The Plastic Hippo

October 19, 2010

The madness of Prince George

Filed under: Politics — theplastichippo @ 2:02 am

Ask a coalition politician for the time of day and he or she will tell you that the budget deficit will ruin the country and that you should go and buy your own watch. Ask for directions to the local A&E and you will be told that reckless spending under Labour has resulted in its closure. Ask for the price of a cup of tea and you will be informed that your resultant head wounds are the fault of the profligate Mr Brown.

On Wednesday at 12-30, Gideon Osborne will present to parliament his Comprehensive Spending Revue. Heir to the Ballentaylor baronetcy and beneficiary of a £4million trust fund from his daddy`s company, the Chancellor after a glittering working career that saw him go from the Bullingdon Club to Conservative Central Office and then to the commons, will spell out the misery that awaits us all. We should listen carefully because when the axe falls it will fall quickly and the cuts will be masked by the hollow chatter of the dreadful inherited deficit, toughness and fairness, scroungers and lead swingers.

It is worth, at this point, considering the consequences of such irresponsible public borrowing perpetrated by the former government. Savage cuts are necessary to reduce the £180billion deficit – sorry – £150billion deficit, it went down in the last financial quarter. Gawd, that Gordon Brown eh? The fall-out of carrying such debt means that we are all in this together and we all must suffer just like the American Citigroup bank who have returned a £2.2billion profit during the last financial quarter. After all, the massive debt is the fault of people claiming disability benefit, isn’t it? What Gideon and his pals have failed to recognise is that debt is not just paying for the damage to some Oxfordshire restaurant. Perhaps he should scurry along to a library before they are closed down and read some John Maynard Keynes. Governments operate by borrowing. Take a look at this chart from the excellent ukpublicspending.co.uk:

This graph sets out the interest paid in each financial year since 1910 as a percentage of Gross National Product. There is a massive spike around 1914 which continued into the 30`s and then another spike in the 40`s. What on earth was going on then? What did they need to pay for? Then it settled down until the 80`s. Did anybody else apart from Thatcher miss the Thatcher birthday party at number 10? Then the debt decreased until the banks engineered the financial crisis that they now profit from. The debt is still lower than it was throughout the Thatcher and Major governments.

Here is another graph that estimates the level of public debt that is likely to be faced if the the current coalition government continues. Erm…take a look:

The deficit, which seems to be on auto repeat every time a coalition minister speaks, is not as dire as they would like us to believe and they have managed to instil into the national consciousness a fear of an imaginary disaster that is not going to happen. Indeed the Defence Revue suggests that the major threat facing the country is cyber-terrorism yet wishes to maintain a rather expensive Trident deterrent. Quite how that very expensive multi-warhead nuclear missile system launched from a submarine will protect our computers will remain a mystery for as long as the manufacturers of weapons of mass destruction remain in profit.

The horrendous cuts in public sector jobs and the enforcement of cutting benefits to people with disabilities will be, in theory, balanced by the private sector conjurating jobs from out of nowhere. Sadly, the group of “business” people who signed a letter supporting the cuts that Gideon will make have not created more employment and have actually laid people off. So, to be pedantic, where are the new jobs in the private sector coming from? The answer is…nowhere.

If you are lucky enough to own a watch, check that you still have it on your wrist on Wednesday afternoon. If you still have a watch after that, sell it and buy a ticket out of here. The country that we love is about to go native and the unpleasantness is about to begin…

October 15, 2010

Thunderbirds are go

Filed under: World — theplastichippo @ 10:44 pm

There are very few reasons to be cheerful at the moment and the future is looking grim. But those of us old enough to remember the days before General Augusto Pinochet made people “disappear” in Chile will now be rejoicing at the dramatic re-appearance of 33 copper miners from below the Atacama desert. Thunderbirds and International Rescue were not works of science fiction after all.

Brought up on live moon landings, early Pink Floyd, late Jimi Hendrix and Tomorrow’s World just before Top of the Pops on Thursday nights, our generation still carries the bitter disappointment of not having a personal jet-pack by now or not being able to take holidays on Jupiter. Instead of x-ray specs and transporter beams, we face cold calls from stair lift salesmen, the destruction of the health and pensions system and some slimy little posh boy taking away winter fuel allowances and bus passes. But Jeff Tracy and his brave sons are alive and well and turned up in a barren and hostile landscape to rescue those who must have feared that they were well and truly lost.

Even the most cynical, hard-hearted curmudgeon must have bitten a lip and wiped away a tiny tear as the men were brought to the surface and reunited with their families. Emerging from the earth like rock stars in Ray-Bans, the miners caught the attention of the planet and their heroism has been justifiably recognised. Leaving behind a death-trap hell-hole, they now enter a world of celebrity. But the others, those that made it happen, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John left the site with their fantastic machines and their anonymity in tact.

The engineering involved in the rescue is nothing short of breathtaking. Just finding these men half a mile below the desert is an astonishing achievement but to then drill down and bring them out safely is beyond even the capabilities of Thunderbird 2. Nothing like this has been attempted before and whilst not exactly planned on the back of a beer mat, this was basic, hands-on engineering at its best. The risks were huge and the danger of dropping millions of tons of granite onto the trapped men was ever present. The engineers did what they do best; they looked at the task, worked out a way of doing it, thought about the things that could go wrong and then got on with it.

When the shackle that was to attach the cable to the capsule did not quite fit, it was made to fit using bits of wood, spanners, a steel chisel and a bloody big lump hammer. The precision required to locate the capsule into the shaft on its first descent was guaranteed by a few deft kicks from hob nailed boots. These guys were the real heroes and they walked away with the silent satisfaction of knowing that they had brought 33 other human beings back from the dead.

The triumph of science in general is also the triumph of Chile as a nation. At last its people can emerge from the shadow of Pinochet and the “suicide” of Allende in 1973. There persists a popular myth that Allende met his death by walking out alone onto the steps of the presidential palace to face the surrounding C.I.A. special forces. It has been alleged that he was carrying a gold-plated Kalashikov that was a gift from Fidel Castro. What a way to go.

Pinochet died under house arrest in 2006 after being forced out of his Sunningdale mansion to return to Chile to face charges of murder and torture. No more tea with Mrs T or rounds of golf with Brucie and Tarbie and no justice for the families of the disappearos. In the high Atacama, his Caravan of Death was replaced by the media caravan that brought us real time images of the rescue.

Like the engineers, Chilean state television handled the crisis with consummate skill and everything went perfectly. However, even normally respectable broadcasters including our own BBC could not resist focusing on the sensational tittle-tattle of the private lives of the miners. The complicated love life of one Yonni Barrios took precedence over the human miracles unfolding before our eyes and the media considered a mistress more important than a mine shaft. Yonni need not worry. After his wife has had her say, he is likely to be played by Antonio Banderas with George Clooney as his shift leader when Hollywood secure the film rights.

It is doubtful that the reporters on the scene even considered the irony of the possibility that their words and opinions might be being transmitted through the very copper hewn from the depths of the earth below their feet. Some even postulated that the whole thing was a publicity stunt to enhance the popularity of President Sebastian Pinera, universally described as a right-wing media billionaire. This, though, was no stunt.

Everybody won. The miners are able to see the sky again, their children can see their fathers again, Il presidente is now seen as a world leader for displaying such commitment and Chile has stepped out of the darkness and onto the global stage. Viva Chile – muy bien.

Almighty God has been credited for this miracle but the men and women who planned and drilled and worked around the clock to save these men remain unknown. Theirs is the quiet triumph of engineering and the triumph of humanity.


October 13, 2010

Your local council needs you

Filed under: Politics,Rights,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 3:12 pm

The powerful intellects at Walsall council are once again directing their collective genius to setting a municipal budget. Rather than be accused of repeating the imposed vandalism of this current financial year, the council will blame council tax payers in Walsall for the next slash and burn budget.

Engaging with the public in the form of “consultation” has proved to be very useful to our council in its heroic attempt to waste money and cut services. Sadly, the number of people who have actually been “consulted” is about the same as the travelling support to a Willenhall Town away game. In some of its more brutal anti-social behaviour, Walsall’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari have cited “consultation” with the public as a means of justifying stupid, unfair and vindictive decisions. Even as hundreds of people shout in the streets and wave placards opposing the the closure of Sneyd School, Darlaston School, Willenhall Leisure Centre and the Grange Golf Course, the handful of people who responded to “consultation” hold sway. The few, the very few, members of the public who completed questionnaires carefully designed to give a premeditated conclusion allow the likes of Councillor Bird to masquerade as being responsive to the public. The people have spoken and we obey, claims Bird.

The latest attempt to validate inept local government is something called “an online budget calculator”. The council has set up a “special” webpage where residents can “tell the authority where they think money should be spent”. The calculator is very clever. It identifies 17 different spending areas and asks the public to decide what budgets should be increased or decreased and to stress the obvious importance of a balanced budget, any overspend of the £207million the council has to play is displayed in red. Indeed, so clever is the calculator that it is impossible to set a balanced budget thus re-enforcing the absurd notion that our council is doing a wonderful job in difficult circumstances and provides value for money.

A balanced budget can only be achieved using this internet tool by doing nothing and accepting what the establishment have already decided. An overspend is not allowed and the dire consequences of an underspend are clearly spelt out. The really clever part is what has been included and left out of the 17 spending areas. Adult Social Care for example, is described as supporting “several thousand” vulnerable adults by getting them “back on their feet” and the Community Safety budget pays for “Reassurance Officers” who offer advice on crime and anti-social behaviour.

The calculator invites the citizen to increase or decrease these budgets by increments of five per cent and gives each spending area equal weighting. Only after an unacceptable budget has been set are the actual budgets revealed. Walsall spends £78.21million on Adult Social Care and £1.44million on Community Safety. A five per cent increase in Adult Social Care will cost a lot more than a five per cent increase in Community Safety and a five per cent cut in either will save very different amounts. There is, somewhat conveniently for our masters, no mention of the vast, inflated salaries of our anonymous chief executive and his faceless mandarins or the obscene profit margins of companies like Serco, Tarmac, Amey and other outsourced predators who maintain revenue by quietly reducing services. The omission to make a judgement on the allowances awarded to the leader of the council is, given the circumstances, understandable.

The calculator is a masterpiece of smoke and mirrors and will empower our woeful authority to do exactly what it likes. The “consultation” invites responders to submit comments and, according to financial expert Councillor Towe:

The results from the budget simulator will clearly show us where residents` priorities lie, which we will use, along with other information, to help decide our spending priorities for the year ahead.”

Far from being a time-wasting gimmick, this is the real genius of the calculator. Any response at all will tick the box marked “consultation”. A low response will be interpreted as satisfaction with current council performance, a high response of inevitably unbalanced budgets will prove that council tax payers are incapable of financial prudence and, if a single citizen budget is submitted proposing a cut in any one of the 17 spending areas, massive cuts across the board will be justified. The people have spoken and we obey.

Rather like the “consultation” on the prospect of an elected mayor, details of how to take part for those without access to a computer are available on line. The “consultation” is open to everyone regardless of age, nationality and planetary location as long as they can access the internet.

Comments already submitted talk of spending more on investigating “spongers”, the waste of money on “refugee cricket matches” and cutting expensive luxuries like libraries, road repairs and bin collections. You can see where this is going.

You have until 5 November to take part in the “consultation”. The date seems appropriate not just because it follows the Comprehensive Spending Review, but because it will coincide with the bonfire of all the services.

Instead of pressing the help button, those in need and even those who are not, might just press Ctrl Alt Delete come election day.

October 11, 2010

Another drunken rant

Filed under: Media,Politics — theplastichippo @ 9:03 pm

Andrew Marr has hit the nail squarely on the head by dismissing bloggers as “socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother’s basements ranting”. Andrew is spot on about the pimples and about citizen journalism being “the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night”. I think he might be watching me.

His comments were made at the Cheltenham Literary Festival and as an astute and experienced journalist, Marr knows that a bit of controversial name calling after a few glasses of Cab Sauv can do no harm to his book sales. Untrained, unprofessional and, more importantly it seems, unattractive bloggers are fair game for a bit of light-hearted ridicule from respected and authoritative “real” journalists like Mr Marr. The established media have every right to pour scorn on the anonymous, abusive and irresponsible drunkards bashing out their bile at midnight but not, sadly, from a position of moral integrity.

The very mention of Andy Coulson will have any half-decent “real” journalist reaching for the tequila and even a cursory glance at most front pages will leave discerning readers reaching for a large pinch of salt. Marr himself is not above criticism and apart from being up there with Little Michael Gove and Gollum as the thinking woman’s eye candy, he has a few Kelvin Mackenzie moments under his belt. His publisher, Macmillan, was forced to pulp an entire print run of his book A History of Modern Britain after it emerged that the redoubtable anti-domestic violence campaigner Erin Pizzey was not a member of the Angry Brigade militant terrorist group as Marr had claimed. The lapse is hardly the result of impeccable and verified research. A more public gaff came when Marr could not resist temptation and, on live Sunday morning television, asked Gordon Brown if he was taking drugs to “help him through” being Prime Minister. This malicious rumour only existed in the blogosphere, or “the Westminster village” as Marr described it at the time, which suggests that Marr is capable of a bit of spewing himself.

There are, of course, as many bad bloggers as bad journalists and the rant by Marr has distracted some attention from one very bad blogger indeed.

Nadine Dorries, MP for Mid Bedfordshire, has been using her blog to make some extraordinary accusations against another blogger and Twitter user who has had the temerity to disagree with her. It is clear that Ms Humphrey Cushion does not like Nadine all that much and having seen some of Ms Dorries poisonous rants, it is not hard to understand why. The exchanges tend to be rather one sided as the MP does not allow comments on her blog, but Ms Cushion, who is a constituent and happens to be a person with a disability, is a prolific user of Twitter. This has so incensed Nadine that she thinks that anyone with a disability who has the time and ability to tweet should be reported to the Department of Work and Pensions as a work-shy scrounger. Here is an example from her blog:

“If you Twitter all day, every day about claiming disability benefit in one tweet whilst arranging a night out in the pub in the next. If you tweet about claiming six months rent from the social fund whilst tweeting how bad your hangover is and if you stride into political meetings and shout the odds with energy and enthusiasm with no sign of any physical disability and if you claim to work for the Labour party and write porn at the same time as claiming your disability benefit – then don`t expect someone like me not to a) inform the authorities and b) tell you to get off your Twitter and get a job.”

Nadine does not respond well to criticism and seems to think that a disabled person does not qualify for a social life, a political opinion or even a sex life. As incapacity benefit claimants face reassessment in pilot schemes in Burnley and Aberdeen using a test that is fundamentally flawed, Ms Dorries is clearly in the vanguard of the new Toyism hurtling back to the days of kicking beggars and forcing children up chimneys.

Like Andrew Marr, Ms Dorries is not that squeaky clean when it comes to integrity. There is the small matter of £22,000 claimed for a second home, mistakenly submitted hotel bills and a claim for £20,000 spent on “media consultancy”. She also claimed £10,000 for a report that she later admitted had never been written. This woman gives angry, hate-filled, prejudiced bloggers a bad name.

It would be tempting to place Marr and Dorries in a locked room and then observe the fun as they have a reasoned debate regarding citizen journalism and the power of the tweet. It would make a fascinating reality TV show. But back in the real world and far away from BBC and parliamentary expense accounts, Walsall College hosted just such a debate last week. Instead of a self-serving and slightly hysterical MP and an old media fossil, bloggers and council press officers discussed the future of the internet thingy and it seems that apart from the odd harsh word, amicable progress towards a relationship was established. Tweets and blogs can have a constructive role in shaping local democracy, an obviously closed book to Ms Dorries and Mr Marr.

Now, having completed this vile, malicious, unwarranted and unfounded tirade, what`s next on the to do list. Ah yes. Squeeze pimples, polish head, wish for a girlfriend, take mum a cup of tea and then get drunk. Night all.


October 9, 2010

Bully for you

Filed under: Education,Politics,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 12:31 am

 

Where is your anti-bullying policy, Headteacher?

 

Bullies are usually cowardly, deny responsibility and are economical with the truth. Child psychologists have invested a great deal of time and effort into understanding why children become bullies and most conclude that it is a combination of weakness, a lack of ability and an absence of positive role models. A bully in the playground grows up to be a bully in the workplace or, if the latest pronouncement from its website is to be believed, Walsall council.

Following the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future project, Little Michael Gove hinted at, but gave no details of, funds being made available for “school improvements”. Quite how this man was made scissor monitor is a question that only the head boy can answer, but the oafs in the lower remove of Walsall council are now keen to hand over the dinner money extorted from the unwashed townies to pay for Little Michael’s latest wheeze.

A “new collaborative approach” to school improvement in Walsall means that “a major new survey” of the condition of secondary schools is required to place Walsall “first in the queue” for the bowl of gruel that Little Michael might or might not ladle up.

The survey will cost half a million pounds.

The Building Schools for the Future project allegedly surveyed all the secondary schools in Walsall in order to hand down a decision as to which schools deserved refurbishment or rebuilding. The cost of this exercise was met by “top slicing” the budgets of every school in the borough and has left many schools with an artificially imposed budget deficit. If the ludicrous Ofsted were to pay a visit, these schools would be judged as being “inadequate” due to financial incompetence. If the Health and Safety Executive were to pay a visit, some schools would be closed down as being unsafe.

It seems that the new survey is necessary to enable the council to “act swiftly” when the voices inside Little Michael’s head tell him that Walsall really, really loves him and that Fiona Bruce is giving him funny looks. The cabinet member responsible for children’s services seems to think that another survey will secure government funding from a coalition hell bent on cutting services to children who are unfortunate enough to be born to parents who do not vote Tory. The cabinet member responsible for regeneration “hopes” that schools will make a “financial contribution” to reinventing the wheel which, in council speak, translates into “you’re mother’s a scrounger – hand over your sweets”.

The Andrex twin pack seem to have missed the point. The survey already exists, conducted by very well paid consultants who have now crawled back into the woodwork from whence they emerged after a nice little earner paid for from school funds. They seem to have forgotten that Serco – annual profits up 34 per cent to £194.7million – run education in Walsall. The seem to have forgotten that Gove is barking mad and will give any money that is going to the lunatic fringe wanting to set up “free schools” to indoctrinate the undeserving poor with whatever poisonous bilge they are choosing to peddle.

Cabinet may express the hope that schools will “contribute” but in reality they will take the money anyway to pay for a duplicate, unnecessary piece of bureaucracy in the vain possibility of attracting the attention of the clueless Little Michael. More importantly, if this survey is necessary, what the bloody hell have Serco and the council been doing all this time if they have no idea what state schools are in even after the “in-depth” and very expensive BSF study? Perhaps if they bother to ask any secondary school student what it is like to be educated in a crumbling slum, the cost would be considerably less than half a million.

Rather than attempting to earn their allowances, cabinet and their enforcers a happier to employ yet more consultants and bully schools into coughing up the money without any need or prospect of a successful outcome. Like all bullies, they can manage to be very plausible when challenged and deny any responsibility when questioned, content to roll out the patronising platitudes prepared by an equally expensive press office . The late Tim Field, a legendary anti-bullying in the workplace campaigner said:

“Bullying consists of the least competent most aggressive employee projecting their incompetence on to the least aggressive most competent employee and winning.”

Having allowed schools to rot and then bled them dry with a promise of repair, Walsall council are back for more and Serco remain silent for the moment.

If you don’t give us your mobile – we’ll get you after school.

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