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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Just Finished Reading: A Man Called Destiny by Lan Wright (FP: 1958)

Richard Argyle knew that it was just dumb bad luck – to land with engine trouble on the only nearby rock that didn’t qualify to have a TeePee (slang for a telepath) in residence for emergency communications. There was nothing for it but wait for the regular monthly supply ship to arrive and ask them to relay a message onwards. But when the new engine arrived so did a representative of one of the largest trading companies in the Galaxy and he carried with him two messages. Firstly that Argyle’s ex-wife had died and second that her ex-boss, one of the richest off-world traders was offering him a job. Given a few weeks to think about it whilst his ship was repaired he finally decided to accept. But on making contact with the representative again Argyle found himself under arrest on suspicion of potential murder. With more deaths to follow Argyle needs to figure out why a common engineer has become so important in the battle between Earth and the trading companies it has become so dependent on. But time is running out as both enemies and dangerous friends try to use him for their own ends.

This was a fairly typical late 50’s SF novel. Short (only 160 pages) with a minimal storyline that could easily have been told in another non-SF genre without too many changes, with precious little character development and a host of sub-plots that ended up going nowhere. Potentially there might have been a half decent idea in there somewhere but the author was clearly incapable of producing one. Barely readable it made little sense overall and I never really cared about any of the characters or their problems. Not recommended even for nostalgic reasons. (R)

Monday, May 27, 2019

Just Finished Reading: Unskilled Labourer and World Statesman – A Portrait of Ernest Bevin 1881-1951 by Mark Stephens (FP: 1981)

It would seem that the great Labour leaders came from grinding poverty if my reading of the last two political biographies is anything to go by. Born into poverty and orphaned at age 8 the young Ernie had to fight for every penny he earnt and every meal he ate. Initially working on a farm (at incredibly low wages) he progressed through a series of unskilled jobs until final settling into a life of a delivery driver. Here he would have stayed (no doubt) if the economy had not taken a severe downturn and he had not personally experienced the deep divisions seemingly embedded in British society. Drawing on his Christian faith he determined that there must be a better way than this. It was here that he discovered a natural skill for organisation, negotiation and public speaking. Organising his first Union was a revelation and he soon became a full-time member of the Union movement progressing up the ladder of the organisation without ever taking his eyes off the place he came from and the men (and women in increasing numbers) he served. Seeing how the smaller unions held significantly less bargaining power than the giants of Coal, Railways and Shipping he proposed a radical idea – amalgamation of the smaller unions into a much larger one. This eventually became the Transport & General Workers Union (known as the T&G) which became one of the largest and most powerful in the Union system. My father was actually a member – although somewhat reluctantly!

As World War Two burst upon the world and the Chamberlin government fell it was Winston Churchill (actually a long time opponent) who asked for Bevan to join his government as Minister of Labour and greatly assisted in wartime production levels whilst at the same time greatly improving working conditions throughout industry and putting in place much of the working legislation taken for granted today. With war over Bevin imagined that he would stay on in the Labour department (now under Attlee’s Labour government) by Attlee had other ideas and sent him to the Foreign Office. At first totally out of his depth he quickly found his feet and because of his leadership style managed to produce an intensely loyal following within the department. Instrumental in procuring the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Post-War Europe, in at the foundation of both the UN and NATO, involved in the transition from Palestine to Israel as well as Britain’s acquisition of the Atomic Bomb and the Berlin airlift he was a central figure in Britain’s post-war world.

Yet again Bevin is someone I knew of (rather vaguely to be honest) but not someone I knew very much about. On many levels he seems to be a very interesting person to know more about. VERY down to earth, very smart and very driven be the need to see that everyone has their fair share of things and a fair crack of the whip. The book was a little sycophantic (being publish by his Union 30 years after his death in 1951) but was, it appears, generally fair. I think I shall be reading more about this interesting and important figure from the Left. 

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Yorkshire heritage railways say coal ban is 'threat'

From The BBC

24 May 2019

Two heritage railways fear government measures to limit the burning of coal could affect their ability to operate. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) wants to ban the burning of household coal by 2025. The lines in North and West Yorkshire say they could have to import coal, which would be prohibitively expensive. A Defra spokesman said: "Air pollution is a significant threat to public health and the government has a duty to take action." The North Yorkshire Moors Railway, which runs steam engines between Pickering and Whitby, said the proposed ban was a "significant threat". The Keighley & Worth Valley Railway runs on five miles of track and was used in the film, The Railway Children. Both railways believe the domestic coal ban would make mining it commercially unviable in the UK and they would have to turn to foreign imports at a much greater cost.

Chris Price, the general manager of the North Yorkshire railway, said they were looking at Russian coal. "If we are forced to go abroad, if the domestic coal ban comes in to the UK, that perhaps the government would consider giving a financial subsidy to make sure the cost of coal was kept down," he added. Keighley MP John Grogan said the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway was "crucial to tourism". He said: "I hope the government will live up to the promise they made that they will provide an exemption for heritage railways from the air quality regulations they are going to bring in." The Defra spokesman added: "We understand how important our nation's heritage railways are and the sector raised a number of issues in our consultation."

[I do hope that any projected coal ban – if we go that far – with get an exemption where coal powered trains are concerned. Although I’m not a huge train-head I do appreciate the powerful imagery and the feelings surrounding steam trains. I remember them from the 1960’s and I’ve been on a few of them since then. Their carbon footprint is surely insignificant in global terms. Save the Steam Trains!]

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Just Finished Reading: The Garments of Court and Palace – Machiavelli and the World that He Made by Philip Bobbit (FP: 2013)

Since his works – most especially The Prince – were published in the 16th Century the political theories of Niccolo Machiavelli have been in print ever since. Translated into a host of languages, taught in universities across the globe and treated both as valued assistant and the very spawn of Satan one thing cannot be argued – that this Renaissance figure has had a massive impact on the western world. This is all the more surprising, says the author, as not only have few people read his works but fewer still have understood them.

The Prince – his most recognised work – has, in particular, been misinterpreted and (I must admit) the author of this work makes a series of impressive arguments laying out why. His main thrust is that the book itself is not what it appears to be. It is not (as it is usually advertised) a work instructing a Prince on how to gain and hold power in the ever changing and highly dangerous world of 16th century Italian politics. Although it does contain elements of this it is most certainly not the main thrust. The treatise is aimed squarely at the ‘new Prince’. Not simply one who has recently come into power but the precursor to a completely new type of state – the constitutional republic. The ‘new’ Prince is one who thinks in the ‘new’ way and who has already, or is on the cusp of, turning away from his feudal roots. The book is for him – which is why it seemingly shocked the older-style Prince with its harsh pragmatism and the ability to look reality in the face rather than attempt to see things as they should be in an ideal world. But there is more. There is the historical context to be considered.
At the time he was writing the Italy of Machiavelli consisted of warring city states increasingly at the mercy of the great powers of the day – France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Individual cities, or even cities in temporary alliance, could not hope to stand against these regional superpowers. Only by allying themselves to the great and the good could they hope to survive – but Machiavelli wanted much more than survival: he wanted political independence and saw his advice to new Princes the way forward. Machiavelli, the author maintains, was a many simply ahead of his time. Not only did he foresee the constitutional republican state generations ahead of anyone else he saw such a state as the saviour of Italy. The many misunderstandings of his writings reflect the fact that he was, in effect, writing for future generations and for leaders of states than did not yet exist  but which he would (potentially at least) bring into existence. It’s an interesting idea and one that the author makes a very good case for. Italian political history of that period is both fascinating and deeply disturbing – full of intrigue and frankly alarming characters like Cesare Borgia. When I have the time to at least try to get my head around the twists and turns of that ages diplomatic wrangling’s I’ll give it a go. But that’ll have to wait post-retirement.

Overall I liked this book very much. The author knew his stuff and looked at things from some interesting angles which might actually answer some of the questions raised about Machiavelli and his ideas. From time to time a few faint alarm bells went off – essentially a vague whiff of right-wing thinking – but I just ignored them and read on….. until that is I read the Appendix entitled Machiavelli Today. Here the author made a rather strange observation. He said that Machiavelli stood at the crossroads of a transition between the Feudal State and the more modern Constitutional Republics we all know and love today. Meanwhile in our world we are, at least according to the author of this work, at another political crossroads – this time between the Nation State and the Market State. This Market State defines itself in terms of fostering market expansion to provide a wide range of public goods. Not simply that the Market should be used where it can work best but that the Market IS the system and that government (in its surviving form) has only one function: to ensure that nothing interferes with or disturbs the Market in its operation. So, no Social Security, no State Healthcare, no State education or anything else for that matter. Everything, and the author clearly says EVERYTHING is provided for by the Market. Naturally I disagreed – strongly. Not only would such a system be inhumane it would, necessarily I believe, be very short lived. A full no holds barred Market system would be so horrific that the citizens of any such State would rise up and destroy it before it destroyed them. Personally I would enjoy watching it burn. So, after enjoying this book very much I couldn’t help leaving it with a bad taste in my mouth. I had added a further book from the author to my Amazon Wish List but this has now been removed. But there are plenty more books on a whole host of subjects just waiting to be purchased never fear. Interesting in many ways – just skip the Appendix.           

Monday, May 20, 2019

Ok... I'm ALL ears.....!

Just Finished Reading: The Old Straight Track - Its Mounds, Beacons, Moats, Sites and Mark Stones by Alfred Watkins (FP: 1925)

This book was not at all what I expected. As one of the foundation texts to the New Age movement in the 1970’s and beyond I expected at least a healthy dollop of mysticism, myth and speculation. Whilst speculation did make its way into the narrative, how could it not, it was tempered with reason, logic and a fair bit of scepticism. But I’m running ahead of myself.

The author had a rather strange idea. Although he wasn’t the first to have it he might have been the first to properly systemise it. The strange idea is that prehistoric man, in England and in other places too, produced dead straight paths across the landscape and marked these tracks with stones, mounds (often burial mounds), pools of water and clefts in hillsides which enabled travellers – once on the path – to navigate across great distances with comparative ease. But this is not an idea the author plucked out of the air. Firstly there is the undoubted existence of burial mounds as well as single standing stones (as well as clusters of them) scattered across the English landscape. That can be taken as fact. But the leap the author makes is that these items are not scattered across the landscape in a random fashion – indeed far from it. Using maps extensively throughout the book the author shows that straight lines can be used linking not only two or three such items but four, five and more. Lower numbers might just be coincidental but extended links over miles of the countryside cannot, he maintains be accidental. There are man-made and with a purpose and existed long before the Romans arrived with their straight roads. I was actually very impressed by his logical reasoning. Not only did he discover previously unknown standing stones using his method – Lay Hunting – but he also had very reasonable explanations of oddities like paths that actually go through (rather than around) pools of water – the pools reflect both sunlight and moonlight allowing a walker or rider at ground level to navigate in poor lighting conditions.

One of the things I found particularly fascinating is how both place names and family names reflected the nature of the paths in that area and what they were primarily used for – transporting salt, clay or other items. The men themselves – experts in navigation as well as able managers of the numbers needed to erect the larger stones and arrange them in meaningful ways – gave their profession names to future villages as well as family names (or the bastardised versions that have made it down to us) that still exist today. I do love the meanings and origins of words and it was really interesting to see where names I know well came into existence.

But making his case for Lay Lines was not enough for the author. Although he had discovered many in his home country and in nearby regions he had also collected evidence from other hunters of lay lines far and wide. The field of lay lines was still, in 1925, a new one. To amass the evidence he needed he wanted others – readers of his books – to go out and discover their own lines in their own localities and gave them detailed instructions of how to find them. I imagine, in those far gone days, that it would have been quite an adventure for a local rambling group to spend a day or a weekend looking for prehistoric footpaths long before urbanisation and our incessant road building destroyed them. I suspect that away from civilisation they are still waiting to be found and walked along as they must have been long before the Roman Empire existed. I’m almost tempted to go find one. Who knows where it would lead? An interesting off-the-wall read and unexpectedly evocative of ancient times written by someone with a real passion for his subject. (S)   

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Votes at 16: No demand, says polling expert

By Eleanor Gruffydd-Jones, BBC Sunday Politics Wales

18 May 2019

Votes for 16-year-olds in UK elections are all but inevitable, but there is no public demand or obvious advantage to it, a voting expert has said. A bill currently going through the Senedd would lower the voting age at the 2021 Welsh Assembly election. Prof Philip Cowley said evidence suggested 16 and 17-year-olds were less likely to vote than older groups. But the chair of the panel that backed votes at 16 in assembly polls said the move could revitalise democracy.

Sixteen and 17-year-olds voted for the first time in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 and can now take part in Scottish parliament and local elections. They can also vote in Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man. Prof Cowley, from Queen Mary University of London, has written to the Welsh Assembly saying evidence from other countries with a lower minimum voting age suggests overall turnout would drop, because turnout for 16-and 17-year-olds tends to be lower than other groups. This was unless, he said, money was spent to specifically target the age group, like in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum when 16-year-olds voted for the first time in the UK. "If young voters are ready to vote, then we should not need to allocate specific resources to mobilise them," he told BBC Sunday Politics Wales. "That we do, indicates that they are not ready."

He added: "Even some of the things you used to be able to do at the age of 16, say 10 or so years ago, you can no longer do, things like smoking, buying a firework for example, going into a tanning booth. All of these have changed recently and if they've changed at all, they've tend to change upwards towards 18. [Votes for 16] is coming. I think you can see with what's happening in Wales, what's already happening in Scotland. The pressure will then build up for elsewhere in the UK. When it happens, I don't think any of the advantages that are being claimed for it will manifest themselves but it is probably inevitable."

Prof Laura McAllister was chair of the expert panel that, as part of its report on how the Senedd could be developed, recommended votes for 16 and 17-year-olds in Welsh Assembly elections. She said lowering the vote would be a mechanism to revitalise democracy, "particularly if you align that with a programme of proper political education through the curriculum, and in an extra-curricular environment. We know that getting young people involved in the voting process, whilst they're still in a secure environment, generally living at home, is likely to be more successful than it is at 18 when they've either left home to go to university or entering a more turbulent phase of their life in terms of change." She said, looking at the evidence from parliamentary and local elections in Scotland, 16 to 18-year-olds voted in larger numbers than 18 to 25-year-olds. "So that tells you something at least about the potential that there is to engage young people in the political process," she added.

[I’m not convinced that dropping the voting age to 16 will achieve much unless, as Prof McAllister suggested, we start political education in schools – probably from age 11 I’d say. It’s something I’ve been personally advocating for years. I don’t think that the general population is anywhere nearly enough educated politically in this country. The problem is, of course, to not cross that line separating political education from political indoctrination. Now that could be a tough one…..]

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Just Finished Reading: Misbehaving – The Making of Behavioural Economics by Richard H Thaler (FP: 2015)

Despite the fact that I’m still pretty much scratching the surface of economics I’ve long held the opinion that the underlying theories are seriously flawed. This book helped confirm that idea although in ways I wasn’t fully expecting. When I read about the subject years ago (pre-Blog) I was confused by ideas like ‘perfect knowledge’, ‘maximising utility’ and the idea that economic units – that’s you and me and your next door neighbour – behave rationally at all times. Just that particular nugget should raise alarm bells. But all of that – that people have somehow developed perfect knowledge of price alternatives, that we can all gauge to the penny which career choice is better over an entire lifetime and that we always buy exactly what we need at the best possible price and that no other considerations come into the decision. In such a world there are no recessions, unemployment does not exist, and inflation is fleeting as the market naturally adjusts to changes in supply and demand. Likewise economic decisions are not influenced by the weather, fashion, fads or internet ‘influencers’. Economics is, indeed, the prefect representation of theories that have grown up over generations along with increased mathematical rigor to say nothing of prestige and, indeed, Nobel Prizes.

Unfortunately, despite the protestations of the world’s greatest living Economists it’s all bullshit built on nothing more that ivory tower wishful thinking. OK, the author isn’t *quite* that brutal but he does lean that way. Back in the 1970’s he started having heretical views. Views that led him to think that maybe, just maybe, economics would have greater and more predictive power if it took into account how people – real people – thought about money and actually spent it. Using experiments more akin to those used in Psychology labs the author and a few radical collaborators started finding disturbing evidence that classic economics simply failed to understand the real world it was supposed to be explaining. With the advent of computers and the growth of economic databases it became increasing clear that the emerging Behavioural Economics had something to say and something to contribute to the study of Economic activity (go figure!). Over the next 40 years, grudgingly at first, Behavioural Economics moved from the lunatic fringe and into the mainstream. What was simple heresy has, slowly, become obvious. It was a long hard road and it’s not over yet. 

Told with a great deal of humour – a lot of it self-deprecating – the author shows how the history of Behavioural Economics unfolded and grew from a few voices in the wilderness to being invited in by governments to create ‘nudge units’ to help move people in the right direction in subjects like paying their taxes to taking up vaccinations. Along the way there’s a lot of resistance from mainstream economists (allowing much debate about its many shortcomings) and a lot of going back to basics to show – with DATA – how Behavioural Economics can explain activity that classical could not (or even could not recognise as a legitimate problem worthy of study). Although a little dry in places, complete with diagrams and graphs, this is still a very good and very useful to a whole new branch of economics that has only really existed in any recognised state for a few decades. A definite must read for anyone interested in the subject. More to come. 

Monday, May 13, 2019

Summer…. At Last?

After weeks of grey skies and occasion (sometimes heavy) rain it looks like the weather has finally turned a corner. Today we had wall to wall blue skies (my favourite) with occasional fluffy clouds and rising temperatures (high of 64 degrees). One other thing that will be rising – apart from hemlines – is the pollen count. Fortunately that’s not as big a problem as it used to be. In my late 20’s to late 30’s I really dreaded the summer months. Essentially for 3-4 months I had a heavy cold complete with temperature, headaches, sore throat and constant running nose – and this was despite being on daily anti-histamines. It was no fun at all. The only real relief I had was being in an air-conditioned building. Not only was it a lot cooler but the air tended to be filtered.

It all started in my mid-20’s as I was due to leave University (the doctor blamed stress) and I tried the first over the counter medication I could find which proved to be of limited use. After much trial and error (and some helpful advice from a friend) I settled on a drug that helped me get through the day – not perfect but at least I could function (after a fashion). I did try everything to limit the symptoms especially at home. I didn’t go out much in the summer – ending up even pastier than usual – and has several air filters running all day whilst I was at work. Again they helped after a fashion. I supposed that this was just my life now. It was pretty miserable though. I’m quite fond of breathing – especially through my nose – which I found difficult throughout both the summer and the winter. Bummer!

Then, after only 15 years or so things began (slowly) to ease off. It was something I hardly noticed at first just thinking that my luck had changed and the pollen count just happened to be lower that day, that week or that summer. After about 20 years or so I stopped taking medication ahead of the summer months in order to build up some immunity. Whenever I felt my eyes starting to burn or the sniffles start I’d pop a pill and see the symptoms ease off. Sometimes I’d take a daily pill a few days in a row but overall I wasn’t popping pills anywhere as regularly as I had been. So around 30 years after I was regularly floored by the pollen (after pretty much ignoring it through my entire childhood and teenage years!) count I started to largely ignore it.

These days – indeed at this very moment – I can feel a mild irritation at the top of my nasal cavity and my eyes are burning a bit but it’s hardly a bother. At the beginning of this pollen filled journey I’d be blowing my nose every few minutes and feeling like death around now. I think it’s equally weird how my immune system has now started ((largely) to ignore pollen as it was weird when my system – for reasons unknown – went into overdrive whenever trees started feeling sexy. Most hay fever sufferers (so I understand) are allergic to either tree pollen or grass pollen. Some unlucky bastards are allergic to both. With me it’s always been tree pollen. So I get my symptoms early in the summer. Weirdly (again) on holiday with my ex in Portugal about this time of year (and fully expecting to suffer) I had zero symptoms the whole time being away. I can only guess that the trees spraying everywhere where different enough that my immune system ignored them. Of course as soon as we got home my nose immediately started running away with itself.

So I’m lucky in several ways. It looks like my strongly adverse reaction to tree pollen isn’t coming back any time soon and is, in fact, continuing to ease off and my strong immune response is pollen related only. I know several people with severe food allergies which I would be horrified to have – nuts, dairy, wheat – so I thank my DNA every day that I haven’t been visited by that particular (occasionally fatal) nuisance. But I am so grateful that 30 years of sneezing is about the end of it. Phew.   

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Sooner than you would think I'm guessing..... [grin]
UK economy rebounds in first quarter

From the BBC

10th May 2019

The UK economy picked up in the first three months of the year after manufacturers' stockpiling ahead of Brexit helped to boost growth. Growth was 0.5% in the quarter, up from 0.2% in the previous three months, the Office for National Statistics said. The manufacturing sector grew at its fastest rate since 1988 in the period. The ONS said this was driven by manufacturers rushing to deliver orders before the original Brexit deadline of 29 March. Pharmaceuticals was one of the sectors most affected, expanding 9.4% between January and March. Previous business surveys had shown manufacturers stockpiling goods for Brexit in case the UK left the EU without a transition deal, which they feared could lead to delays at UK borders.

As well as manufacturers rushing to deliver orders before the UK was due to leave the EU, firms also stockpiled parts. This drove a surge in imports, with the total trade deficit - the gap between what the UK imports and exports - doubling in the first quarter to a record high, separate data from the ONS showed. The total trade deficit widened from £8.9bn to £18.3bn, driven partly by a sharp increase in imports of cars and gold [£6Bn worth!]. However, the UK's deadline to exit the EU has since been extended until the end of October after Prime Minister Theresa May asked the EU for more time to negotiate a deal.

Chancellor Philip Hammond said the figures showed the economy remained "robust". "These GDP figures this morning show again that the UK economy is performing robustly, despite the evidence of slowing global growth and the continued Brexit uncertainty at home - so it's good news," he told the BBC. But analysts have warned the impact of Brexit could mean the pick-up in growth is short-lived.  Tej Parikh, senior economist at business lobby group the Institute of Directors, said it could well be just "a flash in the pan". "Some businesses brought activity forward early this year in preparation for leaving the EU, so higher stocks and earlier orders have artificially bumped up the growth numbers. In the second quarter, many firms will be keen to run down their Brexit caches, which will drag on economic growth," he said. But Ruth Gregory, senior UK Economist at Capital Economics, said the figures offered some "encouraging signs that underlying growth gained some pace". She said household consumption growth was "solid" and pointed out that business investment grew "for the first time in four quarters".

[Stories like this are one reason why I don’t trust the pronouncements of Economists or Chancellors. It’s clear that the so-called ‘boost’ in the economy is from companies stockpiling like crazy because of their fears regarding a no-deal Brexit and getting out as many orders as possible to both avoid any increased tariffs and to get a war chest ready to tide them over any expected issues post-Brexit. This is not simply companies ‘doing well’ despite all of the doom and gloom from Project Fear. Likewise household consumption – hardly something to rely on – is probably people stockpiling (again) plus making purchases now in the expectation that prices will inevitably rise once we leave the single market. The sudden import in gold to the tune of SIX BILLION POUNDS in THREE MONTHS says it all really. People are hunkering down in anticipation of the hard times ahead. This is hardly the sign of an economy ‘doing well’.]