Monday, 27 February 2012

Give me five

And so the wheel turns again. It's been a season of ups and downs, and big scores both in our favour and against. During February alone, the goal needle has lurched about all over the place, 7-1, 0-4, and now 5-2. On Sunday it felt like we were beginning to get the hang of the accelerator.

The above photo was taken just before Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay then) met Henry Cooper for the first time at Wembley in 1963. This was the occasion on which 'Enry's 'Ammer floored the young American but the fight ended in Clay's favour due to a cut over Cooper's eye. They met for a second time in 1966, the venue this time being Highbury. As a lifelong Arsenal supporter, Cooper was no doubt inspired by the setting but ended up losing again, despite being ahead on the scorecard, due to another cut over the eye.

This season looks like it will have a few more twists and turns. The eventual outcome will probably hinge on the effectiveness of our defence, which in turn means we need to start getting more luck with injuries, or at least avoid any further calamities. We looked disorganised in the opening few minutes against Spurs but tightened up considerably thereafter. The pressing in midfield was excellent and the pace exemplary. Tottenham couldn't live with us in the second half.

Meeting Liverpool after their Carling Cup win is no bad thing. Teams unconsciously ease up a little after winning silverware. If we can show more desire, I think we can nick three points, though a draw would be acceptable in the circumstances.

While many consider the return leg against Milan to be a dead rubber, I think it could turn out to be pivotal for the rest of the season. We know we can score big, and while the Rossoneri should be too cute, they're vulnerable to pace as a number of British teams have shown in the past. Even if we don't score enough to progress, a good win (and clean sheet) could be the launchpad for a strong run at third place. That, not fourth, has to be the target now.

Cooper was a popular boxer because he forced the pace, opening up his opponent's defence before landing his trademark left hook. Robin van Persie's goal yesterday was particularly reminiscent of this. Ali tried to counter Cooper in their second bout by clinching him tight when he got close and otherwise keeping his distance. Arsenal need to press hard in every game now and up the tempo. And slap a tub of vaseline over everyone's eyebrows.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

I am gonner

Why do people watch the Oscars? You know, other people. I don't watch it myself because it's past my bedtime and, well, boring. But lots of other people get terribly excited by it, a bit like general election night, which has also become a sofa party theme in recent years. I'd like to say I never see it at all, but every year I am unable to avoid the highlights spattered across the wider media.

I sort of watched it once, in an alcoholic stupor. That was one of the years when Billy Crystal was compere, a man for whom the word "schtick" might have been invented. I think I fell asleep, tired out waiting for a car-crash that never came.

Is it simply anticipatory schadenfreude? There's usually either a host who dies under the weight of the lame jokes, or an irruption of delicious bad form as a Vanessa Redgrave or a Marlon Brando sub (no, not a sandwich) takes the mike. The entertainment interludes are usually chicken-in-a-basket fare, while there is a whole media sub-genre devoted to wardrobe faux-pas on the red carpet.

Given the amount of money spent, you'd expect a slicker operation. The interpolation of clips from the films, displaying their evident excellence, appears to be an almost cruel contrast, but I suspect this serves to emphasise the authenticity of the gibbering creatives presenting or accepting.

You don't have to be a cynic to suspect that Janet Jackson's nipple and MIA's finger at the US Super Bowl were unconscious attempts to introduce a frisson of danger into an event (half-time filler, after all) that lacks the Oscar's unpredictability. More successfully, the Brit awards have graduated from national embarrassment to international embarrassment with the aid of Adele's finger - presumably a gesture towards the US market, which has never got the hang of the two-fingered salute.

The tension around time is interesting. The stars are normally seen as people who are under pressure to give more of themselves to their public; they have no time to themselves; they're always on show (yeah, right). The awards ceremony is conversely an opportunity to publicly ration the limelight, to box them into a 45 second slot. "That's quite enough of you". Given Adele's recent ubiquity in terms of awards, James Corden was perhaps subliminally doing us all a favour.

A study has shown that Hollywood films between 1935 and 2005 have tended to gradually standardise shot lengths and rhythm to match the optimal human attention span. The end result might appear to be a case of the bleedin' obvious, as it's humans who edit films, but the gradual shift from longer to shorter probably owes more to the dominance of theatrical conventions, together with the technical limitations (and cost) of complex editing, at the beginning of the period. What's particularly satisfying is that the lead author of the study is Professor Cutting.

The point of citing this work is that there is an optimum time and an optimum rhythm. We can have too much of a good thing, and when the rhythm breaks down, it can be difficult to get it going again. All fairly trite, but given an extra poignance by the news that Andrei Arshavin is off home to Zenit St. Petersburg, probably for good.

The little Russian produced some fine cameos in his early days at Arsenal in 2009, echoing his form in the 2008 European Championship, but he lost his way during the latter part of the 2010-11 season and never managed to get back into a rhythmn. He was a player of moments, most notably his fine winning goal against Barcelona in February 2011. That unfortunately marked the beginning of the end.

In sport you really don't need the winner to step into the limelight. Post-match interviews are rarely entertaining, let alone enlightening, if the interviewee has just won or scored. The best interviews are usually with the losers. Similarly sports award ceremonies are risible because the attempts at explanation, or even mundane thanks, look so flimsy in contrast with the action that led to the gong.

At the Oscars, you get the feeling that some recipients want to top out their winning performance in front of the lectern. Many of them are instinctively acting, though obviously trying hard not to go full retard. The fun for the audience is the palpable risk of hubris.

One of the more endearing features of Arshavin was his reluctance to do post-match interviews. Some will put this down to poor English, or laziness, but I think he was intelligent enough to realise that he had nothing to add. I am gooner. That was your catchphrase. I am gonner would be appropriate now. But not forgotten.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

A hecatomb of oxymorons

We seem to be living in an era of oxymorons. In addition to George Osborne's already discredited expansionary austerity (eat less and pile on the pounds), we recently had Sayeeda Warsi lecturing us about intolerant secularism. This gave me an idea for a new Viz-style cartoon, the Ungrateful Brats. Picture the scene: three scowling children find themselves in a park, faced by the kindly park-keeper.

Kids: What games can we play?
Parky: You can play any game you like, and so can anyone else who uses the park. Of course, you don't have to play a game if you don't want to. You can sit on a bench or feed the ducks.
Kids: You intolerant bastard!

I may have to work on it a bit more, but you get the general idea.

George Orwell's dystopian Newspeak deprecated adjectives and relied on nouns and verbs for its doublethink: war is peace, ignorance is strength etc. Lewis Carroll was perhaps more realistic when he has Humpty Dumpty say:
They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot!
It's the adjectives that you have to watch out for. Slippery buggers. Rather than change a word's meaning, just encourage it to keep the wrong sort of company. Of course we shouldn't be surprised that politicians can convince themselves that words mean just what they want them to mean. The question is whether they actually believe what they are saying.

Language abuse has become a matter of house style for the right in recent years. What started as cynical tactics by the tobacco industry leeched out into wider industry lobbies and neoliberal think tanks, and then washed over the levees into creationism. In recent years, the booming sector has been climate change. The key features are well known: equating scientific uncertainty with doubt, calling denial scepticism, misrepresenting "theory" as unproven, and defining beliefs (e.g. intelligent design) as competing theories.

David Frum, a rational American conservative, wrote a great piece a few months ago on the shift of the Republican party to the wilder shores of barmy. He describes this as the development of a market segment, the target for Fox News, talk radio and Tea Party merchandise. The nurturing of this segment depends on a beleaguered, paranoid worldview and the explicit rejection of alternative views as not just wrong but intentionally evil.

Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics.
He makes the point that the funding for this worldview comes from a small number of the super-rich, but that these aren't cynics manipulating the credulous, rather these shadowy billionaires actually believe the nonsense themselves.

For over sixty years we have assumed that Big Brother would arrive, if at all, via party and state. In the event, the proponents of 2+2=5 have arisen among, and been nurtured by, the freedom-loving entrepreneurs of the business world. How we all laughed about Steve Jobs's reality distortion field.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Cranking the crisis klaxon

And so the "defining week" of Arsenal's season draws to a close. We have one of these every year. It's a tradition, like wearing a used keeper's jersey for a cup final. The press are predictably hyper-ventilating, with some now openly imploring RvP to quit at the end of the season to save his career. These are the same commentators who criticised Arsenal for not signing more players of van Persie's calibre last summer.

The defining week has a time-honoured plot, like a medieval mystery play, in which Arsenal crumple on multiple fronts and find themselves staring at another potless season. I'm only surprised it doesn't feature a dragon. The fact that in most seasons only 3 English clubs win anything is ignored. The narrative is about the shame of Arsenal not being one of them. Again.

As a long-standing fan, this isn't as irksome as many think, indeed the disappointment when you respond to enquiries like "you must be gutted" with "not really" is mildly amusing. It's as if you hadn't read the script. In truth, it's simply about knowing your history and having been round long enough to see much worse teams, with much worse records.

If you had told me at the beginning of the week that we'd only win one of three, but said I could choose which one, I'd have plumped for the league game. The 3 points are in the bank. Progressing a further round in a cup is fun, but the success is unlikely to be lasting. That's the nature of knockout competitions. All clubs recognise this, hence the relative downgrading of the cups. The days of the "cup team", willing to sacrifice league points for a good run, are gone. TV's position money has put paid to that.

The doom-mongering over the defeats has ignored some salient facts. First, that Arsenal won well away from home against Sunderland, coming from behind and snatching a late winner (the sign of a good team, we're normally told). Second, that we lost 4 defenders to injury over 3 games, one of whom is now out for the rest of the season. (I doubt even Barcelona could have shrugged off the rate of attrition we have suffered across the back line in 6 months). Third, that we were on the receiving end of a lot of bad luck: an offside goal build-up by Milan, Vermaelen's slip for their third, and two goals for Sunderland from shots that weren't on target. That's not to mention Ibrahimovic's penalty dive (the old knee to thigh trick).

We didn't deserve to beat Milan, but on most days we'd have lost 2-0 (had we nicked a goal, 2-1 would have felt like a victory of sorts). They're not that good, and we're not that bad. I suspect the flat, slow performance owed something to the exertions against Sunderland on a heavy pitch in the first game. Playing 3 games in 8 days on cut-up surfaces not only hampers our passing style, but it exacerbates the physical toll. That's not to say that we weren't poor, but we haven't suddenly turned into the worst team in living memory.

I'm sure we're all glad that another "defining week" is behind us. So what, objectively, did we achieve? We got through to the last 16 in Europe, and the last 16 in the FA Cup. Neither Manchester club could manage either, but they have different narratives. For Arsenal's detractors, being a top European team is not enough. It's victory or ignominy - nothing in between. This has been key to the narrative since 2006. We clearly flew too close to the sun then.

What I think this shows generally is that as league placings have become more and more a straight reflection of money spent, and as the amount of money needed to move up a place has grown so much, small relative movements have taken on a greater significance. Today's "surprise package" is a promoted team that doesn't get relegated immediately.

A team like Spurs is lauded for "cracking the top four" (and Harry Redknapp will no doubt get Manager of the Year for it, in addition to the England job), though no one really expects them to emulate an Everton or a Leeds and win the title. It's worth noting that plucky Spurs have been the fourth highest gross and net spenders in terms of transfers over the last 6 years. In terms of return on investment, their record is quite poor.

This attitude has become so entrenched that when a team punches above it's presumed weight, the positive delight for them is quickly drowned by the noisy inquest into the relative failure of others that this must entail. Winning has become a grind, an expectation, not an eagerly sought bonus.

The media pander to this, as noisy intemperance is a more compelling spectacle than reasonable judgement. This resulted in the strange sight of ITV's pundits lauding Zlatan Ibrahimovic midweek. This is a player that English commentators have taken great pleasure in denigrating over the years ("he doesn't do it in the big games"). For one night only (or two, if you count the 2-2 draw with Barcelona at the Emirates in 2010), Ibra was a giant among men.

It would take something to top that for cheek, but ITV managed it with Roy Keane yesterday. He was on the panel not because he is an astute and interesting pundit (he isn't) but because he could stick the knife into either team, depending on the result.

Adrian Childs seemed determined to provoke him, and remind us of the key narrative, by asking him if he'd got over the 2005 cup final (he hasn't). Keane obliged by claiming at half-time that Arsenal weren't in the game at all, despite out-passing Sunderland at the beginning, getting knocked back when Coquelin went off and the defence was rejigged, and then falling behind to a deflected shot.

He dismissed the current Arsenal team as the worst he'd ever seen, which means he must have been abducted by aliens and replaced with a robot when we finished 12th in 1995. His insight amounted to the claim that wearing gloves signalled a lack of fight. This is the sort of thing that passes for wisdom in a pub or a playground. It is absurd that such a managerial nonentity should be asked to comment on the likes of Arsene Wenger and Martin O'Neill. You'd get more sense out of Gok Wan.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The trouser drop

This week's news of a fall in the inflation rate will be good news for purveyors of skinny jeans, as the width of the fashionable trouser leg tends to follow the cost of living, albeit in an inverse relationship - i.e. price inflation = trouser deflation.

You think not? Behold, my evidence ...

The zoot suit of the late 40s is often seen as a reaction against wartime rationing of cloth, though it could just be due to the absence of decent tailors, with many of them still serving in the forces. Baggy clothes are easier to make than figure-hugging ones.

The Edwardian style was consciously reintroduced by Saville Row tailors in the early 50s, but it quickly went rogue as working class boys spotted the potential while running office errands and minding barrows in the West End. The high-point of the Teddy Boys is considered to fall between the London opening of the film Blackboard Jungle in 1956 and the 1958 Notting Hill riots. In 1959 the rate of inflation dropped to 0.6%. Coincidence? I think not.

The 60s saw inflation bumping around but keeping below the crucial 5% level. This may be considered to be the trouser threshold. This febrile trend marked the increased volatility of fashion, but also the continued supremacy of narrow trouser legs with Mods and drainpipe-wearing Rockers. As the decade wore on, regency styles came to the fore and led eventually to the Summer of Love's flares, however it was only with the spread of the counter-culture after 1969 (notably loon pants) that legs crossed the threshold.

The 70s were a bleak decade with flappy trouser legs spreading to all classes and ages of society. The apogee was reached in 1975 when Oxford bags were reintroduced, ostensibly on the back of the success of the film The Great Gatsby. In fact, the econometric data makes it quite clear that this development, and the associated horror of shorter legs with tartan trimmings, was intimately tied up with the historic peak of 24.2% inflation and the associated breakthrough by the Bay City Rollers.

Fortunately, the first stirrings of trouser deflation were soon on hand with the release of Anarchy in the UK and the Ramones debut album in 1976. This was a brave attempt to drive inflation back below the 5% threshold, however it was thwarted by the counter-revolutionary forces of the New Romantics, Margaret Thatcher, and Kid Creole and the Coconuts (zoot redivivus), at the turn of the 80s.

The rate then dropped again, pushing below 5% in 1983 as trouser material was stockpiled ahead of the miners' strike. It spent the remainder of the decade bouncing around the threshold, in two minds as culture divided between the grim and skinny (Red Wedge) and the tanned and bouffant (Wham).

The turn of the 90s saw the emergence of the boot cut, a pseudo-flare designed for people who had hit 30 and decided to settle down. Jeremy Clarkson first appeared on Top Gear in 1988. The 90s also saw the re-emergence of ample-arsed trousers, both in the hip-hop-inspired sagging style and the baggy style of Madchester.

We have enjoyed levels of inflation below the threshold since 1992, however this may be a little misleading. The relative stagnation in the growth of wages during the 90s and 00s resulted in low inflation but increasing levels of personal debt. This was mirrored by the continuing confusion of the sagging style, which necessitated relatively narrow legs to avoid the jeans tripping up the wearer while running.

Coincident with the financial crisis of 2008, the last few years have been marked by the return of the skinny jean, a particularly anorexic version of the narrow. Combined with the continuing fashion for sagging, this appears to be a visible sign of deleveraging anxiety, as if the wearer were halfway out of a pair of jeans that were too tight to remove.

I rest my case.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The Fred Goodwin memorial prize

Despite much harrumphing and hang-wringing (not at the same time, mind - that looks odd), the politicians have yet to come up with a coherent plan to tackle the problem of bonuses beyond appeals to responsibility and restraint. Even Labour's proposal to levy a super-tax on bank bonuses is weedy as it's a one-off tax, hypothecated to alleviating youth unemployment. A policy on bonuses should not have to use the latter as cover.

The simplest solution would be to bump up the top rate of tax. This wouldn't catch bonuses delivered as share options or LTIPS, but that in turn might stimulate broader discussion about tax rates on capitals gains and dividends. But before settling on a solution, let's clarify the problem.

Bonuses are typically justified as incentives and/or rewards. In other words, the promise of a reward can stimulate superior performance (the carrot theory), while exceptional performance (whatever the stimulus) deserves reward and recognition, if only pour encourager les autres.

There is a lot of evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, that bonuses do not work for executive, managerial and professional roles. This is because the value of the worker's product is rarely determined just by the quantity of effort - i.e. working harder does not necessarily produce better results, for reasons beyond your control.

Where effort does influence output value, bonuses tend to work in a clear and measurable way, e.g. sales targets. Bonuses are an efficient and effective mechanism for the other ranks, but not for the officer class. So why do senior positions in business attract bonuses, and hugely disproportionate ones to boot?

In the case of bankers, the historical roots go back to the partnership arrangements of merchant banks. At the end of the year, you got a share of total profits. This was justified as you, as a partner, were also putting up your own capital and were liable in the event of a loss.

The introduction of US norms post-big-bang in the 1980s, on the back of the Euromoney market growth in the 60s/70s, saw non-partner traders picking up a share of specific book profits (but not losses). As these trades grew in size, so did the bonuses. As bank executives needed to maintain their status relative to their traders, so the rising tide floated their boats.

This bonus culture in the City soon spread to those businesses and professions that dealt with it, such as lawyers, business consultancies, public relations and headhunters. It became an inevitable talking point for the boards of companies being floated (what else are you going to talk to an investment banker about?), with the result that the executive bonus culture spread more widely through UK business.

In reality, these bonuses were simply profit share. However, a bonus regularly paid is eventually treated as an entitlement, and may even be transformed into a contractual obligation.

In summary, the problem is that bonuses are increasingly ineffective the higher up the corporate tree you go. The higher up the tree you go the more the bonus is just disguised salary.

But a bonus isn't just money. It is a positional good in its own right, i.e. it's about status. It's worth bearing in mind that someone who receives a £1 million bonus is (usually) going to be someone who is already very rich. For them, the extra million is less significant (in terms of marginal value) than it is for most people. So in terms of incentivisation, money is probably not as efficient for senior roles as it is for junior ones - i.e. you get more bang for your buck on the shop floor.

So here's my idea. Implement a super-tax of 100% on discretionary bonuses above £52,000 (i.e. twice current mean earnings). This is high enough to provide the flexibility for bonuses that will have an effect. This tax will produce zero revenue as most companies will simply convert the excess for their executives either into salary or share options. This is no bad thing (greater transparency at least, and possibly some deferred gratification), however I suggest another option might be considered.

In this, I have been inspired by Fred Goodwin ...

Let's privatise the honours system. By this I mean let's allow businesses to buy honours. A honour is an ideal positional good in that it can be created out of thin air but commands a high price. To keep the price up, we'd obviously have to ensure exclusivity, but that (ironically) can be achieved by ... keeping the price up.

There would have to be a fit-and-proper-persons test, though considering some of the crooks that have been ennobled in the past, this would only blackball the most egregious. It would also make sense to debar individuals from buying honours - they should at least go to the trouble of setting up a shell company in Jersey.

All this does not preclude Betty Windsor from still handing out gongs as she and the PM see fit. Indeed, the cachet of an honour depends in part on being able to associate with people of actual talent and achievement, so this element should be guaranteed. I suspect that hereditary honours would be reserved as well.

Combined with a proper super-tax on income (e.g. 70% over £1 million), and a more sensible approach to share options (i.e. caps on the £ amount that can be allocated), this could not only change the landscape for executive remuneration but also produce a healthy revenue stream for government expenditure.

This could even be hypothecated (if Ed Milliband really wants it) to specific capital projects, such as hospitals or schools, with the bonus of a plaque and opening ceremony for the honoured whose fees funded it. Let's be honest, few of the names you see on a plaque mean much anyway.

You might think that this is all so much lunacy, and that business (the City in particular) will find a way of shovelling money around the rules, however this ignores the fact that what drives human behaviour beyond a basic level has nothing to do with money as a pure exchange medium and everything to do with esteem, status and power. Money is useful only insofar as it enables these.

And Fred Goodwin?

The pure free market position would be that, once awarded, we would have no right as a society to rescind the honour, as it was now someone else's property. One could argue that the honour remains the property of the buyer, RBS, i.e. they have merely awarded the "use" of it to Goodwin and can thus unilaterally rescind it. In either event, this would have neatly removed the government from the frame.

But what about the fit-and-proper-persons test? There would be occasions when we would, as a society, refuse to recognise an honour due to subsequently revealed misdeeds. But the sponsor (e.g. RBS) would be held responsible for the behaviour of the honoured, and would further be responsible for guaranteeing their suitability up-front, so we should have no qualms about keeping the fee as a fine for their lack of diligence.

So, if my cunning plan had been followed all along, we'd have had the pleasure of seeing Fred Goodwin stripped of his knighthood and we could have benefited by about £10 million or more (prices accurate at time of going to print).

Monday, 13 February 2012

The wound that just won't heel

The political response to the weekend's Suarez/Evra hand-jive has been dominated so far by Jeremy Hunt's claim that David Cameron does not want football to return to the "bad old days". This is an odd statement.

The bad old days, by which I take it he means the 1980s, were marked by a systemic disregard for racism by the footballing authorities and government. It took the launching of the Kick It Out campaign in 1993 by the CRE and the PFA to start to turn the tide. The FA and Premier League didn't fully get on board till 1997. Throughout the 80s and 90s, the government's attitude was dictated largely by hooliganism (seen as another manifestation of the "enemy within").

The bad old days were also dominated by crowd behaviour in the form of racist chants, banana lobbing, and making monkey noises (which I always found ironic as they made the perpetrator look like a grunting idiot). While there was plenty of racism on the pitch, this was usually a minor counterpoint to what was going on in the stands. The limits of TV and audio technology made it difficult for such acts to be picked up on.

So what does Cameron (or Hunt) mean by the bad old days?

Is he implying that the organised game has failed to address the problem? The demoting of John Terry indicates that the FA are certainly taking a robust stance on racism. The apologies from Liverpool FC may be prompted as much by a fear of tarnishing the brand as genuine contrition, but they're certainly nothing if not evidence that the EPL and clubs take the matter seriously.

I don't think he's implying that it's all kicking off in the stands either. The spate of racist verbal attacks by fans recently has been noticeable for their pathetic exceptionality, mainly lone nutters and opportunistic social media trolls. As Richard Williams points out, much of the noise around this incident isn't even driven by "genuine racism" so much as tribal anger. In other words, more people hate Patrice Evra for playing for Man Utd than for the colour of his skin, which is progress.

Williams also notes Sky Sports desire to invest every element of the game with significance, to the extent that the pre-match handshake has become an established warm-up bout. This is largely down to the pioneering work of John Terry, who seems to crop up a lot.

What this reminds me of is televised wrestling in the 70s, when mini epics of morality were acted out over 3 rounds by Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. Refusing to shake a proffered hand, and general abuse of the rules by the "heel", was part of the show. The old ladies and kids in the audience wanted Manichean contests of good versus evil, in the confident expectation that the handshake-refuser would end up begging for mercy.

Luis Suarez has begged for mercy now, but we all suspect he's not wholly sincere. His role as a heel has been maintained, though I'm not sure he's really cut out for it. What the game needs is a "top top" heel, along the lines of the great Kendo Nagasaki.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

We don't need no ICT education

I was amused a few weeks ago by the announcement that Michael Gove was advocating an "open source" curriculum for ICT in schools. This is the same Education Minister who wants a more prescriptive approach to history: our island story, with lots of kings and queens and biffing the French.

It's a fair bet that Gove doesn't actually know what open source is. He's just reading a script put together by a policy wonk with an Oxford PPE and some Beats headphones. The new policy is clearly intended to give business greater access to delivery of the curriculum, while apparently giving schools greater autonomy - i.e. they get to "choose" resources from multiple providers.

For the vast majority of the users of open source software, all the term means is that it's free. The percentage of the user community who participate in code development is tiny. Gove's vision of a "wiki, collaborative approach" to developing materials for the curriculum will ironically bump up against this reality. Most schools will simply adopt an off-the-shelf curriculum to ensure conformity and thus acceptable exam results.

Gove appears to have confused open source with "any willing provider". In other words, this is about privatising course design and delivery. His speech was delivered at BETT, the leading UK education technology trade show. It's safe to assume that no one there was equating open source with free.

Part of the criticism of the current ICT curriculum is that it focuses too much on learning how to use Microsoft Office, rather than understanding technology. But this complaint forgets that the current curriculum came about because of the perceived urgent need to train the future clerical class for the business world of the 90s.

The current approach appears to be based on an already outdated vision in which the UK is a centre of excellence for programming. As any fule kno, programming is subject to the same historical forces as anything else. It has becoming increasingly commoditised, standardised and globalised. This is partly why there are now lots of "willing providers" who can rustle up a module on global variables or singletons. It's also why kids with a serious interest are already programming outside of school.

ICT has always been problematic in the UK because it straddles the normally clear boundary between the vocational and the academic. Gove's coincidental plan to scrap the GSCE equivalency of most vocational courses (and thus discount them from league tables) is clearly intended to redraw that boundary, this time with a ditch and rampart. This is as regressive as his Whig view of history.

I suspect that ICT may bifurcate as a result of this, between a vocational GCSE (get a sysadm job) and an academic one (go on to study computer science). Along the way, a lot of government money will be spent on educational systems and content, despite the fact that everything they provide will be freely available to those who look for it on the Web.

Friday, 10 February 2012

The new poor law

The economist Karl Smith published an interesting article recently on the dichotomy of the deserving and undeserving poor.
There is no reason to view emotional or mental deficiencies as different in kind from physical ones. To put it in the harshest of terms, if you think someone who is born blind is deserving of sympathy and support then you should think someone who is born lazy and stupid is deserving of sympathy and support.
Further once you concede that the lazy and stupid are deserving of sympathy then its difficult to construct a set of poor people who are not, since these are among the least sympathetic qualities that could cause someone to be poor.
Thus the vast majority of the poor are deserving of sympathy or support.
Laziness is not an unvarying or testable condition, like blindness or stupidity, so it is possible to fake it. In other words, rather than being lazy in the congenital sense (for which you are not to be blamed), you might simply be inconsiderate (others can do the work while I sit under this tree). Smith notes of the former that "we lack the technology to distinguish them from those faking laziness", so any attempt to discriminate between the two will fail.

Smith is a neoliberal (in the spirit of his namesake), so would be happy were we to invent technology that could accurately distinguish the fakers from the helplessly lazy, but purely for reasons of efficiency rather than morality. His proposal is provocative because it eschews morality.

Smith recognises that motives, and thus culpability, are not distinguishable when it comes to a person's lot. As well as circumstances beyond their control, we have to recognise that their choices are relative and subjective. There is no common scale that we can measure everyone against, thus we can never say that someone deserves what they got. Maybe they did, maybe they didn't. It's a matter of opinion, not empirical fact.

Essentially, this is an argument for excluding morality ("just deserts") when discussing people's lot in life. This is attractive from a practical perspective. Morality is messy, costly to get agreement on and mistakes will be made. It is also helpful when applied at both ends of the spectrum. The better criticism of CEO pay and banker bonuses is that they indicate a systemic failure (inadequate regulation, a rigged market, the agency problem) rather than a moral shortcoming (individual greed).

However, there is a danger in taking this approach. The neolibreal view holds that "fair" is whatever the market decides, and is therefore essentially amoral. It also holds that individuals make rational choices to maximise their utility, hence choosing to live on benefits may be a perfectly rational preference. It is from this observation that neoliberals conclude that benefits must be low enough to be unattractive as a rational choice, i.e. the 'less eligibility' principle of the workhouse.

The logical sleight of hand in the conclusion rests on the assumption that working is better than not working, so the former should be encouraged and the latter discouraged. This view is also found on the left, e.g. "he who does not work, neither shall he eat" (though it's worth noting that the famous use of this phrase by Lenin was directed at the parasitical bourgeoisie, not the lazy lumpen proles). That said, there remains a strong tradition of anti-work on the left as well (I'd just like to say that I'm doing my bit).

The proposed £26k cap on benefits may sound like an attack on an exceptional anomaly, but it is significant that the rationale focuses on the absurdity (the unfairness) of benefits exceeding most workers' income, rather than a quirk in the maths. This moralistic argument, together with the claim that over-generous benefits dissuade people from working ("they" are inherently lazy), logically leads to the conclusion that even the deserving unemployed and disabled should not be better off than the lowest paid in work, i.e. our old friend 'less eligibility'.

Unfortunately, this merely serves to make the poor poorer for the simple reason that the minimum wage is inadequate. The report this week on pay rates among the big four supermarkets highlights a consequence of this. Increasing numbers of workers require in-work benefits (tax credits, child benefit, housing benefit etc) to achieve a living income.

The systemic failure here is that the state (i.e. the taxpayer) is subsidising private business, and privileging low-pay sectors to boot. One could argue that this is the quid pro quo for low prices at the till (leaving the question of profit margins to one side for a moment), though the logical argument for a neoliberal should be that the decision on expenditure is one for the individual consumer to make, not the state - i.e. if food were more expensive, one can choose what to buy and where, but one cannot choose to withhold that portion of tax that ends up subsidising supermarket staff.

Coming back to profit margins, the irony is that low-paid staff in Tesco and Sainsbury tend to shop at Aldi and Lidl because they are cheaper, despite having company discount cards. (See page 39 of the above report). This inconvenient fact gives the lie to claims that the supermarkets must push down on wages to remain competitive. The income subsidy by the taxpayer is thus transformed into corporate profit.

What seems to have emerged in the UK supermarket sector (and elsewhere) is an updated version of the Speenhamland system. This fell into disrepute because it interfered with the operation of supply and demand, i.e. unscrupulous employers could push down wages and thus shift greater cost onto the parish.  The consequence was the Whig Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which gave us the Victorian workhouse.

Have we advanced sufficiently as a society to consider the obvious solution, which is to provide everyone with an unconditional basic income, with other non-universal support (disability, housing) being determined on needs and means? While the debate continues to be framed in moralistic terms, the answer has to be no.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The not so faithful border bin liner

The black bin bag protest forecast for Arsenal's game against Blackburn Rovers last Saturday turned out be a non-event, which seems to be par for the course for the slightly fascistic-sounding Black Scarf Movement. I had been looking forward to this, due to fond memories of the surreal Viz cartoon, Black Bag, The Faithful Border Bin Liner.

The idea was to drape the bags over empty seats (an unconscious echo of Greyfriars Bobby, perhaps) to highlight falling attendances at The Emirates and protest that the 6% ticket price rise this season didn't lead to a splurge on new players in the summer (sort of).

Is there a flaw in an argument that hitches these two points together? Surely if attendances (i.e. seats sold) are falling, then the price rise will largely have gone to offset a drop in income. The explanation, of course, is that attendance (bums on seats) no longer reflects sales (seats bought), which is why Arsenal have stopped announcing the "attendance" figure during the game. In terms of seats sold, Arsenal continues to hit around 99%. 8 out of 12 home league games this season have sold over 60,000 (the capacity is 60,361), with the lowest sales being 59,671 for the the thing of beauty that is Stoke City on a Sunday.

The point is that any protest should be directed not at the club but at those supporters (presumably season ticket holders) who choose to skip a game and don't make use of the Ticket Exchange. I know from personal experience that not everyone is able to arrange a sub for every absence, and thus empty seats have become more common for all bar the most glamorous ties. Mind you, I also know from experience that standing season ticket holders would skip games in the past, though this was less obvious due to the fungibility of the crowd (I've been looking for an opportunity to use that phrase). Empty seats in a sell-out stadium are not a stay-away protest.

This casual attitude extends to taking your seats, with many drifting in from the concourses during the first 10 minutes and many (often the same people) popping out 5 minutes before half-time to beat the rush for drinks/pies/toilets. Some have criticised Arsenal for attracting a crowd more suited to the theatre or opera, which is an odd claim given that such venues wouldn't allow you to wander in and out at will. (The related Highbury Library charge is of course a case of rhyme trumping reason).

I suspect the truth is that these habits are largely unchanged over the decades. You simply didn't notice them when most people were standing (and not pissing down the back of your legs), and I recall bobbing up and down to let others pass just as frequently in the North Bank stand at Highbury.

If there has been an increase in this "in-play" faffing about, the cause would certainly be the increase and improvement in the pie and piss facilities. I remember attending a baseball game in Philadelphia in the late 80s and being bemused by the number of "spectators" who spent the entire game pigging out down in the concourse where there were mini-bowling alleys and banks of Space Invaders machines. Mind you, the sport was shit.

The media hype was reheated on MOTD when the ever-perceptive Motty noted that there were lots of empty seats as Titi slotted in the seventh Arsenal goal. What anyone at the stadium would have pointed out is that the goal came on 90 minutes, at which point the rush to the exits had already started, partly because there's always a rush before the end due to the queues for the Tube, partly because we felt confident we couldn't (surely) let a 5-goal lead slip, and partly because it was bloody freezing.

The 7-1 victory has put an end to the "club in crisis" stories in the media, and the accompanying cacophony of sack the board / manager / coaching staff / physio / tea-lady comments online, however this will only be temporary. Though the majority of fans have their grumbles, it's only a small minority that believe we're going to hell in a handcart. Unfortunately, they are over-represented by a media that feeds off confected controversy, and they are over-visible online where blog trolling appears to have become the modern equivalent of scratching your team's initials (or the phone number of a girl who dumped you) on a bog door.

One of the features of the modern game is the way that the cost of being an informed fan (i.e. being in the stadium to get a full view of the game and understand what's happening away from the ball) has sky-rocketed, while simultaneously the cost of entry to fandom has dropped. By the latter I mean that most people can become a semi-informed spectator through live games on TV or via Internet feeds, while the ability to observe and participate in conversations has expanded from the homely confines of the pub to the multiverse of the net.

This is not an elitist argument. It's worth bearing in mind that more people see Arsenal in the flesh these days than ever did in the past.

Unfortunately, intelligent comment remains as rare as Ju Young Park, so where once the angry men of your acquaintance would limit themselves to chuntering about the bus timetable or how the beer tasted funny, now they howl at the moon that "somebody must do something, now!"

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Right-wingers are easier to wind-up, says study

Last week brought the priceless news that the Daily Mail had published an article entitled: "Right-wingers are less intelligent than left wingers, says study".

The quoted Canadian study does not in fact make this claim. It does not even say that the Tory party has a near monopoly on the stupid vote. What it does say is that people with low intelligence are more likely to adopt conservative beliefs, which is hardly earth-shattering.

The study looks at the correlation of low cognitive ability and social manifestations, such as racism and homophobia, defined as prejudice against out-groups (feel free to substitute gypsies or catholics). In a nutshell:

Thus, individuals with lower cognitive ability may be more attracted to right-wing ideologies that promote coherence and order, and because such ideologies emphasize the maintenance of the status quo, they may foster greater out-group prejudice.
The article also includes this amusing little explanation: "Crucially, people's educational level is not what determines whether they are racist or not. Social status also appears to play no part."

In fact, what the study said was that its analysis was controlled for education and socioeconomic status. In other words, they neutralised these as influential factors in the data, in order to better gauge the impact of cognitive ability. They weren't saying that these aren't factors at all. Education tends to reduce prejudice through the simple mechanism of social contact, i.e. once you've met a few "out-groupers" during freshers' week you tend to have less suspicion of them. Until they nick your sausages.

To cap it all, the article states: "The authors also claim that conservative politics is part of a complex relationship that leads people to become prejudices" [sic]. Your eye may have been caught by the closing typo, but the real meat in this air sandwich is the suggestion that prejudice may be the result of a complex relationship rather than just formal membership of the Young Conservatives.

This is an almost textbook example of shoddy journalism, or perhaps (if you prefer conspiracy to cock-up) a brilliant windup. The outraged comments on the Daily Mail site are a joy to behold.

For the footballistically inclined, here's another windup, this time targeting Spurs fans. According to a study I have just invented, most of them read the Daily Mail.

Monday, 6 February 2012


Bill Gates and Richard Branson are making sizable donations (conveniently unsized in the reports) to groups engaged in geo-engineering research and advocacy. This is the speculative science that will solve our climate change problems by dicking about with the atmosphere.

While it's some way short of full-blown terraforming, the megalomania quotient is pretty high. Branson has previous when it comes to looking down on us puny humans, literally so given his progression from balloons to sub-orbital spacecraft, while Gates is clearly a big dumb objects kinda guy at heart.

Of course, this may just be part of their respective programmes to be recognised as benefactors of mankind, which my University of Life diploma in psychoanalysis tells me is down to guilt arising from the sharp practices that set them on the roads to riches in the first place (86-DOS and tax evasion).

Actually, maybe the guilt isn't such a big deal for them. Maybe this is just the ultimate Ozymandias kick. Instead of "the weather forecast, sponsored by PowerGen", we can look forward to "the weather, courtesy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation".

Mind you, that would be better than having the clouds repeatedly forming into the shape of a bearded, smirking man's face.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Even the Internet is no match for our powers

The London Olympics could "crash the Internet", according to today's Observer:
The warning, in the Cabinet Office's official advice, Preparing your Business for the Games, says that the country's telecoms system may be unable to cope with demand to access the internet in certain areas. Businesses are being encouraged to offer staff flexible working arrangements to try to ease the pressure. ... The government believes that encouraging businesses to allow staff to work from other offices or home, or at different times, is key to easing congestion in the capital this summer.
It's easy to laugh at the utter thickness of this. If London-based employees stay at home and dial-in, this merely shifts Internet usage between nodes rather than increasing it (unless the implication is that out of sight of our bosses we'll over-indulge in video-streaming). Given the dynamic routing design of the beastie, this isn't going to cause any capacity issues within the bounds of normal traffic fluctuation (e.g. a Monday vs a Sunday). 

The Internet didn't break during the Beijing Olympics, so are we to believe it has become more fragile in the last 4 years? Maybe the Chinese are ideologically opposed to remote access.

Probably the biggest demand shock that the Internet experienced was on the 11th of September 2001, when everyone who had access went online. As I recall, it didn't melt all over the keyboard then either. What happened was that certain news sites (i.e. specific server farms) failed to respond due to demand way above the norm. In effect, a benign distributed denial of service attack (DDOS).

The net itself was fine, which you could prove by accessing other sites that either weren't attracting increased demand or had sufficient capacity to cope (e.g. Google, which remained up albeit slower than usual). We know that variance in demand will decrease as the volume of demand increases, so the Internet (and various server farms) will only become more reliable over time, assuming the infrastructure keeps pace with the growth in the number of users (up from under 9% of the global population in 2001 to 32% now). And that's without considering the efficiency gains of content distribution networks and other forms of caching.

This network meltdown is yoked together with the existing horror story concerning travel:
The Games organisers predict that on 3 August 2012, the first day of the track and field events, London's public transport will experience an extra three million trips on top of the 12 million made on an average workday.
According to TFL (a 2007 report), the average number of trips per person per day is 2.8, which means that the extra 3 million trips would be accounted for by just over 1 million additional people. The total Olympic venue capacity across London is 386,000. These will host up to 3 sessions during the day, so it is conceivable that 1 million spectators or more will be on the move, albeit staggered over more than 12 hours (events run from 10am to 10pm).

For comparison, when Arsenal, Chelsea, West Ham, Charlton and QPR all play at home (which they do this season), the combined crowd is about 175,000. Obviously these games take place on a Saturday and/or Sunday, but usually within a shorter space of time (typically 1pm to 7pm).

What the quote above doesn't explain is that the estimate of trips already includes over 1 million bods who aren't residents or commuters (see page 17 of the TFL report), i.e. they are tourists or day trippers. Given that hotel capacity hasn't increased by that much, and many who might otherwise have visited London will avoid it in 2012, there will surely be a lot of substitution in the visitor flows, and that's without factoring in the impact of residents fleeing the capital for the duration.

I saw a map published recently that marked the "traffic hot spots" across London, with the implication that you should avoid these areas. One of them covered Wimbledon and most of the A3 through Wandsworth. As someone who lives in the area, I know from experience of Wimbledon fortnight that congestion is limited to a small area at Southfields Tube station, and that the locals cope (grudgingly) each year.

Both of these themes (Internet chaos and travel chaos) exemplify more than the quotidian desire to grumble about how shit everything is, or could be, and the more profound anxiety that we are just the wrong kind of snow away from societal breakdown. They also reflect an almost millenarian attitude towards the Olympics. We are approaching something unprecedented.

This was also on show with the much publicised "training exercise" in which Marines stormed a hijacked Thames ferry. This would actually be one of the least likely cunning plans for a terrorist group, but it made for some seriously sexy shots of boys in powerboats, which you don't normally see outside of a Bond film.

It was when I learnt that this exercise was codenamed Operation Woolwich Arsenal Pier that the penny dropped. The whole thing is a massive attempt at psychic compensation for the utterly damp squib that was the Millennium Dome, which the ferry passes en route to Westminster.

We want to believe that the Olympics will be worthwhile, but knowing full well that the much trumpeted legacy will be the usual broken promise, and suspecting that plucky failure will be our lot when it comes to the medals, we're left having to over-dramatise the impact of the event on travel, security and now (gawd 'elp us) the Internet.

Unless Godzilla emerges from the Thames on the 3rd of August, chewing the mangled corpses of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, it's all going to be such a letdown.

Friday, 3 February 2012

The farce that launched a thousand quips

Grim times for "JT, the man"©. His latest loss of the England captaincy has resulted in a sackful of traditionally crafted wooden jokes being emptied over the Internut. Most of them turn out to be the same painful and somewhat irrelevant take on Lady Bracknell: "To lose the England captaincy once may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose it twice looks like carelessness".

The remainder include a few heroic attempts to yoke the player (who looks like he was born to wear a stocking over his head - something about his physiognomy, not his criminal predilections) together with the de-knighted Fred Goodwin (who looks so tight-lipped you couldn't imagine him eating except through a straw). This post is one of them.

I suppose it is possible to see Terry as careless, but that seems to me to be merely a symptom of his enormous sense of entitlement. He does and says things that he thinks he will get away with, because in his mind he deserves to get away with them.

He is careless in the way that courtiers at Versailles in the reign of Louis XIV would apparently dump in stairwells and the less visited corridors due to the lack of toilets (a slight exaggeration, but based on a truth - I love the way the comment re "the smell" comes in the section straight after 'The politics of display').

Media reports regularly claim that he is admired by his peers across all clubs, however when non-Chelsea players talk about him the overriding sense one gets is one of discretion. Not dissing a fellow pro is not the same as admiring, let alone liking, him. The willingness of Rio Ferdinand and Emmanuel Frimpong to break cover this week shows that this "massive respect" was only courtesy.

Despite it being the less popular sarky remark, the parallel of the Chelsea captain with the former CEO of RBS strikes me as the more significant.

A sense of entitlement breeds contempt for the opinion of others and over-confidence in your own judgement. While both undoubtedly had talent, and worked ferociously to get themselves into a position to fully exploit it, they were also the recipients of great luck: being in the right place at the right time, vis-a-vis Abramovich/Mourinho and the banking boom. Ultimately, both were found wanting (ABN Amro and South Africa).

The news that both of them sought super-injunctions over alleged affairs rather adds to the sense that what they have in common is a massive ego. A super-injunction has come to be an admission of guilt in combination with a demand that this guilt not be broadcast.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Emptor caveats

The general state of the economy, together with the paucity of big money transfers during the Premier League transfer window, is being interpreted by Goonerholic and others as evidence that January was a buyer's market. In other words, we could have afforded to pick up a spare striker, among other goodies, relatively cheap.

While I do think we're light up front, and thus only an RVP ankle away from a serious problem, I'm not sure the characterisation of the market is correct. First of all, the market in top-class players is always a seller's market because of the scarce product, which is why they cost so much in the first place.

Unless you want to take a hit on the cost of current players, you'll still want to sell at a reasonable price even in a so-called buyer's market. Even Man City are refusing to let Tevez go cheap, and there is no evidence that clubs are seeking to liquidate their player assets. The number of transfers in January 2012 was much the same as a year ago.

The headline news is that January transfer spending at £60 million is down 70% on last year, however that is largely due to 2011 being bloated by the combined £108m of business done for Torres, Carroll and Suarez, which was almost half the total of £225m. For comparison, January 2010 saw only £30m spent, although that was atypically low as the following chart shows.

The inter-relationship of those three players indicates that gross spending is an unreliable guide as the same money can be counted multiple times. The £50m for Torres was recycled into £35m for Carroll and £23m for Suarez, so a net spend of £58m on a turnover of £108m.

Deloitte's method is also questionable because they combine transfer windows based on the calendar year rather than the season. Thus 2011 looks much bigger than 2010. In fact, if you redraw the chart by season, it makes more intuitive sense: a noticeable drop in 2009-10 (after the 2008 financial crisis) and less volatility since then. 2011-12 has seen a reduction in spending on the previous year of 7.6%, which is a bit more boring than a 70% year-on-year decline for the January window alone.

A better way of looking at the market is to consider net spending, i.e. a club's purchases less its sales. Over the 5 seasons from 2006 to 2011, the total of gross sales for the 20 current league clubs was £2.7 billion (a little less than the £2.9b in the above chart due to relegation/promotion), but just £1.1 billion net (41% of gross), giving an average per season of £219 million.

What's undeniable is that Arsenal are top of the league (or bottom, depending on your perspective) in terms of financial husbandry, achieving a net profit of £31m on a turnover (sold + bought) of £202m. What this implies is that the supposed £50m war-chest is mainly the product of player trading, not the fruits of the new stadium. Alternatively, it may mean the war-chest actually stands at £80m. Perhaps we're building up a bid for Lionel Messi.

In contrast, Man City are bottom (or top) of the league over the same period having spent a net £434m on a turnover of £538m, most of it since the Abu Dhabi takeover in 2008. In other words, their project to win the title has so far cost them not far short of half a billion in player transfers. If you add on the other costs (salaries, agent fees, management, backoffice etc), they've probably spent over a billion to date. Their current income will come nowhere near matching this, which ultimately UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules will require. No wonder they won't offload Tevez for buttons.

Gary Cahill's transfer to Chelsea, for a reported fee of £7m, is also being put forward as evidence of a buyer's market. This is little more than the £6m Arsenal supposedly bid last summer. At the time, the belief was that Bolton were looking for £12m, for a player with one year on his contract and a £17m buy-out clause. The drop in their asking price is more likely to reflect the fact that Cahill could walk for free this summer. It also suggests that Arsenal's "parsimonious" offer was probably a fair one. Bolton will have lost a further million or so on wages since then.

Arsenal's problem is that even in a supposed buyer's market, there simply aren't enough top-quality players available, particularly in January. The 31 year old Bobby Zamora has just cost QPR £5.1m, having cost Fulham £3.6m at the market peak in 2008. We could easily have afforded Zamora, but it is questionable as to whether that would have improved the squad in terms of quality.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Why is finance impenetrable?

There's an argument that finance is complex and opaque because if it were transparent, we'd be put off investment due to the stark reality of risk, i.e. that many investments fail, relatively or absolutely. Most people want a guaranteed return, which is an oxymoron as nothing that produces a financial return can be guaranteed, at least outside of fairy tales.

This certainly rings true when you consider mortgage endowments in the 80s and 90s. The mis-selling was as much an unwillingness on the part of borrowers to consider them as anything other than a one-way bet as a deliberate case of over-promotion by the lenders. We wanted to believe, which is how all cons work.

However, this might be a little too neat, not to mention self-serving. If finance really is magic, the magician may have just successfully distracted us.

The history of trade unions, mutuals, credit unions and national insurance, can all be held up as examples of our pragmatic understanding of risk and how a collective approach can allow us to fund investments that we might not choose to make individually.

Most entrepreneurs avoid risk. They don't remortgage their house, they set up a limited liability company and try to raise funding. Indeed, if you do remortgage your home to bring your better mousetrap to market, that may be evidence that you are unhinged and in greater need of counselling than credit.

The invention of limited liability is generally considered to be one of the keys to economic development since the mid-19th century because it allowed entrepreneurs to "Try again. Fail again. Fail better". In other words, it mitigated risk.

I think we appreciate the reality of risk, but I think we also appreciate the value of social organisation to mitigate it. Limited liability works because it spreads risk out to creditors, who in turn recoup their losses through insurance or by putting up prices, thereby diluting the cost of failure through society.

The reality of risk does not seem to me to be sufficient justification for the willful impenetrability of finance. There's something else at work here, and it isn't maths.