On Technology

We have Sky HD!! Daughter fitted it last night. I don’t watch much TV, as I can’t see the screen. But it is good to know that the screen I now can’t see is much better quality than the screen I used not to be able to see. This is called progress.

Daughter has been explaining the technology. Apparently the people from Venus will still beam the actual TV programmes to the dish thingie.

But the trained ants who take stuff down the tube from the Internet thingie will now be able to carry even more stuff. Even whole boxed sets, which is amazing considering how narrow the tube is. I expect they break them into little bits.

I do love technology.


On Language Skills

There is an extraordinary map doing the rounds of Twitter which shows, based on I know not what evidence, what proportion of the population of EU countries can hold a conversation in English.

The Nordics do predictably well, 86 per cent for Sweden and the Danes, and the Norwegians are probably up there as well. Who would have thought that more Bulgarians can speak English than can Portuguese, from a country that has seen decades of British tourists?

The Germans are slightly more than half-way. In France, only two in five can communicate with les rosbifs, though this will not include the sizeable proportion that can do so but choose not to on principle. The star linguists are the Dutch, naturally, a country closest to us by attitude and, almost, by geography, with a 90 per cent score.

The shock is the English, at 95 per cent. So only slightly fewer of the Dutch can speak a foreign language than there are people in Britain who can’t speak its native one. Put it another way, one in 20 of those you meet in the street can’t communicate with you, and that does not include tourists. I find that deeply worrying. Remind me, what were we just saying about social mobility?

On Elitism, And Educational Inequality

It seems we are a snobbish, class-ridden society where those of us with a tight hold on the reins of power will use our position to ensure no one from lower down the ladder is given the opportunities we enjoy. That position and those opportunities are entirely down to the schools and universities we attended; this explains why that amorphous mass, the Establishment, is still predominately the product of private education and good universities, including Oxbridge.

So says a commission that knows all about this sort of thing. As a white, middle class, male product of private education and a university, what can I do but hang my head in shame and admit my collusion in this shameful conspiracy?

Except that we are confusing two things here, elitism and educational inequality. I and others of my ilk do not sit around, as some ghastly secret elitist cabal, cackling evilly and saying, no, not that one for the job, he or she went to a bog standard comprehensive. Let’s keep the proles in their place.

Nor do top rank universities discriminate against pupils from the state sector with the same grades as someone from the private; actually, quite the opposite, faced with that choice, they will often go for the state pupil, for reasons of promoting social mobility.

I work in the world of business. This is these days viciously competitive; no sensible company would reject the best candidate for the job in favour of someone less talented because the latter went to the “right” school. Some employers might view the old school tie or who their parents may or may not be as more important than talent, but I suspect, from the evidence of my daily working life, they are now in a minority.

Look at the evidence. Someone who has gone through a good independent, fee-paying school – bad ones exist, believe me – and then to Oxbridge or another top rank university has had one of the best educations on the planet. Someone who has gone through certain sectors of our state system has had one of the worst educations in the developed world.

Which of the two would you expect to rise in professions such as law, journalism, accountancy, the City, even education itself, that require learning, diligence, social skills, and so on?

The solution is threefold. One is to assure that those state school pupils who demonstrate all the above have the chances to hook up with employers seeking such talent. Organisations such as the Social Mobility Foundation exist to do this and should be supported.

Another is to take a long, hard look at unpaid internships, which prevent those from a poor background getting a foot on the ladder and favour the offspring of the wealthy.

The last is to ensure that each state school pupil gets an education so good that the private sector withers away as not needed. This applies in more egalitarian societies, such as the Nordic countries, that put a premium on state education to an extent that private schools barely exist.

God knows how you do it. The most reforming education secretary in recent years, whose measure of success could be measured by the opprobrium with which he was held by the hidebound, ideologically motivated and lazy educational establishment, is no longer in the post. My old colleague Michael Gove.

There are signs of hope, not least in the performance of some academy schools. But the “elite” will be with us for a long time yet. As will studies proving how monstrously unfair it all is.

Warren Zevon

“And if California slides into the ocean/Like the mystics and statistics say it will…”

Desperadoes Under The Eaves. Warren Zevon, American songwriter, 1947 – 2003.

I have been reading “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”, the biography of Warren Zevon. He was a songwriter whose influence entirely outweighs the few sales he made in his lifetime. Fans of his dark, bitter, satirical songs include Bill Clinton, David Letterman, Gore Vidal, Lord (Chris) Patten and the journalist Richard Littlejohn. He wrote “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead,” which provided the title to the film.

He was also an utter bastard. An alcoholic behaving like a sociopath, as one friend describes him. The book is a collection of interviews with ex-wives, acquaintances and fellow musicians, all of whom do their best to put a positive slant on his behaviour. Not easy.

He is best remembered – he died in 2003, of cancer, having conquered his demons over a long period – for “Werewolves Of London”, a novelty hit he never wanted released as a single. He wrote “Roland The Headless Thomson Gunner” in partnership with a former American mercenary he met in Spain, during one of many attempts to dry out. He had an ability to make friends with unusual people, including the “hard-boiled” thriller writer and neighbour in California Ross MacDonald.

This was California in the early 1970s. There were drugs everywhere, few people behaved terribly well, the notion of remaining faithful to one partner was seen as uncool. Zevon seems to have set a new standard for bad behaviour.

Listen to his music now. “Reconsider Me” is a love song, an attempt to re-engage with a former lover. A touching piece, except that it was written to his ex-wife, who had left him, again. After he beat her up in a drunken rage. Again.

“And I’ll never make you sad again/Cause I swear I’ve changed since then.” He hadn’t.

She went back, as women so often do. Zevon had an extraordinary charm, obviously, and a genius for screwing up his career. He flitted from record company to record company, as sales of his early releases disappointed. Important concerts before executives who could advance that career would be ruined when he turned up blind drunk. He drank vodka for breakfast, and went downhill from there.

He must have been aware of his self-damaging behaviour. “Desperadoes UnderThe Eaves” contains the line “All the salty margaritas in Los Angeles/I’m gonna drink ‘em all up.” His friends managed to send him to rehab. Again and again. This at least provided one of his more humorous songs, “Rehab Mountain”. “I’ve been sweeping leaves with Lisa/Me and Liz clean up the yard.”

Listen to the songs after reading the book, and there is a bitter aftertaste. Listen to “Searching For A Heart”, a compelling love song. “Certain individuals/Have finally come around.” Again?

It raises that old question. To what extent is your enjoyment of an artist’s work lessened by the knowledge that he or she was an utterly horrible person, who caused misery to all around?


Armenia vs Azerbaijan

War in Syria. War in Iraq, where nihilistic madmen are killing, beheading or crucifying anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their particular version of Islam. (And being bombed by the US, where Obama appears to have relocated his moral compass.) War, still, in Gaza. Armed mobs fighting it out in Libya. And now war threatened in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Where? Indeed. This is a small enclave in the Caucasus which is part of Azerbaijan but is occupied by Armenia, the majority of its population being of Armenian extraction. The two countries have been squabbling over it since the old Soviet Union collapsed. Armenians are Christian, Azeris, as the population of that land are known, are Muslim.

The president of Azerbaijan has threatened all-out war with Armenia – via Twitter, naturally. There have been clashes in this mountainous region and a number of deaths. This is one of those forgotten conflicts; it is unlikely to escalate too far, not least because the Armenians are close to Moscow, which as we now know looks after its own. The Armenian Mikoyan dynasty was one of the most powerful in the old Soviet Union – one scion was behind the design of the original MiG fighters.

What with all the above, you probably won’t read about it even if a real war breaks out. A depressing time, all round.

Complacent Eurocrats

A tale of two headlines: in the Financial Times, Mario Draghi, who is the president of the European Central Bank and so the most important man in the finances of the EU, says the recovery in the eurozone is “on track”.

In The Guardian, his bank is poised to unleash fresh measures to boost growth in the eurozone as the recovery loses steam and the risks grow that the crises in the Ukraine and the Middle East will threaten the European economy.

Perhaps both of the above are true. One is positive spin, one is more negative. Meanwhile we learn that, after one bank in Portugal almost went bust and had to be rescued by EU funds, others, in Italy, may be in trouble. The authorities are putting in place measures to prevent stock market traders making money from this. Figures this week suggest the Italian economy is in much worse shape than had been thought.

Not exactly reassuring, is it? The crisis in the eurozone is not going to go away, no matter how much reassurance comes out of the unelected Eurocrats in Brussels. My reckoning is that the next domino is Italy. And as Espirito Santo, that Portguese bank, showed, when things go sour, all sorts of wrong-doing comes out in the wash.

Our Awful Transport System, Again

The authorities responsible for the London Tube have quietly closed two stretches of it “for routine maintenance”. One must assume the decision was made by Transport for London, though our transport system has become so Balkanised that it is hard to be sure.

This, I think, is a first. It is a normal working week in August, but those stretches of the Tube will remain closed until next week because it is convenient to keep them so. It is worth recapping how we got where we are today.

Some years back those same hard to identify “authorities” decided to close a small part of the network at weekends. There were no objections, so this gradually became the norm. Now as much as a quarter of the Tube, and large chunks of the rail system, are routinely closed. You are expected to log on to the relevant website to see which parts it is convenient to keep open. They stopped apologising for those closures years ago.

A few years later they decided to close parts of the network for that same “routine maintenance” over Easter. This had not been required before, but all of a sudden it was. People tend to travel at Easter, to visit families over the extended break, but sod them, they’re only passengers with tickets they’ve paid for. What can they do?

The precedent had been established. So last Christmas it became convenient to shut down parts of the Tube between Boxing Day and the New Year. No matter that people wanted to get into London for the sales.

Now the further precedent has been established that it is acceptable to shut down bits of the Tube during normal working hours. Because it’s summer. That precedent will duly be extended to the rest of the year. A few years down the line, you will be expected to log on every morning to see which bits of the network are open that day, and whether you can use them to get into work.

Because the precedent is there. This is how it works. Give them an inch, and they’ll want another one. And another. Because no one ever complains. There’s no point, you see. There’s no one to complain to. That’s how they want it.

On Israel. And Generational Change.

Daughter is wildly pro-Palestinian and is angry about the invasion and shelling of Gaza. She says, and I have no reason to disbelieve her, that those of her friends and contemporaries who have an opinion are also mainly against Israel, or at least the Israeli offensive now drawing to a close.

This is an interesting generational change, because my generation was largely pro-Israeli. They were the underdogs, who had survived two unprovoked attacks, two wars of extermination, in my lifetime. We were told the Jews arrived in Palestine and planted kibbutzes that made the desert bloom, land that its inhabitants hadn’t got around to doing anything useful with in a thousand years.

The Arab nations were corrupt and lazy, their troops couldn’t shoot straight. They outnumbered and outgunned plucky little Israel, and they still lost. That was the perception, right or wrong, then.

Overhanging all this, of course, was the Holocaust, and the residual guilt of the West.

This has changed. My daughter says the Holocaust barely features in her school curriculum, and they are taught that other people suffered at Hitler’s hands as well.

The state of Israel has undoubtedly drifted to the right politically, with the arrival of new immigrants from the old Soviet Union and elsewhere who do not share the liberal outlook of its founders.

An interesting piece in Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper, the other day points out that the tactics of the IDF have been forced to change over the past decade or more. They are more likely to involve attacks on civilian population centres, because terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah are based there, cynically using those populations as human shields.

This change of tactics makes perfect sense in military terms, but it does not play well in the harrowing media reports that appear in the West consumed by my daughter and her contemporaries. They lack my own perspective of the history of the Middle East. They perceive Israel as the bully and the Palestinians as the underdog, and they feel this very strongly.

I suspect a similar generational shift of attitude is taking place across the West, in countries that have traditionally supported Israel, and I suspect it will gather pace as further conflicts break out. If I were a moderate Israeli, I would have reason to be worried.


On Portugal, And Our Money

The Portuguese authorities have been forced to step in and bail out what was once the country’s biggest bank. Espirito Santo was run by a powerful family for the past century, and the bank’s near-collapse has revealed some odd goings-on behind the scenes.

So? Well, buried some way behind the headlines is the fact that the rescue was in part funded by a bail-out worth 78 billion euros provided by Brussels and the International Monetary Fund in 2011. If it is EU money, then a small, indeterminate amount will have come, indirectly, from you and me, via the EU’s budget which is paid for by member states.

So our money has gone to bail out a dodgy bank on the periphery of Europe. As it happens, and as I wrote here in April, we spent last summer’s holiday in Portugal. It is not somewhere you would want to invest your life savings. The evidence of an economy that abruptly hit the buffers and ran out of money, in the form of derelict buildings and abandoned infrastructure projects, is everywhere.

There is a football stadium somewhere in Portugal, built with EU money, that had to be demolished because no one could afford to play there and they couldn’t afford the upkeep.

The bills are now coming in for this sort of waste and profligacy, and guess who will end up paying them? Those parts of Europe that had the sense to remain solvent.

Probably inevitable. The consequences of letting those crippled economies rot would probably be worse than merely sighing and picking up the tab. I suggested in April the crisis in the Eurozone was a long way from resolved. All this year the euro has been weakening against currencies such as the pound, a clear indication of a loss of confidence on world markets.

This means taking a holiday in the eurozone is now much cheaper than when we went to Portugal last year. We, however, have chosen this time to holiday in expensive old Great Britain. That will be my well-known financial skills and acumen coming into play, then.