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.