Sam PF's Journal Below are the 10 most recent journal entries recorded in the "Sam PF" journal:

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January 10th, 2015
02:35 am

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Isalmic extremism
It is a terrible thing when a small group of people take a religion and twist it into the most grotesque and brutal interpretation imaginable.

Massacring cartoonists and journlalists for insulting your religion. Massacring Jews because they are Jews. That the vile individuals who did this are no longer in this world is a relief. Let us hope there are not many more that follow.

Then, a few thousand miles away, there is the House of Saud. Unortunately, these corrupt psychopaths have an entire country under their iron rule. The fact that their Kingdom includes Islam's top holy sites of Mecca and Medina means that people may tend to imagine that they are normative of Islamism; they are not. They are more of an outlier. No other Muslim country, not Iran, not Afghanistan, none of the other Gulf states, feel the need to ban women from driving, for instance.

They beat ISIL hands down for beheadings. Their export of their ultra-extreme Wahhabi brand of Islam lies behind the ideology of groups such as Al Qaeda, ISIL, the Taliban and Boko Haram. Indeed, much of ISIL's approach to 'education policy' in the areas they control is arguably based on Saudi textbooks.

Today, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was publicly flogged with 50 lashes, the first of a thousand he is to receive,alongside a ten year prison sentence, allegedly for insulting Islam on his blog. He is to receive 50 lashes, once a week every week for 20 weeks, after Friday prayers.

Do not expect to hear too much condemnation though from Obama, Cameron, Hollande or any other western leader. I am impressed, I must say. Whitehouse press spokesperson Jen Psaki, according to the above article, said the US was "greatly concerned", and even used the word "brutal": From so high an official as Jen Psaki, that is quite something! The Sauds must be quaking. No doubt the US will be cancelling their $60 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia any day now. No? Ah, here is the Whitehouse statement in full. A tad perfunctory, methinks.

Still, it is 88 words more than has come from the British Government. (I have searched, but not found. Google, the FCO, gov.uk. Correct me by all means if I am wrong). The UK arms industry, especially BAE, is heavily reliant on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, saturated with corruption. (For more details, see the website and book Deception in High Places by my excellent friend Nick Gilby.)

I do not wish to minimize the appaling events of Paris. Whether one likes or approves of what Charlie Hebdo published, killing journalists is a fundamental attack on freedom of speech. And the murders in the Kosher supermarket fill me with horror. Nor even greater horrors in Pakistan, Nigeria, Iraq and Syria, or, where the boot has been largely on the other foot, in CAR.

I just want to remind that the violent religious extremists are not just rag-tag bands of terrorists, and that some of them are not condemned and hunted down, but welcomed, honoured, wined, dined, bribed and heavily armed by our freedom-loving leaders (not forgetting either the oceans of blood through which the latter have waded).

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December 14th, 2014
06:37 pm

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America, Torture and Repentance
As all but the proverbial Martian vacationer know, last week the US Senate released its report on CIA torture since 9/11 at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. It found that the CIA's practice of torture had been far more widespread, more brutal, and less effective (as in 100% not) than previously claimed, and that the CIA had systematically lied about it.

Senator Feinstein and her colleagues are to be congratulated in persisting with this enquiry and getting it published in the face of opposition from the CIA itself and the Administration.

Hard to find much to say that has not already been said about this, beyond echoing the utter, unspeakable horror of such acts, whoever commits them.

There is one aspect of the discussion around it in the US, though, that gets me: namely the way the victims of this torture seem almost invisible or even irrelevant to it.

It is as if the real victim of the government-sponsored CIA torture programme was America itself. A stain on America's character, contrary to America's values. A terrible 'mistake' (which seems to be how Obama and others like to describe it).

No suggestion that America should make an apology to those it has violated, nor that it should pay them reparations. Still less, heaven forfend, that anyone should be prosecuted for these crimes. Nor that the US should close down Guantanamo Bay now, and not only free anyone it can't prosecute, but grant them a home in the US as the very least it owes them, along with compensation for the years of their life that has been stolen.

Because of course America cannot owe anything to, or be answerable to anyone but America.

If the torturers and those - up to the very top - who authorized torture - were to be put on trial, that would be like saying that there is a a higher law to which America is answerable, which is heresy. No: America decided to torture, and now America has decided not to torture, it has realized that that was wrong, it has woken up to its own values once more. That is the end of the story.

This report came out in the middle of Advent, for Christians a penitential season; but for America's great and good, for all that they invoke God and pay lip service to Christianity, there is previous little sense of repentance. Of course not for the Republicans, even louder though they are about their Christianity; the very idea that America could have anything to repent about (apart from homosexuality maybe) is heresy: if America did something, it must by definition have been right! But even for those who do recognize that torture is wrong and that the US did it, it barely scratches the surface.

Not that the US is particularly exceptional in its exceptionalism; it is a common feature of empires and hegemons throughout the ages, along with the self-righteousness and refusal to contemplate the possibility of wrongness; and even when a wrong, like the slave trade, is acknowledged, it is no sooner corrected than forgotten, and indeed self-praise for having stopped becomes the dominant sentiment. While there is such a thing as a patriotism that seeks all the more to right one's nations wrongs, in general patriotism and self-reflection and penitence rarely go together.

There are also many other nations culpable in the CIA torture scandal, most notably the UK, but also many, many others, including Sweden, which arrested two Egyptian asylum seekers in 2001, and handed them over to masked US security agents at Bromma airport in Stockholm, to be flown to Egypt for torture. If we are lucky, we may see enquiries that dig out more of the truth of what happened in various countries, but prosecutions? Well, if they happen I will be pleasantly surprised.

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December 4th, 2014
01:12 am

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Backlog
Once again my brain is not up to substantive output. Fortunately I have a large store of photos from various places and events that I never got round to posting about at the time, so I will, much belatedly, post a few of these.

In June, I was at the 18th Annual International Conference on Economics and Security, which this year was in Perugia in Umbria.

It has a fountain and some fantastic views.Collapse )

The latter was from just outside my hotel in the historic centre. I arrived in Perugia by train from Rome. The train station is somewhere at the bottom of that view. I had the bright idea of walking from the station, with luggage. It might not have been the best idea I ever had, but it was abotu the best exercise I got this year.

Most disheartening was when I reached a point which, from the map, looked rigt by my hotel. Only to discover that it was in fact just at the bottom of that wall I'm looking over.

Perugia is very near Assisi, which I once visited interrailing with friends. The airport for both towns is St. Francis of Assisi international airport. The departure lounge vending machines have rosaries alongside the snacks.

That'll do for tonight. Gotta kep a reserve for the next brain-not-working night.

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December 3rd, 2014
01:11 am

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Economics and mathematical models
From katebacross: Given that you have doctorates in both maths and economics and are a former lecturer, how do you feel about the requests from today’s economics students – and Thomas Piketty - to teach economics from a broader subject base, and reduce its reliance on “simplistic mathematical models”?

Oh God, absolutely!

Certainly, Economics can attract many mathematicians because they can very easily be good at it, and publish lots of papers and stuff, but I think that the effect for me of being a mathematician coming into economics is that I see that a lot of the work being done is very pretty mathematics, but not necessarily any actual use to man or beast in terms of understanding how economies work.

The problem is not necessarily maths per se. Right now, the sort of economics that Piketty and others criticise, namely mainstream Neoclassical economics, is certainly incredibly locked into the use of complex mathematical models, but it is not only Neoliberal economics that makes extensive use of maths. Marx's Das Kapital is full of mathematics. But Marx starts with a very different set of assumptions and uses a different set of mathematical tools - based on the assumptions he makes and the type of analysis he is trying to conduct, and thus reaches a very different set of conclusions.

Economic analysis is inevitably going to use mathematics, as it is attempting to deal with quantifiable aspects of human society - how much is produced, consumed, by whom, who gets the benefits. It is a matter of what maths you use, with what starting assumptions.

Neoclassical economics, I believe, is designed to reach a set of conclusions favourable to unrestrained, or as near as possible to unrestrained, Capitalism. Not that its inventors and practitioners are necessarily wicked or dishonest, but that it has gained traction and dominance within academic economics because it favours those with money and power.

tl;drCollapse )

Basically, as I see it, the flaws in the assumptions of Neoclassical economics means that it not only fails to describe how individuals work as economic agents, it fails to describe how economies and economic systems work.

The maths can be very neat and pretty. But it is a very particular type of maths. It is based on a kind of Newtonian world or smooth, continuous, infinitely differentiable functions (of a particularly tractable type), which allow for stable equilibrium solutions. But this is not what the world is like, and the discontinuities, uncertainties, and jagged edges that constitute human life are not mere minor disturbances in the otherwise smooth, predictable fabric, they are the fabric.

Personally, the sort of maths I have most fun with in economics is Game Theory. Some of my most successful economics classes were when I got the students playing Prisoner's Dilemma. But I'm less and less sure how much use this sort of thing really is either, except as maybe a loose metaphor.

But at least that sort of thing actually gets people thinking about human behaviour and relationships, and their implications for economic life.

And maybe this is how I think Economics needs to go, to recognizing itself as a social science; one whose starting point is human interactions within a social system. By all means use maths, but before you know what maths to use, you need to have an initial understanding of the social structures in which economic relations take place, and the ways in which people behave and repsond within those structures. What mainstream Economics does is to assume that all those questions can be brushed aside by imagining a society populated by "Utility Robots", and then in response to the obvious protests say "But it's just a model! It doesn't need to be true, it just needs to predict! On average! You just don't understand our complex mathematics!" and so on.

I think this sort of view is gradually becoming more mainstream? But academic paradigms are slow to shift, especially when Economists are rational publication-maximisers. I suspect that there are a lot of economists who know that Neoclassical economics and the sorts of mathematical models they use are bullshit, but continue to use them because they know how to work with those models and because that's what gets published in the top journals. I do know that at my old place, University of the West of England, a fair few of my former colleagues are really trying to broaden the curriculum to include and even emphasize other perspectives. Strength to their arm.

This article lacks references. I will rectify this and try to find some suitable articles to back up some of my ramblings, but right now it is already late, and I thought it more important to get the thoughts down first. So references will follow, hopefully this Advent, but I do not promise when.

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November 30th, 2014
09:15 pm

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Advent
Waaay too long since I have posted, dear LJ.

So I am going to try doing a regular daily post for Advent. You are most welcome to suggest topics, but I won't do a calendar thing, and if topics are not suggested I will just think of my own.

So, to start, Happy New Church Year, to those who mark that sort of thing. Also, Happy St. Andrew's Day.

Despite being one of the least religious countries in the world, Sweden seems to pay surprisingly much attention to the Church year. I think most people in Sweden would know that today is Första Advent (people in Britain who are not churchgoers seem to think it is tomorrow, 1st December, as that is when the calendars with pieces of chocolate behind each day start).

The lights have been going on all over town for a while already though, I think starting the weekend before Advent - this seems to be when some of the big stately homes have their Christmas markets at any rate. But there's definitely a big uptick of starts and seven-pointed (electric) candles in all the windows (including my own) from last night. And the big Christmas tree on Skeppsbron in the Old Town is alight:

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I walked past it on my evening ramble today. It is, apparently, 40 metres (133 feet) high, plus an extra 4m for the star, and thus apparently one of the biggest in the world. It is decorated with 5000 lights along with sundry other stuff, and has had extra branches grafted onto it from 20 trees.

1st Advent is also (as I'm sure elsewhere) a day of many concerts, including my own choir's. A variety of Advent hymns, in Swedish, English and a bit of Latin, and Zadok the Priest to finish with something more weighty. The only context (other than a readthrough I suppose) where you will hear the words "God save the King" from my lips.

Have I only just noticed this, or is it particularly a Swedish thing, that Advent hymns are rather samey? I think we must have blessed every Davidsson and Hosie'd every Anna in the North. Anyway, all went well.

Which Churchly matters kind of brings me round to my big thing that will be happening this Advent, which is that I will be officially joining the Church of Sweden on December 10th. I've been going to a Catechumenate group this year, traditionally something for people preparing for Baptism, but in this case a fairly informal discussion group for people interested in being baptized/confirmed/joining the church/just getting to know more about their faith, etc. Anyway on the 10th is a service that is part of the programme, the "affirmation" service, where one of our group will in fact be Confirmed, we'll all make some sort of re-affirmation of faith, in my case there'll be some small thing to mark my joining the Church, and after the service I will sign the official form.

So I will officially be part of a church again. (I suppose technically I still am, as you can't actually leave the Catholic Church as such, though I suppose I have in effect excommunicated myself. Anyway, I will be part of a church that I actually go to). I'm not sure I really want to call myself a Lutheran, as Martin Luther was a right arse in many ways (though with some very important ideas of course), but the Svenska Kyrkan is not really so picky about the teachings of Luther these days so far as I can gather, so happier maybe to describe myself as "part of a Church in the Lutheran tradition" or something. Also, rather critically, "Part of a Church that has definitively decided that gays are fully equal human beings". The specific church I go to, Katarina, is also a rather big part of it. At any rate, one way and another it feels right.

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September 17th, 2014
10:55 pm

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Go for it Scotland!
There was going to be a bigger post, but there was too little sleep.

I'm not Scottish, but most of my family have lived in Scotland for 25 years now (my stepdad is from Scotland), and I visit there a couple of times a year. I have never lived there full time though, unless one counts summers between one thing and another (university, voluntary work, job in some combination) when I have not had any other address. My expat voter registration in the UK is where I last lived in Bristol, so I do not get a vote in the Scottish independence referendum (and nor should I). The decision is for the people of Scotland. Otherwise I'd have probably been posting a lot more about this, here and at the Face. But I certainly have a direct interest in the matter. I would almost certainly be eligible for Scottish citizenship if there's a Yes vote, and my family are all avid Yes supporters, and in many cases active campaigners.

I am likewise definitely rooting for a Yes vote. For me, the fundamental issue is that, with only about a twelfth of the population of the UK, Scotland's influence on political outcomes in the UK as a whole is always going to be marginal. This might not matter so much if Scotland and England and Wales had a roughly similar political trend, but they don't. For the past 30-40 years - especially since Thatcher - Scotland has taken a decisive turn against the dominant party of government in the UK, the Conservative Party. Scotland has thus been ruled by, and will periodically continue to be ruled by, governments that Scottish voters have overwhelmingly rejected, so long as Scotland remains in the UK. Scottish votes can shift the outcome a little (for example we now have a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition instead of a Conservative majority without Scottish votes -oh joy), but overwhelmingly, the UK government will be determined by votes south of the border. That is not a good position for Scotland to be in. Scotland needs to be able to elect its own government, determine its own economic policy, immigration policy, welfare, foreign policy, defence policy.

There are lots of other individual reasons for supporting independence, but most are essentially aspects of this same basic equation. Trident for example; most Scots do not want nuclear weapons on their soil, but are not at present in a position to decide. I very much doubt if an independent Scotland would have joined the invasion of Iraq. The appalling policies pursued by the current UK government, some of which the devolved Scottish government can exempt Scotland from, but not most of them. Yes, there could be more devolution, but why settle for having control of some of the decisions that most affect you when you can have control of all of them? (Foreign policy and defence, in particular, will always be a UK-wide thing.)

The main concern for many No voters and undecideds is the economy. There are a lot of things that can be said about this, there has been a lot of ink spilled on whether an independent Scotland would be richer, or poorer, or about the same. But the way I see it, the fundamental point is that, the trade and industry that exists in Scotland the day before independence will still exist after independence. Being part of a larger country does not magically create jobs and industry where demand and infrastructure does not otherwise exist. Ask Cornwall. Scotland would continue to trade freely with England, and Europe, as it would be in everyone's interest for that to happen. The rest is details. Important details to be sure, but the basic equation is that Scotland would not be, in the long run, much richer or much poorer inside or outside of the UK.

(In fact, I think it could be richer, if Scotland is able to do something sensible with the oil revenues while they last, like put them in a sovereign wealth fund as Norway did, while the UK squandered them.)

The EU is a bit question, admittedly. But at least one major EU think tank, the European Policy Center, thinks that Scotland would be able to remain in the Eu. To quote:

From a practical point of view, no member state has a material interest in Scotland remaining outside the EU, even for a short time. This would deprive the EU of the benefits of Scotland's membership (budgetary contribution, fisheries resources, etc). Scotland outside the EU, and not applying EU rules, would be a legal nightmare for: EU member states, whose citizens and enterprises would lose their rights in Scotland. No member state, particularly not the rest of the UK, would have an interest in creating such an anomaly.

This includes Spain. They are certainly against Scottish independence, as they don't want a bad example for Catalonia, but they have made clear that Scotland is a fundamentally different case, as the UK has consented to the referendum and to respecting the outcome, which Spain has not done in the case of Catalonia. The Spanish government has made clear that the view of the UK is the key factor, and the UK would certainly have no interest in blocking Scottish membership and seeing trade barriers go up between England and Scotland.

The new President of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Junckers, has also expressed sympathy for Scottish EU membership.

Nothing is certain, except that there would be a lot of hard negotiating to do, but the other side of this is that remaining in the UK is no guarantee of EU membership; the way it looks to me, the UK is headed rapidly for the exit.

Another big question is the currency. Here I think Alex Salmond is making a mistake on insisting on keeping the pound, with or without a currency union. I think a key aspect of sovereignty is control of currency. Economically, monetary union - whether with the rUK or with the Eurozone - does not work well without fiscal union. Recent experience in the Eurozone bears this out. To my mind, Scotland would be best with its own currency; start out with a one-for-one exchange rate, maybe keep it pegged for 6 months to give some predictability, then let it float. But that would be for Scotland as a whole to decide, through elections, referenda and political processes post-independence. An independent Scotland will, like any other country, make mistakes.

In the bigger picture, I think Britain as a whole would be healthier for Scottish independence. Relations between England and Scotland would be stronger and on a more level footing. No more blaming the English for things that go wrong. Who knows, in a generation, maybe Scotland fans would even start cheering for England at football! No-one is interested in putting up border controls; travel would remain free, trade would remain free, English people would continue to live and work in Scotland, Scottish people would continue to live and work in England. But maybe also, from England's side of things, this would put the final nail in the coffin of post-imperial pretensions of greatness, of the idea of being a "Great Power" that throws its military weight around (as a side-kick to the US at any rate). The UK, with Scotland as a fully active participant, conquered and dominated an Empire on which the sun never set and the blood never dried. Good riddance.

English left-wingers have valid reason to be worried that, without Scottish votes, Tory government would be more likely. The other side of it is that Scottish independence would throw the Conservative and Unionist Party into utter turmoil. It would create a new playing field in which progressive forces would have the chance to put forward their own vision of how England and Wales (together or otherwise) could go. I would not be greatly optimistic at the moment about how rUK would go, but I am not greatly optimistic about how the UK is going at the moment. But at any rate there would be new possibilities, and it would be up to the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland to take them. But the idea that Scotland should chain itself to continuing periods of right-wing Tory government just so that some of the time England can instead get merely center-right Labour governments that will be slightly less awful, is grotesque.

I said this wasn't going to be long. Ah, well.

Do it, Scotland!

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September 15th, 2014
01:13 am

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Kalla vinder, Varma vinder
Sweden has voted. ALmost all the voting districts have been counted, and the results, in terms of shares of votes and seats in the Riksdag, are not going to change in any significant way.

The big news? There is a change of government. The red-green parties - the Social Democrats (Sweden's traditional governing party), the Greens and the Left Party - have between them beaten, narrowly but clearly, the centre-right Alliance government, consisting of the four "Borgerlig" (bourgeouis) parties - the Moderates (by far the largest), the Liberal People's Party, the Center Party and the Christian Democrats.

Frederik Reinfeldt, the Moderat Prime Minister, has announced his own and his government's resignation. Social Democrat leader Stefan Löfven is right now giving his victory speech. The coalition negotiations will be hard (unlike last election, the red-greens did not go in as a block), but Stefan Löfven will be the new Prime Minister.

The big news? The Sweden Democrats, a xenophobic, ani-immigrant, anti-Muslim, quasi-Fascist, nowadays "not racist but" party, but with neo-Nazi roots, more than doubled their votes to 13% (from 6% last time), and in some sense hold the balance of power in Parliament. As the third largest single party, they will get to nominate one of the Parliamentary speakers.

Looking at the figures more closely, what is remarkable is that the red-green parties have won having barely advanced in terms of share of the votes. The big change is that the mainstream centre-right lost a lot of votes to the Sweden Democrats:

Red-Green parties:

Social Democrats (Socialdemokraterna, S) 31.3% (+0,6%) 113 seats
Green Party (Miljöpartiet, MP) 6.8% (-0.5%) 24 seats
Left Party (Vänsterpartiet, V) 5.7% (+0.1%) 21 seats

Total: 43.8% (+0.2%) 158 seats

"Borgerlig" parties (Alliance):

Moderates (Moderaterna, M) 23.2% (-6.9%) 84 seats
Center Party (Centerpartiet, C) 6.1% (-0.5%) 22 seats
Liberals (Folkpartiet, FP) 5.4% (-1.7%) 19 seats
Christian Democrats (Kristdemokraterna, KD) 4.6% (-1%) 17 seats

Total: 39.3% (-10.1%) 142 seats

Evil fascists:

Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna, SD) 12.9% (+7.3%) 49 seats

Not in Parliament - there is a 4% minimum threshold:

Feminist Initiative (Feministiskt Initiativ, FI): 3.1% (+2.7%)
Others: 0.9% (-0.1%)

So, when the Feminist Initiative is included, the left has gone forward a bit, but not all that much. The FI made the news internationally by getting a seat in the European Parliament in the June elections, and they made big advances in this election, but sadly not enough to make the 4% threshold.

A sidebar - as I am not a Swedish citizen (may well do something about that soon), I couldn't vote in the Riksdag elections of course, but as an EU citizen and a resident, I could vote in the Stockholm Kommun (city) and Landsting (county) elections. I divided my vote, voting Feminist Initiative for the City, and Vänster for the Landsting. By the look of things, the FI will get in, fairly narrowly, in the city, and the "red-green-pink" parties between them will have a majority, ending 8 years of center-right rule. At the moment, the Alliance are slightly ahead of the red-greens for the Landsting, with the FI well under the threshold, but there's still a fair few districts to declare.

The SD already had the "balance of power" in the previous parliament, as the Alliance were just short of a majority, but had very little influence as all the other parties, to their credit, kept to a firm line of having absolutely nothing to do with them. The Alliance even made a cross-block agreement with the Greens on immigration policy to ensure that the SD had absolutely no possibility of influence in this area.

This may be trickier now. The SD, being a right-wing party, tended to vote most of the time with the center-right government. Perhaps this is partly that they were not wanting to "rock the boat" too much, but I suspect it is mostly because their ideology lies on the right, not just on immigration questions. (They occasionally voted with the left on some economic issues where they saw some populist advantage in it). So the likelihood is, I suspect, that they will continue to vote with the right in most issues, which will make it very difficult for a red-green government.

A red-green coalition is no easy thing in any case. The S and the MP disagree on some issues - for example defence, where S want more spending and MP less - but can probably come to an agreement. The V is more difficult, as they have placed so much emphasis on their flagship policy of "No profits in welfare": over the past decades, the principle of "freedom of choice" in health, education and social care has been promoted, especially by the Alliance but also to some degree by the Social Democrats. This means that non-state providers can operate alongside state ones, in a single payer system (with small co-pays in health). This includes profit-making actors, including risk capital fund-owned companies. The Left Party want to exclude profitmaking companies from the mix, a policy that is much more popular than the party itself, but which the Social Democrats are clearly against, although they want to regulate profit-making actors more. So. That will be a difficult one.

Then, how are they going to get a majority in Parliament for their poliies, even if they can solve the red-green coalition puzzle? One thing is not a problem, namely the budget. As I understand it, to vote down a government's budget proposal, you have to have an alternative with more votes. The Alliance will never come to a common budget with the SD, so a red-green budget gets through. But for other measures, they will presumably have to come to an accommodation, policy by policy, with at least one of the Borgerliga parties.

That may be possible: the Borerliga don't agree on everything. The alternative would be to actually try to get one or more of them into the government, most plausibly the Folkpartiet, who while fairly neo-Liberal economically are genuinely liberal on a lot of other issues. But, all four Alliance parties have made absolutely clear that, if they are not in government together as the Alliance, then they will be in opposition. Politicians lie and completely reak their promises of course (waves at Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems), but this would perhaps be just too much of a volte face, certainly for the current party leadership. And, even if the FP (or maybe the C) were willing to join a government with the S and MP, getting them in the same bed as the V would smack a little too much of wolves, goats and cabbages.

So. Tricky. And the trickier it gets, the more this could benefit the Fascists.

So. I am pleased that the Alliance government is out and that Sweden will once again have a Social Democrat Prime Minister, which will hopefully at least put a brake on the slow dismantling of the 'Swedish Model", resulting in Sweden having the most rapid increase in inequality of all OECD countries in recent years. The emphasis of the new government will clearly be on creating jobs and improving social services and welfare rather than tax cuts and privatization.

But it is hard to celebrate that much. Any improvements will be tempered by the likely weakness of a red-green government, and their need for deals with the Alliance parties. And the rise of the Sverigedemokraterna is just plain scary. The cold winds that are blowing all over Europe are as strong here as most places. It is bloody scary.

There are some positives here. Sweden still has a relatively generous policy in welcoming asylum seekers, with a major increase expected in 2014, largely as a result of the wars in Iraq and Syria. There are certainly big negatives, people deported who absolutely should not be, failure to integrate immigrants in the labour market, major racism in all sorts of aspects of society. But what strikes me as remarkable is that ALL the parliamentary parties apart from the SD support a basically open approach to immigration and a generous asylum policy. None of them have tried to move into the SD's ground or take up any of their agenda in this area. The comparison with the UK is stark.

But. Thirteen percent. Doubled vote. Not good. Not good.

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August 30th, 2014
02:40 am

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Ice buckets and altruism
I was contemplating a post on what I think of the ice bucket challenge, which I will indeed get to, but then I was thinking more about Effective Altruism, on which I posted a while ago, and trying to put my finger on the thing that was niggling me about it; and I realized what it was.

I really don't like the word "altruism". Maybe it has different connotations to others, but to me it speaks to me of looking down on things from above, generously giving to poor souls from one's bounty. It feels like a - condescending sort of word to me. As I say, maybe that is just me.

But I rather prefer words like compassion, solidarity, or the Christian term agapé; something with a recognition that we are not above it all, we are down there in the mess, we may be in a position to help others in one respect or other due to the good fortune of our birth or life situation, but we too are mortal, will get sick and die.

That doesn't detract from the basic principle of EA - it works just as well if one calls it, say, Effective Compassion. One of the key principles being that compassion should, as far as possible, be wide and embracing, not be limited by blood ties, nationality, by someone being born in the same part of the world as you, by species even, by whether someone's suffering reflects one's own experience or those of one's loved ones.

So back to ice buckets and ALS/Motor Neuron DiseaseCollapse )

So if we allow that giving to a cause like ALS should not be automatically rejected solely on the grounds of it not being sufficiently Effective -

I STILL rather loathe the whole ice bucket challenge thing.Collapse )

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August 3rd, 2014
11:29 pm

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Book/author rec: Jo Walton: Farthing, Ha'penny and Half a Crown
I'd read one of Jo Walton's books before, the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others, and it was awesome. Her prose is stunningly beautiful, with deeply human, insightful characterization and relationships. Highly feminist, but without preaching.

Farthing, the first of the Small Change trilogy has all this, and is also a gripping whodunnit and political intrigue. (NB: I started posting this on the the train up to Scotland, ran out of wifi time, and never got back to it. And now I've read the whole trilogy. But I'll stick to the first book so as to actually get it posted).

It is SFnal in the sense of being alternate history - not a genre I usually go for, but this is an unusual and interesting take on an otherwise overworn AH theme.

More, mostly non-spoilery except for background alternate history, or what you could read on the back coverCollapse ).

Anyway. The whole trilogy is stunning, and I got through it very quickly for me. Highly recommended.

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June 28th, 2014
10:34 pm

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Island hopping
The past few months I have taken the odd saunter, by bike and by boat, round various bays and islands and watery things. Some photos are in order, I think.

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