Sunday, 31 January 2016

100 years ago - Zeppelin raid on Derby


My mother once persuaded my aunt to write down her childhood experience of a Zeppelin raid on Derby in 1916. I originally posted the story some years ago, but more details are available in this Maxwell Craven article plus a BBC item

These articles fix the raid as occurring during the early hours of February 1st 1916. Decades later my aunt's memory put it a few weeks later, but as the raid took place one hundred years ago tonight, perhaps her story is worth another post. She was eight years old at the time of the raid and this is what she wrote...

There were no air raid sirens as such in the First World War. When there was an alert, a local factory’s maroon sounded. In Derby they were called ‘Bulls’. I don’t know why unless the sound was similar to that of a bull roaring! We quite often heard them but nothing happened until one night in February 1916.  I think it was the sixteenth but am not quite certain of the exact date. [see above note on exact date] Oddly enough, we hadn’t ourselves heard it that night. The sole form of heating in our three bedroom terraced house was the fire in the living room, so it was here we congregated and children playing noisy games perhaps drowned out the noise from outside.

We were always early in bed, half past seven in the winter. The maroons usually blasted out their warning at around seven o’clock. Dark green blinds covered every window, curtains were drawn over them to stop any chink of light from showing outside. We weren’t allowed to have the gas mantle in our bedroom lighted, went to bed by candlelight. My mother would come upstairs, see we were all tucked up in bed and when she went back downstairs, the candlestick went with her.

Our bedrooms, extending over the entry, was large, ample room for two double beds as well as other furniture. Two girls in one bed, two in the other. It must have been around eleven o’clock that we were awakened by our mother shaking us by the shoulder.

‘Come on,’ her request not loud but urgent. ‘Get up, the Germans have come.’ Her words and anxious face, lighted candle in one hand, the other shielding the flame, roused us quickly enough.

I dragged some blankets from the bed. My burden, flip flopping round my ankles almost tripped me on my descent of the steep narrow stairs. My eldest sister stood at the top of the cellar steps, shepherded us down. My mother carried the youngest. Swathed in blankets, for a time I became stuck behind the door, but my eldest sister hauled me out, took possession of my wrappings. I negotiated the steps down the cellar much more easily than I had those from the bedroom to the ground floor.

My dad, in peace time an accountant with the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, was home on leave. Like so many others, he’d enlisted on the outbreak of war. After only a short training, was in France in the trenches, up to his waist in water. A far cry from a warm, dry office. He developed enteric fever, was ill in Boulogne hospital for weeks. The upshot was that he spent the remainder of the war in the Treasury Department in Whitehall. Still on a soldier’s pay of course! It did mean though that he got home a bit more often and was safer though there were some bad air raids on London. I never heard him speak of them – in those days the horrors were kept away from young ears.

He was a handsome man, tall and broad and we were in awe of him. That night he’d pulled on trousers over his nightshirt and in the cellar directed operations. We’d all settled down when to my surprise a further influx! With much shuffling and whispering, muted telling off and some pushing and pulling the big family from next door trooped down the cellar steps and arranged themselves judiciously in our underground shelter.

Our street, a cul-de-sac ended in a high brick wall. On the other side lay the main railway line. Our neighbours lived in the very end house, in extremely close proximity to the line. The railways were a lifeline then, not only for troops, goods and coal, but also communications. Derby an important junction, might be the target of an enemy bomb. Our neighbours would be safer with us. It did make a crowd but being so close together we were warmer. And so we sat, the adults talking in low voices for maybe an hour when Dad held up his hand.

‘Quiet, I think I hear something.’

‘It’s a Zep,’ came an excited whisper – one of the boys from next door.

To me the menacing drone sounded like an irregular drumbeat. Everyone froze except for my dad who stole up the cellar steps. We could hear through the cellar grate, his footsteps on the blue brick pavement of the street. Rejoining us, he made no comment. Catching the eye of my mother, he nodded. Then he bowed his head, uttered the words of the Lord’s Prayer and as he came to the end we quietly chorused ‘Amen’.

We stayed where we were, the sound of the Zeppelin faded. Perhaps half an hour later it came back again. An almighty crash, the ground trembled beneath our feet. Broken glass tinkled somewhere at hand.

We were all frightened. Birds, bees and butterflies we naturally were used to but not flying monsters intent on our destruction. For several minutes we were all too shaken to say anything and then everyone seemed to talk at once, making vague suggestions.

I don’t know if the factory did sound an all clear. I have a faint memory of a long clear whistle and all of us trailing up the cellar steps and into the living room. A strange time to be up, at half past three in the morning we should have been asleep in our beds. Dad poked the remnants of the fire into a bit of a blaze, added a few pieces of coal and we young ones sat on the pegged hearthrug, glad of the warmth. My mother set about making her panacea for all ills, large jugs of cocoa sweetened with treacle and soon everyone was sipping the reviving drink.

The neighbours returned home. Dad, feeling a draught went out into the passage to investigate and found a gaping hole in the fanlight over the front door. On the floor lay an ugly piece of shrapnel – six inches long, about one inch thick and two inches wide with a jagged edge. Yet another unprecedented episode of that never to be forgotten night. We went to bed and despite the trials and tribulations we’d undergone, slept soundly – due to Mam’s cocoa perhaps?

The next day we learned that every window in every house in the street running parallel with ours had been broken and some damage had been done to roofs. There were tramlines in that street, two trams on their way to the tram sheds when the alarm sounded. The drivers stopped, the conductors with their long poles pulled the trolley poles away from the overhead lines to put the lights out.

Drivers and conductors heard the Zeppelin, heard it move away and decided to attach the trolley poles again to the overhead lines as they were anxious to get back to the tram sheds. However, apparently the Zep, after flying as far as Burton-on-Trent decided to return. The supposition was that the target had been the railway station and the two trams resembled from the air a lighted train.

Many stories were bandied about, one being that the Zep had picked up the trail of a train. The fire box had to be opened to keep the fire stoked up which must have made a steam engine not difficult to find from the air.

The driver of one late train was supposed to stop at Derby station, but aware that a Zep was in the area and afraid of the damage that could be done should he become the target for a bomb, the houses close together, many accommodating big families, he drove straight through open country. Actually to Chaddesden sidings about two miles the other side of Derby. We were told later that the driver’s nerves were so shaken by the terrors of that night he never drove another train again. I can’t verify the truth of that though – it was hearsay. Months later my oldest sister told me that some men, six I believe, had been killed. They’d been engaged in repair work at the sidings. Mam never mentioned these fatalities. As I said before, horrors were kept away from young ears.

We were told innumerable tales of personal experiences such as that of a spinster lady who lived across the street with her father and two nieces. The lady took her nieces down the cellar but her father refused to join them.

‘Clara,’ he said, ‘no German is driving me into the cellar.’

The words were hardly out of his mouth when a huge piece of shrapnel, shattering the window pane, cannoned into the wall above his head. Unhurt, he was covered in plaster and dust. Chortling, he still wouldn’t take refuge down the cellar.

The field at the bottom of our garden ran at the back of most of the houses on our side of the street and along the backs of the houses on the main road at right angles to us. Mr Scott the grocer who kept the corner shop, stabled his horse in this field. I don’t know whether the horse would be outside in February, certainly neither horse nor stable were damaged.

Only my older sister and I went to school on the morning following the air raid. Our younger sister still asleep, my mother wouldn’t disturb her. We saw the pavements in Bateman Street covered in glass and slates, broken windows, holes in roofs. Pupils seemed thin on the ground when we went into the hall for assembly. Miss Johnson the headmistress said as usual ‘good morning girls’ and we replied ‘good morning Miss Johnson’.

‘Some of us have had a disturbed night,’ she said, ‘but I notice that two girls from the worst hit area have come to school. Others with less excuse have stayed away.’ Making this observation, her eyes rested on my sister and I. Nudging each other we blushed, thrilled that our presence had been both noticed and commented on.

Our hymn that morning was of course ‘Fight the Good Fight’. I don’t believe the Zeppelins ever got so far inland again. At any rate I don’t recall spending another night in the cellar. Once was enough.

Friday, 29 January 2016

To dream extravagant dreams

But he had always been a man of imagination, seeing things on too grand a scale, transforming his shady dealings as an adventurer into poems; and this time, with this really colossal and prosperous enterprise, he had been carried off into extravagant dreams of conquest, to so crazy, so vast an idea, that he did not even clearly formulate it to himself.
Emile Zola - L’Argent (1890)

If anyone is incautious or dishonest enough to become enmeshed in a false position they commonly do as Zola’s anti-hero did – they do not clearly formulate the position to themselves. Middle class folk seem to do it all the time.

The middle classes have a tendency to enmeshed themselves in worthless abstractions, extravagant dreams where they cannot afford to clearly formulate the dream to themselves. Ordinary working people and the elite classes seem to be far more likely to focus on concrete realities such as family, friends, money, land, possessions and so on. They are essentially pragmatic. Devious perhaps, but pragmatic.

It seems to be the middle of the social sandwich where pragmatism becomes more scarce, where insecurity seems to rock the mental boat. Middle class people seem more likely to enmesh themselves in abstractions such as the environment, equality, gender politics, racism and the latest fashionable finger-pointing meme.

As journalists, pundits and ‘experts’ their voices dominate the public domain promoting the malign, harming the benign. What has made a large slice of the middle classes so profoundly stupid, so culturally destructive, so gullible and unaware of their longer term interests?

Which longer term interests? The possible demise of the middle class would be a good starting point. 

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Horrible thought

I've had this horiible thought before and maybe you have too, but as these two are the guys who lead our main political parties then why do so many of us think the EU is bound to be worse?

Just look at them. 

The cream of British political life, the pinnacle of our democracy, the two statesmen we should look to for wisdom, guidance and at least a smidgen of genuine patriotism. Yet one could almost believe they were selected to drive us into the arms of the faceless bureaucrats.

I'm resolutely opposed to the EU, but sometimes it's hard road.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Power speaks to truth

The English language evolved over centuries in response to many social changes, but who had the most influence on how we speak and write?

The church?
The rich and powerful?
Some other influence?

The obvious answer is the rich and powerful because for centuries that included the church. Nobody sat round a table and designed our language, but in an important sense the rich and powerful have always owned it via their grip on publishing, newspapers, magazines, cinema, radio, television and now the internet. So where does that leave us today?

An intriguing but tricky aspect of language is the way it so easily distorts our view of reality, almost as if it evolved to assist successful lying. Not by design but by centuries of evolution and the tendency of all elites to control behaviour by lying. Do as I say not as I do has to be a feasible message for the masses and language seems to help.

Suppose we replace words such as true and false with words such as accurate and inaccurate? To do so offers a significant advantage in that it shifts the focus towards what can be demonstrated or observed. Accuracy seems to demand real world validation where truth often demands no more than passive acceptance. Which one suits the rich and powerful?

If we make a switch from truth to accuracy then we are likely to find vast areas of political, religious and artistic discourse cannot be described as accurate unless purely descriptive. Otherwise they tend to lack this essential element of demonstrability.

This is more significant than fiddling around with words because our ordinary concept of truth is widely used to peddle untruths. A very common aspect of blogging is how numerous official narratives are exposed as untrue by detailed analysis – by checking the accuracy.

Unfortunately our ancient link between truth and authority seems to discourage the extra effort required to check narratives for accuracy. If we link truth with accuracy it becomes obvious why we should make the effort. Many don’t because that’s another important word – effort.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Jim ‘Manky’ Else

Walking the High Peak Trail near Wirksworth today we came across an information board with these tales about the hazards of local quarrying a century ago.

In the early 1900s Jim ‘Manky’ Else was working in Middle Peak Quarry as a shot firer. Instead of using a wooden ramrod for the gunpowder, he was using a metal rod. There was an explosion and the rod shot back and pierced his neck. A doctor was called but he refused to be lowered down the quarry face. Frank Gratton was lowered down and he shortened the rod with a hacksaw. Jim made a satisfactory recovery and died in his nineties in a house fire.

In the early 1900s both George Doxey and William Flint were killed in separate incidents in Killers Quarry when the face fell on them.

Killers Quarry eh? It isn't a comment on early health and safety issues but named after Killer Brothers of Wirksworth, owners of Middleton Quarry. Unfortunate name though.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

In search of food


When I used to commute across Nottingham my mind would wander over all kinds of things from why am I doing this? to why are we doing this?

Not a particularly wide range of internal conversations you may think, but commuting isn’t a stimulating activity. Sometimes I’d expand my horizons and even think of work and the various bits and pieces I had to get done before doing the same journey in reverse.

What drives us on though? What is it deep down in the murky depths of our biochemistry which makes us do such crazy things as commuting across Nottingham for twenty years? It could be much the same biochemistry which sent my ancient ancestors into the wilds armed only with a flint-tipped spear – food.

Although we don’t starve if we don’t work, the food imperative evolved over millions of years and isn’t likely to have fallen into disuse merely because we no longer use a flint-tipped spear. A car is much the same as that spear – in a sense we take it out every day in search of food.

We already know we’ll find the food elsewhere of course, Sainsbury's or Tesco in our case, but that probably doesn’t alter the biochemical imperative. We still have to eat and our bodies know we have to eat and know we have to do whatever it takes to eat. 

Whatever it takes. Now there's a thought to commute over. In search of food we’ll even endure the dullest imaginable journey only to take part in the dullest imaginable meeting on arrival. Whatever it takes. Perhaps lunch makes it just about tolerable.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Duvet TV

Hot on the heels of LG’s flexible TV screen comes a proposal for what would be a remarkable development in fully flexible TV products – the TV duvet.

“The global slob market is simply huge and bound to grow even further," explains Dr Baz Broxtowe, a Fradley University specialist in product strategies. "Thanks to pervasive automation we expect consumers of the future to spend most of their lives in bed, in which case it is essential to insert new products into the bedroom.”

“Hence the TV duvet - a fully immersive web-enabled flexible TV which also doubles as a remarkably cosy duvet. Customers have full touch-sensitive control of their environment such that their favourite TV programme may be played on any part of the duvet.”

"For those who are looking for more novelty there will be TV pyjamas” Dr Baz adds. “You will be able to watch East Enders on your partners pyjamas and vice versa. The possibilities are endless.”

“To take care of those occasions when consumers feel the urge to get out of bed we have TV socks,” he continues with mounting enthusiasm. “Customers will be able to watch two TV channels merely by taking off their shoes and putting their feet up.”

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Friendly words


I recently stumbled on this item in Science News -  Chimp friendships are based on trust.

It almost goes without saying that trust is a defining element of genuine human friendship. Now, a report in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on January 14 suggests that the same holds true among chimpanzee pals. The findings suggest that friendship based on trust goes way, way back, the researchers say. "Humans largely trust only their friends with crucial resources or important secrets," says Jan Engelmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. "In our study, we investigated whether chimpanzees show a comparable pattern and extend trust selectively toward those individuals they are closely bonded with. Our findings suggest that they do indeed, and thus that current characteristics of human friendships have a long evolutionary history and extend to primate social bonds."

Not a particularly surprising outcome, but what exactly has been discovered here? Have we uncovered the fact that chimps trust their friends to a greater extent than other chimps?

Or have we reminded ourselves that "friendship" and "trust" are words with linked meanings? As the piece says - trust is a defining element of genuine human friendship. Trust could also be seen as a defining element of the word "friend" - a job for dictionaries rather than science.

Someone we don't trust is not classed as a friend and someone we class as a friend is usually trusted more than a non-friend because in part that's what we mean by friendship. It's how we use the words. In which case the division made by this piece of work becomes somewhat artificial.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Wind power in hot water


In Sweden a helicopter sprays hot water on iced-up wind turbine blades. 

Glaciated rotor blades are the scourge of wind turbine owners in cold climates. Alpine Helicopter in Constance has developed a new way to kick-start production when the ice forces the turbines stop: a helicopter that sprays hot water.

It takes us about 1.5 hours to process a sharp occurrence of icing wind turbines, says CEO Mats Widgren.

The water is heated over night using a truck equipped with a 260 kW oil burner. When morning dawns are 44 cubic meters of the 60-degree water in the tanks, and the helicopter can start running in the shuttle to the icy wind turbine.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Pineapple juice


Breakfast time conversation between Son and Granddaughter, aged three.

Please can I have pineapple juice Daddy?

Bet you’re hungry. What would you like to eat?

Mmm – pineapple juice please Daddy.

Okay but that’s not food. What would you like to eat?

Pineapple juice please.

Right – okay you can have some pineapple juice but what would you like to go with it?


You win.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Is the world reverting?

Perhaps democracy never really had a hope. Voters don’t do anywhere near enough political analysis to make it work. Depressing surveys such as this one even suggest that voters know how little they know as they cast their vote. From the beginning the romance of democracy was usurped by political parties who understand the low information voter only too well. So they make it easy for us by selling a political brand instead of something concrete or radical. We might ask for more. 

Inevitably voting for a brand was never enough to keep alive the charade of democratic accountability. Now we reap the consequences. We are reverting to the old ways, to the days of a remote elite, an aristocracy based on nepotism, armies of functionaries, cosy deals with business elites and millions of graded sinecures for the faithful.

Our evolving aristocratic world is not a world of kings, queens and ancient titles because the new brand has to be differentiated from the old - obviously. So fewer top hats and conspicuous displays of wealth and power because the visual clues must be kept to a minimum. Aristocratic life is also far more complex than it was in the old days, with many more grades of membership. Yet the rise of new style courts, courtiers and functionaries has become too obvious to ignore. The EU is one such court, Westminster another.

As well an evolving global elite, our new world teems with millions of functionaries and servants whose lives depend not on the votes they cast but on the developing patterns of power which constitute the new world order. The ultimate shape of a global aristocracy may be a matter of conjecture, but the omens are not good. We are not naturally benign when it comes to dealing with outsiders. 

An emerging global aristocracy also raises a question about Cameron’s EU referendum. It seems to be the only move we in the UK have left to put a stick in the global elite wheel. Not a very big stick though. A Poohstick perhaps?

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Firing blanks

I see Corbyn's latest wheeze is nuclear submarines with no nuclear warheads.

Jeremy Corbyn has suggested the UK could have Trident submarines without nuclear weapons, a move that would mean disarmament while protecting defence jobs in Scotland and Cumbria.

I suppose it could work if nobody else knows, but he seems to have let the cat out of the bag already. I don't have problem with a politician who opposes nuclear weapons because I'm not so keen on them myself, but I don't know if unilateral nuclear disarmament would be a sound move or not.

The problem is, neither does Corbyn. It's the implied claim that he knows these things in advance which gets up my nose - politicians are too fond of it.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

What did I say?

A movie editing development from Disney:-

We present a method to continuously blend between multiple facial performances of an actor, which can contain different facial expressions or emotional states. As an example, given sad and angry video takes of a scene, our method empowers a movie director to specify arbitrary weighted combinations and smooth transitions between the two takes in post-production.

Clever stuff which certainly sends the imagination roaming over other possibilities.

Thursday, 14 January 2016


An oddity of TV period drama is how certain kinds of anachronism seem to be accepted as part of an authentic ambience even though they are clearly no such thing. Our notion of period authenticity seems to have been conditioned by museum visits and we forget that the things we see must have looked very different when new.

Early nineteenth century furniture in a Jane Austen drama should look fairly new but the wood usually has a rich patina which must have taken two centuries of polishing to mature. It should be much lighter, showing the original colour of the wood – possibly quite garish to our eyes.

We see heavily weathered Victorian brickwork which should look virtually new or the entrance to a stately home has sandstone pillars pockmarked with far too much age.

Leather-bound books which should look bright and fresh with gold lettering on the spine. Instead we see shelves full of books more akin to the interior of a modern antiquarian bookshop.

We often see china teacups in antique style but with modern backstamps. Alternatively mid Victorian teacups used in a nineteen thirties setting. Not impossible this one, but unlikely and...

...okay I admit it. Spotting these things is mildly enjoyable. How sad is that?

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Lottery Winners Come Forward

In a shock move today, mega lottery winners "Mr and Mrs C" have finally come forward.

The world has been waiting to know who they are and although they wish to preserve a degree of anonymity we can finally reveal that humongous "Lottery of Life" winners are "Mr and Mrs C" from southern England. However there will be no big spending spree just yet as Mr and Mrs C are adamant that their good fortune will not change their lifestyle.

"We'll carry on buying tickets," grins Mr C. "You never know do you? I'll also carry on working for a few years at least," he adds. "That should give us enough time to work out a new direction".

We understand that Mr and Mrs C are being advised by the ultra discreet Blair & Blair LLP.  

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

If everyone knows everything

They don’t of course, but just for fun let us assume they do – everyone knows everything. Or at least, let us assume that all those with access to the internet could know anything on the web if they so wished. This doesn’t cover everything by any means but close enough for a short ramble through possibilities.

This post isn’t about climate change, but a brief observation may clarify things. Over the past few years, the lack of global warming seems to have coincided with a marked decline in the quality of official warming narratives. These days we rarely see anything but obvious drivel whereas once upon a time there were much more robust attempts to keep the narrative respectable.

Perhaps this is because everyone knows everything. Everyone who takes an interest in the climate game knows that the official catastrophe narrative is sinking. Even warmists know it. Unless global warming resumes it has become impossible to defend the narrative in a convincing manner and everyone knows why.

For any political argument there is an alternative.
For any economic argument there is an alternative.
For any social argument there is an alternative.
For any narrative there is an alternative.
For any standpoint there is an alternative.
For many scientific arguments there is an alternative.

The alternatives have always existed; the key differences are range of opinion, low cost and ease of access. Everyone knows governments are too inefficient for socialism to deliver its promises, especially those starry-eyes utopian promises which seemed so seductive only a few decades ago. You know – the ones Corbyn and his groupies profess to believe in. Similarly everyone knows there are hardly any honest politicians, no left-right dichotomy and the world is far too corrupt.

It is not a question of what you know but who you know.

Never was a dictum more true and it may become even more significant in a world where everyone knows everything. Knowledge is bound to be devalued if everyone has access to it. The value of knowledge is roughly equal to the research effort behind it and that effort has been in steep decline since the internet went mainstream. Anyone can click on a link.

Personal and family connections have always been more important than ability, but in a connected world and to an increasing degree there may be little else to set one apart. Other than a handful of geniuses and technical wizards that’s it.

A consequence of all this ease of knowing is that elites could become ever more blatant. As the peasants know everything why bother to hide venal motives behind fine words? A patchy veneer of respectability will do and that too will go in time.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Drunken robots

The biped robots shown after the quadruped door opening device - they look drunk to me. How does one make a robot drunk though? One of the marvels of technology I suppose.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

An extraordinary sense of leisure

I cannot tell you the extraordinary sense of leisure that we two seemed to have at that moment. It wasn’t as if we were waiting for a train, it wasn’t as if we were waiting for a meal — it was just that there was nothing to wait for. Nothing.
Ford Madox Ford - The Good Soldier (1915)

When I first came across this quote it set me wondering about my own sense of leisure and that delicious feeling of relaxation which isn’t as common as it might be. Is it connected with having nothing to wait for? I suppose it could be if one is the kind of person who doesn't find it easy to wait for something without dwelling on it then dwelling on it again.

As Ford indirectly suggests, it doesn't have to be a glass of wine on a summer afternoon, a cosy winter evening by the fire or a day spent lazing on the beach. It can be more to do with future, with not having to wait, which means not having to mark time, not watching the clock, the diary, the to-do list. This sense of leisure seems to come from clearing the mind which isn’t easy if there are things to be done, appointments to be kept, projects to steer, jobs to be done which all involve waiting for this, expecting that.

Some people seem able to clear their minds anyway, even if a whole pile of commitments clutter up their immediate future. Others don’t find it so easy. I’m in the latter group which is probably why Ford’s observation chimes with me. Having nothing to wait for, nothing to anticipate isn’t particularly common, but sometimes it all subsides into trivia and that sense of leisure does indeed emerge.

I suppose it is one reason why our anticipated life of leisure disappeared, the one automation was supposed to have delivered by now. What destroyed the dream wasn’t only a need to continue working, but the clamour of modern life. There is always something to wait for, some event, some change. A sense of stillness becomes impossible and with it dies that extraordinary sense of leisure where there is .nothing to wait for. Nothing.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

My blood is thick with surrender

My blood is thick with surrender.
Sherwood Anderson - Dark Laughter (1925)

Modern political life is indeed thick with surrender. It is one of the most characteristic features of our times, that constant, nagging demand to surrender as an individual, to submit to the politically fashionable will. Not that this is a dramatic change in the long history of the human condition, but a little while ago something less oppressive and more rational seemed to be in the air. Now all that seems so long ago. 

Cameron and Corbyn both preach surrender as a political philosophy. Neither man seems to have any real notion of the individual as an agent of change or progress. They expect us to surrender as they themselves have surrendered body and soul to the shifting sands of political fashion. 

Surrender to the EU is one of our big issues at the moment, but there are many more. Cultural surrender is another big one. It swirls through the immigration debate without ever solidifying around the cultural preferences of those who are already here. Whatever they might be, we are not encouraged to clarify because even our cultural future must be surrendered to the fads and exigencies of the elite.

The whole spirit, the whole ethos of political surrender seems to be an end in itself. Surrender is what totalitarian political regimes require as their basic political philosophy. Surrender is the groundwork of modern political thinking where genuine democracy has become a quaint relic of more optimistic times.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Cameron’s game

David Cameron may be an odious politician and the Labour leadership election suggests he is certainly a lucky one, but his EU referendum game may turn out well for him. Whether he saw this from the start I don’t know, but maybe he did. In which case well played David, you lying slimeball.

An in/out EU referendum might have been good for eurosceptics if UKIP had made a better showing at the general election. Even then it would have been risky because the EU has many advantages, not least the triple advantages of inertia, fear of the unknown and pots of money. As things stand now, a referendum isn’t so good for eurosceptics because there is too much to lose and losing is the most likely outcome.

Cameron knows this. Although there are risks in holding an in/out referendum, the gains make it worthwhile. A vote to stay in the EU may not get the issue off his back, but it will permanently weaken it and change the nature of the narrative. It will be marginalised politically and that must be his intention. It paves the way for his next career move too. I'm sure that is also his intention.

Allowing his ministers to campaign as they choose could be another smart move. There is little charisma available among ministers to damage the pro-EU narrative and allowing this amount of freedom claws back some democratic credentials. Not only that, but it may lob more leadership issues into the eurosceptic camp. If the vote goes Cameron's way then his victory becomes that much more personal and legitimate, the eurosceptic case that much less legitimate.

What persuaded Cameron to take the referendum risk in the first place? I don’t know but he could have been advised by Tony Blair - the game feels Machiavellian enough. Or he may simply be lucky. In responding to pressures he made it up as he went along and stumbled on a game worth playing. It still feels worthy of Machiavelli to me though.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Inserting the technology

The video clip is merely a commercial for KUKA Robotics. Although now past his peak, Timo Boll has previously reached number one in the ITTF world table tennis rankings. The average club player would still do well to take a point off him.

In this commercial we cannot see quite how the robot is supposed to score points against Boll, in which case it is safe to assume that in a real match it probably couldn't. Apart from anything else Boll would easily confuse it with spin.

Which is also what this clip is - spin. That's point one - the technology is being oversold. Amusingly oversold but still oversold.

Point two takes us back a few decades to the early eighties when our lab had a brand new laboratory computer system installed. Microcomputers such as the Apple II had only been around for a few years and in those days environmental labs such as ours relied entirely on calculators, graphs and paperwork.

Our super new computer system was part of a centrally coordinated IT project which unfortunately never got to grips with the realities of laboratory life. After lots of fanfare it turned out to be slow, inflexible and expensive. Nevertheless we managed to make use of it. There were no real benefits to using it, but the system had been imposed centrally with lots of senior clout behind it so we made the best of it.

Point three is the glaringly obvious lesson to be drawn from points one and two which are related anyway.

As technology invades middle class professional strongholds such as science, education, law, administration and many others, these two factors will play their part - inevitably. Firstly the technology will be oversold to decision makers and secondly people on the ground will adapt to it because that's what they do. There is no real choice, it's adapt or move on and when it comes to the point most of us adapt.

So gosh - didn't that robot play well?

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Crap idea


From the Telegraph comes news of technological insanity.

LG has wowed the crowds at this year's CES with the self-opening fridge, which senses when a human moves past it and cracks open its door.

The door cracks opens automatically when a human puts their foot in front of its low embedded sensor, meaning it can't be opened by opportunistic passing pets. However, you still need to fully open the door yourself.

I'm no technophobe but the search for novelty doesn't always take us anywhere worthwhile. Maybe the fridge is journalist bait, a product to write about rather than anything more practical. 

Or maybe not. Somebody will probably buy the thing. Midnight snackers for example.

Monday, 4 January 2016

All Hallows

Stories well told - they remind me of listening to the wireless and what we miss in the ghastly visual clamour we have so busily created. To my mind de la Mare's strange tale should be enjoyed by the flicker of firelight and a glass of something chosen with care. Something to salute Dry January perhaps?

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Old gods are dying

Men of courage, with strong bodies and quick brains, men who have come of a strong race, have taken up what they had thought to be the banner of life and carried it forward. Growing weary they have stopped in a road that climbs a long hill and have leaned the banner against a tree. Tight brains have loosened a little. Strong convictions have become weak. Old gods are dying.
Sherwood Anderson - Windy McPherson's Son (1916)

As ever it pays to be realistic about cherished ideals and our ideal of Britain as an independent nation seems destined for the chop. It’s a tragic spectacle for many, but that’s no reason to deny the reality of it. Devolution is merely a stage in the process, the shadow of the axe.

There may be a few moves left such as a solid rejection of the EU in our forthcoming referendum, but if that one fails surely it is game over. It appears to be our last move with nothing else on the horizon. The demise of Britain won’t happen quickly but if current trends are any guide then happen it will. In which case the Britain many of us grew up in will have gone forever so we may as well get used to it. Goodbye Britain, hello whatever.

So what to do? There is little one can do other than look after personal and family interests, enjoy life and say what ought to be said within those ever tightening political limits. Apart from considering the possibility of emigration that’s about it.

The world is changing because that is what it does and here in Britain we voters have put far too little effort into working out how to guide the changes to our national advantage. We were too complacent, too lazy, too happy to park our trust with those who never deserved it. As a result Britain has all but gone and there is no point in piling all the blame on the political classes. We voters did our share simply by knowing nothing and doing even less.

For now the names and the history remain plus misleading echoes of business as usual, but all that seems likely to change as the global net tightens, as freedoms are forgotten, as people are forgotten, as you and I must one day be forgotten.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Superseded by machinery


He was one of that large class of purely mechanical and perfectly mediocre persons connected with the practice of the law who will probably, in a more advanced state of science, be superseded by machinery.
Wilkie Collins – Man and Wife (1870)

The other day I received an email from our electricity and gas supplier asking me to submit a new meter reading. Of course the email was composed and sent by a computer. I duly read the meters, entered my readings online and the machine calculated our latest statement. Mine was probably the only human role and a subservient one at that. One day smart meters will get rid of my job too.

Early in the New Year I’ll receive another email from another machine reminding me that our credit card payment is due. I’ll pay our credit card bill via the online machine and another machine which is our bank. Nobody else involved here either.

Later I’ll probably visit Tesco and pay for some groceries using that same credit card. When I reach the checkout a Tesco machine will validate my credit card and issue a receipt allowing me to take the goods. If I buy a bottle of wine a machine will tell the Tesco checkout operator to confirm that I’m old enough. One day it will already know.

At some point I may take the car to the unmanned fuel station at Asda to buy some diesel from yet another machine. Some machines have permanent human minders, but that may change. Supermarkets alone give us some pretty strong clues about our future – machine minders.

Picture a solicitor behind a desk a few years into the future. On the desk is a computer and this is where the solicitor’s professional expertise really is. The solicitor consults the machine but it is the machine which really sorts out the legal work. The solicitor is merely its trained minder, its human face.

How about teaching, job interviews, accountancy, driving a car, lorry, taxi, bus or train? How about delivery drivers, journalism, supervision and even management? How about politics? In many ways David Cameron is a machine minder. He looks after that little cog in the global machine, the cog we used to call the United Kingdom.

First quote of 2016

Here is the Puritan in full flower. The night has come.
Sherwood Anderson - Many Marriages (1923)