Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Quotation for the day

In today's smug, self-righteous world of "rights and responsibilities", where we're all supposed to be furiously networking with anybody who might give us a bunk up the greasy pole and providing outstanding service to the almighty customer, whilst caring nothing for the economically "undeserving" poor, here's a deeply unfashionable thought:

You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.

James D Miles (after Goethe)

I approve this message.

Bankers challenge serial killers for moral high ground

 It's been a hectic few days, hence the light posting and the time it's taken me to get round to posting a link to this little gem:

Dr Harold Shipman murdered 52 infirm old women in order to steal money from their wills, but bankers, get bonuses. Who is the real criminal, eh??

OK, my post title is a bit unfair - there's a lot more to the argument than this out-of-context piece of rhetoric (clearly intended to parody the more indiscriminate outbursts of furious people ranting on about how everybody who has ever worked for a bank is some kind of psychopathic Nazi looter who strangles kittens for breakfast and deserves to be strung up from the nearest lamp post). As such, the whole post and the extensive comments are very well worth ten minutes of your reading time.

Having said that, as an example of damning yourself with a homeopathically faint dose of praise, this one still takes the entire selection tin of all-butter luxury assorted biscuits.

The broad argument, for which I have some sympathy, is that 'bankers' is an incomplete shorthand for those responsible for the troubles that kicked off in 2008 and are still far from over. Other groups of people certainly dipped their hands in the blood. There were politicians who were supposedly more economically literate than the rest of us, but believed in (and took the credit for) a magic bubble that was supposed to inflate for ever without popping. There were mortgage brokers and estate agents, who shared a vested interest in the bubble with the banks and other loan providers. The credit rating agencies hardly covered themselves in glory. There were buy-to-let investors and ordinary house buyers who bought into the Property Ladder dream of homes as idiot-proof investment vehicles in an endlessly rising market, rather than just boring old places to have a life in. There was a government that systemetically lied about its deficit (ably assisted, it has to be mentioned, by bankers). And plenty more besides.

So there you have it, brethren. We are all guilty. We are all sinners. Do we all not look upon the mote in our brother's eye, yet consider not the beam in out own? I know I do.

This is all very well, up to a point, but you can spread the blame jam so thin that you discover that everybody and nobody is to blame. Many people went along with what was happening and were complicit, by what they did or failed to do, but the law has a concept of "controlling minds" in an organisation, the people with the knowledge and executive power to make things happen. In that sense, the fact that lots of other people went along with what was happening, were greedy or were dupes, doesn't get the controlling minds in the banks off the hook. As TG eloquently puts it in the comments:

A confidence man may prey on the ignorance, stupidity and greed of his marks; that doesn’t make him an honest businessman.

Agree or not, kudos for an interesting blog post that kicked off an intense, passionately-argued debate that I enjoyed reading and which mostly stayed far above tit-for-tat abuse.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Plutocrats ahoy!

Does anyone think the rich won't someday migrate to floating islands?

Asks Scott Adams. Short answer; I think they won't, because:

1. Why on earth (or on water) would the rich migrate when they're already doing very nicely, thank you, right where they are?

2. Say the rich are the first to take to the high seas to escape allegedly 'confiscatory levels of taxation'. At home (using the US example), a lot of those tax dollars fund a colossal military machine that makes damn sure that few people imagine they can mess with US nationals with impunity. Anyone care to guess how afraid pirates and terrorists are going to be of attacking giant undefended cruise liners full of immensely rich tax exiles, ripe for plunder and kidnap? Or do the the plutocrats intend to tax themselves sufficiently to support the immense cost of creating their own private army / navy, so they can continue to sleep sound in their luxury staterooms?

 3. I'll start believing when the mighty "Freedom Ship" starts being more than just mouth and trousers.

I've got immense respect to Scott Adams for having created the superb Dilbert strip and escaped the corporate rat race using his own creative talent, but some of his blog posts are lurching towards the wilder fringes of teapottery.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Dr. Pangloss meets Samuel Beckett

The Fat Man on a Keyboard manages, in less than one sentence, to sum up the most astonishing and depressing feature of contemporary politics, namely 'the extraordinary strength of the ideological belief in the economic consensus in the face of its failure'.

It would be hard to come up with anything more succinct, although the people tasked with coming up with catchy slogans for the current political party conference season might also want to try Voltaire's ironic 'all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds' or Samuel Beckett's 'No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.' to urge us forward on our shared journey towards the ultimate fulfilment of the ideologically correct Plan A.

There is still no Plan B.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Why science education matters

I'm looking wistfully at our four chickens and wishing I'd studied harder in science class. Don't get me wrong, I quite like the chickens. They're starting to reliably produce fresh eggs. They're even quite companionable. With their round, staring eyes and jerky, mechanical head movements, they're not the sort of creatures you can get sloppily anthropomorphic about, but they're quite pleasant to be around as they fussily scratch in the dirt, cluck gently and do that comical little run when you throw them scraps to eat. OK, they seem to expel the equivalent of their own weight in bodily waste every couple of days, but nobody's perfect. and, besides, it's good for the roses. But they could be so much more

When Arkhat Abzhanov (who clearly worked very hard in science class) looks at chickens, he sees something far more exciting. He sees a Lost World of genetic possibility. Archimedes was supposed to have said that, given a big enough lever and a place to stand, he could move the whole world. Abzhanov thinks that, given a big enough research grant and some chickens, he could recreate dinosaurs. How cool is that?

Just think, a bit more concentration and it could have been me, elegantly clad in my Blofeld-style Mao suit, sitting in my executive swivel chair, meditatively stroking a chicken and contemplating the day when I will dominate the world with my dinosaur legions. There would be a few minor technical challenges, like attaching frickin' laser beams to their heads, but my loyal henchpeople should be able to sort those out. The one serious problem with my master plan might be one of scale. Apparently the dinos Abzhanov is trying to recreate are of rather sub-T Rex dimensions. In fact, they would be about the same size as .. er ... chickens.

Mind you, if the world domination idea didn't work out I could at least have opened Newport Pagnell's equivalent of Jurassic Park. Given the diminutive size of the Maniraptors, it would have been less of a safari park and more of a petting zoo, but it would have been a start. Although even the petting zoo idea might be challenging if the little critters turned out to be bad-tempered. As Basil Fawlty said of Manuel's pet rat, 'Cuddle this, you'd never play the guitar again!'

Maybe a few legal disclaimers would sort this one out:

All children under the age of fifteen must be accompanied by an adult.You must be at least 1.8 metres tall, and unable to play the guitar, to cuddle the dinosaurs. Dino World (Newport Pagnell) Ltd accepts no liability whatsoever in respect of any loss of limb(s) and/or face suffered as a result of cuddling the dinosaurs.

I'm no lawyer, but it might just work; if not, maybe it's for the best that I'm stuck with boring old genetically unmodified chickens.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

A point of view

When Richard Dawkins goes off on one about religion, I usually find myself in agreement, but very occasionally I wish he'd change the record. He's bang on the money when it comes to fundamentalists of the Islamic or Christian variety, patriarchy and the oppression of women, paedophile priests, the wilful blindness of creationists, the bloody history of religious wars and the way that religion fuels the tribalism that keeps such conflicts going.

There are, however a lot of religious people in the world who don't fall into any of these categories; perfectly decent, good people who happen to believe in something I find unbelievable, but who display kindness, integrity, courage and any number of other qualities that would do credit to any human being, regardless of his or her belief system. In the world's more open and liberal societies, most religious people are like this, getting on with their own lives and believing in their own beliefs and allowing other people who live by other belief systems to get on with their own lives unhindered.*

So, for a lot of the time, in a lot of the world, the fact that many people believe in what I'd consider to be weird things, doesn't strike me as a pressing problem. I think, for example, that the happiness of this nation would be better served by a reduction in the number of people without work, or more equal access to a good education, than by a reduction in the number of people sitting in pews listening to self-appointed wise men telling improbable fairy stories on a Sunday.

All quiet on the home front, then? Well, not exactly. Just when I feel like saying, 'good point, well made Professor Dawkins, I totally get it, but can you move on and talk about something else now', up pops some affronted talking head with a killer argument that's supposed to put all these uppity secularists back in their place. And, invariably, the furious rebuttal is so slippery and shoddy and badly thought out, so condescending that I feel that I'm having my intelligence systematically insulted by somebody too lazy to frame a convincing argument and remember why Dawkins (and Hitchens and P Z Myers and all of the other eloquent free thinkers out there) need to keep turning up the volume. If they didn't, their signal would be drowned out by counterblasts of incoherent noise.

The philosopher John Gray made a bit of incoherent noise on Radio 4's A Point of View this morning. Gray's a respected philosopher and J G Ballard, no less, was impressed by the quality of his philosophising. The quality of his talk about the things that "extreme atheists" don't understand was considerably less than stellar, though. There's a short precis of his talk on the relevant BBC web page and the whole things's available in iPlayer for a while.

His talk purports to be a well-considered demolition of the naive misconceptions of the more vocal secularists. All he can actually manage to do, as far as I can see, is to furiously mow down straw men like a runaway combine harvester at a scarecrows' convention. Viz:

Straw men 1 and 2:

'Extreme atheists do not realise that for most people across the globe, religion is not generally about personal belief. Instead, "Practice - ritual, meditation, a way of life - is what counts."'

1. Extreme atheists?

How are they extreme? They don't force anybody to think the way they do. Their only weapons are argument and persuasion. People we call religious extremists, are described as "extreme" because they seek to enforce their beliefs on others, using methods including ostracism, the threat of supernatural punishment,   caste prejudice, intimidation and the murder of people who disrespect their beliefs or even dare to believe different things. At the very least, a person would have to subscribe to a set of beliefs that is untenable without denying a large, coherent body of well-attested evidence before they deserve to be called "extreme". Moderate religious people who don't do any of these things don't get labelled as extremists - why do middle-of-the-road secularists who don't threaten anybody deserve this sort of name-calling?

2. Religion is not about personal belief?

This is Gray's strongest argument, but that's not saying much. Granted, religious observance has plenty of fringe benefits that have nothing to do with supernatural beliefs. For a Christian these might involve a quiet moment in the week, the whole community getting-together-with-friends-and-neighbours vibe, a cup of tea and a hob nob with the vicar after service, singing in the choir, the rota for cleaning the brass rubbings / arranging flowers, bell ringing, putting a penny or two into the charity box, an Easter egg hunt for the kiddies, celebrating the life's rites of passage, etc, etc I'm certain that equivalents exist in other traditions.

I don't believe the stories told in holy books about how the universe was created, or about supernatural events or about supernatural beings and their actions. Where required, however, I'll turn up for carol services, hatch, match and dispatch events, and so on, that happen to take place in a church or equivalent.

Is John Gray really saying that people who label themselves as religious and go to regular devotions are like just me - agnostics who don't believe in the truth of the creed being preached, but just turn up occasionally because it's what people do? If so, that's another dirty secret the Pope's been keeping very quiet.

I don't know, but it's reasonable to assume that for most people who practice some sort of religion it is, at least partly, about belief. If John Gray can cite some research that convincingly suggests that a substantial proportion of people who are motivated enough to regularly attend religious services don't actually care whether the creed being preached is true or not, I'll start to be interested in his point.

Straw man 3:

'Central to religion is the power of myth, which still speaks to the contemporary mind. "The idea that science can enable us to live without myths is one of these silly modern stories."'

I wonder who these scientists are who think we can live without myths? Presumably the ones who have never read a fictional story, have never seen any films other than documentaries, have never seen a TV drama or a play, or a musical, or an opera, have never played a video game and wouldn't have a clue what you were talking about if you mentioned Prometheus or Procrustes or the Trojan Horse. We're all of us, scientists included, surrounded by myths and consume them daily. I can't think of any scientists - "extreme" atheists included, who call for humanity to live without myths.

Gray seems to think of scientists as cartoonish, dessicated Gradgrindian calculating machines,  as emotionless as Science Officer Spock, or a brain in a box, self-absorbed geeks cut off from "normal" society and its culture. And then he's got the brass neck to accuse rationalists of caricaturing the religions they criticize.

There are quite a few scientists who think that people ought to be able to distinguish myth from reality, but that's something else entirely.

Straw Man 4:

'In fact, he argues, science has created its own myth, "chief among them the myth of salvation through science....The idea that humans will rise from the dead may be incredible" he says, "but no more so than the notion that humanity can use science to remake the world"'.

Really? I'm not exactly deafened by a chorus of scientists preaching 'salvation though science'. I hear plenty arguing that knowledge is better than ignorance and that humanity has gained incremental improvements to the quality of human life on the back of scientific discoveries - antibiotics, transistors, that sort of thing. But salvation, ultimate truth and such like are religious concepts that you don't generally hear hear serious scientists claiming they can deliver. If you were desperate to find a scientific/technological prophet, you could cite people like the computer scientist, Ray Kurzweil with his millenarian vision of the "singularity", but he's hardly mainstream.

In reality, most scientists I've read or heard make cautious, testable, evidence-based claims about specifics, leaving the sweeping generalisations about the nature of things to the clergy.

It doesn't take another high-falutin' philosopher to refute John Gray's caricature - I'm quite happy to leave it to comedian Dara O'Brian to finish off this straw man. People who come up with the auld 'well science doesn't know everything", as if scientists had ever claimed such a thing, get on Dara's nerves because:

Well, science knows it doesn't know everything, otherwise it'd stop... Just 'cos science doesn't know everything doesn't mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.

Just when you find yourself about to say 'Dawkins! Leave it! 'He's not worth it!' up pops somebody like John Gray and makes you remember that he's not just there to speak up against the crazies in the world's unfortunate Islamic Republics or the Tea-Partying Bible-Belt of the USA. He's also there to remind us that some of our own respected talking heads and public intellectuals need to raise their game and sharpen up their arguments, rather than clogging up the public's ears with this sort of chicken shit for the soul.

 * With a few exceptions.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Never mind the bollards

It's (almost always) good to get feedback. It's better still when it brings something to the party. Michael Greenwell sees my cunning anti-wire-cutter-theft scheme and raises me one masterclass on how not to deploy no-parking bollards.

I'll be scouring the internets for more top quality fails, but that'll take some beating...

This is why I care (and why you should too)

 Having just welcomed the coalition's move to put equal civil marriage for same-sex couples onto the political agenda, this piece is too damn good not to share. Required reading for anybody who might be consulted on this issue:

I've had people ask why I am so vocal about the issue of LGBT equality. Why is a heterosexual, married father so concerned with what gay people can or can't do? I don't have a dog in this fight, do I?

I find those kinds of questions to be puzzling (and telling), as if we should value the rights of one group of humans over any other group, or only be concerned with the welfare of a group to which we belong. As Elie Wiesel said, "I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

So, anyway, this is why I care (and why you should too)

Reasons to be cheerful. part 3

It's not very often that I have a good word to say for Britain's coalition government, but this is terrific news and long overdue:

"I am delighted to confirm that early next year, this Government will begin a formal consultation on equal civil marriage for same-sex couples," she [equalities minister Lynne Featherstone] said. "This would allow us to make any legislative changes before the end of this Parliament.

Sadly, it's not a done deal, as the consultation process will undoubtedly bring forth attempts to wreck or neuter any legislation from the usual pious bunch of sour-faced, busy-body killjoys determined to frustrate a thoroughly benign measure that would bring happiness to those affected without doing the slightest harm to anybody else.

Apparently, David Cameron is backing the change (I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he really means this and isn't just parroting something his SPADS have told him about changing British social attitudes). The Tories may have a dismal record on economic inequality, but when it comes to prejudice against minority groups, boy, they've come along way since Section 28.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Reasons to be cheerful. part 2

 I was going to move on, but I can't resist going back to this old lament from James Delingpole and squeezing the last drop of good cheer from it:

It is extremely unlikely that a Tea Party movement could ever take off in Britain: the main reason being that, unlike in the US, the British simply lack the political vocabulary and intellectual building blocks to demand one.

On Monday, CNN journalist Wolf Blitzer asked Tea Party presidential candidate Ron Paul what should happen to a 30-year-old uninsured man who needs expensive medical care. Should the state pay his bills? Paul replied:

That's what freedom is all about: taking your own risks. This whole idea that you have to take care of everybody —

He never finished his point, being drowned out by the approving cheers and whoops of the Tea Party faithful in the audience.

Kent Snyder could have finished his point for him. Snyder was a volunteer who eventually became a campaign manager for Ron Paul’s previous presidential bid in 2008.  “It was Kent more than anyone else who encouraged and pushed Ron to run for president,” said a Ron Paul spokesperson.

Kent Snyder caught pneumonia during Paul's 2008 campaign. On June 26, 2008 he died from complications from his pneumonia, but not before running up a $400,000 in medical bill. He didn't have health insurance. His family couldn't pay the bill and it was left to an on line campaign by friends to pay off his debt to his health care providers.

Even with the National Health Service in the tender care of the Tories, such a thing couldn't happen in Britain, at least for the foreseeable future.  The British simply lack the political vocabulary and intellectual building blocks to demand such things and I, for one, am very, very grateful that we do lack them.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

What's wrong with this picture?

Every so often you come across something so elegantly, concisely, perfectly wrong that it's like a tiny acidental poem. Think of this as your fail haiku for today:

My boss was tired of our wire cutters getting stolen. I'm not sure this will solve it.


Tuesday, 13 September 2011


I had a bit of a grumble recently about independent fee-paying schools in England and Wales being able to define themselves as "charities" and bag a nice little subsidy from the sort of ordinary tax payers who will never be rich enough to have a hope sending their own kids to a private school. It's interesting to get a bit of historical perspective here and remember that our "public" schools started off as perfectly respectable charities in the sense that any reasonable person would understand. They were, after all, first established to provide a free education for children of the poor.

Nick Davies, the investigative reporter responsible for helping to overturn the News International rock and expose the grubs and maggots crawling around underneath, told the inglorious story of how our public schools stopped helping the needy and turned into an exclusive network for of the privileged offspring of the rich and influential. It's an old article, but it bears repeating:

All of these schools were founded for the free education of the poor – that is why they were originally called ‘public’ schools. When Henry VI founded Eton in 1442, for example, he instructed that “No one having a yearly income of more than five marks shall be eligible”. In 1382, the founder of Winchester, William of Wykeham, declared that the school was to be made up of 70 “poor and needy” pupils, although as a concession to those whose patronage he sought, he agreed also to take ten “sons of noble and influential persons”. Rugby, Harrow, Westminster, they were all founded as free schools for the poor. And yet, all of them eventually were hijacked by the wealthy, who paid fees to attend. The headmasters were happy to take their money and were quite clever in helping the hijack.

Thomas Arnold preserved Rugby for the rich by closing its free lower school so that, unless the children of the poor could afford to pay someone else to teach them, they could not learn enough to get into the main school. The schools insisted that new pupils should be able to speak Latin, with the same result. At Harrow, the head man took the register at noon when the poorer pupils, who were day boys, were all at home for lunch and, just to make sure of their absence, he forbade them from riding horses to speed up their journey home. Westminster wriggled out of its legal obligation to the poor by arguing that Queen Elizabeth I had never confirmed its statutes. Winchester justified its behaviour to the 1818 Brougham Commission by explaining that, in truth, its current pupils really were poor – it was only their parents who were rich.

With the Public Schools Act of 1868, these ancient schools completed the theft by capturing any remaining endowments which were still dedicated to poor pupils. A year later, following the lead of the Schools Inquiry Commission, the Endowed Schools Act organised a far grander larceny, seizing from towns all over the country a fortune in endowments which had been left for the benefit of the local poor but which were now used to pay for a network of new fee-paying private schools for the middle class. 

 You almost have to admire their sheer brass neck. It is a truly breathtaking perversion of the idea of charity. It's as if Shelter, the housing charity, decided to give up on trying to help people who are homeless or living in squalor and re-launched itself as an organisation to subsidise the purchase of holiday homes in Cornwall or Tuscany by people who already own mansions in fashionable areas of London. And still claimed to be a charity. And successfully persuaded the Charity Commission to nod it through and say 'well done, keep up the good work'. And lobbied so successfully for their idiosyncratic definition of "charity" that anyone who objected to the injustice was routinely accused of "the politics of envy" or "social engineering".

Our society, and in particular our education system, seems to be at the mercy of a feral overclass, utterly free from shame and remorse and cut off from the mainstream in everything but its materialism. This is worse than unfair - it's anti-social behaviour on an epic scale.

I'll leave the last word to former Conservative education minister, George Walden, as quited by Nick Davies; 'The screening out of the sons and daughters of the affluent and influential from the rest of society… and the consequent indifference of their parents to what goes on in state schools is more than a traditional quirk in the English system. It severs our educational culture at the neck. … No country has evolved a high standard of public education while the top seven per cent of its citizens have nothing to do with it'.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

The only inescapable of lesson from 9/11...

... is that confirmation bias is a force more powerful than you could possibly imagine.


The summer's gone and all the roses dying

The beginning of autumn can be a wistful, melancholy time in these latitudes; the year's first step on the dreary road to cold and darkness. So, in a spirit of resolute good cheer, here's a more stirring and upbeat interpretation of the season, courtesy of Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov:

I notice that one of the commentators on YouTube thinks that this music was used in the film of The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe's hymn to supersonic jets, space rockets and all things fast and dangerous. It wasn't (although if you listen to the film score, about three minutes in, you can hear the similarities). To my ears, the climax of the film score sounds as if it was nicked from Tchaikovsky's violin concerto (listen to this at about 6' 14" to see what I mean).

A carrot a day keeps the spin doctor in pay

The carrot, as any fule kno, is an unrivalled source β-carotene, which the human body can metabolise into vitamin A.

The carrot is also a versatile propaganda tool, useful for raising the brand profile of your royal family or spreading disinformation in time of war.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Spartan-Satanic-Illuminati Axis of Evil

It is extremely unlikely that a Tea Party movement could ever take off in Britain: the main reason being that, unlike in the US, the British simply lack the political vocabulary and intellectual building blocks to demand one. 

Thinks James Delingpole in an opinion piece so hysterical it deserves to be mocked more than once.

Sean Wilentz in the New Yorker has an interesting piece on the "intellectual building blocks" of the Tea Party. Media pundit Glenn Beck seems to be the movement's most influential ideologue, punting his idiosyncratic version of history on his Fox news show and via his very own online "Beck University". Beck acknowleges his own intellectual debt to the historical ideas of Robert Welch and Willard Cleon Skousen of the right-wing cold-war-era John Birch Society. The John Birch Society isn't very well known here in Britain, which is a pity, because the belief system concocted by Welch and Skousen is an entertainingly improbable world of fantasy, a sort of Disneyland for paranoids. One of Robert Welch's more interesting notions was that the commie hordes were themselves the mere tools of a far larger, and more ancient, conspiracy:

This master conspiracy, he said, had forerunners in ancient Sparta, and sprang fully to life in the eighteenth century, in the “uniformly Satanic creed and program” of the Bavarian Illuminati. Run by those he called “the Insiders,” the conspiracy resided chiefly in international families of financiers, such as the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers, government agencies like the Federal Reserve System and the Internal Revenue Service, and nongovernmental organizations like the Bilderberg Group, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Trilateral Commission. Since the early twentieth century, they had done a good deal of their evil work under the guise of humanitarian uplift. “One broad avenue down which these conspiratorial forces advance was known as progressive legislation,” Welch declared in 1966. “The very same collectivist theories and demagogic pretenses which had destroyed earlier civilizations were now paraded forth in the disguise of new and modern concepts.”

Spartans, and Illuminati, and Satanists! Oh, my!

Willard Cleon Skousen brought Welch's conspiracy theories up to date with a few interesting assertions of his own. Franklin Roosevelt's advisor Harry Hopkins, Skousen claimed, had been passing large supplies of uranium to the Soviet Union. He also thought that the Soviets had stolen the plans for the first Sputnik from the USA and that the commies the were creating “a regimented breed of Pavlovian men whose minds could be triggered into immediate action by signals from their masters”. In short, the sort of fantasist who could mistake The Manchurian Candidate for a documentary.

It's hard to find much to smile about Austerity Britain, but the fact that the Brits apparently lack the 'political vocabulary and intellectual building blocks' to take this sort of  hogwash at all seriously is cause for hope and pride.To borrow a phrase, the teabaggers are entitled to their own opinion, but they aren't entitled to their own facts.

Unfortunately, an evidence-based rebuttal of their quirky beliefs seems unlikely to cut much ice with the entrenched Tea Party demographic in the USA. Maybe those conspratorial Spartans had a better idea about how to settle disputes with arrogant blockheads.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Half a century and two portraits

The Danish-Norwegian soprano, Nina Hagerup, (1845-1935), painted in Rome in 1884 and photographed fifty years later, at an unknown location. Nina Hagerup is better known by her married name, Greig, having married the composer Edvard Greig (her first cousin) in 1867.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Happiness is...

... submission to Godzilla.

This makes perfect theological sense to me. The evidence for the existence of Godzilla is precisely as compelling as that for any other deity. Also, as The Book of Common Prayer reminds us, the primary purpose of the institution of matrimony is to frighten the kiddies:

First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.

OK, got that, number priority numero uno is scaring the offspring witless. Unfortunately, churches tend to undermine the clarity of this message by making the incarnate daity rather less than terrifying. Not only does He bless the peacemakers and advocate turning the other cheek, but children actually get to sing about how He was 'little, weak and helpless' and that:

Christian children all mus be,
Mild, obedient, good as He.

If your mission statement for marriage is explicitly about scaring the bejeezus out of the wee ones, a God who manifests Himself as little, helpless, meek, mild, obedient baby just isn't going to cut it.

The obvious solution is to worship a two hundred-foot-high, radioactive, fire-breathing mutant lizard instead. That'll frighten the little blighters into unquestioning obedience. Job done.

Move aside, Church of The Flying Spaghetti Monster; there's an even newer religion on the block. Make way for the First Church of Godzilla©.

Come to think of it, a confrontation between The Flying Spaghetti Monster and Godzilla would make one hell of a great film. Now I'm in L. Ron Hubbard mode, I might as well be thinking about the movie rights:

I'm not enough of an expert on Pastafarian theology to know whether the Flying Spaghetti Monster can actually fire laser beams from what we'll call, for the sake of convenience, His head, but it just seemed artistically right.

Hat tip.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Convair versus the aircraft carrier (part 2)

As I blogged recently, the US aircraft manufacturer Convair unsuccessfully attempted to consign the aircraft carrier to the history books with its experimental Sea Dart waterborne fighter.

The Sea Dart wasn't Convair's only attempt to do away with the Navy's floating airfields, though. Meet the Convair XFY (AKA the "Pogo"), a shiny turboprop that sat on its tail and rose vertically, like a rocket, with no need for an inconveniently big ocean-going runway.

The Pogo was also supposed to land vertically on its tail. To land the craft, the pilot had to look back behind himself to properly stabilize the craft, a mighty tall order on an airfield and practically impossible on the rolling, pitching deck of a sub-aircraft-carrier-sized vessel. This, combined with problems with getting into a hover after high speed flight, so the craft could make the perilous tail-first descent, killed the project.

End of story? Probably, although, maybe somebody might want to look at this idea again. The Pogo was a flop as a piloted vehicle with 1950's technology, but we're now in the 21st century, with highly capable drones beginning to supplant the military's crewed aircraft

Take away the pilot, add spoilers and air brakes to help the craft slow down and stop for the descent phase and you might have the makings of a usable craft. For an on-board computer linked to gyroscopes / rear-facing radar or lasers, the tail-first descent that would tax a human pilot to breaking point might be achievable. And with no human on board to be crushed by the g-forces, it could be launched by some form of rocket or catapult, so it wouldn't waste huge amounts of fuel in a vertical take-off.

Probably a daft idea, based on nothing more technical than watching too many episodes of Thunderbirds as a kid, but in a nation that's currently paying billions for aircraft carriers that won't be ready for years and won't have any planes to fly from them for even longer, the idea of replacing the Queen Elizabeth with VTOL drones launched from something much smaller and a few billion pounds cheaper sounds tempting. Mind you, I guess we've already paid for a substantial chunk of aircraft carrier, and given Britain's past record in defence procurement, we'd probably just end up with a fleet of drones that cost even more than an aircraft carrier, ten years later than promised.

Be sure your sin will find you out

Back in 2009, after UK banks had been rescued by a £850bn taxpayer bailout, the directors of Royal Bank of Scotland threatened to resign if the government stopped them paying bonuses of £1.5bn to staff in its investment arm.

More recently, Bob Diamond of Barclays was equally keen to move on and get back to business as usual:

There was a period of remorse and apology for banks. I think that period needs to be over.

But, like the man said, it ain't over 'til it's over:
Taxpayer-owned Royal Bank of Scotland yesterday emerged as one of the main targets of a multi-billion pound legal case brought by the authorities in the United States.

RBS, Barclays and HSBC are among 17 banks being sued by America’s Federal Housing Finance Agency.

It claims the banks used false claims in sales documents to sell billions of dollars’ worth of mortgage investments to US government agencies, which were then hit by massive losses in the US mortgage crash.

If successful, the claim would be a savage blow to RBS’s finances and shatter any hopes of British taxpayers making back the cash they invested in bailing out the bank for years to come.

The 17 banks, which include most of America and Europe’s leading financial institutions are alleged to have a sold a total of more than $200 billion (£123billion) of mortgages to America’s state-sponsored mortgage companies Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae at the height of the credit boom. RBS sold £18.5billion of the mortgages, second in scale only to JP Morgan Chase, which sold £20.3billion.

Barclays sold £3billion and HSBC £3.8billion. The amount of damages being sought is unclear, but in an identical case, the FHFA is seeking £555million in damages from Swiss bank UBS after it sold £2.8billion of mortgage securities.

If that rate of damages was reflected in the new cases, RBS would be facing a claim for £3.7billion, Barclays just under £616million and HSBC £770million. The total being sought by the FHFA would be about £24.7billion.
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The Long March of Chairman Gove

Like Chairman Mao, we’ve embarked on a Long March to reform our education system

Michael Gove 

According to the Telegraph, 'Michael Gove’s great project is transforming education'. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of specialist academy schools, independent of local authority control, many part-funded by commercial or personal sponsors with their own idiosyncratic educational agendas. There will be 800 academies at the start of the new school term, with a further 800 schools busy applying to become academies. There will be 24 "Free Schools" opening this term (although a few of this tiny cohort aren't actually schools set up by parents, but former minor independent schools which have decided that it would be easier to get their funding from the same pot as other taxpayer-funded schools, rather than getting parents to stump up several grand a term to buy their kids a sense of innate superiority and a spiffy blazer).

How does the Gove model compare with what's widely acknowledged to be one of the world's most successful educational systems? LynNell Hancock at thinks that the rest of the world has a lot to learn from Finland:

The transformation of the Finns’ education system began some 40 years ago as the key propellent of the country’s economic recovery plan. Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide. “I’m still surprised,” said Arjariita Heikkinen, principal of a Helsinki comprehensive school. “I didn’t realize we were that good...”

... Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union.

Impressive. So how did the Finns get there? Parent Power? Breaking the power of teachers' unions and the educational establishment? Setting up specialist academies in place of all-round local schools? Ditching bog-standard comprehensives? Getting thrusting business executives in to shake up all those woolly-headed educationalists who don't live in the "real world"? School league tables? Competition? A thriving independent school sector for those with the money to have their children educated in a prole-free environment? Not being afraid of a bit of elitism? Telling parents that it was no problem if their local school was hopeless, because they could always just spend 80 hours a week setting up a new Free School from scratch?

Strangely enough, an education system that's the envy of the world looks absolutely nothing like that:

There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians. Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators. The result is that a Finnish child has a good shot at getting the same quality education no matter whether he or she lives in a rural village or a university town. The differences between weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world, according to the most recent survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “Equality is the most important word in Finnish education. All political parties on the right and left agree on this,” said Olli Luukkainen, president of Finland’s powerful teachers union.

Gove's Long March isn't exactly transforming education. He's certainly accelerating the pace of the Academy programme started under New Labour, but the direction of travel is precisely the same. The same tired old orthodoxy that entrepreneurs and parents must know more about delivering education than teaching professionals. The same visceral loathing of the same quality of education for all (shorthand insult "bog-standard comprehensives"). The same compulsion to shake things up with some ill-thought-out initiative (in this case Free Schools) that grabs headlines but does nothing to improve education for the overwhelming majority of pupils.

Far from transforming education Gove seems intent on entrenching an educational orthodoxy that's been warmly embraced by the British political establishment for at least a generation. An orthodoxy that is almost the precise opposite of what has been proved to work.


Saturday, 3 September 2011

Reg, alias Merlin of Avalon

As the city mourns the death of much-loved White Witch Dot Griffiths, the Citizen can pass on a message from the colourful character herself.

For Dot, alias Madam Morgana, would like you to know that she is NOT dead at all.

In her words, she has 'passed over'. And, she says, as you read this she is skipping along in the Land of Eternal Summers, reunited with her husband and soulmate Reg, alias Merlin of Avalon.

Milton Keynes Citizen

Can't stop the music

A world-class symphony orchestra needs eighty-odd highly talented people and years of dedication, sacrifice and training to make itself heard. Sadly, a tiny group of cloth-eared, muddle-headed noddies needs only a few incoherent yelps to force an orchestra off the air. Personally, I'd rather listen to the Israel Philharmonic, so here's one they made earlier - the climax of the piece that got barracked this week, Bruch's violin concerto: As far as I'm concerned, the only thing I feel like boycotting at the moment is the Judean Popular Peoples Front, or whatever the pipsqueaks responsible for trying to keep the airwaves judenfrei call themselves these days.

In a topsy-turvey society where you are the product you consume, I don't normally advocate consumer-led activism, but I'll make an exception in this case. If you've got a pound or two to spare, why not go out and buy something made in Israel to boycott the boycott? I can recommend Dead Sea Natural Mineral Body Lotion by J. Malki - Yarden, which is very good if you occasionally suffer from dry skin on your elbows.*

* This is an unsolicited opinion - I have no commercial relationship with the manufacturer of the product mentioned above.