A Robin Hood we could do with more of

I saw an article in our local paper about an unknown hacker who is working in the spirit of Wikileaks. This is a link to the original news item, courtesy of the BBC.

Apparently this person, who calls himself Neo (and guess where he got that name from), is part of a group which call themselves The Fourth Awakening People’s Army. The group claim to have hacked into 1000 Latvian companies, including the banks, and downloaded seven million confidential documents from the tax authorities. Selected tidbits of this information have been sent to Latvian TV, and claim to expose bank and other directors who have received state support but nonetheless paid themselves bonuses in contradiction with claims made when the state aid was received.

Latvia, as you may know, is even further into its economic crisis than Iceland, and is under similar pressure to that being applied to Iceland to accept responsibility for the immense debt that principally Swedish banks have placed the country under. It occurs to me that we need more Neo’s working for a lot more countries. In fact Iceland would be a good place for a potential hacker community to test its skills. And a lot of Icelanders, including one of Iceland’s principal bloggers would like to hear from them.

Talking of Wikileaks, this site, which is the whistleblower’s safe haven and a mote in the eyes of many governments and companies with skeletons in their closets, is still more or less off-line. They’re trying to raise the money to keep running. I’ve paid my dues to them, and I encourage others to do likewise. It doesn’t have to be much. My contribution was only 250 Swedish crowns or, say, 40 US dollars. But Wikileaks needs a further 250 000 US dollars, and the world needs Wikileaks as much as Latvia needs Neo and his army.

Our estranged leaders

An otherwise uninteresting item of news this morning dealt with a split in the Swedish social democratic party over what, in English, might be called “close-to-home services”. It concerned the party’s attitude to tax breaks for ordinary citizens for services in and around the home, such as cleaning, baby-minding, repairs and renovations and the like. These were introduced by the current right wing government* as part of their job stimulus package – they came to power on the slogan that they wanted to get people back to work. The left wing* opposition, including the social democrats, was outraged. They had visions of housemaids and nannies in uniforms and little caps, curtseying to the rich, like something out of Upstairs, Downstairs.

The result of the tax rebate was that in less than three years, over 11000 ‘new’ jobs have been created, and any number of small businesses formed to handle the market. Of course, these are far from all being new jobs. Many are formerly black jobs that have become white, and result in better conditions for the employees and more tax money for the state. And the beneficiaries are not the bankers and directors the left wing feared, but ordinary middle class people whose lives are so hectic that they – principally the women, of course – just don’t have time to cope.

Of the three parties in the left wing block the greens were the first to realise that scrapping this tax rebate would piss off the middle class, but also piss off the formerly unemployed, now working in close-to-home services, who would once again be out of a job. Today we heard the abovementioned report that one phalanx of the social democrats wants to keep the tax rebate whilst the main party line is that it will be scrapped. I saw in this news item a symptom of one of our society’s problems and a glimmer of hope.

The symptom is the main party line, that something popular with a large part of the population, something that people have voted for with their wallets, something that is working as intended, is against party policy and should be scrapped. It’s a symptom of the total estrangement of politicians in every country from the actual wishes of the citizens. Everywhere one looks one sees a conflict between the views of the rulers and the views of the ruled, to the extent that one can speak of a we versus they situation. Very occasionally, often over some minor point, there will be a massive outcry in the press or via internet, and the government will scratch a plan or more likely postpone it until they have had time to bring the power of the media into play to change the people’s minds, or enough of them to be able to effect the original change.

The hope I spoke of is that some politicians – usually the younger ones, understandably enough – are beginning to realise that they are painting themselves into a corner, making unnecessary enemies of the people they rule. Unfortunately I’m afraid I have difficulty buying their conversion. Their older colleagues have so damaged the public opinion of politicians that all I see is opportunism.

One problem the social democrats have, and probably the reason for their holding to the party line is that the third party in the left block, called simply “The Left”, (formerly the communists) is so far removed from reality that one can hardly say they live on the same planet as the rest of us, and the idea of some people working so that other people can have a slightly easier life is anathema to them.

Another symptom of the estrangement of politicians from the people is playing itself out now in Iceland. That country, as many people know, is still struggling with the effects of the total collapse of its economy a year and a half ago, at the hands of some extremely thuggish and, to my way of thinking, psychopathic bankers. A new government was voted in on the banderole of openness in government, openness in the investigation into the causes of the collapse and the protection of households from the effects of the collapse.

The result is not encouraging. The people in key positions in the collapsed financial system are back in the same or similar positions in the reconstructed banks, the report of a parliamentary committee into the causes of the collapse have been delayed from November 1 to February 1 to February 24 to March 1. The government has made no attempt to alleviate the situation of the households of the country, who are waiting for executive auctions of their homes and belongings. These auctions have, to be sure, been postponed three months today (so as to place them after the local elections in April).

And the government has spent the greater part of the past year negotiating for the repayment of bank guarantees to Britain and the Netherlands (the so-called IceSave business) instead of taking the matter to the European court to challenge the legality of the debt And after the President listened to 20% of the population, who signed a petition asking him not to ratify the agreement, the government have since been in constant negotiations with the current opposition, the ones they were elected to replace and the ones with a significant responsibility for the collapse, to find a way to avoid the referendum that is a necessary consequence of the President’s refusal. In other words, they’re more scared of being put in their place by the citizens than they are of trying to put together a new deal involving their political adversaries, who have everything to gain by becoming a party to the renewed negotiations with the Netherlands and Britain.

I’ll be coming back to this issue of the estrangement of governments from the governed, you may be sure of that.

* “right wing” and “left wing” are relative terms. It has been said that the Brits and certainly the Americans would call them the left wing and the very left wing respectively.

Things don't always go as you planned...

As most of you know, last Sunday was… well, yes, it was Saint Valentine’s Day, but it was also the Chinese New Year, Year of the Tiger. I sent HNY messages to all my friends and even did a small piece on the event here. And I planned to make some Chinese food in the evening, but that was postponed as my better half had already planned something else.

Never mind, on Tuesday I was told we would be driving in to Eskilstuna, our nearest town, and I took the opportunity to suggest that we go in the afternoon and stay for dinner at our favourite Oriental – actually Mongolian – restaurant, Bamboo House, which has an unbelievable oriental buffet. This was cheerfully agreed to, and I printed out a little cheat sheet of Chinese phrases in pinyin, which included the Mandarin for Happy New Year, gōng hè xīn xǐ.

For those of you for whom the term pinyin is new, this is a way of representing languages which use Chinese characters in latin characters, with accents over the vowels to show how they are to be spoken. The straight line over the ‘o’ in gōng means that the vowel is pronounced on one note, whereas the ‘e’ in hè slides down the tone scale as one says the word.

As we arrived at the restaurant I took a last quick look at the cheat sheet. Inside we were greeted by a young lady of oriental appearance, to whom I said “nǐ hǎo“, or “good day”, and received the same back. This was a good start. So, with the phrase fresh in my mind, I tried “gōng hè xīn xǐ” to be met by a blank look of misunderstanding.

“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Chinese,” she explained. “I’m from Thailand. But I know “nǐ hǎo“.

OK, we had a good laugh and I explained what I had intended to say, which, of course, had no significance for her.

A little later I was on my way to take a second helping and saw a young chef refilling the buffet. Out with the cheat sheet again, then I tried once more in my best Mandarin. Again a look of total incomprehension. And I thought I had a talent for language! Once again I explained what I had tried to say, and this time met with another reaction. This guy was very grateful for my good wishes, as he shared the Chinese New Year, but he himself was from Vietnam, and didn’t understand Mandarin.

And the moral of this story? Don’t assume because you’re in an Oriental restaurant, even one with Chinese associations, that the staff are necessarily Chinese.

Actually, I should have been warned. You would be amazed at the number of pizzerias in Sweden where the staff talk arabic or farsi amongst themselves. It’s enough for the blonde Swedes that they have black hair and work in a pizzeria, and everyone assumes they are, if not from Napoli, at least Italian. But don’t greet them with “bon giorno” unless you’re very, very sure!

Gōng hè xīn xǐ!

Hope I got the Mandarin pinyin phrase right. There were four variants on the on-line English Chinese dictionary I use. Whether or not, a very Happy Chinese New Year to all who read this.

I have become interested in Chinese culture since one of the principal characters in the novel I’m currently working on comes from China, in fact from the province of GuangXi, just to the west of GuangDong, where the above picture was taken.

And that’s it for this post.

Some unnerving headlines this evening

In my scan of newspapers this evening I came upon three very worrying headlines, all from the Telegraph on-line.

First was Barack Obama ‘Doesn’t begrudge bankers their million dollar bonuses’ which to me means that we’ve been thrown to the wolves again. Maybe Timothy Geithner has whispered to him that he can’t do anything about re-regulating the banks without having the WTO breathe down his neck.

Then I saw that China orders retreat from risky assets. What they mean by risky assets is almost anything in dollars that is not guaranteed by the US Government. If they try to unload, for example, their holdings in Californian debt, Arnie could be in deeper shit than in the Terminator films.

And then the real frightener – worse than Wolfman: Britains quarter of a trillion pound exposure to the PIIGS. No, this is not an expensive agricultural research establishment. PIIGS stands for Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain, all of which are pretty rocky at the moment. Now Britain is in for a quarter of a trillion pounds in these countries, but some of the other European countries are in for even more. Britains figure is 16% of GDP. But the table in the article shows that France is in for 30% of its GDP, the Netherlands for 29% and Switzerland for 21%. That’s got to be big money in all these cases. One really scary fact is that Ireland itself is in for 34% of GDP in these countries, presumably in the other four, and Portugal for 24%. All of which makes me wonder just how safe the Euro is. If the Greek government caves in to the massive national protests, then the whole of Europe could become bacon overnight.

Standard and Poor threatening Greece

I just saw an article in one of the Swedish newspapers about the crisis of confidence in Greece. One point that was made was that Standard and Poor has threatened Greece that their creditworthiness can be damaged.

Is this the same Standard and Poor which rated toxic credit as AAA a couple or three years ago, and, together with Moody’s and the other credit agencies, played a big role in unscrupulous finance institutions being able to unload the shit onto unsuspecting individuals, councils, charities and other investors who trusted them?

Doesn’t sound like much of a threat to Greece. More of an honourable mention.

Come to think of it, the names of these agencies: Standard and Poor. Well, poor at least is what those investors are. And Moody’s? Well yeah, I guess I’d be pretty moody if someone told me that toxic waste was a good investment.

Quick and - I hope - funny

Sometimes one gets a bit jaded with the lack of originality in the presentation of news on television. I have the definite impression that the object is more entertainment value than information distribution. And the requirement that few items should be longer than a couple of minutes leaves most of them at a most unsatisfactory point.

Why didn’t (s)he ask the obvious follow-up question? How can they be so stupid? If they know it’s wrong, why don’t they change it? These are just some of the questions which the watching public ask.

I was particularly amused with the article recently about a small town which had been so badly affected by the heavy snow-falls here in Sweden recently that they had not been able to plough the snow from the streets properly, and had created a meter high wall of snow outside the cars which were legally parked when the plough passed, which prevented them from driving away, to the chagrin of the owners. Even here in Sweden not everybody carries a spade in the trunk during winter, especially not in town traffic. Imagine the stupidity of the city council which then sent out its parking attendants to fine all the owners whose cars they had themselves prevented from moving.

Here at last is revenge on the news reporters, if not on the decision makers. Taken from a new series running in England, apparently, this shows just how to make a television news item. Does it look familiar?

Sunny Banks

What’s with the Sunny Banks, I hear people ask. Well, Sunny Banks is a rough translation of the name of our house. In Swedish it’s called Solbacken, which is the name one of our grandchildren selected during that first summer when we more or less camped here before we had officially moved in. Like childhood, our memory is that every day was sunny that summer. Or maybe it really was so. It does seem to us that there are an unusually large number of sunny days here.

We live on a couple of hectares of beautiful Sörmland, about 100 km south west of Stockholm. Three quarters of the land is forest – we’ll never want for firewood! – the rest garden, formerly flower garden. We’re slowly turning it into kitchen garden although I’m afraid my better half will not allow me to root up all the flowers. We’re getting to the stage where we see roses as weeds!

There’s the main house, which you can see in the right hand column above – until I change it – then there’s a small cottage and a barn as large as the house. We have a huge greenhouse and, behind the cottage, an earth cellar where we store our vegetables and fruit from autumn until they are eaten. At the time of writing, we have maybe a month’s potatoes left, some carrots, onions, beetroots, and probably enough apples to last the winter. Oh, and some pickled cucumbers.

We have built a swimming pool where the old kitchen garden used to be – a paltry kitchen garden it was – and we have installed geothermal energy and cut our fuel bills by about three quarters. We have some chickens which more than provide us with eggs and some meat. We also sell to one or two neighbours. And I have my plans for other animals and maybe birds, but don’t tell my better half…

Make them small enough to fail

Whenever there’s an economic crisis, whether it’s limited to one country or covers a region or is, like the current one, universal, some banks somewhere land in a worse situation than the others. When that happens, the cry we hear is “they’re too big to fail”, and this mantra is used to justify the government going in with millions or billions or even trillions of kronks* to rescue the banks in the danger zone, and, at the same time, to shore up the other big banks for safety’s sake. Sometimes, but not often, a fraction of the support may be paid back.

And then comes the day when the government sounds the all clear, and promises that they will do everything they can to make sure it never happens again. We’re at that stage now, with irrelevant chat about the size of bonuses, possibly a new Glass-Steagal act, not just in the US but elsewhere as well. But none of this really cuts it. It’s just cosmetic.

Why don’t they just force a break-up of these big banks that are too big to fail into smaller units that are small enough to fail. Not only would it save the tax payers a lot of money, it would increase competition in the banking sector, which is good for the consumer, and the very thought that they could be left to fail would undoubtedly change the behaviour of most bankers for the better.

Now I’m not saying that this would be an easy reform to enforce. Quite apart from the lobbying power of the financial sector, it might be hard to say what is a reasonable size for a bank. Would one go on the number of employees or the size of the balance sheet? A geographical area perhaps? But, whatever criterion is selected, the important issue would be that no one person could control more than one bank either through shares or position in the bank, and that the bank was small enough to fail.

Or here’s a thought – forbid the limitation of liability in the finance sector.

* A kronk is a unit of currency, whatever takes your fancy. When you get into these numbers, it makes no difference anyway.

Revolt against parliament - why not?

In an earlier lifetime I had a connection with Iceland, as a result of which I have been paying more attention than the average citizen to the events leading up to, and in particular resulting from the economic meltdown in the autumn of 2008. So it is probable that a lot of my posts will contain some reference to Iceland – as indeed this one does.

I noticed on one of the Icelandic blog sites that I visit regularly a news item in which a politician, Svavar Gestsson, formerly an mp for the communist party, now one of the countries special negotiators with the UK and the Netherlands over the IceSave issue, complains that the president’s refusal to sign a recent piece of legislation about IceSave and thereby sending the law to a national referendum has damaged Iceland’s image overseas. He goes on to say that the president “has initiated a revolt against parliament”. There are a number of points raised by these statements.

The first, and most obvious, is that 60,000 people signed a petition to the president requesting him not to sign. 60,000, you might say. Not so many. Who cares. But in a population of around 300,000, that’s 20% of the population. It’s as though twelve million Brits or sixty million Americans signed a petition. It’s not something you can ignore. Or at least, it’s not something you should ignore. So what does it say about Svavar Gestsson’s view of democracy if he wants the president to ignore 20% of the population?

And as for tarnishing the image of Iceland overseas, what sort of a country is it that thinks Iceland’s image has been tarnished as a result of sending a parliamentary decision to a national referendum at the request of 20% of the population? Well, I can imagine that there are a number of governments, both dictatorial and those purporting to be democratic, which would blanch at the thought of a citizens’ revolt of that magnitude. If there’s one thing a member of parliament or a minister in a government fears above all else, even more than the loss of power for his party, it is the loss of power to the people who put him there, in other words the loss of power for the parliamentary process as he has designed it for his own benefit.

On the other hand, I can imagine that there are many countries where the citizens are extremely pleased to see other countries’ citizens claiming the right to have the last say in respect of laws passed by their governments. It may be subjective, but I think I see an unpleasant trend of governments and parliaments actively working against the interests of their citizens, and this trend seems to me to be increasing with time rather than standing still or decreasing. In Sweden we have seen similar revolts in recent years against the increasing general surveillance of the populace, surveillance comparable to that previously reserved for serious criminals. And the turning over to private companies the kind of official powers that properly belong to the police, such as the ability to demand access to the name and address behind an IP address which they suspect has been used for the dissemination of copyrighted material.

It’s no use saying that the president of Iceland shouldn’t have used the powers he is granted under the country’s constitution, that he is merely a figurehead. You can’t have your cake and eat it. If he is given certain powers, one must expect that he will use them sooner or later, in appropriate circumstances. If you don’t want your president to have those powers, they shouldn’t be written into the consitution.

If there is one thing that the internet has given us, it is the enfranchising of the citizen in a way not previously possible. By email-bombing their mps, joining Facebook groups, taking part in on-line petitions, or registering their choice of important election issues, as the group,, has organized for the upcoming UK elections, ordinary citizens can make their views known to the people who are supposed to represent them.

Small wonder that the people in power, both in government and in opposition, want to increase their surveillance of the Internet, and the people using it, and preferably to take control of it out of the hands of the populace.

Well, here I am...

There’s something a little frightening about a blank screen that you know you have to fill with material if anything is to come of it. It’s like the old saying – was it Mao who said it? – a journey always starts with one step. Well, here’s my first step.

What I hope to do here is to put down my thoughts about anything and everything, particularly about the society we live in today. I won’t hide the fact that I’m a little worried about where it seems to be going. There has to be a better way, and if we’re the crowning point of evolution, we should be able to find it. On bad days I have my doubts.

But we’ll see. Maybe my thoughts will find an echo with some of my readers – if anybody comes here to read what I write. If not, at least I will have concretized my thoughts.

© James Wilde 2015