If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Friday 31 July 2009

I don't like it, and it should be banned

Interesting letter in The Times a couple of days ago.

This [proposed regulation of jetskis] raises the question that if motorcycles for the road did not exist, would they now be invented and, if so, would they be made legal?

That's an interesting question, for a whole lot of reasons.

I think that a) they would, and b) they would not. That is, I think that someone would have the excellent idea that a motorised vehicle on two wheels rather than four would be more economical than a car, use fewer of the earth's resources, cause less pollution and congestion, and be a whole heap of fun, so they would be invented at some point. In fact, the motorcycle as an invention is older than the car. Daimler and Maybach unveiled their motorised bicycle in 1885, whereas Benz's Motorwagen was not patented until 1886. Just thought I would get that one in.

And no, I can't see them being allowed in the UK, the most risk-averse, nannying, controlling country in the modern world. In a world where the majority opt to travel in an enclosed tin box, replete with climate control, crumple zones, safety belts, soft edges and 'driver aids' like ABS and active suspension, the idea of climbing on top of a naked machine no bigger than you are and travelling at high speed on public roads with nothing but your own skill and the forces of physics to keep you upright and a bit of leather and Kevlar to protect you seems pretty preposterous.

But then, if they invented alcohol today (with all the known health risks and social problems it causes), it would probably never be permitted to be sold. And no-one wants to ban alcohol, do they? Oh, hang on; this is UK 2009. As you were.

One of the reponses to this letter says it all:

If the m/c were invented now it would never be licensed by any rational authority as too dangerous for use on public roads. If they cannot be banned the tax on thir [sic] sales should be prohibitive.

Thank you, John Dean. I don't know where to start with this piece of authoritarian bullshit. For one thing, it assumes that any new invention has to be 'licensed' by a 'rational authority' before people are allowed to use it. Who is that authority going to be? And who is to decide what is rational? I choose to ride a motorbike. I have assessed the risks, I have taken appropriate precautions, and I believe that the risks, balanced against the benefits, are acceptable. That's rational in my book. But not according to John. He wants everything to be assessed by an 'authority' and the common people only allowed to do what his 'authority' deems acceptable. I rather get the feeling that John sees himself as part of this 'authority', or that at least the 'authority' will generally agree with him. I'd love to see his face when some future 'rational authority' bans cycling, or walking, or lentils, or knitting 'for safety reasons'. Once this genie is out of the bottle, it's not going to go back willingly.

For another thing, why do these interfering pecksniffs always think that banning something is a proper response to anything they don't like? This translates rather neatly to the following syllogism:
  1. It is acceptable to prevent other people from doing things of which I do not approve
  2. I do not approve of motorcycles
  3. Therefore, motorcycles should be banned.
Now, 2 is clearly a given, judging from the man's tone, and 3 follows perfectly logically from 1 and 2. The problem is with 1, the Major Premise.

One of the biggest changes I have seen in my years on this planet is the change from relative freedom to a form of totalitarianism. Educated people, nice people, sensible people, now believe that anyone should have the power to prevent other people from doing things that they do not approve of. Look at the fox-hunting argument. A few influential lefties don't like it, and it is banned. Never mind the thousands of law-abiding and well-meaning people who have to make major changes to their lives to stay within the law. We don't like it, so you mustn't do it. (Note: I have never hunted a fox and never wish to, but I prefer to live in a country where those who do are free to get on with it.) Well, let me tell you, there are a lot of things I don't approve of (I won't list them here - you'd be reading this all day). But I am old enough to realise that other people are different, and I don't demand that the world is organised so that it conforms to my personal tastes and appetites. That is just immature.

So who the hell are these people who think they can decide how I (or anyone else) can live my life? Well, they used to be old retired colonels writing to the Torygraph, or spinsters who had nothing better to do than complain about 'young people these days'. Then it became the preserve of Student Union moralists, who liked to decide who was to be allowed the benefit of free speech, and who was to be denied it. And now it is the governing class - politicians, quangocrats, the mainstream media, and especially the BBC. It's a long way back to the freedoms I enjoyed as a child.

Well, as far as I am concerned, you can all sod off. I will live my life according to my rules, take my own risks, and live with the consequences. If I crash and burn (in any sense of the phrase), I will be helped by a health service that I have paid for out of my taxes, and I promise not to complain when you make demands on communal resources resulting from your lifestyle choices (I don't smoke or take drugs, for example, but my NHS helps people who do.)

The other point is, of course, the notion that if something cannot be banned, it should be punitively taxed. Aside from the idea that taxation has become, not a simple method for the government to raise money to do the things it wants to do, but a means of coercing us into behaving in certain ways, there's a big problem with this, and it's a moral one.

If you tax something heavily because you think it is undesirable, then who is most affected by your actions? I'll tell you - it's poor people. Rich people may bitch and complain, but they won't be put off if it's something they want to do. So you get the situation where a socially-coercive measure has different effects on different parts of society. Effectively, the poor are stopped from doing it (or are further impoverished), while the rich are merely inconvenienced. How that can be presented as just or fair is beyond me. Increase tobacco taxes by 500% and you will certainly reduce smoking - by poor people. The rich can carry on. Increase the Road Tax on older cars, and the guy in a minumum-wage MacJob with six kids to support will have to give up his car. The rich guy will just buy a newer model.

Socialists tend to approve of this kind of punitive taxation. No, I don't understand it either.

I had a wonderful insight into how this kind of mindset works shortly after the introduction of the Congestion Charge in London. One one of my very rare visits to the capital, I was taken to a function in the City by my brother-in-law. In the late evening, we were standing on a street corner waiting for a taxi, when I commented on how quiet the streets were, and that the charge seemed to be having the desired effect. "Congestion Charge, I love it!" he said. "Roads for the Rich!"

I can accept (a little reluctantly) that a government has the right to raise money from the governed to pursue its legitimate aims (which I would limit to defending the nation, maintaining a police and justice system, and putting out fires, but that's another argument entirely). But when did the population agree that the government could take money from us by force in order to influence our behaviour in areas which, until quite recently, were considered to be matters of personal choice?

To get back to John Dean and his interfering, authoritarian kind: if they can't ban something outright, they want to use the tax system so that most people can't afford to do it, and everyone feels punished for wanting to do something they have freely chosen. And the rationale behind all this is that They know better than You what is good for you, and are prepared to use force to make you comply. Do what Nanny says, or you get a smack.

Welcome to 21st Century Britain - cradle of democracy, land of the free. The sad thing is, even a change of government won't make the slightest bit of difference.

Wednesday 29 July 2009

Old times, old habits

Thought it was time for a couple of funnies. It really wasn't that long ago ...

Been free of the weed for two-and-a-half years now. Anyone have any hints on giving up the nicotine replacement therapy?

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Moths and me

Totally inconsequential, I know, but these are my thoughts on moths. Yes, moths; those little things that come out at night and fly crazily and self-destructively round your table lamp.

I once went to the library on my own, aged about 6. That's not as adventurous as it sounds, as the library was housed in the local primary school, which I attended during the daytime, and was only across the road and fifty yards down. I returned with a book entitled Hints For Young Mothers. My own mother was horrified (I think she thought there might have been something unsuitably biological in it) and asked me why I had chosen that title. "Well, Mum," said I, "I've always been interested in moths." Whether I thought that 'mothers' was a word for those interested in the little creatures (which I wasn't, particularly), or whether I was secretly fascinated by the unsuitable biological stuff and merely came up with that reply as a diversion - quick for a six-year-old, huh? - I am not sure I can tell you. It's a long time ago.

Some time after that incident, I became terrified of moths. Yes, that's 'terrified', as in reduced to a quivering wreck, sweating, palpitations, the lot. If even a small one got into a room I was in, I would have to dash out and quake in the hallway until someone had got rid of it. While this might be regarded as merely wimpish at the age of 10, if you are still doing this at 35 there's something seriously wrong. And I was. I don't mind spiders. Mice are fine. Rats, apart from the obvious fear of what they do when cornered (go for the eyes and genitals, apparently), no problem. Slugs and snails are great. Worms, lovely, with a nice dressing and a little pepper.

But moths, no. It's the way they fly, in those crazy fluttery loops, and the thickness of them compared to butterflies, and the way they turn to dust when you swat them. And, of course, they are creatures of the night, dark and sombre, where butterflies (entomologically almost identical) are pretty and associated with sunshine and summer gardens. Neither can harm you in any way. Which I knew. And discounted.

I know when it started. I was aged about nine, and reading in bed one summer's evening. It was dark outside and, because it was hot, I had my bedroom window wide open. I was lying in bed with an Anglepoise lamp reaching over my shoulder onto the book I was reading. Suddenly, a moth (one of the big buggers, the size of a sparrow, at least) flew into my face, and then kept circling round the room, again and again straight into my face. It was heading for the bright light, and my head was in the way. Eventually, I realised it wasn't going to stop, and I jack-knifed out of bed and ran out of the room onto the landing. I don't know what kind of a fuss I made, or what happened afterwards, but from that moment on I could not bear to be in the same room as a moth. Large, hairy, brown ones especially, but even the small ones, like clothes moths, gave me the heebie-jeebies.

I know they are harmless. I know it's ridiculous. But that's kinda the point with irrational fears - they are irrational, right?

Anyway, this thing stayed with me through my twenties and thirties, and even my forties. Gradually, I suppose that it has diminished with time. In fact, for the last five years or so, it has hardly bothered me. Last night, I was walking down my hallway at home and I saw a very beautiful moth lying flat against the plaster of the wall. It was a carpet moth, like this:

I was struck by the delicate colouring and the intricate patterns on the wings, and I suddenly realised - I don't fear this thing any more. I actually like it. I won't do what I used to do:
  • Smash it to tiny pieces (teens)

  • Smash it enough to kill it (20s)

  • Smash it enough to knock it out of the sky, and then scoopitintoamatchboxandthrowitoutofthewindowfast (30s)

  • Leave the room and hope it has gone by the time I get back (40s)

I just stood looking at it, and thinking how wonderful it was that the world contained things like that.

I'm cured.

Handy hints:

1. If you want to catch a moth so that you can take it outside, leave the light on and stand by the door. Then switch the light off. The moth will spiral to the floor vertically below the light and will wait there long enough for you to drop something over it and scoop it into a container. Works every time.

2. If you have a fear of any harmless creature, remember what someone once said to me: if you fear something, you want to kill it, and the violence makes your fear worse. If you can bear to be gentle with it, and take it kindly to somewhere else before releasing it unharmed, your fear will gradually disappear. It's true; it works.

Thank you for listening. I feel better now.

New to me

Having done an English degree, and taught the subject for nearly 20 years, I ought to know most of the commoner poems that do the rounds. And yet the delight of poetry is there is always one you haven't seen before, one that makes you smile, or think, or weep. Looking for something completely different, I came across this one today. Thinking of Pope's "what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed", I thought I would put this on here as a message to someone (I know she reads the blog) who has been through some tough times lately. She knows who she is.

The Confirmation

Yes, yours, my love, is the right human face,
I in my mind had waited for this long,
Seeing the false and searching for the true,
Then found you as a traveller finds a place
Of welcome suddenly amid the wrong
Valleys and rocks and twisting roads. But you,
What shall I call you? A fountain in a waste,
A well of water in a country dry,
Or anything that’s honest and good, an eye
That makes the whole world bright. Your open heart,
Simple with giving, gives the primal deed,
The first good world, the blossom, the blowing seed,
The hearth, the steadfast land, the wandering sea.
Not beautiful or rare in every part.
But like yourself, as they were meant to be.

Edwin Muir

Saturday 25 July 2009

And then there were none ...

I am greatly saddened to hear of the death of Harry Patch today. Harry was the last surviving veteran of the trenches in the Great War (as it was called before we had to start numbering them). I am not old enough to have fought in any war, although the Second War was fairly recent when I was a child - I missed it by eight years, and 'before the War' and 'during the War' were very common phrases at home, as was the spirit of 'make do and mend', and 'waste not, want not' that the War had engendered in my parents' generation. I still cannot throw away a jar with something still inside it, and find it very hard to discard something that could, just possibly, come in handy some time.

The Great War produced some of the most poignant poetry in the English language, and quite probably changed our attitudes to war for ever. When Wilfred Owen wrote Dulce Et Decorum Est, he was using a phrase that was common currency amongst the educated. After 1918, no-one any longer thought dying for your country was 'sweet' or 'noble', although we have plodded along quite satisfactorily ever since on the notion that it is sometimes a regrettable necessity.

I am pleased that Gordon Brown has decided that a national memorial service, to commomorate Harry and his generation, is to be held. I hope he doesn't try to turn it into a political gesture (as Blair did with the Queen Mum's funeral) and turns up rather more smartly dressed than Michael Foot at the Cenotaph. Hey, we can hope.

It is worth remembering that the Great War was possibly the nastiest war ever fought, making all the wars ever since (even WWII) look small beer in comparison. On 1 July 1916, at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, the number dead was estimated to be 19,240. That's one day, and Allied casualties only. Nearly twenty thousand young lives lost in a matter of a few hours.

My contribution will be to post one of Owen's finest poems about that conflict, which sums up the sheer sadness of the loss of young lives. He doesn't make a political point; he doesn't need to. The pathos speaks for itself:

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?

Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.

The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

War is never any less than a tragedy, which is why it should never be embarked upon unless there is no alternative, and after great deliberation. And why Blair, Brown and all their foul and spineless hangers-on deserve to burn in Hell for the rest of Time.

Cheers to you, Harry.

Friday 24 July 2009

Shock blow to Cameron!

As expected, the Tories took Norwich North. The Conservative majority was comfortable, at over 7,300 - a swing to them of over 16%. Labour narrowly missed being pushed into third place.

Watch for the spin machine tonight:

  • Norwich North result a bad blow to David Cameron's hopes of becoming Prime Minister
  • Should have had at least 10,000 majority for a convincing win
  • "Normal mid-term result" says Brown.

They had been spinning that a majority of 5,000 or less would represent 'defeat' for the Tories. I wonder how they will spin 7,348?


Gordon Brown in the Grauniad:

Responding to the news, the prime minister admitted it was a disappointing result but said no party could take a "great deal of cheer" from it because all three of the main parties had lost votes.

"The Conservative vote went down, the Liberal vote went down, only the fringe parties saw their votes going up," he said.

"I think it's a lesson that we have all got to observe."

I hadn't seen that one coming - the 'it's a bad result for everyone' approach. The lesson, mate, is that it was a bad result for you, and your core vote is crumbling.

Thursday 23 July 2009

Government by the Innumerate

The Child Poverty Bill is due to come before Parliament soon. It aims to make eradicting child poverty a duty of Government, and to "outlaw" child poverty by 2020. It all sounds well and good, but it is bollocks, mathematically and logically.

The Bill refers to 'relative' poverty, where poverty is defined as being in receipt of an income a certain measure below the national average - according to the Government, 60% of average income is considered the line below which you are poor. [1] 'Relative' poverty as an idea is a very different from 'absolute' poverty, which refers to a lack of the resources to live a comfortable life.

I have no problem with aiming to eradicate absolute poverty. In a civilised society, everyone should have access to clean water, enough food to survive, basic healthcare, and a roof over their heads. As long as the society can afford to do so, this should be an obligation on every government. But that is not the same as relative poverty. Relative poverty defines itself in relation to the national standard of living, so you get the ridiculous claims of some that a home without a plasma TV and two foreign holidays a year is 'poor', while the truly poor in Africa are without water, food, healthcare or shelter. I have two problems with this, one mathematical and one moral.

The mathematical problem is that relative poverty can never be eradicated. It's not possible. As soon as you increase the incomes of the poorest, you increase the average, and they become 'poor' again. It's a process that can never have an end [2]. Ludicrously, you can eradicate 'poverty' simply by paying rich people less which, to be sure, would do nothing for the living standards of those on lower incomes, but would lift them out of relative poverty. And, of course, Gordon Brown knows this. The Bill is purely a political exercise to trap the Opposition. If they oppose it, they will be seen as uncaring. If they support it, they are lumbered with inevitable failure. It's exactly what you would expect of someone who does not expect to be in government in five years' time.

The moral problem concerns the motivation behind the Bill. What it seeks to do is not eradicate absolute poverty (which I would applaud) but even out incomes across the nation. The only way that relative poverty can be eradicated is if everyone earns much the same. This is the true levelling mindset behind the Bill - not to remove things like hunger and homelessness, but to make the poor richer by making the rich poorer. And while that may be a legitimate aim (although, historically, the outcomes have never been good), it is certainly not how Labour are presenting it. Which, of course, is no surprise at all.

[1] I am aware that the term 'average' is vague and imprecise, but I have seen various definitions of poverty involving means and modes and medians, and it doesn't make a lot of difference - the principle is the same, even if the numbers are slightly different.

[2] This reminds me of a wonderful Daily Mail article of a few years back:

Child Literacy Shock
Fully 50% of youngsters leaving primary school are below average in reading, it has been admitted.

Well, durr.

Tin hat time

I am on the late shift in work today, so I went and did a little light shopping this morning. And there, in the middle of Morrison's, was a woman. Hippy type, long skirt, beads and bangles and stuff, frizzy hair, ethnic scarf.

And a face-mask.

Made of denim.

Take cover, chaps - it's coming ...

30 years on ...

Mr Eugenides' (to whom a tip of the hat) Quote of the Day:

There is only one service they can do the nation now. It is to stand not upon the order of their going, but go. The damage that they have done to Britain is immeasurable.

Our ancestors built a land of pride and hope and confidence in the future, a land whose influence grew out of all proportion to her size, whose constitution guaranteed a balance between freedom and order which used to be the British hallmark and became a model for the world. That was the heritage they handed down to us.

What would they think of Labour Britain today?

Margaret Thatcher, October 1978

Wednesday 22 July 2009


For my sins, I am a member of my country's Citizens' Panel, which means that I have been especially selected by someone, and once every couple of months they send me the link to an online survey. There are always questions on local policing, to which my answer is always the same - yes, please, we would like some. And questions on GPs and pharmacists and local services and libraries and waste collection and would I lke to attend meetings with local councillors and youth offending team representatives (ooooh, yes please!) and would I prefer to have information on the local Reading For The Blind Initiative delivered by email, leaflet, website, local paper, and would that be in braille, Sir?

(The one I loved was the question:

What type of internet connection do you have?

a) Broadband
b) Dial-up
c) Don't know
d) None

Er, it's an online survey, dear.)

It's stultifyingly boring, but I feel if they are asking the questions, I might as well give them an answer. I get bugger-all chance to say my piece to anyone otherwise. So tonight, I got in from work, logged into my emails, and there was another one. Much the same as before, but this time there was a question on Disability. And the first question said:

The following questions are part of the Council’s work to develop its Disability Equality Scheme. The aim of which is to ensure equal access to the Council’s services, buildings and employment, as well as celebrating diversity and disability.

Well, I knew it was compulsory in NuLabour Britain to celebrate diversity (one of those phrases, like 'vibrant community' that has me reaching for my shotgun), but now we are supposed to celebrate disability too?

Listen. Disability is horrible. It hurts and it is inconvenient. It's blindness and deafness and loss of mobility and the most normal things become a challenge like climbing Everest. People often don't consider your needs and treat you like a vegetable. It's crap. If I could wave a magic wand, I would abolish it entirely, and have the whole world able-bodied and fit and happy. So what the hell is there to celebrate about it?

I know, let's celebrate blindness. How wonderful it must be to be challenged by not being able to see. How great and heart-warming it must be to have to ask for help to cross the road. How ennobling to know that you will never see your grandchildren or your lover's face ever again.

Let's celebrate being house-bound by wonky legs and a bad back that means you can't drive and there's no sodding bus service.

Let's celebrate walking with a stick or having to use a wheelchair, which is so wonderfully, you know, diverse and we all feel so good about ourselves by celebrating it and don't think for one second about how bad it must be to actually live with it.

Seriously, what planet are these people on?

Do they seriously think that people want to be disabled, or that they would, in a million years, want to celebrate it?

Ask any disabled person which they would rather have:

1. A 23-year-old social work graduate patronising them with talk of celebrating their disability, or

2. To be able to walk unassisted.

Answers, on a five-pound note, to the usual address.


Monday 20 July 2009

Another reason for reading proper books

E-book readers - never used one, never wanted to. I like paper books - ones you can hold, take to bed, read on the bog, even scribble on. Books don't freeze and need a hard reset, and don't suffer from power failures. Most of all, print on paper is much easier to read than characters on a screen.

And now, here's another reason to stick with Dead Tree Literature:

This morning, hundreds of Amazon Kindle owners awoke to discover that books by a certain famous author had mysteriously disappeared from their e-book readers. These were books that they had bought and paid for—thought they owned.

But no, apparently the publisher changed its mind about offering an electronic edition, and apparently Amazon, whose business lives and dies by publisher happiness, caved. It electronically deleted all books by this author from people’s Kindles and credited their accounts for the price.

At least when you buy a book (even from Amazon) they don't come round in the night and nick it from your bedside table. Well, they haven't so far, anyway.

Let 'em try.

(The massive irony here, and one which has probably escaped Amazon, is that one of the books in question was ... drum roll ... Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.)

Batman Was Gay

And all the other super-heroes too.

Here's the proof:

Or perhaps just a little 'bi':

Or interested in 'mechanical assistance':

Perhaps it's best just to keep it to yourself:

There are no heroes. Everyone is compromised.

For Fox' Sake!

This is apparently a genuine election poster for Labour in the coming Norwich North by-election.

I know it's a rather pathetic attempt at the old class envy stuff, and it shows that Labour are completely desperate and short of proper ideas, but ...

Who the hell thought a fox would look better in an Aran sweater?

Sunday 19 July 2009

Orwell vs Huxley

Here's an interesting question: who was the best predictor of the state of our current society - George Orwell or Aldous Huxley?

For those without the instant recall of Great Works of Lit, I'm talking about:
  • George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, describes a nightmare world of surveillance, misinformation, betrayal and fear. Big Brother is the shadowy figure who rules the state, and every room has a telescreen which pumps out state propaganda and simultaneously watches your every move and gesture.
  • Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, published in 1932, describes another nightmare world, but this time it is a state which makes sure everyone is happy and distracted from serious thought, where one's own pleasure is the only duty and where unhappiness is a crime against society.
I have read them both several times, although I have to admit that I have never yet read Nineten Eighty-Four in one sitting. It is so depressing that I have always read about three-quarters of it and then had to put it down for a week or two before finishing it with a clear head.

Both books try to create a world which is a nightmarish warning about how our own society could develop - Orwell critiquing the repression of Soviet Russia and Huxley the more insidious attractions of the capitalist West. Both have ideas which are uncannily accurate direct hits on British life in the early 21st Century.

Nineteen Eighty-Four
has its constant surveillance of the population, the promotion of war (and the threat of war) to keep the people fearful and loyal, the existence of an elite who are above the law, and the mass of the 'proles' who are ignorant and kept amused and in their place by cheap drink and popular entertainment. Orwell invented the concept of 'Newspeak', a reduced and officially-approved form of English which removed the ability for independent thought by removing the language it could be expressed in - a remarkable foretaste of political correctness and 'speech codes'. Gordon Brown in 'tractor production statistics' mode always reminds me of the stream of targets and achievements put out by the telescreens.

The society of Brave New World has constant non-reproductive sex as a recreational activity, 'soma holidays' which are eerily reminiscent of LSD (only synthesised six years after the book was written), and a promotion of consumption and meaningless entertainment to keep the population distracted and free from serious thought. Life is pleasant, even and worry-free, as long as you conform.

I am a big fan of both books, although BNW is the easier read. Neil Postman [1], in Amusing Ourselves To Death (1985) thought that Huxley was the more prescient of the two, and I am inclined to agree. NEF almost seemed to be a blueprint of the post-war Eastern Bloc societies, and certainly there are things in there that chillingly remind us that our rulers in safe, liberal Britain still have the compulsion to identify, trace, watch and control us. (See any edition of any national newspaper of the last ten years for examples.) But BNW seems to understand that people are more easily controlled if you make give them nice things to keep them occupied and away from dangerous thoughts - a modern version of panem et circenses. Perhaps the reality is a combination of both.

I was reminded of all this through an article on B3ta, which links to a rather well-done cartoon summary of the arguments. Worth a look.

If anyone reading this blog (either of you, har har) has a view on this, please feel free to comment.

As a footnote, let me record how sad I feel if ever anyone mentions the words 'Big Brother' amongst people under 30. No-one picks up the origin of the name, and everyone immediately thinks of the Channel 4 programme, thus neatly proving Huxley's point.

[1] I first came across this chap during my teacher training year in 1975-6, when his Teaching as a Subversive Activity was required reading amongst nascent pedagogues. Required reading by the College tutors, I meant to say. When subversiveness is promoted by the establishment, you just know it isn't going to turn out well.

Larkin about

As it's a Sunday morning and it's tipping down with rain, I am staying indoors. The bikes are getting a free wash, and the grass I mowed yesterday (phew) is getting a drenching. The last two lines of a Philip Larkin poem have been buzzing in my head for the last few days. I'm not sure why - perhaps there's a resonance with Life In General and my brain is channeling all sorts of suitable literature down my stream-of-consciousness intake.

I love Larkin. Like an expert carpenter, he seems to be able to hit a nail with such well-judged force that it drives home in one blow. No wasted words, ever - just a sense of "why didn't I think that?"


The widest prairies have electric fences,
For though old cattle know they must not stray
Young steers are always scenting purer water
Not here but anywhere. Beyond the wires

Leads them to blunder up against the wires
Whose muscle-shredding violence gives no quarter.
Young steers become old cattle from that day,
Electric limits to their widest senses.

Philip Larkin

Friday 17 July 2009

Wind farms

I hate them. Really, really hate them. Many reasons:

  • I love lonely and remote places. Wind turbines desecrate them.
  • Their contribution to our energy demand is unreliable and, even on a windy day, trivial.
  • They consume massive subsidies, money which could be better spent elsewhere.
  • The industry is dominated by energy giants who, like 'barn-fresh eggs', portray themselves as small, cuddly and eco-friendly but are as grasping and morality-free as Big Pharma or the arms industry.
  • They are the visible symbols of a religion, one I can't share, and religions give me the creeps.
Travelling through mid-Wales, on all roads you eventually round a corner or crest a hill, and there in front of you is a fabulous, bare and (until recently) unspoilt landscape, which fills the soul and refreshes the spirit. Except that some bastards have planted white wind turbines from horizon to horizon. It makes me want to weep.

Soon there won't be any remote places left.

Simon Jenkins puts it so well in this article. Who would have thought I would be linking to a Guardian writer in this blog? A brief taster:

The wind debate is no less dominated by a mix of politics and commerce. Turbine parks require excavating carbon sinks, concreting them and making and installing turbines and pylons, usually to distribute small, even trivial, amounts of intermittent electricity. Yet the argument is now symbolic.

Sacrificing the Lake District, the Golden Valley, the Scottish islands, even the Wiltshire vales is like Aztecs killing virgins, evidence of the machismo of power in a godly cause. This is enhanced by a rerun of town/country antagonism, with metropolitan journalists shouting nimby at their country cousins (there being no danger of a power station on Hyde Park or Clapham Common).

Good stuff. I may well return to this topic.

Petrol Scam

Here's a clever scam. A woman in car stops you in the street and asks you for £3 for petrol to get her home. The amount is trivial, and most people would be likely to hand over a fiver. She takes your address and promises to return the money that night. Of course, that's the last you see of her. If she does that twenty times in an afternoon, she is £100 up and has enough for her drinks or a serving of whatever is her drug du choix.

One woman tried it on Rob Manuel (of B3ta) and he wrote about it on his blog. He asked if he could take her photo for security and she agreed. Of course, that's on the blog as well. The comment thread below is well worth reading.

You can see why he was willing to cough up. With hindsight, of course, the short skirt and low top give it away, but in the couple of seconds you have to make a decision I think most guys would err on the side of generosity.

Yes, it gets bigger if you click it.

Kids - just be careful out there.

Thursday 16 July 2009

A nod and a wave

Motorcyclists have always acknowledged each others' presence on the road. Comradeship, shared suffering, recognition of a kindred spirit, who knows? But we all do it.

There was a time when everyone on a bike gave a wave when they passed another bike going in the opposite direction. I think bikers have always been a bit tribal, so a guy on a Manx Norton wouldn't always wave at a guy on a Lambretta (perhaps in the pre-Mods-and-Rockers days they did, who knows?). But generally speaking, bikers waved at bikers.

Until recently, that is.

When I learned to ride in the early 70s, it was a proper wave. Left hand off the bar, quick wave. In them thar days, the riding position of most bikes was fairly upright, and a wave was easy. As riding positions got to be more of a racing crouch on some bikes, this became more difficult, but at the same time many bikes got a flasher switch. This was a little trigger, usually yellow, on the left switch cluster, just in front of the index finger. A quick squeeze on this (just like firing a gun, which made it a bit more fun) and your main beam flashed and oncoming bikers were duly greeted.

Then came 2004, and EU legislation that all new motorcycles had to have the headlight hard-wired to be on at all times, so the effect of a flashed headlight in daytime was hard to see. Possibly this is the reason why people stopped doing it. Nowadays, the most common greeting is a nod. Unless it is exaggerated to the point where it looks deranged, a nod is sometimes almost invisible. A nod, however, leaves both hands on the bars, which is probably a good idea in modern traffic.

But I certainly notice, and with some regret, that the habit appears to be dying out. Out of sheer force of habit, I nod (or wave) at every other biker I see. And quite often I get absolutely nothing in return. I decided to test this, and did my own (highly unscientific) survey on my morning commute. Apart from the odd random visitor, the riders I see regularly are of three types:
  • Commuters like me, on the way to or from work, out in all weathers
  • Tourists going to or from the Irish ferry at Fishguard
  • Youngsters riding into College - often scooters or those little twist'n'go things.
The results of a couple of years' observation are:
  • Commuters: ALWAYS acknowledge. An obvious nod of the head (often slightly to the side for emphasis) and in one case - a guy on a large sports tourer who wears a race-replica helmet - a very obvious and cheery proper wave of the hand.
  • Tourists: hardly ever acknowledge. Some (often the sports bike crowd) will give a nod, but there are two groups who I have never had a nod from yet - Big Adventure Bike riders (following Ewan and Charlie to deepest Wexford) and the Big Expensive Tourer lot - huge full-dress Harleys and fully-loaded GoldWings. A wave from a friendly chap on a ratty trailbike is treated with utter disdain. Well, if that's you and you are reading this - fuck off. (When I shout it at you inside my helmet, it's always too late. I feel better now.)
  • Students: usually react with surprise when someone on a 'proper' bike says hello, but they often nod back with an uncertain air, and some of them are now becoming regular nodders. No cheery waves yet, but we are working on it.
Here's my reasoning on the phenomenon.

Students and youngsters on entry-level bikes either don't feel part of a community (perhaps the bike is all they can afford until they can get the modded Clio with the boom-box in the boot) or are part of a sub-set that don't feel part of the motorcycling community as a whole. But they can all be encouraged, and there is nothing wrong with teaching young people a few manners :)

Tourists don't feel part of a community either, unless it is a community of people who dress identically to them and ride identical bikes with the same mythical Round-The-World image. After all, if your bike cost you 12 grand and you ride it twice a year (wearing your Ewan and Charlie desert suits and those impossible peaked off-roady helmets that cost half a year's wages), then you are hardly going to feel kinship with some guy who just happens to share the number of wheels you have. The Big Expensive Tourer brigade are too busy talking to their wives on Bluetooth in the his'n'hers matching helmets through those dinky microphones that look just like pilots have in those fighter jets, cool, huh? and deciding whether the paunch should go above or below the belt of the waterproof, heated, Kevlar/Goretex/titanium jacket. To a GoldWing rider, his community is other GW riders and no-one else. They have rallies, where you have to have a Wing to go there. A pox on them all.

Commuters ride anything. I would offer myself as the lower end of the spectrum, a 14-year-old trail bike that is missing lots of its body plastics and has had a hard life. The guy I see every day rides a big tourer with full hard luggage that's probably set him back well over 10 grand. But we are both doing what we like doing, every day, in all weathers and all traffic conditions. We know how cold it can get, and how the rain gives motorists get-home-itis which makes them even less observant than usual. We both know that our partners and colleagues think we are crackers, but we do it anyway. Most importantly, we both feel that we are part of a community, which covers all ages, all strata of society, all levels of education and income, male, female, gay, straight. And that's why we wave at each other.

If you read this, man in a stripey helmet on a silver big tourer somewhere on the A40 about 8:15 am, just be aware that you make my day a little bit brighter. And to the guy who passed going up a hill I was going down the other day, doing at least 120 past a line of lorries and caravans, you're forgiven.

(By the way, Hell's Angels and their many imitators never wave, nod or smile. A surly grimace is the only acknowledgment that you even exist. I've given up with them. Piss-pot helmet, shades and beard - look the other way and whistle.)

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Ladybird, Ladybird

I am, to my regret, old enough to remember Ladybird books.

They didn't have these when Ah wor a lad, mind.

Another poem

As promised. This is an incredibly simple poem, but it has fantastic resonance.

Praise of a Collie

She was a small dog, neat and fluid --
Even her conversation was tiny:
She greeted you with bow, never bow-wow.

Her sons stood monumentally over her
But did what she told them. Each grew grizzled
Till it seemed he was his own mother's grandfather.

Once, gathering sheep on a showery day,
I remarked how dry she was. Pollochan said, "Ah,
It would take a very accurate drop to hit Lassie."

She sailed in the dinghy like a proper sea-dog.
Where's a burn? -- she's first on the other side.
She flowed through fences like a piece of black wind.

But suddenly she was old and sick and crippled .
I grieved for Pollochan when he took her a stroll
And put his gun to the back of her head.

Norman MacCaig


My post on canine mortality reminded me of a poem that I read many years ago, but while looking for it online I came across the following by Fleur Adcock, which seemed to fit very well with my late-night post of yesterday. Dog Poem later.


There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse
and worse.


Can't sleep

Bugger bugger bugger. This means I am going to feel like death warmed up all day tomorrow. No matter how late I get to bed, my eyes always flick open at 6.30 am. I used to be able to do without sleep, but not any more. Less than 7 hours and I am a wreck for the next 24.

Too much crap turning over in my head, mainly work.


Tuesday 14 July 2009

Wheelie stupid

This story got my back up.

A man who is thought to have climbed into a bin before being crushed to death in a dust cart has been identified as a 35-year-old Londoner. Sussex Police said Scott Williams, from Wembley, had been reported missing an hour after his body was found at Sussex Waste Recycling Ltd in Newhaven.

Now that is very sad; tragic, even. But look at the way it is handled by the 'authorities':

Police believe Mr Williams, who had been out with a friend and was seen in public houses in Brighton until 0100 BST on Sunday, had been in one of the large wheelie bin used by blocks of flats or businesses. Officers are investigating how he came to be there and are treating his death as unexplained rather than suspicious.

Not too hard to work this one out, I would have thought. He's out on the razz, late Saturday night, and he unaccountably decides to climb in a wheelie bin. A pound to a penny he was royally pissed and decided to hop in for a kip. Or a 'laugh'.

The GMB union has called for large wheelie bins to be checked individually before they are emptied into refuse trucks.

You bet they have. Look out for next year's story - a demarcation dispute between bin emptiers and bin checkers, with pay differentials and guaranteed non-working time a key issue.

A spokesman for Brighton and Hove City Council said: "This is a tragic incident. The council has warned people not to get into our bins and have put stickers on the 700 street bins. We are also putting them on the other 1,000 bins we have in bin stores to remind everyone of the dangers. In addition we have worked with groups across the city to raise the issue with vulnerable people. We really hope the message gets across so that this isn't repeated."

This is the bit that sent my blood pressure up to Saturn-rocket launch levels. Someone, believe it or not, has been sent to put stickers on wheelie bins warning people not to get inside. And then they are employing outreach workers to "raise the issue" across the city. And who has paid for all of that? Don't answer.

I don't know what amazes me the more:

1. That the Council thought it was a good way to spend ratepayers' money (have they nothing better to spend it on?);

2. That the Council are so frightened of being sued that they have lost all reason and regard stickering wheelie bins against drunken louts as a 'reasonable precaution' and part of a duty of care to the general public;

3. Or that our legal system is likely to fine said Council large sums of money because they didn't take action to prevent people doing something which, frankly, a five-year-old child could have seen was a bit stupid.

My money's on all three.

At the risk of sounding like an old codger (which I am not; I am a delayed-teenage codger), this kind of thing was one of the first lessons I was taught when I was old enough to be let out by myself, i.e. about ten minutes after I could tie my own shoelaces. Do. Not. Climb. Into. Things. That. You. Cannot. Get. Out. Of.

Bins, abandoned fridges, manhole covers, mine shafts. Just don't. It's so basic.

I am sorry that someone has lost his life in an accident (not an incident), but to be honest, unless he was stone-cold sober and someone forced him in there and slammed the lid, it's his own silly fault. And that, to me, is the end of it. We are not all infants, and sometimes actions have consequences. We need to get used to that.

The tale of the dog

This post will be unashamedly sentimental and soppy. If that bothers you, look away now. There's plenty of stuff on motorbikes and tools and stuff elsewhere on this blog.

Jem was a Springer Spaniel, and was about 4 or 5 when I moved in with her owner. There are two types of Springer, Welsh and English. The English type is heavier-built and has a coarser coat; the Welsh variety is much more slender and elegant, with a silky coat. I am sure that Jem was a Welsh Springer, but her KC certificate said English. But she was sleek and shiny, with liver and white markings, and I thought she was fab. Actually, at first I thought she was a nuisance, as she had Anna's sole guardian for many years, and she didn't relinquish her responsibilities lightly. But we quickly learned to get along, although I don’t think she ever trusted me fully.

I could go on for pages about what a great dog she was, but I shall keep it brief. She was never trained as a gundog, but she had certain responses built in. At a command of "seek!", she would dive into the nearest bushes and work the undergrowth until something - anything - ran out at the other end. Sometimes a rabbit, sometimes a pheasant, sometimes a rat, but she always found something.

She was a little madam at times. If we went shopping and left her alone, she would turn her back to the car, look over her shoulder, and then pointedly look away. You could almost hear the disapproving sniff.

We live in the countryside with fields all around and a few holiday cottages nearby. Every change-over day, she would patrol all the cottages, introduce herself, and accept a sandwich. Most holidaymakers thought she was a star.

A very few were anti-dog and gave us severe warnings about 'having a dangerous animal on the loose', not realising that, unless you were a rat, there was no more harmless creature in the county. One great success story was one of these families who complained on day one of their visit. We kept her in for the duration, but she must have wandered off at some point, as on the day they left, the father knocked at our door. We were expecting a tirade of the usual my-child-could-have-been-killed nonsense, but instead he asked what kind of dog she was. Jem had (sneakily) gone to see them half-way though the week, the children had fallen for her, and had persuaded Dad to get them one just like Jem. Result.

When she got to 12 or 13 years of age, she started to get health problems. Her joints became stiff, and she kept getting painful abscesses. We must have spent hundreds on medication for her, but in the end the vet told us that she was too weak for another operation, and that the next time we came to see him would be the last. He knew she was terrified of the vets, so he agreed to visit us on the way home one night, and he put her to sleep on the lawn with both of us holding her. We wanted to bury her on her 'patch', so earlier in the day I had asked a friend with a JCB to come and dig us a big hole. He couldn't do the job himself, but sent one of his lads. I met him at the appointed spot, halfway down her favourite stretch of the lane.

All right, boss?

Yeah, sort of.

Where do you want the hole?

I pointed.

Big dog, was he?

She. And no, she wasn't very big at all.

At this point I found I had urgent business about 100 yards away up the lane and out of sight of this strapping lad. Afterwards, I gave him a fiver.

We buried her in the hole and worked harder than necessary to fill it in. The work seemed therapeutic. Finally, we had finished, and went back to the house for a cup of tea. As we stood in the kitchen, looking glumly at each other, there was a tap on the window. It was a man who had stayed last year in the cottage next door, who had just arrived after a long journey from Birmingham.

Is Jem around? The boys have been talking about her non-stop since we left. They'd love to take her out for a play.

I didn't know what to say. I mumbled something like:

Sorry, we buried her ten minutes ago.

He was stunned and very apologetic. No need, of course; he wasn't to know. But the boys took it badly, apparently. He felt guilty about asking; we felt guilty that he felt guilty, and it was a bit of a sorry exchange. They never came back.

Later, I made a little marker for where we had left her. Solid oak, hand-carved, just her name and her vital dates. It's still there, and I tip my hat to it every time I pass.

I'm normally fairly unsentimental, but if anyone ever says they are grieving over the loss of an animal, they have my utmost sympathy. People dying is always complex, but with animals it is simple. They were here, and now they are gone, and that's the biggest difference in the world.

Animals, eh? You let them into your life, look after them, and they tear you apart. We gave it a week or two, and then decided that the house was just too quiet, so we got another dog. But that's for another day.

The real truth about cats and dogs

Reading this post, I was struck by how polarised people are by the 'cats and dogs - which is best?' debate.

"I was reminded yet again that anyone who loves dogs and hates cats needs psychiatric help or self esteem classes."


I ought to declare my hand here and say that I love dogs, always have and always will. I never met a dog I didn't like. I had a dog throughout my childhood, which performed much the same service to me (guide, philosopher and friend) that Juliette's cat did for her. When the little mutt got run over when I was 16, I was heartbroken. Circumstances meant that I didn't have a pet of any kind (unless you count a couple of psychotic rabbits when the kids were small) until I moved in with Anna 19 years ago. She had a Springer bitch and two cats, both kittens at the time I moved in. The cats and I had a bit of a stand-off, a kind of armed neutrality, for a long time. I didn't like them much, but I didn't detest them either. I expect they felt the same. The Springer, on the other hand, was delightful.

However, I did get fond of the cats in a weird way, and when the time came for them to be put down (the last one when Anna was in hospital for the heart surgery, thanks cat) I was pretty upset. We got another cat just recently (a long story for another post) and this one is great fun. She's a total nutjob, and screams around the house at top speed just for fun. She's also a good mouser. Although the previous cats managed to catch the mice and keep them out of the house, she has only managed the first part so far. We get about one 'present' a day, and as Anna hates mice like most people hate having burning bamboo splints shoved under their fingernails, it usually falls to me to find, capture and dispose of the little bugger. ('Dispose', to me, means put in the garden as far away as possible. I only kill things I am prepared to eat, or which mean me harm, and mice don't fit well into either category.) So cats and I are getting along much better these days.

But on the dog/cat question, I am still firmly in the dog camp. Dogs, as a rule, are useful, obedient, and love you unconditionally. Cats tend to be remote, selfish and cannot be trained.

Dogs have owners; cats have staff.

There are people who think dog lovers are therefore muppets with low self-esteem, who need a dumb animal to feel wanted and needed. I tend to take the view that, if you are going to spend your hard-earned on feeding an animal, it might as well be one that will do neat stuff and can give you a fight on the living-room carpet when you're bored. These same people say they 'admire' cats for their aloofness and independence. When you start 'admiring' an animal for how low and unimportant it makes you feel, I think it's you that has the self-esteem 'ishoos'.

Yes, dogs are blokey - not too clever, eat anything, easily satisfied, fart a lot. And cats are girly - obsessively clean, self-centred, picky and unreliable. Dogs make you feel good. Cats make you feel uncertain. And that's why this bloke is unashamedly doggy.

Monday 13 July 2009

At last, a sport I can get into

Extreme Lying Down.

Rules: lie down somewhere, arms by sides, feet pointing at the floor.

The more improbable the place, the better. And getting someone to take a photo of it is better still. There's a whole Facebook thing devoted to it (apparently).

And that's it. I reckon I could be good at this. I'm off training right now. While you wait for me to come back (it may be a long time), here are some pictures to get you in the mood.

Want one


The E-Rockit.

One false note from the pro-bicycle BBC: when the bicycle is pitted against two motorbikes (a FireBlade and a GoldWing), the reporter says "And there you have it: pedal power leads the way!" Except that the Blade flies off into the distance and even the Wing overtakes it within a couple of seconds. I suppose it would be unrealistic for a BBC employee to say something more truthful, such as "it just goes to show that there's nothing quicker in town traffic than a motorbike, but good try anyway."

I still one want one. That thing is cool.

Sunday 12 July 2009

Tool taxonomy

It's been the rounds, but it amused me.

DRILL PRESS: A tall upright machine useful for suddenly snatching flat metal bar stock out of your hands so that it smacks you in the chest and flings your beer across the room, denting the freshly-painted vertical stabilizer which you had carefully set in the corner where nothing could get to it.

WIRE WHEEL: Cleans paint off bolts and then throws them somewhere under the workbench with the speed of light. Also removes fingerprints and hard-earned calluses from fingers in about the time it takes you to say, "Oh sh!#..."

SKILL SAW: A portable cutting tool used to make studs too short.

PLIERS: Used to round off bolt heads. Sometimes used in the creation of blood-blisters.

BELT SANDER: An electric sanding tool commonly used to convert minor touch-up jobs into major refinishing jobs.

HACKSAW: One of a family of cutting tools built on the Ouija board principle. It transforms human energy into a crooked, unpredictable motion, and the more you attempt to influence its course, the more dismal your future becomes.

MOLE-GRIPS: Generally used after pliers to completely round off bolt heads. If nothing else is available, they can also be used to transfer intense welding heat to the palm of your hand.

WELDING GLOVES: Heavy duty leather gloves used to prolong the conduction of intense welding heat to the palm of your hand.

OXYACETYLENE TORCH: Used almost entirely for lighting various flammable objects in your shop. Also handy for igniting the grease inside the wheel hub out of which you want to remove a bearing race.

TABLE SAW: A large stationary power tool commonly used to launch wood projectiles for testing wall integrity.

E-Z OUT BOLT AND STUD EXTRACTOR: A tool ten times harder than any known drill bit that snaps neatly off in bolt holes thereby ending any possible future use.

BAND SAW: A large stationary power saw primarily used by most shops to cut good aluminum sheet into smaller pieces that more easily fit into the trash can after you cut on the inside of the line instead of the outside edge.

TWO-TON ENGINE HOIST: A tool for testing the maximum tensile strength of everything you forgot to disconnect.

CRAFTSMAN 1/2 x 24-INCH SCREWDRIVER: A very large pry bar that inexplicably has an accurately machined screwdriver tip on the end opposite the handle.

PHILLIPS SCREWDRIVER: Normally used to stab the vacuum seals under lids or for opening old-style paper-and-tin oil cans and splashing oil on your shirt; but can also be used, as the name implies, to strip out Phillips screw heads.

STRAIGHT SCREWDRIVER: A tool for opening paint cans. Sometimes used to convert common slotted screws into non-removable screws.

PRY BAR: A tool used to crumple the metal surrounding that clip or bracket you needed to remove in order to replace a 50 cent part.

HOSE CUTTER: A tool used to make hoses too short.

HAMMER: Originally employed as a weapon of war, the hammer nowadays is used as a kind of divining rod to locate the most expensive parts adjacent the object we are trying to hit.

The cussedness of material things

The very kind MoT man gave the XT a pass a few weeks ago, with an advisory on a nearly-bald back tyre. So like a good boy I went and purchased a pair of new ones [1] and waited for a dry day to fit them. Here in Wales, even in summer, dry days are not all that frequent, but eventually I got down to it, pulled out the back wheel, put the new tyre on and attempted to get it all back together. Except for one thing - a small collar which is vital for the spacing of the rear axle had gone AWOL. Things often do this at my house. The problem is that the drive I have to work on consists of browny-grey gravel which is almost exactly the same colour as a rusty nut or bolt. I assumed it had dropped off in the dismantling, and did an all-points search of the area. No luck. I searched all the other likely locations (garage floor, workbench, back of Land Rover, back pocket of jeans) but no. I even got out the old metal detector and did a sweep of the entire property. No.

I waited a week in the hope that it would turn up (things sometimes do) but nothing came of it. So on Saturday I went into my local dealership and ordered the part. This would mean another week commuting on the Honda, which is a bit like going shopping in a Hummer - the tool is too big for the job.

Bored with waiting, I decided to replace the front tyre, taking advantage of a rare sunny evening. Wheel out, tyre changed, into the workshop for some air, courtesy of Mr Compressor. And there on the workbench, exactly where I would expect to see it, is the Missing Spacer.

Now I know for a fact that I went into the workshop and searched the bench and surrounding area at least twice. So the magical appearance of the Missing Bit is a total mystery. It wasn't even hiding. It was there, in plain view, in the middle of the bench. Perhaps it's just the Special Part Pixies who have been having yet more fun at my expense. But I think it is a conspiracy. Vital parts wait until my back is turned, and then secrete themselves in sundry hidden locations. When they have had enough, or when I order a new one, they all do a tiny metallic cheer, and plant themselves somewhere obvious, waiting for me to have 'just one last look'. This trick was played by a tiny springy metal clip which holds the headlight bulb in place on the Honda. (It is one of the class of components called a Pingfuckit, from the noise they make when they go missing.) It hid itself somewhere mysterious, and I made a new part out of some springy wire I had lying around. And when I am looking for the Missing Spacer with the metal detector, there it appears - bold as brass, lying in clear view on the concrete, three sodding months too late.


Anyways, the XT is now re-shod, all back together, and raring to go. While I had everything apart, I noticed that the brake pads were getting wafer-thin, so that will be the next job.

Well, it keeps me off the streets.

[1] Avon Distanzias - a 90% road tyre, compared to the TrailWings I have taken off, which are more like 70/30 on/off road. As virtually all my mileage at the moment is on Tarmac, it seemed sensible to go for something suitable for that, rather than my first choice, the Continental TKC80, which look fabulously rugged, but would probably throw me in a hedge at the first corner. Will post about the new tyres in due course.

Utterly amazing

There is a certain beauty in the most terrible things. I came across this photo a while ago, and sent it to a friend, asking if he could guess what it was. Although he is a PhD in Physics and works in a highly technical field, his guesses were all, understandably, around organic objects - viruses, fungi and so on.

In fact, it is a nuclear explosion. During the American nuclear tests of the 1940s, they needed a fast-action camera to capture the explosions and the events of the milliseconds following, as part of the research. Harold Egerton developed the Rapatronic lens, which could capture an exposure of one ten-millionth of a second, and this photo (and the ones below) are the result. The exposure was made less than a millisecond after detonation, when the advancing front of the explosion has not yet reached the ground. The glowing spikes below the ball are an example of the 'rope trick effect', where the ropes holding the tower absorb the intense light of the explosion, heat up and vaporise. The following images show the same scene a couple of milliseconds later.

I find these images both eerily beautiful and terrifying.

Utterly stunning.

Explanations here, here and here.


The very conservative Americal Family Association runs a news service called One News Now. It seems that the server has a little filter that changes 'objectionable' words for ones which are more wholesome and family-friendly. So when the sprinter Tyson Gay ran the 100 metres in 9.86 seconds during trials for the Olympics last June, this was the result.

What do you make of this?

I used to be proud of the BBC - great British institution, utterly impartial, envy of the world, all that. Well worth the trivial licence fee.

Now I think it should be scrapped. It's not because of any overt bias - they can wheel programme controllers out ad lib whenever they like to 'prove' that the coverage is even-handed. It's because of the subtle mind-set which seems to pervade almost the entire output. It reads something like:

We all know what is good and what is bad.
We know that all our listeners (well, the ones that matter) agree with us
Therefore we can speak as if we were with friends
Anyone who disagrees is outside the consensus and can be dismissed as extreme.

It's conveyed by tone of voice and subtle gesture, by the choice of issue and speaker, and by the entire editorial approach to certain issues. The only way this could be done is if almost all staff were of the same bien-pensant centre-left mind - as evidenced by the reports of empty champagne bottles rolling about the corridors of Broadcasting House on the morning of 2 May 1997.

So the BNP are always referred to as 'right-wing racists' (they may be racists, but their politics are Old Labour). Eurosceptic viewpoints are always dismissed as swivel-eyed lunacy[1]. Any challenge to the theory (yes, it is still only a theory, not a proven fact) of climate change is either not given air time, or presented as a bull-headed refusal to accept facts that we all know to be right.

I've got used to the BBC being the mouthpiece of New Labour. But I have never, ever, seen anything as blatant as this. Watch it closely. See how she tries to attract his attention. See how he waves his hand - don't make it too obvious, love - before an aggressive onslaught to try to silence IDS. And look at the expression on her face as she does this.

The incoming Government should sell the BBC to the highest bidder. Let them see if there is a market for this kind of thing, or if it's only possible when you have a cosy relationship with the governing party, your paymasters.

H/t to Counting Cats.

[1] A reliable test of this is if the interviewer begins a question with the words "but surely ...". This is a way of saying "I know you are wrong, and the viewers know you are wrong; in fact, the world knows you are wrong. You surely don't expect us to believe the utter bilge I know you are about to come out with ...". You can almost see them looking over their shoulder at the camera and winking. Kirsty Wark and John Humphrys, I'm talking about you. At least Paxman doesn't hide his contempt; and he has the virtue of being funny.

Saturday 11 July 2009

Losing it

I feel desperately sorry for this guy.

Not many facts are in the public domain as yet, so any comment would have to come with a health warning that it is based on limited and possibly biased information. But it looks to me as though the guy has just, finally, once and for all, lost it. I doubt if anything was premeditated - just a sad case of a decent man being pushed too far, once too often.

I got out of teaching 14 years ago. I believe that I left at the right time. I started in 1977, when in retrospect things in education were very rosy. Children were generally well-behaved - or at least could be persuaded to behave well by a modest amount of coercion. Parents generally supported schools. Government generally trusted teachers to get on with it. Teachers generally were competent, well-intentioned and respected. (I am aware I have used 'generally' a lot there. Education is always a complex issue, but that is the picture I retain of how it was then.)

I never had any difficulty with discipline, and (at least judging from the number of contacts I get through various networking sites) seemed to have been reasonably popular. And yet by the early 90s, there was a new atmosphere. Pupils were no longer willing to listen or co-operate. and strategies to get the teaching done came to rely more on pleading, coaxing and bribing the kids into working, rather than expecting it because that's what schools were for. Parents were much more demanding and hostile. And school heads were working to inspections, targets and budgets that meant they were more often against their own staff than supporting them. From my point of view, it had stopped being fun, and something isn't fun, you don't do it. I had to take a break due to a serious illness, and took that as the opportunity to duck out permanently. I don't regret it one bit. (Well, I regret losing the holidays and the pay. It was only last year that I managed to get a private sector employer to pay me more than my last teacher's salary, fourteen years later. The holidays were wonderful, but then I was working 70-80 hour weeks in term time, so I suppose it evened out.)

I have only been into a school once since then, when my employer asked me to represent the company on an Industry Awareness event in a local school. I was meant to go and help them with information on how to apply for jobs, what employers would be expecting of them, that kind of thing. I was appalled. Any sense of order was absent, and pupils simply refused to do things if it didn't suit them. The teacher I was paired with was clearly a very intelligent and capable young woman, but she was utterly impotent.

So here's my take on the story above:

Good teacher, well-liked and capable (according to one source I heard, parents were passing his solicitor notes of support even in the middle of court), likes children and loves his subject.

Awkward pupil, awkward age, silly hairstyle, cheeking teacher and refusing to co-operate to make all his mates laugh. Quite possibly been in trouble before with the same teacher, and found that the head and the system favoured him when push came to shove. And says or does just one more thing that pushes teacher over the edge.

Years of frustration, low morale, lack of respect, poor conditions, unrealistic expectations, carrying the can for headteachers' ambitions and politicians' experiments, a decent guy brought to snapping point, and just one word or gesture ...

And he decks the little bastard with a blunt instrument.

I never did anything like that, or even came close to it, but I can understand, and I can sympathise. Dealing with teenagers who know they have you over a barrel makes you lose all self-respect.

So one teacher will probably go to prison, and certainly will never teach again. And one little scrote, assuming he recovers (and despite all the above, I hope he does) will return a hero, and no-one will ever dare to tell him what to do ever again. Which lesson will be keenly apprehended by all his mates, and everyone who reads the story in the press or sees it on TV.

Teachers are powerless.
You can do what you like.
There are no consequences.

And they wonder why there is a recruitment problem. Good luck, Peter Harvey.

Juliette has a good post on the subject here.

I should cocoa!

Spotted this in this morning's Times:

White parents are pulling their children out of schools where they are outnumbered by ethnic-minority pupils, according to a report that shows increasing segregation in Britain.

The Institute of Community Cohesion (iCoCo) studied 13 areas, including Bristol, Bolton, Sunderland and Blackburn, and questioned parents.

Middle-class parents — who are usually white — were removing children from schools with growing populations of ethnic minorities because they didn’t want them to stand out, the authors of the report said.

WTF??? I didn't know we had an Institute for Community Cohesion, although I should have guessed that something of the kind must exist - jobs for the Righteous boys (and girls). But who the fuckity fuck dreamed up that name? iCoCo - do they expect to be taken seriously?


1. It makes me think of "I should cocoa", which, for those not familiar with the phrase, is an old-fashioned British way of saying "not bloody likely."

2. It contains, phonetically at least, the word 'cocoa', which has a kind of comic force of its own, reminding one of bedtimes and fluffy pyjamas and teddy bears.

3. It contains InterCaps, which is the lazy tosser's way of making a dull word look interesting - see CompuServe, MasterCard, EastEnders, PowerPoint. See, it comes from computing, so it shows were are edgy, modern and switched on. (Technically speaking, it's actually called CamelCase, from the bumpy appearance - and the two Cs would seem it make it a perfect Bactrian, but InterCaps is a generic term.)

4. It manages to start with an initial
lower-case letter 'i', which allows it to share the cutting edge neon-lit technoglow of the iPod, iTunes and so on.

In short, it's risible and crap, and was probably invented by the teenage son of a Labour back-bencher on work experience.

A quick search of the Charities' Commision website suggests that it is not a charity (I immediately suspected it was one of the growing number of 'fake charities'). It describes itself as

"a not for profit partnership, which aims to build capacity at all levels and in all local and national agencies to promote community cohesion."

Why am I not surprised that in 2009 it is thought that we need yet another bloody quango to make us talk to each other, say 'Hi' in the street, and not burn each others' houses down? I see they are promoting The Big Lunch, which appears to be what we used to do all by ourselves (remember the Silver Jubilee in 1977?) but now we need to be cajoled and prodded and monitored by an 'official' organisation. And I bet someone has a set of ambitious but achieveable targets to meet over local participation.

"Nick Johnston, one of the authors and a policy director at the iCoCo, said that parents did not want their child to be odd ones out. “People don’t mind a diverse school but what they do mind is their kid being in a visible minority."

I beg to disagree, Nick. People seem to mind diversity very much and are voting with their feet.

File under "waste of time", "waste of money" and "leave us alone, you interfering tossers."
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