Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Xtreme hedging

When a series of roadside bombs hit a bus carrying members of the Borussia Dortmund football club last week, it was easy to assume that this was somehow related to islamist causes, which have been responsible for — or, at least, eager to claim credit for — much of the most prominent random violence in Europe in recent years. But this attack turns out to be linked instead to the age-old prime mover in random violence against civilians: Finance.

The accused is believed to have acted for profit, attempting to kill or injure as many members of the Borussia Dortmund team as possible with the bomb. According to the investigators, he hoped to profit from a fall in the value of the team’s stock… The suspect had opened a [€40,000] consumer credit line and purchased 15000 put options.

Is this really illegal? I’m sure he just needs the right academic economist to explain to the investigators how important it is to increase liquidation in the market. It’s reminiscent of the scene in Catch 22 where Milo Minderbinder explains the logic of private enterprise:

One day Milo contracted with the American military authorities to bomb the German-held highway bridge at Orvieto and with the German military authorities to defend the highway bridge at Orvieto with antiaircraft fire against his own attack. His fee for attacking the bridge for America was the total cost of the operation plus six per cent and his fee from Germany for defending the bridge was the same cost-plus-six agreement augmented by a merit bonus of a thousand dollars for every American plane he shot down. The consummation of these deals represented an important victory for private enterprise, he pointed out, since the armies of both countries were socialized institutions. Once the contracts were signed, there seemed to be no point in using the resources of the syndicate to bomb and defend the bridge, inasmuch as both governments had ample men and material right there to do so and were perfectly happy to contribute them, and in the end Milo realized a fantastic profit from both halves of his project for doing nothing more than signing his name twice… It was an ideal arrangement for everyone but the dead man in Yossarian’s tent, who was killed over the target the day he arrived.

I’m skeptical of the claim that “This seems to be a crime without precedent in German history, and may represent a completely new phenomenon.”

Bearing your cross to Cadbury

The Church of England wants people to know the true meaning of Christian faith, which is, apparently, chocolate eggs. Official church spokesmen have attacked Cadbury’s and the National Trust for conducting “egg hunts” without mentioning Easter. It’s just like when Peter denied his Lord three times, and then left his name off the adverts for his Galilee fish shop.

The chocolate-maker retorts “it clearly used the word Easter on its packaging and in its marketing”, and no greater love hath a man than to use his suffering and death in packaging and marketing. But the Archbishop of York* says that’s not enough:

The Archbishop of York said calling the event the Cadbury Egg Hunt was like “spitting on the grave” of the firm’s Christian founder, John Cadbury… He said if people were to visit Cadbury World in Birmingham “they will discover how Cadbury’s Christian faith influenced his industrial output.”

I think we can all agree that Easter is a time for all Christian believers to reflect on industrial output.

And despite the politically correct marketing gobbledegook of the Cadbury’s representatives — “We invite people from all faiths and none to enjoy our seasonal treats” — it is appropriate to expect that people should think of the Church of England when looking at a hollow shell stuffed with unhealthful, cloyingly sweet goo.

I’m reminded of the stories I heard from East Germany about attempts to rechristen the Christmas tree to Jahresendbaum [end-of-year tree] and the traditional angel on top to Jahresendflügelpuppe [end-of-year winged doll]. Christmas itself was supposed to be called Fest des Friedens [festival of peace]. I’m not sure if these were jokes, or whether they referred to genuine government initiatives — maybe both — but here is one report of these designations actually being used, and even compulsory.

* This statement really should have come from the Archbishop of Cadbury…

Londoners pat themselves on the stiff upper lip

The story to date: A petty criminal from Kent committed a murder suicide in the centre of London, killing 4 and injuring 40. The attacker was Muslim, which seems to be enough for this to be classified as a terror attack*, and so the English praise themselves for their fortitude in continuing to carry on with their lives, rather than, I don’t know, hunkering down in air-raid shelters until the sirens announce all-clear. #WeAreNotAfraid, they tweet. Amazing that a city of nearly 9 million people is uncowed by the threat of a scary Muslim (acting on his own, apparently) now deceased, who killed as many pedestrians as non-terroristic London drivers killed with their cars in the whole second half of February. It’s a terrible thing that people were killed and injured, but people in cities all over the world live their lives surrounded by the suffering of others, without hiding in their cellars. The specialness of Londoners in this regard is as delusional as the British deal-making acumen.

Besides which, it’s not even true. While the PM was announcing in Parliament

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,

the London police were trying to pressure pro-EU protestors to cancel their planned march on Saturday, because the unafraid Metropolitan Police with its approximately 30,000 officers couldn’t be expected to simultaneously manage both a criminal investigation AND 20,000 peaceful demonstrators.

Because nothing says WE ARE NOT AFRAID like using a minor terror attack as an excuse to prevent the exercise of core democratic rights.

* Whereas a genuinely politically inspired random murder in New York, intended to “send a message”, is not called “terrorism” and doesn’t inspire any praise for New Yorkers continuing for to live, because the perpetrator was not Muslim.

Friendly warnings

Donald Trump spoke to Republican legislators yesterday, encouraging them in a friendly way to support necessary legislation that would ease 24 million Americans off their dependence on health insurance. Apparently he didn’t threaten anyone:

“He warned us that there are consequences if we don’t come together for us as a party and also for individuals,” Representative Richard Hudson of North Carolina said after the meeting. “He wasn’t threatening in any way. He was just giving us a pretty clear warning.”

Das ist bei uns nicht möglich

I happen to have just noticed that there is a new German edition of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. I wonder what motivated it?

I was struck again, in reading Amos Oz’s account of his childhood and family history, how his aunt told of welcoming the prospect of German conquest of her Lithuanian homeland: The Germans wouldn’t tolerate the sort of barbaric chaos that the Jews were subject to. The Germans might be antisemitic, but they had always proved themselves to be civilised and orderly.

Too many people lazily learn the wrong lesson from the inability of Jews and others to recognise the full dimensions of the Nazi menace. The problem, they suggest, often in cheap jokes, is the failure to recognise the profound taint of the German soul. The real lesson should be, it seems to me, you never can tell. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, as they like to say in finance. The Germans descended into the most horrible racist violence in the 1930s and 1940s. Their children and grandchildren have built one of the most securely democratic and humane nations in the world. Britain pioneered annihilationist antisemitism in the Middle Ages, then moved on to a more benign view of Jews as being almost white people, potential allies in subjugating the genuinely inferior races.

Is there anything in the British soul that will make them resist when the EU offends their amour propre and the Daily Mail is baying for mass expulsions? The question answers itself. 

“Up to 500”

I’ve just been reading Laurence Rees’s The Holocaust: A New History. I don’t think there’s much new in the overall picture, but there are certainly many details that I was not aware of. For example, Rees discusses Himmler’s May 1940 memo “Some Thoughts on the Treatment of the Alien Population in the East”.

A large section of the memo dealt with Himmler’s plans to conduct a search among the Polish population in order to find children that were ‘racially first class’ and who ‘came up to our requirements’. These children would then be transported to Germany and raised as German citizens. Himmler believed this policy would not just allow Nazis access to more German ‘blood’ but deprive the Poles of the potential for a leadership class. As for the rest of the Polish children, they would receive the most basic education — taught only to count ‘up to 500’ and to write their own names.

It’s easy to fall into thinking of leading Nazis as ruthlessly efficient master criminals. Reading things like this is a good reminder of the extent to which they were actually kind of erratic and bonkers. It’s a sort of dilettantish megalomania that one sees in certain leaders today as well, with grand ideas that come from manipulating a vague picture of reality, decked out with a few random, nonsensical details. Why “up to 500”? Why not just say, “teach them to count” and leave it at that? How could anyone think that it would be possible to teach people to count up to 500 without learning the general principle of counting further?

This is why historians have emphasised the role of the proverbial Schreibtischtäter, the “desk criminals”, who worked hard to interface the lunacy with the proverbial railway timetables, that can’t be cajoled with blather about national will to power and providence.

Unity!

The news from Westminster and Holyrood inspires me to adapt a cartoon that I recall from a German newspaper from the days shortly after the opening of the Berlin wall:

Theresa May: We are one nation!

Nicola Sturgeon: We are too!

Maybe this doesn’t completely work in translation. In the original, of course, it was the East German demonstrators who really did shout “Wir sind ein Volk!”, and then the West Germans reply, “Wir auch!” That plays on the ambiguity in the German: “ein Volk” can mean “one people” or “one nation” or “a nation”.

Will Republican punsters save the planet?

17 Republicans in the US House of Representatives have signed a resolution to take “meaningful action” against global warming.

It is the largest number of Republicans ever to join an action-oriented climate initiative in “maybe ever,” said Jay Butera, a congressional liaison for Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which helped put together the resolution. “I’ve been working on this issue for 10 years,” he told me. “This is a high water mark.”

Deadbeat Britain

My prediction for quite a while has been that the xenophobia is going to heat up here pretty soon, when the UK activates Article 50 and is immediately confronted with immovable demands of the EU that do not comport with the due status of the Snowflake Kingdom — particularly the expected €60bn bill for outstanding financial obligations — and the negotiations stall. The tabloids will go nuclear, and turn their wrath on the European foreigners who are still enjoying her majesty’s hospitality.

But now Britain has just discovered a trick long known to deadbeats everywhere for escaping financial obligations: You flee the country, and so evade the jurisdiction of the courts. Such a simple idea, they wonder why they didn’t think of it sooner:

The EU cannot enforce a penny of a possible €60bn divorce bill if Britain crashes out of the bloc without an agreement, according to a report by a Lords committee…

“We conclude that if agreement is not reached, all EU law — including provisions concerning ongoing financial contributions . . . will cease to apply and the UK would be subject to no enforceable obligation to make any financial contribution at all.”

As part of the scheme, Great Britain will move to the Caribbean in the middle of the night, leaving no forwarding address. Seriously, is this intended to frighten the Europeans into offering better terms? It seems more likely to convince them that there is no use to making any reasonable offer to a UK that can’t be counted on to honour the spirit of any agreement, or even basic norms of decent behaviour. (Recall that before there was Brexit there was Grexit, threatened by the failure of Greece to meet its international financial obligations.)

But now the chancellor tells us

If there is anybody in the European Union who thinks that if we don’t do a deal with the European Union, if we don’t continue to work closely together, Britain will simply slink off as a wounded animal, that is not going to happen.

I can reassure the chancellor that no one else in Europe thinks of Britain with such bathos. In any case,

British people have a great fighting spirit and we will fight back. We will forge new trade deals around the world. We will build our business globally. We will go on from strength to strength and we will do whatever we need to do to make the British economy competitive and to make sure that this country has a great and successful future.

Apparently they’re going to threaten to cut off exports to the continent of tough platitudes, which seems to be the only industry in which this country is still world-leading. (Though if France asserts appellation d’origine controlée to restrict use of the cliché, it could doom the whole British diplomatic effort.)

The government’s negotiating posture reminds me of the famous scene in the film The Usual Suspects, where the gangster Kaiser Sose is confronted with opponents who have taken his family hostage, and he responds by shooting them himself, just to prove that he can’t be pressured.

 


Friends like these

I was commenting recently on Donald Trump’s tendency to describe himself in superlatives, which expresses itself particularly in his verbal tic of exaggerated protestations of friendship for groups of people that he actively despises. This is not a new pattern. I just came across this description of Trump’s testimony to Congress nearly a quarter century ago, at a time when he was trying to stymie American Indian competition to his Atlantic City casinos:

Testifying before a congressional committee in 1993, he began with his rote protestations of friendship. “Nobody likes Indians as much as Donald Trump.” He then proceeded to worry that the tribes would prove unable to fend off gangsters. “There is no way Indians are going to protect themselves from the mob … It will be the biggest scandal ever, the biggest since Al Capone … An Indian chief is going to tell Joey Killer to please get off his reservation? It’s unbelievable to me.”

Trump poured money into a shell group called the New York Institute for Law and Society. The group existed solely to publish ads smearing his potential Indian competition. Under dark photos of needles and other junkie paraphernalia, the group asserted, “The St. Regis Mohawk Indian record of criminal activity is well documented.” (It wasn’t.) “Are these the new neighbors we want?”

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