Tuesday 19 October 2021

Hunting with hounds

 Hunting with hounds is back in the news. In a short space of time we have seen video footage of Beaufort Hunt staff killing dogs and we have seen Mark Hankinson, a director of the Master of Foxhounds Association, convicted of conspiring to break the law in a deliberate and systematic fashion.

Leaving aside the law breaking for the moment, let us consider the arguments for and against hunting with hounds. The key argument is ethical. A lot of other stuff gets mentioned, but none stands up to scrutiny. One argument is that hunting creates jobs. It does but they are very expensive jobs. Keeping hounds - feeding them, housing them, ensuring their wellbeing costs a lot of money. Horses are even more expensive. If the money used to support hunting were spent in other ways it would create more jobs, not fewer.

Another is that hunting helps with pest control. The contribution of hunts to pest control was never more than 10%, I understand, and should now be less than that. When foxes and deer need to be controlled, it is done more efficiently and more humanely by shooters who know what they're doing. In addition to that, it is far from clear that hunts do actually contribute to pest control as there is uncontrovertible evidence that they protect foxes and their cubs during much of the year in order to make sure that there are plenty for them to chase in the hunting season.

It's traditional. Yes, it is. So was bear baiting before we banned it. So was dog fighting. So was cock fighting. The fact that something is traditional does not mean that we should keep it if it is harmful.

So the key argument is ethical. Is hunting with hounds an ethical thing to do? To answer this question we need to consider three others:

1) are civil liberties involved?

2) is cruelty to animals involved?

3) if the answer to both 1) and 2) is yes, which should outweigh the other?

The answer to the first question is yes. People should be free to do whatever they want provided their freedom does not impinge other people's freedom, or result in cruelty. If it were only a question of civil liberties, then my view of hunting would be the same as my view of Morris dancing: it's not for me, but if you want to dress up in silly clothes and make an exhibition of yourself all over the countryside, then I will not only defend your right to do that, I will celebrate it.

The answer to the second question is also yes. Confusion is sown here by hunters quite deliberately. The foxes enjoy the chase. Yeah, sure. They have a sporting chance of getting away. Yeah, right. Animals don't feel fear. Wrong, just wrong. Hunting with hounds has not been designed to be purposefully cruel, but cruelty is built in as a feature. The point is to have a great afternoon out jumping over hedges and seeing animals get bitten to death. It wouldn't be nearly so much fun if it were over quickly, so hunting packs have been bred for stamina rather than speed and strength. The fox or the deer is chased and chased and chased and chased until exhausted and cornered. That is not compassionate.

So the answer to questions 1 and 2 is yes in both cases. Which should prevail? I accept that views on this will differ; I respect the right of other people to come to a different conclusion to mine. But in my view there is only one ethical conclusion. People have many ways of enjoying themselves. Nobody's life will be constrained or badly affected if they are no longer able to hunt with hounds. If killing vermin matters to them, then they can learn to shoot. If jumping over things on their horses matters to them, they can still do that without having a fox or a deer to chase. If running with dogs matters to them, they can do that without having a frightened fox in front of them. There is no ethical or civil liberties reason that I can think of that justifies killing wild animals in this particularly cruel manner.

So my conclusion is quite simple. Hunting wild animals with packs of hounds should not be allowed. Some will criticise my conclusion on the grounds that it is not liberal. But it is liberal. Liberalism means that everyone should be free to do whatever they like. But it also says there is a limit to that freedom if it impinges on others' liberty. An ultraliberal might say that animals don't count. I believe they do, and, even if they don't, my argument remains that protection of the natural world is a right that I and every other human holds. My right to protect the natural world is infringed if you hunt animals with such cruelty.

Our current position is complicated by the passing of the Hunting Act of 2004. This outlawed the deliberate pursuit of animals with hounds, but allowed for trail hunting, and made exceptions to the pursuit of wild animals if it happened by accident in the pursuit of trail hunting. The Act has been widely and systematically flouted by hunts and they have not been properly pursued by the police even when evidence has been supplied in many, many cases. Should we now seek to have the Hunting Act applied forcefully, or should we seek to amend it?

Law depends on consent to some degree; laws work when those subject to them consent at least to the extent of obeying them, albeit unwillingly. It is clear that hunters have systematically, deliberately and purposefully flouted the law of the Hunting Act ever since it came into force. Not only that, but enforcement by rural police forces has been at most lacklustre in the face of case after case of evidence being given them by hunt monitors all over the country. Hunters' evasion of the law has been persistent for fifteen years, and enforcement has been lax for that length of time. Even the occasional successful prosecution has not dented the hunters' determination. We know, in fact, that they have been law breaking for much longer - laws about blocking up setts, sending dogs into tunnels and such, have been ignored for many, many years. They have also always treated their own hounds as expendable, which is not necessarily illegal, but they have gone to great lengths to hide the truth from the public at large, knowing that the public would view their treatment of their hounds as unacceptable. In other words, law breaking and secrecy are routine for hunters. They do not respect or abide by the law, and I do not foresee that they will any time in the future. Some things really do not change.

That being the case, in my view, hunters have forfeited the right to have their view heard. I take into account that there are many law abiding hunters; but there are far too many who have routinely broken the law for far too long. And the law abiding hunters, many of them, knew of the law breaking and did nothing about it. They are not innocent bystanders.

So in my view the response of the law should be uncompromising. The 2004 Hunting Act should be amended so that no form of hunting with packs of hounds should be lawful. The caveats and permissions of the Hunting Act should be removed so that the law is simpler and clearer. Penalties for breaking it should be severe, and it must be made absolutely clear to rural police forces that they must enforce it.

Wednesday 8 September 2021

No, they didn't! (Evolution and purpose)

 I've been dismayed over and over again at the way evolution is routinely misrepresented by people who ought to know better.

So I decided to keep a log of instances where I see it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * 

29th March 2023 Here's the New Scientist, which really ought to know better. The headline is OK: "Our attempts to kill cockroaches forced them to evolve new sex moves" It's just on the edge of acceptable, but, you know, even the New Scientist needs clickbait.

But it's the subheader that just gets evolution wrong. "Some male cockroaches have adapted their mating strategy to succeed with females that have developed a distaste for the sugar used in both poisonous baits and gifts from males"  This just didn't happen. No male cockroach had a think and decided to change his mating technique. What happened was that the ones that happened (via the random variation of evolution) to have a more varied mating game survived better than those that didn't.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * 

10th Sept 2021 from the BBC. This might not be an actual contender. I have not found more details than are available on this page about this year's IG Nobel prizes. But the way it is phrased is just plain wrong. 

"Peace Prize: Ethan Beseris and colleagues, for testing the hypothesis that humans evolved beards to protect themselves from punches to the face." Bushy beards may have spread, pardon the pun, because men who had them survived being punched better than those who didn't. But the beards did not strategically evolve themselves However, humans, of course, are capable of agency, so it might be that some deliberately chose to cultivate their beards as a defence mechanism. Hard to say how humans might have made their beards bushier than they naturally were, though, so it sounds a bit suspect to me. And in any case, why didn't women evolve bushy beards - presumably they got punched in the face just as much.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * 

First up: the Guardian's science correspondent Natalie Grover. 27th Aug 2021 "Female hummingbirds look like males to avoid attacks, study suggests". No, there is no intention in evolution. Female hummingbirds who look like males turned out to have an evolutionary advantage - more of them survived because they were attacked less.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * 

No #2: Simon Barnes in Tortoise 26th Aug 2021 "Much as you love to mow the lawn, let the grass grow". He states: "the growing bit – the place at which the cells divide and growth can take place, technically the meristem – is not at the tip, as it is in most plants. It’s near the bottom.

"That may not sound all that exciting, but it’s central to the way life on land operates. It means you can eat grass without killing it. You can munch away at it, but it keeps coming back for more. This strategy evolved as a defence against grazing animals: the plants get eaten but they go on growing."

The key bit is "This strategy evolved as a defence against grazing animals". No, grass does not have strategies; it cannot think its way to a defence. Grass whose meristem was closer to the bottom happened to survive better when munched than that with its meristem near the tip, so bottom meristemmed grass spread and top meristemmed grass didn't. Grass does not have intentions.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Much as you love to mow the lawn, let the grass grow

Much as you love to mow the lawn, let the grass grow

Much as you love to mow the lawn, let the grass grow

Sunday 11 July 2021


Dave, my brother-in-law, has just died after living with Parkinson's for several decades. What follows below is not the whole story of Dave by any means, just the bits I remember best. (We're remembering him
by suggesting donations to Parkinson's UK.)

I’ve known him for more than fifty years. It was a bit of a surprise when I worked that out; I hadn’t realised that I was so old. I was about 18 when he married my sister, the first occasion I’d ever been to in proper formal dress. My parents insisted on that sort of thing.

He was doing a PhD which our dad teased him about; our dad teased everyone about everything. Dave took it in good spirit; I wish I’d learned from him. But then he didn’t have to live with the old bugger.*

Once Dave had finished his PhD, he got a job at Portsmouth Poly as it was back then – I told you it was a long time ago – teaching maths and stats. Dave did everything with enthusiasm. I’ve worked with a few statisticians in my time. I’ve never known anyone get as enthusiastic about stats as him. He was equally enthusiastic as a teacher, and I am sure there are many hundreds of students who have reason to be grateful to him. He developed a lot of research projects in his time as well, and moved into the field of statistical modelling of chemical reactions. If you have any idea what than means, please let me know. Actually there is somebody in the family who does, his son, Ben, who inherited Dave’s way with numbers. Ben saw the light, however, and moved into an entirely different field when it came to making a living.

The Parkinson's was with him for several decades. It was a few years before it was properly diagnosed and he was able to get the appropriate treatment. He lived with it for many, many years. He had a life and he lived it well. He continued for many years to cycle into college. He went on working, researching, teaching, contributing and enjoying his food. He dabbled in many things. Well, when I say dabbled, he put a lot into it – a railway line in the garden, astronomy – proper astronomy with a telescope on wheels, sailing, a human mix of joy in nature with scientific precision. And the curiosity of the researcher never went away. After retirement and with his Parkinson's well advanced, he got interested in a problem somebody told him about to do with yachts, keels and sailing positions. There must be a mathematical model for this, he thought, and began to examine the problem with a computer programme. I never heard whether he solved it, but for him I don’t think solving it was ever the main motive. He just liked messing around with things and with numbers and seeing what they would do together.

He was always good for a chat, liberally sprinkled with dad jokes. We didn’t agree about everything. He supported Chelsea. I mean….

He also continued with his life the way he always had done, not letting the Parkinson's get in the way of that. There were meals out and holidays, even cruises. I would get pictures from time to time which I might have thought were designed to make me jealous if there was an ounce of malice in either Dave or Julia. Nearly every picture we have of him involves a sun hat. He would cook; and when I say cook, I mean cook, not just opening tins, but starting from scratch. I remember him, with a considerable tremble, cooking butternut squash soup, then sashaying across the kitchen with a pan full of boiling soup, everyone else diving for cover, and Dave filling the bowls from the pan without spilling a drop.

One of the treatments offered in later years was brain implants, which involved the head being screwed into a vice and then holes drilled in the skull to insert electrodes. The patient has to stay awake during the operation so that at the crucial time they can tell the surgeon what they feel when the electrodes are wiggled around. The patient is required to keep talking to the surgical team throughout so that they can tell he’s still OK. This was a situation tailor made for Dave, an opportunity to tell Dad jokes for four hours without anyone begging him to stop.** The operation worked, though not as well as it might have done. Moving on from it involved kicking rolled up socks around the house. I have no idea why, but Dave took to it with some gusto.

I was last able to see Dave a good couple of years ago. He was communicating then very slowly with an alphabet sheet, but with his mind fully sharp, and able to absorb and engage.

Covid changed the world for everybody, but particularly for people with any kind of disability or chronic condition. And their carers. With Dave worsening, Julia had to look after him largely unsupported, and with her own bodily issues, for many months. She had to do all the cooking and housework, see to his medication, pick him up when he fell, communicate with him with painful slowness whenever necessary. It was a very dispiriting and undeserved end period for a life lived with such verve. The final decline was mercifully brief, and a shock to all of us. We’d known for a long time that it was coming, but after living with Parkinson's and a gradually worsening body for thirty years, Dave seemed indestructible. He wasn’t, but our memories of him will be.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

*My sister reminds me, quite rightly, that Dad was actually liked by a lot of people, and that Dave and he got on very well. My relationship with him was not typical.

**A Dave joke

An American tourist eats at an Italian restaurant one day.  He tells the waiter, “I want a steak. Done just right. Not too well done. Not too rare. Just, tchk, in the groove.”

The waiter goes into the kitchen and says to the chef, “There’s a bigga Americana tourista. He wantsa a steak. Done notta too well, notta too rare, just, tchk, inna da groove.”

The chef says, “OK, He can havea da steak, notta too well done, notta too rare, just, tchk, inna da groove.”

The steak is delivered. The tourist wants vegetables. “Not too mushy, not too crunchy. Just, tchk, in the groove.”

The waiter goes into the kitchen and says to the chef, “Tha bigga Americana tourista wantsa vegetables. Notta too mushy, notta too crunchy, just, tchk, inna da groove.”

The chef says, “OK, He can havea da vegetables. Notta too mushy, notta too crunchy, just, tchk, inna da groove.”

The vegetables are delivered. The tourist asks for roast potatoes. “Not too soft, not too hard. Just, tchk, in the groove.”

The waiter goes into the kitchen and says to the chef, “Tha bigga Americana tourista wantsa roast potatoes. Notta too soft, notta too hard, just, tchk, inna da groove.”

The chef says, “OK, He can havea da roast potatoes. Notta too soft, notta too hard, just, tchk, inna da groove.”

The roast potatoes are delivered to the table. The tourist says, “OK, I’d like some gravy. Not too thick, not too thin. Just, tchk, in the groove.”

The waiter goes into the kitchen and says to the chef, “Tha bigga Americana tourista wantsa gravy. Notta too thick, notta too thin, just, tchk, inna da groove.”

The chef finally loses patience. “You tella da big American tourist. He canna kissa my ass. Not onna da left cheek, not onna da right cheek, just, tchk, inna da groove.”

Monday 14 June 2021

What to do with a repentant brexiter

 When somebody finally says they regret having voted for Brexit, we are confronted by the problem that there is on the face of it so little that we can do that's positive. Even if we have a repentant Brexiter in front of us, "I realise I was wrong", the automatic response is "It's too f****** late now, isn't it???" and to say so shoutily because there is no other relevant emotion to fit the moment.

So we need to construct something positive to move on with and get the Bregretter to engage more positively with whatever might happen next. As far as Brexit itself is concerned, it really is too late. That is a large part of the problem when confronting the future. The Remainer knows the battle is lost; the Bregretter is confronted by knowing that they can do nothing to undo the decision they made in 2016. The upshot is collective helplessness - a helplessness on which those who brought us Brexit feed.

Getting back into the EU on the terms we had is a chimaera. We're not going to get back in on those terms. If we do want to get back in, we will need to build a majority in favour of rejoining on third country terms, and the majority will need to be big enough and stable enough for the EU to take us seriously. That is going to take a very long time.

But Brexit was not the final goal for the Brexiters; it was always only a stage in the game for them. They are still here, they have nowhere near finished, and they are still prepared to lie, cheat and steal to get what they want.

Our Bregretter, usually, has to start by admitting to having been conned. That in itself is quite a hard thing to do, and especially hard if there is no apparent upside to the admission.

So, perhaps, stage one of the conversation is to say gently, "You were conned weren't you." If they're still a bit reluctant about it, you can say, "It's all right being conned. They've been lying for forty years. They've had half the media on their side, telling their lies for them for all that time. It's not surprising a lot of perfectly intelligent people were taken in."

(As an aside, when somebody complains about the effects of Brexit, it is perfectly legitimate to ask them if they voted for it. The trick is to do it in a gentle and friendly tone.)

They might say, "If only I could vote again". Even if they don't, you can say, you can't get that vote back, but you can be better prepared for next time.

"Because you have to realise there is going to be a next time. The next thing they're going to do is soften you up for trade deals that weaken our workers' protections, or maybe our environmental protections. They'll be working on softening you up to back selling off the NHS. And they'll do it exactly the same way - they'll lie to you, they'll plant stories in the papers, they'll tell the same lies over and over again, and they'll do it for years if they have to. They lied about the EU for forty years to get their way.

"So what are you going to do to stop yourself from falling for it again?"

You might debate around that for a while. (At this point a point of beer probably comes in handy.)

And at the right moment, you say to them. "It's going to take an effort. You can't just say to yourself, 'I won't let it happen again'. You've got to work at being prepared. You've got to start noticing how the right wing press works. Better still, stop reading the Mail / Express / Telegraph - they lie to you all the time. If you're not prepared to give them up, then what you're saying is you don't mind being lied to, and you're setting yourself up for being conned again next time. So you need to be prepared to do some hard work - and I can help you with that.

And then the conversation continues....

The TL;DR version of this is, every Bregretter can be a project. But the aim of the project is not first and foremost to get us back into the EU. The aim of the project is first to turn us back into a democracy.


What about those who voted for Brexit and haven't changed their minds? Debating with them (not "arguing" with them, but "debating" with them) has both purpose and benefits too. Firstly, people do change their minds, but they don't change their minds over something like this as a result of one conversation. It happens most often over a period of years as a result of many, many conversations and experiences. Yours might be one in the chain that leads to a change of heart. You will never know, but, if you choose to do it, it's still worth doing. Secondly, when you debate with someone, particularly on social media, you are not just talking to them, you are talking to everyone who reads the conversation. Even if the person you are talking to is apparently a brick wall, others may not be. The first rule about talking to convinced Brexiters, though, is that is should never be compulsory, whatever the putative benefits. Do it if you choose to, but never feel that you have to.

Saturday 30 January 2021

Read Paul Garner

 If you want to understand ME (and I won't blame you if you don't want to), you should read Paul Garner's piece in the BMJ, and then you should read the comments after it.

Paul Garner, an experienced and respected professor at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, specialising in infectious diseases, has written about his recovery from long Covid. He also states that he met the criteria for ME/CFS. He used positive thinking, most likely in the form of the Lightning Process, though he is unspecific about that. He then claims to have "looked down the barrel of the ME/CFS gun and disarmed it", a sentence he is quite proud of, as he uses it in his tweet signposting the article.

Not surprisingly, he has been met with consistent contradiction from ME sufferers and specialists who know what they're talking about. What was noticeable to me is the measured nature of the responses. There is anger, not surprisingly, and there is some robust language, not surprisingly, considering that he has just told millions of people that their illness is all in the mind. He is met with polite, albeit vigorous, rebuttal from people with ME, from their carers and from medical professionals who work in the field. I am deeply impressed with everybody who replied to him, because it feels so degrading to have to say, yet again, ME is real. It is not just in the mind, it is not something you get over by having a positive attitude, any more than a broken leg is. Hope can help, but it is not a cure. And when you've hoped for twenty years, and you still don't have a cure, hope feels a bit bankrupt.

Garner's article is a prime piece of gaslighting, perfectly carried out. He phrases his article very cleverly, never quite saying "if I did it, you can do it too", but that is the thread woven into everything he says. Perhaps in the enthusiasm of his newly recovered life he doesn't realise what he has done. I hope so. But I am surprised that a professor of such experience should not have investigated and understood the medical science behind ME, and equally surprised that such an eminent academic should so misunderstand the difference between anecdote and data. And I am surprised that the BMJ should give its powerful platform to such a medically and scientifically illiterate piece of writing.

To Paul Garner: You may have disarmed the gun for yourself, Paul, and I am glad for you that it happened. But you just made the gun blow up in everybody else's face.

To everybody else: if you read his article, and then the comments on it, you may have a much better understanding of the awful, physical, bodycrushing, mindsearing, emotionwrenching reality of ME.

Monday 4 January 2021

Let's fix this country first

 I have thought for a while that Brexit is not just about Brexit. Leaving the EU is only a step on the way for fundamental Brexiters to get what they want, which is to turn Britain into a neoliberal paradise – Singapore on Thames is exactly what they want. That being the case, populism is not going to disappear, because it is still the primary tool for securing that end. Farage has already switched from Brexit to covid: he is adept at latching on to anything that stokes resentment, and we will continue to see the politics of resentment at high intensity for years to come.

For that reason, I think Nick Tolhurst here is right about future prospects but wrong about strategy. I’m coming to think more and more that figuring out how to rejoin the EU is the wrong focus, for two reasons. The first is that the populists will use it against us very successfully: it will actually do us more harm than good. The second is that if we are to be acceptable as renewed members of the EU we have to fix this country first. We have massive problems – the voting system which denies power to people, the Parliamentary system which denies power to MPs, the media system which allows newspapers to tell lies without consequence, the tax system which allows rich people to find all sorts of ways to protect “their” money, the economic system which promotes inequality (and inequality kills, as we are seeing ever more with Covid), etc, etc, etc.

This is a long term struggle. (The Brexiters have spent forty years refusing to accept the result of the 1975 referendum and plotting for this moment.) In some ways we should view it like a military campaign. Don’t fight battles you can’t win – if we focus on re-entry to the EU now, we will not win that battle, we will merely give strength to our enemies. And secondly, you don’t just slam in and fight a battle when it is offered, you first shape the battlefield – you organise your army, you build up supplies, you send small elements to nibble away at your enemies’ strength, you pick when and where you are going to fight. That takes a great deal of organisation and preparation. And you always start with what you have now, not with what you wish you had, So we start with this country, here and now – it’s rotten voting system, its rotten economic system, its rotten political system, its rotten culture which promotes argument over conversation.

So my feeling is we should work on our internal problems, which is a massive job in itself, and let the gravitational pull of the EU gradually repair our relationship to the point where we can begin again to talk realistically about our integrated future.

I end with a titbit: a very interesting thread by German historian Helene von Bismarck on why Brexit does not signal the end of populism.