Thursday, 30 January 2014

Entropy, entropy, they've all got it entropy

You want to complain? I want to complain!
Oh no, you might think, Semmens is off again. So what’s new?
Well, there’s a lot in this world to complain about. Just keeping up with the misdeeds of Her Majesty’s Government would take more than one page a week to register due protest.
But I’m taking on a bigger opponent this week. Entropy.
Pedantic scientists (my brother, for instance) may wish to complain that I’m using the word loosely. There are very specific definitions of entropy that relate to cosmology, information theory and the second law of thermodynamics. But my dictionary also allows: “Entropy is often used loosely to refer to the breakdown or disorganization of any system.”
Or, to put it another way: Things fall apart.
It could be argued that without entropy there would be nothing as complex – or disorganised – as human beings on earth. Or life of any kind. Or, come to that, an earth.
But it can also feel as if life – my life, anyway, and no doubt yours – is a constant battle against entropy.
Fortunately, though, the breakdowns in order don’t always follow quite so hard on each other’s heels as they have just lately.
Individually, the various misfortunes might seem trivial. Collectively, they could irk a person less even-tempered than me.
First our apple tree blew down. Then the garden fence went the same way. Then a shelf started coming off the wall.
It was less than five minutes after the garage door collapsed that my mobile phone started flashing meaningless patterns, emitted an anguished squeak and closed itself down. Apparently permanently.
I’m not one of those folk whose mobiles seem to have become surgically embedded, necessary to their functioning. I use mine for text messages and very occasional phone calls.
But I have also been relying on it as a timepiece since my watch gave up the ghost. So if I have to do without a phone for long I may end up missing a few trains.
And also – who knows? – the long-awaited call from the plumber to say he’s ready to come over and fix the central heating.
As for the garage door, I probably won’t get it fixed until the leaking roof has been mended. (Leak? It’s more like Niagara).
But it’s OK – who needs a garage when they’ve just sold the car for slightly less than it would have cost to have it repaired?


There’s a theory, much favoured by a certain brand of economist, known as the “trickle down” effect. It says we should be glad when people make a lot of money, because some of it will trickle down to the rest of us.
So what are we to make of the revelation that the world’s 85 richest people have as much wealth between them as the poorest 3.5 billion people?
That is, a group who would fill just one railway carriage (if they could somehow be persuaded to travel second – sorry, “standard” – class) are as rich as half the world’s population put together.
Or that the richest one per cent own 65 times as much as the poorest 50pc?
Some trickle-down, eh?
Truth is that with just a few honourable exceptions, the term “economist” is shorthand for propagandist for capitalism.
And that the trickle down effect is a fantasy, a thinly veiled excuse for greed.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Why do we keep on hearing about a housing shortage?

My friend Chris was pondering the other day. “Given there’s a housing crisis,” he said, “why are so very many houses empty?”
I don’t think he was just talking about Cromer, where he lives, though no doubt there are a lot of houses standing unused there most of the time.
All over East Anglia – anywhere well-off Londoners like to “get away from it all” – there are perfectly good homes standing empty for all but a few weekends each year. And local people desperate for somewhere they can afford to live.
One family’s weekend retreat is another family’s homelessness. But the big picture is about a lot more than second homes.
According to government statistics, last year saw more empty homes put back into use than ever before. The official total number of long-term empty homes in England was down in October to its lowest ever figure.
But that still leaves 222,428 properties that could provide roofs over heads and aren’t.
Those are not weekend cottages – they are homes that have been officially unoccupied for more than six months. A totally wasted resource.
So why do we keep on hearing about a housing shortage?
Could it be because the big building firms have a powerful lobby – or is that just me being cynical?
Is it because all those empty homes aren’t in the places people want to live, or where the jobs are?
Is it, as someone suggested, that there are a lot of empty flats above shops whose owners can’t be bothered with the hassle of letting them out?
No doubt there is some truth in all of those points.
But the real trouble lies in the madness of the housing market.
The fact that for so long we have been encouraged to consider our homes not just as somewhere to live, but as investments.
This attitude – and the whole mortgage industry that has encouraged it and propped it up – has caused the cost of housing to rise and rise way, way beyond the level of inflation, or wages.
Way beyond the ability of many people to pay.
Those of us lucky enough to have “got onto the ladder” while we could still afford to do so have mostly fallen for it. To the extent that when house prices fall, we’re encouraged by most of the media to consider this a bad thing.
Which, if you’re one of those poor folk looking for a place to call home, it surely isn’t.
In one bizarre spell in my life, a house I owned for five years gained more “value” than my total earnings over the same period from my full-time job. Or so an over-optimistic estate agent would have had me believe.
No wonder some owners find it pays to keep their properties empty, simply accruing value.
You might think prices can’t just keep going up and up indefinitely. And it’s true that in many areas of the country people have lost a lot of money on homes bought before 2008.
To judge from the sales of similar properties nearby, my own home in East Anglia is worth about the same today as I paid for it in 2005.
Yet still the analysts talk about “growth picking up”.
Good news, I suppose, if you’re a property-owner. Not so good if you’re hoping to buy.
Especially – whichever way you look at it – in London.
In this sense, as in many others, the capital is becoming like a different country.
London is where the recovery that politicians and economists have started talking about is actually happening. London, of course, is where the politicians and economists all hang out.
And London is where it’s hardest of all to put a roof over your head if you’re not a member of the moneyed classes.
Average house prices in England rose by 7.1 per cent last year. That figure is grossly inflated by London, where they were up by 14.9pc. (East Anglia’s 7.4pc average rise was close to the national norm.)
Meanwhile, a report by London Assembly member Tom Copley, “From Right to Buy to Buy to Let”, highlights a key element of the whole problem.
Housing in Britain has been in an ever-deepening mess ever since 1980, when Margaret Thatcher launched her Right to Buy policy.
The flog-off of the nation’s council housing stock was supposedly meant to enable people to own their own homes. What has actually happened is quite different.
Of all the homes in London sold under Right to Buy rules, 36 per cent are now let by private landlords. Which means higher rents, often subsidised through housing benefit.
What it adds up to is 30 years of government hand-outs to private landlords.
And if that wasn’t crazy enough, rules about managing homelessness force councils to rent back – at “market” (ie inflated) prices – homes they used to own.
David Cameron’s cheap imitation policy, “Help to Buy”, may be less disastrous than the scheme it’s named after, but it can’t help. All it does is inflate an already inflated market a little further.
It’s all madness – to put the kindest interpretation on it.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

We're all doomed, one way or another

Oh good, just what we needed – another Doomsday scenario. Another way we might all suddenly be wiped out.
Geo-scientists studying supervolcanoes such as the enormous lake of lava under America’s Yellowstone national park have found they don’t need any trigger to make them erupt – they can just do it themselves. Any time.
Should the magma burst through at Yellowstone, the resulting ash and sulphur cloud could wipe out harvests around the world for years.
Those of us not poisoned by sulphur or frozen to death by the blocking out of the sun could expect to starve. The lucky ones would be those instantly buried under a mountain of ash said to be “enough to bury Greater London to a depth of a kilometre”.
The somewhat better news is that although there are about 20 known supervolcanoes, such eruptions occur on average only once every 100,000 years. Which makes the chance of it happening in our lifetimes pretty small.
A lot smaller than, say, the prospect of global war triggered by climate change. Or nuclear catastrophe.
Or any of the several ways humankind might literally or figuratively bomb itself back to the Stone Age.
One of these things will happen. Species don’t survive forever. A species so rapacious, so rapidly changing, developing – and spreading – as humans is unlikely to survive as long as some others.
I know I won’t be around to care, but I can’t help hoping that when we die out – or, as is more likely, die back to a small, primitive population – we don’t take too many other species with us.
Life is tenacious. While America and Canada shiver under the picturesque deep freeze caused by the shifting of the polar vortex, I can’t help wondering how the wild things are coping. Or not.
Here, the long spell of soaking, mild weather appears to have brought an early spring – and some unusual visitors to my garden.
While I was writing this my attention was drawn by an unfamiliar call outside my window, and I looked up in time to see this female great spotted woodpecker fly from my windowsill to the feeder a few yards away.
Then, lying awake last night, I heard the strange and distinctive sound of a muntjac barking somewhere near.
This used to be a regular occurrence until two years ago, when the council cleared a patch of scrubland nearby, grassing over what had been a dense bramble patch. The night after the clearance, I heard a muntjac’s cries all night – then nothing. Until now.
I know not everyone (especially keen gardeners) would be pleased to have muntjacs visiting. I, though, am always heartened to see or hear wild creatures around us.
And the fact that the muntjac isn’t “native British”, but escaped after being brought here only in 1925, is no reason to consider it any less kindly than other creatures.
How will they fare with the demise of humankind? Assuming, that is, they’re still around themselves by then – which so many species will not be.
In one way, the next supervolcano eruption will be rather like humanity. Responsible for a wave of extinctions.
The experts studying them believe they are now nearer to being able to predict when one is about to blow. They also make it pretty clear, however, that when it happens there will be nothing anyone can do about it.
Which I’d have thought makes any warning system fairly meaningless.
Rather like the old four-minute warning we were supposed to get of the Cold War suddenly hotting up into nuclear armageddon. What on earth was the point of that?


I got a lot of reaction – most of it positive – to what one dissenter called my rant last week criticising education secretary Michael Gove’s reactionary policies.
The strangest response, from a couple of people, was the suggestion that Gove should be applauded because at least he was “doing something”.
I can’t see why anyone should be applauded for doing precisely the wrong things.
The government was trying to “do something” with its “injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance”, which the House of Lords has quite rightly roundly rejected.
The proposed measure would place potential lifetime orders on people deemed guilty of “conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person”.
Deemed, that is, not by a court, but simply by the police, the local council or even private security firms.
It would effectively make illegal anything that anybody might find offensive – i.e. everything.
It would turn Britain into the police state it already in many ways resembles. With private police.
Thank heavens, then, for the collective wisdom of the Lords.
But what does it say about our democracy that our most useful and responsible representatives are the unelected ones?

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Your country needs you, Harry Patch, on its coinage

Still the first week of January, and already we have controversy over the way the outbreak of the Great War will be commemorated in the year of its centenary.
The decision to feature Lord Kitchener on the new £2 coins is one insult to the millions he urged to their deaths.
Before becoming the war’s most famous poster-boy, Kitchener was associated with a savage campaign of massacre and looting in Sudan and the establishment of concentration camps in South Africa.
Michael Gove would object to that assessment, but the evidence is there to label Kitchener a murderer on a dizzying scale.
Meanwhile, Gove is once again attempting to rewrite history. To spin the facts to fit his peculiar, outdated, discredited, jingoistic, nationalist worldview.
This is Gove on 1914: “Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage… the war was seen by its participants as a noble cause.”
So let’s hear from one of those participants. A man who, unlike Gove, knew what he was talking about. And, incidentally, expressed himself much more clearly.
Before his death at 111 in 2009, Harry Patch was “the last fighting Tommy” – the last survivor of the 1914-18 trenches. Unlike Gove, he knew what war was.
“It’s a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak?
“All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?
“The politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves.”
Patriotism, as Harry Patch knew only too well, is not a virtue, but (even Gove should know the quotation) the last refuge of a scoundrel.
Or, at best, the common delusion that led to two world wars and a great many of the troubles that still afflict the world today.
Perhaps, instead of the brutal Kitchener, we should have an image of the gentle Harry Patch on our coins.


Someone asked me over lunch the other day: “What has Michael Gove done wrong?”
I was unable for three reasons to give a full reasoned answer to this.
Reason one: I didn’t want to spoil a convivial festive occasion.
Reason two: I was so taken aback I didn’t know where to start.
Reason three: There wasn’t time then, and there isn’t space here, to list the full catalogue of his arrogant meddling with the education system.
I’m not an expert. I do know enough, however, to know that the little I know about teachers’ honest goals and difficulties is more than Gove has troubled himself to learn. There is no one more ignorant than he who believes he already knows it all.
Ignorance of their brief is, of course, a tradition among government ministers (just think of Jim Hacker in “Yes, Minister”). The truly catastrophic ones are those who combine zealotry with an unawareness of their own depths of unknowing. That’s Gove to a T.
“So what,” I was asked, “should Gove do?”
To which at least part of the answer was easy. He should seek – and take seriously – the advice of the people who actually do know what they’re talking about. Which in his case means teachers.
Of course, Gove doesn’t like teachers because so few of them actually vote for him or his party. One result of his policies, however, is to make those few fewer. Which perhaps ought to give him and his Conservative colleagues pause for thought.
A survey published this week suggests Gove may be more unpopular with teachers than any previous education minister. Which is some going.
To put some flesh on that:
  • 74 per cent of teachers say their morale has declined since the coalition took power;
  • 52pc say they are less likely to stay in the profession as a result of changes to their pay and pensions, and 57pc are less likely to stay as a result of changes to their conditions;
  • 69pc of teachers – and 81pc of headteachers – said Gove’s reforms had not done at all what they were supposedly intended to do, “empower teachers”.
And, in what amounts to a condemnation more of his government colleagues than of Gove himself: 49pc of teachers report malnutrition or hunger affecting the ability of pupils to concentrate. Which might be what you’d expect in sub-Saharan Africa, but is a truly shocking statistic in what is still one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
The survey, and the figures, come from the biggest teaching union, the National Union of Teachers. The people, that is, who know. Unlike Gove.
The NUT says: “It was in the 1980s and 1990s that we last saw policies like Michael Gove’s.
“Education was underfunded, schools were run down, and teachers were vilified and in short supply. We have come so far since then. It will be a tragedy if Gove is allowed to turn the clock back.
“Unfortunately he is not prepared to just stop there. This is a giant experiment in deregulating education, putting our children’s future at risk.”
I couldn’t put it any better than that.