Monday, 29 February 2016

Cleaner or MP? Lift operator or Judge?

Did you see the story about MP Dawn Butler?

She was the Labour MP for Brent South from 2005 to 2010, when the seat was abolished. But she stood in Brent Central in 2015 and has been an MP again since then. She told the BBC that she was recently told, while travelling in a members only lift in the House of Commons, that it “really isn’t for cleaners.”

Back in 2008, she told the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality, that she had been accosted by a former Minister in the members area of the House of Commons terrace. He challenged her right to be there, and when she assured him that she was a member, he replied “they’re letting anybody in these days.”

Does this all seem odd? It isn’t. Dawn Butler is, naturally, black.

Now it all makes sense, right?

Dawn Butler? MP or House of Commons cleaner?
This all puts me in mind of the first ever black justice on the US Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall. He was a man with a fine sense of humour – even his name has a colourful history: he was originally named Thoroughgood but decided, as a child, that it was too tiring to spell, so changed it to Thurgood.

One of his favourite stories of his tenure at the Supreme Court was being in a lift – sorry, elevator – when a couple of tourists climbed in. A black man in an elevator? Had to be the elevator operator.

“First floor, please” one of the tourists said.

“Yowsa, yowsa,” Marshall answered. And pressed the button.

It’s hard to avoid the feeling that organisations such as the Fawcett Society have a bit of way to go yet before we can claim that equality has been fully achieved.

I was irritated with the Oscars being so white this year, yet again. But maybe that doesn’t matter quite as much as I felt. It seems to me that it’s even more important to sort the problem of black MPs not being taken for cleaners in the British House of Commons, or black Associate Justices taken for elevator operators in the US Supreme Court building.

Thurgood Marshall. Not an elevator operator
Although there’s no reason not to make sure that black actors get the recognition they deserve at the same time...

Sunday, 28 February 2016

England-Ireland was a good match. But it didn't look good for the nations of the North

It was odd to find myself overtaking the Irish Rugby Football Union team bus on the M40 this morning. I was heading towards Oxford and my mother’s; it presumably for points West, into Wales and a boat for Ireland. In the meantime, I was just another Englishman pulling ahead of the Irish Rugby Team, just as happened on the turf of Twickenham yesterday.

Another Englishman posied to leave Irish Rugby behind
We fans of England tend to be rather a lonely band: no non-Englishman is every likely to join us, since England is the team everyone loves to hate. “Anyone but England” is a pretty standard position to take.

That tends to put chips on our shoulders, and with the way the England team has been playing of late – and “of late” in this context means the last twelve years or so since it won the World Cup in 2003 – those chips get knocked off our shoulders with monotonous regularity. Rugby fans, however, unlike their counterparts in that villainous game with the round ball, are supposed to resist provocation, so we try to smile through the gloating and show that we’re bigger than that.

A win over Ireland, winners of the last two Six Nations Championship titles, is therefore satisfying. Still more satisfying, though, would be to see England playing well. Sadly, we’re not there yet: England’s victory against an injury-bedevilled Irish side was hardly the sparkling triumph we might have liked.

It’s a sad truth on the rugby world stage that the teams from the Northern hemisphere tend to be weaker than those from the South. That’s been historically the case, but in my experience it’s never been truer than now. Last year’s World Cup took place in England, giving the North home advantage, but not only did the hosts, England themselves, fail to make it to the quarter-finals, not a single Northern team was among the four in the semi-finals.

Admittedly, one was denied in the most galling circumstances: Australia overcame Scotland in the dying moments of their quarter-final, but only due to a penalty awarded in a terrible refereeing error. However, had Scotland progressed, it would have been a fluke, as the Scots have proved themselves yet again this season to be one of the weakest teams even in the weak Northern Hemisphere.

Funnily enough, that weakness however makes the great competition of the North, the Six Nations championship, more interesting. At least the teams are all much of a muchness. There don’t tend to be easy, run-away wins. Several times this season matches have been won by teams which were behind at one point – notably in yesterday’s England-Ireland game, where Ireland was 10-6 up before ultimately losing 21-10.

So the weakness of all the teams involved has made for more gripping games and better entertainment. But they remain weak. Often, in the most trivial way. Again and again, promising England moves were frittered away in penalties conceded for avoidable and silly infringements. These are professional players and they should know better than to make life so much easier for their opponents.

Why, two England players committed infringements so serious that they had to spend ten minutes off the field, in the sin bin. Terrible self-inflicted injuries...

So the match was fun to watch. And I enjoyed overtaking the Irish team bus. But overtaking a Southern team would be far more satisfying, if unlikely to happen any time soon.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Conservatives avoid ideology

The problem with the Left, I’m frequently told, is that it’s too driven by dogmatic ideology. This means that instead of taking decisions in the light of real circumstances, it attempts to apply a sort of rule book of what it thinks of as principles: no NHS worker should ever be made redundant, no benefits claimant should ever lose entitlement, no nuclear weapon should ever be used.

On the other hand, parties of the Centre-Right, like the British Conservative Party, or the saner (i.e. non-Trump, non-Tea Party) reaches of the US Republican Party, are pragmatic in their outlook. They study how things really are before they reach a decision, and then adopt a policy that takes fully into account the reality of circumstances, That, after all, is the only way to ensure the success of a policy.

Crazy ideologues
Unlike the fine pragmatists behind tough new conditions for junior doctors
For instance, back in 2010 the British Conservatives, seeing the parlous state of the world and in particular British economy (which had been mismanaged by Labour doing crazy things like spending on healthcare), decided pragmatically to sort out the deficit in public spending with a view, ultimately, to reducing public debt.

What made the task more difficult was that they took another pragmatic decision: never, under any circumstances, to increase taxes. Let’s be absolutely clear that there’s nothing ideological about such a stance. It’s purely pragmatic. The Conservatives have observed reality and reached the inspired insight that no one likes taxes. This is especially true of their supporters. So they opposed tax increases.

As a result, bringing the public deficit under control hasn’t gone as well as they might like. Conservative austerity policies have hugely reduced public expenditure. It’s true that they’ve created crisis conditions in our hospitals and our classrooms, but it needed to be done. Or so I’m told. Needed to be done, even though, far from falling, the UK national debt has grown to the highest levels ever seen.

Still, they haven’t increased taxation. Why, they’ve even reduced it for top incomes. A pragmatic decision, presumably based on the pragmatic observation that most of their major contributors benefit from that reduction, and by increasing their disposable income, there’s a reasonable chance that more of it will be disposed of towards them. Pragmatically.

The government has also decided to address a terrible public health problem, growing rapidly throughout the prosperous world: obesity and, in particular, childhood obesity. They have promised us a strategy for tacking it. According to today’s Guardian, they promised it for December 2015. Then for January, then February, then perhaps March. Now, it seems, the date has gone out to June.

As the Guardian made clear, this may in part be due to the fact that increasing numbers of people are calling for a tax on sugar in drinks and foods. There is a widespread view that this might reduce obesity, particularly among children. Obese children are much more likely to encounter health problems as adults, including type II diabetes which, apparently, now absorbs 10% of NHS expenditure.

The popularity of this call for a tax is a problem for the government. They don’t want to publish a strategy that doesn’t call for one. Nor, however, do they want to introduce such a tax. Remember? Conservatives don’t increase taxes. Ever. Whatever the circumstances.

Shame, really. There’s a major health problem to address. And a significant saving for the NHS to generate. But, hey, we don’t increase taxes.

It’s just as well they don’t suffer from the besetting sin of the Left: ideology. Otherwise they might be so rigidly and uncompromisingly wedded to a view that they wrongly treat as a principle that it would prevent them taking necessary action.

And we wouldn’t want that, would we?

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Miss a machine, miss a train, but at all costs, get a seat

Not everything’s good about working in London, but quite a few things are.

It’s a great benefit that Luton, where I live, is on a direct railway line to the station at Farringdon, a pleasant stroll from my office. Pleasant in the sense that most of it is on elevated walkways that wind around the Barbican complex, containing the London theatre that is home to the Royal Shakespeare company. The walkways and the buildings they link are modern, with flat spaces at many levels leading down to fine extent of open water; in amongst the modernity, we also have the remnants of the old city walls and, standing proud if slightly isolated, the fine old church of St Giles, Cripplegate (yes, that’s a real name).

The commute has given me a bit of a fixation on train seats. I go to considerable length to ensure that I have a seat both on the way in to work and the way home. For instance, I catch a train in the morning nearly an hour later than I need to – which means getting up at an entirely dotty hour – to be sure to be able to sit down. On the way back, I try to leave soon after 4:30 or not until at least 6:15, again to be sure of a seat.

Although I have found another way of securing a seat on the way home. Instead of walking to Farringdon in well under a quarter of an hour, I walk nearly half an hour to Blackfriars station. Trains travelling northwards, my homeward direction, reach Blackfriars two stops before Farringdon. That makes it the stop where, in rush hour, the train fills up. Get there and I’ll get a seat.

There’s another benefit in walking so much further. Blackfriars station is built on a bridge. It's glorious, especially when approached from the south, so I even walk a little further across the Millennium Bridge, the footbridge built to mark the year 2000, which provides a breathtaking view of the Thames in both directions, of the Tate Modern gallery straight ahead, with St Paul’s cathedral soaring behind. That means I reach Blackfriars from the right end to get another great sight of the Thames further upriver, as well as the same view downstream.

The sun dying on the Thames, viewed from
the Millennium Bridge looking towards Blackfriars
Today, I left ahead of time. I’d been in early every day this week, and stayed late, so I thought it was time to indulge myself a little. It meant that, with the days lengthening, I caught the last of the light, and was able to enjoy the sunset on the cathedral and the river. I made it to Blackfriars station, continuing as always to enjoy the view through the station’s glass sides. The 16:52 drew into the station and I climbed on, immediately securing a seat.

I sat down and went to pull out my work laptop, ready to send a document to a colleague who’d asked for a copy. Only to discover that it wasn’t in my bag. A picture sprang into my mind: the laptop, on my desk, still clipped to its docking station. I hadn’t picked it up before I left.

It wouldn’t have mattered, except that I plan to work from home tomorrow. I needed the machine. I enjoyed my hard-won seat for two stops and then, my heart sinking, left the train at Farringdon, retracing the steps I’d taken in the morning.

Back in the office, I picked up the machine, to the kind but teasing merriment of my colleagues. By then it was getting on for 5:30. I knew Farringdon meant standing room only on the train. So I headed off to Blackfriars again.

The same sights, splendid as ever, in the later, fading light, presented themselves to my eyes. St Paul’s. The footbridge. The river with Tower Bridge downstream, its lights coming on. The Shard, lit at its monumental top. The river itself, again.

And yet, somehow, the experience had begun to pall a little. The extra walk once seemed a price worth paying for the view. But twice? It felt like too much of a good thing. My feet were paying too high a price for the pleasure of my eyes.

Still. At least I got a seat again. Though on the 17:52 instead of the 16:52. My inattention had cost me a full hour.

I just hope the lesson will sink in.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Oh, dear. Looks like I have to back rank ineptitude.

On balance, I’m inclined to believe David Cameron when he says that he favours Britain’s continued membership of the European Union.

I say “on balance” because I find it difficult to discern anything in Cameron that could be called a principle or a conviction. Apart from one sincerely held belief: he is entirely committed to the notion that he should win and hold office. He’s actually rather good at that. Not much good at anything else, including doing much that’s useful with the office once he’s won it, but the winning he’s proved good at. 

It’s a classic tactic of good sales work to be careful where you set your customer’s expectations. Clearly, if you promise to provide the best flavor anyone ever tasted, you’re in serious danger of disappointing. “Probably the best beer in the world” is an intelligent slogan: it sets admirably high aspirations, without actually presenting Carlsberg as having fulfilled them and therefore putting the bar too high.

Bar in either sense.

Probably the best beer? Certainly good marketing
Cameron, inept at managing the power he’s so good at winning, has set the bar far too high on the EU. He’s faced with a right wing of his own party that is intent on damning the EU and all its works, and getting Britain out at the earliest opportunity, which is far too powerful for a man of his limited political skills to manage. It might have beyond any politician without the ability of, say, an Abraham Lincoln, but it was beyond his.

So he has carefully calculated a stance that said that he fully understood dissatisfaction with the EU, indeed sympathised with it. He would, therefore, hold a referendum in which the British people would be able to have their say over continuing membership of the EU. In the meantime, sharing their concern about the defects of the Union, he would negotiate such a wonderful package of reforms, that even those who were persuaded that it was not for them, unreformed, would come round to his view and back staying in.

Sadly, the other 27 governments of the EU were only prepared to go so far and no further to accommodate British demands. Cameron has only been able to negotiate minor changes in the way the EU operates, and is now desperately trying to present them as radical and fundamental.

In other words, he set the bar high, and now can’t hit it.

That gives huge encouragement to the anti-EU movement. Boris Johnson, current Mayor of London who aspires to be leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister, has seen his chance. He has aligned himself with the campaign to leave. The long-term future of the country matters less than the short-term future of Boris Johnson, and he believes the votes are with Britain leaving, with Brexit.

Will it be enough to win the argument? Well, on his own Boris won’t change the way views are flowing. It’s more a matter of his wanting to ride on a wave that’s already flowing towards the Brexit. If he’s proved right, Cameron will emerge from a referendum defeat gravely wounded, possibly so badly that he’ll be forced to step down. That might give Boris his chance. Unless it ends up opening the door for someone more ghastly still (yes, the Conservative Party has worse even than Boris to offer us).

Conversely, if Britain defies the present trends in the polls and votes to stay in the EU, Cameron will live to fight another day. Sad for those of us who would like to see a man that poorly qualified booted out of his job. On the other hand, the price of leaving the EU is far too high for seeing Cameron sacked.

So I face the doleful dilemma of having to campaign for an outcome which would leave Cameron in Downing Street. I shall be seeking a referendum victory that would once more veil his utter incompetence, at least from those who don’t want to see it. But staying in is worth even the price of living with Cameron a little longer.

After all, however little we can rely on him for, it’s absolutely certain he’ll find other opportunities to prove how inadequate he is to be Prime Minister.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Which works better, delegation or control?

How about this as a vivid description of one way of doing work? From Garrett Mattingly’s Defeat of the Spanish Armada, it conjures up powerfully the stultifying atmosphere in which lived the King, Philip II, who sent that Armada against England:

When a diplomatic pouch reached the Escurial, its contents, however urgent, were receipted by the appropriate clerk, and placed along with the originals on the appropriate corner of the long table in the cheerless little room in which the King now spent most of his waking hours. All sorts of official papers lay piled on that long table. It held the correspondence of ambassadors, the reports of viceroys and governors, of customs and treasury and municipal officials… Nobody since the beginning of history had ever ruled so much of the earth’s surface as Philip II of Spain… nobody, surely, had ever had so many papers to read. Sooner or later Philip read, if not all, at least a very great many of them, leaving in his spidery scrawl in their margins shrewd statesmanlike comments and trivial corrections of spelling and grammar, each annotation a witness to posterity of his appalling, his stupefying industry. Naturally, he sometimes got a little behind…

Yes. It’s hardly surprising he wasn’t always entirely up to date. A state of affairs probably not helped by what Mattingly calls “his habit of second thought.” Sometimes Philip delayed responding to a dispatch, which might already have waited some time to be read at all, because he wanted to take longer making up his mind.

As Admiral Nelson took his fleet into what would become known as the Battle of Trafalgar, against a combined French and Spanish force, he told his captains:

…in case signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.

In other words, Nelson believed his ships’ captains knew what was needed of them in battle: to sail alongside their enemies vessels and fire on them until they went down or surrendered. He didn’t feel that they needed constant direct orders from him, to sail towards one ship or the next, to turn one way or another, to open fire or cease firing. Those were matters they could decide for themselves, on the basis of their knowledge and experience, and their clear understanding of the overall goal of the fleet action.

Spanish Aramda (lfet): a crushing defeat
Battle of Trafalgar (right): a stunning victory
And guess which approach is more widely applied
Trafalgar remains one of the most famous victories at sea of all time.

The Armada’s attempted invasion of England has become an exemplar of how not to attempt a naval campaign. It failed lamentably to achieve its aims – not a single soldier was landed on English soil – and the fleet itself was forced to flee for home. What’s worse, because the direct route through the Channel was blocked, less by the Engish than by the weather, the Spaniards were obliged to sail up the East coast of Britain and over the North of Scotland, with tragically high losses on the way: over a third failed to return to Spain.

Doesn’t that sound like a striking vindication of the management style known as delegation, where power of decision is moved downwards to the lowest possible level? That’s in to its opposite – authoritarianism, or perhaps simply control freakery – where nothing can happen without the explicit say so, to a numbing degree of detail, of the person in charge.

So here’s the million-dollar question: why is it that so many executives in organisations, public or private, seem so intent on emulating Philip II rather than Admiral Nelson?

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

So it all comes down to that?

In Britain, we’re moving closer to what will certainly be a historic decision for the nation: a referendum on whether to remain a member of the European Union.

Such a lot is riding on it. Should Britain remain part of the world’s largest trading block, with all the clout that provides, but at the cost of the reduction in sovereignty it implies? Or should it leave, on the grounds that it would be better off maintaining its freedom of action, knowing that it can arrange more advantageous arrangements for itself in bilateral negotiations with individual other nations?

These are momentous matters, and they deserve to be treated with seriousness.

Even among supporters of continued membership, there is a broad consensus that much is wrong with the EU. In particular, a great many people feel that the right to free movement of labour has opened British borders to too many immigrants, and there’s a general suspicion that many of them arrive to take advantage of the British benefit system – even though it’s far from the most generous in Europe.

The concern about immigration is strongest on the right, but many on the left have taken it up on the basis that they ought to reflect the views of their electors, even if they don’t share them. Since the EU guarantees freedom of movement, the EU debate therefore focuses increasingly on the question of immigration. That means that the other issues, of national sovereignty or whether human rights and democracy are best defended inside or outside, become far less prominent.

Cameron with Donald Tusk, President of the European Council
The negotiations continue. But make little progress
Unfortunately, in his attempt to renegotiate the terms of British membership of the EU and persuade sceptical voters that he has improved them sufficiently to justify a vote to stay in, David Cameron has run into a brick wall on the right to free movement of citizens throughout the Union. It’s viewed as a fundamental right, and to be defended above all in a structure that guarantees freedom of movement to goods and capital – if they can move freely, why not people too?

So instead Cameron has been striving to have benefits rules changed, on the basis that if immigrant rights to benefits can be reduced, then immigration itself will fall. So, the Cameron argument runs, if we obtain agreement from the EU to let us reduce benefits for migrants, then it will be possible to persuade sceptical voters to back continued membership.

As a result, from being concerned with the great and lofty question of Britain’s position in the world, the EU debate has focused more and more on immigrant access to benefit payments. All in the hope that if the British government can win back the authority to cut them for EU migrants, it will win round voters unconvinced that the price of high immigration levels is worth paying for EU membership.

Even that is proving difficult for David Cameron to achieve in his negotiations. Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, and ostensibly a Conservative ally of Cameron’s though also a contender to replace him as leader, is refusing to come out unequivocally in favour of the EU and is calling on the Prime Minister to come up with a better deal for Britain.

But Cameron has little to play with, and is scrabbling for a few more concessions as the time to finalise the deal approaches. The latest point of contention is the refusal of a group of four nations, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, to go along with Cameron’s demand for the right to cut British child benefit payments to immigrants whose children are living abroad.

Migration Watch, the leading anti-immigrant organisation, calculates the value of those payments as £55 million a year. “£1m a week,” as the organisation proclaims in tones of horror.

For the current financial year, the government deficit is projected to be £69billion. Or £1.3 billion a week. Well over a thousand times more.

And on that figure, a thousand times smaller, the future of Britain in the EU and the world may hang?

It’s never a bad thing to give the last word to Benjamin Franklin, so let’s.

For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.

Monday, 15 February 2016

How a poodle's pal made the point about Europe

It’s not often our toy poodle, Luci, finds a dog smaller than her. So it’s a matter of celebration when she does. When that dog shows none of Luci’s own shyness or diffidence, and is prepared to play like a mad thing, then joy is unconfined.

That’s Piluca, a miniature Yorkie who’s sometimes in the park nearest to where we live. She chases around with Luci and they both have a wonderful time and a lot of excellent exercise. The human she takes to the park with her is a young Spanish woman, who left Alicante to come and live in Luton.

“I imagine you came for the weather,” I suggested to her when we met.

“Oh, yes. What else?” she laughed, “though the work helped too.”

It turns out she’s a teacher. My first thought on meeting a Spanish woman teaching in England is that she must be teaching languages. Or at any rate, one language.

Nothing of the kind. She’s a maths teacher. And that’s an interesting discovery. The United Kingdom is suffering from an increasingly critical shortage of teachers. Not only do we have too few teachers, we’re recruiting too few to replace the number we do have.

Teaching recruits, by subject, against target, in Engalnd, 2014-15
Christopher Wilkins, University of Leicester
Meanwhile, Spain is suffering from terrible youth unemployment. The way a market is supposed to work, certainly in a worldview admired on the political right, goods and even people are supposed to flow from areas of weak demand to areas where demand is higher. So when Piluca’s human moved to England, she was behaving entirely according to the market model of economics.

She was able to do so because the European Union guarantees freedom of movement, residence and employment to all the citizens of all the member states, anywhere across the entire area it covers. That’s a crucial right. It means that we, as individuals, are not bound entirely to the economic success or failure to one country, but can take advantage of good times in another part of the Union, if things are not going so well in our own.

That ought to be a right defended by the Left, since it empowers workers.

It seems we have here a case that confirms the economics of the right – the clean working of a market – and the politics of the left – the exercise of an important freedom by a salaried worker. So it’s remarkable to see that there’s so much anti-EU talk on the right, and indeed a movement to leave the Union even within Labour.

What do they want? 

To deprive Piluca’s human of her right to take advantage of opportunities across the Continent? To prevent her enjoying our great weather? To deny the UK a way to solve its crisis in education?

Surely that would be a shameful stance to take. Especially as it would deny Luci of such an excellent friend.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Black holes and Donald Trump

One of the more remarkable aspects of the work of Albert Einstein is the way many of his ideas have been confirmed only decades after he advanced them. Decades, even, in some cases, after his death.

The latest to join that list is his notion that there’s such a thing as gravity waves. They have at last been detected, and along with them, a spectacular event: scientists using the snappily named Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory or LIGO observed a collision between two black holes. What’s most mind-blowing is that these two objects, one 35 times more massive than the sun and the other slightly smaller, were observed spinning around each at a staggering 30 times a second, growing to 250 times a second just before they finally collided.

A graphic of the black holes used at the LIGO press conference
35 times the weight of the sun and spinning around another object 250 times a second. It seems inconceivable. And yet Einstein conceived it, and the LIGO scientists observed it.

That ability to pierce what once seemed impenetrable mysteries shows humanity at its best. The kind of thing, like an excellent film or an outstanding teacher, which allows us all to feel proud of our species. It’s wonderful to have the feeling confirmed to us again by such an accomplishment as the LIGO team’s.

It’s only sad that the announcement came in the same week as Donald Trump won the Republican primary in New Hampshire and took a big step closer to the White House. Because if the observation of gravitational waves is an example of the best that humanity can do, the Trump campaign reflects all its grimier and crueller side.

Trump represents humanity at its most fearful and bitter. At their worst, men like to draw together into select, exclusive groups, and view all those outside them as in some sense different, or even wrong, or ultimately less than human. Faced with challenges, not necessarily to life itself but simply to a way of life to which they’ve grown accustomed, they react not by rising but by falling. They develop hatred for those they identify as outsiders, and they round on them, driving them out and ignoring their pleas for mercy.

What we’re seeing in Trump is simply the latest manifestation of that toxic behaviour. He literally talks the language of exclusion: illegal immigrants are all to be deported; Muslims are to be denied entry to the US; and a wall is to be build along the Mexican border to prevent further migration from that country.

This he presents as making the US great again, not seeing that it will make the US smaller, by cutting off and isolating the nation. If it’s even possible to achieve: Trump is always long on what he wants to do, and terribly short on how to do it.

I suppose this turns the week into a fine metaphor for the nature of mankind. An extraordinary achievement at one end of the week. A descent into shameless baseness at the other. And both are deeply ingrained characteristics of our species.

The question is always which will prevail: the noble, outward looking, questing side, or the base, fearful, hateful side. If the former, we could go on to greater and still more admirable things. If the latter, our descent into a world wrecked by environmental catastrophe, hunger and war will be all the quicker.

A process as terminal as the black hole collision observed by the LIGO scientists.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Polarisation of opinion: boldness or recklessness?

Looks like we’re once more being cursed to live in interesting times.

Divisions, on both sides of the Atlantic, are becoming starker, more polarised. We’re rejecting the dull middle, the conformist and customary, and opting for the edgy, the bold, the different. Trouble is, the bold is exciting but can also be dangerous.

Charles the Bold, for instance, is often thought of as Charles the Reckless. It’s easy for one to slip into the other. Charles himself (briefly) made that discovery, as he lost his life at the Battle of Nancy in 1477.

Could have been the bold. Turned out to have been the reckless.
In Britain, we in the Labour have elected ourselves as leader a man, Jeremy Corbyn, who identifies himself as a socialist. Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, another man who makes the same identification, Bernie Sanders, has won the primary in the race for the Democratic Party presidential nomination.

“Together we have sent a message that will resonate from Wall Street to Washington, from Maine to California,” he announced after his victory, “and that is that the government of our great country belongs to all of the people and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors, and their Super PACs.”

Refreshing stuff. His is a nation, as Lincoln pointed out, founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and its government today is in hock to the men (and a scattering of women) with the deepest pockets.

Sadly, as Sanders won his primary, comprehensively beating the candidate of the middle and the establishment, Hillary Clinton, one of those deep-pocketed men was wrapping up the primary for the other party.

“We are going to start winning again,” Donald Trump made it clear, referring no doubt to his surprise defeat in Iowa, “we are going to make America so great again.”

Trouble is his view of making the US great isn’t to reassert the founding principle of equality of creation, it’s to chuck a lot of people out and build a bloody great wall to keep them out. The notion is ludicrous, of course, if only because it massively underestimates the ingenuity of man in getting around walls, and the sheer scale of the task of guarding any barrier 2000 miles long. All his idea would achieve, if it were ever put into practice, is to improve business for people-traffickers, who would be able to charge more to defeat the wall and trump Donald.

All the same, the idea’s gaining traction among a certain and far too large section of the US electorate.

And that’s the trouble with polarisation. It’s great if things go one way. Catastrophic if they go the other.

As happened to Charles the Reckless.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Happy birthday to a man who got things astonishingly right

It was good of Google to remind us, in one of its doodles, that 8 February was Dmitri Mendeleev’s birthday (the 182nd, as it happens, but then Google makes a bit of a point of celebrating slightly odd anniversaries).

What I’ve always liked about Mendeleev is that he didn’t just build the periodic table, which we’ve no doubt all gazed at in long boring moments if we’ve ever had chemistry classes, he used it to do something I regard as absolutely central to the nature of the scientific method as it emerged in the eighteenth century. For a long time, scientists set themselves the goal of explaining the phenomena they observed. They watched bodies falling at the Earth’s surface, for instance, and they came up with notions of rapidly spinning vortices of ethereal (weightless) matter that drove objects downwards, and lots of people went along with the idea because it seemed quite plausible.

Attractive as well as useful
And note number 32
The problem is that this view of the world suggests that objects would also be pushed sideways by the spinning matter, and they clearly aren’t.

The beauty of Newton’s theory of gravitation, long resisted by the proponents of the vortices, was that it predicted things that actually happened, from the movement of the planets (or most of them, anyway – Mercury needed Einstein to come along), to the orbit of the moon, to the action of the tides, to the falling of bodies, all in one theoretical framework. It’s that predictive rather than simply explanatory capacity that gave Newton’s arguments such force, compared to his adversaries.

Mendeleev did the same, perhaps even more forcefully. He built his periodic table, and discovered there were holes in it: squares that ought to contain the name of an element, but for which none was known.

For instance, he worked on group 14 of the table, which starts with one of the most important elements of all, for us, since it’s the basis for all life: Carbon. It has the capacity of forming long chains of carbons atoms, or alternatively carbon rings, and they are vital in supporting life.

The next element is Silicon, which appears, in particular, in sand and glass.

Then there was a gap. Because the next know element in Mendeleev’s time was tin. It’s so much bigger than Silicon that there had to be another element in between them. Besides, tin is a metal, as is the then last-known element of the group, lead, whereas carbon is definitely non-metallic and silicon only slightly less so; there had to be some transitional element between them.

In 1869, Mendeleev predicted that the material would have an atomic weight of 72, be grey in colour, with a density of 5.5 grams per cubic centimetre and a high melting point. Its chloride, he believed, would boil at a temperature below 100C, and would have a density of 1.9 gm/cc.

In 1886, the element Germanium was discovered. It has an atomic weight of 72.61. It’s grey with a density of 5.35 g/cc; its melting point is 947 C; its chloride boils at 86C and its density is, indeed, 1.9.

Germanium also happens to be a semi-conductor, which makes it important in transistors, and places it neatly in a transition between non-metals and metals.

That’s what I call predictive capacity: to say so much about something unknown, and to find confirmation that close when it’s discovered. Impressive stuff. And truly the stuff of science.

So happy 182nd, Dmitri. And thanks for that great table. It whiled away many a boring period in chemistry lessons.

Impressive man. And didn’t he look it?

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Overheard and harrowing

The young woman was walking down the road, a distraught expression on her face, her phone held out in front of her, and on speaker, for reasons I still can’t fathom. As our paths crossed, I heard a remark that explained her expression.

“Just remember,” a woman’s voice was saying, “no one likes you very much.”

Tough, tough words. And the only ones I overheard.

Communications are great
But the news isn’t always good
For the rest of my walk, with Luci–the-poodle faithfully trotting along next to me, I speculated on the back story. 

Was it a matter of unrequited love?

“Well, if you really can’t give up on Mark, by all means come to the party tonight. But he’s absolutely not right for you and Alice has got her hooks into him. So you could end up spending the evening miserable, surrounded by people you don’t get on with. Just remember, no one likes you very much.”

Or was it a work-related thing?

“What’s the point in keeping on pushing the idea, when no one likes it and Joan’s already decided to concentrate on the South.? Why are you so dead set against the job in HR? You’d be much better off in a group that obviously appreciates you. Why would you try to stick with a team that keeps pushing you away? Just remember, no one likes you very much.”

Then again, might it have been purely social?

“But you hate bowling! Why would you insist on coming? It’ll just stir up all the tensions with Henry again. You should have apologised to him, and you never did. Now they spend all their time bad-mouthing you. Why would you want to hang out with anyone like that? Just remember, no one likes you very much.”

All dismal scenarios. No wonder she was upset. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for her.

But I also had to wonder why she was having a conversation that harrowing on speaker? Was it a cry for help? Did she want passers-by to share it with her, if only in fragments?

And what sort of friends did she have? Had she really chosen the right person to confide in? Did it make sense to turn for comfort to a woman who would make quite so cruel a remark to her?

Of course, it’s just possible I’ve got entirely the wrong end of the stick. Maybe with a little more context, I’d have found there was nothing quite so agonising in the comment. It might have been just a perfectly ordinary bit of gossipy conversation between friends.

Alternatively, it may be that I’m choosing entirely the wrong person to feel sorry for. Maybe she really isn’t all that likeable. The only information I have about her is that people don’t like her very much. So she may not be very nice, after all.

On the other hand, I may simply have misheard the whole thing.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Thank you for the irony, Daily Mail

It’s not often that the British Daily Mail makes me smile, but it did today.

It was the headline that got me going: “WHO WILL SPEAK FOR ENGLAND?” it demanded to be told.

Usually I’m put off by what is, after all, the paper that lines the sewers of British journalism. It could have been for the Mail that the celebrated ditty was written:

You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
thank God!
the British journalist.

But, seeing what the man will do
there's no occasion to.

In this case, however, my reaction was that of a lover of irony. There were, after all, simply too many layers of irony in that headline for them not to be appreciated.

The article is about what the Mail sees as a battle between Britain and the EU, currently being waged without much conviction by David Cameron’s government. From the perspective of the Mail and others that share its political outlook, this is a battle for the very soul of Britain, threatened today by all those nasty foreigners across the Channel.

The reference in the headline is to one of the most poignant moments in the history of the House of Commons. I’ve mentioned it more than once before, but it was an inspiring event so I make no apology for talking about it again.

The then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, had just flown home from a meeting with Hitler, in which he’d been joined by the French Prime Minister Daladier. On arrival back home, he had waved an agreement that, he claimed, guaranteed “peace for our time.” It gave Hitler a free hand to dismember Czechoslovakia, in return for his not threatening any French or British vital interests.

Hitler ignored the agreement and within a year, we were at war with Nazi Germany.

The time of the agreement was perhaps one of the most humiliating in Britain’s long and colourful career. A great many people felt that way, even then. When Chamberlain made a statement on his meeting to the House of Commons it was greeted by silence – shamed silence. And when the deputy leader of the Labour Party, Arthur Greenwood, stood to reply for the Opposition, a voice called out from the other side of the house – the Conservative, Government side – “speak for England, Arthur.”

So that was irony number 1. It was a Tory, Leo Amery, who called on a Labourite to speak against the Tory Prime Minister.

Irony number 2 is that he made that call in the name of England. But the whole of Britain was affected. Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish would share in the ignominy, as they would share in the sacrifices that the war would entail.

Irony number 3 is that the Mail claims to be speaking for Britain, and also referred only to England.

Irony number 4 is that Leo Amery was speaking out against Nazi Germany. The Mail is railing against a bunch of politicians, no better or worse than others, but as committed to democracy as any current member of the British Parliament.

The Mail says in its article that it’s drawing no parallel between the EU and Nazi Germany. But have you been watching the excellent French series on TV at the moment, Spin (Les hommes de l’ombre)? There’s a moment in it in which the protagonist refers to her adversary as “disloyal” and immediately corrects herself to “loyal”. It’s deliberate: her correction is designed to free her from attack for her insult, but the insult is out there.

The Mail’s use of that headline draws the parallel, even if the body of the article denies it.

Finally, and funniest of all, the Mail is the newspaper which, back in the 1930s, supported Hitler and his British (indeed, English) opposite number, Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. How wonderful that it should now quote the great anti-appeasement Tory Amery to lambast David Cameron over his support for the EU…

Glorious stuff, isn’t it? Well worth a smile. And I suspect there’ll be plenty more such irony before we get our referendum on continued British membership of the EU.

That’s British membership including the English, by the way.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

“I don’t mind a parasite,” says Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, “I object to a cut-rate one.”

That may not be precisely the right quotation for my subject. The Groucho Marx comment, “I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member,” isn’t quite right either but is maybe closer.

Clubs have rules. Members accept the rules because they feel the benefits of membership outweigh the limits the rulebook imposes on them. For example, if you want to trade with the European Union, one of the hugest trading blocks in the world, you have to accept its rules. Indeed, even non-members have to accept a great many of them: Norway, for instance, which obstinately remains outside the EU, can only trade with the members if it accepts the regulations it demands.

Even more powerfully, the United States imposes its laws on the rest of the world, which accepts them, however grudgingly, because the alternative means exclusion from the world’s largest market. In more than one non-US company, I’ve had to commit to respecting US regulations on data confidentiality or standards laid down by the Food and Drugs Administration. It wasn’t a problem, because I agree with the regulations. Even so, there’s no doubt that while it may not represent taxation without representation, it is certainly legislation without representation.

This makes the debate in Britain about the European Union particularly curious. We are currently members. That means we have to accept its rules but, on the other hand, we have some say in making them. Leaving would mean a huge loss of influence in the organisation that most affects how Britain makes its living.

For all that, there’s a powerful head of steam today to take us out. That would move us into the position of Norway: subject to the rules, at least as far as trade is concerned, but with no voice over them.

Many would prefer that status. They feel that to be out would give Britain back control over many aspects of national life which it does not control today. Most powerfully of all, it is felt that it would give the country back the authority to prevent what is perceived as excessive immigration: currently, anyone from a fellow EU-member state has automatic residence and employment rights in Britain.

Indeed, that has been the focus of the debate for many months now. Give us back our borders. Keep out all those immigrants who are coming over to take our jobs. Or more to the point, not to take our jobs but to take our benefits.

See how the thoughts progressed, from one to the next? We started talking about sovereignty. We ended up talking about benefits.

And, indeed, David Cameron, in trying to persuade critics that he has done enough to give authority back to London, has focused on little else. To keep immigrants out, he wants the power to reduce benefits. Wha has he achieved? EU members seem open to the notion of an “emergency brake”, allowing a nation to stop paying benefits to new arrivals. However, it would only be applied if their numbers were such as to drive the benefits system into crisis. And only with the agreement of the other members.

Donald Tusk, President of the European Council
With only a little bit to give away to keep Britain in
As one Tory critic of the plan, Nigel Evans MP, pointed out if we have to phone a friend, indeed in this case 27 friends, to decide that we can put our foot on the brake, then no driver in their right mind would get into a car.

So we now have David Cameron trying to persuade his critics that he’s won a good deal, while they proclaim he’s done nothing like enough. And it all comes down to whether the British government can refuse benefits to people. The right to deprive people of help is the acid test of membership of the EU.

A great question for the future of Britain, whether or not it will remain in partnership with the other nations of its continent, seems set to be decided on the basis of nickel and dime bargaining.

It seems Cameron’s not at all sure whether he wants to be a member of a Club that isn’t letting him be enough of a cheapskate. Which must be pushing that Club into wondering whether he’s much more than a parasite. Though it can’t be in much doubt that he’s a cut-rate one.