Monday 27 August 2007

Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson
Originally uploaded by David Farrer

The Glaswegian historian gave a very good presentation on Monday morning. When leaving England a friend had said to him: "You're off home for the weekend then?" "HOME!" replied Ferguson. "I'm going to Edinburgh!" Some things never change...

Ferguson's talk was based on his The War of the World. In a wide-ranging talk we heard about the two world wars, the US in the Middle East, China, Russia, finance, the environment and much more. Ferguson told us that he'd learned quite a bit from Marx, but, in the event of a class war, he was on the side of the bourgeoisie.

There was a lot about Scotland. Ferguson thought that independence was likely eventually. It may well be thrust upon Scotland by England. It would probably be beneficial (eventually) by making Scots politicians responsible for raising cash as well as spending it. It won't all end in tears, but in yawns. In short, Scotland will have to learn to be like Denmark.

Chatting to him afterwards, he confirmed to me that he is in the camp of those of us who expect some kind of recession in the not-too-distant future.

(Nice "product placement" for Bulmers although Ferguson appeared to be having a pint of heavy.)

Don't be vague - ask for Hague

William Hague
Originally uploaded by David Farrer

After Saturday night's rather unexciting event with Janet Paisley and Donald Smith it was a very different affair on Sunday afternoon.

William Hague gave a storming performance to a very appreciative audience. Hague was definitely the best speaker whom I've heard at this year's Book Festival. He was primarily talking about his new biography of Wilberforce.

We enjoyed Hague's story of leaving a bookshop in Yorkshire after signing copies of his Pitt book. A gentleman approached Hague and asked, "Eh lad, is that your book?" Yes, replied Hague. "Well, it doesn't look much like you on the cover!"

The session chairman, Iain Macwhirter, told us that we'd all heard an assurance that Hague wouldn't again seek the Tory leadership. I'm not so sure. If I remember correctly, Hague said something like this: "I'm a loyal supporter of David Cameron and with him as leader I'm not a candidate for the party leadership." Not quite ruling it out, I'd guess.

Sunday 26 August 2007

Libertarian on the government benches

Harry Benson
Originally uploaded by David Farrer

View from my seat...
Originally uploaded by David Farrer

On Saturday afternoon I went along to Holyrood to hear Scotland's greatest photographer give a marvellous talk on his career at the top of his trade.

Harry has photographed every American president from Eisenhower to G W Bush. He got the shots of the dying Bobby Kennedy, of the Beatles first US tour, and seemingly of every major personality of the last fifty years.

Click here for some of Harry's best work. And some magazine covers.

We heard that Harold Wilson was more interesting than Gordon Brown, President Reagan had a good line in jokes, and that Churchill was the greatest man who lived, apart from - wait for it - Kenny Macaskill! Of course, that may have been because the Justice Minister was taking Harry along to the Rugby at Murrayfield.

Something good from the BBC

I'm a very occasional writer on Biased BBC and no great fan of the Beeb. It was therefore particularly nice to hear something good from two of its presenters last Wednesday.

Peter and Dan Snow gave an excellent talk about the book of their recent TV series. Alternating between sites, the father and son team covered all of their eight chosen battlefields using a selection of images from the book.

There was one of the biggest queues for book signing that I've seen this year and we bought a copy too.

(For those who care about such things, the Snows use Apple computers.)

Friday 24 August 2007

Tinfoil hat time?

Let's hope so.

This rather technical stuff is scary.

Like Page 8 for example.

Monday 20 August 2007

Leftist lady bowled over by two English gentlemen

Two of the events I've been to this year have been moderated by Ruth Wishart of the Glasgow Herald. I don't think I'm wrong in describing Ruth as a lady of the left.

She chaired the Douglas Hurd talk and gave the distinct impression of being charmed by the Old Etonian and graduate of Trinity Cambridge.

This afternoon she was in charge again, this time with General Sir Michael Rose, educated at Cheltenham College, St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, and the Sorbonne.

Ruth had a problem with her mike. When it seemed to be working OK she started to sit down and the General followed suit just afterwards. But the mike wasn't working and Ruth stood up again. The General hadn't quite sat down by this point and immediately stood up again to wait for Ruth. The lady was quite taken aback by this gentlemanly behaviour and praised the speaker profusely. I suppose it's different at the Herald...

We were given an interesting talk on Rose's new book comparing the American Revolution with the situation in Iraq. Rose reckoned that Bush wasn't at first convinced about the case for invading Iraq but was persuaded by Tony Blair, whom Rose thought should be in jail. The audience was receptive to an increase in defence spending, especially after Rose told us that the boys in Afghanistan have poorer weapons than Rose himself had when he started out in the 1960's. A group of serving soldiers were sitting quite near me and one supported those senior officers who have complained to their political bosses about the equipment situation. Ruth had asked if any of the soldiers were armed! There was no reply but she had picked one of them out of the crowd of 500 for a question, perhaps just in case.

Union Jacks and Jocks

I forgot to mention Saturday morning's event. Unlike the one in the evening this was most enjoyable.

First Nick Groom gave a presentation on his book on the Union Jack. He made a very libertarian point. The reason that the Union Jack is such a totemic design, in use in many countries and on all kinds of consumer goods, is precisely because there aren't any laws about its usage.

When James V1/1 moved down to London in 1603 he ordered all of his ships to fly both the St Andrew's and St George's flags from the same mast. The problem was that the arrangement meant that the country of the uppermost flag had defeated the lowermost country in war. And, yes, all of the Scottish ships flew the Saltire on top and the English ones did the opposite. Hence the Duke of Nottingham being asked to design what became the Union Jack.

Nick was followed by the very funny Aidan Smith, author of Heartfelt, in which:

A lifelong Hibs fan takes on the challenge that TV's Faking It and Wifeswap were too scared to even contemplate - he tries to follow hated Edinburgh rivals Hearts for an entire season.
We heard all about the tribulations of being Mr Hibee and Doctor Jambo at the same time. Smith has also spent time with England supporters and another book is on its way.

A very good event.

Sunday 19 August 2007

A dire night in a dreich Edinburgh

Last night Mrs F&W and I went along to the Dissidence and Cyberspace - Freedom of Expression event at the Book Festival.

It started badly. The Chairman made a brief speech but quite forgot to introduce the two speakers. Hari Kunzru corrected the Chairman but it was downhill from then on. Kunzru was actually the best of the three on the platform, but still a walking, talking Mark 1 Guardianista.

The other panellist was Janne Teller, an archetypical Scandinavian pinko.

Like this:

1988-95: Economic/Political Advisor for the EU and the UN in Dar-es-Salaam (1988-89)
Brussels (1990-91)
New York (1991-93)
and Mozambique (1993-94), respectively.
and seemingly not short of a bob or two from the taxpayer and the great and the good:

National Foundation for the Arts (2006, 2005, 2001)
National Foundation for the Arts (3-Year Stipend, 2002)
Literary Council (2006,2005,2003, 2002, 2001, 1999)
Author's Account (2006, 2001)
Harald Kidde's Foundation (1999)
Beckett Foundation (1999)
BG-Foundation (2000)

The endless rain battered the roof of the Spiegeltent while the audience were treated to a so-called defence of "freedom".

Ms Teller thought that the Danish cartoons of a year ago were terribly provocative although she meekly accepted that the reaction did indeed raise considerations of free speech. But the impression given to the audience was that the publication of the cartoons was the work of completely unrepresentative right-wingers. We weren't told that Jyllands-Posten is Denmark's largest-selling newspaper.

As far as Internet freedom was concerned, the market was the problem. Who would control the Internet, a plaintive Ms Teller whined. Well, without the market, there wouldn't have been an Internet I suppose. Problem solved.

Mr Kunzru did at least understand the desirability of freedom on the Net. But, like some of the audience, he thought that meant some kind of democratic control. He rightly condemned the collaboration of certain western Internet companies with the Chinese government but quite failed to realise that criticism and boycotts of such companies are part of the marketplace of ideas. Would "democracy" necessarily produce more freedom? The question wasn't considered of course.

Kunzru attacked the ownership of Google as being "closed". But if he'd returned to Charlotte Square at nine on Monday morning he could have walked in a few minutes to a dozen offices in which he could have bought shares in Google.

Google's source codes should be "open", opined Kunzru. I should have asked if he would be happy were I to pass off one of his books as being my own.

The rain continued. I couldn't be bothered to ask any questions. Afterwards I noticed that there was no sign of anyone from the audience lining up to buy books from the two speakers. All wasn't lost however. On the way home, Mrs F&W found a five-pound note in Shandwick Place. From the invisible hand I suppose.

Friday 17 August 2007

Back at the Festival

I heard a couple of good talks today.

Simon Sebag Montefiore spoke about Stalin. His description of the Tiflis bank robbery was excellent:

By 1907, he was looking to pull off a spectacular bank robbery, but he needed an "inside man". In the streets of Tiflis, he bumped into an old schoolfriend, now working as an accountant in the state bank, who declared himself a passionate fan of Soselo's poems, particularly the one dedicated to Eristavi. Stalin charmed and cultivated this admirer until he agreed to reveal the arrival by stagecoach of a million roubles. Using this information, Stalin set up the Tiflis bank robbery in which 40 people were killed and a huge sum stolen for Lenin. This secured Stalin's reputation with Lenin, who declared he was "exactly the type I need". Only in Georgia, where poetry was read passionately, would a banker risk his life and career to arrange a bloody bank robbery because he loved a man's poetry.

After a thirty-minute break it was on to hear Douglas Hurd tell us about his new biography of Peel. I was never a great fan of Hurd but he came across very well, speaking mainly about Peel's founding of the Metropolitan Police and then the Repeal of the Corn Laws. Afterwards I realised that I should have asked Hurd about the modern Corn Laws imposed on us by Brussels...

Alistair Darling is an idiot

I just heard my MP on the radio a few minutes ago. He was talking about the Tory noises about tax cuts.

Darling said:

Take £21 billion out of the economy and it's bound to have an effect.
Does the Chancellor really think that the economy consists solely of the state sector? What's being proposed is the transfer of money from the less productive part of the economy to the more productive part with a resulting increase in overall welfare.

(Needless to say, I don't believe for a moment that the Tories actually would cut the level of taxation.)

Wednesday 15 August 2007

The First Minister

After working at two of my three jobs today I rushed up to Charlotte Square to listen to Alex Salmond talking about the new White Paper Choosing Scotland's Future. (Actually, it's blue.) He seemed very relaxed and I'd guess that most of the audience was on his side. Amazingly enough I got chatting to an American graduate student (at Glasgow) who described himself as a libertarian and who was a fan of Salmond.

A change

The Festival is getting to be a bit overwhelming. Last night we went to hear John Dickie and Mary Contini. A nice change from politics. Sort of - Italian food is not unconnected with politics. Sadly there were no freebies from the Contini family business. But she's on again on Thursday...

Monday 13 August 2007

Hands off Ivan

This morning I went along to listen to one of my favourite historians. I'd heard Norman Davies a year or two ago at the festival and enjoyed reading The Isles. Sadly I still had 120 pages to go of his 1,365-page Europe: A History by the time I arrived this morning.

Davies told us an excellent story. In the late 1980's the Polish government at last agreed to the publication of a Polish language version of his history of that country. The manuscript went to the local Communist party cultural authorities and they didn't object to a single word. However, the Soviet embassy also had to give its approval. After a few days Davies was told by the Soviets that certain alterations had to be made. Was it his criticism of Stalin? No. Of Lenin? No. The Gulag? No. The Soviet message was this: "We don't like your saying bad things about Ivan the Terrible."

The Union

That was the subject of Sunday evening's debate chaired by Brian Taylor of the BBC, who was not wearing one of his trademark colourful ties.

First to speak was Michael Fry, a former Tory candidate now converted to the cause of Scottish independence. He was followed by Paul Scott, a well-known SNP activist. Third was Christopher Whateley, Vice Principal of Dundee University. We heard a lot of detail about the period leading up to the Union but there weren't too many fireworks despite what I had been led to believe. Scott made much of English bribery and military threats in the pre-union period. Whateley emphasised the common protestant religion of England and Scotland and also common fear of the French who were no longer seen as Scotland's Auld Ally". Free drinks were provided afterwards.

Speaking in tongues

On Sunday we heard Nicholas Ostler talk about his new book on Latin. He's not quite the typical bloke you'd meet down the pub:
A scholar with a working knowledge of twenty-six languages, Nicholas Ostler has degrees from Oxford University in Greek, Latin, philosophy, and economics, and a Ph.D. in linguistics from MIT, where he studied under Noam Chomsky.
He told me that he knew "around eighteen" languages. I suppose it gets a bit confusing after the first three or four. Later on I saw Mr Ostler lurking in the Scottish history section of the bookshop. Does he speak Gaelic? Probably by the end of visit to Scotland.

Sunday 12 August 2007

More Indian stuff

On Saturday evening we went to hear Michael Wood talk about his new BBC programme on India. A much less tense individual than William Dalrymple but not necessarily a better historian of course. Unsurprisingly this experienced broadcaster talked very fluently and we were shown a short clip from the new series. It looks well worth watching.

Saturday 11 August 2007

It's started

I went for my first trip to the Book Festival this morning. Oops, wrong link - that was afterwards...

Here's the real link.

I heard William Dalrymple give a fascinating talk on India - a theme of this year's Festival. (It's 60 years since independence.) General impression: knows his stuff, should be worth reading, but I was annoyed by the anti western digs that rather spoiled the talk. He spoke for 1 hour and five minutes. Speakers are meant to stop and allow questions from the audience all within the one-hour time slot. I suppose good timekeeping is some kind of outmoded "western" concept. Chairman Linklater should have kept control.

The Fed: nothing to do with "markets"

I always enjoy reading Martin's stuff, even though I don't agree with everything he has to say. But I had a good laugh this morning when I read this piece:'s nonetheless quite funny to see the Federal Reserve abandoning its faith in markets in order to prime the pump like good old-fashioned Keynesians.

There's nothing quite like having faith in your principles - eh, lads?

The Fed! Faith in markets! The Fed was explicitly founded as a way for uncompetitive businessmen to get round markets. And that's what is continues to do today.

Thursday 9 August 2007

There may be trouble ahead

Down 2.83%

Britain should have joined the Euro

The European Central Bank has "printed" 95 Billion Euros today.

I reckon that's around 300 Euros for every man, woman and child in the Euro zone. (£199 to you, squire)

How wonderful that the government can create money out of thin air. Or am I missing something?

Monday 6 August 2007

An "economic illiterate" responds

I came across this piece by Matthew Lynn in the current issue of The Business.

Lynn writes:

In a globalised economy, very few companies are owned domestically. Already 40% of the shares on the London Stock Exchange are owned by foreigners. It doesn’t make much difference whether your local supermarket is owned by a hedge fund manager in Zurich or an investment fund in Dubai. What counts is whether there is enough competition to make sure it offers good service and fair prices.
Not quite.

It may not make too much of a difference if one is simply considering the price of the weekly shop. But the location of a company's owners and especially of company head offices certainly matters if we are thinking about the wider economy. The Scottish media has had hundreds of articles on this very subject since I started reading newspapers. Head offices mean top jobs therein as well as highly paid professional advisors nearby. I'm not arguing for government interference here, rather for the ending of those factors that are responsible for the economic problems faced by "the provinces." (Scroll down)

Does Mr Lynn think that it would make no difference if the "London" Stock Exchange itself were to move to Liverpool, Limerick or Lyon?

New Links added

Angels in Marble
Educational Conscription

I note that Ms Angel thinks my answer to Q5 is "outrageous".

Sunday 5 August 2007

I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!

Here's a nice calm discussion typical of what happens when money is created out of thin air. The first of many rants to come...

UPDATE: here's another good one:

Just asking...

During my morning trawl through Bloglines I came across this post from Dizzy:
...when she emailed the recruiters for the Environment Agency and asked, "Am I correct in assuming that as I am English (White) I need not apply as the preference is for the minorities you have listed, or can I apply anyway?" the reply she received from the recruitment officer, Bola Odusi, said,

"Thank you for your enquiry unfortunately the traineeship opportunity in [sic] targeted towards the ethnic minority group to address their under representations in the professions under the Race Relations Act amended 2000."

In other words, minority status trumps ability if you want to join the Environment Agency. Who needs abilities? Hardly even newsworthy today though.

But then I read another of Dizzy's posts:

Government laboratory to blame for foot and mouth outbreak?
I can't help thinking that there might just be a connection between these stories...

Friday 3 August 2007

Jobbie McJobsworth strikes again

Did you know that there are volunteer coastguards? I didn't, but there's not so many as there used to be:
AN ENTIRE Coastguard unit has resigned in protest at the sacking of their leader - hours after he led the search for a father and son killed in a canoeing tragedy.
It's "Elf 'n' Safety" of course.

I note that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has all of the usual equality and diversity claptrap.

Here it is in action:

"We are disappointed and saddened it has come to this. We have tried to work with Murdo to iron out the difficulties but for us now, Murdo is history."
So there we have it. An entire volunteer team has gone, are "history" in fact. Better that Elf 'n' Safety prevails even if Ness no longer has any coastguards

Thursday 2 August 2007

Enemy agent of the week

I came across an article in the current issue of Director.

It's by:

Cary Cooper CBE (who) is pro vice-chancellor and professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University and chair of the Sunningdale Institute.
He writes about the BBC's show The Apprentice:
The aspiring apprentices brought to mind the Darwinian phrase "nature red in tooth and claw". Several demonstrated the worst aspects of capitalism, as well as greed and inconsiderate behaviour. They tended to be over-aggressive, took credit for others' work and success, demonstrated a lack of loyalty, wanted to win at all costs, and showed a conspicuous lack of self-effacing and supportive behaviour to colleagues.
Hang on a moment. Just what's specifically "capitalist" about those traits? Stalin, Hitler, Mao and God knows how many other anti-capitalists can be thus described. And yes, so can some capitalists. But, as Adam Smith explained, it's capitalism that provides the feedback mechanism that minimises the effect of bad behaviour. One would expect a writer in Director to understand that.

Wednesday 1 August 2007

The people's flag

My goodness, Gordon Brown's stirred up a real stushie with this one:
SCOTLAND will be exempt from Gordon Brown's plans to fly the Union flag from every public building, it was confirmed yesterday.

As part of a drive to increase the sense of Britishness and unity, the Prime Minister announced earlier this month that he wanted the Union flag flown all year round on government buildings and eventually on police stations and hospitals across the UK.

And the Scotsman's site has 767 comments so far!

The blogosphere's been responding:

Mr Eugenides

Not Proud of Britain

The Last Ditch

The Wardman Wire


Granite City

Understandably, English bloggers object to this example of asymmetrical Britain. Of course, Scots have been objecting to asymmetrical Britain for years. The common perception that England equals the UK is what drives Scottish Nationalism. Only now, with the coming of devolution and the awareness (although not the understanding) of the Barnet Formula and the West Lothian Question has England even thought about Scotland.

Here's what Thunderdragon has to say:

What this shows mostly, however, is that despite Gordon Brown's oft-made commitment to Britishness, he is still at heart a Scot - and will give things to Scotland that he won't to England.
Well, yes and no. I believe that Brown is "at heart" both Scottish and British. Probably like most Scots. But he'll support Scotland against England on the sports ground. Like most Scots. I don't believe for a moment that he actually enjoyed that Gazza goal.

But on the flag question I don't accept that he has chosen to "give things to Scotland that he won't to England". Brown has done what we expect - he's acted as a politician. Politicians can't be expected to behave "rationally" or "symmetrically". They are in the business of power.

I don't think that Brown's Britishness campaign has too much to do with Scotland. It's predominantly about trying to deal with the chaos caused by multi-culturalism - chaos largely created by Brown's own party. He hopes that flying the Union Jack in England will help Labour. Maybe it will. But he also knows that Scotland is different. The Saltire has been flown on public and private buildings here for as long as I remember. We have an SNP government at Holyrood and the Nats are strongly represented in local authorities. Imposing the Union Jack on Scotland would cause a huge row that Brown doesn't need. The position in England is not the same - widespread use of the St George's Cross is a recent development and there are no English nationalists in positions of power. One day that may change and then other politicians will respond. It's a mistake to expect politicians to act consistently except in the pursuit of their own ends.

A feature, not a bug

Doctorvee writes about the BBC's new "iPlayer".

He isn't impressed:

I mean, just look at it. You can’t use it on a Mac. You can’t use it on Linux. You can’t even use it on the latest version of Windows. And even if you are lucky enough to be using the correct operating system, you have to be using the right browser.
I'm not really surprised. We're dealing with the same phenomenon as when the NHS brings in a new computer system. Governments are all about force. That's what makes them different from civil society. The BBC, like the NHS, is never going to give priority to the customer. That's not in its nature.