Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Scribe

Somebody asked me the other day about my avatar. I'll be honest, it was my girlfriend, but it was nice that someone showed an interest! He is supposed to be the 'humble scribe' personified - the workaday hack churning out words to a deadline, as I do in my day job, and he is also obviously supposed to connect with my love of history and specifically the Middle Ages. But the correlation goes a bit deeper than that, because I am an editor and in fact the picture is actually of a medieval proof correction mark.

When I first started work in publishing, 20 years ago, one of the first things I had to learn was BS5261, the industry standard for proof correction marks. A version of them can be seen here. The company I worked for was late in getting into digital publishing, and so in those days we still sent raw text - typed or even hand written - to our printers, where typesetters would then type them into their own composition machines and send us back A1 sheets covered with neatly typset columns ('galley proofs'), which we would then literally cut out and stick down onto page make-up sheets to show where the text was supposed to flow. 'Cut and paste' really did use to mean exactly that. Of course typesetters worked quickly and made frequent mistakes, or couldn't read our terrible handwriting, so we would then have to mark the proofs for correction.

Medieval scribes were often just as much part of a production line, but at least had the option of waiting for the ink to dry and then scraping it off the page if they made a mistake. However, occasionally, when copying, they would miss a word or even an entire line, and only discover it some time later. Parchment being far too valuable to waste, it would almost never be thrown away, so the text would have to be corrected on the page. To insert text they would thus have to write it at the bottom of the page, or in the margin and then indicate where it should go in the body of the text. A whole little game of amusing marginalia surrounds this practice, limited only by the imagination and artistic ability of the monk; I have seen one where several little monks in the margin are using a block and tackle to apparently haul the missed word back into place. The scribe figure I use is pointing to where a missing word should go, and I suspect that he is probably a self-portrait of the overworked monk who has made the error in the first place. The monks who wrote medieval manuscripts are often anonymous, but you can get little glimpses of the real person behind the text on the page, especially at the end of a piece, when the book or scroll will often end with the heartfelt words 'Explicit, Deo gratias' - "It is finished, thanks be to God." I know that feeling all too well! So I don't know who my humble scribe is, but I like to imagine him as me, if I had lived in the 13th century - he gives me a feeling of connection to a tradition of writing and publishing going back hundreds and indeed thousands of years.

Monday, 12 December 2011

I'M Spartacus!

I've had Spartacus: Blood and Sand on loan from Lovefilm for ages now, and never quite overcame my apathy enough to watch it. The DVD has accompanied me on three foreign trips now, and even in a lonely hotel room it has never quite managed to make me think: you know, I'm bored enough to watch that now. Yesterday I had made lunch and faced a Sunday afternoon with absolutely zero on the TV, so I thought I'd finally give Blood a chance. I'm glad I did.

It's notionally about Spartacus the Thracian slave who led the great slave revolt in late Republican Rome. But it's about as much about history as '300' is about Herodotus. It's a romp, and ups the ante on BBC/HBO's Rome by going for even more blood (well, it is about gladiators, so fair play I guess) and sex. It's pretty ludicrous, although to be honest not especially more ludicrous than the Kirk Douglas film, with its ridiculously cheesy Quo Vadis style Christianity before Christ.

So, let's be clear to begin with; it's not quality television. There's a cartoonish quality to the gore, like something from an 80s Arnie movie. Limbs are hacked off left right and centre, by a gladius of all things (a stabbing weapon). Women go out to pick fruit in the snow (eh?) miles from their village. Muscles are oiled. It's the WWF with stage blood. Breasts are bared, and poor CGI effects march across the screen looking for all the world ripped from a computer game (as they probably were). There is no attempt at continuity of accents, and the international cast speak a mixture of their native Kiwi, Scots, American and cut glass English, although to be honest I barely noticed that most of the time.

The programme goes for the standard 'decadent' view of Roman culture, as though every Roman behaved like Caligula. In fact, even later on, in the Empire, things were probably not quite as debauched as they are in Spartacus, and the Republic was actually for the most part pretty straight laced (a few notorious wayward wives being the exception rather than the rule), especially in a quiet provincial town like Capua, where the first series is set. Still, it's undeniably entertaining. And having complained about its lack of historicity, there are surprisingly many real facts squeezed in. There is some genuine Latin, the Thracians begin - credibly - at war with the Getae (and it's not often you hear the Getae mentioned in a TV programme!), an early sub-plot is based around the Mithridatic wars, and the storyline sticks to the few known facts about the hero - it makes Spartacus as he was (according to Florus) a deserter from a Roman auxiliary unit, and his wife (as she was according to Plutarch) a seeress who is captured with him; his quest to be reunited with her provides his motivation and plot arc. An early rivalry is set up between Spartacus and Gaius Claudius Glaber, a genuine Roman general, who here is the cause of Spartacus' desertion in Thrace. In history Glaber later failed to recapture Spartacus during the slave revolt in 73BC. There are also some gems of casting, such as John Hannah as the struggling lanista (gladiatorial trainer) who buys Spartacus, and Lucy Lawless as his shrewd wife. And after the first couple of scene-setting episodes which set up relationships and storylines, it begins to twist and turn quite nicely, with various levels of rivalries between the gladiators, their owners, and the Roman nobility that employ them. I'm five episodes in now, and really enjoying myself. It's a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Soylent Green is PEOPLE!!

My attention was drawn to a startling fact today. The global population in classic 60s overpopulation dystopias 'Soylent Green' and John Brunner's 'Stand on Zanzibar' was 7 billion. Exactly the same number of people as currently exist here in 2011. Brunner was even spot on about the year - his book was set in 2010. The film version of Soylent Green was set in 2022, although it was based on Harry Harrison's 1966 novel 'Make Room, Make Room', set in 1999. Either way, in spite of persistent food production problems in some parts of Africa (especially war-torn parts like Somalia), you'll have noticed that people aren't being forced to sleep on fire escapes (or only by poverty, not lack of available accomodation) and we aren't having to eat recycled human bodies. It's worth reflecting a little on why that is.

The books were part of a wave of eco-doom novels that were kicked off by the first beginnings of the environmental movement. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring arguably began the whole thing, in 1962, but by 1968 the concern had moved beyond her focus on very real and widespread pollution and on to the looming population crisis, care of Paul Erlich's neo-Malthusian 'The Population Bomb' - its title designed to mirror then-current concerns about the other Bomb - the hydrogen bomb - and predicting that its effects would be just as devastating. Erlich wrote: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate." He said that India might as well be written off - there was no way it could feed more than 200 million people (for the record, its population is currently six times that). We should concentrate on saving ourselves, via mandatory sterilisation and closing our borders against the inevitable tidal wave of famine refugees.

Well, as Niels Bohr supposedly said: "it's difficult to make predictions, especially about the future." The fact that all this didn't come to pass was as a result of what has been called the 'Green Revolution'. A combination of irrigation, increased cropping area, fast-growing strains of wheat and rice, and increased use of fertilizer has tripled world food yields. The godfather of this was an American scientist named Norman Borlaug - a man who deserves to be far more widely known than he is. It is arguable that half of the world's population is alive today thanks to his work, especially in India. Now modern agriculture has many critics, and it's certainly by no means perfect, but we mustn't overlook the almost miraculous way it has saved the world from mass starvation. As Borlaug himself put it: "some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels... If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."

We're not out of the woods yet. Global population continues to grow, although the rate of increase is falling rapidly and it will probably peak somewhere above 9 billion in 20 years or so. Water resources are becoming scarce in some parts of the world, and careless use of fertilizer has caused side effects like the seasonal 'dead zone' in the Gulf of Mexico - although it ought to be noted that fertilizer use in the developed world has actually been falling for 30 years. And then... the Green Revolution is still under way. Africa has still yet to benefit from it in the same way that China, India and South America have. Meanwhile more targeted use of fertilizer and new genetic technologies also offer the promise of even more increases in yield. I'd never argue that all in the garden is perfect, and we owe a great debt to the environmental movement for cleaning up our industry and agriculture and making the world around us a much safer and cleaner one. But let's also remember that technology let us dodge this particular bullet (or Bomb), and it's our best hope for keeping pace as population continues to rise.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Small earthquake in Blackpool: not many dead

In case you'd missed the news, Britain's natural gas reserves have just more than doubled. In a world where people are worried about declining North Sea production and imports of natural gas from Russia, high energy bills, and carbon emissions from all of our coal-burning power stations, you would think that this news would have been greeted with dancing in the streets. But as it is, we're enduring a bout of navel-gazing and a lot of guff being talked by the kind of commentators who wouldn't know a methane molecule if it came out of their backside.

The latest iteration of this story is focusing on the deadly peril to the valuable infrastructure of the Lancashire coast posed by earthquakes. Yes, earthquakes. Fifty of them in all, all caused by some test drilling conducted by UK shale gas pioneers Cuadrilla Resources. At first sight, a worrying development for sure, until you realise that the largest of these "earthquakes" was actually magnitude 2.3 on the Richter scale. For comparison, that's about the same as a car going past you when you're on the pavement, or next door's washing machine entering its spin cycle. It won't rattle your teacup. It certainly won't cause your house to collapse. There are millions of such micro-tremors every year - tens of thousands every day. They are not recorded by any earthquake monitoring body because they are so common and unremarkable. It speaks volumes about a country that is unused to seismic activity in any form, rather than any level of danger. New Zealanders, Californians and Italians, who ignore tremors thousands of times more powerful every single day of the year, are surely laughing up their sleeves at our panicked response.

It is symptomatic, however, of the kind of exaggerated panic that shale gas seems to bring. Shale gas extraction involves pumping an emulsion of 99.9% water and sand into a hole in the ground to cause tiny cracks in gas-bearing rocks, so that the gas de-sorbs and can be collected. Some people also use detergent as a surfactant. Some in the past have used diesel fuel, although this practice is now largely discarded. This happens a kilometre underground, in non-porous rocks. If they weren't non-porous the gas wouldn't have collected there. There are concerns about possible contamination of water tables from leaks as you pump the stuff down. These concerns are valid, but usually overstated. The United States produces half of its natural gas from shale gas, tight gas or coalbed methane, all of which involve some degree of pressure manipulation underground. Of the tens of thousands of wells drilled, there have been two recorded instances of small, localised contamination, caused by shoddy practice. Compare this with the kind of damage that has been done by oil or coal extraction (anyone remember Deepwater Horizon?). Yes, you saw that scene from Gasland on YouTube, where they set light to the water coming from the tap. What the documentary (which makes Michael Moore look like a balanced and nuanced reporter) doesn't tell you is that they could do that long before shale gas drilling came to the area.

I'm not saying that there is no risk, or that there shouldn't be appropriate environmental safeguards in place. Of course there should. Shale gas needs a lot of rigs, which look unsightly for the 18 months or so that they need to be in position. There are some potential concerns about aquifers (although unlike in bits of the US, no British tapwater at all comes from ground aquifers - it all falls from the sky), and surface issues left by careless disposal of waste etc. These can all be regulated. But compare this to open cast coal mines, nuclear power stations, Alberta tar sands, oil spillages from tankers and deep well blowouts, and even the nimbies who don't like the sight of wind turbines (which I happen to think are quite beautiful, but I guess I'm weird). We are talking about enough gas to power the UK for the next 40 or 50 years, and displacing all of that coal, oil and nuclear that we worry so much about. That's surely worth the tiniest bit of risk, isn't it? Isn't it?

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

My Struggle

Yahoo are trying to force me to do things their way. They've been trying for a couple of years now, but this month it got serious. We'll see who wins.

I'm a Yahoo! Mail user. I have been since 1997, when there wasn't much else around, Google didn't exist and everyone searched using Yahoo, and they were much better than AOL, and supported free personal web space (Geocities) and all kinds of cool things. I originally created half a dozen Yahoo IDs to play online games. Some of the IDs still have the names of characters I played in those games, and I look back on them fondly. In those days Yahoo used to have a searchable member directory, and if someone else had a Yahoo ID you could look up who they were (or at least who they said they were - there was no obligation to tell the truth). All of that vanished a couple of years ago when they started trying to produce a Facebook-lite, but most people had gone ex-directory by then anyway. Ah well.

Over the years I've developed a pattern - one ID I use for pretty much all non-work related stuff (it is still named after an Ars Magica character, which does confuse people occasionally). Two I use mainly for online games; one for MMORPGs, and the other for play by email (PBEM) games. Another is an aggregator for new game requests. One I use for signing up to things online, so that marketers can spam it to their heart's content (it gets a couple of hundred spam mails a day now). There are a couple that are dormant, and I just sign into every couple of months so that Yahoo don't shut them down. You get the picture.

Apparently I've been using Yahoo Mail Classic, and now there is a new version, which has all kinds of bells and whistles. In fact it's been around a few years now. I had a look when it first came out, decided I found the layout offputting and the number of ads and java scripts and the like even greater (which slowed down page refreshes) and gave up on it. But Yahoo have become steadily more insistent over the years. So insistent, that last year I decided to give it a trial, just on one of my accounts. Unfortunately I found this locks up my computer at work. Specifically Firefox goes into a login loop from which it can't escape (yes, Firefox is the latest version, but the OS is Windows XP, and that's presumably the problem. Well we use XP - so sue us). So, I tried to opt back out of the new Yahoo. But there was no way to! Yahoo have become so insistent that all users must stop using the legacy system that they no longer provide a "no thanks, I'd rather go back to Classic" button (apparently this has now been restored, just in an out of the way place). In the end I had to resort to a hack I found online. Phew, problem solved.

But they weren't going to let it go at that. Oh no. The new system is becoming "mandatory" (except it's not - they just keep trying to pretend it is). Now whenever I login I have to put up with a screen saying THE COUNTDOWN HAS BEGUN - PLEASE UPGRADE TO THE NEW VERSION OF YAHOO MAIL BY 31-10-11. This also crashes my Firefox at work, and now I have to type: into the browser to even get the COUNTDOWN screen, with a picture of a stopwatch and all kinds of images of "time running out". Apparently I don't actually *have* to switch, just that I'll get this browser-disabling screen every time I logon until the end of October, after which they'll presumably give up on me as irredeemably backward. I have several Yahoo accounts, and I do check them several times a day. It's becoming quite a pain in the arse. But they're not going to beat me.

There are probably people out there thinking: "FFS, just switch to gmail" or something similar. Except I don't want to. All of my old emails are archived on Yahoo. I know that there are probably clever ways of shuffling them across, but I can't be arsed to research them, and anyway Google are pretty sinister themselves as regards privacy these days, and Hotmail are run by Microsoft - which is almost as bad. So it will take more than this campaign by Yahoo to make me switch.

It feels quite sad to have such a battle as a loyal - certainly by internet standards - user of a service. I'm sure that focus groups and stock analysts tell them that this is the way to compete with Google and Hotmail. But often it feels like things are "upgraded" with no concern for the user. Facebook do this all the time. Yahoo ditched Geocities, and a whole swathe of amateur web content was eliminated at a stroke. I've no problem with embracing the new if I can see it's better, but a mail service that crashes my browser is not an improved experience.

So fuck Yahoo. Lay on, Macduff. And damned be him that first cries: "hold, enough!"

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Death in Perugia

I'd tried to stay away from the Amanda Knox/Rafael Sollecito appeal because it pushed all of the media's buttons about sex and death, and because I seemed almost alone in genuinely having no particular view on whether the two were innocent or guilty. The US media, playing along to an expert PR campaign by the Knox family, had made up their minds, and I found the media onslaught very offputting, but also completely understandable from the Knox family's point of view. In some cases, it's just such family pressure that can bring results. In the Lucie Blackman case, in Japan, the Blackman family media campaign got Tony Blair to raise the issue with the Japanese PM when progress appeared to be slow, and certainly pushed the Japanese investigation along faster than it would otherwise have gone.

But what we see through the media is only ever a superficial glimpse, and it's easy to get hold of the wrong end of the stick. I recently finished reading People Who Eat Darkness, about the Lucie Blackman case, and written by Richard Lloyd Parry, who was the Tokyo-based Asia correspondent for the Indie and later the Times, and who had a ringside view of the whole thing. While working on it, Parry became obsessed by the case, and while the book isn't quite Truman Capote's 'In Cold Blood', it is a fascinating look at all of the things we never got to see, and compelling about all kinds of things, from Japanese police/legal procedure, the seamy underside of Japan's generally pretty squeaky clean society, and the inevitable culture clashes when people from different parts of the world end up entangled. Thinking back to my own recollections of and preconceptions about the case, what struck me most of all was that - contrary to the received opinion back in the UK at the time - the Japanese police were actually pretty efficient and did a fairly good job. Most of the delay was after they had identified the chief suspect but before they had enough evidence to charge him, and so were mounting quite a comprehensive surveillance operation, and in the meantime refused to tell the family anything so as not to jeopardise the progress they had made, precisely because the family were forever giving press conferences. There was also a strong element of very Japanese over-caution and deliberateness. This set up the UK-Japanese culture clash that eventually went to the very top, when Blair raised the case with PM Junichiro Koizumi at a G8 meeting.

I was thinking about this while pondering the ins and outs of the Meredith Kircher case. At times like this, when there is a complex story involving a US suspect, a British victim and an Italian investigation, the press tends to drop consciously or even unconsciously into national stereotypes. The US media automatically assume a US citizen accused abroad is innocent, the Italian media automatically assume an accused foreigner is guilty. The British media did the same thing over the Louise Woodward case, even though she was certainly guilty of causing the child's death. The Kircher case is much more complicated, and Knox and Sollecito have deliberately muddied the waters with their rubbish alibi and confusing changes of statement about what happened, and clumsy attempt to frame the bar owner. I don't buy the prosecution's 'sex game' theory, but there is evidently much more than meets the eye to the case. But complex Italian internal politics, some slightly slipshod forensic work, and a media blitz such as only the US can manage have turned the whole thing into a circus. Maybe the truth will eventually emerge, but right now there are too many people with too great a stake in one particular version of the story for that to happen. In the meantime, I have to regard the verdict not as 'not guiilty', but as the Scots have it: 'not proven'.

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Gibson Continuum

It has long been a source of bafflement to me that William Gibson's 1984 cyberpunk trailblazer Neuromancer has not yet made it to celluloid (although word is that a version is FINALLY due to start filming next year). It means that we devotees of his work have to make do with the slim pickings that have managed to escape from Development Hell. The best known of these so far has been Johnny Mnemonic, the less said about which the better. Last night I finally got around to watching another; New Rose Hotel. Like Johnny Mnemonic, it is based on one of Gibson's early short stories for Omni magazine, subsequently repackaged in the fantastic Burning Chrome story collection. Given that the film is now 13 years old, and given my love of all things Gibson, it is a mystery to me how I have managed to avoid it until now. Still, at least I've finally got the chance to correct that oversight. Spoilers follow, if you care about such things.

Let's start with the positives: it has Christopher Walken and Willem Defoe as leads, rather than Keanu Reeves and Dolph Lundgren; so that already puts it streets ahead of Johnny Mnemonic. It's directed by Abel 'Bad Lieutenant' Ferrara, rather than someone you've never heard of (Robert Longo???). It sticks scrupulously to the short story plot rather than junking damn near everything and turning one of my favourite characters (Molly Millions) into a sad wannabe, like the writer of Johnny Mnemonic did - this was supposedly for legal reasons, but was another major reason why Mnemonic sucked so badly.

But. And I suppose there had to be a but, otherwise it would't have taken me 13 years to discover that this film even exists. It drags. It drags very badly. Fundamentally, the original short story is too slender a foundation to rest a 93-minute film on. The lack of plotting is made up for with lots of moody and mostly dialogue-free scenes in bars, clubs and hotels that fall somewhere between late 80s music video and early 90s softcore Adult Channel intros. And there's a gaping hole at the centre of the film in the form of Asia Argento as Sandii. Much respect to her father and all that, and she's very decorative, and while this was apparently her first movie in English that needn't matter as Sandii herself is supposed to be a rootless, stateless Eurasian of indeterminate origins, but unfortunately her acting isn't up to it. That's a pity, as one of the few concessions the movie makes towards trying to pad out the slim plot is to give Sandii a bit more back story, and makes creditable work of it. But at the end of the day, she can't convince me that she could manipulate a world-renowned scientist into throwing over his wife and career for her. And since that (and the fact that she does the same thing to Defoe's character - who as in the story isn't named) is the key plot point of the film, it makes it founder.

Ah well, I'll just have to wait for Neuromancer, I guess. It's being directed by the guy who did the claustrophobic under-rated classic Cube (and also Splice), so it might be interesting at least.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Shopping with violence

It's been a week now since the riots. I hadn't wanted to rush to say anything about it - I'm happy to leave that to professional politicians, who are for good or ill expected to come up with something on the spur of the moment. My confused thoughts on the subject are gradually settling, though, and so I thought I'd have a go at trying to put them down.

One of the things that struck me first - on Monday night, in fact, as I cowered in my nice flat, with looters carrying bags of ill-gotten gains past in the street outside, was that the police had been overwhelmed and appeared to have messed up quite badly. Oh yes, no argument that we're grateful for them - when they finally got their act together - but everyone could see on Monday that their current playbook of riot tactics - kettling and containing - were not working. It gave the streets over to the looters, who - coordinated by mobile phones and Blackberries - were moving faster than them. Of course we only have ourselves to blame for that. After all, we are the ones who criticised the police for their handling of previous disturbances. The public gets what the public wants, as Paul Weller put it.

But anyway, the streets have been regained. Now everyone is searching for a cause. The complexity of what has happened has made it into a kind of Rorshach test for politicians - right wingers see the fruits of the nanny state and Permissive Society, the breakdown of families and lack of respect for authority, and left wingers see the end result of Maggie, consumerism, materialism, the creation of an underclass and "there is no such thing as society". Probably both are right, to an extent. The previous Saturday's riot in Tottenham was arguably about a very dodgy police shooting and some pent-up rage by the local black community. It's hard for me, as an affluent middle class middle aged white guy, to comment sensibly on that. All I will say is that locally I see a lot of kids in my own area getting pulled over by police in their cars, and in defiance of the demographics of the area, not one of them has ever been white.

But that has been obscured by the orgy (and I think that probably is the term) of looting that happened on the subsequent couple of nights, first in north London, then across the entire capital, and then across England. These were copycat crimes, fuelled by what people saw on TV, and maybe to an extent by social networking. There may have been gangs that were a bit more organised about it. But mostly it was sheer naked opportunism. And aside from the odd jewellers shop, and an attempt to break into a gold dealership in Camberwell, the shops they picked were the ones they knew best. There is something tragi-comic about looting a pound store. Yet in Peckham, my local shopping area, where the 'Peace Wall' of Post-it notes forms a touching community response to the events, it is on the boarded-up broken windows of Poundland. Apparently women were heard shouting things like: "get me baby-gros" and "I need Pampers". To put it bluntly, these people were looting places where they would normally shop; supermarkets for a bottle of booze, Mothercare, JD Sports. It was what you might call "aggravated shopping."

A lot of ink is being spilt over why people felt they could do that. But mostly it boils down to greed and a failure to think though the consequences, and that's part of a systemic problem. On this occasion, that old detective film cliche is actually true: society really *is* to blame. How we put that right I can't even begin to imagine. And how we put it right at a time that social programmes and even police numbers are being slashed, I doubt anyone knows.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Das Kapital

Sometimes, especially in a wired world, where people are snarky just for their own amusement, it pays for us to take a step back and remember just what it is we are arguing about. Watching the 'debate' over the US budget deficit over the past couple of weeks, especially since it was occurring in a country that is deliberately polarised between Right and Left, and where the Right has a new Fundamentalist Libertarian wing to make it sound even shriller, it sounded like there was some major point of principle at stake. I ended up recalling a lot of online discussions I'd had with Americans of various political stripes - some had gone so far as to suggest that even a public education system was somehow symptomatic of a slippery slope to Socialism (not that Americans generally have much of an idea of what Socialism actually is).

The acrimonious debate prompted me to take a look at some figures, and they're interesting reading. Let's say, for sake of argument, that the proportion of a country's GDP that is controlled by the government is roughly proportional to how 'socialised' its system is. Now let's take a look at what kind of variation there is out there in the real world. The developed country with the lowest tax take in terms of proportion of GDP is the United States, with 24%. The one with the highest is Denmark, at 48%. That's it - just 24% between them.

So that 24% range - just under one quarter of GDP - actually covers everything from 'hire-em-and-fire-em capitalism red in tooth and claw' to 'Scandianvian nanny state socialist utopia'. The big reveal is: everyone actually agrees on 76% of everything - even Obama and the Tea Party. The acrimony of the budget debate has only served to obscure just to what extent there is actually a very broad consensus on how to run a modern state. Maybe Francis Fukuyama was right all along. We all seem to agree that a dynamic economy needs space for private enterprise, but that some things - like defence and policing, fire services and probably most schooling - are best provided by the state. After that, we're only arguing over one quarter of the cake.

And when you put it like that, do we really have to stoop to calling each other Nazis and Communists?