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I’ve been busy and thus ignoring the outside world (though I hear there was some kind of a protest?). So, just links:

Crooked Timber has more discussion of the “unpaid forced work for the unemployed” plans. Notably:

Doesn’t every country implement a scheme like this every once in while, when they have forgotten it didn’t work the last time?

The problem is always the same: if the work were worth doing (after paying for management and training and capital etc.), you should hire people in normal jobs for it. If not, you are simply firing people to re-hire them as Workfare.

On the other hand, if the work is not worth doing, you are cheaper off if just let people sit at home, where they can check the job advertisements and mind their own kids.

Switzerland seems likely to vote in a law allowing deportation of EU nationals convicted of crimes.

Did everybody see Laurie’s article on Katy Perry’s magic breasts? Not


fair to Katy Perry, but entertaining enough that I don’t much care.


Just back from my first ever encounter with Loesje. Loesje is an international network which tries to spread creativity and political commentary by means of slogans on small posters. That is, groups in each city/country meet, collectively compose texts, which are then spread.

In a strange way, it feels a lot like Amnesty. International network. Events structured around a specific purpose. Mythology just a tiny bit too grand for the organization (including, in Loesje’s case, the saccharine story of a Momo-like little girl who has a way with words and a lot of friends). Both very clear in their own identities, slightly askew from the rest of the world but directly engaged with it. Both Good Things.


The German green movement is currently managing a tour de force of succeeding by failing. I guess that’s true of most protest movements — winning is nice, but heroic failures are almost as good for building a movemnt.

A shipment of nuclear waste is currently in transit through Germany. It’s come from France by train, and is currently a few miles from it’s destination, the ‘temporary’ (anything but) storage area in Gorleben.

Along the way, some 50,000 people have protested. They’ve chained themselves to the rails, hung themselves from bridges, and devoted extreme effort to removing ballast from the tracks. [I’m not entirely clear how this latter works — is it likely to do more than make the train wobble a bit? Or is the appeal just that pinching a stone is the smallest imaginable unit of “direct” action? Anyway, it seems the Thing To Do].

This happens every year — it’s a standard bit of protest theatre. This year’s protests have been bigger than ever before, because Germany’s nuclear plants have just had their lifetime extended 14 years. Also perhaps because it comes on the back of another huge environmental protest, against an (unbelievably expensive) railway station in Stuttgard.

The nuclear waste will reach its destination. The nuclear plants will still be running in 14 years. The station — well, that one might have some effect, actually. But the main effect is that the Green party are on the up, and the wider Green movement is ballooning. Because it doesn’t matter if they lose; they keep everybody talking about an issue where the majority disagree with the government. Then they win votes, get into a coalition, and maybe eventually change a policy. “Direct” action is pretty indirect, but it might just work.

The unemployed can also levitate by simultaneously trampling one another

The coalition have apparently figured out the root cause of unemployment. It’s not that there are more workers than jobs, or that a small army of victims of the cuts are now joining them on the dole. No, they’re just lazy; a few weeks of forced labour will sharpen them up, render them employable and thus employed:

where advisers believe a jobseeker would benefit from experiencing the “habits and routines” of working life, an unemployed person will be told to take up “mandatory work activity” of at least 30 hours a week for a four-week period. If they refuse or fail to complete the programme their jobseeker’s allowance payments, currently £50.95 a week for those under 25 and £64.30 for those over 25, could be stopped for at least three months.

“This is all about getting them back into a working routine which, in turn, makes them a much more appealing prospect for an employer looking to fill a vacancy, and more confident when they enter the workplace. The goal is to break into the habit of worklessness.”

I can’t do much better than refer them to The Onion:

With unemployment at its highest level in decades, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a report Tuesday suggesting the crisis is primarily the result of millions of Americans just completely blowing their job interviews.

According to the findings, seven out of 10 Americans could have landed their dream job last month if they had known where they see themselves in five years, and the number of unemployed could be reduced from 14.6 million to 5 million if everyone simply greeted potential employers with firmer handshakes, maintained eye contact, and stopped fiddling with their hair and face so much.

“This economy will not recover until job candidates learn how to put their best foot forward,” said Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, warning that even a small increase in stuttering among applicants who are asked to describe their weaknesses could cause the entire labor market to collapse.

Eisenstein: Strike

I saw Eisenstein’s film Strike last night. Some friends were saying farewell to a piano, and marked the occasion by showing silent films with (exceptionally good) improvised accompaniment.

I’ve never watched Eisenstein before, and hadn’t known what to expect. Certainly not this. Strike is clever, dense, fast-paced and incredibly passionate. Filmed in 1924, it fictionalises a workers’ protest from Tsarist Russia of 12 years earlier. The communists organize in a factory, stir up trouble with their extreme demands (an 8-hour work day! 6 hours for children!), and bring production to a standstill until they are eventually slaughtered by government forces.

What really affected me were the individual stories, told economically along the way. Not only is it emotionally powerful, but I’m boggled by the skill required to recount a biography in a silent minute. Take this section (up until about 1:15). A worker has been wrongly blamed for the loss of equipment, falsely branded a thief:

You can tell this worker is a craftsman. What he values is what he sees all around him: skillful absorption in technical work. He’s excluded from his work, his community, his self-respect: the three are identical if you base your identity on what you create. So, craftsman to the last, he creates a neat noose and kills himself. Character, tragedy and plot development, all in 60 seconds. And that’s just one of many, scattered throughout the film between the grander (and less interesting) mob scenes.

I’ve read some complaints that it’s too black-and-white, heroic workers under attack from the evil capitalists. Partly true — and I thoroughly approve of making points through caricature. But only the upper echelon are demonised. The immediate boss comes over as a scapegoat (with the help of an actual goat — Eisenstein is


fond of animals). A quartet of police spies are sleek, strong, capable — they’re caged animals (


), who would almost be heroic if they weren’t working for the enemy. There’s the makings of a caper film here: the stealthy pursuit (first ever spy hiding behind a newspaper?); the camera concealed in a watch; the talented team of skilled infiltrators.

Conversely the proletariat lose their shine when they down tools. The strike may be needed, but it robs the workers of their identities; muscular labourers quickly become slack and foul-tempered. The protestant work ethic is hiding right behind the revolutionary fervour.

And the cinematography! It’s not that there are a few clever shots. Almost

every moment

, the camera is doing something surprising. Eisenstein was shooting this film at the age of 25, doing things few had even attempted before, inventing the techniques as he went along. And he never indulges himself by lingering on some novel device: shots that must have taken massive preparation are over in a couple of seconds, and we move on to the next marvel.

To quote one of surprisingly few reviews which appreciate Strike as more than a sterile piece of film history:

In only the film’s first minute, Eisenstein had already put together four incredible shots. First, there’s a dissolve from a closeup of an evil capitalist to the scurrying workers providing his wealth and back again. Then a gorgeous crane shot of the enormous factory where much of the film is set (did they have cranes in 1925?). Then we watch some factory workers go about their business from behind a lighted screen, rendering them faceless silhouettes, part and parcel of the machinery of the factory. Finally, our first introduction to the strikers is shot as an upside down reflection from a puddle, so that we start by seeing the reflection of the factories smokestacks, then see the conspirators’ feet appear upside down in the shot as they walk through the puddle, only to reappear rightside up in the reflection. And these are all in the first minute of the film, in Eisenstein’s first feature film.

War of the Worlds

Have you ever heard the Orson Wells

War of the Worlds

radio broadcast? The one which supposedly caused mass panic, and certainly made Welles’ name?

It’s available on — and it’s very, very good. The genius is how intentionally clumsy the whole thing is: the musical interludes, the interviewees who don’t know what to say, the broadcaster gradually sliding from workaday reporting into astonished horror:

the programme is clearly framed as a broadcast within a broadcast. Then comes the neatly devised sequence of weather report, musical interlude (from the non-existent Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York), news flash about peculiar explosions, more music, more announcements, rambling interview with Professor Pierson, head of the Observatory at Princeton (a gruff and bumbling and highly recognisable Welles), followed by the brilliant on-the-spot reporting sequences. [source]

Here is the script, incidentally. And no, I don’t know why it’s on “” either.

Cute Cthulhu and the Kawaii-cultists

Erik Davis earlier this year wrote a great article about Cthulhu. More specifically, about the appeal of cute Cthulhu toys.

Part of the appeal is in taming the terror, creating a playable-with version without entirely losing the power of the original. Cute Cthulhu has a something in common with Mornington Crescent; they’re respectively vaccinations against the fears evoked by Lovecraft and Kafka. And they get extra fun and power by combining the opposites of terror and cuteness

Then again, maybe cuteness is all part of Cthulhu’s plan. Suppose you’re an ancient intellect, vast and unsympathetic, aiming to drive humans crazy and bend them to your will. What better method than a cuckoo strategy? Impersonate a baby or kitten, and quickly gain a devoted entourage of kawaii-cultists:

here is the great secret, my fellow mortals: cute is the true horror, the ultimate obscenity. Part of this horrible obscenity lies in the ability of cute to undermine human reason and agency. The return of the Great Old Ones will reduce every human being unlucky enough to be alive to utter helplessness. But so too do we all become drooling sock-puppets of mammalian algorithms when confronted with furry exteriors, chirpy voices, disproportionately large eyes and heads, charming reductions of scale, and goofy facial expressions.

* Davis is a writer in the style I love, and I suspect everybody else hates: dense, flowery, packed with extended analogies between very different areas. I adored his book Techgnosis, loosely based around comparisons between how we related to gods and to computers. I’d recommend it vigorously, but it doubtless infuriates as many people as it enraptures.

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Geoengineering banned

Last week most of the world agreed a ban on geoengineering — that is, on trying to counter climate change by large-scale modifications of the atmosphere or landscape.

At the risk of revealing the Enlightenment demon inside my treehugging persona: this ban strikes me as a Bad Thing. Or somewhat backwards, at least: there’s no outright ban on activities that


global warming, just on those aiming to control it.

Yes, there are plenty of reasons to distrust geoengineering proposals. Large-scale engineering projects have a tendency to centralise money and power, cost more than planned, cause large and unexpected side-effects, and wind up corrupt and unaccountable to the people they affect.

But a blanket ban? Surely there exists


engineering intervention which could have a good effect on the climate. As one generally critical article puts it:

everything that matters most about each of these proposals in terms of deliberation about their plausible effects, their costs, their risks, their benefits, their stakeholders differ from one another in absolutely indispensable ways. And it is hard to see why, given these differences, anything much about the relative success of one of these efforts would necessarily justify confidence that any of the others would have comparable success.

If the projects are so varied, doesn’t it make much more sense to evaluate them indivudually? Try out the safest-seeming ones, prepare for the worst, and hope the benefits outweigh the side-effects?

It probably won’t matter much, in the end. I can’t imagine global-scale projects being stopped by a vaguely-worded agreement in a mostly-overlooked international conference. Besides, it doesn’t apply to the USA — and we all know that is the best source of megalomaniac mad scientists, green or otherwise.

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How to ignore an election, EU-style

Something I find shocking, but nobody else seems to have much noticed: there are 18 elected MEPs who have not been allowed to sit in the European Parliament.

The Treaty of Lisbon is to blame — or rather, the EU Council and Commission’s reluctance to implement awkwardly democratic parts of it. So the new unelected positions created by the treaty were filled immediately after ratification. The elected positions created — 18 new MEPs, to take office immediately — remain unfilled almost a year later.

There are a bunch of — frankly ridiculous — procedural excuses for keeping the MEPs out of parliament. The real reason seems to be that, in some countries, the MEPs elected were from opponents of the national government. Thus those national governments have taken advantage of the (extensive) procedural uncertainty to keep their opponents out of Brussels.

France is the main villain here. By the 2009 election results they should have 2 new MEPs: one UMP (conservative) and one Green. Sarkozy doesn’t like this; he’d rather replace the Green with a socialist, taking them from the French parliament rather than the previous EU election candidates. The French Prime Minister beautifully explains that appointing MEPS would avoid the “useless controversies” involved in following the previous election results, or holding a new election.

Because the Parliament wants all the new members to arrive simultaneously, none of them can take office until France sorts itself out. So MEPs elected in Sweden or Spain (which sensibly sorted out their rules before the 2009 election) can’t vote because Sarkozy doesn’t like the French greens. And all the other EU centres of power are willing to let France slow things down; it’s not worth rocking the boat just to demand implementation of an election result.

In fact,


seems all that bothered. Admittedly the Mail and the Telegraph objected — not to the failure of democracy, but because they (wrongly) believed that the disenfranchised MEPs would still be able to claim pay and expenses.

I also probably wouldn’t have noticed, if I hadn’t come into contact with one of the affected MEPs, Amelia Andersdotter from the Swedish Pirate Party. She’s also one of the most coherent, inspiring and intelligent politicians I’ve ever encountered.

The pirate movement are a bit like the Greens — some members are just interested in homoeopathy or downloading True Blood, but the geeky core have a


persuasive economic and social programme. Amelia’s definitely part of that core; she has not only an impressive knowledge of trade treaties and EU procedures, but more importantly the ability to fit the details into a broad picture of how they are changing society. I’m a fan.

Of course it’s equally outrageous that obnoxious-but-elected politicians are kept out of parliament (the extra UK MEP would probably be a Tory). Still, I can’t help being particularly infuriated that a politician with so much to say is being excluded.


disclaimer: this post is based on a lot of confusing and contradictory information, and I’ve almost certainly misunderstood some of the details]

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