Nobel Peace Prize Nominations

To those who are dismayed and upset over the news that George Bush and Tony Blair have been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize this year: don’t worry too much. It’s not as bad as you think.

First of all, receiving a Nobel Peace Prize “nomination” is not like an Oscar “nomination.” According to the web site of the Nobel committee:

“In recent years, the Committee has received well over 140 different nominations for the Peace Prize. (The numbers of nominating letters are much higher, since many are for the same candidates.)”

The nominations are reviewed thoroughly by the committee and their advisers, and eventually they are narrowed down to a well-considered short list of candidates, from which the eventual winner is chosen. A Nobel Peace Prize nomination is therefore much more like the letter from a movie studio proposing a certain film, or actor to the Academy for an award.

Now, take a look at the list of people from whom the committee will consider nominations:

  • Members of national assemblies and governments
  • Members of international courts of law
  • University chancellors; university professors of social science, history, philosophy, law and theology
  • Leaders of peace research institutes and institutes of foreign affairs
  • Former Nobel Peace Prize laureates
  • Board members of organisations that have received the Nobel Peace Prize
  • Present and past members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee (committee members must present their nomination at the latest at the first committee meeting after February 1)
  • Former advisers at the Norwegian Nobel Institute

We’re talking thousands of people worldwide. Now bear in mind that there has always been a certain proportion of people who thought that going to war on Iraq was a good thing, and that somehow Iraq has benefited from being occupied by an invading army, and being placed under colonial rule. It is therefore inevitable that someone from some national assembly, university, court, or research institute would think that Bush and Blair are the greatest thing since sliced bread walked the earth. Hey, even Hitler was nominated for the Peace Prize back in 1938.

The reason this whole nomination thing is news now is because the deadline for nominations was yesterday (1st February), and because some knucklehead wilfully ignored the Nobel Committee’s strong request that nominators keep silent about who they have nominated. The knucklehead in question is right-wing Norwegian MP Jan Simonsen. Ask yourself the question: why would he deliberately go against the wishes of the committee? Could it be because he is a publicity-seeking weasel in search of political favour? Hmm, could be!

Remember that Bush and Blair were also nominated in 2002 and in 2003. They didn’t win then, either. Looking at the situation in Iraq right now, the Nobel Committee would really have to be blind, insane, or intolerably corrupt to award them the prize. This is not the case.

Blair and Bush have no chance of winning the prize this year. The nomination is nothing more than political wind.

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University top-up fees

I’m not going to talk much about the Labour government’s narrow, shallow, hollow victory in the House Of Commons this evening over university tuition fees, because it makes me too damn angry.

The bill, which gives the go-ahead for universities to charge students variable fees of up to £3,000 per year doesn’t apply here in Scotland. So why should I be bothered? First of all, Scotland is part of the United Kingdom, and as such benefits from the education of all its citizens. Secondly, the Scottish Executive is going to be watching this bill with great interest. There is going to be pressure on Scotland to introduce a similar system. Maybe not this year or next, but soon enough.

Top-up fees are a huge step down the road towards turning university education into a commodity that is bought, rather than obtained through intellectual effort. And as with all commodities, the rich will have more and they will have better. Talk to me all you want about loans and grants and scholarships allowing gifted poor students to attend expensive universities, but those are exceptions. The rule is that those universities will be populated by students whose parents can afford the fees.

A £3,000 fee might not seem like much, but it’s their very existence that poses a threat to the future of British further education. Once the fees are in place, and universities are benefiting from the money they provide, it will be almost impossible to remove them again. Doing so would be seen as cutting money from education, and that’s political suicide. But when universities come clamoring for more cash, as they inevitably will, the chancellor will have two options: allocate more money from the public pot, or raise the maximum fee universities can charge. What chancellor is going to be able to resist the latter option?

This bill is an arrow straight to the heart of our education system twenty years from now. And it has come about because of two stupid, stupid pieces of public policy. One is the desire to keep income taxes low, and never be seen to raise them. This leads to governments raising funds in back-handed, circuitous ways that don’t affect the bottom line of your pay slip, but suck the money out of your wallet nevertheless. The second is Labour’s target of 50% participation in higher education. This second policy has numerous consequences, one of which is the need for universities to offer a much wider spectrum of courses, which means they need a lot of extra money.

Individually, those two policies are reasonable, but put them together and suddenly you hit a funding crisis. Outgoings exceed income, and what do you do then? You have to raise money by other means. The chancellor could either borrow more money, or cut funds elsewhere, but that’s not acceptable to the Labour leadership. The “third way” is to allow universities to charge students directly for top-up tuition fees. This allows Tony Blair to stand up at the next election and make three claims: 1) he hasn’t increased taxes, 2) he hasn’t increased public borrowing, 3) he hasn’t cut spending.

What he has done is move university funding out of the purview of direct taxation (income tax) and into indirect taxation (taxes on things you “choose” to buy).

In Britain, income tax is a progressive tax, whish is to say that the rich pay proportionately more than the poor. In 2003/04, you pay 22% tax on income up to £30,500, and 40% on income above that amount. Indirect taxes, however, hit everyone equally. You pay the same 17.5% Value Added Tax (VAT) on a new television whether you earn £10,000 a year or £100,000. The difference is that the 17.5% is pocket change to someone on the higher income, whereas it makes a material difference to the lower earner.

Is this what we want? An education system where the rich can choose whatever university they like, but the poor have to scrimp and save, jump through humiliating bureaucratic hoops, and place themselves in debt for the next twenty years of their lives to get a degree? How do we, as a society, benefit from turning education into a fashion accessory for the wealthy?

Well, it looks like I talked about it after all. Grr. I can’t believe it’s a Labour government introducing this measure. One more reason to be voting Scottish Socialist.

“You see, the trouble is, I’m not actually American…”

Regarding the whole issue of the USA subjecting us shifty-looking foreigners to ritual humiliation and suspicion before allowing us entry into the “land of the free” (tee-hee!), here’s a nice little article (via Burnt Toast):

Put it this way, if you were hustled away at an English airport, fingerprinted, photographed, interrogated, bullied, harassed, and slapped in handcuffs for complaining, then told that you shouldn’t mind because it’s for the safety of your allies, the English people, because one of you Americans might conceivably be a bomber, you wouldn’t like it, would you? No, so I’m not quite clear why you think doing this to people coming into your country is not going to damage your tourist and travel industry at all. Oh, of course, silly me, because we’re protecting the American people, aren’t we?

That’s the whole problem with this ludicrous measure: it is grossly asymmetrical. US citizens are not required to pass through this catch-all security dragnet, and the US state department cries “foul!” whenever another country reciprocates. Are US citizens somehow magically exempt from being terrorists? Of course not, otherwise why would the federal government be making underhanded grabs for more yet more powers of Fatherland investigation and surveillance? So why not make all Americans give up their fingerprints at border checkpoints? Oh, might that be an invasion of privacy? Morally repugnant? Unconstitutional?

The article makes another point later on (emphasis is mine):

“Yours used to be a fine country, Mr Government Affairs Spokesman; I liked the straightforward way most people went about their business, and the ‘how can we make things work for you’ attitude. It was invigorating and I got a real buzz out of visiting. Now I’m not so sure I want to come and visit. I can stay at home and experience administrative paranoia; I don’t need to see that your country can do it bigger and better than anyone else. I feel uncomfortable trying to deal with an administration that feels so threatened, without being able to define what that threat really is, that it has to tell itself bigger, ever more bizarre stories about perceived threats in order to justify its reactions to what are now effectively pieces of fluff moving in the breeze. This is not healthy. The USA is no longer a healthy country, and this is clearly demonstrated in the way it deals with the rest of the world. 9/11 was a terrible thing, in and of itself, but so was bombing Afghanistan and Iraq because your administration thought the perpetrators might be hiding there, even though it had few grounds for thinking so, and even fewer now that weapons of mass destruction are providing elusive.”

I have been thinking this for some time now. The USA is sick. On the world stage, its behaviour is that of a paranoid schizophrenic. No, really. Take a typical description of paranoid schizophrenia from a typical mental health web site:

[Victims] often begin to hear, see, or feel things that aren’t really there (hallucinations) or become convinced of things that simply aren’t true (delusions). In the paranoid form of this disorder, they develop delusions of persecution or personal grandeur.

Yes, 9/11 was a single, enormous terrorist attack, but that does not mean the whole world has it in for the US. There’s a difference between taking all reasonable security measures, and outright paranoia. There’s a difference between hunting down the perpetrators of an atrocity, and killing thousands of people in the process of invading two countries and wildly lashing out at one’s closest allies. The whole “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” attitude speaks volumes.

But it’s more than just America’s recent performance on the world stage. Take a look at the obscene and ever-widening gap between rich and poor. Take a look at the medical system that soaks up 50% of the world’s healthcare budget, yet leaves 15% of the population out in the cold. Take a look at the hijacking of its political machinery by corporate interests. We’re talking more than just a few social injustices here–we’re looking at an accelerating breakdown in the entire social fabric of the country, and what is the best headline its Leader can come up with to usher in the new year? A moon base. Wow. That’s really going to make people feel good about themselves when their job is off-shored, and they find themselves without medical insurance.

America, the rest of the world looks upon you with a mixture of horror and fear. And part of your problem is that you don’t see that this is a problem. As we all know from pop psychology, acknowledging that you have a problem is the first step towards solving it. So can you please get rid of Bush this year? Thanks. The world will be a safer and nicer place for it.

Status Reports

A few weeks ago Rands posted a couple of articles (1 and 2) about status reports, those things that people hate writing, hate reading, and rarely tell you anything useful even when you do. In particular, he tries to come up with some ideas about how they can be improved in order to actually contribute to the running of a company instead of just slowing everyone down with paperwork.

I’ve been wanting to comment on these articles for a while, but I’ve had trouble crystallizing my thoughts. I’m still not sure if I can, but if I don’t get this out before the New Year, it’ll just sit in my head forever. It’s not a refutation of anything in particular that Rands said, just a bunch of ramblings that his articles sparked off in me.

To start with, there are two issues:

  1. Why are status reports necessary?
  2. Why are they such a problem?

The answer to these are linked:

  1. Managers need true and accurate information to run the company
  2. Providing true and accurate information–whether it’s good news or bad–is rarely in an underling’s best interests.

In any human organization, whether that’s a family, a company or a country, there is a certain amount of friction generated by self interest and lies, however white and small. Like in mechanical systems, this human friction can be minimized; but just as the second law of Thermodynamics forbids perpetual motion machines, basic human nature means that the whole truth will never make it from one end to the other intact.

A typical modern company is made up of three elements, in varying proportions:

  1. Systems
  2. Processes
  3. People

Those are the ingredients for a beast that eats raw materials and shits finished product (metal into cars, requirements into code, whatever). Status reports are a process. Wikis and blogs are systems. There is only so much in the behaviour and output of a company you can change by tinkering with its processes and systems.

In traditional industry this “so much” can be large, because you’re delivering tangible output from assembly lines (systems) and logistics (processes). Still, there is a limiting factor imposed by the people who have to operate the factory: it’s the workers who implement the directives from management.

In the “knowledge” industry (software houses, financial institutions, etc.) people play a much greater part. Which is a problem, because people are so much more complicated than systems and processes. They get depressed, they affect morale in their departments, they raise awkward questions in meetings, and they need paid every damn month.

Executives hate this, which is why they cream themselves over workflow and knowledge management systems that promise to get the workings of the company out of the heads of their staff, and into easily tweaked databases. These knowledge systems can then be shipped offshore to wherever the labour costs are lowest this month, the original staff can be made redundant, and the executives can jerk off about shareholder value in their annual reports and reward themselves with some healthy stock options.

But surely reducing a company’s reliance upon its people, and increasing its systems load can’t be the only option for affecting overall performance? I don’t think that Rands’s quest for a more systems-based approach to status reports is going to lead to massive redundancies, but I do find it symptomatic of this particular school of thought.

So what’s the alternative? I can only think of one:

  1. Hire people you can trust
  2. Give them a measurable stake in the success of the company

The (big) problem with this approach is that it isn’t scalable. From my experience, it works fine with a company up to about 30 people, but after that it breaks down. First of all, the company starts to get too big for the founders to handle all the recruitment themselves, and secondly, unless the company’s revenues scale with the number of employees (hint: they don’t), the “measurable stake” dwindles to the point where it’s nothing more than a 5% Christmas bonus.

So here we’re back to where Rands started: how do you improve communication in a larger organization, when you’ve had to hire people you don’t even know, let alone trust, and where the only stake an employee has in its success is the continued arrival of his salary every month?

Here is also where Rands ended: have people tell the truth.

Teams represent[ed] by more compelling Status Reports are going to be rewarded by getting their agenda fulfilled. People will talk about these teams and wonder about their success. Soon, we’ll be talking about the products created by these teams and trying to figure out what is the secret of their success… which is simple… they’re just writing down the truth.

Except…they won’t. Human friction, selfishness, and little white lies to cover your ass will get in the way. Better social software (whatever) will result in more innovative ways for staff to hide what it is they’re really doing all day. The content-free status report will be replaced by the content-free daily blog entry. It may be a slight improvement, but only a slight one. If you want to tweak the people of a company, you actually have to tweak the people, not just the systems they work with.

Summing up: damned if I know. But if I ever start my own company, I’m going to try and keep it small and successful, rather than aiming for enormous growth and a fat IPO.

“Pickles and a .45”

No-one does a good rant quite like Karl over at Word Soup. Today sees one of his best ones:

Obviously Saddam, who was the sole mastermind behind the September 11 attacks and was planning bio and chem attacks on the U.S. (right? RIGHT?), was coordinating the Iraqi resistance with a hot-dog and some fig newtons in a fucking hole. I mean he was dangerous pre-war, what with his army and airforce grounded, Inspectors coating the landscape and the CIA up his ass, but he was super-EXTRA dangerous hiding in that fucking box with pickles and a .45.

I haven’t written much about politics lately because I don’t want to embarrass anyone with the bubbly enthusiasm I tend to run over with whenever I get on the subject. But take Karl’s post, rotate it across the Atlantic, and you get to pretty much where I’m at right now. Sign me up for that Paypal fund, dude.

When will our leaders take responsibility?

“Let us say one thing. If we are wrong we will have destroyed a threat that, at its least, is responsible for inhuman carnage and suffering. That is something I am confident history will forgive.” (from Tony Blair’s speech to heads and spokesmen for major US corporations US Congress, Thursday 17 July 2003)

How much disgust can I express at a prime minister who comes up with a quote like this to justify a war? A letter in the Guardian today does a good job:

“Tony Blair is sounding more and more like a policeman who, having been found out being selective with the evidence, argues that the suspect was a career criminal and deserved to go down anyway.”

I would add that saying “history will forgive” us if we were wrong about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction (I use the words “us” and “we” consciously: I, along with every voter in Britain, share the blame for this disgrace) is the statement of a colossally arrogant man who believes that he has right on his side by definition. He claims he was right, but even if he is “proved” wrong, then history will overrule the doubters and call him right retroactively.

It’s the statement of a man who will not accept responsibility for his actions. Because all he has to do is wait out any crisis, and history will absolve him of any blame. It’s the statement of a zealot, spoken in the most seductive tones of the language of hate and atrocity.

History will forgive us. God will forgive us. Our reward lies in the afterlife. Kill the infidels.

No. I’m not an expert on forgiveness, but Abi and I have had many discussions on the matter. Forgiveness requires you to take responsibility for your actions, and to show remorse for them.

The Bush and Blair regimes are showing extreme determination not to take responsibility for the evils of their international policies. Despite the war supposedly being at an end, American and British servicemen are still being killed in Iraq. Hundreds of prisoners are still being kept in limbo in Camp Delta on Cuba with no charges having been brought against them. And back here in Britain, a top government scientist appears to have killed himself after being hounded as a scapegoat over allegations that he had spoken to the BBC in order to blow the whistle on certain “facts” in the government’s dossier on Iraq’s weapons capabilities.

Okay, so the foreign office appears to be doing something about some of the British prisoners at Camp Delta, but that still leaves hundreds of others that we are turning our backs on. If you have a British passport, then maybe we can help you. If not, then we’re quite content to let you rot.

This is not the position of a government that is even willing to acknowledge the possibility that they may be held to account over these human rights abuses.

As for the US position on Camp Delta, and how it enjoys special status because it lies outside the boundaries of US law… Fuck that. No, really. Camp Delta is controlled by the US military. Who controls the US military? The US Executive branch. Who can hold the US Executive branch to account for their crimes? The US Judiciary. The chain of responsibility is right there. Claiming that normal US laws about due process don’t apply in Guantanamo is tantamount to saying that the US military are a bunch of mercenaries who operate on their own recognizance, with no oversight, no charter, and no rule other than “might makes right.”

If that’s the case, what is there to stop them from holding the rest of the world to ransom over any perceived slight to their pride and supremacy? Or better yet, turning their sights on the US itself, and deposing its rulers?

I knew it was a mistake to start watching and reading the news again. It just makes me angry, depressed, and frustrated. It sickens me to see our so-called leaders deflecting responsibility to protect their own careers and the backs of their cronies. Unless they consider the possibility that they may be wrong, and take action to mitigate the consequences of their actions, history will not–can not–forgive them. Instead, they will be held up as a shameful example to future generations, a testament to lessons not learned, and a warning against the Sisyphean damnation of eternal repetition.