Sunday, 25 September 2016

"Hopelessly out of date"

"The EU is an institution rooted in the past and is proving incapable of reforming to meet the big technological, demographic and economic challenges of our time. It was developed in the 1950s and 1960s and like other institutions which seemed modern then, from tower blocks to telexes, it is now hopelessly out of date."
Fortunately, there's an alternative, brought to you by people so modern and zeitgeisty that their instinctive frame of reference is the chivalric romances of the High Middle Ages:
"In the past, a knight of the realm who had failed in battle and lost would have quit the field and retired in humility to better understand their own failings.

"How surprising then to find that far from that, Sir Craig Oliver, one of the leading lights of Remain, has decided to instead try to pin the blame for his failure on others, particularly the new prime minister."
Iain Duncan Smith

To be fair, given the imperial nostalgia animating the Brexit project, Iain might be channelling a something a bit more up to date - maybe he's rocking the 19th Century faux Medieval vibe of Pugin, Sir Walter Scott and the Pre-Raphaelites. But, whether it's feudal or Victorian, those Brexiteers really do need to drag a few of their talking heads kicking and screaming into a slightly more recent century (the 20th would do), before they start accusing other people of being out of date.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?

La Belle Dame sans Merci

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Life skills for the 21st Century

Rhebecca, who has a number of tattoos, told the BBC that her body art indicates she has qualities that could be beneficial to many employers.

"From the perspective of an employer that [getting a tattoo] takes a lot of planning, organisation, forward thinking and interaction.

"To me those are all things that employers would value." 

Rhebecca has convinced me that she does have something that some potential employers might value, although that thing is more likely to be her confident ability to make up bullshit on the spot without apparent embarrassment, rather than the frankly unimpressive level of logistical skill actually required to walk into a tattoo parlour and pay a tattoo artist to do what tattoo artists do for a living.

If she hasn't already put herself forward as a contestant on The Apprentice, it can only be a matter of time.


Not content with merely ignoring living experts, one of Britain's top Brexiteers has now thrown the suspiciously foreign-sounding Principia Mathematica, by that well-known charlatan Isaac Newton, onto the know-nothing movement's towering bonfire of the realities:
Ukip MP Douglas Carswell has become embroiled in a bizarre argument with scientists over whether the moon or sun causes ocean tides.

Scientific knowledge generally holds that tides are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon orbiting the earth. The Sun’s much further distance means it has a much more limted effect because of the effect of the inverse square law on gravitational pull.

However, committed eurosceptic Mr Carswell on Monday challenged a top scientist at Sussex University’s Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) over the claim, arguing that the sun in fact primarily causes tides.
The Curmudgeon has a satirical take on this, although I wonder why he bothers when these lunatics have automated self-parody fitted as standard.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

The thirty years' war against facts

Apparently, we live in an age of post-truth politics. This looks like a brand new thing, because the phrase "post-truth politics" only dates back to 2010, at least according to Wikipedia (which also dates the coinage of the related phrase "post-truth era" to 2004, the year when one of Karl Rove's aides bragged that he and his boss were busy creating their own reality and relegating the losers in the "reality-based community" to mere observer status). According to Katherine Viner in the Graun, it's all the fault of social media for "disrupting" facts.

But if post-truth really is as shiny, disruptive and new as Apple's newest iThing, what the hell are we supposed to make of this, from Ronald Reagan, testifying about Iran-Contra back in 1987, when Mark Zuckerberg was still in pre-school and Netscape Navigator, the world's first commercial web browser, was still seven years in the future?
"A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages ... My heart and my best intentions tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not."
For sheer mendacious incoherence, Reagan's testimony trumps even Trump's self-contradictory Birtherist blather, or his nonsensical wibble about his personal net worth "going up and down with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings." Not that it did the Gipper any harm:
"As the Tower Board reported," [Reagan continued] "what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages. This runs counter to my own beliefs, to administration policy, and to the original strategy we had in mind. There are reasons why it happened, but no excuses. It was a mistake.” Reagan’s sympathetic message resonates with US viewers; his popularity rebounds to over 50 percent in national polls.
As the good folk at RationalWiki have argued, this was every bit as as slippery as Bill Clinton's "I did not have sex with that woman" but way more serious, given that Reagan was talking, not about everyday marital infidelity, but about treasonously supplying heavy weapons to a hostile foreign power that was financing terrorism, in order to finance more terrorism. So we can push the history of consequence-free post-truthism back about three decades. But probably not four, given that Nixon wasn't able to escape the consequences once the truth about Watergate got out.

What changed between the fall of Tricky Dicky and the rise of Ronnie Ray Gun? I don't know for sure, but it certainly wasn't social media, which hadn't even been invented back then.

If I had to guess what went wrong, I'd be thinking about the perfection of modern media manipulation techniques, along with the  debasement of mainstream journalism into the poor relation of public relations. I might be wrong, but I'm probably not quite as wrong as the mainstream journalists who try to pin the blame for this trend - which started before dial-up modems went mainstream  - on the rise of the Twitterstorm.

Actual pop trivia fact

... a T. Rex that lived 65 million years ago is closer to seeing a live Miley Cyrus concert than to seeing a live Stegosaurus.
Fellow dinosaurs who are old enough to remember Marc Bolan can insert their own jokes here.

This public information announcement was brought to you via the short animation The History and Future of Everything - Time, on the YouTube channel Kurzgesagt.

All together now, "Lithon the black, The rider of stars, Tyrannosaurus Rex, The eater of cars."

Friday, 16 September 2016

Revving and braking

The House of Lords is undemocratic and way too big, as I mentioned yesterday. It could be slimmed down and reformed into an elected body but then, commentators warn, there could be a power struggle with the other elected house and political paralysis.* So why not just get rid of the upper chamber completely? One chamber to rule them all - a simple solution? Simple but wrong, according to Samuel Whitehouse:
When the Coalition Government briefly debated House of Lords reform, Kate Hoey, MP for Vauxhall spoke of abolishing the Lords, giving way to a unicameral system. Typical politician, forever craving more power. Do we really want our elected representatives to go unchecked in carrying out their duties? I think not. An upper chamber is therefore paramount. An upper chamber ensures additional scrutiny of government legislation, it ensures a vital second opinion and often proceeds with more caution than a government controlled lower chamber, eager on implementing its legislative programme
Fair point, but I'm still not wholly convinced that a second chamber is vital.

Why does Britain need a second chamber to keep the other one in check? As far as I can see, it's because we have a first past the post electoral system, which tends to produce strong governments (or elective dictatorships, depending on your point of view).

If we had a more proportional voting system which didn't exaggerate the support for, and power of, the winning party, then the problem of the over-mighty executive would go away. There's not much difference, as far as I can see, between a relatively weak government and a relatively strong government that's deliberately weakened by the actions of a revising chamber. But the relatively weak government option seems preferable in two ways:

  1. Because, if it emerged from a proportional system, it would more accurately reflect who/what people actually voted for.
  2. Because it's the simplest way of giving the government an appropriate amount of power. Trying to hold back a turbocharged government, as we do now, is like simultaneously stamping on the accelerator and the brake pedal because you want to drive slowly, rather than just selecting a low gear, like any sensible person.

I'm sure that there must be some flaws in the attractively simple notion of PR with one chamber (beyond the obvious difficulty of getting the turkeys who benefit from our current bodge-up to vote for Christmas), but they'd have to be pretty big ones to make it worse than what we've got already.

*I suspect that this danger is exaggerated by supporters and beneficiaries of the status quo, for whom it's an excellent excuse for changing nothing.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Democracy is too expensive, apparently

Under draft plans just published, the number of parliamentary constituencies will fall significantly, reducing the number of MPs in Parliament by 50 to 600.

...Mr Cameron was pushing at an open door with his call for the number of MPs to be cut to reduce the cost of politics, something which also fitted in with the self-declared age of austerity.

OK, so it would save the country a little money (a very little money - the savings to be made by having 50 fewer MPs would be invisibly tiny on the scale of the nation's budget). But if it's so important to make a political gesture about cost-cutting, why do none of these concerns apply to our - already bloated - unelected chamber?
In April 2011, a cross-party group of former leading politicians, including many senior members of the House of Lords, called on the Prime Minister David Cameron to stop creating new peers. He had created 117 new peers since becoming prime minister in May 2010, a faster rate of elevation than any PM in British history...

...In August 2014, despite there being a seating capacity of only around 230 to 400 on the benches in the Lords chamber, the House had 774 active members (plus 54 who were not entitled to attend or vote, having been suspended or granted leave of absence). This made the House of Lords the largest parliamentary chamber in any democracy...

...In August 2015, following the creation of a further 45 peers in the Dissolution Honours, the total number of eligible members of the Lords increased to 826. In a report entitled Does size matter? the BBC said: "Increasingly, yes. Critics argue the House of Lords is the second largest legislature after the Chinese National People's Congress and dwarfs Upper Houses in other bi-cameral democracies such as the United States (100 senators), France (348 senators), Australia (76 senators) and India (250 members). The Lords is also larger than the Supreme People's Assembly of North Korea (687 members)..."

These numbers make the price of democracy look like a bargain compared with the price of the inefficent, overstaffed oligarchy on the red benches.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Otherwise trying

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Monday, 12 September 2016

The Czar's Christmas Message

Goodness me, doesn't The War On Christmas seem to start earlier every year?
This year's attack of festive nonsense comes from a report prepared by the government's "Integration Czar" Louise Casey. Casey once said that said that ministers would perform better if they were "pissed", as "doing things sober is no way to get things done" and complained that "There is an obsession with evidence-based policy. If No 10 says bloody evidence-based policy to me one more time I'll deck them one and probably get unemployed." I can only assume that she was following her own advice and studiously ignoring reality whilst simultaneously getting completely hammered when she wrote this pile of steaming horseshit at public expense.

Previous non-jobs held by Louise Casey include head of the Blair administration's Respect Task Force, where she was known as the "Respect Czar by the Grace of God, Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias."

Thursday, 8 September 2016

There'll be no green bottles...

Politics may be broken for the foreseeable, but there's still good news around for people who want to see our society wasting fewer finite resources and trashing the environment a bit less (if that group doesn't cover just about everybody, heaven help us all). Solar panels are getting cheaper and better all the time, with solar grid parity expected for 80% of the world next year. The price of energy-efficient LEDs is also plummeting and they're steadily displacing older, power-hungry lighting technologies.  People can now use biodegradable, mushroom-based materials as substitutes for everything from expanded polystyrene packaging to environmentally-unfriendly insulation materials and MDF.

Here in Britain, we're not recycling as much as we could be, but we're generally moving in the right direction. And, even better than recycling, we're re-using stuff. The plastic bag tax may not be as straightforwardly brilliant as some people think,* but at least we're opening up to the idea that there's got to be a better way than pouring irreplaceable raw materials into single-use throwaway products, then festooning our hedgerows with discarded polythene bags.

I think these new ideas range from mildly encouraging to quite exciting. But among the new ideas, there's maybe also room for a tried and tested old idea  - a thing we used to do right, but gave up on:
One of Britain's favourite childhood memories is long overdue a comeback in a bid to increase national recycling rates, says Mark Hall at York-based

Paying a deposit on a glass bottle, which is then refunded when returned to a participating retailer, effectively died out in the UK with the advent of the disposable plastic bottle, but now is the time to bring it back.

Figures from the United States - where bottle deposits are still widespread – show that the higher the deposit, the more likely a bottle is returned intact.

We often look at the past with rose-tinted glasses, but the bottle deposit was something that really did work.

In the post-war period, children could make themselves a reasonable fortune by scouring their local area for empty bottles, which they'd then take back to the shop to receive a few pence each.

It was killed off by plastic bottles, but that came with a legacy of millions of tonnes of waste in hedgerows and kerbs filled with bottles. It's time to end this epidemic of wastefulness.
Mark Hall

It worked then and it's still working, not just in the USA, but in Europe, where Germany deserves a special mention for trying to get back on track with deposits:
Observing the industry's inexorable transition to one-way containers, the government began drafting an ordinance to preserve refillable beverage containers in the early 1990s. In spite of aggressive opposition from the beverage and the packaging industries, the 1991 Packaging Ordinance became law that year. The ordinance requires the beverage industry to package at least 72 percent of the volume of its products in refillable containers [AGC, pp. 31-32]. Containers of water, carbonated soft drinks, fruit juices and other non-carbonated soft drinks, beer, and wine are subject to the beverage packaging provisions of the ordinance. If less than 72 percent of all of these beverages combined is packaged in refillable containers during a given year, then the government conducts a survey of beverage packaging over the following year. If this survey reveals that the 72 percent quota again is not met, then those types of beverages that did not meet their individual quotas are subject to a mandatory deposit. Under the deposit provision, producers of these non-complying beverages must establish deposit-return systems and thus must forfeit their option to have Duales System Deutschland or a similar recycling organization recover their one-way containers. For one-way containers whose capacity is 1.5 liters or less, the mandatory deposit is 0.25 Euro; for larger containers, the deposit is 0.50 Euro. The individual quota for each beverage is the percentage of that beverage that was packaged in refillable containers in 1991. These percentages are the following: water, 91; carbonated soft drinks, 73; juices and other non-carbonated soft drinks, 35; beer, 82; wine, 29. The Packaging Ordinance treats milk separately by requiring dairies to package 20 percent of their milk in refillable containers.**
Sounds like a no-brainer. So why aren't we doing it? An old opinion piece in the Guardian, titled "A bottle deposit scheme would be costly and counterproductive" gives us a clue. Not because the piece makes a convincing counter argument, though. This is the sort of thing which passes for an argument against bottle re-use:
Your editorial on the Campaign to Protect Rural England's call for a deposits scheme for drinks containers highlighted that "it's a simple scheme and an old one" (In praise of… deposit bottles, 17 September). However, that's exactly the point – it's old, defunct...

   ...CPRE admits that the scheme would cost as much as £700m a year to run – money that would ultimately come from consumers, either directly through unclaimed deposits or indirectly through higher prices...

...drinks containers are an income-generating part of councils' recycling collections, and vital to fund the other low- or no- value items.
That last argument, in particular, is so weak, it's almost funny. It reminds me of a documentary about litter I saw a few years back. The film makers set up a secret camera and recorded people who were dropping litter in the street. A reporter confronted the litterbugs and asked them why they were messing up everybody's environment.

Some offenders had the good grace to be a bit ashamed of being caught and conceded that dropping their rubbish wherever they happened to be had been a bit antisocial. Others got aggressive and tried to bluster it out, including one gentleman who argued that by dropping litter in a public place, he was doing a public service because people like him kept street cleaners in a job.

Arguing that by producing more waste for the council to recycle, you're public-spiritedly providing them with an income stream is almost as silly as arguing that by dropping litter you're selflessly promoting employment opportunities for street sweepers.

Jane Bickerstaffe, who produced this piece of corporate bluster was, at the time, the director of The Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN). And what is INCPEN? Glad you asked:
Our members are an influential group of International and British companies who have a common interest in packaging and sustainability. They include raw material suppliers, packaging manufacturers, and manufacturers and retailers of packaged products.


We share a vision of the future where all production, distribution, and consumption are sustainable.

We aim to:

  • Help ensure policy on packaging makes a positive contribution to sustainability
  • Encourage industry to minimise the environmental impact of packaging and packaged products and continuously improve packaging
  • Explain the role of packaging

[see full vision statement...]
From INCPEN's own web site ("This information may be reproduced provided INCPEN is acknowledged and credited").

INCPEN's arguments may look weak, but its incentive to lobby on behalf of the influential producers and users of packaging materials it represents, and which fund INCPEN, looks quite strong.

Maybe the countries which still seem to be making a success of bottle re-use have got it all wrong. Maybe INCPEN is a disinterested organisation, more interested in what's best for the environment than it is in its members' bottom lines. But I can't help thinking that the environmental case for re-using glass bottles looks pretty sound, and that the counter arguments look a lot like PR spin and corporate lobbying.

*Moreover, they [reusable shopping bags AKA bags-for-life] require more energy to produce than common plastic shopping bags; one reusable bag requires the same amount of energy as an estimated 28 traditional plastic shopping bags or eight paper bags. "If used once per week, four or five reusable bags will replace 520 plastic bags a year", according to Nick Sterling, research director at Natural Capitalism Solutions. A study commissioned by the United Kingdom Environment Agency in 2005 but never published found that the average cotton bag is used only 51 times before being thrown away. In some cases reusable bags need to be used over 100 times before they’re better for the environment than single-use plastic bags.
** Post updated - the paragraph quoted above expains the situation in Germany better than the passage from this other article, which I'd originally used.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

It's your sole tumulosity

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