Friday, 23 June 2017

Labour pains

I'm pleased that Labour has a leader who recognises the former austerity consensus for the dangerous nonsense it was. Sadly, Corbyn’s Labour Party has its own en suite pachyderm. It's left to a post on the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute's blog to point out the elephant in the room:
While Corbyn’s much derided ‘0% strategy’ on Brexit proved to a be a short-term electoral masterstroke, assuring Red Kippers that he was committed to pulling out of the single market and clamping down on immigration, while allowing Remainers to project their hopes for a softer landing onto him, at some point a decision has to be made. It cannot be continually pushed down the line, hedged and obfuscated by vague promises of ‘tariff-free access’. Every one of Corbyn’s much-vaunted manifesto pledges relies on an increased tax-take and growth strategy which are predicated upon remaining in the single market, and thus entail retaining free movement. Yet his manifesto promise to end free movement (reiterated by John McDonnell in the weekend after the election result) makes nationalist protectionism the axiomatic position of both major parties, one which for Labour cannot be overturned without shedding one half of the electoral coalition which has secured Corbyn’s position

The struggle to win the support of the ex-UKIP Leave vote has led to Farage’s nativist agenda poisoning the well of the British polity as a whole, left and right – the real reason he is still never off the airwaves, despite UKIP’s ostensible collapse. The risk on one side is of economic catastrophe, on the other the development of a ‘stab in the back’ myth of national betrayal. No amount of energetic canvassing or witty memes can bridge such an abyss. It requires the political courage to be truly honest with the electorate about the consequences of withdrawal from the single market, traits which for all Corbyn’s purported authenticity have, in this context at least, been in short supply.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Victoria's secret

When a 21st Century person describes living, or working conditions as "Victorian", you can be pretty sure it's not meant as a complement. Think dark satanic mills and stunted, malnourished workers subsisting on thin gruel.

But maybe we need to re-examine our preconceptions, at least if we're comparing life today with life in the mid-Victorian period (1850-1880):
Analysis of the mid-Victorian period in the U.K. reveals that life expectancy at age 5 was as good or better than exists today, and the incidence of degenerative disease was 10% of ours...

...contrary to historical tradition, we argue in this paper, using a range of historical evidence ... Britain and its world-dominating empire were supported by a workforce, an army and a navy comprised of individuals who were healthier, fitter and stronger than we are today...

...Our recent research indicates that the mid-Victorians’ good health was entirely due to their superior diet. This period was, nutritionally speaking, an island in time; one that was created and subsequently squandered by economic and political forces...

...with the exception of family planning, the vast edifice of twentieth century healthcare has not enabled us to live longer but has in the main merely supplied methods of suppressing the symptoms of degenerative diseases which have emerged due to our failure to maintain mid-Victorian nutritional standards.
How the Mid-Victorians Worked, Ate and Died, by Paul Clayton and Judith Rowbotham

Clayton and Rowbotham seem to have identified a Goldilocks period. Before the 1850s, the Corn Laws and the crop blights of the Hungry Forties kept many people too hungry to be healthy. After about 1880, a move towards cheap, low-quality foods (fatty canned meats, cheap sugar, all manner of adulteration of basic foodstuffs, etc), along with cheap booze and that new, convenient, nicotine delivery system, the cigarette, meant that many people were ingesting too much unhealthy stuff to stay well.

Add the mid-Victorians' high levels of physical activity to their wholesome food, and you're looking at a recipe for a fairly healthy life. Something to ponder, as you pour some milk onto your sugary processed breakfast cereal before a sedentary day involving way too much screen time.

Monday, 19 June 2017

The art of the deal

I'm not quite sure sure what to make of David Davis's claim that the forthcoming Brexit deal will be "a deal like no other in history." At first, I thought the art of the Trumpian non-specific boast had crossed the Atlantic ("We’re going to win so much, you’re going to be so sick and tired of winning").

On the other hand, maybe Davis is being both specific and accurate. Maybe this will be a deal like no other in history. Possibly no other nation in history has voluntarily frittered away so much of its influence, wealth and credibility in a misguided effort to seal a deal which is so obviously worse than the status quo.

Update - apparently "a deal like no other in history" = "the fastest surrender in history. " Now he makes sense.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Security levels

Defence minister Tobias Ellwood told Question Time "security concerns" stopped the Prime Minister from meeting with survivors of the blaze, which killed at least 17* and injured scores more.
Kudos to Tobias for reminding us that, in today's Britain, being secure is a privilege of rank, not a human right. Bodyguards and armoured limos for the Very Important People, zero hours contracts and a precarious stake in a cut-price deathtrap for the low net worth human resources.

Although he probably didn't mean to be quite so devastatingly accurate.


*Update - since revised to "at least 58" with the high probability of an even grimmer body count.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

A briefer history of time

I'm reading Greg Jenner's A Million Years In A Day (subtitled A Curious History Of Everyday Life From The Stone Age To The Phone Age) at the moment. In the blurb, Tom Holland, himself no slouch in the popular history department, writes that Jenner is "as witty as he is knowledgeable." After a page or two, I was inclined to agree. After a couple more pages, the constant gags were getting a bit irritating.

I can see why he did it - nobody wants to sound po-faced and boring, but, for me, he tried to lighten the mood too much.* Not that I'd have done much better - if I tried to write something along these lines I'd probably have fallen into the same trap.

Still, Tom Holland's right about the "knowledgeable" bit. The first chapter, inspired by the alarm clock going off at the start of the day, was about how humans have recorded time. There was interesting detail on stuff I was already hazily aware of (mechanical clocks being invented mainly so that monks and nuns could say their prayers at the right time, the French Revolutionary calendar and the adoption of a standardised time zone across Britain being driven by the needs of railway timetables).

But the best bits were the things I had no idea about. For example, I had no idea how the ancient Egyptians dealt with the changes in day length over the seasons. Today we'd say that a midwinter day at, say, the latitude of Alexandria lasts about ten hours, while in midsummer, Alexandria has about fourteen hours of daylight. For the ancient Egyptians, a midwinter and midsummer day would have had the same number of hours - rather than measuring time in fixed units, they used seasonally adjustable hours which could last for only 45 minutes in midwinter, or stretch out to 75 minutes in midsummer.

It isn't just the adjustable hours that makes ancient Egyptian timekeeping look strange to our eyes - there were no seven-day weeks in the land of the pharaohs, but 36 ten-day weeks in a year made up of three four-month-long seasons, rather than our familiar four three-month-long seasons. Given the local climate, the seasonal thing makes sense, but it's a good lesson about how our way of measuring a continuous thing isn't the only way.

We might see ancient Egyptian time-related notions as quirky and counter-intuitive, but, as Greg Jenner points out, some of ours look just as odd to outsiders. Take the simple English word "day", for example. In English this can refer two completely distinct things. First, the approximately 24 hours it takes the Earth to rotate once on its axis.** Second, the daylight part of that 24 hour cycle, which can last from 24 hours to no time at all depending where in the world you are, at what season.

Other languages reflect this distinction - in Dutch, Dag means "day" as in "when it's light outside" and Etmaal means "day" in the sense of "a 24 hour period."***

In fact - and I didn't know this, either - English does have a specific separate word for "day" in the 24 hour sense. But it's a Greek loan word and so ridiculously obscure that hardly anybody knows it. And the word is:
Nychthemeron
Which, according to Greg Jenner, sounds like a Finnish heavy metal band.  To be fair to Greg, it does sound pretty cool, albeit in a rather nerdy way and, yes, I could just about picture the word emblazoned in gothic-style characters on a black tour T-shirt. With an umlaut above the "o", natch...

Anyway, I'm on to chapter two of Greg's book now, which is all about going to the toilet, so I'm not expecting the jokey style to calm down any time soon...


*I think this style would have worked far better if this had been a radio series, or a series of podcasts, rather than a book.

**Let's not get into solar versus sidereal days, unless you really want to.
 
***Although, AFAIK, languages which make this useful distinction are in the minority, so I'm not picking on English here.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The politics of Daim bars and Everton mints

Before the election there was some talk of Theresa May having a "Nixon in China" moment, using her political credibility (remember that?) to float a series of interventionist policies.* According to conventional wisdom, a left-of-centre politician would never have got away with such deviation from market orthodoxy, due to the left's perceived economic credibility deficit.

What a difference a month makes.

Now Theresa May looks like the precise opposite of Nixon in China.

Nixon was supposedly able to make a conciliatory approach to Red China because of his proven credentials as a "tough" Cold War hawk. A Democratic president who tried the same thing would have been vilified as a Commie-loving appeaser.

Now look at May's position. She took charge of a party with the Brexit hawks ascendant. From their point of view, she had zero Brexit credentials ("Remaining inside the European Union does make us more secure, it does make us more prosperous and it does make us more influential beyond our shores" - Theresa May, April 25, 2016). As a suspected Brussels-loving appeaser, she desperately needed to appear tough on Europe and tough on the causes of Europe. Hence the mad rush to "get on with it", trigger Article 50 and out-Brexit the Brexiteers.

Nixon was perceived as being strong enough to seek cooperation, rather than conflict, with the designated enemy.

May was seen as weak on Europe, so was forced into acts of self-defeating belligerence, in order to prove how tough she really was.

In the language of the sweet shop, Nixon was a Daim bar, with soft chocolate on the outside and hard toffee within. May was more like one of those Everton mints with a hard, brittle shell concealing a soft centre.

The other salient feature of the Everton mint is that it looks very much like a humbug...


*Update - apparently, she's trying for another Nixon/China moment right now, only without the credibility...

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Fantasy island

What do you Brits actually want? And the answer is that the Brits want what they can’t possibly have. They want everything to change and everything to go as before. They want an end to immigration—except for all the immigrants they need to run their economy and health service. They want it to be 1900, when Britain was a superpower and didn’t have to make messy compromises with foreigners...

...An overawed Europe would bow before this display of British staunchness and concede a Brexit deal in which supplies of cake would be infinitely renewed.
Fintan O'Toole, in the New York Review. If your only source of information was the UK media, you might be forgiven for not realising quite how far from reality these islands have drifted recently, so Fintan's article is a timely corrective.

Maybe it needs an outsider's eye to really see the absurdities. From the inside, even a diminished, fracturing polity can bask comfortably in the warm afterglow of its former pomp, lulled by a long period of "strong and stable" continuity:
This skepticism about ideology appears to be an echt-Austrian quality, which developed over the course of the long reign of Emperor Franz Josef, from 1848 to 1916. During this period, the rise of nationalism in Eastern Europe and of Prussian military power robbed the Austro-Hungarian Empire of its raison d’ĂȘtre. The empire satisfied neither the militant pan-Germans, who looked to Prussia for leadership, nor the other ethnicities living under Habsburg rule, who yearned for independence. All that was holding the empire together, it came to seem, was the personal authority of Franz Josef, who was revered as the symbol of a continuity everyone knew was on its last legs.

For writers looking back on this long Indian summer of empire, from the vantage point of post-1918 anarchy, it was the very mildness of this ruling principle—its tolerance, even its slovenliness—that inspired nostalgia.
Adam Kirsch, also in the New York Review.

Franz Josef I, Austria-Hungary's revered symbol of continuity, reigned for nearly 68 years. He died at the age of 85, a couple of years before the polity he ruled fell apart, fractured by a European crisis and internal national divisions. Any resemblance to another self-important, complacent, nostalgic, formerly-imperial assemblage of nations  with an exceptionally long-reigning monarch is purely coincidental. Probably.