Friday, August 03, 2007

Letting the Side Down

Margot Wallström
Margot Wallström
It didn't take long. Having just posted on the generally responsible consideration of the possibility of a link between climate change and recent flooding in the UK, even from the green lobby and the more senior grade of politicians, I suppose it was inevitable that would let the side down badly. Also pretty predictable was that it would come from that land that common sense forgot; Brussels and more specific the EU commission.

The ever logically challenged commissioner, Margot Wallström, has posted on the topic on her blog. OK, she doesn't explicitly state a causal relationship between climate change and the flooding, but the juxtaposition between her comments on the flooding (and fires elsewhere) and her fairly standard issue climate change diatribe leaves little doubt of the impression she wants to make, regardless of whether there is any truth to it.

As is often the case though, Ms Wallström takes things to extremes that would make our domestic politicians blush:

"It is frustrating that so many people still either deny that climate change is happening or that we can do anything about it. (Also frustrating that some people still regard climate change as some kind of conspiracy theory or a quasi religious belief).

"The scientists are unanimous: It is happening."

Source : Margot Wallström's Blog

There you have it. The scientists are 'unanimous', no need for any more debate then.

But of course they are not unanimous. It is true that there is a substantial majority of scientists who back the general consensus on climate change, and I am largely inclined to agree with much of the model from my inexpert position, if not the political answers to the challenges it presents. This is not the same as unanimity though; there are dissenting voices, and to pretend otherwise is simply intellectually dishonest, and just the type of nonsense that the conspiracy theorists feed off.

Maybe Ms Wallström is simply going along with the traditional politician's fantasy that truth can become what you wish it to be simply by repetition of a lie. To be fair though, Ms Wallström has form for statements that are poorly researched and full of logic holes, so it's probably just yet another cock-up. For poor research, my personal favourite was her posting where she announced that opposition to capital punishment was an uncontroversial shared European value, and then seemed genuinely surprised when commenters on her blog revealed just how many people in Europe, unlike me, backed the death penalty. For logical deficiency her finest moment was her treatise on her proud belief that the REACH chemicals directive would force manufacturers to do the impossible and prove a negative, by showing that their products could have no possible harmful effects; thankfully the legislation itself, misguided as it was, didn't quite reach such a level of stupidity. Interestingly her later posts on the same subject carefully avoided the same minefields, presumably after someone had pointed out the folly of her argument, but sadly we still have to fork out the same cash for her to make her foolish pronouncements anyway.

We of course should not be overcritical of Brussels, when we know our domestic politicians can serve up equally ridiculous fare. I truly wish I could remember which NuLab shadow minister it was who, shortly before NuLab came to power, announced that NuLab's target was for there to be nobody earning less than the national average wage. She brushed aside every attempt by the interviewer to convince her that this was a mathematical impossibility, and sad to say I'm pretty sure it was one of a couple of candidates, and both have gone far in government.

Another Ill-Educated Proposal

School's Out
Government plans a recipe for resentment
I've come across an interesting new blog, Educational Conscription, featuring some damn good contributors like those behind Devil's Kitchen and the Thunder Dragon, and whose focus in on criticism of government plans to force all to remain in some form of education until the age of 18. I don't really have a great deal to add to the general thrust of the various analyses found on this blog, agreeing as I do with the most of the arguments, in particular, the fundamental argument that trying to force a thankfully small group down this route can only breed resentment and produce results that are limited at best.

It's not actually a subject I had given a great deal of thought to, but in reading Educational Conscription I was struck with the parallels with an education topic on which I do have a strong view, that of the foolishness of some of the government's tinkering with the education offered to those who do stay on until eighteen. It doesn't seem to matter whether governments plan and scheme for those who want to leave school at the earliest opportunity, or for those who want to stay on until eighteen; in each case they seem to wholly ignore the instincts and aspirations of people at that age.

The latest government proposals do seem to be part of a pattern of decisions by governments of all persuasions over the course of my adult life, that seem to show that nearly all politicians have either forgotten what it is like to be young, or that they had very atypical childhoods which they wrongly believe gives them the answers to the problems of all.

Anyone who has been a normal sixteen year old, and remembers what it was like would be able to see why such measures are in all probability likely to be counterproductive. It's an age where you, rightly, want to be given the chance to make at least some of your own decisions; to narrow down the options is not something that many will react well to.

I never seriously contemplated leaving school at sixteen but I do remember so clearly the change in attitude that took place between fifth and sixth forms at my school, back in the 'bad old days' of 'narrow' old style A-levels (you know the kind, took two years to do, rigorous syllabus, big exam at the end). The relief at being able to dump long hated bugbear subjects was palpable, and those subjects that remained on individuals agendas were tackled with something that at times even approached enthusiasm.

Beyond the academic aspect of things, subtle changes to the uniform rules made it something that, even if you didn't exactly like it, you could live with and wasn't far of the dress rules in the more formal offices I work in today. We got a coffee shop style common room, and best of all a pool table, thought the dart board eventually was (probably rightly) deemed a safety hazard and removed. These privileges were much more effective than the collections of enamel 'Prefect', 'House Captain' type badges, in the battle to make the sixth form something to aspire too. They even gave the fifth form a much more Spartan common room of their own, next to ours, from where they could observe the privileges of their elders and betters to give those on the borderline a pause for thought on the decisions they faced.

You were treated in a subtly more adult way, even on the academic side. For a start, unlike the decisions over 'O' levels, as they still were for me, it was a question asked of the pupil, and answered by the pupil, not one made in a consultation between teachers and parents who may or may not have involved their offspring. There were rules, but they were reasonable.

Most notably, anyone with particularly poor performance in mathematics or English language would have to have another attempt in addition to, or in place of one of their higher level courses. This has always seemed reasonable to me. If your performance in these areas falls below a certain point you can become a burden on society, and society has a right with the young, the costs of whose education society as a whole bears, to ask for them to reach some basic functional standards to equip them for life. Having a broader post-sixteen education certainly is a worthy aim in an abstract sense, but frankly people do not become unemployable just because they cannot speak a bit of basic school boy French, nor is it the lack of a humanity in their education that means they cannot read the letter from their credit card provider explaining how poor their understanding of compound interest was.

Overall though, the ethos was all about giving the pupil as much control over their own education as possible, and in the greater part people responded to this. Attempts to force everyone to stay in education until 18 and the tinkering with post-16 education, almost always on the grounds of 'broadening' it are two sides of the same coin; the result in each case is the same, a narrowing of the options available to people in that crucial age range.

I can imagine not only the resentment of those whose sole wish is to leave education and go into a job at that age, and how this will manifest itself either in school or their more vocational education centres, but also of those who would have stayed on into sixth form anyway, but find the same choices I was offered, denied to them.

I have an old school friend, who is a truly brilliant mathematician, who last I heard was back in academia as a lecturer. Like me he found sciences and maths easy going, but for him English and Modern Languages were little short of torture, which he endured just enough to get reasonable passes. The relief when he could finally put these behind him was obvious as he burnt his English set books in his father's garden. He went on to get a good first at university in Maths, and is hardly illiterate. If he'd faced the prospect of something like the baccalaureate type system that much of the educational establishment drools over, the torture would have continued, and he would almost certainly have left school at sixteen.

By all means have some terms and conditions on leaving school at sixteen, perhaps even require a job to be found first, but for God's sake think twice before you try to restrict and constrain peoples choices too far, just at the point when they are rightly expecting to be given a little more trust. Over the last two decades successive governments have inflicted incredible harm on 11-16 education with the same kind of well-meaning but counter-productive initiatives; don't wreak the same havoc on a different bit that still just about works. Sure, we have problems with school leaver illiteracy and innumeracy; that's the fault of what's been done to the kids in earlier years. Go back and fix that, at the moment it all seems a bit like the perpetual shortening of the wobbly coffee table legs, as initiative after initiative is launched to fix the ills of their predecessors.

To the same politicians, before you do any of this, try and put yourself in the minds of those children, the normal ones; it will be hard, because you probably never were one, but, if you can, you might just start to understand why everything you touch turns to shit.

In Memoriam

Glasgow Fire
May there be an afterlife
Every news feed I have is alive with the news that would-be terrorist Kafeel Ahmed has passed away from the burns he sustained in his failed attack on Glasgow Airport. To his family, who must love him, whatever he became, my sympathies.

I do though feel a different kind of bereavement; a chance to show the superiority of our values over those of the perverted form of a great religion that Mr Ahmed appears to have espoused, has been taken from us. As I posted earlier, all I wished for Mr Ahmed was a fair trial, and if the facts of the case were proved a long, possibly (literally) life-long, prison sentence.

Sky News quotes a spokesman for the Scottish Executive as saying:

"There has been some comment about the treatment provided for him by the NHS.

"It was perfectly right that he should have received the appropriate treatment our health service could offer as this reflects the value our society places on human life."

Source : Sky News

Quite right too; this is the kind of society that any decent person should want to live in, even in dealing with those that would wish to replace it with something less humane and forgiving of human frailty.

I hope that Mr Ahmed did not suffer in his final days. I do hope though that I am wrong, and there is some sort of God, and that if so, when Mr Ahmed awakes on the other side he finally understands just how wrong and misguided he was. In there, for anyone who, if Mr Ahmed qualifies, remains part of the human race, is a more profound punishment than any of the more lurid suggestions that will doubtlessly light up the Internet over the next few days.

It is so I can (albeit with diminishing confidence) write things like this that I feel such rage against politicans who want limits on detention without trial to be weakened to an unacceptable level, and a police service who want them removed entirely in any meaningful sense. It is easy to live in a safe country, totalitarian regimes down through history have proved this, albeit with some terrible side effects; it's much harder to live in a country that puts liberty combined with rule of just law first, but I know what which I prefer and which I will fight for.

As much as I might fume about Mr Ahmed, his strange beliefs and the awful things that stemmed from them, I find more comfort in the quote above than the 'strong', 'decisive' and 'hard hitting' statements and proposals from those with the real power on these matters.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Act of Erm...Whoever

Climate change in action?
One of the trickier things about being a non-believer is that you don't feel entirely able to describe the recent flooding as being an act of god; even the secular equivalent, 'shit happens' doesn't quite carry the same meaning. Whatever term you come up with though is likely to be more appropriate than assigning events to the old hoary chestnut of global warmingclimate change. I will be fair to the green lobby to give some balance to my derision at their principal speaker in my earlier posting and say that at first even many of the theory of climate change's most persistent and vocal advocates have been wary of suggesting too close a connection to current events.

Of course not everyone has been quite so responsible. There are now a couple of groups of people who, though generally wholly unschooled in the details of the science, are desperate to link any outbreak of 'funny weather' to climate change; we call them politicians, and journalists. For the latter the benefit is in making a big story even bigger sounding, and for the former it helps justify taking ever more money from us to misspend more our behalf.

It's probably the journalists, led as ever by Auntie, who have been making the biggest meal of it this time around. Every single interview featuring a cajoling of every interviewee from emergency services officers to Mrs Miggins, whose cat is missing, presumed lost, since the floods, to add their doubtfully authoritative weight to the link to climate change. Each segment on the aftermath of the flooding almost always ends with a pronouncement that, due to climate change, we must expect more such events.

Of course there have been slightly more qualified pronouncements on the issue. Only yesterday some of Radio Four's coverage featured a couple of scientists who were already claiming to have 'proved' the link between recent events and climate change, by extrapolation from their existing work. I was drifting around a bit and didn't catch their names on any of the bulletins on which it appears, and nor have I had time to 'listen again' to dredge up the information, but even a cursory consideration of their claim raises a number of considerations. To have come up with a new theory, or adapted an existing one, in the limited number of days since the rains began is indeed an impressive feat, and does, just about, fall within the bounds of credibility. To claim the theory as proven fact strays far beyond these bounds. Proof involves disproval of alternative possibilities, of which many have already been raised, not simply asserting that that ones own theorem fits the available observable data.

To be fair, the scientists in questions did not exactly make this claim, but were certainly in no great rush to correct the impression that a number of poorly informed, credulous presenters and interviewers gave in discussing their theory.

What we need more than ever is the rational debate that the greenies are so keen to deny us. Hysterical band wagon chasing by much of the media, some politicians, and a irresponsible segment of the scientific community does nothing to promote this.

The Problem with Conspiracy Theories

Well, in fact there are many problems with conspiracy theories, most often that they are complete b****ocks, but sadly they can often detract from very real and very interesting debates. I find the era of American politics around the Kennedy era absolutely fascinating, and I'm pretty sure some pretty unsavoury stuff went on, especially surrounding Vietnam and the American arms industry; the problem is that if you talk about it for more than five minutes Lee Harvey Oswald and assassination theories enter the discussion, stage left, and proceeds to dominate matters from thereon in.

Bringing things up to date a little, take a look at this:

Take away the masonic symbolism, the Bilderberg and New World Order stuff and you'd have a damn good Brown bashing video, but as it is, I just can't help cringing a little bit.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Thank God for Trading Standards

Simpsons Bank Note
Always check your change
Whatever would we do without these tireless campaigners for the consumer? According to Sky News there is a plague of novelty bank notes circulating, generally in North East England. According to Sky:

Trading standards officers say the notes look and feel like the real thing but the Queen's head has been substituted with a wide range of images.

They include England and Newcastle star Michael Owen, former Geordie hero Shearer, film actors and cartoon characters such as Bart and Homer Simpson.

Source: Sky News

But panic ye not, fearless officers from the local council are on the case of what one can only assume is yet another forgery operation by major organised crime bosses.

Council officers will swoop on more car boot sales in their hunt for fake notes.

Source: Sky News

Cover for a forgery racket
In the same spirit of public service, this blog is pleased to give a further public information bulletin. It has come to the author's attention that also on sale at car boot sales are often a number of items, which masquerade as board games as a cover for their true role as a distribution mechanism for thousands of pounds worth of fake cash. Caveat emptor indeed!