The world’s favourite Elder Statesman dies. The world’s media are filled with his story, and (for a change) the volume of coverage does seem merited. What can I add to miles of newsprint? Probably nothing meaningful, nor should I try. History is being written, but I am no historian. But there seem to be crucial questions none of the media care about. Can we draw lessons from Mandela’s story for the present and future? Where might the next Mandela come from?
Let’s brush over his achievements. The figurehead for his people’s struggle, and their first black president elected by a process we can recognise as democratic. The achievement that really reflects credit on him is to have brought about that democratic change without a bloodbath, and indeed with an extraordinary level of goodwill that didn’t just evaporate as soon as something got tough.
What’s altogether more interesting is the context. What made Mandela as a great figurehead and eventual president was surely his long imprisonment. Yet he was imprisoned as a terrorist, and that was real. His imprisonment was prolonged by his consistent refusal to renounce violence, and it was former president de Klerk who had the courage to make the first move, and release a man publicly committed to violence against his country. That must have been as unthinkable for some at the time as it would be now to release Michael Adebolajo (having first convicted him) and enter into dialogue with him.
Of course they did release Mandela, he rewarded them by negotiating in good faith, and the rest is a history much happier than those of so many newly-created or liberated countries. Perhaps there was a greater force at work than any individuals: the force of history. For history was firmly on Mandela’s side, and many elements of his story (though not their combined whole, nor I think the happy outcome) were matters of historical inevitability. The force of history is perhaps the most crucial difference between Mandela and his era’s other high-profile leader of an oppressed people, Yasser Arafat, who did renounce the violent struggle and make many other compromises yet never achieved a happy outcome.
Where is today’s Mandela?
If history is to be of use, we need to be able to draw lessons from it. Are there other potential Mandelas out there perhaps ready to step up to the mark and bring other conflicts to a resolution? I don’t see any obvious candidate, but then I wouldn’t expect to. Even if the media and supporters draw the world to a candidate – as they did with Mandela – we would still be faced with a profile of a candidate who could be anything from a great statesman to a complete nutter.
What about de Klerk’s role: the incumbent in power who can seize a moment in history and make that critical first move towards reconciliation with his historic enemy? People in power are easier to see: after all, we’ve heard of them. Those in conflict, fighting terrorists, holding political prisoners, should in principle have a great prize for the taking if they can identify a Mandela amongst their enemies.
Those fighting the so-called War on Terror must be prime candidates, and should be looking hard for their Mandela in Guantanamo Bay and such places of ill-repute. Yet as of now we appear to be firmly in denial: there is no force of history ready to thrust a peace process on us. Perhaps a real candidate for the Mandela role could have been Hakimullah Mehsud, so recently on the point of entering peace talks before someone killed off that process?
When Mandela was tried and imprisoned, he had a public and media spotlight which led eventually to his elevation and his country’s reconciliation. Those who assassinate their enemies, or kidnap and hide them forgotten are denying themselves that prospect. The contrast between due process – however harsh – in Apartheid South Africa and denial of any such process towards some (not least the Pashtun people as a whole) today is indeed disturbing.
 Commonly described as “the Taliban” in reports of conflict, especially when they’ve been killed.
Those of us who have encountered Serco in a professional capacity will find their contribution to today’s news entirely unsurprising. No more new big contracts from HMG pending the outcome of a big fraud investigation.
The question that glares out is, what took so long? And the answer surely must be a change in attitude somewhere in government. Or more likely, the civil service, who would no doubt thwart the government if they chose to do so. Someone has finally stopped turning a blind eye.
I expect the cloud hanging over G4S is of a very similar nature. And if HMG is really clamping down on abuse of the outsourced-public-services gravy train, there could be a lot more to come.
If this is down to HMG making a serious effort to repair leaks in the public purse then let us applaud and encourage them. They have the advantage that these big companies are unlikely to get much media support, as so easily happens in cases like legal aid or housing subsidies that purport to support “ordinary people” or “the poor”. But at the same time, we must be mindful that any pot of public money is a corruption-magnet, and that which is not cut is sure to find its way to some new rottenness. Just as the outsourcers didn’t invent the gravy-train, but just displaced bloated trade-union-centred rottenness of the pre-Thatcher era.
Text message from my brother. His missus has sprogged, I have a new niece. Mother and baby doing well. Another welcome to the world.
Born Saturday morning, news reaches me the day before by means of the timezone difference. Mildly amused by this phenomenon, but why do my unbidden thoughts turn to Umberto Eco ahead of H G Wells or other conventional time travellers?
OK, I’ve been investing a few years. But this morning I’ve learned a rookie lesson.
The hype about Royal Mail being so heavily oversubscribed suckered me in to subscribing for it: a self-fulfilling prophecy. So far, so good.
But instead of applying direct, I applied within my ISA. So now I’m a hostage to my broker: I can’t go to another broker to dispose of them (well, would you want to hang on to 227 shares?). And both Hargreaves Lansdown’s website and their phone lines are unavailable, probably due in large measure to heavy demand to trade those shares.
A highlight of the Party Conference season was Labour leader Ed Miliband’s promise to freeze energy prices for 20 months. Now in a radio interview his shadow minister for energy Caroline Flint has told us more. There will be a freeze, regardless of what wholesale prices do and that’s OK because the energy companies contract for their supplies 2 years ahead anyway.
Oh, erm, right. Yes, there is a market for energy futures, and energy companies use it (though just contracting everything with a fixed time window would not merely defeat the purpose, it would leave no flexibility to respond to demand issues such as a cold spell). So too do pure speculators who contribute nothing of value but who, free of constraints like the need to supply energy to real customers, have the flexibility to exploit whatever market trends might constrain and force the hands of real users.
Who is going to take advantage? It’s the nimble and flexible. Private individuals may get in on the act, but the big players who will really call the shots are the hedge funds. Mr Miliband and Ms Flint have announced a huge gift to hedge funds!
There’s nothing hypothetical about that. The banking crash of 2008/9 threw up similar opportunities for the nimble, and even as a complete rookie investor I was able to take advantage and trade bank shares at a profit. Commodities are not so accessible to the little man, but professional investors are doubtless looking forward to it.
Nor is it just hedge funds. There’s another class of passive speculator called ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds) that are, I believe, quite a lot bigger. They are the very opposite to nimble: they must just follow the markets. Whatever hedge funds do will automatically be magnified by ETFs. They’ll make money on momentum and lose it when nimble hedge funds switch their positions, but their overall effect is to amplify the market movements that take advantage of our utilities’ positions being forced.
Meanwhile the losers will be the companies themselves, their less-nimble shareholders (from less-sophisticated individuals to sophisticated-but-constrained pension funds), and of course future energy supplies (though, to be fair, that last applies to politicians on all sides). Above all, our suppliers are coerced into buying energy at artificially-inflated wholesale prices, so who will eventually pay for that?
I wonder what our utility companies are even now doing to prepare for the possibility of their market being rigged against them? They’re always up against the hedgies up to a point, and now in addition they have one hand (two hands if Labour look like winning the next election) tied behind their back. Nor can they afford to compete on pay for top hedgies to trade futures markets, though that at least is not necessarily a drawback. Whatever they do, they’re now going to have to pay, in effect, an insurance premium against adverse market conditions out of their control. And pass that cost on to consumers.
I took delivery last week of a new aid to working in comfort. A laptop stand, that means I can hold up a laptop at a comfortable height and angle when sitting at a desk or table, or in a sofa, as well as in bed. I have yet to try it on a train, but even that should work if I can get a table to myself I went for the largest size so I have some space to cross the legs or curl up under it, which I can to a limited extent. Still getting the hang of using it, but I think it’s going to improve my working life.
I have another new toy on order: a robotic vacuum cleaner. The old (1980s) vacuum cleaner is showing its age, and replacing it with a robot will (hopefully) help a chronic procrastinator get around to cleaning rather more frequently than hitherto.
I meant to blog this upwards of a week ago, but I guess better late than never – at least when the subject isn’t so topical to the moment as to go instantly stale.
Apache Trafficserver 4.01 was released on August 30th. It’s basically a production release of what has hitherto been the developer (unstable) series 3.3.x. It’s actually also an incremental upgrade from earlier 3.x releases, in that existing users should be able to upgrade to 4.0 as a drop-in replacement or with very minimal reconfiguration, though of course test before deploying in production! And if you use third-party add-ons, check with their developers or support.
Ironbee, the leading WAF and the add-on with which I’m substantially involved, has always tracked Trafficserver development versions, and is thus ready for Trafficserver 4. Users are encouraged to upgrade as soon as you are ready, and subject of course to the general testing you would always apply to a change of platform. If you find any issues arising, you are encouraged to raise them in the relevant fora for Ironbee and/or Trafficserver.
Please note, although I work on both the Trafficserver and Ironbee projects, I don’t speak on behalf of either of them when I blog. None of the above is in any sense official.
It seems older/smaller/historic prisons are closing, and being replaced by huge modern facilities. Today’s news tells of four closures, including the one immortalised in the Ballad.
So what happens to the sites, and indeed buildings? Do they get redeveloped to become expensive apartments? In a city like Reading I expect they’d have potential to stand out as one of the best addresses in town.
Mixed experiences with two arms of the state today.
On my list of to-dos after moving was to sign up with a quack locally. Last week I got around to googling for GP practices in the area. It presented them nicely on the map, and I see there’s exactly one that’s genuinely local. Looks like an easy choice, and a neighbour speaks highly of them.
So last Thursday I went round there. They required identity documents which I didn’t have: I offered bank/credit cards, but don’t carry anything else around. Come back with a utility bill or similar showing my address.
OK, I can do that, and today (Thursday being my usual free day during the week) I went back, bearing gas and electricity bills and a bank statement. Nope, not sufficient: this time they insist on photo-ID. Buggrit, why couldn’t they have told me that before? I’m fine with them asking for it, but annoyed by lack of consistency.
As it happens, my old passport expires in September, and I had sent it off just last week as supporting document in my application for a new one. So I had no photo-ID. Looks like I’ll have to wait.
Then early afternoon today there’s a knock at the door. Mail delivery to sign for: it’s the new passport. So that’s taken just one week. OK, it’s just a renewal, and I guess I’m a straightforward case ‘cos I’m easy to recognise from the ‘photo in the old passport. But even so, they say simple renewals should expect three weeks and allow for more. So finally I can go and sign up for a local quack.
Full marks to the passport office for efficiency. Bottom of the class to the NHS for vagueness and inefficiency and messing me about. OK, not exactly critical, but it seems depressingly reminiscent of when it does matter.
 Though it seems perverse in a country where we aren’t required to possess any form of photo ID, and not everyone has any.
This year I have my own private supply of blackberries. That is to say, I have brambles in the garden, with no human competition for them. Nor indeed their customary companion, nettles.
Having today picked my second big batch of the season, I am astonished by both the quality and quantity of what I can easily get from just a few bushes. Yes the weather has been great for them with a good mix of sunshine (the dominant theme this summer) and also a healthy amount of rain. But I’m sure having them to myself, with the neighbourhood cats probably even reducing competition from the birds, is the main reason they’re so great.
This gives me a happy problem of excess. Even freezing a lot of them (as I always do) I’ll have desserts to last me more than the year to next season, so I’m going to have to find other uses for them. Two that spring to mind are giving them away and repeating the delicious chutney I made a few years ago, last time we had a really good season and I wasn’t incapacitated by that tennis elbow.
It also thrusts on me the problem of managing rampant briars. I hadn’t realised before that they grow huge, vicious stems bearing none of the fruit. Until recently I had removed none of the brambles except when they came to block my path/steps, as I didn’t want to deprive myself of their fruit. This morning before picking the berries, I went out in boots and old, full-length trousers and chopped the unproductive branches ruthlessly. That left my hands as shredded as they always are in this season, but re-opened paths at the back of the house for next time the window-cleaner comes
I’m faintly wondering whether removing vast quantities of those vicious brambles might affect next year’s crop. But I’m reassured by having seen brambles cut back ruthlessly, yet grow back vigorously in ample time to yield another vast crop the following year.
Does the thickness of a bramble correlate with its age, so a thin (though still long) green stem is this year’s growth while the half-inch-diameter ones are several years old? If so I’ve cleared the brambles of ages from where the fruitless ones were thickest!