Tuesday 29 September 2015

Wannabe working class

One of the most odious aspects of our culture is the sight of millionaire celebrities loudly honking their sympathy for the poor, disadvantaged and downtrodden. Or the environment. It isn’t always clear if they make a distinction, but maybe the environment is a victim too.

It isn't any more palatable when middle class poseurs play the same games but the glitzy sympathy show has become an integral part of modern culture. It becomes even more weird when faux radicalism is invoked plus dollops of holier than thou bile for the rich bastards who supposedly cause all the problems, hording piles of moolah which numerous middle class committees would prefer to spend on themselves. 

Jeremy Corbyn’s retro Labour party seems willing to push this kind of two-faced mush to the limits with a strange attempt to identify with the workers, whoever they may be these days. Haven’t they moved to China - in a virtual sense?

Corbyn himself exemplifies it rather well which is one reason why I find it impossible to warm to the guy. Working class people aren’t called Jeremy, don’t have brothers called Piers and in particular they don’t spend almost their entire "working" lives as radical poseurs, safely hidden away on the political fringe where government is a theoretical concept developed by students decades ago.

In political terms the working class has morphed into a strange bundle of minorities rather than the horny-handed toilers of yesteryear when Jeremy first honed the political principles he seems never to have forgotten.

This is Jeremy’s weakness, that bundle of minorities which never was a core aspect of his old-fashioned, trade union, bash the rich politics but which he now has to accept as the new reality. Not only that, but the toilers' grandchildren now wish to be as middle class as he is but without the political flim-flam. He and his temporary acolytes don’t quite know what to do about it apart from dredging up the incantations of yesteryear.

It’s a tough call. Tony Blair knew things had changed but I’m not so sure Jeremy noticed. Maybe he was busy, but whatever it was he wasn’t working. Still isn’t.

Monday 28 September 2015

The joy of cynicism

What has the internet done for us? Maybe one thing it has achieved is to hone our cynicism into a new and liberating philosophy of life – holistic cynicism.

Cynicism about what though? People – always people.

We have been ruled by cynics forever so perhaps after long centuries of believing all kinds of ludicrous crap it’s our turn to be cynical. Politics, big business and big bureaucracy are extremely cynical, which we always knew but many of us now know it right down to the marrow of our bones. It’s a fact of life on a par with death and taxes.

Holistic cynicism is a necessary if not always sufficient condition for placing ourselves more accurately in the grand scheme of things, for knowing what to expect and what not to expect – particularly what not to expect. Holistic cynicism is a sound way to make at least some sense of the big wide world.

Everything beyond our inner circle is included, from charities to democracy, from government to royalty, from celebrities to institutions, from news to narrative. Rule number one is the strongest, most profound and unyielding cynicism – holistic cynicism. Nothing less will do - abandon rule one at your peril.

We cynics always knew it but the internet has taught us just how cynical we need to be, and even now we haven’t fully mastered the beautiful and eternal truths of holistic cynicism. Unfortunately the internet has not passed this liberating lesson to everyone. There are those who will not learn to be holistically cynical  - they refuse to learn in spite of constant efforts by our political leaders.

A divide seems to be growing between those who find spiritual joy through their innate gift of holistic cynicism and those poor unfortunates who actually watch TV news and believe the mainstream media. Sad I know, but such people still exist in substantial numbers and there is no known cure. 

In particular there seems to be a vast gulf between cynics and those who see two sides to important issues. In reality there is only ever one side to any issue – the cynical side which is not really a side at all, but a starting point for liberating the soul.

Do cynics have souls? Do we need one?

Sunday 27 September 2015

Saturday 26 September 2015

A counterfeit of right


There is something so massive, stable, and almost irresistibly imposing in the exterior presentment of established rank and great possessions, that their very existence seems to give them a right to exist; at least, so excellent a counterfeit of right, that few poor and humble men have moral force enough to question it, even in their secret minds.
Nathaniel Hawthorne - The House Of The Seven Gables (1851)

Hawthorne was right. Many people have a strong tendency to accept established rank and great possessions as a realities they never question. For others to do so can be embarrassing or even offensive. Things could be different but the realities of power plus social inertia say otherwise. What we do with the idea is a matter of political taste.

I’m sure Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t see the NHS or the BBC as existing through established rank and great possessions, but his blinkers are there for a purpose.

I’m sure David Cameron sees banks through their so excellent a counterfeit of right because his blinkers are there for a purpose too.

Neither man swims in in a political environment which could ever lead them to question their own assumptions of established rank and great possessions because neither man has moral force enough to question it, even in their secret minds. Although I'm not so sure about Cameron's secret mind. I don't think he cares one way or the other.

Friday 25 September 2015

The VW debacle – does it matter?

At the heart of the VW debacle are official concerns about nitrogen oxide emissions from diesel engines and the consequent effects on human health. We may as well talk about nitrogen dioxide – NO2 as this gas is the primary health risk. Nitric oxide (NO) is also generated by diesel engines but is rapidly oxidised to NO2 by oxygen in the air. Nitrous oxide (N2O or laughing gas) is generated in smaller quantities via complex mechanisms which are not fully understood.

There is a long and detailed WHO review here and a UK Defra summary hereThe whole issue is exceedingly complex and it is not clear what health effects atmospheric NO2 may cause nor how permanent nor how severe long-term effects may be.

Annual mean concentrations in urban areas throughout the world are generally in the range of 20–90 μg/m3(15). In the European Community Respiratory Health Survey (ECRHS II) covering 21 European cities, annual ambient nitrogen dioxide concentrations ranged from 4.9 μg/m3 in Reykjavik to 72 μg/m3 in Turin (16). The maximum hourly mean value may be several times higher than the annual mean. For example, a range of 179–688 μg/m3 nitrogen dioxide has been reported inside a car in a road tunnel during the rush hour (15).

Nevertheless, if atmospheric NO2 can be reduced to a minimum it probably should be, but not at any cost and in any event it could take a lifetime to nail down what that minimum should be. This is one of the attractions of environmental science, the problems are interesting and likely to last for an entire career.

For example, the atmosphere in your home probably contains NO2, particularly if you have indoor combustion processes such as a gas stove or you live near a busy road or in a city. For all-electric homes domestic NO2 should depend on external levels and ventilation, but even here there are other factors.

For homes where there are combustion processes such as a gas stove, NO2 levels are extremely variable depending on external factors such as nearby roads and internal factors such as the type of gas stove, its ventilation and other sources of combustion. Move to the coast, rural Wales or rural Scotland if you really want to get away from NO2 - or Iceland.

Maximum levels associated with the use of gas appliances (gas cooking and heating) in European homes are in the range 180–2500 μg/m3.

So quite high levels. As for the effects:-

Several types of animal study have indicated that nitrogen dioxide increases susceptibility to respiratory infections (60,61,8890). An extensive set of data was collected using the infectivity model, which measures the total antibacterial defences of the lungs of mice. For long-term exposures, the lowest concentration tested that increased mortality when challenged with Klebsiella pneumoniae was 940 μg/m3 (0.5 ppm) for 3 months of exposure (91). After a 3-hour exposure, the lowest concentration tested that affected resistance to Streptococcus pneumoniae was 3760 μg/m3 (2 ppm) (92).

So domestic NO2 levels can easily be as high or higher than typical concentrations in the atmosphere outside even in cities. What effect did the actions of VW have on human health? I don’t know and neither does anyone else. Yet claims will be made and vast amounts of money will be transferred from one pocket to another because this is where we leave science behind.

Wednesday 23 September 2015

The VW debacle

Most people are probably already aware of what Volkswagen has done with respect to nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from a large number of their diesel cars.  The EPA Notice of Violation can be found here. A timeline of events is here.

Briefly, VW appears to have admitted that engine management software used various clues such as wheel alignment to detect when emissions tests were being run as opposed to normal road driving.

The EPA has discovered that if a test situation was detected, the software would turn on an "auxiliary emissions control device" designed to remove oxides of nitrogen from exhaust gases. Once normal driving was detected again, the software would turn off the emissions control. The reason seems to be related to vehicle performance, but there may be other factors.

The health issues are complex. Millions of UK citizens subject themselves and their children to atmospheric NOx pollution by living in cities, but for a number of reasons concentrations in the UK are declining. No thanks to VW apparently.

Tuesday 22 September 2015

A question

Gracious reader, may I venture to ask you a question? Have you ever had hours, perhaps even days or weeks, in which all your customary activities did nothing but cause you vexation and dissatisfaction; when everything that you usually consider worthy and important seemed trivial and worthless?
E T A Hoffmann – The Golden Pot (1814)

Sometimes a commonplace observation hits the mark. Hoffmann's question isn’t profound or insightful but given the right mood it draws back a curtain designed to prevent the cold eye of reality from peeping at us while we play.

Whether or not we draw it back seems to be a question of temporary moods, passing inclinations to dwell on such things as the engaging futility of modern life - because it is engaging and often enjoyable. These passing moods are rather like getting up from a warm chair to gaze out  at the pouring rain, as if  vainly trying to recall what encouraged people to make chairs and create warmth in the first place. It surely wasn't a burning desire to watch Disney on TV.

Without whatever it was we’d never have ventured this far from the equator, this far beyond natural warmth, the kind we don’t have to work for. Now we’ve moved much, much further and not just geographically. We've moved so far that we don't even know why we came, why we're here. Or rather, why our distant ancestors came in search of whatever it was that drew them to this remote and chilly island. They must have worked at it, must have been driven by some spirit we’ve forgotten.

We barely know how to strive in any serious sense, the sense where survival looks over our shoulder. That’s where the real curtain hangs, not the one we sometimes draw aside to gaze at the rain.

Monday 21 September 2015


He must be a socialist! After all, nowadays the pettifoggers are all socialists!
Arthur Schnitzler – Lieutenant Gustl (1900)

Lieutenant Gustl is himself a pettifogging fool who cannot see beyond his social caste and military rank, cannot even work out how to respond to a trivial slight from a local baker, other than commit suicide.

Pettifogging seems such a mild criticism, but sometimes I wonder if vast legions of pettifoggers are shaping up to become one of the world’s great social movements. 

Pettifoggers provide us with mountains of social stodge, endless supplies of intellectual slurry, a whole universe of checks and rules, procedures and processes which never lead anywhere because the whole point is that they should never on any account lead anywhere.

They tend to be socialists too, because they believe in planning, neatness, order and a world with no loose ends, let alone loose cannon. Perhaps it isn’t so much the politics of socialism as a pettifogging inability to cut to the chase and see things as they are for a change. People pursue their own interests, it's a fact of life, a feature of survival. 

Fear seems to be at the back of it, fear of the unknown, the unplanned, the strange. Often fear of truth, especially harsh truth where the sharp edges are.

Sunday 20 September 2015

Eccles cake power

The view from the spot where we ate our morning snack on the hills above Chatsworth. Eight miles on one Eccles cake, but that's the power of Eccles cakes for you. 

Saturday 19 September 2015

Brain power II


In the previous video post, world chess champion Magnus Carlsen says he knows which move to make almost immediately - he just knows. He goes on to say that further analysis merely tends to confirm that he hasn’t made a mistake and from that point of view is useless. The move he "knew" to be right turns out to be right.

When applied beyond chess it’s a common ability, this ability to "know" without analysing how and why. It's a kind of pattern recognition. Carlsen recognises patterns on the chess board, strengths and weaknesses he has seen before, similarities with other positions in other games.

For the rest of us it is much the same in daily life. Pattern recognition based on experience rather than analysis. A kind of instinct, a firing of memories, matching similar situations. Goes on all the time. Too often we insert our prejudices instead, but when we don’t we often turn out to be right, especially when it comes to spotting  a false note, a bad move or a weak point.

Most climate sceptics know the heart of orthodox climate science is corrupt. We also know it attracts some of the worst scientists in the world, as well as the worst journalists and the most mendacious politicians. The analysis has to be done but early impressions are merely confirmed. The corruption is blatantly conspicuous.

Many people immediately ridiculed Jeremy Corbyn’s recent rise to the leadership of the Labour party, immediately seeing him as a waste of space who never outgrew his political adolescence. Again it’s much the same as Carlsen assessing a chess position. Corbyn has form, his unsuitability is obvious, the matter doesn’t require analysis, the move by Labour is clearly doomed.

I think Corbyn is too old and inexperienced but I’m also inclined to wait and see if a new mood of totalitarian enthusiasm has gripped a significant section of the electorate. Yet I "know" I'm making the wrong move and ridicule is probably a better reaction. Corbyn has form.

This kind of pattern recognition can work remarkably well for those who know enough about an issue and have no strong allegiances to cloud their view of the board. Many people "know" David Cameron may be decent enough at a personal level but is not politically trustworthy. Unfortunately we also know he has to beat Corbyn in 2020 if they both last that long.

So there are no good moves left. That is obvious too.

Thursday 17 September 2015

Wednesday 16 September 2015

A new global crisis


New research from Dr Baz Broxtowe of Fradley University suggests the world is rapidly running out of crises. For professional journalists, charities, pundits and the global news media it would be a catastrophe, but Dr Baz claims the phenomenon is real and already observable in the field.

“We have been mining crises for decades and now it is payback time,” Dr Baz explained at his recent press conference. “For years we academics have been predicting Peak Crisis and now we have to face up to the reality of it.”

“What are the impacts?” I managed to ask amid a barrage of frantic questions from the floor.

“It’s simple enough,” Dr Baz shouted above the panicky hubbub. “We are about to enter a global crisis crisis. If we run out of crises we run out of motivation and if we run out of motivation we run out of reasons for doing anything, even reasons for living. Here at Fradley we’ve been monitoring the effect – it’s already noticeable and getting worse at an unprecedented rate.”

“Won’t the crisis crisis tide us over?” asked a young chap with spots.

“You think one crisis is enough for the whole world?” Dr Baz asked, visibly curbing his impatience. “In the recent past we had dozens of crises on the go all the time. The crisis community was huge, vibrant and massively caring on an industrial scale. Everyone was charged with enthusiasm, ready and willing to confront the challenges. Now...”

“What about the Middle East?” a BBC chap butted in. “Don’t you call that a crisis? What about global hunger, malaria, wars, drugs and climate change – what about all those crises?”

“Where is the angst?” Dr Baz asked quietly. “We have been consuming angst at an unprecedented rate, faster than any time since the Black Death. Actually many researchers think that was not genuine angst as we understand it today, but a medieval variety based on ignorance. So where has all the genuine angst gone?”

“I don’t accept that as a valid elucidation of the issue, conceding for the moment that it is an issue which I doubt,” said a Guardian journalist who probably subscribed to the female gender. “I see plenty of angst, more than enough to go round. Are you measuring it correctly?”

“The scientific consensus on this is rock solid,” Dr Baz explained. “Angst decline is real, there is no room for dispute on the issue. The reason is equally certain; we are becoming immune to crises. That’s the real tragedy of it all. The crisis community has become middle-aged, less angry and frankly less caring. That’s the real cause of the crisis crisis.”

“We care 24/7,” said the Guardian journalist with a touch of asperity.

“I’m sure you do,” said Dr Baz, “but who reads the Guardian these days.”

“Checkmate,” came an anonymous voice from the back.

Tuesday 15 September 2015

Culturing celebrities

As we know, ours is a celebrity culture. It isn’t a surprise because virtually all cultures are celebrity cultures - we’ve merely taken it much, much further.

We have -

celebrity brands such as Mercedes, Coca Cola and Versace, celebrity causes such as the environment, poverty and AIDS, celebrity sports stars, celebrity politicians, celebrity royals, celebrity singers, celebrity pundits, celebrity scientists, celebrity architects, celebrity fashion gurus, celebrity cooks and even celebrity celebrities.

Some are minor celebrities, some major, some are international, some national and some local. Some celebrities are talented, some not, some are intelligent, some not, some are sane, some completely bonkers. Even the local boozer may have its very own celebrity.

We don’t appear to have many celebrity farmers though. Perhaps some jobs are too important to allow celebrities a foot in the door. Like folk who look after nuclear missiles... or maybe that’s not a comfortable example.

Within living memory, the social focus of even modest ambition has changed from solid virtues such as talent, hard work, ability and a privileged background to this ghastly, glitzy swamp of celebrity we flounder around in today.

A celebrity pundit has a higher profile and more influence than a lesser pundit who may even be right more often than wrong, but who cares about being wrong? People soon forget the dodgy headlines or weren’t paying attention anyway.

A celebrity architect has a higher profile and more influence than a humble plodder who designs practical buildings where flare and originality are constrained by what works, but who cares? Visual pomposity has been in vogue since Stonehenge and what kind of useless drama-queen structure was that supposed to be?

The effect of such an all-pervading celebrity culture which works on so many levels is to create two diffuse classes. Celebrities and their groupies on one side and the consumers of celebrity on the other, because we do consume celebrity. Sometimes we even consume celebrities, which could be fun but usually isn’t.

The problems are obvious but most of us need celebrities to tell us all about it as loudly and dramatically as possible. That’s not going to happen is it?

Sunday 13 September 2015

Now Jeremy has to play the game

He was like all men of imagination, who fall in love with their projects, and who expect them to succeed on all occasions, as if wishing hard was all that was necessary to change their dreams into realities.
Émile Gaboriau - L'Affaire Lerouge (1866)

Many games of chess are decided by the accumulation of small advantages. Politics is played the same way. A knighthood here, a peerage there, a favourable headline, a covert briefing, a policy filched from the other side, a judicious lie, a stab in the back, an innuendo, a speech to the converted are politics played like chess.

To play the game well, politicians must respond to events and opportunities, they must spot small advantages whenever they crop up. They cannot afford to be doctrinaire or inflexible unless that happens to be an advantage too, when a principle is worth dusting off and waving around.

David Cameron and the Tories know this. Tony Blair knew it very well indeed as did his groupies but Team Blair has been disbanded. Even though they are not particularly good at it, the general election suggests the Tories were better players than Labour. The Lib Dems tried to play with a broken king.

On whose behalf the Tories play the game is another issue, but they play it. As with chess, the political game is about winning. It is about picking up those small advantages, weighing one against another, bad publicity against good, a move into opposition territory against the risk of upsetting stakeholders. It is about being adaptable.

The nature of the game cannot be decided beforehand, strategy cannot be written in tablets of stone, opposition moves cannot be ignored merely because the agreed plan doesn’t cater for them. The political game is a game of skill, strategy and opportunist tactics. It has features of a game because it is a game. Principles, however moral, are no guide to winning.

In which case, Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters may have a steep learning curve to climb. They have to learn the game and poor old Jeremy has to play it.

At this early stage when the 2020 clock has barely begun ticking, any number of unforeseen events could swing things his way. The mood of the electorate could be behind him for some fairly obvious reasons - greedy bankers for one. That’s hoping for the best though. It is not how professional adjust the odds in their favour and the game is all about winning against professional players.

Cameron and his Tories may not be stars, but I don’t think Corbyn even has a taste for the game. We’ll see.

Saturday 12 September 2015

Chilcot - the search goes on


Where is the fabled Chilcot Report? David Cameron has reluctantly decided to bow to the demands of a new pressure group - Spare Nobody And Rescue Chilcot or SNARC as it is known.

A group of journalists assembled at Southampton for the official SNARC launch. Lord Bellman leads the expedition together with a crew of experienced explorers. When asked what approach he intends to adopt in tracking down the Chilcot Report, Lord Bellman replied

"'You may seek it with thimbles—and seek it with care;
   You may hunt it with forks and hope;
You may threaten its life with a railway-share;
   You may charm it with smiles and soap—'"

“Ask comrade Corbyn about threatening people with railway shares,” Mr Cameron butted in with a smirk, but Lord Bellman ignored him while we took our first look at his crew.

The crew was complete: it included a Boots—
   A maker of Bonnets and Hoods—
A Barrister, brought to arrange their disputes—
   And a Broker, to value their goods.

A Billiard-marker, whose skill was immense,
   Might perhaps have won more than his share—
But a Banker, engaged at enormous expense,
   Had the whole of their cash in his care.

A Banker, a Broker and a Barrister? Oh dear. Many of those present were already doubtful about SNARC. Some have suggested we need a Parliamentary inquiry, but isn’t that bound to include a Banker, a Broker and a Barrister? We looked on as Lord Bellman outlined the route his expedition would take.

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
   Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
   A map they could all understand.

So with map in hand and with his intrepid crew assembled, Lord Bellman caught the ferry to the Isle of Wight, his first port of call in search of the Chilcot Report.

"Just the place for a SNARC!" Lord Bellman cried,
   As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
   By a finger entwined in his hair.

"Just the place for a SNARC! I have said it twice:
   That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a SNARC! I have said it thrice:
   What I tell you three times is true."

Will Lord Bellman find the Chilcot Report on the Isle of Wight? Does it require something more than threefold repetition? Is he the right chap for the job?

We shall see.

Or perhaps we won’t.

Thursday 10 September 2015

Posh vandals

While in Norfolk during the summer we visited Felbrigg Hall and nearby Felbrigg church. Both hall and church are worth a detour if you are in the area. The church is loaded with history and one of the best collections of brasses I’ve seen. Many are memorials to the Felbriggs who originally owned the estate and built the church.

The Wyndham family, later spelled Windham, gained possession of Felbrigg Hall in the fifteenth century and as well as the brasses the church has a much later monument to catch the eye.  A large marble bust by Joseph Nollekens of William Windham, Secretary of State for War under Pitt the elder. 

As you see from the picture, beautiful fourteenth century sedilia were hacked away to make room for it.

Perhaps Windham’s distinctly superior air was a subtle jibe by Nollekens. Or maybe that's how his surviving family wished him to be remembered. 

Wednesday 9 September 2015

Broad-minded is no escape

Modern broad-mindedness benefits the rich; and benefits nobody else. It was meant to benefit the rich; and meant to benefit nobody else. And if you think this unwarranted, I will put before you one plain question. There are some pleasures of the poor that may also mean profits for the rich: there are other pleasures of the poor which cannot mean profits for the rich. Watch this one contrast, and you will watch the whole creation of a careful slavery.
G K Chesterton – What’s Wrong With the World (1910)

In his social and political criticism old Gilbert was essentially a pundit with a love of paradox and a pundit’s weakness for hyperbole. He wrote much that leaves one wishing he’d been less sweeping in his judgement, more analytical, less fond of shaky analogies.

Nevertheless he had many penetrating insights if we take the trouble to examine matters from his idiosyncratic perspective. The above quote is a case in point. These days it is somewhat dated in that it refers to the poor who in Chesterton’s day were more numerous, closer to destitution and possessed of fewer resources than today.

His attack on the pursuit of money also seems dated from our opulent perspective because Chesterton’s poor are no longer with us and much of that is down to the pursuit of riches he so eloquently despised. From that perspective it is easy to dismiss his view as an irrelevant cry from another age.

Yet Chesterton still commands respect. He saw what we have almost lost the ability to see because modern life is so enfolding, so clamorous and demanding, so adept at diverting all but the most detached attention. He was both anti-capitalist and anti-socialist. He saw both as social evils bent on crushing us all between the grindstones of big business and big government.

What did he mean by pleasures of the poor which cannot mean profits for the rich? Those which were so unprofitable that they were doomed to be rooted out by the rich and powerful?

Family life perhaps, the traditional work, comforts and pleasures of building a home. Pubs, clubs, a quiet smoke and a game of skittles. A Sunday walk in the park. A stroll by rivers unpolluted by factories. A traditional glass of lemonade rather than some fizzy, concoction made in a rich man’s vats, forced on the unwary by another of Chesterton’s bêtes noires - advertising.

Escape in other words, in a world where escape had become a necessary part of life even for the middle classes. escape foul air, noise, hard hats, black uniforms, multitudes, confusion, incompleteness, elaborate means without clear ends.
Edward Thomas - The Country (pre-1945)

What about that intriguing comment on broad-mindedness? It’s obvious enough once we see it from Chesterton’s perspective. To be broad-minded is to be ripe for profitable exploitation. It offers no escape from the daily grind, nothing but the insipid palliatives of assent.

Chesterton may have been a reactionary, even a professional reactionary but one is left with a strong temptation to raise a glass in his memory. Before all the good pubs close down.

Monday 7 September 2015

A man who knew how to make chairs

Not a thing of beauty because it is merely an old rocker, but for me this sturdy little chair is appealing in much the same kind of way. Possibly late Georgian it is made of fruitwood – apple or pear probably. The rush seat is not original of course but authentic enough. On close inspection it is just possible to see the faintest hints of adze marks on the top rail.

Never designed for anywhere but the stone flags of a cottage, it is comfortable enough even without cushions. The maker added a curve in the back to give some lumbar support although one couldn’t sit for hours on it gaping at the TV. 

It has a subdued shine but most of that is down to the patina of age and my pot of beeswax. No servant was ever tasked with polishing it once a week on pain of a scolding. Maybe it was a woman’s chair, those low arms designed to allow elbow room for sewing, knitting or feeding the latest baby.

Or perhaps father sat there after work in his muck and pit boots while the tin bath in front of the fire was filled with hot water. Supping his pint mug of tea, pulling at his clay pipe, spitting black phlegm into the grate.

It wasn’t made efficiently as we so bleakly understand efficiency, but by a man who knew how to make chairs. 

Sunday 6 September 2015

Electric car spotting


Presumably electric cars are not wildly uncommon in cities, but out here in Derbyshire they are rare. However, the other day I passed a Nissan Leaf (plural Nissan Leaves?) parked in a nearby street. I haven’t seen many which is not surprising in view of the short range and high purchase price although they are reputedly cheap to run.

Decades ago I was very much in favour of electric cars, not for environmental reasons but because of their comparative simplicity compared to the internal combustion engine. Fed up of doing my own servicing I suppose. We don’t do simplicity these days, but I still find the idea of an electric car attractive in spite of the embarrassing climate baggage.

Coincidentally I also saw a Tesla Model S on the M1 not so long ago, cruising along steadily at 60mph. Ignoring the hype and the expense, this one does seem to be a practical proposition as its range is at least three times the Nissan’s – about 80 miles for the Nissan compared to about 240 miles for the most basic Tesla.

Apparently Nissan Leaf drivers are prone to mileage anxiety for even moderately short journeys as they watch their battery charge drop lower and lower. It seems extraordinary that the Tesla can travel three times as far as the Nissan on a single charge. It’s not as if the need for electric cars to have an acceptable range is a new issue. It's been a key issue for what - a century?

I’ve seen a few examples of the BMW i3 about too, but they are barely any more practical than the Leaf and too ugly for serious consideration. All statement and no style. 

The Tesla though - that has style.

Saturday 5 September 2015


Has there been a decline in diffidence among ordinary people? Back in the fifties a TV camera crew out and about in the high street would have been treated with far more diffidence than today. Most fifties folk would be paralysed by the sight of a TV camera and reduced to monosyllabic imbecility by a microphone shoved under their noses. 

Similarly a confident middle class voice would once have commanded not just respect, but often the most excruciating deference. An aristocrat, a celebrity or even a titled nonentity would receive and probably expect a grovel or two. Ordinary folk did not know how to behave in front of a camera, did not know what to say or how to say it to their social superiors. Did not seem to realise quite how undeserved that superiority often was.

Even today there are echoes of the automatic grovel, but they seem to be fading. As diffidence is closely related to perceived social distinctions, presumably this too has changed. Once upon a time we knew our place but now we seem to know better, or a little better. We know many other things too, but in particular we know that even royalty are just people, not earth-bound gods.

Today the diffidence hasn’t disappeared, but seems to be far less prominent than it was. Social status seems to make less difference to behaviour. We know people are fallible, know our leaders are fallible, often dishonest and sometimes criminally so.

On the whole the decline in diffidence appears to have been a benefit but there are disadvantages. Fools have become less diffident too. 

Thursday 3 September 2015

The headline game


2006: Evidence is mounting: the next solar cycle is going to be a big one. Solar cycle 24, due to peak in 2010 or 2011 "looks like its going to be one of the most intense cycles since record-keeping began almost 400 years ago," says solar physicist David Hathaway of the Marshall Space Flight Center.

2013 “Not only is this the smallest cycle we’ve seen in the space age, it’s the smallest cycle in 100 years,” NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center research scientist David Hathaway said during a recent press teleconference conducted by the Marshall Space Flight Center.

This an old screw up which doesn't necessarily reflect badly on NASA or Dr Hathaway. Scientists make mistakes and admitting them is the best way forward. Betting on natural or political events seems to be a popular way of hitting the headlines though. If the headline makes more of an impact than subsequent failure then it's a winning strategy.

In this case, the failure became another minor headline. I don't know if that was the intention or not, but pumping up a story into headline material then quietly dropping it later seems to be an extremely common tactic by the publicity people who seem to control everything these days. The headline is remembered while subsequent caveats or retractions are not. It's a bet but the dice are loaded and they know it.

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Pill queue


The other day I found myself in a queue at the local Boots pharmacy. I’m a regular. In front of me was someone I don’t know so I’ll call her Mrs Anxious. She was collecting a large bag of medical bits and bobs for her husband.

When the bag was handed over, Mrs Anxious was keen to impress on the staff how important it was that her next prescription should be available on time. Previously it hadn’t been and Mrs Anxious’ husband had run out of something.

As a fellow regular I had some sympathy with Mrs Anxious, but really there was no point in trying to put pressure on the pharmacy staff. She may as well have been talking to a machine because the staff would have their processes and within those processes there would be no way to give special consideration to the likes of Mrs Anxious. All the staff could do was to assure her in a roundabout way that the procedure would be followed. Which they did.

If she’d been rich and powerful then there would be some special arrangement for Mrs Anxious, but then she wouldn’t be queuing at Boots anyway. It doesn’t reflect on the staff, it’s just the way things are. To deliver an efficient service there must be processes which are adhered to.

That’s how it works, that’s how the service delivers what it is supposed to deliver with as few glitches as possible. It isn’t perfect, but in my view it’s pretty good. I moan about it but I like moaning so that’s just another benefit. We lose the personal service but when it comes to collecting prescriptions it’s not much of a loss.

I hope Mrs Anxious gets her prescription on time though. She probably will.

Private Eye property map

This is worth a look if you haven't seen it - a Private Eye map showing all land and property registered in England and Wales in the name of an offshore company between 2005 and July 2014.