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Friday, October 29, 2010

Some notes on Germany

I'm just back from Germany. Berlin, to be specific. I noticed a number of differences there to Ireland and thought I might share them in the spirit of seeking solutions to our current crises.

In Germany, there isn't an economic meltdown, nor are a fifth of their population unemployed. This is due to a few reasons - firstly, they didn't let banks run with dodgy loans and bogus accounting for decades, only to bail them out afterwards. Secondly, they didn't let half of Eastern Europe in to work there in the past decade. And finally, they make stuff that other people want to buy.

They don't sell houses for spiralling prices among themselves. House prices have been stable forever in Germany. They don't shuffle money about or launder taxes. They build cars, washing machines - stuff people in other countries want. Then they sell them. It's not rocket science. It's simple economics. Lesson number one: we need to start making things again.

Everywhere I went, I was served by Germans. Germans who spoke, when required to do so, English too. I didn't go to Germany to meet Polish people, or Chinese people. I go to Poland and China to engage with their people and cultures. I went to Germany and everyone I encountered, in hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions and shops, was German.

Contrast that with the average experience of the rare beast, the American tourist in Ireland, today. They get a poor room, crap food and are universally served by non-Irish people. No wonder they don't come back. Lesson two: we need to rethink our service and hospitality industries so that they are populated by Irish people who speak multiple languages and not foreign people who barely speak English.

The final thing I noticed was a certain degree of equality across the people. Sure, there are beggars here and there. And East Germany remains significantly less affluent-looking than West Germany. But people drive the same cars, eat the same food, stand in line next to each other for public transport.

You don't see helicopters of arsehole speculators in the sky above. You don't come across too many gated communities. They don't need them in Germany. Everyone realises that, whatever their income, they're no better than anyone else. There is an innate sense of equality in Germany that has been sadly lacking in Ireland for quite some time. Lesson three: address the equality issue.

Germany works, and Ireland doesn't. That's the bottom line. Germany works in a particularly German kind of way, though, and that isn't easily replicated without possessing the same kind of hard-working, honest people that they do. And we don't.

But we can learn some useful lessons from Germany. We need to make stuff people want, make it well and sell it all over the world. We need to attract people to visit here by showing off OUR culture and OUR people, not staffing our hospitality industry with whoever from wherever was prepared to do the work for the least cash.

And we need to recall that we all eat, sleep and shit just the same way. There's no one of Irish descent who's more than four generations away from poking a pig with a stick for entertainment. It's time to lose the airs and graces.

No, Biffo doesn't deserve a 300K Mercedes. No, Mary O'Rourke shouldn't get hundreds of grands a year of a pension. No, the speculators weren't merchant princes who needed to soar above us earthbound mortals in choppers as they sped from one shit housing development to the next.

It's time we got real. It's time we got German about things.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

18% is still 18% too many

What's wrong with our education system when there's still 18% of the population prepared to vote for Fianna Fail after everything they've done to ruin this nation?

I find it tragic that these people, who fuelled the property boom, lined their pockets with junkets and expenses, facilitated tax evasion and had dodgy tax returns themselves, who took bribes for planning decisions, who bailed out their bankster pals at the cost of our children's futures, still somehow attract ANYONE who would vote for them.

It can't be said enough times - this has happened before (late 60s, late 80s) and will happen again until definitive action is taken to remove this cancer from our nation.

It's way past time that the bank bailout was reneged upon. It's not our debt and we shouldn't pay it. And it's even more pressing that the people responsible - the bankers and their pals GO TO JAIL FOR A VERY LONG TIME.

Why have their been no prosecutions? Why are we bailing out these corrupt scumbags? Why is this shameful government still in office when no one wants them there?

Do we have to actually wait for Britain or Europe to annex us entirely, and eradicate the final smouldering remnants of our sovereignty before someone is actually held accountable for their crimes?

Or will the people of Ireland ever stop splaying their buttocks for another round of 'necessary budget cuts' and stand up, pull up their pants and take these fuckers OUT?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Poison Pens 8: the art of confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is, speaking simply, the psychological process where you seek out things that agree with your opinion and dismiss those which do not.

It's most commonly acknowledged among market traders, who seek to be ever alert to the prospect that they could be wrong, and try to remain open to contradicting views. The reason they do this is because if they didn't, they'd quickly lose a lot of money.

But for most of us, confirmation bias isn't something we worry about. We like our own opinions, and we like those who share them, mostly. Sure, we might like people who disagree with us too. But being around them all the time would eventually become... disagreeable. So we don't.

Confirmation bias is one of the things that makes people interact with the media they choose. It's a long-standing canard that tabloid readers buy the redtops in order to confirm their own neanderthal point of view on the world.

In fact, it's much more likely that the very people levelling this argument, smug broadsheet readers, are themselves the biggest victims of confirmation bias.

Tabloid readers are very aware that the world consists of more than X Factor, celeb affairs and premiership football. They read them like some women read Hello! or Elle - for the escapism away from the humdrum reality.

Broadsheet readers, however, do not have the same level of disconnect with their chosen media. Let's take, as an example, the following piece from today's Observer, entitled 'US shaken by sudden surge of violence against gays.'

According to the title, there is a surge of anti-gay violence sweeping across America, which is a shocking prospect, not least to the gay-friendly readers of the Observer.

Yet, the evidence doesn't remotely support that. Within the article, the entire evidence offered consists of one suicide (well-reported, and subject to legal action towards alleged bullies), one quite vicious beating of a gay man and some vaguely euphemised 'other youths' in New York, a group of men who had a bin thrown at them, and a customer of the Stonewall Inn who was robbed.

I don't wish to diminish the seriousness of any of those individual acts, but frankly, all of that and much worse likely happened in any single Dublin housing estate last night. It doesn't add up to anything close to a surge of violence against gays in a country of 300 million people.

The article opens with the poignant scene of one brave man's 'lonely vigil' protesting for civil rights for gay people. Then swiftly moves on to inform us that, like him, 'Liberal America looks on aghast as virulent homophobic prejudice seems to have returned to its streets and cities.'

'Seems' is the key word here, the mealymouthed weasel word which excuses the writer from offering objective fact and allows him to present biased opinion in its place. It's a technique pioneered and perfected by the dark minions of the Daily Mail, where insinuating invective has been house style for many years.

'Seems', 'may be considered to be', 'is now thought by many' - such phrases are bullshit euphemisms. They are shorthand, telling the reader - here is what you should conclude, here is what you should be thinking.

Ironically, the very people who would be impervious to this technique in the Daily Mail are suckers for it in their own favoured papers, like the Observer.

This is confirmation bias in action.

The issue isn't whether there is a tidal wave of anti-gay violence in America or not. Clearly there isn't, and even the article is forced to concede in a single hurried line that the US is set to overturn the ban on gays in the military and Florida has just introduced gay adoption.

The issue is that the Observer, for some reason, has thought it legitimate to pretend that there is, using all the Daily Mail's rhetorical tropes of insinuation to depict skewed opinion in place of objective fact, when those facts do not add up to support their argument.

Journalism is becoming ever more debased, and nowhere is this more evident than in the broadsheets. Don't let confirmation bias blind you to that.