Thursday, 27 April 2017

Close encounters of the woody kind

"I know this sounds crazy, but ever since yesterday on the road, I've been seeing this shape. Shaving cream, pillows... Dammit! I know this. I know what this is! This means something. This is important." Roy Neary (played by Richard Dreyfuss) in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
There's an extravagantly bizarre theory going around which involves that spectacular piece of American geology, Devil's Tower in Wyoming, probably best known as the place where the alien mothership lands at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Given the place's cinematic history, you might think that we're talking some kind of UFO-related oddity, but you'd be wrong. Never mind hypothetical beings from another star system stopping off for a roadside picnic at one of Earth's more striking natural visitor attractions; we're talking about an idea so strange that even David Icke might have trouble believing it before breakfast.

So what is it about Devil's Tower? That shape ... what does it mean? Well, what does it remind you of? A tree stump? A very big tree stump. Fortunately, there's a video on the Internet which explains what you probably thought was just a coincidence:
But lately, there’s been a change; something new and furious is growing in the community. ‘No Forests on Flat Earth’ is an incredible new theory, proposed only last month. Its claim is grand, counterintuitive, and beautiful: we were lied to; our flat earth has no forests...

...We’ve all seen forests, we all know what they are; how could anyone claim that they don’t exist? But our narrator knows better. “They make us think that this is a forest,” he tells us, “when you are actually looking at thirty-meter bushes. After watching this video, you will reverse your concept of forests by 360 degrees.” This isn’t a forest at all: only a diminished imitation. Thousands of years ago, a cataclysmic event destroyed 99% of the Earth’s biosphere, and when it happened, it took away the real forests. Real trees are nothing like their stunted cousins, the miserable perishing scraps of wood that we see today; they were truly vast, hundreds of kilometers tall, magical organisms that sustained a total living ecology of the flat earth. These things were the anchor of a beautiful world that has now vanished forever. And how does he know? Because everywhere around us, we can see their stumps.

The first piece of evidence is Devils Tower in Wyoming, U.S.A., a great geological stub ... rising out of the rolling lowlands on all sides, four hundred meters of towering igneous rock that may have formed as a volcanic plug, rising out of the ground as the sedimentary stone that surrounded it slowly eroded away. Or so they want you to think. See its intricate hexagonal columns, curving up in a way that looks almost organic. See the perfection of its sheared-flat summit. Doesn’t this remind you of something?

For several minutes, our guide to this new reality shows us images of mesas, plateaux, flat-topped mountains, chunks of isolated cliffs, placed next to pictures of astoundingly similar-looking tree-stumps. Every time there’s the same challenge. ‘Name ten differences.’ You can’t. ‘There are only two differences: material and size.’ These things look the same: they are the same thing. 
Sam Kriss

The Giant's Causeway and volcanoes are also cited as evidence for a theory that also manges to cram in a nuclear war which took place in the 19th Century, but somehow escaped the notice of closed-minded conventional historians.

You'd have thought that, in 2017, the human race already has all the alternative facts it can handle but, with most mainstream politics rapidly melting into a fever dream of post-truth weirdness, I guess the tinfoil hat brigade just had to up their game, or be out-weirded by the new normal.


Wednesday, 26 April 2017

"This present age of idiotic nationalism"

It is one of the innumerable disadvantages of this present age of idiotic nationalism, political and economic, this age of passports and visas and quotas, when every country is as difficult to enter or leave as was the Czar’s Russia or the Sultan’s Turkey before the war, that it is no longer possible for this leavening process to continue. Bradford is really more provincial now than it was twenty years ago. But so, I suspect, is the whole world. It must be when there is less and less tolerance in it, less free speech, less liberalism. Behind all the new movements of this age, nationalistic, fascistic, communistic, has been more than a suspicion of the mental attitude of a gang of small town louts ready to throw a brick at the nearest stranger.
JB Priestley, as quoted on Matt Carr's blog on April 25, 2017 - coincidentally the same day when another blogger received an unwelcome visit from the small town lout, convicted fraudster and Caudillo of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley Lennon), flanked by a couple of his knuckle-dragging minions. I wonder where sub-Ukip troglodytes like this got the idea that it was OK to go around trying to intimidate people with the old "We know where you live" schtick?

Any ideas?

Whose priorities?

Council housing in Milton Keynes is to undergo a £1bn makeover - half a century since it was established as a new town.

Priority has been given to seven housing estates across the borough deemed in urgent need of repair - and potentially - demolition....

...Milton Keynes was a pioneering housing development when it was was officially designated a town in January 1967.

But many of its early housing estates are now considered tired, run-down and in need of maintenance and structural repair.

Seven council estates have been given priority - Netherfield, Coffee Hall, Tinkers Bridge, North Bradville, Fullers Slade, the Lakes and Beanhill.

A timetable for the regeneration was announced on Wednesday, with the first letters sent out to people living in Fullers Slade.
BBC News, 26th of April 2017

The Fullers Slade estate was put up in something of a hurry in late 1971:
Milton Keynes, was badly suffering from shortage of skilled labour and contractors due to its huge building programme and distances from existing conurbations. There were attempts to design housing by using simplified and if possible use factory built or repetitive elements of construction where possible.

The first housing scheme near Stony Stratford, Galley Hill, was nearing completion and DOE’s granted permission for the same contractor to continue working on Fullers Slade provided the work continued from first site to the second. This imposed a much reduced design period (almost two months) and resulted in a simpler layout and quick decision making.  Long delivery periods for bricks made it necessary to use diagonal cedar boarding as external cladding and a concrete system using a box system of shutters was used  on a standardised 3.60m module for all dwellings.

Iqbal Aalam
Assuming the current plans are on schedule, any long-term residents of these hastily-constructed estates will have been waiting over four and a half decades for their first regeneration. In the same period, Doctor Who has regenerated nine times. I leave you to work out what this says about our society's hierarchy of needs.

Monday, 24 April 2017

It's a small world

Welcome to the small, but perfectly formed, Positive Solutions Pavilion (criticism is prohibited).

See the whole tiny exhibition of surrelistic papercraft concept architecture, from the Botanical Sparkly Desert Oasis Pavilion to Templeton Gators Swim Club Pavilion here.

Brexit - mistake, enemy action, or delusion?

When Nigel Farage tripped down the steps of the Ecuadorian embassy – a visit that he did not expect to be photographed or documented – a beam of light was shone on a previously hidden world: a political alignment between WikiLeaks’ ideology, Ukip’s ideology and Trump’s ideology that is not necessarily just an affinity. It is also, potentially, a channel of communication.

David Golumbia, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in the US who has studied WikiLeaks, describes it as “the moment when the lines suddenly become visible”. He says: “It was like the picture suddenly came into focus. There is this worldwide, rightwing, nationalistic movement that is counter to the EU, and this is present in the US and Europe and Russia, and we are just starting to understand how they do all seem to be in communication and co-ordination with each other.”
Carole Cadwalladr, writing in the Graun.

If you were an agent for a hostile power actively trying to inflict massive damage on the UK and the EU, then covertly promoting Brexit would certainly have helped you to do just that. The idea that Brexit was a foreign conspiracy has a vague plausibility, but it's not that probable, at least if you calm down a bit and apply Hanlon's razor to the dramatic idea that the Brexit omnishambles is the result of active subversion, rather than just a catastrophically bad decision.

But the idea of subversion by foreign powers still looks more likely than the official government delusion that, if we all just shut up, get behind Brexit and wish hard enough, we'll magically find ourselves in a wonderful land of freedom and opportunity where foreigners will fall over themselves in their rush to capitulate to our every demand.

If you still believe that one, just keep your head still while I measure you up for a stylish tinfoil hat.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Well, that was a surprise...

So how are things going with the idea of UK breaking free to cut all those really great international trade deals, without the dead hand of Brussels holding it back?
Boris Johnson says Britain will be first in line for US trade deal after meeting with Donald Trump's team and Paul Ryan
Telegraph headline, January 9th, 2017.
Donald Trump ready to do trade deal with EU ahead of the UK
Telegraph headline, April 23rd ,2017.

Apparently not so well.

Honestly, if you can't even trust Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, who can you trust?

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Failure is success

I still haven't got anything particularly insightful to say about the surprise election annoucement, but others have. I think this, from the comments below this piece is a good summary of why the Conservatives are feeling confident - namely, their astonishing success in branding themselves as competent managers, despite lurching from one huge, obvious self-inflicted crisis (failed austerity) to the next (flailing Brexit):
For years now the right have perfected the art of portraying themselves as pragmatic and competent, while actually proposing very radical policies and implementing them badly. The left has allowed itself to be portrayed as having some nice ideas, but not being realistic or practical. Bernie Sanders I think is one of the few who have managed to sell left policies as common sense and realistic – the SNP have also managed to do that in Scotland.

My point is that Brexit offered Corbyn and the Labour party the opportunity to claim the mantle of being safe and moderate in comparison to the crazy radicalism of the Tories – and to do it without compromising on key policies and ideals. In my opinion, it was a huge gift handed to the left in Britain by the Tories, and the Labour Party was too inept to accept it.
I'm still looking for an analysis that's both realistic and not depressing. Don't hold your breath.

Different bridge

I don't yet have anything instant and/or sensible to say about the snap general election that the PM is trying to call and which I entirely failed to see coming, so here's a nice picture I took a few weeks back:

This was taken on the Millennium, rather than Westminster, Bridge, but I rather like the Wordsworthian vibe of being at the still heart of the city in the early morning, with nobody about, apart from the odd delivery person and early-rising jogger. Some of the ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples have changed since Wordsworth's day (look at the size of the Shard, looming over the tiny silhouettes of Tower Bridge and the Tower of London), but the stillness and clarity of a new morning remain:
Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Sunday, 16 April 2017

2 eggs, 1 cup

Why isn't the prime minister intervening over this year's real Easter egg scandal?

Eggs-hibit A:
On your left, an actual hen's egg. On your right, a 2017 Cadbury's Creme Egg. In the same cup. The prosecution rests its case.

Admittedly, that's a large hen's egg, the only sort I had in the kitchen this morning, but I can confirm that even a small real egg doesn't disappear into this particular cup with only the very top peeking out like the crown of Kilroy's bald head.

Not that I should be that concerned by the alarming shrinkage of Cadburys' Creme Eggs, as I've never been that keen on the sickly-sweet gloop-filled confections anyway, but I'm not going to let a minor detail like that stop me from having a moan about it. As somebody once said, "That was inedible muck. And there wasn't enough of it."

Friday, 14 April 2017

Car wars versus robot wars

The biggest power in the EU - Germany - exports way more cars to the UK than we do to them, so they are not going to allow the erection of tariffs because they would damage their own industry and shoot themselves in the foot.
John Longworth, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, summing up one of the Brexiteers' favourite arguments. I'm sure he's right to say that German car exporters don't want to see tariffs on their exports. I'm also sure that the owners of car plants in Britain feel the same. But when it comes to negotiations, the side with the most to lose usually loses and, as Frances Coppola has pointed out, it's the British-based car industry which has by far the most to lose:
When it leaves the EU, the UK will face the EU's WTO "most favoured nation" tariff of 10% on its entire car exports to the EU. In 2015, that was 57% of its total car exports. And British car exports, with few exceptions, do not carry the "luxury" premium of many German marques. It is British car manufacturers, not German ones, who have the most to lose from Brexit. It is British car manufacturers who have lobbied most heavily for UK trade with EU to continue to be tariff-free. And in any trade war over car exports, it is the UK that would suffer most. Ratcheting up tariffs on EU car imports could reasonably be seen by the EU as unfair competition and met with retaliatory action. In a trade war, those that have the greatest exposure suffer the most.

Sterling weakness, if it continues, would also raise the UK price of imported German cars. If the combination of depreciation effects with new import tariffs raised the price enough, German exports to the UK would fall. But just as Brexiteers like to assume that the UK can readily substitute cheaper rest-of-world destinations for the expensive EU after Brexit, so too can Germany. Germany's engineering is respected worldwide. If the UK made exports difficult, Germany would simply seek markets elsewhere. It can well afford the short-term hit to its net exports: it has already weathered worse in the Eurozone crisis. In contrast, even with the assistance of a debauched currency, UK exporters to the EU might find it difficult to find new markets. 57% of total car exports is an awful lot to relocate to lower-tariff destinations. 
All things being equal, I'm sure she's right. But I'm not sure that all things will stay equal in the future. Manufacturing jobs in places like Sunderland, Castle Bromwich and Derby are almost certainly at risk from Brexit, but Brexit isn't the only thing that might wipe out those jobs out in the next few years. Here's Jaroslav Fiala, warning of an alien invasion:
The aliens of whom we speak are not the ‘Muslim invaders’ who have become such a popular (and utterly absurd) media focus in the Czech Republic. We are talking about automation. The threat we face is due to the fact that, of the countries in the EU, we rely most heavily on industry.

Almost fifty per cent of our economy is based on industry, making us more dependent on it than neighbouring Germany. About 1.45 million people – that is a third of Czech employees – work in industry, predominantly the in automobile manufacturing. These workers will be the first to be displaced by the metal aliens. 
You could argue that robots aren't really alien to a culture that invented the word "robot" but, otherwise, the idea of these jobs being automated away seems all too plausible.

There's a lot of R and D and trials between us and the routine use of currently-hyped things like self-driving vehicles, care robots and delivery robots, but in the controlled, predictable environment of the car factory, the concept of robotisation is hardly new. I'm old enough to remember this "Hand built by robots" advert from 1979:

So let's look on the bright side of Brexit. Flouncing out of the EU might destroy the UK's car manufacturing jobs, but the robots would have exterminated them anyway.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Drone delivery would be cheaper...

Mostly your standard Indian takeaway choices, apart from the penultimate bread.

"Helicopter naan" ??? Me neither. 

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Upgrade to unfeigned piety for only £1

While I'm determinedly trying to ignore what passes for political rhetoric these days, hard-core rhetoric junkies can always get their fix from the always-excellent-value Mary Beard, who has some passing thoughts on the rhetoric of 18th Century memorial inscriptions and 21st Century pub menus. Highly recommended.

Turn on, tune out, drop in

New blogging resolution. It's time to stop mocking disingenuous politicians for merely saying something that's obviously unhinged (e.g. Theresa May's factually-challenged Easter egg rant or Michael Howard's recent burble about how we could totally beat Spain in a war). While it's fun to take the piss, it's also a distraction from what the buggers are actually doing.

I've come to the conclusion that these people are deliberately saying mad things in order to stop other people talking about what's really going on. It's like Trump's 3am tweets. I used to believe that these were only incoherent brain farts. These days, I think that they work on two levels. On the simplest level they're still just meaningless nonsense, but tactically, they're also ways to hog the news agenda and squeeze out any reality-based discusssion of what's happening.

While you're busy telling everybody how stupid the president is for wasting his time on some celebrity Twitter-feud, you're also not thinking about the more important fact that he's actually knocking down Dodd-Frank, that big, beautiful wall protecting America and the world from another multi-trillion dollar financial meltdown, an issue that should have been top of the news agenda from the moment he even hinted that he was thinking of doing anything so insanely reckless.

To understand what these people are really doing, it helps to tune out from what they're saying.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Pick your own facts

When I had occasion to ask her whether or not it was a fact that giraffes are taller than ants, she replied that it was not a fact, but rather an article of religious faith in our culture.
Postmodern philosopher, Laurie Calhoun, explaining to philosopher, David Detmer, how to deconstruct biology. Then the right adopted the left's worst ever idea, and the freedom to pick your own facts stopped being funny...
Image partly mashed up from here

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

"I spit on your grave (more tea, vicar?)"

"Theresa May wades into 'Easter egg hunt' row despite apparently thin grasp of story
Intervention appears to ignore fact the word 'Easter' still appears on promotional material for the event and on the National Trust's website"

Interesting to see that Prime Minister Mayhem isn't confining herself to the European Union when it comes to stirring up a national sense of fact-free grievance. The word is that she's been radicalised by home-grown religious extremists. Some of the extremists' language has been quite disturbing:
The Church of England sparked the row, with Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu accusing Cadbury of "spitting on the grave" of its religious founder, Quaker John Cadbury, by removing references to Christianity's most sacred festival from the spring event.
Steady on, Your Grace! Maybe Elmer Fudd Amber Rudd should  have a word with YouTube and get them to take down this sort of hard-core Anglican material.


It's hard to believe that this could get any more stupid but, apparently, it can. There's one detail that the archbishop and the vicar's daughter seem to have overlooked. As one self-described "godless liberal" has pointed out, "Quakers don’t actually celebrate Easter."  And he's not wrong - at least according to this, from the "What do Quakers believe?" section of the Berkhamsted Quakers' website:
Holy Days
Quakers do not celebrate Christian festivals such as Easter and Christmas.
But please don't let that stop you lecturing the rest of us about the need for "religious literacy", Anglicans...

Against Marmite fundamentalism

As for those on the fence about the taste? Well, there’s not really a fence. “I have, to date,” says Watkins, “only met one person who has claimed to be ambivalent about the taste of Marmite, and I don’t believe them.”
I've never knowingly met this Watkins, so I can probably confirm that there are at least 100% more people with no strong feelings about Marmite than he imagines, and that at least 50% of the total known population of self-declared Marmite agnostics isn't lying.

I suspect that I'm only one of many people who think the stuff's OK occasionally, but nothing to get that excited about. I further suspect that the claimed extent this binary love/hate thing is advertising hype but, frankly, I'm too indifferent to such claims to spend any time verifying my suspicions.

None of us have unlimited time and attention, so if you're going to get worked up about something, get worked up about something that really matters. Like incorrect apostrophe placement, for example.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Birds of a feather splat together

...behavioural differences suggest that individual birds that are not killed in traffic should have larger brains for their body size. We analysed the link between being killed by traffic and relative brain mass in 3521 birds belonging to 251 species brought to a taxidermist. Birds that were killed in traffic indeed had relatively smaller brains, while there was no similar difference for liver mass, heart mass or lung mass. These findings suggest that birds learn the behaviour of car drivers, and that they use their brains to adjust behaviour in an attempt to avoid mortality caused by rapidly and predictably moving objects. 
Which is presumably why the panicky, feather-brained pheasant seems to be in almost as much danger of ending up as roadkill as it is of being blasted out of the sky by some feather-brained toff with a shotgun. The altogether smarter crow, on the other hand, will view your approaching vehicle with bored contempt, then grudgingly hop out of the way at the very last, precisely-timed, moment before returning to resume its rudely-interrupted meal of carrion (pheasant, if it's lucky).

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Nutters finally vindicated

You'd probably​ dismiss this as the usual load of old tosh...
"Apocalypse NOW: End of the world upon us and 2017 will be our FINAL YEAR, say Christians" shrieked the Express
Being slightly calmer and more level-headed, I was having none of this nonsense, until...
"Unfortunately, Earth has stopped."
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine (now that Earth has rebooted).