Thursday, 30 June 2016

There Always Was a Brexit Plan B, But Now We Have Plan C

European Parliament President Martin Schultz said: "The British have violated the rules. It is not the EU philosophy that the crowd can decide its fate”.

And you thought politicians were insensitive. I have no idea what DSM-V grade personality disorder Shulz is suffering from, and if there isn't one, it needs to be in DSM-VI. That quote reveals the colossal self-satisfaction and self-righteousness of the anointed elite. And for some reason, I find myself thinking about this song

"Remain" didn't need a plan, because it was the status quo. Plan A was negotiate a Norway-like deal, which was going to be a hard sell to Parliament and the British electorate, but at least it could be talked about.

Plan B was to ignore the Referendum by sheer bureaucratic and political delay. It's what the French did in 2005, after all. That was always a known possibility.

Sadly, the adolescent posturing of the Anointed Ones has pretty much put the kibosh on Plan B. Those old men - and they are all hideously wrinkled old men who couldn't deadlift their trousers - seem to want the UK and all its ungrateful oiks out. How dare some unemployed fisherman in Boston, Lincolnshire vote against the Rule of the Anointed? Be gone, and be damned. So that's that Plan B gone.

This leaves Plan C, which before 2015 would not have been possible, and even after 2015 could not be talked about. This is to tear down the European Commission so that it is simply a civil service with no lawmaking powers, return to a free trade zone, restrict Strasbourg to trade disputes, seal the borders to refugees and have an EU points system for non-EU countries. Everything else stays except benefit tourism, and hiring people for less than some serious minimum wage. That means the UK gets together with other countries, of which there are several, invades Brussels, and breaks the European Commission.

There’s two reasons the EU people are so pissed off with the Brexit vote: a) they have long wanted Britain out of the EU so they could turn it into France, paid for by Germany; b) without the UK, it becomes clear to everyone that the EU is, the Netherlands aside, mostly a bunch of broke-ass failed socialist states, and the illusion that it’s a “world power” of any kind recedes in the haze.

The adolescent posturing by the Anointed Ones contrasts with the behaviour of the career politicians, and especially of the only politician who counts right now, Fraulein Merkel, who is not posturing and appearing reasonable. Right now she’s going down in the history books as the woman who destroyed the EU, and some statesman-like behaviour, to get some sensible talks under way when the Anointed Ones have finished having their fits of righteousness, will go a long way to saving her memory.

If the EU officials can't talk to each other about deals, the national Finance Ministries can talk to each other and the Treasury, and the the German Finance Ministry, with French support, can tell the EU what tune it's prepared to pay for. Such back-channel negotiations are being made more or less inevitable by the childish hissy-fits of the Anointed.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Brexit - Day Four

One of the many things that 9/11 did was to expose a large number of people who looked like “critics” of the West as actual haters. I mean you Noam Chomsky. It was a moral polariser of an event. The 52-48 vote non-binding vote in favour of Britain leaving the EU is set to be another such polarising event. Page through the reader comments in the liberal papers, and read the Financial Times this weekend (the Economist hasn’t come out yet, since it clearly didn’t prepare any articles for the eventuality). The howls and sophistries of the neoliberal elite and its useful-idiot hangers-on are loud and clear. One spin is that this vote is about young (Remain) vs Old (Leave). Another is that it is about Decent Educated People (Remain) vs Oiks (Leave). Except not.

Richmond-Upon-Thames is a slice of God’s Own Estate In Heaven planted on this mundane earth. It has the highest proportion of graduates of any country. It has millionaires walking the streets, it is stuffed to the gills with “middle-class professional people” except for a couple of council estates in the Barnes area. Richmond-upon-Thames should have been 95% Remain. It was 70%. Kensington and Chelsea was 70% and that’s close to being as Heavenly as Richmond. Neither area has a poor segment that's 30% of its population.

So even in Liberal Heaven, almost a third of the people wanted out. And no, it isn’t age. Median age in Richmond is 40. In Bristol, where the median age is 30, nearly 40% wanted out. The correlation with age is weak. The best correlation is with degree of brainwashing possession of a bachelor’s degree or better. (The Guardian data visualisation guys did a fantastic job on the results and real quick.)

The vote showed that when the British people were threatened with “stay or your lives will get worse”, 52% of them replied “Our lives are already worse”. To which one kind commentator said those immortal words “if you think your life is bad now, you just wait”. Ah! Human sympathy! Much more than this, it showed that 17.5 million people - a country larger than at least 20 of the EU members - thought the EC / EU sucks so bad they were prepared to take a few choppy years to get rid of it.

The vote was partly about Angela Merkel’s ill-judged importing of a million unskilled, girl-groping young men whom no-one wanted, and everyone now wants to send back to, well, anywhere that’s not Europe.

But mostly the vote was about all those "well-off" people in London getting their Amazon deliveries, their coffee and Mexican wraps, and their Ubers and Deliveroos, from people with no job security, minimum wages, zero hours contracts and few benefits. While the “well-off” are using mobile phones made by Chinese men and women working fifteen-hour days, and are wearing clothes made by Hondurans paid as much in a year as the “well-off" get in a day. The vote was won by all those people with the crappy jobs supporting the "well-off" people with the "good" jobs.

Because here's the joke: those “well-off” people can’t afford to buy the house I bought at two-and-a-half times earnings. And they think they have “benefited” from the neoliberalism that drives the EC/EU? Oh, wait. Air fares are low. And you can get a cool flat in Oporto from Air B’nB for a week much cheaper than a hotel. So that’s all good then. Ever wonder why people are talking about a shift to the “experience economy”? It’s because most people can’t afford to buy things any more.

Someone just turned off the music and turned up the lights. And behold - the club is tatty, and dirty, and the floor is sticky, and the roof has holes, and the walls have gaps, and someone stole their coat, and the bar prices were ridiculous, and it’s cold and raining outside, and nobody was as remotely as attractive as they looked when the lights were down. But for a few hours the music was loud and everyone thought they were having a good time.

I voted Remain. Didn’t happen. For the moment, we’re still in the EU. I can remember three-day weeks, 25% inflation, 15% mortgage rates, the Miner’s Strike and lord alone what else. That’s why I and the older folk are sanguine. The world has ended many times. And we’re all still here.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

I Voted Remain

I voted Remain, not because I’m a Good European, but because...

a) the best deal the UK would get would be like Norway’s, and we’d still be kicking back to Brussels at about the same rate but without the voting and bureaucratic access that goes with it,

b) I don’t believe in the competence of the politicians and civil servants to exploit what advantages there might be in Leaving (look what a grat job they’renot doing with non-EU immigration already), and

c) I do believe that, good Davos 1% Globalists that they are, Cameron, Junker, Merkel and the rest would happily co-operate to teach the uppity English working classes a lesson by plunging them into a recession that will last more or less forever.

Oddly, the few people I know who voted in advance voted Leave, and they are good middle-class young graduate types - the very people who are supposed to be Remain stalwarts. They were reacting to the campaigns as much as anything else, and that’s the wrong thing to do. The campaigns have been egregious, and mostly have been a proxy Conservative party leadership challenge.

Remember, under the British Constitution, Parliament is sovereign and the referendum is only advisory. An honest politician with integrity who believed that leaving the EU would be bad for the British people would seek to defer the decision “until the time is right”, hand on until the next election and see if any party campaigned on “We will keep the promise to get the UK out”. However, I don’t believe that the Cabinet has politicians who are honest and have integrity, and I think that this Cabinet would sink the UK economy just to keep the plebs in line. They did it before, and they will do it again.

I don’t want to give them that opportunity.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Negative Interest Rates and Why We Need A £1,000 Note

This popped up in the daily press summary we get...
Banks in Europe and Japan are rebelling against their central banks' negative interest rates policies. Commerzbank is considering holding cash in expensive deposit boxes instead of keeping it with the ECB, while the Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi UFJ has warned the Bank of Japan that it could stop its sales of Japanese debt.
In other words… Commerzbank are going to put the money under the mattress.

Aren’t they supposed to have unrivalled networks through which to discover great business opportunities in which to invest that money? So either Commerzbank doesn’t know about the business opportunities out there or it does and there aren’t any. Both can be true. There aren’t any and Commerzbank wouldn’t hear about them if there were. And no, before you ask, fintech start-ups and another sharing app won’t soak up that kind of cash. investment opportunities are skewed: at one end are small opportunities with speculative upsides and almost guaranteed but limited downsides; at the other end are the Crossrails, HS2, Hinkley Point C, Sizewell C, and other humungous vanity projects. The other big stuff, like developing the Dreamliner or Windows 10, is financed by companies, which may simply not need external finance (Apple, Microsoft) or will borrow it against their balance sheet rather than the future profits of a project.

Nope. Looking like the mattress is a good bet.

Central banks have to lie about why they are charging negative interest rates. The real reason is that there’s no way for them to make even a small return on the money other banks deposit with them, because the returns on government debt are so low. They can’t say that, because then the central bank would be admitting that the economy is screwed. So they mutter about using negative interest rates to encourage spending and lending - and that, of course, amounts to saying that there isn’t enough spending and lending going on, because there isn’t anything worth spending on or lending to, and that amounts to saying that the economy is screwed.

Commerzbank are posturing, of course, though they may also be looking at the costs of strongrooms.

Of course, if Commerzbank was going to store money of that amount in deposit boxes, it would need 500 euro notes to do it. Which the ECB wants to get rid of. I say the Bank of England should issue a £500 and even a £1,000 note for exactly these purposes. The Big Four banks in London should build a currency storage facility somewhere in the City. With £1,000 notes, it wouldn’t need to very large. The flight of capital to sterling would be exactly what it needed post-Brexit.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Glenn Kurtz: Practicing: A Musician Returns To Music

I read Glenn Kurtz’s Practicing: A Musician Returns To Music recently. He started as a hot-shot guitar student, went to college in New York and Vienna, started out as a freelance in Europe, realised it wasn’t going to make him money and let him play how he wanted to, and quit for a post-graduate literature degree, which he now teaches. He stopped playing guitar for many years, and came back to it a few years ago. His excellent and wonderfully-written book describes this story in detail and talks insightfully about guitar-playing, musical interpretation and musical education and careers.

I play guitar, after my fashion. I had a few lessons when I was nine or ten, and then started again when I was sixteen. That’s when I got blisters on my fingers. I learned basic theory from a paperback I bought because it told me right up front that I couldn’t learn to play in a day, because it took a month for the blisters to go away. Also it said that people who didn’t like playing scales were missing the point: when you play scales, you’re playing the guitar, and isn’t that what you want to do?. I was sold right there. Even when I’m half-watching a box set and taking care over my fingering of the scale positions, I’m still playing, never “practicing”. If I ever had to perform, then I would learn a piece, and I would rehearse it, but never “practice”. It’s not a verb I use a lot.

I have no doubt that Glenn Kurtz plays way better than I do. He plays classical guitar, and the problems start there. Classical guitars have a high action - the vertical distance between the strings and the frets is a lot greater than it is on a flamenco or folk guitar. The high action is to prevent the string buzzing against the frets, because the aim is to get a perfectly-sounded note. That can be done, but at a huge cost in technical and musical terms. It takes an age and a fair amount of effort to depress and hold down a classical string above the fifth fret, and one has to be quite precise about placing the finger on the string, or the finger can feel as if it will roll off before making contact with the fretboard. The lower action of the steel-string folk and nylon-string flamenco guitars cuts down the effort needed to bring the string against the fret, and the time it takes and the need for accurate placing. And yet one still gets a note - even if it’s not quite perfect.

As a result the classical guitar itself simply won’t let the player emote all over the place as they can on a trumpet, saxophone, piano, violin or cello. Non-classical guitarists have dealt with this by embracing imperfection and personality. They say “tone is in the fingers”: it belongs to the guitarist, not the guitar. Learning to exploit the imperfections available on the folk, blues and flamenco guitars to gain expressiveness is part of developing your own sound: classical soloists do it on the violin family and keyboards, and to a lesser extent on wind instruments. Tone and manner is the player’s brand. Except for the classical guitar, where Kurtz’s story has convinced me that the aim seems to be to make everyone sound alike.

There’s a section of Kurtz’s story, after he leaves music school in Vienna, where he runs up against the reality of life as a jobbing musician, realises he’s not going to make a career of concert performance, and quits. There’s an even more painful moment when he listens to a recording of what he thought was a marvellous graduating concert, and hears everything that is unfinished about it. Despite this, he takes the guitar up again, and then refers to what he is doing as “practicing”.

At this point I wanted to slap him upside the head.

Practice is what we do when we don’t know how to do what we want to do. Practice is when we still have to look at the book to play a scale or a basic chord shape (though looking at an advanced reference book isn’t a sign we are practicing, it’s a sign that we’re learning something new). Practice is what we do to gain the physical strength and conditioning to do what we want to do (and if you think there isn’t strength and conditioning in a guitarist’s left hand, go try stopping some strings with your pinkie finger and let me know how that goes). Practice is what we do to gain the basics of competence needed to perform. How much there is to learn to get to that stage, in any skill, becomes obvious and daunting to beginners very quickly, and they drop out after a few weeks.

The idea of “practicing” is itself a little suspect: it implies that one is somehow doing something and not doing it at the same time. I can practice my tennis serve if I don’t do any more than serve. Once I serve to someone and we play more strokes, we are playing tennis and my serve was a real serve, not a practice serve. There are many things that one can never “practice” in this sense: there’s no such thing as a "practice deadlift”, just like there’s no such thing as “practicing driving in traffic” since you must drive in traffic to do it, and then, oh, you’re driving in traffic. Just not very well.

It’s tempting to suppose that practice for a sportsman anything that isn’t competing, and for a musician or actor, practice is anything not done in front of an audience. Only when one performs for others is what one does “real”, otherwise it’s “just practicing”. Well, I’d suggest that a sprinter who wants to run faster than 3:43:13 for the mile can’t “practice” by running 5:00:00 miles. They can train in many ways, but if they want to see how effective that training is, leaving until the first heat might be a little late. At some point they will have to get on the track and run a mile in practice for real, even though there are no medals to be won.

Doing something “for real” isn’t about the external circumstances, it’s about the internal attitude. In his seminal essay on skills, Hubert Dreyfus points out that past basic competency, further improvement needs an emotional commitment to what you're doing. Someone who wants to move from advanced beginner to competency and beyond stops “practicing” and starts doing. Playing an instrument, that means wanting to make music rather than just string notes together, and making music means that what you do has an emotional or physical effect on people, even if it’s only you.

Perhaps the isolation of the practice room creates an ontological illusion: it tells the musician they are one their own and “no-one is listening”, and that therefore what they are doing isn’t real because there’s no performance and so no audience. But of course, there is. There is the musician themselves, and they are performing for themselves.

Perhaps it would be better to think of the work one does on one’s way from advanced beginner to competence and beyond, not as “practicing”, but as “performance that you don’t want others to hear because it won’t be as good as it could be”. That would contain the question of how rough and imperfect you are prepared to be and still go on to perform. Answering that question may reveal that your issue isn’t with technique, it’s with performing for others, and for yourself.

I’ll leave you with these: the first is Tomatito playing por Bulerias

and the second is Bert Jansch playing Blues Run The Game

It’s not about technique. It’s about music, and music is about emotion. And notice that they are both using capos on the third fret. This is frowned upon very deeply in the classical tradition. I'll go with the technical choices of Jansch or Tomatito anytime.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Never Mind the Proof, Why Is The Riemann-Roch Theorem True?

A very long time ago, I began a project to understand the modern theory of algebraic geometry, and specifically the proof of the Riemann-Roch theorem for projective curves. It's finally over. The completed paper, Never Mind the Proof, Why Is The Riemann-Roch Theorem True? is available here.

Why should you read it? Because it will actually explain why the theorem is a) difficult in the first place, and b) true. You won’t drown in endless algebra, rather swim in a sea of geometric intuitions. You will see the Zariski topology being used to provide geometric insight and understand why flatness is at once difficult and yet easy. You will thoroughly understand the difference between a vector, a co-vector and a one-form (a lot of people who write textbooks don’t) and so why a global holomorphic one-form doesn’t give rise to a global holomorphic function. There’s a simple geometric way of thinking about spectrums and sheaves, and an explanation of where twisting sheaves really come from. It’s all about the informal illustrations, arguments and analogies.

It's inspired by Imre Lakatos' championing of informal mathematics, especially in his essay Proofs and Refutations. The aim is to show that informal argument and exposition can lead to greater understanding of abstract ideas and complicated proofs. I used the Riemann-Roch theorem for Riemann surfaces and projective curves because it provides an example of the informal approach in action on a deep but accessible theorem, rather than a toy example.

It has my real name on it and I did think about that. W S Gosset, aka “Student”, was the only serious mathematician to rock a pseudonym (Nicholas Bourbaki might be someone’s real name, oh wait…) and it’s just pretentious for me. If I was someone whose name appears in the Financial Times, maybe a pseudonym might be appropriate, but I’m just another hack in an open-plan office. Nobody I work with or know is ever going to Google “Riemann-Roch” and find this page by chance. Everyone else will be a stranger - but welcome - now and in the future, so my real name is much the same as a pseudonym.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Remain vs Exit: Round 2

The central argument in the Remain camp is the awful economic consequence of the UK leaving the EU. The central flaw in that argument is seen by asking: how do those consequences come about? It won’t be UK companies refusing to do business with EU countries – why would they? It won’t be the UK Government banning all EU imports – why would it? So if there are sudden drops of trade, it must be because the EU is throwing a hissy fit and banning exports to the UK and imports from it. Or imposing ridiculous trade tariffs. And why would it do that? To encourage the others, of course, to demonstrate the wrath of Mama Merkel and Papa Junker. Walk through that door and we will cut off your inheritance.

That’s how this is being told: as a divorce between Daddy UK and Mummy EU. Mummy EU is threatening fifteen sorts of pain in the settlement, which leads one to wonder how she would behave if we stayed, or whether we should have married her in the first place.

Except this isn’t a marriage, it’s business. The day after the UK votes to leave, everything will go on as usual, including the UK’s payments to the EU. It will take a few years to negotiate the new agreement. Only two things will happen immediately: the Strasbourg Court will vanish from British legal consideration (except for trade disputes), and UK borders can and should slam shut to “refugees”. The UK will continue to welcome with open arms all the talented, educated, hard-working young men and women from countries with economies so awful that a job in Pret A Manger looks attractive. Send those people home and London closes down the next day. Retailers and many other companies would go broke before they could find UK citizens to do those jobs.

Earlier I said that “the world has changed” and for that reason we should stay in the EU and work from within. The world has changed, and the UK will have to negotiate with the EU and if it wants to export to it, make goods and provide services that abide by its rules. Sure. That’s true of any country the UK wants to trade with. The only question is whether it is better placed inside or outside the system. I suspect in the end it will make no difference, and I want the Supreme Court of the UK to be the final court of appeal. I don’t want Strasbourg (except for trade disputes with the EU, that’s a given). I want our management to have the right to refuse entry to anyone for any reason, and to expel anyone who isn’t a UK citizen for any reason. Everything else is business.

There are no consequences of Britain leaving that aren’t actually of the EC’s making. It will be the European Commission that takes it as an affront to its bureaucratic ego and tries to make the UK an object lesson for all the others. It will be the European Parliament who allows the Commission to do so. It won’t be your Leave vote.

Because you never stay with anyone who threatens you if you think about leaving.