lynx helicopter — just four out of 18 can fly — and the heavy-lifting CH-53 helicopter. Sixteen out of 43 CH-53s are functional.

The Luftwaffe can field only 80 Typhoon and Tornado fighters, out of 140 on the books. So short of equipment, at present Germany would be powerless to respond if a fellow NATO member were to ask for military assistance.

And the bad news doesn’t stop there. On Oct. 6, Defense Minister Ursula Von Der Leyen released a report by an outside consultancy analyzing the military’s nine biggest weapons purchases.

The report is damning. Every single procurement effort suffers some combination of cost overruns, delays and technical shortfalls. And owing to the ministry’s unwillingness or inability to negotiate proper contracts, the government has had to pay for the overruns itself. The arms manufacturers waltz away with their full fees.

This is sounding disturbingly similar to Canada’s military procurement problems.

October 16, 2014

Finland is concerned about recent Russian actions, but not enough to join NATO

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 15:12

In the Christian Science Monitor, Gordon F. Sander reviews the state of Finnish-Russian relations and the unusually uncomfortable situation Finland finds itself in now:

Seven months ago, when Russia seized and annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, Finns seemed relatively unconcerned. The world’s northernmost country shares some 800 miles of border with its huge neighbor, but just a quarter of Finns said they felt threatened by Moscow. And a similar number told pollsters their country should consider joining NATO in interest of self-defense.

Since then, Russia’s behavior has become more provocative, and not just in eastern Ukraine. During one week in August, Russian military aircraft conducted three unauthorized overflights of Finnish airspace. The Finnish public reacted accordingly. A poll last month by Finnish daily Aamulehti showed that 43 percent of those polled perceived Russia as a danger, an increase of nearly 20 percent from March.

But support for Finland joining NATO remained almost unchanged: a mere two percent higher, the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation (YLE) found. Why hasn’t Finnish wariness translated into stronger support for NATO membership? And what, if anything, would persuade Finns to join the defense pact?

Defense Minister Carl Haglund says that the foundation for the Finnish public’s aversion to NATO membership stems from its complicated, and oft-misunderstood relationship with Russia. “This [reluctance] goes back to [our] history,” he says, “especially the end of the Second World War and the cold war.”

“Put it this way,” says Pekka Ervasti, political editor of YLE. “Finnish neutrality dies hard.”

Italian recession officially ends, thanks to drugs and prostitution

Filed under: Economics, Europe — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:21

As Kelly McParland put it, it’s “another reason to legalize everything nasty“:

Italy learnt it was no longer in a recession on Wednesday thanks to a change in data calculations across the European Union which includes illegal economic activities such as prostitution and drugs in the GDP measure.

Adding illegal revenue from hookers, narcotics and black market cigarettes and alcohol to the eurozone’s third-biggest economy boosted gross domestic product figures.

GDP rose slightly from a 0.1 percent decline for the first quarter to a flat reading, the national institute of statistics said.

Although ISTAT confirmed a 0.2 percent decline for the second quarter, the revision of the first quarter data meant Italy had escaped its third recession in the last six years.

The economy must contract for two consecutive quarters, from output in the previous quarter, for a country to be technically in recession.

It’s merely a change in the statistical measurement, not an actual increase in Italian economic activity. And, given that illegal revenue pretty much by definition isn’t (and can’t be) accurately tracked, it’s only an estimated value anyway.

Prog Rock and the occult

Filed under: Britain, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:33

Peter Bebergal discusses some of the occult influences of Progressive Rock at Boing Boing:

At a recent gallery show of his artwork, Roger Dean — best known for his lush and fantastical album covers for Yes in the 1970s — was enjoying the crowd when a man approached him and held out his hand to shake. “Mr. Dean, your work has changed my life,” he said, “I have gleaned so many amazing, mystical secrets from looking at your album covers, can you tell me sort of what you meant by it.” Dean, ever polite, tried to let the man down easily. “I didn’t mean anything at all. It was just a good — looking album cover.” His superfan, disillusioned, and possibly embarrassed, now turned nemesis, “Well, what do you know?” he angrily spat, “You’re just the artist!” Despite his protestations, Dean might have taken some responsibility for contributing to casting a wide mystical net over an entire subgenre of music, known sometimes derogatorily as progressive rock. You are unlikely to find a prog-rocker who refers to their own music in those terms, but the term serves as a way to describe a movement in rock, one steering a massive ship away from the siren call of blues-based rock that had so long dominated popular music, toward a more English tradition of what Greg Lake of the supergroup Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP) described as “troubadour, medieval storytelling.” Rock would inherit this mantle proudly, looking toward the mythology of the past — often heavily informed by occult images — to construct the sound of the future.

Psychedelic rock bands set the course, but in the 1970s, a new wave of bands looked beyond the drugginess of psychedelia to classical music as the true guide. Coupled with the instruments of the future — particularly Moog synthesizers — progressive rock crafted rock suites, with some songs clocking twenty minutes or more. Dean’s paintings were otherworldly landscapes of floating islands and boulders, or stone structures rising up like trees. Largely unpopulated, save for the occasional butterfly/dragon hybrid, there were no aliens, elves, or wizards. His worlds might be long-dead civilizations, like the lifeless plains of Mars haunted by the once-thriving Martian societies in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, or future lands where people have taken to hibernating in the inexplicable constructions of their cities, endlessly waiting. Dean had perfected the merging of science fiction with mysticism, invoking the imagination of prog-rock listeners who were convinced there was some story or greater truth behind his art, and spent hours listening and poring over the album covers, meant to coexist in an ideological way.

October 15, 2014

WW1 US Military Railroads in Europe

Filed under: Europe, Military, Railways, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:34

H/T to Roger Henry for the link.

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