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Thursday, 27 July 2017

Hols

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We'll soon be setting off on our Suffolk holiday, so limited blogging for a while.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

In the midst, there was a darkness

In Lytton Strachey’s book Eminent Victorians, there is an interesting observation about William Gladstone. Interesting because with only slight alterations to the wording, Strachey’s viewpoint could be applied to modern leadership. For example, if we substitute Tony Blair for William Gladstone we end up with a passage which does not fit Blair exactly but is close enough to be interesting.

There is absolutely no intention to imply that Blair is another Gladstone. It is a question of leadership and different types of leader. Here is the passage with the alterations.

In spite of the involutions of his intellect and the contortions of his spirit, it is impossible not to perceive a strain of naiveté in Mr. Gladstone Mr Blair. He adhered to some of his principles that of the value of representative institutions, for instance with a faith which was singularly literal; his views upon religion government were uncritical to crudeness; he had no sense of humour. Compared with Disraeli's Thatcher’s, his attitude towards life strikes one as that of an ingenuous child.

His very egoism was simple-minded; through all the labyrinth of his passions there ran a single thread. But the centre of the labyrinth? Ah! the thread might lead there, through those wandering mazes, at last. Only, with the last corner turned, the last step taken, the explorer might find that he was looking down into the gulf of a crater. The flame shot out on every side, scorching and brilliant; but in the midst, there was a darkness.

Lytton Strachey - Eminent Victorians (1918)

If we choose to expand this, then we might say it is impossible not to perceive a strain of naiveté in the very concept of modern democratic leadership, impossible not to perceive how necessary it is for modern leaders to adopt and project an uncritically crude view of government capabilities.

There is no need to stick with Tony Blair to see this played out in modern leadership. Political ideas must have wide appeal to chime with the millions who do little or no research, being satisfied with crude maxims and naive allegiances.

We evolved, to navigate our way through life by evading surprises. A crude standpoint enables us to do that, especially when it comes to the infinite complexities of political life. If nothing is irretrievably anchored to reality then everything is explainable, especially after the event. This is the political world in which all would-be leaders must cast their nets.

A further point is Strachey’s claim that Gladstone really had a strain of naiveté in his character and his religious views really were uncritical to the point of crudeness. It was no facade and perhaps that was advantageous too.

We have certainly seen this kind of thing in modern leaders and maybe we see now in Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps this is the source of his appeal just as a lack of a sufficiently crude outlook is the source of Theresa May’s credibility problems. In which case she is unlikely to resolve those problems because other people do it better. Boris Johnson for example, although he made the mistake of adopting a clown persona. An oddly naive thing to do – it displays the facade.

Yet facades work too. Leaders do not have to be like Gladstone. They do not have to be naive themselves to see the value of naiveté, neither need they have a crude notion of government in order to promote crude political maxims. On the other hand, leaders who are genuinely naive with a genuinely crude notion of government may be very effective political leaders, especially in a world of Twitter storms.

Of course this is politics. It is the other lot who always adopt the crudest notions of government and promote the most naive policies don’t they?

Monday, 24 July 2017

Three Mercedes ads



Via Mercatornet we are treated to three Mercedes ads where the cars are barely seen. All is emotion, soul-searching and glutinous modernity. The three ads are called.

Grow up: “Be a good parent”
Grow up: “Settle down”:
Grow up: “Start a family”:

The second and third ads are here and here. Meanwhile the Telegraph treats us to another, more familiar angle which may help us to explain what must be a substantial advertising spend.

Germany’s biggest car manufacturers shares plunged in early trading as investors digested allegations about decades of collusion between Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler.

Investors dumped the shares after reports, which first appeared in the German press late on Friday afternoon, claiming the companies may have secretly worked together on technology, forming a cartel that could have led to the “dieselgate” emission scandal.

The allegations come just days after Daimler recalled more than 3m of its Mercedes Benz cars for work to lower their emissions. The week before, Audi - which is owned by Volkswagen - recalled 850,000 vehicles.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Ercol revival



Over the past few years a mild air of dissatisfaction has begun to taint the musty atmosphere of antiques centres. At least it has for us and the culprit is Ercol furniture. Nothing wrong with Ercol if that is how your tastes evolved. The quality seems pretty good and the company is still around making more of it, but we have two problems with it infesting the antiques trade.

Firstly there is the disconcerting fact that a style we grew up with is now labelled as 'antique'. Oh dear - are we that old? Labelling it as 'retro' helps a little but 'vintage' is no great improvement. Not that we ever bought any Ercol but it helped define the seventies interior and now gives an unwelcome nudge about those aspirations we nurtured only a few decades ago.

Secondly it is too obvious where much of this Ercol is coming from. Oldies who bought it to furnish their houses are downsizing, moving into retirement homes or dying. As it is now worth money, their lovingly polished furniture passes into the antiques trade.

I suppose one might call it recycling. Even that sounds better than 'antique'... or maybe it doesn't.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Vinegar, salt and sardines


Via pri.org we discover the delights of shopping in Venezuela.

Rosalba Diaz pushes her shopping cart through what, at first glance, seems like a well-stocked supermarket in Caracas. But looking closer, she can see that many of the shelves are jammed with bottles of vinegar, boxes of salt and cans of sardines.

Diaz, 66, is an economist at a Caracas consulting firm, but she says her salary cannot keep up with Venezuela’s near 800 percent inflation. Last year, she stopped traveling and eating out. She has shopped at this market for more than 20 years but now, she says, many basic items are missing from the shelves — things like bread, rice, coffee and corn flour. And what is on the shelves is unaffordable.

“Food is so expensive,” Diaz says, as she pushes her cart. “I can’t buy heavy cream. I can’t even buy cereal or fruit.”

She checks out the onions, which cost 4,000 bolivars a kilo (about 50 cents at the black market exchange rate). That’s twice as much as last week, so Diaz says she’s only buying two.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Best job in the world

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John Reith (1889-1971) was the founder of the BBC. He was its first general manager when it was set up as the British Broadcasting Company in 1922; and he was its first director general when it became a public corporation in 1927. He created both the templates for public service broadcasting in Britain; and for the arms-length public corporations that were to follow, especially after World War Two. Reith fought off the politicians' attempts to influence the BBC, while offering the British people programmes to educate, inform and entertain.

The recent BBC pay issue has been interesting on a number of counts, but surprise is not one of them. We have always known about celebrities attracting huge salaries, yet even though the information provided by the BBC is far from complete we are not talking about vast sums when compared to corporation's overall income.

Two aspects do stand out though. Firstly the distribution of the lucre seems oddly haphazard. One might expect to see talent rewarded in a fairly systematic manner, but that does not seem to be how it is actually done.

For example, it is not at all obvious why Gary Lineker earns between £1,750,000 and 1,799,999. Personable football pundits are not rarities. Somebody deep in the bowels of the BBC will have a justification, but it probably seems haphazard because it is. Similarly we learn that talking heads may earn £500,000 or more doing a job any competent actor could do and would probably enjoy doing at least as well for far less. 

Secondly we note how the BBC makes no attempt to apply its aggressively egalitarian public ethos to its own internal affairs. That is no surprise either. The BBC has adopted the ethos of the entertainment industry even though it need do no such thing. As a dominant UK player with much to offer in terms of security and satisfaction it could have been a very different organisation with a less hypocritical ethos. For example.

BBC Radio 5 live Breakfast's Rachel Burden, who co-presents with Nicky Campbell (who's in the £400,000 - 449,999 bracket), was under no obligation to reveal her salary as it falls below the £150,000 threshold.

But she tweeted: "Whilst we're in the transparency game, and for those asking, I fall in the middle of the 100-150k category.

"This is a huge amount of money for a job I love doing five days a week, and I know what a privilege it is to be able to say that.

"Also worth saying we have a brilliant team of journalists on far, far less than that who we totally rely on and I'm so grateful to them."

Political correspondent Chris Mason added: "Good on Rachel for volunteering this. I'll do same: I earn £60,000 as a Political Correspondent. Best job in world."

BBC Radio 4 Money Box host Paul Lewis also disclosed his earnings, saying: "Many of us are now doing this. Excellent. As I said some hours ago in 2016/17 I got £67,413 total BBC fees."


"Best job in the world," says Political Correspondent Chris Mason. It probably is for those on the inside.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Turbine tech



The Engineer has an interesting article on the remarkable technology behind Rolls Royce turbine blades.

The components the ABCF is producing are not ones that most people ever see: they are the turbine blades that are hidden away in the hottest part of jet engines. For from the decorative brilliance of Greek bronzes, they combine a utilitarian appearance with complexity of form and function and a jewel-like internal perfection: weighing only about 300g and small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, they are in fact perfect single crystals of a metal alloy whose composition has been fine-tuned over many years to operate in the hellish conditions of the fastest-moving part of a jet engine.

During a summer job in the late sixties I worked in a Rolls Royce lab where we tested this type of blade. In those days they were simpler but not so very different in appearance. The lab I worked in was trying to coat them with tungsten using a kind of plasma spray gun. Tungsten wire was fed into the plasma and sprayed by hand onto test blades. One problem was sunburn from all the uv generated by the plasma.

Surprisingly enough it all seemed rather casual to me, with little sense of urgency. We drank tea from laboratory beakers and some people brought in foreigners, which were DIY projects smuggled in to take advantage of Rolls Royce technical and engineering facilities in various parts of the site. 

One chap repaired his rusty torch this way. First he had the metal case sandblasted to remove the old paint and the rust, then he repaired rust holes with resin. Next he had the thing spray painted in a Rolls Royce painting booth and finally a metal ring which held the glass was nickel-plated in a Rolls Royce plating bath. A few years later Rolls-Royce was declared bankrupt. That torch was a symptom of malaise, even I could tell that.

Things are obviously very different now and it's a pity that this kind of story in the Engineer rarely makes it into the mainstream media. No doubt it is basically a press release, but it is an interesting one, isn't all that technical and deserves a wider circulation. Instead we have reams of drivel about the latest incarnation of Dr Who, a kids' TV programme.