Thursday, 24 June 2010

Pretty women

It’s nice to think that we live in a world where people are judged by their potential or their achievements, rather than by factors over which they have no control, such as their gender or their looks.

Nice but completely illusory.

There’ve been a number of studies recently about the gender gap in pay and responsibility and, while the better studies also reveal that a lot of the statistics being thrown around in this area are deeply suspect, the overall message is clear: society allows women on average less chance to succeed.

As for looks, I keep hearing about studies that show that people perceived as ‘attractive’ have a distinct advantage in winning and holding more interesting and better paid jobs. Indeed, I recently came across a study suggesting that if you’re regarded as ‘unattractive’ you stand a significantly higher chance of ending up in prison. The mechanism is easy enough to follow: you’re less likely to get a job, so you’re more likely to drift into crime, so you’re more likely to end up inside. But what it means is that as a society we gaol quite a few people for the crime of not conforming to whatever the current fashion dictates the model of beauty should be (just as we gaol them for being persistently male and black or looking like Moslems.)

It seems that rather a lot of us must still be suckers for a pretty face.

This is always brought home to me when I visit a large company with which I have dealings from time to time. I won’t identify it, because it’s such fun to protect the guilty, but let me tell you, they’re a household name.

I’m always amazed by their receptionists. They’re courteous, helpful, bright, well-informed. They’re also all of them young, female and pretty. It can’t be a coincidence. Surely it has to flow from a deliberate recruitment policy, one that presumably never gets officially voiced – I suspect it would be actually illegal.

Anyway, they’ve obviously decided that we’re suckers for pretty faces and they want to play to that foible.

Of course, the most striking example of all is Nicolas Sarkozy, the current President of France. He has a bit of a name for surrounding himself with attractive women. Now, I’m sure that his marriage is based on a deeply-felt loving relationship, but I guess you can almost see my eyebrows rise as I type those words, as most people's would if that sentiment was expressed about any man of 50 or so marrying a former model.

The First Lady of France: are we seeing her best characteristics?

It isn’t just the First Lady of France who causes no pain to the eye (I don’t know about the ear, of course: she’s a singer, and not really of the first rate). Sarko also has some impressive looking ministers.

My personal favourite is actually not one of the most striking lookers. She’s Chantal Jouanno, who is minister of the Environment – but also a national judo champion. An environment minister you’d do well not to cross – that has to be an important first.

Judo champion: don't mess with the environment in France

There’s nothing wrong with her looks, of course. It’s just there are more film-star types out there.

One is an ex-minister, Rashida Daty, whose relatively short stint at Justice got the backs up of every judge in France. She’s also a striking example of how beautiful women aren’t always – how shall I put this? – the easiest to get along with. She won herself a reputation for vanity and arrogance that were not, it would seem, entirely undeserved and got packed off to Strasbourg as a member of the European Parliament. There she managed to hold a telephone conversation with a friend while still wearing a live microphone, and so we were all regaled with her despair at being stuck in Strasbourg – one of my favourite places on Earth – and her bitterness at being stuck in the European Parliament, a job most of us would regard as an extraordinary privilege.

Rachida shows how she won her reputation for self-effacement

The one who has to take the prize right now, though, has to be Rama Yade, the Minister for Sports. She denounced the French football team (OK, OK, everyone’s doing that now, but she got in on the act before it was fashionable) for the amount their accommodation in South Africa was costing – and then had to handle press revelations that her own room out there had cost rather more.

Most politicians who get caught out in their double standards come up with all sorts of excuses – which she’s done – and then have to retire from the spotlight for a while to try to rebuild a reputation that has taken a bit of a knock. But not Rama – she’s riding high in the polls, with a 70% approval rating, which is higher than either the president or the prime minister.

Rama Yade, scourge of self-indulgence in others

Some of us are suckers for a pretty face? Sounds like in France we can quantify the phenomenon: it’s about 70% of the electorate.

A lot of whom must be women.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Football and Finance: mirrors of depression

The football World Cup is one of those things that impinges on the consciousness, whatever one does to avoid it. Why, even the Americans must be coming to terms with hearing the term ‘football’ used not for their sacred version of the game, but the way the other (and therefore less significant) 95% of humanity uses it. After all, with the US team beginning to emerge as a significant player – how long can it be before they dominate football as they do other sports? – Americans must be rapidly changing their habits of thought.

This competition has taught me several things. One is that I’ve learned to appreciate the three or four-minute highlight recordings the BBC puts up on its website. I’ve avoided watching any of the actual games, but am sometimes curious to find out what happened, so these brief videos are brilliant. The BBC has realised that to all intents and purposes nothing of any note happens during most of a football game, so you can cover anything worth actually seeing in three or four minutes of the 90 or so for which it lasts. Actually, I find that even the highlight recordings sometimes get dull, but at least you can tell from the progress bar that there isn’t long to go.

The even more significant thing I’ve learned from the World Cup is how football is a great metaphor for real life. Nothing original in that, you may say, but I think I’ve found a bit of a new angle.

You see, football at its best – which it doesn’t attain very often – is all about consummate skill in foot-eye coordination. An outstanding player will bring a fast moving ball under control and then dribble it a long way up a pitch, finishing with a pass of pinpoint precision to a fellow player or an unstoppable shot into the back of the net.

Now there are two points to make about those skills. One, that I’ve hinted at already, is that players don’t display them that often. For most of the match, players whose salaries given them in a year what most of us couldn’t amass in a couple of centuries, repeatedly lose the ball in an astounding show of clumsiness, pass it straight to an opponent, or fire it into the opposing goalkeeper’s arms.

The second point is another limitation. The skills aren’t transferable anywhere else. After all, in what other field is foot-eye coordination going to be useful? Hand-eye coordination, yes – there are many applications in engineering, in the arts, in life generally. But except in delivering well-directed kicks up the backside, which some may feel is an underused management technique in both the professional and, why not, the family sphere, I’m really not sure where else foot-eye coordination might be useful.

And lest anyone think that brilliant football skills are at least an indication of intellectual ability, consider Wayne Rooney’s outburst at the fans who were booing him and his team mates at the end of what we can loosely refer to as a ‘match’ against Algeria yesterday. By achieving a goalless draw, England proved themselves entirely the equals of their opponents. Algeria is, of course, amongst the minnows of world football, which says all we need to know about the England team’s talents.

Wayne Rooney is probably the brightest star in the England side, which puts him on a par with say Ben Affleck, the kind of actor of whom one always thinks, ‘wow, he could be good, I wonder why he doesn’t get more parts,’ until you actually seem him perform in one. ‘Nice to see your own fans booing you,’ Rooney told the fans, ‘That's what loyal support is.’

Clearly, to Rooney heavy sarcasm passes for wit, and he lacks the skill in empathy to understand why people whose loyal purchase of tickets to football matches allows him to pick up a pay check many hundreds or thousands of time bigger than theirs, might feel and express their disappointment at the inability of a top-flight striker to score a goal against one of the weakest sides in the tournament. What Rooney lacked in foot-eye coordination, he seems to have been intent to make up for in foot-mouth coordination.

Now switch your thoughts away from football. Think of the City of London or any other great financial centre. Here young men, and a tiny number of young women, usually straight out of school, are taken on to make decisions concerning often infinitesimal and extremely rapid fluctuations in share or currency values. When values are growing everywhere, they tend to get more of them right than wrong, move up the food chain and ‘earn’ colossal salaries. When economies go into recession, they get more wrong than right and they fire their juniors.

As the American economist Eugene Fama has shown, fund managers achieve no success overall that cannot be explained entirely by chance. They take their split-second, intuition-fuelled decisions, and all you can say is that sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong. When they’re right they go on to fame and fortune, when they’re wrong, then metaphorically they’re booed by their fans.

So we have overpaid individuals doing things which sometimes work but are just as likely not to. The skills, if skills they are, are completely inapplicable to any other field: where in any enterprise linked to the real economy would you be called on to gamble millions on your belief that a certain price will be higher or lower in a month than it is today, with no reason to suppose that your decision is more likely to be right than wrong?

The real beauty of being in that field, though, is that if you get things totally wrong, the worst that will happen to you is that you may get hauled in front of a committee or two and be insulted in public a bit, and you may have to put up with some nasty headlines for a while. But you’ll go on getting your huge bonuses, and if the banks don’t have the money themselves, the taxpayers will provide it .

In other words, these guys play a silly game with indifferent skills and the rest of us fund them to live in the wealthiest lifestyles imaginable. At worst, we get a bit upset and tell them so, but then we elect governments that, whatever else they do, will never touch their privileges.

Yesterday the fans at the scene of England’s latest woeful performance got a bit upset and told the players so, much to poor Mr Rooney’s annoyance. But next year they’ll troop up to their clubs and renew their season tickets. Mr Rooney may find some balm for his hurt feelings in the salary those fans will finance for him. And in 2012 when the run-up to the next world cup starts, they’ll turn out again as applause fodder and sources of subsidies to the players just like this time.

Football mirrors the real world.

And that realisation is about as cheering as the world cup itself.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Oil slicks and oily, slick operators

Isn’t it wonderful to see BP being crucified? It’s about time these huge corporations which behave with complete contempt towards the rights and wellbeing of the rest of us were brought to book. And with the level of compensation now being debated for the damage to the US Gulf Coast, BP is being brought to book with a vengeance. Literally, I suspect, but no less deservedly for all that.

Strangely enough, in certain quarters it seems to be supposed that I shouldn’t be feeling this way. The ‘B’ in BP stands for ‘British’, and I have a British passport, so some on both sides of the Atlantic, seem to want to suggest that I should show some kind of solidarity with the company. Out of patriotism, perhaps.

The truth is that the word ‘British’ is the only thing that I have in common with BP. If they could drill for oil down the road from me, they would, and if that happened to lead to my house being drowned in crude, they’d try to get away with offering nothing more than an apology and minimal compensation.

The only respect in which nationality is relevant in this whole business is the fact that the victims of the oil spill are American and the US packs real economic punch. That’s why the company is being pursued with such determination. There are other oil spill cases in various countries, but they’re in places like Africa where the victims don’t have the same leverage, so we barely hear of them.

And the case that I feel offers the starkest, and most shameful contrast with the Gulf oil spill, is that of Union Carbide in Bhopal. After all, thousands of people there were killed - some say 20,000 or more - while many others were blinded or crippled. In the Gulf so far the damage has been principally to the environment. Those slick operators at Union Carbide ducked and dodged and the cases are still dragging on.

I’d love to see the US administration taking as tough a line on Bhopal as it now is on the Gulf spill. Twenty-six years on, it’s very late, but after all it's taken 38 years for the British government to come clean on the Bloody Sunday massacre. A quarter of a century is pretty much par for the course, and any action even now would be welcome.

It's great to see Obama going after BP. Now he's on a roll. Let's get those guys from Bhopal too now. At last.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Janka shows it's never too late to learn

It’s been a breakthrough weekend for our dog, Janka. She’s a Puli, a breed sometimes known as Hungarian water dogs, a glorious irony in her case since for the nearly eight years she’s been on this Earth, she’s always been happy when the weather is warm to wander into water up to her middle, to cool off, she’s never shown anything but the most marked distaste for going so far as to get out of her depth and actually having to swim.

The right kind of water for Janka

Until this weekend, that is. Chasing a stick in a pond and realising she couldn’t get to it just by walking along the bottom, she took the plunge and swam out for it. And discovered she liked it! Since then, she’s been in several times with obvious enjoyment – although it leaves her pretty stiff when she gets home – but then at nearly eight she’s well into middle age. If you leave a form of exercise, even one that ought to be natural to you, until that late in life, you have only yourself to blame if the unaccustomed activity causes a bit of strain.


Of course, she hasn’t been wasting all her time while she’s been failing to swim. On the contrary, her apprenticeship in human social interactions continues unabated. Inadvertently locked out of the front of our house a few days ago, she didn’t just stand there and bark, but took decisive action. She walked to the end house of our row, up the side into the back garden, and apparently straight past the cat that she usually enjoys chasing – she must have felt that the cat would have been a mere distraction at a time when she had a much more serious problem to deal with: after all, she’d been locked out – was she ever going to be allowed back in? So ignoring the distraction, she stalked past and without so much as a by-your-leave, right into our neighbours’ conservatory. She went up to her good friend Jenny who was sitting there, and made it clear she required her attention.

Jenny walked her back to our house and knocked on the door, at which point we were able to make it clear to Janka that her exclusion really had been temporary and unintended. Janka didn’t actually thank Jenny for her help – her mastery of human behaviour hasn’t reached that stage yet – but by the way she flopped down on her rug and resumed her interrupted pursuit of relaxation, it was clear that she was highly satisfied with her achievement. As well she might be.

Enjoying one of her favourite occupatios, relaxation. With a friend

All of which goes to show that you can make breakthroughs, in both the physical and the moral domains, even in your later years. It’s never too late, as they say.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The pride and the shame of the Richmond Nimby

What a lovely place Richmond is. I was there yesterday; the view across the Thames as you drive from the high point of the town to the centre is breathtaking, and of course the park is one of the most beautiful and extensive in England. As for the houses, they’re nothing short of magnificent: Richmond isn’t a neighbourhood for the poor or disadvantaged.

Despite all this beauty, I did end up metaphorically screaming at the place before I left it, crawling through the centre of town at less than a walking pace. Travelling around England underlines just how crowded a country it is. That’s been a much-debated theme recently, with all sorts of exciting initiatives by our bright new government to restrict immigration into this country. This could keep potentially several hundred thousand people away, and not all of them will be tortured or die of hunger in their home countries. Of course, this would barely scratch at the surface of the problem of overcrowding. To start to solve that, we need to reduce the population by many millions, and for that limiting immigration isn’t enough, we’d need to encourage a lot of Englishmen to move away too. Incidentally, looking out of my window on a ‘flaming June’ day of grey skies and drizzle, I can assure you that this Englishman wouldn’t take much persuading.

Have you noticed how often a mention of something you haven’t heard or thought about for years is followed by your coming across it again within twenty-four hours or so? You know – you may not have heard a word for ages and then stumble across it by happy chance, perhaps a word like lexicographer, or meet it when there’s no-one around who can give you a definition of it, say a term like serendipity, and then you hear or read it again shortly afterwards.

Yesterday was the first time I’d been in Richmond for ages and it was mentioned on the radio news this morning. Another smart new initiative of the government has been to put an end to a Labour measure which allowed building on areas previously used for gardens. The new government is giving local people the right to challenge this kind of development.

Sounds wonderful. Who wouldn’t want to protect gardens? But is that really what we’re protecting or is it more a matter of upholding the rights of those who live in pretty areas? People who would say ‘I’m keen on cheap housing, but not in my back yard?’ The ‘not in my back yard’ specialist or Nimby favours a policy and is happy to see society sacrifice to achieve it, as long as the sacrifice is made by someone else, generally someone much less well placed to bear the cost.

And this morning there it was: a woman who has lived in Richmond for years but by her accent seemed to be of German extraction (which has a certain irony), claimed ‘I’m proud to be a Nimby.’

This is a brilliant debating device. You take something most people regard as a ridiculous contention and then align yourself with it – you state something like ‘I don’t care what people say, but I think Sarah Palin has a working intellect.’ This apparently legitimises the previously illegitimate and shifts the burden of proof to your opponent who has to start by demolishing a position that he thought had already been overthrown.

Of course, we can follow the same policy as I recommended in my last post and test the validity of this device by replacing a key word or two. ‘I’m proud to be a homophobe.’ Not quite so effective is it? ‘I’m proud to be a racist.’ Lacking a certain charm, wouldn’t you say?

In the early stages of the Spanish Civil War, the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno spoke in a public debate in which the Fascist General Millán-Astray, of the particularly feared Foreign Legion, also took part. Some of Astray’s supporters shouted out their slogan ‘Viva la Muerte’, ‘long live death’. Unamuno replied ‘I, having spent my life writing paradoxes that have provoked the ire of those who do not understand what I have written, and being an expert in this matter, find this ridiculous paradox repellent.’

It would be massively immodest for me to claim to resemble Unamuno – perhaps a more reasonable comparison is with the Modern Major General in The Pirates of Penzance who claimed to have ‘a pretty taste in paradox.’ But where I’m with Unamuno is in not finding every paradox attractive. Taking pride in your own shamelessness, in particular, leaves me distinctly cold.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The power of words and the Israeli action against the Gaza flotilla

It’s curious what a difference just changing a word or two in a news report can make. For example, in an account on the recent Israeli boarding of the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara leading to the killing of nine of the activists aboard, The Guardian wrote on 1 June:

Israeli soldiers involved in the military raid on the Gaza flotilla released descriptions of facing a 'lynching' at the hands of armed activists aboard the Mavi Marmara.

The Israeli defence force (IDF) issued a video featuring two soldiers, each with one arm in a sling and their faces obscured to avoid identification.

Now, I’ve watched the video footage and it’s obvious that the Israeli forces were met by pretty terrifying violence. It’s hard to imagine that anyone in that situation and with a powerful weapon to hand might not use it. Without wanting to quibble, though, I do have to question just why such soldiers with such weapons were being dropped by helicopter onto civilian boats. I’m not sure that I can quite go along with Joseph Liebermann, erstwhile running mate of Al Gore in the presidential elections in 2000, and an independent senator for Connecticut (or possibly Upper Galilee) who recently proclaimed:

‘We should be very clear about who is responsible for the unfortunate loss of life in the attempt to break the blockade in Gaza. Hamas and its allies are the responsible parties for the recent violence and the continued difficulties for the people of Gaza. Israel exercised her legitimate right of self defense.’

To test the even-handedness of reactions to these events, consider a slightly modified news report, with a just a few words changed:

Iranian soldiers involved in the military raid on the Bandar Abbas flotilla released descriptions of facing a ‘lynching’ at the hands of armed activists aboard the US vessel Chesapeake Bay.

The Iranian revolutionary guard issued a video featuring two soldiers, each with one arm in a sling and their faces obscured to avoid identification.

I wonder whether Senator Liebermann would speak out in favour of the poor Iranian Revolutionary Guards and defend their right to act in self defence.

But don’t worry: I don’t really wonder for long.

Completely unrelated postscript. Just finished watching John Ford's film of A Single Man. Powerful, well performed, and directed with the kind of economy that magnifies emotional impact. I strongly recommend it. But it was fascinating to see Joanne Moore of North Carolina acting with an English accent, and Surrey-born Nicholas Hoult playing with an American one. Why did they do this transatlantic swap-over? Just because they can, like why a dog licks his genitals?

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Privacy 2: outing gays and hunting ministers

Benjamin Disraeli injected colour into the role of British Prime Minister, in every sense of the word. He liked to wear purple velvet and would affect white gloves with rings outside them. He also had a way with words. Told on his death bed that Queen Victoria wished to visit him, an unheard of royal honour for a man born a commoner, he apparently turned the offer down on the grounds that ‘she will only ask me to take a message to Albert’, her late husband.

Charm was another of his qualities. ‘When I left the dining room after sitting next to Mr. Gladstone,’ recorded a young woman who had the privilege of dining on separate occasions with both Disraeli and his rival Gladstone, ‘I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But after sitting next to Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest woman in England.’

Winston Churchill said of his political opponent and erstwhile former deputy Prime Minister from the war years, Clement Atlee, that he was ‘a modest man, who has much to be modest about’. George Bernard Shaw sent Churchill a telegram reading ‘Two tickets reserved for you, first night Pygmalion. Bring a friend, if you have one’. Churchill replied, ‘Cannot make first night. Will come to second. If you have one.’

It wasn’t only Conservative politicians who specialised in barbs, of course. One of the harshest but in my view finest was provided by Aneurin Bevan when he turned his guns on the Conservatives themselves: ‘No amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.’ I think we got the message.

Denis Healey, probably the finest leader the British Labour Party never had, and the greatest Prime Minister Britain missed out on, had plenty of excellent and highly quotable aphorisms. ‘When you’re in a hole, stop digging,’ has to be a particularly useful suggestion which I wish I could learn to follow more often. And he also provided the useful legal advice that ‘the difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion is the thickness of a prison wall’.

Much more recently, when the new coalition government was formed in this country, David Laws of the British Liberal Democrats was appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the number two position in our finance ministry. When he took up his office, he found the traditional letter from his predecessor, in this case Liam Byrne. It read ‘Dear Chief Secretary, I'm afraid there is no money. Kind regards – and good luck! Liam’.

That was just three weeks ago, but David Laws has already had to resign. Why? Because he’s gay.

That may seem extraordinary. After all it isn’t illegal or even much of a matter for comment to be gay in Britain. We’ve had numerous openly gay ministers already. The problem with Laws is that he chose to stay in the closet. So when it came to claiming for expenses, instead of declaring his home as shared with his partner, he claimed for rent paid to his partner as landlord.

A committee of enquiry is looking into the matter, but for now it looks as though he made no more than he was entitled to from the arrangement. Technically, however, it was a breach of the rules.

The Daily Mail, one of the least pleasant of our scandal sheets masquerading as daily newspapers, decided last week to denounce Laws. Faced with a media maelstrom, Laws felt he had no choice but to resign.

Today he is quoted as saying, ‘I should have been more open’. Well, perhaps he should have been, perhaps he shouldn’t. I don’t see how it’s my business or that of any other voter. I’d far rather we all took a decision on David Laws based on how well or how badly he performs in politics. Everything else falls into the strictly private realm.

My last post was on privacy. Isn’t this a much clearer example of where privacy really needs to be protected than, say, on Facebook? Can we tolerate a technical offence bringing down a minister? More to the point – can we tolerate that minister being driven out for his sexuality?

You may agree or disagree with the politicians I quoted at the start of this piece. You may find them amusing or detestable. But they were certainly characters, they were colourful, they rose to challenges.

If we let organisations like the Daily Mail get away with their poisonous little crusades, we’ll end up with politicians who are without exception straight, white, middle class, male, middle-aged and nominally Christian. They’ll have the purity of cotton wool. They’ll have the respectability of a tweed suit. They’ll have the dynamism of a communion wafer.

And the wit and charm of a George W. Bush.