Tuesday 29 November 2016

Mince Pies

As most of us must know, mince pies are the point of Christmas. Admittedly Christmas has become tangled up with manic shopping and sentimental twaddle about a guy in a red suit, but that is merely fluff and nonsense. Mince pies are what Christmas is all about. Years ago there was some religious stuff too, but that seems to have given way to the powerful rationality of the mince pie.

Unfortunately our finest mince pie experience came via my late mother-in-law so now we have to make do with second best, but that does not invalidate the pie's primary role at this time of year. So far we have sampled the produce of Sainsbury, Tesco, Granddaughter's play centre and a Matlock cafe.

Obviously it is early in the mince pie season and we intend many more samplings but at this stage it is worth mentioning that Tesco Finest were not particularly fine. Too sweet and not enough spiciness.

Sainsbury's Taste the Difference were not bad. Good texture, not too sweet and moderately spicy. They were still supermarket pies though. 

Granddaughter's play centre pies were probably Mr Kipling with all that this implies. At least the coffee rinsed the gunk off my teeth.

The Matlock cafe pies looked as if they came from a local bakery and were pretty good. Good texture, not too sweet and quite spicy. They didn't look as perfect as machine-made pies which ought to be a good sign. 

So all in all not a bad early kick-off for the mince pie season, but it's a pity neither of us is an expert baker. Maybe we'll try Lidl next.

Monday 28 November 2016

Could you cope?

It is not necessary to know anything about chess here, but the game is unusual in that even a strong international player can end up playing a very talented youngster. The embarrassment possibilities are obvious.

The video is an impromptu blitz game between Samuel Sevian and International Master Greg Shahade played about six years ago when Samuel was a ten year old chess prodigy. He went on to become the youngest ever United States Grandmaster.

Sunday 27 November 2016

Prisons and prisons

As we all know Jeremy Corbyn has triggered a controversy over his comments on the death of Fidel Castro. Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry found it necessary to defend him.

Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry has said it is "quite difficult" to get past allegations of brutality made against Fidel Castro after Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn praised the revolutionary leader for his "heroism".

Nine days of national mourning have been declared in Cuba after Castro's death at the age of 90.

Mr Corbyn said that "for all his flaws" Castro would be remembered as a "champion of social justice".

Human Rights Watch gives us an outline summary of Castro's "flaws". We are spared the details.

During his nearly five decades of rule in Cuba, Fidel Castro built a repressive system that punished virtually all forms of dissent, a dark legacy that lives on even after his death.

During Castro’s rule, thousands of Cubans were incarcerated in abysmal prisons, thousands more were harassed and intimidated, and entire generations were denied basic political freedoms. Cuba made improvements in health and education, though many of these gains were undermined by extended periods of economic hardship and by repressive policies.

Whatever one thinks of Jeremy Corbyn, his response to Castro's death is remarkably naive for such a senior politician. Naive to the point of weird because it is not far removed from the kind of response a callow sixth former might make.  

One could simply pour scorn on his hopeless inability to react in a way which acknowledges the lessons of recent history but there is something deeper. Corbyn has his flaws too and cannot escape them. We have learned about dictators but apparently he hasn't and it isn't rocket science - it is not difficult to see why Castro was a monster.

Yet Corbyn cannot quite escape the silliness of his radical past, his decades-old political raison d'ĂȘtre. The world has moved on, the old time Stalinist dictators are almost all gone and their appalling crimes are part of our history, but Corbyn doesn't appear to see it like that. He seems to be imprisoned by his own past to a weird degree. He can't adapt and doesn't even see the need to. What the Labour party will do with him I don't know, but it needs to do something.

Saturday 26 November 2016

Pink horse tale

The other day found me watching a kids’ TV show with Granddaughter. Not an uncommon activity. On the whole kids’ TV is politically correct but not aggressively so. It usually washes over me but one particular episode caught my attention for some reason.

The show was a typical CGI confection with two little girls drawing a picture of a horse. One drew a bog standard brown horse and the other a pink horse. I’ll call those girls Brownie and Pinkie. The third little girl was the heroine of the series – I’ll call her Goody.

When the drawings were finished Brownie pointed out to Pinkie that horses aren’t pink. She didn’t do this aggressively but in a fairly mild "my horse is better than yours" sense. Well Brownie's horse was better but unfortunately this upset Pinkie so Goody intervened to point out that Brownie’s criticism had made Pinkie sad. This is a bad thing to do was the suggestion. In fact it was the point of the whole episode.

One was left with the notion that pointing out factual mistakes could make a person sad and that won’t do - it is tantamount to abuse. Brownie should have suggested that pink horses don’t quite exist but they jolly well ought to because they are such a vibrant improvement on the boring brown variety.

One might say that this tiny fragment of modern life teaches kids the virtue of kindness which it does, but why did Brownie have to be factually correct? One is left with the assumption that factual accuracy is not a mitigating factor when a person adopts a superior position. To display knowledge is to adopt a superior position and that's bad. Unless it is superior political knowledge presumably.

Kindness is good and promoting it is good but somehow the modern world has become adept at tacking on ulterior messages. The message here is that facts are liable to get you into all sorts of trouble and must be imparted with kindness or not imparted at all. A world beyond facts is okay too – that’s the other ulterior message.

Friday 25 November 2016

Green Friday

As an alternative to Black Friday and the vulgar promotion of special offers, money off, two for the price of one and so forth, I'm opting for an ethical Green Friday on this blog.

Apart from a healthy dose of priggish satisfaction, Green Friday is a worthy attempt to roll back the tide of commercial excess. A number of ethical, save the planet alternatives suggest themselves.

  • Old blog posts could be recycled instead of being left to rot away in the archive emitting all kinds of noxious possibilities into our already polluted interweb.
  • Blog posts could be written using green energy, which means written in the dark and written in haste because the heating is turned off.
  • Blog post readers could read them in the dark too, although in one sense I may have achieved that already.
  • Blog post could be shorter, using fewer electrons. For example, a post criticising John Major for suggesting a second EU referendum could be shortened to "Oh do stop whingeing and give Edwina a nice Christmas present." Of course this example could be even shorter saving even more electrons.

Anyhow that's the general idea and it must be a good one because I'm feeling a little more priggish already. I may even buy a copy of the Guardian, although that could be too extreme for a trainee prig. I'll need to work down to it.

Thursday 24 November 2016

Solar fail


Yesterday I visited Carsington Water visitors’ centre with some old work colleagues. The idea was to have lunch there after a short walk but the area suffered a power cut just before we trooped into the restaurant.

One might have wondered if the centre's substantial array of solar panels would take over but no. No lights, no hot drinks, no hot food. No great surprise on a dull day in November but one is bound to wonder at sustainable power which isn’t sustainable and doesn’t deliver the power when you most need it.

Is anyone surprised? No - it hardly merits a shrug.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Trump v Clinton

Now the Trump v Clinton bout is finally over and pundits are just beginning to run out of reasons to be delighted or horrified it is worth ruminating on broader issues.

During the contest Clinton was obviously a shoo-in right up until she wasn’t. An interesting predictive failure but as far as I can tell nobody had the faintest idea which candidate would make the best president anyway. We’ll never know either, because only one of them is to be tested in the hot seat. The other slinks off into prosperous oblivion, that’s the tradition.

Some of the pre-match commentary was well written, some of it amusing, some silly, much of it abusive, some mildly persuasive and so on and so on. Yet nobody really knew if Clinton or Trump would turn out to be a competent or incompetent president. Nobody had the faintest idea because humans are not built like that. We’d like to think otherwise but it ain’t so.

We compare A with B and when there is nothing to compare or when the comparison will never be made then we are reduced to allegiances and guesswork and that is what we saw during the election. Vast deserts of foaming passion, outright lies and yet more foaming passion, some of it dressed up as analysis.

We saw allegiances and guesswork and that is what we’ll see throughout Trump’s presidency too. Unless he walks on water, cures cancer and ensures world peace he’ll be praised and cursed in roughly equal measure because that’s how we do things until memories fade, main actors retire or die and passions transfer themselves elsewhere.

In spite of numerous pundits trying to persuade us that they had arcane knowledge of each candidate plus a working crystal ball locked onto the political future of the USA, none of their output was worth a plugged nickel as they used to say in cowboy films. We’ll have to wait and see.

On the other hand I can’t convince myself that dumping Clinton wasn’t a bonus. It just feels like the right thing to do. I hope so but we’ll have to wait and see. Or rather we won’t see because that possibility has gone.

Sunday 20 November 2016

Big screen liars

The other day found us talking about films and how dishonest they are when it comes to historical accuracy. As usual we had decided not to watch a particular film because it was bound to be historically inaccurate in various important respects. So no surprises there, we are always not watching films. It is one of our most inexpensive hobbies.

However, we recently broke our rule and watched an example of the genre - The Imitation Game supposedly depicting the life of Alan Turing.

The Imitation Game jumps around three time periods – Turing’s schooldays in 1928, his cryptographic work at Bletchley Park from 1939-45, and his arrest for gross indecency in Manchester in 1952. It isn’t accurate about any of them, but the least wrong bits are the 1928 ones

The film was crap and we regret watching it, but I am still unable to understand why any actor would take part in a factually dishonest film. Somehow many actors must be comfortable with dishonesty. It often shows too, especially if they resort to political posturing. Perhaps they see life itself as lines to be learned. An odd bunch who as far as I can see do not generally deserve the veneration they receive.

Film industry moguls sell drama to the masses, not education. It is much the same with newspaper and television moguls. Bums on seats, eyes on pages, clicks on ads. Whatever the high-minded claims, mass media including news media are in the entertainment business. We are seen as a market, but not a market thirsting for education. So we don't get the education.

Saturday 19 November 2016

St Custard’s Law of Prizes

When grabber get his ushaul prize i.e. the mrs joyful prize for rafia work there are boos and catcalls nothing can stop the mitey upsurge of popular feeling.

‘SILENCE!’ below GRIMES. ‘You are unfare. You kno how he won this prize.’

‘Sure!’ we roar, ‘£5 to you, £I all round to the staff and a botle of beer for the olde matronne. The same story.’

Whizz for Atomms - Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle (1956)

It may not be immediately obvious but Molesworth is using his grate brane to illustrate an important law of the universe - St Custard’s Law of Prizes.

Friday 18 November 2016

All steamed up

Yesterday we moved the electric kettle to another area of the kitchen. Yes I know this adventure is almost too nail-biting for a blog post but there is more to come.

We moved into the house seven years ago, plonked the kettle in an apparently obvious position and there it and its successor stayed for the next seven years even though it tends to waft steam all over the cupboard above. Not a serious problem but yesterday we had the bright idea of moving the kettle to a spot where a steamed cupboard can’t occur.*

Now we skip lightly from poorly positioned kettles to the big wide world where good enough is often not very good at all but we drop into ruts and let things ride because... Because?

Because we compare.

Our ability to reason is essentially an ability to compare A with B and possibly with C and D but not much more than that. Too many options and we get confused. We don’t actually know if A is good or bad but maybe we can tell if it is better than B, C or D.

If we favour political party A over party B, we can’t tell if A is competent or incompetent. All we can do is compare it with B or perhaps the previous history of A, but even here there is an issue. If we favour party A over party B then we compare A with B using comparisons promoted by A. We can’t tell if these comparisons are valid or invalid because we just do it – we compare until we have an answer which is okay, which removes the incentive to compare. 

In spite of the huge leap from kettles to politics, we see the same issue. If we are not prompted to do a comparison then we don’t do it. We don’t generally compare comparing with not comparing or comparing one way with comparing another. We just do it or we don’t. If we get an answer which seems okay then we move on and stop comparing.

* This was prompted by a slight but discernible warping of the cupboard hem hem.

Thursday 17 November 2016


Let us welcome foreign influence which is cosmopolitan; but not Norwegian, for that is provincial, and we have plenty of the same kind ourselves.

August Strindberg - The Growth of a Soul (1913)

Alternatively we might adapt Strindberg's words and say.

Let us welcome foreign influence which is cosmopolitan; but not from the EU, for that is provincial, and we have plenty of the same kind ourselves.

To my mind this is one Brexit argument which could have been made during the recent EU referendum debate but wasn’t. Instead the Leave camp was successfully painted as lacking cosmopolitan sophistication and derided as narrow-minded and inward-looking. In a word – provincial.

Yet the Remain camp always seemed provincial to me and still does. The EU is not chic, worldly or cosmopolitan but tired, elitist, and corrupt. A haven for spiteful political poseurs and third-rate bureaucrats. A holiday destination for those who prefer familiar surroundings and faded glories. Irredeemably provincial in a world which is moving on.

Second thoughts.

Is it worse than that? Is the entire world becoming provincial?

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Glimpse of the past

The street itself was empty. In old times one would have heard the desolate nocturnal sound of a lame hoof-beat as a market-gardener's cart went by: they always brought out in the small hours the horses that were too bad to be seen by day. But all that was changed. The last lame horse had probably long since gone to the knacker's yard, and no link of sound was left between the Niagara-roar of the day and the hush before dawn.

Edith Wharton - The Mother's Recompense (1925)

Every now and then we come across another glimpse of the past, a hint that life was different in far too many ways for us to grasp and fit into our easy generalisations. 

Is it likely to be true in a general sense? Did market-gardeners avoid showing their more decrepit horses in public? Perhaps they did – to do otherwise may have been bad for business. Personal reputation would have been crucial. The horses didn't end up at Tesco, but some probably didn't end up at the knacker's yard either. 

Tuesday 15 November 2016

Inside Outside

In nature there is no outside. When we are cast from a group or a condition we have still the companionship of all that is.

Theodore Dreiser – Jennie Gerhardt (1911)

It is pleasant being an insider. It must be because so many people devote their lives to getting there. Some are born on the inside and some have to work at it and for the latter a vast amount of effort and ingenuity is devoted to that goal. Where it counts, where the money, prestige and power are, most ordinary folk are on the outside looking in. This is the human condition.

We know where we are with insiders, so why do so many of them pretend to be outsiders? Maybe because it works. A bike, a pint in the pub, no tie, a few plebeian touches and insiders step daintily outside. It's a disguise. Why bother though? I don't know - nobody is fooled.

Yet it seems to have become a key feature of our times, insiders disguising themselves as outsiders. Jeremy Corbyn is so good at it that his followers seem to think he really is an outsider. He isn't. He merely keeps up the disguise while inside, presumably so he doesn't forget.

Sunday 13 November 2016

Condemning electrons

Quillette has an article about the problems many social scientists have in adapting to Donald Trump and the social behaviour he seems to represent.

Donald Trump’s victory in the recent US presidential election was a shock to many people. Polls, media pundits, even political insiders almost universally predicted that Hillary Clinton would win comfortably. In the aftermath, there will surely be questions about why they misjudged the situation so badly. I would argue, though, that the problem runs much deeper.

The occurrence of a very similar situation in the United Kingdom a few months earlier suggests that this is not just a polling flaw, nor is it just a group of pundits misreading a single event. The underlying problem, I propose, is in the social sciences. These are the institutions expected to study human behaviour scientifically, and whose theories are spread to the rest of society.

Yet many social scientists have quite openly voiced surprise and perplexity at both the Trump and Brexit events, often supporting their statements with proclamations of immorality directed at the voters. There’s something disturbingly unscientific about this, in my opinion. Imagine a group of physicists responding to an event they are unable to explain by morally condemning electrons?

An interesting piece, but electrons exert no social pressures and social scientists have to make a living within their existing social environment. A common problem - the BBC is a good example.

Friday 11 November 2016

Thursday 10 November 2016

Vigils and vanities


Political conflict has always been painfully divisive and the reactions of UK Remainers and US Clinton supporters to their tragic loss is an old game. Blame the referee, the other team for cheating, opposition flukes, anything but admit the simple fact of defeat.

Holding vigils in protest against Donald Trump’s victory is a typically self-righteous example, yet one is bound to wonder at the readiness with which people absorb political narratives into their personalities. If we are unwise enough to support a political party or political narrative then that is what we do, we sign over a chunk of our personality, our character. It is not an add-on, it is a replacement.

Which is why political supporters defend political parties, political actors and political narratives with such implacable determination. However ludicrous the narrative, however empty the promises, however flaky the actors, the degree of personal investment is difficult to understand unless we realise how personal it all is. As personal as a pound of flesh.

People do not invest part of their personality in a political stance; they give up part of their personality and replace it with political behaviour. Instead of mulling over political questions they acquire the tools for standard political answers which are almost always improvised but improvised around a core which cannot be modified.

As for the politically victorious, as well as the joy of winning there is also a sense of relief at not having lost, of not having to justify losing, not having to find excuses, not having to be angry. For now.

This is the fascination of political conflict. It exposes the shallowness of human nature, its dependence on imitation and past history, its indifference to reason. It highlights the contrast between observed behaviour and the complex, dangerously colourful myths with which we drench our political vanities. 

Wednesday 9 November 2016

The new malady of culture

This absorption in self, or the new malady of culture, of which much is written nowadays, has been common with all men who have not worked with their bodies. The brain is only an organ for imparting movement to the muscles. Now when in a civilised man the brain cannot act upon the muscles, nor bring its power into play, there results a disturbance of equilibrium.

The brain begins to dream; too full of juices which cannot be absorbed by muscular activity, it converts them involuntarily into systems, into thought-combinations, into the hallucinations which haunt painters, sculptors and poets. If no outlet can be found, there follows stagnation, violent outbreaks, depression, and at last madness.

Schools which are often vestibules for asylums, have recourse to gymnastics, but with what result? There is no connection between the pupil's cerebral activity and the muscular activity called into play by gymnastics; the latter is only directed by another's will through the word of command.

August Strindberg - The Growth of a Soul (1913)

A modern problem is plainly visible through Strindberg’s older perspective. We evolved to reproduce, make tools, adapt to a wide range of environmental niches, assess risks, alter strategies and tactics accordingly. All this is intimately linked with muscular activity of one form or another.

To a greater and greater degree we are now influenced by social realities rather than older physical realities which still require significant muscular activity. Some people rarely go outside in winter because they no longer need to. Yet this avoidance of physical stimuli and muscular activity is comparatively recent, even more so in Strindberg's time.

Unfortunately we may not have evolved a corresponding ability to sit around thinking up useful abstractions. Presumably this is why we aren’t much good at it. In which case, if we base our society and economy on the intellectual fruits of sitting around we are not likely to build a saner and more rationally reflective world.

Ho hum – that’s enough blogging for now. It’s time to get up off my backside and make the tea.

Tuesday 8 November 2016

Harry and Meghan

I see Prince Harry is miffed about the unpleasant attention his latest paramour is receiving. 

Prince Harry has confirmed US actress Meghan Markle is his girlfriend, in a statement from Kensington Palace attacking the media for subjecting her to a "wave of abuse and harassment".

Why anyone is interested in the chap or his personal entanglements I don’t know. He is merely a celebrity and may as well get used to it. Perhaps he is used to it though. After all, this kind of spat is part of the celebrity game, it raises the profile. 

What a life he has to lead though - I don’t envy the guy.

Monday 7 November 2016

Not the way to go

On the way to a short walk yesterday we happened to be chatting in the car about old age and how so many people go into a long decline which saps their dignity in such a cruelly lingering manner. Universal health care was never supposed to be like this but it is. Huge numbers of people now live long lives, well beyond the physical and biochemical competence of their own body. Too often they are fated to die a far from dignified death.

Coincidentally we popped into a cafe for a coffee while a heavy rain shower eased off. As we pushed open the door we came across a chap we once knew as a keen walker. Ten years ago in his early seventies he was still good for a ten mile walk every Sunday, but not now. Reduced to a bent old man he could barely hobble to the car with the aid of a couple of sticks.

Such a common story too. Some are lucky and some are not. Some age well and some don’t and much of it seems to be down to bad luck rather than leading a healthy lifestyle. Decent healthy people slowly wrecked and abused by their own bodies failing too slowly. It is an impossibly difficult issue but I've seen too much of it - I cannot believe we handle it well as a society. We may as well smoke, drink and hope for a quick exit.

Sunday 6 November 2016

To own or not to own

Historically, ordinary folk have never owned much until recent decades. I grew up on a council estate where few families owned anything but their clothes and some furniture. No house, car, fridge, freezer, central heating, TV or phone. Now we are overwhelmed with goodies but it is easy to forget how recent the change has been. The present situation is unprecedented as the manipulators say.

Yet there are changes in the air too. Ownership by ordinary folk seems to be under attack. People are more likely to rent their home, a major and obvious trend, but there are other attacks on our notions of ownership. The trend is particularly noticeable with consumer durables which aren’t durable and electronic gizmos which are out of date within months of purchase. Ownership is becoming ephemeral - migrating to the cloud.

Privately owned cars are gradually being squeezed out of cities and self-driving cars may not be privately owned at all. That’s the progressive vision – if you want a car you hire one from an approved pool. Or better still a rented bike. From bike-eu we have a story about a new lock for rented bikes because rented bikes are so cool, especially in winter.

By 2020 bike sharing systems in the world’s biggest cities are expected to offer over 2.3 million bicycles. Currently that figure stands at about one million bikes. And it doesn’t include all the rental bikes on offer at tourist spots all around the world. For this emerging market, bike security supplier Axa developed a smart e-lock.

It all feels like a trend, an ownership isn’t cool trend. All part of designing the global pleb I suppose.

Saturday 5 November 2016

Shock horror violence

Derbyshire Times has a revealing piece on physical attacks by pupils on primary school teachers.

Gosh how appalling, but further down we have some context.

The figures show that incidents of violence against teachers by pupils in schools in Derbyshire are on the rise, with 12 reported incidents so far in 2016, compared to ten in the whole of last year and 12 in 2014...

...A spokeswoman for Derbyshire County Council said: “Violence of any kind is not acceptable and is not tolerated in our schools.

“But 12 incidents is relatively low considering we look after more than 107,000 pupils in Derbyshire schools. And half of these incidents took place in special schools where pupils have complex needs.

In other words, excluding the special schools leaves us with about 5 or 6 incidents per year. I don't find that shocking, but I'm not a local journalist who needs to fill the space between the ads.

Friday 4 November 2016

Thursday 3 November 2016

The gay imam

In deccanchronicle there is a piece about Muhsin Hendricks, the openly gay South African imam.

Cape Town: Friday prayers at the People’s Mosque in Cape Town looks like any other around the Islamic world, except in this South African city the imam is openly gay and the teaching promotes homosexual rights.

It is a stance that provokes outrage from many Muslims, but Muhsin Hendricks has built up a small, loyal congregation by helping worshipers try to reconcile their sexuality and their religion.

“There is this love-hate relationship from the Muslim community,” Hendricks said. “Sometimes they feel that I should be thrown from the highest mountain, and sometimes they appreciate that there is one imam who is willing to work with people who they are unwilling to work with.”

Cape Town has an active gay scene, and is often described as the “gay capital” of Africa, with a district of gay-friendly restaurants, bars, guesthouses and clubs near the city centre.

Whatever wider views one might have on the story, Muhsin Hendricks must be an extraordinarily courageous man. 

Wednesday 2 November 2016

Fat chance

One cannot command sympathies and antipathies, and for the lower class to demand love and self-sacrifice from the upper class is mere idealism.

August Strindberg - The Growth of a Soul (1913)

Modern political life is based on the notion that democracy will be respected by the elite classes who will offer love and self-sacrifice in their efforts to improve our lives. Okay so the elite don’t love us and we'd much rather they didn't anyway. Yuk. But our democracy tacitly assumes they at least like us enough to make personal sacrifices on our behalf.

Of course no sane person believes even that and if asked about our political expectations, most of us would be pretty restrained and somewhat cynical about the ability and desire of the political classes to deliver even the most limited aspirations. We'd be cynical about their motives too.

Yet millions vote for the most unlikely promises and the most improbable aspirations as if the elite classes really do intend to put themselves out for our comfort and convenience. The idea is ludicrous and we know it. The elite don’t care what happens to us and it’s time we voted accordingly.

How? Dunno.

Tuesday 1 November 2016

A Commodity


A Statesman who attended a meeting of a Chamber of Commerce rose to speak, but was objected to on the ground that he had nothing to do with commerce.

“Mr. Chairman,” said an Aged Member, rising, “I conceive that the objection is not well taken; the gentleman’s connection with commerce is close and intimate. He is a Commodity.”

Ambrose Bierce - Fantastic Fables (1899)