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Friday, 29 March 2013


If you are afraid of flying, then in your mind every time a plane flies safely from A to B increases the probability that next time it will crash.  In reality, the opposite is the case.

If you are afraid of getting ill, then every day you wake up feeling well increases your anxiety that tomorrow you will wake up sick. Sick happens. A hypochondriac is someone primed and alert to spot the signs when they appear - or seem to appear.

Turn this around a bit and you  could say that hypochondria is the fear of being well. The experience of wellness is spoilt by anxiety about the inevitable illness which is getting closer every day.

True, sick happens and, of course, everyone has to die some time. Whereas planes can be (and hopefully) are withdrawn from service before they get too old to fly safely, humans have little choice but to just go on until they die. Along the way, they will get ill. Very few people pre-empt their own decline and voluntarily withdraw themselves from service.

A bit more of the logic suggests that the hypochondriac's anxiety about getting ill will subside once they are actually ill. Once sick happens you have no need to get anxious about sick happening.

This may partly explain the paradox that older people generally express more satisfaction with life even though they have numerous  ailments and more than occasional illnesses. Sick has happened and they can deal with it. The thing they couldn't deal with was the anxiety about getting ill.

At 65 I am excessively proud of the fact that I take no regular medication and really very little occasional medication. Most days I don't pop a pill, even an aspirin. That makes me unusual for my age group. But I have lots of little aches and pains and upsets and things going wrong ... In any one week there will be something not quite right. I have a suspicion that this is actually quite comforting. These little things are things I can deal with. They are not so bad after all. Of course, at the back of my mind I still succumb to the logic which says that the succession of  these little things, like planes shuttling back and forth between A and B, must inevitably be followed by the lurking big thing, the crash.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Migration: Emigration, Immigration and King Canute

Inertia is a state unknown in both the natural and cultural worlds. All things change, none stay the same. No one and no organisation can stop the world changing. Maybe temporarily; maybe partially - but in reality, change is inevitable.

In order to disabuse his fawning courtiers as to his power, King Canute commanded the waves to retreat. No modern politician would dare show such modesty - or irony.

There are two very good examples of unstoppable change.

The first is language change, which goes on continuously between generations and within cultures. Much of the change is unnoticed as it happens. This is particularly true of sound change - intonation and pronunciation are things which only specialists can describe. After the event, they can show how the pronunciation of  the English place name Heathrow has changed and they can pretty much explain it by the growth of the airport, which - to put it very simply - has Americanised the pronunciation.

Meaning change, grammatical change and spelling changes escape our attention until the change is accomplished. In English written forms Roumania and Rumania no longer really exist; they have changed over to Romania. When did it happen? Who noticed?

France's Academie Fran├žaise is King Canute without the irony or the modesty. They really think that they can stop French from changing. It's no more than a childish fantasy and their organisation no more than a silly little club where grown men put on funny hats.

The other good example of unstoppable change is migration in both its major forms.

First, there is the migration of those who are well-resourced and intent on looting or settling (and the two are inter-connected). Success depends merely on selecting the right destination - one where the indigenous inhabitants can't resist your weapons, your deceit or your diseases. From the Conquest of the Incas to the Zionist colonization of Palestine it has always worked.

Second, there is the migration of the desperate poor and the ambitious poor, seeking a chance in a new place where they will be at the bottom of society. Many perish on the journey there, many get turned away, some always get through. Even modern countries are unable to seal their borders. Maybe you think North Korea achieves it, but it doesn't. In a country like that, some border guards will be bribeable and some too lazy to look very far for those intent on escape.

Mr David Cameron, another King Canute without irony or modesty, thinks he can achieve what North Korea can't. Or at least he thinks he can be as good at sealing the borders as his Interior Minister, Mrs Theresa May (who isn't very good at all). Even if they put on funny hats, they have no chance. Enough poor and desperate and ambitious people want to get into the UK for some of them to succeed. Some people are going to come here, whether you like it or not. Get over it.

In the  recent past - no more than a few centuries - migration (combined with people trafficking) has transformed the face of the Americas and Australasia. It consequences are still being played out.

In the very recent past - no more than a few decades - migration has changed the face of France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Israel and (as a result of migration from Mexico) the USA.

And these are only cases where everyone will know what I am talking about. There are dozens of other cultures and societies which have been transformed by migration in the past 50 or 100 years. If you think you can call a halt to it all, think again.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Prince Charles Seeks "Monarchy for the Poor"

Dressed in a simple double breasted suit, made for him by a humble Savile Row tailor, Prince Charles has called for a "Monarchy for the Poor". As the cameras summonsed for the Royal occasion clicked, the Prince - standing informally in front of his London home - talked about how for him being heir to the Throne was about devoting himself to the service of the poor. "Only this morning I said to my valet, this new Pope fellow has got the right idea even if he is an Argie. Of course you can't fool all of the people all of the time, but with the help of the BBC, you can certainly fool many of them much of the time"

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Why Are Small Changes So Difficult To Achieve?

In my local shop, the Financial Times costs £2.50, a litre of milk £1 and one bun 49p. Tender £4 and the penny change represents 0.0025 of the transaction value. And transactions don't come much smaller than £4. Nonetheless, people probably feel virtuous dropping their unwanted penny in to the obligingly provided collecting box. Whether it is economic for charities to collect so much weight for so little reward is another question.

The United Kingdom "went decimal" - or nearly so - in 1971. Since Halfpenny coins were issued as part of the new coinage, it wasn't fully decimal. The Halfpenny was irritatingly small, had little use, but struggled on until 1984 when it was demonetized.

I know politicians go all funny when the I - word is mentioned but even my maiden aunt talks about prices having gone up in the past fifty years. So much so that it costs the Royal Mint more to make penny, two penny and five penny coins than the exchange value stamped on them.

It's time to demonetize these coins which people don't want in their pockets, which pile up in jam jars on kitchen shelves, and which belong to a time when prices were very considerably lower.  That my bun would cost 50p in consequence does not bring Hyperinflation a jot closer. As for the charities, they should settle for no less than 10p a throw.

This small change to our small change would be easy to accomplish, would save the Government a lot of money on the costs of minting coins, and would be welcomed by most people. Does anyone really enjoy fiddling with 5p coins?

Can I imagine this small change being brought about in a trouble-free manner, as a result of a simple administrative decision? No. Think of what they would say in the Daily Express. Think of all the Penny Martyrs who would suddenly emerge.

Since 1971 prices have risen - what - ten times or more? The house you could have bought for ten grand back then would cost at least a hundred grand today. But for some reason our basic coin is still the penny. Even my maiden aunt thinks its silly. But then maiden aunts have nerves of steel; unlike wibbly-wobbly-jelly Government Ministers.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Ecstasy of the BBC

BBC News website reporting of the Papal election reminds me of someone in an adjacent hotel room  having multiple orgasms.

Forced to abandon their poster boy, Cardinal Keith O'Brien - who they have tirelessly promoted these past few years - the BBC has thrown itself at  the new Pope. It's a noisy and shameless embrace.

The Independent has picked up that the new Pope is solid behind Argentina's claim to the Malvinas, which ought to give the BBC pause. And The Guardian - though it has run the BBC a close second in Popey frenzy - has been forced (presumably by one of it's own journalists, Hugh O'Shaughnessy) to acknowledge that there are unanswered questions about the new Pope's dealings with the Argentinian junta (the one which invaded the Falklands) - awkward allegations because, if true, they put him in the dock for conspiracy to hide human rights abuses from investigators.

We will see. Anything which dissipates the ecstasy of the BBC would be welcome.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Should England Leave the United Kingdom?

This is the In or Out Referendum which should be held but which the United Kingdom Independence Party exists to prevent.

It's really a no brainer. If England left the failed United Kingdom state,  look at its immediate savings:

Current annual subsidy from taxes paid in England is about £9 billion. This covers a recurring deficit on Welsh public expenditure equivalent to about £3000 per head of Welsh population.

Northern Ireland
Current annual subsidy about £7 billion, equivalent to about £4000 per head of Northern Irish population.

The Falkland Islands
We have an awful lot of bored squaddies sitting there to protect the Falklands Way of Life. Subsidy from English taxes per head of Falklands population is about £45 000. Must make the average Benefits Scrounger green with envy.

The Channel Islands and the Isle of Man
Licensed by the UK Parliament to provide a haven for English money on which tax would otherwise be paid here. Unknown costs to the Treasury. In relation to an independent England, these dodgy offshore jurisdictions would become foreign states against which sanctions could be deployed - and, if necessary, the troops brought home from the Falklands could invade.

The Monarchy
Nothing English about the House of Windsor (really Saxe Coburg Gotha and later Battenberg). Costs quite a lot to run not least because of its right to shut down the English economy every time it has a Jubilee or a Wedding.

The list goes on. Scotland isn't on it - most calculations reckon that Scotland is subsidy neutral with respect to England. That's why there are Scots who would welcome independence. In contrast, independence would have to be thrust upon Wales and Northern Ireland over a lot of Nationalist protests.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Historic Crimes: When Should they be Legally Forgotten?

Over thirty years ago when we still had Mental Hospitals, someone told me it was hard to get admitted to one if you were seriously mad. Seriously mad people created a lot of work and stress. They couldn't be relied on to do as they were told. It's true that they could be zonked with sedatives but, on balance, leaving them to roam the streets seemed better policy. There they were someone else's problem.

I am sure this is a caricature of a tendency but it has coloured the way I think about the Police and what are now called "Historic Crimes". The police like dealing with historic offences because they are manageable. You can work on them 9 to 5 in the comfort of your office, you don't have to show results quickly - after all, these cases have been around for decades already - and if they involve well known persons, victims or perpetrators, then there are stories to be passed on to the press.

On balance, then, to ensure that valuable (and expensive ) police time isn't wasted, I would impose a Statute of Limitations on all but the most serious crimes. After one or five or ten years, criminal investigations would not be revived except in cases of murder, GBH which had left someone disabled or otherwise affected, sexual offences involving violence or coercion, violence (whether or not sexual) against children. For the moment, I stop there. The objective is not to deny that past crimes were crimes, even quite serious ones; simply to ensure that the police have time - and use it - to chase today's criminals even when that involves a lot of hard work and stress.

It may also be a reasonable objective to encourage all of us to think of misfortunes - even those which are legally crimes against us - as things which, in time, we should simply file away and forget about.

I have never been the victim of a crime that has marked me for a long time afterwards so maybe I am being smug. I have occasionally been the victim of small crimes which I would not want investigated or investigated again. Here's one by way of thought experiment.

Over thirty years ago, my car - a Sunbeam Rapier with which I was rather chuffed - was stolen from outside my flat in Castle Crescent, Reading. I reported the theft to the police, I am sure, because otherwise I would not have known to go down into a city centre underground car park where the car had been taken and stripped of its wheels. As I recall, its location in an area where there were low concrete beams above meant that it could not be lifted out for removal. It had to be dragged out, damaged in the process and written off.

Now if the Police suddenly contacted me to say that they now knew who committed this 1977 crime (maybe someone loudly recalling old times over a drink in a pub), I would  say Thank You but immediately go on to say that I had no desire for them to do anything about it. I would not want anyone prosecuted even if that did not involve me in going to Court. If it did involve me in going to Court, I most definitely would not want anything done. The loss of my Sunbeam Rapier is a historic crime in two senses: it took place over thirty years ago and I have no need to recall it other than as an anecdote. Nor can I see any reason to take someone to Court for it: I have no reason to want the person (s) who took my car then punished now. Even the idea seems faintly ridiculous. It was all so long ago and the car thieves have also lived their lives since then, maybe blamelessly maybe not - it doesn't much matter.

I realise I have chosen a piddling example to illustrate my case.But once the general principle is granted, that some crimes should simply be forgotten for police and judicial purposes, then it becomes possible to ask questions about Which crimes? and How Long?

Thursday, 7 March 2013

If It Ain't Broke, Fix It - Green Politics in Brighton and Hove

The end of the financial year is approaching and - in the UK - local Councils with more money in the bank than sense in their brains are desperately trying to get the bank balances down to zero.

Here in Brighton and Hove, the Council has already spent as much as it can on replacing functioning pedestrian crossing controls with new, state-of-the-art out-of-phase-ones. Yes, watch as the tourists and language students wait and wait looking at vehicles which are also waiting and waiting! Laugh as the green persons turn to red as soon as pedestrians have stepped into the road! If you don't believe me, position yourself for five minutes at the junction of Holland Road with Western Road and Palmeira Square.

But alas it wasn't enough to empty the bank accounts. So now as a last desperate fling a 20 mph City speed limit has been introduced - justifying a frenzy of spending on new street signs. Where would we be without the sign makers and the signwriters to take our money?

The signwriters have been out writing "20" in large circles on any vacant strip of tarmac. But still there is money which must be spent - so now we have new "20" signs going up at the entrance to every side street off a "30" zone. It's fantastic -  and good news too for dog owners who are thus provided with brand-new shitting stops.

More importantly, I just think our Council and its Highways Department don't really understand the nature of urban traffic. If you are looking at your speedometer in city traffic, then you shouldn't be driving. Full stop. Driving in a city is about staying alert for hazards - pedestrians, cyclists, buses, other vehicles in general. Driving in a city is about slowing down to 10 mph every time it is necessary and speeding up to 40 mph when the road is clear - as it often is at 5am in the morning (but Green councillors aren't around then so they wouldn't know). Cyclists are in exactly the same position as drivers, though they tend to understand better the idea that you Go when you can Go. That's why they are usually ahead of the cars.

It does make sense to warn drivers (and cyclists) that there is a School Ahead and to instal calming devices near Schools * . In contrast, if you carpet bomb all your streets with road signs then these just become so much background noise. They serve no traffic control function. They just allow the Council to get rid of  money it didn't really know how to spend.

(* The big hazard near Schools seems to be created by parents collecting their children and determined to elbow their 4 x 4s ahead of everyone else's).

I don't expect Brighton and Hove's roads to be safer as a result of the new Twenty is Plenty. Maybe the opposite: there will be some road rage as drivers have to crawl behind a vehicle whose  driver - eyes glued to the speedometer and hunched over the wheel -  is "Sticking to the Limit".

Brighton and Hove does not have a very good road safety record, as far as I understand the figures you can Google. I think you deal with that by looking at where accidents occur, when and involving whom. You should then try to tailor your response to specific problems, like the hazards of contraflow systems or the fact that your city has an unusually high number of pedestrians - language students, tourists - who come from countries where they drive on the other side. Do the language schools offer as a first Lesson, Watch out for the Buses!

Roads would be safer if driver education was focussed on paying attention to the road, on learning to get over the fact that there will sometimes be congestion, and in accepting that there are other road users - pedestrians, cyclists, vans making deliveries - who have a right to be there too. Safe driving is about respect for others.