Archive for the ‘funny ha ha’ Category

Thinking about the political castration of Ken Clarke and the fact that not even the Treasury in its most R.G. Hawtrey-esque mood seems to be able to stop the expansion of the prison industry, it struck me that the political class’s attitude towards the public service known as justice is fundamentally different to its attitude to all the others, including defence and policing.

Since the mid-1980s and the rise of the New Public Management – possibly an even more pernicious intellectual phenomenon than New Classical economics – it’s been a universal establishment consensus, shared by all parties, that any public service can be improved by giving bits of it a pseudo-budget to spend in a pseudo-market. Playing at shops is the defining pattern language of post-80s public administration. (This chap wrote at the time that the whole thing was remarkably like the 1960s Kosygin reforms in the Soviet Union, and perhaps we can induce him to post it up on his blog!)

For example, the 1990s Tory government wanted “fundholder” GPs to buy hospital services in an NHS internal market. Now they want to do something similar again, but more, faster, and worse. All sorts of local government services were put through a similar process. Central government agencies were ordered to bill each other for services vital to their operations. The Ministry of Defence was ordered to pay the Treasury 6% a year of the value of all its capital assets, such as the Army’s tank park, reserve stocks of ammunition, uniforms, etc. As a result, the MOD sold as many vehicles as possible and had to buy them back expensively through Urgent Operational Requirements when they had to fight a war. Supposedly, some vehicles were sold off after Kosovo, re-bought for Afghanistan in 2001, sold again, re-bought for Iraq in 2003, sold again, and UORd in a panic in 2006.

(Off topic, if you’re either a reporter hunting a story or a dealer in secondhand military vehicles, watch closely what happens to the fleet acquired under UORs for Afghanistan in the next few months.)

But there is one public service where the internal market is unknown. I refer, of course, to criminal justice. For some reason, it is considered to be normal to let magistrates and judges dispense incarceration, one of the most expensive products of the state, as if it were as free as air. The Ministry of Justice is simply asked to predict-and-provide sufficient prisons, like the Department for Transport used to do with motorways. Like motorways, somehow, however hard the bulldozers and cranes are driven, it never seems to be enough, and the prison system operates in a state of permanent overcrowding. Interestingly, the overcrowding seems to prevent the rehabilitative services from working, thus contributing to the re-offending rate, and ensuring both the expansion of the prison industry and the maintenance of permanent overcrowding.

The new public managers bitch endlessly about “producer interests” – they mean minimum-wage hospital cleaners, but somehow never GPs – but you never hear a peep about our bloated and wasteful criminal justice system. In fact, now that we have private jails, this producer interest is vastly more powerful as it has access to the corporate lobbying system and a profit motive.

Clearly, the problem here is that the gatekeepers to the system – the courts – have no incentive to use taxpayers’ money wisely, as they face neither a budget constraint nor competition. There is a rhyme with the fact that a British Army company commander in Afghanistan has a budget for reconstruction of $4,000 a month, which he must account for meticulously to the Civil Secretariat to the Helmand Task Force, but in each section of ten riflemen under his command, at least one of them can spend $100,000 on destruction at any moment, by firing off a Javelin anti-tank missile, every time he goes outside the wire. As once the thing is fired, he no longer needs to tote the fucker any further, you can see that a lot more is spent on Javelin rounds than reconstruction, and indeed the task force was getting through 254 of them a month at one point.

But it’s not a precise match. The military do, indeed, have to worry about their resources, as do the police. Only the courts can dispense public money without limit.

What if we were to give every magistrates’ court a Single Offender Management Budget, out of which it could buy imprisonment, probation, community service, electronic tagging, etc in an internal market? This would make it obvious to the magistrate how much cheaper non-custodial interventions are than jail. It would force them to resist the temptation to jail everybody out of risk-aversion or political pressure. If a court was to start off the year handing down 16-month sentences for stealing a packet of fags, and end up in queer street by Christmas, well, that will teach them to waste taxpayers’ money.

In fact, we could go further. Foundation courts would be able to borrow, if necessary, to tide themselves over to the end of the year, although of course they would have to make efficiency gains next year to repay it. It would be possible for a foundation court to go bankrupt and close. This, of course, will drive up standards. Perhaps we could even introduce an element of choice, letting defendants choose which jurisdiction they are prosecuted in.

I am, of course, joking. But not entirely.

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China’s neo-con blogging fever-swamp, via (of course) Jamie K.

For instance, Gao Yi, a well-known music critic, tweeted: “Compared with a war, US$7 billion is much more worthwhile. Right now, we lack the off-shore staging capacity for a mid-intensity war.

A well-known music critic? Now that’s special. You don’t get detailed comment on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s seabasing capability from Martin Kettle when he’s in one of his SUCK ON MY CULTURE, PROLE moods, or indeed when he’s editorialising, do you? Does Brian Sewell take a view on whether the much delayed Maritime Afloat Replenishment Ship project should go down the Dutch/Canadian JSS route, perhaps building on licence from Schelde in the UK, or stick with specialised tanker and dry-replenishment hulls?

It’s a pity that this doesn’t mean their politics is any more pacific.

This Melanie Phillips piece is remarkably insightful.

Daniel Davies is notorious for making more than full use of a joke once he gets hold of it. I think this is the original source (perhaps even the Urquell) of his line that Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb must be furious at what Hollywood did to his book in development.

Well, I watched the movie on a plane the other day. It was that or The Social Network – I was planning on a week in Silicon Valley surrounded by tightly wound super-ambitious geeks, so I get enough of that at work. As it happens, there are a couple of good lessons about risk in Black Swan. Perhaps Taleb shouldn’t be so touchy about it after all.

1. Tail-risk is real

Just as Nassim Taleb said in the book, no matter how good your planning, you can’t hedge everything and you will tend to underestimate the weirder and wilder ends of the distribution. One day, something not just bad but incalculably weird, something you never expected you didn’t expect, will come rapid-roping into your back garden and piss in the pool. Of course, it’s likely to happen on stage on the first night at the worst possible moment. You’ll have to be ready, but you can only be ready in a general sense. Get your trigger movements right – far better to be calling an ambulance and plunging into the fray than locked in the bunker with a PR agent and a large amount of toilet paper. Act right in the crisis and much will be forgiven.

Inevitably, if you want a clue, look at the things you try to repress and deny and don’t believe could ever happen. That’s why you deny them.

2. That said, you’ve got to put up with it

All precautions must be seen in the light of the scale of the threat. Too much security is as dangerous as too little (this may be more Schneier than Taleb). Without a certain amount of optimism bias and risk tolerance, you’ll never get anything done. In fact, you’ll end being terrified of your shadow. (And why did you choose the word shadow, with its, ah, many meanings, Mr. Garrovell?) Your colleagues may well wish they had your job, but that’s no reason to kill yourself. In fact, after a certain level of neurosis is passed, self-protection shades over into self-sabotage – delivering just what you imagine your enemies want, whether they be real or imagined.

3. Don’t draw conclusions based on regional accents

Black Swan is the only movie I can think of in which New Yorkers see an outsider – a Californian – as being unimaginably evil, sophisticated, cool, and cunning. In fact, this was the plot detail that kept coming back to me. Wall Street and City investors in dozens of regional mortgage lenders that turned into financial neutron bombs imagined they were smarter than the offcomed’uns.

Churnalism is a brilliant idea – no surprise that it was originally one of Chris Lightfoot’s. Basically, it allows you to determine how much of a given newspaper article was copied from which press release. There’s a nice graphic visualisation, and a diff, so you can see precisely what was altered and what taken over in its entirety. It’s right up there with Piggipedia and SukeyDating as a brilliant piece of geek activism.

However, here’s something amusing. There’s a basic API here; I chucked the text of the GSMA final press release from this year’s MWC at it, and I was quite surprised at the results. The first article it extracted from Journalisted was none other than this piece in the Guardian from…February 2008. One consequence of churnalism is that your newspaper is likely to get repetitive.

As far as I can see, if there’s anything missing here it’s that the comparison is mostly the wrong way – having a newspaper article and wanting to know what vacuous NIB-fodder got regurgitated into it is a much more common use-case than having a press release and wanting to know which newspaper articles it got into. Actually, the latter use-case is far more likely if you’re a PR and you’re trying to measure how the talking-points are spreading. But once it has more press releases on file, it’ll work better in that sense. And that’s just a question of hoovering Businesswire, PRNewsWire etc up.

Also a neat remix here, although my Internet link still tends to jam every time a comment comes up on soundcloud.

Tangentially, I saw a poster for Jon Pleased Wimmin (of all possible DJs) the other day, which made me think “Bloody hell, I thought he was dead? Or at least rendered generally harmless?” So much so that I was about to pass some remark to that effect, when I realised I was enormously tempted to follow up with “I know he’s dead…because I killed him.” Also, I didn’t ask someone if the haddock, as a blackboard appeared to say, really was “21 days aged”. This sort of thing is funny, and then it gets less funny. It rather worries me that it wasn’t so long ago I’d have been unable not to say it. I mean, I told a cold-caller who asked if I was the homeowner that I was a burglar, and another that I was monitoring the line for MI5 in the interests of national security.

Progressively realising that “brilliantly funny” is quite often “fucking tiresome”. It took a while. Fortunately there’s you, reader, to take it out on.

“Richard sent me photos of his private parts before I’d even met him,” says the redhead. “I thought this was very odd for a politician.”

Owen Hatherley has an immense post about Sheffield, modernism, socialism, privatisation, etc. Which reminded me of an estate agent ad I saw recently, for a gaff in the Highgate New Town estate. The sales-slug referred to a “3 double bedroom apartment in an architecturally-designed ex-local authority development, with 19′ kitchen/diner, 12′ reception, and exclusive access to a full-width south-facing balcony”. Well, indeed. A snip at £340,000. I liked the “architecturally-designed” – as opposed to what, exactly? All buildings are architecturally designed – some are designed by architects, some are designed well, a lot are designed badly. But don’t let that put you off. It’s not really my point either.

Highgate New Town

I do think it’s a sign of the times; suddenly, buildings like this aren’t concrete monstrosities imposed on the poor by a remote leftist elite, but rather, “architect-designed” jewels. This is relevant. That this should come up just at the point when Grant Shapps wants to end security of tenure in council housing (which Highgate New Town mostly is, still) should not really be surprising. In the Cameron future, we’ll swap over – the poor can move back into draughty, mouseful Victorian buildings they can’t afford to heat, and the elite can enjoy Parker-Morris space standards. (75% of the houses Peter Tabori’s project replaced didn’t have a bathroom.)

This is hilarious, from a blog I thought had gone on hiatus for good. This is pretty good too, though I say so myself.

So, I went to see Chris Morris’s takfiri flick, Four Lions. Short review – it’s desperately, barkingly hilarious. Stupidly funny. It started with the snickering. The snickering led to giggling and the giggling led to batshit honking horselaughs all night long.

Perhaps too funny – one of the markers of Chris Morris’s work is that everyone is an idiot, is responsible, and deserves the most extreme mockery and sarcasm. The jihadis are either simpletons, paranoiacs, or deluded. The police are bunglers. The defence establishment is desperately trying to be as ruthless as the CIA but can’t manage it. Democracy is represented by Malcolm Sprode MP, a contemptible Blairite stooge, brilliantly observed, babbling nonsense. The mainstream of British Islam is represented by a Sufi imam who is an obscurantist windbag full of half-digested quotations, who keeps his wife locked in a cupboard (“It’s not a cupboard! It’s a small room!”, he protests). The general public are either tiresome eccentrics or half-wits. The NHS employs the jihadi leader’s wife as a nurse – she is charming, tough, probably the most sane and competent person in the entire movie, and she offers him crucial psychological support when he doubts the wisdom of exploding. Even his little son is cool with Dad blowing himself up and encouraging all his friends to do so as well, and weighs in to help him through his dark night of the soul and on the way to self-induced fragmentation. The real jihadis on the North-West Frontier treat the international volunteers as especially low-grade cannon fodder, hardly surprising given the volunteers’ self-regarding pomposity and utter inability to do anything right.

This plays out in a nicely observed version of Sheffield; it’s as much a Yorkshire film as Rita, Sue, and Bob Too or This Sporting Life. There are a hell of a lot of jokes that turn on this; they only need to drive up a hill and climb over a dry stone wall in order to go from the deep city to somewhere you can safely test-fire a bomb without attracting attention. While meticulously reducing their stash of hydrogen peroxide and assembling the devices, they pose as a band – it’s Sheffield, after all. What else? Inevitably, they attract a rehearsal studio hanger-on somewhere between cool and fairly serious mental illness. Again, who else? Their in-house psychopath is responsible for proclaiming the Islamic State of Tinsley (I really began to lose it with this bit). The volunteers hugely overestimate their knowledge of Islam, and suffer from a sort of quasi-colonial superiority complex to actual Pakistanis in Pakistan – one of them makes the serious mistake of calling a Waziri sentry a “Paki banchut!”. (George MacDonald Fraser would have had him knifed for that, but Chris Morris has crueller plans for him.)

They learn that their cover has been blown from a news screen on the Sheffield Supertram; Omar, the leader, works as a security guard at Meadowhall.

There is a great moment of direction early on where the camera catches the shopping centre roof lit up just as the sun is coming up, catching it briefly showing off its oddly Islamic dome. Around the same time, we watch the CCTV feeds from within the centre through Omar’s eyes – the place is entirely empty and a large sign announces “SHOPPING”, with an arrow pointing upwards. Clearly, when he looks at Britain, this is what he sees.

Omar is a classic type, an autodidactic revolutionary, the only member of the cell with any self-reflection or intellectual depth or capacity for anything much. He’s a man surrounded by novelty-marathon running managers, daft younger brothers, and SHOPPING with an arrow; arguably, what he’s really rebelling against is the sheer horror of Chris Morris’s worldview. A main force in the plot is his progressive self-corruption – he is throughout the least convinced of them about the rightness of their cause, chiefly because he’s the only one with any capacity for doubt. As the mission progresses, he resorts to increasingly sordid deception to keep the show on the road through this or that crisis, and his eventual explosion is more motivated by horror at his failure to stop the others from blowing themselves up and a sense of having run out of options than anything else. It’s also telling that, despite his fury and loathing at British consumerism, self-satisfaction, etc, he’s by a distance the best dressed, shod, housed, and generally equipped member of the gang, redrafting his manifesto on a shiny new laptop in boxfresh trainers, although he does have to communicate with the others and The Emir through a children’s social network website called Puffin Party.

Barry, on the other hand, would have been the Islamic State of Tinsley’s chief of secret police. Barry is the only offcomed’un and the only white man in the group, not so much a convert to Islam as a lifelong convert to non-specific extremism and raging paranoia. As the plot progresses, despite his spectacular ineptness, he begins to take over as the driving force, and eventually it is his action that forces them to go ahead with the attack. One thing he has successfully learned in a long implied career of political madness is that paranoia, ideological enforcement, and ruthlessness pay. This doesn’t mean his thoughts make any sense, though; his idea of strategy is to blow up the mosque in the hope of triggering a wave of race riots and the revolution, but he rather undermines his planned false-flag operation by insisting on recording a martyrdom video taking responsibility for it. A hopeless case in anything that involves practical work, he helps to doom the plot by recruiting any fool he falls in with and blames everything that happens on Jews.

Cameras play a special role. The wannabe terrorists are compulsive film-makers – a running gag has Omar with a laptop at the kitchen table, despairingly trying to edit the latest rushes of his comrades’ martyrdom videos into something presentable. They keep filming and filming, but they always get it wrong – accidentally advertising fast food, posing with a tiny plastic gun, falling out about strategy as the camera rolls. Barry insists on doing a second video just in case they attack the mosque anyway. Omar is secretly keeping an out-takes reel for his own amusement. Reliably, people freak out and fuck up as soon as the red light comes on; Faisal falls over a sheep and accidentally triggers a suicide vest while clowning for a bit of impromptu iPhone video. Hassan makes a fool of himself at training camp by firing off a Kalashnikov for his holiday snaps. As well as Omar’s official making-of project, and their own unofficial video diaries, the state is also making a movie – several scenes show that they are under surveillance as they carry out a test explosion. But it’s a blooper in itself, a sight gag; the cops raid the wrong house and only succeed in giving themselves away and encouraging Omar to bring forward the attack.

The police response, like the mad conspiracy theories and the bomb making and the ratty, third rate band scene gaffs, has obviously had the benefit of careful observation and a close reading of the Stockwell II report – it follows the detail for Operations KRATOS and C closely, and as actually happened, the command and control system breaks down at once and the wrong man is shot, but there is far worse left to happen.

I urge you to see this film at once, although given that you read this, you probably already have done.