Sunday 25 November 2007

The yeast experiment

S154 - the yeast experiment,which observes what happens to yeast at different temperatures. This is at 37°C, or roughly body temperature.

After the potato experiment, Ollie was a little apprehensive.

But he soon....

got more....


Then he asked Ruffles if he could smell it.

Oh. Not very nice.

My most accurate jug wasn't big enough...

This week in the humanities - short one

In line with my first post about the humanities, what have I been up to?

Art history - no.

Music - Nightwish and Eliza Gylkison, mostly while preparing a really big nut roast because we had friends coming round.

Religion, philosophy, history of science, classical studies - no.

But the big one this week is history, which is reviewed in the previous post on this blog, on "The Relief of Belsen" and David Irving on the Holocaust.

And, under literature, I'll put The Relief of Belsen, which I saw on More4 last night, which reminded me about one of the great strands of thinking about the humanities. It's the Matthew Arnold, Leavis view that great literature, great art, great music etc have an improving effect on those who are exposed to them, and that western civilisation is therefore moving ever upwards towards greater and greater nobility. Among the British, American and Russian troops who liberated the death camps, there were men and officers who had been brought up in this tradition, indeed with fine degrees in literature, music and so on, who believed heart and soul in the improving effects of the humanities. And they had to confront the fact that the atrocities whose effects they witnessed were commanded by German officers who committed the most unspeakable acts during the working day and then went home to read Goethe and Schiller over their schnapps. It is no longer possible to believe, simplistically, that the humanities unproblematically improve us. So why do we study them?

I feel sorry for David Irving

This is sparked by the news that David Irving is to speak at the Oxford Union, together with watching "The relief of Belsen" on TV last night.

When it comes to giving freedom of speech to those whose words are poison to my ears, I find I have to think carefully about each case. I have always been uneasy about the speech implications of race relations legislation. But I'm not an absolute libertarian. I believe the freedom of movement of your fist ends some way short of my nose, because a swinging fist carries threat as well as physical force. The problem is where to draw the line in each case. I believe that preventing racists from speaking is justified if the pernicious results of their speaking outweighs the pernicious results of denying them freedom of speech. Having said that, I think that, on balance, the Oxford Union has taken a justifiable decision.

In my view, the world became a different place after 1945, when the full scale and style of the Holocaust became public. The human race had to confront the issue of evil in a way that had never been brought home to us before. The Holocaust was a unique event in human history. It was not unique because of the cold bloodedness or the scale of the act. There have been plenty of calculated and large scale massacres both before and since. Though, in many cases, the actual killing is not done nearly as cold bloodedly as it is often portrayed to be.

The uniqueness of the Holocaust lies in the way in which it was done. It took the pinnacle of capitalist development, the rational bureaucracy of the process of capital accumulation, and it turned it into an instrument for the killing of people and the removal of an entire race from the face of the earth. They turned genocide into an industrial process. And then, because rational bureaucrats in pursuit of growing and ordered prosperity record what they do, they kept meticulous records of their achievements - numbers of shoes, spectacles, sets of false teeth, and so on and so on and so on. If you read the records, you see how, in the relentless, rationalistic, bureaucratic pursuit of efficiency, they lose sight of what they are processing - human bodies and human lives.

Thus we had to confront the fact that what some thought of as the most civilised people on earth - western, rational, sophisticated, capitalistic Europeans, with all their development through history, with all the civilising influence of classical art, literature, music - were capable of unspeakable evil.

Then eventually, when we were ready, we had to confront the fact that the people who did this were just like us. They didn't do it because they were Nazis and therefore different from the rest of us. They didn't do it because they were Germans and therefore different from the rest of us. They did it because they were human, and just the same as the rest of us.

And then we have to confront the implication of that, which is that we all carry within us the capacity for that level of evil. We have to acknowledge that if we were put in that situation, some of us would resist, but many of us would acquiesce, and some of us would carry out, possibly with greater and greater enthusiasm, the orders we are given.

We have to accept that knowledge, that truth about ourselves, and somehow accommodate that into our own self images - we like ourselves (most of us), we think we are basically nice people. Our view of ourselves has to stretch to accommodate the knowledge that there is such a dark side, and then it has to maintain that while continuing to believe that we are worth something. That's quite a tall order, but most of us manage it. That, ultimately, is why I feel sorry for David Irving. He may have a political or personal agenda, I don't know, and I won't comment on that. But I think that he has become what he is because his own self image, his own hold on his own personality, is so tenuous that he cannot accept the implication of the Holocaust - that he, just like the rest of us, is capable of that. So he has to try to rewrite history to get rid of it. The history that is written in hundreds of thousands of letters, diaries, accounts, factory ledgers, documents, even photos and newsreels like those we saw in "Relief of Belsen" has to be written out because the implications of accepting the truth are too great for him to deal with. I teach history because I want people to know about these things. I do not want to rub their noses in it, but I do want them to *know*, so that they will never shrink from the truth the way David Irving does.

Wednesday 21 November 2007

Those Iraqi interpreters

The ones we ought to be taking some responsibility for, and aren't. Full marks to Richard Colebourne for continuing to highlight the issue.

He notes that, according to the Washington Post, the same thing seems to be happening to those who helped the Americans.

We'll use you for what we can get, and do as little as we can afterwards. That seems to be the message. One comment on Richard Colebourne's article says "all I can say is that I'm ashamed to be British". Yes, exactly.

If you do nothing else, at least sign the petition at

Couldn't happen to a better bunch of people

I mean the Child Benefit details fiasco. I won't go into the details which have been well covered elsewhere, but just make the point that this gross lapse of management affects all classes of people. So I hope that a tide of opinion will hold the government well and truly to account, and I also hope that many of those affected, who have been sleepwalking towards ID cards, will realise that they are in more danger of government incompetence than of terrorist attack.

The key issue of management is very well covered in Nick Robinson's blog.

Negative point to the BBC, however, for its reporting of the reaction. The front page of their website this morning says "The government's "basic competence" is questioned by the Conservatives after the loss of 25m people's details." The inside story is only slightly different "The government's "basic competence" has been questioned by the Tories". Er, guys, I think you'll find the LibDems, and indeed all the other parties are doing a fair bit of questioning.

Vince Cable gets one grudging sentence right at the end, no other non Tory does, and Ross Anderson, who was very impressive on Newsnight last night, also gets only a sentence at the end. (The Newsnight website hasn't caught up with last night yet, but Ross Anderson is informatively nutshelled in Wikipedia.)

That's just sloppy reporting, BBC, reinforcing a completely two dimensional view of politics.

Tuesday 20 November 2007

This week in the humanities

In line with my first post about the humanities, what have I been up to:

Art history: no, had a week off this week as well.

Music: Nightwish, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Pretenders. I really like Mary Chapin Carpenter. She has a long standing capacity to write lyrics other song writers would kill for.

Religion: nope. Though having some vague thoughts about the similarltiy between football and religion. You know where I'lll be on Wednesday evening.

Philosophy: no. What have I been doing this week? Tons of making web pages to meet a deadline.

History – errr... no

Literature – no

History of science – aha. Yes. I've been learning, while studying S154, about water, particularly about the condition of the Thames in the nineteenth century and the gradual growth of scientific undertanding that enabled Parliament and the authorities in London to bring cholera under control by improving the quality of the water supply. The key point was the realisation by Dr John Snow that cholera was water borne, not as had previously been thought, air borne, a"miasma". That was in 1854,whcih was not soon enough to prevent the year of the Great Stink,1858, during which the Thames became so polluted that it was rendered completely lifeless.

Classical studies – nope. But Gladiator's on - sometime - can't remember when. I still think the best thing in it is the opening battle in the forest (pure Tacitus), closely followed by Oliver Reed.

Saturday 17 November 2007

Bimbling and skithering

Two new words I heard this week from different OU colleagues. Same sort of meaning, a combination of bumbling and slithering. Is this a reflection of current perceptions of social trends I wonder? The world bimbling and skithering towards complete social entropy?

Friday 16 November 2007

Still undecided. But happy.

That's my position after watching Clegg vs Huhne on Question Time.

Undecided because I still have no idea who I'm going to vote for. Happy in that I would be happy to see either of them in the top position.

I was surprised at the hostility of many of the texts coming in to News24 after the show. Is it normally like that?

A lot of people said how boring it was. My feeling up till now is that it's not boring, it's just symptomatic of the fact that the LibDems are a relatively united party with a great deal going for it in policy terms. Both of our top guys are somewhere between 90% and 95% in tune with that (and both made the point that policy is decided democratically in our party, unlike the others), so of course there are not going to be great differences. I guess, though, that I have to accept that a lot of people find that boring and turn off it. (Equally we seem to have been nudging upwards in the polls, or did I just dream that?) But I don't think that matters. A week after the election of whoever it is, the leadership race (leadership jog?) will have been forgotten as we start to take on the clone parties about the things that really matter.

And a thought occurred to me about Charles Kennedy. Given the experience we've just been through with the media and Ming (60+ interviews at the party conference - 60+ questions about his age), we can see now that that is exactly what would have happened to Charles once the secret about his drink problem was out. We would never have been able to say a single sensible thing; we'd have been utterly swamped in media muck raking.

Still got to make my mind up though....

Thursday 15 November 2007

Norman Baker on David Kelly

Over on Lib Dem Voice, Norman Baker gives a synopsis of why the David Kelly affair will not go away, and what he found in the course of researching for his book, The Strange Death of David Kelly.

What about a quota for English managers?

There's the regular hoohah going on about foreign players in the Premiership, with people like Stevies Gerrard and Coppell calling for a quota for English players. I don't believe it would do any good. Getting more players into the Premiership doesn't make them better. We need a different system for training them and getting the best out of them.

If it's really the players that make a difference, why aren't they sacked when the club performs poorly? It's the manager who gets it in the neck. There's a good reason for that - it's the manager that makes the most difference. Managers make a huge difference between players playing poorly and well, and between teams playing poorly and well. I think England has a squad that is capable of competing with the best. The fact that they don't suggests there's something wrong with the way they are managed. Steve McLaren - he's better than I thought he would be, but I don't think he's a world beater.

Look at the managers we have in the Premiership at the moment. Of the twenty clubs, only eight have English managers. And only two of those are in the top half of the table. If we want a quota on players, maybe we should be looking at a quota of managers as well. But I don't think so.

Look at who we've got. Redknapp, Curbishley, Allardyce, Coppell, Bruce, Southgate, Megson, Hutchings. I'm including Hutchings despite him having just got the axe - which says a lot already. I cannot see anyone in that lot who has the managerial and organisational know how, the motivational ability, and the sheer guile needed to beat Germany, Italy, Brazil, Argentina. So, just like players, putting more average managers in the Premiership wouldn't solve anything. In fact it would make matters worse, because, without the best management ability around, we'd see our clubs dumped out of European competition earlier and earlier.

Perhaps we should be looking at different ways of training our managers. Entirely different skills are needed, and they're not always there to be taught. Handling information, for instance, is a huge must. Managers are deluged with information. They get readouts of each player's performance each second they're on the pitch. They have reports on players fitness and strength practically down the last molecule. They get videos of their opponents' games, and they analyse strengths and weaknesses down to the last detail. However, they need to command that information and turn it into a strategy - that takes a different kind of skill to those taught in most English football academies. I'm reminded of when Peter Sutcliffe was on the loose - the police realised afterwards that they'd had the information they needed to identify him for a long time. The problem was that they had so much information that they were actually prevented from putting the important bits together.

To give another sporting example, Michael Schumacher is the most successful Formula 1 driver. It makes me spit to say it, because he is such a complete moral vacuum. Nevertheless, he was very, very fast. One reason for this, according to his team mates, is his ability to make sense of all the information at his disposal. Computerised information pours out of Formula 1 cars, and the cars are also entire systems - if you do something somewhere, you get results in all sorts of other places - ease the suspension slightly, and you affect the brakes, the steering, the aerodynamics and so on. Schumacher has the capacity to see patterns in the information and turn all that into a strategy that eventually gets the best out of the car. England's best football managers don't have that capacity. Steve McLaren doesn't have it. He may well be the best English manager around, but he still hasn't got it. It's not his fault. Our managers, as well as our players, are the victims of the compete and clog it school of football in which so many of our youngsters have been nurtured for so many decades. It needs to change if we are to get anywhere. Some people are naturally better at it than others. But it's not innate and uncahngeable - it can be learned. We just don't have a system that allows for people to learn it.

Monday 12 November 2007

This week in the humanities

In line with my first post about the humanities, what have I been up to:

Art history: no, had a week off this week.

Music: Bruce Springsteen, Nightwish, Mary Chapin Carpenter. There aren't many rock songs that contain the phrase "taconite, coke and limestone".

Religion: an interesting insight into the fractures in Christianity when I learned that in Lewes oneof the Anglican vicars a while ago tried to ahve the Quakers remvoed from the Churches together organisation, because in his view they were not Christians. Can't even start to get my head around that, but it's a good example of how people define themselves.

Philosophy: some thinking about what can be justified in the name of the state - see the next item.

History – this probably is stretching things a bit, but the death of David Kelly counts as history now. Norman Baker's book The Strange Death of David Kelly is out, and I have read it. I'm now convinced that Kelly could not have committed suicide. Baker's alternative is as good as any other. It's still improbable, but as Sherlock Holmes says in The Sign of Four "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth". Makes you think. The book gets a detailed and complimentary review here. I'll give more of my own thoughts later.

Literature – I think The Strange Death of David Kelly will have to fill in.

History of science – nope.

Classical studies – nope.

Friday 9 November 2007


Ruffles and Oliver are really enjoying S154.

Oliver is particularly fascinated by ionic bonding. He thinks he might be a scientist when he grows up.

Sunday 4 November 2007

Margaret Thatcher

For a long, long time I've had trouble making up my mind about Margaret Thatcher. I was actually glad when she came to power, because she removed Labour. That gladness very quickly turned to dislike and slowly into a hatred of all she stood for. That has been replaced equally slowly in recent years by a more tempered assessment of a person who is a very complex character.

Simon Jenkins, in Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts, argues that she carried out two revolutions - an economic one, which benefitted the country enormously, and a centralisation of power, which didn't.

(He then argues that the second revolution needs to be undone by a concerted decentralisation of power to regions, cities, boroughs, parishes, etc. Given that this has consistently been a central plank of Liberal Democrat policy since before he cut his political teeth, it's interesting that he seems to dislike the LibDems so much.)

Thinking about that crystallised some thoughts which have been on their way for some time. In my view, Margaret Thatcher did carry out two revolutions, but one was not the one Jenkins thinks it is. The first revolution is the economic and industrial one, on which most people are pretty much agreed nowadays - it needed doing, and because Thatcher did it so far and so fast, we now have a much stronger economy than we might have had. (And incidentally one that is so far out of kilter with most of our colleagues in the European Union that it is at the root of most of our squabbles with them, along with an outdated English view of the meaning of nationhood.)

One of the characteristics of a revolution is that it starts and it stops. In other words the whole process is subsumed under that heading. I think the economic revolution under Thatcher was more or less that. Very little had happened prior to her in the way of noticing that the world economy had changed and the industrial hegemony of developed countries was on the way out. Very little had happened to take on board the fact of the information revolution with its implication that services, and the movement and manipulation of information, would be a priceless asset in years to come. Arguably Thatcher only went part of the way on that one, because the big revolution in IT, particularly the web and mobile technology, was still to come. But she transformed Britain's economic landscape from predominantly an industrial one to a much more mixed economy with a large, probably dominant, service sector. That movement, and the deregulation that accompanied it, largely finished when Thatcher left office. Any movements since can be better described as tinkering rather than revolutionary, and in some senses there has been a reversal, with more rather than less regulatory burden on business, as well as a (slightly) higher burden of tax. Interestingly there is not a big argument about tax today. There are lots of little ones, which people keep trying to turn into big ones, but all the main players seem to be more or less agreed as to the general level of taxation.

So the economic revolution was, and remains, a revolution. What about the centralisation revolution? I'm not so sure about that. It's very complicated because in one way Thatcher decentralised mightily, by selling off state owned industry. She did centralise political power, and taxing power, by bringing powers in to the centre from local government, but I don't see that as being revolutionary. Central government already supported local government to a very significant extent through the rate support grant - I don't have the figures to hand. She put the squeeze on deliberately and for specific purposes - to reduce spending and to reduce the power of Labour strongholds. But she didn't go much beyond that, and, furthermore, the tightening of control was extended by subsequent governments, and indeed went much further than Thatcher had ever envisaged - the whole surveillance revolution was after her time. So I would call the centralisation thing a significant step, perhaps a very significant one, but not a revolution.

But I do think there was a second revolution. It was a more personal one, and one which remains an issue today. I'll summarise it first and then try to describe in more detail what I mean. It was the introduction of a spirit of nastiness into British and particularly English life which still stains it today.

Margaret Thatcher herself was/is a nasty person. She is capable of warmth and charm, but her default mode is nastier than that. She epitomises the manner of early non-conformist capitalism brilliantly summarised by Hugo Young as "aggressive thrift". She was very strong minded indeed, and she was correct to a fault. She was happiest when in a fight with someone. She seemed, according again to Young, to be incapable of reaching a decision without having an argument first. In other words, she had to fight. Arguably the economic revolution carried out under her leadership could have been achieved at much less human cost. But I believe she didn't just count the suffering of the workers as worth it, she actually wanted to make them suffer. I have no doubt that she believed she was doing right - but it's a very old testament, and very flawed view of the nature of the world.

I note that I oscillate between past and present tense when speaking about her. This is itself significant. The person "Margaret Thatcher" is definitely a "was". There is a live person, who "is", whose name is "Lady Thatcher". But, shorn of her power, Lady Thatcher is irrelevant. It was the wielding of power with single minded and utterly focussed will that made Margaret Thatcher the force she was. And she is no longer that force.

Margaret Thatcher was the complete hypocrite. She led a very correct life herself. She never strayed from her marriage, and she never took a bribe. And you can be absolutely sure that she would never have taken one. But she presided over a cabinet that became utterly corrupt under her tutelage. She actively encouraged that corruption by energetically supporting every one of her ministers until it became evident that they could not survive. And she was always so self righteous about it. Most of the evidence came out under Major, when it seemed hardly a month went by without some Tory being found with his hands in someone else's underwear or someone else's wallet. But it was Margaret Thatcher who set the tone. It was Thatcher's government that was enthusiastically selling weaponry to Iraq during the 1980s and it was her proteges who were apparently ready to see innocent business people go to jail rather than admit the truth. Only the ultimate maverick, Alan Clarke, was finally prepared to tell the truth in court.

(By comparison - whatever you think of Labour sleaze, no Labour minister or MP has yet been jailed.)

A further example - the Westminster gerrymandering, encouraged by Margaret Thatcher's powerful belief that the end justified the means (strange that a non-conformist upbringing should lead to such a Jesuitical stance). I don't blame Margaret Thatcher for Shirley Porter's criminality and viciousness. I do blame her for bringing about a culture in which people thought that kind of behaviour was justifiable if it worked.

And finally, her lionising of General Pinochet, when he was quite rightly and properly being pursued on a charge of murder. And we have discovered since how corrupt Pinochet was. Again, I don't blame her for Pinochet. I do blame her for having no problem in not just consorting with him but regarding him as a close friend. And, once again the crucial point, she was so self righteous about it. The presenting to him of a plate celebrating the victory over the Armada says it all. Pinochet (dictator, murderer, corrupt embezzler) is our ally. Spain (democracy, engaging Pinochet by the rule of law) is our enemy.

"Greed is good" was part of a larger movement than Thatcherism. But Thatcher enthusiastically endorsed it by her actions, even though the self righteous tone of her rhetoric would not allow her to say it outright. She encouraged other people to "do unto others" by the example of her own instinctive aggression and by the permission she gave to them to break any rule if it was in the way. Allied to a rhetoric of individual responsibility - look after yourself because nobody else is going to - the result was, in my opinion, lethal for morality.

The overall result of that was the production of a tone of behaviour, not among everybody, but among significant numbers of some classes. There are still many people in this country today who have taken their tone from Margaret Thatcher - what she did herself, and what she encouraged others to do. If somebody else is in the way of what you want, then every means is justified to get them out of the way. According to some commentators, we have a generation of young men who are so self centred that they have become criminally minded. That generation, if it exists, which I'm not sure about, was brought up under Thatcherism, and the taint of her morality shows. I don't believe it is limited to a few young spivs though. It shows in boardroom behaviour where CEOs seem to genuinely believe that having a pay package an average of 70 times staff earnings is justifiable. And it is fuelled by the Thatcherite belief that there is no such thing as society, which implies that there is no reason to be responsible to anyone else. She completed that phrase by saying you have individuals and you have families - another good example of her hypocrisy when you look at the number of her ministers who flouted family values, and the amount of support that families didn't get when they were suffering through her restructuring of the economy.

There are many people who are not infected of course, many who inoculated themselves against Thatcher at the earliest possible moment. But that attitude that says that any law, any morality can be broken because I have a higher morality - me, is still too evident in the actions of too many people.

Saturday 3 November 2007

The Tories' preferred method of transport

How does this sit with their green credentials?

Hat tip to Paul Walter. More details at the Guardian.

Picture copyright RMS:

A shameful stance, Mr Brown

While I'm getting enthused over the leadership contest, I can't help thinking that other things matter more. The issue of Iraqi interpreters that Lynne Featherstone highlights "Government’s death sentence for Iraqi employees: a first-hand account".

The news broke on the BBC in July that interpreters who worked for our armed forces were under threat of death from militants and the British government were dragging their feet in the most pusillanimous and ungracious way possible about helping them.

It says much about both our political system and the attitude of a great many people in this country that this is not and has not remained headline news. It bubbles to the surface every now and then. Brown announced a grudging package of measures in October, dealt with in a Newsnight blog here. Financing for resettlement for those who have worked for us for a year, and are still working for us, and, under unclear circumstances,some may arrive in the UK. So basically there are people who are risking their lives,and their families lives, to help our troops, and we are going to do as little as we can decently get away with to help them. Shame on you, Mr Brown.

We have an action site at and there is more information at Dan Hardie's blog.

The leadership race - more

I'm feeling quite comfortable about the way things are going. I was worried that it would not be much of a show, but I am reassured by some of the things that have been happening recently. As points out,in a two horse race and with horses so similar in many ways,they will have to work a bit to be distinctive, so I look forward to things hotting up as they get into their stride.

I'm still sitting on the fence, apparently unlike my MP, Norman Baker. I like Huhne's stance on Trident. I like Clegg's stance on ID cards. Huhne has adopted the same policy but Clegg got in first. Guys, my vote is still up for grabs.

This week in the humanities....

In line with my first post about the humanities, what have I been up to:

Art history: I got a pamphlet from the Jubilee Centre about a Christian view of art appreciation, particularly abstract art. One of their illustrations was Rothko's "Black on maroon".

Music: Within Temptation, Nightwish, Mary Chapin Carpenter and the new Eagles album “Long Road out of Eden” - they've apparently really annoyed Bush by coming out against the Iraq war.

Religion: at Castle Drogo, there was a model of the Thiepval memorial (both are by Lutyens) which got me thinking about the way we memorialise our dead, especially those who are supposed to have died “for” something. Our young men - the youngest at the Somme was 14 - were sent to die in thousands to preserver the way of life represented by Castle Drogo. And the threat to this way of life was the Germans, who were preserving a precisely similar way of life in the valleys of Germany.

Philosophy: had a week off philosophy ;-)

History – quite a lot of bits and pieces – Morwellham Quay in Devon, where they try to recreate what it was like in its heyday. Went on the rail journey through the mine. The most horrible bit was the guide's description of arsenic mining. Arsenic sublimates – as it's heated it turns directly from a solid into a gas so people heated the rock in big furnaces and the gas billowed up into a brickwork maze, where as it cooled it solidified. Every couple of weeks they put the furnaces out, waited for the whole lot to cool down, and then sent people into the tunnels to hack the arsenic off the walls. All without any protective clothing of course. As the guide said, “And this is what they call the good old days”.

Literature – Mission Song by John le Carre, Don De Lillo's Cosmopolis, John Updike's Terrorist. It was a good week for reading in between all the walking. I think I liked Mission Song best.

History of science – learned a fair bit at Morwellham Quay.

Classical studies – I found myself reflecting on the design and use of stadia while watching Spurs play Blackpool. (Undistinguished but a win.) It was the design for entrance and egress that got me thinking this week – particularly the way they had organised the ticket collection – there were a lot of late buyers like me and we were advised to turn up early. I didn't manage it so I was a bit worried when I turned up with twenty minutes to go and found a queue about 200 yards long. I got my ticket within five minutes. Impressive.