Saturday, 30 July 2016


We're on holiday in Norfolk so blogging may be light for a while.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Around the world in 505 days

From the endlessly fawning BBC

The first round-the-world solar powered flight has been completed, after the Solar Impulse aircraft touched down in Abu Dhabi.

Bertrand Piccard piloted the plane for a final time, steering it safely from the Egyptian capital Cairo to the UAE.

He has been taking turns at the controls with Swiss compatriot Andre Borschberg, with the mission aiming to promote renewable energy.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Local sludge for local people

One fine day in 1973 found me driving through the centre of town in the works JCB towing a trailer load of fresh sewage sludge. I was heading for the local allotment. Not my job but the driver was off sick and I fancied the trip. Or perhaps I was making up for inadvertently driving the Allen Scythe through a rose bed. That wasn’t my job either, but I was young and interested in everything.

The other day, an old work colleague and I were walking through Dovedale asking ourselves when our bit of environmental science went wrong. We both came to the conclusion that the rot set in after local government reorganisation in 1974.

One should not see that trailer load of sewage sludge through rose-tinted spectacles, but for a short time I was working at the local sewage works and I enjoyed it. Effectively we were all working for the Borough Engineer and via him for local people. We knew why we were there, why we did what we did and for whom. By modern standards it may not have been an efficient arrangement but after 1974 a sense of working for people slowly evolved into a sense of working for a salary.

It did not happen quickly but bit by bit small offices, laboratories, depots and workshops were closed and merged into bigger units. Headquarters became bigger, more stratified, more remote and inward looking. The range of work became much wider and the technology much more sophisticated, but in 1973 we did what was thought necessary and if it wasn’t necessary we didn’t do it. That changed too.

Over the following decades regional bureaucracies spawned by 1974 became entangled with national bureaucracies or became national bureaucracies themselves. Later they became entangled with international bureaucracies. From what I saw, doing real work for real people became sidelined in a sense highlighted by that load of sewage sludge.

A degree of local transparency was lost in 1974. As bureaucracies grew they became less visible and less transparent. That is a key word here – transparent. By merely avoiding scandal or political disfavour they could settle down and wallow around forever behind their internal processes. So they did and still do.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Better off mad

Better Mad with the rest of the World than Wise alone. So say politicians. If all are so, one is no worse off than the rest, whereas solitary wisdom passes for folly. So important is it to sail with the stream. The greatest wisdom often consists in ignorance, or the pretence of it. One has to live with others, and others are mostly ignorant. "To live entirely alone one must be very like a god or quite like a wild beast," but I would turn the aphorism by saying: Better be wise with the many than a fool all alone. There be some too who seek to be original by seeking chimeras.

Baltasar Gracian - The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1647)

Perhaps we are better off mad with the rest of the world, but it would be reassuring to have the option. Is democracy supposed to sort that out?

Monday, 25 July 2016

Wished away

Some do honour to their post, with others ’tis the other way. It is no great gain if a poor successor makes the predecessor seem good, for this does not imply that the one is missed, but that the other is wished away.

Baltasar Gracian - The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1647)

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Something for nothing

Greg Clark, our new Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has said:

"I am thrilled to have been appointed to lead this new department charged with delivering a comprehensive industrial strategy, leading government’s relationship with business, furthering our world-class science base, delivering affordable, clean energy and tackling climate change."

However, as has been widely reported Mr Clark was once instrumental in promoting homeopathy, a something for nothing alternative therapy.

Greg Clark’s acceptance by scientists may not be helped by the fact that he was among 206 MPs who signed an Early Day Motion in 2007 calling on the government to support homeopathic hospitals, which it describes as “valuable national assets”.

The motion says complementary medicine “has the potential to offer clinically-effective and cost-effective solutions to common health problems faced by NHS patients, including chronic, difficult to treat conditions such as musculoskeletal and other chronic pain, eczema, depression, anxiety and insomnia, allergy, chronic fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome”.

Perhaps Mr Clark is scientifically broadminded. Is that the right word? I don't know, but in a similarly contrarian vein, how about this idea:

Imagine an enormously long tube which stretches from the surface of the earth into outer space. A phenomenally difficult technical achievement to be sure, but consider the enormous benefits.

Once built, huge quantities of outer space could be pumped down the tube to the surface and stored in enormous chambers until required. To extract energy from stored space all one has to do is feed air into the chamber via a turbine which in turn would generate electricity. Once the space has been used up, the chamber is refilled via the space tube.

Good eh? The only outstanding question is how to approach Mr Clark with the idea.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Support your local curmudgeon

...for they were either politicians or reporters, which, of course, comes to the same thing.
Ford Madox Ford – The Good Soldier (1915)

Almost every morning I use the  iPad to run a quick check on news headlines. I used to rely on Ceefax for my daily fix but those days are gone forever. I don’t usually read past the headlines apart from an occasional yen to get some detail, but an outline is usually enough.

I also find myself skipping from headline to comments and if there are no comments I move on. In other words, I’m hardly ever interested in what the average journalist has to say about a story. Only if the story is written by a tough-minded curmudgeon am I likely to read it and there aren’t many of those around, especially in the mainstream media.

Which finally leads to the point of this post, because in my experience there is something important about unyielding scepticism. We are stuck with a major social dilemma where mainstream opinion has to be – well mainstream. Otherwise it could not fulfil its social function, its need to suck up to the establishment and foster political correctness. Fear shapes behaviour, which is why the news is mostly alarmist. Doom and gloom rules the newsroom. Always has.

As a species we are not particularly intelligent and accept the most absurd garbage if it is socially acceptable to do so. A sharply critical outlook is required to detect the garbage but here’s the rub. Detecting garbage ought to be a positive and respected social skill, a welcome addition to the tools of social discourse. Unfortunately it isn’t, because it can’t be, because socially cohesive consensus would flounder if critical analysis were to be valued as a welcome corrective to the garbage and to the establishment viewpoint.

Support your local curmudgeon.