Monday, 30 June 2008


I've had a rather tedious Monday and I'm feeling too tired to write at any length today so, instead of my witterings, feast your eyes on today's Astronomy Picture of the Day and remember for a moment how tiny a less-than-inspiring day is in the grand scheme of things.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

One of those Michael Fish moments...

Today's forecast has been superseded by events as quickly as Michael Fish's infamous words on the BBC weather forecast on 15th October 1987, when he spake thusly:

Earlier on today apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she had heard that there was a hurricane on the way. Well if you are watching, don't worry, there isn't.
In the early hours of 16th October 1987, the worst storm since 1703 battered the South East of England. Trees were swept aside like matchsticks, a Channel ferry was driven ashore at Folkestone, cars and buildings were damaged by falling trees and masonry and eighteen people were killed in England. I remember the morning myself - I was living in Muswell Hill, working in Neasden and remember the extraordinary noise of the wind in the early morning - it wasn't really like the noise of wind, more like an express train rushing past a few feet away - and the aftermath of transport chaos on the way to work the next morning - I think I was one of the few in my office who hadn't heeded the severe weather warnings and actually turned up for work.

Rather less drastically, computer stuff won't be happening this end just yet, so my inane witterings and wibblings will be available for the World to see for a little while yet. Better luck next time.

To be fair to Michael Fish, weather forecasting is such a complex science that it's impossible for anybody to get it right all the time. And I believe that, technically, Fish was right - although the '87 storm has massively damaging gusts, it didn't have sustained* winds of 64+ knots or originate in the tropics, both of which are defining features of a true hurricane. Although he got some bad press, he didn't get nearly the sustained vitriol endured by the pioneer of weather forecasting, Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy, RN, or take it quite so hard. For some say that it was the attacks on his meteorological work (often by vested interests, such as fishing fleet owners who objected to gale warnings requiring their fleets to stay in harbour), which finally drove FitzRoy to suicide.

Alternative theories have been put forward for the motive which drove FitzRoy to kill himself, including the threat to his religious beliefs posed by the theories of his most famous associate, Charles Darwin - for the devoutly religious FitzRoy, for whom the words of the Bible represented unquestionable truth, had been the Captain of HMS Beagle on Darwin's voyage round South America and to the Galapagos. If you've any interest at all in this piece of history, I'd urge you to read Harry Thompson's riveting novel This Thing of Darkness**, which gives a compelling account of the Beagle's voyage. Others, including FitzRoy himself, have pointed out a possible hereditary tendency to depression, inherited from his uncle, Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, who had killed himself in 1822.

*i.e. lasting more than 10 minutes

** the review I've linked to highlights a few shortcomings in the book. I agree with some of the criticisms but, even so, it's still a cracking good read on several levels and it's a book which I'd happily recommend to anybody.

Blog forecast for 29th June 2008

The blog forecast for the coming week or so is for light to non-existent blogging spreading rapidly from the West. Bits of my home PC are going away for an upgrade - if I find time to drop into a cybercaf some time, I may post, but don't count on it for a bit.

In the meanwhile, for anybody old enough to remember them, here and here are some test cards for you to look at.

Abnormal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Friday, 27 June 2008


Oops! Last night's hastily-corrected post is the result of a senior moment and some premature excitement when, after a busy day, I must have thought we were already in 2009. Still, a 99th anniversary will still be cause for celebration. And what better to celebrate it with than that icon of the British summer, the 99, AKA a vanilla ice cream in a cone with a flaky chocolate bar stuck in the top. It's redolent of childhood summers by the sea and, though there are many things which frankly taste better, I love the jaunty angle of the flake bar sticking out of the top and boundless spirit of optimism that says, "if we just stick a flake bar in the top of this blob of ice cream, it'll turn it into something really special and rather sophisticated."

It's the same spirit of quiet optimism and determination to press on that you see in people taking a seaside stroll at a faded seaside resort like Skegness, in the teeth of a stiff wind and lashing rain, hoping that the weather will brighten up soon, but determined to make the best of the day, whatever the elements throw at them.

The 99 - simple, innocent, what you see is what you get. Fantastic. Appropriately enough, and not many people know this, the 99 was originally invented by the pioneering aviation boffin Barnes Wallace. Well it would be appropriate, if I hadn't just made that last bit up. Chocs away, chaps!

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Nearly 100 years of reaching for the sky

Significant anniversary coming up - the British aircraft industry turns 100 in just over a year. The Avro Triplane was the first British designed and built aircraft to fly in Britain in July 1909 - I mentioned seeing a replica in a museum in Manchester recently. There are some rather spiffing aerial photos of the Shuttleworth Collection's flying replica here. According to what I read on the web, the replica is performing rather better than the original, which apparently managed a flight of 900 feet at an average height of 10 feet. The original aircraft is in the London Science Museum.

It's a century which has seen the UK produce some aircraft in huge numbers, such as the Spitfire (over 22,000 produced), Hurricane, Wellington and Anson (all with production runs of over 10,000) and some significant firsts, such as the Alcock and Brown's Atlantic crossing, the Comet, the World's first jet airliner and collaboration with the French on Concorde. The UK has also held some
air speed records, (George Spratt in an SE4 in 1914, George Stainforth in the Supermarine S6B in 1931, a couple of chaps in Gloster Meteors in 1945 & 46, Neville Duke in a Hawker Hunter in 1953 and Peter Twiss in his Fairey Delta 2 in 1956.

Maybe it's been a story of decline since - consolidation of manufacturers, no British-owned companies making airliners any more, but the UK is still involved in the industry, albeit often as part of international projects and we've got a proud heritage of innovation and boffinry
to look back on. Chocks away, chaps!

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Quack attack

After the homeopathic hospitals, more depressing news about the onward march of the ever-victorious "alternative" medicine movement here. The barbarians aren't at the gates any more; they've moved into the house, lounging around on the sofa, raiding the fridge, messing up our stuff and criticising the feng shui.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Stating the obvious

Just started my new job today, so my attention was drawn to this article on the pointlessness of trying to multitask rather than doing one thing properly. I don't know how easy or difficult it'll be to stay focused on one task at a time in my new job, but I'm determined not to be sucked into any more multitasking than absolutely necessary.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Breakfast junkie

I've always been a lark - early to rise and early to bed. Being middle aged with a young child has intensified this pattern, as junior's awake and wanting attention early in the morning and I'm quite ready for bed before 10pm. So I don't really have much use for those energy drinks which are supposed to keep young people going through an all-nighter. A few years ago , in a bachelor pub sesh, I forsook my usual tipple to try the vodka and Red Bull mixture that was popular then and, for all I know of current trends, still is. Didn't like the taste, but the effect of the alcohol, sugar and caffeine combo wasn't unpleasant at first. I'd rather get the hit from an Irish coffee, though. The downside was that I was up and buzzing at a very anti-social time in the early morning. I remember getting up to wash the car at about 4.00am.

I do still get a similar hit, but without the alcohol and at a time which doesn't completely mess up my body clock. At a weekend, I get my caffeine fix with added sugar rush from a breakfast of strong coffee and pancakes with maple syrup. I might add other things (blueberries, etc) but those are the basic ingredients. I don't normally have much of a sweet tooth, but I'll make an exception for maple syrup, especially when complemented by the dark bitterness of filter coffee. What a fantastic combo. Apart from the taste experience being infinitely better, more complex and subtle than an energy drink out of a can, you've got the wonderful smell of freshly brewed coffee and the ritual of making pancakes and coffee - as a junkies everywhere will tell you, the preparation rituals are an integral part of the drug experience. I need to ration myself - too much of this sort of thing takes the edge off it - but on a pancake and coffee morning, the day feels lighter, brighter, more exciting and interesting. And the effects have worn off long before I should be tucked up in bed, asleep.

So let's hear it for that unknown Ethiopian long ago who first discovered what you could do with an unpromising-looking bean and for all those Canadians out there, patiently tapping the mighty sugar maples for their precious sap - thanks, guys for a breakfast so good it makes you want to sing, sing sing!

Friday, 20 June 2008

Homeopaths challenged to substantiate claims, flounce off in a huff

Here's something interesting I saw on the New Scientist website the other day. There's £10,000 on offer to the enterprising homeopath who can provide convincing evidence that homeopathy actually works. All the practitioner would have to do is submit homeopathic medicines to a clinical trial, where half of the patients receive the homeopathic preparation, half a placebo.

Apparently, a spokesperson for the Alliance of Registered Homeopaths is offended by the suggestion that somebody might want to actually test the claims made for homeopathy. "We have nothing to prove, and certainly not to people with closed minds," a representative of the homeopaths' trade association spluttered.

They can refuse to submit their claims to rigorous scrutiny if they want, but I'm not convinced by the homeopaths' refusal to be tested, any more than I am by Labour's refusal to debate civil liberties in the by election triggered by David Davis' resignation. In both cases, the official position is "we're not going to dignify this stunt by engaging in the contest" - i.e. they're already losing the debate and are reduced to the PR equivalent of sticking their fingers in their ears, singing "la, la, la, not listening" and chanting "we're not talking to you, you smell," having run out of rational arguments.

I've got two particular grounds for wanting the homeopaths to "put up or shut up":

1. I've no scientific training, but even I can grasp that one of the basic claims of homeopathy is quite astonishing. Homeopathic remedies contain just a trace of the active ingredient, being diluted down to a level where, often, not a single molecule of that ingredient remains in the solution. In other words, homeopaths claim to be able to treat medical conditions with something that no existing form of chemical analysis can distinguish from distilled water. If true, that would be amazing.

If of water really retains a "memory" of substances it has once been in contact with, eventually some chemist will be walking off with a Nobel Prize for demonstrating this effect in a reproducible experiment, and rewriting the text books. It might happen, but I'm not holding my breath. Extraordinary claims like that require extraordinary evidence.

To borrow an example, if I met somebody at a party who told me that he drives a Ford Fiesta, I probably wouldn't question his claim - I've seen many people driving Ford Fiestas with my own eyes and, as Tom Jones would say, it's not unusual. If I met someone at a party who told me that he drives an interplanetary flying saucer, I might be a bit more skeptical. I haven't seen anybody driving a flying saucer and I don't believe that a such a thing as a workable flying saucer exists - as far as I know the nearest thing ever created was a cool-looking Canadian prototype flying disc called the Avrocar, which was cancelled after a few wobbly test flights demonstrated that the craft was unstable when it got more than a few feet off the ground. So as far as I'm concerned, the homeopathic space cadets have got something to prove; either show me your flying saucer, or bugger off back to the mother ship.

2. As someone who pays my National Insurance contributions (with a brief interruption - I've been between jobs for the past two weeks, but start my new one on Monday), I'm paying for some of this stuff. As the British Homeopathic Association boasts here, homeopathy has been available on the National Health Service since the NHS was founded in 1948. There are, apparently, five NHS Homeopathic Hospitals and some General Practitioners will refer patients for homeopathic treatments.

Resources in the NHS are stretched notoriously thinly, so I would expect the minimum standard for a treatment which is funded by public money to be some convincing evidence that it works better than a placebo. As far as I'm aware, properly-conducted trials have never been able to demonstrate this. Until they do, homeopaths, you do have something to prove to all of us whose money funds homeopathy on the NHS and to every patient denied an effective treatment, tested in clinical trials, because some of the money which might have paid for it went to publicly funded homeopathy instead.

So, homeopaths, take up the challenge, prove yourselves right, the skeptics wrong and rub our noses in it if you like. If you can't, then put your toys back in the pram and play nicely.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Arsenal of Democracy II

After a recent post, I'm still pondering Orwell's ideas about weapons and democracy, namely that simple weapons are inherently democratic, whilst complex and expensive ones are typically used by tyrannies.

I think I've come up with another counter-example. Go back to the very first democracy, Athens. With all the reservations about the tiny size of the franchise and the exclusion of women and slaves, it still gave a voice to more of its citizens than contemporary states like the Persian Empire or Sparta. Up to the battle of Marathon, the city's chief defence was a citizen army of sorts - but one dominated by the aristocratic hoplite class who, like medieval knights, had to be wealthy to afford their weapons and bronze armour. After Marathon, at the instigation of Themistocles, the Athenians responded to the continuing Persian threat with a great naval ship-building programme, constructing a fleet which would go on to defeat the Persians at Salamis and for a time give Athens undisputed mastery of the Aegean.

A trireme must count as about the most complex and expensive piece of weaponry in the ancient world; a whole fleet of them was built to defend the first democracy against the autocratic might of the Persian Empire. Other counter-examples to follow, probably.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

You're with stupid

I did something pretty stupid yesterday. Too embarrassingly daft to to share the details with the world - all you need to know is that it was one of those things where the recollection makes you physically cringe. Nobody was hurt as a result, no property was damaged, and I wasn't in a situation where either of these things could have happened, but I was still mortified at how dim I'd been, dimmer than the most distant galaxy that the Hubble Space Telescope can resolve and then some.

So I'm not feeling on top form today, but I'll get over it. I suspect that most of us do something like this from time to time. On last week's News Quiz, Jeremy Hardy said something on the subject. He was given a question about the latest loss of confidential data - "have you heard the one about the Cabinet Office Official who left top-secret intelligence documents about al-Qaeda on the train" sort of thing. His comment was along the lines of:

What sort of idiot would do something like that?

I would.

Being a bit of an old softy liberal lefty type I quite like Jeremy Hardy on the whole, although I don't agree with his opinions on some issues and I've found him a bit tireder and less sharp in recent years. But he was on good form on this topic, because what he said was basically true.

It's a lot of fun to have a laugh at the expense of other people who do spectacularly boneheaded things (hence the Darwin Awards) and I'm certainly not going to stop doing it. It's also right and proper that people take the consequences of their actions, especially when their idiocy hurts others - stupidity can be as damaging as deliberate malice, whether you're losing some confidential data which you should be taking care of, or running over a child in your car because you lost concentration after dropping one of the sweets you were eating at the wheel.

Having qualified Hardy's observation, he's absolutely right to point out that people oversimplify the world, dividing it up into two groups; the "stupid people" and the "not stupid" ones. Most of us consider ourselves to be in the latter group, in the same way that a majority of car drivers consider their driving ability to be above average. In fact most of us are a mixture of stupid and not stupid. If we're lucky with our genetics, education, upbringing, circumstances, peers, etc, most of the time, most of us do a reasonable job of getting through our lives with a reasonable degree of competence. But even if people are not stupid most of the time, they are fallible - either through being bad at a specific type of activity, or just having a bad day, when they mess up tasks they'd normally breeze through without effort.

This has consequences when thinking about bigger issues. Take the seeming inability of Civil Servants to look after our confidential data. Grumbling aboput how incompetent these people are helps to let off steam, and it's probably even true in some cases - I'm sure that there are some employees in any organisation as big as the Civil Service whose average position in the stupid - not-stupid spectrum merits the sort of appraisal I once saw in a Dilbert cartoon, which went something like this:

Junior employee: It says here that I have "a genetic predisposition towards sub-optimal performance".

Dilbert: It means it's not your fault.

But even if we were to fire all the employees who were really bad at most of the tasks they were supposed to do, we'd still be left with ordinary folk who might do a pretty good job 95% of the time, but spend their remaining time doing specific tasks which they're just not very good at, or haven't been properly trained to do, or literally bore them stupid, or don't have the time to complete adequately, or tasks they could do perfectly well on an average day, but are screwing up because they're stressed about being late because of the cancelled train, a row with the spouse, the fact that little Johnny keeps coming home from school in tears but won't say why, or the broken-down boiler which will cost more than the contents of the family savings account to fix.

In a big organisation, you do certain things to filter out people who don't have the skills to do the job well, but the big challenge is to design jobs, systems and working environments which are not just idiot-proof, but robust enough to minimise the effects of ordinary fallible people having a stupid day. And if things do go wrong - well, it's the more senior people in an organisation who have the power to hire others, organise them, dictate their working methods and how much time, training and support they get to complete whatever task it is they're doing, and they are generally well rewarded for their leadership skills. Strangely enough though, when disaster strikes, like Macavity, they're not there.

Kudos and fat bonuses for organisational achievement tends to defy gravity and flow uphill, but blame for massive cock-ups tends to follow the more traditional route to the bottom. Time and time again, we find it's the relatively junior trader who was responsible for the bad investment decisions which broke, or nearly broke, the bank, or the untrained school-leaver Junior Assistant Administrative Assistant who managed to lose the incredibly sensitive data that the organisation was holding. Never mind that the the junior trader's boss was quite happy to take the credit for the trader's performance when the figures appeared to be OK (and didn't really understand the complex deals he was doing, if truth be told), or that the manager of the kid who posted the sensitive data shouldn't have let him have it, or asked him to put it on a disk in the post.

These are extreme examples of blame-shifting, facilitated by the differences in power in hierarchical organisations, but it's also part of human nature to attribute defects we can't bear to own up to, such as stupidity, prejudice, cruelty and dishonesty to other people, rather than acknowledging that we are all fallible. Especially in today's world of self-esteem-worship, relentless self-marketing, and omnipresent PR, we're all too likely to glibly think:

What sort of idiot would do something like that?

I wouldn't.

Which makes us feel good about ourselves, but doesn't address the basic problems. A concrete data-loss related example. I'm wholly against the idea of ID cards and their associated database. The fundamental reasons are that I don't feel they are needed, they provide no substantial benefits to citizens and they burden people with unwarranted costs and intrusion into their daily lives. There are many subsidiary reasons why I think they're a bad idea, one of the main ones being the inability of Civil Servants to keep the databases they already run secure.

The data breaches which have already happened were often the result of somebody having a stupid day. But when Ministers and senior Civil Servants focus on finding and firing the junior culprit, they are often diverting our attention away from the real problem. Any system that big and that complex is bound to leak. Some databases are necessary - there are good reasons for having databases of vehicle drivers or needing a database to administer child support payments. Computer systems can be made more secure, the number of people who have access to them can be limited and people handling data can be recruited, trained and monitored more efficiently, but ultimately mistakes in big and complex systems are, for the foreseeable future, inevitable. The best anyone can hope for is to minimise the number of mistakes and limit their impact.

The implication that all we need to do is find the idiots and fire them is dangerous nonsense - it implies that such systems are perfectible and that once we, the Government, have ironed out the few local difficulties we've had due to one-off acts of stupidity by idiots, we can go on to build bigger, better and more secure databases for any project which takes our fancy. And, lo, these databases really will be secure, because by then we will have eliminated all of the idiots from the system and the technology's getting better all the time, we've learned some valuable lessons , biometrics, blah blah, blah....

I say there will always be idiots in any system. Sometimes they will be just like you and me. It's possible to reduce the chance that an idiot will cause harm, but no complex system can be completely idiot-proof. So do your best to keep the data you collect to the minimum needed to do the job, keep it as secure as you can, don't share it if you don't need to and try to share it in a secure way if you really must share it. And don't hoover up any more sensitive data unless you absolutely need to But the thinking behind the creation of a brand new National Identity Database (or set of shared databases) of unprecedented size and complexity, at enormous expense, seems to be something like this:

well y'know it might stop terrorists ... well no, actually we never said it would stop terrorists, but it'll probably help us to keep track of all those pesky immigrants and asylum seekers and sew up the Daily Mail vote ... I mean, protect our borders ... or it could stop identity theft, because there are bad people out there who want your sensitive data, but if you give it to us we'll put it somewhere really nice, where it really will be 100% safe, because we sacked all the idiots who lost all your other data ... er, sorry about that ... but this new system's fully protected by biometrics and stuff ... and I'll bet it'll make it a lot easier to open a bank account...

What sort of idiot would come up with something like that?

Monday, 16 June 2008

Arsenal of democracy?

George Orwell wrote an essay for the Tribune newspaper in 1945 (it wasn't a magazine back then), entitled You and the Atom Bomb. He argued that the development of The Bomb was likely to make the world more authoritarian and oppressive, on the grounds that weapons which are difficult and expensive to manufacture are tyrannical weapons, concentrating power in a few hands.

Weapons like the musket, longbow, rifle and hand grenade, which are cheap and simple to manufacture are, he wrote, "inherently democratic weapons".

A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon - so long as there is no answer to it - gives claws to the weak.

I've been pondering this phrase and wondering whether or not it's an enormous over-simplification. It must have seemed true to a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, with direct experience of progressive idealists fighting Fascists with antique rifles and improvised Mills bombs, at a time when the Fascists were supported by the Condor Legion's bombers, whilst the most modern and expensive kit to be fielded in support of the Republic came from Stalin's Soviet Union.

But did this rule always hold true and is it true today? The September 11th hijackers' ultimate goal, as far as can I can see, was to pave the way a decidedly anti-democratic and authoritarian Caliphate, ruled by clerics. Their arsenal couldn't have been simpler - craft knives and the willingness to die. The chosen weapon of the Taliban - as undemocratic as they come - is the relatively simple improvised roadside bomb, or increasingly, the suicide bomb. The Rwandan genocides were carried out with machetes. Yet almost all liberal democracies have manufactured or acquired an collection of expensive, high-tech weaponry, such as missiles, tanks, jet warplanes and warships.

Wastefully stockpiling killing machines worth millions seems profoundly wrong, yet looking around at the world, it seems that it's not just the tyrants and bad guys who do it - if you live in a country with a comparatively decent system of government, the odds are that it is piling up expensive, complex weapons, whilst those who'd like to see the end of democracy are patiently making simple weapons in a shed somewhere. Those simple weapons are often like the ones which Orwell described - one's to which there is no answer (in this case because the users are prepared to die when delivering them).

Have things changed profoundly since Orwell wrote his essay, or did his rule about complex and simple weapons never really apply in all cases? I don't know the answer and haven't had much time to think about the question, but it's an interesting one.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Hot, steamy stripping action

I don't think this wallpaper-stripping addiction is just me, you know. I just got the old steam wallpaper stripper out of the shed, so I'm on standby for a good peeling sesh whenever there's a window in my busy timetable (no, really - even though I'm between jobs for a short period, there's actually lots of stuff I've needed to do in the last few days).

My mind still on the compulsive nature of wallpaper-peeling, I looked at the illustration on the box with fresh eyes. In my innocence, I'd previously imagined that that fixed grin on the woman's face was just the feigned joy of somebody being paid to be photographed looking delighted with the product in the box. But now I see it all - she's another addict. If the resolution in the photograph was higher and she was looking into the camera (impossible, of course - where else would any dedicated wallpaper stripper want to look but at the wall?), you'd see the signs. The far-away look in the eyes, pupils dilated like gun barrels, knuckles white from gripping the scraper; the classic symptoms of the peeling trance.

Did you know, by the way, that there's a Wallpaper History Society in London? Did you care? I thought not. I think I'll go and have a bit of a lie down now....

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Ripping yarns

We've just had some electricians in to do a bit of wiring, which has involved making channels in the walls and means the old wallpaper will have to come off in the near future. I've just had just had a bit of fun in the blog with an ad hominem rant against Kelvin MacKenzie and Alastair Campbell*, but that fun was as nothing compared with the enticing prospect of peeling old wallpaper off. For a mindless activity, there's something dangerously addictive about the process - once you've started, it's very hard to stop.

Although I've got other priorities at the moment, I couldn't resist having a little exploratory rip ... then another ... then another ... then maybe just a little bit more ... I'll just tear off that bit in the corner, then I'll stop ... but that tear has exposed another loose edge ... I'll just rip that bit off, then I'll definitely stop and do something else.... I can stop any time I want, honest....

Forget methadone - if you want to stop drug addicts from thinking about their cravings, send 'em to strip the wallpaper from an old house. I reckon it'd keep their mind off drugs for as long as there was another square foot of wood chip to be torn off. Or is this wallpaper-ripping addiction just me?

*My rant was mild stuff compared to what this pair have respectively dished out to those involved in the Hillsborough tragedy and Dr David Kelly, to name just two examples from their long CVs of vicious abuse and twisting the facts.

Friday, 13 June 2008


Disillusionment hits like a speeding bullet after my last post - I was just trawling the news and comment on the by election, when my attention was directed to this piece of digging on Matt T's Blog. Yes, David Davis voted for the previous increase in detention without trial from 14 to 28 days. He played his own part in the erosion of civil liberties. Maybe he's not inconsistent, but has just seen the light and repented of his earlier decision, but I think I might be heading back to weary cynicism here. Still, 28 days is a little less bad than 42, I suppose...

Battle for the Planet of the Apes

Keeping the Planet of the Apes theme going, I see that Rupert Murdoch's former top monkey at the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, says he's "90% certain" to take on David Davis, in the Haltemprice and Howden by-election. The former Sun editor (now on reduced banana rations and writing a weekly column for the paper he used to rule with a sneer of cold command) is apparently standing on some sort of bizarre anti-civil liberties ticket.

I was complaining the other day that it was getting increasingly difficult to vote wholeheartedly for or against political candidates, because so many seem to be standing for the same ill-thought out consensus and don't want to give hostages to fortune by having firm beliefs about concrete issues. Now we've got the prospect of a straight fight between somebody who stands up and says that liberty, civil rights and civilization in general are good ideas and a hooting, excrement-hurling tabloid chimp who couldn't tell habeas corpus from a banana. Bring it on!

Just in case I might be in any doubt about whose side to take in this scrap, up popped ex-spin-meister and all round slimeball Alastair Campbell on The World at One today to rubbish David Davis' pro-civil rights campaign. If Kelvin MacKenzie and Alastair Campbell are trying to rubbish something, you just know that whatever it is has to be worth defending. So for once, some voters might be given the chance to choose between two clearly different agendas. If you ask me, (which I know you probably won't), it's a pretty easy choice - a bit like being asked, on a warm evening whether you'd like a cold beer, or would prefer to have scalding battery acid hosed down your throat. Almost makes me wish I was registered to vote in Haltemprice and Howden....

Thursday, 12 June 2008

You maniacs! Damn you! Damn you all to hell!

SPOILER WARNING - in the unlikely event that you haven't seen the film of Planet of the Apes (the 1968 original, not Tim Burton's pointless 2001 remake) and don't want to be warned of the plot twist at the end, don't read on. Otherwise, scroll down...

The Government's latest parliamentary victory in pushing through 42 days detention without trial was depressing on many levels. It kept Gordon Brown afloat to fight another day, but remained a reminder of how weak he is and how strong the policy-lite ex-PR weasel David Cameron is - I wouldn't want Gordon to win this one on a matter of principle, but I'm not crazy about a Cameron government coming a step further, either - at best, I think he'll maintain something like the status quo, at worst he'll be New Labour without even the obligatory Labour nods towards social justice (for those of you wondering what any of this has got to do with Planet of the Apes, patience - we'll get there eventually).

As if that's not depressing enough, it shows how wedded Gordon Brown is to authoritarian clunking-fist solutions to problems. The UK authorities can already detain suspects without trial for longer than the authorities in any other country we would regard as remotely democratic or respectful of the rule of law. Even without the extension to 42 days, just look at where we stand. In Canada they can hold somebody for a day before charge or release. In in Russia it's five days, six in France, a week in Ireland, seven and a half days in Turkey.

If the Canadians (who would be indistinguishable to most jihadi nutcases from Americans and whose armed forces are actively involved in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan) only need a day, why do we have four weeks, holding out for six? Russia - a sort of democracy, but a bit on the authoritarian side, rarely held out as a model of civil liberties and the rule of law - still has to charge suspects after less than a week, or let them go, yet in freedom-loving Britain four weeks is still not long enough for us to hold people without trial "just in case". Turkey; again, it's a democracy, but not exactly a paragon, yet our suspects could be languishing in jail without the authorities having to give any reason for more than 20 days longer than Turkish law permits and we want to add another two weeks, just to be on the safe side. The figures, by the way, come from a Liberty report here.

I've deliberately excluded the USA, where you need to be charged after only two days, because they've got this whole Guantanamo Bay thing happening and are exceptional in using the legal category of "unlawful combatant" to exclude certain classes of prisoner from the legal protections given to criminal suspects or prisoners of war (especially when it comes to detention without trial). But even in the USA this legal jiggery-pokery has been challenged in the Supreme Court. I believe that the range of prisoners who aren't covered by the Geneva Convention has been narrowed down - Al Qaeda suspects are still in legal no-man's land, for example, but Taliban captives are subject to the Geneva Convention, so presumably have the same rights as any other POW.

Perhaps this is just the inevitable result of government action needed to prevent another 9/11. Well, the September 11th attacks were off the scale in terms of deaths in one incident, but:

a) even including 9/11, the chances of dying in a terrorist incident are modest to say the least - read and digest these figures (I can't vouch for the absolute accuracy, but the orders of magnitude are about right). One terrorist death is too many, but they're just not killing that many people, compared with other preventable causes of death.

b) the September 11th plotters were ruthless and effective. But most of the recent crop have been incompetent fantasists. Just look at some of the more recent plots - for example the probably unworkable attempt to bring down airliners with liquid explosives disguised as soft drinks. Official over-reaction has lead to a windfall for soft drink sales at airport shops and shedloads of inconvenience for air passengers, but all in the name of protecting us from a plot too cumbersome to work. Or how about these idiots trying to bring terror to London's West End and Glasgow Airport. Not forgetting Richard Reid, the useless shoe bomber. Maybe we're running out of competent terrorists.

c) as far as I can understand their motives, what terrorists want is to cause as much disruption and terror as possible - which is exactly what governments hyping up the threat level are doing. The also would like to provoke a backlash - for example, I understand that the purpose of most attacks by Islamist radicals in Egypt was to provoke an already authoritarian and oppressive government into becoming even more oppressive, in order to stir up opposition. Well thought out police and anti-terrorism operations and good intelligence work might help a state to deal with terrorism, but sliding into over-reaction and curtailing the civil liberties of the majority is just doing the terrorists' work for them.

The latest attempts to curtail our liberties were what made me think of the final scene of Planet of the Apes. The astronaut, played by Charlton Heston, is exploring the strange planet he's been stranded on, an earth-like world where apes are the dominant species who regard the native humans as animals and treat them as such. At the very end of the film, he comes across the remains of the Statue of Liberty, looming out of the wilderness and finally realises that he's not arrived on some distant planet, but on his own world in the distant future when humans have destroyed their own civilization and the apes have inherited the Earth. His final words are a curse on the stupidity of the human race:

You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! Damn you all to hell!

Planet of the Apes is more fantasy than hard Sci-Fi, but that's one hell of a final scene. It's not remotely plausible - even as a child I didn't find it credible that a relatively flimsy copper-sheathed statue hadn't corroded and eroded away centuries ago, over a period when entire cities had apparently crumbled without a trace. But it's such a powerful symbol that most people willingly suspend their disbelief. The image has a monumental, mythic quality, like Shelly's Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

There's a striking similarity between the two visions of the wrecks of lost civilizations, but there's an important difference, as well. Ozymandias records the wreck of vanity, pomp, vainglory and power. The remains of Lady Liberty are in a way far sadder, for she is a symbol not of long lost crushing autocratic rule, but of hope and freedom. On the pedestal of Ozymandias' statue is carved a vain boast. Compare and contrast with these words from the Statue of Liberty's bronze plaque:

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Her decay represents the death of Lincoln's resolve that that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

As our elected politicians casually chip away, bit by bit, at the liberties which are among the proudest achievements of our democratic, liberal civilization, I'm haunted by the spectre of the ruined Statue of Liberty. Maybe one day a traveller in our antique land will marvel at the ruined traces of the liberties we once enjoyed and damn us all to hell for the self-destructive maniacs we were.

So even though he's spent most of his life being a Tory, I'll be raising a glass to David Davis tonight. Here's to you, Sir, for making a stand, and here's to Lady Liberty - long may she stand.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008


Today's my last day of employment at the Norwich Union, so I'm back in the office after a week or so of gardening leave to hand in my swipe card and say goodbye after 18 years with the organisation. By the way, I'd just like to point out that I'm not responsible for the banner in the picture above (taken on our last "working" day) or, more importantly, for the blatant lack of an apostrophe.

I'm leaving with a slightly more modest package than than Vodafone's chief exec, who's got a cool £25 million burning a hole in his pocket (make that a hot £25 million - I don't like my metaphors mixed). And the fanfare which goes with my departure will be more muted than the French Ambassador in Canada, who's also stepping down. Which is fine by me, as I've never done important chief-executivy or ambassadorial stuff.

I'm in a strange state of limbo at the moment, having ended one phase of my working life and not yet started the next. The atmosphere in a winding down office is also pretty strange with a pervasive feeling of incompleteness - although, as I mentioned in an earlier post, incompleteness, emptiness and absence aren't always bad things, but can be the blank slate for creativity. It's an odd feeling, but whatever happens next, it's probably about time I moved on and did something a bit different.

Anyway, another door will open as this one closes - let's hope I like what's behind it.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008


Clowns. Not funny, but sinister. As proof, here's yours truly as a clown at a drunken Christmas a few years back. Scarier by far than my appearance as Alice Cooper at a subsequent Halloween party.

More proof, if needed, can be found here.

And here are Weebl and Bob (in their earlier, funnier, days) concluding the case for the prosecution.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Busy doing nothing

Although between jobs at the moment, I seem to be quite busy at the moment. Doing what, I'm not sure, but the time's running through my fingers like water. I haven't been pondering anything very much. Maybe this is a good thing - I've been told I "think too much" - if this is true, perhaps I should be thankful that I can stop this troublesome process with something short of a lobotomy.

Anyway, it's nice weather to be mindless in - beautiful blue skies with just the right number of small white clouds to stop it looking stark and pitiless, lovely patches of dappled shade under the apple trees at the bottom of the garden, frogs basking on the side of the pond and plopping back in when disturbed.

I could be thinking about religion - my partner's looking at a book on the life of Jesus at the moment, which from my brief flicking through it, appears to address some of the independent historical evidence, but seems to come to the conclusion that the description of Jesus and his acts as described in the Gospels is historically accurate by a process of begging the question. I'm vaguely interested in reading it myself, as well as checking out sources such as Josephus and Tacitus and maybe learning a bit more about contemporary figures who definitely were historical (such as Herod and Pilate). At the moment I'm not convinced that we have any direct historical evidence that can tell us anything concrete about Jesus or even whether he definitely existed (maybe he was a legendary figure, based on tall tales which grew up around a real original, like Robin Hood). But I'm no expert and I've got a feeling that research in, my current state of mental torpor, may be slow. But if I do find out anything interesting or surprising on the subject, I'll be sure to post.

Sunday, 8 June 2008


Back from Manchester now, Among other things I've been nosing around museums and looking at a bit of the city's aviation heritage. Here are three products of the A V Roe (Avro) company over the years.

The flimsy Heath Robinson device in the first picture is a replica of the 1909 Avro triplane - according to the exhibit label, the first British designed and made aircraft to fly (although not very well, according to a contemporary report).

The biplane in the foreground of the second picture is an Avro 504. The type first flew in 1913 and had a brief combat career in the first world war (including bombing the Zeppelin works on the shores of Lake Constance). Soon withdrawn from combat, due to the rapid development of fighting aircraft, it served as a trainer with the RFC and RAF until 1933. Over 8,000 were produced and some of these found their way into civil use for such things as training, banner towing and pleasure flights - my grandfather was taken up for a joy ride in one of these in the 1930's.

The final picture is of the Avro 707, an experimental jet which first flew in 1949, as a testbed for the delta wing design to be used in the Avro Vulcan bomber. A tremendous looking little plane, looks like something out of The Eagle comic.

Avro ceased to be an independent company in 1963, the year I was born, one stage in the consolidation of British aircraft manufacturers.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Sound and fury, signifying nothing

Off to Manchester shortly for a couple of days, so blogging temporarily suspended. I was going to write about the worst piece of political coverage the BBC has done in a long time - that of the US Democratic primaries. I can't claim to be a politics wonk, or to be very interested in what's happening in the US, but I do keep one ear open and like to be a little bit informed. But now the whole thing's been wrapped up in Obama's favour, despite blanket coverage on the usually informative Radio 4, I can't claim to have a clue what the different policies which Obama and Clinton were respectively putting forward.

Endless speculation about who was up and who was down, minute dissection of every gaffe and who was defecting to which side, but policies ... one of them may have been planning to give a free toffee apple to every American child, the other might have been in favour of a radical massacre of the first-born, but if so, either they didn't tell, or nobody asked. Maybe it wasn't the BBC's fault - maybe content-free presentational politics is a virus spreading from the US, I don't know. But I do have a problem with it - in a democracy, how on earth is anybody supposed to make an informed choice when no candidate will propose or oppose concrete policies or the news media don't dig below the presentation and the beauty contest between the two candidates?

There's a quotation from William Blake (who I think was away with the faries most of the time, but was right on the money here) about the importance of the concrete and specific, as opposed to general platitudes, and I leave you with his thought:

To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit. General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008


Nothing much to post about tonight, so here are two contrasting seascapes in the west of Ireland and the Scilly Isles.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

They wanted the World to hear their voice

This is something I stumbled across quite a while ago. I'm certainly not the first to discover and mention it in a blog post - when trying to find the recording again, I found an archived mention at Harry's Place over a year ago, but it came into my mind today and it bears repetition.

It's from a BBC radio report made by Patrick Gordon Walker after the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945, which concludes with surviving inmates singing the Zionist anthem, Hatikva (The Hope). Their collective experience of of grief and horror can hardly be imagined, so to hear the singing with any knowledge of the context is almost unbearably poignant. Listen to this and weep.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Poetry - embracing emptiness

I like these lines of verse - we spend so much of our lives needing to be fulfilled, filled with something, that we never think of emptiness as being a necessary element in our lives - the empty space, the blank piece of paper are the starting points of creation:

I've said before that every craftsman
searches for what's not there
to practice his craft.

A builder looks for the rotten hole
where the roof caved in. A water-carrier
picks the empty pot. A carpenter
stops at the house with no door.

Workers rush toward some hint
of emptiness, which they then
start to fill. Their hope, though,
is for emptiness, so don't think
you must avoid it. It contains
what you need!
Dear soul, if you were not friends
with the vast nothing inside,
why would you always be casting you net
into it, and waiting so pa

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi (1207-1273 AD)

Sunday, 1 June 2008

God forbid, I nearly agreed with a Bishop...

Whilst helping my son shovel a sloppy mess of mashed-up Weetabix in milk into his face this morning, I was half-listening to Radio 4's Sunday programme. A group of interviewees (mostly pious types, but including a token non-God-bothering philosopher) were discussing Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali's recent pronouncements about the decline of Christianity leaving a vacuum which is being filled by radical Islam.

In my opinion the good Bish, like most people whose entire career consists of telling anybody who will listen about their invisible friend, is a bit of a nut. But I did have the momentary charitable thought that, on this occasion, the nut may have (inadvertently) contained a kernel of truth. After all, the Church of England behaves rather less frightening way in its own back yard than Islam does in states where it has some authority.

The C of E may prevent the reigning monarch from marrying a Catholic and have seats set aside in the House of Lords where Bishops can sermonise at everybody, even those like me who have politely declined to be preached at by the simple expedient of never darkening the door of a church when I can possibly avoid it. However, on the credit side, the C of E has not, in recent years, seriously debated whether apostates should be killed and even their recent "bishops split by gay sex" didn't actually involve either side actually advocating the murder of homosexuals. Although we have a bench of Bishops, they don't vet which political candidates we can vote for, nor do the Church of England operate a squad of religious police charged with intimidating the insufficiently God-fearing. The General Synod do not dictate how women should dress, whether they should be allowed to drive, issue death sentences on novelists, or agitate for the killing of cartoonists who they deem to lack respect, or call for the murder of Jews and the annihilation of the state of Israel. Probably best to not to introduce this particular brand of religion into our legal structures, as advocated by Archbish Rowan Williams a while back.

So yes, Bishop, the brand of religion represented by the Church of England is a distinct improvement on the authoritarian drivel routinely spouted by the current generation of militant Islamists wherever they have got their hands on real temporal power. Where I differ from the Bish is in his conclusion that the reason why things here are so much better than in , say, Iran or Saudi Arabia is that our Church is inherently superior and, if we could just be that bit more religious, things would get even better and less like some oppressive middle-eastern theocracy.

I would say that the values which make our society better than one ruled by clerics are those which tend to weaken the vice-like grip of any religious establishment and go hand in hand with the weakening grip of the established Church.

Enlightenment values, an evidence rather than faith-based way of looking at the world, the rise of democracy - rule where the views of the demos, the people counts for more than that of any priesthood, a system of civil, rather than religious law, an eduction system which has a large proportion of non-sectarian schools as opposed to church schools or madrasas. In the past much of life here in Britain was once under the watchful eye of the Church and many crimes were committed in the name of faith - crusades, the burning of heretics, the persecution of atheists or of those who had some form of religious faith which didn't conform with whatever the state-sanctioned variety at the time was, witch-burning. But, fortunately, we're over that now. Religion no longer has the power to intimidate.

So yes, Bishop, the Church of England is a sign of hope for those of us who don't want to live under intolerant, oppressive religion. But the hopeful thing about it is that it is weak, in decline, irrelevant. It's a sign that we no longer live in fear of religion. So, when you say that the answer to one intolerant religion is to revive another religion in opposition to it, I'm almost tempted to say God forbid. Or I would be, if He showed any convincing sign of existing.