Sunday, February 28, 2010

Layer 257 . . . The Philosophy and Economics of Football; Arsenal and Emotional Intelligence

Yesterday Arsenal closed the gap to 3 points from Premiership leaders Chelsea, and 2 points from Man Utd.  All three have played 28 games. Arsene Wenger said some time ago that he thought Arsenal could still win the Premiership this season. Do I give a damn? Yes - slightly.

I read somewhere this week that England's Premier League clubs have more debt than the rest of Europe's clubs put together.

Portsmouth FC were officially declared bankrupt this week.

We've had fake sheiks, fake billionaires and people like the Glazers who somehow managed to buy a prestigeous club by borrowing loadsa cheap money and then making the club itself liable for its repayment. This is all bullshit. I hate the Premier League, and the people who run it.

It's a vile state of affairs. In Germany, for example, clubs are still owned by the supporters, as are Barcelona and Madrid. The cost of tickets is such that the children of less well off families can still afford to go to matches, and in fact buy season tickets without too much sacrifice. Does this matter? Yes it bloody does. I don't really care too much about prawn sandwich eaters going to matches, just as long as the pie and chips eaters can also still afford to go. In other countries they don't, generally, pay players insane amounts of money, and they don't generally buy them for ridiculous amounts.

The Premiership stopped being interesting at the point where the richest clubs bought up all the best players, and were themselves bought up by fat cat billionaires. Yes - there have been exciting matches, and incredible levels of individual skill - but so what? Who cares apart from the hard core supporters?

What neutrals want to see is clubs nurturing their own talent, not borrowing massive amounts of money in order to snaffle up the established stars. Personally I hate seeing the so-called Championship clubs being denuded of the talent they've raised themselves - enticed away by the bribes that are successfully offered by the biggest clubs, or even the moderately big clubs, in the Premiership.

Arsene Wenger has been castigated by so-called afficionados of the game for refusing to give up on his youth policy and for insisting that the young players he's trained and raised himself should be allowed to play in the first team. Most people laughed when he said his team could still come top. Well they're not laughing now. Chelsea and Man Utd must be crapping themselves.

What's more, Arsenal have done so well in spite of having key players like Van Persie and Walcott out with long-term injuries.

The thing I really like about Arsenal, though, is Wenger's philosophy of the game.

On the Internet coachkev wrote this:

"Arsenal uses a 4-4-2 system. Wenger is constantly working to refine this system on the levels of both group and team tactics.

The team's defence is very attack-oriented. They attack their opponents early with a midfield press that alternates between a diamond formation and a back four. This tactic represents a calculated risk that the coach and his players are willing to accept (since most of the players are English and French, they have been playing without a sweeper since they were children).

Wenger demands aggressive, ball-oriented defence from his players and cultivates it with lots of practice games in tight spaces. When Arsenal gets the ball, its attack is very forward-focused. Square passes and runs parallel to the endline are to be avoided.

However, contrary to the "typical English" playing style, Arsenal relies mainly on short passes in the opposition's half - until they get close to the goal, where every player is encouraged to take risks and go for the goal with confidence and determination. Errors are allowed, but playing carelessly and losing the ball is forbidden.

Wenger places special emphasis on communication within the team. Every exercise is accompanied by shouts and commands that are loud and clear - aggressively so, if the situation requires it - and successful plays are greeted with cheers and applause. Players are expected to be actively engaged with one another and to cooperate in building team spirit, morale and enthusiasm for the Arsenal style."

"Actively engaged with one another." "Spirit". "Cooperate". "High morale". "Enthusiasm." All words  and concepts associated with emotional, interpersonal and spiritual intelligence.

Alex Thistlewood wrote this:

The club has become a preeminent destination for talented youth the world wide, and has established a footballing ethos the envy of every team in Europe but Barcelona. Arsenal is a club unique in their philosophy of bringing along a cadre of players who grow up together and want to win for each other, prizing an attacking style, while competing at such a high level. It’s an almost unprecedented venture in modern football. In terms of finances and talent, Arsenal is better positioned for the future than any other club in the League, and perhaps Europe.

Chelsea have been inconsistent this season, and I'm sick of reading about the antics of John "The Penalty" Terry, who's crap this season, and Ashley "Text Sex" Cole. Lampard's generally been off colour. Cech had a very poor start to the season and is now injured. Joe Cole hasn't regained his former brilliance. The replacement goalkeeper's called Hilarious. Balack must surely be ditched soon. I feel sorry for Drogba and Anelka, who've been superb. And who gave JT his tragic haircut? Vanessa Perroncel? Has he looked in a mirror?

As for Man Utd - they've had lots of injuries to their defenders, and have done very well in spite of that. But they're also inconsistent. Their defence has been pretty crap. I feel sorry for Rooney, who's been brilliant all through the season, and has really grown up this season. I hope he gets the player of the year award.

On Match of the Day just now even Alan Hansen said he's becoming an Arsenal supporter. They're a team that's greater than the sum of their individual parts. Man City did them a huge favour today by humiliating Chelsea 2 - 4. It has to be Arsenal's season. What a story that would be.


"Polymath James Riordan can list Professor of Russian Studies, international children's author, translator, Radio 4 broadcaster, editor, sports historian, sports coach and Moscow Spartak footballer as just some of his hats.

One of his aims at Worcester is to combine work in both sport and children's literature, cooperating with the Children's Literature, Literacy and Creativity Reseach Centre and the School of Sport and Exercise Science."

Jim Riordan has watched Portsmouth for 66 years but has seen them wrecked in just a few seasons.

Pompey embodies the passion, hopes and companionship of a working-class community and the fans will not let their club die

by Jim Riordan

My Pompey are going to rack and ruin. The club are so deep in debt through mismanagement that they have had to sell everything saleable, from the 112-year-old stadium to half-decent players. Today, administration. Tomorrow, oblivion?

As one of the oldest fans (I saw my first game at Fratton Park in 1944: having first pick on servicemen such as Ted Drake, we won 9-1 against Crystal Palace), I'm lucky. I witnessed the double-championship years of 1949-50 when Portsmouth were probably the best team in the world. I followed the club from First to Fourth Division and back, then down again under Alan Ball. Less than two years ago I "lived the dream" of winning the FA Cup. But that dream turned into a nightmare. Who is to blame?

The oligarch who cut off all funds? The chief executive who paid himself an alleged £1.4m a year, which we couldn't afford? The manager who asked for more, and more, and more?

Or are the Premier League and FA responsible? In their rush to rake in the millions that TV brings, they have perhaps turned a blind eye to what has been happening at our club. Dick Turpin would be more fit and proper than some of Pompey's recent board members.

A football club is far more than those that run and ruin it. The club represent the community, thousands upon thousands of fans throughout the world. Like virtually no other club, Pompey embodies the passion, hopes and companionship of a tight-knit, working-class community that regards the club as theirs. In desperation, these real fans sing "Portsmouth till I die!" and "Please don't take my Portsmouth away". So when the FA does FA for FA (Fans Always), remember that we will not let our club die.

These are not empty words. Fans have formed the Pompey Supporters Trust to bring together fan groups from up and down the country and try to gain a voice and an ear. Such is the eagerness to help that in less than three months the trust has gained well over a thousand members (at £5 a time) and generous financial support from all over the world, especially Australia and North America. It has its own bank account and website. Trust members are more than willing to take part in talks about the future of our club. But we have also drawn up our own Plan B for forming a new club if things go pear-shaped in administration. This has involved negotiations with local football clubs, coaches, builders etc. And agreement on a ground share with a local club, Havant & Waterlooville, increasing ground capacity to accommodate an estimated 8,000 core support from Pompey.

The new club would recruit players from academy and Football League cast-offs, and a manager with extensive local knowledge. If that means starting out again in, say, Conference South, so be it. At least the club would be run by and for real Pompey fans. I may not see top-class football again in my lifetime. But I'd like my children and grandchildren to have the chance.

Comrade Jim


Barney Ronay is one of the Guardian's best writers.

Do the press want a World Cup disaster?

Thanks to John Terry we have a narrative for England's World Cup failure, with a villain, sex and a tempting notion of hubris

This week brought the World Cup abdication of Wayne Bridge, who has decided his position in the England squad is "untenable", a brilliantly grave and high-minded use of a word you might more normally associate with elite public office rather than sitting next to Aaron Lennon on a coach and occasionally standing up to do some special jumping on the touchline. It's a shame for Bridge. As a quite-good left-back he will be a loss. On a personal note I'll miss him because he's part of a dwindling band of sportsmen who resemble the kind of skinny, beaky, moist-eyed, old-fashioned 1970s-style youths you might have seen shouting something out of the window on the top deck of a bus, or hanging around near some swings in 1981.

My first thought was that this is not the right move for Bridge. You should always go to the party. Get out there. Even though you know it's going to be painful and you're going to spend the whole evening "being fabulous" in a slightly hysterical way, laughing too loudly and ultimately making an exhibition of yourself on the dancefloor by appearing to be too into the lyrics of I Will Survive. It's still much better than spending June on the sofa eating Galaxy and watching Midsomer Murders through a haze of tears and snot.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect has been a swell of support – including one entire radio show devoted to the subject – for the idea that the Bridge/Terry affair is part of a conspiracy by The Press to stop England winning the World Cup.

One theory is that The Press can't help it. They're like a veteran indie band called Stumbledork or Deathfinger or Bogusfringe. They only know one song: and it's a really depressing one (whereas I imagine in Germany the press are more like a triumphant old-school hair metal franchise, all fist-pumping spandex positivity).

The point is that The Press have only two stories here: England win the World Cup or England don't win the World Cup. One of these is a lot more likely, and so The Press is already diligently turning it into a coherent story, with a villain, some sex and a tempting notion of hubris. The Press now has a narrative for failure. We have a story arc, even if it's the same one – debauchery, decadence, pitfalls of celebrity – as last time around.

It's also worth noting there really is no such thing as The Press, no brotherhood of red-faced, sherry-stinking men and women gleefully tossing Wayne Bridge's roughly scissored scalp about like an office stress ball. There are just individual red-faced, sherry-stained men and women, jammed together out of necessity. The England team itself is like a vast, creaking, timber-lashed raft of the Medusa, with its own laptop-clutching parasite crew scattered across its back, huddling, fighting, building tiny shelters, hacking bits off, carving their initials and generally servicing their own petty short-term needs.

England won't win the World Cup, because other countries have better players. And when they don't it's all going to be about Terry. This is the only story left now: The Man Who Shagged Away The World Cup. From a purely press angle Bridge has carried out a passive-aggressive act of self-immolation, a World Cup suicide bombing. It's quite clever really.



Owen Gibson wrote this in The Guardian:

Curious Links In A Twisted Chain of Ownership

When Sacha Gaydamak bought a 50% stake in Portsmouth from Milan Mandaric in 2006 he set in train a complex sequence of events that ended yesterday with the formal announcement that it had become the first Premier League club to go into administration.

Throughout his tenure there were questions about whether he was merely acting as a front man for his billionaire father Arkady, who was convicted in his absence in France last year on charges of illegal arms trading and sentenced to six years in prison. He fled to Moscow.


by David Conn

Portsmouth's collapse must prompt football to examine itself

The Premier League rejects the idea that this is a major embarrassment that should prompt a bout of soul-searching. Portsmouth's collapse is due to rank bad management and overspending, they say. That is true, and it is the administrator's job to decide whether the problem results from even worse practices than that. But as far as we know, Portsmouth did nothing against any rules; they followed the accepted Premier League model for a club – overspending, beyond the club's true means, financed by loans from an owner and banks.

Portsmouth's core problem at the end of Sacha Gaydamak's ownership last summer was that he, who had passed the fit and proper person test and satisfied the league he owned the club rather than his father, the now convicted gun-runner Arkadi Gaydamak, had become simply not rich enough. Then the overspending became unsupportable and Pompey, three owners later, have collapsed.


Stoke City announce they are debt-free

Stoke City have announced that they are externally debt-free on the day that Portsmouth went into administration.

Figures announced for the year 2008-09, the club's first season in the Premier League, show the Potters made a net profit of £503,000 at the end of the last trading year, after transfers, and had an increased turnover of £54m – up from £11m in their last season in the Championship.

Stoke's manager Tony Pulis, who counts Portsmouth among his former clubs, said: "This is a great testament to the Coates family, who have put so much into the club.

"The chairman, Peter Coates, has been a fan since his boyhood and he knows this club inside out. He and his family have put so much into the club.

"This is a family club, run for the fans, and by local people. There should be an inquiry into how Portsmouth has been run."

The Coates family have already invested £17m, interest free, and plan to inject another £24m. Pulis said: "It must be unique for a club like us to be free of external debt, and that underlines how indebted we are to the Coates family.

"The most important thing about this club is that it stays in existence, and we have had success on the pitch to match the investment."

Arsenal announce £35.2m profits and slash club debt

Arsenal have announced that they have slashed their debts by over £100m after making pre-tax profits of £35.2m for the six months ending 30 November, 2009.


Manchester United fans prepare to show their true colours at Wembley

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Layer 256 . . . More Woody, Joan Bakewell, Contentment, Confucius, Virtue, the Treasury and Toyota

Decided to re-listen to Sir Clive Woodward on yesterday's repeat of Desert Island Discs.

To give him his due, he did actually admit that he'd been fortunate to be associated with some superb players during his time as England rugby manager.

"I was very lucky. I had wonderful players."

He also admitted that in life generally he's been very lucky.

Hearing it the second time around I felt pretty sorry for him for having had such a crap childhood. Running away from his Welsh boarding school not once but twice, and managing a home run both times, shows a lot of unhappiness and desperation, and also a lot of determination. Finally though, it seems his spirit was broken, since he remained at the school in Anglesey between the ages of 13 and 18, and was never allowed by the Welsh to play his beloved football. It must have felt like being incarcerated in a kind of rainy and damp British gulag.

He finished up with a bit of a Zen-like  philosophy - "Don't get bogged down in the past, and don't look too far into the future. It's all about today."

But mentioning Bob Dylan and Ronan Keating in the same breath was still . . .  breathtaking. And very amusing.

Kirsty Young is brilliant in her DID role. She has such a quick mind, and great empathy with the people she interviews. It must take incredible concentration, preparation and skill, as well as personality, to do what she does with such apparent unobtrusive ease.


Joan Bakewell, age 76,  had a very thought-provoking column in the Guardian this week. This is the kind of thing that can change someone's entire outlook.

Happiness is being 74

The young have stress, ambition, unfulfilled dreams. The elderly have contentment

Happiness, it seems, peaks at the age of 74 – or so scientists have concluded after asking 21,000 people how happy they were on a scale of 1 to 7. Teenagers racked with angst registered around 5.5; in their 40s people reckoned they had less happiness in their lives. Those who were 74 rated themselves 5.9, the highest of the lot. At 74 I was single, living alone and all life's choices were mine: I was writing my first novel, making new friends and visiting new places. What's not to like?

We define happiness in our own terms and for our own particular life moment. There is probably nothing as ecstatic and overwhelming as falling in love; pledging your love together before family and friends carries its own euphoria; holding your new baby is your arms is another of life's highs . . . all family moments. Then there's the job, the promotion, the first home . . . all rungs on today's ladder for measuring how well you're doing in life and thus how happy you might expect to be.

Happiness is about something else entirely: it's not about future expectations but a deep satisfaction with the here and now, with yourself and your place in the world. It involves a degree of healthy self-esteem and a worldview that sets petty preoccupations against a wider canvas. It probably has little to do with money, though dire poverty will be its enemy. It depends on the falling away of all the things that blight our happiness when we're younger: ambition, competitiveness, stress, unfulfilled dreams and hopes.

In terms that will appal younger spirits, it calls for a certain resignation – an awareness that life is finite, that you finally know who you are and accept your limitations and disappointments. Disappointments, when they come, are less sharp than they once were. They are simply part of the pattern.

There's plenty to make old age unhappy, too. The deep wounds sustained by the death of those we love are the greatest. There's infirmity and illness, the closing down of life's options. But there's a relief too, in knowing you won't be climbing the Eiger or pioneering a new vaccine. The blessings of family and friendship count for more, and they grow as the years go by.


A History Of The World

In 100 Objects

A Chinese Bronze Bell from the time of Confucius - 2,500 years old - Radio 4

Music produces the kind of pleasure that human nature can't do without. Confucius believed that music plays a central part in the shaping of the individual, as well as the state. Individual people, individual sounds, blending together in a pleasant and pleasing way. Society needs harmony, and peace.

The individual and society also need virtue, benevolence and righteousness.

[See also Oxzen Layer 148]

Leaders should embody virtue, and demonstrate their right to rule.

[More for Brown and Cameron to think about.]

In a good society there should be no need for punishment. If leaders and rulers set a good example, then virtuous individuals will live and work together harmoniously.

[NB Gordo]


The Great Offices of State - 3. The Secret Treasury - BBC4

Everything about the Treasury and the people who run it is repulsive. A nasty, gloomy building, full of nasty gloomy people. Full of people puffed up with ego and pride. And a fat lot of good it did them whilst they allowed the State and its finances to hit the buffers. Voodoo economics. Crashing and burning in the most spectacular fashion. No proper oversight or stewardship of the financial system. Many of us said this at the time the bubble was growing - but did they listen?

I know someone who used to have on their child's primary school's governing body a young man who worked in the Treasury. An arrogant little twat in the mould of Ed Balls and the other Young Pioneers of New Labour. He overreached himself in his plotting against the school's leaders and the staff reps on the governing body. He thought he was doing his stuff (secret meetings with local authority officers and so on) ever so cleverly behind their backs, but he was too clever by half, and tripped over his own ego. Thankfully the very people he tried to patronise - parent governors and staff governors - exposed him in a meeting and gave him such a fucking good kicking he promptly resigned. A story with a happy ending.

It seems the look on his face at the time of his public humiliation was a sight to behold. He hadn't realised that regular working people could use words so effectively, and with such deadly intent, and outcome.


Talking of huge crashes -

Toyota: A giant crashes

The Economist has written off the entire affair as exemplifying the problems with Japanese corporate governance. Oh, if only those salarymen in Tokyo had learned from their counterparts in New York and London how capitalism should be done!

Mr Toyoda himself yesterday reiterated that his company had been too focused on growth and had "confused" its priorities. One could put it more plainly still, as former Toyota executive Jim Press has, describing his old employer as being "hijacked" by "anti-family, financially oriented pirates". In so doing, a widely admired company has wrecked its reputation . . .

Friday, February 26, 2010

Layer 255 . . . Heads on the Block, Ladders and Social Mobility

Yesterday's optimism has somewhat melted away.

Parents to choose leaders of failing schools

New powers will enable parents to vote for a university, company or top state school to run their children's schools, Gordon Brown promised today

"I stand for excellence in education. Because education is a ladder to social mobility."

Brown knows as much about education as the average person knows about brain surgery. His view of it is purely instrumental, materialistic, and political. The man's a disgrace to the Labour movement and to all working people who don't necessarily want to be fucking 'mobile' - they want to live fulfilled and creative lives that are free of poverty, poor housing, poor health - and poor education - the kind of impoverished education which imagines that chasing academic test and exam success is real learning. What has New Labour done to address the real issues, apart from issue more and more central dictats, more privatisations, more targets, more threats, more disparagement, etc, whilst simultaneously deregulating and bigging up the bankers and financiers?

"Broken Britain" is in its current condition because for decades it's been governed by two political parties that are far to the right of Britain's post-war Tory governments, with both New Labour and New Tories having completely swallowed the ideologies of the New Right, which is all that's on offer even now, unless people vote tactically in order to bring about a somewhat hung parliament and also keep out the out and out fascists.


And talking of fascists - this is the week in which Nigel UKIP Farage stood up in the European parliament and made himself look like the disgusting xenophobic pig he certainly is - and a total disgrace to the rest of us.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Layer 254 . . . The IMF, the Afghan Endgame, Barack Obama, An Outbreak of World Peace, Neighbours From Hell, and an Outbreak of Common Sense

Maybe the times really are a'changing.

The IMF and Government Borrowing

Who'd have thought the IMF would come out with a statement supporting the left/liberal/Keynesian  position on national debt, and the rate at which debt reduction should take place, and the need to ensure that economic recovery is sustainable before attempting to reduce the debt by repaying government borrowing?

This is genuinely shocking news. Cameron and Osborne must be in pieces. It's a kick in the guts for the Conservatives, and the neo-conservatives.

Read Larry Elliott's piece on this, and have a damned good laugh at the statement of the Tory spokesman in the final paragraph.

I love the bit citing Richard Branson as an economics guru.

Afghan Endgame

We can relax, people. There is hope for the world after all. Having come through all those dark days of the Bushite junta, we can finally start to love America.

As we know, for many years, and in spite of the fact that the USA is for the most part full of decent, peaceable and thoughtful people (yes - really!), America was run by a gang of very stupid, malicious and probably psychopathic individuals. The American people themselves came to realise this, and voted for Obama and a New Era. Or at least the hope of change.

Bush was certainly stupid, even if he was cunning and determined - a la Blair.

Cheney and Rumsfeld, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, were possibly both malicious and psycho. Many people would see fit, and indeed many have seen fit, to call them simply evil.

Behold, then, the new America. The beautiful. The great. The benevolent.

Just imagine.

Afghanistan plays out as follows.

Following clandestine diplomatic contacts, the Taliban let it be known they'll put up only a token show of resistance to the American and Nato 'surge', allowing considerable areas of the country to be 'pacified' whilst Afghan soldiers are brought in to police those areas whilst non-Afghan forces are withdrawn and sent home.

Throughout this 12 - 18 month period Obama orders a massive programme of building infrastructure, schools, clinics, hospitals, etc, and also promises to continue to pay for the upkeep and staffing of the new services regardless of what happens to the Afghan government after non-Afghan forces are sent home.

Some form of Taliban government takes over, but makes it clear it values the continuing aid from Obama, and as such they will not allow their country to again become used by al-Qaida for refuge or for training bases. The new Taliban also offers to allow American monitoring of al-Qaida activity and if necessary allow 'policing' action to close down any bases that al-Qaida try to establish.

Result - everybody happy; Afghanistan no longer a problem. Thanks to Barack Obama.

He then gets on with re-establishing America's reputation throughout the world as a benefactor, a bringer of aid and support, a non-coercive, non-bullying, non-exploitative partner in peaceful development and prosperity, tackling inequality, injustice, hunger, ignorance and wars.

China and America negotiate a pact of mutual cooperation for world peace and the elimination of poverty throughout the planet. The EU, Russia, India, Brazil and Japan also sign the pact, and agree to eliminate nuclear stockpiles as soon as possible.



Simon Jenkins was on good form, as usual, today.

From Newry to Helmand, the lessons are the same

One day some sort of treaty will have to be reached with various Taliban leaders, some of whom had by 2001 qualified as "moderates" and were hostile to al-Qaida. Yet it is Nato policy to assassinate these leaders, mostly by much-vaunted drones, replacing older negotiators likely to be more amenable to peace with younger successors furious for revenge. Yet again, policy is counter-productive. An undiminished concomitant of war down the ages is stupidity.

This week the British government received an answer to its oft-pleaded question, how can it possibly withdraw? The Dutch have shown that it is done quite simply by announcing a withdrawal, as most Nato countries have "withdrawn" de facto by staying in Kabul and refusing to fight in a conflict they feel cannot be won. There are clear limits to how long a democracy will subscribe to wars far from home where only the vaguest national interest is at stake.

The paucity of domestic terrorist incidents suggests that this objective of "homeland security" is effectively achieved, in Britain and the US. There is no evidence that foreign wars have played any part in this. Indeed if motives cited by convicted terrorists are any guide, the war is counter-productive. With public spending tight, reallocating resources from war to domestic counter-terrorism must be value for money. But who has the courage to say or do it?

Northern Ireland has learned to live with low-level terrorism on a scale greater than anything being experienced from Islamists in mainland Britain. This violence will continue as long as sectarian segregation exists in housing and schools, subsidised by the British taxpayer. It will continue as long as Northern Ireland remains a living monument to Europe's long history of religious intolerance. But a sort of equilibrium has been realised. "War" is no longer being constantly declared on "the men of violence", conferring on them the mantle of military heroism. Terrorism loses its potency when relegated to the status of a crime.

Terrorism poses no threat to Britain's national security. Bombs explode but they do not undermine the state. ­Terrorism rather reflects the community's handling of risk. Ever since 9/11, the Labour government's exploitation of the politics of fear has overwhelmed the public's ability to assess risk. This in turn has inconvenienced many, frightened some and sent hundreds of soldiers to an unnecessary death. It has shown that the greatest threat to modern democracy remains what it has always been – a vulnerability to the ­populism of warmongering.

I was thinking about this just the other day on a journey on London Underground - the constant loudspeaker warnings to watch out for unattended packages and cases - as if we're in a state of war or a state of siege. This is the mentality that suits politicians who want us to continue believing that terrorists are a constant threat  - to justify incredible levels of spending on 'security' and 'surveillance'. Our entire youth have grown up in this atmosphere, and I'd very much like my grandchildren to grow up feeling they're NOT going to be blown up at any moment by unspecified bad guys.


Neighbours From Hell

Cameron and chums had a wonderful opportunity at PMQs today and completely blew it. A proper statesman would have shredded Brown and Darling. All that Cameron could manage was a pathetic sub-sixth form gibe about kissing, to which his chums responded with pathetic fake laughter. The nation deserves better than this from its official opposition. It makes you shudder to think what these immature chaps would be like if they were to find themselves in government.


Another Outbreak of Common Sense

In the news today - traffic lights are being removed at many locations throughout Acton in an effort to reduce accidents, reduce congestion, and improve traffic flow. Hoo bloody ray!

Over a 20 -30 year period I've seen traffic lights installed at no doubt astronomical cost at just about every conceivable road junction throughout London and other towns and cities. Council "traffic engineers" have had a field day with their increased budgets and their assumption that more traffic lights are better than fewer.

The times they are a'changing.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Layer 253 . . . Education and Employment

Mark my words . . .

Channel 4 news last night:

"British and Nato forces pushing forward in their current operation (Moshtarak) have met little or no resistance from the Taliban."

Oxzen - Layer 248:
Here we have the Americans telling the Taliban they're massing forces and about to 'surge' into Taliban-held areas, having already said that American troops will be withdrawn from the country within a year ot two. So what are you going to do if you're a Taliban? Take to the mountains and hang out there for a while until the Americans and their allies have cleared off . . .

Education and Employment

Brother B got in touch yesterday and let me know about this piece in the Sunday Times:

February 21, 2010
Schools are churning out the unemployable

The latest unemployment figures are a shocker. Eight million adults are “economically inactive”. That means one in five people of working age does not have a job. A new and expanding group, poignantly described as “discouraged” workers, have even given up looking.

They are right to be discouraged but wrong that there is no work. A report out on Friday points out that a fifth of firms and a quarter of employers in the state sector are still hiring — despite the recession. Except they are taking on migrant workers — not our home-grown “discouraged” variety.

The managing director of a medium-sized IT company explained why. High-flyers — Oxford and Cambridge graduates — are still as good as any in the world. His problems come when he tries to recruit middle management. Last year he interviewed 52 graduates — all educated in state schools. On paper they looked “brilliant students”. Each had three As at A-level and a 2:1 degree. He shook his head. “There’s a big difference between people passing exams and being ready for work.”

This was obvious even before the interview began. Of the 52 applicants, half arrived late. Only three of the 52 walked up to the managing director, looked him in the eye, shook his hand and said, “Good morning.” The rest “just ambled in”.

The three who had greeted him proved the strongest candidates and he hired them. Within a year they were out because of their “lackadaisical” attitude. They did not turn up on time; for the first six months a manager had to check all their emails for spelling and grammar; they did not know how to learn. It was the first time they had ever been asked to learn on their own. Their ability to “engage in business” was “incredibly” disappointing and “at 5.30 on the dot they left the office”.

A CBI survey revealed that literacy and numeracy were not the only problems. More than 50% of employers complained that young people were inarticulate, unable to communicate concisely, interpret written instructions or perform simple mental calculations.

The Department for Work and Pensions says UK citizens are on the dole because of “issues around basic employability skills, incentives and motivation”. It is a pity it has not passed that insight on to the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

The DWP has made it clear: work is where the inflated claims for our state education finally hit the buffers. At every stage we have a system in which the expediency of politicians and the ideology of the educational establishment take precedence over the interests of pupils.

We have children who can barely read and write scoring high marks in their Sats because it makes the school, and therefore politicians, look good. We have exam boards competing to offer the lowest pass mark because it allows heads to fulfil their GCSE targets. We have pupils pushed into easy subjects at A-level — which excludes them from applying to a top university — because it benefits the school.
None of this comes as any great surprise. In 1998 Daniel Goleman wrote a book called 'Working With Emotional Intelligence'. Chapter 1 begins with these words:

The rules of work are changing. We're being judged by a new yardstick:not just by how smart we are, or by our training and expertise, but also by how well we handle ourselves and each other. This yardstick is increasingly being applied in choosing who will be hired and who will not, who will be let go and who retained, who passed over and who promoted.

[This has] little to do with what we were told was important in school; academic abilities are largely irrelevant by this standard. The new measure takes for granted having enough intellectual ability and technical know-how to do our jobs; it focuses instead on personal qualities, such as initiative and empathy, adaptability and persuasiveness.

In a time with no guarantees of job security, when the very concept of a "job" is rapidly being replaced by "portable skills", these are prime qualities that make and keep us employable. Talked about loosely for decades under a variety of names, from "character" and "personality" to "soft skills" and "competence", there is at last a more precise understanding of these human talents, and a new name for them: emotional intelligence.

IQ takes second position to emotional intelligence in determining outstanding job performance.


I'd again urge everyone interested in these issues to follow these links:


Politicians who have anger management issues might want to have a careful read of Goleman's book - for example, on Page 9:

"Where earlier [a manager or a Prime Minister] might easily hide a hot temper or shyness, now competencies such as managing one's emotions, handling encounters well, teamwork, and leadership, show - and count - more than ever."

Strong Foundations?

Without wishing to sound patronising, since I think Estelle Morris is a decent human being, I think it's good, in a way, that the Guardian continues to let her write a weekly wishy washy New Labourist column in its Education section. Estelle was never particularly strong on passion, it seems to me, and never disloyal to New Labour.

This week's column is worth taking a look at.

Foundation degrees offer a strong vision for the future

Those offering traditional degrees could learn a lot from the diverse entry routes and patterns of provision offered by foundation courses

It's not often that announcements about skills and vocational education are covered by the media, let alone written up as a real success story. There is no doubt it is a historically weak part of our education system: we seem to have an inability to stick to any vocational qualifications framework for any length of time, and vocational education has faced wave after wave of repackaging.

The recent announcement, therefore, that the number of students study­ing for foundation degrees had risen by 40% in the last two years and that the 100,000 target would be reached a year early makes good reading.

These degrees have called for new ways of working between higher and further education, and between academia, business and industry. Employers and students are in the driving seat of course design, and strong links between universities and colleges mean it is easy for students to complete an honours degree.

The temptation is always to do less when money is scarce, but Lord Mandelson makes a good case for doing things differently. His call for more two-year courses, greater flexibility and a sector that has the ability to respond better to the demands of its students is worth heeding – and subject courses may learn something from their vocational neighbours.

These courses are "packaged" in a different way from other degree-level courses. There's more contact time, fewer holidays and the chance for paid employment. Compare that to what seems like a continuing reduction in contact time in straight subject courses and not much change to the traditional three 10-week terms.

If the choice is between cutting student numbers or reshaping university education, I'd opt for the latter.

There have been changes. More places are part time, modular courses are on offer, and partnerships with further education are delivering degree-level teaching in communities. But the national debate about student funding and places still too often focuses on the pattern of study dominant when only 10% of the population went to university.

It isn't just the financial crisis that means we need to rethink, but the consequences for people's lives and the changing demands of employers. It calls for diverse entry routes and patterns of provision across higher education.

Foundation degrees will never be at the top of the academic tree, but their record of innovation might be a lesson from which others could learn.

In response to a CIF comment by cmsdengl, Oxzen said this -

I'd say that increasing numbers of people being drawn into higher education because the courses on offer have appeal and relevance to the needs of students is a very good reason for expounding their success. Especially when no-one's trying to claim that they're the same as, or equivalent to, honours degrees.

Who cares whether those taking foundation degrees go on to do three year degrees? If honours degrees have no appeal and no relevance to potential students then they won't do them. Especially if they're not affordable.

And who's to say that employers won't, both now and in the future, prefer to employ those with vocational as opposed to purely academic qualifications? There's plenty of evidence to show that the smarter companies are seeing the error of employing those who are academically able but also, in some cases, arrogant and complacent, especially when many of those people lack any practical or vocational skills, any creativity, any social or emotional intelligence, any interest in lifelong and on-the-job learning, and little or no ability to add value to the workplace.

The possession of an honours degree does not automatically make people more suited to a commercial work environment, just as it doesn't automatically make them a better human being.


Anyone with any interest in education and politics, and the politics of education, must have a good look at this piece in the Guardian -

Labour's teaching strategies were a burden, say inspectors

Ofsted report says national strategies programme failed to eradicate poor teaching

Oxzen's comment on CIF is -

    "A flagship New Labour education reform has failed to eradicate poor teaching and become a burden for schools, inspectors said today."
    "The programme was obsessed with monitoring, but rarely evaluated how well initiatives worked."
    "The schools and local authorities visited were often overwhelmed by the volume of centrally driven initiatives, materials and communications."

Oh dear. I think we already knew this. How come Ofsted have only just discovered it? That's what I call a failing inspection regime.

The first thing to say is that with such an unsatisfactory Ofsted report as this one the government and the DCFS should now consider themselves, as failing authorities, to be in Special Measures, and the schools system should be handed over to more competent authorities - trained and experienced educationalists for example - for direction and management. Fortunately this seems to be happening.

Naturally enough, the schools minister, Vernon Coaker, says the government makes no apologies. They never do, and they never will. Which is one of the reasons they've become so despised.

Coaker claims that the government and its strategies are responsible for "the highest ever school standards" - again, without the slightest shred of evidence. Leaving aside the fact that high tests scores say nothing meaningful about whether anyone has had a good all-round education and is well equipped for future employment and for life in general, let's be clear that the teaching profession, left to its own devices, and left well alone by a bullying ("robust") regime of target-setting and "accountability", would have continued to strive for greater excellence these past many years and in all probability would have achieved both better results and a more balanced, more rounded, more innovative, more creative, more relevant and more enjoyable education for all pupils. I can't prove that this would be the case, but then again Coaker can't prove his claim that his government and its strategies deserve all the credit for improvements and the teaching profession deserves none.


The well-known educationalist Zoe Margolis has an interesting column in today's paper.


It's worth taking a look at the current Lib Dem ideas on education, as set out by their education spokesman, David Laws.

What's the policy we might vote for?

Readers interview David Laws, the Lib Dems' education spokesman


And finally . . . .

This is wonderful -

Justice begins at home

More and more schools are aiming to put human rights at the heart of their curriculum

For several years, Villiers high, a comprehensive secondary in Southall, west London, has been taking a global view of its mission to prepare its pupils for the modern world. And increasingly, its international education has focused on human rights issues. Attempts are also being made to embed human rights values into the fabric of the school's daily life.

Robin Street, the assistant head, is responsible for the programme. Street and his colleagues are aiming to educate a new generation that will have a clearer understanding of threats to human rights across the world.

The school is now working closely with Amnesty International, which has linked up with 15 schools in 14 countries to create the Human Rights Friendly Schools project.

A similar scheme known as the Rights Respecting Schools Award has been run for the last six years by Unicef UK, a charity that promotes the work of the United Nations Children's Fund. Now running in more than 1,000 primary and secondary schools across the UK, this project aims to help children learn more about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

At Villiers, education about basic liberties is incorporated into geography and media studies lessons, as well as citizenship, history and RE. Over the last 15 years, says Street, increasing numbers of refugees have settled in the school's catchment area, so a study of local geography must involve learning about the reasons why people seek asylum in the UK.

Last October, the school hosted a two-day international students' conference, inviting pupils from schools in Denmark, the Czech Republic, Israel, Mongolia, Germany and Northern Ireland. With the help of artists, musicians and media advisers, the pupils worked together in a series of workshops to explore ways in which greater awareness of basic rights can be integrated into every area of a school's life. Meanwhile, staff from Villiers and the visiting schools received training from Amnesty and Unicef about the development of human rights education.

Street says: "The conference allowed our students, other students from across the UK and from across the globe to share thoughts and ideas about the importance of knowing about their own rights and, by definition, their own responsibilities."


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Layer 252 . . . A Revolution in Publishing, Brown and Bullying, and More Citizen Ethics

More zeitgeist.

I was talking last week to a friend about self-publishing, and how blogs, or summaries of blogs, could easily and cheaply be made available for downloading and reading on tablet reading machines like the Kindle and the iPad, and would work extremely well if they had embedded in them hyperlinks that could take readers off to websites via wireless links for further and complementary reading material.

Yesterday I came across this article from the New York Review of Books in the Observer:

Publishing: The Revolutionary Future
By Jason Epstein

The transition within the book publishing industry from physical inventory stored in a warehouse and trucked to retailers to digital files stored in cyberspace and delivered almost anywhere on earth as quickly and cheaply as e-mail is now underway and irreversible. This historic shift will radically transform worldwide book publishing.

Digitization makes possible a world in which anyone can claim to be a publisher and anyone can call him- or herself an author.

Titles will also be posted on authors' and publishers' own Web sites and on reliable Web sites of special interest where biographies of Napoleon or manuals of dog training will be evaluated by competent critics and downloaded directly from author or publisher to end user while software distributes the purchase price appropriately, bypassing traditional formulas. With inventory expense, shipping, and returns eliminated, readers will pay less, authors will earn more, and book publishers, rid of their otiose infrastructure, will survive and may prosper.

Authors, with the help of agents and business managers, will become their own publishers, retaining all net proceeds from digital as well as traditional sales. With the Espresso Book Machine, enterprising retail booksellers may become publishers themselves, like their eighteenth-century forebears.


The huge, worldwide market for digital content is not a fantasy. It will be very large, very diverse, and very surprising: its cultural impact cannot be imagined. E-books will be a significant factor in this uncertain future, but actual books printed and bound will continue to be the irreplaceable repository of our collective wisdom.


Another entertaining and very funny column by Charlie Brooker.


To give this next piece some context, it might be worth remembering the confession that Jonathan Aitken recently made - much to his credit - about his state of mind when he was at the peak of his time in politics, which was also the time of his downfall - "I was puffed up with too much self-centredness, self-importance and pride."

This is clearly an occupational hazard for anyone in government, and anyone who's been through the elite education system which we seem to value so very much.

Gordon Brown hit by fresh bullying allegations

The cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, was tonight under pressure to launch a formal investigation into Gordon Brown's treatment of his staff after an anti-bullying helpline revealed it has received several complaints from people working at No 10. It follows publication by the Observer journalist Andrew Rawnsley of hotly- disputed allegations about Brown mistreating staff, including assertions that he swore at staff, grabbed them by lapels and shouted at them.

Lord Mandelson, flatly denied Rawnsley's claims, insisting that Brown was simply "demanding", "emotional, "and had a degree of impatience".

The claim of routine bullying was today backed up a senior former adviser to Brown in No 10, who told the Guardian: "His intense bouts of anger are unremarkable to anyone who has worked closely with him. You just have to put up with this stuff. It is part of the daily experience, almost part of the furniture. He would behave in that way constantly. He suffers from a massive paranoia and an inability to accept blame, yet he runs a blame culture that allows him to blame others.

What we see here is very simple - a man, and a whole circle of people, who are low in emotional, social and spiritual intelligence. Raging egos, puffed up pride, aggression in response to stress, and powermania.

Nothing that a few years of full-time Zen meditation and practice wouldn't sort out, though, under the guideance of a skilled practitioner.

Whereas psychopaths like Blair are too clever and cunning to get caught out being blatantly aggressive and bullying.

Ethics and Morality

This all feeds very nicely into the intiative called Citizen Ethics that Madeleine Bunting and The Guardian are promoting, and which was launched in The Observer yesterday.

Madeleine's column in the paper yesterday was superb, and has to be read in full -

To tackle the last decades' myths, we must dust off the big moral questions

A robust debate on ethics is crucial to the pursuit of a good society in which individuals are more than mere economic units

It's year 10's English class in a ­London comprehensive. Forty kids are debating the purpose of a school. "Teaching social skills," they suggest. Why do you need them? I ask, playing devil's advocate. "To get a job." Is that the only point of having social skills? "Yes, what else is there?" One demurs, hesitant and not entirely sure how to ­express herself. "No, there's more to life than a job. There's happiness. Social skills are needed to make you happy."

It was a fascinating illustration of how deeply the instrumentalist values of the market have penetrated our everyday thinking when kids talk in this way. "Social skills" is the type of phrase management experts dreamed up to put a market value on a set of human characteristics. Cheerful, punctual, able to co-operate, take instructions: these are all marketable skills. But to many of these kids, equipping them for the labour market was the primary purpose of ­education. Any idea of it as enriching and deepening their understanding of what it is to be human and lead meaningful, contented adult lives, had been entirely lost to view.

The central premise of the Citizen Ethics supplement published in this paper at the weekend (the full pamphlet can be downloaded on Comment is free) is that we have lost a way of thinking and talking about some very important things. The preoccupation with market ­efficiency and economic growth has loomed so large that other activities, and other ­values, have been subordinated to its disciplines.

A poll for the World Economic Forum last month found in 10 G20 countries that two-thirds of respondents attributed the credit crunch and its ensuing economic recession to a crisis of ethics and values.

Citizen Ethics was a project to ask nearly four dozen prominent thinkers what this was all about. Did ethics really have a role to play, and had it failed? First, despite plenty of disagreements, on one thing there was a clear consensus: ethics are crucial. They are the underpinning to all political debate; they frame the questions we ask of ourselves and of our political economy and therefore do much to shape the answers we end up with.

They are vital to the civic culture in which both politics and economics are ultimately rooted. So, as Will Hutton will do in his book, Them and Us, out in the autumn, if we really want to understand how some of the incredible myths perpetrated over the last couple of decades have gone unchallenged, we have to go back to some basic arguments of philosophy. What is justice? Who deserves what? What constitutes human flourishing?

Too many of these questions have simply been shelved for too long. Questions of justice and reward were left to the market to resolve; questions of human flourishing were privatised. It was left to everyone to decide their own sequence of pleasurable experiences in life with little acknowledgement of how many of those depend entirely on mutual co-operation.

One explanation for this abandonment of the debate is that we lost a language in which to think and argue about ethics. Perhaps this is partly attributable to the vexed legacy of institutional religion and the long shadow it still casts. The promotion of ethical behaviour has been bound up with particular institutions, and as they decline, it leaves a vacuum of authority. Who dares talk on this subject with confidence? It prompts fear that any such discussions are really a Trojan horse for promoting a religious belief. There's a suspicion that words such as "morality" tip us quickly into the kind of instinctive conviction made infamous by Tony Blair in which sincerity is regarded as an adequate substitute for careful reasoning.

Even the language itself is mired in a history of ­social control; morality and virtue are words that are reluctantly used, since both still convey overtones of intrusive monitoring of (particularly female) sexual behaviour.

Since most of the contributors to this pamphlet express their commitment to ethics without any reference to religious practice, perhaps it is finally possible to move beyond these familiar anxieties and resume a task of ethical reasoning regarded through most of history as essential to being human. This is philosophy as the Greeks understood it – love of the wisdom to lead lives of meaning and fulfilment, not some kind of abstract game with words.

Our aim is to provoke a noisy debate on what kinds of habits and characters we need to run the good society.

To go back to the lovely kids in the classroom, what is the good society we want to inspire them with – beyond their future roles in the economy as workers and consumers? What habits and character can we offer them as ­conducive to deeply rewarding lives? If we don't know plenty of possible answers to that question, it's no ­surprise they don't.

Wonderful stuff, Madeleine.

Synchronicity and Comedy Corner

There was possibly the best-ever panel for this week's Just A Minute on R4 - Paul Merton, Sue Perkins, Tony Hawks and Graham Norton. This particular comedy show can be quite dull if the panellists aren't extremely sparky, quick-witted and off the wall.

We seem to be in a real golden age of comic talent right now, just as the sixties were a golden age for original musical talent. Programmes like this one show just how naturally funny the performers are, since they have to be very spontaneous and original, without any scripts or planning. Sue Perkins and Paul Merton are phenominally talented, and Messrs Hawks and Norton aren't far behind.

During the programme the subject of Edwin Drood came up - via Paul Merton going into a spiel about Ernie Wise appearing in a West End play based on Dickens' story of Edwin Drood. Immediately before listening I'd been doing today's quick crossword - 17 across: Dickens' unfinished mystery tale (5,5)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Layer 251 . . . On The Radio

Sir Clive Woodward is an interesting guy. He's a knight of the realm. He managed the England rugby team that won the rugby world cup in 2003. He's the British Olympic Association's Director of Elite Performance. He's seen by some people as some kind of management guru. I've been to one of his management seminars. Yesterday he was the guest on Desert Island Discs.

So there he was, this affable, results-driven, targets-oriented guy, a great believer in the need for highly professional and aspirational management styles, he seems reasonably honest and plausible - talking about his burning desire to become a winner, the best, etc . . . albeit it in a somewhat dry and fairly humourless sort of way . . . clearly a guy who takes himself very seriously and expects others to do the same . . . obviously a lover of sport, and by his own admission NO great intellectual or philosopher, just a great believer in hard work and effort . . .

He then confirms what I'm already thinking about him with his choice of music.

Absolute unrelenting middle of the road pap and cack - most of it in all likelihood manufactured by people using Casio keyboards and rhythm backing tracks, with heavy emphasis on sentimentality, smaltz and lurve (he really loves his wife) . . .

After the 2003 World Cup, England came third in the 2004 Six Nations (behind Grand Slam winners France and Triple Crown winners Ireland). His last tour as England coach came shortly afterwards, with an ill-fated tour of New Zealand and Australia. England were beaten by New Zealand in two tests, without scoring a single try, going down 36-3 in the first and 36-12 in the second. The team then went to Australia, where they were beaten 51-15.

In February 2004 he was appointed Head Coach for the awful 2005 British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand. The Lions lost the test series 3-0. Woodward's management was criticised by many commentators and players, for his initial squad selection, his coaching methods, his handling of the players and the media, his selections on tour, and for not allowing the test team any time to play together before the test series began.
- Wikipedia

 - Oops!

Kirsty read out in her introduction that "he took the England team to world cup glory". Are we sure it wasn't the team that took him to glory? Let's not forget the outstanding individuals that were available to the England team at that time.*

Given what's said in the Wikipedia entry just quoted, isn't there a case for saying the team achieved what it did in spite of Woody? And if the team had lost in the quarter or semi final, or even the final, as it easily might have, would Woody still have been considered for a knighthood?

So what's the piece of 'music' he treasures and values above all else? Oh dear. Something tragic. Something utterly crap by  . . . Take That!

This is surely a guy who only ever listens to music when he "listens" to whatever his wife plays in the car - Take That, Phil Collins, Ronan Keating, Robert Palmer, The Jam.

This is pure Wife Music. OK - I know it's not the choice of ALL women. A lot of women go for similar stuff but sung by women. A lot of women like good music too. But I don't know of a single guy who owns any of that stuff, or would admit to liking it. Let alone thinking it's the best and most outstanding music ever created. I can't imagine even Paul Weller seriously thinks "Going Underground" is a "great track".

Born in '56 Woody obviously missed out on the sixties, and it couldn't have helped his case being sent away to boarding school at the age of 13. He's over-anxious to point out how independent and autonomous that experience made him. But is he really?

Two bizarre tracks he chose because somebody had obviously suggested playing them to his team(s) before the start of matches - maccho male music -  Eminem — Lose Yourself and Chicane — Saltwater. He obviously likes songs with a "message". Functional music. Music you can use as a manager, or music to help cheer yourself up, or music that lets your loved ones know how much you love them, or music that helps you remember those 'special' times in your life. Utilitarian stuff. Woody's heavy on messages.

Strangely, he said he likes Bob Dylan. Presumably he reckons this gives him some sort of musical cred. You could choose any 8 Dylan tracks and they'd be better than the rest of Woody's selections.

There seems to be a sort of common denominator to most of the people who become famous - celebrities, high flying professionals, knights of the realm, etc. They're the sort of people who are so busy working and networking and being self-obsessed they don't ever really listen to music. The sort of people who don't LOVE music. Let alone need it. They seem to be the kind of people who put on "background music" at home or in the car.

They may be wonderful human beings, talented and creative and brilliant in their own way, maybe, but there's little evidence that many of them have gone on journeys of musical exploration or need music like others need air and water. Most of these people's basic needs appear to centre on the need for fame, success, worldly achievement and status.

Woody's office slogan is . . .  "Better Never Stops". This is a guy who says he'd set himself ('stretching' and 'challenging'?) targets even on his desert island. This is a guy who'd take a book on how to play better golf to his desert island. This is a guy whose luxury on the island would be a golf club and a golf ball. This is a guy who's a complete loser, still striving to be a winner.

He'd be a lot better off if he gave up his relentless striving after success, fame and glory, and applied himself to the successful exploration of his inner being, the discovery of Zen enlightenment and satori, and through doing so make himself a lot more useful to those he aims to lead, coax, coach and manage.

After all - what difference does it really make whether "Team GB” comes 4th or 24th in the Olympic league table? I'm delighted the young lady from Britain won her gold medal in the current Winter Olympics in Canada, because she has a lot of talent and a lot of nerve and skill. But it's her own delight in her individual achievement that counts, not any supposed national pride or glory.


Also heard on the radio today -

1. Start The Week

Andrew Marr looks at how society is shaped by science and war. Caroline Alexander explores what we can learn about the nature of conflict from reading The Iliad, while the journalist Andy Beckett asks about the role of the Chilcot Inquiry. Professor Robert Winston discovers that not all scientific endeavour is a positive development, and Raymond Tallis explains that it all comes down to the fact that we can point.

The Chilcott Enquiry into the Iraq war is revealing how the political process was subverted by Blair and his chums, and how the (supine) cabinet and senior civil service and diplomatic service advisers were marginalised.

Britain is, and has been for hundreds of years, a (strikingly) militaristic society, whose leaders and ruling classes (and even many of the 'lower orders') are obsessive about the country's military and imperial past.

Andy Beckett reckons that he'd 'forgotten' about the effect of the war on individuals and families until he sat next to the sister of Anna Hassan at the enquiry. [So much for empathy]


Books and writing [and presumably blogs] are often seen as subversive by a nation's ruling classes. Words used effectively can be very powerful. [Hence book burners and those who want education to be purely about preparing the masses for the world of work.]

People such as politicians and scientists should listen carefully to the voices of their critics and commentators, and show more openness and humility.

[The Oxbridge culture and elite education has the opposite effect - it perpetuates the myth that those who by hook or by crook are academically successful have a right to ignore the voices of the masses and the also-rans.]

Original thought and individual achievement is a myth - feedback and peer review is essential for checking, challenging, identifying and remedying weaknesses. [Almost all worthwhile achievement is collaborative]

Arrogance and hubris and the law of unintended consequences may yet lead the world into nuclear conflagration and holocaust.

The invention of agriculture and settlements initially produced 'stunted people with bad teeth who lived shorter lives'.

We never, or rarely, recognise the downside of inventions.

Humanity [- or unrefined and ignorant and arrogant and over-intellectual humanity] is the virus that's ruining the planet. [Dumb-ass humanity lacking in emotional and spiritual intelligence. Humanity that's full of ego and aggression and destructive power.]


A book about the gesture of pointing!

Awareness of yourself as a subject.

[This had extra significance for me having spent part of yesterday reacting to and speaking with a two year old who was communicating with me by pointing at a variety of objects.]

When we point at something we're acting on the assumption that there is such a thing as empathy. We have an awareness of our own awareness, and that there is another subject [person] who has a separate and individual awareness of objects and other people.

Humans are neither pure 'mind' nor pure 'animal'.

Storytelling is a kind of pointing and a kind of sharing.

Human beings create a public sphere that consists of a complex fabric of shared perceptions and assumptions. Each of us is different, but through pointing and sharing, etc we can identify points of commonality and agreement.

[This is zeitgeisty stuff. This weekend's episode of 'Virtual Revolution' on BBC2 was focused on collective intelligence, networks of people and ideas, and creating more empathy through the free sharing of information. More openness and communication creates more understanding of other people's ideas. In our increasingly complex world people have a need to share and communicate more - to make their voices and perceptions heard - not only for their individual sakes but for the sake of creating better societies and communities.]


2. History of the World in 100 Objects

The Oxus Chariot

You can zoom into this object here -

Ancient Persia invented and defined statecraft and empire. [Not China?]

It was a militaristic state where might was considered right.

Cyrus was the first Persian emperor. The empire stretched from Turkey and Egypt to Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was the first great empire. But not like the Roman empire, which ruled every province from the centre.

The Persian empire consisted of a collection of individual kingdoms, with the emperor as a kind of king of kings. It was a confederation and a collaboration of semi-autonomous states. Thus it was a multi-cultural and multi-faith empire.

"No race is more ready to adopt foreign ways than the Persians."

There was a network of straight and fast imperial roads, which were travelled by messengers and by satraps.

Heroditus wrote, "There is nothing in the world that travels faster than these Persian couriers."

The word satrap is often used in modern literature to refer to world leaders or governors who are heavily influenced by larger world superpowers or hegemonies and act as their surrogates.

The first large scale use of satrapies, or provinces, originates from the conception of the first Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great, beginning at around 530 BC. However, Provincial organization originated during the Median era from at least 648 BC.
- Wikipedia

Cyrus was seen as a hero and benefactor throughout the empire since he freed slaves and set out to be a protector of those within the empire.

It was in effect an empire of the mind, and states of mind, and a culture at ease with complexity.

It's no wonder that Iranians are proud of their history and heritage.



Irene Khan was the first woman and the first Asian to become secretary general of Amnesty International, and has since won a clutch of awards for her work as a human rights advocate. Irene explains why she thinks it's vital for the world's poorest women that we start to see poverty not as simply an economic problem but as a human rights crisis in itself.

The causes of conflict [within states?] tend to be social and economic, and arise out of insecurity, discrimination, exclusion and feelings of powerlessness.

Throughout the world women tend to be the poorest and the most exploited. Also the most exposed to sexual violence and terror, who feel that their voices just don't count. Change can only come about through joining together, organising, and exposing the realities of daily life. [Obama's campaign was similar.]

The lack of urgency in tackling poverty and exploitation comes from the fact that women have no power - they have no independent resources and they are unable to make decisions.

[You can say the same about poor men and about the working classes in general. What hope do they have against the might of the state, the corporations and the combined numbers of those who approve of and try to become like the ruling classes? How can there possibly be any hope of urgent change? This is what Obama is now discovering. Thanks to the provisions within the constitution and the combined weight of both houses of Congress there's not a lot that even a president can do to bring about urgent change, without direct action by the masses. And we're still waiting to see whether the street demonstrations in Greece are going to translate and transmute into a general strike etc. ]


I'm reminded of the quotes in the first Layers of both 2008 and 2009 -

There is a war between the rich and poor,
A war between the man and the woman.
There is a war between the ones who say there is a war
And the ones who say that there isn't.

There is a war between the left and right,
A war between the black and white,
A war between the odd and the even.

The poor get poor
The rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Leonard Cohen

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Layer 250 . . . Citizen Ethics

It shouldn't really make any difference which actual number is used to differentiate one blog or piece of writing from another - none has any real significance, except maybe the first and the last. All the same, a quarter century of unintended writing seems like some kind of milestone.


I realise I haven't finished - nowhere near finished - my "stocktaking" of the events of 2009, but I shall come back to it, and it will be finished. Eventually.

After 250 blogs it might be an idea to re-think whether there's any real purpose in this kind of writing, and whether the apparent purpose really serves any purpose, or whether the purpose ought be re-thought, re-established, and reconfigured.


This blog's about taking stock of our current moral and political philosophy, our guiding ethics, our political process, our sense of purpose in the world, social justice, emotional and spiritual intelligence, social responsibility and empathy, citizenship, moral engagement, inequality, our economic system and what we mean by living a good life.

Oxzen may not have too much to say about such matters, but Oxzen recognises that these matters actually matter, that they affect people's lives, and that the good writing that's published elsewhere about them deserves to be recognised, widely disseminated, brought to people's attention, and seriously considered.

My main purpose in highlighting and drawing attention to what others have written about these matters, however, is for my own benefit - so that I have points of reference, milestones and signposts to return to, to chart my home territory, to remind me of the way to go whenever disorientation sets in or memory fails.

Yesterday The Guardian, in association with Citizen Ethics Network, published a supplement called Citizen Ethics. I think everyone should take some time to read the document that's available to be downloaded in PDF format from this website -

You can also get it on the Guardian website, as well as download it from there -

As ever, I'd like to summarise and to promote it with a few snippets:

We Need A Public Life With Purpose

By Michael Sandel

As frustration with politics builds . . . we must seize the chance to explore a new politics of the common good.

How can we achieve a just society?

Today, most of our political arguments revolve around welfare and freedom - increasing economic output and respecting people's rights. But a just society requires something more: reasoning together about the meaning of the good life.

Whether we're arguing about financial bailouts and bankers' bonuses, or the growing gap between rich and poor, or how to contend with the environmental costs of economic growth, questions of justice are bound up with competing notions of civic virtue and the common good.

In 2008, Barack Obama tapped Americans' hunger for a public life of larger purpose and articulated a politics of moral and spiritual aspiration.

As frustration with politics builds on both sides of the Atlantic, it is worth asking what a new politics of the common good might look like. Here are four possible themes:

1. Citizenship, sacrifice and service.

2. The moral limits of markets.

3. Inequality, solidarity, civic virtue.

4. A politics of moral engagement.


Part One

How do we decide our values?
How do we cultivate virtue?

Empathy, not individuality, is the key to humanity.
By Rowan Williams.

It is the extra things that make us human.

We learn this as children through fantasy and play. We keep it alive as adults through all sorts of "unproductive" activity, from sport to poetry.

This is closely connected with understanding and sympathy with others.  

This is a moment when every possible agency in civil society needs to reinforce its commitment to a world where thoughtful empathy is a normal aspect of the mature man or woman.

As for the character of human mutuality, this connects for me with the (Christian) belief that if someone else is damaged, frustrated, offended or oppressed, everyone's humanity is diminished.

We need to be able, in the political and economic context, to spell out what our commitments are and why, and what kind of human character we want to see.

Politics left to managers, and economics left to brokers, add up to a recipe for social and environmental chaos, and threaten the possibilities for full humanity.

It necessitates the the cultivation of virtue . . . the qualities of human behavior that make us more than reactive and self-protective - courage, foresight, self-critical awareness and concern for balanced universal welfare, which, under various names, have been part of the vocabulary of European ethics for 2,500 years.


Courage, modesty and wakefulness
By Philip Pullman

I want to praise virtue, and say why a nation, as well as an individual, needs to be virtuous.

When it comes to public virtue, William Blake's great poem Auguries of Innocence reminds us that the personal and the political, the small and the great, are one:

A dog starv'd at his Master's gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
A Horse misus'd upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood . . .
The Whore and Gambler, by the State
Licens'd, build that Nation's Fate.

Are there any virtues in particular that ought to characterise a good state? I can think of three to start with.

The first is courage. Courage is foundational: it's what we need to do so as to be able to act kindly even when we're afraid, in order to exercise good and steady judgment even in the midst of confusion and panic.

A courageous nation would not be afraid of its own newspapers, for example, or toady to their proprietors; it would continue to do right even when loud voices were urging it to do wrong.

The second virtue I want to praise is modesty.

The third virtue I'd like to see in a nation is intellectual curiosity, a proper regard for history and for the arts and the sciences: wakefulness, in a word.

Such a nation would be active and enquiring of mind, quick to perceive and compare and consider; it would know at once when a government tried to interfere with its freedoms . . . and an attack on any of them would feel like a personal affront.

I saw [an example] recently of public virtue at work. [It was on] a television programme about the work Michael Rosen did not long ago in a school in South Wales where books had been undervalued. He showed everyone the profound value of reading and all it could do to enrich their lives, and he did so not by following curriculum guidelines and aiming at targets and putting children through tests, but by beginning with delight.

Delight is like a canary in a coal mine: while it sings we know that the great public virtue of liberty is still alive. A nation whose laws express fear and suspicion and hostility cannot sustain delight for very long. If joy goes, freedom is in danger. A nation that was brave, and modest, and curious would understand that, and would never forget the value of telling its children stories.