Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Flood warning: politics is too shallow not to be overwhelmed

Ed Miliband is right: climate change and its effects are far, far too important to be left to the petty vagaries of party politics.
Never mind that the policies – or near non-policies – of the present government are following the disastrously negligent path taken by his own party when in power. The vital thing now is to learn from and avoid past mistakes, not to waste time in laying blame.
No party, no politician, can expect to govern for long enough to take the long view. Which leaves us with a succession of short-term tactics and no longer-term strategy.
Governments give all their attention to relatively unimportant things like money and fail to plan for such serious matters as rising sea levels or changing weather patterns.
If the present floods have taken them by surprise, they have no excuse for that. No previous generation has ever been so well informed by science.
The unpredictably of the weather was predicted, in some detail, years – no, decades – ago. But the politicians weren’t listening. They stuck their fingers in their ears because they didn’t know what to do.
Or rather, they did, because the experts were telling them – but they didn’t want to know because it was all too big, too difficult. Especially for people whose careers weren’t going to last that long. Especially if they took decisions that would be unpopular – in the short term.
My own profession hasn’t helped. Much of the press still keeps finding the odd crank to set up against the 95 per cent plus of rational scientists and pretending that is “balance”.
The reality is that there aren’t always two sides to every question. Sometimes one answer – such as that still being peddled by the climate-change “deniers” – is just plain wrong.
Perhaps the present flooding in southern Britain, the severe cold in North America, increasing episodes of “freak” weather everywhere, will make the head-in-the-sand brigade think again. Or perhaps not.
In the meantime, even if halting or reversing climate change is too big and hard – certainly for one government, or one country – can we at least do something to mitigate the effects of the next inevitable drenching winter?
Like not concreting over fields and gardens, ripping out trees and hedges, failing to maintain ditches, continuing to build homes on flood plains, and all the rest of it.
It’s not as if we weren’t warned, long ago, where all this behaviour would lead us.  
I’ve never enjoyed a Winter Olympics this much before. But then, no Olympics before has included the slopestyle events.
And somehow I’ve never cottoned on before to the astonishing spectacle of aerodynamics that is the snowboard halfpipe.
Snowboarding may be a young sport for young people – surely nobody as old as me has ever ridden a board in contest – but the sheer exuberance of the competitors has been as enthralling as the skill with which they fly through the air nonchalantly performing near-impossible feats.
It wasn’t just the novelty value of a British winter medal that made Jenny Jones’s bronze-winning run in the snowboard slopestyle an occasion for joy. Her performance was a joy to watch – and so was her response, not just to her own medal but also to the gold-winning display of her friend and rival, the American Jamie Anderson.
That camaraderie between opponents, the obvious pleasure they have taken in each others’ achievements, has been one of the delightful aspects of the whole snow show.
In stark contrast to the exponents of certain other sports – mostly better-paid ones – these have looked like people it would be pleasant to know.
The intelligence, good sense and sheer niceness of Lizzy Yarnold, the gold-winning British skeleton racer, have been remarkable, but not exceptional. She will surely succeed admirably in her stated intention of being a role model for young girls, but she is not alone in that.
As for those glorious show-offs of the halfpipe – if I was 40-odd years younger I’d be inspired.
If not, perhaps, to try physical feats that would always have been far beyond me, but maybe by their sheer style. Are there, after all, any cooler dudes on the planet – except maybe the slopestyle skiers?
The Swedish skier Henrik Harlaut may have suffered the fate risked daily by teenage boys everywhere when his low-slung trousers slipped far enough to topple him on his face. But his style in the air, blond dreadlocks flowing from his helmet in every direction, was glorious.
The commentators on these events, un-BBC-ish as they are, have added ripely to my enjoyment of the past 10 days. Without their guidance, I might not have known how unlucky Harlaut was to be judged just outside the medal places.
Even from the comfort of my sofa, I found literally breathtaking his chutzpah in attempting – and bringing off – tricks whose very names were new to me. Nose butter triple cork 1620, anyone?
At risk of inducing cringes among those young and cool enough to have known before last week the meaning of such terms as truck-driver grab, pretzel 180 and switch triple rodeo, I’d say these Games have well and truly stomped it.
  • Postscript: the curling has been unexpectedly riveting too...

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

How we could do with a Thomas Paine right now

He has a statue and a hotel named after him in the town where he was born, but how many Thetford people really know who Thomas Paine was? It’s a question a few of those who do know have been asking, with some justification.
And it’s not just in Thetford that the author of The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason is less well known than he should be.
A dozen years ago, in a poll run by the BBC, Paine was placed 34th in a list of the 100 “greatest Britons”. Just above him were a so-so footballer, David Beckham, and a slightly better than so-so comedian, Eric Morecambe, which says everything about how seriously that poll should be taken.
Of course, it’s impossible to name the greatest Briton with anything resembling scientific objectivity. But if it could be done, Paine would be a contender for the title, alongside Shakespeare, Darwin and Newton.
In its day (it was published in 1791), The Rights of Man was a million-seller, probably the most widely read book in the world after the Bible and Koran.
Paine can’t really be said to be responsible for either the American or French revolutions, but he provided the intellectual justification for them.
And since it’s hard to imagine Karl Marx without the giant shoulders of Paine for him to stand on, you might say he had a big hand in the Russian revolution too.
Not that Paine (or Marx) should be blamed for all the horrors the revolutions wrought. His concern was always to make life better for the common man (and woman).
His writing, and his thinking, were clearer than Marx’s too.
Broadly speaking, he was against monarchy and for democracy. Against the private ownership of land. For factory workers and against factory owners. Against capital punishment (which he twice came close to suffering himself). For liberty, equality and fraternity.
His ideas made him popular, and then unpopular, in both America and France, in both of which countries he became an honorary citizen.
His claim of American nationality almost certainly saved him from execution in England as a traitor for his polemic against the “tyranny” of George III – and for encouraging the idea of a French invasion to spread the revolution.
By the time the invasion came close to reality, France was under the rule of Napoleon – a tyrant Paine regarded, rightly, as a traitor to the revolution. (Much as Stalin would be to the Russian revolution, but that is another story.)
Understandably unpopular with the ruling and property-owning classes, Paine – the son of a corsetmaker and educated at Thetford Grammar School – was never a traitor to the working class of this or any country.
The fact that he eventually fell out of favour in America, whose independence he had done so much to encourage, was largely due to his opposition to two things the new Americans held dear – slavery and religion.
Not that Paine was non-religious. He believed in God, just not in church.
“All national institutions of churches,” he wrote, “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.” And amen, say I, to that.
Once one of the most popular men in America and the friend of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, he had just six mourners at his funeral in New York in 1809.
Back in 1776, one of Paine’s American opponents, James Chalmers, had argued that if the colony rejected the British monarchy, the country would “degenerate into democracy”. It would take the clear thinking of a Thomas Paine to untangle all the ironies in that.
Knocking down the Mail (can’t really call it Royal any more) at a fraction of its real value. Piecemeal privatising, de-professionalising and de-skilling of teaching. Is there anything this tawdry government won’t sell?
Now there is talk that the next vital thing to go under the hammer could be access to NHS care records.
Had a drug problem? A sexually transmitted disease? A mental health issue? An abortion? Heart trouble? Cancer? Until now, these things were private matters between you and your GP.
But soon private companies may be able to buy all this information from the new universal patient database.
What they get shouldn’t include your name and address (though NHS staff can already put it all together with a few clicks of a mouse). But it will all be linked to your postcode, gender and ethnicity, so a little automated cross-checking against other databases could make it very personal indeed.
You can imagine how insurance companies might take advantage of such knowledge. And how that might work in a future where health care is increasingly placed in private hands.
Well, it works in America, doesn’t it?
Does it?
Before you settle happily for an increasingly Americanised, post-NHS future, just consider these figures:
  • 62 per cent of US bankruptcies are the result of medical bills
  • 75 pc of those bankrupted had health insurance before they became sick.
They say you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Let’s hope against hope that doesn’t come to apply any time soon to the National Health.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Lots of local lovelies just dying to meet me... (it says here)

It’s not all cute kitties and phone-snaps of people’s dinners, though you do have to tune those things out – posted by some intelligent people too.
In fact, though I undoubtedly spend (waste) too much time on it, Facebook has been good to me. How good it is depends, I suppose, on the quality of your friends.
Mine have introduced me to some worthwhile ideas, good writing and good music, and invited me to events I might not have known about. Through it I’ve met up again with old friends from years ago – some of them in the real world too.
Facebook is, like life, what you make of it. And, to an uncontrollable and often unknown degree, what other people make of it for you.
I knew, of course, that those irritating little ads that pop up down the side of your page were cleverly (or not so cleverly) targeted. What I didn’t know was that the targetting is based not just on your own details and online behaviour, but also on that of your friends.
I assumed it was just my age and gender that led to the nature of “personal” ads I received.
The claims that “Suzy” just “liked” my page. No, she didn’t. And if she did, she doesn’t look like that.
The promise that there are “lots of over-50 women” just dying to meet me. Or alternatively that “my area” is full of young lovelies desperate to get their hands on an older guy.
Now I’m wondering which of my friends opened the virtual door that let this stuff in to my page.
Whoever it was may merely have succumbed to a moment’s idle curiosity. As I did myself the other day – or shall I say it was done in the spirit of journalistic research?
Either way, I clicked. Just one click on a tiny picture of an alluring smile.
Had I ever really fancied, or believed, that stuff about “girls in your area”, I’d have been disappointed to discover that my area, in this case, seemed to be somewhere in the Far East.
Which makes the tantalising statement (or, rather, “warning”) that follows particularly hard to believe. “This site” (it says) “contains explicit pictures of someone you know.” Yeah, right.
Brief chuckle, close down browser window and that’s that. Except it isn’t.
Now, to my surprise – I thought Facebook had a bit more class – the ads have changed. The women in the little pictures appear to have lost their clothes.
Quite how these ads get past Facebook’s much-trumpeted anti-nudity algorithms, I’m not sure.
Where my home page used to be brightened by cheerful, pretty faces it is now sullied with body parts of the kind most people prefer to keep private. Much less appealing somehow, even if more honest about what they’re selling.
Well, they’re not selling it to me. A little later, after a trawl through my settings, I have found how to specify my preferences more clearly.
Sadly there seems to be no setting that eliminates advertising altogether. But I have passed up my “chance to Chat w/ Sexxy”.
Now I just have to find a way to get rid of ads for pension calculators, life insurance, disability aids and old people’s holidays. Just because I don’t want a life of unmitigated sexual adventure doesn’t mean I’m ready for incontinence pads or a stair-lift. Not just yet.


The twitterati of America appears to have broken into a froth of semi-informed wrath over an article that appeared in the New York Times. An article which, for legal reasons, could not have appeared in a British paper.
The piece in question was an accusation by Dylan Farrow, stepdaughter of the film director Woody Allen, that he sexually abused her when she was seven.
After 20 years there is no way of proving or disproving the allegation. It’s her word against his. Which makes it very strange to see people leaping to take sides.
Either he’s a liar and a pervert, or she’s a liar and a vindictive fantasist – or so most of the outraged seem to assume. There is a third possibility – that she is not lying, but mistaken.
There are various reasons why she might be. Such as, for example, the theory advanced by Allen’s lawyer, that for most of her life she has been “poisoned” against Allen by her mother, Mia Farrow.
For what it’s worth, this third possibility is the one I’m most inclined to believe. But what it’s worth isn’t very much. Because – just like all those people rushing eagerly and angrily either to condemn Allen or defend him – I simply don’t have enough evidence to base an opinion on.
Do you believe him, because he’s famous (and a man)? Or her, because you’re predisposed in favour of self-proclaimed victims (and she’s a woman)?
About the only sensible comment I’ve seen on the matter was that of the actor Alec Baldwin.
Responding on Twitter to one of the many side-takers, he said: “So you know who’s guilty? Who’s lying? You, personally, know that? You are mistaken if you think there is a place for me, or any outsider, in this family’s issue.”
Let’s leave it there.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Ethical eating and the law of unintended consequences

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do for the best. We all want to be good people – let’s imagine, anyway – but it’s not always easy to know how.
The law of unintended consequences can get the best of us in a tangle. And globalisation has made it worse, knotting complication up with complexity.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had it easy (well, in some ways). If you could hunt it or gather it, you ate it.
But air freight and the global market have increased our choices bewilderingly. And with choice comes moral responsibility. Which wouldn’t be so bad if we always knew what effects our choices would have.
Take quinoa, the “miracle grain” which first came to my notice about a decade ago and has since become a staple of vegetarian diets and wholefood restaurants.
Even knowing how to pronounce it properly (it’s “keen-wah”, not “quin-oh-a”) is a mark of a certain kind of middle-class outlook.
For those who like it (I’m not a great fan), it’s more than just an alternative to rice, apparently providing vegetarians with some of the essential nutrients others get from meat.
But here’s the rub. The rising popularity of quinoa in affluent Europe and North America has reportedly sent the price rocketing. Meaning poor people in Bolivia and Peru, where it grows, can no longer afford what used to be their staple diet.
People who used to live on healthy local quinoa are now forced to eat cheaper junk food, probably imported from the very countries that are buying the quinoa.
A typical example, surely, of the way even well-meaning people in rich countries oppress the poor elsewhere. And, incidentally, global madness on the air-miles, carbon-footprint front.
So, having acquired a taste for quinoa we should give it up again, right? Well, maybe not.
High prices may be bad news for people who buy quinoa – but they are good news for the farmers who grow it. And who, incidentally, live off it themselves too.
Some import-export companies no doubt exploit the growers, creaming off the increased profit themselves. It happens everywhere – you might almost call it the supermarket principle.
But buy quinoa from an honourable source – a certified Fair Trade company, for example – and you are helping to support farmers in an area of the high Andes where life is tough and not much else will grow.
The people worst hit by the rising price are poor town and city dwellers. They are very likely former country and village people – and the extra profit in quinoa grown for export may lure some of them back to their old homes.
So the moral question – should I or shouldn’t I buy quinoa? – is not so simply answered after all.
And a further complication is added by a recent initiative taken by the Bolivian government.
They have added quinoa to subsidies for new mothers and to the daily breakfast provided to schoolchildren. (Now there’s an idea that might seem strange in post-Thatcher Britain.) Improving the diet of kids and mums and simultaneously supporting the economy of the rural Andes.
So by picking up that pack in the wholefood shop, are you taking food out of the mouths of those mothers and children, or helping the mountain people? Answers on a postage stamp, please.


I was in a supermarket checkout queue, many years ago, when the little old lady in front of me suddenly keeled over. It was a long, slow queue and we’d been standing waiting for quite a while.
But there was more to it than that. As she fell, her hat came off – and out from under it a frozen chicken went rolling across the floor.
I was reminded of this funny-but-sad episode when I read a news item the other day headed: “Rise in female shoplifters linked to benefit cuts”.
Vera Baird, the Northumbria police and crime commissioner, said: “There is an increase in the theft of food, and an increase in first-time women offenders. It is not about increasing moral depravity. It is about people who feel under real pressure.”
The Durham commissioner, Ron Hogg, said people were “stealing food just to live”.
Which may or may not have been the case with the man charged last week under the 190-year-old Vagrancy Act with “stealing” food from a skip at the back of an Iceland store in London.
How you can steal something that’s already been thrown away, I’m not sure. Top marks to Iceland for persuading the Crown Prosecution Service to drop the case.
The mere fact that the police ever thought it worth pursuing casts another disturbing light on the scandal of junked food. And on the hunger that drives people to steal.
Some “economic recovery”. Some things you just can’t keep under your hat.