Soft (Panda) power

I’ve finished my dissertation now, but thinking is like wading through treacle. The only thing to permeate the fog (as I come back to myself) is a very interesting articles on pandas.

Yes, clearly I don’t like pandas. This is well-documented. But I hadn’t fully appreciated how they were used as a diplomatic tool by the Chinese government, which actually rents them out to trade allies. Naturally, zoos get a bump in visitor numbers, but I hadn’t realised the animals were being rented.

The Observer article has a  great quote from researcher Kathleen Buckingham:

“A new phase of panda diplomacy is under way. Panda loans are associated with nations supplying China with valuable resources and symbolise China’s willingness to build trade relationships,” said Buckingham.

She likens the loans to Asian rulers’ traditional gifts to foreign powers of rare white elephants in the knowledge that they would cost a fortune to keep but ensure closer relations. “The panda may be the modern-day white elephant – a powerful emblem of the modern Chinese nation,” she said.

So – to recap, these furry white elephants (didn’t know that was the origin of the phrase!) are an expensive, but also unreliable (phantom pregnancies) diplomatic tool.

*ponders this* Yup – still don’t like them.

 

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And I’m still writing

Still writing my dissertation. My brain is utterly addled. Thinking is like wading through treacle. I have had many shifting deadlines, but for now it’s Monday. Again.

But I’m still watching the news. My reactions, in brief:

Oscar Pistorius verdict: Whisky. Tango. Foxtrot.

Scotland: I actually think  the arguments for independence are very compelling. I also think that this issue is as much emotional as practical and all the whataboutery (Why can’t England vote? Why shouldn’t London vote for independence?) is pretty insulting and historically illiterate. This isn’t happening on a whim. The real question is, how can roughly half of Scotland (the polls change day by day) be so disenchanted with the UK? Why doesn’t the union work for everyone? (OK, let’s be honest, everyone who’s north of London) How can we be better? Even if you’re a happy right-winger, it says a lot that the Scots see this as the only way to realise some sort of social justice. (maybe social justice not a left-wing plot, guys?) Either way, a bum-squeak of a vote isn’t good for either camp. A slim yes vote means independent Scotland is bitterly divided at the outset. A slim no means that about half of Scots are “meh” about the union. That’s a real problem, whichever way you look at it.

IDS: Haven’t heard much from him lately, meaning he and DWP are probably out on the tiles, wasting money and making poor people feel bad about themselves.

Summer: Hello, my lovely. You’re back. I love your bright little face.

 

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Roadrunner

Quite simply, Jr Walker and the All Stars’ hit Roadrunner is my song of the week. To be fair, any of their songs would have been a contender, but I think in addition to the vocals it’s the musical arrangement that got me:

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Like blood from a stone

…writing a dissertation.

Just…. yeah.

download

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all eyes on Clacton

There’s not much that hasn’t been said about Douglas Carswell MP’s defection to UKIP and the pending by-election (and the original UKIP candidate who has to stand aside), but it occurs to me that for all his boasting of an “earthquake”, Farage is playing it very safe. He’s obviously relying on some defections and his standing in a seat with a good shot at winning to get UKIP some representation in parliament. Like another supposed big hitter, Boris Johnson, who has declared he’ll stand in the Tory safe seat of Uxbridge.

The funny thing is, both of these men get disproportionate, and very favourable press attention, because they are characters, they entertain. And they’re allowed to dissemble and skim along on the surface, rarely challenged by the third estate.

With this though, it’s clearer than ever that the election coverage will be UKIP (and to an extent Boris) – focused, with a side order of immigration scaremongering, especially with the news that net immigration is up 39%, and primarily due to EU migration, as non-EU migration can barely be squeezed further.

This is going to be a very nasty fight, especially as David Cameron feels squeezed between the crazy wing of his party and UKIP. Labour, of course, will follow the debate and sit squarely within the paradigm set by the right.

ARGH.

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In Praise of Masters of Sex

Masters of SexI’m back to writing the dissertation again after a few days of denial. And in addition to Motown hits on repeat, I’ve enjoyed having some good TV breaks. I’m catching up with Masters of Sex, the second season of which reappeared on More4 last week I’m told, although bewilderingly with very little fanfare. (Ok, I don’t watch much live TV so maybe they advertised its socks off – but that’s not the impression I get). They really made a big advertising push ahead of the first season, but I get the impression that the show didn’t do as well as expected, despite the obvious appeal to the sort of people who would have enjoyed The Hour or Mad Men.

The title is provocative but it’s actually a very interesting show about one of the groundbreaking studies into human sexual behaviour, set in the late 1950s/early 1960s I think (I’m not a Mad Men aficionado so I don’t watch for the period details so obsessively). It’s a fascinating study of attitudes and human behaviour, but it’s also got some great writing and characters, especially (and yes, I’m a sucker for a strong female) Virginia Johnson, Dr Master’s research assistant – an independent, modern woman who is always wrestling with what she wants and what she ought to do, straining against the limits placed on women at that time, and who is so hungry to learn more and be recognised as a colleague by her male colleagues. Dr Masters is a bit of a complicated man, and his relationship with his wife, mother and Johnson are illuminating.

It’s a surprisingly moving, but also very intelligent and fascinating show. I’m not the only one asking why more people aren’t watching it? (thanks Guardian)

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Covers

If there’s anything to get you through the post-Bank Holiday back-to-work- slump it’s some songs you love (and some great covers of them)

I originally starting thinking of this post when I stumbled upon a Norah Jones/Bonnie Rait cover of Tennessee Walz. I love Sam Cooke’s version which you can’t help but dance to, but Norah and Bonnie brought a sweet longing to it, country-style:

And since we’re doing this, much as I love the dark reggae of Ghost Town by the Specials, Hot 8 Brass Band (yes, them again) brought some flair and joy to the proceedings:

Finally, I think we can safely say that Marvin Gaye’s Heard it Through the Grapevine is timeless (James Jamerson’s bass is a big reason for that) but I love the sass, rhythm and funk of Gladys Knight and the Pips’ version:

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Points of Agreement

Apart from spending the day haunted by the smell of coconuts at random moments –  before realising it was my hair oil (actual thought I had during the day: “Am I being stalked by a coconut?”) – I found myself punching the air at various points as well, cheered by these three articles:

One Now I have to say this slowly because like the amazing Dan Hodges article a few weeks ago, I’m a little thrown, but anyway: Danny Finklestein wrote at once the most sensible and necessary article in the defence of human rights, and the Human Rights Act today. It’s in the Times so click here if have a subscription. That we need to have someone point out that human rights “are not a joke” and that it’s absolutely stark raving mad to want to pull up the drawbridge and pull away from common sense  shows what a sad state of affairs we’re in, and the fact that a “Conservative case” needs to be made, seeing as they are the ones squawking about doing it (while Labour looks on sweetly doing…well…nothing to protect one of their greatest legislative achievements) is rather unfortunate too, as this should really be beyond party politics. But at the same time, he hit all the right notes. Yay for human rights!

Two A wonderful interview with poet Benjamin Zephaniah on Britishness, including a rendition of one of his poems on the topic. All of this made my heart sing! (as so often with Zephaniah) Yes to mutable, broad Britishness!

“For me Britishness is being a part of these islands. I say that very carefully because I also respect Scottish people if they want to go separate. I’d be happy just to have England, and not have Britain actually. While we have this concept of Britishness, it’s being a part of these islands, and if you really want to be a part of these islands, I think by definition you have to accept multiculturalism. Not just diversity. Diversity can mean all kinds of things. Multiculturalism is what it says on the tin: Multi. Many cultures. Living together. As I alluded to before, the Celts, the Jutes, and all these people were different cultures. I come from Birmingham which was started by a tribe called the Beorma tribe, and they were seen as a very odd tribe, and they came and they settled they used to keep cows and bulls, and they had this place where they kept bulls, and that became The Bull Ring, and today it is a shopping centre.

That’s multiculturalism.

I don’t know if it’s still true now, but certainly a few years ago they were saying that the most popular food in Britain was an Indian curry. And some people thought it was a very British thing to have a curry. There are lots of other things which people think of as really British that came from somewhere. I mean what could be more British than living out in the countryside in a beautiful bungalow with a thatched roof? But where did the word ‘bungalow’ come from? Bengal, yeah. The English language also borrows from other cultures. So it’s being a part of that, that I think is Britishness. I actually think that in a very odd way, actually I don’t think it’s that odd at all, but when you hear racists saying “Britain is a white country”, I think that is anti-British. Because Britain has never been fixed. Britain is like its weather – you know it’s the weather but you don’t know where it is going from one time to another. We know we are British.”

Three A long, detailed, informative blog post by Mining in Malawi on oil prospecting on Lake Malawi, the main players and the risks as identified by UNESCO – and so much more. Finally, all the details in one place!

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IDS watch

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: is anyone monitoring Iain Duncan Smith? How has he survived two reshuffles? How does he just get to “reset” a project that has cost *hundreds of millions of pounds* and it’s not front page news? If I could do infographics I would look at the amount wasted by DWP on IDS’s legacy project and the amount spent on the unjust, punitive bedroom tax, among other measures. How can we allow policies that disproportionately affect ethnic minorities and the disabled, causing hardship and distress, and allow IDS to obfuscate and waste money like this?

The answer is, of course, that when it comes to austerity and welfare, it’s ideological. That there was a need to cut the deficit is beyond doubt, but what’s going on now fails on its own terms. It’s just perverse that the coalition is willing to fritter away millions in the pursuit of dismantling the state and the safety net.

If I was to don my tin foil conspiracy theory hat, I’d say these are the actions of a group of ideologues who know that they may not be here to finish the job after the election, so they’re inflicting the maximum amount of damage now, in the hope that it cannot be reversed. And Labour, of course, has next to nothing to say on this for fear of being cast as the party of “welfare cheats”. They won’t even try to speak about the suffering and hardship being felt by so many, or the fact that the majority of those on benefits are pensioners. They will play it safe, hoping that they can just squeak past the finish line at the election with the support of people like me, who cannot abide what’s happening now but have no other viable political choice. I suspect that the hobbled vision may not be as successful as they hope.

And where does that leave us? Clegg, with no mandate, as king maker to either party, who will continue this project to fundamentally alter the State beyond all recognition, supplanting a democratic mandate with a consensus won through the demonisation of immigrants, the poor, the disabled and the unemployed, and fashioning a nastier, smaller-minded nation that’s as much afraid of its own shadow as these groups so helpfully cast as the dangerous “other”?

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