Friday, 15 February 2013

Back to the 1930s?

I was not born until the end of the 1930s, but from what I have read of that dark decade, the present is remarkably like it. Not only are we five years into the most depressed economic times since then, but the coalition government seems bent on destroying the great achievements of the post-war Labour Government. A recent cover of Money Week carried the cover story: 'Profit from the education boom', and now we learn that 'The full extent of Michael Gove's plans to revolutionise education are revealed today in a secret memo showing he is considering outright privatisation of academies and free schools.' At the same time, the Health Minister, Jeremy Hunt (Murdoch's great friend), is working to bring more private companies into health care. If shareholders are to profit from health and education it can only be by making them more expensive to the taxpayer or the 'customers'. I was educated in the 1950s, and I know that the products of State schools were every bit as well taught as anybody from public schools, and the NHS worked better then than it does now, at least in the quality of nursing. These services had not yet been taken over by tier upon tier of administrators and accountants. Of course we don't have what the 30s had - Adolf Hitler; but David Cameron is determined to build up the Al-Qaeda bogeyman into a threat worthy of a decades-long war.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Popes and popes

I was going to write that I thought Pope Benedict was past retirement age when he was elected, aged just over 78, but then I remembered that John XXIII was nearly 77 at the time of his election in 1958, and he was by far the most memorable Pope of my lifetime. Everything about him was singular. He was remarkable in particular for his aid to Jews in the time of Mussolini. He was elected to his own great surprise as a stop-gap to keep the throne warm for Giovanni Montini (later Paul VI), who was not a cardinal at the time of the election. He took a name which had last been used by an Antipope, one of the three claimants to the Papacy in the Western Schism (which ended in 1415 with the last resignation of a living Pope). He immediately seized the affections of the world, including many non-Catholics, by his warmth and openness. He set about organizing the Second Vatican Council, which opened full of hopes for new thinking on contraception, priestly celibacy, worker priests, even perhaps Papal Infallibility?! Alas, John died in June '63 before the Council had finished its work. Paul VI was like a shower of cold water and he stopped talk of reform. John-Paul I took a promising name but died after a few weeks. John-Paul II was charismatic but very conservative. Benedict XVI is a great theologian no doubt, but totally lacking in charisma. More than half the cardinals are his nominees and the rest are John-Paul's, so don't expect any surprises, but it would be exciting if we could have a John XXIV.

Sunday, 10 February 2013


As a vegetarian I can't understand why people are so horrified at the idea of horse-meat. It is very bad to sell it as beef, but if it were correctly labelled would that not be all right? (Selling it as halal or kosher is a different matter). Both kinds of meat are the muscle of large mammals, and if people don't mind eating bits of dead cow, why carp at bits of dead horse? Are horses more noble than cows, just because they let us ride them? Cows surely suffer as much as horses. My own reason for eating neither is that it takes a lot of land and water to feed livestock, and there just aren't the resources on our planet to provide meat for everyone. I have been a vegetarian for fifty years, so I know that one can be healthy and active without eating meat. I don't expect everybody to give up meat, but it would help the world if more people ate less of it. Another way to help would be not to buy food that you don't eat. Supermarkets are very guilty, because they reject any food that is not "perfect", and they push food at people with offers of "buy one get one free", "three for the price of two". My local authority has distributed special bins for waste food to all households, inciting people to feel comfortable about throwing food away. A recent study by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers suggests that up to half the food grown in the world never reaches a human stomach. At that rate we could feed up to twice the present world population of seven billion without using any more resources. So have I not refuted my own argument for eating less meat? Well I believe we have already taken more land than we should from wildlife, so I shall continue to be a vegetarian.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Same-sex marriage

Was any policy ever introduced with less basis of information? We do not even have agreed statistics about how many people it is aimed at. Activists claim that 10% of people are homosexual, but the biggest survey ever conducted found about 1% (Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, Johnson, Wadsworth, Wellings and Field, 1994). We know this study was important, because Margaret Thatcher blocked public funding for it. Thousands of anonymous interviews were conducted with a randomized sample of people. We do not know, either, how many homosexuals want the straitjacket of marriage - or is it all about the glamour of having a wedding? How many have taken advantage of the possibility of civil partnerships, and what proportion of partnerships have broken down? It is difficult not to feel that this is a desperate move by Cameron to make himself look 'progressive' (Some hope! Progressive taxation would help a lot more). Meanwhile, what about the people who want to live as threesomes or more? Christians consider marriage to be a sacrament between two people, but Muslims see it as a contract, and the Koran allows a man up to four wives; when will they cease to be discriminated against? And before you protest that polygamy is unfair to women, consider the fact that a Muslim co-wife has rights; a mistress in Western society has none.

Monday, 4 February 2013

New phishing technique

Well, new to me anyway. The fisher writes to owners of domain names such as and tells them that a whole lot of applications have been made for your domain name with a suffix like .asia, .in, .cn, .hk, .tw... The phisherman then offers to buy up these names at your expense. Even if I hadn't already guessed that this was phishing, I would know it because they also offered the .com name, and the only reason I didn't take it in the first place was that somebody else had already bought it. I wonder how many spurious websites are floating around cyberspace. As for Chemical Galaxy, I should get round to producing the third edition, as three more elements have been named since the second edition. But I needn't hurry; there are still six possible new elements up to no. 120. These ultra-heavy elements will never play any part in real life anyway, as they exist only as single atoms for a fraction of a second before decaying. They could only be stabilized if somebody found a way of adding many more neutrons, and even then they would not be likely to last more than a matter of seconds or minutes. Dreams of creating new elements are like fantasies of colonies on Mars. Much better to focus on reducing infant mortality - the best way of halting human population growth and saving what is left of our planet.

Friday, 1 February 2013

When not in Rome...

Young David has gone to pay his respects to the Algerian Government, only days after telling them off for acting without his agreement, and to the Libyan Government, which he helped to put in place. He should reflect on what the Romans did when they had provinces in North Africa. They wisely decided to make no effort to control the Sahara. Instead they built a line of defences along the edge of the desert, on the same principle as Hadrian's wall, to keep out the barbarians. In practice the nomads managed very well, earning their living by organizing transport between North and West Africa. The French and British, who added the Sahara to their empires, foolishly tried to include stretches of desert in the various countries that they carved out. The result was that the nomads found fictitious frontiers across their territory, and officials from the settled peoples to North and South interfering with their way of life. Once oil and gas had been discovered, outsiders came uninvited to pipe them out and keep the proceeds. It may be too late to redraw the frontiers, but at least we should recognize that it is virtually impossible to govern a desert.