Friday 31 August 2012

Pigeon stuffer

Another social vignette from Emile Zola's Le Ventre de Paris - fattening pigeons.

Cadine had a saucepan near her; she filled her mouth with the water and tares which it contained, and then, taking up the pigeons one by one, shot the food down their throats with amazing rapidity. The poor creatures struggled and nearly choked, and finally fell down in the boxes with swimming eyes, intoxicated, as it were, by all the food which they were thus forced to swallow.

Thursday 30 August 2012

New short story

I've posted a new short story on my Haart Writes blog called Image Problem. As usual, it can be accessed through the Short Stories tab on this blog.

Tech support

From PaulR

A visible tilt

There are times when I wonder if the world has gone mad and the only thing to be done is to get on with life and ignore it.

Or is it madness? Take this from Click Green:-

The world's first inter-continental link of emission trading systems has been announced by the European Union and Australia.

The Australian Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, Greg Combet, and the European Commissioner for Climate Action, Connie Hedegaard confirmed details of the link-up yesterday.

A full two-way link, by means of the mutual recognition of carbon units between the two cap and trade systems, is to commence no later than 1 July 2018. Under this arrangement, businesses will be allowed to use carbon units from the Australian emissions trading scheme or the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) for compliance under either system

Even if the pseudoscience supporting this abject lunacy turned out to be sound, Australia and the EU cannot make any measurable difference to global temperatures via such nonsense. The EU and Australia combined generate just over 15% of global CO2. Australia only generates 1.3%, so why they bother I just don't know. In this respect the Australian government seems madder than ours and that's no mean feat.

  • But for those who build their careers on it - so what?
  • For those who build their political reputation on it - so what? 
  • For those who make pots of money from it - so what?
  • If it doesn't work - so what?

Institutional insanity on such a scale looks very much like serious endemic corruption to me. Very much like a new palace or two for the emperor, hunting lodges, luxury yachts and private jests for the most senior flunkies. Very much like gaming the system for the few at the expense of the many.

It's why the world looks more and more like a sleazy casino where the cards are marked, the dice weighted and the roulette wheel has a visible tilt. A world we once thought we'd gown out of where the rich and powerful run their scams, do their sordid deals and make off with the spoils while the peasants toil.

As peasants always have.

Yet toil isn't the right word these days is it? So what do we do, those of us not making the crooked deals or climbing the greasy pole? Are we gaming the system too, in our quiet way?

Wednesday 29 August 2012

Christmas planning

We bought the main item for our Christmas meal today - a side of salmon from Tesco. Don't like leaving these things to the last minute...

Okay - it was cheap too.

Early days


A curious aspect of the internet is the way you build virtual friendships simply by blogging and leaving comments. I’ve called them friendships because as far as I’m aware we don’t have quite the right words here. David over at duffandnonsense calls web pals e-pals which is better, although I don’t see it being adopted widely in the areas I visit.

Because it isn’t quite friendship is it? We aren’t pals or mates in the traditional flesh and blood sense, are we? There is something temporary and tentative about it - like a work colleague you know you probably won’t keep in touch with when either of you leaves work.

There is also something graduated about it, because we tend to comment more frequently on some blogs, less frequently on others and styles vary too, from the informal to more distant and matter of fact.

Sometimes both bloggers and commenters set a really chatty, familiar tone going to such a degree that you may even feel like an intruder if you leave a comment yourself. It’s rather like going to the pub and joining a table of people you don’t know. Yet it isn’t really like that at all, because new commenters are generally much more welcome than the pub intruder. Comments are the lifeblood of any blog really. Nobody can toss their words into a well of silence for long.

Although that's not quite true either, because bloggers have blog statistics available – they know people are reading their blog even if they say nothing. They know about regular visitors too, all of which helps to make the internet into a different kind of social interaction.

Of course the most peculiar thing of all is that you don’t know what your e-pals look like, the sound of their voice, their habits of social interaction. You never hear their laughter. There are exceptions of course. Some people do know each other outside the internet, but then these aren’t the relationships I’m talking about.

For me, the nearest thing to e-pals outside the internet were a few work colleagues I’d never seen because we worked in different offices, but spoke on the phone and exchanged emails. That’s quite common I imagine.

I always remember coming face to face with a guy I knew well because I’d spoken to him regularly on the phone for about ten years before we actually met. When we finally did meet, it was a real surprise to hear that familiar deep voice coming from a little guy who was nothing like my image of him.

So it is with e-pals. No doubt we’ll get used to it and a fuller and more rounded terminology will evolve, but I tend to feel these are the early days of something socially important.

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Returning To The Fields

When I was young, I was out of tune with the herd:
My only love was for the hills and mountains.
Unwittingly I fell into the Web of the World’s dust
And was not free until my thirtieth year.
The migrant bird longs for the old wood:
The fish in the tank thinks of its native pool.
I had rescued from wildness a patch of the Southern Moor
And, still rustic, I returned to field and garden.
My ground covers no more than ten acres:
My thatched cottage has eight or nine rooms.
Elms and willow cluster by the eaves:
Peach trees and plum trees grow before the Hall.
Hazy, hazy distant hamlets of men.
Steady the smoke of the half-deserted village,
A dog barks somewhere in the deep lanes,
A cock crows at the top of the mulberry tree.
At gate and courtyard – no murmur of the World’s dust:
In the empty rooms – leisure and deep stillness,
Long I lived checked by the bars of a cage:
Now I have turned again to Nature and Freedom.

Tao Yuanming (365–427)
Translated from the Chinese by Arthur Waley

Reading The Book Of Hills And Seas

In the month of June the grass grows high
And round my cottage thick-leaved branches sway.
There is not a bird but delights in the place where it rests:
And I too - love my thatched cottage.
I have done ploughing:
I have sown my seed.
Again I have time to sit and read my books.
In the narrow lane there are no deep ruts:
Often my friend's carriages turn back.
In high spirits I pour out my spring wine
And pluck the lettuce growing in my garden.
A gentle rain comes stealing up from the east
And a sweet wind bears it company.
My thoughts float idly over the story of King Chou
My eyes wander over the pictures of Hills and Seas.
At a single glance I survey the whole Universe.
He will never be happy, whom such pleasures fail to please!

Tao Yuanming
Translated from the Chinese by Arthur Waley

Monday 27 August 2012

An oenophile's dilemma

We had a problem today with our evening meal. Which wine should we choose? We needed something to complement egg, chips and beans without compromising the elegance of the wine - not an easy decision as I’m sure you’ll agree. 

In the end, we chose to carry on with the wine we were already drinking, an Orvieto from Sainsbury’s.

Although the wine didn't actually go with egg chips and beans, it did have two things going for it. Firstly it took the edge off a dull, wet afternoon. Secondly it was what we wine buffs call “cheap”.


A vote for rigor mortis


A real problem with politics is taking it seriously. I find it genuinely difficult and I don't think it's an unusual attitude. When the best leader you can hope for is a passably benign liar, then it isn’t easy to offer one’s support to this side or that. Political analysis is a headache too, because mainstream political players are so balls-achingly ghastly.

Most world leaders are appalling shits. A small minority are not quite so shitty, but generating enthusiasm about matters of degree is not appealing. For example, Obama may be a dud US president, but is Romney likely to act as a barrier to current global trends? Is he destined to isolate the US from the antics of global bureaucracies – from the creeping rigor mortis they are so busily imposing on what's left of democracy?

Even if Romney gets himself elected, millions of US citizens will still have voted for Obama, will still believe the wrong guy is in the White House, will still act, speak and plan accordingly. 

Even if Romney makes it and accomplishes something substantive, he will still have hordes of opponents determined to rubbish every move he makes, fervently committed to reverse it all at the next election.

Too much political talk centres round leaders and much of it has little practical value because leaders rarely deliver. They promise to change trends and start new ones, but only rarely are such promises within their gift.

Trends are by definition more powerful than the forces opposing them. Until that changes, neither do they.

Sunday 26 August 2012

Sunspots and tosspots

Sun and Earth to scale. One of them is arrowed

From Click Green we hear that the sun may indeed have some influence on climate.

Scientists have long suspected that the Sun's 11-year cycle influences climate of certain regions on Earth. Yet records of average, seasonal temperatures do not date back far enough to confirm any patterns.

Now, armed with a unique proxy, an international team of researchers show that unusually cold winters in Central Europe are related to low solar activity – when sunspot numbers are minimal. The freezing of Germany's largest river, the Rhine, is the key.

But only in certain areas apparently. Well it's a start.

The Belly of Paris

Les Halles

I’ve just finished Emile Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris (1873) or The Belly of Paris. It’s an extraordinary book, quite difficult to describe in a single post. Wikipedia sums up the plot well enough :-

It is set in and around Les Halles, the enormous, busy central market of 19th Century Paris. Les Halles, rebuilt in cast iron and glass during the Second Empire was a landmark of modernity in the city, the wholesale and retail center of a thriving food industry. Le Ventre de Paris is Zola's first novel entirely on the working class.

The protagonist is Florent, an escaped political prisoner mistakenly arrested after the French coup of 1851. He returns to his step-brother Quenu, a charctuier and his wife Lisa Quenu, with whom he finds refuge. They get him a job in the market as a fish inspector. After getting mixed up in an ineffectual socialist plot against the Empire, Florent is arrested and deported again.

The setting is rather more than Les Halles though – it is food and the political significance of food to those who eat their fill and those who don’t. Vivid, luscious descriptions of food fill the book to repletion and beyond – deliberately so. Mountains of food feed not merely the belly of Paris, but the whole social and political structure too.

Towards the end though, as the net closes in on Florent and his naive schemes, the images of superabundant food become heavy and oppressive. Satiety sets in and it's cleverly done - creeping up on you like those last few morsels you really could have done without. Zola even slips in a sense of conflict, death and decay via the cheese market.

But it was upon the table that the cheeses appeared in greatest profusion. Here, by the side of the pound-rolls of butter lying on white-beet leaves, spread a gigantic Cantal cheese, cloven here and there as by an axe, then came a golden-hued Cheshire, and next a Gruyere, resembling a wheel fallen from some barbarian chariot; whilst farther on were some Dutch cheeses, suggesting decapitated heads suffused with dry blood, and having all that hardness of skulls which in France has gained them the name of “death’s heads.”

The book has also been called in English, Fat and Thin, a reference to the simple socialism of the radicals :-

In these designs Claude detected the entire drama of human life, and he ended by classifying men into Fat and Thin, two hostile groups, one of which devours the other, and grows fat and sleek and enjoys itself. “Cain” said he, “was certainly one of the Fat, and Abel one of the Thin. Ever since that first murder, there have been rampant appetites which have drained the life-blood of small eaters. It is a continual preying of the stronger upon the weaker; each swallowing his neighbour, and then getting swallowed in his turn. Beware of the Fat, my friends.

As well as the novel itself and the ingenious way Zola unfolds his design, we are treated to some fascinating social and political vignettes of the times.

Madam Lecoeur inquired what was done to the people who got arrested “for politics,” but on this point Mademoiselle Sagat could not enlighten her; she only knew that they were never seen again – no, never.

Mother Chantemesse made a speciality of pared vegetables; on her stall, covered in a strip of damp black lining, were little lots of potatoes, turnips, carrots, and white onions, arranged in pyramids of four - three at the base and one at the apex, all quite ready to be popped into the pans of dilatory housewives.

Every morning little closed box-like carts, lined with zinc and furnished with ventilators, drew up in front of the larger Parisian kitchens and carried away the leavings of the restaurants, the embassies, and State Ministries. These leavings were conveyed to the market cellars and there sorted. By nine o’clock plates of food were displayed for sale at prices ranging from three to five sous, their contents comprising slices of meat, scraps of game, heads and tails of fishes, bits of galantine, stray vegetables, and, by way of dessert, cakes scarcely cut into, and other confectionary.

Saturday 25 August 2012

Live long and fester

In a vague but proximate future we are told we may be able to switch off our ageing genes so that we no longer go wrinkly and on average live to the ripe old age of 150. Or whatever age some journalist or batty scientist is prepared to guess at.

But what if it is actually possible?

What if our descendants have to come to terms with working until their 120th birthday? What if some of them end up working for the same boss for 50 years or more? Working with the same colleagues, attending the same meetings and training courses, trying for 100 years to make the biscuit fund fairer. 

Imagine teachers teaching the same lessons for well over 100 years.

Imagine political life with the same lying shysters growing fatter and fatter on the proceeds of political power, decade after decade after decade...

Well - maybe that's not such an enormous change.

But what about having the same awkward neighbour for 50 years? Mowing the lawn for over 100 years. Deciding what to have for breakfast as a nice change because a bowl of Cornflakes doesn't quite hit the spot as it used to 80 odd years ago. 

Or having to think up new blog posts for a century?

I don’t want to go before my time, but neither do I relish the thought of lingering and lingering then lingering some more. It isn’t the health issue with me - I simply don’t believe we are well-adapted for very long lives.

Maybe we need renewal and that means replacement and that in turn means there is such a thing as a death rate that is too low. Maybe we shouldn't interfere with these things before we know what we are doing. Maybe we should leave well alone.

As we usually don't.

Friday 24 August 2012

Reporting the words of liars


When the dear old BBC reports a speech by Dave, Nick or Ed, they never include any kind of sanity warning do they? In a comedy sketch show it might be different, but BBC news readers and reporters always fail to remind us how habitually dishonest these creeps are.

We’re so inured to it that we tend not to notice the implied approval every time it happens. Yet with digital technology it would be so easy to put a warning symbol on the screen every time one of these guys opens his lying mouth. Or any one of the others for that matter. There are as we know, plenty of them. 

A warning might be something like a subtitle :-

  • Warning – nonsense zone.
  • Politics and sanity don’t mix.
  • Known pillock.
  • Speaks Moron fluently.

Okay, it’s not an entirely serious point, but there’s a reason why not isn't there? We have an exceedingly strong and unhealthy tendency towards endemic equivocation and the BBC is the leader of the pack by a long, long way. We know political life is riddled with liars and charlatans. They make promises, often by implication, with no intention of keeping them.

They aren’t necessarily evil people, although they may be, but absurdly over-ambitious and inclined to talk purely for effect or as their advisers dictate. So maybe the BBC could bring itself to say what we all know to be the case. Surely it would be healthier – politically.

As things stand the BBC seems to be part of it – the lying I mean. There are after all, no innocent bystanders in this game.

Thursday 23 August 2012

New short story

I've posted a new short story on my Haart Writes blog called Photos of Mum. As usual, it can be accessed through the Short Stories tab on this blog.

1-star review


So far I’ve received one five star, a four star and a one star review for my Kindle book The Pillbox. Two reviews were from the US ( and one from the UK ( The one star review says:-

The story is so disjointed, it is hard to follow the story. I am trying, but I do not think I will be able to finsih it.

It’s not unexpected and the criticism is fair. The plot is based on flashbacks and the (very kind!) five star reviewer described it as intricate.

this is a novel of intricate and well-crafted complexity

I knew this would be an issue before I began writing. After completing the first few chapters I reviewed what I’d undertaken and nearly decided not to carry on. I was very keen to write the book, but at that point I wasn’t sure how the story would unfold. I knew it had lots of potential to be complex though – mainly because of the flashback device.

In the end of course I carried on, enjoyed writing it and after some encouraging but not for us comments from literary agents I decided to publish it on Kindle. I made that move with some trepidation, but self-publishing always attracted me and the Kindle is an ideal way to get started.

It’s not a route to any kind of income unless you are extraordinarily successful. What does that mean? Not sure, but top one percent I’d say. All in all it’s been an experience I wouldn’t have missed though. Hundreds of hours work, but worth it.

By the way – it’s obvious to me that all those who leave comments here have at least a book or two in them.

Think about it!

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Another one!

Sam Vega's comment on the previous post raises an even more chilling development :-

I would also suggest that George Osborne is the result of a CIA or similar programme in implanting microchip technology into humans.

"OK, gentlemen, you have already proven that we can control thoughts and emotions in subjects via skull implants. 

Now your challenge is to see whether you can take a totally undistinguished and third-rate subject and use the technology to get him into a position of real power. Choose a friendly but declining country country - I suggest the Brits or Portuguese - and see if you can maintain power and semi-credibility for, say, three years. 

Gentlemen, if we can do this, then we move on to the bigger prizes..."


I’ve been busy grappling with the possibility that “David Cameron” is a figment of my imagination and the talking suit I see on TV is just a crudely-made cyborg. Why imaginations have figments is a subject for some other time, but I’m wondering if “Cameron” is one of them.

  • Has anyone actually seen him? Not anyone I know, so that’s the first clue.
  • He’s absurdly improbable – that’s the second and conclusive clue.

Look at his face for example. Does it remind you of anything?


Okay it might not be polythene, but some other smooth and flexible polymer is an obvious possibility. It could be one of the fluorinated polymers used for non-stick pans. An interesting technical problem in some ways, but I’m not sure anything complex is warranted here. Polythene is cheap so it fits the persona.

Now consider his political chums, beginning with “Nick Clegg”. Well there’s another figment if ever there was one. I don’t believe in “Clegg” for one minute. He doesn’t even make sense – he just babbles. Could be a prototype I suppose, but that’s too easy. Figment is more likely.

One option I've considered in some detail is that "Clegg" is a cardboard cut-out with some kind of WiFi speaker stuck to the back of his head. Do we ever see him sideways on though? Need to check.

Hasn't “Cameron” been on holiday recently? Off to the repair shop for an upgrade more likely. There is much to do. A more human-like face would be a good place to start – polythene really wasn’t a good idea for the longer term. He’s another babbler too. That needs to be sorted and installing Windows 8 won't be much help - it's too much for his floppy drive to handle.

Some kind of old-fashioned intercom linked to an office in Whitehall would be more practical than a fancy new operating system. Nobody will notice as long as the voice remains the same. There is the issue of the UK nuclear deterrent key, but I doubt very much if “Cameron” has been entrusted with that.

When he comes back from the repair shop I’ll pay close attention to signs of improvement - if any. It may turn out that they have limited their efforts to fixing the babble.

No doubt we’ll see some slight evidence of a minor upgrade, but I have my doubts.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Climate change = energy equality

Have you even wondered why mainstream climate science is such obvious junk?

Deranged junk? Of course it is. Useful idiots may go along with it, but no serious scientist believes crap like this. Although climate change is often presented as a scientific matter, many of us know it’s a political game.

Climate propaganda seems to be well rooted in left-wing energy politics – a long-term game to achieve global socialism via energy equality. I’ll call it left-wing and socialism as a matter of convention – fascist  or communist would be just as appropriate. It’s a matter of taste.

The main political given says nobody should be allowed to consume more natural resources than anyone else. Next to food and water, the prime natural resource is energy and energy equality lies behind climate propaganda - not climate science.

The second political given says traditional energy sources such as fossil fuels and uranium, are finite and insufficiently abundant for long term global use. So if everyone can’t use them, nobody should be allowed to use them. It’s more nuanced of course, but essentially this is the political narrative behind climate propaganda.

Fossil fuels and uranium may be finite in an absolute sense, but that doesn’t tell us much. It depends on timescales, discoveries and technical developments which have not yet happened. Our current understanding is not deep enough to say when these fuels could become economically inaccessible. The uncertainty may well be a matter of centuries.

So the UN, as the global sponsor of climate propaganda, is promoting energy equality as a matter of global socialist policy – not as a matter for scientific debate or further negotiation.

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.
Second session

For climate sceptics, this is the real issue. It doesn’t really matter how thoroughly the science is trashed, it will just keep on coming at us. It is already morphing into sustainable development because the climate science based on CO2 alarmism is so obviously silly.

But even the silliness doesn’t matter too much. Junk science will do – it’s merely a matter of presentation. The underlying policy is not about to change and in any event the UN is not likely to run out of journalists and scientists prepared to swap their integrity for a career.

At the moment there only seems to be one major stumbling block to all of this – shale gas.

Monday 20 August 2012


Three quotes from Emile Zola's Le Ventre de Paris (1873). I haven't even finished the book yet, but I want to capture something I felt immediately I began it - a sense that here was another of his books I was going to enjoy. Reading it was like pouring the first glass of wine on a warm summer evening - a sense of anticipation to be savoured, not hurried.

Maybe I'm becoming an enthusiast. For Zola that is... and wine of course.

Firstly, the main character, Florent, strolls around Les Halles, the enormous central market of 19th Century Paris.

Florent went out and strolled for some time in one of the covered ways of the markets. A fine mist was rising, and a grey sadness, which the gas lights studded as with yellow tears, hung over the deserted pavilions.

Secondly, our guilt about modern comforts is nothing new.

As he listened to her, with a full plate in front of him, he was affected, in spite of himself, by the prim comfort of his surroundings. The matting beneath his feet seemed soft; the gleams of the brass hanging lamp, the soft yellow tint of the wallpaper, and the bright oak of the furniture filled him with appreciation of a life spent in comfort, which disturbed his notions of right and wrong.

Thirdly, an incident which seems to fit our time as well as Zola's.

There were some people of the smaller middle class, from distant parts of the city, who had come down at four o'clock in the morning to buy a really fresh fish, and had ended by allowing some enormous lot, costing from forty to fifty francs, to be knocked down to them, with the result that they would be obliged to spend the whole day in getting friends and acquaintances to take the surplus off their hands. 

Sunday 19 August 2012

Who's Your Daddy?

Believe it or not, there’s actually a van dubbed “Who’s Your Daddy?” driving through New York offering men the chance to find out if they are really the fathers of their babies. As you might expect, business is going well.

Bleak moments

Do you ever have super-cynical moments where you know the human condition to be much bleaker, simpler and mechanical than we usually admit? I do and I suspect many others do too.

I don’t mean I’m torn to ribbons by bouts of uncontrollable angst or anything remotely like it. I'm rather fond of a spot of bleak every now and then. But I sometimes wonder if we’d be better off making a clean breast of things - in a socially honest kind of way.

Allow me to take the arts as an example. Let’s apply a bit of bleak simplicity to the arts.

The arts are a loose grouping of artificial stimuli which affect us emotionally. Paintings, sculpture, music and literature are socially constructed stimuli designed to induce certain emotional responses – we call them aesthetic. They do not originate within the aesthetic creation itself, but from the social rules by which it was created. The rules do not have to be rational.

I don’t want to pursue this argument as an argument, but as an example of how one could quite easily and consistently analyse aesthetics into nothing but socially approved emotional responses to stimuli. The details of how these responses gain their social approval may be complex, diffuse and fragmented, but once they are established, the analysis is simple. Bleakly mechanistic but simple.

Now we all know that this kind of mechanistic thinking isn’t at all new and I suspect substantial numbers of people have always teetered on the edge of it from time to time. But most of us don’t take the plunge, because to do so would deprive us of our aesthetic pleasures. The music, the appreciation of beauty, harmony – the whole gamut of aesthetic satisfactions would be lost, or at least degraded.

Now let’s apply some bleak simplicity to science:-

Science is all about tools –how to make them and how to use them - nothing else. We are tool-makers - science and engineering are merely tool-making. Sooner or later all scientific speculation must end in the building of a new tool or in a new use for existing tools. Otherwise science is merely gossip. It may be mathematical gossip – but still gossip.

Maybe this kind of bleak simplicity is the key we throw away, the one we are all aware of but prefer not to use - the key to unlock comforting social illusions. Once unlocked they would offer scant comfort and little business for professional wordsmiths of the soundbite persuasion, so we are persuaded to leave them alone.

In fact most of us seem to be conditioned from birth to go along with many useful social illusions. Maybe it’s why intelligent people become frustrated. My own view is that bleak = true, but whether I'm inclined to go along with my own view is another matter.

And as you may have guessed - I'm reading Zola again.

Friday 17 August 2012

Short stories

I've added another tab to this blog called Short Stories. The idea is to post an occasional short story on my  Haart Writes blog, linked via the tab. I don't know how many I'll post, but no doubt it will depend on how many folk read them. Each time I post a new one, I'll put up a post like this on the main blog.

The first is called Mr Mifsud. It's set in Malta where I was born and is the first story in a collection of shorts of the same name published on Amazon's Kindle.

A new low?

Round about mid-September, the annual melt of Arctic sea-ice should go into reverse as the area of ice begins to increase again after the summer.
See here.

Many people are watching the Arctic sea-ice cycle because a complete summer melt has been predicted for years as a claimed consequence of global warming. Even the blessed Sir David Attenborough alluded to it.

Although the Arctic melt probably has as much to do with winds and ocean currents as global temperatures, it tends to be used as a totem of apocalyptic climate change. Or it was until it stopped melting.

Are we about to reach a new Arctic sea ice low by mid-September? It seems to me that there are two possibilities here:-

  • If the ice extent reaches a new low it will be hailed as an apocalyptic indicator of climate change. 
  • If the ice extent doesn’t reach a new low  it will be hailed as an apocalyptic indicator of climate change

I don't know what the Arctic will do this September, but it looks as if a new low is on the cards. If so, the the propaganda will reach a new low too. 

In a few weeks we’ll know how low - in both senses.

Thursday 16 August 2012

Copper chopper

Every now and then, a police helicopter hovers over our little bit of the UK making its usual infernal racket. I’m never sure what they are up to, but nothing ever happens. No wailing sirens and flashing blue lights ever converge on the spot below the helicopter, which is sometimes our house.

Is it the equivalent of stopping for a smoke in a handy lay-by? Obviously there are no aerial lay-bys, so do they just stop for a smoke, a sandwich and a sip of tea from the official police Thermos before moving on to sweep the sky clear of criminal elements?

Or is it more a case of creating a visible and highly audible police presence? The modern equivalent of the local bobby’s measured tread advancing down the street, but considerably ramped up decibel-wise. Much like the old copper’s beat but covering far more territory per shift and the added advantage of waking everybody up at night.

Do they have a set route with defined aerial parking spots so as many innocent people as possible notice their presence and feel the need to seem just that bit more law-abiding in the way they mow the lawn?

Because let’s face it, there isn’t a lot of crime up there in the sky and how many master criminals allow their nefarious activities to be visible to one of those deafening sky-tractors? My guess, any it’s only a guess mind, but my guess is none.

So what’s it all about? Mostly searching apparently. No mention of tea breaks.

North Midlands Helicopter Support Unit Daily Task Sheet

These logs show you examples of what the helicopter has been involved in during the last few weeks.
23/07/2012BolsoverSuspect SearchSearch for a person who ran off from the scene of a car accident.
23/07/2012MatlockSearch for vehicleSearch for a Ford van seen in suspicious circumstances.
23/07/2012ChesterfieldMissing Person SearchSearch for an elderly missing person suffering from dementia.
23/07/2012New TownSuspect SearchSearch for a group of males who ran off after dumping a stolen vehicle.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Yum yum

Personal digital archives

I’ve been busy scanning my father’s collection of photographs during the past few weeks. It’s a job I’ve been putting off for a couple of years now, wondering whether or not it was worth doing, whether I should just shove the albums and loose photos in a box. I scanned the slides some time ago, because they were deteriorating, but I wasn’t so sure about the albums and loose photos.

Some of them date from the nineteen thirties and I’m inclined to wonder if digital images will turn out to be so long-lived. They should be of course, but who knows? Another problem is lack of information. These old photos contain lots of information known only to family members now gone. Some of it is still known to me and my contemporary family members, but what of the future?

Do I add more information to the images for the benefit of future generations - to guard against further loss? For example, the photo of these two chaps is dated 1939. I've no idea who they are and those who knew are no longer with us. I could have asked, but never did and now it's too late. 

That train of thought made me think of our own digital archive, the digital photos, videos and documents we’ve collected over the past twenty years. What will happen to it? Is it secure?

I began writing short stories and novels on a computer in 1992, twenty years ago now, and I’ve accumulated a minor archive of stories, plots, ideas, letters, downloaded scientific papers and so on. The early stuff is just text files, but I also have Word documents and pdf files.

About ten years ago I attended a talk on the issues behind storing digital documents for long periods of time. It was mostly from a pharmaceutical industry perspective where the requirement was secure digital document storage for fifty years. The document format standard seems to be pdf, so should I produce pdf versions of all my documents?

Maybe not, but suppose current formats go out of date? Maybe software will always have legacy modules for the old formats. How do you leave a digital family archive to coming generations though – and will they want it?

Tuesday 14 August 2012

These boots were made for talking

Winding House at the top of Sheep Pasture Incline

We were walking the High Peak Trail above Cromford yesterday. The area is stuffed with industrial heritage, including Cromford Mill built by Richard Arkwright and now a World Heritage Site.

We came across Tony Robinson with a film crew, as he inspected the Sheep Pasture Winding House. It used to be part of a system by which trains were wound up and down the 3/4 mile long 1 in 9 Sheep Pasture Incline between Cromford Canal and the Cromford and High Peak Railway.

The first part of the line from the wharf at High Peak Junction, on the Cromford Canal, to Hurdlow opened in 1830. From the canal it climbed over a thousand feet in five miles, through four inclines ranging from 1 in 14 to 1 in 8 - Cromford, Sheep Pasture, Middleton and Hopton.

It was a remarkably ambitious piece of nineteenth century civil engineering, making a rail connection between the High Peak, Cromford Canal and ultimately the River Trent.

I don't know much about Tony Robinson apart from his role as Baldrick in the Blackadder series.

Mr Robinson seemed to be wearing substantial walking boots for this filmic occasion at Sheep Pasture Incline. Possibly an unnecessary precaution as it cannot be much more than two hundred yards between the Winding House and the car park.

Monday 13 August 2012

Olympics post mortem

Well the Olympics TV show is over at last. I am compelled to admit that it seems to have gone much better than I thought – not a shambles as far as I can see from way up here in the Midlands. I watched hardly any of it, but from what little I saw, the thing went smoothly. In spite of my distaste for the Olympics, I’m pleased it wasn’t a mess and there were no major incidents.

But now we have predictable responses from David CameronBoris Johnson, and Ed Miliband demanding more compulsory sport in schools. Why kids should be encouraged to emulate sporting TV stars in the midst of our medals for all culture I've no idea. I suppose a bandwagon is a bandwagon – it doesn’t have to make sense.

What the Olympics has to do with sport, sporting values, healthy living or real life, I’m not quite sure either. It’s only a TV show after all. An expensive and somewhat political TV show to be sure, but that’s all it is. Not something to emulate surely?

Sport is better played than watched on TV. It’s more enjoyable for one thing, but I’m not sure that’s the idea behind those calls for more sport in schools. Nurturing the sporting elite seems to be nearer the mark. Find the stars of the future and dump the rest because their job is to watch and applaud.

To give myself some exposure to this two-faced charade, I watched the climax of the men’s diving.

Hmm – a strange activity in my view.

Dull and repetitive, it’s not even swimming and swimming isn’t exactly edge of the seat stuff. Not only that, but the outcome depends not on a stopwatch, but the opinion of judges. Even so, it’s surely interesting that someone should devote a fair chunk of their life to honing their diving skills to the nth degree in this way.

I’ve no idea who won, but the UK chap won bronze, presumably having made some tiny slips in technique compared to the two chaps who beat him. Presumably he's thrilled to have made fewer tiny slips in technique than lots of other chaps.

Sport is about taking part, except that TV shows such as the Olympics have corrupted the idea of taking part. Taking part has morphed into another and quite different role, taking the part of an audience, a cheering backdrop for the stars. Are schools going to teach that?

Sunday 12 August 2012

Gadget World

Book illustration by William Heath Robinson

Gadgets can be fascinating things and most of us are surrounded by them, they are part of our lives. I'm typing this post on a gadget, and a host of other gadgets all over the world allow me to publish it. But there is variant of the physical gadget which is just as interesting. 

Sometimes political policies and institutions are best seen as social gadgets. Maybe they aren't quite the same as my laptop, but they are supposedly designed to achieve something, supposedly have some kind of design parameters even if gadget is not the word we tend to use.

To my mind though, it's a good word because it does away with some of the fluff and mystique, allows us to focus on what policies and institutions actually do compared to what they are supposed to do - their design parameters as social gadgets.

For example, the euro isn't so much a currency, as an EU policy gadget. Unfortunately this gadget was launched as a crude prototype long before the bugs had been ironed out – such as fraudulent national accounting. Also, for those who bought the prototype believing it to be the real thing, the running costs of this gadget proving to be somewhat higher than they were led to believe. 

The EU itself is a prototype policy gadget with numerous design faults, few of which seem likely to be corrected, however much field-testing is carried out. We have many decades of testing and performance data, none of which is in the slightest bit encouraging.

Climate models are a mix of technical and policy gadget - but still gadgets which were supposed to predict the climate thirty years and more into the future. Now we find ourselves in that future and to our dismay none of the gadgets has worked, mostly because they were all prototypes made to the same design.

Unfortunately there is no prospect of us getting our money back on climate models, nor is there any prospect of a working version to replace the wonky prototypes any time soon. That’s my prediction anyway.

The Olympic Games is a sporting entertainment gadget designed to promote elitism, global sporting businesses and their sponsors. This gadget works by inducing a heightened sense of nationalism and hero worship among sports fans. Still, at least the Olympics gadget works, although some might see it as a rather expensive way to tart up two weeks every four years.

UK democracy is an old gadget which has been subjected to a number of illicit design changes in recent years. The wheels have been removed and replaced by skids, the engine is now powered by wind and the roles of pilot and navigator have been outsourced to a number of dodgy European contractors. 

The BBC is a gadget for entertaining and misleading folk at their own expense. This has been a very successful gadget, although it now suffers from the limitations of an outmoded design. The Beeb has become rather like a formidable but ageing aunt, relying too much on placid indifference to the real world and the disinclination of loved ones to notice obvious signs of dementia.

Will blogging gadgets make a difference? I don't think so.  

Saturday 11 August 2012

Smile please

From DaveH

Footsteps in the night

I don’t believe in ghosts, but I once had a spooky experience which I've never been able to explain in a satisfactory way.

Many years ago when the kids were small, we booked a week’s holiday with my wife’s parents. It was a self-catering cottage in Somerset, a thatched cottage with beams, lots of character and attractive views from the rear garden.

It dated back to the seventeenth century and had been renovated and extended only a few years before our visit. We knew all this because the owners had left a folder with a brief history of the cottage and details of the restoration.

The bedrooms were all upstairs off a long landing, the kid’s room being at the far end, ours in the middle and my wife’s parents next to us.

One night we were all in bed when my wife and I were woken by the sound of footsteps on the landing – walking away from the kid’s room and on past ours.

I nipped out onto the landing and although it was dark, I could see well enough to know there was nobody there. Switching on the landing light, I went to check on the kids, but both were fast asleep. In any event, the footsteps hadn’t returned, so it couldn’t have been them. They didn’t sound like bare feet either.

“What was it?” My wife asked.
“Nothing – there’s nobody there and it wasn't the kids,” I replied. We stayed awake for a while, listening for those footsteps, but eventually dropped off to sleep.

The following morning, we mentioned the footsteps to my wife’s parents. They had heard them too. Later we worked out from the information folder that the footsteps had stopped round about where the stairs used to be before the cottage was renovated and extended.

We didn’t hear the footsteps again and no doubt there are explanations, but it was an odd experience. I'm sure I could explain it one way or another, but it would be a fabrication and I prefer not to do that, prefer to leave the incident unexplained. Not inexplicable – unexplained.

 Would we go back to the cottage though?


Friday 10 August 2012

How to smoke and drive

From DaveH

Public spirit in Europe

All sincere republicans make the same mistake. They believe in the existence of public spirit in Europe. Amiable delusion! Public spirit is the generous emotion of young nations, of new peoples. In selfish old Europe, private interest has taken its place.
Wilkie Collins - Poor Miss Finch

Public spirit is the generous emotion of young nations, of new peoples. I like the sentiment here, even though Collins is writing through one of his characters and from another age. There is something old and ungenerous about European political life, something stultifying and meanly grandiose which turns even the most worthy scheme into a pompous, bureaucratic nightmare.

A free trade area roughly similar to the EEC was far enough for a bunch of old nations. It was all we needed to recover from World War II, put the past behind us and build a better future. But the grand panjandrums couldn't leave it there, were too stupid to limit their dull-witted calculations to what is possible, what is desirable, what will actually work.

private interest has taken its place - and on a scale Collins never could have imagined. It hasn't played itself out either - not by a long way.

Thursday 9 August 2012

Just William

The road from Matlock to Bakewell in Derbyshire passes a large Victorian pile which was once St. Elphin's boarding school for the daughters of the clergy, but is now a retirement complex.

I must have passed the school many times without ever realizing that Richmal Crompton went there as a pupil and later returned as a classics teacher. She was of course the author of the hugely successful William books, all of which I devoured in my youth.

Quite why I took to them so avidly I’m not sure. The hero of the books was William Brown, a decidedly middle class boy, while I grew up on a council estate. His was a world of domestic servants such as  maids to open the front door and cooks to prepare the family meals. Not my world by any stretch of the imagination.

Maybe that’s it though – the vital ingredient of Crompton’s books. They stirred the imagination – at least they must have stirred mine, because I loved them. Even the pen and ink drawings seemed right somehow.

William in William below stairs

I read one recently – once I'd made this momentous discovery about the connection between Richmal Crompton and St Elphin’s. The books still read well, even now. Clearly written, not condescending and each story has a beginning, middle and end. 

Boyish stories I suppose – in an old-fashioned sense. Camp fires and strange cookery experiments, climbing trees, dirty knees, running wild and mischief.

William had his arch-enemy too - Hubert Lane, leader of the Laneites. If my younger self had a criticism of the William books, it would be the too infrequent appearance of Hubert Lane. I enjoyed William's battles with Hubert. Essentially they were battles of wits where of course William always emerged victorious in one way or another.

And who could ever forget Violet Elizabeth Bott, the lisping daughter of a local nouveau riche millionaire? Who could forget her blood-curdling threat?

I'll thcream and thcream 'till I'm thick.

Do young people still read them? I don't know, because William's world has mostly disappeared now.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Kindle improves reading for boys?

This story from SMU Research suggests :-

Middle school boys rated reading more valuable as an activity after two months of using an e-reader, according to a new study.

The findings come from a study of 199 middle school students who struggle with reading and who participated in a reading improvement class that included Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, said one of the study’s authors, Dara Williams-Rossi, Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

The study only used a small sample, so not too much should be made of it, but surely this was an interesting observation.

Technology motivated boys; girls appear to prefer actual books
“The technology appeared to motivate the boys to read, while many girls preferred the actual books,” said Williams-Rossi, who is also director of undergraduate programs in Simmons. “The data showing the girls’ preference were statistically significant and particularly intriguing. This is part of a 3-year study and this data came midway through, so we are continuing our investigation and interviewing girls to understand their reaction to the e-readers. It may be that they prefer curling up with actual books and that they enjoy sharing their reading with their friends.”

So boys may need teaching methods which keep up to date with technology, or they need their interest to be aroused via technology? Certainly, my two most memorable and effective teachers used the technology of the day to arouse our interest. From electromagnets to a vacuum discharge, it worked for me fifty years ago. 

Are we missing out on something here - an essential masculine element in teaching? Something specifically to do with techniques of engagement aimed at boys? I don't know because I'm not a teacher, but it's surely an interesting possibility.

Note this comment from Roger on yesterday's Kindle post.

FWIW I know someone who was never a great reader, perfectly intelligent and successful but they could not cope with all those black squiggles on the page. Got given a Kindle and he is now a keen reader. Not the only tale of this kind I have heard - maybe there is something to study here. 

Tuesday 7 August 2012

Every medallist

Kindle ebook sales climb

The BBC reports that Amazon now sells more Kindle ebooks than paperback and hardback sales combined.

The UK's biggest book retailer Amazon now sells more ebooks than hardbacks and paperbacks combined, the company has said. For every 100 print books sold through the site, Amazon said it sold 114 titles for its Kindle e-reader device.

I don't find that surprising, especially for fiction. What I find more interesting is this finding.

It added that the average Kindle owner bought up to four times more books than they did before owning the device. 

That fits well with our experience. My wife and I both have Kindles and we read more now than we used to when we were just reading paperbacks and hardbacks. I don't think it's a factor of four for us, but we certainly read more - and more widely too.

But Kindle content is controlled by one multinational company - Amazon. Okay there are other readers and other formats, but not many. How will that pan out?

It isn't just Kindle owners who are reading more though is it? Huge numbers of people may be reading more simply because they can select what to read on the web and read it any time they like. And select means make more personal and more interesting - more specific to me. Anything from news to political commentary to the latest UFO sightings to... well you name it.

Technology is changing our behaviour.

Do you find your political views changing? Firmed up, loosened, shifted to the right or left? Perhaps not much, but some aspects may have changed, some ideas or ways of thinking may have inserted themselves into your way of thinking. Are you more radical or less? Or about the same? 

I've certainly been affected by the web. Nothing dramatic, but it's real. I'm not what I was. Neither, I strongly suspect, are you. Not quite. 

Monday 6 August 2012

Just tell the milkman

When my wife's parents wanted to sell their house in 1960, what did they do?

They just told the milkman.

Later a couple knocked on the door and bought it.


Graveyard chat

About fifteen years ago we were in the cemetery putting flowers on our daughter’s grave while a guy did the same at his wife’s grave nearby. It was quiet as it usually is and for some reason we started chatting. He told us his wife had died from breast cancer. She’d consulted a local doctor about a lump on her breast, but he said it wasn’t cancer.

The doctor was wrong.

Understandably the guy was still bitter about that doctor – who wouldn’t be? Even worse, it turned out to be the same doctor who had originally diagnosed our daughter’s headaches, vomiting and double vision as severe catarrh and prescribed Mu-Cron.

Wrong again.

In fact our daughter had contracted a fast-growing, malignant brain tumour - glioblastoma multiforme. A few months the absurd Mu-Cron prescription, a hospital consultant sounded the alarm after a short time spent looking into her eyes. She died two years later – just seventeen years old.

Most of us must have at least some indirect experience of the highs and lows of the NHS. Good service and bad, good doctors and bad. It inevitably colours our perceptions of whether or not the NHS as a whole functions as we expect. Are the bad stories too common? It certainly seems so if you've had some personal contact with one of them.

The doctor moved on some years before we compared notes with that lonely guy in the graveyard. In our daughter’s case, an earlier diagnosis would probably not have made any difference because the tumour was inoperable and incurable.

We didn't have any major issues with her treatment either - once a correct diagnosis had been made. Yet in the case of that guy’s wife, a correct and timely diagnosis could possibly have made a crucial difference.

Is that same doctor still bungling diagnoses? I don’t know, but it skewed our perception of doctors and the NHS. My recent NHS treatment has been good, but my perception of the NHS is still affected by that graveyard encounter all those years ago. Two bungled diagnoses by the same doctor – it’s too much to disguise with platitudes.

Bright-eyed faith in the NHS won’t do.

Sunday 5 August 2012

Electric sales

According to Daily Tech

Ford's electric Focus hasn't had much luck in the sales department during 2012, and this was evident in July's numbers.

The electric Ford Focus, which is a 5-door hatchback electric vehicle (EV) that was first produced in December 2011, had a total of 38 sales in the United States for the month of July.

This was a pretty big drop from the 89 Ford Focus Electrics sold in June. However, for the total seven months of 2012 so far, the automaker has only sold 135 of these EVs.

Climate change certainly has those US car buyers worried doesn't it?

Fracking for kids

The hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of deep shale deposits is unearthing a lot of natural gas — and controversy

In the 2010 documentary Gasland, Colorado resident Mike Markham strikes a cigarette lighter next to his kitchen faucet. He turns on the tap and waits a beat. Whoosh! A fireball shoots from the flowing stream. 

The headline and first paragraph set the tone of the whole piece. The Gasland clip has been debunked, but not until the sixth paragraph are we actually told so. Or maybe I should say the kids aren't let in on it until the sixth paragraph, because this is science for kids isn't it? 

A 2010 report that this agency issued evidence suggesting underground coal seams might be the source of methane in the homeowner’s water, not a fracked gas deposit.

So why include the Gasland clip and the flaming tapwater if it had nothing to do with fracking? Rhetorical question I know - experience has taught us why. The piece as a whole is relentlessly negative, but does give a reasonable outline of the fracking process. Yet the intended message of gloom and excessive caution is perfectly clear and the huge scale of the potential benefits is not addressed. Instead we have such dismal warnings as:-

“The health science community is now looking at why health complaints are rising in fracking areas, particularly among children,” says Steinzor of Earthworks. She says that some people who live near fracking areas have been complaining of headaches, nausea, bloody noses and nerve problems. As a result: “New studies are delving into the pathways of exposure and what levels are dangerous.”

This would be an important finding if we could believe it, but energy issues are now hopelessly compromised because of the way advocacy is so often disguised as science. Fracking offers major benefits for our children and grandchildren and ideologues know it. 

Scare kids off fracking seems to be the aim. In only a few years, some of them may become activists, so job done I suppose.