Sunday, 30 August 2015

The power of naps

Apparently 'It’s time to start taking midday naps as a new study has revealed that it can lower blood pressure levels and decrease the number of required anti-hypertensive medications', according to a study which:
included 386 middle aged patients with arterial hypertension. The following measurements were performed in all patients: midday sleep time, office BP, 24 hour ambulatory BP, pulse wave velocity, two lifestyle habits, body mass index (BMI) and a complete echo-cardiographic evaluation, including left atrial size. Just an half hour nap during the day has multiple benefits.
Maybe. But, on the other hand, perhaps the people who were relaxed enough to take a nap in the middle of the day and had enough control over their lives to schedule a siesta started off with lower blood pressure than people who were too stressed to switch off and snooze through lunchtime, possibly because they lived lives without the autonomy to take a break at a time of their own choosing.

When it comes to power naps, it might be the power, not than the napping, that matters.

Friday, 28 August 2015

People of the extreme centre

In an unashamed call for the party to return to the approach of New Labour which Miliband abandoned, Blair wrote: “The route to the summit lies through the centre ground."
Margaret Thatcher's administrations dominated the 1980s and are supposed, by friend and foe alike, to have changed the long-term course of British politics. As far as I remember, Margaret Thatcher had nothing good to say about the centre ground route and made her own ascent of the political summit via the more confrontational North Face:
"The Canadians are a people of the extreme centre. They have not been averse to the quiet life...nor keen to spend more money on defence or effort abroad."

—Margaret Thatcher's diplomatic team, actually believing this to be an insult [1]
The Thatcherite attitude to the centre ground, distilled from an entry in RationalWiki.

In other words, the "centre ground" which Tony Blair inherited from the Thatcherite Tories was already pretty extreme and fundamentalist.* But, according to current received Westminster/meeja wisdom, it's "extreme", or, even more hilariously, "outdated" to suggest that we might ease off a bit from the uncompromising orthodoxy which most of our political class inherited from the confrontational 1980s and hardly thought to question, even since it seems to have brought us roaring inequality, stagnant wages, insecure employment, decades of costly, failed "efforts abroad" and a hypertrophied, state-rescued financial sector trashing the rest of the economy with the biggest crash in living memory:
But basically, on the key questions of our time - austerity, inequality, the role of the state in the economy - [Jeremy Corbyn] is actually the closest thing to the zeitgeist we have. Innovative and smart thinking about the economy - Piketty, Mazzucato, Summers, Haldane - is much closer to the kinds of things Corbyn is saying than to any other major political figure in the UK. That doesn't necessarily win you an election of course, but it does suggest that you are asking the right kinds of questions, and could even have some answers. 
Writes Jonathan Hopkin, who won't be voting for Corbyn, but still thinks that what our extreme ideological brand of politics needs right now is a moderating dose of calm, centrist Corbynism.

*I don't know what else you'd call an ideology which bizarrely condemns the centre as "extreme" and the simple desire for a quiet life as some kind of sinful backsliding, intolerable to a True Believer.

Peak Facebook not yet in sight

...Mark Zuckerberg has announced a new milestone for the social network: one billion daily users...

...The news is no great surprise: Facebook has been growing steadily, and in the second quarter of 2015 it averaged 968 million daily active users, and 1.49 billion monthly active users.
Today's Graun.
The really interesting part of Bauwens' article isn't about Facebook itself, (which will probably go into unlamented terminal decline as the intrusive, stalker-ish changes required to effectively monitor, control and monetise its users become annoying enough to make many of them abandon Facebook and adopt The Next Big Thing, whatever that turns out to be)*

* I may be wrong, but don't start calling me a dimwit until Facebook's clocked up another five years of rude health.
Me, in March 2012. If things stay on trend, instead of 'unlamented terminal decline', this suboptimal way of interacting with friends and family may end up scoring one for the Panda Principle (AKA 'survival of the fit-ish'), come the approaching judgement day which I had pencilled in for Q1 2017, or thereabouts.

Well, if I do end up as just another failed prophet, at least I'll have plenty of company.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Kill your family for fun and profit

'Throw your family at a new Fiat 500L from just £12, 995' suggests the subject line of an e-mail recently purged from my spam bin, which is a terrible piece of advice for budding familicides. To be absolutely sure of getting rid of troublesome family members, you need to chuck them at a bus or, at the very least, a hefty 4 x 4.

The e-mail purports to come from a car dealership in St Leonards, East Sussex, a claim I didn't bother to verify by reading the header before deleting the thing, because life's too short. In the unlikely event that anybody from a company by the name of Amber Sales is reading this, you need to know one of two things. Either:
  • some piece of Internet pond scum is besmirching your good name by hijacking it to spew out spam - if so, I wish you luck in disassociating yourselves from the said miscreant
or (if you really are the people responsible for stress-testing my spam filter)
  • it's time consider throwing your copywriter - and yourselves - at a vehicle somewhat larger than a Fiat 500.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Days of future past

Engineers at McDonnell Douglas have put forward ideas for a rocket-liner called Hyperion which they claim could carry passengers, 170 at a time, from one side of the globe to the other in just forty-five minutes by the 'eighties. A trip from Los Angeles to Honolulu would take eighteen minutes.
You don't believe it will ever happen? There was a time when wise men proclaimed that if God had intended men to fly He would have given them wings.
The concluding sentences of Aircraft, John W R Taylor's 1971 potted history of aviation. To the primary-school aged me, this sounded like a perfectly reasonable extrapolation of trends being forged in the white heat of Concorde-era techno-optimism. Which only goes to prove Neils Bohr's point that prediction is difficult, especially if it's about the future.

These days, there's still plenty of extrapolation going on, although sub-twenty minute flights from LA to Hawaii are mostly off the agenda, replaced by techno-utopian/dystopian futures in which the machines have either liberated humanity from toil and oppression, made their human hosts desire inexplicable products like Internet-connected fridges, trashed our jobs with automated obsolescence or terminated us in a swarm of rogue killer bots.

The only prediction I'm making is that most of these predicted futures will one day sound as quaintly retro as the term "rocket-liner" sounds today. As quaint, say, as this:
Fetch the howitzer! Some fool's armed the robot with a pistol!
Which sounds like a failed prophecy of some whimsical robopocalypse, although it's really a sentence from Schott's Miscellany, illustrating three words of Czech origin commonly used in English.

Friday, 21 August 2015

The last Trump

I'm mostly bored with Tronald Dump now - there are only so may times the one-trick phoney can boost his personal brand with outbursts of embarrassing obnoxiousness before the running gag starts to wear thin. But I'm having one last Trumpism for the road, because this excerpt from a CNN interview is so bad it's almost impressive, an astonishing Trump Tower-sized monument to a life of single-minded dedication to the goal of becoming a truly colossal asshat:
Picture this: Trump and the Pope, face-to-face. And the Pope tells the mogul that capitalism can be toxic.

How would Trump reply?

"I'd say, 'ISIS wants to get you,'" Trump said, when asked by Cuomo about that hypothetical scenario. "You know that ISIS wants to go in and take over the Vatican? You have heard that. You know, that's a dream of theirs, to go into Italy," Trump said.

Cuomo, taken aback, asked if Trump would actually scare the Pope, who is coming to the U.S. for his first visit next month.

"I'm gonna have to scare the Pope because it's the only thing," Trump said.
What, as they say, does this even mean? How in the name of sanity is ISIS relevant to whatever the hell the Pope happens to think of capitalism? Does Donald  really want to remind everybody of that time El Chapo wanted to get him and Donald Chicken ran squawking to the feds like a flappy big crybaby? Does he think that 'Speak loudly and carry a teeny-weeny stick' sounds classy and presidential?

These are the words of a guy who wants to be president, in a scheduled interview with a global media outlet, but if you were reading the transcript without names, you'd swear it was just some rambling drunk calling a late-night phone in on local radio. Astonishing.

It's no good. Just reading Trump's words is making me dumber by the moment. It's time to quit rubbernecking this particular car crash. I've only one more thing to say on the subject, which I think covers more or less everything anybody could ever possibly need to know about anything that Donald Trump might conceivably have to say about any subject, in any imaginable future situation.

Happily for Donald Trump he's rich enough not to be scared of speaking his mind.

Sadly for Donald Trump, he does.

I can't think of anything else that I'll ever need to say about the man, so from now on, this blog is a Trump-free zone. Please excuse me while I go take a shower to wash the stupid out of what's left of my hair.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Blood, treasure, cost and benefit

While you're waiting for the Chilcot Report to come out, it's worth reading John Quiggin on the wider context of recent military interventions:
Even more penetrating was [Eisenhower's] observation that
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed
The logic of opportunity cost has rarely been put more simply or sharply, particularly as it applies to military expenditure.

Nearly 50 years after Eisenhower’s death, the lesson he stated so simply and forcefully has not been learned. Every crisis in the world brings forward a call for military intervention, often from people who regard ‘foreign aid’ as a proven failure.

The failure rate for these interventions is far higher than for ordinary foreign aid projects. Of the major US military interventions in the past 20 years (Kosovo, Somalia, Gulf War I, Afghanistan, Gulf War II, Libya and Iraq/Syria) only Kosovo could be regarded as a success, and even there the outcome is a bitterly divided between two hostile communities, kept apart by armed peacekeepers.

But even when military action works as planned, it is hard to justify in terms of opportunity cost. The total figures are staggering. The Afghan and Iraq wars between them are estimated to have cost the US between $4 trillion and $6 trillion dollars in wartime expenditures and future medical bills for veterans (Bilmes). That’s ten times the total amount of aid received by the whole of Africa since 1945, an amount regularly cited to show the futility of foreign aid.
Here in Britain, the unexamined assumption that military intervention must always be a more effective way to spend money than than giving aid carries many dangers, not least to the blood pressure of curmudgeonly Telegraph readers, on seeing headlines like this:
Official: Third world aid spending to outstrip defence budget within 15 years
Fury as House of Commons library finds Government likely to be spending £27.1 billion on defence in 2030/31, against £28.3billion on aid
This looks a lot like ideological blindness to the amount of waste in the defence budget (as the Eisenhower quote reminds us, even if you strip out the mind-boggling cost of misconceived military adventures, there's also the seemingly bottomless money pit of defence procurement). The subject looks even more political in the light of what looks like a sustained propaganda offensive to promote uncritical admiration of military values, from worship of the sacred credibility cow that we must commit to spending 2% of our country's GDP defence,* to the creeping metamorphosis of Gordon Brown's idea for a British Veterans' Day into our very own Pyongyang-style "Armed Forces Day" and the increasing promotion of a conformist "military ethos" as the default solution for societal problems, as highlighted in the short film The Unseen March, released by the Quakers earlier this year:
£45 million of new programmes with “a military ethos” committed since 2011. At the same time, the government has slashed Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) and mental health services for young people.

Former Education Secretary Michael Gove stated “every child in Britain could benefit from a military ethos”, an agenda pursued by his successor Nicky Morgan and allocated to Edward Timpson, Minister for Children and Families. Quakers, who oppose all war, are asking the British government to reconsider its policy to militarise the nation’s classrooms.

Quakers are not the only ones alarmed. The film offers critiques from a range of educators including Brian Lightman of the Association of School and College Leaders. He says "A 'military ethos' is not a learning ethos". Education requires the ability to question and evaluate different perspectives.

Each new ‘military ethos’ programme is presented as in children’s best interests, boosting self-discipline, building character, developing ‘grit’. The agenda has led to military-led activities being integrated into national education policy, aggressive plans to spread cadet forces to state schools (550 by 2020); arms companies and the military sponsoring new academies and influencing what they teach; military personnel being fed into classrooms as speakers, recruiters and teachers, and all of this is taking place with virtually no public debate or wider scrutiny. 
Although I've cited a film produced by the Quakers, I'm not reblogging Quiggin's argument from a pacifist standpoint  - this piece by Alex Harrowell is a timely reminder of how valuable military assets, rightly used, can be. What impresses me is the way Quiggin overturns the unwarranted framing of aid as a self-evidently ineffective drain on national resources, perpetrated by well-meaning but wooly-minded do-gooders, who get to waste our scarce resources on corrupt governments, whilst our far more wasteful military interventions are routinely presented as Serious People making Important Decisions about Serious Issues with, if you'll excuse the linguistic bias, military efficiency.

*'To see how silly this is, imagine you wanted your family to eat more healthily. So you "commit" to spending 5% of your weekly household budget on fresh fruit and vegetables. You then spend £20 on a single carrot, and as you feast on this, you celebrate meeting your commitment.'

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Anarchy in the Labour Party

From reading the headlines, you'd think the  battle for the soul of the Labour party was being fought between moderates * and the far left.**  Judged by their sound-bites, though, most of the self-described moderates are starting to sound a lot more like anarchists. Not anarchists in any sense that Proudhon, Bakunin, or Kropotkin would have understood, but anarchists as memorably defined by the Sex Pistols:
I am an anarchist,
Don't know what I want
But I know how to get it
The Corbynites' Unique Selling point, it seems to me, is that they know what they want, unlike their opponents, who seem to stand, if anything, for some vague and almost imperceptibly less harsh version of the status quo, with the odd tweak to conform the media barons' current interpretation of what public opinion ought to look like.

The moderates' USP is that, although they may not know what they want, they know how to get it - by winning elections. Even here, though, there's an anarchic lack of clarity - Tony Blair might reasonably claim to have some experience of winning elections, but Neil Kinnock ... Gordon Brown?*** Pull the other one.

Their other USP is that the moderates are - also in some vague, undefined way - more 'modern.'  But guys, we're seven years on from the defining political event of our generation, the Great Crash of 2008. You've had seven years to come up with a clear alternative to a status quo that's obviously broken. You can't carry on claiming to be the ones with all the fresh new ideas if you still can't come up with anything more convincing than a watered-down version of the swivel-eyed Tory conspiracy theory that the official version of 2008 was a cover-up, with Lehman brothers, RBS and all the the other high rollers taking the rap for a global crash that was really a false flag operation, designed to fool the sheeple and cunningly engineered by, with its reckless overspending on sure start centres, libraries and suchlike Babylonian excesses.

The allegation that the Corbynites are out-of-date dinosaurs would be more convincing if the alligators looked less like a bunch of sold-out, ageing punks trying to make a few quid by having their photographs taken with the Leicester Square tourists.

*'Moderate' here seems to be the Westminster Bubblespeak word for 'a wee bit to the right of the pre-Thatcher Conservative Party.'

**The best translation I've see of the Bubblespeak phrase 'Far left' is 'a fairly moderate Nordic/European centre-left social democratic menu' by Alex Dawson, who goes on to reflect that 'Only in this hysterical country would we allow that to be painted as communism.' (fair comment, apart from that 'only' which ignores the American right's endless blather about Obama being a communist, when he's not too busy juggling his other multiple identities as an un-American, gay-loving Muslim atheist).

*** Maybe this is over-generous to Blair and unfair to Brown, in the sense that political fortunes are probably less about having that special leadership sauce than about an opaque mixture of judgement and dumb luck - Brown's fate was sealed by failing to call a snap general election he could have won, then being in the wrong place at the wrong time - big time - in 2008.
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Photo credit

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

No spandex please, we're Dutch

We've been passing through the Netherlands and were surrounded, as you'd expect, by bikes. No surprise there, but what is quite interesting is the sort of bikes that are popular over there. Most of the ones you see in town are charmingly retro-style bikes with about three gears, sturdy frames, often with a wicker basket and one of those kick stands that no longer seem to come as standard on most bikes sold in Britain. Not so many mountain bikes (well it was the Netherlands), or drop handlebar racing machines, hardly any Spandex and Lycra and no cycle helmets.

A lot of the retro design you see is just stylistic whimsy. Think the New Beetle, the innards of a mid-to high-end modern car, encased in the curvy shell of a basic mid-century people's car, then sold at a premium, or Boris Johnson's idea of a 21st Century Routemaster bus - a case of the upper classes trying to recreate something charming the lower classes might use, but not really getting it, like Marie Antionette playing with china milkmaid's pails.

But the Dutch bikes are old-fashioned to a purpose. Extra-long mudguards, because these people are going about their everyday business in everyday clothes, not dressing up in Lycra, and you don't want to turn up at work with a muddy brown stripe up your back. Baskets, not because you want to look like an extra from Miss Marple, but because you might want to carry stuff. An enclosed cycle chain because black grease on your trouser ends looks almost as rubbish as a brown stripe up your back, and it's a lot harder to wash out. This is biking, not as an entirely separate leisure activity, but as practical, everyday transport.

I've seen the past, and it works.