Archive for 2008

A taste of canon law

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

This morning I was reading the Code of Canon Law at breakfast — there is a reason — and found my way to the rules for absolving whomsoever the priest may have screwed. This is a big no no, as the commentary explains: “the absolution of a partner in sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue is invalid except in danger of death”; apart from that danger, any priest who knowingly attempts to absolve an accomplice in such a sin commits a very serious offence”

One see that giving the priest the right to absolve his mistress or concubine must be strictly forbidden because it would eviscerate the requirement of celibacy. So far so obvious. But there is fascinating pendant in my commentary which says the Canon must be interpreted strictly, so no offence is committed … if the priest absolves the accomplice without in any way realising that he or she was in fact his accomplice [or] if the priest does not specifically recognise the accomplice or has doubts concerning his or her identity”

I think this deserves to be generally known as the cottaging clause, though obviously it also covers participation in masked orgies.

La Chute

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

Last night I went to bed rereading Galbraith’s The Great Crash and felt for the first time that I understood the financial manipulations behind it all. This morning I looked at the papers, briefly. The two policy wonks I quoted last week about European banks being both too big to fail and too big to save, so that the ECB must rescue them, have had second thoughts in the FT. They don’t think even the ECB can manage it without some swift, decisive reforms.

As for the FT itself, in its leader column, it has this to say about Swiss banks:
“it is hard to draw much general reassurance from the Fortis rescue. The Benelux governments have their own shared economic union and some shared institutions; co-ordination between Greece and Ireland would not be so seamless. As for Switzerland, home to UBS and not an EU member, it is easiest just to hope no problem arises.”
Nor would I invest in Ireland, which has been having a bubble of its own. Last Christmas, after the Northern Rock collapse, the Anglo Irish bank featured briefly in the Guardian‘s money pages because it was offering nearly 7% interest on a year’s bond. Today it is in the FT as the specialist property lender, whose shares plunged 45 per cent; the Irish government has just upped its guarantee to cover the first £100,000 of any deposits held by anyone in an Irish bank, which is good news for those who took the Guardian‘s tip.

Good news, that is, providing they don’t actually read the Guardian, and wonder whether this money really exists: “The FSCS [the body which pays this compensation] is funded by the financial services industry and has just £5m in its kitty from last year’s levy.” The money will of course be borrowed from the government, which means us, if it is ever needed. Yet another illustration of the way in which all banking relies on confidence and  that money has no more reality than god (discuss). Buried in Nils Pratley’s post-crash analysis is the most extraordinary sentence: “The immediate challenge for the central banks is simply to keep the banking system functioning – ensuring that payments are processed and that companies can continue to pay everyday bills, such as wages.”

I’m still haunted, though, by the phrase “specialist property lender”. Without knowing anything about the Irish property market except that it is a hideous bubble, I note that the English market has more or less entirely disappeared: Mortgage lending slowed to a near standstill in August as approvals for new home loans hit a record low, according to the Bank of England. Net lending was £143m on a seasonally adjusted basis, down from £3bn in July and from £9.1bn in August 2007, the month when the credit crunch began.

In which Stephen Glover …

Monday, September 29th, 2008

Is forced to swallow the contents of his sickbag in his column for the, erm, Independent:

So what do I think of last week’s re-vamp, as well as other changes introduced by The Independent’s new editor, Roger Alton, over the past few months? This lively all-colour tabloid is certainly very far from the restrained and classic newspaper that first appeared 22 years ago. Times, no doubt, have changed. Mr Alton’s transformation is more one of style than substance, though there are more stories about celebrities, and the recent, slightly blush-making part-work about sex would have been unimaginable even five years ago … Rather amusingly, a new section was described by The Independent last week as “brilliant”. Every new columnist the Mail introduces is invariably “brilliant”.

One pound is a premium price which implies a premium product. For the first time since its launch, The Independent is arguably slightly downmarket, in style if not in content, of The Guardian and even the (recently more elevated) Times.

Mr Alton had a choice. He could have taken The Independent upmarket, accepting that it would sell fewer copies in the medium term, but hoping that its readers would cheerfully bear a progressively higher cover price in return for undiluted seriousness. I suspect he was not even momentarily tempted by this option.

Poor old Stephen. He is absolutely dead right that Alton would not have been tempted for one moment to produce the paper that he still believes the Independent ought to have been: a serious, centre-right tabloid that was a lot of fun to read—something like a daily version of the Spectator under Alexander Chancellor. As the Independent’s first foreign editor, he gathered a marvellous stable of writers in pursuit of this ambition—Chancellor himself, Ed Lucas. James Fenton. Patrick Marnham, Richard Dowden—and he had a deputy who did all the necessary grunt work too. His one spell as an editor, at the Independent on Sunday, was a failure almost tragic to watch, except that it wasn’t his virtues that brought him down. But very few people are successful editors, even when they are good journalists, and he’s an excellent officer when he has the right second in command. It must be horrible for him to look at the Alton Independent, with its Ten Best Sex Toys feature; and nothing he says in that column distracts attention from the central fact about that relaunch, which is that the paper is raising its cover price as we enter a recession without investing anything at all in journalism. That is exactly what we did in 1991, which is an important part of the explanation for why Stephen is a media columnist on the paper now, and not an editor.

But even if Sir Anthony O’Reilly were to repent and offer Stephen the editorship of the paper, to make of it what he willed, the change would be impossible because the money isn’t there. Good journalism costs lots of money, even if not enough as journalists would like to believe, and I suspect that an up-market Independent would have to lose at least as much as the Guardian for years before it made anything, if it ever did. Its real competition would be the FT and the Wall Street Journal.

See also Paul Dunn’s letter in the Guardian today: you’ll have to scroll down.

Funhouse mirror on the wall

Monday, September 29th, 2008

via Razib, I just stumbled on this global obesity chart. No prizes for guessing that the fattest people on earth are Americans, at 30% obese, and it’s reasonable that Britain, at 23% shoud be in third place. But—except that it’s next to Texas—there seems no reason for Mexicans to be fatter than the Brits, as they are.

Although I remember Sweden as a country with no fat people at all, and so they figure largely in my sight when I go there now, it is in fact 21 on the list, with 9.7%, less than half the British rate. On the other hand, a third of Swedish cats are overweight, according to today’s paper.

The two thinnest rich countries are Japan and South Korea, both with less than 4% obesity. Oliver Sacks, I know, cured his corpulence by eating nothing but sushi for lunch for years, if not decades.

NationMaster – Obesity (most recent) by country.

A sad reality

Friday, September 26th, 2008

The Country Vicar wants me to be apocalyptic. Here’s apocalyptic for you: not only is the vice presidential cadidate prayed over by a Kenyan exorcists who boasts of driving “witchcraft” out of towns there, but his boast is defended by the president of the Catholic League, Bill Donahue. Of course, Donahue is a notorious bigot. but he has influence; and this influence is deployed to suggest that real witches are really killing people in Africa today:

<blockquote>“Witchcraft is a sad reality in many parts of Africa, resulting in scores of deaths in Kenya over the past two decades. Bishop Muthee’s blessing, then, was simply a reflection of his cultural understanding of evil. While others are not obliged to accept his interpretation, all can be expected to respect it.</blockquote>Balls, I say. If you wanted to sum up the Enlightenment in one simple advance for humanity, it is that no civilised person now is expected to believe in witchcraft or to respect those who do.

Goodbye to Swiss banks?

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

There is yet more from the FT about the crash: an article suggesting that while the US government had to nationalise the finance system to save it, no European government is big enough to do the same, if that proves needful:

<blockquote>a formal default by AIG would have exposed European banks to large increases in regulatory capital requirements, with possibly devastating effects on their ratings and market confidence. Thus, the US Treasury has saved, inter alia, the European banking system.</blockquote>

Now, we don’t know whether the US government has in fact saved the European banking system. The most we can say is “so far, so good”. But if it hasn’t. the authors have some jaw-dropping figures:

<blockquote>the largest European banks have become not only too big to fail, but also too big to be saved. For example, the total liabilities of Deutsche Bank (leverage ratio over 50!) amount to about €2,000bn (more than Fannie Mae) or more than 80 per cent of the gross domestic product of Germany. This is simply too much for the Bundesbank or even the German state, given that the German budget is bound by the rules of the European Union’s stability pact and the German government cannot order (unlike the US Treasury) its central bank to issue more currency. Similarly, the total liabilities of Barclays of around £1,300bn (leverage ratio 60!) are roughly equivalent to the GDP of the UK. Fortis bank has a leverage ratio of “only” 33, but its liabilities are three times the GDP of its home country of Belgium.</blockquote> The only body which can rescue such banks, they say, is the ECB: the European Central Bank. But that only works within the Eurozone. Britain and Switzerland both stand outside it. Obviously it’s no comfort to think that I don’t have any money in Barclays. If it were to go down, I wouldn’t have any money anywhere, and neither would you, gentle reader. All we would have left is the gratification of knowing how very very very very wrong the Right in Britain has been about economics for the last twenty years and under the circumstances I would rather that the Right had been right.

Rowan Williams and responsibility

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

In ordinary language, “to take responsibility” for someone or something means to tell them what to do and then take the blame when it goes wrong. This is not at all what Rowan Williams means by the phrase — at least it is not at all what he thinks that Dostoevsky means by it. Anyone who has followed his career as Archbishop must suspect that he thinks Dostoevsky is right. But his view of responsibility is the most surprising of all his inversions of normal belief in the book. The three I noticed before we got to responsibility were all fairly conventional among modern Christian intellectuals: God is not an actor in the world; nor an explanatory factor among others; while “an answer to the plain question ‘Do you believe in God’ is going to tell you almost nothing about the meaning of faith”.

A short Q&A with Melanie Phillips

Monday, September 22nd, 2008
In this morning’s Mail she has a pop at Baroness Warnock:
Q: Has there ever been anyone who has displayed more inhumanity towards her fellow human beings, and yet had more influence over British society, than the noble Baroness Warnock?
To which the plain helminths of this log reply:
A: Paul Dacre.

Improbable statistics

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

According to Spiegel, there are between 8,000 and 10,000 wild boars living in and around Berlin today; according to the Guardian, the Independent currently sells, at full price, 131,566 copies. That’s before they put the price up 25% to £1.00. The remaining 100,000 on its circulation figures are heavily discounted; I don’t know what happens to bulk prices when the cover price goes up.

Spiegel suggests that forty licensed hunters could bring the boar plague under control and stop them rootling up graveyards and running through gardens. There is a rather wonderful video (start about two thirds of the way through) of swine being hunted through a parking lot on the Spiegel site. I wonder if the Independent’s story will have the same ending.

Silly mapping fun

Saturday, September 20th, 2008

I have been playing with the GPS on my new phone — let’s face it: you can’t do more than play — and found a wonderful site here, which offers a split screen view, with a large scale Ordnance Survey map on one side, and a satellite view on the other. On the OS map, you can mark out routes, which can then be exported in XML to the phone; and if you have OS maps on the phone, too, courtesy of Viewranger, then the whole route is available in a pocket. It’s much easier to plot a route on a big screen than on the phone. Viewranger, incidentally, offers maps of Finland and Slovenia as well as Great Britain, and is hoping to do Norway and Sweden too, soon. And OS-type maps are much better than Google for walking and looking.