Monday 30 June 2014

The Philosophers - Lao Tzu

Po Chü-i - from Wikipedia

 “Those who speak know nothing;
Those who know are silent.”
These words, as I am told,
Were spoken by Lao Tzu.
If we are to believe that Lao Ttzu
      Was himself one who knew,
How comes it that he wrote a book
     Of five thousand words?

Po Chü-i (772–846)
Translated from the Chinese by Arthur Waley

Fluffy feudalism

One of our most powerful drivers is the search for security. It’s what stratifies our society, constantly working against social mobility.

Imagine you are an MP. You may actually be an MP, but it is pretty unlikely because you are reading this blog. Anyhow, imagine your party is the one currently “in power” as the euphemism has it. As you know, it means your party has to take the blame for a few years.

However, as well as taking the blame for the utterly mysterious ebb and flow of events, your lot has the power to hand down sinecures and positions of influence. In other words, your lot has the power to offer security.

A juicy prospect eh?

In our society, security comes from a number of sources, but principally from wealth, social status and a network of useful contacts. This is why so many obviously bent or incompetent public figures are so difficult to dislodge. FIFA is a topical example.

A social democratic world is leading us towards two social layers – base layer and mobile layer. Base layer folk stay where they are while the mobile layer is able to move around, making good use of those contacts and the opportunities they bring.

It's what all the climate change malarkey is about - to make sure base layer folk are less mobile physically as well as socially. Fluffy feudalism.

This is also what equality means by the way – equality within the base layer.

Saturday 28 June 2014

What is Cameron up to?

Apparently, one of Tony Blair's guiding principles was to avoid battles he could not win. Sound enough and obvious enough, so what was David Cameron up to with his handling of the Jean-Claude Juncker appointment?

From the BBC.

David Cameron has insisted his failure to stop the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker for the EU's top job is not his "last stand" in Europe.

The UK prime minister admitted it would make securing the reforms he wants harder but he vowed: "I am not going to back down."

EU leaders voted 26-2 to reject Mr Cameron's plea to prevent Mr Juncker becoming European Commission president.

Labour said it had been a "humiliating defeat" for a "toxic" prime minister.

Mr Cameron said the selection of Mr Juncker, whom he regards as an outdated Brussels insider committed to closer political union, was "a bad day for Europe".

Surely there is a puzzle here, because the outcome was obvious from the start. It was a battle Cameron could not win and he was bound to come out of it as a feeble loser. So why do it? Why make a big deal of the matter? I only see one possibility but perhaps there are more.

Cameron may have been advised that in fighting the Juncker shoo-in he would attract enough support from other EU leaders to allow him to pose as a kind of moderate EU sceptic.  This in turn could attract a significant slice of the UKIP vote during next year's general election. Yet as neither outcome was likely, he may have been set up.

Well that's the best I can do - I'm scratching my head over this one. Maybe he's simply a plonker.

Friday 27 June 2014

Climate and the demise of the middle class

To my mind, the climate change controversy has more to tell us about human anxieties than science. For instance, Sackers recently sent me these two links.

Global warming conspiracy theorist zombies devour Telegraph and Fox News brains

Attention climate deniers: This scientist will give you $10,000 for actual proof that global warming is a hoax

The first writer seems to think it's okay for climate scientists to alter past temperature data and anyone who disagrees is the zombie spawn of Fox News. Something like that. The second seems keen to bash any idea that climate orthodoxy has a few skeletons in the closet.

Whatever one thinks of these two items, neither addresses the core CAGW issue which has become too simple for prevarication. The climate itself settled the matter a few years ago when it failed to warm as predicted. Nobody has the faintest idea where global temperatures are going nor why. Not even next month's temperatures. At this stage it's all guesswork and chutzpah.

So the passion in these pieces cannot arise from genuine concern about catastrophic global warming because it isn’t warming - let alone catastrophically.  So what is it all about? Why do people still express themselves in such extreme ways? I do too by the way – from my side of the fence. More often than I’d like anyhow. 

To my mind the CAGW debate is wholly political which is where the passion comes from. It’s about the global demise of the middle classes, their increasing irrelevance as a powerful social class and their demotion to worker-consumers just like everyone else but the elite.

It’s about the prospect of having to compete globally for such basics as energy, raw materials and food. About the possibility that these necessities could become scarce if developing countries consume them with the same profligacy as we still do. Or if they are better able to afford them - and isn't that something to think about?

Certainly when I read blogs, newspaper items and comments on climate change, CAGW proponents tend to use language which does not tie in with what the climate is actually doing. Or rather what it isn't doing. I rarely detect genuine concern about global temperatures.

It’s almost always about bashing sceptics or it's about consumption. CO2 emissions are used as a symbol for consumption - they always have been. The Guardian has wittered away about consumption since I first started reading it fifty years ago – probably longer. It’s not a new refrain. If I remember rightly, PVC should have run out by now, but that’s another story.

Sceptics can be similarly extreme, but I think that may be for different reasons. Or it may not – hard to tell amid the unlovely fog of passion.

To my mind the flaky CAGW science deflects our attention from the real problem which appears to be this deep-rooted anxiety about the future – which I’ll admit to sharing. I don’t want my central heating switched off in winter and I don’t want a world of two monolithic social classes - Them and Us.

The future seems threatening as ordinary middle class people lose whatever political power they once had – even the power to be a social class. So perhaps we would be better off framing the debate in terms of anxiety about the future, accepting that such anxieties cannot always be rigidly rational and scientifically valid.

Perhaps we should also accept that widespread and essentially political anxieties ought to be brought out into the open rather than hidden behind environmental rhetoric and unattractive aggression or simulated and equally unattractive condescension.

As a CAGW sceptic, that’s a debate I would find easy enough to join and maybe find common ground with those who are anxious about political power, natural resources and willing to frame arguments in these terms rather than pretending to understand the climate, or pretending to know that others understand it.

If we humanise the debate in this way, if we take account of the emotional aspects and admit that it is perfectly reasonable to be anxious about our political future, such as the possibility that we might not have a political future, then maybe we’d get somewhere.

Thursday 26 June 2014


Britain is running out of land for food and faces a potential shortfall of two million hectares by 2030 according to new research.

The report, from the University of Cambridge, says the growing population plus the use of land for energy crops are contributing to the gap.

It criticises the government's lack of a coherent vision on how to make the most of UK farm land.

Crikey, I wonder if it's true? Yet even if we are so short of land for food, why not think laterally? For example, we could get some genetic chaps to breed oversized moles for food. 

So we'd have the usual rural idyll with cattle grazing above ground in lush meadows, but beneath the surface we'd be raising a tasty crop of mega-moles, doubling the productivity of the land at a stroke.

We’d process the underground harvest into juicy mole burgers, mole sausages and even deep-fried mole nuggets. Not only that, but we’d have lots of mole fur for all kinds of stylish clothing. I'm sure Dame Viv could work on that one.

Hang on though... One problem might be that the genetic chaps would also have to breed huge numbers of mega-worms for the moles to feed on.


Thinking laterally again - we'd offset that disadvantage by creating mole farms under towns and cities. Apart from all that delicious food, it might be a way to lower house prices.

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Here come the police

From the BBC

Complaints originating from social media make up "at least half" of calls passed on to front-line officers, a senior officer has told the BBC.

Chief Constable Alex Marshall, head of the College of Policing, said the number of crimes arising from social media represented "a real problem".

He said it was a particular problem for officers who deal with low-level crimes.

About 6,000 officers were being trained to deal with online offences, he said.
To my mind, the internet has poked a huge great stick into our more naive assumptions about institutions. Not that we were starry-eyed about them before the Great Linking, but the internet has exposed their failings and most institutions have been painfully slow to respond.

By the way, that’s painfully in the sense of embarrassingly painful to watch. So far the pain is ours – or perhaps I should say mine. You may think institutions are great or you may have been cynical about them forever. I don’t and wasn’t.

Yet which of these institutions has not had their image tarnished by exposure to the vast resources of the internet?

Governments, political parties, newspapers, the BBC, the FA, FIFA, the Olympics, the NHS, doctors, Oxfam, Greenpeace, WWF, Cancer Research, numerous other charities, the Royal Society, Tate Modern, the National Trust, the RSPB, the RSPCA, the NSPCC, the Royal Family, the Church of England, the Catholic Church, all major banks, the Bank of England, the City of London, the Co-operative movement, local councils, the police, social services, the Environment Agency, Defra, the Treasury, the Foreign Office, the MOD, the Met Office, numerous NGOs, the EU, the UN, major food retailers and UTC.

Yes the effect is complex, not unique to modern times and not universal, but it’s difficult to see how the somewhat precarious and irrational charisma of institutions can survive such massive amounts of easily accessed information. Presumably the only options are:-

Adapt and improve.

I wonder which is the preferred option?

Tuesday 24 June 2014

The demise of greatness

Greatness is spontaneous; simplicity, trust in some one clear instinct, are essential to it; but the spontaneous variation must be in the direction of some possible sort of order; it must exclude and leave behind what is incapable of being moralised. How, then, should there be any great heroes, saints, artists, philosophers, or legislators in an age when nobody trusts himself, or feels any confidence in reason, in an age when the word dogmatic is a term of reproach? Greatness has character and severity, it is deep and sane, it is distinct and perfect. For this reason there is none of it to-day.

George Santayana - Winds Of Doctrine: Studies in Contemporary Opinion (1913)

It is not easy to relate Santayana's words to the modern world. For one thing, we no longer look for greatness beyond celebrity greatness. We have no real use for any other kind.

In any event, our secular society cannot exclude and leave behind what is incapable of being moralised because we are no longer able to make the distinction in any consistent sense.

The EU is incapable of being moralised for example, but I can't yet see us leaving that behind. On the other hand, defending our social traditions and national borders; presumably that is capable of being moralised. Maybe we no longer have the greatness to recognise it.

Maybe we'll get by without greatness, but from from Wimbledon to the World Cup, from over-complex taxation to lives wholly dominated by petty bureaucracy, I think there is indeed much we could usefully exclude and leave behind. It is certainly incapable of being moralised. 

Monday 23 June 2014

Harming strangers

Meme is a useful modern word isn’t it? From Wikipedia:-

A meme is "an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture." 

Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.

So obviously there are meme-carriers too. In the case of political memes the carriers are rather like Typhoid Mary but more harmful and less easy to deal with by incarceration, although the idea is undeniably attractive. The Typhoid Mary analogy is quite strong because I’m sure there is often a touch of malice too, a furtive desire to harm strangers.

Harming strangers though? Is that really what political meme-carriers do?

Well I think it’s what some of them do, especially in the broader political arena. Maybe it’s the primitive warlike aspect of politics this need to harm outsiders. An ancient first strike philosophy perhaps.

So where are meme-carriers taking us these days? Progressive meme-carriers with their fascist politics lurking like hungry piranha in the shallows of a collective soul? Because their hunger does seem to be pack-like. Or maybe that should be shoal-like if I stick with the piranha metaphor.

To my mind, most seem to be politically correct pseudo innocents who have imbibed the head rotting fears of Malthusian finger-pointing - as yet without an armband. So we end up imbecilities such as the furtive malice behind climate change where bad people supposedly cause bad weather and lots of other nasty things too.

What does it all imply for those the climate meme-carriers seek to harm? That’s you and I by the way.

Well I’m sure hardly anyone has ever believed the strong climate stuff, the swivel-eyed greenhouse doom-rants from uncertified loons. I’m sure it grew from Malthusian memes which have been with us since the late eighteenth century.

The core Malthusian meme infecting many policies and many areas of life is of course a fear of over-population. Too many people is the partly covert cry. That’s the root cause of the impersonal harm we are talking about here. Not just harming strangers, but reducing our teeming numbers by means as yet to be admitted. Energy starvation perhaps?

In the deepest, darkest recesses of their minds, I think many carriers of the Malthusian meme wish we were far fewer in number but do not really know how to articulate their totalitarian yearnings.

Who goes and who stays for example.

Sunday 22 June 2014


But let the wise be warned against too great readiness at explanation: it multiplies the sources of mistake, lengthening the sum for reckoners sure to go wrong.
George Eliot - Middlemarch

Whatever it is, there seem to be two oddities about wisdom.

Firstly, inspiring and insightful fragments of wisdom are often found in a single paragraph or even a single sentence. A patch of purple prose glowing with that inner radiance we recognise as beautiful sanity. Sometimes as with the Eliot quote above, it may take the form of a laconic truism, but for me it still counts as wisdom.

Secondly, one inspiring fragment is not usually followed by second, then a third. A gem of beautiful sanity tends to be a solitaire, the rest is elaboration.

Maybe gems of wisdom have to be set in base metal – necessary prose providing context, setting the scene. Example, elaboration, exploration, exhortation, none of which is strictly essential.

To my mind, books can be like this. An island of wisdom in an ocean of words which may be enjoyable enough to read, but don’t add much to that delicious core, that single paragraph of beautiful sanity. Those few vital words we savour, dwell on, weave into our personal philosophy.

Another aspect of wisdom is that by weaving it into our personal philosophy we may diffuse it to such an extent that the gem is lost from sight, at least in its original pristine form.

The first frisson of delight is muted, the pleasure of discovery lost, because wisdom has to be used. We mix, blend and refine it into our own words until all that remains is a footprint in the sand of our personal philosophy.

It's why we read.

Saturday 21 June 2014

Malthusians - still ghastly

Sir David Attenborough on the need to control the global human population. Malthusian fear is over two hundred years old and all those earnest faces in Sir David's congregation suggest it isn't going away any time soon.

As with so many fears, fear of over-population it is somewhat irrational but also has a certain appeal. In many daily situations there are too many people. Traffic jams, crowded cities, crowded beauty spots, crowded beaches and so on and so on. It feels wrong to me too, but not all that wrong. It's supportable.

As I see it, there is an obvious problem in making a political issue of it. As ever it's the people. Take a look at the list of patrons for Population Matters, a list headed by Sir David. 

Paul Ehrlich for example - world class expert in being wrong. For me it's the company these people keep as much as anything else. It's not their ghastly self-importance - I can live with that.

Friday 20 June 2014

The corncrake cried too

A few years ago, a cold and foggy December morning found me walking back from an early medical appointment. The streets were quiet. A low winter sun rose behind a huge old beech tree towering over a scrubby piece of land. Shafts of brilliant hazy sunlight gleamed through icy fog and leafless black branches to create a scene of the most extraordinary beauty.

I stopped for a moment, wished I had a camera but walked on because there is no capturing these moments, no way to possess them.

Does the beauty of the fields delight you? Surely, yes; it is a beautiful part of a right beautiful whole. Fitly indeed do we at times enjoy the serene calm of the sea, admire the sky, the stars, the moon, the sun. Yet is any of these thy concern? Dost thou venture to boast thyself of the beauty of any one of them? Art thou decked with spring's flowers? is it thy fertility that swelleth in the fruits of autumn? Why art thou moved with empty transports? why embracest thou an alien excellence as thine own? Never will fortune make thine that which the nature of things has excluded from thy ownership.
Boethius - The Consolation of Philosophy (around 524 AD)

More recently.
The street outside falls strangely silent under a brilliant summer sun. Nothing moves, no sounds, not even birds. Breathless and timeless - even the clock seems to have slowed its relentless tick. A curiously beautiful stillness but only for a moment.  A car approaches. The spell is broken.

Natural beauty is like that – impossible to grasp beyond momentary impressions. Impossible to own or take away its alien excellence. 

Then a corncrake began to call in the meadow across the river, a strange, dispassionate sound, that made him feel not quite satisfied, not quite sure. It was not all achieved. The moon, in her white and naked candour, was beyond him. He felt a little numbness, as one who has gloves on. He could not feel that clear, clean moon. There was something betwixt him and her, as if he had gloves on. Yet he ached for the clear touch, skin to skin — even of the moonlight. He wanted a further purity, a newer cleanness and nakedness. The corncrake cried too.
D.H. Lawrence – The Overtone (1933)

Wednesday 18 June 2014

While watching Waybuloo

The other day as Granddaughter sat on my knee watching Waybuloo on the TV, I began to think about her memories of childhood. As she’s not yet two years old she has yet to lay down any long term memories, which is odd when you consider how much mental development goes on at her age.

I wondered if there is a connection between our lack of early childhood memories and adult mental processes. Well you have to think about something during Waybuloo. If you’ve watched it you'll know why. Granddaughter can't stand it for long which is promising.

Anyway, If I remember rightly B F Skinner once wrote that we don’t acquire early long-term memories because we cannot remember what we cannot articulate. In other words Granddaughter cannot form long-term memories until her language reaches a certain level of development – until she can describe things to herself.

So here’s the issue I mulled over.

If we need language to imprint ideas on our minds then what about ideas with which we don’t agree? Do we disagree with them by avoiding, distorting or modifying the language in which they are expressed? Do we actively avoid something analogous to the imprinting of memories via language?

Obviously we don’t always do that, but it seems to be extremely common as far as I can see. Online Guardian comments are an entertaining example. Many Guardian readers simply reject ideas by distorting the language. It isn’t only the tiresome non sequitur crowd either. On the other hand, accurate language sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.

So as I see it, we often disagree with an idea by not describing it accurately, even to ourselves. It may be as subtle as altering the tone or the style in which the idea is usually expressed. A touch of sarcasm or incredulity, a hint of exaggeration or a slight shift in a crucial emphasis.

Just as Granddaughter can’t use language to imprint long term memories on her mind, we seem to avoid the language of ideas we don’t like. As if we are avoiding the imprinting process because we know the power of it. As if we are aware of the dangers of accurate language, aware that accurate language is powerful language.

So we use language to understand but we also use it to misunderstand where allegiances are threatened. We may name the idea, name its proponents and tag both with pejorative associations, but we avoid accurate language because we must avoid it to maintain the argument. Often for good reasons of course, but the reasons have to be derived from pre-existing allegiances. We can’t get too close to ideas we prefer to deny.

Obviously these things are diffuse and vary between individuals. Yet whenever a contentious subject attracts lots of online comment, one side seems to understand the issue and one side seems to misunderstand it – deliberately as far as I can see.

It’s interesting to watch – better than Waybuloo at any rate.

Tuesday 17 June 2014

The joys of pessimism

Few who are not pessimists can imagine the cosy feeling of completeness that there is in pessimism, for it has many joys of its own unknown and undreamt of by the busy optimist world.
Ford Madox Ford - The Shifting of the Fire

Pessimism doesn't actually work you know. Absolutely hopeless. I'd give it a go myself, but I can tell it's no good before I even start.

Monday 16 June 2014


What do you think of this video? 

To me it's merely another take on the superstitious fruitcake genre using witchcraft as a vehicle. Or should that be plate? Yet in spite of these politically correct times even kid’s stories still have witches in them. Odd ain't it?

Were our peasant ancestors genuinely afraid of witches though? I’m not convinced they were. I’ve often wondered if many medieval folk really believed in them.

Were they likely to think a woman who had been born in the village, whose entire life history was known to them – were they likely to think she could blight their beans, impregnate their scrofulous daughter or douse the light of reason in their idiot son? All done with an evil leer and a magic twig?

I don’t think so but I suppose in some villages there would be malevolent bastards keen enough to load their own demons and misfortunes onto frail and undefended shoulders.

People go along with all kinds of crazy notions, but going along with something isn’t the same as believing it. Being willing and able to justify a belief for example, especially when not under any kind of pressure to do so. Do people believe everything they go along with? I don’t think so.

Yet thousands of alleged witches were burned.

So perhaps our distant ancestors really were absurdly superstitious after all. Yet somehow, as an explanation it sounds too easy. Surely hard lives don’t breed soft heads in spite of all that superstitious ranting – or politics as we call it these days. After all, we don’t believe the political stuff do we?

I don’t think we’ll ever quite know our ancestors' take on the witch question. Although  they must have know it was a terrifically good idea not to be a witch - in spite of the magic twig. 

To find out for sure we’d have to sit with those peasants and talk to them in their hovels, in a situation where there was no risk in them expressing unorthodox views. I imagine we'd also want to do that without breathing or touching anything, but that's another story.

So we only know in outline what happened to all those unfortunate witches, not the fine detail of why. Ah well – here's an utterly tasteless question to ponder instead.

If witch persecutions were still in vogue today, which post-war Prime Minister would have burned the most?

Sunday 15 June 2014

The one great principle

The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.
Charles Dickens - Bleak House

I’ve used this Dickens quote before because it's a favourite of mine with wide applicability.

For example, If the word government is substituted for English law, it almost becomes a law of nature. It's what I observed for most of my working life - government making business for itself. Mostly during the latter years of my sentence - as life became progressively more bureaucratic.

The commercial world makes business for itself  but government has the power to do it without the trouble and inconvenience of attracting customers. Hence the close links between big business and big government. Certain professions and organisations cuddle up to government for the same reason.

From this aspect, Dickens’ monstrous maze covers anything from minutiae such as the date of the next meeting (because there always has to be one) to protecting ministerial budgets to promoting custom and practice as a guiding principle. And yes, I have heard custom and practice used as an argument for resisting beneficial change.

Take science for example. A key reason why it is so politically attractive to bend science into a policy instrument is that it creates business. Business for government, people in government, corporations entangled with government, government supported charities - and of course scientists.

The nutritional sciences are a case in point. What is nutritional advice worth after decades of study and the expenditure of uncounted billions? May I suggest an answer somewhere in the vicinity of not much? May I further suggest that a moderate and varied diet seems to cover it?

As far as I can see from personal experience, a traditional main meal of meat and two veg followed by a pud plus maybe a glass or two of something in the evening is fine. Not quite my taste, but it didn't cause my parents' generation to keel over at an early age. Too many calories do cause problems as does too much booze, but we've known that for centuries.

It doesn’t matter though – food fads give rise to food regulations and food regulations are business. Looping back to Dickens, it’s a coherent scheme.

Government bungles everything it touches, partly because bungling is good business too. Lessons can be learned, relearned then learned all over again. Newspapers report the bungles, committees investigate them, auditors audit them and politicians take advantage of them.

Let’s finish with a question and a possible answer.

How will the drugs problem be resolved?

Unfortunately it may well be the case that so much business is created by not resolving it that there is no business reason why it should ever be resolved. In that case, unless the drugs problem becomes a threat to social and political stability, unless it becomes a threat to government business, then the current situation seems likely to continue.

So maybe the drugs issue isn’t a question of weighing up moral choices or policies which do the least harm. Maybe it’s merely a question of whatever policy generates the most government business with the least political risk.

Sounds cynical, but when it comes to making those millions of micro-decisions which comprise social and political trends, then people can be very cynical indeed. Especially when it isn’t obvious – when custom and practice so conveniently sidestep the rational and ethical faculties.

When government folk are making business for themselves.

Saturday 14 June 2014

World Cup wisdom

From the Trent Barton bus company.

trentbarton’s World Cup Freeride Knockout

World Cup fever is here in trentbarton land! And we’ve got a really good way for everyone to join in.

We’ve assigned a different World Cup team to each of our brands.(*) Follow the brand you use all the way to the World Cup final – if your team reaches the final, that’s free rides for an hour on World Cup final day!

(*) in other words, the bus routes.

Now each bus on a particular route sports a flag from a competing World Cup country. The flag of Italy is displayed on the rainbow 1/ rapid 1 service.

So for the late night service going in and out of Nottingham, Trent Barton buses on the rainbow 1/ rapid 1 route will display the Italian flag during and after the England Italy match.  

Friday 13 June 2014

Friday 13th

I'm not superstitious about Friday 13th. It's a day like any other. Bad luck does not have a calendar of events, it does not

Thursday 12 June 2014

On the buses

A bus driver running slightly ahead of the timetable decides to wait at the next stop for a couple of minutes. A passenger finds this brief wait somewhat irritating.

Irritated passenger - why have we stopped?

Bus driver - we're ahead of the timetable. I'll move on in another minute.

Irritated passenger - I bet you wouldn't do this if you were late.

Bus driver retires from the debate, defeated yet again by passenger logic.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Is UKIP doomed?

It is by means of symbols that men and women have been educated out of tribal patriotism and into nationalistic idolatry. And symbols, no doubt, will be used when the moment comes to educate them out of nationalistic idolatry and into world-patriotism.

As soon as we and our rulers desire it, modern methods of propaganda can be used to effect a change of thought patterns within a single lifetime.
Aldous Huxley – Themes and Variations (1950)

Where is UKIP likely to take the UK politically? Sackerson recently raised the fascinating issue of UKIP’s prospects. Conservative and Labour prospects hold little interest in the wider scheme of things. Lib Dem prospects have only a morbid fascination for the politically ghoulish. That includes me by the way.

So will UKIP win Parliamentary seats next year or is the barrier to entry too high? It’s not a matter of policy, because as a vehicle for disaffection, UKIP doesn’t really need many. That is to say, it doesn’t need radical policies because conventional anti-EU nationalism seems sufficient to harvest disaffected voters. 

There is no point risking policy wrangles by adding other contentious issues for folk to bicker about, especially folk already disaffected and already willing to wrangle.

So what are UKIP’s prospects for 2015?

Firstly, as we all know, our first past the post system is heavily rigged in favour of the established parties. The UK electorate bungled its last chance of improving the situation in 2011. Still - at least the AV experience allows us to factor in an electorate with advanced bungling capabilities. 

Secondly, tribal voting is endemic in the UK, so unless UKIP gains a hugely improbable number of seats in the House of Commons, there seems to be little prospect of genuine constitutional change. Even UKIP holding the balance of power seems improbable unless one of the major parties also aligns itself with anti-EU sentiment. This seems unlikely – it isn’t in their political genes.

Thirdly and rather unfortunately, there is crude self-interest to consider. UKIP has MEPs but no MPs so we have to ask how likely it is that MEPs would willingly alight from the EU gravy train.

So is UKIP doomed? It seems to me that the ebb and flow of events do not favour the brand of nationalist disaffection UKIP represents.

It may be entirely rational for voters to keep hold of what little democratic power they have, but as Huxley said modern methods of propaganda can be used to effect a change of thought patterns within a single lifetime. Not much of the propaganda pot goes on nationalism. Even less on democracy.

As older generations slip away, the importance and even the possibility of holding governments to account may be forgotten, lost in a ruthless tide of propaganda.

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Tree tents

Not sure if I like this idea or not. Needs big trees I imagine.

Monday 9 June 2014

The smell of coffee and milk

If we see again a thing which we looked at formerly it brings back to us, together with our past vision, all the imagery with which it was instinct.

This is because objects — a book bound like others in its red cover — as soon as they have been perceived by us become something immaterial within us, partake of the same nature as our preoccupations or our feelings at that time and combine, indissolubly with them. A name read in a book of former; days contains within its syllables the swift wind and the brilliant sun of the moment when we read it.

In the slightest sensation conveyed by the humblest aliment, the smell of coffee and milk, we recover that vague hope of fine weather which enticed us when the day was dawning and the morning sky uncertain; a sun-ray is a vase filled with perfumes, with sounds, with moments, with various humours, with climates. It is that essence which art worthy of the name must express and if it fails, one can yet derive a lesson from its failure (while one can never derive anything from the successes of realism) namely that that essence is in a measure subjective and incommunicable.
Marcel Proust - À la recherche du temps perdu

We’ve neutralised much of this haven’t we? By bringing into the realm of scientific study the vast complexity of mental associations, we have tried to sidestep the compelling reality of subjective life.

Not only in popular psychology, but in a whole plethora of explanatory terms we use to cast a false aura of objectivity over our most implacable biases.

Yet Proust was right - as great writers so often are.

Sunday 8 June 2014

Heard in a shoe shop

A couple, obviously retired.

Yes they will, I'll just ask them.

Mumble mutter mumble grumble...

What about those - do you like those?


Or these. Do you like these?

Mumble mutter mumble grumble...

Do you want to try them on. Go on, try them on.


I doesn't matter I'll just ask them.

Mumble mutter mumble grumble...

Don't be silly, yours have a hole in them. Come on.

Mumble mutter mumble grumble...


Consternation has been rippling through bureaucratic ranks at the news of a draft EU law classifying human vomit as food waste. 

What's the problem? 

Well under existing EU law food waste must be recycled into animal feed or disposed of by composting, leaving local councils with a Friday night dilemma on their streets.

One obvious answer is the puke-a-scoop and disposal bins – and approach not dissimilar to that used for tackling the dog faeces issue. However, doubts have been expressed about the likelihood of the puke-a-scoop being used by those guilty of unauthorised food waste emissions. Especially on a Friday night.

Another obvious answer would be to require pubs and clubs to issue sick-bags to anyone leaving their premises when there is an obvious chance of uncontrolled food waste being discharged illegally to the urban environment. Again we come up against the problem of enforcement.

So far the issue is at an impasse. Local councils are adamant that they do not have the cash employ food waste wardens equipped with puke-a-scoops to patrol high risk areas. The government has made noises about using private contractors such as Vomco Ltd to do the job, but with an election next year they can ill afford the bad publicity a major slip-up would cause.

Friday 6 June 2014

Honesty cannot win

It might seem ignominious to believe something on compulsion, because I can’t help believing it ; when reason awakes in a man it asks for reasons for everything. Yet this demand is unreasonable : there cannot be a reason for everything. It is mere automatic habit in the philosopher to make this demand, as it is in the common man not to make it.
George Santayana - Scepticism and Animal Faith

I think Santayana was right, there cannot be a reason for everything and it is unreasonable to assume otherwise. The world is exceedingly complex and full of rational voids over which human reason cannot, and in some cases may never build bridges from cause to effect.

In many ways this is our biggest unsolved problem - our penchant for inventing spurious bridges across rational voids. I don't mean your penchant of course, nor mine. I mean their penchant - those creepy charlatans who spoil every decent human endeavour. Human nature abhors rational vacuums, so charlatans fill them to overflowing with an infinite cascade of sweet nothings.

Unfortunately rational voids have features and regularities which seem to promise rather more than they deliver so yet again charlatans jump in with both feet, muddying the waters for the rest of us. Yet if we could devise a science of imperfect knowledge then maybe we'd make some progress.

Aspects of the same situation may even contradict each other while remaining valid within certain caveats. To take a rather weak illustration, I could say it is pitch dark outside. You might say I’m going for a walk – I love walking under the stars.

Two aspects of the same situation, both valid but mildly contradictory in that they stress different aspects of a dark night. It may be dark, but there is enough visibility for a walk beneath the stars. 

Does it all begin in childhood when we reward children who give answers over those who don't? Do we condition ourselves to give answers and carry it over to situations where no answer can be given? Are we hopelessly entangled in our own conditioning?

Maybe we are, but the question itself is too complex for simple answers like this. To avoid being hoist by our own petard, we have to be tentative over the diagnosis and recognise its incomplete nature. So it isn't even possible to diagnose the problem with assurance.

Complexity may be a battleground where honesty cannot win.

Thursday 5 June 2014

Joy in the Morning

After the thing was all over, when peril had ceased to loom and happy endings had been distributed in heaping handfuls and we were driving home with our hats on the side of our heads, having shaken the dust of Steeple Bumpleigh from our tyres, I confessed to Jeeves that there had been moments during the recent proceedings when Bertram Wooster, though no weakling, had come very near to despair.

"Within a toucher, Jeeves."

"Unquestionably affairs had developed a certain menacing trend, sir."

And so another classic begins. The books of the inimitable P G Wodehouse sucked me in as soon as I set eyes on them and I've never tired of the great man's strangely near yet impossibly distant world. Impossibly distant socially too, but that doesn't seem to matter either.

Some years ago I picked up a few first editions. I think it was the dust jackets as much as the books, the above pic being an example. That and the faultlessly genial writing. 

"You!" he said, with a kind of gasp, like some strong swimmer on his agony. "What the devil are you doing here?"

"Just sauntering."

"Then go and saunter somewhere else, damn it."

The Woosters are quick to take a hint, and are generally able to spot when our presence is not desired. Reading between the lines, I could see that he was wishing me elsewhere.

Delightful stuff and it never, ever lapses into something less genial. It never stoops to anything bitter, sardonic or tinged with with the corrosive cynicism of experience. As Santayana wrote in another context, it's the intrinsic beauty of all symbols bred in a genial mind.

Wodehouse had his critics of course, but even his response to a critic could be genially devastating. From Wikipedia.

A certain critic—for such men, I regret to say, do exist—made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained 'all the old Wodehouse characters under different names'. He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elijah; but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Political technology

Back in 2011, Andrew Wilson wrote a piece in opendemocracy about political technology in Russia.

"Political technology" – a term largely unfamiliar in the West - is the euphemism commonly used in the former Soviet states for what is by now a highly developed industry of political manipulation. There is a general understanding that elections are fixed in most countries of the region, from Russia to Kyrgyzstan, but we still do not look closely enough at just how they are fixed.

Although Wilson's piece mainly concerns Russian politics with it's more ruthless and almost openly fraudulent manipulation of political power, there are wider implications too.

As a term to describe the activities of modern political fixers, "political technology" is also useful here in the UK and EU. Here, political control also has its purely technical aspect. Maintaining the power of unelected stakeholders has become an apolitical matter of manipulating human behaviour rather than promoting an ideology.

From the above link.

One advantage of political technology is that it is ‘dry’. It helps regimes function without ideology, and move from one option to another. Ivan Krastev claims that authoritarian regimes may actually be more stable without an official ideology, which gives oppositions something to mobilise against.

Political technology may have an inbuilt tendency towards drama inflation, or at least towards inventing a new drama for every election, which is likely to be destabilising in the long run. The electorate can sense a lack of competition, and political technologists constantly have to fight against the declining turnout they themselves have caused – either with more drama or more fraud. 

It seems to me that Tony Blair was our first exponent of "dry" political technology here in the UK. He created the first government with no ideology and no interest in governing democratically. Not that UK democracy has ever been strong or effective - and that of course may have been the vacuum into which Blair's political technology was bound to exploit.

UK and EU political technology is undoubtedly softer than the Russian version in that it is more covert and less reliant of crudely fraudulent techniques such as vote-rigging, although that too has become an issue of concern. Postal vote scams have now become somewhat notorious in the UK.

Postal voting is open to fraud on an "industrial scale" and is "unviable" in its current form, a top judge has said.

Richard Mawrey QC, who tries cases of electoral fraud, told the BBC that people should not be able to apply for postal votes as a matter of course.

But the Electoral Commission said it would not be "proportionate" to end postal voting altogether.

The government also said it had no plans to abolish the current system, saying it had made it easier for many people to vote.

Yet as regimes become apolitical and as they base their power on political technology rather than ideology, then perhaps electoral fraud becomes politically unimportant. After all, we are now perfectly familiar with major league vote-rigging by or on behalf of the EU. From the BBC.

When it comes to rejecting European treaties, Ireland has a long track record.

Both the Nice Treaty (2001) and Lisbon Treaty (2008) referendums were lost, forcing the governments of the day into the embarrassing position of having to re-run the votes to get them passed.

This is political technology in action, but usually it isn't so transparently fraudulent. Usually, political technology here in the UK and EU seems to revolve around narratives and what Wilson calls dramaturgiia, or a fake drama designed by political technologists to manipulate popular sentiment

Often, as in Russia, the drama seems designed to create a dichotomy between the devil you know and the devil you don't, insinuating a sense of unease about the prospect of change.

Next year's general election should be interesting. Watch out for the political technology. If you are a mainstream voter, your party will make energetic use of it.

Clouds and trees

Interesting post on the CLOUD experiment via tallbloke.

CERN Experiment Sheds New Light on Cloud Formation

Geneva, 16 May 2014 – In a paper published in the journal Science today, CERN’s* CLOUD** experiment has shown that biogenic vapours emitted by trees and oxidised in the atmosphere have a significant impact on the formation of clouds, thus helping to cool the planet. These biogenic aerosols are what give forests seen from afar their characteristic blue haze. The CLOUD study shows that the oxidised biogenic vapours bind with sulphuric acid to form embryonic particles which can then grow to become the seeds on which cloud droplets can form. This result follows previous measurements from CLOUD showing that sulphuric acid alone could not form new particles in the atmosphere as had been previously assumed.

“This is a very important result,” said CLOUD spokesperson Jasper Kirkby,…

Monday 2 June 2014

Seriously big batteries

Sackerson recently sent me this Telegraph piece on solar power. As you can see, it reads like science fiction, no doubt because that's what sections of the reading public enjoy. For example :-

Solar is for keeps. The more it expands, the cheaper it gets as economies of scale kick in.

Stirring stuff and maybe we need to be irrationally optimistic to push the possibilities to their limits, but unfortunately the claim is false.

Solar power is notoriously intermittent such that too much of it attached to a distribution grid causes unacceptable stability problems. Wind has a similar issue. There are other factors, but until the storage issue is resolved in a cost-effective way, stable distribution grids require predominantly fossil fuel or nuclear generation, quite apart from issues of cost.

So as we all know, a big problem with wind and solar energy is storage. How do we store it and how do we do so at a reasonable cost? Fossil fuel energy such as coal and gas are stored chemically in the fuels themselves, so might chemical storage be viable for wind and solar? From the same Telegraph piece we have:-

Cheap energy storage from flow-batteries (a Harvard research project funded by the US Advanced Research Projects Agency) will soon overcome the curse of intermittency, letting us absorb the sun’s rays by day and release them again as heating and light overnight.

Well it isn't just day and night is it? Especially here in the UK. For example, we have this thing called winter. I'm surprised a Telegraph writer hasn't heard of it.

So what is there to extract from the writer's runaway enthusiasm? Obviously we already store energy chemically in batteries and large scale battery storage seems to be the next big thing for wind and solar energy.Yet before the excitement overpowers our critical faculties, it is worth remembering that even with storage, wind and solar may not be economically viable anyway.

However, one option is flow batteries which are being pushed hard as a viable means of storing wind and solar energy. EnerVault has recently opened  an iron/chromium flow battery in California.

The EnerVault flow battery's two electrolyte tanks
store energy generated by a solar array
in an almond orchard outside Turlock (Stanislaus County). 

The EnerVault flow battery can deliver one megawatt-hour of energy from a 250 kW battery for four hours. Greater capacity could be achieved via more tanks of electrolyte. The battery is charged by a solar array.

There are complexities, but the nuts and bolts are not expensive and the technology is well understood. Iron and chromium salts are inexpensive and fairly safe to handle so a degree of optimism may not be out of place here. From

By 2015, EnerVault expects to have multi-megawatt commercial systems installed. In four or five years, it hopes to have 20 megawatt or 50 megawatt-size batteries taking the place of natural gas "peaker plants," says Pape. The tanks that hold electrolyte solution can be very large but the footprint is comparable to conventional power generation equipment, he says.

The chemical storage medium is iron and chromium salts dissolved in water. Essentially all the battery does is pump them through a cell. To recharge, the process is reversed. At the heart is stable and durable technology with few moving parts, but it is still worth remembering that these are essentially political technologies. Not much seems to be novel apart from the cells.

Using iron and chromium electrolytes required developing a novel mechanical system for flowing the materials through the battery’s cells. The batteries have a series of stacked cells, with each one optimized for the state of charge of the electrolytes flowing through them, says chief technology officer Ronald Mosso.

Even so, I have a soft spot for human ingenuity and the spirit of invention and my soft spot hopes at least one or two energy projects such as this come to fruition.

Sunday 1 June 2014

Too silly

When I take Grandson to school I like to stand in the playground and watch the games he plays with his mates before the bell goes.

One game is a version of dodgeball where someone kicks a lightweight football and anyone struck by the ball is out and has to wait by the wall. There are lots of acrobatics as the kids avoid the ball with wildly exaggerated twists and turns until...

Until what? Well usually the game breaks down before reaching some kind of conclusion. Kids of Grandson’s age seem adept at bending the rules in their favour. Often they use silliness to disrupt the game, dragging it into a chaos of absurdity and laughter which makes a nonsense of any rules.

The silliness seems to be an accepted tactic too, a welcome relief from the constraints of rule-based games which none of the kids seem to want anyway. They seem to want fluidity and the freedom to start over again as soon as a game begins to sort winners from losers.

It’s as if they lose interest once the game acquires a certain inevitability of outcome, once the endgame becomes clear and threatens to be protracted.

As I watch these convoluted and ever-changing tactics, I’m reminded of how powerful silliness can be for adults too. Generally, adult silliness is much more subtle and covert, but I’m sure we learn its power during childhood.

Politics is riddled with silliness, which seems like simple stupidity until we recognise the value of it to the participants. Silliness is a way of breaking inconvenient rules to promote a favoured outcome or avoid one which is unfavourable. It's a way of bending rules which can be anything from moral laws to economic facts to scientific laws to simple common sense.

Silliness is a way of talking nonsense by taking any argument beyond the bounds of rational discourse. There is no real counter to it either, just as there is no real counter when Grandson's games become silly. 

It's no use standing there and saying "play the game properly or it isn't worth playing." Key players have already decided it isn't worth sticking to the rules because they see the where the endgame would go. They may start off by playing to the rules, but they have no intention of sticking to them. They learned not to do that in the playground. 

Under the manipulative spell of silliness, all becomes fluid, easier to manipulate and altogether more attractive to those willing to use it as a tactic. Global warming fantasies are obviously silly, as is much of the EU, the UN, the silly complexities of taxation and the silliness of political correctness.

It's all too silly - but it works.