Minor observations and questions

As a 30ish male, if you walk around the place with a black eye, you will get a combination of contemptuous looks, studied avoidance, and slightly unnerving deference. I’m assuming the latter comes from people who assume that the owner of a black eye has managed to acquire it through being an ultraviolent Begbie figure, rather than through falling off a chair.

I’m guessing that most women trying the same public-black eye-experiment would instead get a combination of pitying looks and studied avoidance, for fairly obvious ‘different stereotype’ reasons, even if said black eye were in fact acquired in a bullfight or crocodile-wrestling accident – any of my female readers shiner-ed themselves up and care to confirm?

Also, it being a public holiday, families were out in force at the supermarket. Two-parent-one-toddler family combinations were noticeably less efficient at shopping, and much more likely to feature at least one screaming angry family member, than one-parent-one-toddler combinations. And that this held whether the one-parent was female or male (I didn’t see any two-same-sex-parent-one-toddler combinations, sadly).

Does the “higher adult/child ratio actually makes shopping more miserable” hold true in readers’ experience? Or are there other factors at play (e.g. “the more unsufferable the toddler, the less willing either parent is to take them out solo if avoidable”)?

Baffling or flattering?

As if to add ammo to the fervent Marxists who’ve been criticising me for my slavish adherence to neoliberal economics lately [*], I’m going to admit that I’m a fan of The Economist on Facebook.

Not because it’s my favourite paper – I subscribe to the New Yorker, Private Eye and Crikey, and would subscribe to the Grauniad if it went PPV – but because it’s interesting, shapes debate, has a good Facebook presence, and the Facebook comments mechanism gives a better view of “what people think” than the “solely for ubergeeks and psychopaths” den of web comments.

One of the things that I’m looking at right now, both academically and professionally, is the challenge presented by dealing with things that have historically been marketed and customised territory-by-territory in a social media environment that’s global. The Economist provides an excellent example, since every week, it lists its covers on the Web.

Now, if you don’t commute far too often between the US and Other Places, you’re probably not aware that the Economist has covers in the plural: both in the US and outside the US, it purports to be a global newspaper (and, compared to US newspapers, it has a fair point). But it isn’t: there’s a US edition with specifically US-focused content, ads and cover, whereas the global edition only has a US cover if the most exciting thing occurring is actually in the US.

If the Economist admitted to its US readers “yes, actually, we do realise you’re a bunch of insular tits just as much as the rest of your countrymen; stop pretending you’re some kind of cosmopolitan international relations knowall just because you read a paper written by slightly-right-wing people in London instead of raging-right-wing fanatics at home; and we all know we only bother printing international news at all in the US version because otherwise we’d lose our USP; we know perfectly well – and it’s clear from our ad placings – that none of you lot read it”, then it might just about risk losing some of its mystique as an international oracle. Which would kill its whole point

So for the Economist’s Facebook presence, where discriminating between visitors from different countries is hard, it definitely wouldn’t want to show a separate “US Edition” and “World Edition”. That would break the spell.

The way it has dealt with this is ABSOLUTELY FUCKING BRILLIANT. Every week, it adds a “Worldwide Excluding the UK, Europe & Asia Edition” and a “UK, Europe & Asia Edition“. That way, Americans – who are sufficiently geographically disendowed to realise that the world, in any meaningful sense, consists of North America, Europe and Asia – can keep the illusion that they’re reading the World Edition, unlike those silly Europeans and Asians who’ve got a customised edition to suit their own parochial concerns. And we (Asia edition is sold in Aus and NZ, obviously) can work out the conceit and laugh at the Americans.

Overall, this is a great win. Except for the poor sods in Canada, South America and Africa, who presumably have to make do with the lobotomised edition containing news that’s irrelevant. Although I suppose for the South Americans it might help them understand when they’ll next be invaded by CIA-backed guerrillas.

[*] my slavish adherence consisted of making the claim that “pretending that basic economics and tax are hard, if you’re someone who purports to understand postmodernist literacy criticism, is embarrassing”. This isn’t because I rate one over the other, but simply because both neoclassical and Keynesian economics are Very Easy To Follow, whilst Derrida and Deleuze are The Opposite.

A defence of royalty

My lack of interest in the forthcoming Royal nuptials is about as total as it gets. However, people will keep writing about it, and I don’t always look away from their articles in time…

So Johann Hari has written a fairly boilerplate piece about the monarchy, and why the UK shouldn’t have one. He sensibly and rapidly deals with the fatuous points that monarchists make about tourism and ‘defenders of democracy’.

But there’s also this:

In most countries, parents can tell their kids that if they work hard and do everything right, they could grow up to be the head of state and symbol of their nation. Not us. Our head of state is decided by one factor, and one factor alone: did he pass through the womb of one aristocratic Windsor woman living in a golden palace? The US head of state grew up with a mother on food stamps. The British head of state grew up with a mother on postage stamps. Is that a contrast that fills you with pride?

Not pride exactly, no: but I prefer the honesty of the UK’s system. In order to be President of the USA, you have to be immensely wealthy, successful and lucky. In order to be immensely wealthy and successful in the USA, you pretty much have to be born to a wealthy and successful family. President Obama is no exception: his parents both had postgraduate degrees, and his maternal grandmother was Vice President of a bank. Obama’s mum did technically live on food stamps while finishing her PhD, but he was living with his banker grandma at the time. His is not a rags-to-riches American Dream story.

The pretence of meritocracy in the US, based on the belief that anyone can become President, breeds a society in which people who end up poor are treated incredibly badly, because they are perceived as having failed. I’d far rather a system that’s honest, under which we accept that someone who’s born in a slum will never have the same chances in life as someone born with a silver spoon, but try and narrow the inequalities in outcome that this creates as much as we possibly can.

Despite the Thatcherites’ and post-Thatcherites’ best efforts, the UK is far better than the US at doing this. I suspect it’s not a coincidence that the countries which are best at equality overall (e.g. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands) also tend to be monarchies. The monarch is a permanent symbol that life is unfair, and that if you take credit for your own success – rather than accepting that it’s primarily down to luck and that you owe a duty of care to the less fortunate in society – then you’re an arrogant prick.