Archive for the 'Beyond belief' Category

Justice by PowerPoint

[link] Thursday, December 25th, 2014

Did you know that lawyers in US courts are allowed to use PowerPoint in making their arguments? Neither did I, until I read this:

Perhaps the most common misuse of what some legal scholars call “visual advocacy” is the emblazoning of the word “Guilty” across a defendant’s photo. Almost always the letters are red—the “color of blood and the color used to denote losses,” as one court wrote. Two months ago the Court of Appeals of Missouri ruled in a case where the prosecution, in closing argument, presented the following slide:


The defendant, Chadwick Leland Walter, had been convicted of attempting to manufacture methamphetamine and of maintaining a public nuisance. The photo used for the slide was Walter’s booking photo—hence, the orange jail clothing. As the appeals court noted, the state could not force Walter to appear before a jury in jail garb, because that could undermine the presumption of innocence. But the prosecution’s use of the booking photo had the same effect.

Sanitising history

[link] Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

I can’t stand Downton Abbey, the current opiate of the couch-potato class. Neither can Polly Toynbee:

To control history by rewriting the past subtly influences present attitudes too: every dictator knows that. Downton rewrites class division, rendering it anodyne, civilised and quaintly cosy. Those upstairs do nothing unspeakably horrible to their servants, while those downstairs are remarkably content with their lot. The brutality of servants’ lives is bleached out, the brutishness of upper-class attitudes, manners and behaviour to their servants ironed away. There are token glimpses of resentments between the classes, but the main characters are nice, in a nice world. The truth would be impossible without turning the Earl of Grantham and his family, the Crawleys, into villains, with the below-stairs denizens their wretched victims – a very different story, and not one Julian Fellowes would ever write.

Much attention is paid to detail. Place settings are measured to perfection with a ruler, the footmen’s buttons absolutely correct, yet everything important is absolutely wrong. Start with the labour: what we see is pleasant work by well-manicured maids in fetching uniforms, healthy and wholesome, doing a little feather-dusting of the chandeliers, some silver polishing, some eavesdropping while serving at table and some pleasant cooking with Mrs Patmore. There is even time for scullery maid Daisy to sit at the kitchen table improving herself with home education. In Downton the hierarchical bullying of servants by one another is replaced by the housekeeper and butler’s benevolent paternalism: what a nice place to work.

What we never see is bedraggled drudges rising in freezing shared attics at 5.30am; slopping out chamber pots, heaving coal, black-leading grates, hauling cans of hot water with hands already made raw by chilblains and caustic soda…

Right on. Terrific rant.

A Thieves’ Thanksgiving

[link] Saturday, December 13th, 2014


This is a great time to be a crook. Not a small-time crook of course — for example, a cat-burglar or a pickpocket, or someone who fiddles his expenses: these knaves invariably get caught and spend time in the slammer. I’m talking about bankers, ‘defence’ contractors, executives of ‘security’ companies (the kind that charge the taxpayer for electronic tagging of people who are deceased or in prison, for example), and the like. They are not only doing just fine, but are apparently untouchable. As Charles Simic explains in a lovely NYRB blog post:

What makes a career in white-collar crime so attractive is that there are so few risks anymore. Everyone knows about Wall Street bankers having their losses from various scams they concocted over the years covered by taxpayers. But now, even when bankers lose billions for their bank by making bad or reckless deals, or have to pay regulatory penalties, as Jamie Dimon, the current chairman, president, and chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase did earlier this year, they are more likely to get a 74 percent raise, as he did, than to lose their jobs. As for the federal agencies that are supposed to watch over them and the Justice Department that is supposed to haul these hucksters into court, if they so much as bestir themselves to confront the banks, they simply ask them to pay fines, thereby avoiding a judge or a jury and making sure that the details of their swindles can remain secret from the public.

As dishonest as Wall Street is, it doesn’t compare to the kind of thievery that went on in Iraq and Afghanistan. Once upon a time, war profiteers were looked at as the lowest of the low and condemned by presidents. “Worse than traitors in arms are the men who pretend loyalty to the flag, feast and fatten on the misfortunes of the Nation while patriotic blood is crimsoning the plains of the South and their countrymen mouldering in the dust,” warned Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. “I don’t want to see a single war millionaire created in the United States as a result of this world disaster,” declared Franklin Roosevelt as the United States entered World War II.

Yet today, according to the Commission on Wartime Contracting, an independent, bipartisan legislative commission established to study wartime contracting, somewhere between $31 billion and $60 billion of US government money has been lost through contract waste and fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is now common knowledge that contractors were paid millions of dollars for projects that were never built, that the Defense Department gave more than $400 billion to companies that had previously been sanctioned in cases involving fraud, and that the beneficiaries of such past largesse have not only gotten fabulously wealthy, but continue to be invited to pursue lucrative business opportunities in the new homeland security–industrial complex.

Google annoyances

[link] Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

I’ve just been updating software on my machine and saw that Google was inviting me to ‘upgrade’ my Google Calendar. So I foolishly clicked to accept the upgrade. Then logged into my calendar to find that the screen is littered with corny jpegs of a birthday cake which indicate, apparently, the birthdays of my ‘friends’. Pissed of by this, I then went looking for a way of turning off this absurd and unwanted ‘feature’. But it turns out that if they are ‘friends’ from Google+ (another turkey btw) then there’s no option to unsubscribe from this toxic calendar feed.

It’s almost enough to force me to use the Apple iCal app.

There must be a way of getting round this idiotic ‘feature’. But I don’t have time to do the necessary research because I’m trying to write. Maybe I should bill Google for the ‘research time’ needed to restore what is a useful product/service to its original condition.

Two degrees

[link] Sunday, October 19th, 2014

Q: What’s the difference between a rise in global temperature of 2 degrees C and 4 degrees?

A: Human civilisation.

Who says? John Schellnhuber, one of the world’s most influential climate scientists, quoted in Paul Kingsnorth’s LRB Review of George Marshall’s new book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.

According to Kingsnorth’s summary of Marshall’s thinking, four degrees of warming is likely

“to bring heatwaves of magnitudes never experienced before, and temperatures not seen on Earth in the last five million years. Forty per cent of plant and animal species would be at risk of extinction, a third of Asian rainforests would be under threat and most of the Amazon would be at high risk of burning down. Crop yields would collapse, possibly by a third in Africa. US production of corn, soy beans and cotton would fall by up to 82 per cent. Four degrees guarantees the total melting of the Greenland ice sheet and probably the Western Antarctic ice sheet, which would raise sea levels by more than thirty feet. Two thirds of the world’s major cities would wind up underwater. And we aren’t looking at a multigenerational time-scale: we may see a four degree rise over the next sixty years.”

Meg Whitman: following the (male) herd

[link] Sunday, October 12th, 2014

The herd instincts of major corporate executives continues to amaze me. These are people to whom the concept of evidence-based decision making is clearly alien. And, as Jean-Louis Gassée points out, the herd is still alive and well.

As reported in last week’s Monday Note, eBay’s John Donahoe no longer believes that eBay and PayPal “make sense together”, that splitting the companies “gives the kind of strategic focus and flexibility that we think will be necessary in the coming period”. This week, Symantec announced that it will spin off its storage division née Veritas so that “the businesses would be able to focus better on growth opportunities including M&A”.And now Meg Whitman tells us that HP will be “a lot more nimble, a lot more focused” as two independent companies: HP Inc. for PCs and printers, Hewlett Packard Enterprises for everything else.Spinning off the PC and printer business made sense three years ago when Léo Apotheker lost his CEO job for suggesting it, and it still makes sense today, but this doesn’t mean that an independent HP PC company will stay forever independent…

Every little helps…

[link] Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

… As the Tesco slogan goes. Still, I don’t think that £250 million accounting ‘error’ will be regarded as a little. What the hoohah obscures, however, is what Tesco’s poor trading performance tells us about the so-called economic recovery. Tesco is in trouble because people are increasingly turning to the cut-price supermarkets (mainly Lidl and Aldi). Waitrose, meanwhile, is booming. Which, being translated, means that poorer people in Britain are feeling increasingly squeezed, while the upper middle classes who are Waitrose’s staple customers (just look at the car park the next time you visit one of their stores) are doing just fine. Some ‘recovery’.

The Federal United Kingdom

[link] Monday, September 22nd, 2014

Timothy Garton-Ash has been writing in today’s Guardian about the need for a Federal Kingdom of Britain — FKB. “Incidentally”, he concludes,

I Googled to check whether “FKB” is already taken. It is: by the Flying Karamazov Brothers, a theatrical troupe of comic jugglers, sometimes attired in kilts. Seems like a pretty good description of Britain’s party leaders right now.

The Umbrella Man

[link] Friday, September 19th, 2014

The Umbrella Man from The New York Times – Video on Vimeo.

Whenever I hear someone outline a beautifully-constructed conspiracy theory I think of Errol Morris’s video.

So did they really go to the moon in 1969?

[link] Monday, September 15th, 2014

This is 13 minutes long, but worth every second. In it film-maker S.G. Collins argues that in 1969, it was easier to send people to the Moon than to fake the landing in a studio. Technologically speaking, he says, it was impossible to shoot that video anywhere other than the surface of the Moon. A lovely piece of debunkery, filmed with the assurance of an Errol Morris.