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Friday, 31 October 2014

Dolt or liar?

Humans select. We have to select whenever we choose to focus on A rather than B or C or D or...
  
We select...
and in selecting we omit...
and in omitting we lie by omission...
because we must select...

If the intent behind the omission is good, then we forgive the partial truth of keeping the focus on A and by implication we forgive lying by omission. We don’t even think of it as lying, but in an important sense it is. It is far too common to relax our guard and call it something else.

Take a gander at this video from a few days ago (h/t Bishop Hill) where Andrew Neil nails Elizabeth Truss to the wall. She is Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and needs to lie by omission to avoid mentioning the lack of global warming in an open and explicit context.





Neil’s key point, that the lack of global warming is significant, is not particularly contentious on either side of the climate debate. Unfortunately Ms Truss has a climate policy to support and Neil keeps on pointing out the elephant in the room.

Is the minister a dolt, a liar, both or something else? My inclination is to dismiss her as a liar and a grossly over-promoted dolt, but maybe that’s not entirely fair. We have a culture of lying because lying by omission is built into our need to focus. We all do it. I do it and so do you because we must focus and to focus is to exclude.

Yet it is still lying unless the focus can be taken as read or is otherwise made explicit. Ms Truss doesn’t want it to be explicit, so we are left with deliberate lying. Or she is a merely a dolt. Or both.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

FU Power

Prototype

Fradley University in Staffordshire recently announced an internal joint venture between its Sustainable Engineering Facility and its Green Genes Department.

Briefly, the university envisages a radically new form of power generation called the Fradley University Sustainable Eco Green Gender-Neutral Anti-Racist Diverse Power Initiative, snappily condensed to FU Power. It is based on genetically modified hamsters.

The Green Genes Department has been tasked with using the very latest genetic techniques to splice elephant genes into hamsters to create giant one ton hamsters, the biological engine of this exciting new energy source. David Cameron is said to be very interested.

The huge new eco-hamsters will be used in specially engineered power generating treadmills designed by the Sustainable Engineering Facility.

As the eco-hamster rotates the treadmill, it turns a high efficiency turbine to generate electricity, effectively converting hamster food into sustainable power. An interesting wrinkle in this ambitious project is to modify the hamster gut to tolerate low grade cellulose materials such as straw, dried vegetation and even old books.

“Apart from their main feed, we hope our hamsters will consume old books to help with our demanding new recycling targets,” confirms project director Dr Baz Broxtowe during our brief chat in the university dining hall.

“Books?” I ask.

“Yes books - absolutely. Of course we are thinking of books nobody reads these days such as most of the university library. Also books such as old Bibles, encyclopaedias and those great thick novels by Dickens and that Russian guy, Warren Peace.”

“What happens when the eco-hamsters get too old to work the treadmills?” I ask.

“Great question,” Dr Baz replies with enormous enthusiasm. “We intend to recycle them into Power Burgers for local schools. Should be a very acceptable addition to the school meal.

“I’m not sure if schools...” I begin but Dr Baz is on a roll.

“Because our current eco-hamsters are still far too small and much too dozy to work the treadmills we’ve pushed things along and already come up with a few recipes to ease the pressure on project timescales.”

“Really?” I reply, peering anxiously at what I assume is a beef burger.

“Yes. How’s yours?”

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Insights in Tracey Emin’s bed

Source

Have you ever noticed how much human wisdom is fragmented into detached insights? Many insights can't be stitched into a coherent whole because they don’t quite work in all circumstances. Important pieces are always missing from the jigsaw. Piecemeal and incomplete often seems to be the only way.

Yet that doesn’t stop some people from carrying on as if their opinions are a kind of cosmic superglue, as if they are the binding principle. The magic glue is an agenda, allegiance or prejudice which usually comes down to Me. I am the magic glue. Me. Me. Me.

Yet detached insights are one of the most fascinating features of human life. The very existence of blogs and blog readers illustrates that.

It’s like mapping an infinitely complex and infinitely vast terrain. Features are observed and mapped, but a definitive map is never drawn, never can be drawn. The joy of mapping lies in doing it. Forever exploring. It’s one of life’s inexhaustible delights.

Fragmented insights aren’t how we build societies and institutions though. Social life needs fixed maps even if they lead to the most bizarre attempts at social or political navigation. Our need for social structure is not entirely compatible with our search for truth because of the fragmented nature of so many important insights.

Yet after centuries of effort we have managed to bind many physical insights into maps of reality. We call it science and when it comes to mapping physical reality it has no compare. Science may not cover every aspect of our lives and we still have climate science to deal with, but has proved its worth as a means to combine numerous physical insights into reliable maps of reality.

To my mind the arts seem to have taken on board the success of scientific insight to the detriment of artistic insight. As if there is no such thing as artistic insight so anything goes. As if the artist no longer dares hold a mirror to reality because science does that too well. So instead we get stunts, hyperbole, political posturing and some truly ghastly celebrities.

Yet there is obviously such a thing as artistic insight because we’ve seen it for centuries in everything from Shakespeare to political caricature, from literary satire to the subtle suggestiveness of the visual arts.

We don’t see it in Tracey Emin’s bed though.

Monday, 27 October 2014

The robots are coming

Asimo

It is often said that robots, computers and automation will eventually destroy great swathes of employment. There will be little left for humans to do as the machines take over. 

Fear of automation has been common since the Luddites of course, so how should we react to these concerns? 

One response is that new businesses will spring up as old ones die, providing new goods and services as the old ways are automated into oblivion. Human ingenuity is boundless it is said. Nobody should bet against it.

Certainly human ingenuity deserves great respect for its sheer fecundity. Economic optimists have been right so far, although millions of unemployed in the eurozone may have a different perspective. 

Perhaps as the future is unpredictable we may as well extrapolate from the past and remain optimistic. It’s healthier for one thing.

And yet...

Suppose we turn the question around and ask how many worthwhile human activities there are and how many are suited to financial transactions. If the number, however inexact is limited, then we’ll eventually run out of worthwhile things to do for money. We’ll have to base at least some new businesses on things that in one sense or another aren’t worthwhile.

Well that's not new either. Patent medicines for example, psychoanalysis for another. So perhaps it doesn't matter anyway. It all depends on how we choose to define worthwhile activities, how relaxed we are about creating new needs for the sake of creating new needs, whether exploitation really matters if the exploited are happy.  

If customers can be found then maybe it's not for anyone else to judge. Tattoo studios? Nail bars? Recycling? TV soaps? War?

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Putting the clock back



Well here we are again - we've wound the clocks back an hour. Fortunately many are now radio controlled, but the absurdity of it grates.

Grey dusk falls an hour earlier, the lights go on an hour earlier and yet again our sanity is called into question. Why bother? What difference does it make?

Yes we all know the arguments, but they don't amount to anything worth discussing. Hours of daylight are not changed by a single millisecond. It's as daft as trying to change the climate by buying a Toyota Prius. Who on earth would do that?

Friday, 24 October 2014

Work till you drop?

Source

The other day my wife and I were chatting about work and the enormous impact it has on our lives. Where we live for example. The house we are in now is the first we ever bought without location being dictated by my job.

Going back much further, my family has links with Derby stretching back to the nineteenth century when two of my great grandfathers moved there to work on the railway. One was a teacher from Ireland. Presumably the railways offered better prospects for an educated man.

It isn’t just where we live though, the greater impact is on our lives. Making the best of holidays, scrambling to get things done at the weekend, wondering if a career change would be worthwhile, scraping ice of the car windscreen every winter, office politics, meetings, training courses, job vacancies to fill, presentations to sort out, reports to write.

Even the most routine work must have an endlessly complex and sometimes malign impact on the most productive years of our lives, on who we are and how we react to the outside world. Even our habits of thought. Work uses up our energies and talents, squeezes the best years out of our system into the unimaginably vast pool of things we do for money.

Much of it isn’t malign of course. We all learn about life simply because we learn about people and institutions, the limits of freedom and the need to do something with all those years of productive life.

I have few regrets in spite of my generally negative take on modern bureaucracy. I had it easy though. I’m not one of those destined to work for fifty years or more before a pension becomes payable. Payable to the survivors that is - a number of my erstwhile colleagues wouldn’t have made it.

So where next with the world of work? 

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Ever Decreasing Circles

Number 11, 1952

Written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, Ever Decreasing Circles was a popular BBC situation comedy running through four series from 1984 to 1989.

The main character is Martin Bryce, an obsessive middle class suburban fusspot married to Ann, his loyal stay at home wife. Martin’s orderly existence is continually threatened by Paul Ryman, the witty, charming and effortlessly capable next door neighbour.

To my mind Martin says something about the modern world, but I can’t tell if it is what Esmonde and Larbey intended. He is a figure of fun, a caricature of the domestic control freak nobody ought to like. Yet Martin is also a decent and honourable man, painfully so in many episodes because he is not unaware of his oddities and failures.

So why would anyone set out to make fun of a decent and honourable man, especially as his controlling behaviour is so risible and so often unsuccessful? Martin may be silly, but he is no bully and no threat to anyone.

For example.

In one episode (Jumping to Conclusions) Ann has to write an essay on Jackson Pollock for her Open University course. Martin decides to help her – it’s his contribution to steering her towards a more fulfilling life. True to his character, Martin has a rock solid faith in his wife’s intellectual abilities in spite of his equally firm faith in his capacity to direct those abilities.

After about a second’s consideration, Martin’s contribution is that Jackson Pollock couldn’t paint. He airily assumes Ann will follow this line in her essay simply because it’s so obvious to him that Jackson Pollock couldn’t paint. Ann, being more modern, is bemused by Martin’s dismissal of Pollock and her bemusement is later shared by neighbour Paul who offers clandestine help in writing the essay.

Martin finds out about the clandestine help and assumes Ann is having a fling with Paul. He packs his bag and leaves her a note saying he has gone for good and hopes she will be happy with Paul. The point here is that true to Martin’s character, he genuinely hopes Ann will be happy. His love for her is essentially selfless and in its bottomless decency probably beyond most of us.

Not only that, but in the grand scheme of things it is by no means obvious that Jackson Pollock’s work was anything more than a series of worthless daubs. Martin has a point, but not one suited to the world of Ann, Paul and presumably those who made the programme.

It’s a fascinating contrast. The unsympathetic yet thoroughly decent Martin isn’t allowed to add a single atom of cultural value to the modern world. He belongs to a narrow, blinkered and culturally impoverished past and it is no surprise that he fails so dismally to see Pollock's artistic merits.

Of course situation comedy characters are two dimensional and bolted together for the laughs so we shouldn’t read too much into their construction. It’s not as if decent characters haven’t been used for their comic potential either. 

Even so, there is a dark side to our willingness to laugh at Martin Bryce.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

You fellows are all doomed

Gustave Doré -The fourth horseman,
Death on the Pale Horse (1865)
From Wikipedia

In this quote from Emile Zola's La Terre, a group of French peasant farmers are arguing about the relative merits of protectionism versus free trade. They are desperately worried about the import of cheap American corn. Suddenly Lequeu, the schoolmaster, joins in. He thinks the farmers are finished:- 
   
"Nothing can be more certain,” he continued, "if corn con­tinues to be imported from America, in a hundred years from now there won’t be a single peasant left in all France. Do you think that our land can contend with yonder one? Long before we have had time to put these new plans in practice, the foreigners will have inundated us with grain.  I have read a book which tells all about it. You fellows are all doomed."
Emile Zola - La Terre (1887)

Apart from what it might tell us about the origins of the CAP, I'm particularly attracted to the last two sentences. They chime so deliciously with the mores of our modern chattering classes. An updated version might read:-

I read a piece in the Guardian which tells all about it. You fellows are all doomed.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The rise of Homo bureaucraticus

...and the evolution of the precautionary principle.

The rise of the precautionary principle since 1900
source


The precautionary principle is a defining characteristic of Homo bureaucraticus, a gender-neutral offshoot of Homo sapiens. Along with its symbiotic partner the expert, a species of hominid parrot, Homo bureaucraticus is now common all over the northern hemisphere.

The traditional definition of the precautionary principle is as a post hoc justification of actions and policies already decided, but it works even better as one of the keys to rise of Homo bureaucraticus.

Most of us are acutely sensitive to personal, family and tribal risk. It’s an ingrained feature of our survival antennae, part of our animal nature. Homo bureaucraticus takes this a step further. If it sees a risk, any risk, then bureaucraticus instructs an expert to slap a precautionary principle on it – the favoured one being avoid and blame.

Bankers go a step further and engineer negative risks for themselves and their cronies – ie other bankers, but that's another story.

Risk wasn’t always so amenable to manipulation though. Before Stonehenge was built, when even the most upmarket kitchen utensils were made of flint, risk was a far more serious business than it is today. Although...

What was the risk of not building Stonehenge? Is Homo bureaucraticus an older species than we have hitherto supposed? It’s an open question.

Anyway, among many other disadvantages our technical civilisation has made risk rather less risky. We may get away with stupidities but Homo bureaucraticus always gets away with stupidities. Much like banking in fact, only with bureaucraticus the risk is parked on voters...

Nope on reflection it’s not much like banking, it’s exactly like banking.

Even so the system copes. It may sag a little but on the whole it seems to cope. Not that we’d ever know if it couldn’t cope. Not until afterwards when bureaucraticus claims it’s all our fault for electing idiots. Which admittedly is something we do rather often.

So without the lure of a very substantial gain Homo bureaucraticus isn’t prepared to take risks under any but the most compelling circumstances. If it ain’t worth it don’t do it – that’s the bureaucraticus mantra.

Doing isn’t the whole story though because doing includes thinking and saying and telling. In other words bureaucraticus doesn’t take risks with language either, not even with that covert language trickling through its head as it reads the report it told an expert how to write.

So it is no surprise that the rise of the precautionary principle has seen a parallel and very energetic promotion of risk-free language. Political correctness we call it. As usual the risk of not speaking plainly is bound to fall on the peasants – not on bureaucraticus.

Ironically it could turn out to be a risky business not taking risks. 

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Glass half full



Who are the puppets and who the puppet masters?

Maybe it’s a matter of perspective, a kind of glass half full or half empty perspective. Optimistic or pessimistic – make your choice and draw your conclusions. Let’s try some optimism for a change.

In spite of what we hear about poverty and social decay, most of us in the UK lead comfortable lives compared to those of our grandparents. The people who manage this satisfactory state of affairs are executives and senior players in a whole range of businesses, institutions and bureaucracies.

They are well rewarded of course, in many cases vastly over-rewarded because a fair number of them are useless parasites. But from a glass half full perspective, perhaps the price is a small one if we consider the advantages.

So if the situation works out to our advantage, who comes out on top? The executive who is owned body and soul by his or her business? The senior bureaucrat who works every weekend just to stay on top of the job? It isn’t always like that of course, but it can be and is it isn’t clear who is jerking the strings. Chicken or egg?

We have reached a stage where enjoying life isn’t wholly a question of money. Not so long ago it was money, but now it isn’t. Okay so only a few of us can afford to swan around in an Aston Martin, but what’s the point of that with speed cameras all over the place?

What’s the point of being even moderately wealthy? What luxury or lifestyle advantage lies beyond the reach of the majority? Again it is a matter of perspective, a kind of glass half empty or half full perspective...

...pauses for a sip of old Madeira...

...right where was I? Oh yes. Taking things a step further, what would the world be like if an unfamiliar social perspective were to emerge? One where the ambitious executive is a menial, deceived into swapping his or her leisure for ludicrously expensive gewgaws and an illusory social status?

Suppose we are in the middle of some gigantic process of discovering the good life? Suppose those who manage it for us are just as much puppets as we are? We jerk their strings just as much as they...

...or is that the Madeira speaking?

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Who in the world am I?


Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle.
Lewis Carroll - Alice in Wonderland

Only the other day I noticed how rarely I describe my own character. Took a while to pick up on that one didn’t it? Over sixty years.

Very occasionally I might think of myself as a bit of a bookworm, but not often and I make sure I moderate the description with words such as a bit of a. Perhaps I don’t want to create too strong an impression on myself. So on the whole I don’t explore the possibilities of defining my own character. Are others equally reticent?

I suppose a verbal description of oneself is bound to solidify something - irrespective of whether it ought to be solidified. It is bound to create verbal channels, habits of thought which are seen as consistent with one’s previously defined character.

It’s not that we don’t do this kind of thing at all, this personal introspection. It must go on in a diffuse, partly non-verbal and somewhat unstructured way. But do we firm it up with unambiguous descriptive sentences? Do we define ourselves, clarify what we are and what we are not?

In my case the answer seems to be mostly no. I prefer observation and the fluidity of possibilities... Oops – is that a verbal description of myself?

Well maybe it is, but does it help to formulate a definitive verbal view of one’s character? I don’t really know because I’ve never done it in a structured way and I’m sure it is too late now.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Knowing

Suppose many orthodox social and political narratives are either completely false or far more inaccurate than we have hitherto supposed. It’s not much of a supposition, but I’m thinking of narratives based on old-fashioned generalisations about human behaviour.

From similar causes have arisen those notions which are called universal or general, such as man, dog, horse, etc. I mean so many images arise in the human body, e.g., so many images of men are formed at the same time, that they overcome the power of imagining, not altogether indeed, but to such an extent that the mind cannot imagine the small differences between individuals (eg colour, size etc.) and their fixed number, and only that in which all agree in so far as the body is affected by them is distinctly imagined.
Baruch Spinoza - Ethics (Boyle translation)

We are all familiar with the weaknesses of what Spinoza called universal or general notions. As he says, they are substitutes for a level of individual detail we cannot possibly attain. We have to use generalisations, clambering around their many pitfalls as best we can.

Yet modern search engines and databases have already acquired a level of individual detail about many aspects of our lives and habits. They have moved on from the ancient and intractable situation where the mind cannot imagine the small differences between individuals.

So Spinoza's point is being made obsolete by technology, by huge modern databases which are not constrained by our ancient need to generalise. Not surprisingly their information is valuable enough to be sold to third parties. With safeguards it is said, but who believes that?

So generalisations are no longer necessary for those with deep pockets. We know it of course, but how do we deal with it?

How might we acquire such information ourselves without a government’s ability to twist arms? The short answer is that we can’t. The information isn’t likely to appear in books either because there is too much of it and the financial return would be inadequate. Neither is it likely to appear in academic literature for the same reasons.

So for global corporations and presumably governments, Spinoza’s problem is rapidly becoming outdated. The big hitters don’t need his universal or general notions. They have at their fingertips a colossally detailed corpus of information about human behaviour which lies well beyond the reach of most ordinary folk.

What do they know that we don’t?

How to manipulate our behaviour in order to ensure bovine social and political attitudes? Almost certainly, so the only political answer is smarter voting.

Oh oh – not smarter voting again. Rats.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Role model



Nick Clegg has waded into the debate about Sheffield United football club re-signing former player and convicted rapist Ched Evans who is expected to be released from prison this week. 

From the BBC.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has urged Sheffield United's owners to "think really long and hard" before re-signing convicted rapist Ched Evans.

Clegg, Sheffield Hallam MP, said: "When you take a footballer on, you are not taking just a footballer these days, you are also taking on a role model."


Whatever conclusions one reaches on this issue, there is something particularly odious about a prominent politician using it for his own ends. Is Clegg really so desperate that he will stoop to using a high profile rape case to polish what he perceives to be his political credentials?

The answer is obviously yes.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

White collar robots

My working life was almost entirely spent in environmental science. Over almost forty years I saw it change from a piecemeal, locally-based effort to a full-blown global bureaucracy with the UN at the top. It became process-driven.

Apart from an ambitious few who knowingly go with the flow, most capable scientists don’t cope well with bureaucracy. Their working ethic tends to be based on two assumptions.

The truth will out.
People are essentially ethical.

Unfortunately the truth isn’t that powerful and process-driven people are not known for an unequivocal reliance on ethical standards. As a result most scientists do not compete well with the implacable nature of process-driven bureaucracies. By the time I left, the good scientists had mostly departed and process worship was setting every agenda.

Even so I had an interesting time and probably learned more about human nature and the nature of institutions than I then realised. I now look back on it as a time of profound social change which eventually became obvious, but had been rather less obvious only a few decades earlier.

One reason why the left/right political dichotomy no longer works is that both sides of the political divide are process-driven. They also seem increasingly willing to merge their processes. The traditional left always loved process with its tendency to centralise every decision and its endless mistrust of the uncontrolled.

Today even our local electrician is enmeshed in process - trained, certified tested and certified again. The butcher the baker and even the candlestick maker too no doubt. Maybe the latter will make a comeback after a few more years of process-driven energy policies.

So political right dances hand in hand with political left because government and global business are nothing if not process-driven. We are entering a process-driven world where most young people probably have no prospect whatever of avoiding process-driven employment.

Everything they do will fall into one of two categories.

It will be part of a documented process – or
It will be forbidden.

The vast majority will have no outlet for their modest talents because there will be no tick box for modest talent. Process rules. White collar robots are the future.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The stitch-up

The Guardian reports.

Britain’s main political parties are heading for a pre-election clash over the introduction of English votes for English laws after the Labour party announced that it would boycott a “Westminster stitch-up” on the issue.


William Hague, the leader of the Commons, is chairing a cabinet committee that will examine proposals to introduce English votes for English laws, known by its acronym of Evel, at Westminster.

Of course it's a stitch-up in that it wouldn't happen if the coalition parties didn't see some party advantage to be gained. So what? It is a genuine issue just the same.

So the Labour party is seen to put party advantage ahead of a commonplace issue of democratic accountability. No surprises there, if the situation were reversed, the Conservatives and Lib Dems would be just as devious.

Many of us would much prefer to see a Labour party where democracy is an ineradicable part of its basic raison d'être. A party which fights for the interests of ordinary voters against the rich and powerful without ever sacrificing principle to expediency. A moral oasis in a corrupt world. Yet it ain't so. Never was.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Labour party to be sold?



Unconfirmed reports circulating around the Westminster village claim Tony Blair is proposing to buy the Labour party.

“It isn’t worth much, especially with Ed in charge,” said a source who wishes to remain anonymous. “So Tony thinks it could be worth a punt before the next election. It gets him back in the driving seat without all that leadership election malarkey. No mobile phones thudding against the walls either.”

Apparently the Labour party will be renamed the Lord Anthony Blair Offshore United Representatives party. When I pointed out that Mr Blair isn’t yet Lord Blair, the same source muttered that this was merely a question of semantics.

Our understanding is that in essence L.A.B.O.U.R will become what is known in progressive circles as a political-faith investment vehicle. It will be based on the private island of St Lynton, a sparsely inhabited tax haven in the Pacific Ocean. Although unfamiliar to UK voters, this arrangement is not at all unusual among those familiar with modern faith-based politics.

So how will the new arrangement affect current members of what is for now, the Labour Party? “Clearly the name will appear to undergo only a slight change, from word to acronym," my source claimed. "Most people won’t notice,” he added.

However we also understand that a brand new logo may be in the offing too. A red rose is not thought to be appropriate for the twenty first century – and what about policies? Are there plans to bring policy-making into the twenty first century?

“Absolutely,” my source enthused. “Policies will be announced on Twitter, making sure they are highly visible to all relevant voters. Each policy will have to be beautifully succinct of course, but we see this as an advantage in today’s highly mobile grab a coffee, grab a policy world.”

However, the plan may be scuppered by an internal Labour Party plan for what Lord Prescott calls a "manglement buyout".

Watch this space.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The informed patient

Every now and then we hear about people who look up their medical condition on the web and even tell the doctor what needs to be done. 

However, GPs could be said to mediate between patients and their own bodies and they certainly mediate between patients and the wider health machine. So patients who research their illness beforehand are trying to shortcut or at least understand part of the doctor’s mediation service. Presumably doctors don’t approve.

With the growth in information technology, this trend can be no great surprise to anyone including the medical profession, but what does it imply? If we look at the role of mediation in service industries then it could imply something of wider significance than healthcare.

As with doctors, the status of a mediator and the service they offer is often backed a certain mystique which also tends to be based on arcane knowledge. 

In times gone by this kind of mediation was almost entirely in the hands of the established church via its priests and high officials. Established churches offered the ultimate mediation service – mediation between the faithful and God - a very ancient form of social control.

A decline in religious observance seems to have coincided with a rise of a whole plethora of alternative mediation services still based, at least in part, on mystique and arcane knowledge. We call them service industries but the parallel with priestly mediation is striking. Potentially just as fragile too - in the face of information technology and the simple human desire to know.

So when patients arm themselves with knowledge before consulting their doctor, maybe we are seeing a fracture in the mystique of arcane knowledge. It’s not that the doctor has little to offer, but more interestingly, a possible crumbling of the doctor’s mystique and a recognition that his or her knowledge is accessible and not arcane.

The issue is complex because this is a subtle social and technological shift rather than a quantifiable economic trend. Even so it could have a profoundly negative impact on any service industry where the price and/or demand for mediation are sustained by an element of mystique and arcane knowledge.

Bankers we already know about, but how much of their trouble was caused by their inability or unwillingness to mediate between their customers and financial complexities? How much of an improvement would follow from a drastic simplification and demystifying of what bankers do? Has the mystique disappeared anyway?

Lawyers mediate between their clients and the law. On the surface there is nothing wrong with that, but what about the element of mystique and arcane knowledge which always seem to go with mediation?

To take an example from the entertainment industry, BrianCox offers mediation between TV viewers and the whole universe. Some folk don’t do things by halves do they? Lots of mystique and arcane knowledge behind that one.

Psychologists and psychiatrists offer mediation between a client and their own mind. Surely an example of professional chutzpah worth savouring.

Politicians offer mediation between voters and the hazards of the real world. Their credibility is crumbling to dust mostly because of their inability to mediate as claimed. 

However, their political failures could be the harbinger of wider failures. The failure of politicians to mediate as claimed, their obvious lack of arcane knowledge and the tarnished mystique of power may have implications well beyond politics.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Tories split the UKIP vote

The biggest electoral problem faced by UKIP was highlighted by last night's Heywood and Middleton by-election result. As expected the Tories split the UKIP vote, effectively handing the result to Labour. The UKIP mantra vote Tory and get Labour seems to have been vindicated.

From the BBC

Heywood and Middleton by-election result

Liz McInnes (Lab) 11,633 (40.86%)

John Bickley (UKIP) 11,016 (38.69%)

Iain Gartside (Con) 3,496 (12.28%)

Anthony Smith (LD) 1,457 (5.12%)

Abi Jackson (Green) 870 (3.06%)

Thursday, 9 October 2014

An Ingenious Patriot

Having obtained an audience of the King an Ingenious Patriot pulled a paper from his pocket, saying: “May it please your Majesty, I have here a formula for constructing armour-plating which no gun can pierce. If these plates are adopted in the Royal Navy our warships will be invulnerable, and therefore invincible. Here, also, are reports of your Majesty’s Ministers, attesting the value of the invention. I will part with my right in it for a million tumtums.”

After examining the papers, the King put them away and promised him an order on the Lord High Treasurer of the Extortion Department for a million tumtums. 

“And here,” said the Ingenious Patriot, pulling another paper from another pocket, “are the working plans of a gun that I have invented, which will pierce that armour. Your Majesty’s Royal Brother, the Emperor of Bang, is anxious to purchase it, but loyalty to your Majesty’s throne and person constrains me to offer it first to your Majesty. The price is one million tumtums.” 

Having received the promise of another cheque he thrust his hand into still another pocket, remarking: “The price of the irresistible gun would have been much greater, your Majesty, but for the fact that its missiles can be so effectively averted by my peculiar method of treating the armour plates with a new—” 

The King signed to the Great Head Factotum to approach. “Search this man,” he said, “and report how many pockets he has.”

“Forty-three, Sire,” said the Great Head Factotum, completing the scrutiny.

“May it please your Majesty,” cried the Ingenious Patriot, in terror, “one of them contains tobacco.” 

“Hold him up by the ankles and shake him,” said the King; “then give him a cheque for forty-two million tumtums and put him to death. Let a decree issue declaring ingenuity a capital offence.”

Ambrose Bierce - Fantastic Fables (1899)

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Red Biddy

I've been reading the Hansard report of the Second Reading of the Methylated Spirits Bill from 1934.  It's an interesting read, a battle between the desire to control a comparatively minor but distressing evil and a desire not to interfere with the legitimate uses of methylated spirits. The purpose of the Bill was to reduce the highly unpleasant effects of methylated spirit addiction, succinctly stated by Miss Horsbrugh

But in bringing forward this Bill I would point out that it is not a temperance measure. Already the Government and all right-thinking people have realised that it is bad for health to drink mineralised methylated spirits, and they wish to have that stopped. 


However, Miss Horsbrugh also seems to be convinced that the Bill is only necessary because other spirits are rendered too expensive by alcohol duty.

I ask the representative of the Government and those who are opposing this Bill to give me any real reason why we restrict all these other alcoholic beverages as to the hours in which they are sold and the methods under which the public can obtain them, and yet allow an unrestricted sale in many of our shops of this poisonous alcohol? Why should the Government frown on "Johnnie Walker" and give the glad eye to "Red Biddy"? Why is the tax so excessive on whisky when up and down the country social workers tell us that if only the methylated spirit drinker could get away from this poisonous spirit and get a taste for a decent spirit, there is some chance of him being cured of his appalling vice.


A Mr Frederick Macquisten also supported the Bill and made some interesting additions to Miss Horsbrugh's observations.

I listened with interest to the evidence that was said to be given by the principal Excise Officer. He has a good salary, and no doubt he drinks good whisky. It is very unlikely that he drinks methylated spirits, and it is extremely unlikely that anybody who could afford to buy whisky would drink methylated spirits. No doubt the same applies to the hon. Member for London University (Sir E. Graham-Little), but everybody is not so refined as he is, and liquors which appeal to other people would not apeal to him or to me. The practice of drinking methylated spirits is the illegitimate child of the Whisky Duty. If that duty were not so high, this evil would never exist, but it does exist because the duty hits the poor at the expense of the rich, and nobody seems to care what happens to the poor— Rattle his bones over the stones, He's only a pauper whom nobody owns. Nobody seems to remember that a definite temptation is put in the way of the very poorest of the population. This Bill will prove to be a hindrance to the sale of this stuff...

Methylated spirit drinking is a definite evil. It is no use telling us that the convictions of people for getting drunk on methylated spirit are infinitesimal in number. People do not get it in public houses. They buy a bottle of it and get a bottle of Spanish red wine, and in that way make their own "Red Biddy" and get intoxicated in their own homes, and as they do not venture out—because they are in a state of coma for twelve hours or so afterwards—the police do not find out...


Generally I object to restrictions of all kinds. I believe that if we had perfect and absolute freedom in all matters the difficulties would soon solve themselves. The degenerates, the people who cannot control themselves, would all pass out, and we should be purged of them in a generation—a rather hectic generation, I admit. Look at the mass of restrictions against the drinking of wholesome whisky and wholesome beer...

The Bill should have a Second Reading and if any Clause gives trouble it can be dealt with in committee. I have great pleasure in supporting the Bill, but I would say that it lies in the hands of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make the Bill unnecessary by the reduction of the whisky duty.

What strikes me about all this is the way it straddles two very different social attitudes. On the one hand we have a desire to leave ordinary people in peace and allow them to live their lives as they see fit. On the other hand, even the hard-nosed Mr Macquisten was in not in favour of doing nothing if something constructive could be done.

Yet could this be said today?

Generally I object to restrictions of all kinds. I believe that if we had perfect and absolute freedom in all matters the difficulties would soon solve themselves. The degenerates, the people who cannot control themselves, would all pass out, and we should be purged of them in a generation—a rather hectic generation, I admit.

No I don't think so either.

The whole thing is both a harbinger of meddling times to come and an interesting insight into our own bureaucratic tangles and taboos. The Salvation Army was in favour of the Act of course, but they saw Red Biddy in action.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

A nuanced climate

The orthodox climate debate seems to be spinning off some nuances in the face of static global temperatures. Subtle changes in emphasis and a leaching away of previous enthusiasms. A split seems to be developing between the old climate orthodoxy and a newer, more nuanced approach.

Even the BBC seems less enthusiastic about climate stories these days. For example, tonight there is a new Horizon programme, the first of a three part series about cats.




Will the moggy series be more popular than another airing of alarming climate forecasts? Very likely, because political polling suggests the general public have also lost much of their enthusiasm for the climate narrative.

This slight change in attitude by the BBC is more than a straw in the wind too. The BBC originally adopted the bog standard orthodox climate narrative, shorn of even the most obvious caveats. These days it seems less keen, as if even its internal narrative is cooling off – pun intended. 

This is significant. The BBC has been a major player in the orthodox climate narrative and even though it hasn’t defected, any change in tone is presumably significant. Although without being a fly on its well-funded walls one can never be quite sure of these things.

Yet there has always been an important divide between the public climate narrative and the science behind it. Take this well-known example from the IPCC 2001 Assessment Report (TAR), issued when the orthodox narrative was in full swing.

The climate system is a coupled non-linear chaotic system, and therefore the long-term prediction of future climate states is not possible.

Prediction is not possible it says, but that’s not what the general public heard and not what organs such as the BBC reported. There is a nuance here though. The predictions we hear about via the BBC and others are actually scenarios, not predictions.

These scenarios were endorsed as predictions by activists and many scientist who should have known better. Instead they threw professional caution to the winds and now there are early signs that the winds are no longer favourable. From the IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios published in 2000.

What are scenarios and what is their purpose?

Future greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are the product of very complex dynamic systems, determined by driving forces such as demographic development, socio-economic development and technological change. Their future evolution is highly uncertain. Scenarios are alternative images of how the future might unfold and are an appropriate tool with which to analyse how driving forces may influence future emission outcomes and to assess the associated uncertainties. They assist in climate change analysis, including climate modeling and the assessment of impacts, adaptation, and mitigation. The possibility that any single emissions path will occur as described in scenarios is highly uncertain. [My emphasis]

As to why these scenarios and the orthodox narrative were constructed in the first place – try this from the UN in 1996.

Energy production and use is the main source of many of the threats to the Earth's atmosphere. Despite tremendous increases in commercial energy use to date, the majority of the global population still has inadequate access to the kind of energy services enjoyed by the inhabitants of the industrialized countries. A lack of adequate energy services is one of the symptoms of poverty. The inequalities are so large that it would be virtually impossible for the majority of the world's population to enjoy similar resource intensive energy-use patterns as those prevailing in the industrialized countries. More sustainable energy patterns throughout the world and the protection of the atmosphere are recognized as important policy objectives at both the national and international levels. International environmental agreements are being extended from the local and national to international levels.
COMMITTEE ON NEW AND RENEWABLE
SOURCES OF ENERGY AND ON
ENERGY FOR DEVELOPMENT
Second session New York, 12 -23 February 1996

Climate change is and always has been a question of tying a knot between global equality and global energy policies. As the above document made clear enough back in 1996. If there are scientists prepared to say that CO2 causes this or that problem with this or that level of certainty then that's fine as far as the policy-makers are concerned - welcome aboard. These people are professional bureaucrats.

So the nuances are there, they always were.

Monday, 6 October 2014

A stuffed bear in the hall

There that poor unfortunate woman lay, with her unconscious tyrant of a husband snoring beside her, desolately wakeful under the night-light in the large, luxurious bedroom — three servants sleeping overhead, champagne in the cellar, furs in the wardrobe, valuable lace round her neck at that very instant, grand piano in the drawing-room, horses in the stable, stuffed bear in the hall —
Arnold Bennett - The Grim Tale of the Five Towns – (1907)

Bennett's list of of upper middle class material aspirations one hundred years ago. Which of them do we value now and which will we still value in another hundred years?

Three servants sleeping overhead.....who knows how social policies will go?
Champagne in the cellar....................certainly.
Furs in the wardrobe..........................unlikely.
Valuable lace.....................................only in museums.
Grand piano.......................................possibly.
Horses in the stable...........................depends on energy policies.
Stuffed bear in the hall......................?

Saturday, 4 October 2014

The last British Prime Minister


Who was the last British Prime Minister? The question is worth asking because the role seems to have faded away to the status of provincial governor. The process of governing the UK has acquired at least three features which make much of the Prime Minister's traditional role redundant.

Firstly we are largely governed by those who run global businesses, global bureaucracies and global pressure groups. In other words, a host of global CEOs are in charge – not our provincial governor, or Prime Minister as we still insist on calling him. Global CEOs have become a uniquely powerful social class. Local politicians merely deliver the PR - the democratic narrative with its jingoistic fairy tales.

Once we have free enterprise which isn’t free and isn’t enterprising, once we blur the distinction between the corridors of government and corporate power then we have a class of people who can’t be shifted except by members of their own class. They share the power, they share the money and spend enormous sums to keep things that way.

In short we are being milked and controlled by money - but not sucked dry. It has taken only a few decades for the CEO class to realise that only a modicum of comfort is necessary for social control. Not comfort in itself, but the bovine acquiescence which comfort brings with it. 

A warm hut, a full belly and 24/7 entertainment. That does it.

Secondly and similarly, policy-making has gone global. Treaties, international laws and heavyweight bureaucracies such as the EU and UN have taken over the policy role of national government to such an extent that local political parties are barely relevant except as PR vehicles.

Thirdly we have complexity, a key reason why nobody, not even UKIP is ever likely to put these trends into reverse. The situation is too complex to be resolved with the puny political levers we have left, too intricate to be untangled by negotiation or new laws.

The complexity isn’t merely political or legal, but also cultural. We have to want change and want it badly en masse. Otherwise there are too many threads, too many reasons not to resolve malign trends, too many incentives not to see that they are indeed malign, too many reasons to oppose beneficial change, too many people doing just that.

So who was or will be the last British Prime Minister? 

Friday, 3 October 2014

St Custard’s goes green

Nigel Molesworth by the late great Ronald Searle
as any fule kno

Gosh chiz st custard’s hav decided to go green. Well i mite hav expected it, just when i thort we were safe from globule worming old grimes have decided to GO GREEN and build an elektric windmill to power the hole skool. 

Fotherington tomas call it a wind turbin and dance with joy when he hear the news. The little wet clap his hands and skip about trilling “we are saving the planit, we are saving the planit. The flowers will be saved the trees will be saved”. He is just like a little parot who just discuver the world is made of nuts.

Grimes order the skool janitor to build a windy turbin and make it big enuff to suply the whole skool with elektricity for ever and ever amen. Janitor mutter and grumble and slouch off in a huff as per ushual becos he has to do sum work like the rest of us hem hem.

Later he is spotted by peason sneaking awa with bits of wood from the fence at the back of the bike shedds. This will not end WELL.

Later.

Much later.

Well the windy turbin is built rite in the middle of the foopball pich which sends grimes into a wild bate. He foam at the mouth and swings his best kane like a wild demon who drunk too much BEER in the village pub witch we pore boys never visit hem hem.

Even later.

The grand swich on

Chiz chiz no speshial treets for the pore boys to celebrate st custards new green windy turbin. We hav been lined up on the frozen wastes of the foopbal pitch to watch the grate green triumpf. Fotherington tomas is allowed to pull the swich the pore wet.

BOOM! CRACKLE! BLAM!

A big flash lite up the sky and all dive for cover even tho there isnt anywhere to hide on the freezing wastes of the foopball pich. As i kno too wel chiz chiz.

After a wile a few of the bravest boys hem hem dare to raise our heads from the skool mud. We take a horifid look at the disaster wich has befallen us. Ho ho. O horror.

The windy turbin have burn rite down to a pile of ashes and sum black wires wich look like telefone wires to an xpert eye .like mine. The windy turbin didnt burn long becos the janitors wood was all roten and burnt too qwick for my liking.

O wel lessons learned as they sa.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Dumb

From the BBC

From the BBC

The EU's next digital head has refused to apologise for saying celebrities were "dumb" for taking intimate pictures that were later leaked.

Günther Oettinger was highly criticised for comments including: "Stupidity is something you can only partly save people from."

He will become the EU's digital economy and society commissioner in November.

One MEP, Julia Reda, laid into the commissioner: "The statement is unbelievable," she said.

Oh dear, the guy has been castigated for saying what everyone knows. 

In his position that's dumb.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Frozen pizza



There is nothing wrong with automation per se, but for me this feels like a step too far. Doesn't do much for my appetite either.