Friday, 28 March 2014

I am exactly as smart (and knowledgeable) as an atheist

Some years ago some wag put up a poster in the office: “Meetings, a practical alternative to work”. It struck a chord with me at the time. I was going through my middle-management phase, battling to avoid infection with buzzword mania.
It was then I learned the real meaning of jargon, from “blue sky thinking outside the box” upwards into higher realms of meaninglessness. It’s a form of language, forever mutating, that exists solely to make the thinking-impaired seem relatively able-minded.
All that, thank goodness, is happily behind me now. I am no longer responsible for anyone’s output but my own, which is an under-rated freedom. But I have discovered another alternative to work. One which probably wastes even more time, though I haven’t dared calculate quite how much.
It’s called Facebook.
No doubt Twitter, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Snapchat and whatever this week’s social network of choice may be are just as dangerous but I have managed so far to avoid their siren call. For me, Facebook is enough. My social life has become almost entirely virtual. Which does cut down the booze bill.
The reason it’s so addictive is that my friends all share such interesting ideas. Amid all the snaps of cute cats of daft dogs (I can mostly resist the former, the latter are harder).
And then there are the quizzes. I’ve been a sucker for quizzes ever since the time when I started setting one every week for the regulars in my local. (I had a real-world social life back then, nearly 30 years ago.)
I got 20 out of 20 this week on one that purported to test how well I’d do on University Challenge. Which probably says more about the setters than it does about me or the show. Actual TV competitors don’t have the luxury of either a multiple-choice format or limitless time to ponder their answers.
More revealingly, I clicked the other day on a link headed: “Are you smarter than an atheist?”
The answer to this could only be “no”. I am an atheist.
I am also, according to this test, considerably more knowledgeable about religion than most people who profess to believe. I scored 94 per cent.
In this it seems I am pretty typical, atheists being the “religious group” who do best in the test. That is, of course, only those atheists who are interested enough to try it.
But in one way this test too was revealing mostly about the people who set it.
There were some questions about Christianity that most Christians, apparently, get wrong – which must say something in itself.
There were easier ones about Islam, Judaism and ancient Greek mythology. But there were more about US law and about one particular madcap American cult – Mormonism.
Nothing at all about paganism, Sikhism, the Baha’i faith, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Taoism, Shinto, Candomblé, Rastafarianism or Voodoo.
Which reveals clearly enough the bias inherent in pretty well all religious thinking – not least the blinkered, ignorant and arrogant species prevalent in the god-fearing US of A.
I wrote here last week that I hoped Tony Benn and Bob Crow were not the last of their kind. And of course they weren’t.
One man who shares their warmth, humanity and principles – and has a better sense of humour – is the MP for Bolsover, Dennis Skinner. And, of course, he shares with them too the dubious honour of having been unfairly vilified by much of the national press throughout his career.
Now 82, Dennis is as sharp as ever and still one of the good guys.
In the wake of last week’s Budget, he drew attention to an advert emanating from Conservative Central Office that crowed: “Bingo! Cutting the bingo tax and beer duty – to help hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy”.
Could anything reveal more clearly or shamefully the patronising Tory attitude towards the people who actually do all the work? As Dennis asked: “What next? Tax breaks for whippets and flat caps?”
This question is going to sound like something from one of those irritating “personality quizzes” that used to reside in “lifestyle” magazines and now infest the internet. In this case, however, it’s a serious query, drawn from real life. Mine.
Your attention is distracted while you’re putting together the ingredients of a familiar, not to say routine, recipe for your daily bread. You can’t remember whether you’ve put in the correct two cups of water, or only one.
Do you:
a)      carry on as it is, risking ruining the loaf?
b)      put in another cup “just in case” – risking ruining the loaf?
c)      put in another half-cup, hoping it won’t be disastrous, but guaranteeing that it won’t be perfect?
And now a subsidiary question.
Having chosen option (c), you find your loaf turns out a bit better than usual, and you still don’t know whether it was over-watered or under-watered. So what do you do next time?

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

If only Tony Benn had been more influential

Bob Crow and Tony Benn in the space of four days – it’s been a sad week. It’s tempting to reach for the cliché that “we’ll never see like their again”, but I hope that isn’t true.
Still more fervently, I hope the principles both men lived their lives by come to seem less “maverick” and more the common pattern.
After 35 years of British politics dominated by unbridled cynicism, it would be nice to think that real concern for the common weal of real people might have its turn.
I never met either man personally, though I heard Benn speak more than once and was always enthused by him. His honesty, compassion, integrity, fundamental decency always shone through.
His death feels like the loss of a favourite uncle.
His former leader, then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, once said of Benn that he “immatures with age”. 
Apart from it being a nice instance of Wilson’s under-rated wit, it’s not quite clear how he intended the remark. I’d like to think it was meant kindly and, at least in part, as a compliment.
It’s certainly true that Benn retained into old age a capacity to get on with people of all ages and backgrounds. And that he continued to dream, never succumbing to the dreary “realism” of accepting capitalist greed.
He was, all who knew him well or slightly seem to agree, an extremely nice man. Which may not be the most effective quality in a politician.
At the height of his fame, Tony Benn was routinely ridiculed in the mainstream media – a fate he shared with most on his wing of the political argument.
The only better speaker I’ve ever heard was Neil Kinnock, a man as committed to the cause as Benn and probably a sharper intellect.
I remember hearing Kinnock in the 1980s give an absolutely brilliant 80-minute speech – without notes – to a trade union rally. Even as we stood to applaud at the end, I remarked to the person with me: “They’ll pick out 20 seconds for the news tonight that will make him sound like a pillock.” And of course they did.
Labour politicians have always had a rougher ride from most of the media than their Tory counterparts. And Kinnock, like Benn, was a throwback to an earlier age, when genuine oratory counted for more than the soundbite.
The shift from intelligent speech to sloganeering has arguably dumbed down politics, giving us a succession of empty vessels.
Benn was not empty. He was a thinker, and he cared.
He never forgot his mother’s advice that every political question was also a moral question.
And he never wavered in his belief that politics should be about the issues, not the personalities – ironically, coming from one of the great characters.
Though at various times I have disagreed with him – on Europe, on nuclear power, on Julian Assange, for instance – he could always argue his case. And he was not too big to change his mind, and admit that he’d changed it – on Europe and nuclear power, for instance.
One obituary, less glowing than most, described him as an “ineffectual” politician. If that’s so – and perhaps it is – it’s more damning of politics than of him.
Others described him as “highly influential”. If only.


The first time I heard Bob Crow on the radio I could hardly believe my ears.
Here was a trade union leader sticking up for his members, apparently effectively, and using the term “socialism” as if it wasn’t a dirty word.
It was almost as if Margaret Thatcher and her prolonged savage assault on the working people of Britain had never happened.
Inevitably, the right-wing press tried to portray him as a dangerous nutter, but he was neither of those things.
A good friend of mine met him at the annual union rally at Burston in September 2012.
When Crow began to speak, Paul’s young daughter was transfixed.
Paul recalls: “When he had finished she came up to me and asked, ‘Where can I find Bob Crow? I want to talk with him.'
“She scuttled off and after a few minutes I thought it best to try and find her. There, by the RMT stand, was my girl and Bob Crow, nurturing a well-deserved bottle of Bulmer’s, deep in conversation.
“Thinking he’d want to unwind at this point and not hear how my daughter had taken on the Brownies and refused to pledge allegiance to the Queen, I asked if everything was OK and he said ‘She’s fine’ and on they carried chatting. She was thrilled.
“It says a lot about the quality of a man and his sense of shared humanity that, with everything else going on at Burston, he had the time to listen to a little girl he had never met before.”
Bob Crow will be missed.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

GM, Ukraine... real life isn't as simple as a two-way choice

Reaction to my piece last week on genetically modified foods has been interestingly mixed.
Mostly the responses have come either from people who think GM is a threat to life as we know it, or those who declare themselves “all for it”.
Both points of view miss the essential thing I was trying to say. Which was that the term covers some very good things, some very bad, and some the jury is still out on.
This ought to be a pretty easy idea to grasp, even if it does leave room for a rather large grey area. But it seems people like to see every issue in simple black and white terms.
They are either “for” or “against” GM, in favour of immigration or passionately opposed, God-fearing or atheist, vegetarian or carnivorous.
Real grown-up life is more complex than that – but who wants real life when you can have the cartoon version?
People like to have heroes they can cheer and villains they can hiss. They don’t want characters, or situations, that demand more sophisticated analysis. Or which leave you harbouring honest unresolved doubts.
Take events currently unfolding in Ukraine – the gravest crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War, we’re told.
That description seems to me to under-estimate with hindsight the horrors and perils of the ethnic conflicts that tore the former Yugoslavia into seven parts in the 1990s. But of course we don’t know yet how the Ukraine story will unfold.
 To most people here, including all the major political parties and pretty much all of the media, Russia is the bad guy. With Vladimir Putin a conveniently preposterous cut-out villain.
And that must mean that the government of Ukraine – a government, remember, which came into being less than three weeks ago – are the goodies.
Nobody here seems to pause and consider that on this occasion Putin might actually have some justification for his actions.
To hear an American Secretary of State, or a British Foreign Minister, exclaiming in horror at one country “invading” another is frankly breathtaking. Can they not see how hypocritical that makes them sound to most of the world?
Since 1945, US forces have invaded a staggering 69 different countries, nearly always with Britain cheerleading on the sidelines. And it’s seldom been as bloodless as Putin’s incursion into Ukraine has been so far.
Of course, just because they’re hypocritical doesn’t make them wrong on this occasion.
Putin’s claim that he is defending the Russian-speaking majority in the Crimea does sound uncomfortably like the excuse used by Hitler for his invasions of Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. And there are chilling echoes too of the rumble of Soviet tanks into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia (again) in 1968.
But Ukraine as it now exists is an invented country – invented as a part of the old Soviet Union. When the Crimea was added to it in 1954, it was merely an administrative decision in Moscow. No one then could have imagined it would have any consequences 60 years down the line in a republic that had become independent.
Historically, Ukraine is part of Russia – its very name is Russian for Border-land – and its eastern region, largely Russian-speaking, has a long history of industrial importance for Russia.
Considering all this, it’s by no means clear that Russia is entirely the bad guy.
And it’s even less obvious that the new regime in Kiev is composed of good guys. It is, as they say, complicated.
The fall of bad leaders in Egypt and Libya in 2011 didn’t mean the new men were all good.
Our politicians and press were eager to pin sheriff’s stars on the rebels, though – especially in Libya, where Colonel Gaddafi was such a satisfying pantomime baddie.
There has been the same simplistic tendency over the ghastly situation in Syria. The fact that President al-Assad is a nasty piece of work doesn’t make all his opponents paragons of virtue or beacons of hope.
It’s not just more complicated than that, it’s tragically much, much more complicated.
Some of this, no doubt, you know. But the urge to allocate black hats and white hats, to simplify every story into one in which you can take sides, is irrepressible.
To be fair, a couple of readers were more nuanced in their reactions to my remarks on GM, and my support for the Norwich-created blight-resistant potato.
Matthew Caton drew my attention to a Welsh-bred, non-GM blight-resistant spud.
“I grew a variety called Sarpo Mira last year on my allotment,” he told me. “They are very nice indeed, as well as being very versatile.
Thank you, Matthew, I might try those.
Meanwhile, my brother Clive points out that I may have been too eager to simplify matters myself.
“One blight-resistant variety is just one new variety,” he says. “Unless it replaces every other variety, it’s not going to make much difference at all. And if it replaces every other variety, we’re into a different problem – loss of crop diversity.”
Like I said: real life is complex.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

GM: it's more complicated than just good or bad

Scientists working in a lab in Norwich have produced a potato that would have prevented the lethal famine that devastated Ireland in the 1840s.
More to the point, it could save modern farmers from having to spray their potato crop ten to 15 times a year with fungicide. Which would not only save time and money, but also significantly reduce chemical pollution.
As an added bonus, the new variety produces twice the yield of potatoes per plant.
Sounds like a win-win scenario. Except it isn’t.
And it isn’t for a reason that must have the researchers banging their heads against the wall.
It’s all down to two words: “genetically modified”. More specifically, it’s down to public perception of what those two words mean.
As usual when it comes to science, the public knows very little. And, as we do know, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Late potato blight destroys an awful lot of potatoes every year – £3.5billion worth worldwide. So you’d think farmers would be falling over themselves to plant the resistant variety developed at the Sainsbury Laboratory.
They probably would be if European regulations didn’t ban genetically modified crops.
The new potato isn’t exactly Franken-food, though.
Over three years, Jonathan Jones and his team have isolated a gene from a South American potato that makes it resistant to blight, and introduced it to their British Desiree potato.
It isn’t, in principle, any different from the processes that brought potatoes to this side of the Atlantic in the first place. Or produced all the varieties we know now, including the Desiree.
It’s just that the technique is quicker, more targeted, more accurate at doing what’s needed and nothing else.
As Professor Jones says: “Breeding from wild relatives is laborious and slow and by the time a gene is successfully introduced into a cultivated variety, the late blight pathogen may already have evolved the ability to overcome it.
“With new insights into both the pathogen and its potato host, we can use GM technology to tip the evolutionary balance in favour of potatoes and against late blight.”
Europe’s antagonism to GM means British farmers will be denied the opportunity to save the £72m per year they spend on anti-blight pesticides. While the potato created in Norwich will be cashed in on by a company in Idaho.
It’s a crazy outcome of an essentially well-meaning set of regulations.
There are genuine reasons for distrusting some kinds of genetic modification.
It’s not, as some people seem to believe, that GM foods are somehow “bad for you”. They aren’t.
Fears that GM crops might contaminate nearby traditional crops by cross-pollination have more basis in reality, though they are wildly exaggerated.
The biggest genuine reason for concern is about who owns the technology and what they want to use it for.
When a multi-national corporation tells you its concern is for people’s welfare, you know what it really cares about is profit. When it produces a “super-crop” that is super only because it needs a constant supply of the same corporation’s chemicals, you know it’s on a winner – and the poor farmer’s on a loser.
The idea that a company like the American giant Monsanto could effectively control the world market in grain, for example, is terrifying.
These are the things that have made GM a bad word.
They have as little in common with the Sainsbury Lab’s blight-free potato as your pedal-bike has with MotoGP champion Marc Márquez’s 1,000cc, 214mph Honda.
The fact that opposition to one prevents use of the other is just one more reason to curse companies like Monsanto.
And the public (and official) ignorance that can’t tell one type of bike (or GM) from another.


Eve Muirhead, she of the intense blue-eyed stare, said winning Olympic curling bronze was “extra special” because it was for Team GB. She seems to have been expressing a view that’s widely held north of the border.
But I don’t think the outcome of the independence referendum is a foregone conclusion yet.
If anyone can persuade the Scots to vote to get out of the United Kingdom, it’s David Cameron.
Telling them their country (population 5.3million) is too small to profit from the oil off their shores was a shotgun blast through his own foot. Unless privately he really wants them to go their own way, leaving England as a Tory stronghold.
Would that be too small like Norway, whose 5.1m people have profited far more from their own North Sea oil bonanza than we have?
Like Qatar, whose 2m registered citizens are the richest in the world per capita, thanks to oil?
Or like Brunei (population less than twice that of Norwich), whose oil has made it the fifth richest country in the world?
If I lived in Scotland I reckon I’d vote to be freed from the oily moguls of Westminster.