Wednesday, 29 March 2017


All together now, "...they may take our lives, but they'll never take our..."
Presumably, the Daily Fail will be using the exact same headline if Scotland ever holds another referendum and votes to tell the rest of the United Kingdom "We're out." 

In the meanwhile, perhaps the the Fail's headline monkeys ought to ponder the minor historical detail that William Wallace lost and ended up being agonizingly dismembered, before getting too carried away with the Braveheart triumphalism. The way things are going, the reference looks like an unfortunate and all too plausible omen.

* In the unlikely event that you're a) reading this and b) not familiar with the UK and its regional quirks, the reference here is to Irn-Bru, a Scottish soft drink and national institution, once advertised under the slogan "Made in Scotland from girders." 

Fifty shades of May

Joy unconfined, hip, hip hooray!
It's British independence day!
O, masochistic isles UK,
Unite and through your ball gags say,
"Thank you, thank you, Mistress May!"

We're glad you were so quick and nifty,
Invoking Article number fifty,
Though your reasoning was shifty,
The chancellor has got your drift, he
knows our future's mean and thrifty.

If it hadn't been for you,
We wouldn't have our Empire Two,
To show those foreigners who's who,
Nor ten years more of crisis, too,
You spoil us, Tess, you really do!

Let me peel you a fresh grape!
To thank you for the new red tape,
And saving us from foreign rape,
Not to mention Johnson's jape,
(Bananas of non-bendy shape).

We're glad we won't be free to move,
It will be worth it to reprove,
The migrant hordes we don't approve.
We're so excited now that you've,
Found some rights you can remove.

So just stop thinking and believe,
Those big employers will not leave,
Those Brexiters would not deceive,
More money than you can conceive,
Will save the NHS, don't grieve!

To get a deal is just child's play,
No matter what the experts say,
We'll force them to see things our way,
Or cause a very loud affray,
We are not worthy, Mistress May!

Monday, 27 March 2017

I want to believe ...

... but, sadly, it'll take more than two "apparently credible" sightings (one of them more than thirty years old) to convince me that the marsupial tiger/wolf/whatever other placental equivalent you prefer, has indeed cheated extinction:
Scientists in northern Australia are preparing to hunt for the Tasmanian tiger following a series of “sightings” of the species, which was declared extinct after the last one died in a zoo in 1936.

As part of a search due to begin next month, scientists plan to set up more than 50 camera traps to try to spot a so-called tiger, or thylacine, in Cape York, a peninsula in the country’s north-east corner.

This follows two apparently credible sightings in the region, including one by Brian Hobbs, a former tourism operator who revealed earlier this month that he spotted a family of the animals in 1983 after they startled his German shepherd.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Comedy duo split trumps dissent

In comedy, timing is everything, which is presumably why Douglas Carswell has timed the announcement that he is ending his slapstick double act with Ukip to crowd the Unite For Europe demo out of the headlines.

It's annoying, but at least that's the last chance this has-been will ever get to rain on our parade.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Five go mad in Romania

After reading this account of a ramble in the Romanian hills by a self-described spiritual adventurer, author, channel (?) and founder of something called "Soul Body Fusion®", I'm torn between a resolution never, ever to go on a New Age hiking trip and the urge to sign up immediately, just for the lolz:
I slept poorly, experiencing a dream vision that lasers from a massive American military vehicle were pointed at my head, causing pain and strange sensations that seemed to be scrambling my brain. In the dream I tried to hide behind boulders to stay away from the destructive laser beams. The feeling that I had been ‘messed with’ was with me for weeks. It seems that my concentration and memory were affected.

It was clear to me that the dream vision was about frequencies being beamed from a huge, rather sinister looking, red and white antennae [sic] that was positioned on a peak not far from our hut and the Romanian Sphinx. (This photo doesn’t indicate how massive the antennae is.)

Others in the group felt negative energies, that they also assumed was from the tower. A small group of us did what energy work we could to try to mute the harmful frequencies.

We meditated in the bunk room of the hut, high atop one of Romania’s sacred mountains, asking White Eagle what our spiritual tasks were for that day. Following his channeled guidance, we began with a meditation to bring the 12 Solar Discs of Illumination into this reality.
On a slightly more worrying note, this excursion is probably no madder than an average day of politics as usual in the Age of Trump (compare that sinister, mind-warping "antennae" with the magic microwave that's been spying on The Donald, according to Kellyanne Conway).

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

"I have a cunning plan..."

"Er, Baldrick, I think they've guessed what our cunning plan is..."
Not only have we Brits proved ourselves less pragmatic than the wily continentals, but now we're also losing our much-vaunted sense of humour, angrily ranting on about "enemies of the people", while they still seem able to see the funny side of things.

Mind you, it must be a lot easier to see the funny side if you're not actually in that boat...

Monday, 20 March 2017

The inscrutable eyeball machine

This piece contains an interesting insight into the business of advertising on Facebook. Here are the startling bits:
Facebook faces a business problem; it’s [sic] unaudited “internal company data” has been, at times, grossly inaccurate; that is, it may be selling eyeballs, but in 2016 buyers don’t really know which eyeballs, how many, and where...

...Facebook has formed alliances with other third-party verification firms, including the Media Rating Council...
Which sounds fair enough, except, being the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Facebook gets to choose what those pesky auditors are allowed to see:
...Facebook chooses what data to submit. I’ll note that if we were back in the print world, this would like locking the auditor into a room, and handing him a report of how many papers were delivered, instead of letting him look at the trucks or the loading dock. In other words, it’s the metric that’s certified, but not the data driving the metric, or the algorithm creating that data.
To most people, this wouldn't seem like the right way to do auditing, but I guess that when you're the 800-pound gorilla in a relationship "right" = whatever suits you:
Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
Interesting stuff, although I don't think this power relationship shows that Facebook faces a business problem.

It looks to me as though business faces a Facebook problem, at least until it finds a way to look inside the black box of Facebook's eyeball machine.

 Image credit Wellcome Library, London

Thursday, 16 March 2017


"This is London. We interrupt this broadcast..."

Taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union looks complex, difficult and very risky to most people who actually seem to know about these things.  So it's a bit odd that the people responsible for overseeing the whole multi-billion pound process haven't even bothered with the sort of token risk assessment which you'd routinely apply to a supply teacher tasked with taking a moderately heavy box of exercise books down from the stationery cupboard shelf.

With only days to go before the UK government takes this (probably irrevocable) step, there's not really enough time to rectify the alarming lack of anything that looks remotely like a plan.

Now might at least be a good time, though, to alert the public to the seriousness of what's about to happen when Article 50 is finally triggered. Fortunately, a ready-made template for such an eventuality already exists:
...a highly detailed plan of how the nation will be told and what happens in the next days and hours will swing into action...

...From the Foreign Office’s Global Response Centre in London the news will go out to the 15 governments outside the UK where the Queen is also the head of state, and the 36 other nations of the Commonwealth for whom she has served as a symbolic figurehead.

The public will find out in a newsflash after newspapers and television and radio stations have been told.

At Buckingham Palace a footman will pin a black-edged notice to the gates and the palace website will be transformed into a sombre, single page, showing the same text.

At commercial radio stations a blue "Obit Brexit light" will glow to tell DJs to play appropriate music and go to news at the next available moment.

BBC One, Two and Four will be interrupted and revert to their respective idents – an exercise class in a village hall, a swan waiting on a pond- and then the news will come on.

Listeners to Radio 4 and Radio 5 live will hear the specific formulation of words, “This is the BBC from London."

Both houses of parliament will be recalled, people will go home from work early, and aircraft pilots will announce the news to their passengers.
That might just alert the UK citizenry to the seriousness of what's going on. It's a pity that it will probably already be too late to do anything about the serious thing that just happened. But at least the script will come in handy again one day when the Queen finally pops her clogs (assuming that there's still a UK for her to be ex-queen of by then).

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Laundry tip of the day

In a moment of clumsiness, I recently managed to spill several blobs of Evo Stik contact adhesive onto a sweatshirt. It's fairly heavy-duty glue, and I didn't notice the spillage until it had completely hardened, so I pretty much assumed that was the end of that particular garment. As it happened, some of the glue hadn't soaked in and I was able to pick those bits off with a fingernail, but there was still a fair amount of soaked-in dried glue left.

A not-very hopeful interrogation of Mr Internet mainly returned suggestions involving the use of toluene-based substances, like paint thinners, which sounded a bit messy and smelly. I figured that dampening the affected areas with water, then freezing the sweatshirt might conceivably shift the worst of it, with the water in the damp fibres turning to ice, expanding under the glue and so loosening it (I also hoped that freezing might weaken the glue itself and make it easier to flake off).

In fact, wetting and freezing was more powerful than I could possibly imagine. Never mind getting rid of the worst of it; once frozen and thawed, all the remaining glue blobs were easily flaked off and, one cool wash later, not a trace remains. As good as new.

There's not much I've ever done about the general state of the world, except whinge about it occasionally, but when it comes to the specific domain of adhesive-damaged clothing, I have truly become the change I wish to see in the world.

Well, it's a start.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Crash course

If you've got ten minutes to spare, watching the vid below would be a fun and informative way to use it. If this guy had been around when I was studying history at school, I'd know a lot more about the subject - and, more importantly, I'd want to know more:

Monday, 6 March 2017

Ukip crisis - follow the money

On balance, I still suspect that the wealthy donors who've been bankrolling Ukip for the past few years are plotting to abandon their plaything, now that it has served its purpose. The Ukip elite's war of words may be noisy, but the money seems to be talking even louder:
British anti-EU party UKIP saw its donations slump in the last part of last year, highlighting the turmoil it experienced in the aftermath of the EU referendum.

The party raised only £33,228 ($40,801) between 1 October and 31 December 2016, according to the latest figures from Britain’s electoral commission.

This represents a collapse for UKIP compared to the same period in 2015, when the Euroskeptic party brought in £196,282 ($241,022) in donations.

Obviously, these figures come with a health warning. You'd expect donations to drop off, after reaching higher-than-usual levels over a couple of years that have seen, first, a general election, then the run-up to the very referendum Ukip was created to trigger (a rummage about in the Electoral Commission site confirms that they did all right for dosh over this period). But even taking all that into account, the recent funding levels seem historically low.

Newsweek's figures for the last three months of 2016 average out at £11,000 a month, plus a bit of change, or about £133,000 per year.  To put that in context, Ukip's worst ever year for donations in the years 2009-2016 seems to have been 2012. Even then, donations totalled  £314,410, an average of over £26,000 per month, or more than double the average monthly amount Ukip's backers coughed up in the last three months of 2016.

This is just a snapshot of three months and maybe it's just a temporary downturn, but it'll take a lot of giving over the next nine months just to match the previous low point, 2012. And this funding drought comes just as the party is potentially facing a potential half-million pound bill for the alleged misuse of public funds.

If you actively wanted to destroy an organisation that had outlived its usefulness, abruptly turning off the money tap at a moment like this would be a good way to do it.

Just saying.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The quality of mercy

The claim is ... that the ability to give mercy was both a good thing in itself and it actually secured power ...

... Mercy is one of those virtues, the more you think about it, the more people like us don't have, because we can't have, you know? You can only show the virtue of mercy if you have the capacity to chop someone's head off. So mercy is always an autocratic virtue.
Mary Beard, on the essay De Clementia (On Mercy), which Seneca the Younger wrote for the moral and philosophical instruction of the emperor Nero (I think it's pretty safe to say that he needn't have bothered, for all the good it did). You can listen to this bit about 27-28 minutes into this discussion, if you have the good fortune to have access to BBC Radio 4's archives (but, seriously, do yourself a favour and listen to the whole thing, if you can). More proof, if you need it, that Mary Beard and In Our Time are national treasures.

"Distracted living"

The penalties for using a hand-held mobile phone while driving in the UK became harsher from the beginning of this month. And I'm fine with that - as far as I'm concerned, if you're caught doing anything as idiotically irresponsible as phoning, texting or watching vids behind the wheel, without giving a thought to the fact that you might kill somebody, there are no excuses.

Mind you, it would also help if not being idiotically irresponsible became the easy default choice, rather than the tough choice that takes active willpower, which it is now. It's currently the tougher choice to do the right thing because both your addictive, always-on device and the content that you consume with it are designed to be distracting and hard to switch off:
Most phones have an “airplane mode”, but not an obvious “drive mode”, despite the fact that your phone is vastly more likely to cause an accident in a car than in a plane. That should change. Smartphones should have, as standard, an easily accessible, well-publicised drive mode. Drive modes do exist, and in the US, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been pushing the idea. But they’re not prominent.

Drive-mode phones might automatically read out text messages, automatically reply to such messages with “sorry, I’m driving”, and send incoming calls directly to voice mail — while allowing drivers to play music and use satellite navigation. In short, drive-mode phones would stop pestering us for our attention.

But why aren’t drive modes more popular?

... Many of us want to be distracted less by our phones — not just while driving, but in meetings, during conversations, at mealtimes and in the bedroom. The phones themselves want something rather different. Distracted driving is an acute symptom of a wider problem: distracted living.
 Tim Harford

Or you could just turn your phone off while driving. Take back control of your own attention.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

My party pooper prediction revisited

A look at the current headlines suggests that Ukip will last about as long as Nigel Farage's marriage, so now seems like a good time to reality-check my prediction that the Kippers' big donors are about to jump ship.

It turns out that I was wrong, at least if you take the statements coming from Ukip's gobbiest banker at face value. Far from ditching Ukip, Arron Banks has promised to to take back control of his political plaything by standing against its only MP at the next general election.

If so, this would be a good thing - I'd sooner see this rabble fully occupied in tearing each other apart like rats in a sack, rather than doing anything rational, like joining their natural allies in a Conservative Party now effectively purged of all non-jingoists.

But, as Banks's mate Farage has shown, Ukip promises are easily broken. My guess, for what it's worth, is that we can't take Banks's promise at face value. By 2020, Banks has probably calculated that Carswell will already have jumped ship, or even that Ukip (which he's now busy concern trolling as being "run like a jumble sale") may have fallen apart, so he'll be spared the inconvenience of actually having to put up or shut up at the hustings.

Ukip's self-destruction would provide perfect cover for this slippery customer to defect back to the Tories, without being accused of disloyalty. This probably explains a lot of the inflammatory rhetoric Banks is flinging in the direction of his Ukip comrades - he's deliberately turning up the emotional temperature, in the hope that they'll stab each other in the back, so he doesn't have to.

Checkpoint Donald?

President Trump has also made no secret of his intention to break up the EU: the EU's Guy Verhofstadt sees the President as one of three major threats to the bloc, the others being Islamic State and President Putin. If the EU fails, then Europe could perhaps end up being divided into a Russian zone and an American zone: where the line falls would be decided by a summit, rather than a Cold War.
I'm not sure that I'm wholly convinced by Frances Coppola's scenario, but it's more or less an open secret that this is the sort of thing that Trump and Putin would like to see - if you're in charge of a great power and take a zero sum view of international relations, why wouldn't you want to destabilise and break up a potential rival?

On the other hand, for all their chest-beating, the Russians still have a nominal GDP that's smaller than Germany's (and smaller than the UK's, or France's, or Italy's, for that matter), plus the world's longest land and sea borders to defend, so the idea of them forcing, say, the fiercely Russophobic and nationalist Poles to stay obediently within their self-declared sphere of influence smacks of imperial overstretch.

That's not to say that Europe won't end up being screwed, (mainly by Europe's own native useful idiots, rather than foreign powers - with friends like the European Central Bank, the Brexit brigade, Le Pen, Wilders and Orbán, why would Europe's citizens need enemies?). But, hopefully, we won't be looking at this specific piece of fearful symmetry, with The Ronald claiming credit for tearing down Europe's old wall, then The Donald helping to build a new European wall to go with his Mexican one.

Image credit.

"I will be so adequate your head will spin"

On Tuesday night, President Donald Trump stood in front of a joint session of Congress, read a speech off a teleprompter with little trouble, and walked back out of the room without tripping over his own exceptionally long necktie. He cleared the bar only because it is set so low for him that one would need a team of archaeologists to dig it up.
And recalibrating expectations down to practically zero has apparently worked a treat - the reporter on the BBC Radio 4 news this morning described The Donald's latest inane witterings as "measured." "Presidential" can't be far behind.