On leaving the sinking ship

…[A]sk not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. 

John F. Kennedy, Inaugural address, 20 January 1961

So, now it can be told: having finally escaped the Kafka-esque embrace of the Department of Work and Pensions – they owe me nothing and I owe them nothing – we have at last made the leap to full-time residency in Spain. People who know us will be aware that this move has been in the air for some time, but now that it is official I feel able to announce it publicly. (And there is nothing more public than the Internet.)

Am I ambivalent about this move? Yes, a little. Not much, to be honest, but a little. We have committed ourselves to a country – or rather a region, of which more below – where the language is foreign (languages, rather, of which also more below), and where everything is different: the money, mealtimes, the attitude to time, the attitude to work, and much more besides.

We have made the leap to a smallholding in Galicia. According to one of my favourite local graffiti, “Galicia is not Spain,” and never was a truer word spoken. Indeed, I am coming to a similar opinion about Spain as Metternich famously held about Italy, that it is only a geographical expression. Galicia goes its own way; it has contributed one recent Prime Minster to Spain, in the dubious form of Mariano Rajoy, and at the time of writing looks likely to contribute another, but for most Galicians Madrid might as well be on another planet. I suspect Brussels is in a different galaxy altogether. And of course Galicia has its own language, which is (whisper it) closer to Portuguese than it is to Castilian Spanish.

It is revealing that during Rajoy’s premiership Galicia’s biggest newspaper, La Voz de Galicia, held a poll to determine the most influential Galician. Rajoy came second. The winner was the then president of the local government, who is now the Prime Minister in waiting. Clearly Galicians know which side their bread is buttered.

So what lured us to Galicia? There are multiple reasons, as perhaps you might suspect.

  • Property prices! We “downsized” from a 2/3-bedroom house in Kent with a garden about the size of a snooker table to a three-bedroom house with five-ish acres of land, its own water supply (a borehole, a well, and a spring), and an amazing view of mountains.
  • Food! There are a couple of metrics here. In Kent we used to frequent our local farmer’s market. Here there are farmer’s markets everywhere – I get the impression that the Powers That Be would like to close them down, but that is some way away. You can still get unlabelled honey for about €6 a kilo, for example. Also: if you want to eat out, you can get a very good three-course lunch, including wine and coffee, for €11-12. Good luck finding that in the UK. Indeed, good luck finding just a bottle of wine in a restaurant in the UK for that price, let alone one that is more palatable than this.
  • People! In the UK, the default assumption when you encounter a stranger is: “This bastard is going to try and rip me off.” Here, the default assumption is: “This person is probably OK. On the other hand, if they screw me over I will make sure everyone knows.” Example: we ordered some stuff from a local builder’s merchant, which they then delivered. The next day we went in to pay, and they were thrown into a complete panic; they had assumed that they would have plenty of time to raise the invoice, because obviously we wouldn’t be trying to pay for several weeks.
  • Culture! Food is important here. Family is important here. You can get tools. You can get livestock. Nobody thinks it’s weird if you have chickens; indeed, it would be weird if you could have chickens but chose not to. Also…
  • Fiestas! Every parish has its own fiesta, because every parish has a patron saint (duh!), but in addition there are lots of others, usually food-related. For example, we live in Friol, which has an annual fiesta devoted to bread and cheese – homely enough, you might think, but I bet you’d miss ’em if they weren’t there.
  • Music! There is a folk-music tradition here – yes, there kind of is in in the UK, but the difference is that here everyone knows the words and is happy to sing along. Check out this guy, or these girls. But it’s at the grass-roots also. No fiesta is complete, indeed, without folk-music.
  • Pride! Everywhere in Galicia distinguishes itself from everywhere else in Galicia based on some foodstuff. So for tortilla you go to Betanzos, for cocido to Lalin, for ceballos chat to Miño, and so on. This is not really a thing in the UK.

I could go on. The point is, here we are very much more insulated from a great deal of the stuff that is about to go down than we would be in the UK. Obviously there are no 100% guarantees, but there are no 100% guarantees of anything except death and taxes, and apparently even taxes are optional if you know the right people.

We will see how this turns out. It will have to turn out spectacularly badly before this rat feels the need to swim back to HMS Blighty, but never say never.

Stay tuned.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the science of economics

David Roth memorably described the job of neoliberal economists as finding “new ways to say ‘actually, your boss is right.'”

Cory Doctorow

If science has value, it lies in its independence from considerations of political power. Objective truth, insofar as we can determine it, requires no further validation. The biological theories of Trofim Lysenko are not true because they were officially approved by Stalin, nor are they false on that basis. The scientific ideal insists that they must stand or fall according to the evidence. Science is this or it is nothing.

On that basis, is economics a science? Yes, it has plenty of sophisticated mathematical modelling, and a Nobel prize, or at least a Nobel-adjacent prize. But is it interested in objective truth, and is it independent from political power?

One can just about answer the first question in the affirmative, provided that one ascribes to economists a sweet innocence and naïveté  that is barely compatible with adulthood. For example, economists believe in statistics, which are largely provided by governments and/or large industrialists, because after all those people would never lie, would they? (They do make some exception for the Chinese government, but they fall back instead on industry-provided figures, which may or may not be more reliable.)

They also believe in mathematical models, which in some Platonic sense reveal a truer reality than the gross world of things and energy flows in which the rest us seem to be mired. I am not sure whether or not economists truly believe themselves to be the fortunate recipients of some kind of divine revelation, but they certainly seem to act – and to be treated – as if they were.

But on the second count, it is very difficult to grant them absolution. Who, after all, actually employs economists?

  • Governments, which are obviously not immune from political influence, quite apart from the fact that they are themselves by definition the source of such influence;
  • Large corporations, which must necessarily seek political influence to further their own interests, and which these days normally seem to be successful in that aim;
  • Universities, which are increasingly captured by and the playthings of the corporate sector; and
  • Think-tanks, which are merely collections of government advisers or advisers-in-waiting.

I think it is probably reasonable to assume that the average economist, with bills to pay and perhaps some degree of personal ambition, is not about to say anything to bite the hand that feeds him/her/it/them/insert pronoun here.

It should therefore come as very little shock to discover that the messages that economists bring to us, supposedly from the very lips of God (or The Market, which amounts to the same thing), very much boil down to Mr Roth’s pithy summation. After all, your boss is also the person keeping them in the style to which they have become accustomed.

This may perhaps explain the inability of economists to predict the future, especially when the future is not terribly conducive to business as usual. Sometimes it takes a non-economist to point this out.

On November 5, 2008, not quite two months after the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and the Western economy’s descent to the abyss, Queen Elizabeth II inaugurated a new building at the London School of Economics. Referring to the financial crisis, she asked the professors: “Why did nobody notice it?” The faculty was caught off guard. 

Queen Elizabeth II and the Economists, Abstract

The big money did not want the 2008 crisis to happen. Therefore, economists chorused that it never could happen, just as they did in the tragic case of Long-Term Capital Management (which had several Nobel-adjacent economists to advise it). Unfortunately. it did happen – although not so unfortunately from the point of view of the big money or its economists, which were not penalised in any way. Some poor people got shafted, but that’s not something that keeps the big money awake at night, let alone its tame economists. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would say.

Now there are some honourable exceptions to this rule. One would be Mark Blyth, who teaches at Brown University, much, I suspect, to that august institution’s displeasure, although having made the mistake of granting him tenure they can’t easily sack him. (Yale, after all, had quite a job to get rid of David Graeber.) Interestingly, Professor Blyth describes himself as a political economist, which is what economists were originally called before they decided that they were the mouthpiece of God and therefore no longer political. It is, however, a more accurate name. Economists like to pretend that they are above the heat and dust of the arena, but of course they aren’t, any more that the rest of us.After all, is not its fundamental subject-matter:

the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat

Leonard Cohen, “Democracy”

Mainstream economics proclaims that these choices are made by the Almighty Market, and the rest of us should just knuckle down and be grateful that these mysteries have been made plain to us. (We are poor, we are miserable sinners; all hail the billionaires.)

Now I don’t dispute that these questions are real; they manifest in some form in every kind of human society, although it is a comparatively modern innovation to decree that some people ought to starve when the society as a whole is comfortably situated, as human societies generally are, given the choice, because people are not generally idiots. What I do dispute is the idea that they have a single, universally true answer, which by a stupendous coincidence happens to align with the interests of those who happen to enjoy wealth and power right now.

Which brings us back to the quote at the top of this post. Your boss may or may not be right. What is certainly true, however, is that your boss has a vested interest in remaining your boss, and would probably like to be the boss of many more people. That’s human nature, although not the most attractive part of it.

Do not let the flim-flam of economists and their ilk blind you to this basic fact.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the real and the virtual

It’s coming from the feel
that this ain’t exactly real,
or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there.

Leonard Cohen, “Democracy”

A few weeks ago, we came home to a sad discovery: the corpse of a male goldcrest on our kitchen windowsill. They are tiny, beautifully-feathered birds, and we hadn’t even realised we had them living nearby. It was the mating season for goldcrests, and he had clearly been trying to fight his own reflection in the window, and kept trying until he died of exhaustion. We made a point of keeping the kitchen window open for the next few weeks.

There is an immense amount of tosh written about the supposed importance of being able to recognise one’s own reflection in a mirror as oneself and the alleged significance of this for categorising some species as self-aware and therefore more intelligent than others. Goldcrests know a good deal that I don’t, because that knowledge is useful if you happen to be a goldcrest, which I happen not to be. If you do happen to be a goldcrest, there’s not much value in being able to solve quadratic equations if you can’t maintain a breeding territory.

Everyone thinks they know about mirrors, and most people would probably experience feelings of smug superiority as well as some sadness if they found a dead goldcrest on their kitchen windowsill. But of course reflective surfaces like windows are largely an artificial phenomenon. The only mirror to be found in nature is the surface of a still body of water in bright sunlight, and one of the things goldcrests know, if I make so bold a claim, is that goldcrests don’t live underwater.

I first came across the term “virtual” in its scientific usage in physics class at school, in connection with mirrors. It makes complete sense. The image you see when you look into a mirror is not “real” in the same way that your face is real. It won’t still be there when you leave the room. If someone else comes in after you’ve left and looks into the mirror, they will see a different image (or be very freaked out).

It is therefore an apt description of the online world. There isn’t really anything there, or not in the same sense that your face is there. The representation of a thing is not the thing. This is not exactly news, although it appears that some people need to be reminded of it occasionally. It is, for example, much discussed in the philosophy of Plato as well as of Buddhism, not to mention the art of Rene Magritte.

The Buddha told Ananda, “You still listen to the Dharma with the conditioned mind, and so the Dharma becomes conditioned as well, and you do not obtain the Dharma-nature. It is like when someone points his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, that person should see the moon. If he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he loses not only the moon but the finger also. Why? It is because he mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon.”

Śūraṅgama Sūtra, 8th century A.D.

What you see on your computer (in which term I include smartphones) is a representation. It is not the reality. Behind the curtain, it’s just a bunch of voltages. A picture of the moon is not the actual Moon; Buzz Aldrin and co would have had a hard time landing on it. Similarly, what appears in your news feed is to be distinguished from the stuff that is actually going on in the world.

There’s another similarity between your news feed and a mirror: what you see in it is based on who you are, and what whoever your provider is thinks you ought to be looking at. They will tell you that this is purely based on your interests, of course. Right. I’m sure we can all trust Big Tech not to try an manipulate us. It’s not like they’re part of the advertising industry or something.

For some years now there has been a certain amount of cod-philosophy bandied about based on the idea that we are all living in a simulation. The film The Matrix is only partly to blame for this; Philip K. Dick was playing with these ideas fifty years ago, and he was by no means the first. The question people never seem to ask, though, what is this putative simulation a simulation of? At what moon is the finger pointing?

Philip K. Dick actually had a nice line about all this: “Reality,” he said, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” There is something there, even if we can only have a partial and imperfect notion of it. But just because we can’t aspire to God-like omniscience doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and assume everyone’s truth is equally valid. After all, that poor goldfinch’s truth included another male goldfinch behind the window, and look what good that did him.

Life in industrial civilisation, especially in the more metropolitan and well-to-do parts of it, is uniquely divorced from many aspects of reality. We surround ourselves with steel and glass and concrete, we bathe ourselves in artificial lighting and heating and cooling. We drown our ears in noise and our noses in air-freshener. We get very upset when inconvenient aspects of reality intrude on us – the weather, for instance. No human beings in history have ever lived like this, possibly because it’s a terrible idea.

In the end, reality always has the last laugh over illusion. Mark Zuckerberg’s attempt to pivot his tech empire to virtual reality is not going well. Indeed, the clue is in the phrase “virtual reality” itself, when you think about it.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the death of a thousand cuts

For if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man has dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time.

Thomas de Quincy, “On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts” (1827)

One of the (many) delusions under which we collectively labour is that there are two, and only two, possible outcomes of the present circumstances. There is the techno-cornucopian future, in which we are all somehow raptured up into the bliss of the Singularity on a fleet of flying (and presumably electric) cars; and then there is the anarcho-dystopian Mad Max future in which we are all plunged into the hell that we imagine the Dark Ages must have been. I don’t think either of these things is going to happen, or at least not all at once in some version of “The Event.

The techno-cornucopian fantasy pretty much rules itself out once you start factoring in the laws of physics. You’d think the people who tend to fixate on such a future would notice this, as they are generally fans of The Science™, but I suspect that many of them are more into the general vibe of The Science™ than such pesky details as the laws of thermodynamics. To put it shortly, we don’t have the energy, the raw materials or the technology to make it happen, and there’s no reason to believe that we ever will.

As for the Mad Max world, the reality seems to be that people pretty quickly adjust themselves into some arrangement of society that is at least tolerable for most of the population. After all, why wouldn’t they? Even the current shitshow is apparently tolerable for quite a lot of people, although maybe not if those people happen to be French. One of the things human beings are reliably good at is working around the official system du jour to get to a place they can inhabit in reasonable comfort. It’s impossible to prove definitively, but I suspect this was the case even for mediaeval serfs – and a lot of people in those days were not in fact serfs, believe it or not.

Even if you are an evil overlord, it is obviously to your advantage for most people to be reasonably contented. Who needs to be dealing with popular uprisings all the time? It’s true that China, for instance, has coped with an awful lot of them over its history, but I don’t think any emperor actively wanted to handle more than he needed to. Government ultimately depends on the consent of the governed. Let them have three acres and a cow, and otherwise generally get out of their face as far as you can. That way you will die in your bed.

The reality is that industrial civilisation is dying of a number of chronic and incurable diseases. I cannot give an exact prognosis, and I doubt whether anyone can at this point, but I can be quite sure that it is going away. Perhaps multiple organ failure will carry it off swiftly; perhaps it will linger for another century yet. But its vital processes are petering out: the cheap and abundant raw materials are no longer there, the cheap and abundant fossil-fuel energy is no longer there, the technological and cultural imagination is no longer there, and all in all it is no longer a going concern.

More and more people are recognising this. They may not have a fully articulated understanding of it, but you don’t need one in order to notice that your life is no longer working, if it ever did. We are raising a generation of people for whom the old calculus no longer works; education + hard work = success. These days you can have a university degree and be working three jobs and still not be able to pay the rent. Mediaeval serfdom starts to look like a pretty good deal by comparison.

Every day another promise is broken, another brick comes out of the wall, another component fails, another service is cut, another assumption is fatally undermined. This is lingchi, the death of a thousand cuts.

The process involved tying the condemned prisoner to a wooden frame, usually in a public place. The flesh was then cut from the body in multiple slices in a process that was not specified in detail in Chinese law, and therefore most likely varied. The punishment worked on three levels: as a form of public humiliation, as a slow and lingering death, and as a punishment after death.

Wikipedia, “Lingchi”

It won’t be pretty, you can be sure of that. But it probably won’t be quick either. If you’re lucky, maybe there will still be time for you to make a killing in fairy goldBitcoin. Personally I wouldn’t be betting the farm on that, but you do you.

This is the time to focus on what endures. Whatever else is going on, we all need to eat, we all need access to drinkable water, we all need some sort of protection from the weather, and we all need one another. That is true if you are Elon Musk, it is true if you are a mediaeval serf, it is true if you are gay or straight or bi or trans or black or white or purple with aquamarine stripes. It is true if your great-great-great-grandfather owned slaves. It is true if you manage a hedge-fund. It is true if you are adrift on an open boat somewhere in the Mediterranean.

Whatever else you do, focus on these essential truths, as they pertain to you and those you love. The actions you may need to take will vary according to your circumstances, where you are and what resources you have, and I don’t pretend to have a one-size-fits-all solution. All I can do is draw your attention to what is vital.

As the Irish say, I hope it keeps fine for you.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the coronation of Charles III

Always remember that the crowd that applauds your coronation is the same crowd that will applaud your beheading. People like a show.

Sir Terry Pratchett (R.I.P.)

It is arguably a brave decision on the part of the Heir Apparent to take his given name, Charles, as his regnal name. Well, one of his given names: he still had the choice of Philip, Arthur, or George, and there’s something to be said for all of those. We’ve had six Georges, so who could object to a seventh? Philip would be a first (not in France, but that’s been a non-issue for well over a century); Arthur might have been a tad ambitious, although it’s been tried before.

When you look at English history, there are certainly some regnal names that nobody seems keen to repeat, regardless of how popular they are amongst the general public. I am looking at you, King John, but also at you, King Stephen. We can argue about how well-deserved or otherwise the reputations of these kings may be, but it is striking that those names have never been repeated.

In the case of Charles let’s look at the precedents. Charles I famously did undergo a beheading. His son Charles II died in his bed; however, the secret to his success was that he side-stepped the issue his father always had of being dependent on tax revenues approved by Parliament by accepting subsidies from Louis XIV of France. Once I learned about this, I was surprised by how good a press he seems to get.

Still, I wish the new monarch well. I think he has a long row to hoe, but he seems to be coming at the job from the right direction. He seems to me to have a firm grasp of a number of issues which slip like water through the fingers of our current political elites (and I exempt no parties from this charge). For one thing, he gets at a visceral level that farming is important. He also realises that for farming to prosper, there are many other supporting skill-sets that need to be preserved and developed.

It seems to be received wisdom that his reign will be short, but even if that is the case it doesn’t mean it will be without impact. After all, we still speak of the Edwardian era even though Edward VII was on the throne for less than a decade. Henry III reigned for over half a century, but nobody really remembers him.

I don’t know to what extent Charles III will be able to shift the current discourse about the material needs of our civilisation. As monarch, in some ways he will be even more constrained than he was as Prince of Wales. But I can’t help hoping he will be able to help, even if only a little, because at this point anything is better than nothing.

Having watched the coronation ceremony, it does seem as if he’s making the effort. I was particularly struck by two things: the emphasis on service, and the insistence on the centrality of the sacred. Now both of these things are baked into the existing cake to some extent, but I can’t help feeling that the tweaks made at his instance brought both elements to the fore.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon was especially striking in both regards. It might almost have been a continuation of the King’s Christmas broadcast. I very much doubt whether it was well-received in government circles, but I should think it struck a chord with a very large fraction of the viewing public. We would all like to see a king who followed through on some of those ideals, and I suspect there is a widespread feeling of disappointment that although Charles may be willing he is not really, constitutionally speaking, able.

I noticed that many faiths other than Anglican Christianity were acknowledged. Not only did all the main Christian denominations get a (small) speaking part, the King also went out of his way to include quite a selection of the non-Christian leaders as well. He had previously declared his wish to be seen as the Defender of Faith, not of the Faith; and both, indeed, are equally valid translations of the title Defensor Fidei which can be found (in abbreviated form) on the coinage and which was originally bestowed, hilariously, on Henry VIII back before he and the Pope had their falling-out.

Not the least pleasing thing about the whole event was its unrepentant daftness. There were lots of people stood about in extraordinary costumes for no apparent reason. There were lots of plainly magical artifacts in play, with no sign of that fact being recognised, let alone apologised for. It might have been calculated to bring froth to the lips of Enlightenment rationalists, whereas of course almost all of it was inherited from previous ceremonies. Tradition was allowed free play, and on its own terms. If the Lord Lieutenant of the Cinque Ports has had the right to present the monarch with the Cuff-links of Righteousness since the fourteenth century, he can jolly well do it now, and there’s nothing anyone can say about it. (That’s a made-up example, but it might as well not have been.)

It would be lovely to think that this new reign could see at least the beginnings of a shift in our culture and attitudes. Whatever else he is, Charles is not a fool, and he has already put his money where his mouth is with regard to a number of important issues. But I do realise that I’m clutching at straws here. With my sensible head on, I can’t really see any future for Charles III’s reign other than a descent further into the abyss. All the same, a new reign does offer new possibilities, however fugitive. I would really like to see some sort of light in the darkness. Maybe – just maybe – Charles can offer us a glimpse. I hope so.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On terrorism considered as one of the fine arts

For if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man has dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time.

Thomas de Quincey, “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts” (1827)

Let me apologise straight away for basing this essay on what in the nature of things is a third-hand account, and one with an intrinsic bias, to boot; but I really cannot let this pass without comment. It would now seem that in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which is my country if the front cover of my passport is to be believed, it is now a matter of interest to the counter-terrorism police that a foreign national works for a publishing house in that person’s country, some of whose authors may not be wholly in favour of the government of that foreign country.

The country in question is France. It is certainly the case that there is a fair amount of turbulence in that country at the present time. Apparently there are quite a few people there who find some discrepancy between the ideals of democracy on the one hand and the practical reality on the other whereby an unpopular and entitled careerist wishes to rule by decree. Whatever I may feel about it, however, it seems pretty clear that this is a domestic matter, and not something on which the UK government needs to take a position.

It is not, after all, the UK whose roads are being blockaded or whose towns are convulsed by rioting. Nobody is setting tractor tyres alight in Downing Street. After all, that would clearly be causing inconvenience to people of consequence, and therefore illegal. But in principle, the UK government does not have a dog in this fight. If the overwhelming majority of the French population is opposed to their President – and the last time I looked, M. Macron enjoyed a rating of around 15% – well, they are presumably entitled to get rid of him. If democracy means anything, it surely means that.

The unfortunate gentleman who was arrested by the counter-terrorism police was the foreign rights manager of a French publishing house. Now it is entirely possible that the purpose of his visit to the UK was to try and flog the foreign rights of some of his firm’s authors to UK publishers. That is very much the kind of thing that foreign rights managers do; it would be quite unsurprising if there were foreign rights managers for UK publishers doing the exact same thing in France at this very moment.

Let us suppose that all of these authors hold profoundly objectionable views. I have no idea one way or the other, but let us suppose so for the sake of argument. It is still very hard to argue that trying to sell the UK rights to those views amounts to a terrorist act. If he was going to demand that UK publishers buy those rights at gunpoint, a case could possibly be made, but that is not the way foreign rights managers typically operate. I have certainly seen no suggestion that such was his intention.

In any case, what definition of “profoundly objectionable views” is being suggested? Apparently, not being in favour of M. Macron is meant to qualify as such, although it is very hard to see what His Majesty’s government could be objecting to in that case. If a UK publisher, some of whose authors might not be 100% behind the government of Mr Sunak – assuming such a thing might be wildly possible – were to send their foreign rights manager to France, would the French government arrest that person on counter-terrorism grounds? If they did, would the UK government approve, or would they be moved to some kind of protest? After all, the whole premise of Brexit, to which Mr Sunak is apparently deeply committed, is found on a visceral suspicion that Johnny Foreigner has been interfering with our liberties.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular case, however, it does bring the fore that ever-popular but profoundly questionable word: terrorism. Everyone agrees that terrorism is a bad thing. What people are less unanimous about, however, is what it actually is. Here is what the Oxford English Dictionary (1989 edition) has to say about it:

(ˈtɛrərɪz(ə)m) [a. F. terrorisme (1798 in Dict. Acad., Suppl.), f. L. terror dread, terror: see -ism.]

A system of terror.

  1. Government by intimidation as directed and carried out by the party in power in France during the Revolution of 1789–94; the system of the ‘Terror’ (1793–4): see terror n. 4.
  1. gen. A policy intended to strike with terror those against whom it is adopted; the employment of methods of intimidation; the fact of terrorizing or condition of being terrorized. Also transf. Cf. terrorist 1b.

OED 2nd ed. (1989) (illustrative quotations omitted for brevity)

I pass over here the sublime irony by which the first meaning is ascribed to the French Revolution, but I would draw your attention to the primary definition: “A system of terror.” No doubt you recall the bemusing attempt by President George W. Bush to declare war on terror, after which no abstract noun could consider itself safe. But a system of terror, abstractly, looks something like the following:

  • This thing is really scary! “This thing” can be anything, from Al-Qaeda to International Jewry to Communism to climate change to Covid-19 to the tribe in the next valley.
  • I can protect you from the scary thing! Again, “I” can be a charismatic leader or simply the embodiment of the regime du jour; “I” can be the Pope or Napoleon or Hitler or Franklin D. Roosevelt or the CDC.
  • So do what I tell you and you will be safe! This is obviously what “I” would want everyone to believe, and it seems to flow so naturally from the previous claims.

This is the basic mechanism of tyranny. It isn’t simply that tyrants employ beefy men with big sticks to thwack anyone who disagrees with them, although of course they always do, because there will always be some fraction of the population who isn’t buying it. But if people are scared enough of the Scary Thing, they will want to believe that someone can save them from it.

What’s insidious about this is that there are genuinely scary things out there in the world, and we all have to deal with them one way or another. It’s a bit like eating disorders: you actually do need to eat food in order to stay alive, and total abstinence is not an option (and I realise that some people don’t want to hear that). I am not here to tell you that climate change, for instance, is not very, very scary. It is. Indeed, in my opinion it is a lot scarier than religious extremists wishing to hijack airliners, and several orders of magnitude scarier than anything I can imagine the average foreign rights manager trying to do.

If M. Macron is looking for my advice – and I’m pretty sure he isn’t – he would do well to come up with a Scary Thing from which he can claim to be saving France. (Scary to the average French elector, I mean; he mostly seems to feel that the Scary Thing is some sort of obstacle to his personal career trajectory, and that doesn’t seem to be capturing the popular imagination right now.) There certainly are plenty of candidates for that, although whether he can plausibly claim to be saving France from, say, the ongoing disintegration of its agricultural sector is a moot point.

I am, however, struggling to imagine how any of this counts as terrorism from the point of view of the UK, unless Mr Sunak is also entertaining fantasies of ruling by decree. I’d like to think that isn’t the case, but perhaps I’m taking too romantic a view of the liberties the UK claims to stand for – well, so long as that doesn’t stop us flogging arms to Saudi Arabia, anyway.

For the moment, visitors to the UK – and residents as well – are probably best advised at least to appear to be in favour of the current thing. I believe those counter-terrorism people cost us a fortune in overtime.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On patriotism

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Doctor Samuel Johnson

Let me begin by distinguishing firmly between love of one’s country, on the one hand, and love of one’s government on the other. Governments of all stripes routinely wish to conflate the two, for the obvious reason that a government’s life would be much easier if everyone loved them, or at least felt that they ought to.

But what, in the final analysis, is one’s country? According to my passport, I belong to something called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I have never felt this, on an emotional level. If someone were to ask me my nationality, I would describe myself as English, but that doesn’t really answer the question.

For one thing, there doesn’t seem to be such a thing as England, at least legally. There is this legal entity called England-and-Wales which can surely not be satisfactory either the English or the Welsh. My mother’s maiden name was Morris, but that’s about as Welsh as I get. I very much doubt whether many people west of the Severn consider themselves English. But there you go, that’s the British legal system for you. There is a certain neurotic insistence that Wales is “merely” a principality, whereas Scotland is a proper kingdom; this has a lot to do with the history of the reigns of Edward I of England and James VI of Scotland who later became James I of England, more or less by accident.

When I moved to Edinburgh for a while, I was a little taken aback by a plaque on a church commemorating James VII, the bloke I’d always thought of as James II and who was of course both. In the same vein, the late Queen Elizabeth II was always referred to simply there as Queen Elizabeth; Elizabeth Tudor was never queen in Scotland. And so forth.

What struck me about living in Scotland was how ready it was, at a moment’s notice, to resume its separate identity as a nation. The money was different, the stamps were different, the legal system was different, the hats the police wore were different, they even had their own version of the National Trust. Because I have – or at least I did in those days – a reddish beard, people tended to assume I was Scottish so long as I kept my mouth shut, and I remember a shopkeeper apologising to me for giving me a non-Scottish pound coin in my change.

Scotland has a national costume, a national poet (Burns), a national musical instrument in the form of the Scottish pipes, and its own language, even if practically nobody speaks it. Wales also has a clear identity, and the Cornish are working on it. But what about England?

There is no English national costume. There is not English national anthem – there has been a vague attempt to claim Parry’s setting of a poem by William Blake as such a thing, but there’s something fundamentally unconvincing about the title Jerusalem for an English anthem. (Hilariously it’s not even a setting of Blake’s poem of that name; the lyrics are taken from his “Preface to Milton.” But I grant you it’s a very good tune.)

England does have a patron saint, St George, whose cross appears on the flag shown at the top of this post. (His saint’s day is 23rd April, hence the timing of this post.) On the other hand, he also doubles as the patron saint of a number of other countries, including Portugal and – not unreasonably – Georgia. That doesn’t seem terribly specific. The face that foreign ambassadors present their official credentials to the Court of St James is also not much of a vote of confidence.

This is my guy, apparently.

The English, I sometimes think, are simply the people left over when you subtract all the people living in the UK that have some other ethnic affiliation – Scots, Welsh, Irish, Cornish, Manx, and I haven’t even started on the numerous immigrant diasporas that are the usual legacy of a world empire. (Rome had plenty in its time.) But there’s still quite a few of us knocking about. Who are we? Are we a nation?

I don’t know. Perhaps I’d be better off identifying with the county of my birth, although I was born in Staffordshire, only for the town I was born in to be placed in something called the West Midlands county, an entity with all the storied history of your local McDonald’s. To be honest, Staffordshire was already the kind of place where nothing much happened for many hundreds of years, but then that’s pretty much the definition of the kind of place you want to live. There’s a lot to be said for attaching yourself to the Staffordshires of this world.

In the future, states will be smaller and less self-important. That’s simply a function of the fact that the resources available to them are going to decline. A geographically smaller state is always going to be more responsive to the needs of its citizens; in his book The Breakdown of Nations, Leopold Kohr provocatively claims that the Principality of Liechtenstein is about the ideal size. Its area of 160 km2 would fit over 1,500 times into the 244,820 km2 of the UK, and over 800 times into the 130,278 km2 area of England, so maybe I’m thinking too big here. Hell, you could even fit it three and a half times into the 598.2 km2 area of Staffordshire.

We need to think smaller; as Kohr’s pupil E. F. Schumacher reminds us, Small is Beautiful (and if you haven’t read that book, you probably should). But having that said, there’s value in being loyal to something, even if that thing is just your house, your land and your village. There are people out there who would like to take those things away from you, and they’ll do it in the name of patriotism if that’s what it takes. Beware.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the self-limiting nature of stupidity

Texas farm blaze kills 18,000 cows in deadliest barn fire on record in the US

Headline in THe Guardian, 14/04/2023

It is not, of course, news that people do stupid things. People have been doing stupid things for as long as there have been people. I don’t have statistics for this, because no such statistics are available, but I would suggest that the majority of these stupid things have been done by (mostly adolescent) males, in the futile hope of impressing women.

The above story is, however, an example of a stupid thing that occurred without any very pronounced ambition to impress women, although it is apparently true that some women are impressed by large amounts of money, so there’s that. But this is the result of a whole constellation of stupid decisions.

  • Cheap milk is great! Let’s cut every possible corner to achieve that, because there are $$$ and that’s what matters!
  • Nobody cares about animal welfare, so let’s completely ignore that, because there are $$$ and that’s what matters!
  • Nobody cares about the quality of milk either, so let’s stuff those cows with drugs because there are $$$ and that’s what matters!
  • It’s so expensive to do anything about preventing the outbreak of fire in an environment rich in things like, ooh I don’t know, methane? Let’s build this thing in a state which doesn’t mandate any safety regulations, because there are $$$ and that’s what matters!
  • Tragically, we have to waste a few of those lovely $$$ to pay some poor sap to look after those 18,000 cows. Maybe he might get injured, or even killed, because the place he’s working is likely to go up like a Roman candle, but hey – there are $$$ and that’s what matters!

Do you see a pattern emerging here?

There’s a special kind of stupidity involved in this kind of thought-process, if I can dignify it with such a name. It’s a kind that as far as I know only Homo sapiens sapiens is able to achieve – a dismal enough distinction, but one I believe we can fairly claim. It’s the ability to focus on one single thing – profit, in this case, as in so many others – to the complete exclusion of everything else.

There are some parallels in Nature, I suppose. There are the rutting stags who die of exhaustion in the struggle to pass on their genes. Even that makes some sense in the wider context of optimising the gene-pool of their species. It takes hairless chimpanzees to be this clueless.

The relationship between human beings and the various mammals from which we take milk goes back several millennia – in the case of sheep and goats, about ten. For the vast majority of that time, it has been a trade-off that is reasonably tolerable for both parties. These animals have always lost a proportion of their young to predators; we have taken that proportion for our own consumption, and also the milk that is surplus to requirements. This isn’t too problematic, unless you happen to be a wolf.

We have now evolved the conversation to this place:


We have bred cattle who could no longer meet their nutritional requirements from eating the stuff cows evolved to eat (grass, leaves and so forth), as a consequence of which we have to feed them grains, with which we could otherwise feed ourselves directly. The result is cows who look like walking skeletons even when they are well-fed, because we are only interested in animals who convert almost all of their nutrition into milk.

This is a typical specimen of the modern dairy cow, apart from the fact that it is in a field with grass as opposed to a multi-story intensive dairy unit. Note the huge udder, absence of horns, and prominent ribs. What you can’t see in the photo is the scarily low genetic diversity amongst dairy cattle.

This is what a cow should actually look like. It has horns, a moderately-sized udder, and is eating grass. A herd of these could survive quite adequately in the wild, if that fence in the background went away. Indeed, herds of these do indeed manage quite well roaming more or less freely in the mountains of northern Spain; I’ve seen them myself. To be fair, this breed is now mostly kept as a beef cow, but it was originally a dual-purpose breed and there are certainly still people milking them on a small scale.

This is a microcosm of industrial civilisation’s relationship with the natural world. As Captain Jack Sparrow succinctly puts it: “Take what you can, give nothing back.” This approach works brilliantly, until it doesn’t. There are limits. Nobody wants to hear that, especially when there are $$$ at stake, but that’s the universe we inhabit.

If you were to consider the natural world as a person (Mother Nature, perhaps) and industrial civilisation as another (Homo colossus, say, following William Catton), you would have no trouble identifying the psychopath. But we don’t do that, because it would be unscientific, and we like being able to buy cheap milk – or milk-like substances – and hey, $$$!

Maybe when all our industrial units have been destroyed we’ll learn some sense. Until then, the best we can do as individuals is to tiptoe quietly away. Properly-produced milk is available, by the way, if you’re prepared to pay what it costs. Me, I’m thinking about getting a house cow.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On creeds

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

It’s Easter week as I write this, and an apt time, perhaps, to talk about creeds.

A creed is a formal declaration of faith: from the Latin credo, “I believe.” It is essentially a list of propositions to which one assents. whether that be the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Thirty-Nine Articles or something else. In the Christian tradition – of which industrial civilisation still partakes, by a kind of cultural inertia – we are so used to the notion of creeds that it never occurs to us to notice what an odd thing they are.

If we look at the Greco-Roman religious tradition, for instance, there is absolutely no notion of a creed. Classical Western religion was much more about what you did than what you believed: nobody would have batted an eyelid if you were a professed atheist, so long as you made the expected sacrifices to the gods. In general, most religious belief outside the Christian tradition seems to follow a similar pattern. Even Judaism is more about following rules (lots of rules) than signing up to any particular set of abstract philosophical positions.

All social primates – and you and I are no exception to this rule – are prone to assign our fellows to in-groups and out-groups. One can interpret creeds as a particularly anal way to make these distinctions: it is not easy for most of us these days to get massively worked up about the difference between consubstantiation and transubstantiation, let alone the whole filioque malarky, but in the not-so-distant past people died for this, sometimes in quite large numbers.

This would all be a charming anthropological curiosity, were it not for the fact that over the last century or so the same kind of thinking has started to bleed into the political sphere. The creed is ideological rather than theological, but the thought-process is identical. The obvious examples are from the Communist regimes, especially those of Stalin (the notorious “show trials”), Mao (the “Cultural Revolution”), and Pol Pot (“Year Zero”), but let us not forget Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

These examples are all from the twentieth century. Are similar things likely to occur again in the twenty-first? Well, it would take a braver person than I am to answer that question in the negative.

After all, we are all familiar with the term “culture wars.” In essence, this a process whereby each contending political group – and these are political questions if they are anything, and the groups contesting them are political groups – aserts: “Here is a list of beliefs to which all right-thinking people must subscribe. If you can tick all of these boxes, you are one of us. Otherwise, you are one of them.”

Now call me an old-fashioned liberal if you wish, but this seems to me to be deeply wrong-headed. Religious truth has always seemed to me to be a complex and variegated thing, and what is true for me is not necessarily true for you. Political truth – if one may even speak of such a thing – must be infinitely more so. The circumstances of the moment, applicable as they are only within a particular time and space, are always going to impose different constraints. It is vanishingly unlikely that any fixed list of approved truths is going to meet all the needs of the moment, everywhere all at once, and inconceivable that the same list will continue to do so indefinitely. But it is to some such creed that we will be asked to assent.

Nor will the fate of dissidents be pleasant, if historical precedents are any guide. There will be no room for discussion, let alone debate. In the immortal words of George W. Bush, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” And of course it goes without saying that We are not terrorists; They are the terrorists. (When We fire missiles into a wedding party it isn’t terrorism. It’s only terrorism when They do it. And so on.)

All this is classic social-primate stuff. The trouble is that it is likely to define our collective problem-solving process, at a time when the problems to be solved are many and difficult (and, in some cases, insoluble). Inevitably this means that we will, collectively, screw most of them up. That is the definition of political failure.

Which in turn means that it’s going to be down to us, individually, to make the best fist of it that we can. Then again, it usually is. A lot of history has consisted of peasants hearing the news of the latest royal decree, sighing, and getting on with it. Muddling through is often all you can do.

As the late Dave Allen used to say: goodnight, and may your God go with you.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

Garbage in, garbage out

On two occasions I have been asked, “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?” … I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.

Charles BabbagePassages from the Life of a Philosopher[

Once upon a time, there was a computer program called ELIZA. (By “once upon a time” I mean the mid-1960s, which is more or less equivalent to the Triassic era when it comes to computer software.) ELIZA was the first attempt at a chatbot: it tried to hold a conversation with the user based entirely on linguistic rules, with absolutely no attempt at a conceptual model of what the conversation was about. It was not, in any useful sense, artificial intelligence.

The author of the program was, however, surprised to find that many users thought otherwise. They conversed with it as if it were a person. This tendency that people show to treat computers as if they were sentient is known as the ELIZA effect, and we all do it, even those of us who know better. Apart from anything else, everyone swears at them, at least occasionally.

Which brings us, of course, to the oracle du jour: ChatGPT. It is, ultimately, ELIZA on steroids. Where ELIZA was reliant on a pre-selected list of keywords, ChatGPT is “trained” on a pre-selected set of data – a much, much bigger set of data than ELIZA, but it’s the same principle. It’s tweaked so that its answers to questions appear plausible, and they do, even when they turn out to be wrong.

Because the old adage still applies: garbage in, garbage out. You can get ChatGPT to say whatever you want it to say. It’s a computer program, after all. Computers will believe whatever you tell them; anyone developing software soon discovers that a lot of your effort will be going into trying to make the darn thing less gullible, so that it rejects claims that the user was born in 1742, for example.

Now it is true that a lot of jobs currently done by human beings largely consist of regurgitating information in a more or less plausible summary, and in principle those jobs could now be automated away. I doubt whether many of the people currently doing those jobs will be deprived of much in the way of job satisfaction, but they will certainly miss the income. That could certainly lead to some interesting political outcomes.

But of course in practice doing that would consume computing resources – and physical resources – on an even more epic scale that we get through them already. Most people assume that the Internet just happens. They aren’t aware of the massive server farms that make the whole thing go. Some of these places rely on a daily lorry-load of hard drives to replace the ones that just failed – and hard drives these days don’t fail that often. That lorry-load of hard drives didn’t just happen either: that’s a lot of mining and refining and fabricating right there.

Also there is the little matter of electricity. At the same time that we are supposedly replacing the world’s fleet of petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles with electrically-powered versions (which for many use cases such as tractors or the aforementioned lorries don’t actually exist yet or aren’t ready for prime-time), and also at the same time that we are supposedly generating our electricity without resort to fossil fuels, there is no way in Hades we are going to be building out all those extra data-centres.

By the way, the mining and refining and fabricating I mentioned earlier is a lot of the same mining and refining and fabricating that will be needed to make all those new EVs. Those things require scarce and expensive resources. It will be interesting to see how long we will be able to sustain an economy built on unobtainium.

Still, if we collectively decided that rendering large numbers of middle-class people unemployed was a more important goal than, say, reducing the impact of climate change, I suppose we could technically do it. Obviously that would be a monumentally stupid decision, but it wouldn’t be the first one and I don’t suppose it would be the last. What then?

Well, from at least the French Revolution onwards – and a case could be made for the English Civil Wars – it seems that the most certain way to cause a revolution is to have plenty of disaffected middle-class people: people like Robespierre, who was a small-town lawyer, or Lenin, the son of an inspector of schools. The really poor and oppressed people are usually too busy just trying to get by; those with an education but no prospect of getting advantage from it are more likely to cause serious trouble.

At least some countries in the industrialised world are on this path already. It’s not hard to find plenty of accounts of how the middle classes are being squeezed, such as this report from the OECD, not generally thought of as a nest of lefty firebrands, or this article in notorious Marxist rag Forbes magazine. Still, from a purely selfish point of view, I’d rather all this didn’t kick off in my lifetime, but history happens when it happens.

To sum up, then, ChatGPT has the technical potential to generate automatically much of the bullshit that is at present crafted by hand. If it does so on a sufficiently large scale, inaccurate Internet search results will be the least of our worries. I am sure it will be tried. I am less sure that it will succeed, if you can call it success.

The one useful thing that it might achieve is to encourage some fraction of the bullshit-generating classes to do something more constructive with their time. But of course they don’t need a computer to do that.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.