Saturday, 24 July 2010

The Diogenes Film Club

The Diogenes Club is well known for its film evenings which are held monthly. Films are chosen by members in turn and we all enjoy a good meal and a selection of the finest ales as an accompaniment to the main event. The Club Secretary thought it wise to record the choice of films for posterity and will keep it updated with any future events.

25 Europa
(Pridian July 10)
A dark, surreal film-noir take on the political thriller: a young American deserter trying to find a place in postwar Germany is torn between idealism and love when pressed by a terrorist group to blow up the train he is on. Danish 1991, dir. Lars von Trier

24 Burn After Reading
(Beachhut Man June 10)
Black comedy by the Cohen Bros. Ex CIA operative decides to write a memoir which gets lost. Two naive people try to sell it to the russians with dire consequences for all. At the end we are all left asking, what did we learn? The answer, as is true of life's lessons in general, is nothing.

23 LA Confidential
(Dr Phil May 10)
Corruption in the LA Police leads young rooky detective to rise to the top of this profession by being more ruthless than the corrupt officers he exposes. Set in the 1950's this has all the glamour of a Bogart movie with added colour.

22 I Know Where I'm Going 
(Zeno April 10)
Determined lady who thinks she knows her own mind persues happiness in the shape of a rich industry tychoon who can provide her with all the essentials of a happy life. On her way to marriage on a scottish island she is side-tracked by the genuine article. More Powell and Pressburger magic.

21 The Whole Wide World 
(Pridian April 10)
The author of Conan the Barbarian meets sassy Texan school teacher on the road of discovery. Does romance win out or will love be sacrificed on the sword of fantasy fiction to divide them forever?

20 The Lives of Others
(Beachhut Man Mar 10)
East German movie (sub-titled) about the Stasi and their intrusion into the minutiae of everyone's lives with its appalling and obvious consequences.

19 Conflict 
(Dr Phil February 10)
Bogart movie that has become a lost classic, in which Bogart plays the disenchanted husband who murders his wife and leaves her body under a pile of logs. Sidney Greenstreet plays the psychologist who brings him to justice.

18 Still Crazy 
(Zeno Jan 10)
Aging rock group reform for one last gig and find that age is inescapable

17 The Wind and the Lion 
(Pridian Dec 09)
The irresistible force of Connery meets the immovable resistance of Candice Bergan

16 In My Father's Den 
(Beachhut Man Nov 09)
A movie about paternal loss.

15 The Magnet 
(Dr Phil Oct 09)
A young boy tricks another into giving him his magnet. Plagued by a guilty conscience he stumbles from one narrow escape to another until at the end of the adventure he finds his deception has resulted in him being awarded the civic medal of honour, which he passes back to the original and rightful owner.

14 Melody 
(Zeno Sep 09)
Charming 70s movie of teenage love set to irresistible BeeGees music. Mark Lester falls in love and reaches that point when girls mean more than friends.

13 Much ado about Nothing 
(Pridian August 09)
Shakespeare courtesy of Kenneth Bragnan and co. A salutary tale about how the smallest of mistakes can lead the the greatest of tragedies and as the title says a great deal about very little.

12 Charlie Chaplin in Limelight
(Beachhut Man
Sep 09)
A piquant farewell from a tortured genius with aspirations and responsibilities in conflict.

11 To Kill a Mockingbird
(Dr Phil
June 09)
Powerful drama seen through the eyes of children. Scout learns that "you never get to understand another person unless you walk around in his shoes a little"

10 The Dish 
(Zeno May 09)A gentle story about Australia's involvement in the Apollo 11 moon landing as it tracks the astronauts with its big dish in the middle of a sheep farm. A cross between Contact and Local Hero.

9 Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment 
(Pridian Apr 09)
Artist son of Marxist parents abandons traditional class-struggle ideology to indulge in fantasy - based largely on scenes from King Kong and Tarzan movies - of Natural Man living outside social convention, and pays the price.

8 The Lake House 
(Dr Phil Mar 09)
Dismissed by some as a "rom-com", hailed by others as ground-breaking paradigm-shifting science-fiction. The truth is probably neither: Two people meet and fall in love with only the barrier of time to overcome.

7 Park Row 
(Beachhut Man Feb 09)
Hard gritty newspaper story about the hard and gritty life of newspapermen. The Diogenarian maxim is, "Don't ever let anyone tell you what to write".

6 V for Vendetta 
(Zeno Nov 08)
Guy Fawkes resurrected in a dystopian future, strikes a blow for freedom and blows up the government to the general acclamation of all.

5 A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy 
(Pridian Oct 08)
A light and breezy understated comedy from the stable of Woody Allen who manages to produce a mixture of Brian Rix and William Shakespere with just a dash of New England.

4 Thank you for Smoking 
(Beachhut Man Sep 08: )
Big tobacco's spokesperson twists the truth for smoking to prevail. Katie Holmes is as an amoral journalist who gets on top of an amoral pro-tobacco spin doctor in this satire.

3 Hobson's Choice 
(Dr Phil Jul 08)
The poor but honest cobbler, with the help of a good wife, shakes off the shackles of class oppression and sets up on his own shop eventually buying out the boss.

2 Catch us if you can 
(Zeno Jun 08)
The mad cap adventures of a famous pop group (no, not the Beatles...) the Dave Clarke Five who through a wistful tour of 60s nostalgia have a zany time. But don't ask what it is all about.

1 Closely Observed Trains 

(Pridian May 08)
A group of Czech railway station porters learn how to keep themselves sane under the new Nazi occupation but don't always succeed.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

A Manifesto for Change

One of our members received a personal email the other day from Nick Clegg, Deputy Primeminister, asking how to run the country. It went something like this.

Dear ...........,

We've already scrapped ID cards. Now I'd like to ask you - which other laws do you want to scrap?

Well, from the comfort of my club armchair I have a few suggestions that the new regime might like to take on board.

Personal liberty
Let's start with dismantelling the new authoritarianism. It's been the Dark Ages as far as personal freedom goes. Restore our freedom to let our children play outside or cycle to school or smack them if they need it. Everyone should be free to smoke, free to drink, adopt a child or walk down a street without hitting a minefield of regulations, restrictions and surveillance measures. Smoking should not be banned in pubs. There should be no laws against hate or thinking the wrong thoughts. People should be free to say anything they like without worrying about offending anyone.

The government should cease its intervention into the private lives of people and pronouncing on what is allowed and what is not in intimate relations. Sex offenders should not be singled out and demonised by society. Childen aged 10 and 11 should not be brought to the Old Baily and accused of adult crimes for playing doctors and nurses.

Free speech
No speech should be constrained by bans, libel laws or well-meaning self-censorship. The internet should not be regulated in any way. "Hate speech" should not be a crime. Nazis, anti-semites, racists or the Womens Institute should not be censored. Everyone has the same rights as everyone else to express their views. There should be no crimes against stating your views or holding opinions. Holocaust denial should no more be a crime than God denial should be a crime. There should be no laws against blasphemy or outraging public opinion. The right to be able to offend other people should be an inalienable human right.

Risk and Fear
Society has become obsessed with risk and peril. Governements are experts at doom-mongering. Stop trying to create zero risk for everything. Stop trying to regulate all human activity. Health and safety should not be the number one priority. Common Sense should be restored to test all things. The precautionary principle which governments are signed up and paralyses innovation should be dumped.

Stop penalizing drivers and treating them as an income source. Remove all speed cameras. Remove all speed limits from motorways as in Germany - if they have better road saftely statistics than we have, let's try it the way they do. Reset police priorities to focus on criminals and not motorists. If you want to get people out of their cars then provive a first rate public transport system that is completely free for everyone and paid for by everyone out of taxes.

Poor countries
Governement humanitarian aid is largely bogus. It makes weaker nations more permeable to western domination and is a means of exerting political control. Stop governement aid and encourage individual aid. Put money where it is needed and not in the hands of corrupt government officials.

There's a start. I await with interest Nick's reply.

Friday, 21 May 2010

The Lesson of History

"Hello chaps." I said, as I walked into the warmth of the library. Henry appeared at my elbow as I lowered myself into my chair, with my drink on a silver salver.

Travis motioned at me to keep quiet as there was a fairly heated discussion going on about the recent general election. I had been looking forward to this evening. One of the advantages of being a member of a club where the main membership requirement is an attitude of cynicism, is that a good evening's conversation is guaranteed after watching our mighty democracy being unable to make up it's mind.

Treworthy seemed quite agitated about the stories that a considerable number of people had been unable to vote due to there being a late rush toward the end of the evening.

"I can't see why they couldn't just keep the polling offices open until they had collected everyone's vote."

"It's because the rules stated that all polling stations should close at ten o'clock." said Abrahams.

"Well the rules clearly need changing. I mean the whole system is practically Victorian anyway." countered Treworthy.

"That's as maybe - I'm sure that after the enquiry changes will be made, but until that time, the current rules stand."

"Oh I know, I know, but it is a bit embarrassing, isn't it. I mean the election in Iraq seemed to be better organised. Maybe they should look into the possibility of on-line voting."

"God help us," said Manton, as he gestured furiously at Henry for another drink. "The introduction of postal voting has been responsible for some of the biggest abuses of the system in my lifetime. Can you imagine the chaos if all the votes were just collected in a huge database without any paper trail to back it up? The government's record on databases isn't particularly good."

"But it would be a very simple database, technically." said Abrahams.

"Yes, but it's not the technical aspects that doom these projects to failure, it's the human aspects. 50% of the people that they get working on these things seem to be completely useless, adding nothing of value."

"Oh come on, Manton, next you'll be saying that 50% of all people's jobs are useless too."

"I do, my dear fellow, I do. I'm thinking of writing a short monograph on the subject."

"Well what about the result itself?" said Treworthy. "A hung parliament. It's not good for the country."

"I don't see why not," I said. "I can see why the parties don't like it, but it is clearly the will of the people."

"Yes, they will have to actually keep talking to each other, rather than blindly following the party line. I wonder how long the coalition will last?" said Abrahams.

"I can't believe any of them actually want power." said Travis. "I mean, you do realise what sort of spending cuts are going to be introduced soon, don't you? Any manifesto promises are going to have to go out of the window. It's going to make the 1970s look like a picnic in comparison."

"I've always considered people who seek out power to be fairly deluded anyway." said Manton.

"Why do you say that?"

"Because they are. Who in their right mind would wish to shoulder the burdens of high office, especially at the moment?"

"Ah Manton, ever the misanthrope." I said.

"Not at all. I would put it to you that in the vast majority of cases, lust for power over others is the sign of a highly dysfunctional personality. Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot - how many names do you want?"

"Yes but you are picking the biggest monsters in history. There are exceptions."

"Of course. There are always exceptions but not many."

"Nonsense. There have been some good rulers."

"Yes, but how many of them actually wanted the power? There have been some who extremely reluctantly took on he mantle of responsibility, remained full of doubts as to what was the right thing to do, and shed the responsibility as soon as they were able to, but I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about the ones who can't wait to start ordering people about, and design nice uniforms for them, and who want to make the trains run on time."

"Funny you should say that Manton," I said, "but just last night I watched the film 'Downfall', about the final days of the third Reich. I found it fascinating. You see Hitler admiring his wonderful model of the new Berlin, whilst outside the city is being reduced to rubble as the Russians advance from the East and the Allies from the West. The officers in charge of the final remnants of the defence force are summoned to the bunker and they find themselves in a mad hatter's tea party. Their senior officers are all constantly drunk, or on drugs, and Hitler is completely losing touch with reality. You can see him turning in on himself, being forced for the first time to look within, and finding nothing but a gaping void. When his generals tell him that he is condemning his own people to death, he simply screams at them that it is their own fault, and that if they are not strongly enough to withstand the invaders, they all deserve to die. It's rivetting stuff."

"That's exactly what I mean. In the end, the only thing he can do is either admit to himself that he has made hideous mistake, and that he has lead the entire nation into the abyss, or commit suicide. And of course, he chooses the latter. He's got nowhere left to go. Typical case of someone who thinks that power can fill the inner void."

"I've heard of that film." said Travis, excitedly pulling out his smartphone. "There are lots of clips of it on Youtube, where people have put satiric subtitles onto it. Here, I can show you some." Having just bought it, he would try to demonstrate its features to anyone and everyone at the slightest opportunity.

A look of infinite pain flickered across Manton's face, as he waved the gadget away with a feeble paw.

"The point is, it is this gaping void within that actually creates the desire for power. The thing that makes them least suitable for the role is the thing that makes them most want to do it. It's the lesson of history."

"Oh come on Manton, you can't condemn all those that seek to improve the lot of their fellow man?" said Treworthy.

"You know full well my feelings towards my fellow man, Treworthy. We all live lives of brain-numbing banality, blind to the consequences of our actions, refusing to think about the social dysfunction, environmental impact and appalling suffering that our society has created."

"Well, thank god that not all are as nihilistic as you Manton, that is all I can say. I, for one, intend to give the new coalition my full support."

"Treworthy, did you know that the last government spent £163 billion more, per annum, than they raised in taxes? Even by slashing public spending to levels not seen since the 1970s, we cannot hope to bridge that gap. Every country in the Western world is living way beyond its means. California is in a far worse financial state than even Greece is at the moment."

"Oh come on Manton."

"I'm serious. Why is this so difficult to understand? I don't know if the world is blind, deaf or just stupid. We've given billions to these people .... did you know that each of the big hedge fund managers is getting about $3 billion in bonuses EACH. $3 billion!"

"They are saying that the recession is over." said Abrahams.

"Well it certainly is for them. For the rest of us, it is just beginning. Our money has been stolen from us, forcing us to pay, against our will, for the lifestyle of the super-rich, while our health services, transport services, education services and just about every other pathetic attempt to make our lives more livable is going to be effectively destroyed in the attempt to pay off the debts they've created. And do you know the best bit? We are going to be told by these same people that we must become more efficient, that it is all caused by the inefficient practices of all these public services. We are going to be a third-world country in all but name."

"You can't really believe that."

"Why not? I don't understand why people aren't more angry. In the past, the super-rich tended to be a bit more discreet, but maybe they feel that they don't need to be any more. They will probably pretend to be surprised and horrified when the cities finally erupt into violence, like they have in Greece, and refuse to see any connection between their inconceivable levels of wealth and everyone else's suffering."

"Well what would you do about it?"

"I'd pass laws to restore the separation between high street banks and merchant banks. I'd pass laws to institute a maximum wage, or a maximum differential between the lowest and highest paid. I'd outlaw derivatives and all the other insane methods of setting up fictitious markets. That would be a start."

"Manton, the city would never wear it. You would cripple their ability to make money."

"They aren't making money, they are making debt. What do you think caused this latest crisis? All these financial tricks are simply ways of enabling money to generate more money without any useful work being done. The world can support a certain amount of that, but not if everyone is trying to do it. You can't have economic growth forever. They've attempted to keep it going by finding new markets, but there are only so many manufacturing companies that you can invest in. So what happens is that they start to invest in more abstract things, that don't necessarily provide employment for others. Stocks, shares, intellectual property rights, land, water, housing and other property. They make money out of them by trying to ensure that they always increase in value."

"Well, I'm not complaining," said Treworthy, "my house is worth twice what is was when I bought it."

"Yes, but it has the side effect that, eventually, most people can't afford those assets - how can the price of something keep rising if no one can afford it? So what do they do? They create totally fictitious markets, like Carbon Trading. And they make the idea of personal debt completely normal - something that would have been anathema to my Father's generation. They draw us into their mess by telling us how we must all have a mortgage. You can't go on strike if you have a mortgage. Better still, have a credit card. In fact, why not have both?"

"But that's a good thing, Manton." said Travis. "You can't deny that everyone's living standards have gone up."

"Yes, but that could have been achieved by increasing everyone's wages. Why do it by placing everyone into debt? Simply because it turns us all into an investment opportunity for the rich. They will give us credit - at a rate of interest, of course. And so we get turned into cannon fodder for whatever their next great scheme is for transferring our money into their pockets." Manton paused, and then said quitely, as if to himself, "It's all wrong."

The room was silent, as it usually was after one of Manton's tirades. The only sound was the ticking of the Grandfather clock in the corner.

"Sorry about that chaps." said Manton, after a while. "You know what I'm like once I get the bit between my teeth. Henry! Drinks for everyone - put them on my account."

"Oh, that's alright Manton, it would be a dull evening without you holding forth on some topic or other." said Travis.

"It sounds to me like you might be turning into a Marxist." added Abrahams, jokingly.

"Do you know, it's funny you should say that. I've always fancied having a crack at Das Kapital, to see if I could get my head round it. Just to see if it makes any sense purely as an economic theory."

"Didn't he write it at your place of work, Manton?" said Treworthy.

"Yes. Well, I don't know if he wrote it there, but it's true that he did most of his research at the British Library. I quite like the idea, for some reason."

"If my memory serves, sir," said Henry, "there is a copy of the first volume of Das Kapital in the club library. Would you like me to get it for you?"

"No, no, you see to the drinks. I'll get it."

"Very good sir."

By the time Henry had brought our drinks, Manton had located the book and was leafing through it.

"Good Lord", he said, in a stunned voice.

"What is it?" I asked.

"It's a first edition. Signed by the author."

"Signed? Isn't it a club tradition that members who have written a book..."

"Henry," interrupted Manton, "does this mean that Karl Marx was a member of the Diogenes Club?"

"I would have to consult the membership ledgers before I could say for certain, sir. However, if I may be permitted to make an observation...."

"Of course, Henry."

"A person who stated in 1867 that capitalism would inevitably collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, would probably be considered to be enough of a cynic to be eligible for membership."

"I think I had better start reading," said Manton. "I've got some catching up to do."

Sunday, 28 March 2010

An Englishman's Home is his Castle

As I was relaxing at the club the other day, Manton came in swearing under his breath.

"Bloody snoopers," he muttered flopping down in the chair next to me.

"Another brush with GCHQ?" I asked with a sly grin.

"Nothing so quixotic," he said, his smile returning. "It's the bloody TV detector vans round again. That's the third time this year."

"I thought you didn't have a TV?"

"Wouldn't have one in the house! Utter rubbish and governement propaganda. But do they believe you? No they have to come in and look around for themselves."

"Why do you let them?"

"Can't stop them old chap!"

"Don't they need a search warrant or something?"

"Pardon me for butting in." It was Montague Hyde our resident barrister. "I couldn't help overhearing you gentlemen talking about warrants. Things have changed a great deal over the last 13 years. There are now over a thousand different officials who have complete access to your home any time they please. And they don't need a warrant."

I was incredulous. "You must be joking!"

"Not at all my dear fellow. Most people don't realize it but the TV detector man is the least of your worries these days."

"But an Englishman's Home is his Castle!"

"That may well have been true in 1629 when Sir Edward Coke issued his well known declaration and the Petition of Rights was created, but alas it is true no more," added Montague Hyde. "Government and local officials can force their way into your home not just to pursue criminals and terrorists but for the most trivial of reasons."

"Such as?" I queried.

"To check health and safety standards, for instance. Or height of your hedges, or to check whether you are profiting from the plunder of shipwrecks, or conduct rabbit control..."

"You're kidding me!"

"...checking babysitting credentials.... inspecting potted plants... monitoring the environmental credentials of refrigerators.... the list goes on and on. The proliferation of the grounds of entry coupled with the wide discretion granted has left individuals wide open to arbitrary abuse by the state."

"Goodness, I had no idea...."

"Very few people do, until its their door that is being knocked on in the middle of the night. I'm afraid that an Englishman's home is no more impregnable than an aging ruin now.

Friday, 19 March 2010


Dearest Manton
In plodding my weary way across the internet I seem to frequently come across documents such as the enclosed. You will no doubt have seen thousands of similar examples. Everyone from Government departments, schools colleges local authorities use this kind of thing to try to specify levels of ability/skills.

Now I don't know about you but every time I come across these things I cant help feeling these documents are fundamentally flawed in almost every respect. One example. To reach level 2 ICT you need to be able to, quote, review the effectiveness of IT tools to meet needs in order to inform future judgments. Now is it just me or is that utter gobbledygook, meaningless twaddle and total crap? Or have I missed something? Either I need to be enlightened or every government educational department/quango is talking utter rubbish. Does anyone else see this? How is it perpetuated? Why has no-one claimed that the emperor has no clothes?

Can you advise? Or better still, with your unusually enlightened mind pinpoint where the exact error lies? Is it not time to expose this fraud?

Your humble and grateful servant.

Dear Carruthers
On the contrary, I think the brave men and women who toil selflessly in these quangos should be congratulated! They have managed to list all of the skills that were once implicit in the traditional GCSE syllabuses (syllabi?), so that they can be taught separately, despite complaints from hide-bound traditionalists (so unlike yourself) about why these skills are no longer being learned by default during standard lessons in our nation's schools.

You will, I am sure, be as delighted as I am to learn that basic/key/functional skills will be tested in an as yet undetermined way and assessed with a simple pass/fail, thus making them easy, and above all cheap, to mark.
There are whole armies of teaching assistants out there who may not be qualified to teach, but who can now be given some concrete way in which they can improve the CVs of their students, thus leaving the teachers free with the far more essential work of improving their schools rankings int he league tables, and therefore making the Government's education policies look good.
Yours Ever

Dear Manton
Every government quango out there just seems to thrive on writing piles of reports that mean nothing, setting standards that have no value, and undertaking extensive work that accomplishes nothing? Call me old fashioned if you like but isn't it all rather pointless?
Your obedient and submissive servant

Dear Carruthers
If it weren't for these massive bureaucratic quangos doing this important work, how would the Government be able to claim that they are putting more into education than ever before? Where would the money go? Apart from the bankers bonuses, obviously. Oh sure, they could pay it to the teachers, so that they have got the time and the resources to teach maths and English properly in the schools, but would that really be in the best interests of our children?

The children of today will become the captains of industry of tomorrow - or at least they would if we still had any industries. They need to be prepared for a world in which huge corporations pay huge sums of money to their top employees whilst contributing absolutely nothing of any value to society and at the same time poisoning the air, water and food chain in an ever accelerating rush towards ... something or other.

Surely it behoves us to run education in exactly the same way, to prepare them for the broad sunlit uplands of the modern industrialised society that are awaiting them as they mature into adults.
Toodle Pip

My Dear Manton
How can you talk about education when the curriculum has replaced the real learning of History, Science, Maths, English, Latin.... with the vacuous modern learning of how to avoid drug addition, obesity, teenage pregancy, green issues, relationships.... where has all the real knowledge gone? Education doesn't exist any more, at least not in any form I recognise.
You obedient, humble and servile servant

Dear Carruthers
If we actually start to teach them properly, imparting real knowledge for it's own sake, rather than a simple list of skills that will enable them to become good consumers and allow them to participate in this great sacred quest towards .... something or other, is there not a danger that they will start to think for themselves, and start to question the nature of progress, and why our race towards ... something or other is important enough to justify such senseless waste, declining moral standards and global economic incompetence?

What is the point of filling their heads with these grand visions of some mythic golden age which never existed, when they have to live in the real world, the one that we are working so hard to create for them.

I'm sure that you will agree with me that the document that you sent me is vital to the forward march of education towards ... something or other. I for one am glad that someone is working out the precise difference between key skills and functional skills.

I did at first think that it would probably have been easier to make key skills and functional skills identical, so that no comparison was needed, but one visit to the QCDA website soon put me right.

I did look for a listing of the actual functional skills that they were comparing, but other than a video from the CEO of Toyota UK about how functional skills would have prevented Toyota cars from crashing all the time, there seemed to be very little in the way of detail on precisely what functional skills actually are.

I did find out though, that they have been piloted somewhere and are about to be rolled out nationally. Clearly they were a huge success. It makes you wonder why they ever bothered with basic skills or key skills. I am sure that functional skills will be much better.

Anyway, I hope I have set your mind at rest
Toodle pip

Dear Manton

Yes, yes.... that is all very well but what about the language they are using to describe these things? Look at the terms they write in. Here is the standard you have to reach: "review the effectiveness of IT tools to meet needs in order to inform future judgements" I mean how do you do that? What does it mean?

"Review the effectiveness of IT tools?" What kind of review, just a quick 'look again' or a hundred page report or a set up a government quango? A review can be anything.

And the "effectiveness of IT tools" - how do you measure that? Effective in what way? How effective does it need to be? 100% or will 18% do? (the same as the pass mark for A level maths?)

"To meet needs" Did we read that right? "To meet needs" Yes. How vague is that? Who's needs? an expert? a beginner? for what? Writing a letter?, designing a nuclear sub? Playing Doom? How do you define needs. Needs of one are not needs of another.

"In order to inform future judgement." About what? How far in the future? Tomorrow? Next century? To scan compulsory ID card? To lock critical thinking people up? Or just to buy a new printer?

How can anyone draft something so vague that it becomes totally meaningless and not see it? And not just a phrase but a standard, presumably something that needs to be measured by someone to ensure that they have reached the right level? How can anyone ever measure something like that?
Your humble grovelling and most servile servant
Dear Carruthers
You reaslly should not get too involved in these matters. It certainly won't help your blood pressure. These quangos are keeping the country running. What more do we want?
Toodle Pip

Dear Manton
It's the language that bothers me. The vague imprecision of it all. They are surely fooling themselves and perpetuating a huge fraud on the whole of education if they think this means something and they have defined what it means to have an IT functional skill. It can mean anything anyone wants. Can't it? Have I missed something?

And it is not one isolated document, almost everything that comes from local government or a quango has built its structural edifice on language like this. It is the common language of the bureaucrat. The lingua franca of the pseudo-educationalist the world over. Is it not time to send the whole house of cards tumbling? I call on all of sound mind to join the revolution...
Your obedient, humble, grovelling and sycophantic servant

Dear Cartruthers
I once met someone who was high up in the civil service took your point of view. If I remember I have a clipping from one of his letters which I reproduce here:
"I seek to do away with obscurantist jargon (although I think I might just have invented some there) in both my own subject and others. Language is there to communicate meaning, not hide it. If someone can only make themselves important by withholding something, and forcing others to be complicit in this by creating an academic discipline out of it, they are a pretty sorry sort of person. They also tend not to have much of a sense of humour, presumably because they are too scared of being found out. I've read too many academic papers which use academic sounding language to hide the fact that they don't contain anything worth saying and are a complete waste of paper. This is why Orwell is one of my heroes."

He took his own life, if I remember correctly as he couldn't face the world any more.
Let that be a lesson to us all
Toodle Pip

Sunday, 7 March 2010

On Tyranny

"I couldn't help overhearing your conversation the other day on liberty," said Scoobles approaching me with a glass in his hand. "Can I get you a drink old chap?"

Scoobles was one of the newer members of the club and I hadn't really spoken to him much. I guessed he was looking to make a new friend. "No, I'm fine thanks."

"I bet most of the old crones round here have never heard of John Stuart Mills, never mind read him, eh?" He gave me an encouraging wink.

"Mill," I said.


"It's John Stuart Mill. Not Mills." I smiled.

"Yeah, well, whatever. I agreed with everything you said about liberty. But of course you can only take it so far."

"How do you mean?"

"Well not all crimes have victims, do they?" He sipped his drink and leaned forward, "I mean what about vandalism or fly-tipping or arson? And there's drug dealing and racial hatred...not to mention downloading porn. It would be a horrible, dirty, scary world if all crimes had to have victims."

 "Well I think you will find there are victims if you think about it. Aren't the victims of  vandalism the property owners? And with fly-tipping, the council tax payers? Drug dealers have plenty of victims I would have thought with the addicts they are making. But I admit that race hatred is a little more difficult. Hatred is an emotion, not an action and I don't believe that anyone should be criminalized for their emotions any more than people should be criminalized for their thoughts."

"Well I do, if they are the wrong thoughts!"

I looked at him surprised. "Wasn't it Orwell who first foresaw a day when people would be arrested just for thinking the wrong things? He called it "Thought Crimes". We already have thought crimes in this country - and I am not so sure that race hated isn't one - where the authorities want to lock people up just for what they think, even though they may not have actually done anything wrong. I think you will find that is the real horrible scary world we are sleepwalking into."

"And what about dowloading pornography? You can't justify that."

"The basic rule is still the same - Principle of Harm. If any anyone is harmed in any way then there should be a law to prevent it. But equally there should be no laws against what happens in peoples minds. Our thoughts are our own and there should be no such thing as an Orwellian thought crime in a free country. If no one is hurt, there should be no law against it."

"I fail to see how you can sensibly apply Mill's Harm Principle to this type of obscenity because there is no way that any aspect of it can be described as a 'victimless crime'."

"What people do in their own heads, with their own thoughts is their own business - as long as no one else is harmed. The state has no right to dictate to anyone what they do in their own minds. And whether you or I approve or disapprove makes no difference. Everyone has the liberty to think what they like, feel what they like, reason how they like. That is what makes us human beings. As long as they are not harming anyone, I support their freedom to do as they please. That is what liberty means. Liberty does not mean others are only free to do what I approve or what you approve. That is just another name for tyranny."

"Well, Ok, downloading and looking at something isn't directly hurting anyone but you're forgetting that I don't agree with you that there should only be laws against things that directly hurt other people. There totally should be a law against it, And the state completely has a right to enforce a law on downloading all indecent images. Call it tyranny if you like but I would rather the country be tyrannical than full of dirty scumbags."

I put my paper down. "That is exactly what tyranny is - the imposition of one persons view, or even the view of the majority, on others.
    "There have always been bogey men throughout the ages, who society have singled out as the 'dirty scumbags' of their time. In the 17th century it was witches, in the mid 20 century it was communists, in the mid 30s it was the Jews and in the early 21 century it has been those who download indecent images. What these groups have in common is they didn't harm anyone but they were persecuted because society set its face against them because it didn't agree with them. Every age has its own demons.
    "Once you have identified your 'scumbag' group you can then denigrate them to any extent, deprive them of their rights, liberty or even their life. And no one will come to their defence because they are afraid they will be associated too. 
    "All persecution starts this way - we label a certain group as 'scumbags' because they are different from us and we don't approve of what they do. And before we know it there are a whole new bunch of witchfinders, or McCarthyites or Nazis who would be quite happy to turn the country into a tyranny provided they can get rid of the 'dirty scumbags'.
    "And down that road my friend, I cannot follow you." And with that I got up a left.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

On Liberty

As I was sitting in my favourite armchair in the club library perusing one of the books I had picked off the shelves at random, in walked Squires muttering to himself. I'd not seen the old bird for 6 months and he looked to be in a foul mood now.

"What's up Squires, lost a £10 note and found a penny?"

"Worse, " he said looking up with a rue smile on his face. "I've lost £60 and 3 penalty points."

"Speeding ticket?"

He nodded and sat down in the chair next to me. "And not just me, paper says the police have blitzed 1700 drivers this week."

That was something I could sympathise with. I've had a ticket myself, I think most drivers have. And I never really felt any of this was right. "Why this crackdown on 1700 drivers?" I asked.

"Police have to keep busy I suppose."

"What I object to is, where are all the victims in these 1700 crimes?"

"What victims? There aren't any."

"Exactly my point. Why don't the police concentrate on real crimes where there are victims? You shouldn't have a crime without a victim."

"You are quite right," interjected Hawkwind. He had been a professor of some high level subject at the university, philosophy I think it was, and he was commonly referred to by everyone as The Prof. "Your view corresponds quite accurately with that of John Stuart Mill. He said that liberty means having the freedom to do what you want as long as it doesn't hurt another person. Consequently if there is no victim, you are at liberty to go about your business and do what you want. And these kinds of  'crackdowns' on victimless crimes undermine that very liberty we prize to go about unmolested by government officials."

"Here, Here," said Squires. "Let's stop harassing ordinary people who have not hurt anyone. And let's get rid of all victimless laws."

That was when Manton butted in. "So you think Drink Driving,using a mobile phone while driving and not wearing a belt are victimless crimes do you? Doesn't sound too bright to me."

"Well Manton old chap," I added, "perhaps if you can identify who the victim is in the case you quote, you might then be able to shed some light on the matter. But maybe you don't understand the term victimless crime?"

"Of course I do."

"We have been so brainwashed," added The Prof, "into thinking that any new law that curtails our liberty is a good thing. It is not. This government has created 33 new crimes a month - many thousands of new crimes which have no victims at all. Who is the victim when someone speeds? No one. Who is the victim when I use a mobile phone? No one."

"Yes but you might crash, dear fellow," said Flaxbone who had been listening in. 

"True, any one might crash - but you shouldn't turn people into criminals for what they might do, only for what they have done," I replied. "Going over a recommended speed should no more be a crime here than it is on the Autobahn in Germany. We have confused driving fast with driving unsafely. That is simply an error of logic. You can drive fast and you can drive safely. Let's not penalize the first because we have confused it with the second."

"I'm with you," added The Prof. "Laws should not restrict peoples liberty unless you are harming someone. That was the tenor of John Stuart Mills great idea which has governed our freedoms in the western world for the last 200 years. It is only recently we have moved into the world of the nanny state and the big brother who controls our lives."
"What stupid remarks, I rest my case," said Manton, rather rudely I thought.

"Well I don't think you made much of your case, but I can rest it for you if you like, " added Rook who was a well known barrister around town and who had also been listening in. We were gathering quite a crowd by now.

"Be my guest," said Manton and then went off to find himself a drink.

"The thought that lack of insurance is victimless is plainly ridiculous," continued Rook. "Whenever an accident happens which insurance is paid out on, all people with insurance have contributed to the pot it's paid from and the fact that some people (usually the worst drivers) don't have it, means the rest of us have to pay more. Everyone's a victim."

"Well, I can't see there are any victims when I was caught in the speed trap." said Squires

"What a ridiculous thing to say," shouted Rook. "Of course there are victims! When someone dies because of phones, speed, distraction or any other offence it creates many victims when you look at the impact on families. And by the way, speeding is not a crime, it does not get recorded as a criminal record...get the facts right! People always use the liberty argument when in fact what they mean is they want to do what they want without being challenged!"

I had to interupt. "Rook, you are quite right, there is a victim when someone dies. But there are no victims when someone is caught on a speed camera. And there were no victims when 1700 people were stopped and fined recently. Let's have laws that only penalize you for hurting people. Let's not have laws that penalize people when they haven't hurt anyone."

"Maybe," he said grudingly.
"And there seems to be some confusion," I added, "about the difference between a criminal offence and a criminal record. All motoring offences (except parking violations in areas where enforcement has been handed over to local councils, rather than traffic wardens) come under criminal law. So there can be no doubt that speeding is a criminal offence. The fact that some crimes are not recorded means it is quite possible to commit a criminal offence (speeding) without acquiring a criminal record. 

"Last year 1.92 million speeding tickets were issued. Over the last 10 years around one third of all the drivers in the country have been fined. What I object to is that millions of ordinary good law abiding citizens who have never broken any other laws in their lives have been criminalized by a bad system. Any law which turns a third of its citizens into criminals is plainly wrong and I have no confidence in it." And with that I got up myself, replaced my copy of John Stuart Mill and went to the bar. Orwell was wrong, I thought to myself, but only by 26 years.

Friday, 15 January 2010

The View From The Cave

There was a distinct chill in the air, and for some reason I felt a tinge of melancholia as I pushed open the door and walked into the lobby of the Diogenes club, on the first day of the new year. Henry popped out of nowhere, and was at my elbow as I shrugged off my overcoat and scarf.

"Happy New Year, Henry."

"Thank you Sir. And seasonal felicitations to you. Your usual drink, Sir?"

"Yes please, Henry. Are the others here?"

At that moment I was hit by a blast of icy air as the front door was pushed open again.

"Oh, Hello Travis." I said, as Henry took my hat and gloves.

"Afternoon, old man. Hello Henry. Happy New Year and all that."

"Thank you Sir."

"What do you want to drink, Travis?"

He handed his coat to Henry, and then said "Oh, a glass of Ardbeg for me, I think. Cheers."

Henry headed towards the cloakroom and we walked into the warmth of the library.

For once, Manton was sipping his drink quietly, and it was Abrahams, our resident academic, who was holding forth.

"It's getting very difficult to understand the governmental directives these days."

"In what way?" asked Treworthy.

"Well, if we take on too few students, and don't meet our targets, we will be penalised. If we take on too many students and exceed our targets, we will be fined several thousand per student. It is a most ... unsystematic approach."

This was clearly a cardinal sin, in Abrahams' well-ordered world.

"It makes perfect sense to me." replied Treworthy, somewhat unsympathetically.

"Yes, but the trouble is that we always take on a few more students than our targets, because we know that some of them will drop out."

"Well, clearly you must ensure that they don't."

"But they always do. Every year. You always lose a couple of students, whether it be for personal reasons, financial reasons or something else."

"Hang on a sec," interjected Travis, "what you are saying is that you are being fined by the government for meeting targets that were set by that same government."

"Yes, that's precisely the problem."

"Oh it just sounds like the usual rubbish." I said. "Ignore it and it will go away eventually."

"Yes, but the other problem is that we are going to get our funding cut by DIUS."

This finally roused Manton out of his reverie.

"DIUS? What in the name of insanity is that?"

"The Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills." said Treworthy, helpfully.

"As ever, Treworthy, your insider knowledge of Her Majesty's Home Civil Service has proved invaluable. What happened to the DES?"

"The Department for Education and Skills has been demerged."

"Is that even a word?"

"Some of its functions have been taken over by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, whereas the oversight of Universities became the responsiblitiy of the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills."

"Oh God." Manton sank deeper into the black depression from which he had briefly emerged. "Anything with the word 'Innovation' in the title is doomed to failure. I don't know how you put up with it, Treworthy."

"I find it fascinating, actually. As a matter of fact, the DIUS has since merged with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and is now called the 'Department for Business, Innovation and Skills', so Abrahams wasn't entirely accurate."

"You're starting to scare me now, Treworthy." warned Manton, as he took a huge gulp from his glass.

"It does seem ominous that the word 'Universities' does not even appear in the name anymore." said Abrahams.

I leaned over and said "Are you alright, Manton? You seem a little under the weather."

"You would be feeling under the weather if you had spent Christmas with the venomous hell-spawn that I was once married to."

"What on earth possessed you to spend Christmas with her?"

"It is a story too complex and, frankly, too embarrasing to relate here. Suffice to say that rather than repeat the episode, I would rather be stranded on a particularly small asteroid and be left to experience the heat-death of the universe totally alone."

"Never mind about all that," interrupted Treworthy, "what about Abrahams's problem?"

"I've lost track." said Travis, "what is his problem?"

"Well, in essence, the DIUS, or the DBIS or whatever it is called, is going to cut university funding by 400 million, next year." said Abrahams.

"We live in uncertain times, Abrahams," said Manton. "Don't forget, there are a lot of bankers out there who need their bonuses paid. That 90 million that we gave them has to come from somewhere. Money doesn't just grow on trees you know."

"It doesn't need to. We can just print more of it. It's called quantitive easing. Do keep up Manton." said Travis.

"Yes - how exactly does that work Travis? On the one hand, we can just print more money, but on the other, we still have to make cuts in education?"

"Well lets face it, if you are going to print more money, you aren't just going to give it the education sector are you." I had decided to stir things up a bit. "You know what they are like."

"Yes, no doubt we would start to pay each other huge bonuses." said Abrahams dryly. "Mind you, Mr Mandelson did write us a nice letter asking us to protect quality and continue widening access to higher education, during this difficult time."

"Hah," shouted Manton, "marvellous isn't it. I don't suppose he gave any pointers as to how you could go about doing that, within a framework of budgetary cuts?"

"He was slightly vague on that point."

"Not so fast, Manton." exclaimed Treworthy. "I read something about this in the paper this morning. Quite a few MP's have got an exciting new idea which might help in this regard."

"I'm all ears, old boy."

"Well, degree courses. Do they really need to be 3 years long? Couldn't we fit them into 2 years?"

"I thought that was what these Foundation degree things were for?"

"No, no, a full BSc or BA. After just 2 years. Think of the possibilities."

"Oh I am, Treworthy. A generation of youth who are even more illiterate and innumerate than the current one. A complete inability to even maintain our current technological infrastructure, let alone improve it. The removal of yet more challenging content from courses in pursuit of an easy qualification that we can label as a 'degree'. The possilities are clearly endless."

"I afraid this is the sort of attitude that restricts reform in the public sector, Manton. Thank God you are not involved in implementing these policies."

"Something that I give thanks to our Lord for on a daily basis, Treworthy. Or at least I would if I believed in Him. And if you want to start reforming something, I feel you should start with the Civil Service itself."

"That is a completely different case, Manton. Not comparable at all." blustered Treworthy, as he got up and headed to the bar.

"Yes, I rather thought it might be. Put your own house in order first, Treworthy." called out Manton, at his departing back.

"But surely the politicians don't really believe all this rubbish they are spouting, do they?" asked Travis.

"There is a very easy way to determine that. If Oxford or Cambridge are made to reduce their degree courses to two years, I think we can take that as a sign that the politicians are sincere." said Manton.

"It's all rather depressing really, isn't it." I said, my melancholia suddenly resurfacing. "Why is it always a struggle to keep sight of what should be self-evident truths. It's like we have constructed a society which is deliberately designed to obscure the view, and distract us with trivialities."

We all sat, pondering this thought whilst watching the flames dance in the fireplace. Treworthy returned from the bar with a fresh drink.

"I think it's a rather deeper problem actually," said Manton, after a few minutes reflection. "It puts me in mind of something that I learned from an old fakir in a temple in Amritsar during my days on the hippy trail."

Travis started choking as he tried not to spray his mouthful of whiskey all over the carpet, and I glanced at Abrahams, who looked as stunned as I'm sure I did. Only Henry showed absolutely no sign of surprise.

Manton sipped meditatively on his drink in silence, allowing us time to compose ourselves. Treworthy was the first to recover the power of speech.

"Manton, you don't seriously expect us to believe...."

"I expect nothing, my dear fellow. I only offer up this piece of wisdom in the same spirit that it was imparted to me. I have not always been a merely sedentary seeker of truths."

"I didn't think that you had ever been outside of the British Isles, Manton." I said.

Manton shrugged and gestured to Henry for another drink.

"Or even outside the M25 for that matter." muttered Travis. If Manton heard him, he gave no sign.

"It may interest you all to know that in my youth, having read Hesse, Marcuse and similar tracts, I embarked on a journey to the East, an essentially spiritual search, seeking out those wise and holy men that could help me in my quest for enlightenment.
It was whilst I was in the aforementioned city that I learned of the concept of Maya. It is the name that certain philosophers give to the limited, physical and mental reality in which our consciousness has become entangled. It is held to be an illusion, a veiling of the true unitary self. Many religions and philosophies seek to 'pierce the veil' of Maya in order to glimpse the transcendent truth, from which the illusion of physical reality springs."

I ordered another drink from Henry. This new side to Manton was a somewhat alarming one, and I was going to need more than one glass of finest Malt to get used to it.

"So what you are saying," said Abrahams, "is that mankind always has trouble seeing the truth - that it is in our nature to look no further than the surface, be distracted by the superficial."

"It is an ancient idea. I think our modern industrialised society is just the latest manifestation of it. We are becoming more and more dependent on technology, because it enables us to pay less attention to the constraints of nature, and even gives us the illusion that we can ignore them all together. We think we are free, but in fact we have built incarcerated ourselves inside a prison of our own making."

"Wait a minute Manton," exclaimed Treworthy, "I distinctly remember arguing with you about this very matter some years ago. You were pouring scorn on my environmental concerns."

"No, Treworthy, I was pouring scorn on the solutions that you were offering. If people want to recycle their bottles, or buy a carrier bag with a Greenpeace logo on, then so be it. I just don't think that they will have the slightest effect on the welfare of the planet. We have locked ourselves in our prison and are currently bricking up the doorway from the inside to stop ourselves from escaping. Not only that, we are also poisoning the air, food and water supply, into the bargain. I said it then and I will say it again now. We are all doomed and it is no better than we deserve. All that technology does, is allow us to hold reality at bay for a while. Until it goes wrong. Which it always does, sooner or later."

At that moment, the lights all went out. The room was dark, save for the flickering firelight.

I don't mind admitting, I was quite rattled, and I wasn't the only one.

"What do you think about all this, Henry?" I said, in a attempt to break the silence.

"I am reminded of a passage from Plato's Republic, sir."

"Ah yes indeed," whispered Manton, staring trance-like into the flames. "We are all still stuck in the cave, watching the shadows on the wall."

"Quite so, Sir. I shall endeavour to procure a candelabra, in an attempt to dispel some of the shadows, in here at least."

"Thank you Henry. Unlike most of the people in the cave, we would be most grateful."