Sunday, 27 April 2014

Gozo would be a birds' paradise but for all the guns

It wasn’t quite like waking up in a war zone; more like discovering you’ve booked your holiday cottage next door to the OK Corral. Except that the famous shoot-out there is only reckoned to have lasted about a minute.
The guidebooks warn that hikers and birdwatchers on Gozo can come into conflict with locals during the hunting season. You should be OK, they say, in the spring.
Well, perhaps it was the intensely Catholic Gozitans’ way of celebrating Easter week, but my few days on their sunny island certainly didn’t seem like the off-season for taking pot-shots at anything with wings and a beak. The sound of gunfire provided every morning’s wake-up call. And then some.
According to Gozo’s tourist board, the season ended on January 31 – not that it admits on its website that anything as off-putting as bird-slaughter ever takes place there at all.
An article from the local paper, the Malta Independent, rather quaintly ascribes the year-round noise to “an ingenious contraption aimed at scaring birds away from crops”. Yeah, right.
Living in rural East Anglia, I’m not unfamiliar with bird-scaring cannons. I know what they sound like, and I know what they look like.
In a few days of walking around the terraced fields, fragrant hillsides and flower-covered clifftops of Gozo I saw no sign of a single cannon. What I did see everywhere were the small stone shelters used by the hunters, many equipped with old car seats for the killers’ comfort.
I saw many small stands of non-native eucalyptus trees, apparently planted to assist in luring and trapping migrating birds on the vital stopover between north Africa and southern Europe. And a couple of times I heard what I took to be birdsong before realising it was too mechanically repetitive to be anything but another lure.
There are wild birds to be seen on Gozo – mostly pigeons and sparrows, though I did spy one swallow and a solitary buzzard which had somehow evaded the gunsights.
But as I made my way through that idyllic landscape I couldn’t help thinking what a paradise it would be for our feathered friends if it weren’t for that deadly cocktail of testosterone and gunpowder running through local veins.
Not, of course, that everyone in Gozo – or the larger, much more heavily populated island of Malta, from where it is governed – is gun-crazy.
The tiny country’s economy is almost entirely dependent on tourism, and many of the people must be acutely aware of how important its image in the world is to that. Some of them must also know that its gunmen take a devastating toll on Europe’s birdlife, and in the process do untold damage to that image too.
One Gozo resident told me that the hunters and their keenest supporters make up only about four per cent of the population – but that they hold the balance of power between the main political parties, who dare not antagonise them.
That makes the situation horribly like that in the USA, where the unspeakable National Rifle Association seems to wield a deadly power over the whole nation.
And where the legend of the OK Corral is just part of a powerful tradition of pro-gun myth-making propaganda.
Don’t let my account of the perils faced by its birds put you off: Gozo is lovely.
It’s not as wild and deserted as I’d been led to believe. In one way it’s like Norfolk-on-Med – though a very much smaller Norfolk (one 79th the area and one 27th the population).
Almost nowhere in the island’s 26 square miles are you out of sight of the next village, the next church.
One of those villages, Xewkija, has a population of 3,000 and a church with a dome that ranks third in size only to St Peter’s in Rome and St Paul’s in London. It’s visible from almost everywhere in Gozo and could probably fit the whole village inside.
And while Norfolk’s churches are mostly medieval, this one was finished in 1971. All over Gozo are buildings constructed in the local stone and the traditional style but bearing dates within the last 30 years.
Space and wilderness are relative, though. Gozo is much quieter and calmer than its frenetic neighbour, the main island of Malta.
Its pleasures and simplicity are enough to have tempted the Norfolk bor I went there to visit to make it his permanent home.
Remarkably, he is funding his new life on the difference between the rent he can get for his house in Bungay and what he must pay for a small apartment in Gozo. His needs are few and as long as he stays fit – and the economic balance remains as it is – he’s a drain on neither country’s welfare system.
The biggest threat to his idyll is that Britain might, as he puts it, “take leave of its senses” and pull out of the European Union.
That could end his right to live where he has chosen. A fate that might be shared by all of the 1.8million Britons currently living in Europe.
That total, coincidentally, almost exactly matches the number of non-British EU citizens resident in Britain.
And shows what pointless chaos would be caused were UKIP to get their way.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Breaking the law of averages... statistically speaking

Well, this is a surprise – though I suppose it was always likely to happen one day. I’ve been invited by the Royal Statistical Society to enter for its Awards for Statistical Excellence in Journalism.
To be honest – a quality not always evident in the use of statistics – I didn’t know the awards existed. Or indeed the society, though I might have guessed such a thing was probable.
I’m flattered, of course, to be asked. My selection may, for all I know, be a matter of random chance, but as far as I’m aware none of my journalist friends has been invited.
So it seems a fair probability somebody at the august society has noticed that this column is a friend of statistics, used clearly and properly. And, even more, an enemy of statistics used improperly.
Too often they are used as a weapon to “blind people with science” – a tactic, much beloved of governments, which has a lot to do with blinding and stuff all to do with science.
Or just sloppily used by people who don’t know their statistical coccyx from their arithmetical humerus.
Statistics are incredibly useful, in many different ways. But they can also be incredibly misleading in the hands of people who don’t understand them – or who are banking on the likelihood that you don’t.
Opinion polls are one vastly over-used source of statistics, often mis-used, and frequently all but meaningless. Nevertheless, the following is rather illuminating.
What proportion of the national welfare budget do you think is spent on the unemployed?
According to a YouGov poll, people on average believe the figure is 41 per cent. In fact it’s 3pc.
And how much of it is fraudulently claimed by “scroungers”?
The popular belief averages out at 27pc. The reality is 0.7pc.
Why are so many people so wrong about these things? Because right-wing politicians, and their stooges in the media, have done such a good job over so many years of persuading us.
It’s a win-win tactic for them. By bringing the welfare state into disrepute they make it easier to dismantle it.
And by turning working people against each other they draw the flak away from themselves. It’s divide and rule in practice.
And here’s another statistic that says a lot about the degenerate state of British democracy.
The result of next year’s General Election won’t be determined by you and me, or anybody who votes in a “safe seat” – whether it’s safe for the Tories, Labour or Plaid Cymru.
It will be determined by the floating voters in a relative handful of marginal constituencies. Which, at a generous estimate, adds up to 4pc of the British electorate.
What those 4pc decide will have a major impact on so much – not least whether the NHS survives as anything like the life-saving, life-improving service we all know and cherish.
On the NHS, as on so much else, the present government has a cynical record of twisting the figures – though they have some way to go to match the US Republicans’ trashing of anything resembling proper health care.
But that is another story – one you can expect me to return to another time. When I do I shall aim to satisfy the Royal Statistical Society’s requirement to question, analyse and investigate the issues that affect society at large.
Over the course of my life I’ve been among the runners-up or on the short list for so many prizes and awards that the law of averages says I should win this one.
Except that the law of averages is a load of rubbish. If there really is such a thing, it surely states that most people who quote averages don’t understand them.
I heard some government flunkey the other day expressing outrage that “nearly half of all schools are below average”. Well, yes.
Make them better (assuming you actually have a proper way of rating them, which they don’t) and the average will rise. Leaving something like half (maybe the same half, maybe not) still below average.
And there’s another story there too.
And speaking of the misleading use of figures...
More than one paper reported recently that a warm day in Britain was “twice as hot as Athens!”
Someone should point out to them that 20 degrees Celsius is not twice as hot as 10 degrees – merely twice as far above the freezing-point of water.
It may make it clearer if it’s expressed in Fahrenheit. No one would imagine for a moment that 68 degrees was “twice as hot” as 50 degrees.
If any place on Earth was actually twice as hot, in absolute terms, as any other, then either one would be much too cold to support life or the other much too hot. Or both.
Between the coldness of absolute zero (minus 273 degrees C) and, say, the sun’s surface temperature (5,600 C), the range in which we can exist at all is really rather narrow.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Rich and richer

You really have to feel for Gerald Grosvenor. He’s on the slide. 
At least he was a year ago. We’ll have to wait a couple of weeks for the Sunday Times to reveal to us how he’s doing now.
But the trend’s not looking good.
OK, in 2012 his personal fortune increased by £450million – enough to buy a couple of drinks for every man, woman and child in the UK – but he still slipped from seventh to eighth in the national league table of lucre.
And let’s face it, what difference is the odd half-billion or so going to make to someone who already has £7.35bn? What matters is surely that league position.
And after umpteen years of being the richest Brit in Britain, poor old Grosvenor was overtaken last year by brothers David and Simon Reuben. Must hurt.
Or maybe not. I find it quite hard to imagine what motivates a man who was born to unfeasible wealth.
Or just what (if anything) goes through the mind of someone who came out of Harrow (supposedly one of Britain’s best schools) with two O-levels.
Then again, Grosvenor always knew he’d never have to work for his living, so why work at school? When he left he was already an earl.
The shortage of qualifications is more than made up for the string of noughts on his bank account. And it didn’t prevent him being named in 2005 Chancellor of the University of Chester.
Other titles he’s accumulated along the way include being Duke of Westminster, a Major-General, a Baronet, Knight of the Garter, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Francis I (and of St Lazarus), Companion of the Order of the Bath, Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, Knight of Justice of the Most Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem and OBE. The last, and least, of those presumably standing for “Other Buggers’ Efforts”. 
If you ever doubted that Britain was still in the grip of a medieval class system, there’s your evidence right there.
Like the Reuben brothers, Grosvenor keeps his riches growing as a property-owner and developer, with major estates in the poshest and most lucrative parts of London. He and they are the biggest beneficiaries of the capital’s property boom.
That boom is the basis of the country’s supposed economic “recovery”. A recovery – if it really is one – that most of us see no benefit from at all.
Meanwhile, we are encouraged – not least by publications like that forthcoming Sunday Times Rich List – to look up to the likes of Grosvenor (you can tell I don’t). Or to envy them (I don’t). Or to regard them as role models (I really don’t).
That pop chart of winners in life’s biggest lottery ought to be of no relevance to real people. Not worth the newsprint it’s printed on.
There may be some passing interest in seeing whether the top six places in Britain are still occupied – as they were last year – by non-Brits (two Russians, two Indians, an American and a Cypriot).
And whether Alisher Usmanov (part-owner of Arsenal) is still top and Lakshmi Mittal (part-owner of QPR) and Roman Abramovich (owner of Chelsea) still on the slump.
The fact that those three were all in last year’s top five tells you something about the relationship between football and foreign capital. And between that capital and the country’s capital.
But apart from such details, what is it that has kept the Rich List going for a quarter of a century?
What does it say about us as a society that someone goes on compiling this catalogue of unearned privilege and power every year – and that we go on buying it and reading it?
Do their mountains of wonga make these people happy? Or are they all as screwed up as most of the rest of us?
Do they fret about the spare billion the way you or I might worry about paying the milk bill?
Does having enough dosh to buy Marks & Spencer – not a nice salad or a nice dress, but the whole chain of shops – make you a better person than the woman selling Big Issue outside it? In any way at all?

Where have all the birds gone?

A decade ago, an Australian yachtsman sailed from Melbourne to Japan. “There was not one of the 28 days when we didn't catch a good-sized fish to cook up and eat,” Ivan Macfadyen recalled later. 
When Macfadyen repeated the trip a year ago, his baited lines brought in nothing.
There were none of the bird cries he was used to. There were no birds because there were no fish. In Macfadyen’s words, “the ocean was dead”.
He puts its demise down partly to pollution and partly to over-fishing – especially by trawlers that throw back dead into the ocean all they catch but the tuna.
Further evidence, should any be needed, that humankind is busy fouling its own nest, possibly fatally.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The calm, sane voice of Britain's nuclear history

You might think – what with climate change, booming world population, bankers and others grabbing all they can before capitalism implodes – that we have enough to worry about. Now consider this.
“I think nuclear weapons are a somewhat overlooked danger today.
“We went through a period of public anxiety, almost panic, during the Cold War. But human beings can’t maintain that level of anxiety and fear so they just get used to it. It becomes part of everyday life, almost like the wallpaper.
“I am very much afraid that that is when things become dangerous.
“Also they become dangerous when you have decision-makers who are not experienced and who do not understand what they are dealing with.”
The speaker is my aunt, Lorna Arnold, official historian of Britain’s nuclear project, who died last week at the age of 98. And boy was she experienced.
She was born during the Great War when her father – my grandfather – was working on the airships that then seemed likely to play a big role in 20th-century life.
At the outbreak of World War II she joined the Civil Service. By its end, though not yet 30, she was senior enough to be the first British woman to enter Berlin with the victorious Allies.
As UK secretary to the economic directorate, she had to negotiate with the Americans, Russians and French over the difficult administration of newly occupied Germany.
After that came a spell in the British embassy in Washington before a return to London as a housewife, and then as a single mother.
It was some years after joining the Atomic Energy Authority in 1959 that she became its historian.
She was awarded an OBE in 1976, but her most important books – on the H-Bomb, on atomic weapons trials and the Windscale accident – came later.
Like many in the industry, she went from accepting a need for nuclear weapons to being a well-informed opponent of them. Her opinion of nuclear power – initially enthusiastic – underwent a similar change.
Her last two books on nuclear matters, and her book of memoirs, ‘My Short Century’ (2012) were all completed after she was registered blind in 2002. The disability did not prevent her from continuing to speak at conferences well into her 90s – including one at Los Alamos, the New Mexico site where the first atom bomb was developed.
My aunt Lorna was a remarkable woman. An exceptionally clear thinker, and a very clear and measured speaker.
If you’re one of those who watch documentaries on atomic weapons or the energy industry, you’re sure to have seen her. She was for years the BBC’s chosen adviser on all things nuclear.
It’s a very odd thing to read an obituary of one of your family in the national press. It was a first for me, and probably a last as well.
It could be an ambition of mine to earn one – when Lorna was my age she wouldn’t have seemed a likely subject for the honour. But of course if I do I won’t be around to read it. And I’m very unlikely ever to have the dedication to one subject that Lorna had to nuclear history.
Her death has been described, conventionally and predictably, as sad, but I’m not so sure.
Which of us wouldn’t want to get to 98 still in possession of all our mental faculties and then fade out, gently but rapidly, with friends and family around us?
If I live up to Lorna in no other way, I’d like to emulate her in that.