Thursday, 30 May 2013

Tamasha and a quick buck

by Girish Menon

Today, Sharad Pawar joined the rising crescendo of voices asking for N Srinivasan the BCCI chief to demit office. He is, i.e. Pawar, the latest bigwig who has provided ballast to the 'Srinivasan must go' campaign. And since most of reported opinion is of bigwigs, this writer suggests that news organisations should attempt to lift their wigs and examine what motivation underlies these utterances.
To this writer, opportunism is the premise that seems to unite both the supporters and opponents of Srinivasan. From Farooq Abdullah to Gavaskar to Scindia to Pawar, all of them appear to have a 'dog in the fight'. Hence their views are based on ulterior motives and not really with a view to clean the Augean stables. Yet, news organisations refuse to highlight views of the non big wigs. This author wrote a piece, 'Sreesanth - Another Modern Day Valmiki?' but Cricinfo refused to publish it.
In short the debate appears to be an incestuous fight between a group governing the BCCI and another group who wish to replace them. And news organisations seem to be taking positions based on which group will get them a seat at the trough?
The disenfranchised cricket loving Indian public realise that their own views do not count. Hence, like the Saudis who turn up for the Friday post prayer beheading, they turned up in large numbers for the IPL final realising full well that the result of the game could have been pre ordained. They looked on the event as pure tamasha (theatre) and maybe some may have even bet on the underdog to win because that is the only way they and the omnipotent bookie can both make a sure buck.

The mathematics of spot-fixing

by Dilip D'Souza
Spot-fixing: suddenly on a whole lot of minds. Three young cricketers accused of doing it for no real reason I can fathom except greed. After all, they were already earning money legitimately far in excess of the great majority of their countrymen.
Still, I’m not here to pass judgement on these men. They are innocent until we find otherwise, and that finding will eventually come from a court. And anyway, who knows what motivates young men with lots of money? No, I’m here to discuss what makes spot-fixing possible; especially, some of the mathematics behind it all.
But let’s start with this: what makes a bet possible? Of course, I suspect it is almost human nature to want to gamble. But that desire is founded on probabilities. You consider an upcoming event, you estimate the probability of it turning out a certain way, and you choose to place a bet (or not) based on that estimate. There are fellows called bookies who will take your bet. Based on their own estimate of what’s going to happen, they will give you what’s called “odds” on the event.
For example: Imagine two cricket captains about to toss a coin. Both of them, and all of us, know the probability of it landing heads is 1/2. If you find a bookie willing to take a bet on this, it’s likely he’ll give you odds of 1:1; meaning, for every rupee you bet, you’ll get a rupee back if the coin does in fact land heads. A pretty stupid bet to make, you’ll agree. Because if you keep betting, you’ll lose your rupee half the time—when the coin lands tails. And when it lands heads, you simply get your rupee back.
But consider tossing a dice instead. The probability of a “1” is 1/6, and that opens up more apparently interesting betting possibilities. A bookie will likely offer odds of 5:1 on a “1”; that is, for every rupee you bet, you’ll get back five if the dice shows “1”. (If it shows anything else, you lose your rupee.) Sounds exciting, this chance to quintuple (wow!) your money? Would you take these odds and place a bet like this?
Yet here’s the thing, and this is why I used the word “apparently” above. Please don’t stop breathing at the mention of quintupling your money. For the mathematics says this is actually just as stupid a bet to make as with the coin. Again, if you keep betting, you’ll lose your rupee five out of every six times. (Put it another way: five of every six bettors who place such a bet will lose their money.) Only once—that sixth time—will you get your five-rupee windfall.
The reason bookies might offer such odds—1:1 for the coin, 5:1 for the dice—is that they know their probabilities as well as you do, and naturally they don’t want to lose money. In fact, they will likely tweak the odds they offer just enough so they actually make money. That is, after all, why they do what they do.
So if you find a bookie offering quite different odds than you expect, it’s likely he knows something you don’t. Consider how that might pan out. Let’s say the coin the captains use is actually a fake—it has tails on both sides. But let’s say only our devious bookie knows this. He says to you the avid bettor: “Ten times your money back if it comes up heads!” You think: “Wow! There’s an attractive proposition!” and you gamble Rs.1,000, for you’ve estimated that there’s a 50-50 chance you’re going to waltz home withRs.10,000.
Then you lose, as—face it—you were always likely to do. Bookie laughs all the way to the bank with yourRs.1,000.
All of which is essentially how spot-fixing must work.
So now imagine you are a fervent cricket-watcher. (Which I’m willing to bet you are, unless you’re Lady Gaga.) From years following the game, you know that bowler J bowls a no-ball about once in every six-ball over. Along comes bookie W to whisper in your ear: “Psst! Hundred times your money back if J bowls exactly one no-ball in his first over in the Siliguri Master Chefs game!” Your eyes widen and you fork out the Rs.10,000 you didn’t win when he offered you the coin bet, starry visions of a million-rupee payoff whirling through your head. Hundreds of other cricket fanatics like you do the same. (Rather silly cricket fanatics, but never mind.)
What you don’t know, of course, is that bookie W has instructed bowler J to bowl not just one, but two no-balls in that first over. For doing so, J will get a slice of all the money W has collected in bets.
So J bowls his two no-balls at the Master Chefs. You lose. Bookie W and bowler J laugh all the way to the bank. Simple.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

We need a Eurosceptic party of the centre left

I left Ukip, the party I founded, when it became a magnet for bigots. But what happened to left wing opposition to the EU?
A Greek flag flies behind a statue to European unity outside the European Parliament in Brussels
'There was a time when Labour was adamantly anti-EU. Gaitskell, Foot, Kinnock and even Blair opposed it' Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters
The idea of reshaping the world, changing it for the better, is probably a natural, if not a divine one. However, the lure of progress can be deceptive. "Great enterprises" of the kind Charles de Gaulle in his memoirs famously associated with the role of France in the world, come regularly unstuck. The latest grand projet of the French rational mind, the EU, is now coming apart at the seams. Rather like the 18th-century "enlightened despotisms" inspired by the French philosophes, our contemporary bureaucratic autocracy now faces revolution. The peasants of Greece, Spain, Italy and elsewhere are revolting. Even the French peasants are displaying a worrying restlessness.
Progressivism everywhere has a long history of dreadful mistakes. Just look at Marxism. Today, both China and North Korea testify to its illusions as monuments to failed progressivism. So, however, is the EU. Built on progressive myths ("It has brought peace to Europe"; "it extends democracy"; "it creates prosperity"), it is now in relative economic, demographic and technological decline, lacks accountable or transparent structures of government, and is damning future generations to unemployment and despair. It is run by a self-serving, bureaucratic and political elite, is notoriously corrupt, and is admired only by politicians from the Middle East or Africa who bewail their own lack of unity, or by Americans who see its member nations as the colonies of 1776. Its policies are undemocratic – it has forced unelected, technocratic governments on both Italy and Greece – and do not work. Its single currency has brought penury to half a continent. Its present existential crisis has brought political chaos to Italy, Greece and Spain and threatens the same in France.
Dr Alan Sked Dr Alan Sked launches the UK Independence party in 1993. Photograph: STR News/Reuters

Here in Britain David Cameron's "progressive conservatism" is being challenged by Ukip, the party I founded 20 years ago and left in 1997 as it became a magnet for people whose vision of the future is the 1950s – a supposed golden age before the EEC, black people, Muslims and other immigrants, gays, lesbians and other products of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, desecrated this island Eden.
On the left, however, there has been no response to events in Europe. The Labour party seems intellectually paralysed in face of both the economic and political crises in Europe. The Lib Dems remain knee-jerk "good Europeans" with absolutely nothing to say. They are like the officer on the Titanic who, when warned of the iceberg, ordered "full steam ahead". The great Liberal party of Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George opposed European empires. Gladstone famously asked where on the map the Habsburgs had ever done any good? But today's Lib Dem pygmies give unquestioned support to our new Habsburg empire ruled from Brussels.
There was a time when Labour was adamantly anti-EU. Gaitskell, Foot, Kinnock and even Blair opposed it. But then Jacques Delors told the TUC that whereas they were impotent to defeat Thatcherism, he could and would overthrow it from Brussels. Almost overnight, Labour's patriotism disappeared and the party stood on its head. Brussels had managed to divide and rule Britain. The Welsh windbag, Kinnock, even became an EU commissioner and made a tax-free fortune doing nothing for the public interest but sacking whistleblowers in the corrupt EU bureaucracy. His must be the most pathetic career in postwar British politics. Blair and Mandelson, of course followed suit (although Blair failed to get an EU presidency) and – amazingly – this whole discredited clique still advocates that Britain join the euro.
An alternative, moderate party of the centre left should seek a new path for Britain. To avoid the trap of deluded, world-historical progressivism, it should remain firmly fixed on these objectives:
1. Direct, transparent, accountable democracy
2. Liberal values that protect the individual from discrimination on grounds of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion or political belief and uphold freedom of speech, freedom of the press and media, freedom of assembly, the right to a fair trial, and freedom from arbitrary arrest
3. A social policy which seeks to provide decent pensions, care, social housing, welfare benefits and full employment to all in need after a sound education that caters to everyone's talents (including those with disabilities).
4. A foreign policy that protects British national interests without thereby threatening those of others. This would involve withdrawing from the EU and negotiating free trade with our European friends and neighbours. Britain would not need to withdraw from Nato or the UN and would continue to seek peace in the Middle East and elsewhere. It would also continue to support the principle of giving overseas aid.
5. Domestically, the most radical changes, apart from ending an austerity aimed mainly at the poor, might be constitutional. It might be wise to federalise the UK and make the House of Lords an elected federal chamber. Perhaps an independent Britain could negotiate a confederation of the British Isles with the Irish Republic to help solve Ireland's problems.
Certainly, an independent Britain should be outward looking. As for the EU, there is no reason to assume automatically that it would survive a British exit. Other member states might prefer to choose democracy and independence. All Europe would be in a democratic flux. But let that democratic revolution start here.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Can Agatha Christie be political?

Hercule Poirot may not be a highbrow hero, but he still has plenty to teach us about life. Portuguese author José Rodrigues dos Santos on why all literature packs a political punch
David Suchet as Hercule Poirot
Thou shalt not kill … David Suchet as the eponymous detective in Agatha Christie's Poirot. Photograph: ITV/Rex Features
Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is considered by many to be the finest crime mystery ever written. It tells the story of how Hercule Poirot investigates a killing, and stuns us when he identifies the culprit. Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama is the most awarded science-fiction novel ever, and tells the story of an unidentified spaceship that crosses the solar system and leaves behind more questions than answers. José Saramago's Blindness is frequently pointed out as one of the best 20th-century novels in world literature, and it tells the story of a sudden epidemic of blindness in Lisbon.
Apart from the obvious quality of these books – a quality that arises either from their storyline or their written style – what do they have in common? Well, they are not political. Even Saramago, who has never hidden the fact that he was a communist, and an active one at that, never actually wrote an obvious political novel.
What, then, is a political novel? Politics is not necessarily something that involves political parties, as we might immediately assume, but rather an activity related to the management of societies. Decisions and actions that affect us all are politics, but also ideas and concepts. Actually, it's the latter that provide the blueprint for the former.
We can find many quality novels that do have a clear political message. Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary questions the social anathema of 19th-century female adultery; George Orwell's 1984 or Animal Farm are powerful critical metaphors for communist totalitarian dictatorships; Eça de Queirós' O Crime do Padre Amaro brings us a strong critique of the Catholic Church's hypocrisy towards priests' celibacy; and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath shows us the misery spread by unregulated capitalism in the wake of the Great Depression.
Should we say that O Crime do Padre Amaro is a superior novel compared with Blindness because it has a political message? Can we honestly claim that Animal Farm is more literary than The Book of Illusions just because Orwell's novel conveys a political meaning and Paul Auster's novel doesn't? Incidentally, is Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code a political book? How can we say it isn't if it deals in a critical way with deep political issues such as who Jesus Christ really was, how his legend was shaped for political purposes, the role of women in the religious system of power and what the Opus Dei really is?
These are not easy questions, but they do point in different directions and help us clarify things a bit. A novel can be literary without an obvious political message. And the fact that the novel has a political message is not tantamount to a quality novel.
By the way, who decides what a literary novel is? Is The Da Vinci Code literary? Who can say it isn't? Me? My friends? The newspapers? A committee for good literary taste? Who belongs to such a committee? How was he or she elected? Does each one of us have to obey and accept the critical judgment of such a committee? How many times have committees of the day misjudged a work of art? Nobody cared about Fernando Pessoa's poetry when he was alive, and today he is considered the pinnacle of contemporary Portuguese poetry. Dashiell Hammett was thought of in his day as a second-rate popular author, but today his The Maltese Falcon is cherished as a classic. In his prime, Pinheiro Chagas was praised as an immortal author, but today nobody has even heard of him. If we probe deeper into what is and what is not literature, we find many questions and no solid answers.
So, we get back to the starting point. Should literature be political? Well, some might say this is like asking if art should be beautiful? Yes, by all means, art should be beautiful! Can't we, then, create ugly art? No, we can't! If it's ugly, it's not art, it's a failed attempt at it.
This is an interesting point because, faced with the idea that art has to be beautiful, French artist Marcel Duchamp presented in a 1917 New York art exhibition his latest artistic work, which he called La Fontaine, or The Fountain. It was actually a porcelain urinal made in an industrial factory. La fontaine created an uproar because it introduced the world to a new concept: art that is disgusting. It is ugly, and yet it is art.
Duchamp made a powerful point. He told us that an artwork is what the artist decides. So, what is a literary work? Well, it's what the author decides. Me, you, my friends, the newspapers, the committee for good literary taste may or may not like it; that's not relevant, because art can be ugly and yet be art. A literary work can be political or not political, and yet be a literary work.
Should literature be political? Hell, who cares? It is political if the author thus decides, and it isn't if the author so wishes it. The literary quality of a book is not linked to its political message, in the same way that the artistic quality of a sculpture is not linked to its beauty. They are different issues.
What is, then, a political novel? Can Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – a simple, albeit interesting, crime investigation – somehow be a political novel? The book does present us with a political message, though probably not even its author is aware of it. And that message is simple: thou shalt not kill. How more political can a message get? Thou shalt not kill is a political order given by the highest ruler of them all, God Almighty Himself. It is a sheer political message, created for social management.
French sociologist Louis Althusser once wrote that when a woman visits a shoe shop and buys high-heel shoes, she is making a clear ideological statement. By wearing high-heel shoes, she is expressing her idea of what society is and what her role in society should be, and what can be more political than that?
So, the question is not indeed if literature should be political. The real question is: could it be otherwise?

Globalisation isn't just about profits. It's about taxes too

Big corporates are gaming one nation's taxpayers against another's: we need a global deal to make them pay their way
Daniel Pudles 28052013
Why should German taxpayers help bail out a country whose business model is based on avoidance and a race to the bottom? Illustration by Daniel Pudles
The world looked on agog as Tim Cook, the head of Apple, said his company had paid all the taxes owed – seeming to say that it paid all the taxes it should have paid. There is, of course, a big difference between the two. It's no surprise that a company with the resources and ingenuity of Apple would do what it could to avoid paying as much tax as it could within the law. While the supreme court, in its Citizens United case seems to have said that corporations are people, with all the rights attendant thereto, this legal fiction didn't endow corporations with a sense of moral responsibility; and they have the Plastic Man capacity to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time – to be everywhere when it comes to selling their products, and nowhere when it comes to reporting the profits derived from those sales.
Apple, like Google, has benefited enormously from what the US and other western governments provide: highly educated workers trained in universities that are supported both directly by government and indirectly (through generous charitable deductions). The basic research on which their products rest was paid for by taxpayer-supported developments – the internet, without which they couldn't exist. Their prosperity depends in part on our legal system – including strong enforcement of intellectual property rights; they asked (and got) government to force countries around the world to adopt our standards, in some cases, at great costs to the lives and development of those in emerging markets and developing countries. Yes, they brought genius and organisational skills, for which they justly receive kudos. But while Newton was at least modest enough to note that he stood on the shoulders of giants, these titans of industry have no compunction about being free riders, taking generously from the benefits afforded by our system, but not willing to contribute commensurately. Without public support, the wellspring from which future innovation and growth will come will dry up – not to say what will happen to our increasingly divided society.
It is not even true that higher corporate tax rates would necessarily significantly decrease investment. As Apple has shown, it can finance anything it wants to with debt – including paying dividends, another ploy to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. But interest payments are tax deductible – which means that to the extent that investment is debt-financed, the cost of capital and returns are both changed commensurately, with no adverse effect on investment. And with the low rate of taxation on capital gains, returns on equity are treated even more favorably. Still more benefits accrue from other details of the tax code, such as accelerated depreciation and the tax treatment of research and development expenditures.
It is time the international community faced the reality: we have an unmanageable, unfair, distortionary global tax regime. It is a tax system that is pivotal in creating the increasing inequality that marks most advanced countries today – with America standing out in the forefront and the UK not far behind. It is the starving of the public sector which has been pivotal in America no longer being the land of opportunity – with a child's life prospects more dependent on the income and education of its parents than in other advanced countries.
Globalisation has made us increasingly interdependent. These international corporations are the big beneficiaries of globalisation – it is not, for instance, the average American worker and those in many other countries, who, partly under the pressure from globalisation, has seen his income fully adjusted for inflation, including the lowering of prices that globalisation has brought about, fall year after year, to the point where a fulltime male worker in the US has an income lower than four decades ago. Our multinationals have learned how to exploit globalisation in every sense of the term – including exploiting the tax loopholes that allow them to evade their global social responsibilities.
The US could not have a functioning corporate income tax system if we had elected to have a transfer price system (where firms "make up" the prices of goods and services that one part buys from another, allowing profits to be booked to one state or another). As it is, Apple is evidently able to move profits around to avoid Californian state taxes. The US has developed a formulaic system, where global profits are allocated on the basis of employment, sales and capital goods. But there is plenty of room to further fine-tune the system in response to the easier ability to shift profits around when a major source of the real "value-added" is intellectual property.
Some have suggested that while the sources of production (value added) are difficult to identify, the destination is less so (though with reshipping, this may not be so clear); they suggest a destination-based system. But such a system would not necessarily be fair – providing no revenues to the countries that have borne the costs of production. But a destination system would clearly be better than the current one.
Even if the US were not rewarded for its global publicly supported scientific contributions and the intellectual property built on them, at least the country would be rewarded for its unbridled consumerism, which provides incentives for such innovation. It would be good if there could be an international agreement on the taxation of corporate profits. In the absence of such an agreement, any country that threatened to impose fair corporate taxes would be punished – production (and jobs) would be taken elsewhere. In some cases, countries can call their bluff. Others may feel the risk is too high. But what cannot be escaped are customers.
The US by itself could go a long way to moving reform along: any firm selling goods there could be obliged to pay a tax on its global profits, at say a rate of 30%, based on a consolidated balance sheet, but with a deduction for corporate profits taxes paid in other jurisdictions (up to some limit). In other words, the US would set itself up as enforcing a global minimum tax regime. Some might opt out of selling in the US, but I doubt that many would.
The problem of multinational corporate tax avoidance is deeper, and requires more profound reform, including dealing with tax havens that shelter money for tax-evaders and facilitate money-laundering. Google and Apple hire the most talented lawyers, who know how to avoid taxes staying within the law. But there should be no room in our system for countries that are complicitous in tax avoidance. Why should taxpayers in Germany help bail out citizens in a country whose business model was based on tax avoidance and a race to the bottom – and why should citizens in any country allow their companies to take advantage of these predatory countries?
To say that Apple or Google simply took advantage of the current system is to let them off the hook too easily: the system didn't just come into being on its own. It was shaped from the start by lobbyists from large multinationals. Companies like General Electric lobbied for, and got, provisions that enabled them to avoid even more taxes. They lobbied for, and got, amnesty provisions that allowed them to bring their money back to the US at a special low rate, on the promise that the money would be invested in the country; and then they figured out how to comply with the letter of the law, while avoiding the spirit and intention. If Apple and Google stand for the opportunities afforded by globalisation, their attitudes towards tax avoidance have made them emblematic of what can, and is, going wrong with that system.

Monday, 27 May 2013

From coffee shops to airlines, the trend to 'personalise' products only serves to underline how impersonal services have become

OK, this mug's got my name on it – but that doesn't mean Starbucks cares

Andrzej Krauze 27052013
‘Somewhere between Margaret Thatcher and the fall of Lehman Brothers, there were signs of half-decent customer service.' Illustration by Andrzej Krauze
'A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking," said Andy Warhol. "All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good."
Such was the capitalism that was embodied not just by Coca-Cola, but the Ford Motor Company – and named, towards the end of its dominance, "Fordism". Now, though, we are said to like our transactions personalised and touchy feely. Ergo a summer-long promotion titled "Share a Coke", whereby the usual logo has been replaced by 150 first names – from Aaron to Zoe, via Faisal, Josh, Lauren and Saima. That all this rather cuts across the imperious yet egalitarian brand that Warhol so loved does not seem to have occurred to anyone; nor, apparently, has the whole idea's air of awful tweeness (while writing this, I bought my obligatory "John" bottle from Marks & Spencer, and remained unmoved).
At Starbucks, meanwhile, they now insist that your hot caffeine also comes emblazoned with your name – written on a sticker, to be hollered by a barista. This scheme arrived in early 2012, in a similar flurry of faux-enlightened PR: "Have you noticed how everything seems a little impersonal nowadays?" ran the promotional text.
Unlike the Coke wheeze, though, it was also a see-through attempt at damage limitation: six months later, the company's byzantine tax arrangements would be under intense scrutiny. But in the ordinary world, Starbucks was already becoming a byword for sloppiness and mess, not to mention coffee that tastes like the hot milk my nan used to make me circa 1973. As a former 'Bucks addict, my own epiphany came in their branch in Birmingham's Bullring Centre, where the tables were piled high with dirty cups and plates, only two staff seemed to be on duty – and if the place had been an independent business, you would have taken one look and assumed it was rightly headed for the knacker's yard.
Yet Starbucks is still here, making handsome worldwide profits. Yes, after a major reputational wobble, it has nobly offered to throw £20m over two years at Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs. Hosanna! They now shout your name when they hand you your cup of warm milk and a plywood panini. But going to any of its outlets remains a dependably joyless experience, suggestive of something remarkable: the company is not so much too big to fail, as too big to really care. Once enough competitors are out of the way, it seems, modern branding can work magic: providing you avoid killing anyone, that enough people will carry on trudging through your doors, whatever happens
My own recent experience of sclerotic, unresponsive, mind-bogglingly awful treatment runs from Virgin Media (hours waiting on "helplines", which reached an acme of annoyance when I was offered a choice of what music would be played down the phone – by genre), through the train giant First Great Western (frequently late, insane ticket prices) and on to such behemoths as McDonald's (vast queues) and PC World (don't get me started). When it comes to the ubiquitous Amazon, there are once again lines to be drawn from its tax arrangements, through standards of service – I have long given up on its "next day" delivery option – to its predatory behaviour, last seen when it hiked up its fees to independent "marketplace" sellers by up to 70%.
Running through a lot of this, I would imagine, is much the same business model: workforces hacked down to the bare minimum and poorly paid, the apparent belief that if you track your customer's buys via data accumulation and give them what you think they want, more quaint ideas of customer service can be dumped, fast.
To all this, there is an obvious enough response: hasn't a mixture of flimsy "personalisation" and arrogant business–as-usual always been the capitalist way? Perhaps. But somewhere between the arrival of Margaret Thatcher and the fall of Lehman Brothers, there were at least fleeting signs of an embrace of half-decent customer service – as proved by plenty of businesses, not least the big British supermarkets.
Bear with me, please. Though I cannot quite date them, I have clear memories of visiting Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury's, and realising that though they were strangling independent competitors, squeezing producers and offering an illusion of choice under which lay a remarkably Fordist way of operating, their customer service was actually very good. You may recall the dedicated bag-packers, or the staff's breezy openness to being sent to scour the aisles when you reached the checkout and realised you'd forgotten the broccoli .
More often than not, my own supermarket shopping now ends with an exasperated glimpse of gridlocked checkouts, and the usual trudge through the self-service terminals sometimes known as "the fast lane": a con trick that would have caused Marx and Engels to hoot with mirth, whereby the customer now doubles as the worker. I contacted Sainsbury's, Asda and Tesco to ask how many were now in operation, and what the increasing dominance of fast lanes meant. Their replies were uniformly evasive, and the one from Tesco was particularly grim: "We believe in giving our customers choice. Over a third of shoppers choose to use self-service tills, not least because they find them quicker and more convenient. For customers who need assistance, there is always a member of staff on hand." Somewhere in those words is the same arrogance you can taste in your average grande skinny cappuccino and granola bar.
There is, then, a new model of business, which rather puts me in mind of words uttered not by Andy Warhol but the market traders of the West Midlands. "Never make a mug of your punter," they used to say. But that is what modern business does. And strangest of all, contrary to all that stuff about consumer sovereignty, it seems to be not just getting away with it, but prospering.

To be right on intellectual matters is of limited importance and interest to the outside world.

I'm an atheist but … I won't try to deconvert anyone

New atheism won't tolerate the freedom to believe in God. But life's far more interesting if we admit we might be wrong, right?
The Telegraph Hay Festival
Philosopher and 'new atheist' Daniel Dennett speaking at the Hay Festival. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images
Last week I interviewed the philosopher Daniel Dennett about new atheism, (the interview will be up on this site soon). I haven't got the tape myself, so I can't swear to the verbatim accuracy of the quotes I remember, but at one stage I said something to the effect that new atheism seems to me to reproduce all the habits that made religion obnoxious, like heresy hunting. He asked what I meant, and I gave the example of "atheists but", a species of which he is particularly disdainful. They are the people who will say to him and his fellow zealots "I am an atheist, but I don't go along with your campaign." I'm one of them.
He accused me of a kind of intellectual snobbery – of believing that I am clever and brave and strong enough to understand that there is no God, but that this is a discovery too shattering for the common people who should be left in the comfort of their ignorance.
This was indeed the classic position of the anti-religious philosophers of the enlightenment. It is what Voltaire believed, and Gibbon, and Hume. So it's not as if you have to be an idiot to think that atheism is medicine too strong for most people. And when you see the relish with which some atheists dismiss their opponents as "morons" you might even suppose that even some atheists are attracted by the idea that they are of necessity cleverer than believers.
But that's not in fact my position at all. The reason that I don't go around trying to deconvert all my Christian friends is that they know the arguments against a belief in God so very much better than I do. I can entertain the possibility that Christianity is true. They have to take it seriously. I don't believe I ought to love my neighbour, however much patience and humility this takes. I know that prayers go unanswered: they know their own prayers do.
I am not the person who has to bury the tramps, to comfort the parents whose children have died, or to read the Bible in the hope that it will yield meaning. I don't even have to believe that the Holy Spirit works through the college of cardinals or General Synod, so that their deliberations are in some way connected with the redemption of the world.
Only the last of those duties is a mark of moral or intellectual weakness. In fact, since I like my friends to be admirable, which often means cleverer and nicer than I am, my Christian friends don't seem to me stupid or cowardly. I know lots of Christians who are both, of course. But that's true of atheists and Muslims as well.
There is a general point here about the inadequacy of all theological opinions. The "but" in "atheists but" is a mark of humility, to be worn with pride. To be right on intellectual matters is of limited importance and interest to the outside world. Assuming – rashly – that you are an intellectual, it is very much easier to be right about ideas than to work out their implications and act on them in real life. But that's the bit that matters more, if only because failure to act on your own beliefs involves lying to yourself, and this will over time corrupt the capacity for thought.
The "but" is a way of saying that the times when we are right are mostly less interesting than the times when we are wrong. They certainly demand our attention less. It's a way of saying that we might be wrong, and actually meaning it. It's a demand to try to listen to what the other person means, rather than dismiss what they say just because it makes no sense.
It is, in short, a rejection of all the values of online argument so it really can't be wrong. Discuss.

Coming soon: invasion of the marauding nymphomaniacs

Thanks to 'female Viagra' and government regulation, we women can enjoy sex again – just hopefully not too much
450 naked women prepare to be photoed by artist Spencer Tunick in New York's  Grand Central Terminal
'People like sex. Sex is sexy.' Photograph: Jennifer Szymaszek/AP
We are standing on the brink of the breakdown of society. A world in which the economy grinds to a halt. Schools stand empty; there are no teachers left and the dinner ladies have found something better to do. Hospitals career towards crisis point as nurses become the uniformed sex-crazed bunnies that porn has long suspected them to be. This is the land of the marauding nymphomaniacs – hypersexed women who are hardly able to walk straight, never mind function as citizens.
This is the risk potentially posed by Lybrido, the female arousal drug (or "female Viagra"), according to some "experts" who are worried that this drug won't get past the regulators unless there are assurances that it won't lead to women becoming raptorial sex beasts. Women should like more sex, but not too much.
Of course this is another pharmaceutical attempt to cure social ills with a pill. A lower libido in both men and women may well have more to do with that screaming baby in the next room or the pending redundancy at work than anything physiological. But dealing with individuals' psychology or social circumstances is boring and hard and complex while pharmaceutical marketing is fun and easy and quick.
And this involves SEX. People like sex. Sex is sexy. Diarrhoea isn't sexy, lung disease isn't sexy and things that aren't sexy get less of our attention and investment. Female sexuality is even more dark and mysterious and feeds those odd social constructs that say women don't like sex as much as men do and therefore have to be "fixed", unless they do like sex as much as men do and so must be broken and are either mad, bad or wanton. Maybe women need a recommended daily fornication allowance.
Interestingly, the inspiration for the lady-horn enhancer was not a desire to create a louche legion of loose women, but came from one tragic man's way of getting over a broken heart. Dr Adrian Tuiten, head of the Dutch firm Emotional Brain, which developed the drug, was trying to understand why his long-term girlfriend dumped him in his 20s. Apparently "the breakup inspired a lifelong quest to comprehend female emotion through biochemistry and led to his career as a psychopharmacologist." (I'd suggest the desire to comprehend female emotion through biochemistry might actually be part of the reason for the break-up). The developers of this drug actually want it to promote monogamy, not instigate indiscriminate sex mania.
The trials completed so far on this drug have been exclusively with women in long-term, monogamous relationships where simply the spark has gone. However, increasingly evidence shows that for many women the cause of their sexual malaise appears to be monogamy itself. Evolutionary psychologists (or as I like to call them, Just So Story tellers) claim that it is innate biology that gives men a naturally higher sex drive. But ameta-analysis of studies by psychologists in 2010 shows little sex differences in the sexuality of men and women and where there were differences – such as rates of masturbation or pornography use – they were heavily influenced by culture and the gender equity of the social group studied.
It is almost impossible to separate female sexuality from culture. Depending on a variety of factors from the number of sexual partners you have had, how much flesh you show, whether you use contraception, how much you masturbate (because women do masturbate!), whether or not you "use" pornography (read it, watch it, look at it) and what kind of pornography it is ("it's a book, therefore erotica!") all variously determine whether you are a slut, whore, slag, prude, lesbian, harlot, prig or the veritable Mrs Grundy.
Society is as concerned by women who like sex as those who don't. Nymphomania was a form of mental illness or disease in the Victorian era with seemingly endless symptoms; masturbation, homosexuality, sexual dreams, or in one case the "lascivious leer of her eye and lips, the contortions of her mouth and tongue, the insanity of lust which disfigured [her]". This disease was variously "cured" with abstinence, vegetarianism, cold douches or more viciously with confinement to an asylum or even a form of female genital mutilation where the clitoris was removed.
The modern version is seemingly to attain that perfect balance between women enjoying sex more in their long-term, increasingly loveless, monogamous relationship through some kind of love potion and also resisting the ever-present lure of the strumpet within us. Only a heady combination of drugs, government regulation (through marriage, adultery laws, access to contraception) and overwhelming social pressures seem to be able to regulate female sexuality around the world. Who knows what would happen if we could discover and develop our own sexuality and properly understand how that changes and fluctuates over time and circumstance? Who knows what might have been achieved had people spent their energy on things other than regulating female sexuality? Perhaps everyone might be happier and hornier.

Three reasons why a vagina is not like a laptop

Former Crimewatch presenter Nick Ross seems to think there are parallels between rape and property theft
Heavy chain with a padlock around a laptop
‘This is an idea that belongs to the dark ages when women were permitted to own nothing apart from their "honour".' Photograph: LJSphotography / Alamy/Alamy

"Don't have nightmares!" Nick Ross used to say, when he hosted Crimewatch, but little did we guess at the Hellraiser-esque horrors haunting our plucky watcher of crime until this weekend. In an extract from his book, Crime, published in the Mail today, Ross reveals that he has been afflicted with a terrible case of visual agnosia which has left him unable to tell the difference between vaginas and laptops.
He writes: "We have come to acknowledge it is foolish to leave laptops on the back seat of a car […] Our forebears might be astonished at how safe women are today given what throughout history would have been regarded as incitement […] Equally they would be baffled that girls are mostly unescorted, stay out late, often get profoundly drunk and sometimes openly kiss, grope or go to bed with one-night stands."
Obviously, writing a manuscript in a state of perpetual confusion between portable computers and female genitals is a distressing condition – is that a return key or a clitoris? – and Ross is to be applauded for battling through to the end of his wordcount. And so, in a spirit of compassion for the baffled, I would like to offer Ross a brief guide to the ways in which women and their vaginas are not like cars and laptops.

1. Not every car contains a vagina

When you carefully tuck your high-value portable property under the passenger seat (just kidding, smash-and-grabbers! That's definitely not where my iPad is!), it's because you don't want potential thieves to know it's there. But draping your vagina in a floor-length modesty frock is unlikely to persuade anyone that don't have one, and therefore might not be worth violating. This is not a quantum mechanics problem. Schrödinger's fanny is not a thing.

2. A laptop is a portable electronic device, a vagina is a body part

Does it whir? Does it make small clicking sounds? Can it be placed in a briefcase and carried around separately to its owner? That is a laptop. Is it a fibromuscular tubular tract located between a woman's thighs? Vagina. Taking the former from a car would be an act of theft. Penetrating the latter without the woman's consent would be a physical assault – and that's true even if the woman has behaved in a way that makes it obvious that she has a vagina and sometimes uses it for fun! No one says to the victim of a beating: "Well, anyone could see you had teeth. You were just asking to have them broken with all the eating you do."

3. You can't insure a vagina

Having your car broken into and your valuables taken sucks. But, understanding that this is a world where some people might be driven to desperate acts for small rewards, you might make a heavy sigh and sweep up the glass (secretly hoping that the drugs your laptop has paid for turn out to be mostly cornflour), and then go and put in your insurance claim. Being raped is – and I know this is going to surprise you, Nick Ross, so prepare yourself – worse than that. There is no insurance that lets you claim back the state of being not-raped. There's no cloud backup to restore your pre-rape internal data. You've been raped, and that is profoundly horrible.
When Ross compares rape to theft, he presents it as a crime of property, not a crime of violence. It's an idea that belongs to the dark ages when women were permitted to own nothing apart from that abstract quality called "honour". Now – oh, fortunate modern females! – we are understood to have to rights to all sorts of things, including the right to decide who we do or don't want in our own orifices. And that's a right we cannot forfeit. Whatever we've drunk, however we're dressed and whoever we've kissed, a vagina is never a laptop.