Archive for May 2011
When I started writing this my flatmate asked me, “are you going to be writing about the boring kind or the good kind?” Luckily this post is all about the ‘good’ kind of pirate. I have nothing but respect for the ceaseless struggle of copyright holders. Endeavouring to protect us from the horrors of spotty teenagers torrenting their products, but let’s face it: desperate men with AK 47s are much more exciting.
The coolest kind of pirates.
Somali pirates have repeatedly made the for hijacking various ships and holding them and their crews to ransom. Of course the ransom money is not actually the main cost of piracy. You also have to take into account higher insurance premiums, less efficient routing of ships and the deployment of naval assets. Altogether, the cost of Somali piracy was estimated at around $10 billion in 2010. That’s more than one Macedonia or roughly 1/16th of an NHS.
This is a huge amount of money and it’s set to increase. So, what should be done about it? Unfortunately Somalia is a failed state where there are virtually no opportunities available to people to make an honest living. Crime is rife, warlords rove, European fishing vessels deplete their stocks and there is the occasional foreign invasion. Given the difficulty of even eking out a living as a subsistence farmer is it any surprise that many Somalians are keen on becoming pirates? It’s risky, sure, but life is cheap over there and the potential rewards are very high.
I see three ways of solving the problem. Firstly we could try to build up a government which could then clamp down on piracy and bring stability. Basically use our wallets and/or military might to turn Somalia from an anarchic shithole into a functioning state. Unfortunately we’re not very good at this kind of thing. The war in Afghanistan has cost the US alone over $400 billion so far and I’m pretty sceptical about the country’s prospects once the US withdraws. The Somali government barely controls any land outside the capital and is in the middle of a civil war with the Islamic Al-Shabaab group. Basically we have a choice between ruling the place ourselves, backing a nutty Islamist group or backing a government that doesn’t deserve the name. None of those sound like particularly viable options to me. So, a superficially attractive option but not one we could actually pull off.
I suppose military force is also a possibility. We have lots of warships, the Somali pirates don’t. It would be pretty easy to simply sail along the coast blowing places up until they stopped bothering our ships. The simplicity of this approach is kind of attractive. Those who live by the sword die by the sword etc. Unfortunately I have some moral qualms about mass murder as a response to piracy. It feels like the kind of solution that was only morally acceptable in the 18th century and I like to think we’re at least a little better than that. It would also be horrendously expensive. A cruise missile costs about £500,000. Compare this to the cost of a small boat with an outboard motor and a few AK-47s. Military force would be even more horrendously uneconomic than building a government.
Cheap Not Cheap
The third option may well be the best. It’s a little like the first option, but with a bit of Terry Pratchett added in. Given the government’s are failures and the immorality (not to mention cost) of bombing Somalia into submission, why not go for a more market-capitalist solution and back the pirates? Find some pirate leaders we can work with and offer them a carrot and stick approach. Western governments could turn a blind eye to their activities but attack smaller pirate groups and rogues. This would encourage the consolidation of pirates into larger groups with more organisation and leaders. This is a situation we could work with. Big pirate groups could be played off against each other. With careful support and nurturing and maybe the odd knife in the back we could create one overarching pirate organisation. A kind of Guild of Pirates.
That may sound like a horrendous idea, but it’s not. After all, what is a government but an organisation with a monopoly on the use of force? We’d have finally created a government in Somalia. This organisation could improve the lives of normal Somalis. Their organisation would require infrastructure, provide courts and raise revenue by taxing (extorting) the actual pirates. Now, I admit I’m not 100% sure that this would solve the problem of piracy, but it would probably improve the lives of individual Somalis. When it comes down to it, Somali pirates don’t actually tend to kill people, they just cost us money. Considering the colonial legacy the Western world left Somalia with and the way our fishing vessels continue to deplete their waters of fish it’s the least we could do for them. Our own costs could be reduced by a lower naval presence and the ability to buy ‘insurance’ direct from the pirates.
Ok, I accept that helping pirates to get more organised is not going to be a popular strategy unless it also helped eliminate them. So, it’s worth remembering, organised pirates are much much easier to negotiate with (and to threaten). Their leaders with much more to lose, there are locations that are actually worth targeting and people capable of following through on agreements.
In the end the pirates are, as far as I can see, basically capitalists and in this world of free-market economic orthodoxy perhaps it would be appropriate to back them over the irrelevant* or the ideologues.** It’s not like Western governments don’t have a long history of working with thoroughly unpleasant people to protect ‘capitalism’.
*The central ‘government’
What if the Rapture actually had happened? Find out:
I should probably apologise, I just couldn’t resist having another dig. I suppose the Rapture believers should be kind of admired though. Why? Well it’s quite simple. They are a very rare example of the highly religious offering a testable hypothesis. Almost all of the time religions fail to offer any predictions about future events that can actually be tested. These people who insist on a particular day for the end of the world are putting their faith to the test in a way that others are either unwilling or unable to emulate.
I’m quite interested in the reactions of those whose predictions have failed though. Apparently Harold Camping, who predicted the Raputre, was ‘flabbergasted’. I’d like to know his (as yet unrevealed) explanation and also how his followers will react. Apparently he already has one failed prediction from the 1990s, and that doesn’t seem to have dented his popularity.
People may or may not be aware, but this evening the Rapture will apparently be taking place. So today should be a day of joy for the highly devout and one of wailing and gnashing of teeth for us horrid atheist types (not to mention the few billions of non-Christian religious people).
What is it?
As with most issues of religion the answer to this question depends very much on who you ask. However, the ‘orthodox’ view is essentially that those who are ‘in Christ’ will float into the air to meet Jesus as he comes down from heaven. They will then all float away together to live in paradise. (Un)fortunately this belief is limited to only some of the more fundamentalist evangelical Christians, so if you’re Church of England in that vague way that most English people seem to be then you may well be out of luck.
When is it?
Hopefully you have been paying attention in which case you know it’ll happen today. Of course that’s just according to one guy’s careful interpretation of the bible, but he does apparently have quite a few followers and I’m sure he’s thought it through very carefully. I’ve heard 6pm is the time it’ll happen, whether that’s GMT or not I don’t know. The bible is lamentably unclear on modern day timezones.
In case Mr Camping proves to have been incorrect, I have a link to a Rapture Index which measures rapture predicting events worldwide to help Christians know how close we are. Please use this ‘Prophetic Speedometer of end-time activity’ responsibly.
What does it mean for me?
Well you’re probably one of the vast majority of people who will be insufficiently devout to be raptured. A ‘great tribulation’ is predicted to follow on from it. This sounds quite unpleasant and indeed that is exactly what it is. The Rapture is kind of the first class ticket to heaven. There will be lots of war, disease, disasters and such and the anti-Christ (probably one of Barack Obama and the Pope I would imagine) will reveal himself. It’s really going to be pretty miserable for all of us. That being said, conversion is still possible, so not all hope is lost.
What does it mean for everyone else?
Rapture believers are pretty concentrated in the USA, so I imagine that the rest of the world would feel little direct effect from it. However, a significant chunk of the US’ population disappearing would probably lead to an economic collapse which is obviously going to suck for all of us. My advice is to remember, we are British (well, many of us) and so keep calm and carry on! On the plus side our unemployment problems would probably be solved.
I’m scared vicar! What should I do?
- Convert. Immediately! Just make sure you convert into the right branch of Christianity. I don’t think Catholicism cuts it for the Rapture.
- Make some money off it.
- Join the anti-Christ’s legions and hope you don’t get eaten by a demon.
- Join humanity’s armies as we demonstrate why science is greater than demons by crushing them under the treads of our tanks.
I hope you have found this guide helpful. I would write more, but I need to find someone to accept my conversion some time in the next 20 minutes. See you in heaven!
*I know, I know, I’m being horrible and unfair, but this is humour.
Complaints about the opening of new Tesco stores seem to be quite common. In Bristol the issue even seems to have triggered riots. Complaints generally focus on the destruction of the character of local high streets, producing clone towns. I have a lot of sympathy for this, I don’t particularly like seeing identikit high streets all around the country. Once a Tescos moves in the local butcher, baker, grocer etc all go bankrupt and a part of England’s culture dies, the local community suffers and everyone is very sad.
The thing is though, in the end the majority get what they want in the free market. It’s actually really very democratic. No one forces people to go and shop at Tescos, the Competition Commission (hopefully) makes sure that the supermarket isn’t engaging in market abuse to get an unfair advantage. It’s simply cheaper than most small shops. If people continue to shop in the small local shops then they don’t shut down, regardless of the presence of a new supermarket. The problem is that many of the people who are moaning about the supermarkets still go and shop in them. They do, after all, provide lower prices and much greater convenience. They succeed because people want to buy from them.
I find it quite sad that people choose to shop almost exclusively in supermarkets. The thing is though, that taking legal action to prevent supermarkets from being able to open and compete is effectively asking the majority of people, who would take advantage of the many advantages supermarkets bring, to subsidise your own consumption habits. I don’t see why the majority should be inconvenienced and pay more so that a minority can get a feel good factor. This is even more true if you consider that the greatest beneficiaries of cheap food in supermarkets are likely to be the poor and those most concerned with ‘save our high street’ campaigns are generally a bit more middle class.
I don’t much like supermarkets’ dominance but I shop in them and don’t expect people to pay more for my food so that I can feel good about my high street. So I can’t complain. That being said, if someone would open a half decent bakery in my area, you would totally have my patronage, even with higher costs. If the claims of campaigners were true, then small shops would have no problem competing against supermarkets.
A row is erupting in Germany about a cemetery for Soviet prisoners of war. The cemetery is located in West Germany and originally had red stars over the graves. In 1956 the Soviet red star was replaced by an orthodox cross. Now it is being argued that the original markers should be returned.
It’s an interesting question. It seems fairly obvious that the change from the red star to an orthodox cross would have been politically motivated, considering it was done at the height of the Cold War. However, the church’s argument that the Soviet soldiers were oppressed by their own regime does have weight. The Soviet government was a thoroughly unpleasant dictatorship which we only considered to be an ally out of necessity.
That being said, my own opinion is that the red stars should be returned. These people were fighting under the banner of the Soviet Union and there would have been a mix of religions amongst them. As well as officially promoting atheism the USSR had significant Muslim minorities. Given that the original decoration was that of the red star, it seems reasonable to undo a political decision.
What has a wider relevance in this debate is the importance of reviled symbols. If, rather than the Soviet red star, it was the swastika under consideration then there would be no debate. What brings a symbol from merely being the sign of an oppressive regime to one that is unacceptable in polite (or even rude) society? I think it comes down to two things: propaganda and intent. In the case of intent, I mean that of the ideology behind the symbol. The ideology behind the Soviet star is actually fairly positive. Freedom, equality etc. The kinds of things that it’s hard to argue with. The actual regime was appalling and explains the distaste that many feel for it, but that, in my opinion, is why it’s considered more acceptable than the swastika. The other aspect, propaganda, is based on where you are. The USA got much more anti-communist propaganda than we did, but anti-Nazi propaganda was common in both countries. I think the difference here is best illustrated by the way our own societies’ abuses of the inhabitants of poorer nations did not result in disgust for our own symbols (at least domestically). I wonder whether the Belgium flag is considered beyond the pale in the Congo for example…
I wanted to recommend these two posts from other blogs. They provide an excellent dissection of the Yes2AV campaign’s failures and help to explain the frankly shocking result. It really does make both embarrassing and depressing reading. The worst example for me was the failure to use a single conservative politician despite Nigel Farage (UKIP) offering to help.