Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Sunday 31 March 2013

Hubris writ large

For anyone who despairs of the self-publicising antics of today's celebrities, I offer a 26-year-old news story I stumbled across this weekend that somehow appealed to my sense of the ridiculous.

Plus ça change...
A splendid, eye-catching floral display intended to advertise Linda McCartney's current prestigious photographic exhibition in Bath was dug up by order of the Thames Valley Constabulary on February 27th, just two days after it was planted.

The 20,000 highly colourful primulas and hyacinths spelling out 'Linda McCartney' adjacent to the M4 motorway were so eye-catching that they caused a four-vehicle pile-up during the evening rush-hour on February 26th.

Several casualties were admitted to a hospital in Slough. The flowers were dug up at first light the next day and were sold off to aid the Great Ormond Street children's hospital.
(The Beatles Monthly: April 1987)

Thursday 28 March 2013

A little bovine music

A quiet few days in the Tavern over Easter but I'll leave you with this from the inimitable Max Raabe. It's in German, so I've included a translation below.

'Rinderwahn' is German for mad cow disease; I have had to bend my translation slightly to accommodate scansion and rhyme but if you want a literal one, it can be found here.

This post is, naturally, dedicated to Mark Wadsworth.

That mad cow
Was penned up who knows where or how
Before it ended up as chow
On a plate.

You should try looking overseas
To India, where cows like these
Can wander, sacred, where they please;
It's great!

When Man discovered meat tastes fine
It turned out cows were first in line;
They plan to get their own back now
With mad cow.
And when an angry cow gets mad
Then things for us are looking bad;
First of all the cow feels queer
Then you, my dear.

The chicken now don't feel so swell
And pigs are really quite unwell;
Maybe we'll soon see pestilence
In you, the audience.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Quote of the day - Armageddon edition

NASA Chief Charles Bolden, asked what NASA would do if a large asteroid headed on a collision course with Earth was discovered today with only three weeks before impact:
"If it's coming in three weeks, pray."
Startled into action by recent events that saw our normally quiet area of the solar system transformed into a cosmic shooting gallery, members of the US House of Representatives have been asking awkward questions at a specially-convened hearing.

There seemed to be a slightly aggrieved tone to the proceedings, as if these celestial fragments somehow constitute a deliberate personal affront to the Land of the Free, though it may simply have been a result of the mental contortions required to comprehend the relative probabilities and level of consequences involved.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, said it was "not reassuring" to learn that NASA has so far detected only about 10 percent of the near-Earth objects that are wider than 459 feet (140 meters) across.
It's funny, the way an asteroid or two whizzing past seems to focus the mind; a decade or so ago, asteroid detection was seen as a low priority by comparison with other more pressing issues, the sort of subject better suited to Hollywood or the occasional joke (see our own Lembit Opik). Small wonder NASA are feeling rather hard-done-by:
"You all told us to do something, and between the administration and the Congress, the bottom line is the funding did not come."
There has been plenty of research, of course, and passing rocks are being discovered and named at an impressive rate - always good news for those of us who regard a flyby as an excuse for a party -  but it's clear that the recent near-misses have drawn attention to the fact that, while we may see them coming, there's precious little any of us can do about it.

Saturday 16 March 2013

Now there's a surprise!

Rent arrears among tenants on a government pilot project that pays housing benefit directly to recipients have seen a big increase, figures show.
Perhaps it would have been helpful to have treated the officials concerned to a short talk on ursine lavatorial habits beforehand*. After all, it would take a Pollyanna-ish degree of optimism to assume that a population poorly educated in financial matters and systematically deprived by the state of virtually every opportunity to think for themselves would, without exception, have the skill to manage relatively large sums of money on a regular basis.
[The government] wants to pay recipients directly as they think it will increase their sense of responsibility over their own lives and make them better able to cope should they move into a job.
It's a spectacular example of putting the cart before the horse; since the implication here is that we are talking about the low-paid and unemployed, this argues that among their number will be some who are statistically more likely than the rest of the population to have difficulty with the concept of forward planning and numeracy. Those who haven't managed to develop a sense of responsibility by now are hardly likely to produce one spontaneously to order.

(There will now be a short pause for anyone trained in the knee-jerk rhetoric of the Left - as I once was - to point out that I am being unfair to the many responsible and numerate people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in need of housing benefit [insert your own apposite example here, preferably incorporating ethnic minorities, single parents and/or children with special needs]. OK; can we move on now?)

Given that we can expect a reasonable proportion of HB claimants to have the self-discipline and mathematical ability to allocate these payments correctly, it is surely a matter of concern that the rates of default are so high:
Figures obtained by BBC News show that arrears among tenants of Wakefield and District Housing in West Yorkshire have increased from an average of 2% to 11% on the pilot projects. 
Bron Afon community housing in south Wales said it had seen a 50% increase in arrears, while pilot projects in Edinburgh, Oxford and Southwark are showing around 30% increases in arrears.
This suggests that, while some will manage the new system with ease, a number of those with less ability to cope will spend the money elsewhere (though it should be observed that the original default rates in the latter two areas are not given). Doubtless much of this expenditure is essential - we are, after all, talking about people unlikely to have any financial buffers for emergencies - but human nature tells us some will regard the cash as an opportunity to indulge themselves and their children.

The BBC struggles valiantly to present this story in the approved fashion with the example of a single mother who used some of her HB to pay her utility bills, but her own statement sounds rather more ambiguous:
"By them paying the money directly to me it created temptation to use it for other things which has resulted in me being in arrears and possibly being evicted. "
She doesn't say what those 'other things are', though I'm not sure that someone would describe paying the gas bill as a 'temptation'; it doesn't sound quite right, somehow. And even if the BBC's token recipient really was selflessly robbing Peter to pay Paul, it's worth noting that the modern-day Newgate that is my local town boasts a vast population on benefits as well as a burgeoning array of tattoo and tanning parlours and nail bars, all of which seem to be doing a roaring trade.

Pavlov's Cat has supporting evidence of a link from his days in the jobcentre front line, and, of course, there is this post, in which I manage to upset someone of a liberal persuasion. I don't have an answer for this - having seen it at first hand in a housing benefit department, I know there is urgent need to deal with unscrupulous and greedy landlords pocketing a fortune in benefit payments. However, if the tenant is to be given the financial upper hand, some safeguards should be put in place for those who cannot cope with the responsibility.

Meanwhile, since predictability is the order of the day, there is really one only one more thing left to say:
The government says lessons will be learned from the pilot projects.

*Though, as with so many other government policies that end in disaster, it's worth bearing in mind that this initiative is largely being implemented by staff recruited under and in favour of the previous administration.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

It's an ill wind...

What a week it's been for Jonathan Aitken!

The prospect of Chris Huhne's imminent incarceration has sent Fleet Street scrambling for first-hand accounts of what it's like to exchange the palatial surroundings of Westminster for accommodation at her Majesty's pleasure.

The expenses scandal has not left them exactly short of suitably qualified pundits, but Aitken has clearly learnt a thing or two about PR since his fall from grace - either that or he has a damn' good agent - and has secured virtually every gig in town.

From the tabloids to the Today programme, he has been popping up on all sides to offer the hapless Huhne avuncular advice along with accounts of what to expect, delivered in varying degrees of lurid detail depending on the nature of the publication.

There's nothing like a spot of ubiquity to send suspicious souls looking for the real cause - decades of 'chat show' guests touting their wares or carefully contrived news stories that 'just happen' to coincide with a book launch or film have left the viewing public decidedly cynical, and with good reason.
Jonathan Aitken will be the star turn at Annabel’s nightclub next week when he hosts an “interlude by the Belmarsh Trio” at the launch of Banham Concierge, an advisory service started by the security firm. 
The former Cabinet minister will interview two of his chums from prison in south-east London, Noel “Razor” Smith, author and assistant editor of Inside Time, the newspaper for prisoners, and Leroy Skeete, who has been mentored by Aitken since he came out of jail.
Aitken's agent must be doubtless rubbing his hands with glee at the whole Huhne-Pryce affair, watching happily as the PR opportunity of a lifetime falls into his hands with impeccable timing.

And if we wished for proof that Aitken has now reached the point at which a celebrity's most trivial doings and tenuous connections supposedly become a matter for public interest, the Telegraph today supplies it in this report on the discovery of a body in a London flat:
Jonathan Aitken shocked by a murder in Mayfair
Jonathan Aitken, the former Cabinet minister, has spoken of his shock at the murder of Roberto Troyan, the boyfriend of his former interior designer.
You know you've finally made it in media circles when there's been a murder and you manage to upstage the corpse.

Monday 11 March 2013

Red nose irritation

It's Comic Relief's Red Nose Day this week, as A K Haart's timely post reminds me; a worthy idea that has been hijacked to incorporate and give licence to irritating behaviour on a national scale while, it turns out, being funded in part out of the television licence fee.

The original inspiration had much to recommend it, and the comedians who started it up put a great deal of time and effort into creating something that offered decent comedy in exchange for public contributions, but in the years since, it has expanded to become a BBC-led extravaganza of celebrity glitz and trivia accompanied by a national idiocy-laden free-for-all.

With the notable recent exception of the' Great British Bake-Off', the BBC has largely taken the lazy route of replacing established comedians performing sharply-written sketches with 'Oooh! Look at the celebrities doing funny things'; the trouble is that one man's 'funny' is another man's 'bloody stupid', and there's a distinct whiff of lowest common denominator about the whole thing.

And then there's practice of replacing the speaking clock and inviting people to ring it to donate, though at least this year it's Clare Balding rather than sound-effect-laden silly messages read by Radio 1 DJs. That was a particularly low point; it used the usual number, the one dialled by anyone who really needs to know the exact time, in which case the last thing they are likely to want is someone messing about on the other end.

But what I really dislike about the whole business is the thinly-disguised witch-hunt on the part of some participants; if you display anything less than inane enthusiasm when accosted in the street by an over-excited shop assistant in an expensively-hired chicken suit waving a collecting bucket, you are somehow guilty of wanting African babies to starve.

Well, this year, at least, I have the moral high ground; I have a funeral to go to on Friday and anyone who tries anything unreasonable on the way is likely to get a loud and cathartic earful on the subject of inappropriate importuning of the public.

A small and utterly reprehensible part of me is secretly hoping it will happen.

Sunday 10 March 2013

The Silence of the Lembit

Of all the people you might have expected to comment on the recent congestion in our cosmic neighbourhood - DA14, the Russian fireball, 2013 EC and ET  and the two smaller asteroids this weekend, plus a couple of comets coming up for good measure - Lembit Opik should surely have been high on the list.

After all, back in the late 90s, he was calling for the government to invest in asteroid detection systems and being described as 'The Nostradamus of Westminster' for his pains. Of course, young Lembit had a head start on the rest of us, being the grandson of astronomer Ernst Opik, a pioneer in the field who had the distinction of an asteroid named after him.

But now the general population is catching up and starting to get worried, what has Lembit Opik to say on the subject of the recent cosmic near-misses? Well, not very much, it appears; his mind is occupied with the rather more earthly body - or rather, brain - of Chris Huhne.

Having reinvented himself in grand style on several occasions - from politician to showbiz Lothario to stand-up comedian - Opik now appears to have entered the realms of psychoanalysis with his explanation of how things went wrong.
Intelligent, hard-working and very precise in his thinking, Chris displays ‘left brain dominance’ to a fault. 
This makes his style of interaction a weak link, and as a result he has made needless foes.
Well, it can't have helped, but I'm not sure it was his left brain Huhne was thinking with when he decided to abandon his formidable wife for another woman, setting in motion the epic revenge drama that has played itself out through the courts - though perhaps Opik might prefer to gloss over that particular aspect of the case.

It's certainly been a riveting story - and I admit I've put in my tangential pennyworth along with everyone else - but I can't be the only one wondering about Lembit Opik's resounding silence on the subject of celestial encounters while exploring the mental processes of a fellow-politician.

It's sad when a man starts out reaching for the stars and ends up with a handful of mud.

Saturday 9 March 2013

This is getting to be a habit!

When we started the Tavern custom of raising a toast to every passing asteroid, it was a rare occurrence; now I'm getting seriously worried that the Righteous will be calling round to discuss our 'drinking problem'.

Tonight's cause for revelry, 2013 ET, will be passing by a sedate 600,000 miles away at the undeniably convenient time of around 8.30pm on a Saturday night - a distinct improvement on 3013 EC on Monday, which inconsiderately arrived for UK residents at a time more suited to fruit juice and coffee.

Both of these, like many others we have seen recently, are worryingly recent discoveries; it's a chilling reminder that, if there is one out there with our name on it, there may not be much time for heroic efforts - or mass panic, depending on the degree of cynicism with which you view your fellow-man.

There are certainly plenty of the things whizzing around out there, and significant number of bigger ones too, which seems to have come as something of a surprise to those responsible for finding them. Back in 1998, the BBC reported:
So far, asteroid scientists have found about 125 "potentially hazardous" asteroids and comets that periodically pass near Earth's orbit. Some scientists believe there could be as many as 2,000.
Fifteen years on, Wkipiedia tells us:
By January 2009, NASA had listed 1006 potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) and 85 near-Earth comets (NECs). The total Solar System inventory continues to grow, with 1360 PHA known as of December 2012. 
NEOWISE data estimates that there are 4,700 ± 1,500 potentially hazardous asteroids with a diameter greater than 100 meters. As of 2012, an estimated 20 to 30 percent of these objects have been found.
On the bright side, it looks like an awful lot of excuses out there for a party!

2013 ET will be covered by SLOOH tonight starting at 8.15. Ready? 'Eins, zwei, drei, vier...'

Friday 8 March 2013

Ugly is as ugly does

I'm afraid thing have been rather quiet around here, largely thanks to a bad cold which has made it impossible to attempt anything more intellectually demanding than watching Top Gear.

Actually, even that proved too much yesterday evening, when I must have dozed off in the middle of their African Special quest for the source of the Nile or something and woke up blearily wondering exactly when they were going to get to Mordor with the Ring.

Blimey - Gandalf's let himself go a bit!

I realise, though, that I have as yet said nothing on the nefarious doings of Huhne and Pryce, a topic ripe for myriad speculations and reflections.

We've already seen the unusual spectacle of a jury falling by the wayside - the result, I wonder, of modern trends in crime novels and TV series? These days, thanks to the therapy habits of our transatlantic cousins, every fictional malefactor has their deepest psychological recesses mined and analysed for motive and mitigation.

In asking about the effects of Ms Pryce's religious beliefs, were the jury subconsciously erring into the well-trodden territory of the contemporary crime drama rather than a court of British law, seeking the sort of resolution they have come to expect in their nightly entertainment?

And just when you thought the rogues' gallery was full - hypocritical Huhne, his vindictive spouse and her current beau (I use the term very loosely indeed), Denis 'Laptops' MacShane - the fragrant Constance Briscoe rears her officially not-at-all-Ugly head again.

Ms Briscoe, you may recall, is the author of one of those real-life misery memoirs that are lapped up with unseemly relish by the sort of reader who claims to find them 'life-affirming' or 'inspirational'. In it, she described in lurid and lucrative detail the mental and physical abuse she allegedly suffered at the hands of her mother.

This appears to have come as something of a shock to her siblings, who subsequently supported their mother in a legal battle to clear her name. After a hard-fought case over decades-old accusations made by her  barrister daughter, the mother lost and was left facing crippling legal bills.

But what's this? Prosecutors are apparently deciding whether to charge Constance Briscoe with lying to police over the Huhne-Pryce speeding points affair, casting more than a little doubt on her honesty in the face of official questioning, and some in high places seem to agree:
Mrs Briscoe-Mitchell was last year able to postpone demands for her to sell her house at a High Court hearing, pending the outcome of the court case against Chris Huhne and his former wife Vicky Pryce.
As a general exercise in loss of credibility, this case has it all. I am not unsympathetic to Ms Pryce's plight when faced with the emotional blackmail of her husband's potentially career-wrecking speeding points but, from then on, everyone involved in the case, Ms Briscoe included, seems to have acted with a startling lack of prudence, self-respect and dignity.

I wondered at the time of the Briscoe trial whether the unanimity of the jury in favour of the misery-memoir author owed more than a little to the popularity of the genre and to the Oprah Winfrey-inspired ethos that strict veracity was not as important as 'emotional truth', and that to quibble was somehow wrong and disrespectful - imagine a juror who shares the opinion expressed by one of Winfrey's viewers; "The fact squad; those people make me sick!"

If Mrs Briscoe-Mitchell does indeed take up her libel case again, it will be interesting to see whether changed times will bring a change of outcome. Though if the jury in Vicky Pryce's first trial is anything to go by, she'd probably better not hold her breath.

Tuesday 5 March 2013

The impact of the limited

A bit of recycling today in response to A K Haart's thought-provoking piece on Low Information Voters.

It's a problem (though some unscrupulous types doubtless see it as quite the reverse) that has beset political theorists since the ancient Greeks first came up with the idea of allowing everyone* a say in government and a usefully catchy word to describe it.

Now, though, we are entering a new age of democracy where voting, for many, is a word associated with prime-time television rather than exercising a political right and duty. More than ever before, the unthinking and intellectually idle masses are applying the most superficial and trivial standards when choosing who gets their vote; will they apply the same criteria when they enter the polling booth?

(* 'everyone', of course, excluded women, slaves or foreigners; much the same attitude can still be found in certain English golf clubs.)

This post first appeared here in June 2010:

One person - seven votes

'I doubt if history can show, in any country at any time, a more greedy form of government than democracy as practised in Great Britain in the last fifty years. The common man has held the voting power, and the common man has voted consistently to increase his own standard of living, regardless of the long-term interests of his children, regardless of the wider interests of his country.

No despot, no autocratic monarch in his pride and greed has injured England so much as the common man. Every penny that could be wrung out of the nation has been devoted to raising the standard of living of the least competent elements in the country, who have held the voting power.'

Not my words, but those of a character in Nevil Shute’s speculative 1953 novel ‘In the Wet’. Like Orwell five years earlier, Shute sets his narrative in a dystopian vision of the 1980's to make a political point. He presents a radical solution; in his book, some commonwealth countries have adopted a system of multiple votes*.

An Australian explains the system to English friends: “I’m a three-vote man – basic, education and foreign travel”. Everyone, he says, has a basic vote, university graduates get a second one and the third is for working abroad for at least two years.

Another vote is for raising two children to the age of fourteen – though only for couples who stay married. There’s an extra vote for significant business achievement and another for holding a paid position in the church. And finally there’s the Royal Charter – an extra vote to reward exceptional military or other service for one's country.

Shute’s novel has fallen into disfavour – hardly surprising, when the mixed race hero is known to his friends as ‘Nigger'; the book contains enough casual racism and sexism to keep the EHRC frothing at the mouth for weeks – but it would be interesting to hear his ideas debated at large.

After all, there’s something horribly prescient in some of the opinions he wrote nearly sixty years ago.

*As have certain British inner city areas today - unofficially.

Monday 4 March 2013

Out of the blue

No sooner have we seen the back of DA14 and the Russian fireball (and while we're still wrangling about whether the two are connected or simply a cosmic coincidence of truly astronomical proportions*) than another space rock is whizzing past our ear - in cosmic terms, at least.

The (very) newly-discovered 2013 EC has crept up on us unnoticed, which is hardly surprising, given it's only around 15 metres wide, and will pass just inside the moon's orbit at 7.35 this morning - sadly inconvenient timing for our usual celebration but you might like to give it a friendly wave as you eat your breakfast or travel to work.

Suddenly asteroid detection and diversion is the issue of the day in scientific circles, with conferences and calls for radical new strategies on every side; I imagine Lembit Opik is laughing hollowly to himself, having spent much of the 1990s being dismissed as the Chicken Licken of British politics for campaigning for that very thing.

It's an interesting result of improved technology; as our powers of observation increase, so does the perceived threat. The asteroids were always there, beyond the scope of our limited vision, just as disease-bearing microbes existed long before we had the means to detect them.

The same thing could be said for the DNA 'contamination' of meat**. The very nature of slaughter and preparation means that, for as long as humans have eaten animals, some form of cross-contamination must have been taking place at a microscopic level and it's hard to see how it can be entirely avoided.

Does knowing about it really make any difference?

*Frank Davies, for one, remains to be convinced by the official line. [link now corrected]

**The inspiration for a brilliantly satirical post by A K Haart published one minute after this one; perhaps coincidence is the order of the day after all.