Broad Oak: your emotional support animal

Monday, June 30, 2014

Wimbledon decimal tennis shock!



The game of tennis will be substantially revised as part of a general scheme to harmonise sporting rules, EU Commission President-Elect Jean-Claude Juncker announced today.

"The scoring system in tennis is long overdue for reform," said Mr Juncker. "What is this 15 and 30 points, this first-to-6 games in a set, this ridiculous 3 sets to win a women's match? 3 is a number for witchcraft and superstition. In a rational, scientific world there is no place for measures that are divisible by this barbarian number."

Uncorking his third bottle, he continued, "5 sets for men is better, but still only half as good as 10. And if the winner of each set has to achieve 10 games of 10 points each, then the theoretical minimum points playable are 1,000 instead of, er, 120 - stupid figure," he hiccuped, "or 72 for the ladies of course, blessem."

"And consider the enormous increase in productivity," said the President-Elect in a louder voice, thumping the table so that the remaining seven unopened bottles rattled in their ranks. "The spectators will have far greater value for their money, and the emergency treatment of many exhausted players and onlookers will provide more work for the medical services of which we Europeans - including you British - are so justly proud. This is why the Sports Directive will include provisions for building many new hospitals, employing thousands in long-term projects."

"This is only the start," said Mr Juncker as he forged on with his personal rehydration program. "Why twelve apostles? We could easily dispense with two.

"And if Pluto is reinstated and we add Ceres, there would be 10 planets, instead of this messy 8 and bits. Remind me to tell you about the European Vishnu Plan - destruction of the asteroid belt, comets, the Oort Cloud, sorry I shouldn't be revealing that yet, off the record, urp, I'll have you all on the European Arrest Warrant if you publish that, what have I done with the corkscrew...?"


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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Decoding the peak resources panic

Occupy Transylvania protests in Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein"

John Michael Greer (The Archdruid) repeats his familiar message this week: we are in slow decline (what James Howard Kunstler calls "The Long Emergency") now that energy sources are becoming scarcer and more expensive. The latest twist in his ever-elegant sermon is the general breakdown of respect for our superiors, so that they cease to serve as exemplars for the underclass, who have set up their own anti-heroes as models of behaviour.

Well, I agree, but only up to a point. The British working class was rioting away at various times in the eighteenth century, over bread shortages and fears of Papism, so social unrest and the celebration of highwaymen are nothing new.

Doubtless there will be resource crises from time to time, and surely oil, gas and coal will not last forever. It must also be a concern that the world's population has boomed and some parts - including the UK - have become hostages to fortune because they cannot feed all their people from their own lands. Age imbalance is a worry, too, with a growing proportion of oldies who can't work - or don't expect to - and who cost so much in personal attention and medical treatment.

It was The Ecologist magazine that first drew my attention to eco-issues, with its call for a demographically-planned reduction in population so that we could climb down the ladder rather than fall off it. A sharp drop in the birth-rate would be a catastrophe for society, argued "Blueprint For Survival" in 1972. Since then, the global headcount has risen from 3.8 to 7.2 billions.

But we haven't hit the buffers of resource constraints yet; that's not what is causing our societal tensions now; at least, not directly. AK Haart argues that behind public fretting about the environment is the anxiety of the Western middle class, concerned for its own material prosperity and social status.

It's now generally known that the real income per hour of the American middle class has stalled since The Ecologist's article was published, largely because the moneyed class used globalisation to undercut them. In the nineteenth century, Chinese workers built railroads in California; now, Asian workers make things for us but in their own countries, and international firms and dark pools of cash in the Caribbean reap the benefits without having to accept the usual lifelong obligations of master to servant. The circle has been squared by debt, at first through issuing Treasury bonds and latterly through reinvestment in the USA - real estate, equities. It's selling the family silver to maintain an unrealistic standard of living.

It's not just the chippy Occupy Wall Street crowd that points out how the rich have become incredibly richer under this scheme - and how the socio-economic crisis threatens to overwhelm even the privileged. In an essay for Politico Magazine (htp: Paddington), billionaire Nick Hanauer argues the case for increasing the minimum wage so that, as Henry Ford understood, a wealthier workforce can stop claiming benefits, pay more in taxes, spend more and create more employment. Unlike some of his fellows, he is not planning to purchase posterity's good opinion (or forgiveness) with charitable donations; he seeks to fix the broken machine.

Whether this is possible in the context of untrammelled free trade is questionable. The drive for ever-closer economic union seems relentless; when the WTO stalled at Doha, the Trans-Pacific Partnership forged ahead. Now the tanks of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are crushing sovereign powers under their tracks and threaten to roll right over the National Health Service.

Perhaps nothing can stop the megalomaniac folly except full-scale disaster and the pitchfork army that Hanuaer envisages.


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Saturday, June 28, 2014

What is Cameron up to?

Apparently, one of Tony Blair's guiding principles was to avoid battles he could not win. Sound enough and obvious enough, so what was David Cameron up to with his handling of the Jean-Claude Juncker appointment?

From the BBC.

David Cameron has insisted his failure to stop the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker for the EU's top job is not his "last stand" in Europe.

The UK prime minister admitted it would make securing the reforms he wants harder but he vowed: "I am not going to back down."

EU leaders voted 26-2 to reject Mr Cameron's plea to prevent Mr Juncker becoming European Commission president.

Labour said it had been a "humiliating defeat" for a "toxic" prime minister.

Mr Cameron said the selection of Mr Juncker, whom he regards as an outdated Brussels insider committed to closer political union, was "a bad day for Europe".


Surely there is a puzzle here, because the outcome was obvious from the start. It was a battle Cameron could not win and he was bound to come out of it as a feeble loser. So why do it? Why make a big deal of the matter? I only see one possibility but perhaps there are more.

Cameron may have been advised that in fighting the Juncker shoo-in he would attract enough support from other EU leaders to allow him to pose as a kind of moderate EU sceptic.  This in turn could attract a significant slice of the UKIP vote during next year's general election. Yet as neither outcome was likely, he may have been set up.

Well that's the best I can do - I'm scratching my head over this one. Maybe he's simply a plonker

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Climate and the demise of the middle class

To my mind, the climate change controversy has more to tell us about human anxieties than science. For instance, Sackers recently sent me these two links.

Global warming conspiracy theorist zombies devour Telegraph and Fox News brains

Attention climate deniers: This scientist will give you $10,000 for actual proof that global warming is a hoax

The first writer seems to think it's okay for climate scientists to alter past temperature data and anyone who disagrees is the zombie spawn of Fox News. Something like that. The second seems keen to bash any idea that climate orthodoxy has a few skeletons in the closet.

Whatever one thinks of these two items, neither addresses the core CAGW issue which has become too simple for prevarication. The climate itself settled the matter a few years ago when it failed to warm as predicted. Nobody has the faintest idea where global temperatures are going nor why. Not even next month's temperatures. At this stage it's all guesswork and chutzpah.

So the passion in these pieces cannot arise from genuine concern about catastrophic global warming because it isn’t warming - let alone catastrophically.  So what is it all about? Why do people still express themselves in such extreme ways? I do too by the way – from my side of the fence. More often than I’d like anyhow. 

To my mind the CAGW debate is wholly political which is where the passion comes from. It’s about the global demise of the middle classes, their increasing irrelevance as a powerful social class and their demotion to worker-consumers just like everyone else but the elite.

It’s about the prospect of having to compete globally for such basics as energy, raw materials and food. About the possibility that these necessities could become scarce if developing counties consume them with the same profligacy as we still do. Or if they are better able to afford them - and isn't that something to think about?

Certainly when I read blogs, newspaper items and comments on climate change, CAGW proponents tend to use language which does not tie in with what the climate is actually doing. Or rather what it isn't doing. I rarely detect genuine concern about global temperatures.

It’s almost always about bashing sceptics or it's about consumption. CO2 emissions are used as a symbol for consumption - they always have been. The Guardian has wittered away about consumption since I first started reading it fifty years ago – probably longer. It’s not a new refrain. If I remember rightly, PVC should have run out by now, but that’s another story.

Sceptics can be similarly extreme, but I think that may be for different reasons. Or it may not – hard to tell amid the unlovely fog of passion.

To my mind the flaky CAGW science deflects our attention from the real problem which appears to be this deep-rooted anxiety about the future – which I’ll admit to sharing. I don’t want my central heating switched off in winter and I don’t want a world of two monolithic social classes - Them and Us.

The future seems threatening as ordinary middle class people lose whatever political power they once had – even the power to be a social class. So perhaps we would be better off framing the debate in terms of anxiety about the future, accepting that such anxieties cannot always be rigidly rational and scientifically valid.

Perhaps we should also accept that widespread and essentially political anxieties ought to be brought out into the open rather than hidden behind environmental rhetoric and unattractive aggression or simulated and equally unattractive condescension.

As a CAGW sceptic, that’s a debate I would find easy enough to join and maybe find common ground with those who are anxious about political power, natural resources and willing to frame arguments in these terms rather than pretending to understand the climate, or pretending to know that others understand it.

If we humanise the debate in this way, if we take account of the emotional aspects and admit that it is perfectly reasonable to be anxious about our political future, such as the possibility that we might not have a political future, then maybe we’d get somewhere.

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Education: 30 years of wasting teachers' time

(Giles' famous schoolteacher, Chalky White)

"Teachers must stop “reinventing the wheel” by drawing up special lesson plans for children and revert to traditional teaching from text books, the schools minister says today.

"Liz Truss said that teachers in English schools spend too much of their time preparing new lessons, worksheets and other materials and not enough on the basic task of teaching children from standard texts.
 
"The failure to use “strong core material” like standard texts is hampering children’s ability to master basic lessons and skills, she said, suggesting many teachers are effectively wasting time on unfulfilling and unnecessary work.
 
"The minister’s comments, in a Telegraph article, come after an international study showed that teachers in England spend less time teaching from textbooks than those anywhere else in the developed world.
 
"The study, from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, found that teachers are spending many hours every week devising new lesson plans, photocopying worksheets and preparing other materials instead of simply teaching."

Read the full thing here.

Now tell Ofsted and all the other bozos.

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At what point does government become necessary?



(htp: Captain Ranty)

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Value for money!


Classicfm news this morning: the Monarchy costs each of us 53p a year.

53p for no President Blair, no President Brown. No President Cameron, Vice-President Clegg or President-Presumptive Miliband.

Tell you what, let's make it a quid. And here's an extra fiver from me.


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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Here come the police

From the BBC

Complaints originating from social media make up "at least half" of calls passed on to front-line officers, a senior officer has told the BBC.

Chief Constable Alex Marshall, head of the College of Policing, said the number of crimes arising from social media represented "a real problem".

He said it was a particular problem for officers who deal with low-level crimes.

About 6,000 officers were being trained to deal with online offences, he said.
To my mind, the internet has poked a huge great stick into our more naive assumptions about institutions. Not that we were starry-eyed about them before the Great Linking, but the internet has exposed their failings and most institutions have been painfully slow to respond.

By the way, that’s painfully in the sense of embarrassingly painful to watch. So far the pain is ours – or perhaps I should say mine. You may think institutions are great or you may have been cynical about them forever. I don’t and wasn’t.

Yet which of these institutions has not had their image tarnished by exposure to the vast resources of the internet?

Governments, political parties, newspapers, the BBC, the FA, FIFA, the Olympics, the NHS, doctors, Oxfam, Greenpeace, WWF, Cancer Research, numerous other charities, the Royal Society, Tate Modern, the National Trust, the RSPB, the RSPCA, the NSPCC, the Royal Family, the Church of England, the Catholic Church, all major banks, the Bank of England, the City of London, the Co-operative movement, local councils, the police, social services, the Environment Agency, Defra, the Treasury, the Foreign Office, the MOD, the Met Office, numerous NGOs, the EU, the UN, major food retailers and UTC.

Yes the effect is complex, not unique to modern times and not universal, but it’s difficult to see how the somewhat precarious and irrational charisma of institutions can survive such massive amounts of easily accessed information. Presumably the only options are:-

Adapt and improve.
Censorship.

I wonder which is the preferred option?

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Monday, June 23, 2014

Secret Justice, Perverted Justice

(From "A Man For All Seasons")

I've just finished reading John le Carré's latest, "A Delicate Truth," which is about a "black ops" business that goes wrong and results in the death of innocents. But that's not why I read it.

Much of what is classified as non-fiction in history and politics should be subtitled "lies we'd like you to believe", and much thriller fiction is often "truth we can't state baldly." Now I look for nuggets of the latter.

The one that gleams out of this book is how the State is altering the very machinery of justice to insulate itself from accountability. Rather than type out the relevant passage, I found it on the website of Mark Meynell, senior associate minister at All Souls Langham Place, London. A retired diplomat turned would-be whistleblower is advised by the FCO:

"... any inquiry would have to take place behind closed doors. Should it find against you – and should you elect to bring a suit – which would naturally be your good right – then the resultant hearing would be conducted by a handpicked and very carefully briefed group of approved lawyers, some of whom would obviously do their best to speak for you and others not so for you. And you - the claimant, as he or she is rather whimsically called – would I’m afraid be banished from the court while the government presented its case to the judge without the inconvenience of a direct challenge by you or your representatives. And under the rules currently being discussed, the very fact that a hearing is being conducted might itself be kept secret. As of course, in that case, would the judgment.

"… Oh and the whistle-blowing per se would absolutely not be a defence, whistle-blowing being – and may it forever be so in my personal view – by definition a risk business."

Omitted from the above is the part where the civil servant tells him that the trial itself would be in secret until sentence was passed - and that the jury "would have to be very heavily vetted by the security services prior to selection."

We're back to the packed juries of Henry VIII, it would seem. I think my father, who fought in WWII and served in HM Armed Forces for many years afterwards would, if alive today, wonder what had happened to his country.

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World government

 
click to enlarge
http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/imagenes_sociopol/nwo65_04.jpg
this is part of an even more extensive graphic to be found here:
http://www.scribd.com/NWO2012/d/15764393-wordlgovmap

Academic blue-sky thinker Robin Hanson says:

The world has many problems and some of them are global [...] war, global warming, and promoting innovation [...]    a lot of these problems would get solved a lot better with a high capacity world government. Such a government could better reduce uncertainty and secrets, enforce compliance, and promote compromises between conflicting interests.

I used to think that, too. Now I want to ask, "World government - by whom, how?" Certainly some issues transcend national limitations - but would a centralised global power be the answer?

Thoughtful responses (rather than the usual lazy barracking found on the internet) would be truly welcome.


P.S. Here's the original Blofeld:



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Saturday, June 21, 2014

In praise of Jeremy Clarke

Jeremy Clarke is the Low Life columnist for the Spectator magazine. He lives in Devon's South Hams and mixes humbly (a word he's fond of) with the ordinary, poor and raffish, reporting on them and himself with lapidary prose and that quality the ancient Chinese prized and called "human-heartedness".
 
A collection - not to be missed, we were re-reading it aloud this morning with our wake-up tea, and laughing - is available here (a gift for yourself, and maybe for some of your friends too):
 
 
 
Here (16 Aug 2003) he is helping out on the Whack-the-Malteaser stall at his sister's annual charity fete held in the local centre for those with learning difficulties:
 
After Ray, Maurice came over and tried his luck. My sister loves Maurice. He's her pet. She found him a work experience placement recently, at Tesco's, as a bread packer. Every day he packs bread until they tell him to stop, then he goes home. He loves packing bread so much, says my sister, he can't wait to go to work again the next day. Maurice was accurate with the mallet, but his timing was way off.
 
He was far too slow. By the time he'd brought the mallet down, the Malteaser had already crossed the table and been picked up, examined, and eaten by an onlooker. Maurice then walked away with the mallet in his hand, the silly arse. I didn't notice it had gone until the next customers presented themselves, and I had to close the stall temporarily to go and look for it.
 
The terrific heat was a major problem for the stall this year. This year's fun day was the day of the hottest temperature since records began. The Malteasers' chocolate coating began to melt and they stuck to the inside of the tube.
 
Customers were standing at my table, mallet raised, eyes narrowly focused on the pipe's exit, and the Malteasers wouldn't come out. The only way to shift them was to blow down the pipe. This was unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, but mainly because it meant putting my head nearly in line with the mallet's descent.
 
I requisitioned Jim, gave him my supply box of Malteasers and asked him to take them inside and shove them in the fridge. 'I can't do it!' said Jim, which is the only thing Jim ever says, and he trotted away with them towards the house. Later, when I popped over to get the Malteasers out of the fridge, they weren't in there. 'Jim,' I said when I found him, 'what did you do with the Malteasers?' I can't do it!' said Jim pointing at his mouth. 'I can't do it!' Jim had only gone and scoffed the lot. I seized his face with both hands and gave him a big kiss.
 
Because with no more Malteasers to Whack, that, thank God, was that for another year.
 
His collection is subtitled "One Middle-Aged Man in Search of the Point", but like the Chinese sages, in a way he's found it, in seeing and loving.

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Friday, June 20, 2014

The corncrake cried too

A few years ago, a cold and foggy December morning found me walking back from an early medical appointment. The streets were quiet. A low winter sun rose behind a huge old beech tree towering over a scrubby piece of land. Shafts of brilliant hazy sunlight gleamed through icy fog and leafless black branches to create a scene of the most extraordinary beauty.

I stopped for a moment, wished I had a camera but walked on because there is no capturing these moments, no way to possess them.

Does the beauty of the fields delight you? Surely, yes; it is a beautiful part of a right beautiful whole. Fitly indeed do we at times enjoy the serene calm of the sea, admire the sky, the stars, the moon, the sun. Yet is any of these thy concern? Dost thou venture to boast thyself of the beauty of any one of them? Art thou decked with spring's flowers? is it thy fertility that swelleth in the fruits of autumn? Why art thou moved with empty transports? why embracest thou an alien excellence as thine own? Never will fortune make thine that which the nature of things has excluded from thy ownership.
Boethius - The Consolation of Philosophy (around 524 AD)

More recently.
The street outside falls strangely silent under a brilliant summer sun. Nothing moves, no sounds, not even birds. Breathless and timeless - even the clock seems to have slowed its relentless tick. A curiously beautiful stillness but only for a moment.  A car approaches. The spell is broken.

Natural beauty is like that – impossible to grasp beyond momentary impressions. Impossible to own or take away its alien excellence. 

Then a corncrake began to call in the meadow across the river, a strange, dispassionate sound, that made him feel not quite satisfied, not quite sure. It was not all achieved. The moon, in her white and naked candour, was beyond him. He felt a little numbness, as one who has gloves on. He could not feel that clear, clean moon. There was something betwixt him and her, as if he had gloves on. Yet he ached for the clear touch, skin to skin — even of the moonlight. He wanted a further purity, a newer cleanness and nakedness. The corncrake cried too.
D.H. Lawrence – The Overtone (1933)

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Fracking bubble to pop?


One of the cogent points made in Richard D Hall's talk in Alvechurch back in March, was that protest is useless - it goes unreported, or gets smacked down physically. If you want to oppose fracking, he said, the best way is to show that there just aren't the economically recoverable resources that have been claimed by the oil industry and the government (who each have their own motives for bigging it up).

And so it proves. Last month (htp: John Michael Greer) the field in Monterey, California - previously said to have 64% of the potential shale oil output in the lower 48 States - had its estimate cut by 96%. The prospective cornucopia of 13.7 billion barrels has dwindled to a spit of 600 million.

How do they get these estimates, anyway? It's not as though the industry has Superman's X-ray vision. Is it much more than holding a wet finger in the air to check which way the wind is blowing? And would that be the resource wind, or the political wind?

Now what?

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

While watching Waybuloo

The other day as Granddaughter sat on my knee watching Waybuloo on the TV, I began to think about her memories of childhood. As she’s not yet two years old she has yet to lay down any long term memories, which is odd when you consider how much mental development goes on at her age.

I wondered if there is a connection between our lack of early childhood memories and adult mental processes. Well you have to think about something during Waybuloo. If you’ve watched it you'll know why. Granddaughter can't stand it for long which is promising.

Anyway, If I remember rightly B F Skinner once wrote that we don’t acquire early long-term memories because we cannot remember what we cannot articulate. In other words Granddaughter cannot form long-term memories until her language reaches a certain level of development – until she can describe things to herself.

So here’s the issue I mulled over.

If we need language to imprint ideas on our minds then what about ideas with which we don’t agree? Do we disagree with them by avoiding, distorting or modifying the language in which they are expressed? Do we actively avoid something analogous to the imprinting of memories via language?

Obviously we don’t always do that, but it seems to be extremely common as far as I can see. Online Guardian comments are an entertaining example. Many Guardian readers simply reject ideas by distorting the language. It isn’t only the tiresome non sequitur crowd either. On the other hand, accurate language sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.

So as I see it, we often disagree with an idea by not describing it accurately, even to ourselves. It may be as subtle as altering the tone or the style in which the idea is usually expressed. A touch of sarcasm or incredulity, a hint of exaggeration or a slight shift in a crucial emphasis.

Just as Granddaughter can’t use language to imprint long term memories on her mind, we seem to avoid the language of ideas we don’t like. As if we are avoiding the imprinting process because we know the power of it. As if we are aware of the dangers of accurate language, aware that accurate language is powerful language.

So we use language to understand but we also use it to misunderstand where allegiances are threatened. We may name the idea, name its proponents and tag both with pejorative associations, but we avoid accurate language because we must avoid it to maintain the argument. Often for good reasons of course, but the reasons have to be derived from pre-existing allegiances. We can’t get too close to ideas we prefer to deny.

Obviously these things are diffuse and vary between individuals. Yet whenever a contentious subject attracts lots of online comment, one side seems to understand the issue and one side seems to misunderstand it – deliberately as far as I can see.

It’s interesting to watch – better than Waybuloo at any rate.

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Sunday, June 15, 2014

The one great principle

The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.
Charles Dickens - Bleak House

I’ve used this Dickens quote before because it's a favourite of mine with wide applicability.

For example, If the word government is substituted for English law, it almost becomes a law of nature. It's what I observed for most of my working life - government making business for itself. Mostly during the latter years of my sentence - as life became progressively more bureaucratic.

The commercial world makes business for itself  but government has the power to do it without the trouble and inconvenience of attracting customers. Hence the close links between big business and big government. Certain professions and organisations cuddle up to government for the same reason.

From this aspect, Dickens’ monstrous maze covers anything from minutiae such as the date of the next meeting (because there always has to be one) to protecting ministerial budgets to promoting custom and practice as a guiding principle. And yes, I have heard custom and practice used as an argument for resisting beneficial change.

Take science for example. A key reason why it is so politically attractive to bend science into a policy instrument is that it creates business. Business for government, people in government, corporations entangled with government, government supported charities - and of course scientists.

The nutritional sciences are a case in point. What is nutritional advice worth after decades of study and the expenditure of uncounted billions? May I suggest an answer somewhere in the vicinity of not much? May I further suggest that a moderate and varied diet seems to cover it?

As far as I can see from personal experience, a traditional main meal of meat and two veg followed by a pud plus maybe a glass or two of something in the evening is fine. Not quite my taste, but it didn't cause my parents' generation to keel over at an early age. Too many calories do cause problems as does too much booze, but we've known that for centuries.

It doesn’t matter though – food fads give rise to food regulations and food regulations are business. Looping back to Dickens, it’s a coherent scheme.

Government bungles everything it touches, partly because bungling is good business too. Lessons can be learned, relearned then learned all over again. Newspapers report the bungles, committees investigate them, auditors audit them and politicians take advantage of them.

Let’s finish with a question and a possible answer.

How will the drugs problem be resolved?

Unfortunately it may well be the case that so much business is created by not resolving it that there is no business reason why it should ever be resolved. In that case, unless the drugs problem becomes a threat to social and political stability, unless it becomes a threat to government business, then the current situation seems likely to continue.

So maybe the drugs issue isn’t a question of weighing up moral choices or policies which do the least harm. Maybe it’s merely a question of whatever policy generates the most government business with the least political risk.

Sounds cynical, but when it comes to making those millions of micro-decisions which comprise social and political trends, then people can be very cynical indeed. Especially when it isn’t obvious – when custom and practice so conveniently sidestep the rational and ethical faculties.

When government folk are making business for themselves.

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

"Once is happenstance..."

"... Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action," said Ian Fleming's Auric Goldfinger:

(Birmingham)

(Coventry)
(Essex)
"A bizarre coincidence," says the Daily Mail. Move along, please.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Is UKIP doomed?

It is by means of symbols that men and women have been educated out of tribal patriotism and into nationalistic idolatry. And symbols, no doubt, will be used when the moment comes to educate them out of nationalistic idolatry and into world-patriotism.

As soon as we and our rulers desire it, modern methods of propaganda can be used to effect a change of thought patterns within a single lifetime.
Aldous Huxley – Themes and Variations (1950)

Where is UKIP likely to take the UK politically? Sackerson recently raised the fascinating issue of UKIP’s prospects. Conservative and Labour prospects hold little interest in the wider scheme of things. Lib Dem prospects have only a morbid fascination for the politically ghoulish. That includes me by the way.

So will UKIP win Parliamentary seats next year or is the barrier to entry too high? It’s not a matter of policy, because as a vehicle for disaffection, UKIP doesn’t really need many. That is to say, it doesn’t need radical policies because conventional anti-EU nationalism seems sufficient to harvest disaffected voters.

There is no point risking policy wrangles by adding other contentious issues for folk to bicker about, especially folk already disaffected and already willing to wrangle.

So what are UKIP’s prospects for 2015?

Firstly, as we all know, our first past the post system is heavily rigged in favour of the established parties. The UK electorate bungled its last chance of improving the situation in 2011. Still - at least the AV experience allows us to factor in an electorate with advanced bungling capabilities.

Secondly, tribal voting is endemic in the UK, so unless UKIP gains a hugely improbable number of seats in the House of Commons, there seems to be little prospect of genuine constitutional change. Even UKIP holding the balance of power seems improbable unless one of the major parties also aligns itself with anti-EU sentiment. This seems unlikely – it isn’t in their political genes.

Thirdly and rather unfortunately, there is crude self-interest to consider. UKIP has MEPs but no MPs so we have to ask how likely it is that MEPs would willingly alight from the EU gravy train.

So is UKIP doomed? It seems to me that the ebb and flow of events do not favour the brand of nationalist disaffection UKIP represents.

It may be entirely rational for voters to keep hold of what little democratic power they have, but as Huxley said modern methods of propaganda can be used to effect a change of thought patterns within a single lifetime. Not much of the propaganda pot goes on nationalism. Even less on democracy.

As older generations slip away, the importance and even the possibility of holding governments to account may be forgotten, lost in a ruthless tide of propaganda.

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Monday, June 09, 2014

The smell of coffee and milk

If we see again a thing which we looked at formerly it brings back to us, together with our past vision, all the imagery with which it was instinct.

This is because objects — a book bound like others in its red cover — as soon as they have been perceived by us become something immaterial within us, partake of the same nature as our preoccupations or our feelings at that time and combine, indissolubly with them. A name read in a book of former; days contains within its syllables the swift wind and the brilliant sun of the moment when we read it.

In the slightest sensation conveyed by the humblest aliment, the smell of coffee and milk, we recover that vague hope of fine weather which enticed us when the day was dawning and the morning sky uncertain; a sun-ray is a vase filled with perfumes, with sounds, with moments, with various humours, with climates. It is that essence which art worthy of the name must express and if it fails, one can yet derive a lesson from its failure (while one can never derive anything from the successes of realism) namely that that essence is in a measure subjective and incommunicable.
Marcel Proust - À la recherche du temps perdu

We’ve neutralised much of this haven’t we? By bringing into the realm of scientific study the vast complexity of mental associations, we have tried to sidestep the compelling reality of subjective life.

Not only in popular psychology, but in a whole plethora of explanatory terms we use to cast a false aura of objectivity over our most implacable biases.

Yet Proust was right - as great writers so often are.

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Saturday, June 07, 2014

UKIP's prospects, and ours

In the General Election of 2010, not only did UKIP not win a single seat, it failed to come second anywhere. But it came third in four constituencies (Cornwall North, Devon North, Devon West & Torridge, and Buckingham) and was less than 100 votes short of doing the same in Dorset North.

Since then, there have been 18 by-elections. UKIP failed to field a candidate in 5 of them, though 2 were in Northern Ireland which is sui generis. Of the remaining 13, UKIP came second in 7 contests:


By-elections since GE 2010 (Click to enlarge)
- and two of the others were in Wales and Scotland, whose electoral characteristics are again somewhat unlike England's. (Did the Party miss a propaganda trick in not contesting Manchester Central, Corby and Croydon?)

The latest result in Newark, desperately spun as a failure for UKIP, actually showed a 22-point increase and a jump from fourth to second place against the Conservatives . The turnout was 53%, down from 72% in 2010, but was not negligible (even in the General Election of 2001, overall national turnout dropped below 60%). And last year UKIP achieved a similar coup in South Shields, coming from no-candidate in 2010 to 24% of the vote in 2013.

Okay, so UKIP are becoming the protest party of choice (notwithstanding George Galloway's cunningly focused and aggressively-fought win in Bradford West). But where will the breakthrough come?

Regionally, the Party turned in its best GE 2010 performance in the south of England. On average, candidates in the South-East needed a further 9-point boost to hit third place, and 8 points in the South-West. Disillusionment with the collaborationist LibDems and resentment against the austerity-for-the-oiks Conservatives, plus distrust of Labour's slightly odd leadership, may just do it for UKIP in 2015.

In Ireland, none of the mainland parties counts for anything; Scotland has its own individualistic momentum pre- and probably post-referendum; and the political history, culture and economy of Wales will continue to support socialists and Celtic nationalists. The battleground is England, especially in the parts that haven't yet become Welfare State Labour fiefdoms.

The GE 2010 results suggest that UKIP needs an increase of 27 - 30 points to win in the 10 Parliamentary constituencies where it did best; bigger than anything seen in the by-elections of the last four years. But there were 5 seats where 10 extra points would have seen UKIP become the runners-up, 36 more seats where 10-15 points would have done that, and 122 further seats that needed 15-20 points to come second. UKIP is not very far from gaining something of an audible voice, if not yet the chair. Meanwhile, the local elections have brought in many apprentices to the craft of government.

And there's work to be done.

In my view, those of the electors who are not unthinkingly tribal in their party loyalties want neither a socialist state where we have accepted ultimate failure and are reconciled to sharing the wooden spoon between us, nor the false promise of wealth that seems simply to further enrich the rich and can't supply employment to the masses. Economic dysfunction is leading to increasing social dysfunction, the cost of which is threatening to destroy the postwar safety net, which wasn't set up for a regime of vodka, broken families and armies of social workers.

EU periphery countries are suffering on the Procrustean bed of the single currency, about which Farage has spoken so blunt-eloquently for so long, but the question remains, will he also have to moderate his enthusiasm for the globalism that is likewise undermining our balance of trade? Along with undemocratic government from Brussels, economic immigration and the instability caused by unifit currency, world trade is a control issue. There has to be a realistic long-term plan for getting Britain to work and save, without reliance on temporary nostrums like North Sea oil and monetary inflation, or hope will be lost and the darkness will begin to descend.

Can UKIP serve its apprenticeship and construct its masterpiece in time to make a difference to the country?


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Friday, June 06, 2014

Honesty cannot win

It might seem ignominious to believe something on compulsion, because I can’t help believing it ; when reason awakes in a man it asks for reasons for everything. Yet this demand is unreasonable : there cannot be a reason for everything. It is mere automatic habit in the philosopher to make this demand, as it is in the common man not to make it.
George Santayana - Scepticism and Animal Faith

I think Santayana was right, there cannot be a reason for everything and it is unreasonable to assume otherwise. The world is exceedingly complex and full of rational voids over which human reason cannot, and in some cases may never build bridges from cause to effect.

In many ways this is our biggest unsolved problem - our penchant for inventing spurious bridges across rational voids. I don't mean your penchant of course, nor mine. I mean their penchant - those creepy charlatans who spoil every decent human endeavour. Human nature abhors rational vacuums, so charlatans fill them to overflowing with an infinite cascade of sweet nothings.

Unfortunately rational voids have features and regularities which seem to promise rather more than they deliver so yet again charlatans jump in with both feet, muddying the waters for the rest of us. Yet if we could devise a science of imperfect knowledge then maybe we'd make some progress.

Aspects of the same situation may even contradict each other while remaining valid within certain caveats. To take a rather weak illustration, I could say it is pitch dark outside. You might say I’m going for a walk – I love walking under the stars.

Two aspects of the same situation, both valid but mildly contradictory in that they stress different aspects of a dark night. It may be dark, but there is enough visibility for a walk beneath the stars. 

Does it all begin in childhood when we reward children who give answers over those who don't? Do we condition ourselves to give answers and carry it over to situations where no answer can be given? Are we hopelessly entangled in our own conditioning?

Maybe we are, but the question itself is too complex for simple answers like this. To avoid being hoist by our own petard, we have to be tentative over the diagnosis and recognise its incomplete nature. So it isn't even possible to diagnose the problem with assurance.

Complexity may be a battleground where honesty cannot win.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Political technology


Back in 2011, Andrew Wilson wrote a piece in opendemocracy about political technology in Russia.

"Political technology" – a term largely unfamiliar in the West - is the euphemism commonly used in the former Soviet states for what is by now a highly developed industry of political manipulation. There is a general understanding that elections are fixed in most countries of the region, from Russia to Kyrgyzstan, but we still do not look closely enough at just how they are fixed.

Although Wilson's piece mainly concerns Russian politics with it's more ruthless and almost openly fraudulent manipulation of political power, there are wider implications too.

As a term to describe the activities of modern political fixers, "political technology" is also useful here in the UK and EU. Here, political control also has its purely technical aspect. Maintaining the power of unelected stakeholders has become an apolitical matter of manipulating human behaviour rather than promoting an ideology.

From the above link.

One advantage of political technology is that it is ‘dry’. It helps regimes function without ideology, and move from one option to another. Ivan Krastev claims that authoritarian regimes may actually be more stable without an official ideology, which gives oppositions something to mobilise against.

Political technology may have an inbuilt tendency towards drama inflation, or at least towards inventing a new drama for every election, which is likely to be destabilising in the long run. The electorate can sense a lack of competition, and political technologists constantly have to fight against the declining turnout they themselves have caused – either with more drama or more fraud. 

It seems to me that Tony Blair was our first exponent of "dry" political technology here in the UK. He created the first government with no ideology and no interest in governing democratically. Not that UK democracy has ever been strong or effective - and that of course may have been the vacuum into which Blair's political technology was bound to exploit.

UK and EU political technology is undoubtedly softer than the Russian version in that it is more covert and less reliant of crudely fraudulent techniques such as vote-rigging, although that too has become an issue of concern. Postal vote scams have now become somewhat notorious in the UK.

Postal voting is open to fraud on an "industrial scale" and is "unviable" in its current form, a top judge has said.

Richard Mawrey QC, who tries cases of electoral fraud, told the BBC that people should not be able to apply for postal votes as a matter of course.

But the Electoral Commission said it would not be "proportionate" to end postal voting altogether.

The government also said it had no plans to abolish the current system, saying it had made it easier for many people to vote.


Yet as regimes become apolitical and as they base their power on political technology rather than ideology, then perhaps electoral fraud becomes politically unimportant. After all, we are now perfectly familiar with major league vote-rigging by or on behalf of the EU. From the BBC.

When it comes to rejecting European treaties, Ireland has a long track record.

Both the Nice Treaty (2001) and Lisbon Treaty (2008) referendums were lost, forcing the governments of the day into the embarrassing position of having to re-run the votes to get them passed.


This is political technology in action, but usually it isn't so transparently fraudulent. Usually, political technology here in the UK and EU seems to revolve around narratives and what Wilson calls dramaturgiia, or a fake drama designed by political technologists to manipulate popular sentiment

Often, as in Russia, the drama seems designed to create a dichotomy between the devil you know and the devil you don't, insinuating a sense of unease about the prospect of change.

Next year's general election should be interesting. Watch out for the political technology. If you are a mainstream voter, your party will make energetic use of it.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

President Obama and Executive Orders

It is being said that President Obama is over-fond of issuing decrees in the form of Executive Orders. The answer is yes - and no.

The graph below shows how many Orders each US President has issued, and it is clear that the twentieth century has seen an enormous increase in the use of this legislative tool.

I find it harder to get similar information on UK Orders in Council, but the picture is clear: the Executive has become addicted to short cuts in the exercise of power. There is certainly something to worry about, but equally certainly President Obama should not be seen as culpably exceptional.

(Click to enlarge)

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Monday, June 02, 2014

Seriously big batteries

Sackerson recently sent me this Telegraph piece on solar power. As you can see, it reads like science fiction, no doubt because that's what sections of the reading public enjoy. For example :-

Solar is for keeps. The more it expands, the cheaper it gets as economies of scale kick in.

Stirring stuff and maybe we need to be irrationally optimistic to push the possibilities to their limits, but unfortunately the claim is false.

Solar power is notoriously intermittent such that too much of it attached to a distribution grid causes unacceptable stability problems. Wind has a similar issue. There are other factors, but until the storage issue is resolved in a cost-effective way, stable distribution grids require predominantly fossil fuel or nuclear generation, quite apart from issues of cost.

So as we all know, a big problem with wind and solar energy is storage. How do we store it and how do we do so at a reasonable cost? Fossil fuel energy such as coal and gas are stored chemically in the fuels themselves, so might chemical storage be viable for wind and solar? From the same Telegraph piece we have:-

Cheap energy storage from flow-batteries (a Harvard research project funded by the US Advanced Research Projects Agency) will soon overcome the curse of intermittency, letting us absorb the sun’s rays by day and release them again as heating and light overnight.

Well it isn't just day and night is it? Especially here in the UK. For example, we have this thing called winter. I'm surprised a Telegraph writer hasn't heard of it.

So what is there to extract from the writer's runaway enthusiasm? Obviously we already store energy chemically in batteries and large scale battery storage seems to be the next big thing for wind and solar energy.Yet before the excitement overpowers our critical faculties, it is worth remembering that even with storage, wind and solar may not be economically viable anyway.

However, one option is flow batteries which are being pushed hard as a viable means of storing wind and solar energy. EnerVault has recently opened  an iron/chromium flow battery in California.

The EnerVault flow battery's two electrolyte tanks
store energy generated by a solar array
in an almond orchard outside Turlock (Stanislaus County). 

The EnerVault flow battery can deliver one megawatt-hour of energy from a 250 kW battery for four hours. Greater capacity could be achieved via more tanks of electrolyte. The battery is charged by a solar array.

There are complexities, but the nuts and bolts are not expensive and the technology is well understood. Iron and chromium salts are inexpensive and fairly safe to handle so a degree of optimism may not be out of place here. From spectrum.ieee.org.

By 2015, EnerVault expects to have multi-megawatt commercial systems installed. In four or five years, it hopes to have 20 megawatt or 50 megawatt-size batteries taking the place of natural gas "peaker plants," says Pape. The tanks that hold electrolyte solution can be very large but the footprint is comparable to conventional power generation equipment, he says.

The chemical storage medium is iron and chromium salts dissolved in water. Essentially all the battery does is pump them through a cell. To recharge, the process is reversed. At the heart is stable and durable technology with few moving parts, but it is still worth remembering that these are essentially political technologies. Not much seems to be novel apart from the cells.

Using iron and chromium electrolytes required developing a novel mechanical system for flowing the materials through the battery’s cells. The batteries have a series of stacked cells, with each one optimized for the state of charge of the electrolytes flowing through them, says chief technology officer Ronald Mosso.

Even so, I have a soft spot for human ingenuity and the spirit of invention and my soft spot hopes at least one or two energy projects such as this come to fruition.

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Cover-Up

From Alan Clark's diary, 5 February 1991, describing his induction into Her Majesty's Privy Council. Having taken an oath to the Monarch:

"... There was another oath. The old Clerk... read out a very long passage the substance of which was, as far as I could make out, was that I undertook to maintain total secrecy even, particularly indeed, about colleagues concerning whom I might hear unsatisfactory things. (The more I think about this the odder it seems.)"

Here is what is said to be the oath, though before 1998 it was considered "criminal, and possibly treasonous" even to reveal the wording:

"You do swear by Almighty God to be a true and faithful Servant unto the Queen's Majesty, as one of Her Majesty's Privy Council. You will not know or understand of any manner of thing to be attempted, done, or spoken against Her Majesty's Person, Honour, Crown, or Dignity Royal, but you will lett and withstand the same to the uttermost of your Power, and either cause it to be revealed to Her Majesty Herself, or to such of Her Privy Council as shall advertise Her Majesty of the same. You will, in all things to be moved, treated, and debated in Council, faithfully and truly declare your Mind and Opinion, according to your Heart and Conscience; and will keep secret all Matters committed and revealed unto you, or that shall be treated of secretly in Council. And if any of the said Treaties or Counsels shall touch any of the Counsellors, you will not reveal it unto him, but will keep the same until such time as, by the Consent of Her Majesty, or of the Council, Publication shall be made thereof. You will to your uttermost bear Faith and Allegiance unto the Queen's Majesty; and will assist and defend all Jurisdictions, Pre-eminences, and Authorities, granted to Her Majesty, and annexed to the Crown by Acts of Parliament, or otherwise, against all Foreign Princes, Persons, Prelates, States, or Potentates. And generally in all things you will do as a faithful and true Servant ought to do to Her Majesty. So help you God."

Note in particular this sentence: "You will to your uttermost bear Faith and Allegiance unto the Queen's Majesty; and will assist and defend all Jurisdictions, Pre-eminences, and Authorities, granted to Her Majesty, and annexed to the Crown by Acts of Parliament, or otherwise, against all Foreign Princes, Persons, Prelates, States, or Potentates."

How is this to be squared with surrender of sovereignty to the European Union?

But here is a list of people you can't ask, for they have sworn not to tell you:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_current_members_of_the_British_Privy_Council

It includes the present and all past living Prime Ministers and other senior politicians in both Houses.

And note that not even the Counsellor-to-be was advised of the oath's wording before he took it.


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Buggery and British politics

From Alan Clark's diary, Sunday 6th January 1991:

"The concept of having clever, tough, congenial people in the Whips' office* is relatively new. In former times they were just fieldsport** enthusiasts whose last and only fulfilment-period had been bullying (and in some cases buggering) Lower Boys at Eton."

* Party enforcers. Clark was a Conservative, but all major Parties have Whips, or "whippers-in" - a term from hunting with dogs.
** Which Clark hated, being an animal-lover and conviction vegetarian.

Could this combination of elite public-school sexual practices with cagey awareness of the common people's attitudes explain why nothing much has been said or done about the alleged long-standing abuse of vulnerable children by some British politicians? Perhaps they see it as merely an extension of the abuse of "Lower Boys" by older boys.


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