Monday 30 April 2018

Sainsbury’s + Asda = ?

We shop fairly regularly at Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Lidl, Aldi and the Co-op but prefer Tesco even though Sainsbury’s is much nearer. We try M&S occasionally and very rarely Waitrose because there isn’t one nearby. 

So where is Sainsbury/Asda going? To my lowly shopper’s eye Sainsbury’s does not seem to know what it is supposed to be. For our general requirements it is neither as cheap as Tesco nor conspicuously middle class in the manner of Waitrose and M&S. The days when Sainsbury's was definitely middle class seem to have gone. Now it is just another supermarket chain and not a particularly appealing one at that.

Our local Asda is grim. Fairly cheap but not as cheap as it pretends and with a strong flavour of tabloid values it isn’t a pleasant place to be. When we visit Asda we know what we want, we buy it and we leave. That’s it.

No doubt retail bods have crawled all over the deal and pronounced it a Good Thing, but it feels a little desperate to me. Pulling the two supermarkets together while the world changes, while Aldi and Lidl continue to make inroads and Amazon lurks on the horizon. If it is done it needs to be done quickly and well.

Sunday 29 April 2018

The genius of our civilization

All this early kid stuff is passing, a sorting-out process. We get over it. Every fellow does, or ought to be able to, if he’s worth anything, find some one woman that he can live with and stick by her. That makes the world that you and I like to live in, and you know it. There’s a psychic call in all of us to it, I think. It’s the genius of our civilization, to marry one woman and settle down.

Theodore Dreiser – Twelve Men (1919)

As posted earlier - in 1919 Theodore Dreiser published a series of short biographies of people he had known collected together in a book entitled Twelve Men. The first biography was about a young man he called Peter and this quote is Peter’s view of marriage.

It was not a throwaway remark by a clever man. He meant it, acted on it but died too early, leaving a wife and two young children.

Saturday 28 April 2018

A lone voice

Catherine Blaiklock has an interesting article in Conservative Woman. I'll add a couple of quotes to pass on some of the flavour but the whole thing is worth reading - it's quite short.

This week I went to a sixth-form college in a small Norfolk town for a ‘Question Time’ event.

I didn’t sleep very well the night before. I knew what was coming: two hours of torture...

...And then we got to the question that summed up the afternoon for me. As an aside, few people know the following. In the referendum, in almost all age groups there was not a lot of difference in voting between sexes. But the big difference was in the 18-24 age group. Young men voted 60 per cent remain, 40 per cent out. Now although this is a majority, it is not massive, and from what you would have heard from young people, you would never believe that 40 per cent of young men voted to leave. But the really staggering statistic is that women aged 18 to 24 voted 80/20 to remain. And when I go to these events, it is the girls who are often extremely aggressive and vocal social justice warriors.

It takes courage to do this kind of thing, I certainly wouldn't do it.

Thursday 26 April 2018

Friday 13th

I see Donald Trump is due to visit the UK on July 13thFrom the BBC -

US President Donald Trump is to visit the UK on Friday 13 July, after previously cancelling a planned trip amid claims he would face protests.

It will not be the full-blown state visit Mr Trump was promised when Prime Minister Theresa May visited the White House in January last year.

But an invitation to a state visit still stands, the BBC understands.

He will hold bilateral talks with Mrs May, Downing Street said, with further details to be "set out in due course".

The July date follows the Nato summit in Brussels which the president is expected to attend.

Bound to be embarrassing as shouty folk will see it as an opportunity for a spot of politically correct virtue-signalling. They will see that as far more important than the success of the visit. The BBC will probably fail to give the visit worthwhile coverage too. Fortunately I'll miss that.

Not an event to relish. I’ll be glad when it’s over.

Wednesday 25 April 2018

Bells and gongs

‘Was not that the breakfast bell? Why does not your papa get a gong? — it is so hard to know one bell from another.’

Sheridan Le Fanu - Uncle Silas (1864)

The things we don’t notice. Until I came across this quote it had never occurred to me that bells generally summoned those below stairs while gongs summoned those above. They must be easily distinguished - can't have guests bumping into servants. 

We never had either - a raised voice was generally adequate. 

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Competent followers

One of the most fascinating and revealing aspects of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership qualities is that he doesn’t have any. He could neither organise nor inspire the proverbial piss up in a brewery.

However, his followers are competent enough to keep the circus going. They put him there and maintain the leadership facade which keeps him in place. Yet there is no leadership – the old coot isn’t up to it.

There are wider lessons to be learned here, but that's the trivia out of the way. Now what about possible names for the latest royal baby?

Sunday 22 April 2018

It’s a grotesque country

For those able to stomach more stories about the seemingly unending conflict in Syria, CapX has an interesting article.

Both Western and Russian security analysts have long documented the utter decrepitude and disintegration of Assad’s forces. Tobias Schneider, an analyst who follows internal regime dynamics very closely, wrote in August 2016 that “the government’s fighting force today consists of a dizzying array of hyper-local militias aligned with various factions, domestic and foreign sponsors, and local warlords. Among these groups, only a handful are still capable of anything close to offensive action”.

Thanks to recent interviews with Russian regular and special forces as well as commanders and fighters from the more opaque Wagner mercenary group, we know that these assessments broadly reflect the reality on the ground. A recent Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty interview with three Wagner commanders gives an insight into just what the Russians think of their comrades-in-arms.

“The Syrians can’t fight,” said one commander. “I’ve seen it many times. At the drop of a hat they’ll abandon their positions and flee. ‘Go, go, Russia, go!’ they’ll yell. Where are you going, god damn it, let’s defend the position! But no. When there’s an assault, for instance, we’ll take the high ground, hand it over to the Syrians in the evening, come morning, no Syrians.”

The Russians regard the poor fighting capacity of the regime forces as connected to what they see as moral failings. “It’s a grotesque country,” said the commander to RFE/RL. “Faggotry flourishes there. They’ve all got it to a man.”

It is worth reading the whole piece. 

Thursday 19 April 2018

Motoring under a blue sky

Wall tile from Coleton Fishacre

What a fine day - too sunny for gardening or even walking so we went for a drive around Derbyshire. Off to Buxton followed by a meandering return journey via Bakewell taking in three coffee stops along the way. 

With the top down under a blue sky and copious quantities of sunshine it was easy enough to imagine why motoring caught the imagination. 

Tuesday 17 April 2018

Roll on winter

It was log day today, one of my favourite jobs, stacking a new load of logs for next winter. Once those fleeting moments of sunshine we refer to as "summer" are out of the way we'll be back in front of the log burner. 

Monday 16 April 2018

The radiance of a gorgeous tropic day?

It has been one of my commonest experiences, and one of the most interesting to me, to note that nearly all of my keenest experiences intellectually, my most gorgeous rapprochements and swiftest developments mentally, have been by, to, and through men, not women, although there have been several exceptions to this. Nearly every turning point in my career has been signalized by my meeting some man of great force, to whom I owe some of the most ecstatic intellectual hours of my life, hours in which life seemed to bloom forth into new aspects, glowed as with the radiance of a gorgeous tropic day.

Theodore Dreiser – Twelve Men (1919)

It isn’t easy to know what to make of this. I can go along with - my keenest experiences intellectually have been by, to, and through men, not women, and in my case there have also been several exceptions to this. So far so good, it is merely a statement of personal experience.

However I have certainly never had any ecstatic intellectual hours of my life, hours in which life seemed to bloom forth into new aspects, glowed as with the radiance of a gorgeous tropic day. In my case it was much more subdued, much more incremental.

The obvious conclusion is that this is merely Dreiser’s hype. Obvious but not particularly interesting so maybe he was writing of a world further removed from ours than we might suppose. Yes that’s much more interesting. Not quite radiant but more interesting.

Maybe Dreiser’s world was one where personal contact, personal influence and inspiration were more important than they are today, a world where it was easier to be inspired by others. A world where intellectual exploration was reaching some kind of peak from which it has since declined under the stultifying pressures of money, celebrity culture and political virtue signalling.

In any event, Dreiser’s must have been a world of great contrasts but not the remote and politically contrived contrasts we see today. In his world the contrasts were to be found only a few streets away and they were stark indeed. Fatally sharp contrasts between competent and incompetent, lucky and unlucky, winners and losers, skilled and unskilled, wanted and unwanted. It must have engendered a vast and pervasive clarity we no longer have.

Maybe we have lost that level of clarity as we prospered in a world we never planned and perhaps never would have planned had we seen and understood what the future was likely to bring.

Sunday 15 April 2018

Old film

Last week Grandson told me about what he called “an old film” he’d watched recently. It was a monster film and although he enjoyed it he thought the graphics weren’t very good. I asked him when the film was made and he told me 1981.

“Crikey, a film made in 1981 isn’t old,” I thought, but of course it is to him. My immediate notion of an “old film” was a black and white film made no later than the fifties, but on reflection one made in 1981 would probably seem old to me too. Films soon become dated. For one thing some or even most of the actors in a 1981 film could be dead by now.

All those decades and all those films we watched. They haven’t improved much, if at all.

That conversation with Grandson reminded me of another film-watching incident. Mrs H and I recently watched a definitely old film from the 1940s and for once managed to hear every word. It had been remastered but the dialogue was clear enough for our ageing ears. Just as well because it was mostly dialogue.

However, a recently watched modern film starring Nicholas Cage was entirely different – we had to use the Bluetooth headphones to make out what the man was saying. The quality of film actors' diction seems to have declined over the decades, but dialogue seems to have become less significant too, as if the image is more important than the words. 

Friday 13 April 2018

We’ll make a regular headliner of it

In 1919 Theodore Dreiser published a series of short biographies of people he had known collected together in a book entitled Twelve Men. The first biography was about a young man he called Peter who like Dreiser at that time worked in newspaper and magazine publishing. Dreiser regarded Peter very highly, a polymath with an enormous zest for life who died tragically young. On one occasion Peter decided to invent a wild man just for the fun of it.

“For heaven’s sake, what’s coming now?” I sighed.

 “Oh, very well. But I have it all worked out just the same. We’re beginning to run the preliminary telegrams every three or four days—one from Ramblersville, South Jersey, let us say, another from Hohokus, twenty-five miles farther on, four or five days later. By degrees as spring comes on I’ll bring him north—right up here into Essex County—a genuine wild man, see, something fierce and terrible.

We’re giving him long hair like a bison, red eyes, fangs, big hands and feet. He’s entirely naked—or will be when he gets here. He’s eight feet tall. He kills and eats horses, dogs, cattle, pigs, chickens. He frightens men and women and children. I’m having him bound across lonely roads, look in windows at night, stampede cattle and drive tramps and peddlers out of the country. But say, wait and see. As summer comes on we’ll make a regular headliner of it. We’ll give it pages on Sunday. We’ll get the rubes to looking for him in posses, offer rewards. Maybe some one will actually capture and bring in some poor lunatic, a real wild man. You can do anything if you just stir up the natives enough.”

It worked of course. There were sightings and stories about Peter’s imaginary wild man coming in from all over the place. Eventually to round it off, he dressed himself up as the wild man of his imagination then dropped the whole thing and so it fizzled out and was soon forgotten.

Perhaps Peter's wild man is a reminder of how important credulity has always been and how much it has always been manipulated by mass media. We cannot question everything and to our enduring cost it is more socially constructive to accept rather than reject. Almost as if we are built to believe. Who is your wild man?

Thursday 12 April 2018

Trump's move

For most of us, some high profile incidents do not come with enough information to make a worthwhile judgement. Key information is missing. If we join a public debate we risk doing so from a position of ignorance. Doesn't stop people of course.

The recent chemical attack in Syria and the Sergei and Yulia Skripal poisoning for example. There isn't enough information for most of us to be reasonably certain that we are not being deceived in one way or another. Which is to be expected but browsing the internet suggests a vast number of media people manage to be well-informed without key information, as if a pre-existing standpoint provides enough perspective for their readers. Perhaps it does.

To my mind the best we can do is to assess the moves being made by the main actors. The moves are fairly visible even if somewhat obscured by whatever is going on behind the scenes. For example the international position of Mr Putin seems to have taken a few knocks. That is visible. Not so long ago he could be presented as an urbane and intelligent but ruthless leader who was democratically elected. Elected unfairly perhaps but still elected. That was visible too.

Now he seems more like an international thug who tried to kill an old enemy by using a nerve toxin on foreign soil and who condoned the use of chemical warfare against civilians in Syria. This may or may not be the case – we don’t have the key information but the visible game runs against him. Meanwhile Donald Trump seems to have positioned himself as an international referee with a big stick.

Of course one cannot demonstrate this satisfactorily via public information and many of those with a pre-existing standpoint won’t see it this way at all, but amid the swirl of confusion and opinion, moods and perspectives may be changing. It must be an appalling prospect for his shouty opponents, but Trump may be a competent president. Even worse – he may be very competent.

From this same perspective we have the embarrassing irrelevance of the dear old EU. It needs a counter to Trump and it doesn’t have one. Not only that but apparently doesn’t yet see that it needs one.

Naturally things may change and may begin changing tomorrow because new perceptions can evolve quickly and powerful forces try to make sure they evolve in their favour. In which case Donald Trump’s regime is one of those powerful forces because behind the bluster his moves frequently turn out much better than his detractors expected.

We may not know what is said behind closed doors but this is where we do have some information – the moves and the players making those moves. Donald Trump plays the game unconventionally, but he seems to be a tough opponent. I certainly wouldn't bet against him.

Tuesday 10 April 2018

Where do old umbrellas go?


A foul morning and my folding umbrella has finally broken, or rather it still works but one of the ribs is poking through the fabric. Not worth mending of course - and where does one find an umbrella repairer in these environmentally aware throwaway times? So I went out and bought a new one. 

The old one went in the bin because it seems a bit mean to pop it in the next charity bag. Umbrellas are so cheap. We have a few folding ones for regular use plus couple of full-sized versions in the hall cupboard which we never use so I’m not sure why we keep them but they don’t take up much room and you never know...

When we cleared out Mrs H’s parents' house we discovered fourteen umbrellas. I suppose many were bought while on holiday because we all know how reliable British weather is and shopkeepers certainly do.

This raises an interesting question though - how many old umbrellas are rotting away in landfill sites? What if a freak earth movement caused them all to open at the same time? Could be another environmental disaster in the making. It may be worth informing the BBC about the potential danger.

Saturday 7 April 2018

A tale for the weekend


During the late nineteen sixties and early seventies, an unusual study was carried out by two American academics, H Louis Nightly and Fred Skrase. Nightly was a flamboyant psychologist who came to minor prominence in the nineteen sixties on the back of a series of provocative public statements about drugs culture. This phase did not last longer than it took Nightly to get himself noticed and by the mid-sixties he had switched his attention to the consumer society and the psychology of spending.

Fred Skrase was a more traditional and less colourful academic statistician with a taste for lateral thinking. He was a moderately successful writer of books on popular science in which he often presented semi-serious demonstrations of improbable statistical relationships between such things as traffic congestion and the phases of the moon.

Nightly and Skrase first met one evening in 1965 at the house of a mutual university friend and although the two men had quite different temperaments, for some reason they hit it off. They got talking about their respective specialties and ended up discussing the effect of consumer society on the health of the average American.

Out of this casual conversation came a research project which was to be a definitive study of the consumer society they saw growing up before their eyes. Although Nightly and Skrase were academics, their research was not pure academic research because Nightly somehow managed to arrange for it to be part-funded by a large advertising agency, which was unusual even in those days.

Nightly and Skrase carried out an exhaustive examination of the health records of about 12,000 people over a five year period from 1966 to 1971. They also got each subject to fill in a detailed questionnaire on the spending patterns of their household. After an enormous amount of work, mostly carried out by Skrase, the two researchers claimed they had found a definite correlation between the general health of their subjects and the number of durable goods bought by the subject’s household.

The more durable goods bought by a household and the more expensive the goods were, the better the general health of the household. Also, there was a more strongly significant health correlation with goods bought for cleaning purposes such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners. Other household durables such as TV sets and electric toasters had a less significant correlation with health.

Of course, as soon as Nightly and Skrase found these correlations, they immediately made the obvious conclusion - a more healthy household is generally a more prosperous household which simply spends more on durable goods. However Nightly and Skrase had a way round this by taking advantage of a feature of their times – breakfast food competitions.

They were able to show that if poorer households acquired durable goods by winning them in competitions, then they had the same general level of health which they would have had if they had paid for the goods like a more prosperous household.

For example, a poorer household might get lucky and win a washing machine or a freezer, or even a car in a breakfast food competition. At that time these competitions were very popular and Nightly and Skrase were able to compile enough data on poorer households to be statistically valid. They concluded that there was a valid relationship between spending on durable goods and household health even if those goods had been won in a breakfast cereal competition.

Even though this study was based on a large sample population, the research was not greeted with enthusiasm. Nobody seems to have accepted that spending their money on household goods would improve their health. The advertising agency was not impressed either. Somehow by 1971 a belief in the consumer revolution had faded and the agency did not use the research they had paid for and seem to have written the idea off as a failure.

So the world was never exposed to ads claiming that buying a new washing machine was good for your health, even though Nightly and Skrase appear to have made their case. The two friends never followed up their work so now it sits on dusty academic shelves as a little-known slice of oddball consumer research which nobody ever quite believed in spite of Fred Skrase’s solid statistics.

Shortly afterwards Fred Skrase left academia and went on to found a modestly successful computer software company on the back of the personal computer boom, while Louis Nightly tried and failed to interest health insurance companies in a scheme to give away vacuum cleaners with their health insurance policies. Nightly tried to argue that the cost of the vacuum cleaners would be more than offset by reduced health insurance claims due to the beneficial effects of owning a brand new cleaner, but insurance companies were not convinced or interested.

A tale for the weekend is fiction

I’m sure nobody found themselves believing this story even though it is intended to be vaguely plausible. As a spot of weekend relaxation I invented Nightly and Skrase to make two related points which we all know.

People prefer plausible fiction to the complexities and uncertainties of analysis.

Media folk know it, so they prefer it too.

Thursday 5 April 2018

A veil of caricature

Charles Dickens was a fine writer but he tended to cast a veil of caricature over grim realities. For example in Nicholas Nickelby, Wackford Squeers was horrible but Dotheboys Hall was probably not as horrible as the worst of the Yorkshire schools Dickens was castigating. Although he showed his readers what was going on, he glossed over the grisly details via caricature. Caricature tends to do that.

As a contrast we have Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel The Fortunes of Colonel Torlogh O'Brien published only a few years later. Here a grisly and prolonged description of death by the strappado leaves the reader  in no doubt about the inhuman nature of this appalling torture. No veil of caricature here. Dickens would never have tackled it even in the most oblique manner. 

Illustration by Phiz – somehow that seems to make the contrast even more stark.

At the word, the men let the rope go, and the living burthen which they had so lately raised, shot downwards from his elevated position to the point at which, as we have said, the rope was fixed; then; his descent was arrested with a dislocating shock which wrenched his arms almost from the shoulder sockets. With a yell so appalling that it dashed with a momentary horror, even the faces of the executioners themselves, the miserable man testified the unendurable anguish of the dreadful torture; rolling his head and his eyes around, in the delirium of his fierce agony, he shrieked forth blasphemies and prayers in wild and terrible incoherence. 

“Pike him, an’ put him out of pain, for God’s sake, will yez?” cried one of the spectators, with the energy of horror, and wincing under the frightful spectacle.

Sheridan Le Fanu - The Fortunes of Colonel Torlogh O'Brien (1847)

Tuesday 3 April 2018

A River in Darkness

If you have a Kindle and £1.00 to spare, Masaji Ishikawa’s A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North Korea is well worth reading. It is fairly short but covers an interesting aspect of North Korean history – the repatriation of Koreans from Japan. From Amazon -

Half-Korean, half-Japanese, Masaji Ishikawa has spent his whole life feeling like a man without a country. This feeling only deepened when his family moved from Japan to North Korea when Ishikawa was just thirteen years old, and unwittingly became members of the lowest social caste. His father, himself a Korean national, was lured to the new Communist country by promises of abundant work, education for his children, and a higher station in society. But the reality of their new life was far from utopian.

Mr Ishikawa escaped back to Japan during the nineties famine after Kim Il-sung died. Here are a couple of quotes, the first being a recipe for pine bark cakes.

First, boil the pine bark for as long as possible to get rid of all the toxins. (Many people botched this stage and died in agony as a result.) Next, add some cornstarch and steam the evil brew. Then cool it, form it into cakes, and eat it. This was easier said than done. The pine oil stinks to high heaven and makes it almost impossible to consume it. But if you wanted to live, you choked it down. That’s when the real fun began. Crippling gut pain that brought us to our knees; constipation that you wouldn’t believe. When the pain became unbearable—there’s no delicate way of putting this—you had to shove your finger up your anus and scoop out your concrete shit. I’m sorry. You didn’t need to know that. Except you did. It’s the only thing that shows how desperate we were.

The second quote sounds almost familiar.

People in North Korea spend so much time in study meetings and calculating the number of hours they’ve worked that there’s no time to do the actual work. The result? Raw materials don’t arrive in factories, the electricity doesn’t work, and farms are overrun with weeds.

Mr Ishikawa has a grim story to tell and he tells it well. To my mind he brings out the corruption, the crazy lies and the bureaucratic insanity Kim Il-sung implemented.

Monday 2 April 2018

The diesel squeeze

From the Guardian  

Parking problem: Volkswagen storing 300,000 diesels across US

Carmaker has paid $7.4bn to buy back 350,000 vehicles after it was exposed for circumventing emissions controls

What is it about diesel cars? It may be their range, the hundreds of miles even a big diesel car can travel on one tank of fuel. Electric cars cannot hope to match that so maybe diesel cars have to be squeezed out of the market via negative propaganda and ever tighter regulations.

I like diesels. Our main car is a diesel which manages well over 50mpg unless we are on the school run or nipping up and down Derbyshire hills. We bung in a few litres of AdBlue when the car tells us to top it up and that cures the NOx issue but enough is never enough when political motives intervene.