Monday, 24 November 2014

Has the C dropped off?

As the catastrophic climate narrative slumps inelegantly beneath a prolonged lack of warming, where does it leave us? Bearing in mind that it is not easy to come up with a higher authority than the climate – not even Vivienne Westwood on a good day.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the C has come tumbling off CAGW, or Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming as it used to be known before options were quietly widened via the weasel word change.

So apart from a dwindling band of doomsday hopefuls we are presumably left with AGW. Even that seems to be quietly mutating to ACC – Anthropogenic Climate Change. Ho hum, I suppose even a furtive and long overdue change of emphasis is probably welcome.

Where this takes us I’m not sure but I’m pretty sure we aren’t due for a bout of institutional honesty and the sweet strains of mea culpa issuing from the BBC, Guardian, IPCC, Defra, Greepeace, Al Gore, Ed Davey, Ed Miliband, Lord Deben and a host of middle class poseurs of the green persuasion.

It is more likely that the new narrative will be stitched to the old as seamlessly as a dodgy temperature graph. The new narrative will imply that ACC is what was meant all along and AGW will turn up eventually and meanwhile every single weather outlier will be the weirdest weather since the last weird weather and anyone who says otherwise is some kind of flat-earth far-right nutcase denier in the pay of Big Oil...

...or whatever.

The irony is that most climate sceptics probably have no great problem with ACC because we could be affecting the climate in a number of ways from land usage to atmospheric nitrogen or sulphur pollution to airborne particulates. Most sceptics also think CO2 may have a minor effect, but nothing remotely like the calamity proclaimed for so long by the swivel-eyed activists.

The debate may even lurch towards something delightfully rational, where uncertainty is given its rightful place in the science... I’m not holding my breath for that one.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Dead dog politics

I don’t support any of the three main UK political parties, although over the decades I’ve voted for all of them at one time or another. With the benefit of hindsight, it was a waste of time, but ho hum - onward and downward.

In spite of this, I have a sneaking tendency to see the Labour party as the major problem with UK politics. Not by a massive margin, but I see Labour as Top Problem. The reason is familiar enough – too many Labour voters do not seem to care how their MP and their party actually perform once in office.

When Labour MP  Denis MacShane was jailed for expenses fraud, the voters simply elected another from the same party. They didn’t seem willing to punish their party for harbouring an MP convicted of false accounting. The other parties are almost as bad, but in my view not quite as bad, not quite as insanely loyal. It's a fine distinction but real enough I think.

Suppose we call it dead dog politics.

Dead dog voters are happy to vote for their party even if it the candidate might as well be a dead dog towed around the streets by its enthusiastic agent. Okay, so dead dogs don’t actually kiss babies but as far as voters are concerned that doesn’t matter – the metaphorically deceased mutt belong to the right party so it’s a done deal as far as Mr and Ms Voter are concerned.

Unfortunately this weird level of loyalty leads to dead dog MPs being elected to the House of Commons. They support their party come what may. They don’t even have the detached point of view of a real dead dog... hmm... that’s something to ponder.

Dead dog voting is not so much a problem as a route to democratic disaster. Even so, I’m not sure the average voter cares about such theoretical clouds on the horizon. Democracy eh? Who needs it? If the dead dog has the right rosette pinned to its collar, then what’s the problem dude?

So on the whole I don’t think we were cut out for this democracy lark.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

The mendacity of institutions

It is more from carelessness about truth than from intentional lying that there is so much falsehood in the world.
Samuel Johnson quoted in Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson

Memories of my younger days suggest that institutions had more integrity than is the case today. The Post Office, the BBC, the AA, the police, the local council and even the government may have been stuffy and somewhat inefficient, but were not generally regarded as mendacious.

Today institutions have changed for the worse – they tell lies. Usually lies of omission, Johnson's carelessness perhaps, but still lies. I could be looking back through rose-tinted spectacles of course, but I’m not too sentimental, I don’t actually want to go back to driving an Austin A40. In any case, there is a reasonable explanation for the mendacity of modern institutions and that’s public relations.

A few decades ago, institutions may have had their press office to deal with newspaper reporters and even a rare visit by a chap from the BBC, but they were much less inclined to put out a message so dripping with positive spin that it may as well be a barefaced lie.

Modern institutions have their off-days, but are far more inclined to defend the indefensible, if necessary for years. They are far more inclined to put out press releases which don’t even tell half the story, manufacture stories from nothing and generally exaggerate, misinform and mislead.

That would be bad enough, but all this positive spin promotes institutional mendacity. That in turn promotes mendacity among employees. It attracts those who are more inclined towards shading the truth, influences career progression, seeps into the culture, infecting everyone without the integrity to resist.

Institutions were always an important part of our culture. The BBC, the police with their whistles, bicycles and truncheons, the local council and the local bank. Again it’s worth wiping those rose-tinted spectacles in case they are misted up with nostalgia for a more honest past, but I don’t think it is all nostalgia.

The mendacity of institutions is genuine and most of it seems to be down to PR. How are we supposed to build a culture on lying?

Friday, 21 November 2014

Dreaming of Boris


Fortunately I never dream of Boris Johnson, but the other day I had a kind of surreal daydream while musing on the various nutters determined to rule our lives. Maybe their nuttiness is infectious.

In my daydream, Boris was on a local bus so I sat next to him. I had to - there was nowhere else to sit. Some seats were occupied by glossy young people with iPads. All the remaining seats were cordoned off with some kind of red tape, so I “chose” the one by Boris.

‘Blimey, don’t take any notice of that – just treat it as a cheeky little nudge,’ Boris chuckled, pointing a pink finger at the tape. ‘It’s all Cameron’s idea, this nudging caper,’ he added. ‘I took it into my noddle to push it too its logical conclusion but it’s only a harmless jape to put you chaps at your ease.’

‘You chaps?’ I asked but Boris was off on another tack.

‘I’ve been busy today - buying some tremendously attractive and very reasonably priced oven-to-table ware,’ he went on as we drove by Denby pottery, ignoring a crowded bus stop. ‘Back at base they insist I should get out more if I’m to move on... not that I am moving on or have any ambitions in other directions beyond mayor of London which is of course my proudest.... proudest thingy.’

He gazed out of the bus window, suddenly listless. ‘So here I am not moving on... on a bus,’ he added after a few moments of silent contemplation. He mussed up his hair which had fallen into place as it so inconveniently does.

‘But why come here?’ I asked. ‘Why a bus - and why oven to table ware - specifically? What’s the policy angle on stoneware pottery?’

‘Oh I don’t know, I don’t use it myself. It was something to do during my tour of the North, part of the connecting with people idea I thought of in bed... in my bed I hasten to add.’ He laughed and wobbled.

‘This isn’t the North,’ I pointed out.

‘Isn’t – umm – isn’t your whippet allowed on the bus?’ Boris bent down to peer under our seat.

‘My whippet?’

‘You must know what a whippet is,’ Boris replied, his voice somewhat strained from bending down. ‘Skinny little dogs – run like blazes. Usually fed on tripe I believe.’

‘We don’t all have whippets and this is the Midlands, not the North,’ I informed him. I had to address his broad back because he was still peering under our seat.

‘Well this is North enough for me,’ he said, returning to a vertical posture, pink-faced after his prolonged underseat examination. ‘I’m not venturing beyond the tree line in a bus.’ He laughed again.

We said nothing for a while as the bus trundled on its way, passing bus stop after bus stop. Boris seemed worried, but I didn’t have enough sympathy to offer him. Anyway, one of the iPad crew was rolling up the tape so I assumed this phase of Boris’ connecting with people idea was fizzling out.

‘This is my stop,’ I said as we trundled through the outskirts of Derby.

‘Before you go...’ Boris grabbed my arm. ‘Why don’t people realise I’m just a regular guy with some terrific ideas who would always to his damndest for them... in the event of... well under changed circumstances... whatever they may be.’

‘Think about mendacious hairstyles and move on from there,’ I replied.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Creed

Everyone should be free to choose for himself the foundations of his creed.
Baruch Spinoza - Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

Nice try Baruch old fruit, but we should be so lucky.

Political correctness, cultural ambiguities, middle class anxieties and an abundance of stupidity seem to have evolved into what looks like a global creed. We see its fingerprints all over the current obsession with fanatically detailed social control, so let us see where the notion takes us. First we have to give the Creed more width and depth than we see in political correctness. 

To begin with we need not assume that the Creed was designed by some evil cabal of international fixers. Once it had enough momentum, then moral stupidity and political cupidity were enough to make it fly. All it required was an endless supply of nudges from inadequate politicians and our willingness to be nudged. Willingness in the sense of crowding together with regular prods to keep us mooing along in the right direction.

So the Creed is merely an outcome of our prosperous silliness, cultural weaknesses and feeble political ambivalence. It revels in those weirdly sentimental pretensions to ethical integrity we see in the so-called liberal media. The BBC and the Guardian for example.

Creed angst – you are destroying the planet.
Creed angst - the rich and powerful will do bad things.
Creed angst – something must be done.
Creed sloth – something must be done.
Creed economics – tax the rich.
Creed equality – tax the rich.
Creed philosophy – what’s your label?
Creed politics – what’s your label?
Creed religion – what’s your label?
Creed diversity – the One Creed is the Only Creed.

And so on. Essentially the Creed appears to be an evolved form of global socialism with a pervasive sentimental fuzziness woven into every thread of its fabric. It has no formal structure because it doesn’t need one. Now it has taken root it simply spews out more and more laws, regulations, treaties and those sanctimonious nudges providing constant reassurance that Something Will Always Be Done.

Equally important is the rise of an ugly and vindictive hostility directed at non-Creed folk. The threat is real - the Creed is ferociously anti-intellectual. The endlessly subtle malice of ostracism and low-key malice are directed at anyone who is openly non-Creed. This is a powerful feature – everyone is free to be as sanctimoniously malicious towards infidels as they wish.

The Creed is promoted by the EU, the UN, a vast array of charities and tax-funded pressure groups as well as traditional political parties of the left or right although it tends leans heavily to the left. As with Freudian psychoanalysis, Creed memes and narratives are aimed at acolytes only. The opinions of outside critics are irrelevant, usually attributed to their aberrant non-Creed psychology.

As the Creed is globally promoted and backed by colossal political and financial clout, its memes, narratives and prohibitions will be a dominant feature of our lives for decades at least. Forever in practical terms.

We can’t ignore it and Creed imbecilities still have to be trashed. But it is rather like standing at the door arguing with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Sooner or later it is time to close the door and put the kettle on. There are better things to do, fragments of integrity to gather in and nurture against a long Creed winter.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The robots are still coming

“Two pizzas sitting on top of a stove top oven”
Automatically captioned picture from Google

News stories often link themselves together in your mind. Two stories recently mated in my mind and you can make of that what you will. Remember my age though.

Firstly there was the BBC story on a comment made by the chairman of the John Lewis Partnership.

More than a fifth of UK jobs only require the educational level of an 11-year-old, the chairman of the John Lewis Partnership has highlighted.

Sir Charlie Mayfield drew attention to figures showing 22% of jobs demand only primary school-level skills...

This dwindling of middle-ranking job opportunities - which can provide a stepping stone for people advancing their career, could limit social mobility "at a time when we need more of that, not less", he said.

He contrasted the picture in the UK with that in the US and Germany, where the proportion of jobs which can be performed with just primary school-level attainment is much lower, at 10% and 5% respectively.

The quoted numbers from the US and Germany might suggest that the UK simply has more low skill jobs than the US, but another story popped up which again suggest a much more intractable problem is on the horizon.

From the Google Research Blog we have:-

“Two pizzas sitting on top of a stove top oven”
“A group of people shopping at an outdoor market”
“Best seats in the house”

People can summarize a complex scene in a few words without thinking twice. It’s much more difficult for computers. But we’ve just gotten a bit closer -- we’ve developed a machine-learning system that can automatically produce captions (like the three above) to accurately describe images the first time it sees them.

On the face of it the two stories are only very loosely connected in that we all know how technical advances can and do destroy jobs. However, if computers can accurately describe what they see then we move another step closer to two things we have feared for a long time.

In principle and potentially, this level of automated recognition does away with the need for the human function of keeping and eye on processes and people. It does away with one aspect of supervision - knowing what goes on.

In itself this is just another successful technical development, a piece in an evolving jigsaw, but that jigsaw also includes those observations by the chairman of John Lewis. It isn't necessary for computers to match human intelligence before they compete with us in areas we once thought were exclusively human. They merely have to make the best use of their intrinsic advantages.

Who else could use an army of intelligent, unwinking watchers?

Monday, 17 November 2014

Armistice Day

A World War One National Kitchen

This is another chapter from my aunt's memoirs where she describes Armistice Day as she saw it from the back streets of Derby in 1918 when she was ten years old.

November 11th 1918
It was a raw November morning, just like any other day. Little did we think as we scrambled out of bed, hurtled downstairs to wash and dress in front of the kitchen fire, that it was going to be one of the most important days of our lives.

Dressed, we sat down to a dish of porridge followed by dry toast. The porridge was sweetened with treacle which we held above the bowl on a spoon, and dribbling it made patterns on the creamy surface.

The treacle was different from both the Golden Syrup we buy today and the tinned thick black stuff. It was, being neither one nor the other, an in-between of the two. Golden brown, runny, certainly not sickly. We’d take an empty jam jar to our corner grocer’s shop and a pound jar was filled from a barrel for fourpence halfpenny.

I loved to watch the treacle sluggishly flow when the tap was turned on. Mr Scott the grocer always caught the last little drop on his finger as he turned off the tap, and licking it would smack his lips. How lucky he was, I wished I were a shop lady!

Off to school and at mid-morning out as usual into the playground. We were puzzled as to why the teacher hadn’t come outside to ring the bell signalling the end of our break when a girl said to me,

‘Look, Sir Thomas Roe’s flag is flying.’

I looked up and there on the big house across the way, the Union Jack fluttered high on its pole. There wasn’t much breeze but enough to move it gently.

We became aware just then that all the teachers had trooped outside, headed by the headmistress. We all stood and stared and though there was hardly any need, she put her hand up for silence. In a voice which trembled slightly she announced,

‘Children, I have to tell you the good, the wonderful news. The war is over. An armistice has been signed. You can all go home and tell your mothers and you need not come back to school this afternoon.’

An excited buzz started. She raised her hand again, telling us that we must first say the Lord’s Prayer and then sing the National Anthem. So we stood, first humbly with heads bent, then poured our hearts out in ‘God Save the King’.

We scampered into school for hats and coats and our feet barely touched the ground on our way home. Mam was in the scullery stirring a large pan of soup when my sisters and I burst in.

‘Well,’ she said after the news had sunk in, ‘as it’s a special day I will treat you to a dinner at the National Kitchen.’

We could hardly believe our ears! Lizzie, one of the girls from next door joined us and we set off, feeling as if we were on our way to Buckingham Palace. The National Kitchen was attached to a factory not far away and I should imagine served also as a canteen for the workers, though I didn’t know that then. It was a big, bare place and we must have been early as very few people were inside.

We had to go to a counter to collect our dinner, the cost of the meal with pudding to follow being sixpence each. There was beef, potatoes and peas, spotted dick and thin custard. The beef was eatable but it was a good thing we had strong teeth. The potatoes, plain boiled, were a bit watery, the gravy thin and anaemic, the peas like bullets, practically uneatable. There was a sudden burst of laughter from my elder sister and Lizzie.

‘What are they laughing at?’ I whispered to my younger sister. I was overawed at eating in a public place.

‘I don’t know,’ she whispered back, ‘but I heard Lizzie say something about the peas and a good blow-off would almost certainly shoot the cat.’

It took a few minutes to sink in and when it did, my face went scarlet. Furtively I looked over my shoulder. Was anyone near enough to have heard?

The spotted dick was nowhere near as good as Mam’s and after getting a jug of celery soup for her (we’d taken a large jug as Mam suffered with her stomach, but they only half filled it for sixpence) we walked back home. It was the first time I had ever eaten ‘out’ and I have never forgotten such a momentous occasion but I certainly didn’t think much of it at the time.

As the days passed, the lamplighter came back – the biggest joy of all. One night in bed my sister suddenly burst out laughing and when I asked her to tell the joke, she spluttered,

‘I was just remembering Lizzie and those peas.’

‘Oh yes,’ I answered innocently, ‘how did the poor cat get on?’ With that we both guffawed and Mam put her head round the bedroom door with a stern warning about being fit for school in the morning.