Archive for May, 2012

Catastrophe unforeseen – as usual

Just heard Paul Krugman on BBC Radio 2. Standout quote: “I was never a big fan of the Euro, but I never foresaw this catastrophe.”

‘Catastrophe’ means to ruin and/or overturn in ancient Greek. It was the word used to describe a tragic dénouement to a drama – a disastrous one.

The piquancy in Greek tragedy derives from the audience’s awareness of that imminent disaster – contrasted with the characters’ ignorance and/or refusal to contemplate it.

We know it’s coming. They don’t. We wince.

It’s odd how such an effective device – so old, so well used and well known in so many cultures – fails utterly to inform human beings’ response to the real world around them.

You would think we would stand back more often and wonder whether catastrophe might, in fact, be around the corner. We so rarely do.

Very, very few people ever foresee catastrophe. Those that do are studiously ignored or ridiculed.

I’ve written before about optimism, and our preference for it. This is a related phenomenon, deriving from a riff on the Appeal to Tradition fallacy. Things have always been this way, goes the thinking, so they will likely go on being this way.

My favourite analogy (with thanks to Nicholas Taleb) is the farmed turkey on December 20th. It’s lived for about 8 weeks. In that time, it’s been fed every day, the same amount, at the same times, by the same people. It has eight weeks of experience of things being predictably comfortable and uncatastrophic. On December 20th, the turkey feels entitled to believe – on the evidence so far – that tomorrow will be the same as all the other days.

Catastrophes are rare (though not as rare as we think). Non-catastrophe is the daily ‘standard’. It is, and it seems, overwhelmingly normal. Catastrophic events are highly unusual. We even have a special adjective for them: “Unthinkable”.

The important characteristic of a catastrophe, though, is not its rarity. The important thing is its absolutely revolutionary, transformative effect (remember: it’s a ‘ruinous, overturning’ event).

We don’t remember catastrophes for their rarity. We remember them for their destructive consequences – consequences that can reverberate for years, decades or millennia to come. Some catastrophes have permanent, apocalyptic results.

Catastrophe, therefore, should figure more prominently in our imaginings. Instead of saying “That’s not worth considering – it’s unlikely'” we should instead ask: “If this did happen, how far-reaching might be the consequences?”

Sure, it’s unlikely. Perhaps very, very unlikely.

But if it does crop up… by God, things will never be the same again. The insane, the absurd – all will start happening.

Thus I mused as I listened to Mr Krugman on the radio. He’s an engaging fellow, full of useful and worthwhile insights.

But I did find myself wondering why one of the world’s brightest economists – a Nobel prizewinner, no less – hadn’t been able to imagine what a Eurozone bank/sovereign debt/fiscal catastrophe might look like.

Sure, it looked unlikely on January 1, 2002, when the Euro launched. It looked very, very unlikely indeed.

By 2007, I’d argue, it looked a lot less unlikely. By 2009, it was looking vaguely possible. By this time last year, money markets were betting on it.

But great economists still hadn’t – and still haven’t – imagined it.

You gotta ask: just what the fuck is wrong with human beings?

Posted on 31st May 2012
Under: Rants | 1 Comment »

Attention Blogger users

I’m not a fan of Blogger. I don’t use it.

I do understand, though, that lots of people DO use it – and nothing I say will ever change that.

So I’m not going to waste your time urging you to dump it. This is just a very simple plea to you to look at one thing in Blogger and one thing only:

Your comment settings.

By default, Blogger (or certain themes in Blogger) make it impossible for non-Blogger (or non-Google) users to comment. It IS possible to change this setting so that anyone can leave a comment… but lots of Blogger users either don’t know how to do this, or aren’t aware that people are being locked out by their comment settings. That’s the way Google likes it: they want everyone to be registered, tagged and monitored in their universe – so that’s their default setting.

There’s plenty of folks whom I’d love to engage with on their site… but can’t. This seems a shame.

Fancy doing something about it?

PS You might also consider turning off that Blogger CAPTCHA anti-spam function that produces impossible-to-decipher words and numbers.

Posted on 31st May 2012
Under: Uncategorized | 7 Comments »

Late, late, late… and old

courgettesIt’s all late; I’m about three weeks behind with everything because of the shite weather of the last few weeks.

On the plus side, seeds are germinating at double speed in this heat. These courgette seeds appeared only six days after sowing; some kind of record, surely.

I did five hours at the allotment this weekend, and it dawned on me – for the first time in my life – that I’m getting a bit old for this shit.

I know, I know: 43 isn’t ‘old’. But the simple acts of repeatedly kneeling, bending, getting down, getting up (especially getting up)… they’ve started to feel rather harder work than they used to. When it’s 29C.

Anyway, we keep buggering on.

Posted on 27th May 2012
Under: Cucurbits, Summer | 15 Comments »

It ain’t ‘alf ‘ot

This is a very odd country.

On Sunday evening, the temperature was 10C. It had rained lavishly for six weeks. There was water everywhere – great pools of it sloshing all over the roads, pavements and paths. It was gloomy, dank and chilly. By 6pm, you could see your breath.

It was, in short, bloody miserable.

Fast forward 36 hrs to Tuesday morning. Welcome to mid-summer: 28C, scorching sun, drying earth, claggy shirt sticking to the sweat on your back. Bees buzzing. The co-mingled suburban smells of dust, wisteria and roasting asphalt.

We’ve had three days of it now, and it’s bliss. Albeit bliss tempered with fear – in the UK, you know it won’t last. “Three fine days and a thunderstorm”, as one of our monarchs famously described the British summer.

I’m not too bothered. Just having seen the sun, however briefly, is enough. It’s still there. It’s still possible.

We’re not – after all – living in Hell.

Posted on 25th May 2012
Under: Summer | 3 Comments »

Wanted: Dead or Alive (but dead is, like, better)

cauliflower seedlingsEvil bastard molluscs. As always happens at least once in Spring (because it’s 12 months since the last time, and I forget to take precautions), a slug/snail got into my mini greenhouse and made merry with my cauliflower seedlings. I’m left with 8 out of the original 24 plants.

Shit, shit, shit, shit.

I’ve done my tooth gnashing and cursing. Now I’m frosty, making cold plans for mollusc genocide. This is going to be the Big One, the Final Solution (if that’s not too distasteful a reference).

Molluscs, wherever you are: I’m coming after you. You can run, but you can’t hide.


Posted on 19th May 2012
Under: Brassicas, Pests | 12 Comments »

Politician misdiagnoses problem shocker

A follow-up to my ‘all politicians are the same’ post of the other day. Apologies to those who come to for, you know, gardening (what is wrong with you guys?).

I laughed out loud at this today. McNicol is at least smart enough to spot the problem – namely, that increasingly UK voters think all politicians are the same.

But as usual, he misses the main point. Rather than moaning about folks complaining that there’s no point in voting (and desperately casting around for ways to ‘engage with them’ better), he fails to ask the most obvious question, viz:

WHY do we feel there’s no point in voting? What on earth would put that foolish idea into the heads of the benighted, moronic, lumpen proletariat?

Well, McNicol, I’ll tell you (even though you’re not asking): Because there is no point in voting. Demonstrably. Provably. Evidentially.

Doesn’t matter whom we elect. We get basically the same-ish policies, the same-ish social arrangements, the same-ish direction of travel. Any differences are trivial. Parties try to sell them as significant, but they’re piffling and irrelevant (50p tax rate, anyone?).

Government in the 21st century, it turns out, is the art of tinkering feebly and pointlessly around the edges. Better education and better communication merely reveal this fact to the electorate in starker and starker detail.

The only thing that will ‘reinvigorate’ politics and ‘re-engage’ voters is the moment when politicians stop telling us they’re so important and start acknowledging the opposite: that they’re not. That most things are out of their control. That what we want is very different from what they, politicians, can realistically deliver. That events dictate policies, not vice versa.

That Jerusalem will never and can never be builded here. Actually.

And that if we ever want to see some real, radical change – something that WOULD make political debate relevant again (like debating, in detail, how we’re going to deal with the end of oil) – then we need to ditch this stupid consensus bullshit that encourages politicians to lie about their intentions, then renege on them in office to pursue the path of least resistance and lilly-livered lying.

Posted on 17th May 2012
Under: Uncategorized | 7 Comments »

Damned if it didn’t stop raining… briefly

cauliflower seedlingsO frabjous day! Callooh Callay! It stopped raining!

We have an extraordinary 48-hr sunshine window. Can’t pretend it’s warm – 14C max – but at least it’s not pissing. I’ve enjoyed the first productive gardening day in a month.

asparagus shootsThe cauliflowers are in, and even the asparagus has appeared. At last. Not in time to save the UK asparagus festival, but better late than never.

Jeez, but things look and feel so different in the sunshine. One sees proper colours again, the way God intended… not the washed out, bleached, deathly pallor of life under leaden skies.

We’re back to rain on Monday, but the break has felt like a holiday.

Posted on 12th May 2012
Under: Asparagus, Brassicas | 9 Comments »

Still raining

I’m building a fucking ark.

PS I’m having a Spring clean of the site, which includes my blogroll. Any site that’s been inactive for more than a year will be deleted I’m afraid – I’ve already removed a few. At the end of May, I’ll be deleting anything that’s been inactive for six months or more. So if that’s you, and you wanna keep a link on my site – get posting!

Posted on 9th May 2012
Under: Rain | 12 Comments »

Rain, rain and more fucking rain

sweetcorn germinatingWouldn’t it be great if it, like, stopped raining?

I know. Hard to imagine. In the part of the country where I live, the sun has absented itself now for – what? – about 11 months. Seriously. The last warm, sunny days were in early June last year. Since then, it’s been gloom and rain non-stop.

Although I’m used to this – Brits are all used to this – I don’t find it any easier. In fact, I reckon it’s harder. Folks from warmer climes often enjoy the novelty of cool cloud and rain. I’m to the manner born… so I’m fed up to the back teeth.

This is why UK citizens will do anything – really, anything – to get a bit of sun. Holiday in Syria? Sure, great. Sod the bullets. Just gimme some rays.

I’m reduced to germinating my sweetcorn in the house. It’s not even warm enough in the greenhouse.

God give me strength. And please, please, please… stop this fucking rain.

Posted on 7th May 2012
Under: Rain | 8 Comments »

The world will tremble

Because I can’t garden at the moment (too wet), I have time to think. Always dangerous.

In particular, I’m thinking about China. And I’m not liking it.

Today, a Chinese company bought a controlling stake in an old and much-loved British cereal brand. No doubt this is good for the company. It may even be good for UK jobs (though – call me a cynic – I doubt it).

A fairly unremarkable thing, on its own. But taken with the current Chen Guangchen story, and western nations’ general pusillanimity where China is concerned, it sends a shiver down my spine.

Napoleon was right: China has awoken, and the world is fucking trembling. Not in a good way, sadly. I’ve been to China, and I gotta tell ya: I didn’t like what I saw, and heard, and felt. Chinese people are delightful and charming. Their country’s politics, and some of its cultural precepts, utterly suck.

None of us can afford to ignore this, or wish it away – not any more. The unpalatable truth is that China’s economic power is so enormous that its tendrils are reaching far into our lives – wherever we live. In financial terms, China more or less owns the USA at this point. Chinese managers (and thus Chinese politicians) may already own the firm where you work.

Which means Chinese politics and Chinese culture are coming to your life – soon – wherever you are. Chen Guangchen is not some odd blind guy in a far away land with no relevance to you. In a very real sense, he IS you.

You may not be worried. Maybe you’re even ranting, as you read this, about western cultural imperialism and the terrible damage western nations did to China not so very long ago. In which case you have a point. We have much to be ashamed of.

But don’t rant too long, or too ardently. Above all, don’t be a fucking idiot and equate our sins with theirs as if there were some genuine moral/political equivalence.

Ask yourself merely this: How many Americans are queueing at the Chinese embassy in Washington asking for political asylum? Has that happened ever…. even just once?

[Postscript: This post may well condemn to a co-ordinated hack, or at the very least a denial-of-service attack. This is how China deals with views it doesn’t like – within and without its borders. If so, thanks for listening… and you know who done it]

PS Since I’m on the subject, I’d like to note here formally that I value my membership of the anglo-saxon political club higher every day. However often we fail to reach them, we set the highest standards for human dignity and liberty the world has ever seen. In particular, I admire beyond measure the constitution of the USA. Just knowing that it exists, somewhere over the Atlantic, as a last refuge for lovers of freedom – whatever happens – helps me sleep easier.

Posted on 3rd May 2012
Under: Rants | 8 Comments »