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

Tuesday 29 October 2013

All the fun of the fair

Amid the chaotic aftermath of the storm, the prize for the most picturesquely bizarre damage has surely to go to North Essex,where the headlines read:
Storm damages orangutan enclosure
Pier's helter-skelter blown down
Yes, it's our old friend Clacton Pier again; while Walton, just up the coast, put in its own bid for media coverage with some dislodged metal sheeting (in a rather nauseating shade of yellow, which gave a distinctly festive air to the photographs), Clacton has romped home with as spectacular and alliterative a bit of damage as you are likely to see for a while.

According to an eye-witness:
“It was quite surreal as it bounced on landing and just looked like a flimsy piece of plastic.”
How reassuring! I can't decide whether this means local parents will, in future, be reluctant to entrust their little darlings to the attractions or whether they will be queuing up to shove their sprogs onto the remaining machinery when the pier reopens.

Or perhaps they'll take them to the zoo in the hope of seeing an orangutan escape.

Meanwhile, in all the recent meteorological fuss, another fly-by might just escape notice: 2013 UV3, discovered last week, will be zipping past today at a mere 280-odd thousand km away.

Time to raise another glass, I think!

A quiet couple of days coming up at the blog:

Every Weekend is Like a Mini Vacation

Monday 28 October 2013

Break Like the Wind

(with apologies to William Shakespeare [and Spinal Tap])

Think you the trains were cancelled for the storm,
Their progress halted by the falling trees?
That while you slept at home, all nice and warm,
The tracks were being blocked by loose debris?
Do you believe that all these long delays
Are caused by an inevitable mess
And that these stormy late October days,
Would not have let us get away with less?
Oh no, my love, according to Bob Crow
The fault lies with the management alone;
'Twas not the storm that hit the schedules so
But staffing numbers pared back to the bone.
     Even the force that Mother Nature sends,
     A union boss will turn to his own ends.

(This week saw the 5th birthday of Newgate News; my thanks to all readers and especially  to those whose comments make blogging a worthwhile and rewarding pastime.)

Sunday 27 October 2013

One down...

A wind turbine has collapsed in strong winds which swept across Devon on Saturday night. 
No-one was reported injured after the 27m (89ft) high turbine came down in a field at Higher Rixdale Farm at Luton, near Teignmouth.
...how many more to go?

There's something we didn't have so many of in 1987. I recently heard an expert on the radio explaining that  turbines were quite safe as they could withstand wind speeds of up to 80mph. Since the Met Office is warning of gusts in excess of that this weekend, things could start getting interesting.

Once the wind gets up, the things are only as safe as the bolts holding 90-odd feet of steel to the ground in a howling gale - or the braking systems that, in theory, stop them fizzing themselves to death in a glorious burst of flame.

Remember, folks, 'Red sky at night; turbine's alight'.

(Update - Not sure whether this one counts as it's only a baby:
Firefighters dismantled a small wind turbine from the roof of a house in Ilfracombe.
Devon and Somerset Fire Service received a call reporting a wind turbine "in a precarious position".)

Your green credentials are slipping

I have been stalking someone called Kurt.

It's not as bad as it sounds. Such are the wonders of modern technology that, having ordered something online, I was invited today to track Kurt and my parcel on their journey via an icon on a google map.

And what a frustrating business it turned out to be. My delivery - no. 35 on the list - was scheduled for 12.30, but when I logged on at 9am, lo and behold! Kurt's icon was at the end of my street making 'delivery no. 5'. If I had been a little quicker off the mark, I could probably have rushed out and ambushed him before he got back into his van, in the manner of a slightly less agile trapdoor spider.

Surely, I thought, he has decided to abandon the computerised schedule and tackle his round with common sense; he'll be knocking at the door in a minute. But it was not to be; the icon showed him heading away from the Tavern en route to delivery number 6, half a mile away.

This puzzled me somewhat so, since I was working at my computer, I periodically checked in to see where he was. Had the Tavern been equipped with a widow's walk on the roof, I could have watched him pursuing an elaborate back-and-forth course never more than about five miles away; according to the icon, he even drove past the front door of the Tavern - twice!

(Incidentally, I've often wondered whether those 19th century New England wives appreciated their watchtowers, in part, at least, as an early warning to heat up plenty of bathwater; after several months boiling up blubber on a whaling ship, I dare say the returning heroes were rather more welcome after a good deodorising scrub).

Eventually Kurt and the parcel put in an appearance exactly as scheduled, after criss-crossing the neighbourhood for more than three hours. Since he was, in the nicest possible sense, the monkey, I didn't bother to ask him about the organ-grinder's bizarre system of priorities or why he had driven over sixty miles when it could have been sixteen.

It was undoubtedly convenient to know exactly when the parcel would be delivered, but I was given the time slot only that morning; in theory, there was nothing to stop the computer designing a single route to take in all that day's deliveries with the minimum mileage, especially since, up until the last minute, everyone on the list had simply been told to wait in all day.

It is, therefore, with wry amusement that I noticed, at the same website that showed the courier's convoluted ditherings, the company's logo-ridden jargon-fest of a presentation explaining that every parcel is 'carbon-neutral', as part of their 'Responsibility strategy'. I bet someone got a fat bonus for masterminding that particular piece of propaganda.

But then that's corporate business in today's Britain; never mind reality, feel the pitch.

Saturday 26 October 2013

The end of the world?

Honestly! I leave the blog unattended for a few days and, while I'm away, we have solar flares, an earthquake off the coast of Japan and a newly-discovered asteroid flying by inside the moon's orbit, not to mention the storm brewing in mid-Atlantic.

So, where to begin? Solar flares seem to have taken a back seat recently, which is odd, given the impact that major solar activity could have on today's technology-reliant society.
When aimed directly at Earth, X-class sun eruptions can interfere with satellite-based communications and navigation systems and also endanger astronauts in orbit.
Although the sat-nav on the Tavern's coach-and-four can cock things up quite successfully without extra-terrestrial intervention - after which she pauses briefly, then huffs 'recalculating' in hurt tones, as if it were all our fault - this is potential disaster territory when applied to major infrastructure.

The Japanese earthquake, although measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale, passed off largely without incident, as did the aftershocks, though I imagine the inhabitants of the Fukushima area had an uneasy few hours. In fact, Friday saw a surprising number of earthquakes, judging by the USGS map (a useful reference for which I am originally indebted to Demetrius, always a fount of knowledge on the subject).

Meanwhile, as if this were not enough, on the same day 2013 UX2 zipped past a mere 150,000km away, having been spotted only the night before, yet another reminder of the known unknowns out there. Admittedly, an impact wouldn't have sent us the way of the dinosaurs - estimates place it between 3.8 and 8.4m in diameter - but it would have been enough to make an impressive bang, nonetheless.

All in all, yesterday was quite a day for those of an apocaholic disposition, and, as if that were not enough, we in the UK  are now being told to batten down the hatches in preparation for the meteorological bomb headed in our direction.

Back in the 80s, global thermonuclear warfare was the name of the game; 'Protect and Survive', they said, which was scant consolation if you lived near a prime strategic target. Still, whitewashing the windows and levering the door off its hinges would probably have distracted the populace from the unedifying spectacle of local bigwigs scuttling for their council-supplied shelters.

These days, thanks to improved detection techniques, we can take our pick of  potential catastrophes ready to wipe us out in a variety of interesting and spectacular ways - I wonder if the local council still have their bunker ready. We are surely overdue for something major - look what happened to the dinosaurs and they hadn't even invented scripted reality or 'Extreme Celebrity Spa'.

The gods may once have played at dice, but I'm inclined to think they have moved on to a cosmic game of Mousetrap or Buckaroo; deep down, we all know that, sooner or later, something's got to give and the world as we know it will all come crashing down - an idea that has been profitably exploited by writers, Hollywood and, for that matter, several major religions.

Still, in the meantime, we invite you to raise a belated glass to 2013 UX2 to speed it on its way.

Carpe diem!

Monday 21 October 2013

Apocalypse 2032

So, once again, we are in, as our transatlantic cousins would say, a 'non-zero impact probability situation'.

This is, of course, our new friend 2013 TV135, a 1,300' wide hunk of rock whizzing about the solar system which was spotted last month.

The news has, predictably enough, sent the tabloids into overdrive:
Nasa admit huge asteroid could destroy Earth in just NINETEEN years (Star)
Huge asteroid 'will hit earth in 2032' claim astronomers (Express)
Which, once you have eliminated the inevitable hyperbole, translates as 'current  observations indicate a 1 in 19,000 chance of striking the Earth in 2032' - those observations providing just ten days' worth of data so far.

What seems to have got everyone so excited is the announcement that TV135 has been given a rating of 1 on the Torino scale, one of only two in that classification at present.

And even that, when you get down to the detail, isn't quite as exciting as it sounds; the scale goes from 0 to 10, and 1 - 'Normal' - doesn't even make it into the yellow zone, let alone orange or red:

A routine discovery in which a pass near Earth is predicted that poses no unusual level of danger. Current calculations show the chance of collision is extremely unlikely with no cause for public attention or public concern. New telescopic observations very likely will lead to re-assignment to Level 0.

Still, why let the details get in the way of a good headline? It's a tabloid editor's dream; too far into the future to spark a mass panic but threatening enough to create a sensation.

It would be pleasant to think that this major global threat - even if it exists largely in the minds of sensation-hungry journalists - might bring about a radical improvement in behaviour and provide humanity with a new sense of purpose, but I suspect much of what we laughably call civilization is too far gone for that.

When the idea of impending doom took hold in plague- and war-ravaged 14th-Century Europe, society polarised into religious fanaticism and hedonism, some groups becoming ever more extreme in asserting their own religious superiority while others descended into a last-ditch Bacchanalian frenzy.

Somehow, we seem to have got to that stage before the threat arrived.

Friday 18 October 2013

Not in my name

     Wilcox said, "Who were you trying to hurt?"
     "A strike has to hurt someone. The employers, the public. Otherwise it has no effect."
     Robyn was about to say, "The Government", when she saw the trap: Wilcox would find it easy enough to argue that the Government had not been troubled by the strike. The Students' Union had supported the strike, and its members had not complained about a day's holiday from lectures. The University, then? But the University wasn't responsible for the cuts or the erosion of lecturers' salaries. Faster than a computer, Robyn's mind reviewed these candidates for the target of the strike and rejected them all.

     (David Lodge: 'Nice Work', 1988)

One might well ask the same question of the teaching Union members who, this week, presented parents with the difficulty of occupying their school-age children between 8.30am and 3.30pm on a weekday, a move hardly likely to garner public support.

While members of the Government may have been mildly worried by the spectacle of massed protesters on Britain's streets, given the involvement of Socialist Worker and the banners exhorting "Strike, protest, occupy", it's hard to see what impact the march had on the machinery of the state.

That didn't stop the NUT's Christine Blower describing the strikes as 'a great success', which appears to mean that a large number of people had an exciting day out (some of them, apparently, rounding it off with a nice bottle of wine at Pizza Express - caveat: Mail) and showed the Government that they objected to current policies.

The people 'hurt' by this 'great success', meanwhile, weren't Michael Gove or the officials of the Department of Education, but working parents and - perhaps intentionally - those teachers who chose not to strike and were left to sort out the administrative mess.

The prevailing attitude was recently summed up by an otherwise intelligent and conscientious young teacher trying to explain his priorities: "That Gove, he only cares about results; he doesn't think about our working conditions at all!"  

It's not that I am indifferent to teachers' pay and working conditions; most of my family has earned its crust that way since the 1920s. For some of us, it's in the blood, and what worries the Unions most, I think, is that there are still teachers out there who would do the job as long as they had enough to keep body and soul together and would never consider deserting their posts for a day.

The progressives have tried to oust such dangerous subversives, of course. I once heard a very senior lecturer in the field openly scoff at the old adage that teachers are born, not made; the only way to achieve excellence in the profession was to follow him blindly to the sunlit uplands of the multicultural classroom and egalitarian methodology.

At the heart of the matter is the question of politics; even though many staff belong to a union solely for the legal protection and advice available (a necessity in today's litigious climate), the union activists take this as a mandate for mass withdrawal of labour and, sad to say, the pre-Christmas strikes last year showed that some of the herd, at least, rather like the idea of a day off for shopping.

If the purpose of the march were simply to show massed support for the unions, it could just as easily have been held during half-term; what difference would it have made to the Government? The fact that it was not is a clear indicator of how little value is placed on education by those directly responsible for providing it.
     "Yes, I was picketing."
What fun it had been! Stopping cars and thrusting leaflets through the drivers' windows, turning back lorries, waving banners for the benefit of the local TV news cameras, thawing one's fingers round a mug of thermos-flask coffee, sharing the warm glow of camaraderie with colleagues one had never met before. Robyn had not felt so exalted since the great women's rally at Greenham Common.

Sunday 13 October 2013

The musical fun continues

Some things are just too good to keep to oneself...

(Dedicated, of course, to JuliaM;
one earworm definitely deserves another!)

Saturday 12 October 2013

And they didn't live happily ever after.

Once upon a time, there was a mother pig who had three little pigs. The three little pigs grew so big that, one day, their mother said to them, "You are too big to live here any longer; you must go and find houses for yourselves".
If an article in one of last week's (paywalled) papers is to be believed, this scene is being played out on a regular basis up and down the country, with young people told to move out of the family home because 'their bedrooms are needed for younger siblings'.

The implication was that the withdrawal of housing benefit for the under-25s would cause great hardship for this reason, which rather suggests that their families were expecting the state to provide a safety net - and accommodation - once the 'child' reached 18, making way for more children in the household.

For those in receipt of the maximum amounts, child benefit and child tax credit combined can represent a significant proportion of the household income. It's a laudable practice when it enables a responsible family to meet their bills and feed and clothe children who might otherwise go hungry but there is a fatal flaw in its application.

In its simplest form, child = income. While those who bear the full financial responsibility for their offspring might hesitate before adding to their brood, there is no financial disincentive to produce large families when someone else is footing the bill; science has long known that mammal populations expand in times of plenty and humans are no exception.

And, just as in the animal kingdom, that expansion brings an increase in predators trying to benefit in their turn. Along with the tattoo artists, beauticians, baby boutiques, high street bookmakers and lottery ticket sellers are men who batten onto young single mothers to profit from their accommodation and child benefits.

This may well be the untold story behind the cohort of newly-homeless teenagers; a mother infatuated or dominated by a potentially hostile partner is surely far more likely to follow her primitive animal instincts to protect and nurture his new offspring and pack the previous litter off into the wilderness to fend for themselves. Like the starry-eyed progressives who wrecked our education system, those responsible for the tax credit structure appear to have ignored the animal instincts that drive human behaviour.

Suggestions of denying payment for children conceived  by parents already on benefits have led to much outcry (and an assortment of straw men - or rather women), as you would expect to happen with a system that allows claimants to generate their own hostages. The Dickensian spectre of child poverty makes a powerful argument; so powerful, in fact, that it appears to have obscured the question of how many children there are and what happens to them when they grow up.

While the vast majority of parents will doubtless continue, as generations before them, to support, house and occasionally be driven to distraction by their grown offspring until they achieve independence, there is a danger that a proportion of teenagers who cease to qualify for child benefit and tax credits will suddenly find themselves evicted from the family home while still young enough to be vulnerable to every passing Big Bad Wolf.

I don't have a solution, though it would certainly help if people could be persuaded to take a more responsible approach to parenthood; in a country where pets are acquired on a whim and abandoned at will, I can't imagine the families in question ever taking on board the idea that a child is for life, not just for tax credits.

Monday 7 October 2013

An honourable estate?

(Warning; this post may contain material of an emetic nature.)

It appears there is a growing trend for readings from children's books at weddings.

Instead of the traditional chapters from the scripture of choice, some couples are now opting for picture books like 'The Velveteen Rabbit' or 'Guess How Much I Love You', or a rendition of 'The Owl and the Pussycat'.

According to the Director of the UK Alliance of Wedding Planners (a job description that surely entitles the holder to speedy boarding for the Golgafrinchan B-Ark):
"That's the big thing with weddings now... it's about [the couple's] personalities. They're trying to choose readings that are easy to understand, that are fun to read and fun to listen to and just bring a smile to people's faces."
It seems rather odd, somehow, that at the point of making what should surely be an adult and mature commitment, couples should be looking for something 'easy' and 'fun'; even if the sacred texts no longer apply, one would hope for an expression of rather more profundity than "I love you all the way down the lane as far as the river".

While religious readings will not suit everyone (and, to be honest, some of St Paul's opinions do raise a few hackles these days), surely there is something out there among the vast canon of serious fiction or philosophy that expresses the requisite sentiments in words of more than one syllable.

The BBC helpfully lists some of the popular choices:
Guess How Much I Love You (Sam McBratney)
The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
Winnie-the-Pooh (AA Milne)
The Velveteen Rabbit (Margery Williams)
The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
Oh The Places You'll Go (Dr Seuss)
While some of these do at least have a modicum of dignity, it's difficult to see how the (supposedly) lifelong mutual commitment of two adults could be appropriately celebrated with that last one:
Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!
One of the reasons put forward is that the inclusion of picture books allows the couple's children to play a part (which does rather seem to be putting the cart before the matrimonial horse), but it seems likely that these 'easy' readings are also symptoms of a malaise afflicting increasing numbers of the population.

In a society where cartoon characters advertise such grown-up products as insurance or estate agencies and adults are expected to spend on toys and games for themselves as well as their children, it's hardly surprising that the institution of marriage itself is becoming trivialised. In the words of one bride, who chose 'The Owl and the Pussycat',
"It was just an opportunity to make everybody smile and something that was familiar to them and also was quite evocative with the imagery in it, and also I'm a huge cat fan."
In the glare of the digital age, that 'ghastly public confession of a strictly private intention' has become a painstakingly costumed and choreographed performance inspired by merchandising, magazines and celebrity culture. The enormity of the undertaking represented by marriage vows has, for many, been eclipsed by the desire to put on a show in keeping with the superficial media-led aspirations of this generation.

As the good Dr Seuss has taught us to say:
With banner flip-flapping,
once more you'll ride high!
Ready for anything under the sky.
Ready because you're that kind of a guy!...
Fame! You'll be as famous as famous can be,
with the whole wide world watching you win on TV!

Thursday 3 October 2013

Away with the raggle-taggle gypsies-O

Sad news for the Gypsy and Traveller community; after this month's Horse Fair at Stow-on-the-Wold, the organisers will have to find a new venue.
Its site in a field near Maugersbury Road, is being sold to developers, who plan to build a new medical centre, five houses and a 300 space car park.
Stow fair is a major event which attracts travellers from all over Britain looking for horses, equipment and, apparently, counterfeit merchandise. A spokesman for the Gypsy Council says he is confident the fair will continue:
“I think the important thing is to preserve the heritage and the history.
Surely there will be other farmers around the area who might want to collaborate and hold the fair in a different field.
I wouldn't hold your breath, mate!
The fair has drawn criticism in the past, after incidents of theft and vandalism, and a man was stabbed at the event, in May 2010.
Officers have worked to improve policing after some residents complained of nuisance, litter and traffic chaos.
Once a general country fair, the event was gradually abandoned by everyone except the Gypsies, at which point it was moved out of the town. So why the need to change, all of a sudden? A few months ago, local press reported that the site's owners were 'looking to sell' and it appears they found themselves a good deal.

What makes this story interesting is that, while news reports don't mention the identity of the sellers who are moving the Gypsies on while they turn a handsome profit, back in February, a young visitor to the fair (who seems much taken with the 'designer clothes'; do you think someone should tell her that Messrs Dolce & Gabbana don't usually sell their wares from the back of a white van?) wrote that the fields in question are 'owned by a local Romany family'.

So  much for heritage and 'community'; I wonder if they will find anyone else prepared to host the gathering.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

"He drinks a whisky drink, he drinks a vodka drink, he drinks a lager drink, he drinks a cider drink...."

From the Independent:
Scientists say increasingly boozy lyrics could be encouraging young people to drink 
Researchers analysed more than 600 successful singles from 1981 onwards, with the lyrics of each song assessed independently by two team members to identify references to alcohol and alcohol consumption.
Thanks to our habit of saluting the ever-increasing number of known Near-Earth Asteroids, the Tavern is no stranger to the time-honoured tradition of the drinking song. Since humanity first discovered the secret of producing alcohol, we've been happily singing about it, which suggests that we might be looking at a touch of confirmation bias here.

As Leg-Iron points out, citing an abundance of pre-war drink-related music, 1981 was probably something of a low point in alcohol reference - largely, if I remember rightly, because much of punk and mainstream pop was heading into the realm of politics while the New Romantics were too intoxicated by their own hairspray and narcissism to need any alcoholic assistance.

In any case, I can't imagine today's young people taking much notice of Roxy Music or The Jam - or, for that matter, anything before the golden oldies of 2010, such is the ephemeral nature of popular culture. It seems odd to take a 34-year sample, especially with a starting point that coincides with electronic pop; while booze and guitars make natural bedfellows, the chap with the synth usually has to stay sober.

However, it does amuse me to think of all those po-faced academics sitting round earnestly analysing the minutiae of four decades of trivial pop:
Strict criteria were applied to define a “mention” of alcohol, and the high figures do not even include fairly obvious but indirect references such as non-specific drinking at parties (the study offered “Sippin’ on a different drink,” Snoop Dogg vs. David Guetta – Sweat, 2011, as an example). 
“We’re dancing on the bar”, appearing in The Saturdays’ All Fired Up (2011) was also “deemed too ambiguous for inclusion”.
Somehow, all I can think of is this...

For more, I recommend Mark Wadsworth's post on the subject.