Friday, 19 May 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-05-19: Joni

Lurking in the tall grass, like a ferocious tiger.


What if Tony Blair never went to war in Iraq?

I've been thinking about this question, in the context of Brexit and the general election. How might things be different by now?

Demonstration against the Iraq War in Universe Alpha.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-05-12: Joni

In a state of advanced relaxation.

Nice Guy Syndrome

The Nice Guys Finish Last trope is widespread in popular culture, and I've come to realise it applies to the Labour party.

In this trope, women go for the arrogant bastards instead of unsexy nice guys. Sometimes the "nice guys" in question become angry, bitter, and in fact not nice at all, as illustrated by XKCD:

Source: XKCD
Labour is clearly entering the "angry and bitter" stage of Nice Guy Syndrome.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-05-05: Wimpole Courtyard Cat

Resident cat in the stable courtyard at Wimpole Estate near Cambridge. This handsome fellow is elderly but very friendly. The piles of wool behind him are being hand-spun into yarn.

Belief and the Supervillain

Conspiracy theories can be comforting, to bloggers and heads of government alike.

If a shadowy cabal of supervillains is responsible for wars, terrorist attacks and economic recessions, then it's scary, but also kind of cool. It provides reassurance that at least someone is in charge. If you can divine the motives of the grand conspiracy, you might be able to oppose it or at least stay out of its way.

Our Prime Minister, looking particularly villainous.
Image source: Buzzfeed

Friday, 28 April 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-04-28: FOC

This handsome fellow lives a few doors down the street from us; we imaginatively refer to him as the Fluffy Orange Cat. He's very friendly to passing humans, although we suspect he may be a bit of a bully to other cats. Here he is enjoying the afternoon sunshine in his front garden.

The Useless and the Cruel

This is an extraordinary election. On the one hand, we have cruel but competent Tories; on the other, well-meaning and inept Labour. The Tories are not widely loved, but it's unclear if Labour could even function as a government.

A recent column by George Monbiot acknowledges Labour is incompetent, but claims it doesn't really matter:
I would love to elect a government led by someone both competent and humane, but this option will not be on the ballot paper. The choice today is between brutal efficiency in pursuit of a disastrous agenda, and gentle inefficiency in pursuit of a better world.
Monbiot is wrong. To see why, let us consider the word "humane".

In order to be humane, it is not enough to have good intentions. If I sit around thinking nice thoughts while my child goes hungry, that is not humane behaviour. Being truly humane requires action and hard work.

Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-04-21: Joni

Joni is bored by talk of human politics.

Waiting for the Hammer to Fall

It is not surprising Theresa May has called a general election. She is likely to secure a crushing victory, such as very few Prime Ministers have done before her. For the rest of us, the news is not so good.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The Conservatives have a current majority of 16, based on a 6.5% lead over Labour in 2015 with a feeble 37% of the popular vote. Polls now give them a 20-point lead over Labour, and 44% of the vote, for a predicted majority of 134.

To put this in perspective, there were 19 general elections between 1945 and 2015. Only four of them had a government majority larger than 134: 1945 (Lab 146), 1983 (Con 144), 1997 (Lab 179), and 2001 (Lab 167). May is on course for a historic landslide.

Source: Electoral Calculus, polling from 11-18 April

I think this will be an awful result. The Conservatives are a mean party, in both senses of the word: Cruel and petty. Their expected victory will give them a free hand to victimise the poor, the sick, the disabled, and immigrants. As I've recently discussed, the Conservatives celebrate cruelty as a virtue; one they value above economic success. This does not bode well for their conduct of the Brexit process.

All the same, the early election has a certain democratic logic. The referendum result has instigated Brexit, but the ballot paper said nothing at all about what kind of Brexit we want. In theory, the general election gives us a chance to decide just that.

In practice, we are caught between multiple devils and the deep blue sea.

The Conservatives offer cruelty, but also decisiveness. They will not make many decisions I agree with; but I must admit, they are largely united, and capable of setting policy and carrying it out. They are able to function as a government. It's not clear that any other party can.

The Scottish National Party will keep their grip on Scotland. The more dysfunctional Westminster is, the more it bolsters their demand for a second independence referendum. I don't blame them -- they are perfectly clear that independence is their overriding priority -- but it means they are unlikely to take a constructive role in the government of the UK.

The Liberal Democrats are unequivocally opposed to a hard Brexit. For that alone, I would probably be willing to give them my vote. As it happens, I agree with them on most other issues too. I will gladly support them as I did in 2015. Their former MP Julian Huppert is standing again here in Cambridge; he has a good chance of winning, and I hope he does.

On a national scale, though, Liberal Democrat victories are likely to be no more than symbolic. They have been reduced to a mere nine MPs. If they triple or quadruple their representation, it would be very impressive; but it would do little to dent the expected Conservative majority, especially since many of their potential gains are at the expense of Labour or the SNP.

Even with Labour in disarray, and a clear contrast with the Tories on Brexit, the LibDems are stuck at 10% or so in the polls. I think there will be a hard ceiling on LibDem support, because they simply are not trusted. Voters have not forgotten their coalition with the Conservatives, and their broken promise on tuition fees. Maybe this is unfair, but politics is not a fair competition.

Comrades, we should be struggling together

As for Labour... well, I hardly know where to start.

Prime Minister Corbyn? Really? He's a woefully incompetent leader, and his party quite plainly can't agree on what day of the week it is. Less than a year ago, eighty percent of Corbyn's own MPs voted no confidence in his leadership, and his personal popularity is abysmal. In the latest YouGov poll, 50% think Theresa May would be the best Prime Minister, next to a pitiful 14% for Corbyn. "Don't know" is beating him by a factor of more than two to one.

Labour has published a list of ten pledges. They sound... nice. I mean, who isn't in favour of full employment, improved social care, and protection for the environment? But positive change does not come about solely from the power of good intentions. It requires both ruthless efficiency, and an ability to negotiate and compromise. That does not sound like today's Labour party.

If Labour really means to do this, it's the most ambitious programme for any incoming government since 1997, maybe since 1945. Blair and Attlee had united and fiercely disciplined parties, and landslide majorities in Parliament. Corbyn will have neither.

If by some miracle Labour wins a slender majority, I don't believe they are remotely capable of implementing their pledges. They might as well have promised to ban rain on bank holidays, for all the difference it makes. We would see a weak and divided government, flailing helplessly in the face of the slightest challenge. In some respects that might be preferable to the Tories, but it's hardly surprising most of the electorate doesn't see it that way.

The ten pledges are notable for their failure to mention Brexit. How will Labour handle the central issue of this election? I have no idea, and I strongly suspect the Labour party doesn't know either.

As for Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell trying to negotiate a comprehensive trade deal with the European Union... my mind is well and truly boggled. These are not detail-oriented people, and their preferred approach to capitalism is shouting angry slogans about it. Putting them in charge of complex, delicate, and vitally important international negotiations would be like putting a toddler at the controls of an aircraft. It's possible they would be even less suited to the task than Boris Johnson, which is really saying something.

It's a moot point anyway. Labour's chance of overcoming the Tory lead is so remote, it can only be seen through a powerful telescope. For practical purposes, we're waiting to see how large the Conservative majority will be.

It could be very large indeed. The Conservatives and their allies in the press will unleash a monstering of Corbyn such as we have never seen. His past record provides plenty of material to work with.

Labour's performance in 2015 was so poor, it doesn't have that far to fall. Its near-wipeout in Scotland entailed a 17% swing, which is unlikely to be replicated in England. It had 30% of the UK popular vote in 2015, and even in a worst-case scenario, it is likely to hang onto 20% or so.

That said, there are a lot of moving parts which can work to the detriment of Labour. Remain voters will switch to LibDems, Leave voters to UKIP or the Conservatives. Those disillusioned with Corbyn's leadership will vote for other parties or simply stay home. A great many seats could be handed to the Conservatives, even in the most unlikely places.

Current polling has Con 44, Lab 25, LD 10, UKIP 10. Let's try the Electoral Calculus swingometer with Con 48, Lab 20, LD 15, UKIP 5. This gives a Conservative majority of 216; an all-time record if we leave aside wartime coalitions, and all the more impressive with only one or two Tory seats in Scotland. Of course this is only a crude estimate, but the general point is clear.

I think the Labour party is rather looking forward to this election, because it will allow them to get on with their real objective of fighting each other.

Labour has observed an uneasy truce since last year's leadership contest, but internal grudges have not been forgotten or forgiven. After the expected defeat, moderates will blame Corbyn's incompetence, Corbynites will blame the MPs' disloyalty, and the party will once again plunge into civil war. Few outsiders will take much notice; and for good or ill, Theresa May will have almost total power to rule the UK as she sees fit.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Ghost in the Shell: Review

Ghost in the Shell is based on the 1995 Japanese animated film of the same name. Its protagonist is known as Major; she is an elite anti-terrorist agent, with a human brain in an otherwise artificial body, who is working to track down a mysterious computer hacker.

In this retelling, Scarlett Johansson has been cast as Major. This has brought about much controversy, which I'll get to later. First, I'll consider other aspects of the film.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-04-07: Joni

Queen of all she surveys.

The Way of Pain

The Prime Minister has made clear we're headed for a hard Brexit, come hell or high water. This reveals a great deal about her character and priorities.

Let's suppose Theresa May had actually wanted to keep the UK within the single market and customs union, in a Norway-style deal. It would honour the referendum result by leaving the EU, minimise damage to the UK economy, but also retain free movement and contributions to the EU budget. How could she have done it?

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

King of the Road

Today, the UK formally notifies the EU that it is invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, to begin the process of withdrawal.

Theresa May signs the letter of notification.
Image source: BBC/AP

Hurrah for freedom. God save the Queen. Enjoy shouting those slogans, because it's about all the benefit we'll get from this sorry exercise.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-03-24: Joni

This is a most satisfactory place for me to sit. Well done, human.


The Westminster bridge attack this week was a vicious crime and a tragic waste of human life. Our leaders, and ordinary Londoners, have reacted by keeping calm and carrying on. Fear and panic are exactly what terrorists want; for the most part, we are not giving it to them.

Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament:

Yesterday an act of terrorism tried to silence our democracy. But today we meet as normal - as generations have done before us, and as future generations will continue to do - to deliver a simple message: we are not afraid. And our resolve will never waver in the face of terrorism.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said:

We can’t allow them to succeed in dividing communities, we will not allow them to destroy our way of life. We’re going to be defiant, we’re going to be resilient, we’re going to return to work but of course never be complacent…we must never accept terrorists being successful.

Some of the calm reaction is good old-fashioned British stoicism. I think it also stems from an understanding there is very little that could have been done to prevent the attack.

The perpetrator appears to have been a single deranged individual with a car and a knife. He had a criminal record, but his last conviction was in 2003. He was known to have previously associated with extremists, but was not the subject of any active investigation.

The immediate vicinity of Westminster is one of the most heavily policed and secured areas in any major British city. Armed police reacted quickly; not quickly enough to save everyone, but it's difficult to see what more they could have done.

The police investigation is ongoing, and maybe it will turn up some additional understanding of the attacker's motives. But the fact is, we can't really stop an individual who one day decides to commit mass murder. At least it was not possible for the attacker to obtain guns, otherwise the death toll could have been much higher.

Can we stop the mindset which makes such crimes possible? Unfortunately this too is doubtful, especially in this day and age when hateful and murderous ideologies are just a few taps of the keyboard away.

We must try to build a society where we can live together in peace, prosperity, and freedom; in the end, this is the best way to discourage our fellow citizens from turning to hatred. We must be vigilant, and punish those who are caught planning or committing violent attacks; but sooner or later someone will get through.

When that happens, the most fitting memorial to the dead is to carry on living in a free and open society.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-03-17: Joni

Joni is good company when you're trying to recover from a cold.

The Sound of Inevitability

First, a disclaimer: I've had a rotten cold all week, and I'm writing after a long day of work, childcare, and driving through the grim rush-hour traffic of Cambridge. So this post will be grumpier than usual, which in my case is saying something. All the same, I couldn't resist writing about the prospect of a second Scottish independence referendum.

It's not entirely certain if or when a referendum will be held. Theresa May has rejected Nicola Sturgeon's demand for a vote in 2018, before the Brexit deal is finalised, but has been careful not to rule one out altogether. My best guess is that they may compromise on a vote in autumn 2019, after Brexit but before the next general election.

Regardless of the exact decision on a vote, the unofficial campaign has already begun. Sturgeon has marched her troops to the top of the hill, and they won't come down again without a fight.

My overwhelming mood is one of weary resignation. This referendum appears with all the unwelcome inevitability of a January credit card statement.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Third Blogiversary

As of the 1st of March, I've been writing this blog for three years. I'm still enjoying it very much and intend to continue. In these times especially, it's good to have a space to sort out my thoughts on the direction of our society; rant about my frustrations with the same; and post cat pictures to try and maintain sanity.

My ten most viewed posts in the year are:
  1. Cute Cat Friday 2017-01-27: Joni
  2. Parliament: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: On Parliament, Donald Trump, and Brexit
  3. On the Stupidity of David Cameron: My immediate reaction, the morning after the European referendum result. Lots of NSFW language.
  4. Full Circle: On the grotesque caricature of Western capitalism practiced in Russia, and how the Trump administration sees it as a model to be followed.
  5. Please Vote Remain: My heartfelt argument to vote Remain. I was one of many people saying things like this, but as it turned out, not enough.
  6. Mad Hatter Democracy: On the chaotic aftermath of the Brexit vote.
  7. Cute Cat Friday 2016-03-11: Joni
  8. Reasons to be Afraid: My post on the eve of the US election, pointing out that it was not in the bag for Hillary Clinton.
  9. Assorted US Election Thoughts: Observations from the primary season, on Hillary versus Bernie and Trump versus Everyone.
  10. The Deplorables of Punxsutawney: On the voters in small Pennsylvanian towns who helped hand Trump the election.
Inevitably, they're dominated by Brexit and Trump. Here's hoping the next twelve months are a little more positive. If not, there's still Cute Cat Friday to sustain us.

A couple of less-political posts I'd like to highlight:

Thanks to all my readers, and to the lovely Joni, star of Cute Cat Friday.

Cute Cat Friday 2017-03-03: Joni

Enjoying a sunbeam in our dilapidated greenhouse.

The Baseball Disconnect

There is a lot of understandable anger directed at Trump voters just now. Charles M. Blow writes in the New York Times:

This is why I have no patience for liberal talk of reaching out to Trump voters. There is no more a compromise point with those who accept, promote and defend bigotry, misogyny and xenophobia than there is a designation of “almost pregnant.”

This is rather extreme. Even Hillary Clinton only put half of Trump's supporters into the infamous "basket of deplorables". If we take Blow's words at face value, every single Trump voter is beyond redemption: Bearing the mark of Cain, forever exiled from the progressive Eden for their act of kinslaying.

E pluribus unum?

It makes no logical sense. It's a statistical certainty that many voted for both Obama in 2012, and Trump in 2016. A minority of Trump voters to be sure, but a significant one; more than his margin of victory in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, even Ohio. Have these erstwhile Obama voters really fallen so far, it is not worth even trying to speak to them?

Friday, 24 February 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-02-24: Joni

Enjoying warmer weather in the garden.

Remarks on Trump by a Toddler

Another toddler disavows Trump.

Listen up, people, because I have some things to say about Donald Trump. I'd rather be playing with my building blocks, but the time has come for me to speak up on behalf of the toddler community.

Over and over again, news reports depict Trump as a toddler. This is a grievous slur upon me and everyone else in my age group.

It's really frustrating getting through life when you have a vocabulary of less than fifty words, and the world is run by grown-up people who do things for incomprehensible reasons. Sometimes the frustration gets the better of me and I throw a tantrum. I admit it, Trump and I have that much in common.

Give me a break, though. I have kindness and empathy. I'm learning to share. I like to help people.

I take joy in the simple things of life. Last week when Daddy was deciding what to get me for dinner, I yelled "potato" and got the bag of potatoes out of the cupboard, and he got the message and made me a baked potato. That was awesome, I'm telling you.

I love stories and animals and splashing in puddles. This Trump guy needs a good splash in a puddle, or a nice puppy he can play with, or someone to read him a story with funny pictures. Maybe then he wouldn't be so angry all the time.

Then again, maybe that wouldn't work. I've got a reason for emotional immaturity. I'm only two. My neurological development isn't up to delayed gratification or parsing complex subjects. Trump's seventy, and I can't count that high yet, but I know it's really old. So I don't know what his excuse is.

Be that as it may, you grown-ups should know better. Calling Trump a toddler is an insult to toddlers, so knock it off already.

Now if you'll excuse me, the cat just walked by and requires my urgent attention. Kitty!

Friday, 17 February 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-02-17: Quincy

Quincy the campus cat, doing some important stalking.

The Protective Bubble

Donald Trump is unfit to be President of the United States; but the very forces which propelled him to the Republican nomination will make it extremely difficult to remove him.

We're doomed.

Four weeks in, and the overwhelming impression from the Trump administration is one of incompetence. Trump is hopelessly ignorant of the most basic functions of government. I expected the extremism, but even I am a little shocked by the stupidity:

  • He can't get through a telephone call with the Prime Minister of Australia, one of America's most loyal allies, without causing a diplomatic incident.
  • Trump discussed a North Korean missile test with the Prime Minister of Japan in the middle of a public dining room, at a club he himself owns.
  • His executive order on immigration was immediately overturned by the courts.
  • He was warned Michael Flynn, his National Security Advisor, had illegal contacts with Russia; but took no action until weeks later, when the matter became public and Flynn was forced to resign.
  • Retired Vice-Admiral Robert Harward was Trump's first choice as Flynn's replacement; but he has turned the job down, allegedly because he considers the administration a "shit sandwich".
  • Republicans in Congress are preparing no less than three separate investigations of the Trump administration's conduct.
  • Trump has failed to nominate anyone for most of the deputy- and under-secretary positions in his Cabinet.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Friday, 3 February 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-02-03: Joni

Cosy lap dwelling cat.

The Deplorables of Punxsutawney

Yesterday was Groundhog Day, so I watched the excellent film of the same name. It is set in the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and I couldn't help thinking of it in relation to Trump's election victory.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-01-27: Joni

Surveying her territory on a chilly day in the garden.

Delusions of a Big Nation

England's struggle with its own national identity is at the root of Brexit. In a recent article in the New European, Professor Nicholas Boyle develops this idea, and sets it in context of the demise of the British Empire. His piece makes some interesting points, but gets carried away at times, becoming too elaborate for its own good. (Also, a professor at Cambridge should really understand that Scotland is not a colony.)

I think Boyle's key point can be expressed a lot more simply: England has the self-image of a Big Nation.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-01-20: Joni

I have claimed this rocking chair. It is mine now.

President Zuckerberg

A Vanity Fair piece by Nick Bilton asks, Will Mark Zuckerberg Be Our Next President?

According to Betteridge's Law of Headlines, the answer is no. But in his opening sentence Bilton insists this is a serious question, so let's play along. (The same question has been picked up by The Atlantic.)

Mark Zuckerberg.
Photo credit: By PresidĂȘncia do MĂ©xico - Flickr, CC BY 2.0, Link

Friday, 13 January 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-01-13: Joni

Joni on the conservatory roof, closely watching a squirrel (circled).

Passengers: Review WITH SPOILERS

Passengers (2016) has stayed with me more than I expected; beneath the glossy production design, and a love story between the two attractive leads, something much darker is struggling to receive its due.

Plot spoilers ahead; consider yourself warned.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-01-06: Joni

I like this box. Now, what's going on up there?

Generation Ruin

For the first time I can recall, I am greeting the New Year with more fear than optimism. My personal circumstances are all right, for which I am very grateful; but the wider direction is frightening. I was born in 1978 and came of age in the 1990s. My generation grew up in a time of extraordinary optimism, which is now dead and gone.

It wasn't all sunshine. The first event in world news I clearly remember was the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989. At school, they showed us the news on television, and we saw the brave student protestors with their version of the Statue of Liberty, named the Goddess of Democracy. Then we saw the tanks roll in. It was educational, although not in the way our teachers had hoped.

A man stands in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square.
Image source: Wikipedia