Wednesday, 30 July 2014


From the observation diary in a bird hide on Holy Island. We didn't see much either.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Commonwealth Games

Still on holiday, WiFi still very slow so here's a quote which seems to fit the Commonwealth Games quite neatly.

We have the same grossly insincere pretence that sport always encourages a sense of honour, when we know that it often ruins it. Above all, we have the same great upper-class assumption that things are done best by large institutions handling large sums of money and ordering everybody about; and that trivial and impulsive charity is in some way contemptible.
G K Chesterton - What's Wrong with the World (1910)

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Hints of compulsion

From the Telegraph we learn

Pensioners can improve their health by doing one minute of intense exercise a week, a study has found.

Elderly people often find it hard to meet current exercise guidelines which consist of performing moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity - such as fast walking or running - several days per week.

Dr John Babraj said: "The ageing process is generally looked on quite negatively by society, with everyone knowing that you find it more difficult to carry out day-to-day activities like standing up from your chair, or carrying your shopping, as you get older..

If people aren't meeting the targets, we need to find ways to work with them when it comes to exercise, rather than just persisting with something that isn't working."

Meeting the targets? A chilling phrase if you ask me.

Friday, 25 July 2014

North Korean burger

We're on holiday at the moment, but the WiFi is painfully slow so posts may be limited. However, to warm the digestive juices instead, try this picture of a North Korean hamburger from The Daily Meal.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

A naive observer

I find the best thing about blogging is the way it makes me think. Sounds trite I know, but for me it does exactly that. It’s a little like organising things or packing a bag when I go on holiday – which incidentally will be tomorrow.

Actually I haven’t thought this post through, but that’s part of it too. Writing things down, roughing out an idea to see if it works then leaving it for a while because something just came up as it almost always does.

At the moment I’m in the study on the first floor. My window looks out over the garden with our big old magnolia dominating the foreground. Not now though, because the curtains are drawn to tone down a fierce early evening sun. The window faces west.

So where was I?

Back to thinking but I have to check the potatoes and get started on the sea bass and a salad so off I go and maybe the post will mature into something and maybe it won’t but that’s part of the enjoyment too because sometimes thoughts go nowhere and that’s good. It’s something we don’t always notice...

...okay where were we? The sea bass was excellent by the way. Far too much potato salad but we’re clearing out the perishables and what are those shoes doing on my desk? Ah yes I’m supposed to be cleaning them later. Cleaning them now actually - but later will do.

Right thinking... I see the sun has stopped trying to blast its way through the curtains. It’s almost cool now. Wonder if we’ll manage a dip in the sea? Probably not, it takes me about half an hour to venture in at the best of times.

But this is why I enjoy blogging. It marshals the daily mess, or at least part of it, into some kind of coherence, although you may disagree. It highlights the extraordinary vastness of what there is, what can be said about it and where we go wrong.

So where do we go wrong?

In my view we construct far too many narratives in a vain attempt to stitch together what cannot be stitched together. Obvious enough but sticking to the obvious is much trickier than one might suppose. Obvious often seems naive even when it isn’t.

So in a sense blogging allows one to become a naive observer and strangely enough that can be quite liberating.

Now for the shoes...

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The rise and fall of the gentleman


Do you know any gentlemen? Perhaps you do - perhaps you are even a member of that apparently dwindling band? For we chaps it's not an easy question is it - am I a gentleman

In my case the answer is a reluctant "no". It may not even be a practical proposition in the modern world yet I have a sneaking suspicion that those with no wish to be a gentleman probably aren't.

I may as well add here that I prefer not to pose a similar question our lady readers. If I may I'll stick to the gentlemen - to coin a phrase.

Pronunciation: /ˈdʒɛnt(ə)lmən

NOUN (plural gentlemen)
1 A chivalrous, courteous, or honourable man: he behaved throughout like a perfect gentleman

Historically a gentleman has been many things and chivalrous might be a tad tricky in most areas of modern life, but courteous and honourable shouldn't be too difficult surely? Our leaders could easily set the trend - leading  by example in fact...

...oh dear. I see this line of reasoning might compel me to say something ungentlemanly about our leaders. Which is something I usually enjoy but for the moment I'd better say nothing and move on to a less unsavoury subject.

In fifty years there will be nothing in Europe but Presidents of Republics, not one King left. And with those four letters K-I-N-G, go the priests and the gentlemen. I can see nothing but  candidates paying court to draggletailed  majorities.
Stendhal - Le Rouge et le Noir (1830)

When Stendhal wrote these words, the use of the term gentleman already seems to have begun its apparently terminal decline although there has been an uptick in recent years. Not exactly a hockey stick though and I'm sure the meaning has shifted anyway.  

Not that we should put too much weight on gentlemanly shoulders because at least some were mountebanks, seducers of virgin innocence and even bankers. Dickens created a few, such as the ghastly Pecksniff who certainly posed as a gentleman, albeit not one of independent means.

So coming back to our less than illustrious leaders as I suppose we must in these troubled times, how about our current crop? Are they gentlemen? Mr Putin? Mr Cameron? Mr Obama? 

Would it help if they were - or have we been seduced by the myths of realpolitik?

Monday, 21 July 2014

There’s gold in them thar complexities

There are two basic reasons for analysing complex phenomena such as economies, human health, societies, the environment and so on.

  1. To increase our knowledge.
  2. To increase our knowledge and decrease yours.
It all hinges on the phrase "our knowledge".

There is enormous value in many familiar complexities, but extracting it can be either altruistic (option 1) or selfish (option 2). The value extracted is obvious, being mainly professional, financial and political, but them thar complexities must stay complex or the gold runs out.

The value of complexity lies in the way it maintains barriers to entry. For most areas of professional life complexity is the barrier of choice. Complex language and dubious but complex rationales are the building blocks of choice.

The first move in the game is to gain control over some complex phenomenon such as human health. Here the controllers are big pharma, medical professionals, insurance companies, medical equipment manufacturers and so on. It’s a long list but we are all familiar with the big players.

We should add politicians and health bureaucrats too. Politicians can stay on the sidelines and facilitate or they can churn the complexities for political advantage as the UK Labour party does. It depends on political history, but politically the traditional left tends to extract as much value as possible from health complexities. No surprises there.

Sticking with politics, both the traditional left and right tend to extract value from economic complexities, but in different ways, although both pursue an option 2 strategy.  As far as I can see, almost nobody on the inside wants to discover economic policies that actually work. That would lose economic policy to option 1, so it isn’t going to happen.

Tax policy seems to be similar. Almost nobody on the inside wants transparent and easily managed tax policies which are fair and which promote economic activity. That would also lose tax policy to option 1 so it isn’t going to happen.

From drugs policy to speed limits, from education to agriculture, almost nobody is guided by option 1, particularly when it comes to government policy. Barriers to entry would crash to the ground like the Berlin Wall. There is too much gold to be lost.