Sunday, 19 February 2017

The old world is gone

An interesting essay from aeon reminds us of more serious issues than the latest Trump spat.

Between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s alone, the likelihood of having a classmate with a food allergy increased by 20 per cent in the United States. In fact, over the past five decades, the incidence of all allergies and autoimmune diseases – caused by your body attacking itself – has skyrocketed. What could explain our sudden hypersensitivity to our surroundings and ourselves? Since evolution operates on the timescale of millennia, the culprits lie not in our genes but somewhere within our environment.

One thing that has changed in public health is our awareness of germs and how they spread. In response to that insight, over the past half-century our implementation of hygiene practices has spared us from debilitating infections and enormous human misery. But the new vigilance might have altered the development of our immune system, the collection of organs that fight infections and internal threats to our health...

...We are forced to conclude that the explosion of allergies and autoimmune diseases results from a mismatch between genes selected by pressures of our evolutionary past and the reality of modern life. While we have adapted in the past, we might not be able to adapt again by relying on biology alone. There is no going back – the old world is gone. 

It may be age or a coincidence, but during a working life spent handling contaminated water samples I hardly ever had a day off work. Since retirement I seem to have had far more minor illnesses than I ever had while working.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

The Blair enigma

You know nothing about people. Those who are interested in people do not get as rich as you have.

Sherwood Anderson - Like a Queen (1933)

Tony Blair is a weird creep isn’t he? Telling the British people they ought to rise up over Brexit can be viewed in a number of ways, but to my mind the idea is faintly senile. It isn’t going to happen and his intervention isn’t likely to be welcomed except perhaps by a small group of nostalgic nutters. He should know that but apparently not.
Tony Blair has said it is his "mission" to persuade Britons to "rise up" and change their minds on Brexit.

Speaking in the City of London, the former prime minister claimed that people voted in the referendum "without knowledge of the true terms of Brexit".

He urged "a way out from the present rush over the cliff's edge".

Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said the comments were arrogant and undemocratic but Lib Dem Nick Clegg said he "agreed with every word".
So Nick Clegg agrees with him - strewth, there's an endorsement to be wary of. The Middle East and WMD did for Blair and screwed up whatever place in history he thought he may have earned. There is no way back from that. Apart from which he only has numbers; number of elections won, that kind of thing. Plus his erstwhile talent for manipulating the media I suppose. Doesn’t go far now. 

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Taste and decay

We visited Hardwick Hall yesterday, one of our local stately homes. It's an interesting enough place but as with so many National Trust properties the life of it has long gone and its absence seems to permeate every aspect of the place. Acres of worn and faded tapestry teeming with obsolete allegory do nothing to bring the place back to life. Just the opposite.

As ever with such buildings, there is a sense of cans being kicked down the road. How long will Hardwick be maintained and for how long will the National Trust keep at bay those relentless processes of decay? Centuries? Currently work is being done to repair part of the roof. After that it will be something else, then something else.

There is still a touch of life in the rooms occupied up until the mid twentieth century by Evelyn, Duchess of Devonshire, but apart from that there are few echoes of Hardwick's long history.

Among its treasures is the so-called Sea-Dog Table above.

This elaborate table, supported by four finely carved winged dogs with fishes' tails, was one of the original acquisitions for Hardwick Hall made by Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury.

A marble-inlaid walnut 'drawing table', or draw-leaf table, France, probably Paris, circa 1575, of extremely fine quality and one of the most important pieces of sixteenth century furniture to survive in England.

How anyone ever saw merit in such a hideous piece of furniture I don't know. To my mind this is what Hardwick suggests most strongly, the astounding ugliness of elite Tudor taste.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

The Trouble with Confidence

Daniel Kahneman on the prevalence and the problem of overconfidence. The issue is obvious when celebrities support social and political narratives from a position of profound ignorance yet do so with the most ineffable confidence. Somehow they know they are not idiots in spite of all the evidence. That’s confidence.

How about HS2, the next big government IT project, the next housing policy initiative, defence spending, green energy or the latest education policy? 

Yet in many cases confidence is not necessarily misplaced because those responsible will be long gone by the time the brown stuff hits the fan. If it ever does. 

Monday, 13 February 2017

A chronic state of mental inaccuracy


...they lived in a chronic state of mental inaccuracy, excitement and inertia, which made it vaguely exhilarating to lie and definitely fatiguing to be truthful.
Edith Wharton - The Mother's Recompense (1925)

Wharton's is a strangely modern observation - analysis requires considerably more mental effort than instinct. The extra effort can be observed - it is a neurological fact, an important way to minimise the effort of thinking. 

With a well-defined political outlook it is possible to dispense with analysis altogether as Ken Loach has done. The UK government may be many things, but it is not brutal. For brutal Loach should look elsewhere. Here is another example of his chronic state of mental inaccuracy.

The director has previously clashed with Business Secretary Greg Clark about the film, in an episode of BBC One's Question Time.

"Your film, Ken – it is a fictional film," the Conservative minister said, prompting groans from the Gloucestershire audience.

But Loach shrugged off Clark's criticism with an impassioned reply. “When you’re sanctioned your life is forced into chaos, and people are going to food banks," he said. "How can we live in a society where hunger is used as a weapon?"

No, hunger is not used as a weapon. Loach is lying. Why do it, why not dispense with the rhetoric and stick to some kind of analysis? Presumably because he cannot, his instincts crowd out any possibility of analysis and so he demeans the cause he purports to support.

Sunday, 12 February 2017


A handwritten note has come into my possession which seems to be a private memorandum outlining the substance of an inner shadow cabinet meeting between Jeremy Corbyn and a few trusted colleagues.

For my eyes only.

Main points to be determined.
Is a three-line whip sufficiently strong for a modern, disciplined and effective Labour party? Diane suggests stronger discipline alone is sufficient but I really cannot go down that path. I sometimes think she is pulling my leg with her gruesome ideas.

As far as key Parliamentary votes go, my own idea is an expanded version of the three-line whip to four lines. Rather a good idea I think. At least it would allow the leadership to emphasise just how important certain Parliamentary votes are for Labour policy and it would bring home yet again the inestimable value of loyalty. A neglected issue in my opinion.

Diane suggests a five-line whip so in order to maintain my authority I make an executive decision that six-line whips will be introduced which is twice the number the Tories have available to them. That should settle the matter but Diane keeps sniggering and even suggests twelve-line whips so I know she is not taking the issue as seriously as I’d hoped.

The next issue is the vexed question of our Brexit policy which although absolutely clear seems to have suffered from a range of mischievous interpretations.

Briefly our position is that without the EU Britain after the Brexit vote should still be in a position to decide for itself within the outcome of suitable negotiations with our EU partners the substance of which although not subject to formal procedures not yet established should otherwise be implemented with Parliamentary approval.

Yes that should do. At least it is a start.

Meeting closed.

Friday, 10 February 2017

The Dilemma of Downsizing

From Wiggia

Along with many couples of a certain age my wife and I are wanting to downsize. All well and good and in the current climate it could be seen as a worthy contribution to the country’s housing woes regarding a lack of larger houses for larger families. This is the lead on an article about the governments intentions…….

Pensioners with large family homes will be given incentives to downsize in a drive to solve the housing crisis.
If only it were that easy. Firstly from an entirely selfish point of view I don’t give a stuff about other people’s housing problems. Having spent all my working life reaching a position where I can live in some sort of comfort all at my expense and effort, I am not inclined to want to “help” others who are not prepared to make the same sacrifices we did to achieve our end goal. And today they don’t. Nobody said it was easy and there certainly are more problems re expense than in our day but you have to help yourself and that for many today is not in their vocabulary. Help from others yes, help yourself - err maybe.

But I digress. The government’s proposal is a classic spin operation, the “help” they are promoting is getting older people to give up their “large” homes and move into sheltered accommodation. The help apart from paying moving costs is a bit vague though the use of a paint brush is offered. And the ceiling for helping with a stamp duty free move is 250k not a lot of big houses below that figure anywhere in the country, so in fact they are offering bugger all, and in fairness why should home owners be offered incentives to move with more tax payers money? Not of course that any real incentive is being offered or even spoken about. Give me a million and I will happily move on. So I think we can safely say not much will change from that source anyway.

The real dilemma for all those facing downsizing or wanting to, apart from those as my Australian friend says are “wanting to move to the waiting room” is simply finding an adequate property in the first place. Before we moved to our current property four years ago we were wanting to downsize from the last one, it became an impossible search. There were several reasons and most would apply to anyone wanting to take the plunge.

Firstly most people having had their pensions robbed by Gordon Brown are seeking to release equity from their homes to supplement lifestyle by downsizing, but the costs of moving and legal and estate agents fees have to be factored in as the likelihood of spending on the new property either in improvements, new kitchen and the like plus the inevitable redecorating. Many older people are past the DIY stage and will have to pay someone to do it.

All of this further reduces if a cash profit is part of the aim in moving to a property further down the chain than first envisaged, and once you start actually looking using that criterion you realise it not only reduces the cash available for purchase but also inevitably means you will be looking in areas that you thought you had left behind years ago. Nothing snobbish in not wanting that. I was raised in a prefab post war and was living with my parents until I married in a council flat in London's east end. Why would anyone want to go back to anywhere like that having managed to crawl out of there years before?

I exaggerate to make a point, but not totally as it depends on the money you get for the house you’re selling. For many people at the lower end of the housing market it makes no sense to move at all so they stay put until such time as “Gods waiting room” beckons. Small incentives from the govt to move there are not going to cut it with most older people who can still survive on their own and are happy in that environment rather than moving to one where they are living with others in the same late stages of life and spend a lot of time wondering which of their neighbours is next. Sod that, is a phrase that comes to mind.

For others like myself we simply could not find a place that came anywhere near the criteria we had set, and we are very flexible as to where we could go, having few family ties. If a house was found in a suitable area it needed far too much spent on it or had miniature rooms. We don’t want the same number of rooms but would like the main ones to be bigger than the you can’t swing a cat variety and as soon as you start looking at downsizing these are some of the problems that arise.

One item I can happily? forego is a large garden. It is something I have always cherished and always had and my business that I had and my love of having that space to do as like with is not easy to give up but advancing years mean that is now not a problem. A case of been there done that, and whilst an acre that we currently have is by no means the largest plot it is still quite daunting when you realise that you simply might not be in a position to do it justice, a position I found myself in last year when hospitalised.

As I said we could not find anything and our current property came up and despite needing a lot of updating, a last hurrah for me, it turned out well, but of course did not solve the problem, a problem now more urgent to solve because of the four further years of advance.

Naturally the preferred solution for the government would be to force all old people to emigrate releasing all those large houses for the millions they have imported over the last 15 years or so with their large dependent families. And as the older generation are the reason for almost all ills, an easier option for the blame game than to ever admit they have made and are still making a catastrophic mistake themselves. It suits the narrative to a tee. That of course is not going to happen and perhaps the withdrawing or curtailing of NHS services will do the job for them , a path that appears to currently in favour, with older people finding that getting to see a doctor is less likely than winning the lottery the effect of that must be felt soon.

I also read somewhere about a scheme where current suburbs could be bulldozed and high density housing put in its place, a solution that works well as Heinrich Himmler proved some years back.

On top of all these material problems is the whole saga of moving in itself, said by many to be more stressful than a divorce. I cannot vouch for that yet the culmination of a dozen or more moves has not made the process any easier. I really could write the book on the perils of moving. Far too long and tedious to relate to here, but as a flavour of what I might have revealed in full, a first move where the exchange of contracts took place and the lady ! who we were buying from changed her mind an hour later. This was ‘75 and the signed contracts were posted. Her solicitor was a family friend and when she phoned to say she had changed her mind he told her they had not yet posted her contract and didn’t. Ours had gone, no redress and a lot of expense. It was legal to do that in those days though rare as an event.

After that it was all downhill , you name it we have suffered it, and not once has anything we have done been reason or effect. Mindblowing. Throw in two incompetent solicitors in the mix who had to be sued for failing to do their job properly and I think you may get an inkling of what I think of a system that has never been overhauled to help make the process less stressful and fairer on the innocent parties when things go wrong. The book is in the offing, and actually some years back when I was telling the tale to someone who was working for a publishing house at the time did suggest it could be worthwhile. Mind you the time taken in writing a book on a subject that takes all my time anyhow is a non starter - or maybe not ?

I repeat when you get older all this is a very good reason for not moving. I cannot imagine how an older couple would react to any of our sagas especially if they have never moved or not for many years. On the other hand it might just be Gods will that I should shoulder the wrongs of the system on behalf of all humanity. A sort of sacrificial house mover. At times I have believed it so.

Another snippet from my life as a professional house mover - the viewer. We have certainly had some wrong uns over the years, but there is always room for one more category, and at our last property we had a viewer turn up in a people carrier with mother in tow. Not especially unique but never wanted as they try to enforce their view on the whole process whilst not actually buying anything. All was normal until we finished showing them round. As I looked back returning to the house I saw mother get out of the vehicle having just got in and spread a blanket on our lawn. I went back and was about to say what is going on when the husband/son asked if they could have lunch there.

Now I am an easy going sort of person normally and if he had asked and they had traveled a long way I may have said OK, but we were going out and I asked him to leave, nicely. With that he then told me they go house hunting on a regular basis, with no intention of ever actually buying anything. They are house voyeurs. To be honest I could not believe he had actually said that to my face and had to remove myself before I splattered him all over the herbaceous perennials. They then left in their own good time and no doubt we have had the same type before. It would be difficult to tell, and I am told it is an increasing leisure pastime, but to actually admit with no sign of any guilt to wasting everyone's time was a first.

So the quest to downsize continues, we will make it eventually, yet as before the pitfalls await no doubt in some new untried by us form, never the less downwards on onwards.