Thursday, 25 December 2008

Give us back our Bacchanalia!

What a mess our calendar is! The winter solstice would be the obvious day to celebrate the end of the year and the beginning of the new one, yet it passes with hardly anyone noticing. Instead, the pagan midwinter festival has been taken over by the Christians and moved to the 25th, with the new year starting a week after that and most activity closing down between the two. The attendant excesses of food and drink and family reunion are spread over eight days. Some people seem to like this arrangement, but many hate it. Non-Christians and people without homes or families can find it unbearable, but it is also the peak period for family breakdown.

The obvious solution would be to shift the beginning of the year and the official public holiday to coincide with the solstice, leaving the 25th for Christians. They needn't feel specially attached to that date, as no one knows when Jesus was born, and anyway Christmas is celebrated by Eastern Christians, according to the Julian Calendar, on January 7th. The giving of presents to children was imported from St Nicholas' (Santa Claus) Day, December 6th. A brutal way to make the change would be to chop eleven days out of one year, the way that Pope Gregory did. That was not popular, but a painless way to do it would be to miss out eleven leap years. Too bad for those with leap day birthdays, but they usually celebrate on the 28th anyway.

Of course, having a leap day in February is irrational; it makes the equinoxes and solstices jump to and fro. The right place for it would be at the end of the year (which is where it was when the year began on March 1st). For that matter, since we have uncoupled months from the moon, we might as well have 13 months of 28 days each; the days of the week could be absoultely regular, with every month starting on a Monday, plus an unnamed day at the end of the year (or two in a leap year). Still, calendar reform is terribly contentious, so we'd better stick with the months and leap days as they are.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Time out of joint

Today is the shortest day, so you may wonder why the sun set 2 minutes later than a week ago. On the other hand it rose about 4 minutes later. That's because our clocks do not keep time with the sun; we would need a sundial for that. The day is not exactly 24 hours, partly because the earth moves faster in its orbit when it is closest to the sun in early January, and partly because its axis is tilted. Anyway, sundial noon was at about 11.45 at the beginning of November and is now moving steadily forward, carrying sunrise and sunset with it, to reach about 12.15 in mid-February. Sundial time also moves back and forth in the summer, so our clocks are only right by the sun four times a year.

As for the moon, the Romans cut it out of their calendar more than 2000 years ago, and our "months" are not "moonths" at all. In fact it is one of only two major calendars that do not pay respect to both sun and moon: the other is the Islamic one of 12 lunar months, adding up to about 354⅓ days, so that dates drift round the seasons in a cycle of about 33 years. What a pity the early Christians were so eager to distance themselves from the Jews that they ditched the Jewish/Babylonian calendar, which was one of the first fruits of ancient astronomy. That's why Easter is so difficult to calculate.

It is such fun to keep track of the moon. Back in the 1970s there were lots of wrist-watches that showed its phases. Unfortunately, many of them did not keep time with the moon, which takes about 29½ days to go from new to new. Perhaps that is why people stopped buying them, so that now you need to trawl the internet to find a moon phase watch. I found a lovely one called the Tidemaster. As its name suggests, it can also be used to keep track of the tides. And I've often wondered whether the subtle daily variations of gravity do not affect our bodies...

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Unfair to dogs!

Surprise surprise! Dogs don't like being treated unfairly. A researcher has found that if dogs are not given the reward that they see given to other dogs they stop cooperating. I'm surprised it was thought worth doing the experiment. Unless dogs had minds totally different from ours they were bound to dislike unfairness. The same would surely be true of any social mammal. The technical term invented for this by the way is 'inequity aversion'.

What is astonishing is that so many people think that human society can be run with a level of unfairness beyond anything any other species has experienced. If the gap between the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless is too big, then of course the poor stop cooperating, beyond the bare minimum that they have to do to stay alive. In my lifetime we have gone from the extreme unfairness of the 1930s, through the increasing fairness of the post-war years and on to the record breaking unfairness of the past 30 years. If we do not greatly reduce the inequalities within and between countries, our world will fall apart in a chaos of war and plunder.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Lost years

The experts in Poznan have at last agreed that forests have to be included in the successor to the Kyoto treaty. This could have been decided 30 years ago. In 1978 I wrote an article 'Forestry for Carbon Dioxide Fixation', suggesting a world-wide programme of forest conservation, reforestation, density-based forest management and preservation of timber and wood products in use - using-forests-to-absorb-atmospheric.html In the thirty years since then, there would have been time to save large areas of forest from destruction, and newly planted trees could have fixed billions of tons of carbon.

All things are interlinked, and to save forests we need to reduce the areas needed for producing food. Even before the biofuels nonsense started, we were growing more and more oil-palms on deforested land in order to produce cooking oils, margarine etc. And large areas have been cleared of forests to make room for pasture or for land to produce fodder to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for animal protein to replace plant protein in human diets. Much of this increased food production is unsustainable and is helping to destroy the world's precious topsoil, estimated to be eroding at a rate of about 25 billion tons a year - nearly ten kilos a day for every man woman and child on the planet. Think what you eat!

Sunday, 7 December 2008

More weirdness

So the Bank of England's base rate is back where it started in 1694, at 2%. The only time it's stuck at that level was during the Great Depression and the World War in the 1930s and 40s. Amazing! The banks won't lend money because they lost so much in dodgy lending, so now you lower interest rates so that even more people will be clamouring for loans, but who is going to put their savings into banks, when the interest won't even compensate for inflation?!

Still, let's keep a sense of proportion. We in the rich West are not going to starve, but we are buying up land in poor countries to grow biofuel crops to keep our cars running, when the people in those countries are desperate for food. And that is on top of all the land in the tropics which is producing soya and maize to feed our cows and pigs and chickens. Actually we should farm something cold-blooded and slow moving, such as slugs, which don't waste half of the food they eat keeping warm and moving about. Or we could just eat soya!

Good news at least for gorillas: The U.N. has declared 2009 to be the Year of the Gorilla.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

What a week!

No sooner had one huge news story popped up than along came another. I suppose it's no longer news that the British Government is plunging into a programme of reckless public borrowing to solve a problem created by reckless private borrowing. Nor is there anything really new in sickening violence in Mumbai; we must just hope that governments will not give the terrorists what they want which is more war.

Well, at least the guards have been allowed back into Virunga National Park, though we don't yet know how many gorillas have survived. Charcoal burning is as big a problem as poaching, and with all those refugees desperate for fuel the pressure on the forest will increase.

And Mrs Obama is to have a diamond-encrusted rhodium ring. Why rhodium? Certainly not to give jobs to American workers, as it is being made in Italy. Presumably it is because it is the most expensive silvery metal; platinum would have done as well.

At least there was one unadulterated good news item: Paul McCartney endorsing vegetarianism as a contribution to reducing carbon emissions. The carnivores' spokesmen (all men so far) have leapt into action denying that British cows belch that much methane (it is belches, by the way, not farts); good! So we can forget about destruction of Brazilian rainforest to make room for soya to feed our cattle, and no need to worry about all that grazing land created around the world at the expense of forests!

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

The Mighty Fallen

Woolworth's gone! It feels as though a great hole has suddenly opened up in the ground. I have memories of shopping in Woollies going back six decades.

The mighty W took the decisive step to destroy the tranquility of Oxford. In 1955(?) they applied for planning permission to put a huge superstore in Cornmarket. The City Council said no, but the Minister of Housing, Harold Macmillan overruled them. And then came Marks and Sparks, then Selfridges, and soon the city centre was crowded with shoppers. Having done the damage, Woollies sold up in the 1980s and made room for the Clarendon Shopping Centre, followed by the Westgate Centre, now to be expanded. It's hard to move for the crowds.

All that happened just before the bypasses were built, after which the old centre could have been left as an academic and tourist precinct, a pedestrian and cyclist paradise with minimal vehicle access. A new commercial centre could have been sited near the eastern by-pass. So much for market forces as a method of town planning! Macmillan was rewarded by being elected Chancellor of the University. How we love those who torment us! Still, I forgive him, because he got us out of Suez and he told off Maggie Thatcher for 'selling off the family silver'.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Bank's Lament

The little ditty I wrote in September 2007 is wearing well, except I had no idea that they'd want trillions from us:


Oh dear oh dear, what shall we do?
Too much we lent, too much you spent.
We helped ourselves and helped you too.
Please understand how well we meant.
But now we want it back from you.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Boom and bust

Perhaps macroeconomics can be reduced to a few propositions: booms result in busts; the pain of busts is greater than the pleasure of booms; therefore everything should be done to prevent booms from getting any bigger than they have to. Ever since governments discovered that they could influence the economy, they have done the opposite: they have tried to make the booms get as big as possible. In the 1930s, when the world population was just over 2 billion, Keynes said it was all right to increase debt in order to go from bust to boom.

Now we realize that it isn't just the human world that suffers from the cycle of boom and bust. The whole planet is groaning under the weight of human demand. Back in 1972, when the world population was less than 4 billion, the Club of Rome report 'Limits to Growth' warned of the danger. President Jimmy Carter commissioned a study, 'Global 2000' to suggest how the US government should respond. But he was voted out in 1980, and we began 28 years of crazy efforts to grow. Now, with the world population at 6.7 billion - 220% bigger than for Keynes and 76% bigger than for the Club of Rome - we are rewarded with the biggest bust for eighty years. When will we ever learn?

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

A mockery of law

The Labour Government has created 3000 new crimes, which is one reason why Britain has a higher percentage of its population in jail than any other European Union country. Still, the latest proposed crime will not put many more in prison. It is proposed to make it illegal for men to buy sex from trafficked women. If the police know which women are trafficked, why don't they arrest the traffickers? And if they don't know, how will they watch trafficked women to see who buys sex from them? Imagine the conversation between client and prostitute: "Excuse me, madam, have you been trafficked?"; "Yes!" (or rather "Da!"); "In that case I cannot buy sex from you." Alternatively: "Excuse me sir, may I have your name and address, so that I can report you to the police after you have bought sex from me?" It will be just like the fox-hunting bill, impossible to enforce. It will bring the law further into disrepute.

The trafficking of women is just one more example of the evils that result from the wealth and income gap between countries. Women only want to come to Britain because here they can earn much more, even in menial jobs, than they can at home. And British men can only afford to spend grotesque sums on prostitutes because incomes in Britain are high enough to pay for much more than the essentials of life. Once our economy has shrunk to a sustainable size, we should keep it there instead of making huge eforts to make it grow again.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Greedy Twenty?

The G20 meeting has had a good press, although it produced no new vision for the world economy. The leaders of the world's 20 largest economies said hardly anything about the suffering of people in the dozens of small economies with abysmally low national income. Americans and Europeans are currently consuming several times their fair share of the planet's sustainable resources, while half of Asia and most of Africa receive only a fraction of their share. Only a transfer of wealth and income from rich to poor can remedy the situation, yet the top twenty think only of maintaining or resuming their growth.

A better view of Rahm Emanuel, Obama's White House Chief of Staff, from James Zogby, President of the Arab-American Institute: he points out that Emanuel was the architect of the signing of the Oslo Agreement on the White House lawn in 1993. He is well liked by Arab-American members of Congress, and his talent for fixing things there will be much needed in pushing through the new Administration's programme. Remember Lyndon Johnson, derided as a 'wheeler-dealer' when Kennedy picked him for V.P. in 1960? After Kennedy's death, it was he who managed to push the civil rights legislation through Congress, without which we would not have President-elect Obama. In fact Johnson would be remembered as one of America's greatest presidents if he had not inherited the Vietnam War.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Mabruk, Baruch!

B-R-K is found in Hebrew too, most notably in the name Baruch - equivalent to Arabic mabruk, which means 'congratulations' (on your blessed good fortune!). Baruch ben Neriyah was the name of Jeremiah's secretary, who helped to edit and possibly in part to write sections of several books of the Bible - Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel I and II, Kings I and Jeremiah. One of the most extraordinary archaeological finds ever made was a clay seal impression of this Baruch. Nothing to do with Obama of course, but a nice reminder of the close kinship of Hebrew and Arabic and the respective peoples who speak them.

Perhaps I should add my personal theory that the ten 'lost tribes' of Israel are to be found among the Palestinians. After the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by Assyria, there is no reason to suppose that the rural population fled. They were peasants attached to their fields, and the Assyrians needed them to pay taxes. According to the Bible, many of them were already polytheists before the Kingdom collapsed. They later converted to Christianity, and still later many of them became Muslims. Their descendants are the cousins of the Israelis. It's time they were treated as equals in their own country.

Barack Hussein

There is much discussion of Obama's first name. B-R-K is an ancient Semitic root, the basic meaning of which is 'knee' or 'kneel'. The sense of a 'blessing' presumably arose because the recipient should give thanks on bended knees. In Arabic baraka is the special quality of a saint which enables him or her to work wonders. Barack will certainly need lots of it, with a virtually bankrupt treasury.

Hussein was Muhammad's grandson, the younger of two sons born to his daughter Fatima and his cousin Ali. The name is specially popular with Shia Muslims, for whom Hussein was the Third Imam (second for some Ismailis). He was killed at Kerbala in Iraq in 680 C.E., when he was trying to raise a rebellion against the Sunni Caliph. This was the martyrdom commemorated by Shiites on Ashura, the 10th day of the Muslim year - January 7th next time.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Don't believe it!

Remember all that fuss when Congress was under pressure from all sides (including Obama) to vote for the $700 billion bailout? It was to buy out the toxic assets (i.e. bad debts) from the banks - lucky them! Did you believe it could work? Well, Hank Paulson, author of the most expensive plan in U.S. history, has already had to admit that it won't. He's already suggesting other ways of using the money (doesn't he have to ask permission from Congress?!). Obama suggests it should be used to bail out General Motors instead of the banks. How so? Would the government buy up all the unwanted sports utility vehicles? Clearly the politicians don't know what to do, so here's a suggestion: the fund should be given to the states to buy up the houses that are threatened with foreclosure and to let them to their occupiers at a reasonable rent. Oh dear! The state as landlord! But wouldn't that be what Americans call 'communism'?!

What is scarcity?

Copper isn't reckoned to be a scarce metal. Damnit, there are about three billion tons of it in the earth's crust, and only about a tenth of that has been mined in the whole of human history. But world production is now about 15 million tons a year, and at that rate it would take only 200 years to mine all of it - no longer than the time since Jane Austen! The amount per person currently used in America is reckoned to be about a twentieth of a ton, and if 6.7 billion people lived like them, we'd need a third of a billion tons - and that's reckoning without population growth and rising incomes. Only 16 atoms in a million in the earth's crust are copper atoms, which makes it eighteenth in abundance among metals, and many of those atoms will never be economically minable. Finally don't let's forget that mining is an immensely polluting activity and that it is very difficult to make mining companies clear up their mess. So is copper not a scarce resource?

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Rose tint.

In my last blog I remembered buying mars bars on the way home from school, with the money saved by walking. Actually that can only have been true for a few happy months in 1949, when sweet rationing stopped for four months. Before and after that summer, and until 1953, you could only buy sweets if you handed over little coupons from your ration book - and my mother had mine! I think they cost three pence (£1/80). I must have saved well over a thousand pence out of my bus money - about a dozen kilos of copper, which now costs about £3 a kilo. I felt quite sentimental about the old coinage, which seemed to reach back into the depths of time. Pennies from five reigns were circulating - Victoria, Edward VII, George V, George VI, Elizabeth, always with Britannia on the back. This is what they looked like. I don't understand how anyone can feel attached to today's confetti coins. Roll on the euro!

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Old pence

Our governments are now proposing to spend their way out of recession; for that read "borrow their way". Borrowing means creating money, which means a mixture of growth and inflation. In the past the inflation has always got out of hand, followed by higher interest and taxes - and a new recession. It's been going on all my life. From 1947 to 1952, my father used to give me a silver sixpence every morning to pay for the buses to school and back. They cost five pence, so I made a penny a day. It was two and a half ("tuppence ha'penny") if I walked home - enough to pay for a mars bar and an evening paper, which I bought if there was a good murder trial. Those were good old copper pennies, about 3 cm. in diameter. If I had kept them all, I would now have more than a thousand, the metal of which would be worth many times their face value (£1/240). And the price of a mars bar now? It's multiplied by factor of 50 or 60. Should we worry? Well yes, if the whole purpose of the operation was to enable us to keep on increasing our ecological footprint.

Remembrance Sunday

We should never forget the suffering that our wars have inflicted, but is this the way to do it? People in uniform marching around, military bands, requests for forgiveness addressed to the perhaps imaginary being that was often invoked as the sponsor of war... And the talk is of heroes and martyrs rather than victims. War is mostly a negative-sum game in which the losses on all sides outweigh any gains.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Pit-bull without lipstick.

Was anyone ready to see Obama move to the right so fast? By choosing Rahm Emanuel as White House Chief of Staff, he has made real Mid-East peace almost impossible. Emanuel's father fought with the terrorist organization Irgun against the British and Palestinians in the 1940s, and he himself has been stout in defending Israel's positions in Washington. The Israeli paper Maariv has called him "our man in the White House", and Bill Clinton once said he was "a pit-bull". An even-handed approach to Israel and Palestine is essential for improved relations with Muslim-majority countries from Syria to Indonesia, so this appointment looks seriously bad. Watch out to see if Obama gives Dennis Kucinich a job; he is the most dedicated and effective radical in Congress.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

A Muslim President?

I expect half of Britain was awake at midnight Chicago time for Obama's President-elect speech. I peered into the faces in the crowd thinking I might see Fran, whose blog I have been following (, and forgetting that she has moved on; lovely to know that one of my ex-students was there, doing her bit to ensure his success!

I have two worries about his presidency. Will his legislation be frustrated by filibusters in the Senate, as happened with Hillary Clinton's health-care project? And will he fail to do justice to the Arabs for fear of being accused of being a crypto-Muslim?

And that makes me wonder how long it will be before a Muslim can be elected President. It has taken more than two centuries for the first African-American.

Sunday, 2 November 2008


Am I being too suspicious, or is it just coincidence that American raids in Syria and Pakistan happened a week before the election? The message is after all that Al-Qaeda is still busy out there, so let's have a fighter for President. To suggest that Syria harbours jihadists is particularly bizarre: the regime is the last secular state in the Middle East, and the Shia background of its leaders make it doubly unlikely that they would be friendly with the fiercely anti-Shia al-Qaeda.

Sunni-Shia, Tutsi-Hutu, Israeli-Palestinian, Turk-Armenian... What happened to the idea that we are all human, that we all want peace and prosperity for ourselves and our families, and that the way to understand each other is to sit down and talk together? Perhaps nationalism is the greatest enemy: the notion that our people are special and need to barricade ourselves into our own territory and enrich ourselves at the expense of other nations.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Burning Orchards

One of the joys of not watching much TV is that you get more time for reading. I've just finished a magnificent novel, Burning Orchards by Gurgen Mahari. It is set in the town of Van during the years leading up to the Armenian Genocide, but it is neither gloomy nor one-sided, although the author with the rest of the Armenian population fled his native city at the age of twelve. His father was assassinated by his uncle when he was six, for belonging to the wrong nationalist party, but in spite of this he portrays one heroic member of his uncle's party, though the other Dashnaks are presented as murderous and cowardly intellectuals. Mahari wrote the novel in the Soviet Republic of Armenia, after spending some time in the Gulag for his non-Marxist views. It was heavily criticized by ex-Dashnaks, now Stalinist converts, and publicly burnt.

The central character is a loveable old rogue, Ohannes, who has no time for nationalists and who right up the end of the Turkish siege of Van is eating, drinking and being merry with his old pals, who are all wealthy business men like himself. There is a lovely touch in the epilogue, where he is comically punished for his sins. He reminds me of Abdul-Gawwad in Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, another rascally patriarch with a penchant for seducing his in-laws. Throughout the life and times of Ohannes, we are introduced to every aspect of life in Van - its lovely orchard suburb, its wonderful variety of fruits and its spicy dishes, its bustling market, its ancient churches and monasteries - all about to be wiped out forever. This is a marvellous book, up there with the best of Louis de Bernieres and Vikram Seth; do please read it!

Friday, 31 October 2008


In my last post I succumbed to a bit of media manipulation. I had seen some interviews on Channel Four News with teenagers who saw nothing wrong with leaving bullying messages on answer-phones, but I don't know how those interviewees had been selected, nor how the interviews had been edited. The under-20s I have known certainly never struck me as likely to be bullies. The bullies I have known were mostly 40-plus.

I don't usually watch TV news, which in general I find much less informative than the printed press, but lately I have got into the habit of turning it on simply because the American election has become compulsive viewing. Note to self: no more regular watching of news programmes after 5th November, not even Channel Four!

Wednesday, 29 October 2008


I had never heard of Russell Brand, and I hope I shall never hear of him again. I vaguely knew the name Jonathan Ross, without ever having watched of listened to him. But now everyone is condemning them (except the under-20s, who apparently think it's OK to leave disgusting messages on someone's answerphone). All they did was to join in the national sport of public humiliation. No programme of 'reality TV', no game show is complete without the judges (celebrities of course) insulting the participants, one or two of whom are then voted off - preferably to give a tearful interview afterwards. People don't win by winning; they win by not losing. I suppose it's the modern equivalent of throwing Christians to the lions - or throwing bulls to the Christians - but it seems rather nasty that people want to see others being humiliated. Or have I missed the point about human nature?

Guerillas versus gorillas

It is terrible to see images of thousands of refugees flooding eastwards out of Congo, especially when one remembers how the difference between Hutu and Tutsi was created. The Belgians in Rwanda and Burundi wanted to divide and rule, in the best colonial tradition. They issued identity cards showing people's "ethnic" membership. People who had ten or more cattle were stamped as "Tutsi" (which originally just meant rich). Those who had less than ten were "Hutu" (poor). One anthropologist even invented the myth that the Tutsis were a master race who had swept down from the North, and that they were taller, more intelligent and nobler than the Hutus. Seventy years later those identity cards were the basis for genocide.

But if it is so easy to create the conditions for war between humans, how difficult it seems to prevent our conflicts from destroying other species. This latest disaster threatens the survival of the two hundred mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park, the headquarters of which have been seized by guerillas. Gorillas are our closest cousins after the chimpanzees and bonobos - peaceful creatures who just want a quiet life with their families. They don't even compete with humans for resources (though trophy hunters see them as a resource). There are only about seven hundred mountain gorillas left in the wild; see what you can do to help them survive:

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

More gold down the drain.

Gordon Brown seems to want to use aqua regia too; he's going to flush away his Golden Rule (about spending being equal to tax revenue over the economic cycle). Now he's going to borrow massive amounts to pay for things like the Olympic Village. A pity he isn't going to plant forests instead! Anyway, we'll be paying for it for decades to come - not in gold though!

Monday, 27 October 2008

Why Cyclepath?

Bogus is the peerage that I claim,
Viscount Cyclepath my lordly name.
Every cycle track or path or lane
Figures in my long and thin domain.
Come and share it, every two-wheeled friend;
Keep away though, cars, or you'll offend.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Why Aquaregia?

Aqua regia (royal water) is a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids, and it can dissolve gold. Here's a cunning plan to change the global economy: dig a tunnel into Fort Knox and then flood it with aqua regia, washing away most of the world's gold. Economists would then be forced to think about the nature of money and to realize that it is not anchored on anything physical. Although the gold standard was long ago abandoned, people still behave as if gold were a sort of money, and countries hold on to their ownership of piles of the stuff in Fort Knox. The trouble is that gold is rather useless stuff, except for making electrical connectors and small items that must resist corrosion. It is far too dense for anything large except paperweights or the veneer on busts of Kate Moss. The mug I am drinking from would weigh ten times as much as the tea it contains if it were made from gold. So let's dissolve away the gold in Fort Knox and base money on something really valuable such as wood. If countries knew that the value of their money depended on their forests, their timbered buildings and their wooden furniture and their shelfloads of books, perhaps they would think twice about turning wood into carbon dioxide.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Why blog?

Every time I read the news
I feel the need to speak my views.
I write them to the editor
But wonder what I do it for.
They mostly end up in the bin;
It's rarely worth to send them in.
Better to blog them for a change
And hope that someone is in range.