Election fever

With a bare 10 days to go until the General Election here in the UK, politicians are becoming increasingly febrile – while the populace are engulfed in a thick fog of ennui.  I am finding it rather hard to get excited about the vote, though I’m finding feelings of horror and depression much easier to generate.  It seems that no news bulletin can pass without a political bigwig taking a further swing with a sledgehammer at the very fragile foundations of my respect for their party and the political process – perhaps this is a deliberate process to get the masses to disenfranchise themselves?

Over the last couple of days, those hot-beds of revolutionary fervour – the Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph – have done sterling work to identify those people who will be first up against the wall come the glorious revolution.  Share and enjoy!  But otherwise, the more reactionary elements of the press (i.e. most of it) seem determined (like Chicken Licken) to convince us that the sky will fall-in should the next government by formed by the Labour party with assistance from the SNP – and this collapse of the heavens will find the poor English suffering a forced diet of haggis and Irn-Bru while wearing a kilt.  Of course, a coalition government dominated by its junior partner is a real risk in this country, as the last five years of rule by the Liberal Democrats with barely a whimper heard from the poor Tories has ably demonstrated.  Given the probable experience of the LibDems, if I was in control of the SNP (unlikely I’ll admit) I’d be very reluctant to be the junior partner in a coalition – it does seem to be electoral suicide (though Nick Clegg may yet surprise us – and himself).  And what about the poor Unionists in Northern Ireland – where are the scare stories about them being the junior partner in a Coalition?  I, for one, am not keen on the forced daily marches past my flat (which has the misfortune to lie near a Catholic church) and I really don’t look good in orange, though who does?  Still, I suppose it would be good for the mural industry.

Curiously given the very consistent predictions made by those paid to forecast such things, both major parties seem to be in denial about having to work with a hung parliament (sadly, this involves neither rope nor gibbet – though this might be a way to increase voter turnout!).  Given that a majority government seems rather less likely than Glen Miller winning the National Lottery and investing his winnings in a unicorn farm, it does make me wonder just how well considered the promises about the future contained in their manifestos might be – wishful thinking is all very well, but I’m not sure it’s any way to run a country.

However, despite my disillusionment (which does rather suggest that I once had illusions) I do feel that it is my civic duty to vote – people did die etc, though I’m not sure when laying down their lives the conduct of this current election was quite what they had in mind (though lacking access to a necromancer, I shall never know).  Oddly, when seeking advice as to how to exercise my very limited power, it all seems to assume that I will vote entirely to improve my financial position.  Now, as this blog makes clear, I am at least as self-centred as the next man (unless he happens to be Kanye West) but I feel it would be terribly inappropriate (downright rude in fact) to assume that a vague hope of my slight enrichment is the biggest issue facing this country at the moment.  I feel that my vote should be used to improve the lot of the population at large, to the extent that is feasible.  As a result, I fear I will be seen as a dangerous aberration by many economists (and a source of horror to the late Ayn Rand).

By chance, I have been reading The Price of Inequality by George Stiglitz in the run-up to the election and he has something to say of some relevance to this process.  Initially, I found this work rather irritating as he kept repeating the blindingly obvious but after a while I found whilst he was still saying the obvious, it was stuff I’d never previously realised or thought about.  Whilst I am not necessarily convinced by all his conclusions – he is a much better economist than me and so may well be able to cover my eyes with wool – he has made me doubt (and largely abandon) some previously quite firmly held beliefs.  As I hurtle towards the grave, I have come to realise that conventional wisdom is much stronger on the “conventional” than it is on the “wisdom”.

The book is mostly based around the US-experience – though he does take time out to lambast the ECB and the Euro – but many of the conclusions seem to apply very directly to dear old Blighty.  In particular, in a world in which political parties gain the vast majority of their funding from a few very rich individuals and major corporations it is perhaps no surprise that their priorities do not align with those of the typical voter.  With most of the media also controlled by much the same interests (though The Guardian is, I believe, controlled (or at least bank-rolled) by Autotrader – and so in the hands of the second-hand car business and sheepskin coat) we can begin to see why the public may be disengaged from politics and grabbing at the lifebelt which the fringe parties seem to offer.  It also struck me that whilst we – the great unwashed – get to influence the political process once every five years and have to pick a whole raft of (probably fictional) policies, if you have enough money to pay for a lobbyist you can influence politics every day of the week and on very specific policies.  Money may not buy you happiness, but I suspect it does buy you quite a lot of influence over the world of Westminster, if you chose to use it in that way.

However, I think it may well be the sterling work of Tim Harford and Ruth Alexander on More-or-Less which may have the greatest impact on my voting choice in 7 May.  For now, I remain a floating voter – or perhaps a sinking one.

Keeping an open mind

I do like to try and keep an open mind – and also recognise that this is different from having a hole in the head.  Of course, being human – as far as any tests yet applied are able to ascertain – my mind is a rag-bag of ill (if at all) considered default positions, contradictory beliefs and prejudices.  Some of these I can recognise, some of the time, and try not to be too foolish about – and have, thus far at least, managed to avoid blogging (tweeting or the like) while drunk or under the influence of other mind altering drugs (with the obvious exceptions of cheese and cake).  I also try to avoid being needlessly offensive to other people – not as a result of any particular attachment to the much maligned “political correctness” but as a matter of common courtesy, which strikes me as basically being the same thing (under an older name).

Often my opinions are generated “live” as I’m speaking (or typing), as unlike so many we hear or see in the media I do not have well developed views to deliver in response to any question asked.  Sometimes they surprise me!  (If it’s a nice surprise, I’ll hope I remember them later).  On the whole, I work on the principle that every question has (at least) two simple answers and they are both wrong.  If something seems obvious, without having previously gone through a lot of detailed research and mature reflection, then I probably haven’t understood it.  Even when I have put a lot of effort into an opinion, it still tends to be contingent on new knowledge presenting itself – though like everyone else, it is hard to let go of a long cherished view merely because it clashes with reality (though, in the multi-worlds model of quantum mechanics you may be able to comfort yourself with the thought that at least it is still viable somewhere in the multiverse).  New input comes from many places – but usually a good book or decent podcast (often courtesy of Radio 4) – and is always a joy, even – and sometimes especially – when it disrupts a long (or just firmly) held view.  I fear I would make a very poor fundamentalist – I am far too inconstant (sometimes changing opinion within the span of a single spoken sentence).

Still, I think that’s enough set-up and we should probably make a start on the actual content.

It is all too easy for me (and I am sure many others) to view this government’s actions as an unwanted alloy of wickedness and incompetence (and also appropriate given its composition).  This task is made much easier by its consistent trumpeting of its wickedness and the fact that its incompetence stretches to include its generally transparent attempts (at least to the regular More or Less listener) to try and conceal its uselessness.  In an attempt to be fair to our political masters, many of them probably don’t attempt to be actively wicked but are just thoughtless and fail to consider (or care overly about) the consequences of their actions.  This is probably aided by an overly tight attachment to the random bunch of opinions and ideologies that (presumably) served them well as they climbed the greasy pole to relative political eminence.  In this respect (and so many others), this government is not so very different from many of its recent predecessors.

In my desire to think good of others, I have oft tried to think of something positive that the current incumbents of Westminster have achieved – to offset their botched interference in the public sector (and beyond) in an attempt to find an easy way (for them, but few others) to save some money.  It always seems to be easier to remove biscuits from meetings than to tackle the actual issues in a country or corporation.  Of course, governments tend to be more successful (with some help from their friends in the media) in convincing many that biscuits are the cause of all their woes than any of the companies for which I’ve worked (whilst continuing to give the choicest biscuits away free to themselves and their friends).  Still, I did manage to come up with only one positive achievement: equal marriage – which strikes me as an unalloyed good.

However, as so often I was wrong – and as is (almost) equally common it was The Life Scientific that set my straight.  I know I’ve probably banged on about how great TLS is before – but I will continue to do so until I have firm evidence that every man, woman and child on this planet (and any others we stumble across) has become a regular listener.  This time I was corrected by Professor Dame Sally Davies – a truly remarkable person and currently the Chief Medical Officer – who actually (and quite rightly) expressed pride in another achievement of this government.  This was the hospital just established in West Africa to help tackle the spread of ebola.  If I wanted to cavil, I might say that this took rather a long time to do – but I will freely admit I have never tired to set-up anything of this complexity so far from home so may be talking bunk.  She also suggested that the government is finally starting to recognise and act on the fact that mental illness is just illness – it is no more the fault of the patient than a head cold or dodgy spleen.  At a stroke, the positive things I could say about the government have trebled – and this does lead one to suspect there are probably more.  Oddly, the government does seem very shy about advertising the good it has done (unlike the ill) – for fear of upsetting its supporters?  Or just natural modesty?

She also made beautifully explicit how important competition was to finding the best solutions to medical problems but also that we cannot rely on the market to deliver everything that we need.  She highlighted not only the problems with finding new (and generally unprofitable) antibiotics but also diseases supposedly of the poor (like ebola) which the modern world can deliver to Chelsea or Mayfair in a matter of hours.  I cannot help but wonder how far the money now being spent in the richer parts of the world to manage a tiny handful of cases (or feared cases) might have gone in West Africa a few months ago (or in research several years ago) to ensure the dreaded virus was never allowed to reach its current extent.  But, as so often, I don’t know the answer (and nor, I suspect, does anyone else).

I think this has only reinforced my desire to stay away from the news until the level of debate has risen above that I thought I’d escaped when I left my primary school playground behind.  (Actually, this is doing a disservice to Lansdowne CP – where the rhetoric available at playtime was of a very high standard.)  But also acts as a reminder that one is rarely right – especially when certain!   A case of the old “confident, but wrong” syndrome which we must always guard against – impossible though that may be (or is it?).

How big is it?

Before we go any further, can I ask you all to lift your minds out of the gutter – all I shall say on that subject is that my hands, feet and nose are significantly larger than average and leave you to draw your own, ill-founded conclusions.

Instead, we will start be considering my green credentials.  I am, in fact, really quite green and have been for many years – starting long before I knew what it was to be green (unless the phrase was used to describe a frog or leaf).   There are a number of reasons for my early adoption of this planet-friendly lifestyle which I shall now reveal.

Firstly, I think we must blame the parents (mostly mine, in this case) for insisting that I turned the lights off when I left a room and for closing doors after I had passed through them to “keep the heat in” (caloric being thought to be afraid of wood in those dark days).  Secondly, I might implicate my rage against the dying of the light and my association of over-heated homes with those who have substantially more than one foot (perhaps nearer 23 inches) in the grave.  Finally, I must perhaps admit that, like Scrooge before me, I am cheap and dislike waste as it’s my money I am wasting and I could probably think of something more pleasurable to waste it on then lighting empty, overly-warm rooms.  My fondness for the cold and dark may have been strengthened by some time living in the north-east of England and trying to fit in with the natives: though I never mastered the accent, I did learn to wander around in only a t-shirt in all seasons.

My thrift (not, I should clarify, the seaside loving pink flower) extends beyond my energy consumption, and I like to imagine that I am frugal with water – especially since “the man” has started metering it.  At the risk of wandering off-topic, I think we should all make the most of gravity while it is still free – it is surely only a matter of time before some wretch works out how to monetise Newton’s discovery – so get any falling in now before the price goes up!

This morning I received a bill from my purveyor of a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen in that most desirable ratio of 2:1.  This revealed that, on average, I get through 36 litres of water per day.  This seems an awful lot of the stuff for one chap to use: it would certainly be a lot of weight to carry back from the supermarket on my bike each day were it not to arrive so conveniently by pipe.  I couldn’t help feeling that either they had made some mistake, or that I was being profligate with my water in some way without realising it (did I sleep-bath perhaps?  Well, it could explain these wrinkles I keep finding…).

As so often with an isolated number, it is very hard to know if it is big or not – though despite this governments, corporations, the press and others continue to bombard us with context-free numbers which we have little hope of really understanding (well, unless we wisely listen to More or Less).  However, further examination of my bill showed that Southern Water has very decently provided some context – so snaps to them!.  Apparently, the typical flat-dwelling singleton without garden (into which category I fall) uses 173 litres of water in an average day.  So, it would seem that far from splashing out on unnecessary moisture (and let’s face it, there is plenty of the stuff available for free outside on a daily basis), I am in fact using only just over one fifth of the normal amount.  So, I now worry that I am using too little water – is my personal hygiene not all it might be?  Are people avoiding sitting next to me on trains and buses? (A definite plus!)  Am I missing out on water-based fun that others have been keeping to themselves?  I can imagine using a little more water, but five times as much?  How is that even possible?  Are most flats in the south owned by fish or dolphins?  Would the life-style supplements, if I read them, tell me that a water-slide is this year’s “must-have” accessory?

Once again, I find myself out-of-step with my fellow humans, at the extreme edge of another bell curve.  Still, I shan’t fret too much – being this desiccated in my habits is cheap and leaves more money to buy more pleasurable fluids.

100% wrong

We have reached that time of the year when even I, a lover of black and white striped mint sweets for sheep (baa humbugs), must admit that Christmas may not only be coming (which is always the case) but is sufficiently close that I may have to do something about it.

Yesterday, whilst wandering the aisles of a local supermarket,I noticed a packet of tasty Xmas treats labelled “100% butter mince pies”.  Surely the only thing which is 100% butter is butter – and unsalted butter at that.  Now, I like butter as much as the next man – but expect my mince pies to have some other ingredients: mincemeat, flour, sugar and perhaps an egg and a dash of milk.  I know footballers and other mathematically challenged individuals have been giving 110% for many years, but these mince pies would have to be giving well over 200% to be even remotely satisfying.

Talking of the mathematically-challenged, I notice that the Chancellor justified his plans to reduce the highest tax rate using reasoning thoroughly debunked as complete nonsense on More or Less more than a week earlier (by those well-known left-wing subversives: Tim Harford and a senior tax planner to the wealthy).  I have no idea whether the change is a good idea or not – but judging by his explanation, it is an even worse thought out change than the rest of government policy (and that can’t have been easy given the amazingly “high” standard of the competition).  Perhaps it’s time that More or Less became required listening for all government ministers – it is less than 30 minutes per week and at least while listening they should be unable to implement innumerate new policies.

Fork Wits of the world, unite!

It is high “tine” those who indulge in cutlery-based humour had a forum to share their ideas, perhaps headquartered in Sheffield.  OK, enough with the cutlery, this is a post about stupidity – but one anxious to retain a PG rating.

As I left ASDA today (it don’t use it for much, but they do offer very cheap anti-histamine), I had the misfortune to see the main headline of the Daily Express.  This was so flawed in almost every possible way that I felt the need to post about it.  I’m sorry to pick on the Express, a mere 15 years after the death of Princess Diana and when the wound is so obviously still raw, but if no-one corrects their work they are never going to learn any better.  For the sake of political balance, I should also pick on a rabidly left-wing “news” paper – sadly, these are much harder to find, but I shall keep an eye out for a copy of Socialist Worker (assuming it still exists) to maul with my heavy-handed sarcasm.

The gist of the headline in question was to announce that as (finally) a majority of our exports were to non-EU countries we should now feel free to leave the European Union tomorrow without a backward glance.

The first issue one might take with this is the idea that we are in the European Union purely for financial gain.  I’d like to believe that we have slightly broader interests in membership, though accept that this may be down to the roseate tint to the glass of my spectacles.  I certainly think some of the members are slightly less mercenary about their membership with political motives in addition to the purely monetary.

However, let us put this quibble aside for the moment and accept that the UK only does anything for direct financial gain to the country, that our membership of the EU is purely mercenary and that the only advantages that accrue are the purely monetary.  I am no economist, but it seems that membership has a few more financial consequences than easing the export of our goods to the continent.  I have no idea what the total net benefit or dis-benefit of membership of the EU brings to the UK – nor even the narrowly financial component thereof – and I’m pretty sure the Daily Express doesn’t either, but I very much doubt it can be explained by the destination of our exports alone.

Ignoring this small fly in the otherwise excellent ointment, let us assume that the only reason for still being in the EU is that they had hitherto taken at least 50.1% of our exports.  Since the paper is describing the change to this status as “news”, I assume this change is recent (perhaps a dangerous assumption but it was enough to displace the Princess of Wales from the front page, so it must have seemed important at the time) and so exports outside the EU probably only represent a very modest majority this point.  So, I presume we are to assume that the potential loss of roughly 49.9% of our export business is of no consequence whatsoever?  Presumably, those traitorous companies (and their employees) who are foolish enough to sell their goods or services to the EU really don’t deserve to continue in business a moment longer.

Of course, total exports themselves should be of only modest interest to the UK.  I could make a sizeable business exporting brand new Ferraris at £10,000 each.  It wouldn’t be a very sustainable business or terribly positive for the UK economy, but it would represent a lot of exports (until my money ran out, after about tP seconds) if at some cost to our balance of trade.  Still, it seems the Express is very wisely holding itself aloof from the grubby world of business, profitability and this country’s potential future trade deficit.

I have no idea whether leaving the EU would benefit me, the readers of the Daily Express or even the country as a whole.  I’m not sure I have terribly strong views either way: I can see positives on both sides and have no real way to prioritise them without an awful lot of research (and perhaps not even then).  I’m pretty sure that leaving will be pretty costly in the short-term as such major changes always are – and so doing it in the depths of a recession may not be ideal.  However, it seems pretty clear that making such a fundamental change without any planning just because a single, unrepresentative statistic has briefly changed would be rather unwise.  Might I recommend the excellent More-or-Less podcast to the journalists of the Daily Express to allow them to come to slightly better grips with the meaning of basic statistics?  I realise this is produced by the much hated, Marxist, federal-Europe-loving BBC but despite these impediments does seem remarkably even-handed in its pillorying of numeric idiocy.

Praising podcasts

Don’t worry, I’m not planning to start a podcast any time soon – so you will be spared my dulcet tones.

Through this blog I like to give the impression that I am a renaissance man, known for his erudition and learning.  I’ll admit that this impression is rather ameliorated by my continued difficulty in effectively proof-reading my own ramblings. Yesterday, my poor pretentions at learning were brought home to me even more forcibly – two fictional characters that I had always assumed to be of the stronger sex were both revealed to be men.

These revelations were brought about by the medium of the podcast, or as the BBC seems to have renamed them downloads (an overly generic term, but one which presumably removes any risk of the product being mistaken for a commercial endorsement – other groupings of cetaceans are available).

In an attempt to reduce the sheer number of books I seem to consume each year, I have taken to downloading podcasts onto my generic MP3 player and listening to them while travelling on public transport. The podcast also comes into its own on a packed Central line train (a pleasure that was I granted yesterday evening) when there is no room to open a book (I didn’t even attempt cat swinging) and also while cooking (when you need both hands free – or at least I do).

Yesterday’s offerings were all both educational and from the BBC – though I do sample less serious examples and those from other organisations as well.  A particularly enjoyable More or Less ensured that I shall now always know the difference between the “deficit” and the “debt” with which we are all saddled during these trying times of austerity: sadly it was unable to explain how the measures our masters are enacting will help either (though there may be a very good reason for this lack).  In particular, I do wonder how punishing the Banks that we taxpayers now own is going to help us obtain a decent return on our investment as a nation: surely we should let them make money until we can sell them at a profit, then nail the blackguards.

An especially good and spirited edition of In Our Time revealed that the eponymous heroine of Voltaire’s Candide was a hero and that the book is a surprisingly short read (though usually in large print, as publishers like to make it look longer than it is) among many pearls of new wisdom.  As a result, I now feel obliged to move its reading up my “to-do” list.  The edition did also make me laugh out loud several times, which did attract a number of looks askance from fellow passengers (sorry, customers) waiting on the concourse at Liverpool Street station (I’d probably have been taken off by men in white coats if they’d known what I was listening to at the time and if those parts of the NHS catering to the mentally ill were not so chronically underfunded.  Yes, it may be keeping your taxes down – but it is leaving me free to pun again!).  Still, I’m used to pitying looks from the general public after all these years of mild eccentricity: long ago, I did wonder if I should make the effort to be more “normal”, but apathy rather ixnayed that idea and I suspect it is now much too late.

The Life Scientific interviewed the redoubtable James Lovelace – if I’m as sparky when I’m 92 I shall be more than pleased: to be honest, at only half his age I’d still be grateful to be as doubly dubious.

My finally delight was Shakespeare’s Restless World with Neil McGregor. Like Sam West, I could listen to Neil McGregor read the ‘phone book – probably even the Da Vinci Code – and still enjoy the experience for the voice alone.  However, this episode also provided background to the Union flag and the revelation that Cymbeline was a British King – and not a female sidhe as I’d previously assumed.

Talking of the Bard, on Tuesday night I saw my first of his history plays – Henry V (the French, as it transpired.  1-0 to the boy Hal in a tricky away fixture) in the English Touring/Globe Theatre production at the Cambridge Arts Theatre.  This was a particularly fine night out, and I now feel the need to cover the remaining Henrys and perhaps take in a Richard or two.  Neil McGregor’s earlier attempts to educate me also paid off, as I knew why Falstaff dies off-stage: a row with the actor who previously played the part caused him to be written out. Sometimes it feels as though surprisingly little has changed in the last 400 years – we may have whizzy new technology, but people are much the same as are their issues.

So, if you are not already doing so, I thoroughly recommend investigating the world of dolphin theatre (“pod cast” – see, I told you I’d pun again) as I suspect there is something out there for everyone.  I use something called Downcast which is mildly ironic as its use leaves me uplifted, but there are a whole host of free products available to capture these pearls for your delectation.  Go on, give it punt!