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’être. 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.

Unionism disunited

Here's an interesting report from the house magazine of the Conservative and Unionist Party. According to the Torygraph, Ruth Davidson is planning devolution for the Scottish Conservative party, which would turn into a separate organisation, rather than just a branch office of the Westminster Tories. And, rather wonderfully, Ruth's Tartan Tories would support only the softest of Brexits, in an effort to lose the stigma of being the hard Brexit party in a country that voted decisively to remain.

Please let this be true. After an election called to forcibly unite the entire UK behind a lunatic hard Brexit, please let Brexit become something that doesn't even unite the Conservatives. The Balkanization of the Party itself would be the cherry on the cake.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Konservative karma

There's a story that Niels Bohr kept a horseshoe above his door, apparently for luck. A surprised visitor asked him whether he, as a world-renowned physicist, actually believed in such superstition and Bohr supposedly replied "Of course not … but I am told it works even if you don't believe in it." Likewise, I don't believe in karma but, after the 2017 general election, I've decided that it, too, works whether you believe in it or not.

Let's start with the bad intent:
  • For petty party political advantage, the Tories put the whole nation at risk by creating an  entirely avoidable crisis (the EU referendum).
  • Then they did it again (prematurely triggering Article 50 without having any strategy beyond making empty threats from a position of obvious weakness).
  • Then they did it again (triggering an election in the middle of a set of high-stakes, time-limited negotiations, which were already squeezed into an unrealistically short timetable).
And what happened as a direct result?
  • The universe duly rewarded them with a well-deserved kicking, precisely calibrated to hurt like hell, without actually kicking them out of office and leaving some other poor sods to clear up the mess they created.
Perfect.

Now all the opposition has to do is wait by the river for the body of their enemy to float by.

The only possible way Labour could screw this up and not profit from the Tories' self-inflicted death by Brexit is by engaging in another bout of in-fighting which takes the headlines off the Conservative car crash. And, while this is entirely possible, even some of the "topple Corbyn at all costs" brigade seem to have acknowledged that Labour did far better than expected by maintaining party discipline and may even have realised that now isn't the time for plotting and coup attempts.

As for the Conservatives, they could possibly recover a bit of ground by making a sensible choice of leader. Ruth Davidson, who's done so well in Scotland, would be an obvious choice.** She comes across as down to earth, intelligent, feisty and even warm, a freakishly rare combination in the modern Conservative Party and she's the sort of leader opposition parties should fear.

But, for now, they're stuck with the same cold, brittle, robotic control freak they went into the election with and, with any luck, the Tories, instead of doing the sensible thing, will simply replace her with some other catastrophic weirdo.

Whether, in the ensuing chaos, it's possible to destroy Brexit and save the nation is another question, but it feels as though the Overton Window may have shifted enough to move the conversation on from the idiotic "No deal is better than a bad deal" mindset to the slightly more sensible "No Brexit is better than a bad Brexit."*



*A "bad Brexit" being any Brexit which leaves the UK worse off than it would have been if it had continued with its existing EU membership (i.e. almost any conceivable Brexit, so, in short, "No Brexit is better than Brexit"). Whether Article 50 is reversible, or some "Brexit in name only" deal could be fudged, remains to be seen.

** Update - No she wouldn't, at least while she's a Member of the Scottish Parliament. They'd need to get her into Westminster first, which isn't straightforward,  even if she was up for it.  I should have engaged brain before making that suggestion.  Still, I can console myself in my embarrassment with the thought that the unavailability of Ruth Davidson means that  their leadership crisis is even worse. 

Thursday, 8 June 2017

This baffling Brexit election

I just cast my vote in the 2017 general election. Brexit is supposed to be an important issue in this election.

Except it's not, because all the main parties have bent over backwards to tell everybody that they respect the will of the people* so much that none of them could possibly come out and say that Brexit was a terrible idea and therefore they're against it.** So I didn't get a direct vote against the most important, controversial political decision since 1945 (although I hope my tactical vote did its minuscule bit to sabotage the will of the designated people).

I'm not making any predictions, because I'm frankly baffled by politics at the moment. I'm baffled because, post-Brexit, I'm at a loss to know what the people who voted Leave are thinking. If I don't have a clue about what's going on inside their heads, I clearly haven't got a hope in hell of predicting how they'll vote. Even when Leavers have tried to explain to me why they've voted how they voted, I still don't get it.

Here's an example. I was talking to a builder who'd voted Leave today. He explained that he'd voted this way partly because many of the UK building supplies firms he used had been taken over by European companies. I didn't get the chance to ask any follow-up questions, so the whole thing left me completely confused. What did this have to do with the European Union? Nothing, as far as I could understand. There are plenty of well-known examples of British firms being taken over by foreign companies and not just European ones - think India's Tata Motors acquiring Jaguar Land Rover, or the Cadbury chocolate company being assimilated by US food giant Kraft.

Surely this would happen in or out of the EU, unless this country turned into some kind of closed economy which didn't allow foreign firms to buy UK-based ones? How do you get from "some UK firms have been taken over by European ones" to "therefore we must leave the EU"? Is it me? Am I missing some obvious connection here?

I can cope with disagreeing with people. What I find really unsettling is when I can't even begin to understand their thought processes. I don't just share the country with a bunch of people with very different opinions, but with people who seem to inhabit a divergent parallel reality, based on a set of assumptions which make zero sense to me. "United" doesn't seem to describe the state of this kingdom any more.



*"People" here = "37% of the eligible voting population."

**Although an overwhelming majority clearly thought it was a bad idea before the referendum.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Photoblogging Ely, 2017

With so much grim and ominous news about, I'm going to blog about something completely different. Following on from last year's visit to Ely:

This year, a slightly better picture of the famous octagonal Lantern...

...built to replace the former central tower, which collapsed in 1322 "possibly as a result of digging foundations for the Lady Chapel." Which ties in with what Tracy, the tour guide, told us about the foundations of this enormous building being only six feet deep (about 1.8m), due to the constraints of the local geography. The Lantern was designed to avoid another collapse by being lighter (made of oak beams with lead cladding, rather than stone and designed in such a way as to transfer the weight onto the main body of the building).
You must be ten years or older to take the 170-step tour up to the lantern, so this year we get to go up.
Up close and personal with the interior of the Lantern...

And looking back at the west tower from the parapet that surrounds the Lantern.



West Tower


Ah, the memories...
"Sitting in a sunken garden,
Pinking in a sinking sun,
Thinking of a summer long ago
When one was twenty-one;
Naming all the flowers so friendly.
Shouting at the shrubs so thick.
Lo, behold lobelia –
One bite and the bishop was sick.
How nice to be in England
Now that England's here:
I stand upright in my wheelbarrow
And pretend I'm Boadicea...
"





The view from the Palace Green, opposite the west tower - as per last year, note the Open University graduate, gowned up for one of the OU degree ceremonies being held on the 3rd of June. The marquees and stalls on the green aren't part of the OU event, by the way, but the annual Etheldreda Craft and Food Fair, which has taken place on this spot since time immemorial (only kidding, it started in the 1990s).

Saint Etheldreda (AKA Æthelthryth, Æþelðryþe, or Audrey), was the Northumbrian queen credited with founding the first abbey church on Ely in 672AD. It was Etheldreda, via her pseudonym, Audrey, who gave us the word "tawdry":
 .tawdry (adj.)
    "no longer fresh or elegant but worn as if it were so; in cheap and ostentatious imitation of what is rich or costly," 1670s, adjective use of noun tawdry "silk necktie for women" (1610s), shortened from tawdry lace (1540s), an alteration (with adhesion of the -t- from Saint) of St. Audrey's lace, a necktie or ribbon sold at the annual fair at Ely on Oct. 17 commemorating St. Audrey (queen of Northumbria, died 679). Her association with lace necklaces is that she supposedly died of a throat tumor, which, according to Bede, she considered God's punishment for her youthful stylishness:
Online Etymology Dictionary

I'm guessing that etymologists weren't the target demographic when they launched the Etheldreda Craft and Food Fair.

But never mind Etheldreda/Audrey, the lucky Open University graduates and their friends and family were treated to a graduation speech (or commencement address, as they call them in the U S of A) from none other than Professor Mary Beard:
In a thoughtful touch, Mary Beard ditched the usual formulaic rhetoric about believing that the new graduates would now go out, change the world and follow their dreams. Not that there's anything wrong with that stuff, but she had noticed that these were Open University graduates, most of whom had already gone out into the world of work, perhaps raised a family, been carers and done all sorts of worthwhile things before gaining their degrees. I was impressed with the sensitivity of framing the day as an integrated part of a process of life-long leaning, rather than a stand-alone Year Zero, after which things are transformed utterly.

From the wonderful Mary Beard to Bloody Mary and, not far from the cathedral, a terrible beauty is born (actually, just something terrible):








Ecumenical outreach fail. "Near this place on 16th October 1555 William Wolsey, constable of Welney, Upwell and Outwell, Robert Pygot, painter from Wisbeach, were burnt at the stake for their Christian faith."

Yes, definitely just somthing terrible - if there was anything like terrible beauty coming out of those times, it came from Oxford, rather than Cambridgeshire, with Hugh Latimer's famous last words:
"Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."
It seems pretty certain that the Reformation and the horrible religious conflict that followed  was driven by the advent of printing, from vernacular Bibles to the spread of propaganda works like Foxe's Book of Martyrs, but I wonder whether the apparent steep rise in inequality from the mid-1500s also played a part in stoking the social grievances that sustained the religious conflict through to the English Civil War and Thirty Years' War.


The Cathedral was also hosting the Ely Cathedral Science Festival.

"Touch the meteorites! They are the oldest things you will ever touch." Now that's what I call hands on.

It was nice weather for ducks. But only for ducks that could find a bit of shade.
"...pinking in the sinking sun..."

Friday, 2 June 2017

"I will survive"

Two things about next week's general election:

First thing: there are legitimate reasons for having doubts about Jeremy Corbyn,* but the idea of him being a hard-left revolutionary is obvious nonsense. Stripped of the tabloid hype, he's the sort of mild social democrat who used to raise zero eyebrows in Europe and the pre-Thatcher UK. In fact, many of his actual policies**  raise zero eyebrows in the UK today.

It's easier to criticise him for playing too safe than for imagined revolutionary zeal. For example supporting a modestly higher top rate of income tax isn't that radical, it’s been done before and it might not even raise that much extra revenue. A Land Value Tax, which would be a far more radical and harder for the super-rich to dodge, (landowners can't hide their rent-generating hectares offshore) is only mentioned as an option for discussion (which didn't stop the moronic "Labour Will Force You To Sell Your Garden" tabloid headlines).

Second thing: if you want revolutionary ideology, vote May. After all, "No deal is better than a bad deal", is pretty radical smash-the-system stuff when you consider that "No deal" would mean the nation losing its ability to trade freely with our nearest neighbours, who just happen to constitute the second largest GDP area on the planet. But everything will definitely be OK because ideology. That's the reality behind Theresa May's carefully-cultivated image of grey managerial competence:
"Don't be afraid, this is a safe pair of hands" Any resemblance to any giant praying mantis, living or dead, is purely coincidental (has anybody seen Philip May's head recently?).
The UK isn't under threat from wild-eyed revolutionaries seizing power. The wild-eyed revolutionaries are already in power and working to make their nihilistic revolution permanent. As far as I can tell from the stuff Team May have come out with so far, they're actually looking forward to the prospect of a massive economic crisis, convinced that they, personally, are going to make it through.***

I've seen this sort of mindset before, but not among mainstream politicians. Team May remind me more of a bunch of survivalists, or dooomsday preppers, eagerly anticipating the End Times, convinced that they'll survive because of all those weekends they spent dressing up in camouflage gear and play acting the end of the world, pitying the poor sheeple who don't get the excitement of their outdoorsy firearms-and-tinned-supplies lifestyle.

Sensible? Moderate? Pragmatic? Don't make me laugh.
It's the end of the world as we know it and they feel fine...
As somebody once said, if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, you probably haven't grasped the seriousness of the situation.



*Chiefly his failure to robustly stand against Brexit, the unexploded time bomb set to blow up any plans in his more-costed-than-the-Tories manifesto (not that there's much hope from any of the parties - even my local Lib Dems only promised to oppose a "hard Brexit" in their election leaflet, as though the EU is likely to put a softer "having your cake and eating it" option onto the menu any time now). Also some of the his more unpleasantly anti-Semitic noises coming from Corbyn's Stop The War fanbase (there's far nastier anti-Semitism coming from the right, especially the alt variety, but two wrongs don't make the alt-right right).

**As opposed to the tabloid idiot's version of his policies where a Tory vote is the only thing that will stop the Corbynistas setting up a gulag in Guildford to forcibly re-educate hard-working families through compulsory jam-making sessions, or whatever made-up shit they're insulting our intelligence with this week.

***Well, they're probably rich enough to have a better chance than the rest of us poor schmucks.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Shocking, but predictable

"Poll firm predicts shock losses for Theresa May’s Tories at general election"
If YouGov has correctly predicted a shocking thing, this would be a predictably unpredictable result. If they're wrong, it would be unpredictably predictable.

You could spend time thinking about what the polls mean but, if you have any coherent political preferences, this information will probably do nothing to change the way you vote. So you might as well fill your mental bandwidth with something less pointless, like learning how to create a vintage teapot cake and decorate a sugar teacup. A sugar teacup would be about as robust as many recent polls and, at the end of the process, there would be a fighting chance of cake, rather than a high probability of crushing despair.

In fact, I'm sorry I even mentioned it...

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Twee for two

Newport Pagnell resident shocks friends with this one weirdly specific trick:


"Vintage Teapot" Cake Decoration Workshop
17th June - 10am - 4.30pm
This 1 day workshop will enable you to create a vintage teapot cake and decorate a sugar teacup.
You will learn how to:
  • Sculpt cake to achieve a 3 D effect
  • Cover and smooth fondant
  • Design your colour scheme
  • Use molds
  • Hand paint sugar fondant
Just £89 per person
Places are limited to just 8 per class
Spotted on a town noticeboard, in a town which currently supports a population of about 15,000 people and two cake decorating shops.

Not that I've got anything against novelty cakes, as such, but context is everything. Mastering the skill needed to come up with this sort of whimsical creation would be perfectly fine if you did it only once, for a very special event, or to impress the Great British Bake Off judges, but paying to reproduce it in a ninety-quid-a-pop cake-decoration-by-numbers workshop? Really? Is it just me, or is that a bit bonkers?

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Fossil watch

Time is running out...

What’s more, the [fossil fuel] industry sits on a mountain of debt that can never be repaid, will never be repaid, and it’s poised between two bad pricing decisions — keep prices low, which will accelerate the industry bankruptcies caused by those debts (which will also bankrupt some banks); or raise prices higher, making the fossil fuel industry’s debt service more sustainable in the short term while driving an even faster transition to renewables in the long term.
So what is the endgame for those who are heavily invested in the fossil fuels biz? Hope and work for higher prices now and fill your boots while you can, or try to keep prices low and hope it buys you more time by reducing the incentive to develop and improve the altenatives?

I have no idea, although I'd guess that any fossil fuel interests based here in the UK would prefer the short-term "grab what you can and to hell with tomorrow" approach so typical of the British way of doing things. This mindset has been disastrous in the past - the UK treated North Sea oil as a one-off bonanza, rather than thinking of the future and sensibly diverting some of the profits from this finite resource into a sovereign wealth fund like Norway, or Saudi Arabia.

If I'm right, and UK fossil fuel interests get what they wish for, it would mean more pain and fuel poverty in the short term, although maybe a brighter future further down the line, as alternatives get taken up more quickly than they otherwise would have been.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Brendan O'Neill's hypocritical virtue-signalling

The Manchester bombing was a pointless piece of cruel stupidity. At least it brought out the best in many people, though, from offers of emergency accommodation, free taxi rides and bottled water for shaken people unable to get home, to help finding missing loved ones and so many (perhaps misguided but well-meaning) people rushing to donate blood that centres are having to turn them away. Good on those people for doing their best to do something helpful.

And shame on those members of the commentariat with column inches to fill who decided to make it all about themselves. I'm looking at you, Brendan O'Neill. You could have had the decency to keep your big hypocritical trap shut, but after a career built on scolding others for empty "virtue signalling"*, you just couldn't resist lecturing them on how much more virtuously angry you are than everybody else.

Brendan, there are people today who will be feeling far more devastated and angrier than you could even imagine, and with good reason. Don't insult them by comparing your urge to churn out yet another repetitive piece of look-at-me contrarian instapunditry to something important happening to real people in the real world.

If you had any shame we'd never hear from you again.



*Brendan also makes the waggy finger here and here and here and here and here.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Hoggart's Law versus public relations bullshit


The public relations industry exists to take away your informed consent by messing with your head and crowding out useful information with spurious noise, for the exclusive benefit of the rich and powerful (who are the only people who can afford to pay for this shit). So, definitely evil.

It wouldn't be much of a consolation, but the evil PR business would be slightly less insulting to the rest of us if the diabolical people being paid to mess with our heads were worthy opponents, with subtle, piercing intellects, weaving complex, finely-crafted webs of spin and misdirection so beautiful that we'd be forced to admire the sheer craftsmanship of the people pulling our strings.

But, apparently, they're not. They're as dumb as a bag of hammers. Don't take my word for it. Just look at the blog of a public relations professional. `

Richard Bailey, of prstudies dot com, has been thinking about how to identify the best PR blogs being entered for something called the #bestPRblogs contest. His thoughts, such as they are, occupy the space taken up by this blog post.

Let's put the pronouncements of a PR professional through a bullshit filter. The filter I'm using today is Hoggart's Law™, which states that "If the opposite of a statement is plainly absurd, it was not worth making in the first place."

Richard,  who appears to have a Phd in the bleeding obvious, titles his blog post "In praise of excellence" (as opposed to "In praise of mediocrity").

Let's examine an expert's suggestions for writing an excellent PR blog:
  • "Have a blog" (because not having a blog can negatively impact your chances of winning a prize for having an excellent blog. Who knew? Do go on...)
  • "Be selected for my pick of the week roundup" ("One of the guys judging this contest wants you to impress him, so you can safely ignore him for ever.")
  • "Be consistent" ("Be wildly inconsistent")
  • "Be brilliant" ("Be stupid")
  • "Brilliant writing counts"" ("Write any old rubbish, nobody cares")
  • Quality content has value" (see the opposite of "Brilliant writing counts", above). 
I don't know about his students, but Richard certainly deserves a prize. For nature conservation. So long as we have an ecosystem which supports vast herds of bovine PR professionals like him, the duck-billed platitude is safe from extinction.


Image credit.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

"You might also want to try..."

Today's unintentionally funny suggestion comes from webopedia's attempt to define organic SEO. After defining the term, the entry gives examples of organic SEO techniques. I love the way that the very last technique listed is "writing content relevant for human readers."

I suppose you could try doing that if you were really desperate, but it'll never catch on.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Cultural recycling

"Why every American graduation plays the same song"[sic] was the title of this video I just came across. Never having been to an American graduation, I wondered which "song" (or rather "tune") it was. I guessed Brahms' Academic Festival Overture (or at least the tune of Gaudeamus Igitur, the rousing student drinking song that Brahms recycled at the end of his piece). Alternatively, I know from my wife, who organises degree ceremonies, that Charpentier's Te Deum and Purcell's Trumpet Tune often get an airing on these occasions, too.

Anyway, I clicked play and discovered that Americans celebrate their academic successes to the tune of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March Number 1 - the "Land of Hope and Glory" tune. For a Brit who associates the piece with the union jack-waving crowds at the last night of the Proms, this just felt weird.

Which it maybe shouldn't have done considering that, in the USA, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture is a standard feature of July the 4th celebrations and most Americans apparently think Tchaikovsky's tune has something to do with America's inconclusive 1812 war with the British. We Brits are used to cultural appropriation happening to other cultures - heaven knows, Britain did enough of it back in the high noon of its Imperial pomp, so it's about time we got our heads around the idea that it can happen to us, too.

Personally, I'm quite happy with the discovery - I'm better disposed towards the piece, now that I know that lots of people associate it with a celebration of hard work and intellectual curiosity, not just a strain of jingoist Imperial nostalgia that's embarrassing at best and delusionally destructive at worst. Here's the vid:




Thursday, 18 May 2017

Breaking news: Trump assasinated

According to the entertaining cartoonist who inexplicably morphed into the parody geekbro and red-pillish men's rights activist still known as Scott Adams, we're witnessing "The Slow-Motion Assassination of President Trump", no less.

After all, as Scott has repeatedly pointed out, Trump is a master wizard, who's playing 10-dimensional chess, or whatever, while the rest of us clueless muggles don't even realise the game's started. Obviously, the only way such an omnitalented übermensch could fail is because his enemies have ganged up on him in a massive, sustained conspiracy. It's like JFK, except with bullets made of the purest fake news...

Up to a very limited point, I agree with Scott. There is probably less to the Russia thing than meets the eye. Trump's a careless blabbermouth and a security nightmare with an embarrassing man-crush on hunky Tsar Vladimir, but I'm not running with the outlandish idea thet he's some kind of Hollywood-style Manchurian Candidate.

But as for the character "assassination" idea, well, Mr President, you're no Jack Kennedy. If you want a historical parallel, Al Capone would be closer. Not because of Trump's alleged ties with The Mob, but because what got Capone in the end wasn't the stuff he was notorious for (being a gangster and killing people), but something far more mundane (tax evasion).

Likewise, Trump is notorious for a number of failings which are no secret to anybody. These include a short attention span, an incredible degree of ignorance, a lack of interest in remedying that ignorance, or learning the most basic facts he needs to do his job, an apparent inability to distinguish whether the stuff that comes out of his mouth is true, false, or even coherent, an admitted preference for living inside his own privileged filter bubble, a streak of petty cruelty, a desire to humiliate others and self-parodic levels of vanity. Don't just take my word for it - this interview transcript from The Economist gives chapter and verse on the evasiveness, the blustering ineptitude, the desire to escape from inconvenient facts and the epic vanity. As for the vindictive spite of the man, you shouldn't even need to google it unless you've been living under a rock, or on Mars, for the last couple of years.

Most of this stuff has been obvious for as long as people have been aware of Donald Trump. But, instead, what's damaging him is a less dramatic failing - inattention, combined with an underdeveloped theory of mind which mean that his attempts to explain the probably explicable end up sounding shifty and evasive. By the look of things, this is a guy who hasn't quite grasped the fact that a plain "I didn't do it" sounds more convincing than "I didn't do it, nobody saw me do it, there's no way you can prove anything." But he seemingly can't help himself - every time somebody comes up with something circumstantial, but a bit dodgy-sounding, he manages to make it sound even worse - if he doesn't learn that less is more, and soon, he'll end up tripping over his own bizarrely over-long tie and falling flat on his big orange face.

And then, who knows? President Elizabeth Warren, according to Scott Adams, who clearly thinks that this would be a bad thing because, you know, the oppressive matriarchy, feminazis, whatever. However, by the end of his post, Scott goes back to his happy place and concludes with the consoling idea that President Warren, too, will only last a couple of years now that any president can be brought down by fake news and conspiracy theories. It would probably be useless to point out that Trump himself was only too happy to run with a ridiculous  conspiracy theory which was far less plausible than the Russia thing. Remind me, what was it called again?
"You're fired!"
Big Bertha? I'm sure it was something like that ... hang on, I've got it now:
"The FAKE NEWS media is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!"
Big birther. Turns out that if you sow the wind, you might just end up reaping the whirlwind. Who knew?

Speaking of irony, has anybody else noted the striking similarities between Trump and one of the characters in Adams's Dilbert cartoons, the pointy-haired boss? An entitled bully with weird hair, promoted way above his abilities who is way more clueless and ignorant than the people below him in the hierarchy. All these years I thought that Scott intended the pointy-haired boss to be a figure of fun, never realising that he was really a how-to manual for aspiring presidents. Whatever next? Steve Bannon as Catbert?






Wednesday, 17 May 2017

"The pseudo-journalistic medium"

Breitbart, as described in Steffen Dobbert's interview with Nigel Farage for Zeit Online:
He was one of the first politicians to visit Trump after the election. Also to [visit his] electoral campaign manager and former head of the pseudo-journalistic medium Breitbart,* Stephen Bannon.
Interesting to see how the UK's answer to Pepe the Frog loses it under determined questioning, leaving his minders to shut down the interview. If only the UK media had been this tough on his fact-free assertions, evasions and bluster before the referendum.



*Update - although, in defence of Brietbart's pseudo-journalists, they do have a certain dogged tenacity.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

A Nixon in China moment

The shorthand is “Nixon goes to China,” meaning a moment in which a leader reverses his past positions to do something that is shocking but beneficial.

Richard Nixon is hardly a role model, overall; he was a devious president who encouraged illegal actions by his subordinates. But he was a clever strategist — never more so than in the opening to China that culminated in his February 1972 visit to Beijing...

...Nixon arguably was the only U.S. politician who could have gotten away with such a bold move. He had the right-wing credentials, as an anti-communist and advocate of Taiwan.
 David Ignatius, Washington Post 

In a similar way, Flip Chart Rick believes that Theresa May is counting on her right-wing credentials to sprinkle some of that fairy dust we call "credibility" onto previously derided Labour policies. He thinks we may be seeing:
...a shift away from free market ideology as Theresa May promises more interventionist policies, such as a cap on energy prices, a crackdown on companies who underfund pension schemes, investment in new council houses and the “greatest extension of rights and protections for employees by any Conservative government in history.”
Interesting, if true, although others doubt whether any such Damascene conversion has really happened ("Red Theresa my arse").

Whether or not you think the advertised policy shift is sincere, or even real, it's an interesting reminder that what's deemed politically possible often depends on who's doing or saying something, rather than the actual merits of what's being done or said. Which isn't, in my opinion, a good thing, although if the subsequent career of Richard Milhous Nixon did nothing to dent people's blind faith in the mystical power of "credibility", then I'm afraid nothing will.



Monday, 15 May 2017

Manifesto promises of note

Whatever the outcome of the 2017 General Election, the prospects for the UK look grimmer than at any time in (my) living memory and the chance that any plausible outcome will do anything to mitigate the looming crisis looks slim. But vote anyway - even voting tactically for the least worst option in support of what seems like a lost cause is less silly than abstaining and trying to smash the system by staying in bed, Russell Brand-style.

In the meanwhile, if you're desperate for a bit of light relief (and I know I am), here are a few entertaining policy positions from elections past:
  • Free access to swimming pools for everyone and free towels.
From the party platform of Iceland's Best Party (the publicly-subsidised swimming bit might well be feasible in a place the size of Iceland - it was the free towels for all pledge that made me smile).
  • Free bananas for all schoolchildren.
As promised by H'Angus the Monkey, the former football club mascot who became the first directly elected mayor of Hartlepool.
  • Free dung.
  • The abolition of money, replacing it with chocolate fish or with sand.
  • Votes for trees.
  • Replacing the Royal New Zealand Armoured Corps with mounted knights.
  • Fixing accountants in concrete and using them as traffic barriers.*
  • Limiting the speed of light to 100 km/h.
  • Setting up a Frivolous Fraud Office to investigate any fraud deemed too silly for the Serious Fraud Office.
All promised by New Zealand's McGillicuddy Serious Party, which also promised, Epimenides-style, to break its own promises. The party entered a goat in a local Waiheke Island election, but their attempt to have a hedgehog stand for Parliament was unsuccessful.**
  • Repealing the law of gravity.
  • Building one nuclear power plant per household, including monthly distributions of lead underwear - indoor lighting to be provided by radioactive citizens.
  • Providing higher education by building taller schools.
  • Putting the national debt on Visa.***
  • Donating a free rhinoceros to every aspiring artist in Canada.
  • Rather than patriate the Canadian constitution by bringing it to Canada, as proposed by Pierre Trudeau, bring Great Britain home and make it Canada's eleventh province.****
The Rhinoceros Party of Canada.


Taken from the "politics and government" section of Wikipedia's trove of unusual articles (as defined and chosen by Wikipedia contributors).



*A policy which the McGillicuddy Serious Party claims to have stolen from the UK's Official Monster Raving Loony Party.

**The goat and hedgehog had less successful policical careers than Duke, a Pyrenean mountain dog who won the election for the ceremonial mayorship of Cormorant Township, Minnesota in 2014. Twelve votes were cast. Duke was re-elected in August 2016, for his third consecutive term. Since Cormorant has mayoral elections annually, he will be up for re-election again in 2017.

***Way too mainstream - this one makes just as much sense as trying to grow your way out of an economic downturn with austerity.

****Ditto - the Canada option is the nearest thing I've  yet seen to a workable post-Brexit plan although , admittedly, there hasn't been much competition.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Insecurity services

As somebody said recently, "The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough." Especially on your allies' critical infrastructure, it has emerged:
The hacking tool [used in the ransomware attacks on the UK's National Health Service] had been developed by the National Security Agency (NSA), America’s powerful military intelligence unit. The NSA had developed its ‘Eternal Blue’ hacking weapon to gain access to computers used by terrorists and enemy states. 
Looney Tunes Home Secretary, Elmer Fudd, reassured journalists  that no terrorists, paedophiles or cyber criminals have been compromised by the attack, before gwabbing a gun to get the wascally wabbit wesponsible.

Friday, 12 May 2017

The truthiness is out there

More on why repeating any message over and over seems to gives it added truthiness, this time from somebody who's actually looked at some research and made a video. I now have a name for the process - "cognitive ease":
Although "ease" doesn't quite describe my state of mind when I've just heard the same mindless political/advertising slogan being repeated for the thousandth bloody time.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

"It's news, Jim, but not as we know it..."


"Flat earthers may have a point - they're just 4000000000 years out of date" 
...said the clickbaity headline in Google News.

"What sort of maniac is making this claim?", I wondered to myself as I clicked through and brought up this Metro headline:
Earth ‘was once flat and covered almost entirely in salt water’
Earth 4.4 billion years ago was flat and almost entirely covered in water with just a few small islands, new research suggests.
It's only by reading past the headline that you discover that we're talking "flat" in the sense of "not having mountains", rather than Discworld flat.

Never mind fake news, this is fake fake news. And the worst of it is, they got me with it (and I pride myself on not clicking obvious clickbait).

Metro's caps locked tag line, by the way, is "NEWS... BUT NOT AS YOU KNOW IT"

Monday, 8 May 2017

As sure as night follows day

We're going to see a lot of relentlessly repeated sound-bites between now and the general election date. The people responsible don't just do it to annoy (although it surely will), but because they think it will change your mind more effectively than rational argument:
Here's how a typical experiment on how the effect works: participants rate how true trivia items are, things like "A prune is a dried plum". Sometimes these items are true (like that one), but sometimes participants see a parallel version which isn't true (something like "A date is a dried plum").

After a break – of minutes or even weeks – the participants do the procedure again, but this time some of the items they rate are new, and some they saw before in the first phase. The key finding is that people tend to rate items they've seen before as more likely to be true, regardless of whether they are true or not, and seemingly for the sole reason that they are more familiar.
"How liars create the illusion of truth", Tom Stafford BBC Future.

I don't know why repetition works so well on the human mind, but I have a theory. Since we first evolved, humans have had to deal with two types of things - things which are new and novel and things which are unchanging, or predictable. If somthing's new and novel, you need to give it your full attention ("Is it prey I can eat, or a predator, come to eat me?"). 

If something's unchanging, or predictable, it goes to the back of your mind and becomes part of the landscape. If something happens with predictable regularity you make a working assumption that "that's just how the world is, I don't need to spend time worrying about it", saving your attention for that unpredictable thing rustling the bushes that you might eat, or get eaten by.

That, I think, may be why repeated messages are so powerful. Your mind classifies them as part of the background, an inevitable part of life, like night following day. And anything that's part of the background, you assume is safe, inevitable, nonthreatening. For most of human history and prehistory, people didn't waste time worrying that the sun might not rise in the morning (except, maybe, the Aztecs who liked to sacrifice a few prisoners to their sun deity Huitzilopochtli, just to be on the safe side).

If something's as predictably repetitive as the rising and setting of the sun, maybe it's hard to dismiss it as untrue and easier to accept it as inevitable, even though the rational part of your mind knows it's just a bunch of words, selected by biased, fallible humans.

Which makes repetition a powerful weapon in the hands of a manipulator. And one that you can't easily disarm just by becoming aware of the manipulation, thanks to the white bear problem - you can't decide to not think about a white bear (or a propaganda message), except by thinking about it.






 

Piers Morgan knows what he's talking about

A bold claim, I know, but there is photographic proof:
"We need to be better, as a world, than idolising these cretinous individuals"
Piers Morgan, earlier this month.
According to Piers, the world needs to grow up and get over the world's second-biggest celebrity arse. Before you dismiss Piers' opinion as spiteful abuse from an unpopular celebrity hanger-on, we must remember that the world's biggest celebrity arse has given Piers his very own a pet name*, so Piers counts as something of a world authority on celebrity arses.





*"Champ, sit! Sit! Good dog!"


The customer is always right ...

... but citizens aren't just customers:
In the 1970s terrorists sometimes set off more than a thousand bombs a year in the USA. Of course that annoyed people. But they didn't fall into mass hysteria and beg the government to do whatever it took to make them feel safe again. They would have felt too silly.

A democracy requires a measure of such political stoicism among its citizens. That is, an ideal of self-command and self-awareness by which we discriminate those things that are under our control; those things that are within our government's rightful control; and those things that we cannot control at all and should not seek to.
Thomas R Wells

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Life in the heroically stupid UK


I miss living in a country where even people in authority just occasionally had a sense of proportion, pragamatism and even humour. But nowadays, the very model of a modern British citizen is apparently the aggressively paranoid, mirthless jobsworth and "only obeying orders", no matter how ridiculous, is the the mark of a true British hero:
The chief constable of Sussex Police has labelled his staff “everyday heroes” for using the UK's Terrorism Act to arrest a photographer taking pictures of Hove Town Hall.
Such mindless obedience to arbitrary authority has no place in a sane society, but it is vital to governing an inmate-run  madhouse where only a bizarre form of circular doublethink can make sense of the ruling ideology:
What is very much still relevant is that the same hermetically-sealed, evidence-proof and argument-proof logic now drives government policy... Each time reality demolishes one of their claims (the most ubiquitous, perhaps, and the most absurd, certainly, being that German car makers would ensure a good deal in double quick time) the Brexiters do not acknowledge that they were wrong, but move on to a harder position. So, first, we can somehow be in the single market but with no strings attached. That’s proved wrong. So it will be a trade deal. Now that that is looking increasingly difficult they move to saying that no deal would be perfectly fine. And, in any case, it’s all the EU’s fault and ‘just goes to prove’ that we are right to leave. There’s no way out of this kind of thinking. It is completely circular and unfalsifiable.

There is no imaginable event that could shake it. Suppose the UK gets a great deal? It proves we were right to leave! Suppose we don’t? It proves we were right to leave!
Terrifying stupidity is the new normal.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Les trois cents sans gloire

If you think it seems a long time since the egalitarian high noon of Les Trente Glorieuses, at least be thankful that there are people still alive who remember when things were getting better for most people in Europe and the rest of the West. According to this post at Metafilter, when workers' wages collapsed in the mid 1500s, real wages didn't recover for another three centuries. Other interpretations of the facts exist but it is, at the very least, good to see the welfare of the average person being considered as the stuff of of history, as opposed to the history-as-lists-of-monarchs approach still being kept on life support by the David Starkeys othis world:
For about two centuries after the Black Death, workers in Europe had it good, medievally speaking. The medieval calendar was filled with festivals and feast days; dragons and church ales, carnivals and food fights, and an extra day off every week of the year. In bad years, it took only a few hundred hours of work to pay for the grain needed to feed a family; in good years, closer to a hundred hours. Then, in less than 50 years starting in the mid-1500s - and as quickly as the 10 years from 1540 to 1550 in at least one area - everything changed, almost everywhere in Europe.

Workers' real wages dropped dramatically. Now, a bad year for wheat prices meant that a few thousand hours of work per year were needed to afford a family's grain - which meant death by starvation of the poorest and weakest. The range of prices flipped: What was a bad year for workers in the 1400s - having to work a few hundred hours a year to pay for grain - now seemed a great year, a bumper crop. And it stayed this way. Workers' real wages did not rise back to late medieval levels until the late 1800s, over 300 years and an Industrial Revolution later.

Feasts and festivals for the poor fell out of fashion. "By the same statute, women singing round summer-trees, or maypoles, are ordered to be taken, handled, and put upon the ducking-stone." Gone was the inclusiveness of earlier Carnivals.

But not everyone suffered. In relation to the income of the rich, prices for servants and luxury goods dropped. Because of Engel's Law (no, not that Engel), high wheat prices had a small impact on the budgets of the rich. Cheaper servants made them considerably better off, and the engine of elite fashion became a whirlwind.

A massive increase in silver mining, first (beautifully illustrated) in Central Europe and later (horrifically) in South America, is blamed for the rise in (nominal) prices. The drop in (real) wages is blamed variously on population increases, the Little Ice Age, and the transmutation of silver into almost unparalleled violence, directed downward in service of social transformation.

(An explanatory note on the graph in the "10 years" link: The white dots and background are for 1400-1600. The text suggests that 12 quintals of grain would be needed to feed a family for a year, and the numbers on the left side of the graph - cut off in the scan, unfortunately - are in tens of hours needed to afford 1 quintal. The numbers are, from the top down, 50, 40, 30, 20, 10, 5, 0, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and I'd be glad for anyone to correct my interpretation of the 0,9,8,7... numbers as 1.0, 0.9, 0.8, etc. Thus the top of the graph represents 50x10x12=6000 hours of a labourer's work needed to feed a family; a devastating famine. The "everything changed" and "not everyone suffered" links go more deeply into the numbers behind the drop in real wages for workers across most of Europe, and what people spent money on besides grain.).
Reproduced in full because I think this stuff matters more than Henry VIII's love life.

Tiggywinkles wildlife morgue


It's very much a consolation prize, given that Ukip's collapse is propping up the Tories and that its one weird idea has succeeded in infecting the rest of the UK's zombified body politic, but the plotters behind the Puce Putsch are now political roadkill. The happy event has been officially confirmed by the nation's only remaining news source of record:
UKIP has been flattened in the local elections like a hedgehog under a convoy of HGVs, it has been confirmed.

The party, which has no discernible reason to exist after Theresa May discovered she agreed with them all along, now has no MPs, no councillors and is drying out on the hard shoulder while being pecked by crows.

Political analyst Susan Traherne said: “We could accurately sum up UKIP’s night with the single word ‘splat!’, but why not savour this? 
thought something like this was on the cards, although I got some of the timing wrong - I thought Arron Banks would just carry on destabilising the party, wait for it to fall apart, then re-rat back to the Tories, rather than blathering on about creating Ukip 2.0, then boasting that he was totally going to stand as a Ukip candidate, before almost immediately bottling out.

But, whatever, it looks like they're finished and good riddance. Sadly, the godawful mess they've left behind won't spontaneouly self-destruct so quickly.